A Brain-Based Peak Performance Model Using Meditation, EMDR and Cardio Imagery and Rehearsal

April 23, 2011  |   Blog   |     |   0 Comment

J. Patrick Gannon, PhD

Peak Performance Systems, San Francisco

Abstract

This pilot study investigated the effectiveness of a new model of peak performance training based on applications of brain research to stimulate mental skill acquisition leading to enhanced performance capabilities. Brain-based techniques such as Mindfulness Meditation (MM), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Cardio Imagery and Rehearsal (CIR) appear to stimulate various neurological processes including alpha and theta brain waves, higher interhemispheric coherence and reduced sympathetic nervous system arousal. Clinical application of these techniques in a preliminary pilot study with a variety of performers was shown in follow-up self-assessments to have enhanced performance outcomes on seven measures including reduced performance anxiety and self-consciousness, enhanced concentration and focus, improved memorization of performance routines and enhanced overall performance goals. The idea that specific performance routines can be installed using these brain-based techniques that enhance peak performance functioning on demand was supported by these findings.. However, the results of this pilot study are preliminary and further studies using a larger subject sample, empirically validated test measurements and independent control groups are necessary before these findings can be corroborated.

Introduction

Performance psychology has been rooted in the fundamentals of sport psychology developed over the last forty years. Traditionally, this approach has focused on three key areas: the personality issues of the performer, the practice issues promoting the learning, development and deployment of behavioral and mental skills and the execution of those skills on demand that meets or exceeds the challenges of the performance. While peak performance is dependent on all three areas only the last point defines successful outcome: execution of the performing skills on demand. As such, peak performance as defined by Privette (1982) is “an episode of superior functioning”. The concept of peak performance, however, is not reserved for the exceptional athlete or world class performer. Rather, it refers to optimum functioning tied to the performer’s level of ability, whatever that may be (Krane & Williams, 2010).

Most athletes, performers and coaches believe that mental factors account for upwards of fifty percent of successful outcomes once the necessary physical conditioning and technical skills have been mastered (Krane & Williams, 2010). Mental factors characterizing peak performance include a lack of fear of failure, high engagement in the activity, narrow focus of attention on the performance task, a sense of being in control, alterations in time/space perceptions leading to a feeling that the performance is effortless and automatic, control over thoughts, emotions and activation, high self-confidence, and physical and mental relaxation combined with high alertness (Krane & Williams, 2010).

Csikzentmihalyi (1990) introduced the concept of “flow” to suggest “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter”. Although the concepts of flow and peak performance are often used interchangeably, flow is identified as a mental state whereas peak performance refers to optimal behavioral functioning in a specific performance situation. Being in the flow state does not necessitate a peak performance but peak performance usually entails being in the flow state. Jackson (1996) suggests that flow may be a psychological process that underlies peak performance. Csikzentmihalyi (1990) has described nine dimensions of flow that are similar to the aforementioned peak performance characteristics: 1) a match between the challenge of the situation and the skills of the performer; 2) a merger of action and awareness; 3) clarity about goals; 4) immediate feedback is available to validate the actions; 5) complete concentration on the task at hand; 6) sense of effortless control; 7) loss of self-consciousness, unconcerned with self-evaluation; 8) time seems to speed up or slow down and 9) the “autotelic” experience—the activity and participation becomes its own reward.

Since Csikzentmihalyi’s original writing on flow (1990), some clinicians (Grand 2009) suggest that flow is more accurately defined as dissociation which is a psychological defense mechanism most often associated with trauma. Grand’s term “creative or adaptive dissociation” implies that the dissociative state can, in certain situations, support superior performances by activating exceptional mental capacities that are beneficial to performance. These capacities include “absorption” which allows for total engagement with the task as well as perceptual distortions such as the slowing down or speeding up of time which enables the sense of having effortless control.

Despite the popularity of the term flow, research interest in the subject has waned over the last twenty years owing to the difficulty in measuring flow with empirical methodologies. While performers across the activity spectrum agree that the flow state or “being in the zone” actually exists, the inability to measure it quantitatively has undercut its scientific validity. This limitation may change if functional mental resonance imagery (fMRI) can be employed to study performers while they are in the flow state. If such technology can capture the particular brain state of a performer in flow, it may be possible to replicate that brain state on demand using some of the new brain-based techniques described later in this paper.

