INTRO - Professor Jason Gallate begins a new series looking into the real reasons we all love to kite, beginning with fear. Yikes!
WORDS - Jason Gallate
CAPTION: This is why Ruben kites, but perhaps he's not the best example for this feature as he knows no fear! Mega loop, Big Bay, Cape Town - PHOTO - Ydwer
Kiteboarding is still very much a frontier sport. We are still pushing the envelope of what can be done in waves, in the air, with expeditions on snow and even over land. As such, kiting shares one common link with a lot of other adventure sports, like climbing, skiing, speed-flying, expedition sailing, surfing, skydiving - in fact every adventure sport, and that link is fear: pure, unmitigated, genital-tingling fear. Any good definition of adventure includes fear, otherwise it is not really much of an adventure. But fear is also inextricably linked with love, both metaphorically and chemically. Arguably, you can do all these sports without fear, for example, you can 'rock' climb in a gym. But it's a bit like having a decaffeinated cappuccino; you might still have a tasty beverage but there is no zing (in fact, it's more like training).
So what is it that is so compelling, even addictive, about fear? What is the science behind this phenomenon? The first ever experiment I designed for my PhD in Neuroscience was one where I built tiny parachutes for rats and then had them skydive off the Griffith Taylor building. Afterwards I intended to chop their heads off, slice into their brains and see what neurotransmitters had been released in the reward centres of their grey matter. The ethics department banned that one - not, I might add, because I was going to cut the rats heads off and slice their brains, but because they didn't think the rats should skydive. Was this some kind of conservative conspiracy to stop the rats having fun before they died? What was the ethics department scared of? Anyway, I studied addiction, drugs and reward for another five years and I feel no better qualified now than I did then to say why fear is addictive - but I'll have a go. Let's take a look at the neuroscience and psychology of scaring the flesh of your skeleton for no apparent or rational reason.
'What is the relationship between fear and love? What happens in our brains to make this potent chemical cocktail so rewarding? Why do these sports consume a little bit more of our lives and passion than we (or our loved ones) would like?'
In regard to probably all free sports, fear is not only a common attribute, it is the greatest attribute of the pursuit. Can you still remember the fear you felt the first time a kite powered up and pulled you uncontrollably into the air? Remember also how obsessed, how in love you were with kiting when this romance began. Think about your favourite move. Landing and riding away is always a thrill, but if just landing a trick was why we kited, then every trick should be identically rewarding. But there are all sorts of tricks, technicalities, and even many different disciplines in different environments in kiting, from the easy, through to the stylish and on to the extreme and the more dangerous. Landing a trick that you have been working on for some time gives a wonderful sense of mastery, but just clearing a lip in eight foot surf, (or a pier for that matter), adds a frisson of excitement that can't be matched.
To the naive eye many of the tricks can look the same, but they're not. We pick and choose our level of tricks and conditions to control the amount of fear we experience on route to becoming better kitesurfers. Too much fear means panic and defeat are imminent. Too little fear and there's no stimulation. But the really good sessions are the ones that perfectly match our skills, or happen by accident. You've probably experienced it when you head down the beach not really expecting anything very special, but somehow conditions and your skills all come together to make the session one of your best ever. Or perhaps you found yourself out when the waves picked up to a much bigger size than you'd ever been out in and you felt like you were biting off more than you could chew; way out of your comfort zone. However, you may have been riding for a while that session and building up confidence, so you hang in there, heart-beat redlining, adrenaline surging, hands gripping the bar ever tighter and soon start lusting to be safely back on the beach having triumphed. You pushed it and survived unscathed. These are the sessions we talk about in the pub and they are different for each rider depending on their ability.
'You get the dopamine surge of anticipation; that overcharged, nervous apprehension, as well as the dopamine release when you are actually out there cranking.'
If you don't accept that people just love the fear in kitesurfing, then there appears to me only one counter explanation for why we are addicted to it: that the stomping of tricks is a mark of our technical ability, and the enjoyment of kiting is about getting better. If you are the sort of person who just likes being better than other people and having a number to prove it, then you should probably get involved in competitions, but if the reward is internal, (which is always the most important form of reward), I cannot fathom how one could get more of a kick out of their ability to crank out a full rail carve than using the nurtured skills to negotiate a huge, terrifying section to make it back to the sweet pocket of a wave.
