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How to Supercharge Your Brain: The Key to Starting Your Engine

zongxujian 于2007-06-11发布 l 已有人浏览
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The Key to Starting Your Engine

You know the feeling. It's that rare state when it seems you can do no wrong. Maybe you're playing tennis and every shot is landing right where you aim it. Or perhaps solutions to those gnarly work problems are coming to you so easily that you wonder why they seemed insurmountable before.

For most of us, these moments of vision and high performance are too rare. Why is it that sometimes you fire on all cylinders and at other times you can't even start the engine? The answer may be this: You're at your best when you get your mind out of the way.

Take Tom Amberry. When most basketball players step up to the free-throw line, they think about one thing -- sinking a basket. Not Amberry. Each morning, the retired podiatrist, 80, shoots free throws at a gym near his home in Seal Beach, California, and often sinks 500 in a row. But instead of worrying about whether the ball will go through the hoop, Amberry shifts his attention. He checks to be sure his shoulders and feet are properly lined up. Then he bounces the ball exactly three times, never taking his eyes off the ball's black inflation hole. He makes sure his fingers line up on the ball the same way before each shot. Finally, Amberry looks at the basket and shoots. Some days he simply can't miss. On November 15, 1993, he tossed in 2,750 consecutive free throws.

Amberry teaches pro basketball players how to shoot free throws and has produced an instructional book and video. The key, he says, is to become mentally absorbed in a physical routine, which clears the head of negative ideas, such as missing the shot. "You can't have an extraneous thought in your mind when you make that free throw," says Amberry.

Solutions From a Higher Place

Refocusing the mind to eliminate the buzz and the static of everyday thought, according to a new book by Herbert Benson, MD, has powers beyond the basketball court. Benson is perhaps most well known as the author of the 1975 bestseller The Relaxation Response, which taught millions of readers that practicing a simple form of meditation can lower blood pressure and reduce the risk or lessen the symptoms of many other physical maladies.

Now Benson is applying the relaxation response to help people reach peak performance in various forms -- from creative insights, to lower golf handicaps, to spiritual enlightenment. In his new book, The Breakout Principle, written with William Proctor, Benson describes a simple technique he claims alters brain chemistry to produce that elusive state sometimes called "the zone," where ideas rush forth and answers to thorny questions emerge from the subconscious. The key lies in giving one's ragged psyche a time-out.

"Everyday thought really drives you up a wall," says Benson, 68, seated in his office at the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Boston, which he founded in 1988. What's bugging you? Your job? Your daughter's new boyfriend with the tattoos and pierced larynx? Obsessing over worries leads to stress, which clouds judgment and holds us back, says Benson. He insists that stepping away from problems creates changes in the central nervous system that produce calm and clarity. "After struggling through those worries," he says, "the best thing to do is back off and often you'll have an insight."

Of course, some people seem to know intuitively that the best way to cope with a problem can be to walk away from it. Artist and graphic designer Lisa Gizara, 43, was struggling to come up with a fresh advertising idea for one of her clients, a computer company. So she took her terrier, Elsie Mae, for a stroll on the beach near her home in Ventura, California. As they tromped across the sand, suddenly a phrase popped into Gizara's head: "Get connected." She took a few more steps, and saw an image: Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam," which features the famous detail of God's and Adam's fingers nearly touching -- that is, connecting. "I felt blessed and taken care of," recalls Gizara, "like someone sent the solution to the problem from a higher place."

A Skill You Should Master?

According to Benson, it's brain chemistry, not happenstance, that creates this now-I-get-it state we all crave. Benson believes that when you "break the train of everyday thought" -- a phrase he repeats like a mantra -- your body increases production of a gas molecule called nitric oxide (not to be confused with nitrous oxide, or laughing gas). Scientists once thought nitric oxide, or NO, was merely a toxin. It's a component of cigarette smoke, for example. But in the late 1980s researchers learned that the gas is made in the human body and plays a role in a range of physiological processes, such as controlling blood pressure.

