This morning while driving into work, I heard a story on NPR that got me thinking about why surfing is so addictive. It’s no secret that surfing is fun, it can make us feel young and wild and free, but that isn’t why surfing is addictive. Surfing is addictive because it is based on an unexpected rewards system.
More than 60 years ago, researchers discovered that when rats were given unpredictable rewards they experienced obsessive behavior. American psychologist B.F. Skinner conducted a study giving rats randomly-timed rewards. The rats were on the edge of their seats (or wheels or piles of wood chips) during the waiting period between unexpected rewards, actively anticipating the next one. They obsessively tapped on a bar in their cage, hoping they could trigger a reward.
As I drove East down Miramar towards the office, my surfboard strapped to the roof (hoping the waves looked fun after work) the NPR story continued and I began thinking of the unexpected rewards system in terms of surfing. I listened to a woman on the radio speaking in a Spanish accent, “An unexpected reward has much more power than one that is regular in driving behavior,” said Nora Volkow, the head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “This has been known for a very long time.”
One thing about surfing is, you can’t go out and get the waves you want anytime you want them. Wind, swell, time off work, getting out of class, excusing yourself from plans with your significant other and having your board on-hand must come together in order for you to receive the reward of surfing fun waves. And to a surfer waiting for those waves can feel like an eternity.
While waiting, the brain releases dopamine in anticipation of a swell coming in, or when we think about the next time we’ll get a chance to catch waves. Dopamine is addictive, which causes us to obsessively think about when that next reward of fun waves will be delivered.
But when the waves come, surfers are stoked. After catching some solid waves we’re happier, friendlier and more relaxed. The endorphins, adrenalin and serotonin we receive from surfing combined with the dopamine from the unexpected reward of waves make surfers not only feel good, but wanting more. The fact is, if we’re not surfing, we’re thinking about surfing, and that’s just in our nature.