Traditional performance and sport psychology has focused on the development of five key skills, what Hays (2009) refers to as the “canon” of psychological skill training (PST). The five key skills are relaxation, goal setting, self-talk, visualization and concentration. While there is widespread evidence that these psychological (cognitive-behavioral) skills have helped athletes and other performers, other researchers (Gardiner & Moore, 2007) have questioned the effectiveness of these techniques as inconsistent and lacking in empirical support. Moore (2003b; 2006) conducted her own qualitative review of the available empirical evidence for the use of PST and found “insufficient evidence for their efficacy”. Specifically, in terms of goal setting, Moore found that only two studies met the necessary criteria for adequacy of research design and those studies found no positive effects for the goal setting procedures. Of six studies deemed to meet minimum research design criteria, all six found no performance enhancing effects for the use of imagery, a popular technique among athletes and performers. Studies of self-talk, another common technique, again found no evidence of its effectiveness in competitive situations. Studies of “arousal control”, more commonly referred to as relaxation or anxiety management, also found no significant performance-enhancing effects. Moore then reviewed multi-component intervention studies that utilized various psychological skills in different combinations. Of twelve studies meeting acceptable research design criteria, six studies found significant performance improvements while the other six did not. The author concluded that empirical validation for performance enhancement using a multi-component psychological skills package is better than studies of single skills but overall the inconsistency of the findings suggests caution rather than confidence when applying the findings to performance situations.

One explanation for the inconsistency of mental skill training may have to do with the concept of state dependent learning. This idea holds that learning and recalling are based upon the physiological and mental state of the person when the learning occurs. When learning occurs in a practice session but is not demonstrated in a performance situation, the learned skills may not be fully integrated into the person’s performance repertoire and may degrade more easily if performance anxiety is high.

The Problem of Performance Anxiety

Performance anxiety, also known as “stage fright” may be the biggest barrier to realizing peak performance states. Performance anxiety is common across all performance situations but may have a lower incidence among experienced athletes who can effectively discharge performance anxiety through physical exertion associated with their sporting activities (“I felt butterflies in my stomach until I got hit on the first play”). The incidence of performance anxiety is especially high among creative arts performers including orchestral musicians (27%-59%), classical singers (38%), dancers (35%), and actors (33%) (Marchant-Haycox & Wilson , 1992). The most debilitating symptoms are poor concentration, rapid heart rate, muscle tension and trembling, dry mouth, sweating and shortness of breath. Performance anxiety is more likely to affect performers who are prone to trait anxiety, introversion and perfectionism as part of their personality profile (Wilson & Roland, 2002). The stress of the performance situation can evoke a state anxiety response that can activate the performer’s trait anxiety. As such, performance anxiety can be understood as a type of social phobia (Wilson & Roland, 2002). Other factors have been shown to influence the degree of performance anxiety. Solo performances are more stressful than ensemble performances, classical music performances are more stressful than jazz performances, public performances are more stressful than private performances, auditions are more stressful than informal performances, closer proximity of the audience is more stressful than distant proximity and the status relationships between the performer and audience can also determine perceived stress tied to anxiety symptoms (low status audience easier than high status audience for the performer) (Wilson & Roland, 2002). A primary factor in determining the degree of performance anxiety is the degree to which the performer has actually mastered the tasks associated with the performance.

Performance anxiety can trigger other emotional blocks that can undercut performance goals including avoidance, procrastination, inhibition, and confusion which can cause problems in preparing and practicing for a performance. Scaer (2001) and Grand (2009) both suggest that performance anxiety are driven by unprocessed trauma (past performance trauma and/ or life trauma) that is activated by the stress of performing that triggers the sympathetic nervous system causing a fight/flight/freeze response that produces the performance anxiety. The performance anxiety can be further amplified by a feeling of self-consciousness and body awareness of physical stress reactions which exacerbates the performance anxiety. An escalation in this cognitive, affective, behavioral, physiological sequence can trigger negative self talk and perceived loss of self-control leading to a spiraling fear response whereby mental functions shut down and the person experiences terror prior to walking on the stage.

Beilock (2010) in a popular overview of performance anxiety explains the cognitive underpinning of the performance response. When the fight/flight/freeze response kicks in triggering an over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system, working memory is depleted in an effort to manage the arousal. Working memory represents cognitive capacity which allows the performer to attend to a variety of stimuli essential for complex mental functioning at the same time. But sometimes attempting to wrestle performance anxiety down by consciously engaging the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) can backfire leading to ”paralysis by analysis”. Another explanation is that over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system causes an imbalance in interhemispheric coherence. Research (Munte, Altenmuller and Janche, 2002) has found that experienced musicians have a larger corpus callosum (connective tissue linking the two brain hemispheres) than non-musicians suggesting that musical proficiency requires high coordination between left and right brain hemispheres. Because many performers and especially musicians utilize both arms to perform, coordination between brain hemispheres is a necessary requirement. However, peak performance and flow states may be especially dependant on both hemispheres being engaged and balanced so that mental skills primarily tied to each hemisphere can be fully utilized. For example, right brain functions such as synthesis, automaticity, parallel processing, being in the present, intuition, creativity, touch and feel are essential for artistic expression and mimic many key characteristics of the flow state. In support of this idea, Beilock reports that when fMRI studies are done on musicians, working memory housed in the PFR plays a secondary role to procedural memory, which is more unconscious and less dependent on the left hemisphere.

