Why We’re Drawn to Action and How to Get Better at Anything

By on October 27, 2015


I’ve discussed many times on this blog how good playing computer games is for your cognitive performance. It can speed reaction times, decision making and even visual acuity (1) and it’s easy to see why: video games challenge us to use our senses and our judgement in far more ‘high stress’ situations than we’re used to in real life.

Take the scene in Half Life 2 (which I was just playing) where enemies throw canisters into the sewer where you’re hiding. You have about 3 seconds to decide that diving under water is probably your best course of action. You do that, you survive.

Or how about Transformers: Devastation, which I was playing recently. In that game I was fighting Shockwave with low health and I was so focused my heart started pounding as though I was in real physical danger.

This is combat simulation and effectively that training provides the brain with a safe environment in which to hone these kinds of skills. It’s just a shame that our bodies aren’t getting trained at the same time.


Another scenario where we once would have gotten this sort of training though was of course in the wild. Tracking prey through the woods, escaping from predators and exploring the environment would have had precisely the same brain training effects as playing computer games: we’d have been focused on our surroundings, highly stressed (in the good way) and constantly trying to think a few steps ahead.

But what if you could get this same benefit from everything you did?

How Focus and Anxiety Trigger Learning

You see, it’s not actually the environment that provides this brain training and it’s not even what we’re doing. Rather, in keeping with the ideas of CBT, the benefits are a result of our focus and our mental state as we do those things.

To put it another way, you could play a computer game like Half Life 2 in a leisurely manner: strolling through the environments and not caring much if you got shot. Likewise, you could go for a walk in the park and not spend your whole time alert and ready to spot prey (in fact, you most likely do do that…).

So it’s really not the video game or the foliage that are providing the brain training benefits. And it’s not even the activity. Rather, it’s the importance you place on it.

My heart rate was raised in Transformers: Devastation because I really wanted not to die and because I was really focused. That in turn resulted in the release of adrenaline and dopamine and resulted in my becoming even more focused. My senses became more finely tuned and my brain would have become more adaptable and plastic to learn from the experience (dopamine has been shown to increase levels of brain-derived neurotropic factor (2)). As far as it’s concerned, this is no different from actually fighting for my life. My taking the game seriously is all that’s needed to send those signals.

In short: when you treat something as important and genuinely believe it on the level of your sympathetic nervous system, the brain responds by focusing harder and getting better at that thing. We are not designed to be good at anything, we are designed to adapt to the environments we’re placed in and our conscious thought directs this adaptation.

And this answers another question I’ve had for a while, the question of why we are drawn to action. Action means high-stress challenge and that in turn means focus, dopamine and learning. Our brains like learning because it makes us better at

We like computer games and we like action because they facilitate the formation and myelination of new neural pathways. That’s why I used to watch Jackie Chan fight scenes as a repeat as a kid and it’s why I can’t get enough of Platinum games. Learning in this way is chemically addictive.


(Note: While we make a lot of fuss about the benefits of gaming, hopefully you’ve also realized that almost all the same cognitive challenges are also present in sports and martial arts – it’s just your chosen flavor of action.)

So by now, you’ve hopefully realized the secret to improving your performance in everything that you do…

The Art of Holding a Pen

Let’s say I’m writing thank you cards. This is on my mind at the moment because I am writing thank you cards. 100 of them…

If I approach this task like a dull and unimportant job to finish quickly, then I won’t particularly enjoy it and I won’t learn from it.

But if I approach the task as though it’s crucially important and if I challenge myself to write with the best penmanship, the best flow and the most elegant handwriting possible – and if I get really competitive about it – then it can become a learning exercise.

Learning what? Well, hand-eye coordination for one, fine motor control, focus and concentration… you name it! And actually, studies show that there are specific benefits to be gained from cursive writing (3).

In a sense I’ve ‘upped the difficulty’ by adding more challenge to what I’m doing and by challenging myself to do better.

Likewise, you could do something similar by trying to improve your precise form during a workout and by feeling the smaller muscles working to keep you balanced. You could do it by trying to remember more of what’s said during a lecture, or you could do it by challenging yourself to better impress your audience when speaking to a group.

Want to focus more? Forget caffeine or nootropics – your brain will produce those same neurotransmitters if you can simply convince yourself that what you’re doing is more important.

Want to get brain training benefit from everything? Then just challenge yourself to do it better, faster or more elegantly.

How to Make Something Matter

Of course getting yourself to really believe what you’re doing is important to the point where your heartrate increases is easier said than done. If you’ve been doing the same boring job for decades, then no doubt it doesn’t feel particularly exciting or challenging anymore.

But to make it so, you just need to change the way you’re thinking about it using principles of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This is a school of psychology that’s all about changing the contents of your thoughts to alter your feelings and behaviors. Normally, this focusses on overcoming maladaptive beliefs that lead to social shyness or to phobias but I have long believed that similar techniques can be used for personal development and brain training too.

So there’s no specific CBT protocol in place for making everyday activities into a serious challenge but a few things that might help:

  • Find a way that you can measure your performance and thereby aim to beat a ‘high score’. This gives you the feedback loop that triggers reward chemicals and helps you to improve faster.
  • Be competitive with yourself and try to see the inherent value in being better at what you do. Find a rhythm and try to enjoy being good at it.
  • Focus hard on the long-term benefit. You’re going to work why? To earn money. If you get better at this, you can earn more money.
  • Or how about, if you get this task done well and quickly, you can move on to doing something more enjoyable? If I write my thank you cards well, people will know I’m really grateful and that will hopefully.
  • And don’t forget the negative outcome either – if you don’t make more money or get better at your job, you could find yourself fired or otherwise just stuck in an unrewarded dead-end job forever. Take some time to remind yourself why you need to keep improving.
  • (I get paid per word in my job, so it’s especially easy for me to motivate myself to work harder and faster)
  • You can even set up rewards and punishments or get someone else to set them to provide extra motivation.
  • Make what you’re doing more fun or challenging in other ways by changing your environment, or making it into more of a game. Perhaps involve another type of skill – if it’s a purely cognitive task, involve some kind of physical element.

(And likewise, make sure that if you are doing something for the purpose of brain training that you ensure you’re getting the most out of it by fully engaging!)

Get this right and in theory you can turn even the most mundane activity into high-octane combat simulation!


About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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