Flow. Losing The Illusion Of Self.

By Matt George

I've written recently about fear.  A tough topic that's as subjective as it gets.  Hard to write about too, like the vast majority of knowledge, most of what I write about is plagiarized from the world.  My experiences are related to the successes and failures of others, I learn techniques from others that I then experience or I'll read something that may not pertain to mountain biking but it relates to something in the mountain biking stratosphere and again, I use their thoughts in my own way.  I may be writing about a topic but, I could hardly claim to be the true originator of my own thoughts, that's how humanity works.  That being said, it's very difficult to find any thoughts at all about fear in the mountain bike world.  Mostly just platitudes that say the same oversimplified things.  This subject will be more of the same in the sense that most information related to flow in action sports is rooted in platitudes and pseudo-spirituality.  My article about fear was short, meant to start a conversation more than complete one.  For this subject, however, let's turn to the world of neuroscience and modern philosophy and see if we can make some sense of a word that we all know but, have likely not stared at the mechanics, delve a bit deeper.  Maybe a more thorough understanding of an ambiguous word will help us find more of it.

Nick Mardi

Nick Mardi

The technical definition of flow is, according to Steven Kotler, author and co-founder of The Flow Genome Project; an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.  Simple right?  Don't we wish.  That feeling of total absorption, focused entirely on the current task.  Absorbed with this section of the trail or this specific rock garden like it's a raging monster in our midst, no outside thoughts.  No I, me or self.  An experience without a process.  Flow.  Experiencing this "flow state" is a huge win in life, be it on a mountain bike trail or achieving a runners high, instinctively killing it in a job interview or experiencing a dopamine type high with a lover.  But what actually is it, outside of the subjective, and how do we attempt to manipulate it to the positive?

Let's dive into the science of this romanticized mind state.  We learn again from Steven Kolter that underneath the veil of flow is a complicated mass of neuro-biology, most importantly there are tangible, testable neuro-anatomical changes in the brain.  In other words, we can see the flow state happening in peoples brains.  The word(s) for this is Transient Hypofrontality, meaning temporary slowing of the activity of the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls our perception of time, self, self consciousness, sense of morality, personal will and most higher cognitive functions.  This part of the brain, in short, controls the parts of you that worry, criticize, rationalize and generally overthink everything about you and what you may be doing.  This is the area that determines whether 2 minutes seem to last 2 hours or if 3 hours flies by in 3 minutes.   

Grant Shoemaker

Grant Shoemaker

Research on flow actually began in the 1870's.  Transient Hypofrontality, the neurological component of flow, wasn't actually seen as a good thing at first.  When this phenomenon was first noticed it was associated with schizophrenia, criminality, drug addition and deviant behavior.  Dr. Charles Limb, a Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon and neuroscientist, started studying flow in jazz musicians and eventually rappers.  He noted that the prefrontal cortex was shutting down in these artists.  They we're losing their sense of self and in turn the defeatist inner voices.  Creativity and risk taking increased.  It's become widely accepted in the field of neuroscience that the effect of transient hypofrontality is at least scientifically the cause of most mental states, including the one with self feeling in meditation, profound religious experience, flow state, and most cases of enhanced consciousness.  Maybe the common Sunday phrase in mountain biking " I'm going to dirt church" has more meaning than we give it credit for.

Jen Kates

Jen Kates

I've addressed how I feel that fear and flow are related.  Fear is a self absorbed emotion, the feeling of I, me and self are required for fear to exist.  Flow would be the prefrontal cortex slowing to the point that the self isn't different from the moment, you are the moment, not an observer of the moment.  No perceived self, no fear.  Dr. Sam Harris, a Stanford neuroscientist, prominent AI researcher and author digs his proverbial tires into the dusty, ambiguous world of self with a level of thoughtfulness that few others can achieve.  Harris's quote is certainly something to think about (or not) and is the best thorough explanation of "Don't overthink it!" that I can imagine.

