Saturday, October 25, 2014

[book] The Rise of Superman

The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler is mostly about extreme sports — the people behind really crazy activities like kayaking off a 56.7 meter waterfall or snowboarding off impossibly-high cliffs). If that part interests you, then you’ll hear insider accounts of the various legends you already know about. I’m not an extreme sport-watcher, but I came away with new respect for the people who do that stuff: they’re the modern day equivalents of great explorers past, like Magellan or Pizzaro

But the interesting part to me was the discussion of “flow", the mental state achieved by these people and by anyone working at peak performance.  Flow, also known as “being in the zone” or in religious contexts something like satori or enlightenment, is a place where every ounce of your being is fully alive, where you are “acting on all cylinders” and being the best you can be. Kotler dissects this state with scientists like Keith Sawyer and many others, including neuroscientists who study the phenomenon and divide it into these stages:

  • Struggle: trying to amp up and get a handle on problem, focusing with all your might. Very nerve-wracking here.
  • Release: the ‘aha’ moment
  • Zone: now you’re in pure perfection
  • Recovery: consolidate memories 

And these neurochemicals:

  • dopamine (pleasure producer like cocaine)
  • norepinephrine (like speed)
  • endorphins (opiates more powerful than morphine)
  • anandamide (“bliss”, inhibits ability to feel fear)
  • serotonin (helps cope with distress)
 Flow is about focus and concentration, and it happens in groups too. Here are some of the key characteristics:
  • serious concentration
  • shared, clear goals
  • good communication (immediate feedback)
  • equal participation
  • element of risk
  • familiarity: the group has a common knowledge base
  • blending egos
  • sense of control
  • close listening
  • always say yes
There’s obviously much more to say about Flow, but I found many of the lessons were buried in anecdotes about extreme heroes, who if that’s your thing will be more interesting to you than it was to me. Still, I definitely want to learn more, especially about some of the Quantified Self devices mentioned, like BrainSport from SenseLabs (formerly Neurotopia) and of course the Flow Genome Project.

Interestingly, Kotler is also co-author with Singularity University and X-Prize Peter Diamondis of Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, a book I’ll have to add to my reading list.