Dec. 21st 2022

In this paper by Suraiya Luecke titled “Freediving neurophenomenology and skilled action: an investigation of brain, body, and behaviour through breath”, the author investigates the unique states that freediving induces in the human mind and the connection those have with what is called the Skilled Intentionality Framework, a conceptual framework about our ability to act in complex and changing situations in a way that produces “relevant, effective, and appropriate behaviour”.

Following is my summary of the paper.

In freediving we have to deal with a specific, stressful and unusual set of challenges and conditions.

First and foremost, we operate while not being able to breathe, which in itself creates a stressful environment that we need to manage.

We also have the potential of other conditions which are beyond our control and can vary, like currents, cold water, poor visibility, risk of getting tangled in something, having an unexpected encounter with marine life, and last but not least contractions, hypoxia and the risk of a black out.

These may seem to be (and are) part & parcel of the freediving experience, but if you think that we have to deal with them while holding our breath, it makes it very clear how they can be or suddenly become stressors.

Additionally, our senses operate differently underwater (some become less effective like hearing and sight, others we are robbed of almost entirely, like touch), we are operating in an environment with many times the ambient pressure of the surface and in a three dimensional space in a relative absence of gravity.

It is clear then that freediving as an activity presents us with a series of challenges that are not common to our everyday experience and that we are asked to negotiate in order to have an effective and hopefully pleasant dive.

Getting into the neurophenomenology side of things, here are five hallmarks of the freediving experience:

  • Presense

    Freedivers interviewed for this study all reported experiencing an “unusual state of heightened presence, or situated focus and awareness of the current moment”. There is also an alteration in the perception of time with it “stopping, severely slowing, or even becoming an unintelligible concept”.
    Given the environment being as challenging as described above, one can understand how this level of focus and loss of true perception of time is all but demanded of us.

  • Perception

    Our perception of everything changes in our lives based on our motivations, needs, and desires, for instance we perceive fish differently as a freediver than as a spearfisher.
    But more specifically, we seem to have a sense of heightened interoception and exteroception.

    Interoception refers to our ability to sense the internal state of our body, the smallest changes in our physiological condition like muscle tension, heart rate, lung volume, ear pressure, soft palate, tongue and vocal fold posture and contractions.
    Exteroception means the perception of stimuli originating outside our body. While freediving, we are hyper focused, extremely aware of our surroundings and able to perceive minute details, like the subtle movements and sounds of fish, a thermocline etc. Here too the inability to breathe plays a crucial role to heighten our senses.

    It is also possible that Intra-Cranial Pressure is modulated rhythmically by the heart which may cause the above mentioned hallmarks of heightened focus.

  • Reflection

    There is a differentiation between reflective and pre-reflective awareness. “In reflective awareness, a given aspect of experience is reflected upon and thereby objectified – for example, when one assesses one’s actions to determine whether they are appropriate to a certain situation. In pre-reflective awareness, on the other hand, a given aspect of experience is ‘lived through as the subject of awareness, without any process of reflection on itself’ ”.

    In our case, reflective awareness would come into play after we finish the dive when we assess all the recorded information and our movements to see what might have gone wrong and how. Pre-reflective awareness could be interpreted as “being in the moment” during the dive, a feeling of being “choicelessly aware” if you will.

  • Decision making

    Our decision making process in freediving is very different to that we use on land. Although we are in an ever shifting environment and each dive is different than the one before it - something that should in theory pose a heavy cognitive load on us - it appears that very little effort is used to make the decisions we need to make while diving. We do this in a “fast, automatic and reactionary way, while still remaining flexible, adaptive and context-sensitive”, which is characteristic of a pre-reflective, intuitive awareness. There is also no anticipation involved in our decision making during a dive, as opposed to right before it (planning what to do during the dive for instance or which cave to explore), there is an absence of “active” thought.

