“Well, most people are brought up to just kind of think positively. That’s absolutely not true. That’s completely false. Cause emotions come first before thought.” — John Sullivan
The Halo Sport neuro-stimulation system is an easy to use headset which puts your brain in a hyper-learning state, so that you get more out of your workouts. Mark had a podcast with one of their co-founders, Dr. Daniel Chao, and he was impressed with the underlying science of the device. At its simplest level, the Halo sport is allowing you to develop muscle memory faster than usual. It has already been used in the military, by professional sports teams and by Olympic athletes.
Right now, you can join thousands of those customers by using a generous offer that Halo is giving to the Unbeatable Mind tribe. Go to haloneuro.com and use the code UNBEATABLEMIND at checkout to get the product for $475—$275 off the regular retail price.
Dr. John Sullivan is a well-known sports psychologist who currently works with NFL teams, has consulted with the NBA, Major League Soccer, and English Premier League as well as Olympians. He is also the author of the book “The Brain Always Wins: Improving Your Life Through Better Brain Management.” He talks with Mark today about the importance of emotions in performance since, as he says, “emotions run the show in sport and life.”
Find out how:
- Exercise needs to be understood as medicine. It needs to be dosed correctly like anything else.
- We’ve returned to a “hunter/gatherer” society as we have to pick through food at the supermarket and read carefully to find suitable nutrition in our grocery stores
- Technology can enhance, but never trump human beings
Listen to this episode to hear how performance often comes before thought, so thinking about what we should do means that we’re often too late.
PowerDot is an electrical stimulation device that allows you to increase performance, speed up recovery and overall achieve a deeper mind/body connection. Many stim devices can be clumsy and hard to use. PowerDot achieves simplicity and is well-designed. They put professional level physical therapy in your hands easily and inexpensively.
PowerDot loves the SEALFIT and Unbeatable mission, and has generously offered the tribe 25% off of their device. You can check it out at powerdot.com–use the code “UnbeatableMind” at checkout and receive 25% off one of the Commander’s favorite tools for achieving increased muscle performance and recovery.
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Hey folks this is Mark Divine with the Unbeatable Mind podcast. Thanks so much for your attention today. I really appreciate it. And as you know we don’t take it for granted around here. Because all the things vying for your attention, and I’m going to make sure that you get a ton of value out of today’s show.
We’re going to be talking to Doctor John Sullivan who is a specialist and expert in brain science and how to create a healthy brain. Cool stuff.
But before we get started, update on my Burpees for Vets challenge. So it’s… as I’m recording this it’s the end of April. So I’m nearing 4 months of doing 300 burpees a day on my quest to do 100,000 burpees this year. Which I’ll definitely nail. I’ll knock that out of the park. In fact, I’m targeting about 109,000.
At any rate, the challenge is to raise awareness and funds for veterans who are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress. And my team and I–meaning hopefully some of you listening are part of my team. Because it’s a self-selected group who have decided to jump in with me on this cause.
We’ve committed to doing 22 million burpees this year. And that number is relevant. That number 22 is relevant because supposedly that’s how many veterans are committing suicide every day. Which is just tragic to even think about. So they’re suffering, and so we’re doing a tiny, tiny bit of suffering to help them out.
So if you’re interested in supporting us go to burpeesforvets.com. You can learn more about how you can either organize a team or jump on a team or just pledge a certain amount of money per burpees for me. I’m donating 10 cents a burpee, so I’ll be putting a little over 10,000 into this cause.
And so far we’ve raised… or we’ve got committed about 160,000 dollars. Which is tremendous. And close to 10 million of our 22 million burpees. So we still need your help.
All right, and then one more public service announcement, the 5th anniversary edition of “The Way of the SEAL,” my bestselling book put out in partnership with Reader’s Digest is coming out on Memorial Day. You can pre-order it already if you go to wayoftheseal.com.
And also get a free workbook/journal that we put together. Anyways, there’s information on the website about that. Check that out. I’m excited about that because I’ve added 2 new chapters. One is on leading in Accelerated Times. In VUCA times. And the other is on the Secrets to Building Elite Teams. And I’ve added key takeaways to every section and completely edited the entire book. So it’s going to be great.
So back to the show. My guest today is sports scientist and clinical sports psychologist, Doctor John Sullivan. John works with the New England Patriots–you’ve heard of those guys. NBA teams. NCAA teams. Olympians. Elite military folks like the SEALs. And he’s the co-author of a book called “The Brain Always Wins,” Which focuses on the latest in sports psychology. Cognitive science and neuro-science. To help you optimize your brain’s performance, and your health.
If your brain isn’t healthy then you’re not healthy. That’s a direct quote from him. And I agree with that. So check this out. This is going to be a great, great episode. And I am super-stoked to have Doctor John Sullivan.
Who’s currently a clinical sports psychologist for Providence College and University of Rhode Island. And like I said, consults with the NFL and the NFL office itself on mental health and behavioral health issues. And got a lot of stuff to talk about.
So Doctor John Sullivan. Welcome. Thanks for jointing us today.
Dr John Sullivan: Thanks for having me. And I enjoyed listening to your intro. The book “The Brain Always Wins,” also a portion of all sales go back to veterans worldwide. In the United States it’s Lone Survivor so when you’re talking about burpees for Vets, you got me. And I was sitting on the edge of my seat. And you’re absolutely right about the tragedy of war is that it degrades brain health. And every day we should be thinking about what we do is based upon the freedom that they provide and we need to be looking out for our veterans. That’s for sure. So I’m so glad you did that.
Mark: Yeah, thanks for doing that… I agree with you. We all agree and we just need a way to engage for those of us who are physically oriented. Athletes and warriors. We can always do burpees. That’s why I chose that.
There’s really no excuses, right? I don’t care how fast, or how good they look, as long as you’re not going to hurt yourself, you can just crank them out.
Dr Sullivan: Fantastic.
