What’s Happening in Stunt Pilots’ Brains? The Neuroscience of High Performance
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.
Having recently interviewed Danny MacAskill about his mental processes during the ground-breaking Imaginate series, RedBull.com 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.
RedBull.com: 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.’
RedBull.com: 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’.
RedBull.com: 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.
RedBull.com: 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.
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