Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance

By Steven Kotler

New Harvest. 234 pp. $26

Surfer Laird Hamilton describes riding giant waves in his native Hawaii: “When you’re in that moment, there’s no beginning and no end. . . . It’s just pure. You are and it is and that’s why we continually seek it out, and always search for it, and need it. We need to feel alive and to feel complete.” Hamilton is talking about “flow,” a heightened state of acuity and ability that forms the focus of Steven Kotler’s book “The Rise of Superman.” “In flow,” Kotler writes, “every action, every decision, leads effortlessly, fluidly, seamlessly to the next. It’s high-speed problem solving; it’s being swept away by the river of ultimate performance.”

The search for the “ultimate” — in perception or performance — is hardly a new idea. Philosopher William James more than a century ago talked about “mystical experiences.” Psychologist Abraham Maslow secularized the concept as “peak experiences.” Jazz musicians feel it. So do video gamers. “Meditating Franciscan nuns [feel] oneness with God’s love” the way surfers feel “oneness” with a wave.

Kotler focuses on extreme sports for good reason. These athletes face a constant choice, “flow or die,” and his book contains some compelling characters. Like Danny Way, who jumped the Great Wall of China. On a skateboard. With a fractured ankle and a torn ACL. Rad, dude.

HANDOUT IMAGE: The front cover to "The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance’ by Steven Kotler (New Harvest)

Flow is rooted in the brain, and Kotler does a good job of explaining that science. The prefrontal cortex is “where thinking happens.” But thinking produces complexity and confusion. Flow is the opposite of thinking. So to reach a flow state the cortex has to be “temporarily deactivated.”

Flow is also caused by a “mighty cocktail” of five powerful chemicals — from dopamine to serotonin — released into the brain. “Alone, each packs a punch, together a wallop,” Kotler writes. It’s no accident that many controlled and addicting substances, from marijuana to Oxycontin, contain these same chemicals. “Americans are literally killing themselves to achieve artificially the same sensations that flow produces naturally.” There’s the rub. Flow has a “serious dark side,” Kotler admits. It can be “volatile, unpredictable, and all-consuming.” That craving can lead to risky, even lethal behavior. Many characters in this book are dead. And those who survive can be plagued by devastating withdrawal pains. “If you’ve glimpsed this state,” one expert says, “but can’t get back there — that lack can become unbearable.”

Still, Kotler is an evangelist on this subject and is director of research at the Flow Genome Project. “What is the meaning of life?” he writes. “Flow appears to be what makes life worth living.” But like all missionaries, he can show disdain for the unenlightened. And in his zealousness he ignores a simple truth. There are many other pleasures that make “life worth living.”

Watching a wave can be as satisfying as riding one, making a snowman as rewarding as mastering a snow mountain. Loving a family can produce more joy than leaving them — to blaze one more trail or turn one more trick.

Most of us will never be Superman. Being Everyman is enough.

— Steven V. Roberts