Santa Fe Institute

Superhuman: What are the limits to human performance?

July 18, 2016 3:53 p.m.

What cognitive and physiological factors combine in the development of the fine motor skills required to excel at ballet? How many hours of practice should it take to achieve mastery of the long jump? What leads surgical teams to rapidly increase their acumen in a new and difficult procedure?

A unique three-day workshop in Santa Fe in July, the Limits to Human Performance, jointly organized by SFI and Red Bull High Performance, brought together some three-dozen experts from every corner of knowledge related to extreme human endeavor.

The collaboration was co-sponsored by Red Bull High Performance and the Miller Omega Fund, a gift to SFI from Institute Chairman Emeritus Bill Miller.

SFI President David Krakauer and Red Bull High Performance CEO Andy Walshe kicked off the meeting, urging participants to report from the extremes in both individual and team-based activities, from athleticism to intellectual problem solving, and probe the frontiers of science that now illuminates these limits – or might.

The meeting followed an unusual format: each speaker delivered a 15-minute prepared talk followed by Q&A. But there was no agenda; when a speaker felt compelled, he or she added their name to a list on a white board at the front of the room, which served as the queue.

From surgeons to psychologists, military advisors to neurobiologists, nutritionists to stress experts, physicists to choreographers, the speakers trekked to the boundaries of their fields and back.

Anders Ericsson of the Cognitive and Expertise Lab at Florida State University spoke first, describing the physiological and neurological adaptations that occur in response to extreme physical activity in the complex process of acquiring expert performance.

Culture doesn’t seem to play a role, he noted. “Once you start looking at the hours athletes are dedicating [to achieve mastery], you find that it is consistent across cultures even though the starting points can be very different,” he said.

Xavier Schelling del Alcazar, applied sports scientist for the San Antonio Spurs, described the challenges of making team athletes better in a noisy environment, lamenting how little we really know.

It’s difficult to isolate the important factors in improving performance, he said; player decision making, skills, emotion, fitness, creativity, coaching, and more all go into the team’s model of performance, he said. And that’s just for individuals. “Anyone who solves the problem of the interplay between individual and team performance will be a millionaire.”

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