Mark: You know, and that’s a great place to start because you’ve certainly done a lot of work with the NFL and TBI has become a huge issue now, and it’s thankfully they’re finally taking a look at it.
While the SEALs as you know, are now baselining all their warriors. So they’re going to do an MRI or some sort of qEEG test to baseline their brains, so that they can start to track what’s happening with TBI. And so even just going to the range and shooting some rounds, you’re basically traumatizing you brain.
And so they finally are getting smart about this. And so a lot of that has to do with the work that you and others in the field have done. To really expose people to the issues of TBI and brain injury and how it can be healed, right? How it can be healed.
Dr Sullivan: There is a cross-germination there no doubt. I think often when I’m talking to people in both environments–sport and military. Or even law-enforcement, or firefighter. There are universals, but not everything that works with the elite military crosses over into sport. I think that’s a bit of misnomer.
But I’m in agreement with you that absolutely health is the foundation of human performance. And one environment can influence another to kind of “Let’s start looking there.”
And you’re absolutely right that we think of concussion as an end-state. But it’s actually a process. All training–a sport, and then the training that’s done in the elite military–is trauma. It just depends–is it a big T or a little t–and if you’re not measuring you don’t know when to pull back and allow that person to recover and then adapt. Or get stronger. Get better.
And I agree with you. Any time that we can put an objective way of looking at what is really happening, then we’re getting closer to allowing that person to be more resilient every day. Because we’re giving them choices.
Mark: Right. And there is a fine line between healing–or maybe I should say–a progression between healing and optimization. So a lot of clients, I imagine, you go into they go “Hey, Dr John, I want to optimize my brain’s health.”
And you do an MRI or you’re like, “You know what? That’s all fine and good, but you have some TBI that we gotta basically heal from.” Is that the case? Where you focus on healing and recovery before optimization? Or are they all the same thing to you?
Dr Sullivan: Well, there is some pieces to that, you’re describing. It is a process. And your assessment drives what you do with the intervention. So I’m always big on, “Let’s look at the strengths.”
We have the most sophisticated survival system in the known universe. We’re not the strongest animals. We’re not the fastest.
But what has allowed us to adapt and be at the top of that food chain is our human brain. So I’m bigger on… let’s look objectively. And let’s get the person’s experience. But let’s look at how we can capitalize on the things that they already have that they can do well. Then start to put a training program together.
And that’s a familiar language for most in the environment of the elite military or services of that nature. And then sport. Cause that’s what it is. We often grow up with myths about how physical training works. But it’s really pushing to a point of not survival, but it’s pushing to a point of proper stimulation, then it is where you rest is where it comes together.
And that’s a total flip for our culture. We don’t think that way at all. I did not grow up in sport that way. And probably the leaders of it are the elite military now.
And then Australia, New Zealand. They don’t have the numbers. They have to develop athletes. So they can’t break them. And you can break anybody.
So it is. It’s looking at a training program.
Mark: We always said that SEALs or any Spec Ops can’t be mass produced. And yet for many years we just went hard, hard, hard. And broke people. And that’s why I said, it’s nice to see kind of a much more balance and integrative approach coming to training.
So you’re talking about training your brain kind of like you would any other muscle in your body, right? I mean, you stress it out, and then after that stress, you’ve gotta figure out how to recover it, or else you’re going to push it to a breaking point.
Dr Sullivan: Yes. I mean, that’s one way to put it. And that metaphor is fitting, but also it’s a metaphor that sometimes we don’t learn. When you’re training, everything is centrally derived. Meaning the brain.
So if there’s a physical injury, that’s a brain injury. Cause we’re designed to be safe. And so the last thing to heal, say if someone’s got an ACL/MCL we even just have a more manageable hamstring pull. The brain has now been put into a state where it’s not safe. It’s been put into survival mode.
So the last thing to heal is emotions. You have to know you’re ready. And emotions run the show in sport and life. And we’re not taught that either. That is our first indicator of safety.
Mark: It sounds like you include both the subjective sense of mind. Meaning feeling confident, feeling secure. Survival.
As well as the physiological aspects of the brain’s functioning. Do you conflate those? Or do you separate those two and look at them separately?
Dr Sullivan: It’s a great question Mark. It’s actually separate. What we’ve learned is to brain and mind mean the same thing. Let me quite honest to your listeners–we don’t know what the mind is. The best we know–and we have teams around the world that are looking at human consciousness. And I don’t think we’re going to move to far afield from what we know now.
What we know at this point in time is that our ability to have self-talk or internal dialogue. Or consciousness. Came from the last 3rd of our brain growing. Which is the part right behind our forehead. The pre-frontal cortex.
That allowed us to be able to have more alert safety systems. So when we’re conscious of an emotion, or conscious of pain, it allows us to pause, redirect, so we can move toward safety and then resilience and adaptation.
And that’s really where we’re at. And we’ve actually conflated consciousness to be a part of the performance realm in ways that it is not. In fact, you’ve probably experienced that. I have. Many of your listeners have.
When we’re at our best in a performance–and that can be sport related, military related, business related. You could experience it as a parent.
Is that our brain is very efficient and there’s not much thinking going on. We just see and do. It comes down to pattern recognition.
See emotions are just signals about either our central nervous system, our brain–is functioning at a high level. Or that it’s giving us some information about how to change tactics or to create self-care. That’s all it is. That’s the best we know at this point in time.
But what we tell people… what most people are brought up to is just kind of think positively. That’s not true at all. That’s absolutely not true. That’s completely false, cause emotions come first, before thoughts.
Mark: Right. Yeah, that’s something that we talk about. Where the body leads the mind follows. And the body experiences emotions through sensations. Then the mind or brain–but I’ll say the mind–will through this executive function. Which you said is lodged in the neocortex will associate some sort of belief or thought to that emotion, right? Or to that experience.
So I agree with that. That’s fascinating.
