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“As a scientist, I guard against wild promises. But my research and study have convinced me that the Breakout Principle does indeed transcend other self-transformation claims, to the point that it constitutes a kind of ‘ultimate self-help principle’ that can carry you to significantly new levels of performance and achievement.” Herbert Benson, M.D.
The Breakout Principle
In article 113, “Intervals for Fitness—and Life,” I discussed a large body of evidence indicating that creative breakthroughs often occur during a period of relaxation after intense work. The best ideas usually come, not at work, but during the walk afterward or in the shower. Movement between engagement and disengagement, thinking and kicking back, activity and rest is the formula for progress.
Harvard Medical School professor Herbert Benson, author of the landmark bestseller The Relaxation Response, has been doing research in this area for more than three decades. His latest book, The Breakout Principle (Scribner, 2003), written with William Proctor, explains how relaxation or backing off can trigger a powerful biological switch that increases mental function, enhances creativity and productivity—and maximizes athletic performance.
“[Benson and Proctor] suggest that the Breakout Principle may be the ultimate nondrug answer for athletics who want to maximize their performance.” Interested? Read on.
The first thing to understand is that there is no free lunch. Work always comes first. Without struggle, there is no breakthrough. Rest without stress will get you nowhere.
The Yerkes-Dodson Law, formulated by Harvard researchers Robert M.Yerkes and John D. Dodson in 1908, says that as stress increases, so do efficiency and performance, but only up to a certain point. When stress becomes too great, performance and efficiency tend to decline, the researchers discovered.
The “simple yet profound” conclusions of Yerkes and Dodson form the underpinning of the Breakout Principle. “In the end,” Benson and Proctor write, “the person who successfully balances stress according to the Yerkes-Dodson Law will be in a strong position to experience a Breakout.”
Struggle, according to Benson, is the first of four distinct stages of a Breakout.
“The process begins with a hard mental or physical struggle,” Benson and Proctor write. For the businessperson or student, this may be a concentrated period of study and research. For the athlete, it may be planning and executing a demanding training cycle.
“Pulling the Breakout trigger” is the second stage, directly following the struggle. Benson calls this event “letting go,” or “backing off,” or “releasing” your mind from the work mode. As we’ll see momentarily, Benson has demonstrated measurable changes in the body that occur when the trigger is pulled.
The third stage is the “Breakout proper, coupled with a peak experience.” The Breakout, which is always accompanied by a “greater sense is well-being and relaxation,” may be a creative insight or a personal best by an athlete. “Inevitably,” the authors write, “the peak will involve something unexpected—a surprise that produces unanticipated new ideas or higher levels of performance.”
The fourth and final stage involves a “new-normal state—including ongoing improved performance and mind-body patterns.” This stage, of course, provides the platform for the next big idea or performance.
The startling discovery, which encouraged Dr. Benson to write this book, his seventh, is that the calm or “letting go” that typically precedes the Breakout “may cause the…release of increasing amounts of nitric oxide throughout the body.” Nitric oxide is a special gas that participates in many biological functions such as neurotransmission and blood vessel dilation. In short, Benson and his colleagues uncovered a specific reaction that may be the “biochemical foundation for the relaxation response.”
“Nitric oxide,” Benson and Proctor explain, “counters the negative effects of the stress hormone norepinephrine (noradrenaline).” This stress hormone, among other things, causes “a racing heart, high blood pressure, anger, anxiety, and greater vulnerability to pain.” Nitric oxide, on the other hand, is associated with “reduced blood pressure, lower heart rate, and an overall lowering of the metabolism.”
Benson calls nitric oxide (NO) the “spirit,” or catalyst, a kind of facilitator, of the peak experience.
“NO consists of message-carrying ‘puffs’ of gas that course through the entire body and central nervous system,” Benson says. In technical terms, it serves as a “gaseous diffusable modulator.” Among other things, it carries messages back and forth in the brain, between neurons that “may not be linked physically or electrically to one another.” It makes new connections possible.
“The whole NO mechanism may somehow be connected with what we think of as the ‘mind,’” says Benson. “I seemed to have stumbled upon a biological mechanism that somehow encompasses the dynamics of human belief, the creative process, the essence of physical and mental performance, and even spiritual experience.”
Read the book for many more fascinating details on the remarkable properties of NO.
In summary, Benson believes that “pulling the Breakout trigger releases body chemicals that counter the stress hormones…paving the way for a peak experience.” In plain language, letting go after a period of struggle releases NO, opening new pathways in the brain and body, which make mental and physical Breakouts possible.
The authors give many compelling case histories of peak experiences, in self-awareness, creativity, productivity, rejuvenation and athleticism. Let’s look at examples in business and athletics, and then a personal experience.
The Needlepoint Solution
Benson and Proctor start with a management consultant, they call him Jason, who turned to knitting when facing a particularly thorny problem.
