The Brain Basis of Extraordinary Feats of Will

What makes some people capable of amazing perseverance?

By Elizabeth Svoboda|Thursday, August 28, 2014
RELATED TAGS: PSYCHOLOGY, INTELLIGENCE
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feats-of-will
Marcus Butt/Ikon Images/Corbis

In September 2013, at age 64, distance swimmer Diana Nyad achieved a goal she’d been chasing for more than 35 years: She swam from Cuba to Florida, 110 miles, without a shark cage to protect her. During the 53-hour swim, she paddled through swarms of venomous box jellyfish and vomited repeatedly from swallowing saltwater. Her entire body trembled from the cold. But she forged on, resolute in her determination to complete one stroke after another. 

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diananyad

Diana Nyad’s 53-hour epic swim took a toll on her body, but not her will.

Andrew Innerarity/Reuters/Corbis

“We should never, ever give up,” she told reporters as she staggered onto the beach at Key West, slurring her words through swollen lips. Nyad, a muscular dynamo with close-cropped blond hair and a sun-weathered face, has trained for so long that her superhuman endurance now feels like second nature. “I steel myself, over months and years of training, that absolutely nothing will stop me,” she says. “Your mind begins to have an unconscious set.”

It’s easy to assume that Nyad and other champions of endurance — Olympic medalists, Navy SEALs, marathon dancers — are freaks of nature, capable of feats of will the rest of us could never accomplish. But according to University of California, San Diego, psychiatrist Martin Paulus, who studies how the brain responds to stress, perseverance isn’t just an inborn trait. His work suggests that toughing it out Nyad-style is a specialized skill that’s potentially accessible to all of us — with a little training. 

Curious about why some people knuckle under in difficult situations while others power through, Paulus and his colleagues set up some unusual experiments. Over the course of a few years, they recruited a diverse array of subjects, ranging from Navy SEALs to office workers. To simulate real-world stressors, Paulus had them wear special masks that periodically restricted their air intake for a few seconds, making them tense up and gasp. (While the test is uncomfortable, it does not harm participants.) Using a functional MRI (fMRI) scanner, which detects changes in blood-flow patterns, the scientists monitored what was happening inside subjects’ brains.

As Paulus analyzed the scan data, he noticed some interesting patterns. When warned their breathing was about to be restricted, the most resilient participants — SEALs and adventure racers, among others — showed a burst of blood-flow activity in an area of the brain that registers sensations in the body, called the insular cortex. When the constriction actually kicked in, however, activity in the insular cortex decreased. By comparison, participants who hadn’t had special endurance training showed less insular cortex activity before the breathing restriction, and more after it. 

Paulus realized that the most perseverant subjects in his studies were anticipating the sensation of restricted breathing and mentally preparing themselves for it. That preparation allowed them to keep their composure when the challenge actually arose. 

"We should never, ever give up," Nyad told reporters as she staggered onto the beach at Key West, slurring her words through swollen lips.

“Many people think, ‘I’m tough by nature,’ ” Paulus says. “But it became very clear that the way they accomplish these things is by having parts of their brains regulate the things that happen to them.” 

Relative to ordinary participants, the steely performers also showed less blood flow in a part of the brain that helps govern emotional responses, the anterior cingulate cortex. These changes indicated the stalwart subjects had less of an emotionally charged reaction to the stressor. 

When Nyad took part in the restricted-breathing studies, Paulus noticed that her fMRI scans looked very similar to those of Navy SEALs he’d studied. “We put her under momentary stress, and her brain just did not overreact at all,” Paulus recalls. Nyad says she’s developed various conscious tactics, too, to direct her mental focus away from stress and pain, including counting in four languages and repeatedly singing favorite songs like “The Needle and the Damage Done” by Neil Young. 

Training the Mind

So people with unusual strength of will are skilled at keeping a level head when things get hairy. But Paulus wondered: Can this ability be taught? To find out, he and his colleagues turned to a training protocol developed by Georgetown University’s Elizabeth Stanley to help military trainees blunt their reaction to stressors. During the course, called Mindfulness-Based Mind Fitness Training, commonly referred to as “M-fit,” students learn how to focus intently on specific sensations — how it feels to stand with their feet flat on the ground, for instance. Later in the course, they practice “shuttling” their focus between inner sensations and the outside world. 

