SKI | October 2012

Your Brain on Skis Download PDF

What happens in that six feet between the couloir walls depends on what happens in the six inches between your ears.

I’m at Silverton Mountain, Colo., crippled with fear. Standing on the lip of a heinously steep couloir known as Meatball — a six-foot-wide chute hemmed with serrated crags sharp enough to disembowel an SUV — I try contemplating a line but soon sit down in the snow. My guide has toured me through some of Silverton’s most formidable terrain and I never flinched. Now I’m paralyzed.

Fear arises in the brain from tiny, almond-shaped bundles of neurons called amygdala. Ignited by an external trigger — a precipitous couloir will do — the amygdala dumps adrenaline into the bloodstream and jacks up the pulse. It fires without permission, a subconscious hijacker channeling primal instincts: fight or flight. I choose flight, but my guide offers an alternative. “I’ll go first,” he instructs. “Then you follow, making your turns exactly where I do.” I reluctantly agree, and the demanding cognitive effort it takes to mimic his every move quells my anxiety.  

David Heeger, a neuroscience professor at New York University’s Center for Neural Science, explains that my guide was exploiting what are called mirror neurons. Heeger, who investigates how the brain computes visual input, recounts a notable experiment from 2008 in which test subjects were asked to play rock-paper- scissors against a videotaped opponent, and then just observe the opponent. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track the real-time fluctuation of blood as it ebbed and flowed through the brain, scientists noticed that it didn’t matter whether subjects were playing or observing; their brain activity was virtually identical. “Our brains respond the same way when we watch someone do something as when we do it ourselves,” says Heeger, an accomplished skier who has himself dropped the Meatball couloir.

The result is twofold. “When you are skiing and instructed to follow, it gives you something to focus on, which distracts you from things that would otherwise make you afraid. The mirror neurons then take your observations and map them onto the circuitry in your brain that would normally perform the same action. After doing this for a while, your brain learns [the skill] and you no longer need to watch.”

The discovery of mirror neurons has led scientists a step closer to solving an enduring puzzle: How does that three- pound gelatinous pink organ figure into our success (or failure) in sports? Today, thanks to a cadre of impassioned “noodle nerds,” a few clues are emerging. Geneticists have recently identified strands of DNA linked to fearlessness. Psychologists are pondering the power of the subconscious. Neuroscientists can now explain why the old skier’s adage “Look two turns ahead” works. “We are beginning to understand and put together how the brain controls very complex, dynamic behaviors like skiing,” Heeger says.

MEDICAL IMAGING EQUIPMENT REMAINS too fragile and bulky to let neuroscientists see what I’m thinking while I’m charging bumps at Mary Jane. Instead, I head to Marina del Rey, Calif., where I meet Leslie Sherlin, chief science officer and vice president of research and development for Neurotopia. The five- year-old company, based in a maroon- paneled office building with darkly tinted windows, markets a procedure it calls “performance brain training,” and I’ve made an appointment for an overhaul. My brain will be mapped to assess three key traits: speed, stress, and focus. “We’ve tried to construct metrics that will capture the essence of your performance,” says Sherlin, who looks a lot like Neil Patrick Harris. Afterward, I’ll play video games designed to correct any shortfalls.

While it might sound specious, the training is grounded in an established therapy called neurofeedback, used not only in sports but to treat depression, insomnia, ADHD, and drug addiction. Neurotopia’s clients include the U.S. Ski Team, NASCAR drivers, and a medley of extreme athletes, such as Canadian freeskier Kaya Turski, 24, who has won three slopestyle championships at the Winter X Games. “I had had a rough year,” Turski later tells me, “having gone through two ACL reconstructions and a dislocated shoulder. My fears were taking over. So I did the brain training, which definitely made me feel more competent and focused and able to reset my mind.”