So what you’re… I love what you’re saying though, is that it essentially it all comes down to the mind. Because the mind is the central governing executive agent of all that we know and do and experience. So if you stub your toe, you’re saying that’s a brain injury. I love it.
Dr Sullivan: Yeah. Yeah. It absolutely is. Because the only reason why you will know you’re safe is the brain is able to pattern recognize that you are.
I’ll give you an example…
Mark: It’s not like your toe says, “Hey, I stubbed my toe!”
Dr Sullivan: Oh no. No, no, no. Absolutely not.
Thinking too late
And this was actually discovered many different ways, but this is one of the, I think, unique stories that allowed people to see, “wait, we got more here than we’re really paying attention to.”
In the 1970s there was a world-wide–really kind of among different enclaves–a development of some of the most elite fighter jets in the world. And so there was an enclave in the US that was working on it.
And there was an enclave in the UK. And the UK had really challenged themselves and their test pilots were noticing that they had developed a really intricate way of command and control of your weapon systems. And then the fighter jet itself.
And they were seeing that they were getting overwhelmed with some of the process. So they decided–because one of the engineers had had a colleague was really working with EEG. Basically looking at the small, little millivolts of electricity that move across our brain. That allow us to again communicate throughout the rest of our system.
And they said, “Well, what if we put some EEG sensors. Some brain sensors in the helmet and allow and get the fighter pilot just to pilot the plane and allow their experience of see and do to command the weapon systems.”
And what they discovered is consciousness is about 350 milliseconds or more behind what the brain has already figured out. So they were firing their weapon systems without any conscious thought.
They had to get used to it, but they trusted it…
Mark: So the brain was firing the weapon, and then they were able to form the thought around needing to fire the weapon 300 milliseconds later. Hunh. Interesting.
Dr Sullivan: Yeah. The pattern recognition is there and that’s what we do with high-level performance in any walk of life. We have to be emotionally calm. Energy has to be ready and available. And because we’ve worked through processes and we understand the patterns, we just see and do.
And then unfortunately consciousness–thinking about thinking during performances can get truly conflated.
And I still see people in the field who may call themselves sports psychologists, but don’t have the proper background. “No, you just need to think more about that situation when a mistake happens.”
No you don’t. You need to get calm. You need to get refocused and re-centered.
Mark: That resonates so well with me as a Navy SEAL. We would call that “instinctual” or “intuitive” action. The reality is it’s just your brain reacting to a pattern that it’s used to. And that’s where training and repetition is so important for an athlete or a warrior, right? So you can grease the groove of the right pattern. Is that correct?
So any pattern or anything that is an outlier is going to send a signal that “Hey, something’s up.”
Dr Sullivan: Absolutely. And that’s where training is important. I think where the military does a little bit better than sports–although I’m sure there are examples of equivalency or examples of equally bad.
However, I think when things are life and death we get a lot more specific. That’s been my experience working in elite military, law-enforcement and firefighter. When it’s life and death… and I’ve worked in surgeons and pilots as well… we should be more specific. And so… but in sport they train for perfection. But the problem that is… there’s a number of factors that really undo really being able to see and do in a live situation.
Burn-out. You’re burning the person out, and rest and recovery is where you solidify the stimulation of training. And if they’re burned-out, they’re never getting enough recovery.
Secondly, the brain hates perfection. It actually induces anxiety. And so what you may be training in that situation is how not to react. Or learning sequences that are not applicable to the situation.
And then you also can just not stimulate in a way that’s situationally accurate. Where I think when you look at surgeons, pilots, elite military, firefighters, police officers–although there needs to be more training there–I’ve seen some statistics on that. They’re put into situations where you want to stimulate that situation but not over train. You know, the first rule of war is your plan will not survive first contact with the enemy. So you must train variability and the ability to be flexible.
Mark: I couldn’t agree more. The enemy and the environment has a say… your opponents have a say in the outcome. And so training to win means that you have an ideal perfect end state that you’re seeking. Whereas with the SEALs, we’re trained for mission accomplishment, and we’re flexible on how that occurs. We’ve got a broad vision of what the mission parameters look like, but there is no perfect solution, ever. And it can actually be a pretty messy solution. Oftentimes.
Dr Sullivan: Where in sport often the case is–and I think we put our coaches in a fail-fila scenario. In the sense they have the expectancy of being leaders that have all the answers, and nobody does. And in fact, most problems are due to lack of knowledge, and you’re always going to be behind the curve on that one.
But they’re put in the position where they are… and some believe it, most don’t… but they’re put into a position that my plan will be perfect. And with perfect execution, we then will have command and control.
Yet with everything I just said is an illusion. Command and control is an illusion. Plans have to be flexible and so in the same way I think there’s growth there from sport to learn from for the military, which ironically is where all sport came from. Just training grounds for the military.
Executive Mind Power
Mark: You know it’s interesting, because a lot of the people listening to this are athletes and warriors, but also executives. And what I’ve found over the last few years, and one of the ways my book “The Way of the SEAL” has been so relevant is that all of these principles for how to train–training and focus and mission accomplishment and brain health and everything is so relevant for pretty much anyone trying to perform in the business world as well.
Dr Sullivan: Oh, it’s absolutely relevant. And they’ve learned the same myths that you and I grew up in. Whether it be in sport or other avenues. That it’s just built on mental toughness and grit.
Which are both fraudulent sciences. Grit especially. There is no science. And mental toughness has been around since the ’80s and there’s little to no science.
So they grow up with these myths that performance is muscle memory. Muscles don’t have memory. They don’t. It centrally derived.
And we’re all at a disadvantage. We don’t learn much about our brain. But primarily it’s a cultural thing, but it’s also very good at what it does so we can let it zoom into the background and assume it’s going to figure it out. In a lot of ways it does because it’s a survival mechanism.
But you’re right, even being a corporate athlete there are directed things you can be doing to enhance your performance day-in and day-out because it’s a training regime no different than sport.
