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  • Martin

Defeating the Chimp Brain with Mantras

In the previous article we have looked at a protocol – RISE – that can be used to turn our mental game round when it all starts going pear shaped in the middle of a race. But, as the medical profession never tires of assuring us, prevention is so much better than a cure.

So what kind of preventive psychological medicine should we be looking at? As we have discussed the principal problem within our psyche is the occurrence of negative thoughts, and these negative thoughts arise because of the notoriously chimpanzee part of our brain. Let’s face it we’re not that far removed from our primate cousins neither in anatomical or genetic terms nor in psychological make-up, though we can perhaps allow for a slightly more developed power of reasoning. The Chimp part of our brain is incredibly useful as far as basic survival instincts are concerned. It is incredibly rapid in sizing up a situation and deciding in an instant whether it is life threatening and hence which of either a flight or fight reaction is appropriate or if it is non-threatening. However it is not any good at reasoning through a problematical situation and coming up with an optimal solution.

The reasoning and logical part of our thinking is dealt with by what we can define our Professor brain. However in a potentially stressful situation, and running silly kilometers in the mountains with possibly lousy weather may well be considered pretty stressful, it is much more likely that the chimp part of our brain comes to the fore. It will be that part of our brain that starts to get angry when other runners are passing us (fight). It will become frustrated when we’re not able to maintain the pace that we had imagined before the race (fight). It will come up with reasons why stopping at the next aid station would be such a good idea (flight). It will decide that the niggling pain in our foot should be taken as a sign to give up (flight). Therefore, and I’m utilizing my superior reasoning power here, it would seem clear that any device which can be utilized to calm down the chimp and allow the professor to take back control is probably going to be a winning strategy.

A mantra, at it’s origin is a sacred utterance, asound, syllable, word or group of words in Sanskritbelieved by practitioners to have psychological and spiritual powers.Mantra meditation is believed to help in inducing an altered state of consciousness. A mantra may or may not have a syntactic structure or literal meaning.

The earliest mantras were composed inVedic Sanskritby Hindus in India, and are at least 3000 years old though the use of mantras is widespead in many other oriental religions such as Buddhism, Jainism and Sikkhism. At the same time we should not forget that rythmic chants and hyms have a focal place also in Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Taoism.

Mantras can come in many forms. They are typically melodic, mathematically structured meters, believed to be resonant with numinous qualities. At its simplest, the word Om serves as a mantra. In more sophisticated forms, mantras are melodic phrases with spiritual interpretations such as a human longing for truth, reality, light, immortality, peace, love, knowledge, and action.Some mantras have no literal meaning, yet are musically uplifting and spiritually meaningful. On a scientific level it is believed that rythmic chanting or repetition of a mantra can increase Alpha wave activity in our brain (Professor brain) while diminishing Beta wave activity (Chimp brain).*

We can see that a powerful mantra can focus our minds away from negative thoughts which increase discomfort and pain, while refocusing on positive thoughts and feelings.

Within an atletic context it is probably not so useful to utilise a religious type mantra, such as Om, but to search for something which can reinforce a positive pathway in our mind. Each one of us can find our ideal mantra but here are some easy rules to find yours and ensure that the chimp brain remains dormant.

  1. Short. It has to be a powerful one liner. From two to six words is probably ideal.

  2. Powerful and Positive. Do not use any negative words. “I am not tired” introduces negative possibilities. On the other hand “I am strong, I am powerful” is inherently positive.

  3. Energetic. Use powerful words such as strong, fast or determined.

  4. Actionable. Use words that remind you what you wish to do. Forward, constant, progression.

  5. Ready for use. It’s probably too late to make up a mantra in the middle of a race though you never know as I can personally testify **. So make sure you already have your mantra before the race and pull it out when the going gets tough.

*Alpha waves have a frequency ranging from 8 to 14 Hz and are associated with a state of a relaxed but vigilant mind.

Beta waves have a frequency ranging from 14 to 30 Hz and are associated with the normal awareness when we are focused on external stimuliThey are the basis of our fundamental activities of survival, associated with sorting, selecting and evaluating the stimuli that come from the world around us. They allow quick reactions and actions.

** It was my very first 100km trail race and I’d chosen a real zinger to start with – the CCC, one of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc races. Up to that moment the longest race I had ever done was 45km and that had been just 7 weeks previously. Everything went fine until about the 50thkilometer. I was eating and drinking, keeping up a reasonable pace, and then suddenly out of nowhere I ran into a mental wall. What on earth was I doing here? This was hard, it was probably going to get harder and night was coming. I really didn’t have a clue what I should do. I had left the last aid station about 20’ ago so I didn’t fancy going back. The next one was probably a couple of hours away at the best. I was stumped. But then from some part of my mind came a single thought “You wanted to do this. This was what you wanted and you paid for it!” I felt very slightly better almost immediately. It turned into a repeating thought in my brain. “This is what you wanted”. Over the years I’ve changed mantras but every now and then I go back to the original, just to test it out.

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