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Dr. John Sullivan – The Brain, Human Performance And How You Are A Scientist Too (#53)

How to improve your performance by improving your health!

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Dr. John Sullivan - The Brain, Human Performance And How You Are A Scientist Too! | The Black Country Buddhas Podcast | My Home Vitality

Introduction to guest:

Dr. John Sullivan is widely regarded as one of the USA’s leading Clinical Sports Psychologists and an expert in brain health and high performance.

To give you a taste of his experience he has been the…

  • Director of Clinical Sport Psychology and Sport Science for the New England Patriots for over 16 years, in which time they have won 22 Divisional titles, 11 Conference titles, and 6 (out of 8) Super Bowls.
  • Expert civilian consultant for the U.S. elite military.
  • Sport Scientist and Sports Psychologist Consultant for a range of global clients, including: The English Premier League, The English Football Association (FA), EPL teams, NBA, NHL, MLS, Formula One (F1), UFC and Bellator MMA fighters/athletes.
  • Co-Investigator and applied Sport Scientist, collaborating with NASA on research related to human performance and concussion mitigation.
  • And Scientific Advisor for seven technology companies within the health, exercise, and elite sport sectors.

Contacting John:


Book: The Brain Always Wins

Podcast: The Brain Always Wins

Instagram: @thebrainalwayswins

Twitter: @BrainAlwaysWins

Facebook: @TheBrainAlwaysWins

Key quotes and takeaways from the show:

“Health is the foundation for human [and elite] performance.”

The brain leads 11 other [biological] systems – it is the leader – so increased performance comes from looking after your brain!

“A lie is 7 times more efficient than the truth.”

“We are now hunters and gatherers of truth, we are devolving!” – Do your research on information sources: Competency? Controversy? Background checks?

If you remove all processed items from a grocery store, you are only left with 5% of the produce.

“Elite military is 25 years ahead of sport in protecting and developing talent.”

Elite military use a brain-first model for protecting and developing talent (cognitive, physical and emotional development).

There is no such thing as muscle memory – Muscles don’t have memory!

There is no brainless performance. Focus on the brain first and everything will follow… you are always training the brain!

Selecting talent is much more complex than a few paper and pencil measures: select the person, know how to train them, know their developmental areas and then focus on them specifically over time [invest in them].

Human variation matters! You are designing a programme for the person in front of you. One size does not fit all. We lose talent through standardisation – medicine, education, sport training, etc. “We burn-out our athletes by one size fits all.”

Use experts! Get your team right! The best things come out of teams! Identify and refer!

“The brain doesn’t interpret stress, it interprets everything as trauma. Is it a “big-T” or a “little-t”? Trauma takes recovery – emotional, cognitive, physical, etc.

“Work is the stimulus for growth, but rest and recovery is where it all comes together. You can break anybody, even a Navy SEAL!”

“Exercise is neural protective, sport is not!”

We’re designed, just like breathing, to have rhythms of stress and relaxation. Proper dosing of training and recovery is the key!

We are all born tough, we are born with the most sophisticated survival system in the known Universe, it’s how you train and how you rest that determines your performance in life.

“Everything is a poison, it depends upon the dose and the timing.”

“What gets measured gets done, and what gets measured well, gets done more accurately and precisely.”

Emotions matter! Emotions run the show. Logic is all based upon emotion. If you ignore emotions and continue, the brain will shut you down! The brain always wins!

Understand your emotions in a granular fashion, so you can better recognise the patterns and predict what is going to happen [or what to do] next. “SEE, FEEL, DO!”

There is no greater way to make an elite operator vulnerable in a high risk situation than to teach him/her not to feel!

“We are predicting milliseconds to minutes ahead of time.”

Measure your average heart rate for a week. If you get up one morning feeling tired, check your heart-rate and if it is 5-8 beats per minute above your average, you may have overtrained. Use this as a training marker.

Sleep, hydration, nutrition.

“Don’t tell me how it works. Prove to me that it works.”

“There is no such thing as an average human.”

“It’s amazing what we can measure. People in sport don’t know what we can measure.”

“The basis of all science is physics and math.”

“The brain is an energy management survival system.”

Being a healthy sceptic:

  1. Keep your eyes and ears open.
  2. Know your biases and blind spots.
  3. Immediately question things, but in a respectful way.
  4. Move through a chain of systematic thinking – How can this be/not be true?
  5. Always stay curious!

“Dare to know.”

The sign of an expert:

  1. You’ve made every mistake there is to make and eliminated bandwidth of a field.
  2. Realising that this is not how it actually works.
  3. Being able to communicate your knowledge to anybody.
  4. Study → Apply → Communicate

“From a neurological perspective, the brain hates perfection because it’s never seen it from a pattern recognition standpoint so it immediately creates a fear response.”

The point of science and curiosity:

  1. To gain clear knowledge.
  2. To use that knowledge to create a greater good.
  3. Again… Study → Apply → Communicate

“Our skin has no sensors for anything except touch and temperature.” – We have no moisture sensor. When we feel wet, we don’t feel it, emotion fills in the gap! “Emotion is so important to the encoding and prediction of things that even when we have a gap, we have no sensor telling us what it is, it will figure it out for us! It’s efficient… We didn’t need to develop another sense ability or deal with more sense data, it’s far more efficient.”

Our visual system uses so much energy that our brain hacks the patterns around us by joining the dots or colouring in the missing pieces. We do not see things accurately or fully because we would lose too much energy and it would be extremely inefficient.

“60% – 70% of the calories you consume is used by your brain and it only weighs 3 pounds!”

“We are just naked monkeys on a giant spinning rock in the middle of space.”

