Monday, March 01, 2010

Overdrive - Formula 1 in the zone

"I definitely felt God's presence with me when I was a driver. When I was young I even tried to use God to help in my career. That was a mistake because even though He helped me a lot, He delivered a lot of bad accidents." (Alex Dias Ribeiro, Overdrive, p176.)

Philosopher Thomas Nagel famously argued that consciousness is defined by the fact that there is something which it is like to be the subject of experience: "An organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism — something it is like for the organism," (What is it Like to Be a Bat? 1974, p436). Ineluctably, it follows that there is also something which it is like to be a racing driver.

Overdrive, by the pseudonymous 'Clyde Brolin', is first and foremost a book about what it is like to be a racing driver in the Zone. In this state of mind, a driver attains mental clarity, he feels at one with his car, and driving fast at the very limit becomes effortless. Accessing this mental state requires the relaxation of the conscious mind, permitting the subconscious to take control. Under these conditions, the consciousness of the driver is able to sit back and observe, from an almost disinterested perspective, the actions of his own body.

The effectiveness of this state of mind, not just in motor racing, but in all sports and high-performance physical activities, is perhaps unsurprising. Estimates of the amount of information stored in the brain, and the manner of its storage, vary, but one set of calculations suggests that whilst the brain can store somewhere between 1010 and 1015 bits of information, the amount of information which can be consciously held at the forefront of the mind, is only between 1 and 10 million bits, a quantity of information comparable to that coded in a single book, (The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, Barrow and Tipler, p136-137). Hence, it is the interplay between the consciously held information and the far greater quantity of subconscious information, which holds the key to sporting performance.

As Brolin explains, many drivers in the Zone also have the ability to slow down the subjective flow of time. This capability is common amongst all sportsmen, and can also be experienced outside sport in moments of great danger, such as the fractions of a second just before a car crash. It is a phenomenon which has attracted the interest of various scientists, and two possible explanations for the stretching of subjective time have been proposed: it could be due to an acceleration in some neurophysiological clock, or it could be a trick of memory. Neuroscientist David Eagleman, of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, for example, has conducted experiments which lead him to believe the latter:

An intense experience, with heightened fear or excitement, rivets our attention and evokes the firing of many neurons across the brain...causing us to soak up more sensory details...Richer memories seem to last longer...because you assume you would have needed more time to record so many details..."You lay down denser memory [claims Eagleman]. When you read it back out, you think 'Gee, that was taking a long time'."

Yet Brolin suggests that racing drivers are not only able to stretch time when they are in the Zone, but many are also subject to Out-of-Body Experiences (OBEs). The most famous cited incidence of this occurred to Ayrton Senna in practice for the Monaco Grand Prix in 1988: "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."

Such experiences go well beyond the transfer of control to the subconscious; rather, they involve a loss of self-identity, and a weakening of the sense that one's spatial location is fixed somewhere just behind the eyes. Nevertheless, scientists believe Out-of-Body Experiences have a rational explanation, and one reason for this is that pharmaceutical products, such as ketamine, are known to induce very similar mental states. Such chemicals merely change the physiological state of the brain, hence if OBEs can be induced by chemical products, it follows that such experiences can be explained in neurophysiological terms.

Various religious rituals have also long been known to induce such mental states, and this has attracted the interest of researchers such as Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The parietal lobe in the brain is thought to be at least partially responsible for the conscious sense of self and spatial location, and brain scans conducted on religious devotees engaged in meditation, suggest that the parietal lobe temporarily shuts downs in such experiences:

"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...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 Newberg. 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 really mysterious thing about Brolin's book, is that despite ten years' worth of research, there is no mention, not even in passing, of such scientific research. In fact, the reader could almost gain the impression that no such research exists. Moreover, Brolin makes a frequent point of claiming that there is no rational, logical explanation for the experiences of racing drivers in the Zone:

"By pushing to the limit and beyond [Senna] found standard rational explanations no longer sufficed," (p12); "our vocabulary becomes deficient outside the range of the purely logical and tangible," (p19); "few could come up with a rational explanation for what happens at these 'peak' moments," (p23); "What drivers go through at these special times thus defies all logic. So is it beyond the scope of rational thought to bend time from the confines of the cockpit?" (p117); "This is an indication of the untapped potential held within our subconscious, but quite how it happens remains beyond simplistic logical explanation," (p120); "logic and rationality begin to stumble when you start seeing without using your eyes," (p140); "Some of the worldly wizardry described in these pages defies rational explanation," (p186); "Looking into the future may sound beyond the bounds of rational explanation," (p193); "They go beyond to new heights where rational language cannot suffice," (p227).

The author is putting an awful lot of effort into trying to convince the reader that there are things beyond rational explanation, and this seems to be crucial to the overall philosophical development of the book. Brolin begins with the testimonies of racing drivers who have been in the Zone, and then infers from these testimonies that such drivers have experienced something spiritual. From the spiritual, he then segues into the religious. And, by the final chapters of the book, we have drifted quite a distance from the Zone, and quite overtly into the accounts given by various sportsmen of their 'relationship with God'. Eventually, we are told that the Zone is a "gateway to the divine," (p157), and that "the Zone is one indication that we are all linked to the same source," (p228).

However, whilst the book suffers from this philosophical flaw, it is still a unique and fabulous work. The author has extracted a gripping and fascinating collection of lucid recollections from many of the most famous names in motorsport. Brolin has essentially unearthed a whole world of private experience which has received little prior attention. The accounts rendered of being in the Zone should be treated as a treasure-trove for psychologists and neuroscientists, and even the more overtly religious testimonies later in the book can be seen as an interesting anthropological study of the beliefs held by certain modern tribes. Buy it!

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