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What’s Happening in Stunt Pilots’ Brains? The Neuroscience of High Performance

June 18, 2015
Paul Bonhomme and Steve Jones leave contrails after flying through a hangar during Red Bull Barnstorming photoshooting in Llandbedr, Wales, UK, on April the 09th, 2015

Paul Bonhomme and Steve Jones leave contrails after flying through a hangar during Red Bull Barnstorming photoshooting in Llandbedr, Wales, UK, on April the 09th, 2015

Recently I’ve had great fun interviewing extraordinary performers, one on a bike – Danny MacAskill –  and the others flying two planes through a hanger – my discussion with them is below. I’ve learned a lot about the mind-brain in these conversations because, I’ve discovered, top performers are also masters of mind control.

Here is my interview with the Red Bull pilots but before you read it, do watch this hair-raising video.

Having recently interviewed Danny MacAskill about his mental processes during the ground-breaking Imaginate series, asked Ian Robertson, Professor of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin, to probe into our pilots’ brains, exploring their neurological processes through the seven key ingredients of focus as set out in the Red Bull Focus Test – react, juggle, control, filter, adapt, solve and endure.

Professor Ian Robertson: Paul and Steve, what was your motivation to attempt something like this?

Steve Jones: I’ve been fascinated by paper aeroplanes from an early age, so my love of anything that flies is deeply ingrained. But equally I think it’s important to say that I hate risk-taking. For me, it’s problem solving. How do we fly two aeroplanes through a hangar safely? Because if you can’t, then you don’t do it. Also, if there’s a significant level of fear, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it because the risk is probably too great.

IR: The fear part of your brain is located to a large extent in a place called the amygdala, and the problem-solving part of your brain is in the frontal lobes. There are projections from the frontal lobes down to the amygdala, and you can really dampen down the activity of the amygdala with the right kind of activity in the frontal lobes. As is the case with all elite performers, you are both grand masters in mind control.

Paul Bonhomme: Very often people say to me ‘You’re an adrenaline junkie’, but I always say that driving down an A-road is more dangerous than what we do. If we’re not in control for some reason, then we’ll stop doing it.

IR: Adrenaline junkies need adrenaline and fear. That’s their hit. Adrenaline switches on the brain systems that produce all these hormones, including adrenaline and noradrenaline. But in your high-precision performance, there can be no real scope for adrenaline in the system. Noradrenaline increases what we call signal-to-noise ratio. Although it makes you faster and more focused, it also increases error. How did you find the flight process psychologically?

PB: What I thought was fascinating was that with each flight we did through the hangar, my awareness increased enormously. To the extent that after our 11th flight, we decided that that would be a very good time to stop because I was starting to relax.

IR: That’s interesting, because there’s no fear in your system, but there is arousal, which is roughly the same as alertness. Like many chemical messages to the brain, it’s a U-shaped curve. Too little and your brain underperforms; too much and it overperforms. There’s a kind of Goldilocks zone where you get peak performance. So you managed to stop yourself spilling over the wrong side of that curve.

SJ: It’s funny that, as we did it more and more, I was problem solving less and that did allow for just the start of some fear on the last couple of runs, whereupon we thought ‘Let’s stop now.’ Did you find it hard to focus at any point?

PB: Well we decided that we were going to have a really gradual descent, because keeping the same height all the way through would have required a lot of workload that wasn’t necessary.

IR: That’s a perfect example of the ‘endure’ part of focus. Keeping at a constant height would have required you to sustain your attention on a single variable. It’s hard for our brains to keep attending to the same thing over a long period. So you gave your brain a different type of challenge, the constantly changing challenge of the descent to the critical last point. What you were doing was sparing one of our most fragile parts of our attention system, the endure system – we call it ‘sustained attention’. Was there a plan in place if anything bad happened?

SJ: Things like ‘What if we hit a bird, what if the canopy cracks?’ – all those decisions had been pre-made.

IR: This speaks to the ‘adapt’ side of focus. By anticipating these possible contingencies, you were creating high-level mental routines. People often think of habits as being just behaviours – biting your nails, or putting your phone in your right-hand pocket – but you can have high-level abstract mental routines that are habits as well, which you can switch in like little modules much faster than if you have to think of them at the time. Paul, was your approach to this flight the same as it is during normal formation flying?

PB: I aspire not to do any unnecessary movements. I try and make it as easy as possible for someone to follow me, and the hangar flight was a super-extreme version of that.

IR: Most of the activity that goes on in our brain is delegated to a part of the brain that we have no conscious access to, called the basal ganglia and also the cerebellum. Sometimes the critical thing is to not do anything that might send a signal downward that could interfere with the parts of the brain that control these routine activities.

