3 Recent Brain Discoveries That Shape ‘Peak Performance’

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Editor's Note:

Leadership experts Friederike Fabritius and Hans W. Hagemann are the co-authors of the book The Leading Brain: Powerful Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance.

On some level, psychologists have understood the anatomy of peak performance for more than 100 years. Yet since the turn of the century, there have been some exciting new developments that have provided us with an even clearer picture of what it takes to perform at your very best.

Your unique “neural signature” may determine your style of performance.
It may seem unlikely at first, but research originally designed for an Internet dating site has provided us with exciting insights into the variations of individual performance as well as the recipe for assembling top performing teams. The breakthrough began in 2006 when Rutgers University biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher isolated four neurochemical systems, each linked with a specific constellation of biologically based personality styles. Each of the four styles, Explorer, Builder, Director, and Negotiator, correlates with four chemical messengers: dopamine, serotonin, testosterone, and estrogen. Each of us possesses a unique combination of styles, which Fisher and the co-authors of a 2013 paper call a “neural signature.” These signatures aren’t just suitable for finding the ideal mate. They provide clues as to what it takes for individuals in the workplace to perform at their peak and aid us in forming teams that can produce the best collective results.

You can often neutralize stress just by naming it.
Of course, regardless of our individual neural signatures, there is one essential characteristic that all of us share: the potential for experiencing stress. When you’re feeling stressed, the last thing you want to do is admit it, right? Wrong. In 2007, a team of psychologists at UCLA found that taking a moment to label your stress will actually improve the situation instead of exacerbating it.

Although a modest amount of stress is actually beneficial, too much stress can be a real performance killer. It activates an almond-shaped structure called the amygdala that lies deep inside the recesses of our brains. Once roused, the amygdala fires off a frantic message to your rational control center, the prefrontal cortex (or PFC), which responds by temporarily shutting down. With lights out in the PFC, the brain has more power to fuel to the famous fight or flight response but little or no energy for careful thought. This makes sense if you’re battling a bad guy or running away from a bear, but it can be bad news if you’re trying to keep it together during a contentious staff meeting or rushing to finish a report that’s already long overdue.

The next time stress arises, take a moment to label that stress. When you do, something fascinating happens in your brain. The lights in the sensible PFC get switched back on, sapping some of the power from the original stress response. That brief moment of deliberation as you hunt for a word to describe how you’re feeling (angry, intimidated, trapped, humiliated, etc.) can often be enough to take the sting out of stress.

The more you enjoy what you’re doing the better you perform.
If the previous discovery about labeling the source of your stress sounded counterintuitive, research conducted by Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert in 2010 may strike you as obvious. Yet the results of their study provide one of the most important lessons for performance. Using a clever iPhone app that polled subjects throughout the day, Killingsworth and Gilbert determined that people are happiest when they’re focused on what they’re actually doing rather than thinking about something else. When were subjects the most focused? When they were having sex or exercising. Unfortunately, the activity during which their minds were most likely to wander was work. That may not be surprising, but it’s still a problem. When your mind is elsewhere, the energy you could be devoting to the task at hand is diluted. And it follows that performance suffers as a result. This does not mean that we should all become porn stars or professional athletes. What it does show is a clear correlation between happiness and your ability to focus. If you are doing work that bores you, makes you miserable, or leaves you feeling panicked or overstressed, you’re unlikely to be able to perform at your best.

Are we having fun yet?
Aside from the fact that they all deal with performance, these recent studies may not seem to share much in common. And yet there’s a message that underlies all three. Most tips and techniques for tweaking your level of performance are missing a fundamental point. If you aren’t engaged in work that suits your personality and you’re not part of a compatible team, if you can’t effectively deal with stress when it arises, and if you’re unable to cope with the temptation of a wandering mind, then achieving peak performance is virtually impossible. Despite what chronic multitaskers may tell you, you need to be focused to perform at your best. And you can’t truly be focused if you aren’t having fun.