In this episode we ask how champions are made. Are they born or are they built? Is nature vs nurture even a useful model for understanding human performance? We look at the incredible power of focus and how it translates into championship performance, we study how Navy SEALs use the technique of “drown proofing” and how you can use the same thing to conquer your own fear and perform like a champion. All of this and much more with our guest Dr. Rowan Hooper.
Dr. Rowan Hooper is managing editor of New Scientist Magazine, where he has spent more than ten years writing about all aspects of science. He is also the author of the bestselling book Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Our Capacity. He worked as a biologist and reporter in Japan and two collections of his long-running column for the Japan Times have been published in Japan. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The Guardian, Wired, and The Washington Post.
Are champions and high performers born or are they made?
How does expertise, traits, and personality develop over time?
To be the best in the world at something, no matter what the rest of us may desire, you probably have a genetic leg up to help you achieve absolute greatness
It's a combination of practice and extreme genetics that lead to world championship performance
Even if you don’t win the genetic lottery, you get make huge strides and get a very long way with practice - it’s an essential component of achievement
It’s not as simple as having a gene that simply makes you a better singer or better runner - it’s a mix or combination of dozens, if not hundreds, of genes - and whether those genes are expressed, via epigenetics
In complex traits, there are many more genes involved than we originally thought
What is epigenetics and how does it play into the expression of certain genes?
Does nature vs nurture make sense? Is that still a useful model for understanding performance?
There is no such thing as nature vs nurture - there is no battle between nature and nature - its never VS - it’s always nature & nature - combined - they stack together to create who you are
People often deny the nature side of the equation - because we can’t do much about it - but it does have an impact
For many complex traits, for example intelligence, around 50% of the variance in that trait is typically linked to genetics
For memory - its one of the traits where you can substantially increase your memory without any real genetic help.
What you can learn from the world record for sailing around the world solo
The incredible power of focus - and how Ellen MacArthur organized her entire life towards setting an epic world record
What does the science say about how we can become more focused?
Massive meta analysis studies of meditation show that over time your brain structure changes and your cognitive ability improves
What does “the science of bravery” say?
Extraordinary fear can lead to extraordinary stress and PTSD
What do scientists say about how we can increase bravery in ourselves?
What Navy SEALs training and “drown proofing” can teach us about conquering fear and being more brave
What does it mean when “the training kicks in” in a moment of crisis?
Exposure therapy - and why it’s so important to helping conquer fear
When you study world class performance - you often come across this idea - exposure therapy and discomfort are tools to overcome fear and tough situations. Don’t move away from what scares you, learn to expose yourself to it slowly and build tolerance.
Courage is moving slowly towards what you’re naturally inclined to fear
The power of lucid dreaming - controlling your dreams to improve your performance
There are some extraordinary studies about lucid dreaming
How do we think about performance and achievement in our lives, in the context of this science?
Think about WHY you are doing what you are doing. Is it really what you love doing? Why do you want to achieve that goal or improve that aspect of yourself?
Cross train, and don’t specialize too early. Try different things until you find the one that just suits you perfectly
Homework: Practice whatever it is you’ve decided you want to improve yourself in, practice in a directed and deliberate way, check the science behind what you’re doing
Thank you so much for listening!
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Want To Dig In More?! - Here’s The Show Notes, Links, & Research
[Press Release] SuperHuman Press Release
[Article] Daily Mail - “Are champions born or made? Is it blood, sweat and tears, pushy parents, or simply in the genes? A fascinating new book reveals what it takes to be superhuman” by Dominic Lawson
[Article] The Times - “Review: Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Mental and Physical Ability” by Rowan Hooper
[Article] Early article directory on WIRED
[Article] Wall Street Journal - “The Biology of Bravery—and Fear” by Rowan Hooper
[Article] The Independent - “From happiness to drive, what makes people superhuman?” by Niamh Horan
[Article] Slate’s Future Tense Newsletter - “Can You Replicate the Burning Desire to Win That Drives Superhuman Athletes?” by Rowan Hooper
[Podcast] The Other F Word - Ep 99: Rowan Hooper on How Superhumans Deal with Failure
[Podcast] LIVE INSPIRED PODCAST - 11 WAYS TO BE SUPERHUMAN (ROWAN HOOPER, EP. 105)
[SoS Episode List] Episodes Covering Creativity & Memory
Cision UK - Rowan Hooper, News Editor, New Scientist
New Scientist Live Event Intro - Rowan Hooper -- Wild weather: Is climate change already taking its toll?
Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Our Capacity by Dr. Rowan Hooper
[00:00:04.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success. Introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[00:00:11] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success, the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than 3 million downloads, listeners in over a hundred countries.
In this episode, we asked how champions are made. Are they born or are they built? Is nature versus nurture even a useful model for understanding human performance anymore? We look at the incredible power of focus and how it translates into championship performance. We study how Navy SEALs use a technique called drown-proofing and how you can use the same strategy to conquer your own fear and perform like a champion. All of these and much more with our guest, Dr. Rowan Hooper.
Do you need more time; time for work time, for thinking and reading, time for the people in your life, time to accomplish your goals? This was the number one problem our listeners outlined and we created a new video guide that you can get completely for free when you sign up and join our email list. It's called How You Can Create Time for the Things That Really Matter in Life. You can get it completely for free when you sign up and join the email list at successpodcast.com.
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What happens when a prominent neuroscientist finds out there’s something with his own brain? In our previous episode, we explored the shocking discovery that our previous guest made when he realized after years of studying the brains of psychopaths, that he had the exact same brain structure. We unwind the twisted narrative and the wild conclusions that came out of his riveting discovery. All of that and much more in our previous interview with our guest, Dr. James Fallon. If you want to see inside the mind of a psychopath, listen to our last episode.
Now, for our interview with Rowan.
[00:03:05] MB: Today, we have another exciting guest on the show, Rowan Hooper. Rowan is the managing editor of New Scientist Magazine where he spent more than 10 years writing about all aspects of science. He’s also the author of the bestselling book Superhuman: Life at The Extremes of Our Capacity. He worked as a biologist and a reporter in Japan and two collections of his long-running column for the Japan Times have been published in Japan as well. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The Guardian, Wired, The Washington Post and much more.
Rowan, welcome to the Science of Success.
[00:03:36] RH: Hey, Matt. Great to be on.
[00:03:38] MB: Well, we’re excited to have you on the show today. I’d love to start out with maybe a broad question, but I think it gets at the essence of a lot of what you write about and talk about in Superhuman and will give us a rich array of topics to really dig into from here. I know this is a big question, are champions and high-performers born or are they made?
[00:03:59] RH: Oh, man! You’ve gone to the heart of it straight away. Yeah. I mean, that’s the question we all want to know the answer. I actually think that they are made. So they’re born and made, but they’re born basically. What I mean by that is I think to be the best in world at something, no matter what the rest of us might think and what might desire, the people who are the best in the world tend to have a genetic leg up to help them achieve the absolute greatness.
That’s not to say they can roll out the bed and become the best in the world, but what we’re finding in genetic studies now, it looks like there’s a big genetic component to expertise and to top level world-class success. So are they born or made? They’re born but they’re also made because you still have to work, work, work, practice, train and do all that stuff, do all the nurture stuff, but you need nature as well.
[00:04:58] MB: There’s a great book called The Success Equation by Michael Mauboussin that I read some years ago that provides a really interesting mental model that I think kind of fits into this explanation. It’s this idea that for any outcome you draw from two jars, you draw from a luck jar and you draw from a skill jar, and the idea is you can get let’s say sort of a plus five to a minus five out of either of those jars and then that’s what your result is.
What I’m hearing you say, and correct me if this is wrong, but to be at the absolute top, that world champion level, you probably typically need to draw a max sort of roll from the luck jar in terms of your genetics or those kinds of abilities, but also a max roll from that practice of that skill jar as well.
[00:05:41] RH: That’s right. That’s birthright. I mean, and that’s not to say those who haven’t got – Haven’t lucked out on getting the right set of genes, and we can talk later about what that really means, because it’s not as simple as say having AG to being a great golf player or something. Those who don’t have like the genetic endowment, that doesn’t mean we just give up. You can still get a long way practicing, a long way. We’re talking about getting to be the best in world, then you’re right, you need to have top marks with both jars.
[00:06:12] MB: So let’s dig into that. Tell me more about the genes and perhaps even getting into epigenetics and how that works and how it’s not as simple as it may seem.
[00:06:20] RH: Sure. Well, I mean I think perhaps about 20 years ago, 10 years ago, when we just started sequencing the human genome and thinking about all these things in more detail, geneticist tended to think that a lot of our skills and traits and abilities would map quite closely to single genes, that there would be such a thing as like an intelligence gene even or a running gene, and people look to those things and they looked and looked and looked and we spent along many, many studies looking to these things by doing relations with people and genetic studies.
