Superfluidity: The Science and Psychology of Optimizing Flow
Engaging the cerebellum allows your body and mind to flow without dysmetria.
Posted July 1, 2016
In the early 1990s, when I was beginning my sports career as an endurance triathlete, someone gave me a copy of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's seminal book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Reading this book changed my life.
The concept of ‘flow’ gave me a new framework and vernacular to describe the ecstatic feeling of losing myself in the joy of running, biking, and swimming. Csikszentmihalyi taught me that, by matching my skill level with increased levels of challenge, I could lose myself in whatever I was doing.
Identifying how to find the sweet spot between boredom and anxiety—and enter what Csikszentmihalyi describes as the ‘flow channel’—was the key to my athletic success. I went from competing in small, local road races in Central Park in the late 1980s to breaking a Guinness World Record in 2004.
That said, somewhere in the late 1990s, I began to realize that there were actually two tiers to the flow experience that I didn’t have language to describe... and nobody I knew ever spoke about this phenomenon. As I practiced hard every day to become an elite-level athlete, creating flow became mechanical, rote, and par for the course on a daily basis.
In some ways, the regular flow experience became mundane. There was no mystery there. But, what really got my juices going were these episodic moments of feeling absolutely zero friction or viscosity—which were ecstatic in an orgasmic, peak experience kind of way. More than crossing a finish line, chasing the bliss of this feeling became like the pursuit of a 'Holy Grail' for me as an ultra-endurance athlete.
The Word “Ecstasy” Comes From the Greek "to Stand Outside Oneself”
In my search for empirical evidence to explain these miraculous flashes of feeling as if I was a conduit tapped into some infinite and cosmic energy force as an athlete, I turned to the work of Marghanita Laski, who wrote a book in the 1960s, Ecstasy: In Secular and Religious Experiences.
By having her peers fill out a questionnaire, Professor Laski was able to identify and isolate when people felt an ecstatic sense of oneness with a spiritual “Source.” The survey included questions such as, “Do you know a sensation of transcendent ecstasy? How would you describe it?"
Laski classified an experience as an “ecstasy” if it possessed two of the three following: unity, eternity, heaven, new life, satisfaction, joy, salvation, perfection, glory; contact, new or mystical knowledge; and at least one of the following feelings: loss of difference, time, place...or feelings of calm, worldliness, and peace.
Respondents to Marghanita Laski's survey used a variety of similar phrases when describing the spiritual connections they experienced during ecstasy, such as:
"A sense of the oneness of things, you understand that everything in reality is connected to one thing ... I saw nothing and everything ... All the separate notes have melted into one swelling harmony ... I saw and knew the being of all things in that moment ... The inner and outer meaning of the earth and sky and all that is in them ... I fit exactly ... I saw the Divine universe is a living presence in everything.”
Laski found that the most common triggers for transcendental ecstasies, come from nature: water, for instance, and mountains, trees, and flowers; dusk, sunrise, sunlight; dramatically bad weather. All of these have the ability create an ecstatic feeling of self-transcendence. I would add aerobic exercise to this list.
In my quest to find language to describe the highest tier of flow, I was fortunate enough to stumble on a BBC special about quantum physics. The documentary described the phenomenon of superfluidity, which is when helium is cooled to a point in which it can climb the walls of a container, drip through the bottom of a glass beaker, or stream eternally in a frictionless fountain, etc.
The moment I heard this word and saw superfluidity in action in a laboratory (in the video clip above) I said, “Yes! That’s it!! This is the perfect word to describe what it feels like to flow with absolutely zero friction, viscosity, or entropy.”
Next, I needed to figure out the neuroscience of superfluidity. To do this, I engaged in lengthy conversations with my father who was a neuroscientist and author of The Fabric of Mind. Together, my dad and I created a new split-brain model that seated explicit learning in the cerebrum and implicit learning in the cerebellum.
The Bergland Split-Brain Model was originally called “up brain-down brain.” This was a direct and cogent response to the “left brain-right brain” model. In the 1970s, my father was the science expert for books such as Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. However, by the 2000s, he had a hunch that the cerebellum may actually be the seat of intuitive and creative thinking.
In 2007, when I published The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss, I purposely titled the final chapter of the book “Superfluidity” with the subconscious game plan that my next book would expand on this concept.