Applications of Neuroscience Findings to Peak Performance

In the last few decades, the application of neuroscience research offers the promise of a fundamentally new approach to peak performance training. This research has established how the brain can grow new neural circuits that support learning all along the lifespan, a process known as neurogenesis. In the past, the consensus was that lower brain and neocortical areas became fixed in structure after childhood, meaning that learning only happened by changing the strength of connections between neurons. This belief is being challenged by new findings, suggesting that all areas of the brain are changeable or plastic (Rakic, 2002). This process is known as neuroplasticity and was first proposed by Polish neurophysiologist Jerzy Konorski in 1948. More recently, research by Kandel (1983) provided the evidence that the brain continues to evolve over time—physically changing the structure of the neural network– depending on how the brain is utilized. Substantial changes can occur in the lowest neocortical processing areas not just the hippocampus, and that these changes can profoundly alter the pattern of neuronal activation in response to experience. According to this theory, thinking, learning, and acting actually change both the brain’s anatomical structure as well as its functional organization from top to bottom.

New neural imaging technologies have provided empirical support for the application of the research to peak performance training. Research by Merzenish (1999) showed that learning and practicing a new skill changes hundreds of millions of neural connections between nerve cells, increasing the capacity of the brain to learn. Brain scans have shown that the same parts of the brain become activated when a person either engages in specific activity or simply witnesses or imagines the activity (Stephan, Fink et al. 1995). Support for this finding is also found in a study by Yue and Kelly (1992) that compared muscle strengthening among physical exercisers and those who only imagined doing the physical exercise. Results showed that the actual exercisers increased muscle mass by 30% while those who simply imagined exercising increased their muscle mass by 22%.

These findings provide empirical support for using mental imagery and rehearsal to build performance skills. By imagining how one wants to play or perform or by watching world class performers demonstrate those skills, it may be possible to install a mental script that mimics that skill level if the person has the necessary technical skills to perform at that level

The concept of interhemispheric coherence (synchronization or balancing between the two brain hemispheres) has received some research attention although evidence is mounting that it may be more involved in attaining peak performance and flow states than previously thought. A recent study by German researchers (Bilalić, Kiesel, et al., 2011) using fMRI technology with chess experts and novices found that the experts’ brains were quicker to recognize patterns of piece placement, a function of the right brain, relative to the novices. Both the experts and novices were just as quick to recognize the objects on the board, a function of the left brain. Because the experts were processing both object and pattern recognition simultaneously, the parallel processing of both hemispheres seemed to account for the experts’ superior results. Pattern recognition is particularly important in team sports such as football, basketball, hockey, and soccer where coordination between moving players on the field is essential to making plays. Another study (Wan et. al. 2011) using the Japanese game shogi (which is similar to chess) sought to identify which regions of the brain were instrumental to shogi expertise. The two regions of the brain that were activated in the brains of the professionals only according to fMRI data was the precuneus, located in the superior parietal lobule, and the caudate nucleus which is located in the sub-cortical area. Neither areas were activated in the brains of the beginner or intermediate players. The precuneus is responsible for perception and high-level thinking while the caudate nucleus is tied to habit formation and execution and goal directed behavior. Both functions are essential for peak performance capabilities.

One brain technology that is getting renewed attention for its application to peak performance is EEG-biofeedback, more commonly referred to as neurofeedback. For the past several decades, researchers have studied the brainwaves of meditators, yogis, martial artists and musicians in the hope of inducing signature brain waves in normal subjects for the purpose of personal growth. Neurofeedback is a form of operant conditioning using EEG monitoring equipment linked to a computer program that can signal to the person when their brain is in the desired brain wave configuration. The person can then learn how to voluntarily control their brain waves using real time visual feedback from the computer. In a series of studies applying this technology for performance enhancement, Gruzelier et al., (2004) and Egner & Gruzelier (2003) and Gruzelier, Egner & Vernon (2006), assessed student musicians at a British conservatory for performance benefits following random assignment to one of six interventions that included three different brain wave states (alpha/theta, sensorimotor response (SMR) or beta1), a physical exercise program, a mental skills training group or the Alexander technique (a type of physical therapy popular with musicians worldwide). The findings showed that only the alpha/theta group demonstrated significant improvement in musical performance. Because there was no benefit in the SMR or the beta1 groups, the authors concluded that benefits to musical performance were not affected by any improvement to attentional capabilities which the SMR and beta1 brainwaves evoke. In two studies by Raymond et al. (2005a; 2005b), similar benefits of alpha/theta neurofeedback training were found among competitive dance performers after five weeks of training. Based on these studies, Gruzelier, Egner & Vernon (2006) concluded that the enhancement of the artistic aspects of performance was “remarkable” and warranted application to the performing arts in general. The key finding was that there may be an optimum brain wave configuration (alpha/theta slow wave brain state) that optimizes peak performance in general. Neurofeedback can train a person to induce this brain wave configuration but the equipment is costly and the process is time consuming (10 sessions required for approximately 3 months of benefits). Mindfulness meditation may represent a less costly and more user-friendly way to induce the same alpha/theta brain wave, providing the person initiates a regular meditation practice. Research by Lagopoulos et al. (2009) found that nondirective meditation techniques also alters theta and alpha EEG patterns significantly more than regular relaxation. Meditation will be discussed further later in the article.

