Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 49 - Bonnie Tsui - WHY WE SWIM - Part 2 of 3

That actually kind of makes me think about– So, given this is the Smart Athlete Podcast, and I typically run my businesses and make products based on science. 


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JESSE: That actually kind of makes me think about– So, given this is the Smart Athlete Podcast, and I typically run my businesses and make products based on science. But there is another side and this is I think, I guess, again, kind of thematically a little bit of what the book might look into is thinking about that connection to our food and where it comes from and the effort and kind of the appreciation of the process. I was thinking about, as I was prepping for our interview, I read the excerpt you post on the New York Times from the book – kind of talking about the book and thinking about the connection to water and kind of what it does with our brain.

And there’s this like woo-woo thought in my head about the connection to water because we’re predominantly water. And there’s no basis in testable, like verifiable science I could be like this is it. It’s just thematically in my head, it feels nice. So, I didn’t know if you’ve had kind of similar thoughts or if you’ve had thoughts about where that kind of almost zone comes from, where you find that peace in the water?

BONNIE: Well, I mean, one of the things I talk about in that excerpt that you talk about, is how we respond, right, so physiologically to water. And so there’s so much interesting research out there now that has to do with how our brains react to the sound of water, right. So, the increase in alpha waves which is boosting serotonin and just a greater sense of relaxation and calm and also creativity and those that are associated with that kind of brain activity.

But also with looking at the water, we’re all drawn to the beach, we’re drawn to the lakes, we’re drawn to just like waterfalls, everyone loves a frickin’ waterfall when they go on vacation. They just wanna be near it. And there’s something about not just seeing it or hearing it, those things are really powerful.

But feeling it when you get into the water when there’s immersion, there is that pressure of the water on our bodies that feels really good. And everyone always thinks about– We obviously can’t test this, but just in terms of like being in the womb, when you were a baby, you were warm and safe and you were in water. And then when the baby comes out one of the most consistent, reliable ways to soothe the baby is to turn on a white noise machine [??? 02:58] like water sound.

And so there’s got to be a connection there. And so if you think about being comforted, and just what our bodies are set to respond to, and our brains and find soothing, it is those water sounds, it is the hush, this particular kind of sound that is associated with water and movement of water. And then, of course, being in the water is also part of it.

But also when you’re swimming that you’re breathing, your pattern of breathing is a rhythm that is conducive also to relaxing your nervous system and tamping down like fight or flight responses. So, taking a deep breath, holding it, letting it out slowly, and just having the rhythm of that. So, all of those things really contribute to that feeling of just wellness and calm and just wanting to be near the water. So, I think that it all makes perfect sense. And it’s things that we’ve known for throughout time in different cultures, people have always written about it. And now the science is catching up, which is pretty fun. Yeah.

JESSE: Yeah, I think it’s always interesting. And this is like when I don’t have research to back things up, that’s when I start talking around myself and trying to give lots of caveats. But I think it’s fun when I’ll say like, our and I mean, our collectively as a human species, intuition about things sometimes leads to like research topics where we go, is this true? Why is this true? And then it breaks it down and says, yes, it is, in fact true or no, it’s not and give reasons.

In some aspects, it feels almost sacrilegious to go, you know, about those things and say there’s like a mystical experience and like science is supposed to explain that. And you’re like, no, can’t you just let it be? But at the same time, it’s like, does that necessarily take away from the experience itself if it’s explainable, you know?

BONNIE: Yeah. No, I mean, I find it for me personally, and I suspect you just because of what you said that to know, or to find out, to investigate in a scientific way things we’ve always felt to be true is really interesting. And there’s a regulatory sense of just peeling back layers of knowledge that is, I find– I think just because we’re curious animals and so we want to know. And so it’s actually when we don’t know that it’s frustrating, you know? But I do think that what you’re asking is also like, there is a magic to a lot of experiences. And so if we analyze them too much, does it take it away? I don’t think so. Not in this case.

JESSE: Yeah, I think it’s a matter of almost living with the dual, potentially paradoxical situation where it’s like I’m pretty square I’ve not ever done psychedelics or anything. But there’s research into psychedelics and now the potential of them being therapeutic for like PTSD and those kinds of things, as they’re figuring out what actually happens in the brain. And it’s like, okay, well, we can use them for therapeutic uses, potentially.