"The illusion of self. An I, a thinker of thoughts. An experiencer in addition to the experience. The sense that we all have of riding around inside our heads as a kind of passenger in the vehicle of the body... Now that sense of being a subject, a locus of consciousness inside the head is an illusion. It makes no neural-anatomical sense. There's no place in the brain for your ego to be hiding."  - Dr. Sam Harris
Matt George

Matt George

Thoughts about the nature of consciousness are irreducibly subjective.  You're likely to disagree with some of my findings.  Maybe you take issue with the self being an illusion to some point and the supposition that flow is a reduction of the self, the critical inner voice that separates us from the experience.  That's fine.  We get back to that subjective thing again.  What isn't subjective is that flow is real.  Clinical, testable and tangible.  We haven't been making it up and it's not merely a metaphysical mind game.  This means we can manipulate it, improve it and increase it.

Brett Wilson

Brett Wilson

There's much more to consciousness than the tangible.  The methods of increasing flow will be personal to you, maybe it's simply the suppression of fear, it could for you be the act of self transcendence (losing ones sense of self) noted by mystics and neuroscientists alike or simply not overthinking it.  I personally tend to find my flow after climbing, jumping right out of a truck or off a lift leaves me initially cold and not riding my best. The warm up, mentally and physically tends to turn on the flow switch.  See some quotes below from the FRMB Facebook group regarding their initial thoughts on flow.  Also, be sure to visit our friends at COMBA, Giddyup and COPMOBA to help them, help us get our flow on the amazing trails pictured in this article. 

Check out the links to the authors / neuro-scientists linked in the paragraphs above for more info about flow, mind states and the self.  I've basically created a mixture of their thoughts and research with my own experiences in mountain biking to try to create a palpable version of how this intense research might correlate to our sport.  There's a wealth of knowledge out there and a giant pile of weird to go with it!  Good luck and may the flow be with you!   

Ben Buchner

Ben Buchner

"No matter what else is going on in your life the only thing that matters is the trail in front you. It's not even a choice to not think. You just have to commit to riding whatever comes. Then when its over, you can't hardly believe it happened. That's flow." - Doug Jones
"For me, it is the epitome of being present, the absence of thought." - Sandra Marticio
"Flow trails are the opposite of flow for me I like to be problem solving technical routes without thinking, just running on instinct. That problem solving seems to make me feel like I'm in a more natural state of mind like more raw more in touch with instinct."
 - Gregory Justin Smith
"Absence of effort, presence of enjoyment." - David Trotter
"Flow is being present in the moment. It's my Zen-like state, when the only thing I'm focused on is what I'm doing at that very moment (which is usually trying not to crash into a tree or boulder).   Also, I find time slows down when I'm in a state of flow. Outside of mountain biking, when I'm accomplishing several tasks for my new clients during a span of time, I find that time doesn't feel like it's rushing by from me -- it's just going nice and smoothly. This is actually known to be a side effect of "being present in the moment"/having flow, especially in the Buddhist and psychological realm." - Jen Kates
"For me, it is achieving that balance between terrain, technique and mental state where it feels like an out of body experience - everything is so smooth and perfect that it feels like you are watching a master class through someone else’s eyes." - Roger N. Denver
"Steeze is flow, flow is steeze, without steeze you ain’t got no flow, without flow you ain’t got no steeze." - Ben Buchner
"Be sure to talk about eeg measures alpha waves!" - Kyle Rothfork
"Flow is funny with mountain biking some of my best sends have been sight unseen - reactive and efficient. Although after getting to know a trail intimately every curve every technical section and drop decent time again and again you can attain another type of flow. So in short the first or the fiftieth time the flow is there!" - Brendan James
"No matter what else is going on in your life the only thing that matters is the trail in front you. It's not even a choice to not think. You just have to commit to riding whatever comes. Then when its over, you can't hardly believe it happened. That's flow." - Doug Jones