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Walk This Way

Going with the flow on the cutting edge of neuroscience at X Camp

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They hunch in swimsuits on cramped wooden benches, surrounded by firewood and snow-caked boots. Some steam, having just stepped from the sauna, sweat dripping from their noses. Others flush, having clambered up a four-metre snowpack from an icy river, their bodies glowing pink and eyes flashing like Christmas lights. One by one, they fit a space-age headband onto their skulls and then sit stone-still while their brainwaves are downloaded into an app on Brent Martin's phone.

The headband is a Muse 2, a multi-sensor EEG device widely employed by professional neuroscience researchers. Naturally, these days you can also buy one on Amazon, where it's marketed as a meditation aid. It's easy to see why: Muse 2 provides real-time feedback on brain activity, heart rate, breathing and body movement. In the case at hand, users are tracking their response to thermoregulatory stress. Can you be a more physiologically efficient sauna-er? A less-reluctant stream-plunger—à la the meditative approach of Dutch cold-water specialist Wim Hof. Of course you can, and biofeedback helps accelerate the process.

When each person is done, Martin shares their results with them. Some will even be able to compare today's physiological roller coaster with a baseline "neurocatch" recorded a few weeks prior. Regardless, they all nod thoughtfully at what they see on the screen. Then the hot clamber down to the river, and the cool head into the sauna, both likely contemplating the same thing: I can do better this time.

This is Flow science. This is X Camp.

Happy Campers

The ad went something like this: Join us at X Camp, a four-day backcountry gathering to stoke the soul and awaken the spirit. We'll combine the latest neuroplasticity and brain tech with embodied experiences to help you tap into Flow State and raise your game. So unplug your electronics and prepare for an exploratory journey of inner and outer discovery...

Further reading divined that on top of being able to enjoy ski-touring, movement classes, sauna, cold-water plunging, forest walks, meditating, and varied interpersonal exchanging, a range of professionals would train an assortment of brain and body technology on participants and each other, delivering experiential learning that might be converted to knowledge and action. Unstated, but of primary interest, was to learn more about Flow, an emerging field centred on improving human endeavour and potential. (If that immediately begs explanation, don't worry. Flow's first lesson? Be patient, we'll get to it).

The intriguing prospects of this inaugural event by Martin's Vancouver-based outfit, Backcountry Enlightenment, sounded promising enough for a dozen to sign on. Sure enough, no sooner did we variously arrive by snowcat, snowmobile, and cross-country ski to the exquisite backcountry digs of Journeyman Lodge in Whistler's Callaghan Valley to unplug, than the pros plugged in: theta-wave scanners, light/sound relaxation gear, action-potential stress evaluators, various brain stimulators, and, of course, the Muse 2. More important than this array of "digiceuticals" (therapies for a wide range of health issues delivered through mobile technology—Flow is chock-a-bloc with buzzwords), however, were the humans who hoped to learn how to turn our abundant powers into something less wasteful and more useful in our everyday lives—to optimize, so to speak.

In addition to co-organizers Martin—self-proclaimed Director of Mischief—and Greig Gjerdalen, a deep-nature explorer and instructor in Capilano University's outdoor program, X Camp featured maverick neuroscientist Dr. Ryan D'Arcy, body-movement expert Dr. Carla Cupido, somatic wizard Ian Watson (better-known to ski bros around Whistler as "Cheddar"), life and business architect Nick Banks, and functional medicine Neuro-Ninja Dr. Jan Venter.

Once assembled in the lodge, the group circled up for introductions and to offer insight into why each of us was there. The reasons that bubbled forth were probably more diverse—and informative—than any of us expected: some felt they were in a good place in life and wanted to share their good fortune with others; others had had a bad year, sought personal growth, were battling health issues, or needed to let go of some toxic emotional narrative; a few (including yours truly) were merely curious or there for the science. Though each of us was probably wondering what any of these things specifically had to do with Flow, the question was quickly answered: everything.

That first afternoon, with brilliant spring sun prevailing before a forecasted return to winter, Gjerdalen led a simple walk in the forest, challenging us at various points to bring awareness to our surroundings through stillness and silence. The goal was to immerse in the environment; what the Japanese call shinrin-yoku—forest bathing. It's amazing what you can see and hear and feel when you allow yourself to, and how awareness of the life that surrounds us changes both how we perceive and proceed. The physics of our stride might not change—we are, after all, evolutionarily engineered as ambulatory creatures—yet somehow our walking improves, as if freed from an unknown resistance. The sudden ease of passage helps us notice more. And then we feel even better—mood elevated, mentally sharper, physically emboldened. Something has clearly shifted. This is positive feedback, and it's a powerful thing, unleashing the intrinsic motivation at the heart of Flow.

And yes, now I suppose we better find out what that is.

State of Flow

By its very sound and the things people tend to apply the word to, "Flow" can come across as casual stoner talk. In fact, it boasts a solid academic pedigree.

