Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Fanning Phenomenon

The images of surfer Mick Fanning being attacked by a shark late last year were a stark reminder that, despite our dubious skill of dominating other species, there are some environments in which we are potentially very fragile. You may remember that Fanning was competing in a surfing competition and was waiting for a wave, when out of the blue (pun intended) a shark appeared and clearly wanted to see how tasty a morsel it had found floating about in its domain. It’s not quite clear why Mick Fanning didn’t end up on the lunch menu but such is the luck of the drawer.

I’m a surfer, not a very good one and, these days, not that frequently either as age interferes with agility, the chances that I would survive if my leg rope broke and increasing risk aversion. But I do like to get out in a nice, slow wave every now again and feel the better for it. I spoke to a few surfers and friends about the Fanning incident to see whether or not they had had the same reaction to me and found a fairly universal response. From a psychological point of view it is quite interesting and may have broader implications. I’ve called it the Fanning Phenomenon.

Surfers will freely talk about the risk of sharks and tend to do so in a matter of fact sort of way. They’re there all the time, it’s their domain, the odds are low and you can always get out of the water if you see one. This doesn’t seem to change much even if one has been sighted and people still surf even if there has been a recent attack. Mind you, it is worth noting that many surfers are male and under the age of 30 and, therefore, have a mal-functioning ‘Executive Centre’ in their frontal lobe that effectively evaluates risk and make sound judgements about their behaviour. Hence, car insurance is much more expensive for the under 25-year old male than it is for anyone else. And also results in young ‘celebrity’ males becoming fodder for the media when they get up to their anti-social antics.

Many women I speak to reckon that men of any age never get this part of their brain to function and lack sound social judgement most of their lives. I suspect this is a bit harsh but I digress.

What the Mick Fanning attack did was to bring to life what was hitherto conjecture, belief, an idea. It took what was knowledge and turned it into understanding. As a friend of mine said, it was like instantly making the link between theory and practice. Some surfers apparently gave up surfing and many told me that they are much more aware. I certainly have been.

The Fanning Phenomenon reminds us that there is nothing greater than real understanding if we are to get our heads around a problem, an idea, an innovation, something new, or any alien situation for that matter. I was a therapist for many years in my role as a psychologist. Having personally experienced intense grief and then anxiety first-hand early in my life, I think I was better equipped to help people with similar problems. Being married meant I understood some of the nuances of this type of relationship. I never felt I could fully help women who had been sexually abused, apart from the fact there is an interesting transference that can interfere with therapy in any case. Recently, I experienced a significant dysphoria for a while. I wouldn’t call it depression but it was close. My understanding of this problem is now enhanced.

I’m not saying that we can’t help people if we haven’t experience what they have experienced and that empathy is impossible. I have helped many people whose experience was alien to me. But my experiences have certainly enhanced my understanding of others. When I meet people whose experience is outside my own I take special care to dig deeper. I read and talk to others. I suspend premature conclusions and ideas of what to do. I am much more contemplative.

The Fanning Phenomenon can be applied to all sorts of situations. Politics, for example. Before politicians pass legislation on something like disability services, aging, or any other area of under privilege, and they come from wealthy backgrounds (as many do) then they need to take deeper soundings of the implications of what they propose.

I’m sure you can think of many ways in which the Fanning Phenomenon can be applied, so I won’t labour the point.

Just keep an eye on the surf when you are on your board next time but don’t let sharks keep you out of the water.


  1. I was impressed with how ingrained Mick's media training was during the attack. Where one could imagine an involuntary profanity coming out of his mouth ("Holy $%@#" or the F' Bomb), all that came out was a very controlled,and not that loud "Oh my gawd". A lot of interesting media/online discussion about whether he was "attacked" or chomper just got snagged on his leash (and reacted like a bear in a trap)....we can only ask the shark I guess....but I digress...

    Do agree with the Fannning Phenomenon. If I had a shrink, he/she would have to surf given it is the source of so much joy and inverted the Billabong mantra goes (went?): Only a surfer knows the feeling....

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