Why racing your ghost in marathons (or Mario Kart) actually works.

Josh Hutchinson’s wonderful piece at the Walrus outlines the limits of brain science and how tweaking our internal motivation systems can push our bodies to amazing things. It also featured this little nugget on how racing an avatar of a past successful performance can spur an even more successful new one.

A champion marathoner and a champion horse are both physiological marvels; the difference is, the marathoner understands that he is in a race. In a study published last year, researchers asked experienced cyclists to ride all out for 4,000 metres on stationary bikes in a virtual-reality lab. The subjects then returned to the lab twice more to compete against a virtual avatar that represented their first performance.

Not surprisingly, the “competition” spurred the cyclists to finish a bit faster, beating their previous bests by 1 percent on average, a significant improvement for a trained athlete. But on one of the return visits, the researchers secretly sped up the virtual avatar by 2 percent. Faced with a task they believed (or thought) to be physically feasible, the cyclists struggled valiantly and improved their performance even more, by 1.7 percent. All three races were “maximal,” but competition — just like the Tylenol or the rigged thermometers in other studies — enabled the human racers to make incremental gains, pushing back the limits set by their central governors in a way that no horse ever could.

I had a roommate in college who was obsessed with racing his ghost in Super Mario Kart. There’s a poetic metaphor in there somewhere about achieving a future better self…