The epic clash between Enzo Maiorca and Jacques Mayol, besides having brought to the fore the sport of freediving in the 70’s, is a symbol of the revenge of the mind over the body. Enzo Maiorca, a courageous 7.9-liter lung capacity giant, defeated by Jacque Mayol, a man with ordinary physical skills, a physiology student who practices meditation
From Mayol onwards, every respectable freediver has in his profile at least one photo that portrays him on a rock, lost in the deepest meditation. Putting the imagery aside for a moment, what are the reasons that make meditation so effective in the practice of apnea?The brain is the organ of the body that consumes more energy: while constituting only 2% of the body mass. it consumes 25% of all the oxygen we breathe, and, at rest, 10 times more than any other organ in our body.
Every time we let in thoughts and emotions that generate anxiety, stress, anger, or fear, the brain activity intensifies, and we burn a part of that patrimony of oxygen that sustains the duration of our apneas and turns them into pure wellbeing. The main responsible for this unexpected consumption is the amygdala, a structure situated within the limbic system, the brain area accountable for the "fight or flight” response. The amygdala plays a key role in emotional processes, but it is also involved in the process of developing awareness and levels of attention. The most important function of the amygdala is the ability “to shape the process of selecting information, to tag input stimuli" and assign them a positive or negative value. (Evolution, adaptation, physiology by Fabio Sinibaldi).
When something threatens our balance, even before the mind elaborates awareness of the threat, the amygdala floods the brain with chemicals, and prepares the body for action, for the "fight or flight” response. The activation of these circuits has numerous implications, but we are particularly interested in two of these:
- It consumes a lot of oxygen.
- It is more powerful than the circuits of rationality: we often do things, for better or for worse, because we feel that it is right, even if rationally we know it is not.
Three examples to make this concept clearer: two taken from our discipline, and one from Simon Sinek's best seller ‘Start with Why’:
- Although accustomed to the depth, some fishermen have recounted of not being able to save their fishing partner in difficulty because of the inability to reach him on the bottom: "After three meters I needed to go back up to get some air… ”
- Many freedivers, who record amazing performances in dynamics and static apnea, cannot get through the 30m wall when they try their hand at depth; "I'm not in shape today, I have very short apneas.”
- Brand loyalty, a hard word that expresses the special relationship that people create with some brands, even when their products and services are not rationally the best, or, for the same function, the cheapest (eg. Apple):"The limbic system is so powerful that sometimes determines behaviors in stark contrast with the rational and analytical component of our decisions, and we often rely on the belly even when this leads us to make decisions that contradict any evidence “
Meditation, if practiced regularly, in addition to guaranteeing greater wellbeing, is a great ally for freedivers for it is capable of changing the size of important areas of the brain, those areas that help us to optimize the consumption of oxygen.
Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist researcher, recruited a group of people who meditated for an average of 30-40 minutes a day and scanned their brains. Then compared them with those of a group with the same characteristics, who did not practice any kind of meditation, so she could verify that meditation leads to:
- the increase of grey matter in the areas dedicated to learning, to memory, to the regulation of emotions, to empathy, to compassion.
- the decrease of grey matter in the amygdala, which manages emotions, and in particular fear.
Try asking a deepdiver what happens when a negative thought occurs in the middle of a dive!!