Superfluidity: The Psychology of Peak Performance
Why it's important to break the "flow" experience into two tiers.
Posted March 20, 2013 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
Flow is an energized mental state that occurs when a person is totally focused and immersed in an activity and the challenge matches a person's level of skill. Being "in the zone" is another way of describing flow.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first defined flow in his seminal book Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play (1975). He later acknowledged that, “there seems to be a need to reinvent or re-express the answer of what to do to create flow every couple of generations.”
I use the concept of "superfluidity" to describe an elevated, second tier of the flow experience. Technically, superfluidity is defined as “the property of flowing without friction or viscosity.” Differentiating flow from superfluidity is helpful for demystifying a regular state of flow and making the process of achieving a flow state more accessible to people from all walks of life and skill levels.
Why is it important to break flow into two-tiers?
Creating flow regularly is the key to mastery. The experience of flow is universal and accessible to anyone who practices consistently. Too many people believe that creating a state of flow or being in the zone is reserved for professional athletes or elite level performers. This is not the case!
In my pursuit to become a world-class athlete, I realized that there are two very distinct phases of the flow experience, which my coaches and mentors had never differentiated. My empirical findings showed that the flow experience was being jumbled up under one umbrella that included an elevated tier that crossed into a much more episodic state of ‘ecstasy’ and ‘peak experiences’ that I had studied in school. The descriptions people have used over the years to describe flow, being in the zone and peak experiences, has a rich history that I will summarize in this blog post.
Flow is available to everyone, every day. Introducing the concept of superfluidity as a higher, more episodic stage of flow is designed to encourage more people to pursue ‘regular flow’ daily by making it seem more commonplace. My mission in deconstructing different phases of being in the ‘flow channel’ is to break it down into basic steps and show people of all levels how to create a daily practice that will bring flow into their lives every day doing something they love. Once you learn to create flow, superfluidity becomes the next step in achieving peak performance.
What is superfluidity?
Flow is the launching pad for superfluidity. I borrowed the word superfluidity from the world of physics. You can actually see what superfluidity looks like in a laboratory. Please take two minutes to watch this video explaining (and showing) how helium becomes a superfluid.
As you can see, existing with zero friction or viscosity allows a superfluid to do amazing things like penetrate a solid surface, climb walls, and create a frictionless fountain that could theoretically go on for eternity. Ordinary matter can behave in unbelievable ways that seem to defy the laws of nature. So can human beings.
I apply the term superfluidity to individual performance and teamwork. When a group is behaving like a superfluid, it figuratively displays properties of a superfluid Bose-Einstein condensate. Coaches, managers and group leaders from all fields can apply the concepts of flow and superfluidity to improve the harmony, performance, and competitiveness of the team.
Entropy was introduced into psychology as a metaphor for chaos in the 20th century. I incorporate ideas from physics and quantum theory to illustrate aspects of the human experience that seem to defy the laws of nature. I believe that through proper training and mindset that human beings can pierce through a vortex-like window into a dimension that offers infinite possibilities.
This may sound very woo-woo or too "out there." I have friends who say, “I can’t wrap my head around this. A person can’t take his or her body down to absolute zero and begin to behave like a particle and a wave at the same time.” I agree, obviously. The value of using physics to explain things that seem mystical or supernatural is that it grounds them in science.
It also gives us something tangible to visualize. Witnessing materials in a laboratory behaving with characteristics that seem like science fiction or something from the 4th dimension opens up the imagination to our own possibilities to reinvent ourselves and metamorphosize through changes in mindset and daily behaviors.
How to create flow
Csikszentmihalyi, who is the father of flow, found that this state is most likely to occur when the level of the challenge is perfectly matched to your skill level. The trick to staying in the "Flow Channel" quadrant of this chart is to continually increase the challenge as your skills improve. The central axis in this chart is the set-point for individual level of skill and challenge that needs to always be personalized. Superfluidity is the yellow portion of this chart.
The sweet spot of flow lies between the anxiety caused by a challenge being too difficult and the boredom caused by the challenge being too easy. Please take some time to watch Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's TED lecture Flow: The Secret to Happiness for a fascinating background on his life story and why he was drawn to defining and studying flow.
Csikszentmihalyi describes an "ecstatic state" or a feeling that artists and musicians have of being outside of what they were creating with their hands when describing flow. I believe that when this happens, it is important to differentiate this as a state of superfluidity. Being in a state of flow feels good, but it is not always ecstatic.
