The Chemistry of Fear

Big Balls. That’s what they say it takes to surf big waves. With hellmen the world over constantly being described as having “serious sack,” plenty of testosterone and a bag to hold it has always been considered a prerequisite for charging the heavy stuff.

Now I’m not the first who has wondered if maybe the surfers who charge monster waves shouldn’t have their heads examined. But what if I told you that an examination would reveal that it’s what’s between their ears and not what’s between their legs that make it possible for them to do what they do? Even more interesting, what if I told you that the basis for voluntarily-in fact, enthusiastically-putting oneself in life threatening situations is a chemical imperative for some people? In short, that the guys who dig death-defying surf aren’t so much overcoming fear but “self medicating” with it.


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Face it. We all know that guys like Laird Hamilton and Flea Virostko are a little different than you and me. But today, research explains why: According to Dr. Marvin Zuckerman, a professor in clinical psychology from the University of Delaware and leading researcher on “sensation seeking,” big-wave chargers like Flea likely have critical brain chemistry differences that, when compared to “average” surfers, fundamentally alter their behavior. Based upon his research, Dr. Zuckerman suggests that people who regularly engage in extreme risk taking behavior (like back-dooring a Mav’s bomb) are actually compelled to do these sorts of things in order to normalize their brain chemistry. Although this chemical imbalance may be an advantage for people who make their living doing unreasonable things-like charging Waimea at the Eddie-there is certainly a negative side to this particular physiological abnormality: high risk factor, and its obvious consequences. Lack of fear, sadly, doesn’t make one immortal. And truthfully, the issue here isn’t the real absence of fear, but simply the sensation seeker’s reaction to it.