I think at this point, we can say almost definitively, we can. But then also there are people that have these trips and they have revelations and it changes our perspective on life. And it’s like, well regardless of our knowledge about how it works in the pathways in the brain, what you experience is still real in the sense that you experienced it and it changed how you look at things. That’s not negated by the fact that we can say, Okay, if it makes this synapse fire, and these certain things happen.

BONNIE: Yes, I agree with that. I mean, I have in the reading that I’ve done on the topic, I’ve also found it really interesting when they have done the use of psychedelics on cancer patients or people who are terminally ill, that it just quite dramatically reduces their fear and anxiety [??? 07:52] which I think whatever it is that they have experienced in their particular trip where they have been visited by their dead mother or they were walking into the field of poppies and then we’re just suddenly like, I feel at one with the universe. Whatever it is that they– whatever version of that that they had on psychedelics, that they come out on the other side of that feeling better and at peace with what’s coming.

Like I don’t see how that could be bad. And I think that scientists and researchers are becoming better at guiding those trips so that they don’t end poorly, that you don’t have such a bad–

I think in a controlled environment, certainly like in a doctor’s office or wherever it is that they have set up these control conditions that dramatically reduces the possibility or the risk that you will have a bad trip. But I think that if you are suffering and there is this treatment available to you that could really change your perspective in such a beneficial way.

And it is a kind of medicine, right? But it’s almost like a psychological/physical medicine, chemical medicine that you’re taking because it will alter you. Yeah, I don’t know. Even though it’s not fixing your illness, your cancer or your whatever it is that is terminal, that it fixes your understanding of what’s happening and your acceptance of it, which I just find that amazing. I just find that so fascinating. And why would that be, and what does it do to pathways? So, then going back to the science side, what does it do [??? 09:54] pathways of your brain that’s so interesting. Yeah.

JESSE: Yeah. Well, it’s like you get around that situation you get arguments about, we’ve had this kind of, at least in the US the culture about like, just say no to drugs and the care program and all these things for so long, the war on drugs– [crosstalk]

SPEAKER 2: It’s like swinging back in the other direction.

JESSE: Right, it’s hard to swing back in the other direction and say, okay, well these things have therapeutic use. But I guess I kind of come from the place of like, I don’t think he’s the first person to talk about this. But in college, you read John Stuart Mill on liberty and talked about the harm principle. And basically, if you’re not hurting anybody else, and it’s what you want to do, then fine.

So, I kind of come in from that standpoint, where it’s like, as you mentioned if it aids a patient in reducing their anxiety and fears about the inevitable end of their life, which we all will experience, but they are more cognizant of it. It’s like they’re not harming anybody else if it’s in a controlled setting and being administered by a professional; if they’re not harming anybody else, it helps them which probably helps their family as well. So, it’s like, I don’t see any problem with it, at least from that standpoint.

BONNIE: Yeah. This discussion of psychedelics reminds me of what the long-distance swimmer, Lynne Cox said. She told me, I interviewed her actually about what she thinks about when she’s swimming and what it does to her brain. And she said, “Who needs psychedelics when you have swimming?” Because when she gets in the water, she says that she and she swims for like epic distances and epic conditions. And just so she’s got plenty of time for her brain to go all over the place. But she says that she will be, something under the pier or something, and she will suddenly smell coffee like so powerfully. And it’s because like, the rest of her senses are kind of maybe muted and so she’s kind of in this like we were saying, with a little bit of a dull or muted state.

But the one thing that hits is the coffee smell. And so it’s so powerful, it’s so sharp, she’s just like, it’s almost as if I’ve never tasted or smelled coffee before and it’s like this new– And if you think about it, if you’re altered in some way by psychedelics, it’s like you have this like very vivid focus shift, you’ll suddenly feel like your hands are gigantic because it’s you are suddenly so focused on what your hands feel like or what your fingers look like.

Or that you will hear music and then be so moved to tears. It’s just like this funny thing of like, if you look around where you are right now, in your room, it’s like you see, all right, normally we see everything kind of more evenly. But I think when you’re altered, whether it’s by swimming or on drugs, it’s like there’s like a focus suddenly on the light or this or this and it’s jumping.

And it’s so intense, and I think that that is so interesting about all of these– I mean, certainly, sports can do that to us when we’re in competition because it’s the zone, right? So, you’re in the zone because your adrenaline is so firing off. And so your focus is almost like the time expands, even though it’s like three seconds.