At Neurotopia, a receptionist directs me into an exam room where Donnie Hale is waiting. He’s Neurotopia’s senior technician for quantitative electroencephalography (QEEG), which records and compares neural impulses from various regions in the brain. Hale invites me to sit in a “zero gravity” recliner that ensures “complete relaxation, with no muscle activity.” Next he places a red and blue nylon cap over my skull. It’s embedded with 19 electrodes and uses proprietary software to filter out background noise. (Blinking and swallowing, for instance, generate unwanted garble.) “Now take a deep breath,” Hale says. “Relax your shoulders, your neck, your jaw. Close your eyes, and let everything go.”

For the first eight minutes, my job is easy: lie back and chill. Then, for the next eight minutes, Hale instructs me to keep my eyes open. Lastly, I get a handheld plastic console with two black buttons — a left and a right. In the center are nine uniformly arranged squares, backlit with red LEDs. For 20 minutes, all nine squares will illuminate simultaneously or in rapid- fire succession. My task is to push either of the buttons when the center square is dimmed, which occurs randomly. Having slugged enough java at breakfast to fill a kiddie pool, I nail it. “Got ’em all,” I boast to Hale. He is clearly skeptical. To create a baseline for its protocol, Sherlin alone has mapped the brains of more than 35,000 adults, including 500 elite athletes. “In all of those, we’ve only had two people [an L.A. Lakers basketball player and an NCAA golfer] get a perfect score,” Hale says.

It’ll take a day for Neurotopia’s software to crunch my brain data and condense it into a readable format. “We will find your unique strengths and weaknesses,” explains Michael Gervais. Gervais is a Neurotopia science advisory member and the director of high- performance psychology at Pinnacle Performance Center, which provides brain training to, among others, the U.S. Olympic Team, Red Bull North America, the NFL, and the U.S. military. “We’ve spent a lot of time studying the brightest brains in sports to come up with protocols to help you perform in high- stakes environments. You are going to get a unique signature of how your brain operates. And from that we’re going to tell you the areas we want to tighten and the areas we want to turn down.”

IT’S CERTAINLY POSSIBLE THAT NEUROTOPIA can make me a better skier, if only because the brain affects athletic performance more than anything else. “Think of the brain like the surface of a pond,” says Bradley Hatfield, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Maryland who studies the cerebral dynamics associated with high-level motor performance. “If you throw a pebble anywhere in that pond, it will ripple throughout. Everything is interconnected. So that ripple will eventually go to the area of motor planning and control. The pebble is going to cause disruption, whether it’s minor or major. And if it’s major, you’re looking at a choke.”

If every pebble in Hatfield’s pond makes waves, then fear is a cannonball. Dan Freigang, a sports psychologist who works with the U.S. Ski Team, concurs. “The minute you stare down a mogul field and your fingers tighten up around the poles and you start to get cold, that is an anxiety response,” he tells me. “Your brain chemistry changes. Blood flow changes. And your amygdala start firing.” This isn’t necessarily a deal- killer. “A little bit of fear is a good thing,” Hatfield acknowledges. It keeps you from doing stupid things. “It’s the lack of management of it that’s problematic. Too much can interfere with timing and the appropriate levels of force and tension in the muscles.”

For some, fearlessness is embedded in the DNA. In the mid-1990s, scientists isolated the serotonin transporter gene. The gene manifests in two forms, called alleles, which differ in length. Those who carry the shorter allele spook far more easily. “From a dispositional nature, they are more likely to be responsive to fear-listening cues and then have the whole downstream process of greater excitement in the brain,” says Hatfield. A good coach can teach those cursed with the shorter allele (you can be tested for it) how to conquer their sissy side. “However, all things being equal, the athlete who does not carry it is more likely to be the cool-headed competitor on the slopes.”

Not born with Shane McConkey’s genes? This doesn’t necessarily thwart your aspirations of becoming a freeskiing deity. Mental imagery has been shown to help silence fear and alleviate anxiety. Olympic gold medalist Lindsey Vonn claimed to have visualized her winning downhill run in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics more than 300 times before exploding through the starting gate. “Visualization reduces uncertainty,” says Hatfield. “It’s like walking into a situation where you already know the lay of the land.”