A former head of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago, the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Lake Forest College, and now Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University, the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was the first to recognize, study and name the discipline with his seminal 1990 work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Therein, he describes a highly productive mental state in which people become so focused and absorbed that nothing else seems to matter. As it turns out, this also happens to be the state in which we experience the greatest sense of well-being.

Maybe you've called it being "in the zone" or "in a groove," but we have all, at some point, experienced the unique clarity of total engagement, fulfilment, and skill—whether while cooking, doing a puzzle, paddle-boarding, or something else. Csikszentmihalyi saw the Flow State as complete involvement in an activity for its own sake, but during which "The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."

Csikszentmihalyi conducted prodigious research into the precise components necessary to achieve Flow State, and a key finding was expressed in his construction of a challenge-skill matrix. This holds that to optimize outcome, a balance must be struck between the challenge of a task and the skill of the performer. When both challenge and skill are low and matched, Flow can't happen and apathy results; when both are high and matched, however, Flow occurs. It's easy to extend this concept to everything from learning curves for outdoor activities to major life goals—upward-leveraging skill and challenge are required to progress at anything, yet it's also a step-wise process that must be appropriately managed and nurtured over time. The product of such patient achievement is embodied in, say, Olympic athletes and chess players who train themselves to consistently perform at the highest possible levels.

Like many emerging fields, Flow is so new it's caught somewhere between cult status and neuro-scientific sub-discipline. Perhaps signalling that it's a bit of both, Flow has its own pop-cultural gurus in authors such as Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler (i.e., Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work), and was prominently featured in the New York Times ("How to Change Your Brain for $5,000"). But Flow has also entered the learning streams at universities, where myriad research is being conducted and surprising findings are being made.

As Venter would point out during an evening presentation at Journeyman Lodge, an underground "altered state economy" sees the global population spend $4 trillion each year to alter our consciousnesses through personal growth modalities, recreational pursuits, various media, and drugs, both legal and not. It's no surprise to discover we spend so much coin to change our state of being, but Flow, done right, it's claimed, can provide a less costly hack to any of this. If this is starting to sound like flaky New Age pseudo-medical claptrap, fear not: the empirical brain-science results unequivocally show there's something to it.

Among the brain changes measured during Flow State are the following: an expected elevation in focus, but also a faster processing of information from a wider array of sources; increased neural connections, neuroplasticity, lateral thinking, and pattern recognition; a reciprocal relationship between flow and creativity; higher, more-successful risk-taking; and the triggering of powerful intrinsic motivation by a flood of addictive neurochemicals. Together these observations suggest that the hackneyed expression "adrenaline junkie" could be replaced by "Flow junkie"—a craving for the sheer enjoyment of high performance and being as good as you can be.

Studies show that being able to regularly achieve Flow State in almost any pursuit can also cut the path to mastery (a.k.a., Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours) in half by accelerating problem-solving and learning (up to 230 per cent), increasing performance (500 per cent), and spiking creativity (700 per cent). Yes, these are huge numbers. And right behind them is the finding that people with the most Flow in their lives (looking your way Sea-to-Sky outdoor enthusiasts) are among the happiest people on Earth.

Finding the Flow

During our four days at Journeyman, things were happy indeed. Meals were artful, carefully curated productions by the lodge's chef, and while we ate, talk about the empirically studied benefits of various food items was a reminder of how important nutrition is in order for people to function optimally—and hence, how central to the idea of Flow.

As enumerated by Venter, nutrition is but one of the fundamentals of Flow, others being sleep (obvious), hydration (ditto), social network and relationships (keep these positive), heart-rate variability training (remember the Muse 2?), and transient hypofrontality—which merits more than parenthetical explanation. This last references the ephemeral state, under certain conditions, when the focused thinking part of our brain takes a rest, allowing other parts and functions to dominate; for instance, you might leave your desk to go for a run and find that by actually turning off your brain you're suddenly able to solve a multitude of mental tasks that have otherwise eluded you.

We'd begun our first full day the way we would start each of them—with a short meditation led by Martin. There were only a few of us there who had never meditated.

"What do you need to do?" asked one.

"Nothing," replied Martin.

"That should be easy," came the answer, "I do that all the time."

This lighthearted descent into quietude seemed as it should, before ramping up into a movement clinic with Cupido that included breath-work (anyone who does yoga knows how respiratory awareness drives attention into the Now), as well as strength, stretch, and balance training. It wasn't Connor McDavid miraculously rehabbing a destroyed knee in record time without surgical intervention, but these "fully-loaded" exercises were similarly aimed at getting us to our physical best faster and more often. With this wind in our sails, we set out ski-touring into a storm that had delivered 20 centimetres of snow overnight and would eventually leave a metre.

