I’m Not Really Running: Flow, Dissociation, and Expertise

The British long-distance runner Paula Radcliffe won last year’s New York City Marathon.  In a later interview, discussing the struggles and pains of running a marathon, Radcliffe said, “When I count to 100 three times, it’s a mile.  It helps me focus on the moment and not think about how many miles I have to go. I concentrate on breathing and striding, and I go within myself.” 

Gina Kolata used that quote in her article, I’m Not Really Running, I’m Not Really Running, which talked about dissociation strategies and peak performances: “The moral of the story? No matter how high you jump, how fast you run or swim, how powerfully you row, you can do better. But sometimes your mind gets in the way.  ‘All maximum performances are actually pseudo-maximum performances,’ Dr. [Bill] Morgan said. ‘You are always capable of doing more than you are doing’.”

Kolata recounts how this applies even to the everyday struggles of training: “Without realizing what I was doing, I dissociated a few months ago, in the middle of a long, fast bike ride. I’d become so tired that I could not hold the pace going up hills. Then I hit upon a method — I focused only on the seat of the rider in front of me and did not look at the hill or what was to come. And I concentrated on my cadence, counting pedal strokes, thinking of nothing else. It worked. Now I know why.  Dr. Morgan, who has worked with hundreds of subelite marathon runners, said every one had a dissociation strategy.”

Besides covering her own experience and having a brief mention of Tibetan monks, Kolata writes about how the brain can affect training and performance: “ ‘Imagine you are out running on a wet, windy, cold Sunday morning,’ said Dr. Timothy Noakes, an exercise physiologist at the University of Cape Town. ‘The conscious brain says, “You know that coffee shop on the corner. That’s where you really should be”.’ And suddenly, you feel tired, it’s time to stop.  ‘There is some fatigue in muscle, I’m not suggesting muscles don’t get fatigued,’ Dr. Noakes said. ‘I’m suggesting that the brain can make the muscles work harder if it wanted to’.” 

Kolata then turns that insight to performance: “Part of a winning strategy is to avoid giving in to lowered expectations, athletes and researchers say. One friend tells me that toward the end of a marathon he tries not to look at people collapsed or limping at the side of the road. If he does, he suddenly realizes how tired he is and just gives up.”

The first thing that I want to note is that Kolata implicitly outlines much that good neuro-ethnography should do: draw on expert interviews and on brain science; use a comparative approach (across individuals, groups and cultures); connect one’s own experience to neuropsychology, activity, and context; use participant observation and interviewing to further examine the interplay between the brain, body, and cultural practices.  This combination represents a robust research strategy, and is one that both Greg and I apply.  It’s about building a consistent picture using different theoretical and methodological approaches, with a focus on everyday life rather than on culture or inequality or psychology or neurology.

The second thing to note is that I ended up asking myself, Is what Kolata describing a dissociation strategy?  Or an involvement strategy, a way of focusing on particular parts of our experience, environment and technique to overcome the significant pain, anxiety and on-going reflection coupled with sport?  Greg has a 2007 article called “Producing Pain: Techniques and Technologies in No-Holds-Barred Fighting” which discusses, among other things, how fighters train themselves to deal with the perception of pain.  He concludes that no-holds-barred fighting is “technically demanding, dependent upon substantial enculturation of athletes’ bodies, and far from instinctual.”  We enculture ourselves—that is a formative part of what training is.

The “dissociation” gloss relies, in part, on the cultural notion that we have one true “self,” one that is active, engaged, dealing with emotions and experiences.  It’s a very Western notion.  A lot of it hinges on notions of “control” and “will.”  As Vaughan at Mind Hacks writes about hypnosis: “it is a form voluntary dissociation guided by suggestion – meaning someone can have the experience of, for example, limb movement without the associated sense of having willed the action.”  That sense of willing an action matters to us, it’s our preferred form of “self work.”  But it is strikingly different from other cultural notions of what the self does.  Self work can also be about renunciation and dissociation, a chosen involvement in other sorts of valued experiences.  Hence Kolata’s mention of the Tibetan monks.

Humans are strange animals.  I remember finishing a hard run once, in massive pain as I sprinted to my mailbox.  Gasping for air, my body throbbing, I said to myself just as I let off, What a good run!  No other creature does that, taking massive pain and turning it to good.  We actively meditate on the meaning of situations, and on the reality of goals in contrast to the on-going subjective experience thrusting itself up from other parts of the brain.  This ability takes us well-beyond any sort of simple pleasure/pain or reward/aversion paradigm.

In writing this piece, I’ve also realized what has bothered me for several years about the concept of “flow,” developed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.  As Wikipedia describes it, “Flow is the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing, characterized by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.”  It strikes me as overly naturalized, as something that is supposed to just happen.  Certainly I’ve had my experiences of “being in the zone,” and I value them.  But it’s not simply because my brain turned on a “flow” switch.

