” The Rise of Superman” book review

— Reviewed by Alan Bachers, Ph.D.

Steven Kotler’s just published book will be of interest to anyone providing or receiving neurofeedback, especially in areas of peak performance. Framed largely through the stories of exceptional athletes’ attainment of world record shattering results, Kotler makes the state of Flow the centerpiece of his explanation for their accomplishments. Flow, from the 1990 book of that title by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (me-high Chick-sent-me-high) is characterized by: extreme focus to the exclusion of anything else, effortless transcendence of already well-learned skills, time distortion, vanishing of “self” into seamless action, high-speed problem-solving, and often a sense of merging with a transpersonal, universal force. These states are accompanied by “transient hypofrontality” (lessening of inputs from the frontal lobes) – the disappearance of cognitive “second-guessing” into boundary melting fluidity of creative, automatic, altered-state awareness of exceptional performances beyond previous limits.

Anyone familiar with neurofeedback will quickly find the descriptions of Flow, and its consequences, to be quite identical to what trainees report over time. That makes the writing an excellent way to language neurofeedback to those arriving for peak performance work. It was striking to me the extraordinary effort athletes need to expend to accomplish Flow and exceptional performance when neurofeedback might provide experiences of Flow as the default state of everyday life, rather than the relatively rare occurrence in the expenditure of superhuman effort. We already see training translate into unordinary and exceptional accomplishments across the entire range of human experience. How such basic training in neurofeedback might translate into more common or more easily obtained personal bests throughout one’s life would make a fascinating study.

Kotler uses many examples of athletes’ trials, successes, and failures to expand the notion of peak performance attainment. Among these is the skill/challenge ratio in which the challenge should be only about 4% beyond the individual’s skill level for incremental progress to occur, accumulations of which set the stage for occasional exceptional leaps in competitive situations. The “born with” vs. grown into talent issue favors the latter, in that even with demonstrable gifts, most high performance winners require training to attain or keep their edge.

Many criteria of addiction are fulfilled in the compulsion in sensation-seeking, impulsive, otherwise poorly regulated individuals to attain the one-pointed consciousness in extreme, often life-threatening trials, bringing mastery, accomplishment, physiologic and psychologic ecstasy – and their sometimes heroic status within their circumscribed worlds. Similar to modern addictionology, these performances provide, in some, the only access to states of ecstasy, release from the ordinary, and momentarily transhuman experience. Csikszentmihalyi favors Flow as an “escape forward” from current reality and sees drugs as an “escape backward.” Audiences of individuals less proficient, yet attuned to the rigors of the particular discipline by their own efforts or interest, participate mirror neuron style and are carried toward their own ecstatic states in the presence of such performances. Crowd effects potentiate the transcendent experience, to which we are all attracted in many ways, seeking union in performances of every kind.

Late in the book he describes the dark side of peak performance in those who die trying for its attainment. The Flow experience that (sometimes) accompanies pushing beyond one’s limits, Kotler notes, can become unnecessarily attached to the activity that seemingly produced the Flow, rather than Flow being actually a much more universally attainable experience. The answer to whether Flow occurs as a natural consequence of popping beyond one’s boundaries, or is sought in itself as a side-effect of only pushing spirals of more, farther, faster, etc., is really a both/and reply. The final chapters deal with attainment of Flow and its benefits in ordinary circumstances and endeavors.

The Rise of Superman is well written, full of modern science, and will bring any neurofeedback adherent farther along in their appreciation of the Flow state which is an inherent aspect of most training. Also, it provides language and context that will enrich any peak performance work for which people arrive.

A quote from Sigfried Othmer is pertinent here: “All neurofeedback is peak performance training.”