What we found is we have found many genes which looked to be related to, say, intelligence, or running ability, or singing ability, and I talk about all of these in the book. But the key point is we found many genes, many, many, many. For intelligence for example, there are hundreds of genes that are linked to intelligence, and each gene itself and each varying to that gene only has a .5% – Only adds about .5% of an increase in IQ, say, to the overall trait.
So it’s not like you have to have that one gene and you’re going to become super smart. You need to have lots of those, and that means that at least that sci-fi thinking about engineering those traits into ourselves, it’s not going to be possible for a foreseeable future, because there’s just so many genes that are involved in these traits.
So in complex traits, and they’re the ones where we’re all interested in. In complex traits, there are many more genes involved than we once thought. Even some relatively simple traits, like eye color, it turned out to be more genes than we thought. There are some things that still have the kind of old-fashioned one gene causes it, and they tend to be a few kinds of diseases that we know about. So cystic fibrosis, early onset Alzheimer’s, some diseases like that have – If you have the gene for that, then you’re almost certainly going to get the disease. But for more complex traits and for this also success outcome things that we’re interested in, they’re very complex and there’s a lot of genes involved in how that trait turns out as you grow up. So in short, we know that there is a big genetic component to these things, but it’s very complicated.
[00:08:39] MB: And help me understand and help some of the listeners understand how does epigenetics play into this and what exactly is epigenetics?
[00:08:46] RH: Right. Well, epigenetics is a way of modifying how genes turn on and off. So it doesn’t change the sequence of genes you have that you’ve inherited from your mother and father, but what happens is some genes can get turned on and off according to epigenetics, and that’s like a little marker that gets stuck on the sequence of your genetic code. So you can think of it like an on-off switch and saying, “Produce more of this gene or produce less of this gene.”
Maybe another way of thinking of it is like a volume switch. You can dial up the volume on gene and cause it to create more of its product or dial it down and it will create less. So things that happen to you from the moment you’re conceived, so from when you’re in the womb and as you’re growing up and in the everyday life, things like did your mother smoke when you were in the womb or did you smoke when you were a kid, say, before puberty. These things can have effects on your genes by causing like the volume switch to be dialed up or down. Your diet effects the epigenetics too.
I mean, what we’re understanding form this is that the genes that you have are by no means – You can’t tell everything that’s going to happen about your phenotypes. So your traits, your height, the way you behave, all of those sorts of things, just from gene sequence alone. You’ve got to look at the epigenetics as well, the way the genes are turned on and off.
[00:10:10] MB: So the idea is that you might start or have a certain array of genetic traits, but the environment and your upbringing the actions and things around you, diet, etc., all have a series effect on which genes are activated, which genes may be have the volume turned up and which genes may not activate at all.
[00:10:29] RH: That’s right. But I think that whilst we definitely should consider epigenetics, I think more important is whether you have that gene or not in the first place. So if you don’t have the right genes, say, are going to help you in endurance running, then it doesn’t matter if you’re going to dial them up or down. The right ones aren’t there.
So I think we got to think of genetics is a very, very complicated thing. So just to simplify it down, I think it just makes a bit more sense to think about the sort of underlying genetics that we’re working with and then perhaps worry about their epigenetics afterwards.
[00:11:04] MB: So how does this factor in to the traditional understanding or idea of nature versus nurture?
[00:11:11] RH: Well, to characterize that, is you’ve just described exactly what the common way of talking about development and ability is, which is you’ve put nature against nurture. It’s always called nature versus nurture when we have this conversation, but if there’s one thing I’d like people to take away from this conversation today is that that’s a false kind of fight by putting them against each other. It’s never nature versus nurture. It’s always both of those things. Nature is the genes that you’re born with and the epigenetic sort of markers that’s on there. Nurture is the environment you grow up in, which actually will include the epigenetic influence, but it’s the way you grow up, the school you go to, the diet you eat and so on. You can’t have one of those things in isolation, and people have often tried to emphasize that nurture is the more important one, and certainly it’s the one we can do more about, because we can’t do much about the genes we’ve got.
But I think people have tended to deny the importance of the nature side of things, and from huge amount of research that I’ve done and I’ve looked into during the reporting and writing of this book, I found that actually there’s a lot of information and a lot of evidence that suggests the nature side of things is more important than we thought.
Again, let me emphasize. It’s not to say it’s more important than nurture, but you got to consider both these things if you want to understand properly how things like expertise develop. How a human body develops and how our traits and personality and our abilities, how they all develop.
[00:12:54] MB: Tell me more about the robustness of this science.
