- Neuroplasticity – An In-Depth Guide to How it Works and How to Transform Your Brain
- Training to Develop Synaesthesia for Improved Memory and Maths Ability (Theoretically)
- How to Train Like Bruce Lee for Insane Power and Speed
- A Complete Guide to Transhumanism
- The Surface Pro 3 – Ideal Productivity for Web Entrepreneurs
- Can You Bench Press a Dinosaur??
- The Neuroscience of Genius And Increasing Intelligence
- How Caffeine Affects Neurotransmitters and Profoundly Changes Your Brain
- A Detailed Guide to Your Brain – So You Can Start Hacking It
- Almost Every Bodyweight Exercise Ever (150+ Moves)
The Ultimate Technique – Mastering Emotion
Some of the most fearsome fighters in history were the Berserkers, known for the ‘Berserker Rage’ that saw them go mad with anger and achieve insane levels of strength and endurance. A similar phenomenon – ‘hysterical strength’ – has been witnessed more recently where it has allegedly helped mothers to lift cars off their children and climbers to free themselves from underneath massive boulders. Even the regular fight or flight response makes us stronger, faster, immune to pain and better at healing from wounds.
Flow states allow us to achieve insane levels of focus and to react with incredibly reactions and foresight. If we let ourselves relax fully meanwhile, we can activate the ‘default mode network’ to help us solve problems and come up with new ideas, this may be how Einstein managed to come up with the special theory of relativity while working in the patent office…
During moments of massive shock, we can experience heightened memory in what is known as a ‘flashbulb memory’.
Nootropics essentially work by stimulating or mimicking the release of certain neurotransmitters/hormones that are known to increase focus, memory or creativity.
Emotions regulate our hunger, our energy metabolism, our ability to sleep and our ability to focus. They also dictate the outcome of every social interaction, determining who is the ‘alpha’ and who is the leader.
In short – completely mastering your emotions, if it were possible, would be the ‘ultimate technique’.
Perception is All That Matters
When we’re in danger, our bodies trigger a very powerful physiological response that we know as the ‘fight or flight’ response. This is the result of various catecholamine neurotransmitters and hormones:
- Epinephrine (adrenaline)
- Norepinephrine (noradrenaline)
This increases muscle tension, muscle fiber recruitment, focus, memory, heartrate, blood flow and more.
But it’s not really a response to external stimuli, rather it’s a response to your perception. Imagine that you’re in a bus that has crashed and is now hanging over the edge of a cliff, precariously balanced (so a typical Monday then). You can’t move a muscle for fear of causing the vehicle to fall, sending you to your death. At this point, your body is going to be flooded with those hormones and neurotransmitters – giving you that heightened performance and focus. Memories will be seared into your brain in great detail and you’ll have cat-like reflexes.
But now imagine someone shouts and tells you that a chain has been attached to the bus and it’s secured in place – the danger has passed. Suddenly, your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and you enter the ‘rest and digest’ state – relaxed and able to recover. But what you don’t know is that the person outside the bus is lying. That person is a full-on nob.
But this doesn’t change the fact that your balance hormones and neurotransmitters have now completely changed. It’s the perception of danger that triggered the response – not the actual danger itself.
And we know that adrenaline can help to increase blood flow to the muscles and thereby make us stronger. In one study, it was found that external noise could actually increase stress hormones to the point that an athlete’s strength would actually increase in the gym (1). That study and another one also found that stimulants could be used to increase muscle fibre contractility (2) – that’s significant because it means the strength increase isn’t just from improved blood flow. That’s the kind of strength increase that could potentially explain mothers throwing cars of their kids.
So the point is, if you could somehow convince your body to trigger the same response, you could potentially experience the same elevated strength, speed and performance… And then take that to the gym.
And this is exactly how being a Super Saiyan works…
“The power comes in response to a need… not a desire. You have to create that need. Son, use the pain of loss.”
Adrenaline also makes your hair stand up on end… just saying!
Manipulating Emotions and Mental States With CBT
So now the question is: how do you go about manipulating your brain to tap into this kind of potentially latent power?
One option is to use nootropics and that’s what a lot of people -myself included – have been tinkering with lately to increase dopamine or norepinephrine or acetylcholine. But nootropics are blunt instruments and lack the power or precision to help us really make the most of our brains. For starters, nootropics don’t limit their action to one area of the brain in most cases. At the same time, they also cause long lasting effects usually which make it harder for you to switch between mental states. And there’s the risk of adaptation in the long term. Of course using pre-workouts would potentially have some of the stimulant effects that we discussed a moment ago, while anti-depressants or anxiolytics can also alter your mood (but come with side effects and higher risk of tolerance and dependence). But I think it’s much better to try and change the thoughts that lead to the neurochemistry rather than vice versa.
