Saturday, January 02, 2010

Ayrton Senna and religious experience

In practice for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix, Ayrton Senna was driven to a previously inaccessible level of performance by his desire not just to beat, but to destroy team-mate Alain Prost. Two seconds a lap quicker than Prost at one stage, Senna subsequently recalled attaining a mental state in which his subconscious mind had gained control, and in which he sensed the opportunity to go even faster, but feeling vulnerable, he decided to step back:

"Suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was kind of driving by instinct, only I was in a different dimension. I was way over the limit, but still I was able to find even more. It frightened me because I realised I was well beyond my conscious understanding."

There is a common suggestion that Senna believed he had a religious experience that day. One can hypothesise that as Senna concentrated with laser-like intensity on the rhythm of driving through the unwinding tunnel of barriers at Monte Carlo, he induced himself into a trance-like brain-state, and that what scared him was the feeling of an imminent loss of self-identity, the same feeling commonly induced by many shamanistic religious rituals. In particular, by looking at brain scans conducted on religious devotees engaged in meditation, one can hypothesise that the part of Senna's parietal lobe responsible for the conscious sense of self was shutting down:

Broadly speaking, the left-hemisphere side of this region deals with the individual's sense of their own body image, while its right-hemisphere equivalent handles its context — the space and time inhabited by the self. Maybe, the researchers thought, as the meditators developed the feeling of oneness, they gradually cut these areas off from the usual touch and position signals that help create the body image.

"When you look at people in meditation, they really do turn off their sensations to the outside world. Sights and sounds don't disturb them any more. That may be why the parietal lobe gets no input," says [Andrew] Newberg [a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia]. Deprived of their usual grist, these regions no longer function normally, and the person feels the boundary between self and other begin to dissolve. And as the spatial and temporal context also disappears, the person feels a sense of infinite space and eternity.

The mystical aura which surrounds Senna's achievements in the sport, and raise them above the achievements of Michael Schumacher in the minds of many, can be attributed in large part to what Senna believed he experienced that day at Monaco, and the vivid manner in which he was able to communicate those experiences. Whilst Senna's beliefs were in a sense delusional, those delusional beliefs may well have been directly responsible for permitting him to access levels of performance denied to other drivers.


Sean said...

I meet Senna in the early eighties when he was in F3, I have his autograpgh on a copy of F1 International magazine (remember that) He never came across to me as a religious type of guy, but the religious people I know and have meet all seem to be very disciplined, I suppose you have too be to fly planes into buildings.

I think there is a famous experiment where they cut of the brain of a bird to see if it can still fly, surprise surprise it
does. I think its an example of of a polysynaptic reflex arc.

Top sportsman in particular are very capable of getting their brain to train their
bodies to behave in very precise ways, repeatably. Blocking out pain, getting just the right pressure on the break pedal ect.

You can do this yourself my going on the treadmill at the gym, you will start crap but if you keep at it you will get better and better and you will become addicted to the transcendental experience you can summon up.

I do think this is very different to the results of fighter pilots which I commented on the other week. You always have a creme in any walk of life, but these guys are a cream of a cream, the results speak for themselves, maybe Senna should have reached for the next stage?

Gordon McCabe said...

You mean Grand Prix International magazine Sean? I certainly do remember that; in fact, it had a huge influence on me. Firstly, it endowed me with a well-defined sense of what constitutes great photography, and secondly, it demonstrated that motorsport journalism could be lyrical, and evocative, as well as informative and analytical.