Impact of Aerobic Exercise on Brain Chemistry, Anxiety and Learning

Emerging research into the physiological and neurological effects of aerobic or cardio exercise is also offering new applications for peak performance training. Seminal research by Gage and his colleagues at the Salk Institute (1999) found that running enhances neurogenesis and synaptic plasticity in the hippocampus of adult mice and is responsible for gains in learning and memory. Among humans, cardio exercise stimulates a variety of neural activities impacting anxiety level, learning, memorization and several performance-related brain functions. Exercise increases the production, release and balancing of neurotransmitters including serotonin (mood enhancing), norepinephrine (affecting attention, perception, motivation and arousal) and dopamine, (learning, reward, attention and movement) all of which regulate mental and physical aspects of performance. Exercise also acts to balance two other neurotransmitters, glutamate and GABA (gammaaminobutyric acid) which are involved in communications between neurons, another essential function for higher mental activities. Exercise stimulates the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNF) which is a protein that acts like “Miracle Gro” (Ratey, 2008) for building and maintaining neural cell circuitry. BDNF is produced in the periphery of the body and moves into the brain causing increased blood flow that stimulates neurogenesis.

Aerobic exercise causes an increase of blood flow into the brain which improves alertness, attention and motivation, all essential to enhancing peak performance. Secondly, exercise facilitates the binding together of nerve cells that promotes complex skill learning. This finding is expressed in the popular phrase “neurons that fire together, wire together” (Ratey, 2008). Third, exercise also stimulates the production of new nerve cells from stem cells in the hippocampus. The hippocampus supports performance activities by receiving input from working memory, cross-references that memory with existing memory and forms new associations before reporting back to the pre-frontal cortex (PFC). The PFC organizes physical and mental activities and serves as the executive in charge of brain functions. The PFC inhibits stimuli and initiates actions, judging, planning and predicting while maintaining contact with the motor cortex. When learning is underway, the PFC becomes activated and communicates with the hippocampus and auditory cortex. Once the learning is complete, the PFC slows down and the new learning (thought and movement) gets stored in the basil ganglia, cerebellum and brain stem.

In a study linking exercise, cognitive capabilities and BDNF, researchers (Ferris, Williams, Shen, 2007,) found that subjects learned new vocabulary words 20% faster following aerobic exercise than they did before exercise and the rate of learning correlated with their levels of BDNF. Similarly, researchers at the University of Illinois (Pontifex, Hillman, et a;. 2009 ) found that students who first ran on a treadmill for 30 minutes performed better on a memorization test than students who had sat quietly or lifted weights prior to the retest. Finally, Liu-Ambrose and her colleagues (2010) found that older women who lifted weights performed better of cognitive tests than women who did muscle toning alone. Taken together, these findings suggest that exercise provides a range of benefits that helps neurons grow and strengthen their connections across neural synapses which is a basic building block for learning. Based on these findings, it is reasonable to conclude that doing aerobic exercise while imagining rehearsing the performance may also stimulate the learning of new performance routines.

Aerobic exercise may be the best treatment for anxiety in general and performance anxiety in particular. Vigorous exercise can reduce anxiety simply by de-conditioning the physical sensations of anxiety (pounding heart response) by attributing the bodily arousal to the exercise rather than the anxiety. Since anxiety is a sign of fear and fear is the memory of danger, performance anxiety can be seen as the memory of a threat situation. Exercise can provide distraction from the anxiety-producing performance situation (Ratey, 2008) by interrupting the obsessive rumination so characteristic of anxiety disorders. Exercise can also offer a sense of control, mastery and release that naturally counteracts the anxiety response. Finally, aerobic exercise by virtue of the oxygenation process can degrade physical anxiety by activating the heart and respiratory system. Research by Sparling et al. (2003) offers a biological explanation about the anti-anxiety effects of exercise. His research suggests that “runners high” once thought to be caused by endorphins entering the brain, is more likely due to the activation of the body’s endocanabinoid system which floods the brain with molecules known as lipids, which, unlike endorphins, are small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier. These molecules have an analgesic and sedative effect that are likely to reduce feelings of anxiety and promote a sense of wellbeing, not unlike the effects of ingesting cannabis sativa or marijuana. Based on this research, doing aerobic exercise in moderate levels leading up to a performance and even the day of the performance may be the best non-medical approach to combat performance anxiety.