Ecstasy in Greek means “to stand outside oneself.” You can't be in a constant state of ecstasy as you're creating flow and trying to match your skills with an elevated challenge. Mastery takes time, patience and... practice, practice, practice. You need to be firmly grounded in your body to lay down the muscle memory in your cerebellum which holds the key to mastery. Flow feels very pleasant, but it can also feel pretty mundane. As it should.
When Roger Bannister described breaking the four-minute mile by saying, "No longer conscious of my movement, I discovered a new unity with nature. I had found a new source of power and beauty, a source I never dreamt existed.” He is describing superfluidity, not regular flow. Likewise, when artist Paul Klee says, “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.” This is superfluidity. Classifying these peak experiences under the same umbrella as regular flow is a disservice because it makes the experience of regular flow seem too exotic and more rarefied than it should be.
As an athlete, I realized that I needed to reframe my concepts of flow if I wanted to make it a de rigeur part of my training. I wanted to experience the moments that Bannister and Klee describe above, but 99% of the time my experience didn’t feel that way. I thought I was defective and incapable of achieving what I perceived to be a state of flow.
This made me feel discouraged and like giving up. Flow seemed like something that other people experienced regularly but was inaccessible to me. I felt shut out. In order to stick with my training and pursuit of excellence, it was critical to begin differentiating between flow and superfluidity. This is true for everyone and why I am adamant about sharing this message.
Before lacing up my sneakers for every run or competition early in my career I developed a self-talk habit of saying, "Please let me create a state of flow and pierce through to a state of superfluidity this time." These experiences became a specific destination that I worked towards. Superfluidity felt like going through the wardrobe to a Narnia-like blissful place of Nirvana. I craved going back to this place and sought it out relentlessly. When I felt the shift from flow to superfluidity I would say to myself, "I'm in!" This transition feels like you have pierced through to another dimension far away from the constraints and worries of the work-a-day world.
Some days I would huff and puff and try to break through to this wonderland of zero friction or viscosity but it wouldn’t happen. Nonetheless, I would enter a state of flow just about every day and it felt good. I knew that spending more time in the Flow Channel was the only way to access that trap door or ‘pinhole’ to a superfluid state. The pursuit to experience superfluidity again kept me coming back to my practice day after day and pushed my skill level higher. The pursuit of superfluidity was the prime motivating force that allowed me to win races. Over time I learned more techniques that helped me create superfluidity on demand which correlated into peak performance. I will share more specific ways you can do this too in future blog posts.
Just about everyone I talk to who has mastered something relates to the difference between flow and superfluidity and seems to have an 'a-ha moment' when I explain the difference for the first time. It's always a fun conversation to have and a great way to find out what people are passionate about. When in your life have you experienced flow? How would you differentiate flow from superfluidity?
The neuroscience of superfluidity
I am hopeful that the $3 billion Brain Activity Map (BAM) project that the Obama administration is initiating will prove that human consciousness shares mind-boggling elements of quantum mechanics that currently seem unimaginable to us based on the limitations of current brain imaging technology. Until scientists can find new ways to map the brain, we must rely on our imaginations and findings from other disciplines of science to help visualize what creating superfluidity in our daily lives might look like.
There is an undeniable link between the psychology of superfluidity and neuroscience. The connections between our neurons, electrical brain wavelengths, and neurotransmitters harmonize during moments of superfluidity in ways that scientists will never fully understand in our lifetime. In the meantime, the best we can do is to take the latest neuroscience and apply it in ways that improve our lives here and now.
The foundation of The Athlete’s Way is built on the split-brain model of Up Brain-Down Brain. The prefrontal cortex (the seat of human intelligence) is part of the Up Brain and the cerebellum (the seat of muscle memory) is part of the Down Brain. The key to creating flow and superfluidity is to practice a skill to the point where it becomes so ingrained in your cerebellum that you don’t have to use your prefrontal cortex to think about what you’re doing.
An overengaged prefrontal cortex can block flow and superfluidity. As Arthur Ashe said, there is a syndrome called “Paralysis by analysis.” When anyone overthinks what he or she is doing there is a tendency to choke, fumble, and drop the ball. You can read more about this in my Psychology Today blog No. 1 Reason Practice Makes Perfect. In many cases, you need to block or ‘unclamp’ the prefrontal cortex if you want to have creative breakthroughs and operate at a level of peak performance.
On March 14, 2013 researchers from the University of Pennsylvania published an article in the journal Cognitive Neuroscience confirming that an overactive prefrontal cortex can inhibit creative thinking. The researchers found that blocking the filter of the prefrontal cortex boosted performance for tasks in which creative, unfiltered thoughts presented an advantage. They concluded that high levels of cognitive control can be a disadvantage in some circumstances. One benefit of engaging the cerebellum through regular practice and action (especially aerobic activity) is that it forces your prefrontal cortex to ‘unclamp’ which allows for fluidity of thought and action.