And this is why I like CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). Normally CBT is more about removing the stress response or removing fear by using cognitive restructuring techniques. These include ‘thought challenging’ (looking at how likely your fears really are to come to fruition and making sure you have contingencies in place to rob them of their power over you) and ‘hypothesis testing’ (actually going out into the world to test whether your fears are real). For instance, if you’re afraid of talking in public because you think if you stutter people will laugh, then you can use hypothesis testing by purposefully stuttering to see if people laugh – and they won’t – which changes your belief. You realize that the bus is attached by the chain.
Of course this doesn’t work for everything: it’s not so hot for a fear of heights for example. That would be a bloodbath.
For scenarios where you need to stay cool and collected – such as if you want to come across as more confident and thus more charismatic in social situations – CBT can be a great tool. But I like to turn this idea on its head and use CBT-alike techniques to achieve different states.
I’ve talked about using CBT to tap into flow states in the past. Flow states are characterized by increased focus, which is the result of similar fight-or-flight hormones + anandamide and a suppression of activity in the pre-frontal cortex (called ‘temporo-hypofrontality’). Effectively, the front of your brain shuts down giving you complete focus on the task at hand and allowing your body to move almost entirely on reflex without you second-guessing it. This is sometimes called being ‘in the zone’ and the effects are very akin to what martial artists call ‘no mind’ or ‘mushin’.
It’s just slightly less powerful than ‘Unagi’…
And the neurochemical profile of a flow state is essentially fight or flight + bliss. As far as I can tell, it’s something that you think is highly important and requires your full attention but that you also enjoy as a challenge and for its own sake.
So if you can get yourself to feel that way – excited, engaged and focussed – then you can potentially tap into something more akin to a flow state and you can potentially increase your focus. I try to do this by just remembering the reason why you’re doing something and then focussing on the emotional impetus that drives that desire. So if it’s writing for my business, I think about where I want my business to go and how excited that makes me – and I try to tap into that emotion. It also works in reverse with ‘eustress’ (positive stress) if you tap into the bad things that can happen if you don’t do XYZ. And potentially, could you use this to achieve greater muscle fiber recruitment?
Certainly visualization is something that the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dwayne Johnson credit with helping them achieve so much and workout so tirelessly. Imagine never having a lack of motivation and always feel driven and energized to take the next step toward your goal… The point being that some people already do tap into the emotional drive behind the mundane steps they need to take and they do it naturally. But perhaps even they could be doing it more, or in a more structured manner?
If you subscribe to the ‘embodied cognition’ theory (which I do on the whole), that means that all thoughts and language are given meaning by our bodies and our physical experiences. We understand what a sentence means because we visualize ourselves ‘doing’ that thing, or we imagine seeing it. If I talk about opening the door, then I can almost feel the handle in my hand and the weight of pulling the door. And when we visualize, the areas in our brains linked to doing those things actually light up as though we were doing those things.
This explains why your thoughts can impact on your emotional state – as far as your brain is concerned that thing is happening. If you visualize failing, then your brain will think you’re in danger. If you visualize success or importance, then you might just engage a flow state.
And perhaps with training this could allow you to tap into hysterical strength and flow states. I call this type of brain training ‘cognitive simulation training’ because I like giving pointless names to things…
Some More Ways to Control Your Emotional State
There are plenty more options for controlling your emotional state and potentially tapping into heightened focus, strength or creativity. Largely these amount to different forms of meta cognition.
Interestingly, simply being more aware of your thoughts can actually change the way they act on your brain (3).
Meditation: Meditation has really cornered the market when it comes to being relaxed and being able to detach yourself from your thoughts. But it also makes you more mentally disciplined in general, which could in turn improve your ability to focus on other thoughts and direct your cognition in other ways.
Seeing as you can use meditation to distract yourself from pain (4), could it likewise be used to distract from unwanted emotions/feelings? Could you detach yourself from stress? Or better yet: tiredness?
Oh and could meditation increase anabolism? Probably, yes (5).
Kia: A kiai is a ‘spirit shout’ as used in martial arts. In one of the studies I described earlier, it was found that shouting yourself can actually create a stress response and increase muscle contraction. It’s essentially a great way to psych yourself up and could increase the strength of your punches. It’s a shame you can’t yell at the top of your lungs on the bench press without being asked to leave…
Placebo: The placebo effect is incredibly powerful (you can actually placebo yourself into being ‘drunk’) and is something that researchers still don’t fully understand. But the way it works is obvious when we take everything we’ve discussed into account: a placebo can change your perception and your expectations and this can alter the release of neurotransmitters and hormones.
