Becoming a "Genius" at Not Feeling Pain
Any high-level skill requires focused repetitions to become automatic.
Posted March 30, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
- Behaviors become automatic with repetition by programming the unconscious brain.
- The most automatic programming is the body's neurochemical reaction to threats, which creates the sensation we call anxiety.
- Anxiety becomes more deeply programmed with age unless alternative choices are presented.
I always wanted to play golf at a level where I could consistently shoot in the 70’s. I began to play when I was 14 but I never took lessons and didn’t practice much. Then in college I subscribed to Golf Digest and read about a dozen golf instruction books. Nothing changed.
Around age 35, I began to take more lessons from a high-level instructor, but being early on in my career, I didn’t practice in spite of endless admonitions from my teacher. His recommendation was that for every lesson, I should hit at least 10 buckets of balls to embed one concept at a time. Never happened.
He took a lot of pride in his work and had coached a couple of players to a professional level. One day he just got upset. “I have never had a student take so many lessons with so little success in my entire life.” It wasn’t as if I did not make any progress. I was able to consistently shoot rounds in the mid to high 80’s but I never came close to my goal.
We are programmed by our past
The way we survive is that our brain is constantly comparing the present to the past, and any situation that triggers a hint of a prior threatening scenario, will create a danger signal. There are over 20 million bits of sensory input being processed every second. This warning system has different forms — hot, cold, sharp, pressure, dizzy, bright, loud, bitter, rancid, and the list is long.
However, they are all creating a similar reaction of being unpleasant enough to compel you to take action to solve it. They can all be lumped under the word, “pain” and the simultaneous reaction of anxiety. Since this is what our brain is repetitively processing the environment every second, it is all being deeply programmed into your nervous system.
It is also the reason that chronic pain (anxiety) almost always worsens with time. You are becoming more skilled in recognizing and feeling the pain. It is similar to a pianist practicing to the point where he or she develops the skills to be considered a virtuoso performer. The term for this process is “neuroplasticity.” We are all programmed by our past up to this exact second.
The Talent Code
What does this have to do with my golf swing? One of the first books I have historically have had my patients read is a book called The Talent Code by Dan Coyle (1). He has done a wonderful job of looking at the factors that create genius. It is a growing observation that genius is rarely born. It occurs after about 10,000 hours of repetition. However, it is a specific kind of repetition called “deep learning.” The other two factors are “ignition” (obsessive repetitions) and “master coaching” (laying down the correct pathways).
Deep learning is the most basic concept in that it is necessary to enter information into your brain in a way that you can retain it. Each of us knows that if you just read or hear some new information that you will retain very little of it. It is necessary to use some technique such as visualization, verbally repeating new thoughts and concepts to yourself, writing them down, analyzing and challenging the ideas, re-interpreting material according to your perception of it, etc. By using techniques you are comfortable with, you can increase your learning by 500 to 600 percent.
Conversely, random repetitions will decrease learning by 15-20 percent. In other words, you must actively process information to retain it and make it part of your nervous system. Master coaching keeps the repetitions within a narrow range.
Holt’s deep learning
So, my way I approached golf was to take a lesson, learn a new concept, not practice enough, and jump to another concept. It is no wonder that I never came close to being an expert.
My son’s best friend, Holt, won the 2007 US Mogul skiing championship by using deep learning. He broke down one of jumps called a “D-spine” into 13 different parts. Each practice jump was focused on just one of the components. It is a stunt where the skier does both a back flip and rotates sideways. He could lay down a competitive run almost 80 percent of the time, which is stunning considering the complexity of the sport. And he did it by practicing about a third as much.
Consider chronic pain. You are trapped by relentless unpleasant sensations without an obvious alternative. The pain impulses fit the definition of “deep learning” in that they are so specific. The obsessive repetition is self-apparent and these circuits don’t require master coaching.
So, these basic automatic survival circuits are permanently embedded. Paradoxically, the more you pay attention to them or, even worse, suppress them, the stronger they will become. The key is to reprogram your brain to have alternative and more functional responses to threat — whether it is real or perceived.
There are three steps: 1) awareness of the automatic response 2) create some “space” between the stimulus and reaction 3) substitute a response that is your choice. With repetition, your brain will develop new circuits that are more pleasant and eventually automatic. You are creating a new nervous system within your current one. It is similar to having a virtual desktop installed on your computer.
By trying to “fix” my bad golf swing, I got nowhere. If I had created and pursued a vision of what I wanted to create, I may have had more success. You have heard the saying, “Practice makes perfect.” What is much more true is, “Perfect practice makes perfect.” Why keep embedding your mistakes or dysfunctional reactive patterns?
The Importance of Developing a Regular Practice
It is common for people to say that they have read multiple books, including Back in Control, and they still feel the same. Yet when I ask them what reprogramming skills they are regularly using, the answer is always the same — none or maybe just a couple on occasion. You don’t want your brain’s reactive response a threat to always be unpleasant. Even worse, what we often perceive as a threat is actually not a threat. It is a “cognitive distortion” and really a huge waste of time and energy.
If you want to break free from pain, you have to develop a regular practice. It does not require much time once you have learned the healing concepts. The DOC Journey presents a sequence of learning that allows you to first understand the nature of the problem, develop a strong foundation by using tools to calm and stabilize your nervous system, provides strategies to break free from your past programming, and most importantly move forward into the life that you desire.
What kind of golf game (life) do you desire? I am probably not going to commit to a great golf swing at this point in my life. You have no idea how much I know about the mechanics of the swing, but I don’t want to spend that much time practicing. But I am committed to learning as much as I can about the latest neuroscience research around chronic disease and bringing these ideas into the public domain. My personal challenge is presenting them as clearly as possible. I am excited about learning these skills and encouraged that patients are responding more quickly. I am continually inspired by people’s persistence and courage in the face of the adversity of chronic pain.
1. Coyle, Dan. The Talent Code: Greatness isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. Random House, New York, NY, 2009.