Zen and the Art of Riffing

Q: What did the Zen master say to the hotdog vendor?

A: “Make me one with everything…”


Central to the premise of this old joke is the Zen notion of reaching a higher level of consciousness, where one’s sense of self dissipates, becoming indistinguishable from the rest of the universe. This is pretty heady stuff for many raised in the western thought tradition, where metrics are king, and we’re taught from a young age that if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist.

So what do jazz players and Zen masters have in common?

I’m sure there’s a pun in here somewhere, but the truth is, they may share a lot, according to Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Dr. Charles Limb.

Around 2008, Limb began doing experiments with jazz pianists, trying to understand what was happening in their brains during musical improvisation. Limb had them improvise music while lying in an fMRI; the tool of choice for many neuroscientists. It’s a machine that measures blood flow to a given brain area. Increased blood flow suggests activity, and so the current thought is that the fMRI is the best window we have into what the brain is up to at a given moment.

Limb observed that when a jazz player got into the groove of an improv (in other words, when they reached something like Csikszentmihalyi’s flow), blood flow seemed to decrease in an area called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (or dorsolateral PFC), and increase in the medial prefrontal cortex.

The dorsolateral PFC is where your inner critic resides. It helps to control your impulses, monitor behavior, and analyze your actions.

Another area of the brain that helps keep tabs on you is the superior frontal gyrus, or SFG. It’s responsible for self awareness. Your inhibitions serve the purpose of keeping you from acting in ways that might otherwise get you in trouble. Essentially, your “good angel” doesn’t sit on your shoulder like in the cartoons; it lives in your brain’s SFG.

In The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, author Steven Kotler cites a 2006 Israeli study that says when people are deeply immersed in a task, from sex to playing cards to climbing a mountain, their superior frontal gyrus begins to deactivate.

Balancing your dorsolateral PFC and SFG, your medial PFC is home to self expression. This part of the brain fosters a sort of ungoverned creativity, where rules are more like general guidelines, and impulse and action rule supreme.

So in theory, Kotler says, as the dorsolateral PFC and SFG quiet down and the medial PFC ramps up, there is a trade-off: less energy for analytical cognition and more energy for concentration and focus. In other words, less thinking, more doing.

Concentration and focus is at the heart of flow state. Without scrutiny, action becomes spontaneous and in the moment.

Is there a word to describe the ramping down of the dorsolateral PFC as cognition takes a backseat to instinct? Yes: hypofrontality. Another way to put it is that loss of your sense of self. It’s when the jazz player has the sense of being one with that piano or horn, a single entity from which the music seems to spring forth.

This is the essential definition of the flow state, where a cocktail of neurochemicals acts like a temporary SWAT team, invading your brain and taking control. Norepinephrine increases blood flow and focus. Dopamine generates an increase in connections. Endorphins kick in to minimize pain and promote a euphoric feeling, while Anandamide promotes lateral thinking.

Anandamide may be the least well-known of these chemicals, but it’s certainly not the least important. Lateral thinking is what allows your brain to draw unusual connections and reach surprising ideas. It’s a basic tenant of any improv; or at least, any improv that’s interesting to watch.

The end result is a flow state of altered consciousness. It’s taken western science and the fMRI to finally catch up, measure and confirm what Zen masters and jazz players already experientially understood for years.

Apparently ‘make me one with everything’ has implications far beyond the hotdog stand.

Hacking Flow

In sports, it’s called being in the zone.

I’m talking about those moments when self vanishes, time seems to slow down, and you are operating with maximum confidence. A sense of calm pervades, even though you might be surrounded by a frenzy of activity. Your focus intensifies and your actions and decisions seem to meld.

This is the psychological state known as flow, researched and pushed into the spotlight by University of Chicago professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

You might know what flow looks like from the outside if you’ve ever experienced a great jazz player riffing, or a skilled comedian doing improvisation.

