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Superhuman Brains Hysterical Strength

As the sole survivor of an airplane crash, I often wonder, “How did I survive?” Was it superhuman strength or sheer luck?

In 2016, 19-year-old Charlotte Heffelmire in Virginia saw her father pinned under a truck. Alongside her father there was a burning gasoline fire raging underneath the truck. This 120-pound teenager grabbed the truck’s fender and elevated it up.  Charlotte freed her father.

Charlotte lifted many times her own bodyweight, which is an example of “hysterical strength.” Some experts speculate that hysterical strength arises from an enormous jolt of adrenaline released from the adrenal glands in dire situations. How it exactly functions in the muscles remains a mystery.  Under the right conditions, we can get astonishing performance out of our bodies.

Our Mind’s Desire; Superhuman Lies in Emotional Investment

Is the same true of our minds? The remarkable activity in her muscles and adrenal glands had to have started inside her brain. Her brain commanded her muscles and adrenal glands to put forth maximum effort. Her life saving feat is an example of what the mind can do for us.

The mind’s desire is critical. In Heffelmire’s case it was how she felt, rather than what she thought. The most important factor in transforming an ordinary brain into an extraordinary one is the level of emotional investment.

Your emotional investment in supercharging your brain is critical because the techniques you are about to learn will require you to change deeply ingrained thinking and problem solving habits.

The brain is composed of about 100 billion neurons and up to a quadrillion (1,000 trillion) connections among those neurons. In order to increase our brain’s performances, we need to increase the number of neurons that focus on a problem and inhibit the neurons that limit our performance.

For instance, German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer’s research revealed that the best way to predict winners at the Wimbledon tennis tournament is to simply identify the players whose names are most well known. For predicting winners, this method proved superior to the complex formulas the Association of Tennis Professionals use to rank players.

Your brain already performs amazing feats. You are just unaware of how your brain does it. With awareness, you can deploy these amazing feats at will. You need to engage the following techniques to understand how your big and powerful brain can do this.

The Familiar/Unfamiliar Transformation

Childhood rhymes stick with us forever: One, two, buckle my shoe. Three, four, shut the door. Rhyming is a great familiar method to commit random information to memory.  Plus, it puts heuristics to work. Normally, memorizing a list of random worlds – such as bun, shoe, tree, door, hive, heaven, gate, and chicken would require repetition, and, after a few days, you’d likely recall only a few words.

This simple rule may help. Rhyme the words with a deeply ingrained memory, then imagine that memory. Your will remember each word instantly and probably never forget it.

Here’s how, One is a bun, two is a shoe, three is a tree. This rhyming method works because it not only requires less memory to store rules than raw information. It also links unfamiliar information (bun, shoe, tree) to already-stored, or familiar, information (numbers one to three). Rhyming reduces the efforts to recall that information.

Introduce Novelty

Transforming the unfamiliar into the familiar is useful for overcoming many cognitive challenges other than memorization. There are many cases where the exact opposite is true: introducing novelty-that which is unfamiliar-can better encode memories.  This is because the brain automatically casts aside everyday occurrences but holds onto the unusual ones. Common events are rarely problematic, because you can predict and prepare for them.  We all know when rush-hour traffic occurs. We know that these things happen and when they happen. However, your brain has evolved to retain memories of out-of-the-ordinary events, because they help keep you safe and out of trouble.

Your brain is alert when unexpected things happen since such occurrences may threaten your wellbeing.  For example, a mugging in a “safe” part of town. We aren’t prepared for these things. So it makes perfect sense for your brain to remove normal memories so that they don’t interfere with unexpected information that could help you deal with nasty surprises.

Memorable Events

We recall details surrounding births, marriages, deaths, and major news stories for the same reason. They represent major departures from the normal flow of life.

People remember unexpected information far better than what is expected. The more surprising we make the information, the easier it will be for everyone to remember it.

If you can improve recall by framing new information as either highly familiar or highly  unfamiliar, when should you choose one method over the other? The answer goes back to the role of emotion in our brain’s performance. If you are most comfortable with the familiar, stay with things you like to stay with; but if you constantly crave novelty, make the abnormal your new normal.

Make Learning Stick

Some of us have had those late night caffein induced study nights.  We cram for a test. When learning new information, your neurons have a limit; in a fixed period of time they can grow only a certain number of new connections, or synapses, to encode new memories.

If you cram for that exam, you will quickly reach a ceiling on new information that your brain can retain. You will have exhausted the ability of your neurons to synthesize the proteins necessary to grow or strengthen synapses.

Neuroscientist Paul Smolen and colleagues, in a 20160 article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, called this limit on growing neuronal connections through protein synthesis a learning refractory period. Smolen cites data from animal studies showing that development of synaptic dendrites associated with learning does indeed progress when exposure to novel stimuli is spaced out over time.  So, spacing out studying for an exam is superior to cramming.