[00:12:58] RH: Sure. So for something like intelligence, this has been very controversial, because the measurement of intelligence itself has been controversial. Then if you think about the genetics of intelligence, you can just imagine – Yeah, you know, you’re stirring a pot that can be very controversial. But putting that aside, what we’re finding from genetic studies is that about 50% of our intelligence seems to come from genetics. So there’s a big component about half of the variance and how intelligent we are is genetic.
Actually, that from many complex traits, intelligence is a complex trait. But many complex straits like that is a good rule of thumb and they found that about half of the variance in the ability in some trait is genetic, and this comes from many, many studies now, many, many genetic studies have found this. So, yeah, I think it’s actually very robust, but there’s a genetic, a strong genetic component to these things. Again, that doesn’t mean that there’s a single gene or even a few genes that correspond to giving us those traits. Again, there are many different genes, but there is a strong genetic component.
[00:14:11] MB: And in Superhuman, you reference and write about a lot of these studies. Many of them are meta-analysis with rather large datasets. Is that correct?
[00:14:20] RH: That’s right, yeah.
[00:14:21] MB: Why is that important?
[00:14:23] RH: Well, early studies will – When weren’t able to do genetic testing in a more widespread way, datasets were pretty small. So we could only look at maybe only a few hundred samples of people and look at how there might be some genetic correlation. So it meant that any conclusion we draw would have to be caveated with the understanding that there’s pretty small sample.
As genetic testing has got cheaper and got more widespread, datasets have just got bigger and bigger and bigger. So the robustness and the reliability of our studies has increased. By doing a meta-analysis, what that means is you can take separate individual studies from different places and pull them together and have a look at the bigger picture of what they all say. So that means you can really increase the size of the sample you’re looking at and try to get some really more robust idea about what might be going on underneath it all.
[00:15:19] MB: So I want to dig into a couple of the topics that you break down in the book and explore this a little more deeply. You touched on intelligence and talked a little bit about that. Tell me about some of the research you did on memory.
[00:15:33] RH: Yeah. Memory is a really interesting one, because we’ve just been talking about the role of genetics and I’ve been saying how I think to be the best in the world, you do need a kind of genetic leg up in most cases. But the memory, actually I think that’s one of the few traits where you can increase your memory in a certain way. Pretty much anyone can do it. I mean, we could do it if we want to.
So for a particular type of memory, and that is learning a list of things, like a long list of items or a number, and the number that I looked at was Pi. Learning a long number or list like this, there are techniques that anyone can learn and you just to apply yourself and learn it.
One guy I spoke to use this technique, it’s called memory palace technique, and he learned Pi till 100,000 digits. It took him something like 9 hours to recite them all. The method is that you create a story, you create a really memorable narrative and then you learn the story, and each word in the story corresponds to a number. In his case, the number of Pi.
The way to remember the number if you tell yourself a story and you convert back the words into the numbers and then that’s how you remember it. So that is a specific form of extraordinary memory, and this guy, he’s in the Guinness Book of World Records for memorizing the longest amount of Pi. But does it help you in day-to-day life, remembering if you got a French lesson you’ve got revise, or you’ve some physics exam and you’ve got to learn a whole lot of stuff. It doesn’t actually help.
So that just helps train a particular kind of memory. So that’s interesting. There’re other kinds of memory, but it’s hard to know how to kind of proactively train your mind so that you would suddenly have a greater memory for just anything you encounter.
[00:17:24] MB: Did you come across any strategies other than using visual, spatial memory and memory palaces and those kinds of things that you could use to train your working memory or things like that?
[00:17:34] RH: I can’t remember any offhand. I think there might be one or two things that I’ve mentioned in the book, but the most reliable way of doing it is the memory palace, and you can kind of adapt it to your everyday life to a certain extent. But I think that some people say, “I’ve got a lousy memory.” There are a few things you can do to try and help that.
But, I mean, memory is something that’s quite closely linked to IQ. So there’s not so much you can do to boost your sort of working memory capacity. You can do a little bit of tweaking around and playing with tricks, like memory palace, but overall it’s probably – You’re probably stopped with what you got at the moment.
[00:18:15] MB: Tell me a little bit about what you discovered around focus and the story of Ellen MacArthur.
[00:18:21] RH: Yeah. Ellen MacArthur is a yacht’s woman, and I think it’s about 10 years ago or so she won the world record for sailing around the world single handed, and she did it in the fastest time. Well, obviously she won the world record.
But what’s interesting about her was she did it because she’d have a goal. She was able to do this because she’d had a goal and she’d focus on that goal, and not just during the sailing itself. I mean, it was so intense that she said she had to sleep with the ropes of the yacht in her hand in case the wind blew up and she had to suddenly wake up and steer the boat, because otherwise it would capsize and she’d die, because she was on her own in the middle of the ocean.