New Brain-Based Tools for Enhancing Peak Performance

Based on the neuroscience findings reported above, the time has come to develop, study and apply a range of new tools and protocols that can provide an alternative model of peak performance training. Below are three techniques that were used in the present study to help performers improve their performance outcomes.

Mindfulness Meditation

The use of meditation to optimize performance has become more popular since advocated by golfer Tiger Woods and NBA basketball coach Phil Jackson. Meditation has been typically described in the sport psychology literature as primarily a relaxation technique (Williams, 2010) although, more recently, it is seen to promote attention, concentration, mental discipline and reducing distractibility. There are a variety of types of meditation but most involve sitting in a quiet place in a comfortable position, using a simple mental device to settle the mind (by providing a focus of attention on a mantra or the physical sensation of breathing) and adopting a passive acceptance of whatever may float up into conscious awareness. The technique is practiced once or twice daily for 15-20 minutes or longer for experienced meditators. Mindfulness meditation as described by Jon Kabit-Zinn (1994) is an easily learned technique that can be immediately applied for peak performance situations.

Research validation for its effectiveness is now also emerging. Recent studies by Lutz et al. (2008), Pagnoni et al., (2008) and Davidson et al. (2007) found that experienced meditators are less prone to distracting thoughts than non-meditators. Meditators can let go of intrusive thoughts and more quickly return to their primary mental focus. In performance situations, this skill is of critical importance to maintaining focus, concentrating on the task, quickly shifting attention to new tasks and back to old ones and minimizing stress. Beilock (2010) reported than even among students with no meditation experience, a brief 10-minute meditation exercise can improve functioning on a high stress math test compared to students who did not meditate prior to taking the same test. Gardner and Moor (2007) have developed a Mindfulness, Acceptance and Commitment approach to peak performance that utilizes meditation-related mindfulness activities to promote non-judgmental attention, staying in the moment, reducing negative self-talk, acceptance of emotions and letting go of the need to control emotions and thoughts as well as increasing behavioral flexibility.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

According to Grand (2002, 2009), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is particularly effective in both reducing performance anxiety and enhancing memory-based scripts for optimal performance. EMDR is an evidence-based treatment for PTSD that appears to activate the memory network while facilitating adaptive information processing of traumatic events (Shapiro, 2001). EMDR utilizes a three pronged approach to 1) process past experiences that create the foundation for pathology; 2) present situations that trigger emotional distress and 3) and install new templates for cognitive and behavioral change. In the last several years, EMDR has been used effectively with athletes (Foster & Lendl, 1995), musicians (Plummer, 2007) and singers (Grand, 2009; Feener, 2004), public speakers (Barker & Barker, 2007) and business leaders (Foster, 2003) to reduce anxiety and enhance performance goals. Foster (2000) reported reduced anxiety and increased self-confidence for performing artists who were provided EMDR. Lendl & Foster (2009) introduced the EMDR Performance Enhancement Psychology Protocol (EMDR-PEP) to address performance anxiety, self-defeating beliefs, behavioral inhibition, posttraumatic stress, and psychological recovery from injury for creative and performing artists, workplace employees, and athletes. The EMDR-PEP is also reported to be effective with everyday concerns such as procrastination, fear of failure, setbacks, and life transitions. Allen (2002) reported a case study of working with an amateur competitive equestrian who was fearful of returning to her sport following a fall and subsequent injury. Using a variety of techniques including EMDR, she helped the client disperse the fear and install new ways of thinking that supported new skill integration.

Cardio Imagery & Rehearsal

A new technique developed by the author shows promise in applying neuroscience findings with a program of aerobic exercise concurrent with traditional mental imagery. This technique is called Cardio Imagery and Rehearsal (CIR) to denote the combination of exercise and imagery to mentally rehearse performance routines. Research on using imagery in a variety of performance activities is extensive and has validated its effectiveness especially in athletics (Vealey & Greenleaf, 2010). Imagery has been shown to enhance performance and learning by improving mental and physical skills, preparation for competition and as part of a multimodal mental training program. Imagery has also been used to improve self-confidence, motivation, attention control and to reduce anxiety. Imagery is most effective when the performer imagines the performance situation and evokes the stimulus characteristics of the situation (feel of the ball in hands, sight of the hoop etc.) and their own personal response characteristics (muscular tension, increased sweating and sight of the ball going into the basket) (Krane & Williams, 2010). Performance is improved by imagining the stimulus and response characteristics and then modifying the person’s response characteristics to reflect control and execution of the skill as well as the desired outcome.

