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Living the Extraordinary Life — What We Can Learn From Super-Performers, Extraordinary Feats, and The State of Flow


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In his book Flow, Csikszentmihalyi writes, “However unimportant an athletic goal may appear to the outsider, it becomes a serious affair when performed with the intent of demonstrating perfection of a skill” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2008). 

 

Flow asks us to rise to the challenge of recognizing our greatest capacities be they athletic, artistic, or scholarly in nature. And the true joy of flow lies in surpassing our limits. We don’t have to be imbued with Olympian talents or skills either. We simply have to set a goal where our perception of our abilities meets our perception of the challenge, find ways to measure our progress, immerse ourselves in the task, and raise the stakes if we become bored. An activity as simple as cleaning the garage can be turned into an extraordinary feat if we are so inclined.

 

Because unlike other tasks that require our skills, flow is a precipice state: one where the tenuous balance depends on the refinement of our skills. If we fall below the level of challenge required, we become bored, and if we set the challenge meter too high, we are overwhelmed. It is the relationship to challenge that creates the extraordinary.

 

In the state of flow, we don’t just recognize and meet challenges, we develop a fascination with them. People in flow consistently report being so enthralled in the challenge that it leads to a state of euphoria, much like religious ecstasy.

 

Kotler recounts the experience of Danny Way, considered by many to be the greatest skateboarder of all time, and the first man to jump the Great Wall of China on a skateboard: “Skateboarding is a game of failure. That’s what makes this sport so different. Skaters are willing to take a great deal of physical punishment. We’ll try something endlessly, weeks on end, painful failure after painful failure. But for me, when it finally snaps together, when I’m really pushing the edge and skating beyond my abilities, there’s a zone I get into. Everything goes silent. Time slows down. My peripheral vision fades away. It’s the most peaceful state of mind I’ve ever known. I’ll take all the failures. As long as I know that feeling is coming, that’s enough to keep going.” (Kotler, 2014).

 

It is only by pushing through our failures that we also push through our limits. And in the state of flow – when enthralled with the expectation that one can reach levels of performance no longer achieved before – pushing oneself becomes automatic. Dr. Jean Hamilton, who began her research on visual perception and corticol activation patterns demonstrated support for this. Dr. Hamilton asked subjects who did and did not report high levels of flow experiences to pay attention to flashes of lights or tones, while she measured their corticol activation in response to the stimuli.

 

While the corticol activation of the subjects who reported lower levels of flow increased when responding to the stimuli as expected, the corticol activation of the subjects who reported higher levels of flow decreased when concentrating on the stimuli. While concentrating usually demands more of our energy, when in flow the opposite is true: it takes less effort to pay attention.

 

This effortless, euphoric state is consistently reported when two very important factors coalesce: we recognize our limits, and we face challenges that demand that we surpass them. This state, according to Csikszentmihalyi, is so intoxicating because it is the highest form of mastery – mastery over the self. This is also what philosophers Heidegger, Satre, and Merleau-Ponty call the project, which is the term for goal directed actions that provide shape and meaning to our lives. We are, in many ways, our own project, and gaining control of our inner experience in this way means that we are no longer a bystander to our experience but an active participant, determining the content of our lives. And it is here that we become mesmerized not just with the challenges we face, but the possibility they offer – to achieve something we never before thought possible.

 

Realizing you can jump the Great Wall on a skateboard is quite likely to get your heart beating, yet there is a very compelling neurophysiological explanation for just why the state of flow makes us feel so good. In a randomized, controlled study of 6,807 subjects, researchers from the University of Georgia demonstrated that after performing an exercise program that challenged them, marked increases in the levels of energy-promoting and mood-enhancing neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin were found in the brains.

 

And this is a very consistent effect – as one researcher noted, “It has been demonstrated in more than ninety percent of similar studies” – with a very powerful outcome: reduced fatigue. The act of developing and cultivating our skills to overcome challenges, in fact, was a stronger deterrent of fatigue than the narcolepsy drug modafinil (O’Connor, et.al, 2006).

 

While many have compared the euphoric state we feel when in flow with a drug high, it may be even more powerful. Multiple studies have shown that both running and drug use activate the brain’s reward system, yet a 2013 study demonstrated that rats given access to running wheels showed a reduction in drug-seeking behavior, meaning that they were less likely to press a lever to request a dose of methamphetamine after the drug had been withdrawn (Sobeiraj, et. al., 2014).

 

Looking further into just why running – which results in muscle fatigue (and arguably pain induced by muscle fatigue) – would be preferable to a drug that should produce just the opposite – a pain free state – researchers found their answer in neurons of the brain. The periaqueductal grey (PAG) is a small area of the brain associated with pain sensing, and when we feel pain, it is the first area of the brain to become activated. But activation of the PAG also depends on the number of dopamine neurons the PAG has – the less dopamine neurons available to detect pain, the less pain we feel. And when we run, the number of dopamine neurons in the periaqueductal grey (PAG) decreases, which might explain why running makes us feel so good – because we feel less pain (Boeker, et. al., 2006).

 

If this sounds like an epigenetic effect, it should. (Epigenetic changes are those that lead to phenotypic changes in the way genes are expressed). Because the difference between a drug-induced euphoria and the one we feel when in the state of flow is that a drug high is temporary – with a nasty comedown. Flow, on the other hand, causes long lasting neurological changes that lead to enduring changes in our mood, perception of pain, concentration, focus, and mastery. It is this upward spiral (what is also known as helical growth) that flow puts mastery on overdrive. And the potent euphoric cocktail that flow offers is the recipe to realizing our greatest potential.

 

It has been said many times that it is better to teach a man how to fish than to give him a fish. Flow teaches us how to fish. And when it comes to extraordinary feats, flow teaches us that we just might catch some pretty big fish.

 

References:

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, Harper Perennial Modern Classics.

Kotler, S. (2014). The Rise of Superhuman; Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance. New York, New Harvest Books.

O’Conner, et. al., (2006). Regular Exercise Plays A Consistent And Significant Role In Reducing Fatigue. ScienceDaily, 8 November 2006.

Sobieraj, J., Kim, A., Fannon, M., Mandyam, C. (2014). Chronic wheel running-induced reduction of extinction and reinstatement of methamphetamine seeking in methamphetamine dependent rats is associated with reduced number of periaqueductal gray dopamine neurons. Brain Structure and Function, 2014

Boeker, et.al. (2008). Runners’ High Demonstrated: Brain Imaging Shows Release Of Endorphins In Brain. ScienceDaily, 6 March 2008.

Photo by Broo_am (Andy B)

Living the Extraordinary Life — What We Can Learn From Super-Performers, Extraordinary Feats, and The State of Flow


Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT

Claire Dorotik-Nana LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in post-traumatic growth, leveraging adversity, and other epic human achievements. Claire has written multiple continuing education courses for Professional Development Resources, Zur Institute, and International Sport Science Association. Claire has also authored multiple books, including:
Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards and On The Back Of A Horse: Harnessing The Healing Power Of The Human-Equine Bond. For more information about Leveraging Adversity or Claire, visit www.leverageadversity.net


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APA Reference
Dorotik-Nana, C. (2017). Living the Extraordinary Life — What We Can Learn From Super-Performers, Extraordinary Feats, and The State of Flow. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 21, 2020, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/leveraging-adversity/2017/02/living-the-extraordinary-life-what-we-can-learn-from-super-performers-extraordinary-feats-and-the-state-of-flow/

 

Last updated: 23 Feb 2017
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