So you can imagine, I think it was like nearly three months it took her and she was on her own the entire time, just getting small amounts of sleep all that time. You need incredible focus in the moment as you’re doing it. But one of the reasons I think she succeeded is that she’d had a long-term focus as well. So what happened was when she was four-years-old, she went on a boat trip with her auntie and she came home afterwards and she said to her mother and father, “Hey, I went on a boat today. I had the most amazing time. I want to sail around the world when I’m older,” and her mom and dad said, “Yeah, okay. Right. Now run along.”
But from when she was four, she decided that’s what she’s going to do, and she focused on that and then she started kind of organizing her life so that she could achieve this goal of sailing around the world. So she saved all her pocket money, she did jobs and she didn’t spend any money so that she could just save as much as she could until she had enough money to buy her own tiny little boat so she could learn to sail.
Piece by piece she did enough to reach her goal, and when she did it, when she got there to be actually racing around the world on her own, because she was doing something she worked her entire life to do. That got her through those sleepless nights night after night and the loneliness and the hard work, and having that focus, that laser focus on a goal was critically important for her. So I think that’s something that we can really all learn a lot from.
Now, we may not all be lucky enough to just understand what our goal is and to desire something as strongly as she did and certainly not from the age of four, right? I mean, it’s extraordinary that she understood something so clearly at the age of four. I mean, it takes most of us yeas before we understand we want something or we understand a goal. But we can still construct goals for ourselves and we might not want them with as much passion and drive as she did, but then generally they’re probably not going to be as challenging as sailing around the world on your own.
So the take-home message is if you can construct yourself a goal and do things to get towards that even in an incremental way. That’s going to be hugely important. It gives you something to focus on, and focus is really important for all these different levels. So the day-to-day focus and long-term goal focus.
[00:21:29] MB: What was some of the science that you uncovered around how to create more focus?
[00:21:34] RH: Sure. Well, I spoke to a neuroscientist who’s also a lifelong meditation kind of guru guy, and he told me a lot about how the brain changes after meditation, and not just after like one session of it, but after like extensive meditation. Various areas of the brain change and they all tend to be related to making the brain work more efficient, and this has also been tested a lot of times. You mentioned meta-analysis – He published a big meta-analysis of studies of meditation and brain studies and they basically found that your brain gets a boost after meditation. If meditation becomes a habit, your brain structures change subtly and the brain becomes more efficient. Your cognitive ability improves. So the brain works better. It works more efficiently. You do things with less stress, with less prevarication, and there’s a lot to be said from putting like a daily meditative practice into your life.
Many people talk about this now, and there is a lot of – So we may a little while ago thought, “Oh, that’s for hippies, going off and meditating,” but there’s a lot to be said about it just from a hard science point of view. It may be easy to make jokes about it, but it really focuses the mind. It changes the brain structure and it has great benefits and a lot of people swear by it.
[00:23:03] MB: It’s funny, probably the single most recommended strategy across our entire podcast is meditation.
[00:23:09] RH: Oh, really. Yeah. I can really understand it. I think there’s a huge amount to be said for it, and it doesn’t have to be onerous. It doesn’t have to be hard work. It can be something that you can introduce into your day very easily, and I think anyone will see benefits from it.
What’s interesting is – So this guy I spoke to, the neuroscientist, he first noticed it because he was a long distance runner when he was in high school and he noticed that his meditative practice as a school boy helps his running. At first, I didn’t really imagine meditation helping in a physical side of thing like that, but it does.
So I think it can help creatively and it can help in your work, in your day-to-day work, but it can also have a physical effect as well. It helps you get into flow, this kind of mysterious but very cool way of working where your brain is just really efficiently getting into the swing of things. Yeah, I’m really not surprised that you hear about this a lot in your show.
[00:24:08] MB: Another topic you wrote about that I found fascinating and I feel like come up frequently in the performance and self-improvement literature was bravery. I love to hear what you uncovered.
[00:24:18] RH: Yeah. Well, I guess when I went into that I just thought, “Okay.” I mean, the books is called Superhuman, and I wanted to look at people who’ve done extraordinary things on a whole range of different traits and abilities.
So bravery seem to me like, “Well, that’s a real superhero trait, bravery. Let’s look at it and let’s look at what science of bravery is,” and I very quickly realized, which anyone would if you start thinking about it for more than a minute,” that bravery comes in lots of different forms. So there’s the kind of bravery where you might see someone drowning and you don’t know who they are, but hey, if someone’s drowning – And sometimes people will just rush out into the ocean and risk their lives and save someone. That’s a particular kind of bravery.