Based on the author’s experience with the technique, the exercise should be aerobic but not overly strenuous (heart rate not above 140 per minute). In support of this idea, research by Dietrich & Sparling (2004) found that college students working out on a treadmill or stationary bike at high intensity (70-80 of maximum heart rate) performed poorly on complex learning tests. They concluded that exercising at high intensity shunted blood flow away from the PFC that inhibited executive functions including learning. However, they found that blood flow immediately returned to the PFC following the exercise and that students benefited from sharper thinking and analysis as a result of the exercise. The author of this paper has found that CIR appears to prime the brain to more easily execute performance tasks. This idea is supported by neuroscience findings on neuroplasticity and the effect of exercise on brain functioning reported earlier in this article. CIR also has been found to reduce procrastination when the avoided task is imagined during exercise. Additionally, personal experience with CIR showed it can be used to brainstorm ideas and reduce writer’s block.

Method

Six subjects in a preliminary pilot study responded to an offer of peak performance services advertised on a website (www.peakperformance101.com) and referred through word of mouth. All six subjects were provided a multi-session program of peak performance training utilizing the three brain-based techniques described above. All subjects requested help in upcoming performances involving: 1) a musical audition; 2) a public singing performance; 3) a demonstration of a group facilitation for a job interview; 4) a teaching demonstration as part of an audition for a job with a law school; 5) a legal conference training presentation and 6) a medical conference research presentation. The multi-session program intervention included:

  1. Program introduction, problem assessment and clinical evaluation
  2. Training in Mindfulness Meditation and Cardio Imagery & Rehearsal. EMDR treatment for past performance failures and childhood traumas
  3. Identification and installation of mental scripts reflecting performance plan and self-identified process goals using EMDR
  4. Review of Mindfulness Meditation and Cardio Imagery & Rehearsal techniques and mental rehearsal of performance plan goals using EMDR
  5. Identification of pre-performance routine, EMDR rehearsal of performance plan and review of Mindfulness Meditation sessions
  6. Follow-up session after the performance event to assessed outcome via self- report by the performer.

Data was collected based on a case study methodology involving in-depth interviews of each subject following their performances. Specifically, subjects were asked to self-rate their responses and reactions relative to past performances on a number of indices relevant to peak performance including:

  1. Performance anxiety
  2. Concentration, focus and mental clarity
  3. Engagement and memory of the content
  4. Execution of the performance plan and objectives
  5. Level of self-consciousness
  6. Ease of experience in applying practiced performance skills
  7. Internal/External feedback on performance outcomes

Findings

The six subjects reported their post-performance experiences within the following categories:

Performance Anxiety

All six subjects reported dramatically decreased performance anxiety relative to past performances. The six subjects still reported some anxiety to various degrees but at markedly lower levels that allowed them to deliver their presentations as they planned to do. All reported lower levels of affect intensity as well as fewer signs and symptoms of anxiety. Many reported that by identifying which anxiety symptoms would likely remain for some or all of the performance, they could strategize on how to deal with it (for example, having ready access to water to deal with the dry mouth symptom). They reported greater knowledge about what the anxiety meant to them (ie. typical physiological response to a perceived challenge) and what it did not (ie. too scared to function, “I will make a fool of myself”). A majority of subjects cited greater power over the anxiety by reframing the anxiety as a” friend” that provided energy and passion that drove their presentation. Most reported utilizing the mental strategy of externalizing the anxiety (anxiety that is internalized leads to “choking”) and redirecting it outward to power their performance. All subjects reported that using the Cardio Imagery & Rehearsal (CIR) technique while imagining their performance greatly reduced their anxiety. Several subjects reported using CIR on a daily basis leading up to the performance. Others used it whenever they found themselves getting anxious in anticipation of their performance. In both cases, this gave them a sense of control over the anxiety and reinforced their confidence to shape their performance to meet their expectations and goals. All of the subjects reported that using EMDR to desensitize themselves to their experience of anxiety was very helpful and allowed them to not become distracted by the anxiety. Those who reported a higher incidence of trait anxiety and those who had experienced past performance failures benefited the most from using EMDR. In these cases, EMDR was used in multiple sessions to target the past performance failures and to install alternative mental scripts addressing a different responses to the anxiety symptoms. Only a few subjects reported trying mindfulness meditation (MM) as a relaxation technique and no one reported practicing MM on an on-going basis that would be necessary to gain a more established relaxation response. Some subjects reported that they could feel relaxed using MM but the effect did not carry over to when they were imagining the performance situation.

Concentration, focus and mental clarity

All six subjects reported improvement to varying degrees in concentration, focus and mental clarity relative to past performances. This improvement was most likely tied to the overall reduction in performance anxiety as described above. Some subjects reported feeling “freed” from the debilitating effects of anxiety that allowed them to narrow their focus on the task at hand. All subjects reported that using EMDR to “install” these capacities was particularly effective. Most subjects reported using CIR to reinforce this mental script by repetitively rehearsing this state. Only a few reported the mindfulness meditation (MM) to be helpful in establishing the capacity for concentration, focus and mental clarity. Those who did not cite MM to be effective were those who did not take to the technique or practice it to the extent requested by the investigator. One subject indicated that they viewed MM as a more “passive” technique for instilling concentration and focus whereas the EMDR and CIR were more “aggressive” in establishing the concentration and focus.

