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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Your Brain is a Limiter

A friend of mine introduced me to this TED Talk a couple weeks ago, and it really hit home for me. Not just in the sense of how it applies to my athletic life, but also my personal and professional life. It helps demonstrate that our brains are amazing, confusing, and deceiving pieces of machinery.

Yes, our brains can trick us into (and talk us out of) anything. It is the source of our dreams, our fears, our joys, our anger, our happiness, our thoughts, and our aspirations. It helps us understand what is right in front of us, and sometimes shows us things we can't possibly understand. It communicates with every fiber of our being and relays instruction and feedback to every part of our body. You would think that it is always operating at maximum capacity, and that it is always out for our best interest. But one thing we don't always consider is that the brain often blocks us from our true potential.

The TED Talk I'm referring to is David Epstein's "Are Athletes Really Getting Better, Faster, Stronger?" While the bulk of this talk is referring to what is actually making athlete's appear faster, better, and stronger within recent history (and is definitely worth fully watching because it is mighty fascinating), the part that caught my ear began around minute 11:55. This is where the discussion of a brain as a limiter began, as a discussion of why professional athletes can compete on an entirely different level. Have a watch...

Now, before you start running up the Matterhorn, let's put this into perspective. Our brain acts as a limiter for a reason. Within our physical bodies, it acts as a limiter so we don't injure ourselves. Think about the example provided in the video of the person receiving an electric shock. Sure, they were able to jump across the room using all of their muscle fibers, but imagine how sore that person would be the next day (assuming they survived)!

I know I've brought up this example before in an earlier post, but it's relevant here as it is a great example of how limitations can be overcome. Back in 1989, two professionals, Dave Scott and Mark Allen were competing for the Ironman World Championship. Neither wanted to give up their position as both wanted desperately to win. They were neck and neck for the entire race until a few miles from the finish when Mark Allen broke away. Both racers finished within minutes of each other, and both smashed the previous record, Allen by 20 minutes. While you enjoy a good laugh from the ridiculous outfits of 1980's triathletes, get some perspective from the video below. Enjoy the mulletude!

Did these athletes do anything different than previous years? Were they riding different equipment? Was there some magic potion that made them 20 minutes faster that year? No. This particular year they were able to overcome the limiter because they were challenging each other to do so. The only thing that changed was their mental state. They were breaking barriers set by themselves, and were able to push through. Mark Allen set a time which smashed the previous record, and was only broken by himself in subsequent years. Not until new technology and nutrition was introduced did times like those get posted again, and then only rarely.

While it's not mentioned in Epstein's video, the brain also acts as a limiter in non-physical circumstances. Feelings of stress are often supplemented with feelings of exhaustion or anxiety. This is feedback that we may need to rest our minds lest we descend into madness, strap a pair of underwear to our foreheads, and start yelling profanities at strangers (is that a little too specific of an example?).

The key, therefore is finding the balance of how to control the limiter, to set the governor up or down based on the required output. As with an endurance athlete, this takes training. While the endurance athlete will build their endurance and push through their mental limitations to achieve their goals, so too can anybody push through their own mental limitations. Here are a few steps on how to raise the bar on our own mental stamina.
  1. Take breaks as you need them, and actually use them as breaks. Don't use these breaks as an opportunity focus on other things that are stressful. Remove yourself from a stressful environment and regroup.
  2. Meditate. This doesn't necessarily mean you have to get in your pajamas, light a bunch of candles, and turn on some Enya (but more power to you if you do!). It simply means finding a quiet place and quieting your mind. It's like hitting the mental reset button. Remember: meditation is a practice, it's counter productive to get frustrated because you can't quiet your mind. Do the best you can, but just keep at it.
  3. Ignore the voices in your head telling you that you can't. These voices exist in everyone at varying levels and it is a prime example of how our brains act as a limiter. When we are conditioned to think this way, we will also perceive the actions and words of others to be aligned with what our brain is telling us. It becomes a self fulfilling prophesy. You have to take contrary action to overcome these negative thoughts.
  4. Get plenty of rest. Sleep is important to everyone. Make sure to get a good night sleep every night.
  5. Keep your brain interested. As long as your commitment to your goals is greater than the limitations you put on yourself, you will keep striving to achieve your goals. It is a battle, but make sure you continue to remind yourself of the purpose of your pursuit. Every. Single. Day. 
All human beings are therefore capable of much more than they "think" they are. It's not just optimistic mumbo jumbo to think that anything you put your mind to you can achieve, it's actually true. You have the power within you to overcome your own limitations. So keep setting high goals and continue to strive to achieve them. Your only obstacle is yourself!