Your brain is going to be biased toward protecting you, not toward getting the ultimate rush, or getting a 10 in a contest.

The Inertia

Right now, I’m writing with a nice black eye from face planting during the first head high+ swell of the season at Ocean Beach. Goddamn, the power’s back. Fall at OB feels good.

Wipeouts aside, my brain is in one piece (and hopefully Jeremy’s still is too) and I’m excited to get back to writing about the brain and surfing. Did you know that even though surfing comes naturally to you now (depending on your expertise level of course), that your brain actually re-plans what it’s supposed to do every single time you catch a wave? In real time. Why? Conditions are constantly changing – in and out of the water. While your muscles remember how to perform certain actions, and your brain has stored action plans too, a part of your brain (premotor cortex) actually has to access and tweak that plan every single time before telling another part of your brain (motor cortex) to Nike it – just do it.

These tweaks of motor plans are also a part of what makes the judging of professional surfing tick. Judges are looking to give a 10 based on the most unexpected sequence of maneuvers (or maybe 1 maneuver) given the present conditions. The brain is constantly crunching the same calculations. John John’s brain crunched the numbers to figure out that it was highly probable that he would land a massive alley oop given the ocean conditions in Bali. The judges didn’t think it was possible even though his brain thought otherwise.

What does this mean? Given the conditions – both environmental and internal – the brain adjusts its motor plans to accommodate the present state of conditions to hopefully have an optimum outcome. Surfing a double-overhead swell while hungover over shallow reef – not the best idea. Your brain is going to be biased toward protecting you, not toward getting the ultimate rush, or getting a 10 in a contest. Jeremy Flores might argue otherwise, but I would argue that that was his top-down cognitive control, which is a topic for another article.


So, in general, the brain you have is not the brain you’re stuck with. You can change it. You can learn new tricks in and out of the water – even as you age. Look at Kelly and all the amazing surfers in the Heritage series coming up at the Hurley Pro to see how much that is true.

Suggested Reading: Who’s your best self? Check out this site to learn more about how to not only be your best surfing self, but to be your best self in general – by knowing how your brain works and how to apply that knowledge.

Mark Churchland’s lab at Columbia.

Krishna Shenoy’s lab at Stanford.



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