There are direct analogies for all of the other adventure sports of course: the sea passage, where you thought that storm would actually wipe both you and your kayak off the globe; the remote trek where your hydration bladder leaked and there was no ground water; or limping in to Hobart with nothing left but a shredded genoa. Sure, it's nice to get better at things but it's the adventure you had on the way to attaining your new skills that is really to be cherished.
Okay, so that might explain HOW we manage to maintain a buzz in these sports but it doesn't explain WHY we get a buzz from fear in the first place. Why is adventure so good? What is the relationship between fear and love? What happens in our brains to make this potent chemical cocktail so rewarding? Why do these sports consume a little bit more of our lives and passion than we (or our loved ones) would like? Neuroscience provides some of the answers, but not all...
CAPTION - Perfectly pitched skills and years honing wave navigation techniques mean that Steve Kellner isn't crapping himself half as much here as you or I might be. Somewhere in Western Australia
PHOTO - Melissa Page
Despite what you may be thinking, I did not design my rat-skydiving experiment out of sheer sadism or complete lunacy. I was trying to see how close the chemical release profile of the excitement matched what happened to the brain when on rewarding drugs. Since those days, it has been shown that sports that generate fear, like so many good things, flood a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens with the neurotransmitter, dopamine. Sex, food, water, stress and the apprehension or signalling of something good to come, ALL do the same as well. When a monkey finds a banana in the jungle it is important for him that he continues to be able to find that banana tree again. This prevents him from starving. But something really interesting happens in the brain to enable this process. BEFORE he starts eating the banana, when he is still in front of the tree, his brain releases a little excitement package of dopamine. Dopamine is also released when he actually eats the banana, but not as much as is released in that moment of anticipation - just before the consumption. This acts like a kind of brain highlighter pen and the monkey finds himself going back to the same spot. What is more, just going back to the same tree will release dopamine even if there are no bananas.
'Our entire life is flooded with the appreciation that we are actually alive. People who think that we are adrenaline junkies just don't get it... we head to the mountains/out in big surf/jump out of aeroplanes/run through deserts, for the clarity.'
I find a similar thing happens every time I head out on a kite skiing expedition, or when I am chucking my kite in the campervan before a two hour trip down the coast when there is already a solid wind blowing through my hair; you get the dopamine surge of anticipation; that overcharged, nervous apprehension, as well as the dopamine release when you are actually out there cranking. This explains the well documented sensation of surfers 'frothing' even before they get in the water. Do you have a favourite wave spot, lagoon or slider? I bet it is one that you had an epic session at the first time you went there. You will often keep going back even after you realise the place is really pretty dud.
In pharmacological addiction this process is exemplified by a drug user wanting their drug more and more but liking it less. Wanting is sensitised (increases over time) and tolerance becomes high (the effect of the drug is lessened). More dopamine is released, relatively, every time drug seeking behaviour is engaged in, but less dopamine is released on consuming said drug. This phenomenon is not limited to illicit drugs. Think about the first beer you ever had. You probably didn't want it all, or were mildly curious, and the taste was like sucking dirty underwear, but boy, after half a pint you were slurring your words. Now, you probably love the taste of beer and eagerly anticipate it, but don't notice any effect at all until well after the first pint. This can explain why drug users need more drugs to get the same high. Could it also explain why we need to keep jumping higher, getting more hang-time or adding another back roll to get the same buzz? It does make a good justification for how we can beat the 'addiction curve' by upping the subjective danger of our pursuits, while keeping the objective danger tolerable by increasing our technical abilities and experience levels.
Anticipation is a big part of kiting addiction but I think there are deeper, more profound reasons as well. There is a tension, indeed an intimate relationship, between love and fear, the sturm and drang on a grander scale. The neurotransmitters release and are absorbed in a fashion that mirrors this struggle but they do not capture its entirety: In one sense neurotransmitters simply serve as a microcosm of the greater existential concerns of life. It is interesting to note here that the same two brain peptides - vasopressin and oxytocin - regulate a variety of behaviours, from love to fear, and that each of these same molecules modulates excitation of the amygdala - the brain area central to fear, but each does it in a different way.