But it’s your brain perception that is making it seem like it’s so much longer. Or that if something seems to be going very quickly, like when you’re in a floating state, or really you’re not noticing the passage of time at all, it’s because you are so immersed in the experience of doing a thing that you aren’t paying attention to time passing. And so in terms of how we, as humans, like our brains and our bodies react to our experience of sports and various activities that we’re doing we really have like, it is like a superpower to be able to do all of those things.

JESSE: When you’re in the pool, do you ever notice that you can see, but you’re no longer seeing? When I swim, like my eyes are paying attention to, there’s a black line at the bottom of the pool and I can see when the bar comes that I need to flip turn and all that kind of stuff. But it’s like, my brain is no longer actively paying attention to these images.

They’re kind of passive. And it’s more like how does my breathing feel? How does the stroke feel? What’s the effort? That’s the sensation where my brain is. Or maybe if I’m going easy, I’m thinking about what I have to do for the day or trying to be creative or something. But it’s like my– I just don’t know in any other situation where my eyes are on and off at the same time.

BONNIE: Yeah. Yeah, you are because you have gone into autopilot, right? So, you are– I think that swimming in open water is a little bit different because you have to pay attention to certain hazards because the conditions are changing. But when you’re in a pool, it is very much like once you get into the rhythm of the thing because it’s the same measured distance for your laps that you are just, your brain is freed. Your eyes are free to like kind of not really be paying much attention, except on the very sort of bare minimum.

So, it’s almost like only 10% of your brain is sort of keeping you physically in the space that you’re supposed to be in. And then the rest of it is just doing some other stuff. And I think that that sort of redistribution of your mental effort and focus and energy is pretty cool. I mean does that happen to you when you’re running?

JESSE: Not unless it’s a route I’ve run many, many things.

BONNIE: Yeah. What if you were running around a track?

JESSE: Maybe. But often when I’m running around a track, the visual thing doesn’t go away, because I have to turn and I’m always thinking about cutting as absolutely close to that white inside line as I possibly can. So, there’s that but it’s just like there is some let go of the visual side when I’m thinking about the rhythm of my breathing versus the cadence of my legs and kind of how that falls and the effort. But it doesn’t back off nearly as much as it does in the pool.

BONNIE: Because you can really fade out in the pool. A part of it I think, it just occurred to me now that it could be because you’re floating. You’re not entirely– [crosstalk]

JESSE: I don’t think there’s as much– Well, I mean, you need your core, but there’s not as much balance involved.

BONNIE: Yeah. And also when you’re running, it’s like you’re constantly getting feedback from the ground. And your body and space that I think that you just really– It’s like, the impact and it’s more– It’s like a harder, I guess– There’s more impact, it’s higher impact.

And so when you’re in the pool because there’s none of that constant like hitting the ground that you are somehow able to remove yourself from your body a little bit more. [??? 17:59] something like that. Like that’s both like I think a metaphorical and also like an actual literal thing of like just, you don’t– you’re not afraid of injuring yourself on some level, I think [??? 18:11] paying as quite as much attention. I don’t know. [crosstalk]

JESSE: Yeah. I know there’s definitely been times where I’ve kind of reached I’ll say a transcendental state but that’s a little over-exaggerating. But just a state where I feel like I’m just motion running. But it happens much more frequently in the pool. And I feel like the best analogy is it’s almost like the difference between trying to meditate in a [??? 18:45] I just forgot what it’s called, one of those pods with the saltwater.

BONNIE: Oh, like those immersion pods?

JESSE: Yes, there we go. It’s like the difference between trying to meditate inside like an immersion pod or next to a jackhammer.

BONNIE: There’s that pounding and high impact. High impact.

JESSE: Yeah. Yeah.

BONNIE: [??? 19:06]

JESSE: The jackhammer’s rhythmic but it’s loud and [??? 19:10].

BONNIE: Yeah, it’s acute in a way that being in a pool, I think it’s also– So, let’s talk about the sound, so not just the sensory, like the physical touch aspect, but like the sound. So, again, being in the pool, there’s a hush and you don’t– it allows you, I think to check out in a way that when you’re running, you can’t really or don’t really– Unless it is blessedly silent or you’re only listening to birds or something.

But usually, you’re running around other people and there’s just cars. And so yeah, I think that what are we saying here? We’re saying that if we want to get to a calm and meditative state you really got to get in the water. You got to get in the pool.

JESSE: Gotta get in the pool.


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