“Every time you think you have outsmarted nature, it outsmarts you.”

We don’t unlearn but we do go through a process of selection and new learning.

Leading principles as a clinician:

  1. You pace before you lead.
  2. You don’t try to collaborate until you understand.
  3. You’re always dealing with strengths (there’s always strengths to build on – find them!).
  4. You have to see the world through the eyes of others (context).

If you’re going to work with less than 7 hours of sleep, you’re likely going to work with [the equivalent of] a beer to 2.5 beers in your system. In some cases, you shouldn’t be driving!

“We eat for only one reason – to create neurotransmission from the gut to the brain for proper communication and energy allocation.”

Diet is unique to the individual. We have a 24-hour cycle of fuelling in which we must think, on a basic level, about 3 standard meals and snacks in between. What you eat depends on your individual needs – you need an individual assessment.

High performance is based upon subtle changes. If we had to make major changes to be high performers, we would all be dead as a species. All high performance is based upon subtle changes.

Logic is a complex process of emotion. Emotion and logic are not separate.

We don’t think first. We feel first, then think!

Thinking can influence feeling but it’s not as strong as we once thought. Due to human variation, some people find “thinking positively” more useful than others but most don’t find it useful at all because thinking is so far down the chain of all the systems!

We are social beings! Connection matters! It moves our neurochemistry and our resiliency!

Anxiety is just a signal, it rarely tells us the whole story. However, the signal will get louder and tell you to redirect course if you’re on the wrong path. It’s up to us to identify that signal and seek the expertise of someone who can teach us how to change course.

It’s not enough to tell people to do their best, it’s to tell [teach] them how!

All of us have the responsibility to identify and refer, but refer to expertise!

Give people autonomy! There is no quicker way to demotivate someone than to put them in a hierarchical system because it creates paranoia and a lack of engagement. Hierarchical systems are very effective in some things but actually, in the long-term, where you don’t create transparency and feedback loops, you don’t develop.

“Human dignity comes first!”

“People matter more than software and hardware!”

We are still evolving, it’s just too slow for us to see! – Forearm artery, fibula, hand and knee examples.

It has to be testable! That is the ultimate BS detector. If claims keep changing to make something untestable, usually someone is making something up.

Testing hypotheses: Anecdote → put a metric on it → create a process to verify metrics → test process → repeat and remain healthily sceptical.

Question of the day:

Can you give us some examples of scientific findings that have blown your mind?

Questions from listeners:

From Chris Parker – ‘John, thanks for sharing some of your wisdom today. – Talking of which, I’m writing this question from the comfort of the Village…It’s a question about how we can best help others – friends or family members – who are suffering from anxiety, or stress or depression. We are told increasingly that ‘it’s good to talk’ and yet I wonder how those of us who lack the training and experience of professionals like yourself, can talk to an individual without risking making matters worse? My understanding is that, in your professional role, the underpinning principle is ‘to do no harm’ and you are trained rigorously in being able to, for example, ‘bear witness’ to the other person’s state and ‘code switch’ and listen and use silence and questioning with skill. What tips would you offer for those of us who have none of those skills and yet want to talk to individuals suffering from stress and the like?’

Links to podcast sites:

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The full podcast:

Related episode:

If you want to understand more about the inner workings of the mind, check out our podcast with Dr. Howard Rankin, an expert in cognitive neuroscience.

In this podcast we discuss the many ways we can sabotage our thinking through cognitive biases, binary thought and false assumptions.

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Show notes:

  • 03:27 – John’s origin story.
  • 06:23 – How do you find accurate information in a world full of noise?
  • 11:42 – How are the elite preparing for missions and performances?
  • 16:06 – How are the military selecting and developing their operatives so well?
  • 19:48 – What stops truth from reaching the people who need it?
  • 22:52 – Navy SEAL story and the impact of trauma and stress.
  • 30:57 – How to measure and monitor your health and performance.
  • 37:27 – The importance of granularity and understanding emotions.
  • 40:31 – Why athletes go with their gut.
  • 44:15 – Using heart rate as a measure for health and overtraining.
  • 45:57 – The number one performance enhancer!
  • 46:41 – How to start measuring your performance simply, then developing your measurements.
  • 47:57 – Intermediate and higher level performance and health-measuring technologies.
  • 50:49 – How easy is it for the layman to understand health and performance data?
  • 54:26 – The science behind binaural beats.
  • 58:31 – The science behind online hormone and biofeedback tests.
  • 01:02:22 – How will Artificial Intelligence (AI) impact on the future?
  • 01:10:34 – How we can all be [and are] scientists: being a healthy sceptic and sustaining curiosity.
  • 01:13:40 – Scientific findings that have blown John’s mind.
  • 01:20:00 – Does art separate us from animals?
  • 01:24:06 – The brilliance of primates, evolution and why we should never underestimate nature.
  • 01:27:06 – Does the brain have a maximum capacity and do we lose old memories/skills when we learn new ones?
  • 01:32:25 – Things you can be doing to maintain high energy throughout the day.
  • 01:42:22 – The difference between the mind and brain.
  • 01:47:51 – The importance of community on health and how love impacts the brain and body.
  • 01:49:42 – How to help people who are suffering from anxiety, stress or depression.
  • 01:59:10 – Resources John often refers back to, recommends or gifts.
  • 02:02:05 – What makes a good coach or trainer?
  • 02:04:10 – Principles and mantras John lives by.
  • 02:06:10 – Chris Parker’s live message.
  • 02:07:05 – Does Bigfoot exist?
  • 02:10:13 – Quote about humans just being primates.
  • 02:10:29 – Where to find more from John.
  • 02:11:24 – Where to find more and upcoming guests.
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