The Neuro-science of Tim Tebow's Brain
Tim Tebow is the quarterback for the Denver Broncos football team. He has the unusual ability to dramatically improve his performance when the game is on the line. According to a group of Harvard researchers, his stats/wins ratio is a statistical anomaly and can only be described as miraculous.1 There is considerable debate among the experts but the one thing that everyone seems to agree on is this: What he is doing can't be done!
So, let's look inside his brain and try to explain this phenomenon from a neuro-science point of view.
The vast majority of human brains perform less well when there is intense pressure. In order to perform well under pressure you need to either have antisocial personality disorder, in which case you have zero emotional response to stress inducing stimuli, or you need to practice some form of meditation (hypnosis, yoga, trance, prayer, etc.) so that you can get into a "zone" at crunch time. But how does your brain do this?
First of all, there are numerous recent studies that suggest the brain is not hard wired at birth. It can adapt and change during your lifetime. For example, if you do the same activity repeatedly, then the part of your brain that does this activity will increase both functionally and anatomically. For example, if you shoot basketballs over and over your performance will improve with time and the parts of your brain that do this behavior will hypertrophy. It is kind of like exercising your biceps and causing them to increase in size and strength as you are able to lift more weight.
Second, let's look at meditation. Several brain imaging studies done recently seem to indicate that experienced meditaters have brains that function differently compared with novice meditaters.2-5 For example, Tibetan monks routinely meditate several times per day and functional images reveal that they have increased activity in specific areas of their frontal cortex. 4
Further research is needed but it may be reasonable to suggest that if you practice meditation for a long enough time you will likely be able to improve your ability to perform well in stress inducing situations. You will be better able to "get into the zone," so to speak.
Tim Tebow is not a Tibetan monk but he was born in the Philippines to parents who are Christian missionaries. He has prayed, which is a meditating activity, multiple times per day since he was a small child. When the Broncos are losing late in the game and the pressure is at its maximum you will see Tim take a knee and place his fist on his forehead. You can see his lips moving as he prays. Then, he enters the game in a zone. For him, the game slows down. He can now see everything more clearly. His heart rate is a steady 60 beats per minute. The crowd noise fades into the background. He becomes aware of details that he might have previously overlooked like the eye expression of a back side linebacker. He is more aware than ever of the feeling that there is a presence of another being who exerts a calming influence. For Tim, this is the presence of God. And, in this state, he has little trouble driving his team down the field to win the game.
In addition, his overall behavior when not meditating is focused, confident, and stable. He knows who he is and what his goals are. He is able to ignore irrelevant stimuli and focus on the task at hand. The relationship between this behavior and routine meditation has been described repeatedly over the years by advocates of meditation but we are only now able to find corroborating evidence.
Therefore, I think it is reasonable to suggest that A.) when Tebow is Tebowing, he is exercising the part of his brain that does focused attention, B.) this brain structure in Tim is likely as big as his biceps, and C.) when he enters the game at a stress filled moment he is able to play better because he is in a light state of trance.
Let me explain a little better about trance states and the subconscious brain.
The human brain does two things that are remarkable in the animal kingdom: 1.) The brain can synthesize multi-modal sensory input, and 2.) it can empathize with other brains in other humans. These two cognitive activities require an enormous amount of extra storage capacity which is likely why we grew such abnormally large cerebral cortexes. Our brains must process such a large amount of information that if we were consciously aware of it all we would likely go crazy. Some of us who are clinically crazy may, in fact, be constantly aware of too much of this information. Therefore, our brains evolved the ability to process this information outside of conscious awareness. This information is stored in a place we call the subconscious. It turns out that we frequently listen to and use information from our subconscious brain but we call it "thinking with our gut" or "gut-level instincts." So, you hear and see and smell something in the context of interacting with other humans whose thoughts and feelings you can sense. This input is quickly synthesized and directs your behavior. You act quickly but you have no knowledge of why you were so compelled to act in that way. Then you say, "I had a gut instinct."
