The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

The Neuroscience of Madonna's Enduring Success

Madonna was the top-earning celebrity of 2013. What’s her secret?

On a rainy night in 1983 I went to see Madonna perform at a small nightclub in Boston called the Metro and it changed my life. In my book, The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss, I thank Madonna in the acknowledgments saying, “Thank you for laying the brain chips of excellence and fearlessness in my head when I was seventeen and for being rocket fuel during every workout ever since.”

Madonna has stayed on top for three decades. On August 25, 2013 Forbes magazine named Madonna the top-earning celebrity of 2013. Between June of 2012 and June of 2013 Madonna raked in an estimated $125 million. While other pop stars of the 80s have tragically imploded, Madonna remains a supernova. What is the neuroscience behind her daily routines that has given her the resilience, chutzpah, and creative juice to keep going strong for over 30 years?

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Madonna is the Queen of Superfluidity

Madonna has always had the ability to take regular "flow" to it’s highest tier of superfluidity. Superfluidity is created when all four hemispheres of your brain are working symmetrically without any friction or viscosity. The ability to create superfluidity makes Madonna an incredible performer and overall powerhouse. One interesting clue to how Madonna is able to create superfluidity can be found in the sound checks she does religiously before every concert.

During the afternoon before each of the 88 performances of the MDNA tour Madonna would run through the entire show so that her muscle memory and proprioception held in the cerebellum (down brain) would be at ease and allow her to tap into a superfluid state of performance in front of the paying audience each night. Madonna practices harder than almost any other celebrity and always has. 

Practice makes perfect because it allows your cerebellum to go into autopilot mode, which frees up the cerebrum (up brain). The harmony of all brain hemispheres allows anyone to achieve superfluidity. This performance of Vogue from the 1990 MTV awards is superfluidity in action.

I remember the Sunday night in 1983 when my friend Paula called me to ask if I wanted to go see Madonna at the Metro. Madonna had a song called ‘Everybody’ playing on urban radio, but ‘Holiday’ wasn’t a single yet. I had a high school term paper on Joseph Conrad’s book “Lord Jim” due that week and was hesitant to go out clubbing, but Paula twisted my arm and we headed to Lansdowne Street just next to Fenway Park with fake ID’s in hand.

The club was only half full. It was a rainy night and Madonna was still unknown. She only sang 4 songs from her first album with a live microphone and a prerecorded backing track. Her brother Christopher and her friend Erica were the background dancers. You can hear Madonna say to someone offstage "I can't hear myself" in this rare clip of the show Madonna @ Metro 1983. Clearly Madonna is having trouble with the sound. A mistake I’m sure that she realized made it difficult for her to create flow and superfluidity, hence the rigorous sound checks in following years.

From the moment Madonna took the stage back in 1983, I knew there was something extraordinary about her. I was in the front row and completely mesmerized. Her charisma radiated and literally filled the room. I had never heard anyone drop the F-bomb publicly, and as a gay teenager her boldness lined with a certain vulnerability was something that I identified with and wanted to emulate.

The morning after the show I went directly to the Strawberries record store in Kenmore Square and bought her album. Anyone who had the pleasure of living near me until her next album, Like a Virgin, came out in November of 1984 knows that I blasted that first album non-stop for basically two years. (I apologize to my dorm mates btw!)

The song “Holiday” playing on my Walkman, kick-started every run as a teenager and all of Madonna’s subsequent songs became anthems for me on and off the competitive playing field. When I was breaking the Guinness World Record by running 153.76-miles on the treadmill at the Flagship Kiehl’s store in the East Village I made sure to have a DJ blasting Shep Pettibone extended Madonna dance remixes at regular intervals throughout the 24 hour run. Madonna’s music was a part of my winning formula as an athlete from the beginning.

Madonna’s Physicality and Exercise Regimen Sets Her Mind and Body Apart

I have a few quotes in The Athlete's Way by Madonna. One of them is, “I’ve never been a very passive person. Physicality, feeling strong, feeling empowered was my ticket out of middle-class Midwest culture. So I equate movement and strength with freedom.” The fact that Madonna’s roots are as a dancer and a drummer make sense from a neuroscientific perspective. Both of these activities are primarily cerebellar (of or pertaining to the cerebellum) but each also require the strong executive function of the cerebrum.