Wikipedia recounts Ayrton Senna’s story after wining the Monaco Grand Prix: “Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my team mate with the same car. And suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel. Not only the tunnel under the hotel but the whole circuit was a tunnel. I was just going and going, more and more and more and more. I was way over the limit but still able to find even more.”

It’s that ending point that matters to me, that he was still able to find even more.  In doing good neuro-ethnography, we often have to get beyond the cultural explanations people provide for their self-experiences, for example, driving “by a kind of instinct.”  We need to get our informants to describe precisely those things we can link to both brain function and activity—such as being in a different dimension, that sense of “more and more and more,” that experience of going over the limits but finding further improvements.

Certainly those things match well with the idea of “flow.”  But as John Cloud wrote recently in Time on The Science of Experience, experience can actually hinder superior performance.  Rather, a suite of three things matter in expert performance: (a) the creation of predictability (when faced with unpredictability, experts don’t do much better than novices); (b) deliberate practice, that “dedicated, slogging, generally solitary exertion — repeatedly practicing the most difficult physical tasks for an athlete, repeatedly performing new and highly intricate computations for a mathematician… the kind of practice we hate, the kind that leads to failure and hair-pulling and fist-pounding”; and (c) regularly obtaining accurate feedback, so that proper attention can be directed towards improvement and to the most relevant parts of the task at hand, whether driving or dealing with end-of-life medical decisions.

Beyond that, I’d add the sort of thing Kolata discusses and Senna references—that sense of involvement, that forgetting or setting aside of the deliberate practice and the regular feedback and the pushing beyond predictability.  How can you sum up those ten or twenty years and put them into one moment?  Well, the brain can, but not if you let your sense of self get in the way.

8 thoughts on “I’m Not Really Running: Flow, Dissociation, and Expertise

  1. Hi, I’m a fan of this blog and I hope to get into this discipline. I also happen to have trained for and ran 3 marathons here in Los Angeles, and I’ve improved each time, the latest one just a few weeks ago, slashing 30 minutes from my previous best, and this was with terrible preparation. By the 8th mile, I already felt like I had an empty stomach.

    Mechanically, I’ve added more arm-pumping and taken shorter but quicker strides, but I didn’t feel any faster till I noticed my time around the 20th mile mark, when barring injury I would be assured a faster finishing time than in previous years.

    Where was my mind for this race?

    My eyes were either on the ground when there wasn’t a crowd, straight ahead if there was, and on mile markers.

    Mentally, I was focused on running itself — I kept telling myself over and over to just keep moving. I had developed psychological confidence in the idea that shorter, quicker strides would make me run faster. So I kept doing that, even when my thigh muscle kept shouting at me.

    A big part of my mental makeup was also keeping the focus on what more I could’ve done as opposed to what I couldn’t do. I didn’t think at all about my limitations, what others were doing, and so I kept one (relatively) fluid pace.

    I had actually wanted to dissociate myself by thinking about the idea of “play” through a neuroanthropoloical perspective , but I find that I never got the chance to think about that. I find that I was just concerned about surviving and maintaining my pace.

    It’s interesting this term “dissociate” — I guess that implies we already think too much about things when we have to perform. It’s true that I have to detach myself from lots of things I think about, but does that mean I have to not think about anything at all? I did think about something, granted it wasn’t the stuff of intellectual heavyweights. For me, I think going through an endurance race is mostly about having a “one-tract”, i.e. specialized-to-the-task mind and thinking about very simple things. (However, on training runs, I do think about many other things and sometimes I have epiphanies).

    I probably did think about too many things in the previous 2 marathons. I looked at all the surroundings, the other runners, I was keeping pace with 2 other runners, I also started to slow up when others started slowing up (around mile 23). Perhaps I would’ve finished faster had I not been as distracted and been keen to my own limitations. This year, I kept the focus simple: what was it that I could do given my experience and ability, and do over and over again? What was it that I could sustain over 26 miles at a reasonable pace.

    Its funny the way I remember these marathons now. This year as with last year, I remember one fluid race. There weren’t these “different parts of a journey” as I thought with my very first marathon where I was slogging through the last 5 miles with cramps. I wonder what the meaning of that is.

    On a side note, I think that running in rainy weather is actually better, at least for me. In fact I did my longest run (23 miles) through a very large downpour. Never felt any better. Of course until about 20 minutes after I finished where I was shivering heavily for about 5 minutes.

  2. Daniel —
    thanks for writing on that piece. Radcliffe’s and Kolata’s comments are both fascinating. I think that there’s too little recognition of the importance of the nervous system in sporting performance outside of some very narrow specialist circles. That is, we tend to think of something like distance running as primarily about muscles and cardio-vascular system. Studies of human exertion, however, find that we rarely get anywhere close to maximum output, no matter how hard we think we’re working. Frankly, in the face of pain, most of us are wimps. Although I’m not sure what to make of them, as I find some of these estimates deeply dubious, some studies, including one by the U.S. military found that people throw in the towel far short of maximum exertion. I’ve seen figures that say we will leave a third of our energy in the tank.

