Becoming a Superhuman

March 18, 2012

Just last night I happened to flip on the TV and watch a show called My Extreme Affliction on ABC. I was really intrigued to hear about people with Williams Syndrome (kids who are too nice to be normal) and Tourettes Syndrome, but more so ones with a so-called ‘Mega-Brain’. The man who they featured, Daniel Tammet, has a case of high-functioning autism as well as savant syndrome. These so called “disabilities” seemed more like advantages to me- the ability to learn conversational Icelandic in one week, the ability to memorize Pi to 22,000 decimal places are just a couple examples. What I found most interesting about Daniel was the fact that “his superior memory was not driven by exceptional intellectual ability or differences in brain structure.” Absolutely fascinating.

This afternoon, I happend to pick up an issue of Ideas & Discoveries (iD) magazine that had been laying on my desk featuring articles about how your brain can wreck your success, where your willpower comes from, and why some can and some can not activate their superhuman abilities. None the less, it was a great read- so great that it motivated me to write this article about it to share with you. So what are we waiting for? Let’s dig in!

How can I turn my brain into a high-performance computer?

The brain, like any other system in the body, requires exercise to stay in shape. That saying of, “if you don’t use it, you lose it” is oh-so true. We often affiliate physical exercise with staying in shape, but thinking (mental exercise) is also extremely important for the formation of new neurons.

So, what exactly happens when we think?

The more frequently our brain cells (aka neurons or nerve cells) are stimulated by movement, cognitive challenges, and even simple thinking, the greater the number of communication channels (synapses) that will form as a result. Neuroscientists refer to this process as Hebbian learning, and it works like this: A single thought stimulates two brain cells, which then build a connection to each other by forming synapses that dock together at the end of the cells’ nerve fibers. A contact point is then established that opens the doors to communication. If a learning task is repeated or the knowledge obtained through it is called upon, the two cells will activate & utilize the existing connection between them. The more frequently the two neurons are simultaneously stimulated, the more efficient the link becomes.

Now you might be saying, “Ok, that sounds cool and all- but what does that really mean?”
Simple! Do something often that requires you to think and you will get better at doing it. Here’s a quick example: You are given an unknown scent to smell which is then identified by a name. The second time you smell this, it might take a moment to identify, however, you will find identification even faster after every successive encounter you have with this scent.

The takeaway?
The article states that “studying grammar and vocabulary is like bodybuilding for the brain.” Just as athletic movements help us grow physical muscle, mental exercises cause nerve fibers to grow. Oh, and they also say “it’s not only mental training that gets our brain going: sensory impressions, social contact, and engaging in sports- which also provide more oxygen to the brain- prompt neurons to sprout and additional connections to form.”

Tell me more about willpower and motivation… How can I increase my willpower?

Our success as individuals has a linear relationship with our ability to motivate ourselves. It’s ultimately your inner will that decides how far you get. Just take a look at “Hell Week” that all Navy SEALs have to go through:

Putting a recruit though the NAVY SEALs “Hell Week” is perhaps the worst thing you can do to a person without having it officially designated as torture. For six days the recruits must carry landing craft weighing 150 pounds through ice-cold water, dig pillboxes with their bare hands, and waiting motionless in the surf - virtually without any sleep. But the purpose of these grueling exercises is not to find out who the strongest recruit is: The more important thing is to observe recruits and identify those capable of continually motivating themselves to keep going even in seemingly hopeless situations. Therefore candidates are also told they can ring a brass bell anytime they want to leave and end the torture - as well as their dream of becoming a Navy SEAL.

So, how exactly do these SEALs even make it to “Hell Week”?

They’re trained beforehand to develop an above-average level of stress resistance, an extremely high degree of self-motivation, and an irrepressible will. MEST (motivational and emotional strength techniques) is how Navy SEAL instructors refer to the four methods they employ to develop these characteristics in recruits.

What exactly are these techniques they are using? For the remainder of the article i’ll break it down into the four techniques. These not only apply to prospective SEALs but also to anyone who truly wants to increase willpower.

The SOG (Simple Obtainable Goal) Technique

If you set your goals too high, you will start to view success as an impossibility. As a result, your brain will limit you and you will subconsciously reject the possibility of any success.

The solution?
Imagine each task you face as something that can be accomplished or overcome. If you want to run in a marathon and have never run before, start small and progressively go bigger. Run 1 mile, then run 3 miles, then run 5, and continue towards your goal! Have a bunch of final exams coming up? Focus on one first. As soon as you internalize the idea that you can pass it, you can concentrate on the others as they come along.

