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How to Erase negative memories related to surfing

Have you ever wanted to go back in time and erase a negative memory from your mind forever?  Think that’s impossible? Think again. Scientists have discovered that you can rewrite negative memories with new positive memories because our brains are highly plastic.  Once upon a time, it was widely believed that your brain didn’t change after childhood. Recent studies have shown that is completely wrong. In recent times, we’ve learned that our brains continue to change and mold to our experiences throughout life.

For this exercise, you are going to need to dwell on the past.   We’re going to think of a bad wipeout, hold down or scary session and we’re going to upgrade and rewire your brain so you can get past this memory and you can surf bigger or more challenging waves.  The great thing about this exercise is that because our brains are plastic – meaning we can hold and change them throughout life – you can overwrite fear memories related to ANYTHING that has happened to you, not just about surfing.  Before you learn how to upgrade those old fearful moments, here’s a basic rundown of your brain on fear.

Woman standing in front of shark sighting sign at beach.
Don’t let specific memories keep you on the shore, forever.


Undoubtedly, you’ve heard of our primal fight or flight instinct.  But as a little refresher, let’s talk about the AMYGDALA.

The amgydala is an almond-sized fear broker located in the limbic area of the brain that has been in charge of calling the shots in the face of danger since the caveman age.  This is the origin of our so-called “fight or flight” instinct that was important to protect us from things like lions, tigers, and bears as we roamed the earth in search of food and that special someone to mate with.  Even today, if you sense fear, the amygdala’s default function is to take over and lock down your brain. Fight or flight kicks in and we are able to act before we think. Can you remember your mom putting her arm out automatically to protect you whenever you crossed a busy street?  This is fight or flight in action. It’s a nifty trait that works great in situations of real danger but it isn’t so great in modern everyday life where you want to think before you act and not the other way around.

Let’s say you see a set looming on the horizon, you’ll know when your amgydala sends your fight or flight into gear because you’ll feel:

  1. Your heart rate and blood pressure is elevated in order to rush more blood to your limbs so you can react,
  2. Your muscles tighten up (which can cause you to “freeze” instead of acting),
  3. Your pupils dilate to let in more light,
  4. Your non-survival functions like logical thinking, sex drive, immune system and digestion shut down.
Barreling wave in a post teaching surfers how to overcome negative memories.
Our negative brains can find a way to make this look bad, somehow.


Unfortunately, humans are genetically preconditioned to remember negative experiences better than positive ones.  This why do so many of us focus on the negative even when we know the benefits of positive thinking and why our self-talk is often a barrage of insults rather than support and motivation.

This too goes back to the caveman days.  If you’re a caveman your main motivations in life are finding food to eat, procreating and protecting your tribe to ensure the advancement of your species.  Of course, some good things like food and sex are prioritised. But bad things like predators, other aggressive tribes, and competing alpha males or females are bad and can mean the end of all the good things.  In other words, you can miss out on food today, but if you ignore a predator, then you won’t be looking for food tomorrow. Thus, humans were predisposed to putting greater value on negative experiences than positive ones as a way of survival.

“Basically, negativity bias is about survival.  Nature likes skittish creatures because skittish creatures survive,” says Rick Hanson, the founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom.

This is important to keep in mind when considering your surfing related challenges (we all have them, check out No Shoes, No Worries list of 21 Surfing Frustrations.  You might have caught 20 waves or surfed 100s of other days without a bad wipeout but your mind fixates on the one time got a particularly bad pounding, in other words it creates a negative memory that sticks out.  It may seem like all the other good experiences are inconsequential. In fact many of us get stuck in a surfing related “negative feedback loop,” the crew at Ombe surf talks about overcoming this in a specific podcast. You have to put in double time to see the bright side of things if you want to change your brain.

Missing a wave while surfing could create a negative memory.
Moments like these: a lesson lies in every beat down but you’ll never learn it if you don’t paddle back out.


Every experience causes neurons in our brain to “fire” or become activated with electrical signals. These neurons become linked to other neurons creating an association that can cause us to form an expectation about a certain event or emotion.