There is no conflict of interest in this article – I wasn’t paid for this. 

Please follow me on twitter on @ihrobertson

The Teenage Allure of ISIS

May 26, 2015

Jihadi flag

The 17-year-old was last seen boarding a train at Victoria Station to fight abroad. Much later, he said: “My politics were driven by emotion. That’s how you see the world at 17. It’s all black and white…” An 18-year-old Briton also left home to fight, but was killed and so could not tell us his reasons for going. The latter was Abdullah Deghayes. The former was Alfred Sherman, knighted co-founder (with Margaret Thatcher) of the Centre for Policy Studies. His war was in Spain, not Syria, and the year he left was 1937, not 2015.

The motives of those two teenagers were similar: zealous commitment to a world-changing ideology; a sense of unjust persecution of fellow-believers; a desire for action to fight that injustice; the smell of adventure; the intoxication of common purpose and the camaraderie that goes with it; the heady pleasure of rebelling; and a glorious sense of purpose, which the young mind craves so much – all bathed in the adolescent delusion of immortality.

These are elements of a story that has been told in every country since human civilisation began; it is a story of teenagers shedding the skin of their child identity and embarking on the painful task of growing a new adult skin that is their own.

Abdullah Deghayes

So should we relax and accept as an inevitable part of the human experience the flight of hundreds of young Britons to the ranks of Islamic State (Isil)? No, because while Alfred and Abdullah had much in common, there are seven major differences that make today’s problems far greater than those of 1937. Some phenomena are new; some are old, but have been amplified by the internet.

Alfred Sherman and his comrades had no doubt that they were “British” as well as socialist, communist or Marxist. A label like “Marxist” is not an exclusive one, that allows you to be both British and Marxist. And the evidence is that such shared superordinate identities reduce intergroup hatred. In 2015, people can feel no shared identity with neighbours because they are living in totally different virtual worlds of internet and satellite TV. This can degrade the common identity arising from physical proximity.

Them and Us.
The stronger the in-group feelings, the more inclined you are to dehumanise members of the out-group. Teenagers crave a sense of belonging because their uncertain role in the world can make them anxious: the clarity offered by a politically evangelical movement can be the strongest of anxiety-reducing drugs.

Mass-Marketing Technologies
Advertisers and propagandists alike know that emotions are the gateway to influence. In 1937, the techniques of mass manipulation of emotions had not been developed; now they are deployed by jihadi groups with professional skill and personally targeted using the very latest methods of digital marketing into the homes of anxious young men and women with conflicted identities.

Off-the-shelf Comrades
You had to work hard in 1937 to find like-minded comrades willing to leave home to fight in a foreign land. In 2015 you can assemble a group in minutes without leaving your bedroom. Peer groups are the greatest influence on what teenagers do and think, and social media can cement them into homogenous cells where no dissenting view on the world can break through.

Web Anonymity
This lets you do things that are out of character. Mouthing a slogan actually changes your attitudes, because of a mental henomenon called “cognitive dissonance”, where the mind strives for consistency between what you do and what you believe.

Teenagers like to rebel as part of their struggle to create their own identity. Muslim teenagers find it difficult to rebel against their communities using the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll techniques beloved of non-Muslim teenagers. Glamorous jihadism offers a much “safer” and culturally more intelligible outlet for teenage rebellion.

Films of Isil beheadings are examples of a corrupting pornography, that, like its sexual equivalent, binds people to a degraded fetish that distorts and dehumanises. The still-developing teenage brain is particularly sensitive to the corrosion of such images.

So what is to be done? The internet and social media must be at the heart of a response to teenage radicalisation. But this will have to be seen as coming from the bottom up if it is not just to become something else to rebel against. And any “positive propaganda” has to be as polished and professional as the films on the jihadi websites. We also have to build plural identities – make people feel British, or American, or Swedish, as well as Muslim – and for positive reasons: anti-immigrant rhetoric is among the most effective recruiting sergeants for the jihadi movement. Finally, 24-hour news channels must stop disseminating the pornography of violence and glamorising the nihilism it represents.

This article was first published in The Daily Telegraph 26th May 2015

A 21 year old president does not have a fully developed brain

April 29, 2015

On 22 May, Ireland will vote in a referendum on a proposal to reduce the minimum age of a president to 21. This is not a good idea because the human brain’s frontal lobes – critical for good judgment – are not fully wired to the rest of the brain until the mid twenties on average. This is why insurance premiums for young drivers are so high. Presidents have to have good judgment. Most 21 year olds don’t yet have it. 

