Did you watch that Olympic snowboarding competition? You wonder how is that stuff even possible. It turns out the reason is because athletes brains are little different than ours.
There have been a number of experiments in the last few years focusing on a part of the brain called the insula, which has the job of predicting the future, and also the job of telling you whether your body is ready for what’s coming.
But it’s programmed to be very cautious.
Experiments have shown that even ordinary people are physically capable of more exertion, but as brain researcher Samuele Marcora told the BBC, the insular cortex tends to flash the red light.
“What actually stops you is not the physiological limit of your body, it’s the perception of effort that makes you believe the physical task is more difficult, harder than what it really is. But in reality, your body is capable of going way beyond that. So that the limit is perceptual, rather than physiological,” explained Marcora.
In athletes, this part of the brain is often larger and more active and knows more accurately what the body is capable of.
If you’ve done any hiking, you’ve probably felt that burst of energy when you finally see that the summit is just a few hundred feet ahead and suddenly you speed up. Now your body knows exactly how much energy you need. It doesn’t have to protect you anymore. Your brain sends the message – I got this.
The difference is, the Olympic brain has that kind of confidence not just at the end of the race, but right from the beginning.
You could hear it in snowboarder Jamie Anderson right after she won the gold. “It just felt so good to able to do something I knew I could do. I believed it.”
Some people look at her and see just another glamorous athlete. I look at her and I see a young woman with an amazing insular cortex.