    Again, like I said, I don’t know what to really make of some of these studies. It’s very hard to get people to exert themselves to complete exhaustion for experimental purposes. But the bottom line for me is that we’re severely under-estimating the importance of things like self-control, motivational coaching, psychological preparedness, and other self regulatory neurological tricks — many of them conscious, learned, and even social, depending on other people — if we treat sports as primarily motor and mechanical. Certainly, when you get very close ethnographically to actual athletes, you find that motivation, psychological state, self talk, and these sorts of things are absolutely crucial, but our research agendas and explanatory models don’t always take this into account.

    One simple example is pain itself. How we interpret pain has everything to do with how we will respond to it. What may be a pain worth stopping for, a pain that is too worrying or distracting to one person, may not derail another. Or, in one situation, I might overlook a pain that in another will simply be too much to bear. Not only do we find it in the no-holds-barred fighters I worked with; choking techniques, for example, have more psychological effect on novices than physical effect. The first time someone sinks a choke on you, forget it — you want to quit instantly. The more you train, the more you realize that, although it hurts, a particular choke may not be properly applied, so you’re not in any trouble.

    Another example is a story I read about a Kenyan cross-country runner in Randall Mayes quirky but really wonderful, The Cybernetics of Kenyan Running: Hurry, Hurry Has No Blessing (Carolina Academic Press, 2005). Kenyan runners are great because so many people think of them as ‘natural’ runners, when the Kenyans are under no such illusions. They work REALLY hard. One of them who was training at an NCAA cross-country team was asked how he dealt with the pain of hard training runs. I’m just recalling off the top of my head, so it’s not a direct quote, but he said something like, running cross-country isn’t painful. Getting drug into the forest when you’re 14, having your foreskin cut off, and getting flogged for three days — that’s painful. The point being that his experience of a very painful initiation rite completely re-contextualized, in a very real physiological sense, his later experience of painful running. The runner probably still dissociated, but he also likely didn’t find painful running so stressful.

    Athletes are such a great set of cases to study for this stuff. As our regular readers know, I’m fascinated by the neural dimensions of this. I’ve recently been looking at accounts of the legendary Tarahumara runners from Northern Mexico who would run races over hundreds of miles, some lasting days (like a number of Native American groups in the area), and I’m fascinated by the fact that it was not considered exceptional in these groups. That is, we tend to think of our marathoners as super-humans. The Tarahumara considered it normal to be able to run extremely long distances. That psychological dimension no doubt influenced how they performed in profound ways. Yes, they were turning in slow miles splits, but when you stack a couple of hundred up end-to-end, you’ve got an amazing performance, especially for folks running without real shoes, across rough terrain, with a lousy training diet.

  3. I think what you’re touching upon here is the problem with the dissociation paradigm. For instance, while those who have developed the methods for measuring it clinically & in populations–Putnam, Carlson, Ross–define dissociation broadly as a spectrum from normal (daydreaming) to pathological (DID or MPD, depending on your standard), the Dissociative Experiences Scale (DES) they developed falls short when utilized in “classic” dissociation paradigm. Rebecca Seligman used it a few years ago among Candomble practitioners who we know by definition are dissociating, but they score low on the scale. Another problem is that many things get lumped into the dissociation umbrella, from self-deception to hypnosis to focused meditation, to possession, etc. But again, if you use scales developed to measure the different types in the same population–for instance I have used the Balanced Inventory of Desirability Responsivity, which includes the original Sackheim & Gur self-deception scales, in conjunction with the DES in both college student samples & currently among Pentecostals (speaking in tongues being considered a classic form of dissociation) there is no apparent correlation (though admittedly samples sizes are small in the latter case & I am still sifting thru the data). Finally, Andy Newberg has done brain scans of multiple so-called dissociative transcendent states & they all utilize different pathways. Therefore, the definition of dissociation I use–very liberally–has nothing to do with “true selves,” which is obviously a totally bogus concept. I adapted it from Stanley Krippner’s definition, which was the most anthropological one I can find (& he approved of the modification btw), & conceived of dissociation as partitioning. Think of it like those partitions that form office cubicles that can be moved around into different configurations. Sometimes they are semi-permeable, sometimes just in one direction, sometimes both. Then around the outside of the big partitionable space are permanent offices that are not alterable. This is sort of quick & dirty way to think of dissociation. But the big problem that you’re getting at here is that the concept as used clinically is not all that useful in anthropology. Yet we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as it were, because if we think of dissociation as a psychological concept, utilize d’Aquili & Newberg’s “deafferentation” as the neural corrollary, & the term “trance” as the affective state, we can state to get things into a shape for operationalizing & translating our various studies. Koch & Crick’s neural coalitions of consciousness is a very closely related phenomenon, if not the same thing altogether writ large. Alright, I’m going to start citing my own unpublished papers if I keep going, which would just be obnoxious. Nice blog. Thanks for turning me on, Daniel. I will be reading more for sure…

  4. Pingback: The Marathon |

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