Also, children are generally better able to enter a trance state than are adults. Anyone who has raised a child knows that their little brains spend a lot of time "somewhere else." And, of course, children listen to their gut instincts a little more than adults do. This ability decreases as you mature unless you exercise it regularly. We know that children who are abused often go into a trance state as a defense mechanism during the abuse and these kids are frequently able to retain access to the trance state well into adulthood. I would suggest that the same thing works for meditation. If you begin meditating at an early age, and do it regularly every day, then you are exercising the part of your brain that does focused attention and you may retain this ability into adulthood. In fact, we have now demonstrated that if you keep meditating regularly, you will actually change your brain's underlying structure and function.
Since gut instincts frequently provide superior information compared with conscious thought processes, especially at times of intense stress, wouldn't it be nice if you could somehow tap into your subconscious brain and make better use of your gut instincts?
Meditation and/or prayer are ways to do just that. It is my belief that when someone is praying they are talking to their own subconscious brain. The subconscious brain is so hidden from conscious awareness that when you talk to it, you have the sense that you are talking to someone else who is outside of you. I think that most people who are praying have the idea that they are talking to an invisible human-like being who lives above the clouds.
Additionally, your subconscious brain seems to be better at listening to your instinctual responses. For example, there is a brain structure called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) which is located just posterior to the pre-frontal cortex. This structure lights up on functional imaging when a subject experiences conflict. This correlates with the subject reporting a negative emotional state.6 In other words, when someone disagrees with you the ACC actually relays information that causes you to feel bad. Also, when you experience agreement you feel warm and snugly. This would seem to be an advantage for a social species because it would influence everyone in your small group to agree with one another and get on the same page. For a species that relies on social bonding to survive it is important to get everyone on the same page and for teamwork to be the top priority.
In summation, there are three major advantages that result from communication with your subconscious brain: 1.) You feel warm and snugly because you are talking to someone who agrees with you, 2.) You are accessing a much richer data bank of information that is critical to your upcoming actions, and 3.) Your anxiety goes down and your confidence goes up.
Another way to think of it is that you can see more, hear more, feel more, taste more, and smell more without being overloaded with irrelevant stimuli.
Do you remember that scene from Star Wars when Luke Skywalker can't hit the phaser bursts with his light saber because he is wearing a helmet that takes away his vision. Then, he opens his mind and hears Obi Wan say, "Use the force, Luke." Presto-magico...he is able to block every blast.
When Tim Tebow is stressed he pauses and listens to his "Force" which is God. He enters a light trance state where he becomes much more aware and much less distracted. When he comes out of this trance state the background crowd noise becomes a deafening roar. Well, it might be deafening silence if he is in Oakland's black hole but it is most certainly a roar when he is at home in Mile High.
1. Bruce, C., Mooney, A. A Statistical Analysis of the Miracles of Tim Tebow. Harvard College Sports Analysis Collective -the official blog of HSAC http://harvardsportsanalysis.wordpress.com/
2. Lazar, S. W., Kerr, C., Wasserman, R., Gray, J. R., McGarvey, M., Quinn, B. T., Dusek, J., Benson, H., Rauch, S. L., Moore, C. I., & Fischl, B. (2005). “Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness.” NeuroReport, 16(17), 1893-1897. http://ysm.research.yale.edu/article.jsp?articleID=478
3. Lutz, A., Slagter, H.A., Dunne, J., & Davidson, R. J. (2008). Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 12(4), 163-169. PMCID: PMC2693206 http://www.news.wisc.edu/13890
4. Newberg, Andrew B. , Wintering, Nancy , Waldman, Mark R. , Amen, Daniel, Khalsa, Dharma S., Alavi., Abass. Cerebral blood flow differences between long-term meditators and non-meditators. Consciousness and Cognition (2010),doi:10.1016/j.concog.2010.05.003 http://andrewnewberg.com/pdfs/2010/Longtermmeditation.pdf
5. Yi-Yuan Tang, Qilin Lu, Xiujuan Geng, Elliot A. Stein, Yihong Yang, Michael I. Posner. Short-term meditation induces white matter changes in the anterior cingulate. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2010; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1011043107 http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/08/100816155000.htm
6. Kerns, John G., Cohen, Jonathan D., MacDonald, Angus W., Cho, Raymond Y., Stenger, V. Andrew., Carter, Cameron S. Anterior Cingulate Conflict Monitoring and Adjustments in Control. Science(2004), Vol. 303no. 5660pp. 1023-1026 http://www.sciencemag.org/content/303/5660/1023