Superfluidity, ecstasy, and peak experiences are synonymous
The semantics of language make a huge difference when describing psychological states and experiences. Having words to describe various levels and breakthroughs is important for coaches and practitioners alike. Saying that someone was ‘really in the zone’ has been diluted to the point where it has lost real meaning.
The works of Abraham Maslow and Marghanita Laski have greatly influenced my conceptualization of superfluidity. In his 1964 work, Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences, Maslow demystified what were considered to be supernatural, mystical or religious experiences and made them more secular and mainstream. Marghanita Laski was another pioneer on this topic who did the same. I am on a mission to expand on their work and bring it back to life in the 21st century with a new twist based in neuroscience.
Marghanita Laski was a scientific researcher who, like Maslow, was fascinated with the ecstatic experiences described by mystical and religious writers. Laski wanted to deconstruct the experience of what ecstasy felt like in everyday life for 'regular people' and published a book in 1961 book titled, “Ecstasy: In Secular and Religious Experience.”
Laski created a questionnaire that she gave to 63 of her peers asking questions like “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, of worldliness...or feelings of calm, peace.”
I have a questionnaire in which I have people describe feelings of flow vs. superfluidity. My findings mirror what Laski found but I have broken it down into two tiers. Again, people have been using different language to describe a universal human experience of flow and superfluidity for eons.
Peak experiences are described by Maslow as “especially joyous and exciting moments in life, involving sudden feelings of intense happiness and well-being, wonder and awe, and possibly also involving an awareness of transcendental unity or knowledge of higher truth (as though perceiving the world from an altered, and often vastly profound and awe-inspiring perspective).
Maslow argued that “peak experiences should continue to be studied and cultivated, so that they can be introduced to those who have never had them or who resist them, providing them a route to achieve personal growth, integration, and fulfillment.” This is my goal for researching and writing about superfluidity. My life’s work is dedicated to expanding on these ideas by incorporating neuroscience and practical advice with an emphasis on using the pursuit of superfluidity to improve performance and competitiveness. I will continue to write about ways to achieve superfluidity in future Psychology Today blog posts and in my next book.
Superfluidity in everyday life
I encourage you to keep your antennae up for moments of flow and superfluidity in your daily life and when you witness it in others. Give it a name. Tag it. And make it your own. Flow and superfluidity can become tangible goals that you seek to experience every day.
Most people that you see performing on TV have gotten there because they regularly created a state of flow in practice and rehearsals and became exceptionally good at what they do. Get in the habit of tagging extraordinary moments you see on TV. From American Idol to Wimbledon, any display of talent that stands out from a talented pool of people and gives you goosebumps is superfluidity in action. Take a moment to reflect on the components that went into making a particular performance extraordinary and ways that you can incorporate these ingredients to take your level of performance higher.
The pursuit of flow is transferrable. Learn by observing the greats and personalize what you learn about their process to improve your own. As an athlete and coach, I was riveted by listening to a former Navy SEAL describe the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. Every step of the training and procedure illustrated the components of creating superfluidity. From practicing for weeks in a life size mock up, to executing the mission with absolutely zero friction or viscosity despite many mishaps and unforeseen hurdles. It was a superfluid mission.
I encourage you to watch the interview with a former Navy SEAL who participated in the raid on Osama bin Laden's Pakistan hideout here if you have time. The video illustrates how a group of individuals can work independently and collectively as a single superfluid and create the human equivalent of a Bose-Einstein condensate.
The pursuit of superfluidity is a humanist experience that is uplifting and contagious. In a world full of hopelessness and cynicism, superfluidity offers a bright spot. The pursuit of superfluidity is egalitarian and it is free. It doesn’t require higher education or socioeconomic status.
Superfluidity takes positive psychology to it’s highest level. Just talking with people about their experiences of flow and superfluidity creates a hopeful, optimistic mood. The pursuit of flow and superfluidity takes the focus away from helplessness and worry. Martin Seligman has talked about positive psychology being based on a scale of -5 to +5. The goal as he describes it is to get north of zero and go from 0 to +5. Using this simple scale, I would consider 0 to +5 going into a state of flow and from there +5 to +10 would be superfluidity.
The pursuit of flow and superfluidity is something that each of us should aim for everyday in one way or another. I hope this information inspires you to do this and helps you take your life to higher ground. The process of creating flow and superfluidity regularly will help you achieve peak performance and your personal best.
Below are some video links that illustrate elements of superfluidity from a broad spectrum of disciplines that I’ve archived in recent months. Check them out if you have time or interest: