Prime Your Gray Cells

Wiring your brain for happiness and success

Super Bowl: Battle of the Quarterback Brains

Which quarterback has successfully trained his brain to win?

Many are conjecturing that Sunday's Super Bowl will hinge on Tom Brady's right arm, but according to his coach, Bill Belichick, Brady's brain may be the deciding factor. In a CBS News interview, Belichick described Brady's brain as a superstar. "Tom works hard. But he has a great ability to comprehend a lot of different things. Our plays, our adjustments, defensive tendencies, defensive coverages, game situations, down and distance score, wind, field position-all those kinds of things. He's just able to put that into one computer chip up in his mind and sort it all out," Belichick said.

Belichick is no slouch when it comes to brainpower either. According to CBS, he is considered one of the best coaches, if not the best, at the game's chess match. A master at eliminating an opponent's strength and exploiting their weaknesses, Belichick brings, what CBS describes as a "jeweler's eye" for detail to the game. Together, Brady and Belichick have won 140 games-more than any other coach-quarterback combination in NFL history.

Unfortunately, at least for the Patriots, Eli Manning is also known for having superstar brainpower. When he's at the top of his game, Manning thinks fast on his feet, literally picking a defense apart in seconds, and keeps his cool under fire. He also has a reputation for doing his homework and intently studying his opponents. 

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National Review columnist Neil Minkoff predicts that Tom Brady will lose his focus during the big game, noting that the stakes are very high, i.e., immortality. "The fourth (Super Bowl) ring places him on par with his childhood hero Joe Montana as a champion," Minkoff wrote. "The rest of his career-the MVPs, the passing records, the 16-0 2007 season-surpasses Montana and Brady becomes the Greatest of All Time."

Minkoff suggested that this will lead to Brady overthinking the game. "A great athlete displays unconscious competence, which is high performance achieved by reflex without thinking. This is what all of those thousands of hours of practice achieve, moving action from conscious thought to reflex, but outside thoughts disrupt the flow of unconscious muscle memory." According to Minkoff, Brady may be so focused on his legacy that he loses his automatic reflexes and falls victim to thinking too much.

So what creates a Super Bowl brain?

Both quarterbacks obviously have superior ability to absorb information, process stimuli, and integrate information faster than most of us, and both are skillful at overruling their emotions under the gun.  But while a lot of reporters are trying to pinpoint the mind games that each team will have to master-or overcome-to win the big game, it may all come down to which quarterback has successfully trained his brain to win.

Both Brady and Manning have had the ability to consciously cultivate (by using his mind) which parts of the brain he wished to strengthen, rewire, or even regenerate (see our previous column "Plastic Is Fantastic"). As experienced quarterbacks, each has bolstered neuronal activity in the regions of his brain by employing their minds (and bodies) when repetitively focusing upon game strategy, studying videos of previous games, and repeatedly playing and practicing football. Doing so has sparked neuronal activity and thereby increased neuronal responsiveness to stimuli related to the game.

Effectively, when it comes to their brains, both players have become accomplished at:

  • Increasing blood flow to his brain, and thus bringing additional glucose and oxygen to the neurons so his brain will function at a higher level-and form new synapses. Think of a region of his brain as a brightly burning fire that, when untended, slowly becomes embers. If he calls upon his mind to think intensely about certain subjects or tasks, he's throwing gasoline on the fire, and causing new sparks burst forth.
  • Teaching the neurons related to being a quarterback to fire together, which has strengthened existing synapses and formed new ones. Their neuronal activity feeds upon and strengthens itself. The more each quarterback thinks about game strategy and what he will do when certain scenarios occur, the better he thinks when under pressure.
  • Creating neurogenesis, the birth of new neurons in his hippocampus. The more they have studied the game, their fellow players strengths (and weaknesses), their opponents, game strategy, and so on, the more neurons they have sparked specific to being the best quarterback on the field. The more he asks his brain to do, the more cortical space it sets up to handle the new tasks. It responds by forging stronger connections in circuits that underlie the desired behavior or thought, such as thinking at lightening speed, and weakening the connections in areas that could interfere, such as allowing fear to shut down his brain.

All of this has contributed to how well each quarterback plays the game. Other activities related to the brain that may positively affect which quarterback wins include:

  • Positive thinking. Thinking positively has really helpful effects on your brain. It's partially responsible for the growth of the brain, making new synapses, especially in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), often referred to as your brain's CEO. Feeling frightened, which often happens when focused on negative outcomes, decreases activity in the cerebellum, which slows the brain's ability to process new information, and the left temporal lobe, which affects mood, memory, and impulse control.
  • Imagination. The brain usually cannot reliably distinguish between recorded experience and internal fantasy. If he programs his mind with images of him completing every pass and successful evading linebackers and spends time visualizing the desired images long enough and hard enough, his brain will think those images really happened and that he has already won the game. If he thinks the necessary thoughts-thereby training his brain to act in a new way, strongly willing it to do so-and then reinforces this new way of thinking, his brain will fall into alignment with his thoughts and come through when he needs it in the heat of the moment.
  • Mental Practice. Mental rehearsal is formulating a mental trial run that focuses intently on winning strategies-and culminates in feeling the thrill of victory. Operating as though the brain were simply another muscle, mental rehearsals train the brain to facilitate the moves more easily during the actual performance. Because the brain doesn't distinguish between doing something specific and just thinking about doing it, if an athlete creates strong mental images of himself successfully completing passes or handoffs in the midst of a Super Bowl game (by feeling or practicing even the tiniest components kinesthetically) he is laying down the neural pathway. Then, when it comes time to perform, his muscles have the benefit of strengthened synapses and lots of neurotransmitters that are raring to go and put him at his peak-physically and mentally.
  • Meditation or another form of mind control. Practiced on a regular basis, meditation, particularly mindful meditation, seems to improve coping skills and emotional resiliency. Engaging concentration alters the connection between the thinking (cortex) and the emotional (amygdala) parts of the brain, strengthening neuronal pathways and thus allowing for more voluntary recognition and control of emotions. Engaging in self-observation and awareness also activates the middle PFC (center of metacognition, "thinking about thinking" or evaluating one's own reasoning). Any form of "mind control" that helps a quarterback (or anyone) tamp down fear and engage the brain's CEO in crucial situations (happening at lightning speed) will give him the winning edge. Instead of allowing his instinctual, more fearful brain to take over, he will be more skillful at tamping down the fight-or-flight response and handing the task over to his thinking brain.

Both quarterbacks (and their teammates) have laid the necessary neuronal groundwork so it will likely come down to which quarterback's brain has been successfully primed to process information at lightning speed, tamp down fear, and bring its best game under the added pressure of Super Bowl madness.

May the best brain win!

The article was cowritten by Susan Reynolds and Teresa Aubele, Ph.D.

 

 

Susan Reynolds is a Boston-based science writer. She is a coauthor of Train Your Brain to Get Happy and the editor of Woodstock Revisited

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