Here is the full transcript of Psychiatrist and addiction expert Judson Brewer‘s TEDx Talk: You’re Already Awesome. Just Get Out of Your Own Way! at TEDxRockCreekPark conference.
So what’s the difference between a fairy tale and a war story? A fairy tale begins ‘Once upon a time’. A war story starts ‘No shit, there I was.’ No shit, there I was barreling down this mountain bike descent near Salida, Colorado.
It was one of descents where there’s a whole lot of descent and not a lot of trail. So I was really focusing on just staying on the trail, and at some point in that ride, there was no me, no bike, not even a trail. There just ‘was’. That’s the best way I can describe it. It was effortless.
It was selfless. It was immensely joyful. I wasn’t there, yet there I was in one of the most awesome events of my life. When my sense of self came back on line, it looked back on the trail and said, ‘Wow, what was that? When can I do that again?’ This was flow. I was in the flow state and it was delicious.
Now, we’ve all been in flow at some point of our lives. Maybe we were playing sports, playing or listening to music, or even getting really immersed in a project. Let’s say, you get really immersed in a project, you look up, it’s five hours later, it’s dark outside, and your bladder’s about to explode because you’ve been so focused on what you’ve been doing. Now, if this is so great, why don’t we do this all the time? The answer: We get in our own way. Here’s an example.
Remember Lolo Jones, an American hurdler, favoured to win the 2008 Beijing Olympics? What do you remember? She was in the lead at the ninth of ten hurdles and then what happened? In an interview with Time magazine, she said, ‘I was just in this amazing rhythm, and at some point, I knew I was winning the race. It wasn’t like “Oh, I’m winning the Olympic gold medal”, it just seemed like another race. And then I started telling myself to make sure my legs were snapping out, so I overtried. That’s when I hit the hurdle.’ Instead of letting herself do what she had trained to do, she got in her own way.
She tripped herself up, literally. She tripped on the ninth of ten hurdles and finished seventh. Now this is an important point here. It’s not that she was thinking, it’s that she got caught up in thinking as she said ‘I overtried.’
So how often do you think we get in our own way? If this is any indication, there was a study at Harvard that found that 50 percent of the time we get caught up in regretting things from the past, worrying about what we’re going to do in the future, 50 percent of the time.
Even when we’re daydreaming about that perfect Hawaiian vacation, we’re no happier than when we’re in the present moment. They concluded that ‘A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.’ I’d amend this to: ‘Dude, get out of your own way! Flow is awesome and it doesn’t show up on drug tests.’
So as Lolo and these Harvard researchers are showing us, getting caught up in self-referential thinking can get us in our own way. Are there other ways that we can do this as well? Well, I’m an addiction psychiatrist at Yale, and my lab is looking at ways to help people quit smoking.
So what’s a craving like? Cravings are great, right? What’s a craving really feel like? Just think of that extra scoop of ice cream you wanted to have when you were on a diet, or maybe that car that was just outside of your price range. What does this really feel like? You think about it. We get all restless and squirmy, we break out into a sweat. This isn’t great, it sucks. I had a smoker tell me that his cravings were so strong he felt like his head would explode if he didn’t smoke.
So Lolo gets in her own way by getting caught up in thinking. These folks get in their own way by getting caught up in or resisting cravings. See the trend here? Getting caught up in and resisting. Flow is just being with all of this stuff. So we taught smokers mindfulness, how to really pay attention and just be with their cravings.
And what did they learn? The first thing they learned was these were just body sensations that were driving their lives. The next thing they learned was they could let these things come up, do their dance and go away. They didn’t have to get sucked in by them. They didn’t have to resist them. And their heads didn’t explode.
And they quit smoking. In fact, in a randomized controlled trial, we found that this training was twice as good as the gold standard, twice as good just by getting out of your own way. We’re taking this to the next level by using the exact technology that’s distracting us from the present moment to help smokers stay in the present. That’s right, iPhones. We can actually deliver this using videos and animations.