Madonna has always been known as an exercise fanatic. It’s no coincidence that Madonna is one of the healthiest, and most fit celebrities and also tops the Forbes list of 2013's highest earners. When you look at the daily routines of highly successful people who don’t burn out, regular physical activity is most often a key ingredient to their longevity. If you don’t exercise a little bit most days of the week your body and brain will atrophy.

From a neurochemical perspective Madonna’s body and brain are a well oiled and finely tuned machine. The daily choices Madonna has made to maintain intimate bonds with family and friends, move her body regularly, practice mindfulness, and eat right for the past thirty years has created the perfect neurochemical recipe for optimism, resilience, and enduring success.

Madonna regularly exposes herself to enriched environments both physically and intellectually which creates neurogenesis (growth of new neurons) in the gray and white matter of both the cerebrum and the cerebellum. Madonna’s intelligence is often underestimated. Watching an interview she gave at the Warner Bros. offices in early 1984 makes it clear that Madonna has a perfect blend of intuition and intelligence and did from the beginning of her career.

Besides her MDNA tour being the highest grossing tour of 2012, Madonna’s savvy investments have paid off. I have no doubt that during her daily workouts Madonna is strategizing and problem solving in a way that has given her an enduring advantage when making wise investment decisions.

Limousines Are a Creative Death Trap

I love that Madonna tries to take to the streets when she can and absorb the world around her either by walking, jogging or biking. You can see her soaking up the world and bulking up her cerebellar 'street smarts' while jogging in this vintage shot from the early 90s. If you look at the daily routines of creative greats throughout the ages, some type of physical activity is always going to be a part of the origin of one’s imagination and eureka moments.

Madonna is incredibly prolific. She has always written the majority of her own lyrics and music. While other singers and songwriters seem to run out of new ideas or inspiration — Madonna’s creative juices are still going strong. The fact that Madonna didn’t become a drug addict helped her stay alive and maintain her enduring success. Sweat has always been Madonna’s drug of choice.

Being driven around in a limousine causes your cerebellum to shrink because you don’t have to use it to monitor your body’s position in space (proprioception), balance or coordination of muscle movements. 

Madonna is the queen of coordinated muscle movement and probably has the bulkiest and most robust cerebellum of any pop star. This makes her cerebrum and executive function stronger, too. The fact Lady Gaga was sidelined by a hip injury and was wheelchair bound and sequestered creates a double whammy by shriveling the cerebellum and street level connectedness.

Conclusion: Revolution of Love

At a time in the 80s when it wasn’t popular to talk about HIV/AIDS Madonna stuck her neck out and showed fierce compassion and advocacy. At the zenith of her career she had the courage to include a pale blue “The Facts About AIDS” insert in every patchouli scented “Like a Prayer” album, CD and cassette. She continues to advocate for the underdog and be outspoken politically as she made clear with Anderson Cooper at the 24th annual GLAAD awards.

In terms of loving-kindness, Madonna is much more generous and magnanimous than most people realize. Her charity and volunteer work is impressive. There is abundant research that altruistism and fighting for the underdog creates neurobiological changes that increase resilience and longevity. Madonna’s latest Secret Project will be released September 24, 2013 and is all about art, freedom, and a revolution of love.

The neuroscience behind Madonna’s enduring success is founded in daily choices that over a lifetime reshape the electrical, chemical and architecture of the brain. We all have the power to make choices every day that will make our bodies and minds healthier, stronger and more resilient over the long haul.

Many studies have shown that listening to our favorite music is good for our health. Luckily, if you like Madonna’s music you can use it as a tool to help you achieve some of the success she has by inspiring you to move your body. Even if you don’t like her music, you can learn from her lifestyle choices and create daily habits to maximize your potential, create superfluidity and achieve enduring success.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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