The usual metronomic uphill slog to the goods came with new, meditative meaning, and after lunching on a bench with the wind swirling under our hoods, we dropped in. I was immediately physically aware of having a great run. Despite my initial worry of breaking through solar-affected crust under the new snow, I literally danced down, more light-footed than I can remember. Afterward, it dawned on me that my long familiarity with this activity was a quick on-ramp to the Flow State, that I likely always had 100-per-cent focus on a backcountry run (and possibly more on the pistes of Whistler Blackcomb given the reckless and unpredictable human element). So much so that I'm not even aware of the myriad sensory inputs I'm managing at high speed. Could I apply this to other areas of my life?

Skiing is easy for me to write about, but there were other, just-as-impactive activities whose effects are harder for me to describe. While Martin collected more data at the sauna/stream (among other things I could eventually walk more than a kilometre on snow in bare feet—not exactly a new superpower, but close), Watson conducted somatic investigations into sympathetic (alarm and reaction) vs. parasympathetic (rest and restore) nervous responses, leading both discussions and exercises highlighted by a zipline session. For her part, Cupido, a chiropractor with yoga and other body movement training, now shifted to helping people with chronic issues of pain and injury. Banks held life-mission-analysis sessions, discussing creating vs. consuming in various aspects of life, work and relationships, the message being that when you're creating you have the most energy and are truly in Flow State—even when creating the creating. That addendum seems kind of meta, but I think I got what he meant: everything we do is a nested Zen set of intention.

When he could, Venter wielded his considerable digiceutical kit to stimulate brains with light, sound, electricity, waves, particles, and magnetic energy. He noted that whatever the range of electrical toys, puzzles, or card games employed, the long-term goal was the same: to achieve a balanced brain—as if it were a car you were learning to put into second, third, and reverse gear as opposed to the first gear most people function in.

Gjerdalen, who'd become interested in the science after experiencing real Flow States mountain biking with his buddies, led another round of forest bathing. This time we were on skis and snowshoes during a gentle snowfall. As our teetering mob walked off into the woods, we looked like a zombie apocalypse in winter. This time, Gjerdalen asked us to try and use all our senses as we followed him in silence; my revelation from this was understanding that wind was not one sound but hundreds, as air glanced off of and around every object in its path. At one point, the group split up for 10 minutes of alone time. Through curtains of snow, I found myself thinking about the health of the forest, the different tree ages, the old-man's beard on the branches; touching the trunk of an ancient, stunted hemlock snag, I found a live spider under a piece of bark, a discovery made in my own nature-Flow State that I excitedly relayed when we circled up to talk about what we'd experienced.

While I was having physical and biological epiphanies, others were having emotional revelations. Meaning there were as many tears as smiles during some of the activities—though mostly tears of joy and release. "My original idea was for this to be a combination of Wanderlust, Cirque du Soleil, and Burning Man," Martin told me. "So I'm not surprised at all the emotional stuff that comes out. People get out of their heads and into their hearts when they're exposed to an opportunity to heal through fun, adventurous activity."

Near the end of camp, we'd gone around the room stating what each of us thought the mission we set out for the weekend was, whether it had come to fruition, and how it could be transferred to our personal lives for sharing—a legacy, if you will. No one had really thought about this and so, no surprise that each and every post-hoc analysis was different. After being initially flummoxed, I decided that my mission was to gather and leave more knowledge; with so much denial and delusion in the world right now, it's what I feel I can reasonably contribute to the future. It was both revelation and clarion call.

Lest this all sound like ice cream and balloons, rest assured that Flow, also a feature of numerous ancient traditions, is as susceptible as any other emergent field or fad to the seeker mentality—that person who goes after one peak state after another, looking for something to integrate into their life they never truly find, plumbing whatever cultural cachet they cross for these balms. "There's going to be some carnage before it all settles down," notes Martin. "It's like all the drug experimentation in the 1960s—it led to a war on drugs and the shutting down of research on the merits or dangers of these substances, but now that's all back on."

With our X Camp scenes alternating between the intimate comfort of Journeyman Lodge and the huge expanse of empty wilderness beyond, it wasn't always obvious that the science of Flow wasn't just the dabbling of a few, but a global effort toward overall human improvement. This all-embracing thought is embodied in something called the "Flow Genome Project" (flowgenomeproject.com) an interdisciplinary global collection of academics, athletes (count the ubiquitous Jimmy Chin among these), artists and Fortune 500 business leaders who've dedicated themselves to "taking Flow from the extreme to the mainstream." The basic intent is to advance Flow science and train individuals and organizations to harness it in daily life, but the ultimate mission is to reverse-engineer the Flow State itself—that is, break it down into its various physiological, neurological and psychological components to share with humankind at some point in the near future.

That's a big prescription, and while we wait for this planetary makeover to come to fruition (or not), we can all follow our own paths to doing things better and enjoying them more. Which is where gatherings like X Camp come in, opening doors to the how and why. Did I learn anything new out there concerning things I engage in routinely? Absolutely. Could I still do even better at some of them? You bet.

Further X Camps have since been held in the Chilcotins and on Gambier island. The next X Camp at Journeyman Lodge scheduled for April has been postponed. Visit xcamp.ca for details.