Another effective tactic, suggests David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, is to stop thinking so much. He directs the Eagleman Laboratory for Perception and Action, where he contemplates the neural mechanics of time, a theme explored in his newest book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. “For professional athletes, the whole game is to get the conscious mind out of the way,” he tells me. “Everything goes more smoothly when you let it run on this automated circuitry.”

Automation in skiing occurs whenever you plan your turns in advance. “What you are doing is getting the information into the system, and then letting the system take care of it,” says Eagleman. It’s only when you overthink a situation that trouble ensues. Doing so diverts your focus and introduces needless clutter. In his book, Eagleman likens it to a pianist whose concentration is momentarily derailed. He writes, “Once you begin deliberating about where your fingers are jumping on the keyboard, you can no longer pull off the piece.” Skiing is analogous. “You are in the zone [when] there is almost no conscious input,” he says. “You are riding on top of this machinery that you’ve trained during thousands of hours of practice.”

I’ve had moments like this skiing my standby stash, Outer Mongolia in Vail’s Back Bowls. I’ll be cruising solo, floating through the silent forest on snow so light that my boards seem airborne, when suddenly: rapture. I am no longer thinking, only moving without time or place. The sensation is always fleeting, though I want it to last forever. But it’s during these rare instances when I glimpse how it must feel to have your mind-body connection honed, like a seasoned athlete’s, to visceral perfection.

FREIGANG TELLS ME ABOUT HEBB’S LAW. It describes a transformation in the brain that happens when a cluster of neurons is repeatedly energized. Eventually, those neurons will grow and multiply and begin to fire faster and more predictably. Hebb’s law would be evident in an fMRI brain scan of a professional skier, whose brain would show more neural activity than that of a novice. “Experts’ brains are considerably more complex,” says Freigang. “The neurons branch out, like a growing tree, every time they practice.” To achieve this, a once-a-week skier like me would have to log dozens of back-to-back days — or undergo intense brain training in numerous sessions at Neurotopia.

When I return for my follow-up, Sherlin delivers my “neuroperformance profile” on a single sheet of paper adorned with multicolored bar graphs. Hale’s hunch was right: I missed six squares during the button-assault test. All of them were “commissions,” meaning I pushed when I shouldn’t have, an indication of obsessive overanalysis. This jibes with my “focus endurance” score, which is extremely high. “You have an incredible strength for paying attention,” Sherlin informs me. “It’s almost as good as it gets. You can sustain focus for a long period of time and can rule out distractions quite easily.” This gift, he thinks, might “predispose” me to being “good at my job,” but it spells bollocks for skiing. My parents got me started skiing nearly four decades ago, and since then I’ve spent thousands of hours on the slopes. By now, explains Sherlin, my motor cortex is hardwired to ski — like riding a bicycle or going for a jog — and will operate on autopilot if I let it. Only I don’t. On the hill, I’m like Eagleman’s pianist, micromanaging my subconscious rather than leveraging years of learned instincts. Shrinks call it “paralysis by analysis.”

“The speed index is your next strongest,” continues Sherlin. “This is your brain’s processing ability, like its shutter speed. It regulates how quickly you can experience information from the environment and then relay it to the motor cortex.” The speed score surprises me because I suck at video games and most toddlers have better hand-eye coordination. But I’ll take it. The stress index is where I hit real trouble. “This is the difference between when you are in your baseline state and when you are in your activation task.” The index measures variability, and I have virtually none. My brain barely stirs when forced to confront the unexpected. Sure, I’ll be the passenger who saunters out of a fiery plane crash, coolly clutching my Pepsi and pretzels. But in sports this can be a handicap. “For skiing, it would mean you are coming in too flat,” concludes Sherlin. “When stimulus is going really fast, you want an increased arousal level so that you can respond quicker.”