And you probably know how flows feels if you meditate. If you’re in sales, it’s those times when you and your customer seem to be synced up in perfect harmony. A writer experiencing flow has the sense that the words on the page are being dictated by some outside source. When you and your best friend are so deeply engaged in conversation that an hour feels like minutes, it’s likely you’ve put each other into a flow state.

Runners, sky divers, surfers, and students engaged in deep academic pursuit are all secret or not-so-secret flow junkies.

Flow is big business. It’s fair to say that professional sports is really a giant flow industry produced for our viewing pleasure. It gives meaning to our lives, separating out the high points of experience from the everyday mundane.

So is there a way to hack flow, to trigger a flow experience? In Steven Kotler’s book, The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, he suggests the following strategy:

1. Find something you’re passionate about and establish a clear goal for improvement.

2. Give yourself a hunk of unbroken time for maximum concentration and focus.

3. Find mentors and coaches: expert input is a key for good progress.

4. Push yourself to the edges of your abilities.

Push yourself, but don’t shove yourself. Kotler reports that a quest for a 4% improvement in any skill, compounded over time, will achieve incredible results.  It’s this kind of incremental growth that is an essential building block of progress. Trying to bite off more than you can chew is often self-defeating.

Flow is an ephemeral thing: easy to recognize, hard to pin down. In any given moment, there’s no surefire recipe for getting there. But by following Kotler’s steps, you can at least point yourself in the right direction. With a little practice, you could find yourself with a passport to the zone.

Breaking a Barrier: On Doing the Impossible

Breaking through barriers: we humans love it! Not necessarily putting ourselves at risk, but living vicariously through someone else, especially if we can do it far out of harm’s way.

Not so long ago, it was said that running a sub four-minute mile was impossible. After all, human endurance had its limits. The lungs and heart could only produce so much blood-rich oxygen, and the muscles could only metabolize what the lungs and heart could deliver.

For many years, a good number of athletes had tried to defy the presumed laws of human mechanics and squeak out a mile in less than 240 seconds. The net result was always the same: failure. Which is why nobody’s name comes to mind when we think of the almost four-minute mile crowd.

Then on May 6th, 1954, a tall unassuming lad from Great Britain named Roger Bannister came along and blew the impossible goal away with a time of 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds. It made international news. He became an overnight sensation.

But here’s what’s interesting: although runners had tried and failed to clock that time for years, within 46 days Bannister’s feat had been duplicated, and then with fair regularity the mile record came down after that—two more times in the 1950’s alone.

So what happened? Why was there a rash of sub four-minute milers after Bannister, when for years no one seemed capable of either starting or joining this elite 239 second club?

Athletes in 1954 did not undergo some fundamental physical transformation. It’s now clear that many people actually had the raw ingredients necessary to break the four-minute mile record. What these four-minute wannabes lacked was the ability to see the mile record as truly obtainable. The barrier was mental.

This gulf between our capabilities and our mental assessment is one of the most profound disconnects in the human experience. When someone achieves beyond what we thought possible, we tend to elevate them above the rest of us, wondering what special quality allowed them to break those boundaries. We don’t always wonder what caused us to believe in those boundaries in the first place, or how real they ever were.

Bannister saw the goal as obtainable. His combination of preparation and perspiration is a basic winning formula for skill acquisition across a wide variety of enterprises, from math to music to athletic endeavors and beyond.

But those that followed in Bannister’s running steps are in some ways the real heroes. These athletes continue to push at the barriers for themselves—and for the rest of us.

“If they can do it, so can I,” is a mantra that has driven everything from learning to bake a cake to some of the most amazing technological advancements in human history.

“Nanos gigantum humeris insidentes,” as the medieval saying goes. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants. It’s much easier to see the possibilities of what lies ahead by capitalizing on the previous work of others.

