The science behind powder giggles and why skiing is addictive

I used to work at a ski resort, and I can remember on powder days we’d hear the general manager as he flew down the mountain, hooting with laughter.

Here was this 6-foot-something guy, giggling like a little kid — and, of course, he wasn’t alone. We had the powder giggles.

Anyone who’s skied even 6 inches of fresh snow knows that there’s something electrifying about it — something addictive.

In fact, it is addictive.

“The chemical that is likely most responsible for the giddy feeling of skiing powder is dopamine,” says Dr. Cynthia Thomson, a professor of kinesiology at the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia.

Thomson has studied snow-sport athletes’ genetic predisposition toward risky behavior, as well as our neurological reward system (aka what motivates us to pursue certain behavior in the name of pleasure).

That’s where dopamine comes in: It prompts us to seek reward by eating, mating and exploring. It also teaches us to repeat behavior that makes us feel good.

Dr. Thomson says that in studies, animals experience “bursts” of dopamine in response to things like food, sex and drugs (recreational drugs bump up dopamine production to create a high).

“Though skiing pow has not been studied — it doesn’t work too well in rodent models — we could hypothesize that skiing in fresh powder might result in a burst of dopamine,” says Dr. Thomson.

“[For] people who are sensation seekers (as many powder-hungry skiers are), the feeling of floating through powder, feeling weightless [and] going fast may all help to satisfy a need for thrilling sensations.”

Powder giggles
“The feeling of floating through powder, feeling weightless [and] going fast may all help to satisfy a need for thrilling sensations.” Photo: Courtesy of Squaw Valley Resort

Adrenaline, which is our body’s response to stress and is associated with both intense fear and heightened arousal, may also contribute to involuntary giggling:

“If you know you’re about to jump off a cliff, your body starts to prepare and releases adrenaline,” Dr. Thomson says. “This gives you the jittery feeling: heart racing, increased respiratory rate, tense muscles … ”

Nervous laughter, anyone?

“Some people enjoy these sensations [and] others hate them,” she continues. “Depending on the [skier’s] line, the high-energy, giddy state could be [caused by] a combination of dopamine and adrenaline.”

In addition to what’s going on inside your brain when you’re getting freshies, there’s also a possible environmental factor: negative ions.

Negative ions are atmospheric molecules that have been broken apart and left with extra electrons.

That’s about as deep into the chemistry as I’m willing to wade, but according to WebMD, they’re found in abundance after storms, near waterfalls, at the beach and in the mountains, and they’re believed to boost serotonin levels (serotonin is the chemical that makes us feel happy) and increase oxygen to the brain.

They’ve been shown to improve mood, health and even life span. So, basically, skiing powder may be getting you high, but hey, this is one addiction that we can get behind.

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