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It took Nyad five tries to complete her swim across the Florida Straits, using a combination of steely resolve and mindfulness.

AP Photo/Florida Keys Bureau/Andy Newman

The goal of such exercises is to teach people to pay nonjudgmental attention to exactly what they’re feeling in the moment. That means that if they get a cramp during a run, rather than thinking, “Ow! This hurts!” they think, “I have a strong pain in my side.” 

“You’re not trying to change [the stressor],” Paulus says. “You’re just paying attention to it. And that paying attention has a profound effect on how the brain naturally adjusts itself to down-regulate emotions.” By monitoring your feelings without judgment, his theory goes, you achieve detachment from them, which allows you to soldier through difficult moments without letting discomfort disrupt your focus. 

To put the mindfulness training tool to the test, in 2011, Paulus and colleague Douglas C. Johnson performed a before-and-after study on a group of more than 200 Marine recruits going through pre-deployment training. Paulus gave the recruits the restricted-breathing stress test before the program began. Then half the platoons received 20 hours of M-fit classroom instruction over about two months, while the other half stuck to an ordinary training regimen. At the end of the training period, the subjects performed the restricted-breathing test again. The recruits in the M-fit group displayed brain-scan patterns strikingly similar to those Paulus had seen in the SEALs and Nyad, suggesting the trained recruits had gotten better at anticipating stress and staying calm while facing it. 

“What we’re seeing is that [the training] actually changes how the brain processes information,” says pain specialist Gary Kaplan, founder of the Kaplan Center for Integrative Medicine, who is familiar with Paulus’ work. “We have information coming in, and the more present in the moment we are, the more we can interpret it realistically.” 

While pushing through discomfort might initially be an effortful process, Paulus says, over time your brain begins to make the necessary adjustments almost automatically.

Well-honed attention-focusing skills can be as useful to midlife career changers or cancer patients as they are to extreme athletes.

Paulus’ theory rings true for Nyad. It’s the repeated experience of negotiating obstacles, she says, that’s trained her brain to surmount them. “It turns me on doing big, epic things,” she says. “I set my mind to a vision, as if I have built my will to this cause out of titanium. And when forces of nature stop me, I gather that titanium resolve to try again.”

But how much of perseverance is inborn and how much is trainable? “The answer is complex, a mix of nature and nurture,” Paulus says. DNA studies have zeroed in on various genes, including the glucocorticoid receptor gene, that dictate how intensely our brains and bodies react to stress. So no matter how much mental preparation we do, some of us may not be cut out to swim from Cuba to Florida. 

Still, Paulus believes we can cultivate doggedness whatever our genetic starting point. “There’s a lot of flexibility,” he says. “The system is not fixed.” Well-honed attention-focusing skills can be as useful to midlife career changers or cancer patients as they are to extreme athletes, he points out. 

“The way I see it is, life is life — things are going to happen to you,” Paulus says. “Let’s find ways of making your brain more ready for that.”

[This article originally appeared in print as "Feats of Will."]

DIY Perseverance Training

In University of California, San Diego, psychiatrist Martin Paulus' studies, people who completed a mindfulness training regimen were better able to control their emotions during stressful situations. The entire course requires 20 hours of class time spread over about eight weeks, but you can try some of its resilience-building techniques on your own.

Follow this self-training exercise, adapted from the Mindfulness-Based Mind Fitness Training program, on a daily basis. After a few weeks, you’ll likely start to feel a new ease in dealing with challenges.

  1. Stand comfortably on the floor with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Close your eyes if you think it will help you focus.
  2. Focus your attention on exactly how your feet feel as they are pressed against the floor. In which areas of your feet do you feel the most pressure? Is there any pain? Do the soles of your feet feel warm or cold? Don't judge what you're feeling (“This is so annoying!”), just notice it.
  3. Continue this exercise for 5 to 10 minutes. When your attention wanders, simply return your focus to the sensations in your feet.
  4. Once you've performed this exercise for a few days or weeks in a row, build on it by deliberately shifting your focus from the sensations in your feet to what's happening in the outside world. After a few minutes, shift your focus back to the sensations in your feet. Practice this mental “shuttling” until it begins to feel like second nature.
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