Engagement with and memory of the content

All subjects reported high engagement with and memory of the performance content (what they wanted to say/play/sing/do). Some of them reported being pleasantly surprised that they were so “present with the material”. Again, this capacity is most likely tied to their lowered performance anxiety. All cited the use of EMDR to install performance routines that fully integrated the content into their behavioral repertoire. Some reported that imagining how they were going present the content allowed them to better remember the content. Most of the subjects reported that using CIR to repetitively rehearse the mental scripts after the EMDR was provided to install the performance scripts was particularly effective. Some subjects reportedly feeling less tied to their notes and repertoire and could “let themselves go” without worrying if they had forgotten anything. Several subjects felt that being “present with the material” was possible because they felt so prepared prior to the performance.
Execution of the performance plan and objectives

A majority of subjects cited the distinction between the performance content (what they will say/play/sing/do) and the performance plan (how they will do it) presented in the preparation phase allowed them to be confident of the former which permitted them to shift to an emphasis on executing the performance plan. Significantly, all but one performer had never paid much attention to the performance aspects of their craft. By focusing on performance as a distinct practice phase, identifying goals, expectations and objectives and practicing the way they want to be while executing their performances, all performers felt much more prepared and confidant of their ability to execute their performance plan on demand. All performers indicated that using EMDR to install the performance plan and rehearsing the performance plan repetitively prior to the performance event using CIR was critical to their successful outcome. Only two performers who had meditated in the past and therefore were more open to using this technique identified use of MM as helpful.

Level of self-consciousness

Self-consciousness was not a problem identified by any of the six subjects, although many of them had concerns in this area in the past. Several performers indicated that they felt strongly connected to their performance plan which gave them sufficient focus so as to feel less vulnerable to self-consciousness. Two of the performers indicated that self-consciousness was a consequence of their anxiety in the past and a “void” created by a lack of focus on what they wanted to achieve in a performance sense. In other words, being fully committed to a performance plan that identified how they wanted to be and function in the performance situation prevented the anxiety from taking over and leading to self-consciousness. In two cases, extra time was spent using EMDR to clear past performance failures where self-consciousness was a problem. Some cognitive-behavioral techniques such as reframing were employed to redefine who the performer wanted to be: shifting from a frightened, insecure, reluctant person to a focused, confidant, take charge performer.

Ease of experience in applying practiced performance skills

All subjects reported an ease of experience in applying the performance skills they practiced in preparation for the performance. This ease was attributed to having a clear performance plan that identified how they wanted to be and perform. Having set goals and expectations for themselves and having these skills installed using EMDR and rehearsed with CIR led to their performance success. Many performers reported feeling excited at the opportunity to deliver their performances and confidant that it would be well executed. They reported being able to visualize how they were going to perform and their confidence grew out of this ability to imagine a solid performance. All performers reported how they felt prepared for situations that could have “knocked them out of their routine” but were able to “stay with their game plan” and work through the distractions. EMDR and CIR were cited as particularly effective in melding all elements into a unified performance identity and rehearsing that integrated sense of the performing self again and again until it felt natural and familiar.

Internal/External feedback on performance outcomes

All subjects reported that they felt very positive about their performances and several indicated that it was the best they ever did. A few reported a sense of mastery over their past performance challenges. Another person reported a sense of “liberation”, having felt “oppressed” by performing in the past. All subjects reported getting very positive feedback on their performances from audience members, colleagues who were in the audience, organizers of the events, members of the hiring committees or members of the audition committee. One person was offered the job in the musical audition performance. Two of the subjects were hired by the job interview committees following their performances. In one case, the presenter at a legal conference was told that his presentation was one of the best ever seen by the company/firm he represented and was eventually offered future speaking engagements at the same legal conference. One person who presented at the medical research conference and had strong concerns about presenting her data to a “hostile” audience came away feeling empowered by the experience. All subjects felt their performance outcomes warranted their time and effort spent in obtaining peak performance training.

Discussion

Overall, the findings reflect preliminary support for the effectiveness of a brain-based peak performance model using a combination of mindfulness meditation (MM), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and cardio imagery & rehearsal (CIR). On seven key indices of peak performance, the six subjects reported varying levels of improvement in functioning relative to past performances. Despite the lack of quantitative measurements, self-reports of perceived improvements coupled with anecdotal external feedback of the subjects’ performances suggests this approach is promising and worthy of future investigation.

