Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Mind over body

Last week, the New York Times published an article, appropriately titled “I’m not really running, I’m not really running ...” about the effectiveness of dissociation in endurance racing. It’s commonly believed that humans use only a small part of their intellectual capacity, but dissociation plays off the idea that humans also tap only a fraction of their physical ability. The article calls it “mind over mind-over-body:” the art of tricking your mind into believing it’s not actually forcing your body to do the things that nobody but your ego and maybe a small part of your spiritual self want it to do. The result is an ability to jump higher, run faster, and cycle farther than the preconceived - and rather unimaginative - limits of the concious mind would generally allow.

Athletes who practice dissociation learn to block out the white noise of the human condition - past events, future goals, perceived fatigue, real pain - and focus completely on the immediate moment. Many athletes count. Some chant. Some fixate on a distant point, or a shadow, and watch only that. However they do it, dissociation whisks a person away from the task at hand and all of its complications, and transplants them in a simpler place far away from the weaknesses of the mind ... the weaknesses that tell a body it’s too slow, too tired, in too much pain, and tell it to stop.

In the article, an exercise psychologist asks the reporter to imagine she is running on a wet, windy, cold Sunday morning. “The conscious brain says, ‘You know that coffee shop on the corner. That’s where you really should be,” said Dr. Timothy Noakes. And suddenly, you feel tired, it’s time to stop. “There is some fatigue in muscle; I’m not suggesting muscles don’t get fatigued. I’m suggesting that the brain can make the muscles work harder if it wanted to.”

A scientist who tested this method based his research on a group of Tibetan monks who reportedly ran 300 miles in 30 hours. It's an unbelievable story, if only because monks aren’t typical athletes. They don’t spend all day training their bodies, ingesting scientifically precise diets and maintaining an unwavering focus on their fitness. But in their spiritual pursuit, while breathing in synchrony with the moment, these monks achieved something that many of the world’s most elite athletes would consider impossible.

It’s an interesting idea, and one that’s especially intriguing to me. It gives mere mortals like myself hope that we can overcome our own athletic mediocrity and rise to extraordinary feats. Geoff, who fits more in the athletic freak of nature category, finds the idea frightening. “If a person can really find their way into an order higher than physical pain,” he said, “what will stop them from running themselves to death?”

What indeed.


  1. Hummmm...

    Interesting idea but i've found my bully screams pretty loud at times

  2. Long distance events - it's all one big head game.

  3. I´m working on it. Do you know a book title: "Minfulness Meditation" autor: Jon Kabat-Zinn
    It is very interesting for this.
    Regards from Spain.

  4. The real secret is the yak-butter tea...

  5. Royal Robbins wrote something to the effect of "I've often wondered what would happen if I climbed, with total belief, until gravity tore me from the holds."

    Sobering coming from one of the greatest rock climbers, ever.

  6. "Surfing the Himilayas" is a good reference, but dissociation will not make up for diligence.

  7. I must say I have heard about this idea in the past,and I believe it has some truth.When I'm cycling and I feel I am tiring,I concentrate on my pedalling form and tell myself I'm in the zone,it seems to work but not every time.I guess it varies with the mental state you are in at the time,I believe there are strong possibilities to improve one's abilities,by training the mind as well the body.

  8. Interesting article. I use singing as my form of dissociation and it seems to work. I only find myself singing when I'm in a really tough situation, when I'm really wet and cold and it's dark and still have a long way to go to get back home or to the finish line.

    I read an article recently about tapping into the full potential of your brain in a different way. By using your dreams. It's like a whole new realm of visualization, where you become lucid in your dreams and visualize yourself accomplishing your goals.


    It makes you wonder what you are actually capable of. Thanks for the thought provoking post!

  9. This all too deep for me. I guess I have gone some long miles before realizing how did I get I get there. I call it spacing off.

  10. In my mind I count coup on those who will one day fall before me.

  11. “If a person can really find their way into an order higher than physical pain”

    Hmmm. I am going to see if I can wrap my self around that for a bit ... "an order higher than physical pain" ... boy, is that going to hurt later.


Feedback is always appreciated!