Finding the high

What is the science behind Rider's High?

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The Challenge

We all have felt it. It's a sensation like no other. Sheer excitement, sublime enjoyment. After you've experienced it once, you just want more. But where does this feeling come from, and how do we get it more often? What is the science behind Rider's High?

The Solution

Together with Cut Media, we brought mountain biker extraordinaire, Olly Wilkins, to UCL to participate in a novel brain scan experiment. Inside the MRI machine, Olly watched POV videos of mountain biking -- some his, some from other riders -- while recording activity in his brain during jumps, down hills, technical riding, and even slow sections to see what aspects of Rider's High we could see in his brain.

What did we find?

Watching POV videos engaged widespread activity across Olly's brain including visual areas in the occipital cortex and extending into the parahippocampal gyri -- a region related to memory. In addition, there was activity in the frontal eye fields and intraparietal sulci -- two regions linked to sustained visual attention.

Activation in Olly's brain for POV riding videos

When we focused specifically on the most exciting riding -- going fast and doing jumps -- we saw two components that contribute to "rider's high".  

First, we observed activity in the ventral striatum, a region of the brain's reward system.  Successfully executing risky manoeuvres can cause the brain to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with reward that brings pleasure.

Second, we saw suppression of activity in the pre-frontal cortex that may be linked to being in a "flow state."  In other words, when focused on the immediate -- that is, entirely living in the moment -- there is little capacity for other thoughts, including the daily anxieties and worries.

Activation in Olly's brain for particularly exciting riding

Using these results, Cut Media produced the fantastic documentary above that had over 100k views in the first two weeks since its launch. 

"Thanks again for lending your expertise to this, one of my favourite projects this year. Always good fun turning work into a learning experience!"
Stuart Downie, Senior Creative Director, Cut Media

Even in a dynamic, outdoor sport that takes part far away from the laboratory, ACN labs were able to use the latest tools in neuroscience to locate and image the unique brain signals of the elusive Rider’s High.

For additional information on consumer neuroscience, download our free Guide to Quality Neuromarketing.

Researchers Involved

Prof. Daniel Richardson
Prof. Joseph Devlin

More from these Researchers

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