  • Emotion

    In some ways, during a dive our emotions undergo a quieting down, we have a more restricted range and they manifest to a lesser degree. We are aware that we seek and need to maintain a f eeling of peace and calm so what other emotions do occur, do so in a much more subdued way than they would on land and for a much shorter time interval. We also actively try to - during our breathe up while performing slow diaphragmatic breaths - regulate and “shed” any other emotion that is non conducive to the dive. During the dive itself, and especially if something goes wrong and we have a sudden burst of a negative or extraneous emotion, we are able to quickly regulate and suppress it, perhaps because we rationally understand how detrimental this can be to our survival.

The Skilled Intentionality Framework

To repeat and expound on the SIF, it is a “conceptual framework which brings together insights from ecological psychology, emotion psychology, phenomenology, physiology, neurodynamics, and complexity sciences in order to investigate cognition in skilled action”. Specifically in this context then, “skilled action” refers to our ability to “act in such ways that we are able, amidst complex and changing environments, to produce relevant, effective, and appropriate behaviour - behaviour which maintains survival while simultaneously addressing desires, needs and interests”.

Following are some key concepts of this framework.

“Affordances” in the context of the SIF are possibilities for action in an environment which are informed by our current needs, desires, skills and abilities, therefore it is a dynamic field. Appropriate affordance responsiveness therefore is crucial for us to act skilfully. Skilled action then is “the selective engagement with multiple affordances simultaneously in a concrete situation”.

Action-readiness is a key component of appropriate affordance responsiveness and refers to a bodily state of readiness for a specific action. If for instance I get tangled on the line, I have several action-readiness patterns available to me (panic, turn and ascend, stop and figure out the problem etc), only some of which are relevant and effective (panicking for instance is not) to ensure our survival and it is up to me to self-organise these and decide on the one that is most beneficial.

But in order for us to make this decision, we need to attune our internal conditions to the relevant external conditions by being open to changes and thus able to act flexibly, depending on the shifting demands of each situation. This relative equilibrium is called a metastable zone and should be our goal if we want to perform optimally.

Freediving is “an interesting case of skilled action because freedivers carry out complex, challenging tasks, with many interdependent features and conditions (physiological, psychological, and environmental) that dictate the success or failure of each particular action in each particular situation.

Thus freediving represents a unique “ultra-flexible” state, a “pinnacle example of SIF’s metastable zone”, especially since the choices we make are geared not just towards success or failure at a task but are life or death. It requires an optimal and truly exceptional balancing, or attunement, of crucial internal and external conditions.

Key features of this ultra-flexible state are amplified openness to change, restricted temporal depth of relevance and highly unconstrained action-readiness.

An amplified openness to change is observed in freedivers’ heightened perception, something that is also “prepared” during the breathe-up, when we turn our attention inwardly.

Furthermore, feeling during the dive that we are “in the moment”, acutely present, represents a restricted temporal depth of relevance, we focus solely on what matters for us to complete this task effectively and lose track of other senses (time, for instance) and stimuli.

Our rapid decision making in the context of diving is an example of a highly unconstrained action-readiness, meaning we are maximally flexible to take quick action, not anticipating or planning these actions (any anticipation would anyway constrain this flexibility). This also pertains to emotions, in that freedivers have control over their emotions, knowing that strong emotions would constrain action-readiness during a dive.

One area where freediving and the SI Framework diverge is anticipation, it being a key tenet of skilled action in SIF but something that freedivers lack during the dive. This is where the framework can learn from freediving and reassess in some ways crucial concepts to be explored. Perhaps anticipation is not as key for skilled action as a task specific constraint of action-readiness.

In conclusion, this interesting paper gives us some more insight into what happens when we freedive (a unique neurophysical state) and frames our actions and decision making with regard to the Skilled Intentionality Framework. These two sides can mutually inform each other and learn and grow together to produce a refinement of the SIF.

To read the full paper, please visit this link.

Thank you for your time reading this brief summary of the paper, I hope you enjoyed and found it as interesting as I did.