For instance, in sport and in the United States we’re some of the worst sleepers in the world. We sleep on average about 5 hours. But with sleep being your number 1 performance enhancer–we can go longer without food and water than we can without sleep.
There are individual differences, but most people always say, “Well I can by with 5.” They’re functional, but they’re not optimal. And when you test their abilities–cognitive abilities, physical abilities–you can see their vulnerabilities. They can see their vulnerabilities. And often they’re shown that.
But they’re showing up to work–generally most Americans–functionally about the same as being intoxicated.
Mark: Right. We’ve done a podcast with Doc Parsley who’s a Navy SEAL who studies sleep in the SEALs. He found out because the SEALs are so sleep deprived that they had the hormonal balance of, like, a 13 year-old girl. Testosterone levels are way down. Estrogen way up. And they’re working out like mad men, first thing in the morning for a couple of hours, because that’s how they rebalance themselves to try and perform. But he said, the long-term degradation of performance and health is horrific. So there’s a big push to try to get that education into the SEALs.
But I think there’s a lot of people out there now in the neuro-hacking community who are talking about sleep and its importance.
So I don’t think we need to dive into that one too much.
The Physical in PROCESS
But what are the other key areas from a standpoint of training that an individual can begin to take control of? I noticed in your book, you’ve got something called PROCESS. It’s an acronym. Is that a good place to kind of dig into training for successful brain health?
Dr Sullivan: Oh, for sure. And really the term PROCESS is kind of acronym. And I’ll break it down. But it really came from the scientific evidence. If we’re going to look at brain health, what has the most power?
And ironically, looking at it–and it was really my co-author as we were gathering the data, and the meta-analyses. Taking stock of what science says about this area. It spelled that word. And that’s kind of fitting since everything is a process. Everyone likes things to be events, but nothing is.
And when you look at the word PROCESS, the “P” is physical activity. And again although your listeners may be above the curve, in the sense of being for physically active, most people are not. And when we look at brain health, unless we’re moving–cause we were designed to move about 12 miles a day. And most people do not move that let alone 3 miles a day. Then because it creates a process of neurogenesis. Neural growth.
By bringing blood flow to the brain, you’re creating–like you were saying earlier–a balance. A balance of neurotransmitters. A balance of fuel. A balance of vitamins and minerals between the gut and the brain.
So physical activity is again… exercise is medicine. It just has to be dosed right. And unfortunately, if we’re not doing it at all, that’s not a good dose. And then January 1, when everyone goes to the gym and buries themselves. And then doesn’t go back. That’s not a good dose either.
Mark: Another thing about physical movement that is not really talked about much is the neuroplastic effect of moving in new ways and learning new skills. And that’s why when a Navy SEAL… yeah, he’s exercising, but he’s also running and gunning, and doing obstacle courses, and learning how to swim long distances in the ocean. And ruck. And run.
And then all the different skills of like CrossFit and SEALFIT and whatnot. And they’re always learning new things. Always trying to perfect new skills. And I’ve been practicing Tai Chi and Chi gong, and there’s a lifetime of movement skills you could learn in those.
And that all have this wonderful neuroplastic effect at expanding your brain’s ability to learn and grow.
Dr Sullivan: I would agree with that. And I would even add to that level of research. There is a really, really good band of research coming out that going back to more traditional sports. But even those people who aren’t involved in sport, if they were athletes, or they’re starting to workout, we often mimic what they’re doing.
And as we talked about earlier, they often do motor patterns or movement patterns that shorten their lifespan. One, burnout. Or joint…
Mark: Such as monostructurally running and that’s the only thing you have to do.
Dr Sullivan: Absolutely. And you’ll see adaptation with that. Why do the hamstrings get shorter? Cause there’s for them.
However, with long-distance running when you create more health in the system by flexibility in there, then it will adaptate to you can see performance and health decrements.
But the other piece is, it cuts down creativity. So for instance, when you look at speed skating. Short track speed skating. It’s very difficult to move around people. But it’s even more difficult when you don’t play with the idea of different ways to get around them.
So there’s some research, when you give athletes the opportunity to be creative, they can develop other decision strategies. And motor patterns that they can time and anticipate off.
No different than going back to your everyday listener who may be working out. Is learning how to move their workout in a particular way to try new things does create more neural growth and more neural plasticity.
Mark: One of my sponsors is a company called Halo, and they’ve got something called the HaloNeuro which is an e-stim device that stimulates the motor cortex, the motor region of your brain. The region of your brain that affects or is most associated with movement.
Have you had any experience with this type of mental stimulation for improving movement?
Dr Sullivan: Well I can talk about the research. Actually, one of the things I’m involved in is I work… I’m a visiting professor at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia as well as the Australian Institute of Sport and their arm the Queensland Academy of Sport. And we have a living document, everything that’s out there technology-wise that makes claims in sport. Is it safe? Is it valid? Does it do anything?
So transcranial direct stimulation, which Halo fits underneath as a technology. Cause there are many technologies in that space.
It falls into a neat place. There is clinical evidence, but we’re far away from applying it in a personal technology sort of realm. So transcranial direct stimulation done in the lab, we’ve seen some really interesting evidence that says, “Okay, maybe this is going to be ready for prime-time sometime soon.”
But most of the consumer things that are out there, because they are not falling into… They decided not to apply for a FDA device. So if you’re an FDA device, you’re a medical device. You gotta prove safety. You gotta prove this works in all the scenarios you’re saying X works in.
They’re not ready for prime-time. I live by the rule that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Mark: Yeah. It’s mostly anecdotal. I mean, they’ve got an NFL team using it. There are a bunch of SEALs using it. I’ve used it and experienced the benefits.
But I see what you’re saying. From a claim standpoint they can’t market beyond “Hey, these guys are using it.” and they say it’s working.
Dr Sullivan: Yeah. They’re working off the idea, the illusion of diffusion. The mistaken belief that there’s growing enthusiasm about it. So the trend provides some durable quality.
