The "Primitive Brain"


Larry "Harris" Taylor, Ph.D.


This editorial is based on comments made to my scuba students during initial aspects of pool training. This material is copyrighted and all rights retained by the author. This article is made available as a service to the diving community by the author and may be distributed for any non-commercial or Not-For-Profit use.  

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Every one of us has what I call the "primitive brain" (that part of the human nervous system dedicated to our survival). Over the course of time, humans have evolved into thriving land dwelling, air-breathing creatures. As "land critters," all our instincts, reflexes and responses to stress are based not only on our individual accumulated experiences, but also upon the millions of years we have taken as a species to successfully become accustomed to dwelling on land. When we enter the water, visual perception is altered, movement is awkward, we chill, and over-riding all is the feeling deep inside our gut that we are trespassers in a world where we will die without awkward, heavy mechanical contraptions. It is a world where all our accumulated experiences, land-based instincts and survival skills seem inadequate.  

Every time we place our face underwater, our "primitive brain" (which, for the most part, is beyond conscious control) begins sending a "survival alert" to our conscious self. Since our land-based survival instincts are strong, the "primitive brain" shouts things like, 

"I don't breathe water"

"I cannot survive here"

"I am NOT comfortable"

"Get me out of here!"

"If we do NOT find air soon, WE WILL DIE!"

So, as we first take our "primitive brain" underwater, there is apprehension. This is NORMAL (our land based stay-alive instincts are telling us we do not breathe water). Thus, in teaching scuba, we are doing more than imparting a skill or two, we are conducting behavioral modification to educate the student's  "primitive brain" to allow them to play in an environment they cannot breathe. Taken to its extreme, scuba classes are "courses in self." For some, it may be the first ever  "I can do this," type experience.

I often hear, particularly on the Internet, that someone who has "panicked" and bolted to the surface was stupid (or a whole host of other derogatory descriptors). The injured diver did not "escape to the surface" because they were stupid, they moved to the surface because they were human! Their natural, human biology told them that they were in an atmosphere they could NOT breathe and their "primitive brain" driven land-survival instincts said, "Take me to the air I have breathed throughout all of my life!"  The "primitive brain" KNOWS there is air on the surface. It takes much in-water training time for the "primitive brain" to learn that air can be obtained from this mechanical thingy in the mouth. In other words, the "panicked" diver had NOT BEEN ALLOWED the time it takes for humans to learn basic survival skills in an environment hostile to life (you do NOT breathe water!)  So, we should be indicting the training, not the diver, because the diver only acted in a natural fashion as a human being faced with a perceived extreme life-threat.

Our goal in a scuba class is to educate this "primitive brain" so that IT understands that it is not only possible to survive underwater immersion, but that being warm and weightless is a unique, special thrill AND scuba diving is an enjoyable means to obtain this most sensual pleasure. To do this takes time because we are attempting to overcome those land-critter-based "keep-me-alive"  instincts (like "escape to the surface"), which may be contrary to survival in the underwater realm. No human being can overcome these evolutionary derived survival instincts in merely a couple of pool sessions.

The biggest "enemy" for the student in a scuba class is not the water, nor even the instructor. It is the "I can't do this reflex" that originates between the ears of the student. This "I can't do this-it-is-impossible-for-a-land-critter-reflex" is eventually replaced with "Wow! I CAN DO THIS!" and "Wow! This is fun!" This sense of accomplishment is not a trivial thing. It comes from "within" and can only occur with time and ACCOMPLISHMENT!  Single trial learning is generally NOT a successful teaching strategy. Thus, scuba training must involve a series of successful repetitive tasks, each slightly more complex that allow the student to gradually develop a new set of reflexes and skills more appropriate to functioning underwater. Sometimes doing the "impossible" is merely being given an opportunity to try. 

Whenever I hear a scuba instructor say,  "It is too complex a task to teach," I translate this to "I am too greedy to take the time to teach you this skill for the fee paid," or "My training was too superficial. I, myself, cannot do this skill!"

The "primitive brain" is not influenced by shallow praise and market-oriented flattery. Nor does the "primitive brain" understand the color or number of patches worn. The "primitive brain" on its first exposure to scuba does NOT believe "you are a natural."  (Since the "primitive brain" is responsible for individual survival, superficial matters cannot sway it)  The "primitive brain" can only be influenced by the comfort that comes from accomplishment. It is the old stand-by of human behavior that people take pride in things they have earned.  (I.e. the "primitive brain" knows the difference between "earned" and "bought") and it is the "earned" that will keep divers alive when normal human imperfections and the environment combine to create potential life-threat scenarios not encountered in pool training.)