The ANKI flash card memory system, anki is Japanese for memory, for instance, has enjoyed great success because it spaces out learning over an extended period. This system allows neurons that encode memories to recover their protein synthesis ability between exposure and to form new connections.

ANKI strengthens the brain the same way that lifting weights over several weeks or months strengthens muscles. In weight lifting, we wait out momentary fatigue to synthesize new proteins before continuing training.

The” Many Worlds” Mind

In a 2017 Ph.D. thesis titled “On the Mnemonic Benefits of Drawing,” Jeffrey Wammes, at the University of Waterloo, demonstrated that people have superior memory recall when asked to illustrate the words presented to them. Drawing improves memory not only by harnessing visual neurons to store new information but also by using neurons in the motor cortex, where drawing commands originate.

The more brain regions engaged in creating and sensing information, the greater the neural storage capacity available for that information.  These findings suggest that if you really want to retain information you are reading or listening to, instead of only taking written notes, sketch out the information as well

Dropping the Cognitive Censors

Many cognitive scientists argue that “everyday creativity,” simply defined, is the intersection of the novel and the useful. You have last-minute houseguests and you want to whip up a cake and no blender. You do, however, have a pair of scissors and a drill. Most of us would overlook the possibility of attaching a pair of scissors to a drill because parts of our brain have “fixed the functions” of these two tools.

A lot of people have deeply ingrained expectations of how things are supposed to work, and that often gets in the way of solving problems. This functional fixedness blinds us to creative possibilities. Quieting the parts of the brain that know what power drills and scissors are supposed to do produces a quick solution to the problem.

The greatest advances almost always come not from new inventions, per se, but from novel combinations of already existing inventions-making the familiar unfamiliar.

Steering with Different Senses

Without looking, a Black Panther can feel his way around and navigate in the dark by listening with his super senses. His enhanced perception wards off danger.

We also have an inner superhero, too.  Like the Black Panther, we can feel our way around, physically. Sometimes we can sense that an object might be in our path, and you know this before you even look. We know we are walking too close to a wall or large object-without knowing exactly how we know.

This knowing without knowing is an example of implicit learning from the countless times we have unconsciously registered the change in the sound of your footsteps as you near an object.

As a blind person uses a stick to walk, can sense the presence of large nearby objects, as well as their distance, just by listening to the clicks. If you tap the stick within a few inches of a wall or large object, the click will sound crisper and have a slightly higher pitch.

How to See Behind You

Sometimes we can feel that someone is standing right behind us, even if the person has not said or done a single thing to indicate his/her presence.  How? Once again the key is sound.

In addition, we can also pick up-without consciously being aware that we’re picking up-breathing, rustling clothes, and subtle sound reflections (as opposed to sound absorption) of the person behind us.

This is a way to gain important information about your environment. It is an example of our spectacular superhuman-ness and the ability of knowing without knowing.

If you are highly attuned to your environment and have practiced detecting these sound shadows, you will be able to note a new presence just by tracking surrounding change. All of this falls in the category of implicit learning, where over many exposures the brain unconsciously learns the certain cues that we are not paying attention to nonetheless correlate with certain phenomena.

Read Yourself to Read Others

Can we read other peoples minds? That would be superhuman. We are able to read people more than we realize. Intuition tells us that by paying close attention to another person’s facial expressions, tone of voice, posture, eye movements, and gestures we can glean his unspoken thoughts and feelings. Yet recent research shows that turning off parts of the brain that perform exteroception (perception of the outside world) and tuning in to interception (perception of sensations inside the body) is the best way to read people.

When looking at a smile that you know is genuine, pay close attention to your inner feelings. A happy face generates lighter, more pleasing emotions in you than does a face with a forced smile. Emotions come about because of reactions inside our bodies. Your facial muscles don’t contract because you feel happier looking at a genuine smile; it’s just the reverse. The mimicking muscle contractions happen first, triggering your pleasant feelings.  Action creates the emotional response.

A recent study by Jorda Raine of the University of Sussex found that men and women are highly accurate in determining someone’s strength and height relative to their own-and with no visual cues whatsoever. Subjects heard only aggressive speech or an aggressive vocalization, or “roar.” When listening to roars, men accurately identified stronger males in 88 percent of the study trials.

Unlocking the Potential of our Brain

As in the case of Charlotte Heffelmire, sometimes the key to unlocking the potential of these transformations lies not in the domain of cognition, but in that of emotion. And, apart from motivation, the most important emotion is confidence: confidence that you can supercharge your brain.

Most people go through life learning what they can do, and by implication, what they cannot do.

The adult elephant with colossal strength stays meekly tethered to the wooden stake, one that he could pull up like a twig if he chose to-but he doesn’t because as a baby elephant he learned that he couldn’t pull free. Similarly, many of us learn early in life what’s “impossible” and never question it.

But your brain is packed with hidden potential. And, like a full-grown elephant, you can, with certain techniques, break free from expectations that make the impossible seem possible.

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