Once a milestone has been reached, the person in question experiences a feeling of success, leading to a heightened secretion of happiness hormones in the brain, which in turn raises the motivation level for the tasks to come.

The 4-4-4 Technique

The biggest danger to motivation comes from the weak and lazy aspects of one’s own personality. A navy SEAL recruit may experience pangs of doubt whenever the fabric of his uniform comes into contact with open wounds on his thighs, for example, and the pain signals begin shooting up his entire body. “Give up!” is what his mind is telling him. However, the fact is that our bodies often fake the feeling that they’ve reached the limits of their strength and endurance. The body wants to protect itself, so it sends a message to the brain that it can’t go on, even though it could actually keep enduring the pain for some time.

Breathe in for four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds, exhale for four seconds- then repeat the exercise for four minutes. With this technique, you can ultimately suppress the voice inside your head that tells you success is not an option, while also raising your motivation level.

The Mind’s Eye Technique

Never lose sight of your objective.

One thing SEALs must do is repair technical equipment underwater while instructors simulate an attack and try to pull the SEALs’ breathing apparatus out of their mouth. Whoever gives up here is finished, so in order to keep motivation high, the recruits are told to call upon images in their mind’s eye that they’ve previously stored in their brain - such as a picture of them coming up to the surface with their equipment all repaired and ready to go. These images automatically displace fear and stress and keep the SEAL candidates focused, which enables them to maintain a high level of motivation.

While we’re not all going to end up in situations like the aforementioned, this can easily apply to everyday stress situations and ensure we don’t give up.

A job candidate in an interview can call upon an image of signing a new employment contract. Similarly, an athlete can imagine standing on the victory podium. The result in both cases is a burst of motivation. [You actually accomplished a goal]

What’s most important about the mind’s eye technique, is that the images you recall should be firmly stored in your memory through conscious repetition. Just like how the brain forms new neurons, you want to be able to quickly recall these images of success in stressful situations.

The Firewall Technique

When you feel like you’ve just had enough, your body will tell you to give up.

When people come under pressure, some 300 to 1,000 words and thoughts shoot through their head each minute. Most of this film in the brain is demotivating. (“This can’t turn out right,” “I’m not ready for this,” “What’s going to happen if I can’t get through this?“) To stop this negative self-talk, candidates install a kind of firewall against negative thoughts in their brain.

This technique consists of just two questions:

  1. Are my fears truly airtight? Are my negative assumptions completely free of error and misconceptions?
  2. What are the arguments against my rising doubts?

Answering these questions in your head in any given situation will destroy any negative thoughts and launch a stream of positive thought. Give it a try.

Last but not least, The Seven Character Codes for Motivation

Use these character codes to stretch the limits of your abilities and achieve more than you ever thought possible:

  1. Flexibility
    Seek out new challenges and remain curious to truly motivate yourself. Creating new nerve connections and promote flexibility in the brain- this is key to motivation.
  2. Altruism
    “Helper’s high” is a sensation of happiness that is caused by hormones when you help one another. Such selflessness drives people to new heights of performance. Get ideas from others to keep one another motivated!
  3. Moral Compass
    You will feel much more motivated when what you’re doing agrees with your basic moral principles.
  4. Humor
    People with a sense of humor are more successful and resistant to stress. The ability to laugh at one’s own predicament and view it with a sense of irony suppresses negative attitudes.
  5. Role Models
    Never consider average performance as an example. Focus on the most successful achievers as role models.
  6. Optimism
    Studies say if you have a realistic sense of optimism (ie “It might be years before that get’s done”) you’ll have a higher level of motivation. Tell yourself over and over again that anything can be achieved as long as it remains a realistic possibility.
  7. Having a Vision
    Painting positive pictures in your brain will motivate you to transform your vision into a reality. When you can start to clearly see how the outcome of something may look, you will get a preview of the feeling that will come with “mission accomplished.”

Even though some of these techniques may seem more obvious than others, it’s always good to have a refresher and be reminded about them. Your brain is the biggest limiting factor in anything that you do. Learn how to overcome it and become a superhuman.

“The Dark Forces of Motivation.” ideas & Discoveries December 2011.

Tom Beute

Written by Tom Beute– a Christian, barista, and software engineer.