Higher Brain Functioning in World Class Athletes

Recent investigations in neurophysiology and psychology are revealing that the primary differences between top-performing athletes and average-performing athletes is primarily mental. Although many athletes are very dedicated to their training (often upwards of 1000 hours per year), there are many aspects of development which cannot be tackled with physical training alone.

In fact, a 2011 study called "High Levels of Brain Integration in World-class Norwegian Athletes: Towards a Brain Measure of Mental Fitness" (1) details both the psychological and physiological differences between top-performing and average-performing athletes. These scientists argue that top-performing athletes maintain higher states of consciousness. Using Loevenger's model of personality development, they explain that:

"With self-development there is an enhancement of a person’s capacity to make meaning of experience and to perform consciously. This ability can be illustrated by contrasting the personal characteristics of conventional development (about 80% of today’s adult population; Torbert, 1991; Cook-Greuter, 1999, 2000) with post- conventional development (about 9% of adult population): with post-conventional development (about 9% of adult population): from path following to path finding; from dependence to greater autonomy; from narrow craft perspective to more holistic comprehension; from unilateral control to collaboration; from reactive to proactive and preventive; from short-term to long-term perspective; from ambivalence to feedback to embracing feedback; from resistance to innovation; from win–lose to win–win interpersonal strategies; from focus on problem solution to focus on process and problem finding; and from extrinsic motivation (winning, money, power, fame) to intrinsic motivation (self-improvement and searching for meaning or peak experiences; Loevinger, 1976; Cook-Greuter, 2000; Rooke & Torbert, 2005)."

These changes are explained by many different psychologists, not just Loevinger. Dabrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration postulates that these higher stages of development are both distinguishable and attainable. By becoming aware of our personal and societal shortcomings, we are motivated to change our behavior and affect our environment in positive ways.

This study also cites previous work in the area of sports psychology, peak performance, developmental psychology, and personality development.

"The later the stage of individual development, the more sources of input (internal and external) a person can incorporate, digest, and orchestrate to their advantage (Cook-Greuter, 1999, 2000). This progression also applies to the peak or ego transcendent experiences – which are glimpses of higher consciousness lying beyond the above self-developmental stages (Alexander et al., 1990; Harung et al.,1996). Our former research with 22 world-class performers in a wide range of professions reported, ‘‘an association between world-class performance and more frequent experiences of an expanded, alert, and settled state of consciousness, even while engaged in dynamic activity’’ (Harung et al., 1996)."

"Peak experiences bring with them such qualities as inner silence and deep relaxation amidst dynamic activity, ease of functioning and effortless action, playfulness, inner happiness, broad awareness combined with sharp focus, frequent luck or fortunate coincidences, reliable intuition, and sustainable performance on a high level (Maslow, 1971; Harung et al., 1996, 2009; Alsgaard, 2008)."

The scientists also back this claim with direct physiological evidence using EEG scans to measure brain wave coherence. By taking real-time readings of brain waves, we can see how effectively different parts of the brain communicate. When neurons located in different parts of the brain can work together effectively, profound changes to personality and individual performance are affected profoundly. Transcendental Meditation is a scientifically validated technique for developing higher levels of brain integration.

Dr. Fred Travis at Maharishi University of Management explains the results of the study more generally.

What these scientists discovered is that the stress of competition often prevents athletes from executing physical movements with the same ease and precision they achieve during practice and training sessions. In higher states of consciousness, stress is handled more effectively by the brain. Therefore, top-performing athletes are not as easily affected by the unique demands of competitions.

Athletes seeking better results will benefit from creating a low stress lifestyle, and by using a technique such as Transcendental Meditation to promote accelerated personality development and the creation of brain wave coherence.

1. Harung, H., Travis, F. et al. (2011). High Levels of Brain Integration in World-class Norwegian Athletes: Towards a Brain Measure of Mental Fitness. Scandanavian Journal of Exercise and Sport, 1, 32-41.

Feel free to contact me or Dr. Travis for a copy of the paper.

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