We can even give people in vivo exercises to help them really ride out their cravings the moment they come up. We also want to see what’s going on in people’s brains when they’re getting out of their own way. So here we brought in experienced meditators, folks who are really good as just ‘being’, to see what their brains would look like when they were meditating. So just to orient you, here’s a brain. And here’s a brain when you cut it down the middle minus all the blood and guts.
And here’s a network of brain regions called the default mode network. How do you think it got its name? Remember that 50 percent of the time when we’re not present? In fact, Marc Raichle and his colleagues at Washington University in St Louis serendipitously discovered this by giving people the simple task: lay in the scanner and don’t do anything in particular.
So what do we do when we don’t do anything in particular? Can you relate? Well, it turns out that experienced meditators – these brain regions in the default mode network get really quiet when they’re meditating. And this back part of the brain called the posterior cingulate, this part that gets activated when we’re craving, it gets activated when we’re anxious, when we’re getting in our own way, gets especially quiet during meditation.
So what can we learn from this? Well, I know Hollywood might give you a particular idea of what we scientists are like, but we’re actually pretty reserved. And we get really conservative when it comes to finding something new. How do we know our stuff’s any good? Maybe we missed something. So we turned to a new technique called ‘real-time fMRI neurofeedback’, where we can actually take a picture of people’s brains while they’re meditating and see what it looks like from moment to moment to moment. So we did this with novice and experienced meditators, and we just had them lay in the scanner, meditate with their eyes open, and then check in with the graph to see how well their brain activity was corresponding to their experience.
And they all reported a very good correspondence with increased activity in this posterior cingulate and getting in their own way, as well as decreased activity and being in a meditative state. So here’s an example of a novice meditator. Here’s an example of an experienced meditator.
Now, I’m not very good at statistics, but even I can tell the difference between these two brains. Further, some of our experienced meditators were reporting spontaneously getting into flow during these sessions, and seeing that this lined up with their posterior cingulates getting really, really quiet.
But wait, there’s more. Some of our novices were actually learning from this even though we weren’t telling them to. Here’s an example: This novice said, ‘Yes, the first run lined up with my experience’; ‘second run lined up with my experience’; and in the third run, he said, ‘Wait a minute, your neurofeedback thing doesn’t work. That thing was all red. The graph was all red but I was thinking about my breath. ‘What’s the problem here? Thinking about my breath.’ He got caught up in thinking.
In the very next run, only nine minutes after starting this experiment, his brain looked completely different. And he said, ‘Oh, I get it! The physical sensation of the breath. Oh!’ In just nine minutes, he learned the difference between getting caught up and getting out of his own way.
Not to say that he’s now a Buddha or can dunk on Michael Jordan, but perhaps he got a taste of flow. And just like my brain at the bottom of that mountain bike descent, he came out of that scanner and said, ‘Wow, what was that? When can I do it again?’ Reality is so much more delicious than our concepts of it. And if we can track it, we can train it. We can start to use what we’re learning from this neuroscience to develop tools, to help people learn, and really see what it’s like to get in our own way and get out into the flow of life.
So just to sum it up here, as our dear novice meditator showed us, this flow business is tricky business. We all can taste flow at moments of our lives, but how can we learn to get into it more and more and more? Well, we can learn from Lolo and our smokers. We can really start to pay attention. What it’s like when we get caught up in thinking? How is it different than just noticing thoughts come up? What’s it like when we get caught up in a craving or are resisting some experience? What’s this like, compared to just noticing these body sensations come up that are trying to tell us to do things and just being with them? And also, perhaps we can add a little bit of neurofeedback to help people practice this better. As Vince Lombardi said, ‘Practice doesn’t make perfect Perfect practice makes perfect.’
When we get out of our own way, we’re happier, we’re more engaged with the world, we’re more compassionate, and as a result, we can perform at our best. We all are awesome. We just have to get out of our own way. Thank you.