Getting in the water
Surf break founder Jeff Clark, right, is among the many locals who know the physical joy of surfing. Review file photo

I haven’t learned to surf, yet. But I’ve spent my professional life learning about brains and the physics of balance and waves, so I know why they match so well. Plus, I love bobbing and thrashing among crashing waves in my brand-new wetsuit.

As social primates, our paleo ancestors did not evolve to surf. They did evolve to wave their arms, dance and run long distances, which use similar skills. Nowadays, among all the activities available to modern humans, surfing is among the best for body and soul. Here are some reasons why.

Balance is the human superpower

Because our hominid ancestors were the first vertebrates to stand up straight, they were the first land animals whose spines were not pulled sideways by gravity. So unlike quadrupeds or even chimpanzees, biped spines stand on end to balance, as if a snake were balancing on its tail. Balance, in turn, allowed our ancestors to see farther, change direction faster, run farther, and use forelimbs (hands) for caressing, gesturing, and making things. Mechanically speaking, upright balance is what made our species special. Computationally speaking, upright balance is the most challenging task a nervous system can face, and the one most directly hard-wired into our circuitry.

We humans need that challenge now. Today most of us spend most of our time sitting hunched forward, spines bent and immobile, nothing like swinging from trees or running on uneven ground. And certainly nothing like standing on a moving board atop a moving wave, a feat even more complex than a high-wire act. If you can surf, you can do the hardest thing a human ought to do.

Waves and turbulence are challenging

The harder something is to predict, the harder a brain has to work at predicting it. Sound waves and light waves move in a simple way, keeping their shapes as they travel through space. Water waves are weirder, even when they’re aligned. Short waves like ripples move slowly, medium waves like sea swells move miles-per-hour, while long ones like tsunamis move a hundred times faster. As those different-size waves overlap, they form ever-changing wave-shapes, suddenly peaking and flattening in unexpected ways. Ocean waves coming from multiple directions add yet more complexity. They can even bounce back from cliffs and steep sand (like Montara Beach), to collide spectacularly with incoming waves. On top of that, curling surf and turbulence make waves truly chaotic, in the physics sense.

The incredible physical complexity of surf is why Hollywood’s computer-graphics technology took decades to render it realistically, and why their supercomputers still take hours. A surfer’s eyes and brain do it in an instant.

Cooperative, not competitive

Humans evolved to survive in small kin-groups, relying on each other for food, heat, and protection. Cooperation and collaboration were the daily task, with competition a distant second.

While some surfers engage in competitions, most don’t. Even those who do compete must focus almost all their efforts on the wave, not psyching each other out. As Nature intended, the only rule of this game which matters is the Law of Gravity.

Natural environments recalibrate the nervous system

Computerized “neural nets,” used over the hill to classify images and sell you things, can learn from almost any training data. But real nervous systems evolved inside warm bodies to learn from exactly one kind of training data: natural full-body inputs like wind, water, grass, trees, and animals. Artificial inputs such as pixelated screens are bad for them, which is why screen-addicted people are so miserable. (My partner and I spent three years proving that fact scientifically).

Surfing takes place in natural places, and drenches the body with water, sunlight, and sand, all at once. As different from a screen as you can get, and as good for you as you can get.

Wetsuits wake up muscles

Some athletes use two odd mechanical tricks to help their neuro-muscular systems unlearn bad habits and learn good ones: rock-tape and compression shirts. Both those tricks pull and squeeze skin and muscles, in order to force the brain to revise its data-map and aim its efforts more efficiently. A skin-tight wetsuit does the same, but even more.

Three millimeters of neoprene adds weight to the skin, and subtracts elasticity. The two in tandem enforce better skeletal alignment and posture, providing many of the benefits of physical or chiropractic therapy. That whole-body squeeze while bobbing and balancing in the waves is perfect for pulling old stiff skeletons out of ruts, and for training young ones into moving gracefully.

So the next time you see a surfer, look for how they hold themselves, and how they move. You’ll see what human forms are meant to be, and maybe you’ll want to learn it for yourself.

William Softky grew up in Menlo Park and lives in Montara. Professionally a neuroscientist, physicist, and technologist, he writes the column Tech Turncoat Truths for 

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