Putin’s Contempt for the West

February 24, 2015


In June 2005, Vladimir Putin saw a diamond-studded Super Bowl ring on the finger of Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots. Kraft was in St Petersberg for a gathering of business leaders, and the ring was worth $25,000. Putin asked to see it, tried it on, and said: “I could kill someone with this.” Then, allegedly, he put it in his pocket, drew his security guards around him, and left the room.

What does this incident tell us about the psychology of the man who rules Russia? On the day that both government troops and Russian-backed rebels are supposed to begin withdrawing heavy weapons from the fron tline in eastern Ukraine as part of the Minsk agreement, this question is of special importance.

In democracies which have checks on leader’s power, psychology may not play a crucial role in statecraft. But Putin’s control over the Russian media, judicial system and business world means that his personal psychology plays a much more important role in state policies than is the case for other countries.

We don’t know exactly how much control Putin has over the rebels, but it is likely to be considerable, despite their protestations. Putin’s troops operate in Ukraine, and we know he believes himself to be the true leader of Russian-speakers in former Soviet satellites from Ukraine to Lithuania. Just read his speech to the Russia parliament on April 25, 2005:

“Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century… Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory.”

Three months after the incident with Robert Kraft’s ring, while visiting the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Putin was shown a glass replica of a Kalashnikov gun filled with vodka. According to one biographer, Masha Gessen, Putin nodded to one of his guards, who, to the astonishment of all present, simply pocketed the piece.

Such incidents give us a first, important clue about his personality: Putin does not feel bound by the ordinary rules of civility. This, in turn, suggests that he may not be inclined to respect bigger rules – for instance those of the Minsk agreement.

To be fair, Putin almost certainly believes that the West has breached much bigger understandings with Russia regarding the integrity of the empire he formally served. The sight of NATO fighters patrolling Russian borders in what was formally Soviet territory is galling for him. Similarly, the flirting of former colonies such as Georgia and Ukraine with NATO membership is likely infuriating. From this distorted perspective, he feels justified in breaching more trivial rules of personal property in what he regards as a weak, decadent West.

A second key aspect of his personality is contempt. At a joint German-Russian cabinet meeting in Siberia in 2006, German Chancellor Angela Merkel chided Putin that he should treat his cabinet ministers with respect rather than contempt. Contempt is the emotion reserved for those we regard as inferiors, and it is likely that Putin regards the West – particularly Western Europe – as inferior in many ways, not least militarily.

Yet contempt is a very problematic emotion because it abolishes empathy. Empathy is the crucial ingredient of negotiation: compromises and trust arise when people begin to see things from the other point of view. But contempt negates the other perspective and the object of contempt is just that – an object. Objects do not have a point of view.

There is a third factor underlying Putin’s psychology: fear. A small, thin-skinned man who grew up in poverty in a Leningrad haunted by memories of starvation and death, he was personally witness to what was for him another catastrophe – the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Undoubtedly he suffers the torment of all autocrats – the fear of losing power and the consequences which follow. This is no abstract fear. He fended off a KGB agent’s nightmare when hordes of rebellious East Germans besieged his compound in Dresden in 1989. As a result, he can all too easily envisage such a collapse in his own country should his iron grip loosen.

Putin almost certainly craved respect from the West in the past, but many perceived humiliations – senior US figures describing his country described as “Upper Volta with missiles” for instance – may have pushed this humiliation-sensitive man to a position of existential, Cold War-like opposition to the West, if indeed he ever held any other view.

This is a major problem because it means that we cannot be sure that President Putin will behave entirely predictably according to some logical notion of cost and benefit. Too much power, for too long, has changed his brain to a point where his ego and country are one.

People go to enormous and sometimes self-destructive length in order to protect their egos. This is why humiliating put-downs of Putin and Russia should be ruled out of diplomatic discourse. People behave less defensively, and hence less self-destructively, when their egos are not threatened and their good points emphasized.

But no amount of praise for Russia will dissolve its president’s contempt for the West. Eliminating humiliation can only reduce the chance of some disastrous act of ego-defensive self-destructiveness on the part of Putin.

In the end the only thing which will deter him from trying to save his lamented Russian-speaking diaspora from the clutches of the West is firmness and deterrence on the part of Europe and the USA. Putting those grim, Cold-War sounding words into action is going to be expensive.

This article was first published in the Daily Telegraph on 24th February 2015

Retirement: Be Careful What you Wish For.

