This feature first appeared in KW #93 in June 2018
Words: Jason Gallate / Photos: Frankie Bees / Naish
Intro: Occasional Kiteworld columnist, neuroscientist and avid kiter, Dr. Jason Gallate is back! Over the next couple of issues he reports on his experiment to find out whether exercising in the ocean every single day would guarantee happiness. First, he had to find some suitable toys for the conditions he faced…
“Every possession and every happiness is but lent by chance for an uncertain time, and may therefore be demanded back the next hour”. – Arthur Schopenhauer
Poor old Artie, he wasn’t the cheeriest of philosophers. Nonetheless, he did seem to be onto something: in my day job I’m a psychologist and I see a lot of people who are extraordinarily sad. People whom, on the surface, take great pains to appear happy. It’s a privilege to be let into their private worlds, but far too often they are bleak and lonely. Unfortunately, there is some currency to Schopenhauer’s quote…
In response, I consider it a professional responsibility to be happy. Taking the time to design happiness into my life has made a big difference, but the process appears to be paradoxical – in that it is both simple and extremely difficult.
The psychiatrist Gordon Livingstone said:
“It is hard for a human to be unhappy if they have someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to”.
This doesn’t seem like such a tall order, yet time and again my patients fail at at least one of the three.
I believe that kiters are extraordinarily lucky people precisely because they should have number three nailed; something to look forward to. Right now I am looking forward to the next 20 knot nor’easter to come funnelling down the coast, creating cross-off conditions on my favourite point to reef-break – (internet says Tuesday).
Has kitesurfing then taken care of number three? Well, kind of, but not exactly. I don’t live on Maui and there is a wind drought after Tuesday extending into what looks like next year. (Damnit, Schopenhauer looks to be right after all… Pull yourself together, man! There has got to be a design solution to this. What about a giant solar powered fan on the headland?)
… back to the happiness argument: design is really important – daily, hard exercise, appears to be universally helpful to mental health; especially stress, anxiety and depression. It does not solve these problems but I have never had a depressed patient say that they regretted going for a hard run. Even better, to avoid the monotony and stress fracture of pounding the pavement, is to combine cardiovascular stimulation with something you look forward to. My unequivocal happiness prescription is, therefore, a daily dose in the ocean.
This prescription is sound – get in the ocean everyday and make sure you appreciate it. But, I recently read two neuroscience articles that made me wonder whether I could squeeze even more out of daily sessions. The articles ‘Human Hippocampal Neurogenesis Persists throughout Aging’ and ‘Novelty Exploration Elicits a Reversal of Acute Stress-induced Modulation of Hippocampal Synaptic Plasticity in the Rat’, suggest that we continue to develop new cells in an area of the brain responsible for new memories and exploration of new environments well into our seventies.
The benefits of neurogenesis and neuroplasticity are obvious. The thing that struck me like Connor McGregor was the importance of novelty, exploration and new environments – basically, physical learning. Pushing the brain hard keeps it firing and rewiring.
I have a lot of precious physical memories. I still remember gliding down the first unbroken wave I ever caught on a bodyboard. I clearly remember how mentally taxing my first session of kiting in proper surf was. I will never forget the first time I glided through powder snow with my kite blotting out the sunset over the Southern Alps. All of these experiences share common features; they required application and concentration, they were novel, they are forever etched on my mind (learning) and they powerfully motivated me to repeat the activity.
I pondered these reminiscences and the penny finally dropped. If I did/learnt multiple activities in the ocean I would not only get mood and physical fitness benefits, but my brain would be fresh and frothing – primed for life. The bonus value-add of the variety would be that I’ll be highly motivated and keep doing the exercise.
As a teenager I used to look forward to surfing every single day. Surfing was great in this regard – simple, convenient, easy – one piece of equipment and a pair of boardshorts – bliss. It could be onshore slop and I would still be paddling around like a beaver with obsessive compulsive disorder.
Sadly, those days are gone and life is more complicated. It now takes very rare conditions to get me excited about a surf – which is part of the reason that I started kitesurfing. Kiting in waves still amazes me, every single time…
Once again, I thought I had point three permanently solved – wave kiting. But, just as I grabbed my new solution tight around the neck a new bubble squeezed out between my fingers – when I took an honest look at how many days I got on the ocean, they were far too few. Conditions, time, luck and complacency conspired against me.
It’s the same old primary problem most of us face – not enough wind and not enough swell. However, instead of leaving things to chance and the vicissitude of the weather, this time I decided to consciously take responsibility and start designing happiness into my life.
All I needed to do was turn myself back into a frothing grommet, then I would want to get in the ocean everyday. How do I do that when there is no wind and I don’t have a time machine? I was onto the idea that variety was super important, but I still needed a solution.
ENTER THE FOIL…
I bought a foil because
“I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived”. – Henry David Thoreau
I accidentally fell into the foiling fascination. One of my friends is a kooky inventor, he glassed up a carbon fibre foil in his workshop and we cobbled it to bits and pieces of aluminium he found in scrap yards. We started towing behind his 15 horse power inflatable boat. On our very first attempt we had this massively long mast and every time we got up we would already be tracking violently to the left or right and we couldn’t turn back towards the wake. Nonetheless we felt the foil rise out of the water and glide. We felt the potential and were hooked. We ban-sawed the mast down to 50cm and suddenly we were silently gliding our way down the Hawkesbury river.
