The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

The Neuroscience of Superfluidity

Synchronized brain communication elevates consciousness.

Consciousness means "the state of being awake and aware of one's surroundings." Since the days of René Descartes and John Locke, philosophers have hotly debated the question: “What is consciousness?” From a neuroscientific and psychological viewpoint, unlocking the secrets of how-to achieve higher states of consciousness is a way for every individual to maximize his or her human potential. A new study from UCLA, and others, offer exciting clues on how you can achieve a state of elevated consciousness, superfluidity, and achieve your personal best.

study titled “Dynamic Change of Global and Local Information Processing in Propofol-Induced Loss and Recovery of Consciousness" was published October 2013 in the online journal PLOS Computational Biology.

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The research team was lead by Martin Monti who uses cognitive neuroscience to study the relationship between language and thought, and how consciousness is lost and recovered after severe brain injury. This study is an important step toward developing a new scientific definition of consciousness and ways to create superfluidity.

What is Superfluidity?

Superfluidity is a physics term used to describe “a state of matter in which the matter behaves like a fluid with zero viscosity; where it appears to exhibit the ability to self-propel and travel in a way that defies the forces of gravity and surface tension.” When your neurons harmonize and create a neural network of peak clarity and performance with zero friction or viscosity you are in state of maximum brain connectivity. Superfluidity is the state of ultimate mental and physical performance.

As an athlete, I use the concept of superfluidity to define the highest tier of flow and to describe the universal phenomena of feeling that every action and thought is synchronized perfectly at a neural and almost ‘cosmic’ level.

The synchronized state of communication between each of your brain’s four hemispheres facilitates superfluid consciousness by bringing together every part of your brain in unison. This brain harmony creates superfluidity. People call states of higher consciousness many things, I prefer to use the term 'superfluid consciousness' in conjunction with superfluidity.

We all know what superfluidity feels like ... Superfluidity is to flow, as orgasm is to coitus. The human experience of achieving superfluidity is parallel to superconductivity witnessed in the laboratory. I have a hunch that a type of superconductivity between neurons crossing the chasms between brain hemispheres occurs when people are in a state of superfluid consciousness.

Consciousness Is Created When Different Parts of the Brain Communicate 

In the new UCLA study, Monti used a recent theoretical construct looking for specific patterns linked to consciousness based on how information was being communicated across different parts of the brain. There is a growing body of evidence that addresses this issue, but scientists are still hard pressed to answer even the most basic questions about the nature of consciousness.

Since the mid-1800s, doctors have used drugs to induce general anesthesia in patients while they are undergoing surgery. Despite their widespread use, it remains a mystery to doctors exactly how certain drugs create a deep loss of consciousness.

The most controversial aspects of the human brain remain the century-old debate: “What is consciousness?” Going down the philosophical rabbit hole of defining consciousness can make your head spin. If you are interested in learning more about the historical background and debates over consciousness please check out this Wikipedia link.

Overall, the UCLA findings show that what makes the state of propofol-induced loss of consciousness different from all other conditions (namely, wakefulness, light sedation, and consciousness recovery) is the fact that all regions of the brain appear to be functionally further apart. This distance reduces the efficiency with which information can be exchanged across different parts of the network.

"It turns out that when we lose consciousness, the communication among areas of the brain becomes extremely inefficient, as if suddenly each area of the brain became very distant from every other, making it difficult for information to travel from one place to another," Monti said. The finding shows that consciousness does not "live" in a particular place in our brain but rather "arises from the mode in which billions of neurons communicate with one another," he said.

“When patients suffer severe brain damage and enter a coma or a vegetative state,” Monti said, it is very possible that the sustained damage impairs their normal brain function and the emergence of consciousness in the same manner as was seen by the life scientists in the healthy volunteers under anesthesia. If this were indeed the case, we could imagine in the future using our technique to monitor whether interventions are helping patients recover consciousness. He adds, "It could, however, also be the case that losing consciousness because of brain injury affects brain function through different mechanisms.” Monti and his team are currently addressing this question in another study.

A few years ago, Monti and his team performed an functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to assess his brain responses. Surprisingly, Sharon, who was presumed to be in a vegetative state since suffering a brain hemorrhage in 2006, showed significant brain activity. Monti and his colleagues scanned Sharon’s brain using a revolutionary technique to assess the extent and quality of his brain processing. The scientists found subtle but encouraging signs of consciousness.

