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.