How long can you hold a breath? The average adult can manage 30 seconds. Can you reach one minute? Perhaps two? Can you fathom reaching nine minutes, two seconds? Natalia Molchanova achieved that time, the women’s world record in static apnea—holding her breath while motionless in a pool—in 2013.
Molchanova, considered by many to be the greatest freediver in history, had established 41 freediving records and 23 world championship titles across many disciplines. She could sit motionless in static water, dive more than 100 meters deep on a single breath, swim weighted or unweighted for hundreds of feet without surfacing.
Reaching the pinnacle of her sport, Molchanova at 53, suddenly disappeared off the coast of Spain during a recreational dive on a sunny August morning in 2015. Her body was never found.
Fast-forward to a sunny July morning in 2021, Alexey Molchanov is at the pinnacle of the sport that was once dominated by his mother. At 34, Alexey has broken nearly every freediving record imaginable. He broke yet another his own world record, this time at the prestigious Vertical Blue 2021 in the Bahamas, in a discipline called Constant Weight with a dive of 131 meters (or about 43 stories). In Constant Weight, competitors can dive with the assistance of a small amount of weight and the fin, or fins, on their feet. This is the deepest dive that anyone has ever attempted in the history of the competition.
Freediving is sometimes described as the world’s second most dangerous activity, after jumping off skyscrapers with parachutes. Another way to think of what freedivers doing: Free Solo but for drowning. Free Solo but down.
In freediving, men and women descend as deep as they can on a single breath and then reach the surface consciously. In a competition, if they pass out five seconds after reaching the surface their dive doesn’t count. There are eight disciplines in freediving, three of which take place indoors in a pool and involve holding one’s breath and swimming as far as one can underwater on a single breath. The other five are deep-water disciplines. Constant weight is the most prestigious event among them. Alexey, like his mother, excelled at this event.
I first learned about Alexey Molchanov from a lovely piece by Daniel Riley in GQ about the sport of freediving and the best freediver in the world. When Alexey was younger, his mother, Natalia Molchanova became a freediver at the age of 40, was the world’s best freediver and the practitioner of a mind-and-body-control technique called “deconcentration of attention.” 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.
Natalia said deconcentration of attention came from ancient warriors and was used by samurai, and that in Russia it had been adapted and developed for people who held very boring jobs. It involved moving one’s attention to the periphery of one’s awareness, against the imperative of the eye, which is trained to focus. It was a form of meditation. The idea was to abandon thoughts and to turn completely inward, to be aware of the whole of the body, to lose the outside picture and the distraction of the thinking mind, to embrace sensation, to lose contemplation. In this state, the diver is in touch with bodily processes through feeling, not thinking.
Deconcentration of Attention
According to “Deconcentration of Attention: addressing the complexity of software engineering” by Igor Kusakov, the term “deconcentration of attention,” or DA, was developed by a Russian scientist Oleg Bakhtiyarov in the 1980s as a psychological-state-management technique for people who do very monotonous but challenging jobs under a complex, extreme environment. An example of such a challenge was the task to enable nuclear power plant operators to monitor many indicators simultaneously in an efficient manner.
Another exotic example in which “DA” was applied in situations in which Soviet cosmonauts experienced occasional hallucinations during early space flights. There were incidents in which cosmonauts reported seeing their relatives visiting them on the space station or a dog running around. Such hallucinations were attributed to the new and unknown factors associated with space travel such as extreme accelerations and zero gravity. The task of Bakhtiyarov’s team was to develop psychological techniques to enable cosmonauts to remain calm and continue to perform their duties regardless of any hallucinations or pressure they might be experiencing.
The concept of deconcentration states that as a mind is capable of concentrating its attention on an individual element, a mind can also deliberately de-concentrate its attention. In this way, the attention spreads equally over a certain area, which allows for an efficient approach to some tasks that would be quite difficult otherwise.
Existing studies state that concentrative attention has a maximum capacity of 5-9 objects at any moment. In practice, this capacity is even less for a comfortable level. The ideal target for concentration is one single object. Maintaining concentration on multiple objects simultaneously tires the attention quickly. Addressing multiple objects simultaneously for a prolonged period of time is possible only via deconcentration.
A good example of a common activity in which deconcentration of attention occurs to a certain extent is driving a car. Concentrating on anything for too long while driving is dangerous. Instead, a driver spreads attention on everything in front of him and around him, without focusing on anything in particular. It is very interesting to notice how deconcentrated attention pinpoints whatever requires concentrative attention at any given moment.
This type of deconcentration allows holding attention to a large system that consists of many elements. It allows the data to be structured in a dimensional manner by providing an opportunity to maintain attention on multiple points of view simultaneously. It also provides a way to interact with background thinking because deconcentrated attention is a better tool to track elusive and vague background mental signals.
One way to see the difference between the concentration and deconcentration is to see it as a difference between the foreground and background. Concentration (conscious) is the tool to work with the foreground. Deconcentration (subconscious) is the tool to work with the background.
