The Summer that Lifts Your Spirit, Only to See You Fall

Story in Medium.

This month, many Americans will retire from the exhilarating outdoor adventures, toasty barbecues, and midnight pool parties that lasted a measly few months. October sadly marks the end of all excitement of summer getaways, as we reluctantly prep ourselves to face the chilling winds of fall, sided by the dreariness of protracting nights. Alas, the seasonal transition can trump our spirits as much as our internal biological clocks!

I was atop the Mohonk mountain crevice in Upstate New York when I had a moment of revelation. Recently, we had been so overwhelmed by the humdrum of our lives that when my best friend visited us on a sunny weekend in August, my husband and I decided to go rock scrambling with her. So, we embarked on the Mohonk trail – my friend laid out the path, picking the more convoluted route each time we faced a bifurcation, my significant other played Sherpa and I, the photographer.

IMG_3068We hiked a bit – stopping at gazebos for breathtaking views of the abutting Catskill range – before we hit the labyrinth, a mazy hill stacked with huge, oblique rocks giving an ascent of about a thousand feet. For the next three hours, we hopped from boulder to boulder, carefully balancing our weights on slippery, angled rocks. As the climb got steeper and riskier, we continued clambering rocks, sometimes on all fours to keep us from falling off the cliff. We joked about barely surviving our thirtieth birthdays and held on to our camera as the only source of “the news” to our families, painfully grinning in all headlines-worthy photos.

At the culmination of it all, we came to the lemon squeeze point. Getting through it was our only hope to see the light at the end of the tunnel – literally. So, we wriggled through a very narrow space between dark, moss-laden rock walls. The rocks squished us flat and we were drained. Mustering up the last bits of strength, we climbed up a treacherous ladder, which eventually opened out to a spectacular view of the lake and the landscape below. And suddenly, up on the crevice, we felt an unusual gush of elation – and even the faintest pain wore away.


As we soaked in the beautiful scenery at the summit, I realized that the few hours I spent rock scrambling were probably one of those rare moments when I felt fully alive, aroused, and immersed in the present. There wasn’t a split-second when my mind wandered, worried about deadlines, or spaced out. Needless to say, I wanted to indulge in many such adventures and I did – I parasailed, jetskiied, tried white-water rafting – but only until my cravings were thwarted by the end of summer 2014.

Now, what is it that makes some experiences sheer blissful? Why do we crave for them when they are gone?

Pretty much all our emotions – from rage to ecstasy – are driven by a handful of chemicals flooding our brain. Dopamine and cortisol are behind the likes of the feeling I experienced at the crevice.

Dopamine is a chemical that transmits messages between neurons of the brain. It serves a myriad roles viz. motor control, hormone regulation and motivational behavior.

Finishing a risky hike or surviving a free-fall makes us feel accomplished because it triggers dopamine release from the ventral tegmental area, a structure at the brain’s base. The dopamine wave sparks a sense of fulfillment, making it a pleasurable experience. This is in fact, a generic mechanism behind the rewarding effects of food, drugs, or sex. But because adventure sports have, in addition, an element of stress, the effects of dopamine are more profound.

Gregory Berns, a neuro-economist at Emory, writes about the “synergistic” effect of stress and dopamine in his book Satisfaction. When we engage in heavy exercise or risky sports, we are exposed to a benign form of stress. The stress induces the release of cortisol, a stress-hormone, and a barrage of other ‘wellness’ chemicals into the blood. Because cortisol channels our attention – recall how stress helped you pull an all-nighter on your final’s eve, and still kept you wide-awake for the exam – a risky sport seizes your focus, and keeps you fully aroused. Besides, cortisol can enter the brain, interact with dopamine and tweak up the pleasure-sensitivity of the mind. The result of the interplay of the two chemicals is a feeling of sheer ecstasy or even, transcendence.

“Dopamine may be associated with transient euphoria, but you need cortisol to get that satisfying feeling…perhaps, even transcendence. The road to a satisfying experience must necessarily pass through a terrain of discomfort.” — Gregory Berns in Satisfaction

A pleasurable experience is almost always addictive. If you took a swing at an inverted rollercoaster and enjoyed the ride, it’s almost certain that you will be up for more. If snorkeling soothed your mind and senses, it’s quite likely that you would want to try deep-sea diving. The dopamine that thrills us in the face of an adventure, also latches our mind and body onto actively seeking the experience. It motivates us to do all that it takes to relive the experience. In fact, it not only makes us seek the reward but also learn to predict it. Wolfram Schultz, a Swiss neuroscientist, termed this function of dopamine the reward prediction error – by virtue of which the brain learns to anticipate a reward given the first signs of its coming. Imagine driving to Adirondacks on a Sunday morning. You spend the whole day in exhilarating outdoor activities which rev up all the hormones in your body. At the day’s end, you are already planning for your next adventure trip, though you’ll have to wait a whole week until you actually make the trip. Drawing plans seems, now, as much exciting as the trip itself. This is because the dopamine blips in your brain that once followed the thrilling experiences at Adirondacks, now precede it. The brain has learnt to guess that planning for the trip is an early indication of imminent fun and elicits an anticipatory surge of dopamine.

Now let’s say you succumbed to the ‘Sunday ritual’ and made a dash for water-sports, mountain-biking and zip-lines for several weeks in a row. What happens when on one Sunday, your plan fails – say, the park is closed, or your car breaks down en route? Here comes the prediction error. Schultz and other cognitive scientists have shown experimentally that when a predicted reward is denied, the neurons releasing dopamine exhibit a transient dip in activity causing dopamine levels to slump below normal. This is presumably what’s going on in our brain at the end of summer, probably crumbling our spirits. The dopamine blips of summer came from intense outdoor activities, but as the summer draws to an end, outdoor adventures of such vigor become less and less frequent leaving us with the fall blues.

A scenic drive, a quiet walk in the woods, or a long hike amidst fall foliage may enchant us but we still miss the diverse physical activities, that made our summer experiences vivid and complete.

To beat the fall blues, we need to keep the dopamine spikes coming. A simple how-to is by surprising your brain. Among the many things that promote dopamine release, pleasant surprises have a major stimulating effect. An unexpected reward or unexplored path serves as a resounding wake-up call, that jumpstarts the dopamine system.

Begin by breaking the norm and try your hand at a new skill, like cooking a new recipe, learning a language or playing a new instrument. Seek out for intellectually complex tasks such as solving crosswords or brain-teasers – your brain loves challenges. Touch base with a friend from eons ago – you’ll realize how much you enjoy reviving good old times. Lastly, try the usual cures – exercise, veggies, and just the right amount of sleep.

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