Up your game

Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal on how you can achieve peak performance

Published 7 years ago on Jul 22, 2017 4 minutes Read

In February 2011, Nicole Kidman wowed on the Academy Awards’ red carpet with a silver Dior gown, a 150-carat Fred Leighton diamond choker, and matching Pierre Hardy pumps. Yet, beyond her upscale designer choices, Kidman drew attention that evening for an unexpected reason. Her eyebrows. She couldn’t not arch them. She looked like a porcelain doll who’d just sat on a pinecone.

And while Kidman repeatedly ascribed her timeless beauty to diet, exercise, and sunscreen, in 2013 she finally admitted to Italy’s La Repubblica, “I did try Botox, unfortunately, but I got out of it, and now I can finally move my face again.” Which is kind of critical if you’re an actor who earns a living making faces.

Not long after celebrities began showing up at gala events with implausibly blank expressions, researchers started to notice that Botox was doing more than just altering how people looked. It was altering how they felt, too. In study after study, when seriously depressed patients received Botox injections in their frown lines, they got significant and sometimes instantaneous relief from depression. But when Botoxed subjects were asked to empathise with other people, to feel their joy or share their sorrow, they simply couldn’t.

This struck scientists as strange. Since the time of the Greeks, Western thinkers have considered the mind the engine that drives the bus and the body the passenger that comes along for the ride. It’s the mind-body split, a one-way arrow of causation that insists the head is always in charge (and can be trusted to govern our higher aspirations), while the body is the vessel that houses our animal instincts (and should be strictly controlled). But these Botox studies pointed in the opposite direction. Somehow, changes in the body—freezing the face with a neurotoxin — were producing changes in the mind: the ability to feel sadness or empathy. The horse appeared to be steering the rider.

And we now know why. Our facial expressions are hardwired into our emotions: we can’t have one without the other. Botox lessens depression because it prevents us from making sad faces. But it also dampens our connection to those around us because we feel empathy by mimicking each other’s facial expressions. With Botox, mimicry becomes impossible, so we feel almost nothing at all. No wonder Nicole Kidman was relieved to get a few wrinkles back.

But the bigger point is that these studies reflect a sea change in how we think about thinking. They move us from “disembodied cognition,” the idea that our thinking happens only in the three pounds of gray matter tucked between our ears, to “embodied cognition,” where we see thinking for what it really is: an integrated, whole-system experience. “The body, the gut, the senses, the immune system, the lymphatic system,” explained embodied cognition expert and University of Winchester emeritus professor Guy Claxton to New York magazine, “are so instantaneously and complicatedly interacting that you can’t draw a line across the neck and say ‘above this line it’s smart and below the line it’s menial.’”

In fact, we’re not smart and we have bodies—we’re smart because we have bodies. The heart has about 40,000 neurons that play a central role in shaping emotion, perception, and decision making. The stomach and intestines complete this network, containing more than 500 million nerve cells, 100 million neurons, 30 different neurotransmitters, and 90 percent of the body’s supply of serotonin (one of the major neurochemicals responsible for mood and well-being). This “second brain,” as scientists have dubbed it, lends some empirical support to the persistent notion of gut instinct.

And these whole-body perceptions can be easily influenced. If someone gives you a cup of icy cold water to hold, then introduces you to a stranger, as researchers at Yale did, you’ll treat this newcomer with suspicion and rate them as colder and more distant on personality scales. But if they give you a cup of hot coffee and make the same introduction, trust comes more easily. The act of feeling physical warmth is enough to trigger a cognitive change: you literally warm up to people, no thinking required.