Have you ever seen squirrels run across telephone wires? They just scurry across any obstacle without thinking. Of course that's due to the fact that squirrels cannot think like we do. Their sensory system receives sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and touches. Their brains are able to process this information, act accordingly, and execute skillful patterns of behavior. The human brain can do all this , but it can also complicate matters: We can evaluate the sensory information and the situation, analyzing all the angles, and then intentionally train ourselves to improve our performance. This ability to reason is what separates us from other animals, and surely rationality is a blessing in life—except when you're performing under pressure.

Consider that moment in a physical examination when the doctor taps your knee with his reflex hammer and your foot kicks straight out reflexively (i.e., without thought). It's called a "myotatic" or "flexor reflex," and the neurobiology goes like this:

The blow of the hammer compresses a sensory nerve in the knee, altering its chemical structure, which, in a chain reaction, sends an electrical signal along the nerve up to the lumbar section of the spinal cord. This ascending nerve connects to a parallel descending motor nerve that dispatches the electrical signal down to the muscle group that causes the leg to extend. If you're sitting on the examination table and the doctor taps your knee without warning, your foot will actually kick out even before your brain gets the signal that the doctor is armed with a hammer. Neuroscientists call this chemical-electrical response "closed loop information processing."

The classic flexor reflex is a human response that is far less complex than the neurobiology of a squirrel

There are four types of closed loop processes:

  1. Monosynaptic Reflexes (the flexor reflex), which are the shortest and quickest, involving the fewest neurons.

  2. Multisynaptic Reflexes, organized through spinal cord interneurons (e.g., picking up a scalding cup of coffee).

  3. Brainstem Regulatory Functions (such as controlling your heart and lungs)

  4. Patterned Intentional Behavior, organized in the thalamus (the same kind of processing the squirrel is using.

Which each progressively more complicated function, more neurons and more neural junctions are involved. Of the human body's roughly 100 billion cells, the flexor reflex needs only two to function properly.

The cerebral cortex, however—home of conscious thought, judgement, reason, and calculation needs billions of nerves to do its thing. Information processing that occurs on that level its called open loop information processing. Literally open to interpretation. Once the cerebral cortex gets involved, the transfer from incoming sensory data to outgoing action is influenced by any number of brain areas adding input. In turn slowing down the system, impeding behavior efficiency, and increasing the chance of error.

The squirrel has no cerebral cortex, but the animal does have a thalamus, a bunch of clusters of neurons in the brain, or ganglia, called pattern generators. These produce programmed activity in response to stimuli. It's the highest level of loop processing available to the animal. The squirrel runs across the wire bay executed ingrained instincts. Trusting them so to speak. The signal comes in, gets turned into a pattern in the thalamus, and a response is sent out. If the wind is blowing the wire to and fro, that sensory stimulus is sent to the squirrel's thalamus, which modifies the motor pattern sent out to allow the squirrel to react to the change and stay balanced on the wire. The squirrel is not distracted by any complex assessment of information, and thus sticks with a closed loop process—with virtually no mistakes, loss of balance or fatal falls.

We humans can assure a similar kind of closed processing by taking our cerebral cortex out of the game, as it were, and allowing ourselves react to sensory stimuli with motor responses we have already stored. The star basketball player looks at the rim and shoots. No evaluating the distance, no decisions about how high to extend the shooting arm over a defender, how much to flick the wrist for perfect rotation, or what the consequence might be if the shot misses. No thinking period.

Come back tomorrow for the second part of "The Neurobiology of High Performance".

In good health,

Efren Guerrero Rodríguez

Fortza Fit High Performance Training


The Oxford Dictionary of Sports Science & Medicine (3 ed.)

Principles of Neurobiology (2 ed.)

Overachievement: The New Model for Exceptional Performance John Eliot, Ph.D.

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