The neuroscience of BIG Wave surfing!

Norbert Ferenczi
11 of May 2023
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Why do big wave surfers risk death for a thrill? Aren’t we all programmed to survive? In this article we give you the answer why people push it to the limit.

Psychologists believe

That we perform risky behaviors because of our fear response. Medical researchers believe that it has to do with the brain’s reward system. In a small study from the Queensland University of Technology of Australia , researchers explored the psychological result of fear responses in extreme sports participants.

Fear is an important inborn response to perceived danger. Your body’s top priority is to preserve itself , fear is a way to motivate it to do so.

But for some people like Big Wave surfers overcoming fear was a meaningful and constructive event in their lives. They still experience fear but it’s not seen as a negative but rather a positive experience.

Let’s take a look at how the chemicals in our brains surrounding fear go on to affect our behavior.

When a big wave surfer drops on a 20  meters wave at the beach of Nazare an almond shaped set of neurons in his brain called the amygdala releases hormones which quicken the heart , hone the senses and prepare his body to “flee or fight”. During this fear response our brain’s reward center releases large amounts of dopamine. 

Studies have shown dopamine, a powerful reward chemical for our bodies . It’s released when we eat, exercise or talk to our friends and family. Reinforces those healthy behaviors by making us feel good about doing those things. 

But massive dopamine release is associated with drug use and addiction. It is how extreme sport athletes are often associated with junkies or addicts. Big wave surfers provoke these fear responses in themselves. Experiencing that fear of death and enjoying the natural high they get from the  dopamine release that follows.

The problem is the brain can get used to high-levels of dopamine and thus more extreme events may have to be performed to simply enjoy day to day life.

The reason why people continue doing these activities

Aside from being fun and making them feel good is once their brain gets acclimated to higher levels of dopamine , it’s difficult to wean it off. Like an addict, the brain craves more dopamine to feel the same high.

In the end, the risk and reward are real and people can alter their brain chemistry to get this natural high from things like surfing huge waves as 20 meters. 

Preparation is everything!

Having the right safety crew in place is essential”, Physical schemes in big wave surfing usually involve breath training. This helps to improve lung capacity, cardiovascular health, aids in keeping calm through wipeouts. 

To be high on dopamine we would rather recommend you a surf lesson on beginner’s friendly waves with a qualified  surf coach. ….And later who knows .