08 February 2011

Confessions of a Surf Addict

Hi, my name is Cynthia, and I'm a surf addict.

My addiction began over seven years ago, when I rode a gentle knee-high wave on a waterlogged 10' foam surfboard in Florida. I was instantly, irreversibly hooked on the feeling, bought my first surfboard the next day, and spent the summer floundering around in the ocean, teaching myself to surf. My occasional successes in wave-riding fueled my addiction and kept me coming back for more. Even an inland move to the upper West Coast, where the 48°F ocean was almost 3 hours away, could not dissuade me. I bought a thick wetsuit and made the trek on weekends whenever possible, which wasn't often enough. Serious water time at a week-long surf camp in Costa Rica was fuel to the fire. Then nearly five years ago I moved to NorCal, a mere 50 miles from the real Surf City, U.S.A., and began to surf regularly about twice a week, the most family and work commitments will allow. It's close to the minimum needed to sustain my habit. If I'm out of the water for anything approaching a week, I start jonesin', needing a fix bad. Surfing is so much more than a hobby; it's an essential. And like any junkie, I've found that over time, it takes more to get me high: bigger waves, more challenging maneuvers. The easy rides on little waves don't pump me with stoke anymore, but landing a steep drop on an overhead wave rockets exhilaration through my system that keeps me smiling for days.

What is it about surfing that makes it so addictive? It's all about the brain chemicals, specifically dopamine, a neurotransmitter that stimulates the brain's reward and pleasure centers. Cocaine triggers dopamine, and so can riding a heavy wave. Scientists have found that the brains of risk-seeking athletes have some things in common with those of drug users, including the experience of withdrawal symptoms. Studies also indicate that thrill-seekers and risk-takers may lack "brakes", auto-receptors in their brain cells that limit dopamine, and thus will feel its pleasurable effects more intensely.
The very nature of surfing plays into the way dopamine works. If you're constantly satisfied, dopamine stops firing in your brain, but if you're only rewarded some of the time - a few good waves in the midst of a bunch of wipeouts, or closeouts, or other on-the-water disappointments - your dopamine cells will be pumping after the good rides, shooting you up with jolts of pleasure.  

Professor Marvin Zuckerman has spent decades studying what he calls "sensation seekers" who pursue novel and often risky experiences. Surfers qualify high on the scale. Are you a sensation seeker? You can take Zuckerman's test here. Not surprisingly, I scored 32 out of 40.

This post also appears on TheInertia.com, "a web-based media publication that features insightful commentary from the global surf community’s most prominent and thoughtful figures."

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