The Meaning of Adventure

Posted by on Jul 11, 2014 in Commentary | No Comments

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Adventure is a feeling that can strike anywhere. Searching for a bivvy spot in fading light on a windswept summit. The clank of metalwork while sorting gear with knotted stomach, the day’s route towering above. The mind soaring above the clinical, commercialised passage through a generic airport. The crackle of a campfire. Sipping sweet chai with the beneath the glittering snow peaks of the Himilaya. The icy grip of a river crossing, deeper and longer than expected. An anticipatory whoop as parting clouds reveal a ribbon of untracked powder. The petrol fumes and near misses of an auto-rickshaw ride through an Asian city’s humid neon glow. Inching along the uneven red mud of a Cambodian road, perched atop the swaying, fishy cargo of an overloaded pickup truck. A canoe’s effortless, curling-stone glide surprising a sea eagle preening in a gnarled pine. Catching first sight of the Andes’ fairy castle peaks from the dusty, gold and silver scrub of the Patagonian Steppe. Eating coconut flowers and shark curry from a stall with a hand-painted portrait of Bin Laden on the wall behind. The patchwork of brilliance that is a thunderstorm on the savannah momentarily merging into a blinding, extraterrestrial flash. The coloured fingers of the northern lights sweeping the sky above the back garden.

These disparate experiences all satisfy the dictionary definition of an adventure: ‘an unusual and exciting or daring experience’. The most important component of the definition is that an adventure must be unusual. This novelty is key – even something as objectively exciting and adventurous as a rock climb can become mundane if diluted by a thousand similar experiences.

Adventure may thus seem to be highly subjective; an activity that one person might find highly adventurous would be mundane to another. To get around this problem, and to probe the fundamentals of adventure, I propose my own definition. An adventure is any experience that forms memories powerful enough to be carried to the deathbed, or at least to the onset of senility. At first sight this definition might seem to have limited utility, being applicable only years after the event. But it may in fact be scientifically provable.

Most of us are creatures of routine. We get up at approximately the same time and go about our workday routines. Each day is subtly different, but if challenged we struggle to recall the details. Most could recount every detail of an exciting holiday after ten years but can’t recall the details of a work day even ten days previously.

This is because the brain records repetitive events by re-using existing memories. Consider the analogy of a compression algorithm that reduces the size of a data file by identifying recurring sequences of ones and zeroes. The brain is doing the same thing, making use of pre-existing neuronal structures in order to maximise use of its finite capacity. A novel experience requires the brain to write new memories instead. As such, a true adventure is a creative activity with a physiological basis: it exercises the brain, forcing it to forge fresh neural connections. If we had the technology to visualise memories – which we don’t at present – it would be possible to detect whether or not someone had actually had an adventure.

In the future a smartphone app might able to tell us not only how many kilometres we had travelled and how many metres we had ascended, but also announce to our social media followers whether or not we had had an adventure. But such an app could tell us nothing about how to have an adventure. Adventure will always be found in the unplanned, in the unexpected, in the unknown.

This post was written for a competition run by Berghaus – ‘What does Adventure mean to you?’

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