Discover more from Michael Ian Black
I’m intrigued by altered states. Whether induced through drugs, meditation, near death experiences, or whether they just come about on their own like in these two examples, I’m fascinated by the contradiction by our everyday reality and the more expansive realities we’re sometimes shown. Is there a “real” reality? I have no idea. What I do know is that I have occasionally experienced alternate realities and that they are among my most profound memories.
My friend Michael Showalter and I started playing chess around the same time. We were in our 20’s, living in New York City, and we both got the bug. I don’t remember which of us started playing first, but one of us got the other one into it and for a while we were pretty well-matched. Soon, though, it became obvious that Michael was the stronger player. After a few months, I couldn’t beat him at all. Which makes the following story more inexplicable.
One afternoon, I was at his apartment and he asked if I wanted to play. I said sure, knowing it was hopeless, but I enjoyed the challenge. The game started normally enough, but then something happened which I’ve never discussed with anybody, not even him.
It’s kind of hard to explain but all of the sudden I was seeing the board for the first time. I don’t know how else to describe the sensation. It was almost as if every other time I had played, I was thinking about the board without seeing it but this time I was seeing it without having to think about it. And, of all the sudden, I knew exactly what move to make, what he would do in response, and then exactly how I would respond. I checkmated him within about ten moves.
Even in the moment, I couldn’t understand what was happening; it almost as though I was possessed. Like some old Russian chess master had taken over my body and was playing the game through me. It felt like I was experiencing the game both first-hand and second-hand, like it was me but it wasn’t me. When the game ended, so did the experience.
So, what was that?
Athletes talk about being in a “flow state,” in which it feels as though the body is acting on its own without thought or instruction. As an actor, I’ve experienced that flow state once before, during a play. I have a hard time describing it in words but I can describe it in an image. During one scene, something (I don’t have a better word) overcame me and I experienced doing the scene as – I know this sounds really weird – a column of fire. I felt as though a cold fire were coming out of my mouth when I spoke and erupting from my finger when I pointed at my scene partner. Again, the experience didn’t last long, only for the duration of the scene. Then it was gone, again, never to return. And, again, I’ve never discussed that feeling with anyone.
Actually, that’s not true. Once, during an interview with the singer Audra McDonald, I asked her what it felt like when everything was lined up correctly in her body and voice. I said I imagined it like a column of light shooting through her and she told me that’s precisely how it feels. I wanted to be like, “I know, right?” but it seemed inappropriate to compare myself to somebody who probably has a separate room in her apartment for her Tony awards.
What are these experiences?
The father of research into Flow was the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, pronounced: “Me high? Cheeks send me high!” and I think it’s fair to admit that the only reason I include him in this piece is to also include the pronunciation. The article I found which provided that handy pronunciation describes what happens to the brain during Flow:
In a state of flow, [the prefrontal cortex] is believed to temporarily down-regulate in a process called transient hypofrontality. This temporary inactivation of the prefrontal area may trigger the feelings of distortion of time, loss of self-consciousness, and loss of inner critic.
Moreover, the inhibition of the prefrontal lobe may enable the implicit mind to take over, allowing more brain areas to communicate freely and engage in a creative process (Dietrich, 2004). In other research, it’s been hypothesized that the flow state is related to the brain’s dopamine reward circuitry since curiosity is highly amplified during flow (Gruber, Gelman, & Ranganath, 2014).
Scientists are unsure why this happens, only that it does. Moreover, what I can tell you is that those two brief experiences are among the most pleasurable of my life. It’s hard to explain why they were so pleasurable except to say that it felt like, for a few moments, more alive. Like, hyper-alive. Ironically, that sense of hyper-aliveness came with an accompanying sense of feeling less individuated.
In the case of playing chess with Michael, I didn’t even feel like myself because I, The Other Michael, do not possess the chess skill I displayed during that game. Of course, chess is a game of perfect information (meaning that both players have access to all the available information during a game – nothing is hidden), so it’s possible that what was happening was that, for whatever reason, my mind was making unexpected connections that I normally do not see. How and why it happened at that time I have no idea.
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An idea that recently made its way into my dumb brain is that our five senses are not, as we commonly believe, the ways in which the world is revealed to us. Instead, our senses act as a filter so that we experience enough of reality to survive and succeed but not so much reality that we’re struck dumb. In other words, the real reality might be so overwhelming that we would be incapable of dealing with it.
If that sounds strange (the way it did to me when I first encountered this idea), remember that we already know we only naturally experience a sliver of the light spectrum and the audio spectrum; we know that dogs smell a hell of a lot more than we do. I’m sure the true is for taste and touch, as well. Our human senses are limited tools that evolved to best serve humans. Maybe our experience of reality is as limited as our experience of the light spectrum. When we enter Flow, maybe what’s happening is we’re somehow dipping our toes into the more expansive slipstream of real reality.
I can’t quite say my two experiences were “meaningful” in the sense that I can imbue them with any kind of purpose. What I can say is that I have often thought about them over the years and felt a yearning to retrieve that feeling. I just wish I knew how. Maybe I’ll smoke a fat DMT blunt to try to get it back. I don’t know. Of course, I have no idea where to get DMT and I’m not even exactly sure what DMT is. I just know that Joe Rogan smokes it and he’s my role model in all things. I’m not even sure what I experienced is traditional “Flow” or something more intense but shorter lived. I’m also aware that the more I write the word “Flow” the grosser it becomes.
I’m curious to know if you guys have experienced flow states, what you think causes them, if you’ve ever done anything to consciously try to enter them and whether or not those efforts were successful.