When enough people do that, a barrier breaks under its own weight. The current mile record is held by Moroccan two-time Olympic gold medalist and “King of the Mile” Hicham El Guerrouj, at 3 minutes 34.13 seconds. El Guerrouj has held the honor since 1999, but if history is any predictor, it’s only a matter of time until the king is dethroned and the record is broken again—and again.

Why Your Mindset Might Be Throwing You Curveballs

Are you wired for success? And by “success”, I’m not necessarily talking about monetary reward.

In her paper “The Mindset of a Champion”, psychology professor Carol Dweck discusses the almost-professional baseball career of Billy Beane.

You might remember Billy Beane from Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball. Beane was the famous Oakland A’s general manager who enjoyed numerous successful seasons by combining competent scouting with a wonkish handle on baseball statistics.

Beane as a player is another story.  In high school, he was a natural athlete who enjoyed interest from professional teams in baseball, basketball and football. He was considered to be the next big thing, and yet his chosen career in baseball came up short. After stints with several different teams, he eventually washed out of the major leagues.

Was Billy wired for success as a big league player? Carol Dweck doesn’t think so. Dweck’s research focuses on the concept of mindset. The idea is that people’s brains are basically wired up through environmental interaction towards one of two mindsets.

To fixed mindset people, your abilities—or lack of abilities—are fixed traits, like your height or your deadly soy allergy. “In this view,” Dweck writes, “talents are gifts—you either have them or you don’t.” The fixed mindset sees setbacks as powerfully discouraging, since any bump along the way could be a hint you were never blessed with true talent.

What’s the other option? The growth mindset, which holds that people can cultivate and improve their abilities through hard work and learning. To those with a growth mindset, drawbacks and extra practice opportunities are simply part of the game. While the fixed mindset camp sinks their time into proving themselves, the growth mindset followers focus on improving themselves.

According to Dweck, growth mindset people tend to be more successful in a wide variety of endeavors because they demonstrate more grit in the face of adversity, and because sustained incremental improvement tends to pay off over time.

You may be like Billy Beane, born with exceptional talent, but like the tortoise and the hare parable, it’s the willingness to hang in there and keep plodding along on the road of self-improvement that eventually brings the win.

Unfortunately, Billy Beane’s natural talent combined with a history of being rewarded for skill over work ethic probably led him towards a fixed mindset. The reasoning goes something like this: superstars don’t and shouldn’t need to practice all that much. That’s why they’re a cut above, that’s what defines them as superstars.

The problem with this approach is that when adversity shows up, the ‘superstar’ has developed absolutely no mechanism for overcoming it. The need for additional help or practice is seen  as only highlighting one’s personal flaws.

The good news? Since mindset is just that, a state of mind, and since the plasticity of the brain means neural rewiring is an ongoing opportunity; Beane was ultimately able to pick up more of a growth mindset. Dweck believes this contributed to Beane’s eventual success as a GM with the A’s.

Interested in success? What mindset are you?

Read Like a Finder, Think Like an Artist

W. Edwards Deming might not be a household name, but his fingerprints are virtually all over the stuff in your house. That is, assuming you own anything made since the late 1960’s.

Born on October 14, 1900, Deming is considered by many to be the father of modern manufacturing principle. Particularly in Japan, he is hailed as a hero. After World War II, Deming traveled to the war-torn country as a statistician to help rebuild the economy. There, he developed his 14 key principles. These 14 commandments of modern manufacturing helped turn Japan into the global powerhouse it is today.

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The Real Da Vinci Code

Leonardo Da Vinci was born in Vinci, April 15th, 1452.  In his lifetime, he painted the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. He was a sculptor, musician, engineer, scientist and inventor. His sketchpads were filled with designs for helicopters, tanks, parachutes, paddleboats, bicycles, and even a repeating rifle.

By the time he died sixty-seven years later, he was considered to be one of the greatest minds of his century. Today there is plenty of support for the idea that Da Vinci might be, in fact, the greatest mind of all time.

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