Sasha Sagan sits down with author and adventurer JEDIDIAH JENKINS to explore a human custom that can be fun and games—or life and death.

We’ll also hear from historian JORDAN GIRARDIN about the surprising origins of the custom, and the ways we’re still not getting it quite right after 500 years of trying.

Episode excerpt

JEDIDIAH: There’s something about clicking into flotation mode, engaging all of your senses…You can like reach a new level of consciousness and feeling your body and feeling your own thoughts, almost like meditation. When you get into a true float, you are so aware of the world and what might happen, and your plans are so loose, that I really do believe it is one of the most alive feelings in the world…

Evolutionarily, some of us are designed to be desperate to know what’s on the other side of the hill, because there’s such a thing as famine. And if you only eat what’s in your valley, and you never taste the berries over the hill, when the famine comes, everyone’s dead. So there’s got to be somebody who’s so curious, they’re willing to risk eating a poison berry, to know if there’s food over the hill. That’s always going to be in a portion of the population. And on the flip side, there’s always going to be a section of the population that doesn’t want to leave, because some people that go up the mountain do eat that berry and are poisoned. They know Uncle Billy was poisoned, and they’ll tell you that over and over again. So they’re like, “We’re not going anywhere. We’re staying right here.”

SASHA: This is very parallel to the theory that some people have to be night owls and some have to be morning larks, so that there’s always somebody awake to keep an eye on things. The way those deeply-entrenched personality traits pop up in different people is fascinating.