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The Biology of Winning


New findings in the field of neurobiology-the scientific study of the brain and nervous system-are shedding light on why some people are highly successful and talented and how the rest of us might learn to be that way, too.

New findings in the field of neurobiology–the scientific study of the brain and nervous system–are shedding light on why some people are highly successful and talented and how the rest of us might learn to be that way, too.

Many of us know that skill mastery is achievable even if innate talent isn’t abundant, and we can overcome career-squelching fears such as presentation phobia by building up our store of success chemicals.

What Motivates Us

The brain has a built-in punishment and reward system. When we meet our expectations, we feel rewarded with positive emotions such as joy, triumph, and happiness. If we do not meet our expectations, we may feel punished by feelings of sadness, disappointment, and frustration. The desire to feel pleasure or triumph, therefore, reinforces the kind of behaviour that produces these emotions.

How the Brain Works

Neuroscientists believe that brain function is the combined result of millions of nerve cells communicating with each other in the brain by releasing molecules known as neurotransmitters (such as serotonin or dopamine), which are either turned on or off. There are believed to be over two hundred different types of neurotransmitters, varying in size, shape, and function.

“To use an analogy with a computer, the brain’s neuron cells comprise the hardware, and how those cells are connected comprise its software,” explains author David L. Weiner, who serves on the external board of advisors for the HealthEmotions Research Institute of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

The connective device of a neuron is called a synapse, which is the space between two neuron cells. Synaptic connections appear to be the key to the operating system of our brains, including control of our bodies’ physical movements as well as what we see, feel, think, hear, and smell.

Neurons use both electricity and chemicals to function. The electricity in a neuron travels to the synapse, releases a chemical, and then turns into electricity again in the next neuron. The neurotransmitters either inhibit or stimulate firing of the neuron they are travelling to. The determining factor of whether a neuron is activated or inhibited is the type of neurotransmitter that binds to the gate receptor. If it is inhibitory, the neuron is stabilized and its chances of activation are diminished.

Chemical Messengers

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that facilitates brain function and our ability to learn and encode stimuli. When dopamine is triggered, it can be a powerful aid to attention and learning. An elevation of dopamine levels often leads to an improvement in mood, alertness, and even an enhancement in verbal fluency or creativity.

Serotonin, another neurotransmitter, regulates psychological and biological functions such as mood, anxiety, aggression, and cognitive abilities. One of serotonin’s major roles is to control the effects of other neurotransmitters. Basically, this means it can influence the relative importance or priority of the messages sent by other neurotransmitters, giving them the go-ahead, stopping them, or instructing them to proceed with caution.

Neural circuits can make successful outcomes more likely, and winning raises our levels of dopamine and serotonin. If we are not satisfied with what we have achieved or who we have become, we can make use of the neurotransmitter communication system that strengthens and builds connections to change who we are. By exercising our brains, increasing our knowledge, or practising and/or increasing our skills, we can improve the function of brain circuitry.

Conquering Our Fears

Some people have a fear of public speaking. They may make major decisions daily at their jobs and may be quite successful, but put them in front of a group of people and they suffer the symptoms of fight or take flight–the heartbeat quickens, breathing becomes shallow, and anxiety increases.

One way to conquer this presentation phobia is to practise. Actress Judy Garland was a highly successful person who had a low opinion of herself and suffered tremendous stage fright. But she worked through it by playing the role, even though she felt the fear. Being afraid of public speaking is natural when you’re not used to doing it, but the panic can be conquered.

Positive thinking can also help to overcome presentation fears. Repeat positive messages mentally, such as “I can do this,” “I will succeed,” or “I will win them over.” Eventually your subconscious will start to believe it.



No Proof

No Proof

Raise a glass and say cheers to not-so-hard drinks

Matthew Kadey, MSc, RDMatthew Kadey, MSc, RD