Peak Performance Overview, James Adams

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Everyone has experienced days when they seem to be functioning better than usual; their minds are sharp, they can think quickly, and on these days concentration, problem solving, and focus seems easy. Unfortunately, everyone has also experienced days when the opposite is true; on these occasions it's difficult to think, distractions are everywhere, and even the slightest mental task is a challenge. What can be done to increase the number of days in the first category? What are some of the techniques available in enhancing mental performance? Current research on brain function and mental performance is beginning to answer some of these questions.

First, it should be made clear that the common saying that we use only 10 percent of our brains is a myth. There really is no large, unused mass of brain tissue, no large section of cortex that is sitting idle waiting to be utilized (although it is true that, at any given time, different parts of the brain are more active than others). The saying may have originated from a statement made 100 years ago by the famous American psychologist, William James, "Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources." It's not clear if James meant to say that there are actual physical parts of our brains that are simply sitting dormant waiting to be put to use, or if what he meant was that we have not yet learned how to optimize the way we do use our brains. In light of recent studies suggesting that connections between neurons (called synapses) tend to be lost if they are not used (more on this later), the latter meaning makes the most sense. But how do we learn to optimize our brain? There are many answers to this question, some with scientific support, others with anecdotal or testimonial support, and some, frankly, with no support at all.

Practice makes perfect has long been the advice given to people who want to improve their performance, whether it is in playing professional basketball or learning the violin, and physical practice is obviously one of the ways to improve performance in any endeavor, but some studies are showing that mental practice is also an important component of peak performance. There are many aspects of mental practice. Some studies have suggested that a person can improve his or her ability by visualizing or imagining themselves performing flawlessly, shooting free throws, playing Beethoven sonatas, or playing a game of chess in the imagination can help improve actual performance in the real world. Although it can't replace physical practice, mental practice does seem to have the potential to improve concentration, reaction time, and to enhance overall performance. Also, visualization of success may help improve self-confidence. Self-confidence, self-esteem and a positive attitude about one's abilities are important to optimum performance.

Emotions have also been implicated in learning and memory. Negative emotion is often manifested by negative self-talk or visualizations of failure thinking I'm going to fail, there's no way I can do this, for instance. These kind of negative thoughts can cause anxiety and loss of concentration. Relaxation techniques used both before and during performance can relieve stress, keep emotions positive, and avoid the negative impact of performance anxiety. There are many different techniques available, including biofeedback and meditation, and there is some dispute about which are most effective. The answer may be that some techniques may be beneficial for some types of performance but not for others. A considerable amount of research is being done in the field of sports psychology to evaluate the effects of different types of mental practice and conditioning on athletic performance, and many of the results from this field can be extrapolated to other types of performance.

Stimulation appears to be a key element in maintaining and improving brain function. Recent studies have shown that, at least in the visual system, synapses that are presented with high levels of stimulation tend to grow and expand, as opposed to those that receive only background "static" input. Mental practice is one way of supplying stimulation and keeping the brain active. Mental practice can come in the forms mentioned above and could also include mental game playing, solving puzzles, etc. to increase concentration and optimize reaction time. Scientists have also shown that emotions can have a strong effect, positive and negative, on learning and memory, implying that learning to control and work with emotions could help optimize performance in many areas.

Other factors influencing performance include diet and exercise. Obviously, the body and brain need a well-balanced supply of nutrients to function properly. Many of the benefits of exercise are well-known, and aerobic exercise has been shown to improve scores on some types of creativity tests, suggesting that regular exercise may help improve performance in a wide variety of tasks not normally associated with physical activity. Also, exercise has been shown to improve self-esteem and self-confidence - two key factors in peak performance.

There are also a vast number of other technologies and techniques designed to help enhance cognitive performance. A search through the local bookstore or the Internet will turn up hundreds, if not thousands of examples. These include "smart drugs", like piracetam and vasopressin, smart nutrients like ginkgo biloba, various forms of music therapy, and technologies like light/sound machines.

Certainly drugs, from caffeine to Prozac to LSD, do have an effect on the nervous system, and a category of drugs known as "smart drugs" is no exception. Some of these drugs work by increasing oxygen uptake and/or increasing blood flow to the brain. This produces a short-term "high" during which brain function appears to be heightened, at least in some respects. Smart drugs are usually available by prescription only in the United States, but can often be purchased via mail order. The danger in using smart drugs comes from the fact that little is known about the effects of long-term use, or the use of dosages higher than those normally prescribed, and probably the greatest danger lies in using smart drugs in combination with other drugs or alcohol. Some combinations could result in brain damage or even death. "Smart nutrients", like the B vitamins and herbs such as gingko biloba probably present less danger than prescription drugs, but indiscriminant use is not recommended. Some herbs, such as gingko and St John's Wort, have been shown to have positive effects. One study showed that gingko biloba had a fairly modest positive effect when given to Alzheimer's Disease (AD) patients, and studies in Europe have shown that St. John's Wort can help ease the effects of depression. The National Institute of Health is beginning similar studies on St. John's Wort in the United States. While these herbal remedies may be useful for treating AD and depression, respectively, it is not known if they have any positive effects for people with normal cognitive function. Also, the effects of long-term use are not yet clear. Current research should help answer these questions.

Music, also, undoubtedly has an effect on the brain. Studies have shown that it can help relieve stress and aid in relaxation. Fast paced music with a heavy beat can also have stimulatory effects, increasing heartbeat and blood flow. Some studies have suggested that listening to classical music can help increase cognitive functioning (the Mozart effect). College students that participated in one study performed better on a specific cognitive test if they listened to Mozart before taking the test. However, this increase in cognitive function was short lived, lasting only a few minutes, and has proved difficult to reproduce. Still the results are intriguing and researchers will continue to try to work out the importance and mechanism of this and other effects of music on the brain.

Technologies such as light/sound machines, which use pulsing light and sound as stimulation, claim to be able to alter brainwaves and potentially effect brain function, the goal being, at least in part, to bring the two hemispheres of the brain in synch and maximize their ability to work together. The evidence for the effectiveness of these technologies is largely anecdotal, but there appear to be a large number of users who testify to the positive effects. Again, further research is needed before any conclusions are drawn.

Increasing mental performance is of great interest and recent research suggests that the brain retains plasticity, that is its ability to change and adapt, throughout life. This implies that efforts to optimize mental function and achieve peak performance will be valuable to people of all ages. Questions of how to maximize mental performance will continue to be of great importance to scientists, psychologists, athletes, artists, and the general population for years to come.

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