Portrayed metaphorically as a breaking wave, the mind emerges from optic flow–the confluence of spatial and temporal relations that constantly transforms the appearance of one’s immediate surroundings. While its basic function is to situate the agent in space, the observer’s perspective vacillates between the spatial and temporal paradigms.[i] Too much of the spatial paradigm causes the individual to see himself as an object. Too much of the temporal paradigm makes him oblivious to his circumstances. The individual needs to balance the two paradigms, to be able to act decisively in circumstances that continually change.[ii]

As a representation of perception, the shape of the wave is analogous to the access afforded by perception to the available information: the hollower the wave, the deeper the access, the more information to draw on. Since the shape of the wave is influenced by both the depth and shape of the reef, these two factors represent either end of a spatio-temporal continuum; the reef inducing spatial relations and water temporal relations. Consequently, fluctuation in the tide represents the relative proportions of each, with low tide triggering more spatial than temporal relations and high tide triggering more temporal than spatial relations. At high tide, waves break less intensely, reflecting the reduced influence of the reef on wave shape. Somewhere between these two extremes, spatial and temporal relations blend in such a way as to produce an optimal shape for surfing, which can thus serve as a metaphor for psychological stability.

Tidal variation affects the surf in a similar way to how serotonin affects the mind. At low tide, waves encounter an abrupt incline in bathymetry, causing the crest of each wave to rise suddenly, just as low levels of serotonin result in hypersensitivity, causing sudden over-reactions. Serotonin promotes patience[iii], which ensures that memories have time to reach the surface, where they can help shape current experience.

The role of serotonin is opposed by dopamine[iv], which promotes action. These two neurotransmitters interact in ways that correspond to the interaction between surfboard and wave. Basically, dopamine triggers the impulse to pursue a reward, like the shape of a surfboard affects directional changes; some designs being more or less responsive than others. The relationship between serotonin and dopamine determines the appropriate timing of a response. Where reward is concerned, a rapid response is not always beneficial, since patience might be needed to assess the situation before advancing toward the object of desire. Similarly, where risk of injury is concerned, the timing of one’s response is critical to the outcome. The interplay between serotonin and dopamine is akin to surfing insofar as reaction times are encoded, like the shape of the surfboard and the bathymetry of the surf break, to facilitate performance.

The task of designing a surfboard requires insight into how this tension between surfboard and wave influences surfing performance. Since the response of the surfboard is derived simultaneously from the surfboard and the wave, the act of surfing represents a further spatio-temporal continuum, in this case with the surfboard inducing spatial relations and the wave temporal relations.

As a representation of the intellect, the penetration and release phases of a manoeuvre are analogous to concentration and contemplation, in the sense that concentration is active, while contemplation is passive. Actively engaging the wave invokes spatial relations, because the surfboard—its shape and motion—is the primary factor influencing where it is going. This is the penetration phase of a manoeuvre, when the surfboard rotates into the water. Passively engaging the wave invokes temporal relations, because the surfboard follows a track determined more by the shape and motion of the wave than by the shape and motion of the surfboard. This is the release phase of a manoeuvre, when the surfboard rotates out of the water. In terms of neural activity, this corresponds to low frequency rhythms disengaging the high frequency rhythms associated with focused attention.[v][vi] So, in the same way that surfing manoeuvres are composed of alternating phases of penetration and release, ideas emerge from alternating phases of concentration and contemplation. Imagination negotiates a tension between reason and perception[vii] in the same way surfing manoeuvres negotiate a tension between the shape of the surfboard and the shape of the wave.

The ability to shift one’s perspective toward the spatial end of the scale might have evolved for self-defence. A clear sense of your own physical presence is vital when faced by danger. But, not all dangers threaten physical harm, especially in the modern world, where reputation stands for so much. If we subscribe to a mask and that mask is removed, we are confronted by an existential void. It can be terrifying to peer into the abyss. But, it only feels threatening when we look at it objectively.[viii] As paradoxical as it seems, the fluid present is the only truly stable perspective. In essence, the problem is not the void, but the perspective that renders it objectively.

Next chapter: Reality.


[i] Bergson, H. (1912). An Introduction to Metaphysics. G.P. Putnam’s Son’s, p.63.