In the early 2000s, I didn't have enough empirical evidence to expand on the neuroscience of superfluidity. Well, it’s been over a decade and finally (with 21st-century advances in brain imaging technology) the pieces I need to solve the superfluidity riddle are finally falling into place.
Dysmetria of Thought: Your Cerebellum Fine-Tunes Thinking and Coordination
One of the most significant Aha! moments I've had in recent years was the revelation that the key to creating superfluidity probably lies in actively engaging all four brain hemispheres along with the vagus nerve.
I realize now, that when my father and I completely moved away from a left-right model, to our up-down model, we were only partially correct in our thinking. My current hypothesis is that the optimal way to facilitate flow and superfluidity requires engaging both hemispheres of the cerebrum and both hemispheres of the cerebellum—while the vagus nerve keeps cortisol low and acetylcholine calms your parasympathetic nervous system, which gives you grace under pressure. Again, this is still an educated guess.
Also, in the past year, I learned about the research of Jeremy Schmahmann at Harvard Medical School on ataxia and his concept of “Dysmetria of Thought,” which is that the cerebellum fine-tunes our thinking just as it fine-tunes our muscle movements. This insight completely transformed how I view superfluidity.
As is often the case, by studying a neurological disorder, scientists realize what certain brain areas are doing. In many ways, dysmetria (which is the lack of coordination or fluidity of movement due to cerebellar abnormalities) is the polar opposite end of the superfluidity spectrum of moving and thinking without friction or viscosity.
My dad always said, “We don’t know exactly what the cerebellum is doing; but whatever it’s doing, it’s doing a lot of it.” Schmahmann’s hypothesis that our cerebellum fine-tunes our thoughts the same way it fine-tunes our muscle movements was the smoking gun I was looking for to explain the neuroscience of superfluidity.
Also, the fact that Schmahmann has honed in on the posterior cerebellum as being especially important for emotional intelligence, fits into the up brain-down brain model that seats crystallized intelligence in the prefrontal cortex of the cerebrum. In our human evolution, the posterior cerebellum and prefrontal cortex have seen explosive growth that sets us apart from other mammals.
Additionally, the research of Samuel Wang at Princeton University on the correlation between cerebellum abnormalities and autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is another rich source of potential clues on what the cerebellum is doing.
Lastly, in the past year Manish Saggar at Stanford University has identified that optimizing brain connectivity between the cerebellum and cerebrum enhances creative capacity. Saggar’s groundbreaking research is potential proof that ‘unclamping’ the prefrontal cortex while engaging both cerebellar hemispheres may be a key part of creating superfluidity.
Conclusion: Superfluidity = Flow + Fluid Intelligence + Creative Capacity
As you can see, my hypotheses about the science and psychology of optimizing flow and creating superfluidity are an ever-evolving work in progress. For now, it seems clear to me that superfluidity is a term that can be used to describe optimizing three things: flow, fluid intelligence, and creativity. Stay tuned for more research and ideas on how engaging the cerebellum and vagus nerve can improve your cognitive flexibility, creative capacity, and flow experiences.
To read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts,
- "Superfluidity: Fluid Intelligence Goes Beyond Brain Size"
- "The Cerebellum May Be the Seat of Creativity"
- "Superfluidity: Decoding the Enigma of Cognitive Flexibility"
- "The Neurobiology of Grace Under Pressure"
- "Enhanced Cerebellum Connectivity Boosts Creative Capacity"
- "Too Much Crystallized Thinking Lowers Fluid Intelligence"
- "More Research Links Autism and the Cerebellum"
- "How Do Motor Regions of the Brain Drive Fluid Intelligence?"
- "Aha! Aerobic Exercise Facilitates the Free Flow of Thought"
- "How Does the Vagus Nerve Conveys Gut Instincts to the Brain?"
- "The Neuroscience of Imagination"
- "Eureka! Deconstructing the Brain Mechanics of 'Aha!' Moments"
- "Superfluidity: Peak Performance Beyond a State of 'Flow'"
- "5 Reasons the Cerebellum Is Key to Thriving in a Digital Age"
- "Harvard Research Shows How the Cerebellum Regulates Thoughts"
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