In sports, the most exciting moments happen when human beings perform with superhuman powers. Example: Ayrton Senna’s qualifying lap at the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix. On F1’s most technical circuit, Senna was an astounding 1.427 seconds faster than his nearest rival. Senna himself described this lap: “I realized that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel.”
This story originally appeared in Volume 7 of Road & Track.
Senna was describing what is called flow state, arguably today’s hottest field of scientific research with regard to peak human performance. By definition, flow is an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best. For generations we have heard racing drivers talk about flow state, even before it had a name. So what if you could switch on a flow state when you commute to work in your car? You can. In fact, if you’re a motorsport enthusiast, you probably already do.
“Driving is an automatic skill,” says Steven Kotler, director of the Flow Research Collective, which teaches the art of flow to astronauts and pro athletes alike. “Flow is what happens when we put a bunch of automatic skills together and they get executed at a very high level. If you’re driving and you’re pushing to experience what a car has to offer, that is low-grade flow state. It is a very common experience.”
Time slows down. Distractions melt away. Your hands and feet move automatically with precision. In other disciplines you might say you’re “in the zone.” But with cars you’d say you’re becoming one with the machine. Turns out, that’s not a cliché, given the science behind it.
“There is a truth to it, physiologically,” Kotler explains. “There is a part of your brain called the temporoparietal junction, which tells you where you end and the rest of the world begins. It draws a boundary around the self. You would think that’s your skin, but it’s not. When a mom holds a baby, the mother does not feel a separation between herself and the baby. The temporoparietal junction redraws the map between where she ends and the rest of the universe begins.” Same thing when you are in a flow state while driving your car.
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