As we all know, surfing is a skill. As our skill increases, we gain new motor skills and better and our brains, muscles, joints, etc. accommodate these new skills. However, what about as we watch more surf videos and learn more surf spots – from Pipeline to Teahupoo or even your favorite local surf breaks?
It’s a pretty daunting task to figure out all the different ways our brains would incorporate this information. So let’s keep it semi-simple and stick to visual learning and how our brains might incorporate this new type of visual wave expertise. In addition to brain networks that code words, bodies, and motion, there are networks that also respond to faces and scenes (my face and scene networks are shown in the image below). Damage to these regions produces different perceptual deficits related to face and scene perception.
However, it’s also been shown (and argued about) that the face network can also incorporate different types of expertise related to fine-grained discrimination. For example, people who are car experts or bird experts show preferential responses to different types of cars and birds compared to non-experts within face areas (the warm colors in the image). The basic theory here is that knowing the make, model, and year of different types of cars or discriminating the tufted feathers of similar birds requires fine-grained details similar to discriminating one facial identity from another. Scientists have extended these results to radiologists learning how to read x-rays and even chess experts. But, they haven’t tried surfers! Don’t we have an expertise in identifying surf spots around the world that a majority of other humans don’t have?
Think about how many hours we’ve logged in the water at different surf spots around the world. And how many hours we’ve logged watching videos of the best surfers in the world surfing the best waves in the world. When we see images of Pipeline, Teahupoo, Trestles, Waimea, Jaws, or Maverick’s, we know them right away. Most likely, non-surfers don’t have this visual expertise. I would speculate that just like the bird experts and car experts mentioned above, our brains have incorporated our visual expertise in identifying waves from around the world.
However, instead of face areas accommodating this new visual wave expertise, I’d hedge my bets that our scene areas (cool colors in the image) are accommodating these new beachscapes and wavescapes that we’re learning and immersing ourselves in. And while we may have an expertise in identifying waves from the outside in, just imagine the type of visual expertise from inside the barrel encoded within the brains of Gerry Lopez and Jamie O’Brien at Pipeline and Raimana at Teahupoo.
Even without fully knowing and understanding how our brains allow us to surf, we can run some thought experiments and gain some clarity about how our brains have incorporated aspects of expertise and may be different from other non-surfing humans.