Then there’s a bravery where you might do things – You might run back into your house to rescue your family, a burning house, to rescue your own family. That’s still brave, but it’s family. You can understand in another way why you might do that. There’s a kind of maternal bravery. Then this bravery in the face of something that’s kind of a constant threat that you know you’re going to have kind of grip your teeth and do something.
So there’re all these different kinds of bravery, and there’s also different things going on in the brain. There’re things going in the amygdala, which is the part of the brain where fear is processed. So I looked at a few examples. I spoke to people who have been exceptionally brave and try to understand like where did this come from, how did you manage to do brave in what you did? I spoke to scientists about what is bravery and can we perhaps increase it in ourselves?
So it all really depends on the kind of bravery we’re talking about. I think one other way – Another interesting thing about is that its opposite is fear, and extraordinary fear can often lead to extraordinary stress and sometimes posttraumatic stress disorder, which is a growing problem. So to understand how bravery works and how fear work is going to help treat some problems when we have – When it goes wrong, when we get this terrible stress response. Yeah, in a nutshell there’re lots of different kinds of bravery and there’s a lot going on in the brain underneath it all.
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[00:27:56] MB: I want to dig into some of the lessons and ideas that you shared around PTSD, because I thought that was a really fascinating discussion in the book. But before we do, I want to come back to this idea of what did you discover that some scientists say around how we can increase bravery in ourselves?
[00:28:11] RH: Well, one way is to try and rationalize it out. So you can try and think statistically how a thing you’re facing is unlikely and it’s a kind of irrational thing you’ve been trying and kind of talk your way through it in that way, or it’s to try and dilute the thing, or kind of in a way dilute, increase the bravery by kind of sucking it up from other people.
So this is what the military do. They create small groups of people who work together to support each other. So you’ve heard the phrase band of brothers. What the military does is create small bands of brothers that kind of tricks the brain into literally thinking that the people that you’re with are your kin so that you’re willing to do more for them than you would do for a total stranger, because you feel so close to them.
So we talk about that in the lot in the military. Well, the military uses this, but it’s also quite interesting to think for the rest of us who work in teams. Almost all of us work in an office. We work with a group of people. We band together and we’re not going to be asked to go to war or do anything incredibly schedule. So it’s interesting to think about the group dynamic the way the military does and to think about it binds us together and we can work together in a more profitable way together by understanding that.
[00:29:34] MB: One of the interesting military examples that you shared in that chapter was the Navy SEALs and how they drown-proof people. Tell me about that.
[00:29:42] RH: Oh my goodness! Yeah, that’s really extraordinary. The drown-proofing, so they tie your legs together and your arms together and you have to swim like 100 meters. Obviously, you can imagine – I’ve actually tried to do this. I haven’t tied myself together, but since learning about this, I’ve been in pool – And try it next time, like cross your legs and like hold your hands behind your back and then just try and swim and you have to kind of just buckle your body and try and swim. It’s incredibly hard. To do 100 meters, you can imagine how difficult it would be, but that’s what Navy SEALs have to do.
The reason is, is you can imagine there can be situations where you may be captured and tied up, get a chance to escape or you’re chucked overboard or something. There may be situations where you have to try and swim, but your arms and legs are tied. If you have the experience of doing this in training, then you will be slightly less scared when it happens for real. This is why the military put personal through this kind of training, and that’s really extreme, but this kind of principle happens in training all over the place.
If you look at airlines, the cabin crew undergo a lot of training, emergency training in case the aircraft goes down or there’s fire or something. So on the very rare occasions where those happen, that those things happen, we often hear reports that all the passengers are screaming and panicking. The cabin crew just very calmly click into action. They know what to do. They guide people out. They follow the protocol, and that’s because they’ve trained over and over again and they’re able just to follow their training. You often hear people say the training kicked in. You hear this in many different professions. When a disaster happens, when someone’s really brave, they get interviewed on TV and you often hear the phrase, “Yeah, the training kicked in,” and that’s not to sort of denigrate their bravery. They were brave. But the reason they were able to show this kind of bravery and to perform these actions is because they’ve trained it, and so their brains already have somewhere to go and they know what to do kind of unconsciously and they can click into this pathway and get the job done.
Whereas the rest of us, if we’re thrown into a river with our arms and legs tied, we’re going to drown, or if we’re in some unexpected situation we haven’t trained for, we’re going to just freeze and not going to know what to do. But this is why training is critically important in kind of facilitating bravery in those situation.
