As promised, after last month’s blog post, I’ll be piggybacking on the concept of will power and what we can do to bolster this trait in ourselves to make us better athletes, better performers. Rather than summarize in this blog, check it out here to learn about how a change in mentality regarding will power can increase our performance. In this blog, you’ll learn about what is actually happening in the brain when we are willing ourselves to do something and how we can take hold of this knowledge and ramp up our ability to push through the pain when the going gets tough.
From a neurological/neuropsychological standpoint, the research is new but staggering. Specifically, because of MRI’s becoming more common place and readily available, researchers have been able to easily gain access to imaging data to answer questions like “Is there is capacity for will power” in a much more objective way. I won’t get into it too much (I’m tempted because I love this kind of stuff) but here’s the rundown: Brain imaging has led to the discovery that will power is primarily rooted in the Medial Prefrontal Cortex. More specifically, two substructures called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) and the Rostral Cingulate Zone. Due to these findings, researchers state that will power is not a “common resource” but “regulatory mechanism” when it comes to task-driven decision making (e.g., “I want to work harder so I will”). Researchers have also found a direct link between high amygdala activity and the high ACC firing when one is faced with a threat of some kind and the need to make a decision (e.g., lion attacks and we are forced to make a choice to run or fight). Now that we know that we can essentially grow our brains (the discovery of neuroplasticity), these findings suggest that we can increase the neuron connections between the amygdala and ACC and RCZ which, in turn, would increase our ability to intentionally regulate our behavior when faced with adversity.
Putting it all together…There is a capacity for will power based on number of neurons in the ACC and RCZ and the strength in neuron connections between these structures and the amygdala (this is why it’s not considered a “common resource” because everyone is different). That said, don’t lose hope if you think your will power is a weakness! Neuroplasticity is real and it’s here to stay! MRI findings prove that engaging in mindfulness practice increases the strength of the aforementioned connections (see Mindfulness blog here). Sleeping regularly for 7-9 hours per night also significantly improves overall brain functioning and allows us to subconsciously rehearse practiced tasks at a high rate of repetition during periods of deep sleep (and many more benefits I plan to post about at some point). Furthermore, through the intentional exposure to adversity (through performance testing and racing) and by actively choosing to engage in the goal-directed behavior, neuron volume and connection strength will increase.
So in a nutshell, get out there and expose yourself to adversity (do test sets and race), be aware that you are capable of more than you give yourself credit for in the midst of that adversity, do mindfulness meditation practice, and sleep 7-9 hours per night. With this cocktail, your will power will improve and so will your performance.
Until next time…