The Runner’s Brain

(This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Next article: “The Runner’s Heart.”)

A tire on my car developed a bubble, and I went to Wheel Works for a replacement. They said it would take an hour, and I strolled to Target to look at sweatshirts, then returned and sat in the waiting room where I picked up a U.S. News. On the back cover, I noticed an Allstate ad that featured an illustration of a brain:

allstate ad

Under the image, a headline said:


I’m fascinated by new brain research in an area that’s been popularly dubbed “neurotheology.” It encompasses studies of what happens in the brain when people meditate, and in states that the subjects describe as “spiritual experiences. ”

One area of the brain that becomes activated in the brains of meditators is the prefrontal cortex (PFC), just behind the forehead. It’s the “youngest” part of the brain, where the most advanced, uniquely human abilities are localized. Here’s what the Allstate ad says about it:

But when that happens, it’s not really their fault. It’s because their brain hasn’t finished developing. The underdeveloped area is called the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex. It plays a critical role in decision making, problem solving and understanding future consequences of today’s actions. Problem is, it won’t be fully mature until they’re into their 20s.

It’s one reason 16-year-old drivers have crash rates three times higher than 17-year-olds and five times higher than 18-year-olds. Car crashes injure about 300,000 teens a year. And kill nearly 6,000. Is there a way for teens to get their driving experience more safely—giving their brains time to mature as completely as their bodies? Allstate thinks so.

Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) laws are one approach that’s been proven effective at reducing teen crashes. These laws restrict the more dangerous kinds of driving teens do, such as nighttime driving and driving with teen passengers. Since North Carolina implemented one of the most comprehensive GDL laws in the country, it has seen a 25% decline in crashes involving 16-year-olds.

To find out what the GDL laws are in your state, visit Help enforce them—and if they aren’t strong enough, ask your legislator to strengthen them.

Let’s help our teenagers not miss out on tomorrow, just because they have something missing today.

Not long ago, a buddy and I were reminiscing about the kind of driving we indulged in when a key part of our brains was still missing. It was scary. He recalled racing through suburban Phoenix streets at over 100 mph, and I remembered flying (yes, we were momentarily airborne) over Arizona backroads in, alternately, the 1954 Cadillac of a local doctor, his mentally deficient 16-year-old at the wheel, and a 1928 Ford Model A that belonged to one of my friends.

Various meditative traditions teach that, by concentrating attention gently in the prefrontal cortex, one can develop the abilities that the neuroscientists associate with that area, including deep, calm concentration. (Perhaps teenagers should be taught meditation. It might save some lives.)

One of the leading scientists studying the prefrontal cortex is Richard J. Davidson, PhD, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry and Director of the Laboratory of Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin. In his book Visions of Compassion: Western Scientists and Tibetan Buddhists Examine Human Nature, Dr. Davidson reports:

We do not know the extent to which meditation-produced changes [in the brain] persist…. Of particular note in this regard are pilot data collected…in one older monk who had been engaged in daily practices to cultivate compassion for more than 30 years. We measured brain electrical activity during the baseline state in this monk and found that he exhibited the most extreme left prefrontal activation compared with a normative sample of 175 Wisconsin students.

Scientists are cautious. In plain language, what Dr. Davidson is saying is that, in competition with 175 college students, the 30-year meditating monk’s left prefrontal cortex scored off the chart, and because left-prefrontal activation is associated with positive affective states, he was one happy dude.

How can this research help runners?

When I was 25, I entered upon a spiritual path that I’ve now followed for 40 years. As part of my practice, I meditate as described above, with my attention held gently at the point between the eyebrows, the location of a brain structure called the anterior cingulate gyrus, which appears to regulate the activity of the left and right prefrontal cortices.

As a runner, I appreciate the value of the qualities that are localized in this area: concentration, emotional self-regulation, will power, the ability to foresee the potential consequences of present actions and form plans accordingly, etc.

One “ability” of the PFC that’s particularly useful for runners is emotional control. Brain scientists have found that raw, uncontrolled emotion is localized in an “older” structure of the brain called the amygdala. There are strong neural connections between the forebrain and the amygdala, and the scientists have discovered that activation of these brain structures is mutually exclusive. That is, when our minds are deeply concentrated, the PFC becomes activated and draws energy away from the amygdala, so that we are less likely to be swept away by tides of emotion.

Surely this is the physical basis for the age-old wisdom that tells us, when we’re under emotional stress, to “keep busy,” focus on our work, serve others, etc. When our attention is deeply focused, disturbing emotions are less likely to affect us. These scientific findings also underlie the common running wisdom that focusing attention deliberately before a race helps calm the pre-race jitters, and helps prevent us from making bad decisions mid-race based on restless emotions.

In Fitness Intuition I describe a number of occasions when I experienced the qualities of the prefrontal cortex with special clarity. In one case, I had just started a run on the Stanford campus and was focusing lightly in the area of the PFC, when I felt a powerful gathering of energy there. I was running through a grove of trees where the footing is uneven and I would normally slow down, but on this day I sailed over the ground with full confidence, experiencing the classic states that physiologists associate with the PFC: I knew that life was very good, and that there were many wonderful things worth striving for, and that I had the ability to achieve them all.

Shortly before I left Runner’s World in 1976, the magazine put on a week-long celebration of running that featured workshops, races, and a banquet with luminaries such as Dr. George Sheehan, Dr. Kenneth Cooper, etc., as well as a young Marine who billed himself as “Captain America,” and had been much in the news for PR-worthy athletic feats such as swimming across the Mississippi while towing a barge. Fully aware of what the response was likely to be, I approached Captain America at the banquet and asked him, “When you’re doing stuff that takes a lot of will power, do you feel your attention localized at the point between the eyebrows?” He gazed at me in silence for a moment, his eyes saying “You must be wack,” then shook his head and turned away.

Yet, surely the sports training of the future will draw on these new findings about the brain. I think it’s wonderful that Allstate is suggesting we regulate the driving of 16-year-old zombies. After all, the facts don’t lie: 18-year-olds do have one-fifth as many wrecks as 16-year-olds. As the prefrontal cortex develops, it has a dramatic, positive effect. Mark Twain was referring to these changes when he said: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”

From my personal experience, I know that holding attention at the prefrontal cortex helps improve my ability to focus, be calm, and keep emotions under control, all of which help me craft runs of better inner quality.

If it sounds like I’m building up to a plug for Fitness Intuition, okay, I confess. I don’t know of another book that suggests how athletes can tune their training based on the latest research about the brain and heart.

These ideas aren’t new; they’ve been a feature of spiritual teachings in many cultures for thousands of years. In western religious art, saints are portrayed gazing upward, toward the “spiritual eye.” And in the East, artists paint the saints with a mark in the center of the forehead, slightly above and between the eyebrows. The practice of energizing the prefrontal cortex is even referred to in the scriptures:

“If thine eye be single, thy body shall be full of light.” (Matthew 6:22)

…his gaze absorbed
Upon his nose-end [the origin of the nose, at the point between the eyebrows], rapt from all around,
Tranquil in spirit, free of fear, intent
Upon his Brahmacharya vow, devout,
Musing on Me, lost in the thought of Me.
That Yogin, so devoted, so controlled,
Comes to the peace beyond – My peace, the peace
Of high Nirvana! (Bhagavad Gita)

Next: “The Runner’s Heart”

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