Oh, surfing. Of all the ink spilled on this sport of ours, perhaps the most poignant words I’ve come across came from Patagonia founder and lifelong surfer Yvon Chouinard, who once famously said, “Surfing is one of those useless sports—it has no value to society.”
I couldn’t agree with Chouinard more, and I’ll do him one better by saying that surfing is among the most inherently meaningless activities with which one can engage. Sure, we can attach meaning to it, but in and of itself, those few seconds we’re up and riding on a wave have very little significance.
I truly believe this, and yet I surf everyday. Why is that? What’s happening upstairs—in my brain, in your brain, in my psyche, in your psyche—that keeps us coming back?
This is a question that, for whatever reason, has been on my mind lately. What’s going on in our brains when we’re riding a wave? Not what sort of manufactured psychological explanation can we attach to the sport, but what physically is happening in a person’s brain when they’re riding a wave? Which is really only another way of asking why we’re so connected to the sport, why people talk about surfing in all sorts of rapturous ways.
Think about that last part for a second. Think about the clichés, the bromides, the things we tell ourselves in order to justify our surfing experience. That “time slows down” when we’re on a wave. That “the world falls away.” That we just “don’t think about anything.” That surfing “saves our lives.” That we’re “better people” for surfing. That surfing is more or less a religion unto itself. That surfing offers equal parts lifestyle, sport, and spiritual pursuit. I’ve profiled or interviewed dozens of professional surfers over the years, and wouldn’t care to count how many of them have referenced surfing as “a salvation.”
Most of which we can all agree with. It feels good. You get that. I get that. Anybody who has ridden a wave gets that. Surfing feels good, and it pulls you to it, and those of us who do it are either obsessed or addicted, or both.
Last year, University of California, San Francisco, post-doctoral fellow Benjamin J. Levin, along with psychologist Jim Taylor, took steps to answering this question in a paper they published in The Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology called “Depression, Anxiety, and Coping In Surfers.”
The paper hypothesized that surfing might affect mental and emotional states like anxiety and depression in the surfing population, and that surfers might exhibit fewer symptoms of those mental states. It also took steps to explain why these hypotheses might be true.
In 1930, Sigmund Freud—he of the prodigious cocaine use and the theory that we all just want to kill Dad to sleep with Mom—wrote a seminal book called Civilization and Its Discontents. That book served as the basis for all of western psychoanalysis for decades, but that’s not important when you’re reading SURFER Magazine. What is important about Freud when you’re reading SURFER Magazine is that among the many theories posited in that book, he references something called “the oceanic feeling.” In their paper, Levin and Taylor describe “the oceanic feeling” as “an all-embracing, inclusive ego feeling existing alongside the mature ego,” and Levin and Taylor also suggest that this feeling “qualitatively resembles the description of the surfing experience.”
Levin and Taylor’s research claims that surfers do exhibit fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression. But such research raises the natural question, which is: Why?
“It’s fun to speculate about exactly what is going on in our brains when we surf, but the reality today is that we don’t know,” says Dr. Soren Solari, who earned his Ph.D. in integrative neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego, and is an everyday surfer. Today, Solari is mapping the human brain to better understand cognition. “Our mental and mentally triggered emotional experiences are complex and hard to simplify,” he says. “What we feel in the moment is not only dependent on what sensory stimuli are going on around us now, but based on our past experiences as well. Someone who has trained for a lifetime may experience bliss in sizable waves, while a newbie would simply be scared out of their socks by the exact same conditions.”
Solari references Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose 1990 book Flow is another seminal work in the psychological literature. In Flow, Csikszentmihalyi puts forth a theory that there is an optimal psychological state to be found when a person matches their abilities to their challenges, a state of “flow.” And to achieve that state, we have to be doing something that we’re good at.
“In my opinion, the psychology involving the experience of surfing is the same as any other sport and is probably most accurately depicted by Csikszentmihalyi’s concept,” Solari says. “The amazing thing about surfing is the diversity of the experience that is possible and thus the capability for each one of us to find that sweet spot interaction between our own capabilities and the task at hand.”
It’s currently all but impossible for scientists to measure what precise cocktail is being served up in our brains, pleasure chemical-wise. You can’t exactly hook a surfer up to an fMRI machine while they’re inside a barrel, for instance. But psychologists Levin and Taylor suggest that surfers experience “dissociative states” similar to those achieved by lifelong meditation practitioners, which might suggest its own answers.
“Meditation is characterized by an ability to disregard personal concerns and impulses to action and instead focus on the sensory world,” write Levin and Taylor. “Because surfers describe the sensation of disregard for the self…surfing can be conceptualized as a meditative as well as athletic endeavor. Thus, the psychology of surfers may reflect elements of athletes as well as those who participate in mindfulness-based activities.”
Levin and Taylor go on to note that meditative states are known to produce increased levels of the feel-good chemicals dopamine and serotonin, which makes it plausible that surfing could do the same thing. But for now, that’s just a theory.
“We will likely continue to understand more about exactly what patterns of neuronal activation are occurring in our brain when we surf, but the reality today is that we don’t know,” says Solari, noting that there are a host of chemicals beyond dopamine and serotonin that might play a role in manufacturing that distinctly surfy pleasure. Talking about all of those chemicals, he says, “would involve actually having to explain what is really going on, which today we just can’t do.”
In their study, Levin and Taylor asked 100 surfers to fill out a psychological inventory survey. Among the survey was a “demographics questionnaire” that asked surfers to “describe the sensation of riding a wave.” Participants were told they could circle any words that applied from a list of 19 descriptions. Included in that list were words or phrases like “fun,” “dizzying,” “heightened focus,” and “aggressive.”
Interestingly, 75 percent of surfers circled “connection with nature, God, or the universe,” second only to the 97 percent that circled “fun.” Seventy-four percent circled “less concerned with the outside world,” and 63 percent circled “heightened focus.”
All of which suggests that, cliché or not, riding a wave leads one naturally to the meditative/spiritual/ethereal sorts of thoughts.
Some scientists suggest that it may not be the act of riding a wave that brings enjoyment, but rather the environment in which we surf. That the ocean is pretty is about as obvious as it is true, but scientists are seeking to quantify the brain’s experience with the ocean, rather than rely on anecdotal evidence. This year, a marine biologist named Wallace J. Nichols organized a conference called “The Bluemind Summit” in Northern California that brought together a disparate group of people to discuss the ocean’s allure.
One of the theories put forth there came from a scientist named Michael Merzenich, who is an emeritus professor of neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco. Among other things, Merzenich said that the vastness of the ocean may have a naturally soothing psychological effect. “When [one’s environment] is landmark-free, it’s naturally calming to us, much like closing your eyes is calming.”
This is one of those articles with a conclusion preordained from the start. The truth is that we’ve never known what’s going on physiologically when we’re riding a wave, and that it’ll be some time before we do. The truth is that a variety of surfers speak about the sport in a variety of ways—that it’s spiritual, athletic, tranquil, radical—and the truth is that our understanding of what we do in the water probably very much colors what’s going on inside us as we’re riding the wave. That is, our perception in some way shapes the reality of our experience.
Until we know more, then, surfing will remain “one of those useless sports.” And we’ll remain okay with it.