The Reptilian Core Of Open Water Swimmers

The Reptilian Core Of Open Water Swimmers

Dr. Peter Whybrow, Director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California in Los Angeles and the Judson Braun Distinguished Professor and Executive Chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine, explains in his fascinating book, American Mania. When More Is Not Enough, about how the human brain evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in an environment defined by scarcity.

Not enough to eat…not enough warmth…not enough safety against the dangers of the wilderness and disasters.

Humans did not develop in an environment of extreme abundance, as can often be seen in the opulent buffets offered in American restaurants, the immediacy of fast food drive-ins and convenience stores, the desire to drive around in a parking lot for minutes to find a parking spot 25 meters closer to the supermarket filled with aisles of ice cream, potato chips and breakfast cereals.

We’ve got the core of an average lizard,” says Dr. Whybrow. “Our passions are still driven by the lizard core. We are set up to acquire as much as we can of things we perceive as scarce, particularly sex, safety and food. When faced with abundance, the brain’s ancient reward pathways are difficult to suppress.”

So why are marathon swimmers and other endurance athletes so willing to deprive themselves – at least temporarily – of abundance? So willing to push themselves to a state of discomfort, hunger and sacrifice? Why are open water swimmers increasingly desirous of swimming in water less than 15°C, 10°C, 5°C?

Dr. Whybrow perhaps gives a hint in his discourse about modern American society. “…Americans sacrifice their long-term interests for short-term rewards. If we refuse to regulate ourselves, the only regulators are our environment and the way that environment deprives us.”

And marathon swimmers know quite well how the aquatic environment can strikingly, dangerously and immediately deprive them … of warmth, of comfort, of a sense of safety. Given this environment that swimmers are willing to challenge themselves, it is no wonder of the all-encompassing euphoria and sense of self-satisfaction that results when swimmers reach the other shore and crawl back up on terra firma.

That is when more becomes not enough. Many open water swimmers, like surfers, want to get back in to the marine environment and experience that sense of risk and sacrifice again and again…because the ultimate inner rewards felt back on land are so deep within our core.

Photo shows Mark Warkentin reaches shore after a 25K ocean race.

Copyright © 2011 by World Open Water Swimming Association