Q: What Stands Between You and Better Performance? (A: You)

Call it “Flow” or “The Zone” — we’ve  all had moments when it all comes together: when we can do no wrong, when our performance jumps to a higher level. The old cliche is that we go unconscious; our normal selves vanish and we’re replaced by someone better.

Now, science is showing us the useful truth beneath that cliche. Higher performance is not about addition; it’s about subtraction — specifically, subtracting the chatty, busybody part of your brain that focuses on your internal state. In fact, the lesson can be summed up as follows: get out of your way.

Exhibit A: Sally Adee, a writer for New Scientist, just wrote an extraordinary story that takes us inside the expert brain. The story involves a new technique called transcranial direct current stimulation, or TDCS, which sends low-voltage electricity to certain parts of the brain. The current turns off your prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that creates critical thought — and lets you act without interference.

The skill Adee tried to improve was marksmanship, via a military-designed video game. Before TDCS, Adee was average. After, she was transformed into an expert (she couldn’t miss!). Tests by the military show that TDCS more than doubles subjects’ ability to detect a threat. Other studies using related types of neurofeedback show similarly promising results.

The takeaway, I think, is not that we will all soon be sporting electrode caps (though we might!), but rather that the expert brain is a quiet place. A place where concentration and relaxation coexist, and where attention is 100 percent focused on the external, not the internal. Where the self, for a rare and lovely moment, disappears.

The other takeaway is that we should make a habit of developing this kind of relaxed, concentrated focus. It might be yoga, or exercise, or meditation, or prayer, or just a daily walk — it doesn’t matter, so long as it takes you to the sort of quiet place where you can vanish, and develop a sense for knowing when you’re there.

As Dan Millman writes: “The essence of talent is not so much a presence of certain qualities, but rather an absence of the mental, physical, and emotional obstructions most adults experience.”

(A belated, but big thanks to Rob Nonstop for the heads-up!)

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