And then I would say it’s even going further than that. Anecdotal evidence is the lowest form of evidence. You know, and this is a sincere problem of how fast technology is moving.
Now some of this is very helpful. I’m not against technology. We survived the Industrial Age. We don’t allow kids to work 3rd shift in dangerous environments. Let alone work 3rd shift.
And I think we’ll adapt. But they’re able to just make claims and they’re not thinking about the harm that can be relegated. Plural of anecdotal information is not evidence. So if I get 3 people that says “it worked for me,” that just drives hypotheses like, “Hey, this might be interesting to research. See what’s happening.”
That doesn’t mean it’s happening.
Mark: Yeah. That’s pretty interesting.
So let’s talk about the PROCESS again. The “R”–I imagine… I’m going to take a guess here… stands for Recovery?
Dr Sullivan: Yes. Rest and recovery. And again, as we talked about, stimulation with physical activity it’s nothing without the rest and recovery. Something that as a culture, we’re not… we’re getting up-to-speed… but generally speaking people don’t do well. We don’t do this well in our society.
Rest is the reduction of energy. Recovery is allowing ourselves to be in a situation in which growth can happen. And so teaching people just how to take breaks throughout a day. And organizations are doing this now. Like Google. Like Verizon. We’re seeing major corporations paying people to slow down. To rejuvenate. Because what does it do?
It enhances their creativity. Their time on task. Their focus. And then God forbid someone experiences joy on the job. And when you experience joy on the job you’re more productive.
Mark: Right. Do you put sleep in this category of rest and recovery or is that its own category?
Dr Sullivan: Oh no. Absolutely. Absolutely it falls into that. Along with naps.
Another thing that many throughout the world are kind of trained out of. Because people will label them as being lazy. When we look at “Blue Zones,” in the world… “Blue Zones” are those areas of the world where people have a higher quality of life. And live longer. And have a higher health status. They take naps.
Mark: They’re walking 12 miles a day, uphill, carrying water. And then they take a nap.
Makes sense, doesn’t it? You’re like, “Hey, that was hard.”
Dr Sullivan: Absolutely. And I think intuitively we see people do that, but again–it kind of gets worked out. Someone may decide at their lunch hour, if they get a lunch hour, “Half I’m gonna eat, and then the other half I’m going to take a nap.”
But if others see it, they can be hazed in a way that this is not showing their commitment. When actually it shows that they’re taking care of health, the foundation for performance. And they’re going to be much better.
There’s even research to show that people who do that in heavy industry where you have to move around a factory, use heavy equipment–there’s less accidents. There’s less injury.
Mark: Yeah, we recommend people do these, what we call “spot drills.” And some of the spot drills are movement, and some of them are like cognitive modification. But a lot of them really just are stress management or recovery. Like Box Breathing or just pausing and doing ten forward bends, you know? Those are really killer–in a good way–for just resetting your nervous system and recovering from let’s say a 50 minute to an hour deep work session.
Dr Sullivan. Yeah. And what you just touched upon is probably the second most powerful. And we don’t teach and we should be teaching it to our kids. Many kids now taking standardized tests feel pressure that you and I never have in the sense of early academic striving. And then also many of us have experienced drawing blanks on tests. Or even normal rates of test anxiety.
Teaching diaphragmatic breathing. I mean most people breathe between 9 and 24 breaths per minute. But we know, from a research standpoint and evolutionary standpoint, when you can drop under 6 breaths per minute, you’re shifting and having control and management over your autonomic nervous system.
So I can go for fight or flight, to full on effortful. To a recovery status and then getting into a point where I’m getting more towards resiliency and then leading on to adaption. And these are simple things.
In your environment, you would call it tactical breathing. And I’ve worked with biathletes in the Winter Games as well as those in the similar apparatus in summer. With pistol shooting or rifle shooting. But it works with anything. I would have my linemen, in between each down, take diaphragmatic breaths. And we could see that they are recovering micro-cycles of recovery. And no one does that in sport. No one thinks of about that.
Recovery happens at half-time or what you do after a game. No. We’re wired for recovery. Just breath issues.
Mark: Recovery is the Yin to the Yang of the movement, right? And it can happen in almost real-time, just by pausing and taking that breath. And drawing energy in. We do that. We teach that as well at SEALFIT. If you’re doing 10 kettlebells swings–do those 10 swings, put the kettlebell down, recover. 3 breaths. Then pick it up again and go.
Dr Sullivan: But that’s not generally about how we… again, we’re all taught about the false narrative about mental toughness and grit. It’s about powering through.
When it’s actually about a process, and we naturally do it. When we inhale that’s stress. Blood pressure goes up. That’s good. Bringing blood to the brain. Glucose. Vitamins. Minerals. Neurotransmitters.
When we exhale, that’s the break. That’s when we slow down. That’s when we get coherent. That’s when we become stable. And so that’s really important to be teaching.
And this is a really evolutionary advantage. I was involved… I got to peak my head into some research that was being done. I live part-time in Newport, Rhode Island, part-time in DC and at the National Zoom which is owned by the Smithsonian now, they were doing research with primates. Our closest cousins. Gorillas, orangutans, bonobos, chimpanzees. And they were doing a study looking at does their brain fire, wire react the same way it does with us when we laugh. When we feel a sense of laughter and humor.
And so I don’t know who these research assistant were that said “I’m going to tickle a gorilla.” But these were brave men and women.
I got to see it. These were brave young… I didn’t know if it was a funnel to Navy SEAL training. I don’t know, but…
Mark: (laughing) That’s a good one. “What’s the next evolution instructor?” “You gotta go and tickle that gorilla.” Oh my God.
Dr Sullivan: Considering they’re more powerful than us by far. Easily.
But what they discovered was is something they weren’t looking for. That if you tickle primates… and we’ve all gotten to a point where we’ve almost passed out. Where we catch our breath. We’ve almost wet ourselves…
Mark: Don’t they say that tickling is kind of abusive? I mean… geez… Primates saying “stop! Stop!”
