What Taoism and the flow state teach us about driving on the absolute limit

When it comes to performance psychology, for any given skill from trades to elite sports, a person's ability can be described as being at one of the following four levels.

Level one is unconscious incompetence. You don't yet know something can be done, so you've never even tried it.

Level two is conscious incompetence. You know something is possible because someone else has done it, but you now also know you can't do it yet. It's going to need practice, and probably the guidance of a good teacher.

Level three is conscious competence. At this level you can do this skill well enough to complete a related task, but you still have to think about it as you're doing it.

Level four is unconscious competence. It's literally like riding a bike after you've learned how. Your unconscious motor skills have reached a level where you don't need to put any of your conscious awareness towards the task of riding itself (the awareness is instead on other road users and where you're going; as it should be when driving also).

Bruno Senna demonstrating a McLaren MP4/4 his uncle Ayrton used in 1988. Photo: Shutterstock.

Bruno Senna demonstrating a McLaren MP4/4 his uncle Ayrton used in 1988. Photo: Shutterstock.

When a race driver is really good at level four, sports people might use the expression "don't think, just do." They might also refer to it as being "in the zone", where they have literally zoned out all distractions both external and internal, (meaning there were no unhelpful thoughts about the past or future, it was about just being in the present moment).

The ancient philosophy of Taoism (pronounced Daoism) would refer to this fourth level as the ability to do without trying. Taoists go along with the forces in the natural world rather than fighting against them.

A related term is hyperfocus, although that can have negative connotations. However, my view is it's because it's most often induced by some seemingly-frivolous activity like gaming or another engrossing hobby. But instead of learning how to channel this focus into other pursuits, kids may instead get reprimanded for focussing on the "wrong" thing. Then, as we age, grown-up worries fill our thoughts instead, making focus even harder.

In 1975 Hungarian-American psychologist and researcher Mihly Cskszentmihlyi popularised the term flow state. Cskszentmihlyi says that to enter the flow state you need a challenging goal or task that is still achievable for you, to become fully immersed in the activity, to pay attention only to what is happening in the here and now, and to learn to enjoy this immediate experience.

Most importantly, the flow state is a real thing. Using an electroencephalogram (EEG) to monitor test subjects, researchers in a lab setting are able to observe the change in brain activity when the flow state is achieved, and they see the very moment it's lost.

Moreover, it is also possible to artifically induce the flow state in the lab with a transcranial direct current stimulator to make someone much better at demanding tasks that require calmness and intense focus.

Helpfully, you can also regain or improve this ability to be in the moment and enter the flow state through meditation or mindfulness exercises. This will, as you get better at it, make you really good at toning down your inner mind chatter and improve your focus on the here and now. And it's measurable. EEG scans can see the improved gamma wave brain activity of high-level meditators.

To give you a famous motoring example of this total immersion, the late great Ayrton Senna didn't just reach that flow state for a minute or two, he sometimes managed it for almost entire races. The McLaren team learned this the hard way at Monaco in 1988. Their new star driver for that year had out-qualified then-two-time (ultimately four-time) champion and team mate Alain Prost by 1.427 seconds, and in the race he blasted off to a comfortable lead. But after they told him to ease off late in the race, he lost his concentration and crashed out.

Sam Hollier is an ACM journalist and a motoring fanatic who builds cars in his shed in his spare time.