The findings offer support for many ideas from the research literature presented previously. The importance of traditional mental skills including anxiety management, concentration, goal setting, and imagery were anecdotally supported by the findings. This finding supports Moore’s (2003b; 2006) conclusion that multi-component skill training may be more effective than individual skill training, although the present study would not meet her criteria for acceptable research design. The findings suggest that managing performance anxiety is a central component of peak performance and is suggested here that it serves as a platform upon which other peak performance training strategies are constructed. Without effective anxiety management, other skill training is less likely to be as effective. The low level of self-consciousness reported by the subjects suggests that with performance anxiety being so low and concentration, focus and engagement with the performance content being high, there was little room for self-consciousness.

Even among this small sample size, the need to address high trait anxiety and past performance failures in some of the subjects was essential to positive performance outcome. It appeared that without this more clinical intervention for these subjects, their performance outcome might not have been so positive. The EMDR was particularly helpful in two applications of peak performance training—the desensitization of past traumas and performance failures and the installation of counter-anxiety behavioral routines that used the anxiety as an activating agent for powering their performance. This finding supports the work of Grand (2009) and Scaer (2001) who cite trauma as a key precipitant to performance anxiety. This finding further suggests that peak performance training needs to be adapted for a range of clients, many of whom present past trauma experiences that may undercut the effectiveness of the standard mental skills training if not adequately treated.

The findings suggest that the combination of EMDR and CIR was particularly effective at reducing performance anxiety while MM was less so, in part because some subjects were less committed to using it. MM is more likely to be helpful as an anxiety-reducing technique if it is utilized on a regular basis over a longer period of time. This limitation of MM may be related to the idea that performance anxiety is a state dependent phenomenon and when MM is practiced sporadically, it does not immediately carry over to the performance situation. Neurofeedback technology, which is another brain-based tool that evokes the same alpha/theta brainwave configuration as MM, needs to be investigated as a more quick-acting alternative. In contrast to MM, subjects felt that the EMDR and CIR was more immediately helpful after only one session. It is suggested that the CIR technique was effective because aerobic exercise combined with imagery of the performance situation appeared to reduce the physical anxiety associated with the performance as well as perhaps “priming” the brain to adopt a new behavioral routine or “script” that provided an alternative way of performing. This finding reinforces the idea that imagery is effective in supporting skill acquisition but when combined with the neuronal growth capacities of moderate exercise, becomes particularly skill enhancing. This hypothesis is consistent with the aforementioned research on neuroplasticity and exercise that has shown how the brain can grow and change and acquire new skills on demand when used in particular ways (Merzenish 1999).

The findings also appeared to support the value of key elements of the flow state including the merger of action and awareness, sense of effortless control and complete engagement in the task. Because these mental scripts were explicitly “installed” prior to the performances using EMDR and then reinforced using CIR, the findings suggest that elements of flow can be activated on demand using these brain-based techniques. The findings also showed support for the importance of goal setting in terms of creating an “actionable” performance plan that specifically outlined how the performance was to be approached in an integrated mind/body/spiritual sense. The idea of a performance plan as an integration of technical skills, performance objectives and explicitly identified mental/kinesthetic skills that can be brain-scripted using EMDR and CIR also gained support from the findings. The finding that subjects were better able to remember the content of their performances using CIR supports the finding by Ferris, Williams, et al. (2007) and Pontifex and Hillman (2009) that exercise promotes memorization.

The findings do not offer any direct support for the idea that interhemispheric coherence as activated by EMDR, CIR and MM played a significant role in producing the positive performance outcomes. However, considering that research by Bilalić, Kiesel, et al. (2011) showed that right brain functions such as pattern recognition were enhanced in chess masters, and that the flow state appears to activate elements of right brain functioning such as automaticity, synthesis, parallel processing and non-verbal understanding, the idea that peak performance might represent a balancing of left and right brain functions seems worthy of future exploration.

In conclusion, the findings of the present study while preliminary in nature support the idea that specific brain-based techniques such as EMDR and CIR when combined with exercise may stimulate neurogenesis and neuroplasticity that promotes rapid learning, skill development and enhanced mental capacities. Further study utilizing more quantitative research designs is necessary to establish if performance routines can be installed to produce peak performance functioning. Brain-based tools such as EMDR, CIR, MM and neurofeedback also need further study to determine if the brainscripting idea can be validated. This brain-based peak performance model, if validated by further research, would represent a fundamental development in peak performance training by offering direct installation of performance scripts and the possibility of activating flow states on demand.

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Key Words: brain-based peak performance, performance anxiety, neuroplasticity, interhemispheric coherence, brainscripting, flow, EMDR, Mindfulness Meditation, Cardio Imagery & Rehearsal, neurofeedback.

PAPER PRESENTED AT:

“Bioengineering Applications in Performing Arts and Entertainment Industry Conference: Safety, Efficiency & Health on Stage” (BAIPAEIC) in concert with XIX Annual Pacific Voice Conference.

School of Engineering, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California April 23, 2011

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