After this Kai Lenny basically broke the internet when he was gliding for hundreds of metres on wind chop on a Naish foil. I, like everyone else, was befuddled by this. Was it fake? Could a normal human do it?
It wasn’t long before I had an itch to scratch. I, like you, like every kiter, am a gear freak. I have found just owning a foil to be a semi-religious experience and I’m not ashamed to admit it.
I took a leaf out of Thoreau’s book and bought two foils: a Naish Thrust Large Surf Foil and Thrust KS1 Kitesurfing Foil. I also got two boards, a Naish 6’0” Hover surfboard and a Hover 120 Crossover SUP foil board. I wanted to have every condition covered. I determined to live deliberately; determined to embark on a ‘happiness programme’ religiously. One where I got in the ocean every single day. I wanted not only to have something to look forward to, but to be stoked about my next session. Lack of wind would no longer be an issue. That problem of the past could be broken down into two vectors: ‘Wind velocity’ and ‘Swell’.
Before foiling, there usually wasn’t enough of either for my ideal liking. This table outlines how I would cope with that predicament when it arose:
THE TABLE OF LOST OPPORTUNITIES AND REGRET
AKA: ‘THE PAST’
I can’t do anything to change the weather, BUT I can change my own behaviour to adapt to it.
SOLUTION: THE TABLE OF COMPLETE FUTURE PROMISE
Having a professionally manufactured foil in my paws was pretty cool. The immediate difference was that every joint was smooth. The wing fitted into the fuselage and the fuselage fitted the mast without any right-angles or recesses for drag. I had to get it into the water and I couldn’t wait for wind.
I now had everything in place: multiple sports, on twin-tips, surfboards and SUPs with and without foils attached. If the wind was up I would kite, if it was moderate I would foil and if it was non-existent I still had options. I would be exercising in the ocean every day and I would be challenging my brain with learning multiple new things as well.
In the end I decided not to just do this project, but to document it: I decided to run a pseudo experiment on it and write an article for this mag. From this idea a project was born:
THE NEURAL ADAPTATION PROJECT:
Running a real neuro-scientific experiment is an utter nightmare of boredom. It takes many, many subjects to make statistical significance and controlled conditions that are rigourous and endlessly finicky. I only had one subject; myself, but nonetheless I wanted to ask the question: Will exercising in the ocean everyday improve my mood, my general outlook, my physical health and the vitality and suppleness of my brain. Will I recapture my stoke? Will my brain be fizzing?
I decided to rate my mood everyday (as often as I remembered) but especially before I entered the water and after I got out. In terms of the neuroscience I also wanted to see if I felt sharper, more creative at work, better able to remember things and mentally speedy – (these ratings were even more subjective).
To put this in more realistic terms, I wanted to recapture the joy I had as a kid by playing with a whole lot of new equipment in the ocean everyday. I will supply more detailed results in the next article, (and also a better justification for how the neuroscience might work) but here are a few preliminary findings:
- Firstly, and most importantly – Foils are fun. (In an amazing array of applications, with or without wind power. That is until you land on one, which is best avoided).
- The glide you get when you are up on the foil really does feel like flying – somewhat like floating on a snowboard in unimaginably light powder. Which is weird because you are standing on top of one wing whilst another pulls you through the sky.
- Kite foiling was much harder than I expected, whereas prone paddle-in foil surfing was much easier. I watched Kai Lenny all over the internet paddling into little bumps and presumed it impossible for anyone over 60 kilos. To my surprise I was up on the foil in small waves, (and completely out of control), pretty quickly. I had a modicum of control shortly thereafter.
- I thought this would transfer immediately when under kite power. Not so! Not for me at least. I don’t have flat water and cross-winds nearby, so I re-experienced that nearly forgotten feeling of the board being knocked off my feet, turning fins first, sucking in water, getting pulled over the foilboard with a big kite because the turning arc was too long and being unable to get up on the foil on a small kite. As a result the gliding became all the more precious when it came.
- Finally, I have not yet attained, but am extremely excited about, kite foiling in waves! JB, the Naish rider who got me up and going, assures me this is amazing. Once again, you have to relearn to fly the kite because the board is so frictionless you approach it too quickly.
We’ll be bringing more of Jason’s foiling experiences to light in the next episode…
GLOSSARY OF TERMS:
NEUROGENESIS – The creation of new brain cells. Scientists believed until very recently (for over 50 years) that once a human brain cell died it could never be regrown, replaced or repaired. This has been shown to be untrue – neurogenesis is very good news.
NEUROPLASTICITY – Is sort of, basically, the ability of your brain to adapt, to change, to specialise, to repair, to compensate for damage. Learning must be the result of neuroplasticity. The cool thing is we can now sometimes show how this learning has physically happened in the brain – different parts of the brain ‘wire up’ – neurons make new connections with one another. Eg. it is the reason why you now no longer have to consciously think about how to drive when you are driving.
HIPPOCAMPAL – Means ‘of the hippocampus’. The hippocampus is a small area of your brain that is really important for memory, but it also does spatial navigation and regulates emotion (everything is interconnected and complicated, but this definition works for now!).