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Time-shifting: How flow creates a time delay between experience and cognition

10 Jan 2014, Posted by admin in Flow Hacker Nation
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“Climbing inside an eight-foot eggshell.”

That’s how the late rock climber Michael Reardon described the pin-point focus needed to free solo the gnar.

In West of Jesus, I recount a story about a time Reardon was 110 feet off the deck in Joshua Tree, when a gigantic barn owl flew out of the crack he was climbing. It was so close to his face that he could actually count the tail feathers—yet he hardly noticed.

In flow, for stuff that’s not critically important to the now, the brain processes the information, but doesn’t deliver the message until later.

“It was like a small voice in my head said, ‘Oh look, that’s an owl,’ and then I made my next move.”

What I like about this story is how well it captures the intensity of task-specific focus in flow, but also how well it gets at the gap, the time delay, between sensory processing of extraneous information (meaning not task specific) and cognition.

In flow, for stuff that’s not critically important to the now, the brain processes the information, but doesn’t deliver the message until later.

Sometimes the delay is a millisecond, sometimes far longer. I’ve had experiences downhill mountain biking when I’m at the bottom of the run and instead of seeing normal reality out of my eyes, I get a cascade of flashes of the trip down, bits of detail about the trail, stuff I noticed on the way down. Because it wasn’t mission critical, it didn’t arrive in my conscious awareness until much later.

Of course, if you haven’t experienced this sensation, the above probably doesn’t make a ton of sense.

But check out this video of Kelly McGarry’s second place Red Bull Rampage run.

After he throws his first 360, you can hear the crowd roar—but they’re out of sight and the sound is muffled by wind and McGarry’s breathing.

Because we don’t have any easy visual cues (we can’t see the crowd) and the sound is mildly distorted (wind, breathing), it takes the brain an extra millisecond to figure out what that roar actually is… there’s a miniscule processing delay. This is very similar to what’s experienced in flow.

Anyway, by telling you about it in advance, I may have ruined the whole effect. But give it a shot and let me know. Post up your experiences to our Facebook page.

Joshua Tree Photo courtesy Elfidomx/Flickr