Jason was asked to find a new CEO for a major U.S. corporation. There were many crosscurrents and seemed to be no logical choice. Three top executives were in the running, and two were threatened to quit if not chosen. The board of directors was split and stockholders were concerned about the effect of a wrong choice on the value of their shares.
Even after long analysis there was no front-runner. “To use a grammatical image, it’s a compound-complex problem,” Jason complained. “Extensive research—but no solution.”
“The time’s arrived for needlepoint,” Jason concluded. He knew from past experience that needlepoint helped him “think outside the box.”
He left the office and settled down in a hotel with his needlepoint, a pillow that required small stitches and lots of concentration. He’d finished all the “hard, plodding research and analysis” and needed a break.
“In many ways,” the authors write, “his experience provided a classic illustration of the Yerkes-Dodson Law,” discussed above. Jason understood that more stress would be counterproductive, and he preferred needlepoint to traditional relaxation techniques.
“The insight has to come from inside,” Jason explained.
“It’s absolutely essential for me to get away from the job and coworkers.
Put myself in a position where my mind can roam around in a completely different
space. The best way for me to shift gears is needlepoint.”
“The insight has to come from inside,” Jason explained. “It’s absolutely essential for me to get away from the job and coworkers. Put myself in a position where my mind can roam around in a completely different space. The best way for me to shift gears is needlepoint.”
“First of all, it’s best for me to forget the problem—just let my mind zero out and become blank,” he said. “I’ll allow myself to get carried away with mindless repetition. Focus on nothing but those stitches, doing one after the other. Then, the solution may drift into my mind.”
It worked. “Jason suddenly saw an elegant way to fit together all the difficult, moving parts in the selection process.” You can read the book to learn Jason’s inspired recommendation. The point to understand is that the solution came only after he shifted his focus completely. That’s the “fundamental mechanism for activating every Breakout,” says Benson. “To trigger a Breakout, you must sever completely your previous train of thought and emotions.”
Benson’s second case study is about a high school baseball player who’d been batting .500 and suddenly went into a slump. Nothing seemed to work. He’d struck out eight times in a row. The harder he tried the worse he got.
A family friend and coach saw the problem--the boy was "undercutting" the ball, trying to hit home runs. He explained the problem--showed it to him on videotape--and had the player practice the correct swing in front of a mirror, and then in the batting cage. “Finally, with the preparation or struggle phase completed and the next game about to begin, the adviser told the batter to ‘forget everything’ when he stepped up to the plate.
“Just swing!” the adviser said. “Breathe easily and regularly. Stay loose. Focus only on the ball.” If it’s a hittable pitch, swing “without thinking about what you’re doing.”
Again, it worked. “Overcome by a strange sense of quiet…[the boy] was highly alert, but paradoxically, he was also totally relaxed. He felt that he had somehow merged with the ball… On the second pitch, he rapped a sharp single to left field.”
Soon, he was hitting .500 again.
Benson interprets what happened in terms of the Breakout Principle: “First, the batter ‘struggled’ by identifying his mistakes and working hard to correct them… But when he stepped up to the plate, he relied on regular breathing and a single-minded focus on the ball to break all prior thought patterns, all anxieties and analysis. In other words, he went through the release stage and pulled the Breakout trigger. With his thinking facilities suspended, his visual senses and raw motor skills took over.”
The player was “in the zone.” He experienced a “peak experience of athleticism.”
Tip from Oxford
Shortly before reading Benson’s book--it was on my desk--I exchanged several very interesting emails with a young man who’d “trained for the first boat” during his last year at Oxford. Our website articles on my experiences with indoor rowing had caught his eye. He told me about his grueling on-the-water training and meticulously explained the mechanics of the proper rowing stroke on the Concept 2 rowing machine, which he’d also used extensively at Oxford. I was impressed with this fellow generally, and especially his willingness to share his hard-won knowledge so freely.
In our last exchange he left me with a final tip, which I didn’t give much meaning—until I read The Breakout Principle. In the light of Dr. Benson’s book, however, it began to carry much more weight. The tip apparently came from his Oxford coach.
“The thing that I always found,” he wrote, “was that when I want to put down more power I focus more, I get calmer, control my breath more and thus put down more power—compared to my friends who screw up their face, their breath becomes ragged, etc…”
A few days later--I still hadn’t read Benson’s book--I decided to try it, almost by accident, in my next rowing session, a 1000-meter PB attempt. When it started getting really hard, at 800 meters--a point where it's easy to blow up--the words of my Oxford friend suddenly popped into my mind. I calmed myself, concentrated on my breathing, and focused on putting more power into each stroke. It really seemed to help. I rowed strongly through the finish, beat my best time by more than 3 seconds, and moved up three places in the Concept 2 World Rankings.
I’m now integrating my young friend’s wise counsel with that of Dr. Benson—and working for a Breakout at 500 meters.
Follow my lead. Read The Breakout Principle. You'll find it on Amazon.com or at your local bookstore.
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