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.