In every basic class I have taught, I see something I define as the "quantum point." (Quantum from the chemical principle that suggests a significant and distinct alteration has occurred) I define this "quantum point" as the first time I see a student leave a pool session with a Cheshire cat grin. Like someone in love, they just "glow." As an instructor, the student's grinning behavior tells me the student feels comfortable, has developed a sense of accomplishment and is beginning to feel a mastery of the environment. In other words, the student's "primitive brain" is beginning to understand the underwater world can be both survivable and enjoyable.

As a biochemist, the Cheshire cat grin suggests to me that the student is dumping endorphins, the body's endogenous opioid, an analgesic and euphoric. It may also suggest the beginning of the appearance of delta fos, a compound which takes weeks to induce, believed to be implicated in compulsive behaviors (the animal model uses compulsive running to study this compound.) 

Ask people who repeatedly participate in activities like aerobics, cycling, rowing, running, spinning, etc. and they will tell you one of the reasons they continue to repeat their activity is because it "makes me feel good" or more often, "I get high!"  The Barefoot Man said it best when he sang, "I get high by going down!"


The level of beta-endorphins has been shown to increase at depth in the plasma levels of experienced divers (i.e. The "diver's high" is real and probably has the same biochemical basis as the "runner's high" or "exerciser's high.") Since this compound is an endogenous analgesic, I believe that the presence of endorphins in the blood is one component to the observation that divers at depth show an increased tolerance to pain.

If we, as scuba educators, seek to increase the level of participation of our students in our sport, over the long term, then we should be seeking a level of student comfort and performance that "let the endorphins flow!" Although I see the quantum point in every student (in every basic class), I have never seen it in less than week eight (2 hours per week) of a fifteen-week program. There is a second quantum point that occurs in open water. This, to me, is the critical one. It is the one that suggests the student's "primitive brain" is comfortable enough in the new environment to want a repeat encounter. I have never seen this second quantum point in less than 100 minutes of in-water bottom time during that first weekend of diving (which is why I want a 200 minute minimum in-water bottom time for certification, typically 250-300 minutes).

The first series of certification open water dives, I believe, is decisive to a new student's life-long participation in our sport. When they leave that open-water certification experience, diving should be a new and wonderful adventure. They SHOULD BE eagerly anticipating their next dive! Unfortunately, in many cases, the student leaves a hurried, harried exercise in survival. So, instead of thinking about their next dive, the student may be looking for the nearest sporting goods store to buy a bicycle or set of golf clubs. 

Over the last two decades, every time there is an economic slump in scuba industry growth, I hear c-card vendors say, "We must increase participation." This is the most commonly used excuse for declining standards and the current drive to lower the age of training. At best, this is "chain-letter thinking" because it only leads to a short, temporary increase in revenue for the c-card vendors and equipment sellers as a new population is targeted for sale. I have seen no evidence to suggest that declining standards decrease the dropout rate. But, by declaring more and more material as "unnecessary" skills or knowledge, declining standards and superficial training create a situation that is further and further away from the "Quantum Point" necessary for the "primitive brain" to feel comfortable.  So, the more we allow declining standards to control our teaching, the less likely we are to create a "comfort zone" acceptable to a newly trained human being.  Declining standards and shorter in-water times needed to certify stand in direct opposition to everything known about inducing long-term behavioral changes. Taken to absurdity, eventually there will be no more standards to remove and the "chain-letter" will terminate. (I have heard some scuba executives say the drop-out rate following basic open water training exceeds 90%.)

Our customers are humans, not merely walking wallets and if the goal truly is to increase long-term participation in our sport, then we must accept that OUR CUSTOMERS ARE HUMAN and address their biology!  The more we decrease our standards, the more difficult we make it for our very human customers to adapt to Planet Ocean to enjoy a lifetime of participation in our sport. I suggest that decreasing the level of skill and knowledge necessary to purchase a scuba c-card has not been in the best long term interests of either the student (diving treatment centers are seeing an increase in injuries initiated by panic caused from a flooded mask ie. something not seen in days of longer training classes) or the diving industry. For you see, uncomfortable "primitive brains" soon take their wallets to other more "comfortable" recreational activities.  


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About The Author: 

Larry "Harris" Taylor, Ph.D. is a biochemist and Diving Safety Coordinator at the University of Michigan. He has authored more than 200 scuba related articles. His personal dive library (See Alert Diver, Mar/Apr, 1997, p. 54) is considered one of the best recreational sources of information In North America.

  Copyright 2001-2024 by Larry "Harris" Taylor

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