What can psychology do for divers?

Hamira Riaz quote

Like any extreme environment, being underwater has a profound effect on how we behave and think.  Psychology is the study of the mind and behaviour, often described as both an art and a science, it provides insights into why we do what we do.  But what can psychology do for scuba divers?

“There is magic in human behaviour and there is an artistry to understanding it.” 
– Hamira Riaz

How can understanding psychology help us as divers?

1. Preventing panic by understanding our behaviour as divers.

Stress and panic are well-understood by psychologists.   We can use our understanding of stress and behaviour to help divers to prevent panic. 

Panic is associated with a large proportion of deaths in diving, estimated at between 40 and 60%. It is not always possible to be clear to what extent the panic caused the accident, but once a diver begins to panic, their actions become less effective and more dangerous. In a panicked state we do not have conscious control of our behaviour and we act on instinct.  Psychological understanding of behaviour and thinking can indicate ways to prevent this loss of ability to control our actions.  We can do this by identifying known stressors (e.g. fatigue, cold, anxious thoughts, beliefs) and addressing them in advance.  Simple steps to reduce stressors may include: providing information about the dive, adapting the activity or selecting a more appropriate environment.  We also know that improving a diver’s ability to execute skills, through training, is a vital aspect of preventing situations in which panic occurs. 

2. Improving our skills for diving

We can use our understanding of psychology to create the best learning experiences for ourselves and other divers.  The dive training agencies already use concepts from educational psychology to develop courses at all levels.  Instructors are trained to employ techniques that are known to be effective, such as positive reinforcement and praise, reflecting the importance of social interaction in learning. We can also apply psychological techniques in order to maximise performance for example by improving communication and developing effective programmes for development of motor skills. 

“Just like the physical skills, psychological skills need quality practice, with real intent and purpose”

– Matt Jevon in X-Ray mag

3. How the brain works underwater

Most divers learn a little about how being underwater can affect of sight and hearing.  We know that our senses are distorted so that objects can look closer due to refraction and we have difficulty judging the direction of sounds.  What few divers know is that behavioural experiments were performed to understand these phenomena.  Studies of neuropsychological processes help us to understand how memory and thinking are affected underwater too, as well as the longer term effects of diving.  Physics tells us that the colour red is the first to disappear and that is why we use red filters on cameras, but neuropsychology explains why photos taken without a filter look dull compared with our memories of a dive.  (A feature of the visual system called colour constancy essentially means that the brain performs it’s own white balance!)

Observational studies of behaviour have also significantly contributed to our understanding of narcosis.  Understanding how the underwater environment impacts our brains core processes such as thinking and memory can have a significant impact on how we plan and execute dives safely.

In Psychology for Scuba Divers we learn about how the brain works underwater.

4. Increasing safety of diving

Ideas from psychology help us to understand the role of emotion and cognition in what we do.  We know that culture and context has an effect on our behaviour and social processes are extremely powerful in determining how we respond to situations.  This can help individual divers understand their own actions and reactions to situations and lead to safer practices in diving and techniques.  Experts in behaviour can also investigate the human factors involved in diving accidents and incidents: these include perception, attention and awareness, decision-making, attitudes risk and risk-taking behaviour.  We can think about why different people vary in risk-taking and decision making processes  and show how our ability to manage situational awareness has a significant role in being safe and effective divers. 

5. When it does go wrong

We can help people who experienced traumatic accidents in diving; clinical psychologists and behaviour therapists understand psychological trauma and the affect that it has on people.  There is a range of psychological and social approaches to helping someone who is experiencing those effects.  Although not everyone would need therapy, there is useful information available to support divers in understanding their own reactions and making sense of traumatic events.  There has also been some specific research into the social and emotional reactions to diving injuries.  

6. Effective methods for addressing anxiety and other issues

The same techniques that are used in therapies for phobias and anxiety may be helpful for divers experiencing difficulties with skills such as mask-clearing.  For example “graded exposure” involves breaking down skills into small steps, ordering them from easiest to hardest and working through them one step at a time. Many experienced instructors develop informal versions of this approach from watching their students, but we can still benefit from awareness of the deeper psychological processes that are activated. Theories of motivation, human interaction, cognition and emotion can help us to understand what is causing problems for a diver and indicate which strategies will be most helpful.  

7. Promoting and supporting scuba as therapy

Diving is therapeutic.  We are able to leave the stresses of the surface for a while and focus on the essential activities of keeping ourselves alive underwater.  Many divers will describe the meditation and mindfulness aspects of scuba-diving, as well as how learning to dive has changed how they see themselves.  Psychologists can study what makes it beneficial to be a diver and how this can help with particular psychological conditions.  We can see the value of people with particular psychological or physical conditions being supported to access diving and provide information relevant to risk management. We can also apply our understanding of the conditions to creating learning environments that suit the individual.

Finding a way to understand our behaviour as divers is important for our safety and our development as divers.  It is also fascinating!