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kottke.org posts about Natalia Molchanova

Attention Deconcentration and the Secrets of Freediving

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 22, 2021

This is a lovely, almost poetic piece by Daniel Riley about the sport of freediving and one of the best freedivers in the world, Alexey Molchanov.

Freediving is, after all, a lifelong opportunity to radically reshape one’s body and mind in the process. In pursuing depth, humans must train their lungs and brains to unlock secret sources of clarity and strength and oxygen and potential that are hidden within the body. They are secrets that, once revealed, make the divers not just more effective at their craft, they argue, but more effective, conscious, skillful, and thoughtful as human beings. There is a shift in perspective. A global realignment within one’s consciousness. The look in their eyes when they talk about this thing…every diver who’s gone truly deep sounds like those rarest of individuals who’ve seen the earth from the moon, or died and been resuscitated.

Alexey learned how to excel in the sport of freediving from his mother Natalia Molchanova:

When Alexey was younger, his mother, Natalia Molchanova, was the world’s best freediver, a distinction that she held for many years. She was a pioneer in the sport and the practitioner of a mind-and-body-control technique called “attention deconcentration.” She passed her secrets to her son, who perfected them and uses the regimen to reach a state of intense calm. By doing so, he can slow his heart rate, his metabolic rate, while simultaneously slowing the activity of his brain and his body. His focus deepens. He relaxes to the point of seeming asleep. He takes deep, drowsy breaths, like a summer breeze filling a sail.

I first learned about freediving from Alec Wilkinson’s 2009 piece in the New Yorker, where Natalia explained attention deconcentration:

To still the unbidden apprehensions that might interfere with her dive - what she describes as “the subjective feeling of empty lungs at the deep” — Molchanova uses a technique that she refers to as “attention deconcentration.” (“They get it from the military,” Ericson said.) Molchanova told me, “It means distribution of the whole field of attention — you try to feel everything simultaneously. This condition creates an empty consciousness, so the bad thoughts don’t exist.”

“Is it difficult to learn?”

“Yes, it’s difficult. I teach it in my university. It’s a technique from ancient warriors — it was used by samurai — but it was developed by a Russian scientist, Oleg Bakhtiyarov, as a psychological-state-management technique for people sho do very monotonous jobs.”

I asked if it was like meditation.

“To some degree, except meditation means you’re completely free, but if you’re in the sea at depth you will have to be focussed, or it will get bad. What you do to start learning is you focus on the edges, not the center of things, as if you were looking at a screen. Basically, all the time I am diving, I have an empty consciousness. I have a kind of melody going through my mind that keeps me going, but otherwise I am completely not in my mind.”

After reading both of these great pieces, you can check out one of Molchanov’s recent world record dives:

Attention Deconcentration

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 24, 2009

It’s a bummer that Alec Wilkinson’s article on free diving isn’t available online (except for NYer subscribers)…it’s fascinating and right up the alley of the relaxed concentration/deliberate practice enthusiast. One of the two divers profiled uses a technique called attention deconcentration to govern her body and mind as she dives.

To still the unbidden apprehensions that might interfere with her dive — what she describes as “the subjective feeling of empty lungs at the deep” — Molchanova uses a technique that she refers to as “attention deconcentration.” (“They get it from the military,” Ericson said.) Molchanova told me, “It means distribution of the whole field of attention — you try to feel everything simultaneously. This condition creates an empty consciousness, so the bad thoughts don’t exist.”

“Is it difficult to learn?”

“Yes, it’s difficult. I teach it in my university. It’s a technique from ancient warriors — it was used by samurai — but it was developed by a Russian scientist, Oleg Bakhtiyarov, as a psychological-state-management technique for people sho do very monotonous jobs.”

I asked if it was like meditation.

“To some degree, except meditation means you’re completely free, but if you’re in the sea at depth you will have to be focussed, or it will get bad. What you do to start learning is you focus on the edges, not the center of things, as if you were looking at a screen. Basically, all the time I am diving, I have an empty consciousness. I have a kind of melody going through my mind that keeps me going, but otherwise I am completely not in my mind.”

I found only one other reference online to attention deconcentration, an article on free diving written by Natalia Molchanova herself. In it, she talks about the three types of attention deconcentration: visual, aural, and tactile.

Rising from the depth, it is important to constantly scan your condition to prevent shallow water black-out, which can occur without any discomfort sensations. Somatic attention deconcentration appears to be extremely useful in this situation. Somatic AD implies attention distribution on the whole volume of the body and allows noticing tiny changes of organism state.

There is one more kind of AD — aural attention deconcentration. It is not so effective in the water, but it helps preparing to the dive and not to be distracted by judge’s countdown.

It’s interesting that both the attention deconcentration and flow techniques are designed to get the practitioner to basically the same place (i.e. ready to perform difficult tasks) from opposite directions.

Somewhat related, a reader (thx, martin) recently sent in a link to The Game, a mind game with an unusual objective:

The Game is an ongoing mind game, the objective of which is to avoid thinking about The Game itself. Thinking about The Game constitutes a loss, which, according to the rules of The Game, must then be announced. How to win The Game is not defined in the rules; players can only attempt to avoid losing for as long as possible. The Game has been described alternately as pointless and infuriating, or as a challenging game that is fun to play.

Update: Sad news. Natalia Molchanova failed to surface after a dive in the Mediterranean Sea and is presumed dead.

Update: Wilkinson wrote about Molchanova’s presumed death shortly after she disappeared.