“I could not help concluding this man had the most supreme pleasure while he was driven so fast and so smoothly by the Sea.” – Captain James Cooke, upon witnessing surfing for the first time, Tahiti, 1777.
Riding a wave with precision and skill requires a confident, well-concentrated effort. It can be a major adrenaline rush. Sliding through the tube, fully shaded, tucked deep in a watery cavern (pictured above) surfers experience elevated levels of adrenaline which raises the heart rate and increases their reaction time.
If a surfer unexpectedly manages to escape the barreling pit then he or she will be rewarded with a sudden surge of dopamine, a chemical neurotransmitter, released in the brain causing the surfer to experience joy and happiness. This is essentially the definition of, “stoked.” Even the mere anticipation of waves can release dopamine as the surfer’s brain intuitively knows there is some kind of reward in store (waves!). Endorphins are chemical neurotransmitters responsible for feelings and emotions, they trigger a euphoric response in the brain while surfing. More stoked. Endorphins help the surfer stay focused, feel less pain and put she or him in a better mood. In fact, endorphins feel so good (as they trigger the natural opiate receptors in our brains) that surfing is used for therapy by such organizations as Operation Amped, which helps disabled and traumatized war veterans get in the ocean and surf. Many of the veterans claim that on days that they surf with Operation Amped, they don’t have to take their morphine drugs. Serotonin (which can be produced simply by exposure to sunlight) is yet another neurotransmitter that can give the surfer a calming sense of accomplishment or self-worth.
While the initial adrenaline rush may give the surfer an advantage in the water, it’s effect wears off once onshore. However, the happy surf-stoke feeling lingers. Research suggests these persistent effects of surf euphoria are the result of sea spray.
The turbulence created by breaking waves alters the physical structure of the air and water, breaking apart (with the assistance of sun rays) water and air molecules which release charged ions into the atmosphere. Surfers are regularly emersed in this atmospheric state, as they chase waves in the ocean. Some scientists are convinced this abundance of negative ions (oxygen ions with an extra electron attached, produced via water molecules) have a positive effect on the mood-triggering release of endorphins and serotonin (stoked!), increasing blood flow and oxygen circulation through our bodies. The beach is thought to contain tens of thousands of these negative ions whereas a home or office building may contain dozens or hundreds or none at all.
Listening to waves can help you achieve a meditative state, which is proven to heal and strengthen your brain, according to Orfeu Buxton, an associate professor of biobehavioral health at Pennsylvania State University. “Staring at the ocean actually changes our brain waves’ frequency and puts us into a mild meditative state,” says Richard Shuster, PsyD, clinical psychologist. Studies have shown that different colors often produce different psychological, emotional, and physical effects. The color blue, for instance, is often used in marketing material to convey a sense of calmness. The Global Healing Center recommends surrounding yourself in blue to reduce stress. Even our feet (a sensitive network of nerves) are able to absorb free ions on the negatively charged earth’s surface much in the same way our lungs are able to absorb ions in the air.
If simply standing on the beach, staring out at the ocean, listening to the waves can have a scientifically proven positive effect on a person. Imagine what a better world this could be if we all surfed? Stay happy everyone. Stay connected.
“There are all these cognitive and emotional benefits that we derive every time we spend time by water,” says Wallace J. Nichols, a marine biologist and best-selling author of the Blue Mind. “Once you get into it, you realize that it’s chemistry, it’s biology, it’s physiology. It’s deeply personal but it’s also strong science.”
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And a special thanks this week to Tom Wade @tomwadephotography for the amazing photos!