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Performing at our best is not always easy to replicate. But why? if we can do it once, surely our body has the neurological means to do it again.
Contrary to popular belief, in our most optimal state of functioning, we do not increase our higher order cognitive executive processes such as abstract thinking and self-reflective consciousness. Instead, we relegate them to the bench. As the aged old saying goes...
“Less is more.”
Take, for example, the physiology of an expert athlete compared to a beginner athlete. An expert athlete utilises less muscles and expends much less energy per standard movement than that of a beginner.
Look at Roger Federer, arguably the greatest tennis player of all time, he moves around the court with such grace, but more importantly, efficiency. Compared to many of his opponents he appears to move more effortlessly and fluidly, as if he has had more time or opportunity to anticipate than others.
During our optimal state of functioning, this externalised efficiency is mirrored in the function of our brain. Like I said, we do not increase our higher cognitive processes but rather regulate what we need to use in order to be more efficient. Any unnecessary movements or thoughts are cut out in exchange for optimal functionality.
"That’s why the Flow experience is tied to the implicit system (Fast system), because it’s exactly that smooth integration in real time of very complex motor patterns that cannot possibly be driven by the explicit system (Slow system), so it has to be driven by the implicit system." - Arne Dietrich, neuroscientist on consciousness and flow
Dietrich's work revolves around the theory of transient hypofrontality. A theory that posits we have two operating systems in the brain. A fast (hot) implicit operating cognition, linked to animalistic behaviour and movement. And a slow (cold) explicit cognitive system that we have developed over millenia and allows us executive function such as thinking reflexively, or the ability to analyse the theories or the meaning of life. Transient hypofrontality referes to a transient (momentary) hypo (reduction) of the our frontal regions (thinking brain or slow cognition). It suggests that we have a temporary down-regulation of the slow system to allow more room for the fast system. It shifts the balance from predominantly slow (cold/explicit) system usage—which ordinarily manages most of our experiences—to applying ourselves in the moment through fast system processes. The slow and energy-expensive explicit system is swapped for the fast and more efficient implicit processing, which is why our greatest performances feel relatively easy, or easier than normal.
“Flow emerges from a radical alteration in normal brain function...It’s an efficiency exchange. We’re trading energy usually used for higher cognitive functions for heightened attention and awareness. This is one of the main reasons Flow feels flowy — because any brain structure that would hamper rapid-fire decision-making is literally shut off”. - Arne Dietrich
Lauri Jarvilehto, a researcher at the Helsinki Academy of Philosophy, similarly argues that it is exactly this inhibition of the slow, explicit system that allows our intuition to take centre stage in flow. Instead of the barrage of reflexive thinking from our inner critic consuming our experience, we can allow our intuition to guide our behaviour. This facilitates an effortlessness or 'flowy' sensation in our actions. Action and awareness merge as there are no barriers in between your intuition and your actions.
You may have felt this when skiing down a mountain, cycling at full speed, or driving a racing car. During ‘normal’ high speeds your experience is still conscious and typically feels effortful or strained with the pressure to remain in control. This is reflected neuroscientifically as our slow cognition wrestles to manage the high demands of the task.
It is when we push further, however, when we start to go so fast that this struggle actually disappears. Your slow cognitive system can no longer handle the demand and your fast system is required to step in. The slow system is simply not equipped to handle these situations.
We zip down the mountain, through the trees on our bike, or through a chicane at 8000rpm, almost out of control, yet feeling more in control as the strained effort from your slow system evaporates.
It is precisely this more urgent and dangerous situation which calls for our intuitive decision making and action to take over. We have no choice.
These situations have no need for the cognitive complexity of the slow system. It simply slows us down too much. Not only do we not need it, more often than not thinking about our actions tend to mess up our performance entirely.
“Powering up your explicit system (Slow system) and pondering the meaning of life when you are being chased by a grizzly bear is not something that will help you contribute further to the gene pool! Optimal performance of a real-time sensorimotor integration task is associated with maximal implictness (Fast system) of its execution” - Arne Dietrich
This premise, that the regulation of our slow cognition leaves room for our fast system to engineer our greater performances is why Marily Oppezzo, from the Stanford Prevention Research Center, found that participants who walked on a treadmill were more creative than those sitting down. This is because our fast system is inextricably linked with our motor cortex. Any form of movement automatically activates our fast system to varying degrees. This is also why studies examining the use of alcohol to inhibit our cognitive functions found that moderate levels of inebriation was actually helpful to performance on insight-based creative tasks. Furthermore, it is why in incubation experiments where participants who use a secondary task to distract themselves from the primary task have improved problem-solving ability and execution of physical skill once they revert back to the primary task alone. This is the premise of the MacGyver technique, a successful and widely adopted technique in which distracting oneself (by taking a shower or going for a walk) can help increase creative decision making once returning to the task.
When the conscious mind is diverted, our fast system can get on with doing what it does best. As Einstein states quoted decades ago,
“The intellect has little to do on the road to discovery. There comes a leap in consciousness, call it Intuition or what you will, the solution comes to you and you don't know how or why.”
Although, with modern neuroscientific technology and evolving research, we are starting to know why, and how.
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