More recently, Monti and his colleagues used fMRI to study how the flow of information in the brains of 12 healthy volunteers changed as they lost consciousness under anesthesia with propofol.

The oscillations during an unconscious state prevent different parts of the right and left hemisphere from coordinating with each other. Interestingly, another study from October 2013 found that Albert Einstein’s genius was linked to an unusually strong connection between his left and right hemisphere. For more on this you can check out my Psychology Today blog: “Einstein’s Genius Linked to Well-Connected Brain Hemispheres

Because it is often easier for neuroscientists to deconstruct the components that go into an illness or malfunction, these findings suggest that when other brain frequencies are working in reverse this brain activity would have the opposite effect and create elevated states of consciousness and superfluidity.

For this reason, I take a pragmatic approach based on a spectrum going from extreme unconsciousness to extremely heightened consciousness. By hacking into people’s lives at each end of the spectrum and comparing anecdotal evidence with empirical scientific studies, it becomes possible to hone in on the specific lifestyle choices that are in the locus of your free will and can be used to optimize consciousness and performance. This research will be compiled in my next book titled, SUPERFLUIDITY.

Distinctive EEG Patterns Linked to States of Consciousness

In a March 2013 study titled “How the Brain Loses and Regains Consciousness” researchers from MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) tracked brain activity in human volunteers over a two-hour period as they lost and regained consciousness. The researchers identified distinctive brain patterns associated with different stages of general anesthesia. The findings shed light on how propofol exerts its effects, and could help doctors better monitor patients during surgery and prevent rare cases of patients waking up during operations.

Anesthesiologists now rely on a monitoring system that takes electroencephalogram (EEG) information and combines it into a single number between zero and 100. However, that index actually obscures the information that would be most useful, according to the authors of the new study, which appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

While the subjects received propofol, the researchers monitored their responsiveness to sounds. Every four seconds, the subjects heard either a mechanical tone or a word, such as their name. The researchers measured EEG activity throughout the process, as the subjects pressed a button to indicate whether they heard the sound. As the subjects became less responsive, distinct brain patterns appeared. The same is true when EEG is used during biofeedback. There are specific brain patterns linked to various states of consciousness. As researchers continue to define the parameters of superfluid consciousness we can fine tune methods to create a ripe electrical, chemical and architectural environment in the brain to achieve superfluidity.

Early on, when the subjects were just beginning to lose consciousness, the researchers detected an oscillation of brain activity in the low frequency (0.1 to 1 hertz) and alpha frequency (8 to 12 hertz) bands, in the frontal cortex. The researchers also found a specific relationship between the oscillations in those two frequency bands.

Alpha oscillations peaked as the low-frequency waves were at their lowest point. When the brain reached a slightly deeper level of anesthesia, a marked transition occurred — The alpha oscillations flipped so their highest points occurred when the low frequency waves were also peaking.

The researchers believe that these alpha and low-frequency oscillations produce unconsciousness by disrupting normal communication between different brain regions. The oscillations appear to constrain the amount of information that can pass between the frontal cortex to communicate across a very broad frequency band within various brain regions to relay sensory information and control attention.

When the researchers began to slowly decrease the dose of propofol and bring the subjects out of anesthesia, they saw a reversal of the brain activity patterns that appeared when the subjects lost consciousness. Just a few minutes before regaining consciousness, the alpha oscillations began to flip so that they were at their peak when the low-frequency waves were at their lowest point.   

The researchers found that during anesthesia, neurons within small, localized brain regions are active for a few hundred milliseconds, then shut off again for a few hundred milliseconds. This flickering of activity, which creates the slow oscillation pattern, prevents brain regions from communicating normally and is linked to consciousness.

One idea that has drawn attention for several decades is that consciousness is associated with high-frequency (gamma band) oscillations in brain activity. This idea arose from a hypotheses in the 1980s, by Christof von der Malsburg and Wolf Singer, who believe that gamma oscillations could solve the so-called “binding problem”, by linking information represented in different parts of the brain into a unified experience of consciousness.

Stronger Connections Between the Cerebrum and Cerebellum = Superfluidity

Scientists have found that some individuals in the vegetative and minimally conscious states, despite lacking the means of reporting awareness themselves, can learn and thereby demonstrate at least a partial consciousness. Their findings were reported in the September 2009 online edition of Nature Neuroscience in an article titled "Classical Conditioning in the Vegetative and Minimally Conscious State."