January 25, 2015

Retirement photo







The lower the average retirement age of a country, the poorer peoples’ memory. In this short video, I talk about the perils of thinking of yourself as “retired”

Three Upsides of Getting Older

January 25, 2015

We hear a lot about the bad effects of ageing – memory, forgetfulness, speed etc – but here are three upsides of aging which I explain in a video from the brilliant Hello Brain campaign run by my colleague Sabina Brennan.


The upsides of ageing

Euthanasia or Execution? – A Struggle for Control.

January 6, 2015







This Sunday, Belgium is, to all intents and purposes, going to carry out an execution. Capital punishment, outlawed in the EU, is effectively going to make a return to the Continent when Frank Van Den Bleeken, a sex offender, is killed at his own request. Ostensibly this is because he cannot bear the thought of spending the rest of life in jail or control his violent sexual urges – so he has asked to be euthanised. Astonishingly, the Belgian state has agreed.

In the early hours of January 1 1989, Van Den Bleeken, who was himself raped when he was 15, raped and killed a 19-year-old girl as she came home from a New Year’s Eve party. He was subsequently deemed insane and not criminally responsible and, after seven years on a prison psychiatric ward, released. Within weeks he attacked three more victims aged 11, 17, and 29 years old.

He first applied for euthanasia in 2011, saying that he had not been offered appropriate therapy. Since then a specialist centre has opened in Belgium, but he renewed his application for euthanasia none the less. Imagine a mentally ill cancer patient who asked for euthanasia while refusing a potentially effective treatment. All but the most ardent euthanasia advocates would demur in such a case. Yet Belgium has acquiesced.
There are three main problems with this. First, treatments for sexual offenders can be successful. Cognitive behavioural treatment is the most effective, and surgical and hormonal treatments also work well with a proportion of offenders.

Secondly, Van Den Bleeken has spent 30 years in jail. His desire to be killed, however, is only three years old. That means that for 27 years he wished to live – and his request to be given effective treatment in a Dutch centre supports this. The desire to die is never carved in stone – it changes with circumstances, with frame of mind, with mood. Nowhere is this more clear than in people who have demonstrated their absolute commitment to dying by jumping from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. In a follow-up study – 26 years later – of these unwilling survivors, 90 per cent were either alive or had died of natural causes. These people had wanted to die as devoutly as Van Den Bleeken does but, having tried it once, did not try to get it right a second time.

But the third issue is the most important, and has to do with the nature of justice, which Van Den Bleeken is successfully seeking to pervert.

His  crimes have blighted the lives of scores of people, and ended the life of one innocent girl. Her family does not want him to be killed – they wish to see him suffer in prison, and that is entirely their right.

But by ignoring their wishes and killing a physically healthy, relatively young man, there is a strong possibility that the Belgian state is playing into the killer’s hands. For the publicity and notoriety of this case has transformed it from being about Van Den Bleeken’s uncontrollable sexual urges into a battle for control between him and the authorities. It is entirely conceivable that he now sees himself as a sort of hero in combat with institutions who he feels have denied him proper treatment.

This struggle, peculiarly enough, may give his sad life some meaning, even if only for a few more days. His life’s last act will be played to his direction. We know well how people will do self-destructive things to give their life meaning, including killing themselves in suicide bombings. Strangely enough, some suicide bombers are motivated by what they, in their distorted perceptions, feel to be altruistic motives.

But part of the point of punishment is the denial of such control. It is for the state to decide Van Den Bleeken’s punishment, and yet it seems to be he who is pulling the strings. Since when did killers choose their own sentence?

If this dismal case changes course, however, both sides will end up losers. If Van Den Bleeken backs down and withdraws his request, it will represent a defeat for him. Such a defeat may be impossible for him to contemplate because the prospect of Sunday’s Pyrrhic victory represents the last residue of self-respect in a ruined life.

But Belgium also has put itself in a corner. It is important not to forget that Van Den Bleeken was previously declared insane – but clearly not insane enough for the authorities to regard him as incapable of making an informed decision about his own life and death. We do not know whether Belgian doctors have changed their diagnosis that he is insane, but if they have not, the ethical implications involved in killing him are devastating.

In most civilised countries, people who are suicidal can be detained in psychiatric hospital against their will because their suicidal impulses are not regarded as being rational choices. That Belgium can contemplate this bizarre course of action, and that the country’s doctors can contemplate executing it, is grotesque.

So the worries of both parties should be ignored. This case has now become a circus sideshow of the justice system. It should be prevented from reaching its appalling denouement.

If Belgium wishes to execute Van Den Bleeken, it should initiate the legislation to do so. If it does not, it should refuse to cave in to his battle for control over the shreds of his life, and ensure the public is protected while the best form of therapy is attempted.


This article was first published in the London Daily Telegraph on 6th January 2015


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