Let’s say you went surfing at a certain break and found that while you were in the water the tide was rising.  When you decided to go in, you found it very difficult to get out the water because the water was smashing into the rocks where you paddled out.  You panicked paddling around looking for a safe exit point for fifteen minutes until you got near to the shore and got pounded into the sand by three big waves and made it in exhausted.  For years later, you may avoid that spot at high tide. Based on your experience, high tide + Spot x = fear.

We’ve known since 1949 that, “neurons that fire together wire together,”  according to Psychologist Donald Hebb.  Memories create mental models that your brain will recall as it sees fit.  In some situations this can be a good thing, for example, if your parents were always caring and understanding when you had a problem when you were young, you will associate them with caring and understanding when you have a problem when you are older.  However, if the association is rooted in fear, your neural wiring can cause you to avoid the memory even when you don’t realise you are doing so.


The bad news about rewriting old fear memories is that you are going to have to face that fear again. The good news is that by specifically triggering that fear, you have an opportunity to create a new positive memory that will replace the old fear memory.  The more you trigger it and rewrite the fearful memory with positive feelings and experiences the more likely you will permanently rewire your brain.

You have to go against your natural reaction to fear: avoidance. If something that scared the hell out of you happened at Spot X, you are going to have go there and surf again.  You should surf at Spot X again on a small day with a lower tide. Go out, have fun, and take time to emphasize the good, positive experience you had at Spot X repeatedly. Surf there with friends, surf there on a beautiful day, surf there on a manageable swell.  You need to surf Spot X as many times as you can and be extremely positive about your experience. Psychologists call this process of highlighting positive experiences to eliminate previous scary memories “extinction.

Action Steps to erase negative memories

Here’s a little formula to rewrite those negative memories and move on! If a specific memory isn’t lurking around in your brain, you can use your Fear Prep list to uncover deeply held limiting beliefs and their source.


Once you’ve identified a specific incident that is holding you back, it’s time for the fun (or the not so fun part depending on your point of view), you need to trigger the fear.  Put yourself in the position that caused the original fear. You can also use visualization and/or video of yourself or others to simulate that experience. Add positive emotions by surfing well and telling yourself you’re doing well (learn about positive self talk while surfing). Keep moving and repeat as many times as possible.

General Tips:

  1. Requires focus, determination and hard work
  2. Practice and repetition changes the neural connections – you can use internal mental rehearsal (visualization) or physical repetition in the water.
  3. Ways to trigger fear:
    1. Physically Surfing
    2. Visualization
    3. Video of yourself or others
  4. To make permanent need to emphasize positive effect of the change… over and over and almost to the point of nausea.  The fastest and easiest way to do this is to link to an emotion.
  5. This creates an “associative flow” between the positive emotion and the action which allows your brain to predict what’s next, access the flow state
  6. Just as easy to encourage negative brain change, as positive, so be careful…


Studies with rats have shown that there seems to be about a six hour window after the an original event producing fear where the negative memory can be most effectively overwritten. For these rats who were training to fear a certain sound (the sound was coupled with a shock), after the six hours, it became much harder to disassociate the memory from the fear response.

This was also tested on humans and a similar window of opportunity for rewriting fear was discovered.  Scientists believe the ability to alter fear memories for this short period of time is to encourage learning.

So what does that mean for surfers?  Basically, if you’re out surfing and something bad happens you want to try your hardest to re-frame that situation with a positive experience as soon as possible.  Never end a session with a negative memory. Always go out again and catch another wave. Our natural tendency to avoid things we fear can have lasting implications and can potentially ruin future surfing experiences.

I was able to put this to the test a couple of years ago in Indonesia.  You can read about my experience here. After a wipeout, ripped leash, and two waves on the head, I gathered my composure and paddled back out to catch many more waves because I had to.  I couldn’t let that negative memory consolidate in my head forever. Now, I’d surf that spot again and I’d take the beating again because I learned a lot. Read more about overcoming a fear of surfing big waves here.

Consciously working on erasing negative memories helps surfers catch bigger waves.
Lessons learned in Indonesia lead to more waves like this at Surfing Village.

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