[00:32:12] MB: And this gets at and many ways comes back to touching on PTSD as well, but something really important and under-appreciated in today’s world, which underscores many of these ideas is the importance of exposure therapy. Tell me a little bit more about that.
[00:32:26] RH: Yeah. I mean, I guess that’s the similar sort of thing. It’s like getting people experience of a thing that’s frightening and just gradually training them and getting them used to it and overcoming the fear. As you say, this is something that’s used in PTSD. So I think the typical one – I think some veterans say they can’t drive a car anymore, because the noise of a car door closing reminds them of a gunshot or something. The way this is treated is by using exposure therapy very gradually, like they may be just shown images of cars, and that’s it for one session, and you may go to a parking lot, you see cars, and that’s it and you just gradually build up and you expose the person to it just a bit more each time and you build up the kind of reservoir, a protective reservoir that helps him get over the fear to whatever it is. Yeah, that is one way that PTSD is treated and one way that you can store up a protected element to bravery.
[00:33:32] MB: When you study world-class performance, you often come across this idea, that exposure therapy or discomfort as a tool to overcome fear in tough situations, and yet I feel like so many people’s response to negative stimulus is often to try and hide or minimize it or move away from it.
[00:33:49] RH: Sure. I mean, that is our immediate response will be to move away from it. I did read about one – I talk about it in the book, but there’s one extraordinary study that some neuroscientist did, and they got people who are scared of snakes. The normal response would be like move the hell away from that snake. All they did was put them in an MRI brain scanner and have next to the brain scanner a conveyor belt with a life snake on it, and inside the brain scanner, the people were able to move a little lever that would move the conveyor belt back or forth and they were told, “Right. Now, try and bring the snake closer towards your head.”
So the ones who made the decision basically to be brave and to move the snake closer towards them, you could look at what’s going on with the brain and find out what’s happening and they’re like, “That’s how they defined what courage was,” because they were working in a way that opposed what they naturally were inclined to do. They’re naturally inclined to move the snake away, but they worked in a way to oppose that and brought the snake closer. By doing that, you can find out, “What’s happening in the brain when you actively show bravery?” Basically, they found a couple of bits in the brain that were more active during that time. So we can start to understand what’s happening when you actively show bravery. What’s happening in the brain? That might give us a way of then tapping into that in the future and kind of being able to maybe induce bravery.
[00:35:17] MB: We’re jumping around a little bit, but this is another topic that I found so fascinating and something that’s been of interest to me for a long time. Tell me about the work that you uncovered around the power of lucid dreaming.
[00:35:29] RH: Yeah. This is really extraordinary. As you know, lucid dreaming is when you are asleep and you’re dreaming, but you become aware that you’re dreaming and that you’re asleep but you don’t wake up. I don’t know, many people have had some kind of experience of this. It might then happen that you fall back into deeper sleep or you wake up, but some people are able to then control that period of the sleep cycle where they’re asleep and dreaming but are in control. Then they can control it so well that you can start to use it. People can – You can exploit this.
So there’s some extraordinary studies done by people that go into lucid dreams, because what you can do is you go to sleep, you’re being watched through remote cameras by the scientists in an outside room. They’re watching in on you. When you go into a lucid dream, you’ve prearranged with the scientist that you’re going to move your eyes in a certain pattern underneath your eyelids but whilst you’re sleep, and that will signal to them that, “Okay, I’m in a lucid dream now,” and then you can do something.
For example, the scientist have played like tones of music that correspond to mathematical sums. So you might say like, “Give them 5 + 3 by playing notes of music,” then this person asleep has to make the calculation in their dream and signal back by moving their eyes what the answer is. So that’s quite a mundane or weird thing to do when you’re asleep and it just shows that you are able to communicate with the waking world from the sleeping world.
Then they started doing some more ambitious things. So one scientist I spoke to got a load of lucid dreamers in the lab, I taught them this game of darts. It wasn’t a typical game of darts. There’s a particular game, they have to throw the dart at the board in a certain way, and everyone practiced it in the evening before they went to bed. They all went to bed in the sleep lab and some of them were able to go into lucid dreams, and when they were in the dream, when they were in the lucid dream, they dreamt into existence a dartboard and the darts and they started throwing the darts and practicing a game that they had learned just a few hours before when they were awake.