Sherlin is confident that brain training can cure my deficits. We get started right away. I sit in front of a large flatscreen TV while Hale wires my scalp with electrodes. The QEEG is patched into video-game software that I will apparently control solely with my thoughts. The first round has me piloting a rocket ship through a corkscrewing tunnel. Initially nothing happens. Then, after several minutes of psychic determination, the engine sputters to life. Hale has tweaked the game parameters so that only those brainwaves associated with focus will propel the ship. And if those brainwaves spike acutely, it means I’m overanalyzing, which kills the engine. Hale wants me to focus … but only a little. Next is a stock-car race set in an Aztec swamp. (Both games were developed by Somatic Vision, one of several companies that market neurofeedback software.) The course is fraught with distractions — inexplicable explosions, abrupt detours, and screeching pileups. When I try ignoring the mayhem, which Hale knows I’m good at, my vehicle stops. It won’t move if I get too frazzled, either. The objective is to elicit a stress response that forces me to maintain a mindset somewhere between complacency and panic.

After my half hour with Hale, the length of a typical session, he shows me snippets of brainwaves he recorded, noting where my focus and stress impulses fired within the desired training parameters. It seems I’m already progressing (the dearth of ski-themed games notwithstanding). Gervais recommends 20 or more sessions to reap the biggest benefits. To be sure, there are those who doubt the efficacy of neurofeedback. They argue that QEEG electrodes aren’t refined enough to isolate impulses emanating from distinct regions in the brain. Reversing this inexact output for training, they say, is a haphazard approach at best. Others question whether the skills are transferable to the real world — from a comfy recliner in a dimly lit room to the precipice of a Silverton couloir.

Even so, a 2011 study conducted at the University of British Columbia and published in the journal NeuroImage last year was the first to show that neurofeedback could enhance the ability to control thinking. Researchers used fMRI to observe changes in participants who underwent brain- training exercises and as a result were better at performing high-level mental tasks. For a motor-skill sport such as skiing, many scientists believe that neurofeedback is almost certainly productive. At a minimum, it can teach you how to relax and focus. And that’s a very good start because, as Gervais points out, “Your mind controls your brain and your brain controls your body. And those two things together control your performance.”

AS FOR MY PERFORMANCE, I’M EAGER TO see if neurofeedback will make any noticeable difference on the slopes. A few weeks later, I head up to Arapahoe Basin to find out. It’s May (A-Basin is legendary for its extended season) and by midmorning the temperature has scooted past 60 degrees. Much of the double-black terrain is already closed for the year, and I worry that the remaining blues won’t be tough enough to test my new neural prowess. But the balmy weather creates a different kind of challenge: knee-wrenching swaths of gummy slush. It’s impossible to visibly discern sticky snow from firmer spring corn. But feeling it is easy — a sudden, invisible force yanks my leg backward, as if I’ve skied into spring-loaded bear trap. The sensation is unnerving and kills my concentration.

On the next run, I recall the stock-car video game at Neurotopia. The under- boot thrashing at A-Basin reminds me of getting blindsided by errant drivers on the Aztec swamp course. I remember that Hale wanted my brain to acknowledge unforeseen trouble but stay steadily focused on driving. Trying the same thing on the hill — consciously embracing the harrowing slush bombs while letting my instincts handle the rest — makes the whole experience remarkably more fluid and enjoyable. Has Neurotopia rewired my brain? Or am I merely redoubling my effort to concentrate?

I skate onto the Lenawee Mountain lift for another lap. After loading the poky triple, I crane my head backward to let the potent alpine sun warm my face. I can smell sunscreen and pine. Though I did not expect one therapy session to markedly improve my skiing, simply being aware of how my brain works — with its specific proficiencies and deficits — has proven helpful. After 20 sessions, who knows? Meatball couloir could be all mine.

Copyright © Michael Behar. All Rights Reserved.

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