For many years I have pondered an incidental phrase I stumbled across in the lowly afterword of a book written by Mark Twight - Extreme Alpinism, How to Climb Light and Fast. The book itself comes highly recommended as a technical manual for alpine climbing, but the afterword really sunk its teeth into me. The guy did some things that are hard to even comprehend. He climbed without a rope and solo on multiple ice and mountain routes that really push the boundaries of sane behaviour, and not surprisingly many of his friends and climbing partners are dead. For example, his first ascents include 'The Reality Bath' on the White Pyramid, a climb described in the Canadian Rockies guidebook as 'so dangerous as to be of little value except to those suicidally inclined'. Needless to say this climb has never been done again. The book is great, but the afterword is better, it's truly fascinating. About writing the book Mark says, 'I had been retired from alpine climbing for a year before I began typing. But during the process I realised how much I know about alpinism and how much I love/hate doing it. I became excited enough about climbing to postpone writing about it and spend a few months in Alaska actually doing it.'
This made me sit up and take notice. I was struck by such an honest, open and vulnerable admission by someone with enough spare testosterone to fuel a complete Tour de France team. His relationship with fear was complex. He was always close to hating the danger. He was often close to hating climbing altogether. But for Twight the fear was a crucible that he used to deliberately transform his life. He went through the fear to learn about himself and change the things he found and didn't like. Is his experience in some way accounted for by the complex relationship of oxytocin and vasopressin acting on the amygdala? Did the 'love' he experienced high in the mountains release enough oxytocin to dampen down the amygdala and subsequently his fears? And more importantly, was he able to transfer this learning to other areas of his life?
'Drug users need more drugs to get the same high. Could it also explain why we need to keep upping the 'grades' to get the same fear?'
Maybe not, but Twight's quote does capture the essence of what it is to pursue these sports by someone who did them hard. It is not only fun, it is not only love, it is not a simple neurochemical addiction, but it is an attempt to grapple with all of these things within the mother of all contexts - that we all die. In one sense we all push these boundaries in order to understand our own life/existence. We push out against the walls, just like we put up a kite in a storm, to see where we must end. Everyone can give lip service to the fact that we are all going to die. But we have a great deal of trouble really believing it; believing that all these magical, sublime (and painful) experiences that are ours, and truly ours alone, the fears, the lovers and friends, the phenomenal and subjective experience of our own universe, is one day going to cease like a movie real flickering to its end. We head to the mountains/out in big surf/jump out of aeroplanes/run through deserts, for the clarity. This dilemma is made real.
CAPTION - Snowkiting; the ultimate adventure tool. Wareck Arnaud and Simone Borgi, Mount Etna, Italy - PHOTO - Boulgakow
The thrill, the ecstasy and relief of hearing the lip crack onto the shallow slab behind you as you hop safely over the back of a wave brings the realisation that death is real; that it is an inherent, inextricable part of life and that it is inevitable, normal, even natural. Any sort of activity where we engage hard with the physical environment brings our mortality - which we forever deny - close enough so that we can taste it and, for a brief minute, believe that it is actually real. The salty breath of death, so close like the mist encircling from your own exhalations flowing back from the ice wall.
The apparent paradox is that death makes the life we live all the more sweet. And not just life 'on' the water, the snow, desert or mountain. Our entire life is flooded with the appreciation that we are actually alive. People who think that we are adrenaline junkies just don't get it. The pull of the kite through the window and the hiss of the spray of the edge of the board as you feel the acceleration, is not just pay back for the incarceration of a business suit or uniform. These sensations put our routine endeavours into perspective, it helps us to understand why we work and study and strive, instead of thinking they are the whole show. To think that we are under-aroused and need heightened sensations to live a normal life is way off the mark as well. It is not about 'cheating' death, (well there is a bit of that mixed in as well), it is about facing death, accepting death, driving a stake through the heart of our death denial which reigns supreme when unchallenged.
Sliding into the folds of the couch surrounded by all the creature comforts of the developed world gives us a sense of immunity as death is hidden under layer upon layer of convenience. Even the death of the animals we eat is handled by someone else. If you want food, you dial up a pizza and it is delivered. Thirsty? Turn on a tap. Cold? Turn on the heater. In need of stimulation? Turn on the television where you can experience someone else's reality, without even getting out of your seat (all the while death is undeterred and oblivious to being forgotten).
However, all this does beg the question: Which type of life is really the insane one?
CAPTION - Reo Stevens pulls in for the rush. Oahu, Hawaii - PHOTO - John Bilderback
OUTRO - As well as being an obsessed wave kiter, Jason Gallate is a lecturer in Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of Sydney. More from him and his team on the true buzz of kiting coming soon
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