Benson says that the scientific evidence -- from his lab and others -- suggests that when NO is released in the brain, it produces "puffs of insight." It not only counteracts the effects of the potentially damaging stress hormones released when we feel anxious but, Benson says, NO increases the output of neurotransmitters, including dopamine and endorphins, which promote a sense of well-being. Benson believes it's possible to set off the peak experiences he calls "breakouts" by learning to trigger the release of NO.

Other scientists aren't convinced. "Whether you can put NO at the center of the picture and say that it participates in counteracting stress, and say it's more important than many other molecules that have been shown to be involved in stress response, about that I would be skeptical," says neurobiologist Grigori Enikolopov, of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, an independent research and educational facility in New York. Benson concedes that proving his theories is a challenge, in part because measuring NO levels in humans is "devilishly difficult."

Jump-Starting the Relaxation Response

But Benson has grown accustomed to skepticism about his work. Trained as a cardiologist at Harvard Medical School, Benson began in the 1960s to study how stress affects physical well-being -- then considered a radical idea. Many of his colleagues told him he was wasting his time and would ruin his career.

But Benson went on to become a pioneer in the now-flourishing field known as mind-body medicine, which explores how our thoughts and feelings contribute to disease. Internist Larry Dossey, author of Healing Words, says Benson's research, and his standing as an eminent doctor, jump-started serious study in mind-body medicine. Now more than half of U.S. medical schools teach the relaxation response. "Herb has the satisfaction of now being able to say, 'I told you so,' " says Dossey.

In The Relaxation Response, Benson helped patients reduce blood pressure, control pain and speed healing through a basic form of meditation meant to quiet the mind and shut down the body's fight-or-flight reaction: Sit comfortably, breathe through your nose, and every time you exhale silently say the word one to yourself. If other thoughts intrude, gently disregard them and resume your focus.

As the years passed, Benson discovered that there is more than one way to evoke that calm, and the process may have applications beyond the clinic. "People from various disciplines -- theology, business, athletics -- were all saying, You know, we do something like the relaxation response to break the train of everyday thought and we get better results."

Be Better, Brighter, and Bolder

Benson believes that making time to elicit the relaxation response, through meditation or whatever quiets your mind, clears away the intellectual static or emotional baggage that blocks creative thinking or even obvious solutions.

Consider Charlene Abrams, who spent every free evening in the summer of 1994 on the front step of her home in St. Louis, spinning yarn. She would sit in the night air for hours, slowly rocking the treadle of a spinning wheel with her feet and guiding the fibers with sweeping motions of her arm. To the soundtrack of cicadas and the wind in the leaves, Abrams repeated the motions, over and over, until her brain and body went on autopilot. "It's a very Zen kind of thing. You get into this almost altered state," says Abrams, 43, a software engineer. "Sitting there spinning, my mind wanders and goes wherever it needs to go."

After months of spinning, Abrams arrived at the solution to a serious problem: She had to leave her husband. Her marriage had been deteriorating for years, but she felt paralyzed to act because she became too upset every time she thought about her situation. Yet, somehow, when she quit thinking about it and focused on making yarn, the answer came to her. Spinning, she says, "gave me distance from the extremes that I was feeling. It was like a layer of insulation. My fears didn't quite touch me." That sense of perspective gave Abrams the objectivity to realize her marriage was beyond hope. She filed for divorce that August.

Benson argues that engaging in any "trigger" that forces you to quit thinking about your troubles can lead to bold insights, bright ideas and better performance. If you don't want to meditate or spin yarn, try praying. Listen to Bach, Bonnie Raitt or Ozzy Osbourne -- whatever music you find absorbing. Take a long shower or shave. Sit in a calming architectural space. Go for a stroll in the woods. Have dinner in a quiet restaurant, alone or with a friend. Even chores such as raking leaves or folding laundry can serve as breakout triggers, says Benson.

Hearing stories such as Abrams's clearly pleases Benson, since they confirm his belief that we all possess the inner wisdom that "backing off" can not only heal our bodies, but free our minds to focus on what matters most.

"Throughout my entire scientific and medical career, I don't think I've discovered anything original," Benson says. "What I have been able to do with my colleagues is to give a scientific basis to inherent human qualities that we've had for millennia." Benson may or may not have come up with a scientific explanation for a common human experience. But it's hard to dispute that sometimes the best way to get a grip on life is to just let go.
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