Uncovering the High-Performance Brain
Looking a different direction
During this same period there began to appear a QEEG literature focusing on the so-called High Performance brain. Meditators, monks, high-level athletes, top-gun pilots and others provided QEEG’s. Where the normative databases tried to cobble together a pointillist view of the brain made up of hundreds of tiny dots of data, this emerging image was clear and direct, made of simple planes and lines. The average brain was all over the map; the peak brain was remarkably consistent and easy to describe.
Anyone who has studied peak athletes, musicians—masters in any field—is likely to notice that they don’t do more than their colleagues. They do less. Their brains do less too. It’s a truism in training that the most effective brains produce less energy and are less variable from moment to moment. It seems counter-intuitive but it’s a simple fact of physics.
The average brain is 2-3% of the body by weight, but it uses around 25% of the oxygen in the whole body. Because neurons are the only cells that cannot burn fat, the brain uses fully half the glucose in our blood. The more energy the brain is using, the less there is for the rest of the body. The quiet brain is simply more efficient AND more effective.
Most brains are like a soccer team of five-year-olds. Wherever on the field the ball is, there are 20 kids right there. They expend a huge amount of energy to very little purpose. But watch a world-class soccer team, and you’ll see most of the players idling most of the team. Each moves, based on what is happening on the field, always to be in the correct place until the play comes to him or her. Then there is a burst of energy—a rapid move, with or without the ball, a quick, crisp pass or shot—then back to idling.
What peak experience feels like
What we see externally is a good analogue for how peak states feel internally as well.
Most of us who have every played a sport or an instrument—done anything that involves performance—have experienced moments of being “in the Zone”. We describe it in the same way: I stopped thinking, I stopped trying. My mind was still. I saw and heard everything. For some it seems that we shift into slow-motion. We may even know what another player is going to do before he does it. We are “luckier”, and the game often “comes to us” in what pro football quarterback John Brodie called “energy trains”.
Performing a task in this peak state requires that you already have mastered it. Your body has practiced and perfected it hundreds or thousands of times so that it is built into the muscle memory. When you have that capacity developed, you can perform the task in a pure awareness state, without thought, without effort, without judgment. There is nothing between you and your senses, nothing between you and your muscles. You become one with the process of performing. Without thought—without worrying about what could happen or what should happen or what happened before—you are purely in the moment and you will perform at your absolute peak. You remain relaxed, controlling only what you can control, accepting what you cannot. For most of us, when the moment has passed, and we look back at what we just did, it seems we did something beyond what we are capable of.
Most amazing of all, is that this is by far our brain’s most economical state—it is, in essence, a meditation state. The brain is idling, waiting for something that requires action, ready to move in any direction when the “light turns green”, wasting no energy.
The Unified Theory of Performance
Those who have studied peak performers and peak brains have recognized that the best performers in all fields from athletics to arts to business have certain things in common:
1. They are more in touch with their emotions, see themselves as a part of an interdependent whole rather than as separate individuals, able to focus and think clearly, confident and patient.
2. They experience peak states more often and sustain them longer, moving beyond themselves and operating with calm in the midst of dynamic situations. They can combine open awareness with sharp focus—the definition of a meditative state.
3. They practice more at whatever their field of endeavor than their peers.
In terms of brain states, they are able to enter and maintain states of synchronous alpha and gamma activity related to openness and interconnectedness. In such states the cortex—the thinking part of the brain—is completely at rest. Channels of awareness and communication are open and quiet, ready to pass and integrate information instantly. Areas of the brain can suddenly burst into faster beta speeds to perform a task, efficiently send information to other areas and then return to the idling/resting/observer state until needed again.
In short, those whose brains work best in whatever field work most alike, and they are better than the rest of us at conserving energy till the moment of action arrives.