Dr Sullivan: Actually they do like it, but this is the unique difference between them. They pass out.
Mark: Oh they do? Interesting.
Dr Sullivan: So we have the evolutionary process of performance of catching our breath. Our breath control is innate only to us. And so that’s why I said, we should be teaching this at a very young age. Cause it’s a performance enhancer and health enhancer.
And they discovered that by accident. They didn’t realize that was going to happen.
Mark: That’s fascinating. Yeah, I agree with you. Breath control and diaphragmatic breathing, slowing down… I’ve often wondered what it is physiologically about slowing down the breath that causes such health benefits. Has there been any research on that? Why… we know that turtles breathe like once every 2 minutes and they live for 150 years. I don’t know if there’s any correlation between turtles and humans, but that’s just an interesting data point. But through the yogic community… cause I’ve studied yoga and taught it. And I got like 1000 hours of certifications in it. And there’s a very strong belief passed down through many, many, many years in the yogic community that if you slow your breathing down to below 6 breaths… some of these people are doing like, 1 breath every 2 to 3 minutes. That has an enormous effect on your longevity. It can really affect your health and longevity. Is there any research on that?
Dr Sullivan: Yeah, there’s 2 lines of research. I think you’re bringing up a very valid point. I think many of your listeners have either done some either yoga or the next piece I’ll talk about it meditation. They’ve done these pieces and they’ve probably wondered these things, or experienced some of these things.
So many times when people think about the brain, they think about the wrinkly part on the top–the neocortex–which you mentioned earlier. Which has to do with our higher functionings.
But what we don’t learn and what gets conflated is if that thing works on its own. It doesn’t. It really a lot of the research that has to do with what makes us great performer. Longevity. Health. Has to do with the lower most basic areas of the brain through evolution. Amphibian part of the brain, mid-brain, temporal brain. Cause it grew over millions of years. So that base brain is an area near the brainstem called the pons and medulla. And there’s an area that we call the “pre-bot” or the “pre-bot C” and that has to do with our respiration rate. Included in there is blinking, breathing, those types of things.
But we have a bridge. So breathing’s a bridge to the basic level of the brain. To enhance coordination of the top level of the brain. Then it helps to coordinate heart and then the enteric nervous system or our gut where there’s more neurology than our brain.
So the research… and you brought up turtles. And I think you were smart to say what you said, but we always underestimate the learning we have from other animals. Not everything crosses over, but there’s quite a bit. And in fact there’s quite a bit of research that shows, yes. That control does assist our resiliency and our overall health.
And where do we get that from? We get it from disease modeling. When people don’t have very good control, because they have heart disease. Or they have heart arrhythmias. Or they’re real sensitive to stress by experiences of repetitive trauma.
And so yes, we do see that. That control does make a difference. And what I would call that… and we talk about it in the book, Chris Parker and I, is wisdom of the village.
And through 21st century science we’re starting to be able to uncover and honor these practices. That’s why I turn to meditation.
Mindfulness is not a serving term, because even the Dalai Lama has said he’s frustrated by it turning into Buddhist “business.” Mindfulness doesn’t really have a true definition, and in science that’s not helpful. It means nothing and everything.
Where meditation as a more formal definition and we’ve extrapolated much more useful knowledge from that area. And then also yoga.
So yeah, slowing down. We don’t slow down. There is a longevity piece to that.
Mark: No doubt.
Mark: And what’s the “O” now in PROCESS process.
Dr Sullivan: Optimal nutrition which is really gut-based and brain-based. Most of us don’t… most of us eat so far away from food, we’ve returned back to hunters and gatherers. If you remove processed food from grocery stores, you’re left with only about 10%. And that’s real food.
And so we’ve returned to hunters and gatherers. When you go in a grocery store, you’ve gotta look at labels. If a 5th grader can’t read it, it’s not food.
And so we’ve returned back to being hunters and gatherers. And then that goes even further. Most of the research… and there is good studies on this… most medical textbooks and nutrition textbooks have to be rewritten. We’ve learned so much about the gut biota in the last ten years that when I’m working with elites, nutrition is very individual. So you have to do blood test, and then testing fecal matter to understand. Cause we eat for neurotransmission. We only eat to make neurotransmitters. We don’t even eat for taste and looks.
Some of it’s a little bit due to modern world, and taste buds came into identifying poisons as we evolved. But we really eat for neurotransmission. But none of us are taught that.
Mark: Yes. I did a podcast with the founder of a company called “Viome.” And it was a fascinating discussion and they’ve created a test–and I actually did it. I’m awaiting my results, actually. Where they’ll test your biome. And it’s kind of like a genome of the biome. And they’ll tell you, “Okay. This is what your biome–all the little bugs down there–which crazy stat that like 95% of the genes in our body is the bugs in our biome.
And what do they want to eat? And his point was that a lot of times we’re eating the wrong things. And not just junk, of course junk from barcoded crud is just bad for us.
But even if we had all the good stuff, you could still be eating the wrong good stuff. That your body isn’t necessarily inclined to need based upon your personal biome.
Dr Sullivan: That’s very accurate. I mean, that’s why in the elites I get the opportunity to work in a very personal level. The misnomer is in even in the elite military, elite sport, that you train a team. No you don’t. You train a group of individuals.
That’s where the challenge starts. And with the optimal nutrition it really does exactly as you described. It really needs to be prescribed down to the individual.
That’s why even in the book, a lot of people say “Well, Paleo diet’s good.” Paleo diet’s not good. It depends upon the individual. It could be fantastic for someone because nutrition and how we support our gut biome can be so individual. That can be a fantastic way of going about it.
But for many, it may not be. In science we don’t eyeball things. Let’s test it, let’s find out. And so we talk about that piece.
Mark: Yeah, I think we’re all looking forward to the day where you can prick your finger and then have a replicator create the ideal meal for you. And it tastes good.