The next day when they all woke up, they were all tested again in the waking world and the ones who’d been able to practice overnight in their dreams had highest scores than the ones who just had regular night sleep. So the idea that you can practice in your dream is starting to hold. As I looked into this more, I found some stories from snowboarders and performance divers who’ve been trying to do a new trick. It may be on a snowboard jump and they’re trying a trick. It’s something they can’t do in the real-world. But when they go into a lucid dream, what they say is they slowed time down so they’re able to make the turn, make the spin, pull off the trick and land, and they practiced it like that in their dreams, because it’s danger-free. They can happily practice it, and then in real-time, they can go on the slopes and do the jump for real and it gives them more confidence.
Other people I’ve spoken to practiced languages that they’re learning in their dream and they don’t have any of this social fear about sounding stupid, because you can’t remember the right word or you can’t get the accent right. The idea that you can kind of use your dreams or use your lucid dreams in this way is amazing.
[00:38:48] MB: So how could we begin to tap into that and train ourselves or start to lucid dream?
[00:38:53] RH: Well, yeah, for the rest of us who don’t naturally lucid dream, there are quite a few ways of inducing lucidity in the rest of us. So there are ways of doing it just by practice, and there’re also things you can buy now, like little headsets that will detect when you’re in REM sleep, so when you’re in regular dream sleep, and there’re ways that these little headsets you wear will sort of play flashlights through your eyelids, but just gently, and it’s a way of bringing on lucidity. So it won’t be enough to wake you up, but it will just be enough to bring you into lucidity.
[00:39:26] MB: I want to come back and look at the broader context of the various things that we’ve talked about. When you think about the genetic component of whether it’s intelligence, or focus, or any of these abilities, how do you contextualize that within an understanding of performance and achievement in our own lives, and for each of the listeners, for someone who’s not born with a top 1% of ability that can help them become a world champion, whether it’s a chess player or a singer or whatever it might be, how do you recommend or think about they view practice and performance and achievement?
[00:40:01] RH: I think one thing that I’ve really taken from this is that think about – We touched on this when we were talking about focus, is think about why you’re doing what you’re doing and do you have a goal? What is that goal? What are the reasons that you’re setting that goal?
Many of the people I’ve spoken to who are the top of their game for whatever trait it is, one thing they all have in common is a deep love of the thing they did. The rest of us, like that just translates into, “Are we doing this for the right reasons? Are we trying to be – If we’re trying to improve ourselves in some way, is it something we really love doing?”
I found one amazing study in athletics, and the scientists there had looked at a whole group of athletes who’d gone to the Olympics. So any athlete who gets to the Olympic games is already world-class athlete. But what the scientists did then was separate them out, the ones who’d just nearly qualified for the Olympics and those who’d won medals at the Olympics. If you then look at work and practice pattern of these two groups of people are, it turns out that the ones who achieved medals had specialized in their sport at a later stage than the ones who had just nearly managed to get to the Olympics.
Not only that, but they’ve done many other different kinds of sport when they were kids and when they’re growing up and perhaps still now. In other words, they kind of cross-trained, they did different things and they found – They specialized later, and that’s because they found the thing that they were – Not only best at physically, but more suited to mentally. So it meant that you they able to find the thing they were best at in multiple ways by doing different things, you stay stronger and this kind of cross-training benefits kind of moved across and help you in this sport that you’ve ended up doing. So that was at the Olympics, but the same thing actually applies in other fields as well.
So this kind of cross-training, non-specializing, don’t specialize too early, that kind of mantra applies I think to even non-athletes as well. One way I talk about it is think of it like the Goldilocks principle. Try different things until you find the one that’s just suits you perfectly well.
[00:42:18] MB: So for listeners who want to concretely implement some of the ideas we’ve talked about today, what would be an action item or a piece of homework that you would give them to execute on some of these ideas?
[00:42:29] RH: I think you certainly need to practice whatever you’ve decided to – You want to improve yourself in. I would make sure you’re practicing in a correct way, in a directed way that’s going to improve yourself. If you possibly can check the science behind what you’re doing. I mean, there’s a lot of hocus-pocus out there. There’s a lot of soft of advice given may well sound encouraging and beneficial, but I would always try to check out what’s the science underlying what you’re doing to make sure that you’re going to do something that’s going to be really beneficial.
[00:43:03] MB: For listeners who want to find you and your work online, what’s the best place for them to do that?
[00:43:08] RH: I guess on Twitter. I’m always there, @rohoop on Twitter. All the stuff we talked about is in the book. There’s a huge amount in there. That’s the first starting point, and then see what I’m doing on Twitter.
[00:43:18] MB: Well, Rowan, thank you so much for coming on the show, for sharing all these knowledge and wisdom. You took an incredible journey across a number of different fields of human performance and some really interesting insights.
[00:43:28] RH: Thanks, Matt. Great to chat with you.
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