Dr. Alan Watkins gave a TEDx Talk entitled “Being Brilliant Every Single Day” at an independently organised TED event. Dr. Watkins is the founder of Complete Coherence, a leadership and team building coaching and consulting organisation based in Romsey, Hampshire in the southeast of England. In his coaching practice, Dr. Watkins trains business executives on leadership methods and the neuroscience principle behind how his methods work to improve employee performance.
In his TEDx Talk, Dr. Watkins delves into the neuroscience behind breathing and how the way you breathe can influence the way you feel, which, in turn, can influence the way you think and behave. He begins the talk with an anecdote about a professional golfer who performed exceedingly well on the first day of a tournament to put himself handily in the lead. However, the following day, his performance was much poorer, and he ended up losing the tournament by several strokes. It was not that he suddenly became a worse golfer; there had to be some underlying physiological component that instigated the change.
In many cases, people know what they need to do in order to maintain results and deliver consistent performance, whether it be at work, at school, in sports or in the bedroom. However, they are not always able to translate these thoughts into consistent actions. This is because the way we behave is governed not just by our thoughts, but by deeper internal processes as well. To achieve brilliance, as the title says, we must gain control over these deeper levels.
The way we think is driven by the way we feel, which is driven by our raw emotions, which is driven by our physiology. In its most basic sense, physiology is the combination of all the data streams from various parts of our body, such as a feeling of fullness after eating, a feeling of pressure when someone steps on our foot, or a sensation of heat when standing in the sun. Emotion is the body’s interpretation of all these data streams. Finally, feelings are the mental awareness of those raw emotions.
This is the stage where the communication between body and brain often breaks down. People often say they’re feeling alright, when they are, in fact, anxious or upset. In order to achieve brilliance, we need to be aware of what is really going on in our bodies so we can manage it properly and stay in control.
When we are placed in a situation where we are under pressure, our body and instincts take over, essentially shutting down the function of the frontal lobe, or as Dr. Watkins calls it, “a DIY lobotomy.” While it is not actually that extreme, it is a good analogy. In real life, this effect can be seen in a performer who gets stage fright and forgets his lines or a contestant on a game show spouting a ridiculous answer to a simple, common knowledge question. When under pressure, our brains revert to our instinctual “fight or flight” response, which inhibits our ability to consciously think. Dr. Watkins used the example of encountering a predator in the wild. If we took the time to think, it would most likely result in being killed and eaten.
While it is not feasible to attempt to control our heart rates without years of training, we can control our breathing, which plays a large part in influencing our heart rates. Dr. Watkins explains that there are 12 aspects of the breath that we are able to consciously control, and he focuses on three of them in his discussion.
The first, and most important, is the rhythm. This involves breathing in and out at a comfortable, even pace. For some people, this may mean four seconds in and five seconds out, while others may find a longer or shorter rhythm more beneficial. Whatever rhythm you choose, the most important thing is to maintain consistency.
The second component is the smoothness of the breath. This means not inhaling or exhaling sharply, but rather at a constant pace throughout the breath.
The final aspect is the location of your attention while breathing. Dr. Watkins recommends focusing your breath in the centre of your chest, right over your heart. This is because your heart puts out the most electrical energy of any organ in your body, so it plays the biggest role in how you feel. Focusing your energy in your chest also quiets some of the noise in your head so you can focus more on the signals your body is sending you to increase your awareness of your physiology, emotions and feelings. The ultimate goal of this is to improve your control over your thoughts and behaviours so that you can achieve your potential brilliance.
Dr. Watkins ends the talk with an acronym designed to help us remember the basic principles of his discussion: BREATHE – Breathe Rhythmically, Evenly, And Through the Heart Everyday.