This study was the first time that scientists have tested whether patients in vegetative and minimally conscious states can learn. By establishing that they can, it is believed that this simple test will enable practitioners to assess the patient's consciousness without the need of imaging. The cerebellum (cerebellar cortex to be exact) is responsible for the learned conditioned response during eye blink testing.

Through conditioned response training, the patients in a vegetative state would start to blink when the tone played but before the air puff to the eye. This learning requires conscious awareness of the relation between stimuli – the tone precedes and predicts the puff of air to the eye. This type of learning was not seen in the control subjects, volunteers who had been put under using propofol.

The researchers believe that the fact that these patients can learn associations shows that they can form memories and that they may benefit from rehabilitation. Again, looking at patients with TBI in a vegetative state offers clues for how when someone gets north of zero they can strive to achieve a state of superfluid consciousness.

The Paradox of Superfluidity

One of the most upsetting things about Michael Jackson’s death was the revelation that he used propofol regularly to shut down his brain and create a disassociative state of unconsciousness. What would drive a human being to feel a need to totally disassociate from reality by short-circuiting his or her brain? How can we as parents and coaches inspire our children to strive for superfluidity? I think giving states of consciousness a name like ‘superfluid consciousness’ and superfluidity makes very abstract states of mind more tangible and easier to visualize and set as target goals.

From a positive psychology and coaching standpoint, I like to use a scale of -5 to +5 for The Athlete’s Way. For most things, Zero would be a state of everything’s OK, but not great. In terms of rating states of consciousness I would use a similar scale. -5 would be when someone is so far gone on propofol that he or she may as well be on Pluto, while a +5 would be a state of superfluid consciousness that would rival the Dalai Lama. When the neurons from every hemisphere and region of your brain are synchronized and communicating in harmony anyone can create a supreme state of consciousness.  

Ironically, superfluid consciousness makes you feel like you have left the 3-Dimensions of the work-a-day world because the seat of your ego dissolves into a neural tapestry that spans every nook and cranny of your brain. I would describe the experience of entering superfluidity as ‘going through the pinhole’ to a type of 4th dimension.

There is something mystical about superfluidity. The artist Paul Klee describes superfluid consciousness when he said, “Everything vanishes around me, and works are born as if out of the void. Ripe, graphic fruits fall off. My hand has become the obedient instrument of a remote will.” How would you describe moments of superfluidity that you've experienced? What were you doing? Where were you? Who were you with? 

Superfluidity can be fleeting but it is in these moments that you achieve your personal best, create masterpieces, and have innovative eureka moments. In a state of superfluid consciousness you are aware of the interconnectedness of the universe and feel a sense of oneness that makes your body and mind feel like a conduit for some outside Source of energy. The beauty of your 100 billion neurons coming together in a state of superfluid consciousness is that when you become a conduit is that the filter through which ideas, action spring to life will have your neural thumbprints all over them.  

Martha Graham describes the pursuit of superfluidity beautifully in The American Dance saying, “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open."

Conclusion: Connectivity Between All 4 Brain Hemispheres Elevates Consciousness

Albert Einstein’s brain had a higher than usual connection between the left and right hemisphere. Combining that research with these findings on consciousness implies that we can use a simple split brain model to create daily habits that flex every hemisphere of your brain. Using the 4-hemispheres as a starting point creates a thumbnail sketch that is easy to visualize. As more research becomes available specific daily practices can be fine tuned.

Every day researchers hone in on specific areas of the brain that benefit from lifestyle choices like — regular aerobic exercise, endurance training, reducing anxiety and stress, meditation, practicing loving-kindness....On the negative side, we know that many lifestyle choices and environmental stressors cause the brain to atrophy and for connectivity between all parts of the brain to be reduced, which lowers consciousness.

Neuroscientists will not figure out exactly how brain connectivity specifically relates to consciousness in our lifetime. And, if they do, there will probably be a pharmaceutical pill to take that will reduce your self-reliance. Luckily, each of us can begin to use the latest scientific studies blended with common sense and observations of daily choices of mindset and behavior to elevate our consciousness right here and now.

We have evolved for millennia with every nook and cranny of our brain ready to be optimized. The key to unlocking superfluidity is in your hands. It is up to each of us to make choices for ourselves and our loved ones that increase connectivity at a neural and personal level so we can maximize our potential.

Martin Monti concludes, "As profoundly defining of our mind as consciousness is, without having a scientific definition of this phenomenon, it is extremely difficult to study." This study, he said, marks an initial step toward conducting neuroscience research on consciousness.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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