If you’re wondering if you can ‘placebo yourself’, then the answer is yes. And apparently a placebo works even if you know it’s a placebo! Interestingly though, placebo effects tend to be more powerful when there is some kind of ‘trigger’. So swallowing a sugar pill could be a useful part of the ritual that triggers the most powerful change in your brain. And if you know that placebos can work, then surely this could help? This is getting cyclical…
An interesting alternative to a sugar pill might be the ‘mantra stack’ like this one over at Rulers to the Sky.
Physiology: Your brain also takes into account a range of other factors when altering the emotional state. The communication between brain and body is very much two way. For example, the cold can increase your production of adrenaline and this is what causes your hairs to stand on end, helping to keep you warmer. It also increases testosterone production. This is why theaters keep the temperature relatively cool – to increase audience engagement with what’s happening on-screen.
Likewise, being hungry increases cortisol – the stress hormone. And eating increases serotonin – the happiness hormone. Cortisol is linked to ghrelin production (making us feel hungry) and also stimulates the production of myostatin – which signals the body to break down muscle. So in other words: being anxious can damage your muscle mass!
Then there are people who try to hack flow states by stimulating their inner ear via giant swings and the like!
Priming: Another option is to use ‘priming’ which means participating in an activity you know will put you in a certain mental state, prior to engaging in another activity where you need that mental state. Note however that many neurotransmitters are not very long lasting. But this is basically why it can be so effective to watch an Arnie film before a workout. Potentially, this is could be considered quite similar to using CBT/visualization to psyche yourself up. Virtual reality has clear application here…
More Tools: There are other things you can use too. For example, ‘power poses’ are particular stances that can trigger an increase in particular hormones (the ‘victory pose’ for instance increases testosterone production. And then there’s ‘facial feedback’ – pulling a particular expression can also trigger the release of the corresponding brain chemistry even if you’re forcing it. In the book Trick of the Mind, Derren Brown talks about creating an association between a strong emotion and some kind of ‘trigger’ – like touching two specific fingers together to create a sense of calm after conditioning. Then there are NLP techniques and all manner of psychotherapeutic interventions.
There’s no shortage of tools you can use to alter your emotional state but personally I still find that a repurposed kind of CBT with visualization (cognitive simulation training – I’m going to make this stick) works best and has the longest-term potential.
A List of Awesome, Desirable Mental States
So we’ve covered a couple of cool mental states you might want to tap into in the bulk of this post but just to recap and throw in some extra ones, here are some interesting ones we know about that could be considered ‘performance enhancing’.
- Default Mode Network – When the default mode network kicks in you start daydreaming and this is when you come up with some of your best ideas. It’s like the opposite of a flow state but just as useful and can be triggered by going for walks or engaging in routine physical tasks.
- Flow Sate – Temporo-hypofrontality providing instant reflexes and heightened focus/productivity
- Eustress – Positive, motivating stress
- No Mind/Mushin – Potentially the same thing
- Fight or Flight – The stress response, similar to flow
- Rest and Digest – The opposite
- Hysterical Strength – Increased muscle fiber recruitment during extreme need
- Beserker Rage – Enhanced strength through rage and disinhibition
- Hypnagogic State – The moment just before you fall asleep, potentially good for heightened creativity. Some creative types purposefully tap into this state for inspiration.
- Flash Bulb Memory – Not so much a mental state as a phenomenon that gives us almost perfect recall during very shocking moments
- Meditative/Trance State
- The Creeps – Heightened alertness during times of ‘ambiguity’ (I wrote an article for another site on this here)
(Did I miss any? Let me know in the comments – I’d be really interested to hear about them.)
Sometimes I notice I can seemingly be in a flow state and default mode network at once – my mind is distracted and my body is able to perform better as a result. If I get lost in conversation during table tennis for example…
I also want to know why it is that the hairs stand up on end when I listen to inspiring music or watch Rocky. Presumably it’s adrenaline… but what is the evolutionary advantage of that particular response? I feel that’s probably the one that’s going to turn me into a Super Saiyan…
Also: just note that no two mental states are the exact same. I’ve discussed in the past that I think the term flow is seriously overused (extreme sports athletes have very different neurochemistry to someone focussed on a conversation) and likewise no two stress responses are quite the same. Listing mental states is a useful frame of reference but in reality it’s more like a massive spectrum with more spectrums coming off of it… It’s over simplistic to say ‘X neurotransmitter does Y’ too, seeing as they affect different areas of the brain differently.
So it’s very complicated. But the point is that you should work to get your brain under more control. At the very least this will help you stay calm under pressure, hit harder, relax when you want to and hit harder. And in the best case scenario? You could go straight from mushin to hysterical strength and recruit 100% of your muscle fiber… It could be the ultimate technique.
I know I’ve forgotten some stuff I wanted to talk about here… I will be addressing this topic again!