True Grit: Can Mental Conditioning Produce Lethal Results?

The well-trained brain may be capable of pushing the body beyond its limits.

Posted Jul 12, 2018

Can cultivating the true grit of mental toughness get us killed?

The question resurfaced in my mind after reading “Faster, Higher, Smarter, Stronger” by Christine Brennan in this month’s issue of National Geographic. In examining how today’s top athletes continue to shatter records, the article begs the question of whether we are collectively approaching the ultimate limits of human physical performance.

It may well be that stimulating the brain – say through systematic psychological training of the sort experienced by athletes, military men and women, firefighters, and police officers – can sometimes produce lethal results.

When I was employed as a civilian dolphin trainer for the U.S. Navy, an ongoing debate raged between two senior trainers about whether or not a dolphin could be mentally conditioned to perform a series of successive dives that would eventually exceed the animal’s ultimate physical limits and result in its death. Not that either trainer advocated such a training regimen, but each found it philosophically fascinating to ponder the hypothetical.

One trainer claimed that behavioral conditioning, carefully applied, could indeed induce a dolphin to undertake more and more lengthy and hazardous dives over time – until its own acquired fearlessness cost the animal its life.

The other trainer demurred. Evolutionary biology, he said, would cause survival instincts to override conditioned training, carry the day, and save the dolphin.

Let’s look at the record.

490 B.C.

The Battle of Marathon in Greece. Athens versus Persia. Athenians with the home field advantage, Persians visiting with an agenda.

We all know about Pheidippides, although these days we don’t always recognize him by name. He ran nearly 26 miles from the field at Marathon back home to Athens to deliver news of Athenian victory. He then promptly died.

But even before the battle, Pheidippides was running hard. At news of an enemy invasion, the courier undertook a two-day run to Sparta – a distance of about 150 miles – to ask for military assistance in pushing back the assault.

Pheidippides had been conditioned by the expectations of his city-state to answer the call to duty, regardless of personal cost. And in the end, the last 26 miles killed him. One can well imagine the runner’s likely inner mantra in the final hours of his approach to Athens with the happy news of victory: “One more stride, just one more stride . . .”

Even in modern times, true tales of courage and self-sacrifice abound. News reports are often filled with the heroic exploits of police officers, firefighters, and the like who push themselves beyond their own limits to save others.  And those who earn the Congressional Medal of Honor are almost always recognized posthumously for their altruism.

Brennan’s National Geographic article on athletic super-performance makes clear that systematic mental conditioning contributes significantly to record-smashing outcomes. Some athletes, the article reports, now wear training headphones designed to provide electrical stimulation within the brain’s motor cortex: “Research suggests that targeted brain stimulation may improve muscle memory and reduce an athlete’s ability to perceive fatigue.”

Our brains, it seems, can indeed be conditioned to outdo our bodies.

According to Brennan, Bruce Gemmell – coach of five-time Olympic gold medal swimmer Katie Ledecky – has this to say about the power of the mind-body connection: “I don’t think we have really tapped into the power of the brain. That’s the next frontier over the next 30 years – how we train the brain like the body. That’s where the breakthroughs are going to come next.”

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2018