Dr Sullivan: Absolutely. But we talk about the latest science and how people can apply it. Some of this stuff is again, we’re getting there. Some of its just for elites may have access to. But what we talk about in that chapter is what everyone can be doing.
And then also trying to demystify some of what’s the major fuel for the brain. And you know our culture it’s often about focus on protein, where… that’s not the major fuel for the brain. You’re creating more inflammation.
It’s fad. And carbohydrates. Gotta get the glucose. If you don’t get the glucose, you’re in trouble.
Mark: What do you think about ketones and their ability to heal the brain and fuel the brain?
Dr Sullivan: Again, I go back to individual variance. You really have to be testing down to the individual. Some of that science is still early on. But none of us could say, “Wait a minute” without some proper testing and assessment might this impact this individual in positive basis. There are going to be those. But from a general statement, we’re not there in the science yet.
But from a specific statement, you very much could be. That’s why I look at human health is something we’ve not done well in the United States. It’s an n of one. As a practitioner, it’s the person sitting across from you. And you have to use the assessment, and the science as a guidepost about what… can anything can be poison. It’s just timing and dose. And so you have to be working with the individual in front of you.
Mark: Well, that’s the beautiful thing your work, and the availability of all this knowledge on the Internet. Is those of us who really, really care about optimizing our performance and our health and our longevity. We can become our own little test subjects. And that’s what I do.
But then a lot of people listen to this podcast and others like it, and they’re like, “Well, you know, if Divine does it, it’s gotta be good.” And I think part of our message here is maybe and maybe not. Cause everyone’s different.
Dr Sullivan: And that’s not a bad thing.
Mark: I don’t expect everyone to do 300 burpees a day, and drink an Ample keto every morning, which is kind of my routine. Cause that works for me, but… at least this year.
Dr Sullivan: But there’s nothing wrong with what you just said there. When I look at my work in the NFL, and the English Premiere League and elsewhere within the elite military, with firefighters and even police… research is things we do so we don’t make fools out of ourselves. But we have to do it in a systematic way, so we understand how it impacts us.
Now there’s obviously things that fit in there that “No. You shouldn’t be doing that.” All their research consensus says don’t. Everything else… as long as we’re doing it in a way in which we can measure input and output, this is where we discover things. And there are always specific groups where it’ll work, and others where it’ll kind of work, and others where it won’t.
You’re very right. You’re very right, yeah.
Mark: Okay, so what about the “C” in PROCESS? What’s the “C?”
Dr Sullivan: That’s really cognitive training. And what we talk about in there is really what we talked about a bit ago, is meditation. And in that meditation is a unique thing–wisdom of the village that actually allows us to get at 3 things. At least what we know now, scientifically.
It is a recovery exercise. Think about the central activating point of meditation is breath-rate control. It may not even be conscious control, but if you sit someone long enough, guess what happens? And you do it repeatedly. And it doesn’t have to be every day. Their breath rate will go under 6 breaths per minute.
And then what happens? You get to a parasympathetic recovery state.
Well there is a cognitive component too. Where we slow down our thoughts. Our brain is designed to think, “Let’s allow us to survive.” In the sense that it analyzes things. It sees things. Pattern recognition.
But through the repetition of sitting, we learn ways to allow it to pass, and to slow down. Very, very important.
And then the other piece of it is again, we are working on intentional sequences. And that has to do with alerting and tracking.
So very few things hit that many areas of the brain toward health. And so we talk about the research, where it is now. Where it might go. And then some technology that can assist with it. Because everyone gets frustrated in our culture now by meditation, because we’re designed to be distracted. We live in an economy of attention, now, and everything wants it.
Like, you said when we started. You thanked people for listening.
Mark: (laughing) Right. Yeah, there’s a billion things… getting worse… that’ll take your attention. And so it’s becoming more and more important for all of us to just carve out deliberative time. I think I just created a new word there… but deliberate time to slow down and to meditate and to breath and to do that.
Whereas in the past, that kind of happened, like you said. The wisdom of the family, or the wisdom of the village was, “Hey, there’s time…” where everyone took a nap. There was time where everyone sat quietly around and just looked at the fire. Like fire Puja. Doesn’t really happen anymore, so we’ve got to create it ourselves. And it’s critical.
The other thing about meditation that you didn’t mention but it’s tied to that attention… I forget the word you used… attention direction or something like that, right?
Dr Sullivan: Attentional sequencing. And we think of it as an event. But it’s actually a tri-part process. It’s alerting, so my attention is up to something to track.
Then I can get to executive decision making, or even executive attention. And yet we don’t teach it that way. Yet, you’re right. There was a culture that kind of instituted that.
Sport doesn’t necessarily do that, but this is an exercise…
Mark: Right. This is a big part of our Unbeatable Mind training. When we get into our meditative practices it becomes giving people back the skill to become self-referential. And to use a term we also use–think about your thinking in a way that you’re constantly able to assess the quality of ones thinking over a period of time. And then to take corrective action on that.
And so that’s powerful, right? Then you can apply this to anything. You can apply this to your sleep, recovery, performance. To conversation. Relating with other human beings. To pretty much anything.
But you’ve gotta slow down in order to speed back up again in that manner.
Dr Sullivan: And we live in a culture currently… I mean, if we just take our technology–and again, I want to say to your listeners, I use a lot of technology. But you said it earlier, you can’t mass produce performance but another really important rule of high performance no matter where you are is that nothing–no hardware, no software, no technology trumps human beings.
And so if we can’t get back to a process that allows us to stabilize then… and our technology currently just the lights that it emits, the radio frequencies. It makes us unstable. It changes our chrono-biology. It changes our brainwaves.
It we don’t get back to stable, then what we’re doing is a pattern of work, work, work. And what happens with that is we break. We’re not designed for that. Going back to the breath example I used before… inhale is stress, exhale out is relaxation. The exhale stabilizes us.