“[…] the intuition of our duration, far from leaving us suspended in the void, as pure analysis would do, brings us into contact with a whole continuity of durations which we must try to follow, whether downwards or upwards; in both cases we can extend ourselves indefinitely by an increasingly violent effort, in both cases we transcend ourselves. In the first we advance towards a more and more attenuated duration, the pulsations of which, being rapider than ours, and dividing our simple sensation, dilute its quality into quantity; at the limit would be pure homogeneity, that pure repetition by which we define materiality. Advancing in the other direction, we approach a duration which strains, contracts, and intensifies itself more and more; at the limit would be eternity. No longer conceptual eternity, which is an eternity of death, but an eternity of life. A living, and therefore still moving eternity in which our own particular duration would be included as the vibrations are in light; an eternity which would be the concentration of all duration, as materiality is its dispersion. Between these two extreme limits intuition moves, and this movement is the very essence of metaphysics.”

[ii] Tuan, Yi-Fu (1979). Space and place: Humanistic perspective, in Philosophy in Geography, Theory and Decision Library, Springer Netherlands, 20, p.419.

“We owe our sense of being not only to supportive forces but also to those that pose a threat. Being has a centre and an edge: supportive forces nurture the centre while threatening forces strengthen the edge. In theological language, hell bristles with places that have sharply drawn – indeed fortified – boundaries but no centre worthy of defence; heaven is full of glowing centres with the vaguest boundaries; earth is an uneasy compromise of the two realms.”

[iii] Cools, R., Nakamura, K. & Daw, N.D. (2011). Serotonin and Dopamine: Unifying Affective, Activational, and Decision Functions, Neuropsychopharmacology Reviews, 36, p.105.

“Time discounting is the subject of another prominent computational theory of serotonergic function (Doya, 2002), which posits that 5-HT [serotonin] controls (im)patience in intertemporal choice: the degree of preference for immediate rewards over delayed rewards. Specifically, Doya proposed that 5-HT controls a parameter common to many decision models known as the temporal discount factor according to which delayed rewards are viewed as less valuable than immediate ones, with higher 5-HT promoting greater patience.”

[iv] Dawa, N.D., Kakadeb, S. & Dayanb, P. (2002). Opponent interactions between serotonin and dopamine, Neural Networks 15, pp.603–616.

[v] Miller, E.K. and Buschman, T.J. (2013) Cortical circuits for the control of attention.  Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 23, p.219.

“…, neurons representing an unattended stimulus showed increased low frequency (<17 Hz) synchronization. One explanation for this is that low frequency synchrony may reflect common and thus uninformative inputs to the neurons. Thus, the negative correlation between low frequency synchrony and attention may reflect a mechanism that improves information transmission by removing these common ‘noise’ sources.”

[vi] Miller, E.K. and Buschman, T.J. (2013). Brain Rhythms for cognition and consciousness, Neurosciences and the Human Person: New Perspectives on Human Activities, Scripta Varia, 121, p.3.

“Visual cortical neurons that process a stimulus under attentional focus show increased synchronized gamma band (30-90 Hz) oscillations (P. Fries et al. 2001). By contrast, neurons representing an unattended stimulus showed increased low frequency (<17 Hz) synchronization. A variety of evidence suggests that low frequencies may help deselect or inhibit the corresponding ensembles (Buschman et al. 2012; Vijayan and Kopell 2012; Palva and Palva 2011; Ray and Cole 1985).”

[vii] Gabora, L. & Aerts, D. (2009). A model of the emergence and evolution of integrated worldviews. Journal of Mathematical Psychology, 53, pp.434-451.

“The modern human mind has the ability to shift between analytic thought, conducive primarily to realizing relationships amongst states of a known concept, and associative thought, conducive primarily to forging new concepts through the formation of conjunctions, which are entangled states that result through application of the tensor product of the Hilbert spaces of the two constituent concepts. It is proposed that the penultimate step toward achieving an integrated worldview was to acquire the capacity to spontaneously focus attention (conducive to analytic thought) or defocus attention (conducive to associative thought) depending on the circumstance. This is modelled as onset of the modulation of µ, the transition probabilities using a variable we called Φ. Once the capacity has evolved to alter Φ according to the situation, analytic thought and associative thought can work in concert to organize and reorganize conceptual structure. Analytic thought enables the identification of causal relationships, while associative thought facilitates recognition of items in memory that are correlated, i.e. that share properties, which in turn provides more ingredients for analytic thought.”

[viii] Young, J. (2001). Heidegger’s Philosophy of Art. Cambridge University Press, pp.132-133.

“Understanding one’s (in Kantian language) ‘membership’ [in] the mystical realm of ‘plenitude’ abolishes anxiety, establishes one as ultimately secure in one’s world because one understands, now, that that which surrounds the clearing is no longer abysmal but is, rather, the richness of all those concealed (and unintelligible) possibilities of disclosure which, in addition to one’s ego, one is.”