With background thinking a mind is given a goal, loaded with data, and after some time (days, weeks, months, years), the result appears. Although a partitioner may not notice any progress at all, at some point the solution simply appears, seemingly out of nowhere. Psychologically speaking background thinking is the use of “subconscious” resources for storing and processing information.
Nothingness and Nowness
DA was originally developed as part of training programs for operators in “complex, uncertain, and extreme conditions.” Back in those days, such a definition was mostly related to military and space programs. Times have changed, these days DA techniques have been applied in some of the most dangerous extreme sports such as freediving and rock climbing where partitioners might recognize “complex, uncertain, and extreme conditions” as a pretty close description of their “line of work.”
In a piece in the New Yorker in 2009, Natalia explained decontraction of attention:
“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.”
“To some degree [it’s like meditation], except meditation means you’re completely free, but if you’re in the sea at the depth you will have to be focused, or it will get bad. What you do 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.”
In freediving, in the first 10 meters, the pressure doubles. By 20 meters, it’s tripled. There is a moment not much deeper into the dive when the body realizes that it is not getting oxygen the way that it usually does. This is, in part, the effect of the elevated carbon dioxide in the system. Bodies react differently, but among less advanced divers there is often an involuntary panic that sets in, convulsions or contractions; an internal spasm by the cells, which screams for fresh air. And yet, if you pass through this traumatic phase, on the other side there is one of those unlocked secrets of the body: more oxygen.
Through deconcentration of attention, Alexey like his mother is able to overcome this mounting pressure, pushing his body to flip a switch of the mammalian diving reflex, like toggling to a reserve tank of gas. It is just one of the body’s many extraordinary automatic mechanisms for staving off death and one of the mechanisms that freedivers train to exploit. Blood begins to flow in from the extremities to the core, to the lungs and vital organs, drawing limited oxygen away from less critical body parts to those necessary to sustain life.
As Alexey explains in the GQ’s article “The Secrets of The World’s Greatest Freediver,” the goal is to sink into that challenge while resisting the panic, overreaction, suppressing the desperate move, balancing the need to rush toward the surface with a calmness that keeps one from overriding the plan. “Learning how to deal with it,” Alexey says, “gives us this mental strength and focus with other challenging things that happen in our lives—for them to feel less important to us, and less provoking.”
The key is to snap his attention back to the present moment, to train his brain as vigorously as he can train his body to almost physically overcome his thoughts and hold his mind in a state of nothingness and nowness. “I feel how my attention can get broadened in time and space,” he says. “I can be thinking about the future, I can be thinking about the past. All these thoughts are everywhere. We have that a lot in life. But if I was just to pull them back into the now moment, pull my thoughts back, really physically, that’s the technique that feels like a technique that can be learned. When I practice it a lot, it’s like an arm movement. Physical. You just pull it back. And you get your attention to the shortest possible time moment.”
This is how one goes deep, lowers the heart rate, seems to practically fall asleep at the bottom of a world-record-setting dive while doing the thing in the water that most of our bodies revolt against most violently. If you can learn to handle that trial, you can learn to focus your way through a penalty kick or a presentation to the partners or a live TV appearance or a job interview. We can remind ourselves that we’ve put ourselves in that position, said yes to the challenge, pushing ourselves to the outer limits of our comfort zone, and done so willingly.
When asked if he is ever fearful, ever nervous, if he ever gets butterflies before a major competition. “No. That’s something I learned over the years to control,” Alexey says. “The thoughts that you don’t want to do this. Because this super important moment comes. It can be whatever, a dive, a presentation. And you feel sick because of your thought process, where you don’t want to do this because of this pressure. Will he do it? Will he meet others’ expectations? It’s a lack of self-assurance in your abilities. But the shift should be: This is the area of my expertise. This is what I want to do. I have the current skills that I have, I’ve prepared as much as I can, and I will do the best that I can. But I do this because it’s my choice. Realizing your best potential is only possible while being relaxed, while calm.
When Alexey received a call one day in August 2015 that his mother disappeared in a dive, he flew to Ibiza and received the reports from the search party out on the water. But he knew there was little hope: Going missing at sea is almost always a death sentence. There would never be an official statement, a final word on what had happened to Natalia—many speculated a powerful current or a freak head injury—but Alexey felt one sickening certainty. “If I had been there,” he said, years after his mother’s disappearance, on a podcast called Freedive Café, “most likely, nothing would have happened.”
After Natalia’s disappearance, Alexey decided to relaunch Natalia’s training protocols as the Molchanov Freediving Education system and to make it available in English. Through its tiered courses, Molchanovs is similar to other established freediving programs: You start at the basics and work your way up to longer breath holds and deeper depths. Plus, those who wish to can become educators themselves. So far, they’ve certified more than 500 new instructors.
This is one way for Alexey to continue to share his mother’s philosophies on diving, but he is also developing his own. “You can have a very unique experience underwater, like that you are very small, that the ocean around is very big,” he says. “And it allows you to rethink your scale, how small you are in this universe.”
There is one thing that Alexey seems unable to catch his mother. Other than being the best female freediver, Natalia was also a poet. What she saw beneath the waves inspired verse. One of her poems that has been translated into English is entitled The Depth: