“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.