So having these keystones of things to try. Like, I talk about in the book… a technology I use… To be honest with your listeners, I’m on the advisory board now, but I used it for 3 years. I tested that it was valid. I tested that it was safe. And I tested that people were learning faster how to meditate.
And it’s a device made by Interaxon out of Toronto called Muse.
Mark: I’ve used that before.
Dr Sullivan: Oh, you know it? Yeah, it give you EEG and what does everyone want to know when they’re doing meditation? Am I doing it right?
This allows you to see that.
Mark: Cause in the biofeedback loop where you get a little sound or birds chirping when you’re brain is in that optimal zone of meditation or the Alpha zone or whatever you want to call it.
Dr Sullivan: Yeah. It’s training bio-feedback and neural feedback. And again, a lot of people end up using it as a reference point. But then obviously use it without the device. But again, that… if this is a strong tool for health and performance, if this is going to be assisting and I’ve seen that. Then I know there are many traditionalists who will say, “Well, that’s not the journey.”
And I would say, “If this is that powerful, why would we hold this?” To honor the people that have passed it down, we need to proliferate ways in which people have access.
Mark: My opinion is technology can… A lot of people need technology as a little bit of a crutch. And if it gets them to do the work, that’s great. It’s not a replacement for the work though.
I mean that’s why the whole hacking community sometimes bothers me, because people are looking for an end-around, or some sort of shortcut. Technology is meant to either accelerate or enhance. Or get us to actually begin doing the work. But the work is actually you doing something repetitively that’s healthy over time.
Dr Sullivan: Yeah. Well said. And I think the other piece that it assists with is data. So when I can show… when they can feel it. And then you see the data that this is assisting you in health and performance, then now we have a self-determined individual, because they’re being intrinsically and extrinsically rewarded.
And so that helps as well.
Another device we talk about is Spire. It actually goes back to breath control. Where it’s a small little device that sits right on your belt. And it tethers with your smartphone. And it can give you cues about when your breath-rate goes into a state where you’re stressed. Or it can give you cues about “How about a break?” “How about we do some diaphragmatic breathing?”
I’ve found it very, very helpful for working individuals who work in environments that are stressful. Or they have vicarious trauma. Or just training tactical breathing. Or high-performance.
The corporate athlete like, “I should take a break right now. I’ve done 50 minutes of tough work. How do I reset myself for the next 50 minutes?”
And it’s actually… it’s invisible. People don’t see it.
Mark: It’s called Spire?
Dr Sullivan: You got it. Yup.
Mark: Okay. I’ll look into that.
Finishing up with PROCESS
Great, so we’ve gone a long time, but I hate hanging chads. And we still got 3 letters left in your process. The “E” the “S” and the “S.” Can we cover those in a high-level manner? And we’ll leave the secret sauce to folks to buy your book. And to take a look under the hood, so to speak.
Dr Sullivan: Yeah. I can absolutely touch on them quickly. The next… the “E” is emotional management. And as we touched on a little bit earlier, emotions run the show in sport and life. It’s our evolutionary way to really acknowledge our stability and then our need to move towards more resilience. It’s our signaling that either everything’s all right. Or we need to become… do activities that allow us to be more resilient.
And really what’s in the chapter is talking about that reconnecting to understanding that emotions are not our enemies. We’re often taught to believe that decision making has to be done more logically. There is never any important decision that we ever make that emotions don’t run the show. And the more important the decision… the more emotions. Gut instinct’s a real thing. That nerve that connects the brain, the heart and the stomach–the Vagus nerve–it wraps around the front and back of the stomach. And we know for every mammal, if you cut that nerve–they won’t be able to decide. Even if they’ve been through that scenario before or thousands of times.
So reconnecting that our emotions are key to our decision-making and our resilience. Going back to your question. Breath rate. Longevity. Why does breath-work connect to longevity? Because it connects to emotions. And we feel hundreds on average a day.
And if we can’t manage the difficult ones, that really takes away from our health and our way to performing better.
And then the “S” is socialization. We are wired to be in groups and connected to others. And we actually know… something you talked about earlier… when you think about longevity. People that live longer… that have better social connections… it has something to do with our brain health. We are not wired to be isolative. And in fact, our brain will down regulate certain chemicals that have to do with emotions. Or our ability to seek out exciting things or variety. They’ll down-regulate.
And some of the ills we see in our culture… You probably can think about your family. I can. We at one point in time, lived on the same street. Our whole family. Generations. And that social support is really, really key. And we’ve gotten more fragmented we have to find it other ways. But brain health very much comes from connected culture or connected others. And that’s critical.
And then the last one really looks at synergy–which we’ve kind of talked about. That everyone has strengths they’re building off of. But everyone’s plan is going to look different.
Anyone that tells you that they have a plan, whatever it is, and it’s one size fits all. I’d start asking questions or walk in the other direction. Human variation is critically important in taking apart any health or any performance environment. Has to be. Has to be.
Mark: Yeah. I agree with that. That’s amazing.
Okay. Wow, this has been fascinating. We could go on for hours here. But we won’t do that, because everyone’s busy and they want to get rocking and rolling. And they’ve gotten so much out of this podcast… I think I have too. I mean, this has been fascinating.
So keep up the great work. The title of your book is “The Brain Always Wins.” You got that at Amazon and I’m sure all over the place. But you also have the website. What’s the URL so we can get them to the right place?
Dr Sullivan: www.thebrainalwayswins.com
Mark: Oh, that’s pretty easy. thebrainalwayswins.com. And are you available on like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and all that? Or do you steer clear of that stuff?
Dr Sullivan: I’ve reduced my time on there due to its impact on all of our health, but obviously it is a way for us to connect and there’s messaging. So you can find me on Instagram–The Brain Always Wins. On Twitter @brainalwayswins. And then on LinkedIn as well. You can find me.
Mark: Terrific. Awesome. Dr John Sullivan. Thank you so much for your time, John. I really appreciate it, man. This has been quite enlightening. Very, very helpful.