For years, the mainstream media has been dominated by stories of sporting superstitions. From athletes wearing lucky charms to fixate on during important games, to entire teams being banned from entering specific venues, due to bad luck, these stories have kept us enthralled – particularly during the World Cup. But, it turns out, this fascination is justified. There is, in fact, a scientific rationale behind many of these rituals and superstitions, and it starts with an understanding of how our brains work.
Neurons That Spark Curiosity – And Luck
In 1883, German scientist and philosopher Wilhelm Wundt established the science of ‘psychology’. In the ensuing years, many interesting things happened. Scientists started discovering the mental faculties that we use to process information and make decisions: attention, memory, and perception. One discovery in particular changed the face of psychology forever:
Neurons were found to be the core of the activity in our brains. Wiring our minds together, these tiny bundles of cells allow us to both process information and act upon it. When a neuron is active, it becomes ‘excited’ and produces a chemical called ‘Neurotransmitters’. This is why some experts believe that our brains are, in fact, a form of chemical computing devices.
In 1894, Scottish scientist James Mark Halliday, went one step further, and proposed that the firing of neurons is not random, but rather, that there is a certain order to how these cells fire – or in other words, that there is a ‘rhythm’ to our brains, which he called the ‘neuralgic rhythm’. Let’s look at this concept a little closer.
Nervous Energy That Drives Motivation
Imagine being told that the majority of your health problems are caused by an excess of ‘nervous energy’. How would you feel about that? Would you be curious about what was making you sick in the first place? Perhaps you would, and that is precisely what Halliday observed. He noticed that a large number of people, particularly those from Scotland, had an incredible knack for getting diseases that are caused by excess ‘nervous energy’.
What is ‘nervous energy?’ Simply put, it is the total amount of activity in the brain. This activity can either be beneficial or harmful – it depends on what we are doing with it. When the neural activity is beneficial, we can regard it as ‘nervous energy’ that is good for us. However, if this activity is not being used for productive purposes, it can lead to health problems. So, to prevent or reduce these health problems, it is imperative that we try and limit the amount of ‘nervous energy’ that we have. This can be a difficult task, especially if we are not accustomed to paying much attention to our brains – or if we have ignored their constant chatter for too long.
Luckily, Halliday had a practical suggestion to help us better understand and harness our ‘nervous energy’. He suggested that we should try and focus on our bodies’ reactions to stressors and strain places. When a person experiences stress, the body produces a hormone called ‘cortisol’, which acts as a natural anti-depressant. Halliday reasoned that if we could understand what caused our bodies to produce so much cortisol, then we could very well limit the effects of this stress hormone. He called these places where our bodies produce cortisol ‘stresses’. One of the most famous stress places in history is the ‘Munich Airport’, due to the numerous delays and frequent cancellations that take place there. In fact, over time, this place has earned the name ‘Terminal City’, since it is the final destination of many of our bodies’ cortisol – whether it be from long hours at work, or a demanding day of exploring the city. So, if we are curious about how our bodies store ‘nervous energy’, it is probably because we experience this energy in a place that is close to home.
Not Just For Athletes
It is well known that some humans are more susceptible to certain diseases than others. One of the biggest discriminators is our genetic makeup. Some people are naturally born with a thin skin that reacts badly to UV radiation, and they are consequently prone to skin cancer. Other people have an allergic reaction to certain foods that leads to asthma. Still others have a higher pain threshold than the average person, which makes them more likely to develop osteoporosis.
However, our brains play a role in this too. One of the ways that we can determine whose brain is better than others is by measuring the activity in their neurons. A study from the Netherlands compared the mental activity of professional football players to that of non-footballers. Using a test called the ‘Continental Mind Sport Battery’, the researchers found that the activity in the brains of footballers was much higher during mental rotation tasks, suggesting that their brains were indeed more efficient than those of the non-footballers.
What is interesting is that the activity in the brains of the footballers did not improve with experience. In fact, the activity in the brains of the professional players was the same as that of the non-footballers, despite the fact that the former had been playing for many years. This is probably because the non-footballers were better adapted to the rigors of life in the pros, having been there longer than the footballer – they had more experience. Another example of the brains of athletes and non-athletes being compared is a study from Germany that compared the activity in the brains of top-level cyclists to that of non-cyclists. The scientists measured the activity in the brains of both groups when the participants looked at pictures of wheels and other types of vehicles. When the vehicle appeared in a landscape, the cyclists showed higher brain activity than the non-cyclists – even though they had been exposed to many more landscapes in their lives. This again suggests that the brains of athletes are more efficient than those of the non-athletes.
Allowing For Fluctuations
There are several theories behind why some humans are more successful than others. One of the big ones has to do with ‘work-life balance’. When a person has found the right work-life combination, it means that they have optimized their use of ‘nervous energy’. This person will have minimized the amount of time that they spend worrying about work issues and maximized the amount of time that they spend enjoying their life. But, as we have established, not all nervous energy is equal – some humans are wired differently than others and therefore use more or less of the substance depending on what they are doing.
Let’s say that you are driving towards your office building when a police officer pulls you over. You are not speeding, so there is no need for you to feel worried. However, the situation could be slightly stressful, even if it is not quite dire. The officer will probably give you a warning, and then let you go with a friendly smile. Now, if you are an efficient driver who has mastered the art of time management, you will have already entered your office building long before the officer has finished writing the ticket. In this case, you have successfully used your ‘nervous energy’ – although not entirely in a beneficial way.
Sometimes, our bodies do not know the difference between benign and taxing stressors, resulting in us experiencing the effects of both. This is why it is so important that we monitor how our bodies react to various stressors and strain places. Do not confuse this with obsessing over bad stressors – the key is to learn more about the things that make us anxious, and then find a way to limit their effects. This is where mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness is the practice of being fully aware of what one is doing, thinking, and feeling. It is essentially about being in the moment. We will discuss this more in the ‘Relaxation and Mindfulness’ section below.
Tricky Subjective Judgments
This brings us to the subject of subjective judgments. Humans make these all the time, particularly when it comes to our opinions on other people and their behavior. It is extremely easy for us to fall prey to the same biases as those whom we are judging. For instance, everyone has an opinion about ‘those people’ who they think are jerks. But, when we are judging someone, it is usually for one specific reason – this person either did or didn’t do something that we think is good or bad.