Study Finds High Brain Integration in Top Performers

By Janice Wood
August 8th, 2022
Medically reviewed by Paul Sietes, MD.

Why do some people excel in sports, music and managing companies? New research points to uniquely high mind-brain development in those who excel.

“What we have found is an astonishing integration of brain functioning in high performers compared to average-performing controls,” said Fred Travis, Ph.D., director of the Center for Brain, Consciousness, and Cognition at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa.

He claims this research is the “first in the world to show that there is a brain measure of effective leadership.”

In the study, published in the journal Cognitive Processing, researchers found that 20 top-level managers scored higher on three measures — the Brain Integration Scale, Gibbs’s Socio-moral Reasoning questionnaire, and an inventory of peak experiences — compared to 20 low-level managers who served as controls.

“The current understanding of high performance is fragmented,” said co-researcher Harald Harung, Ph.D., of the Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences in Norway.

“What we have done in our research is to use quantitative and neurophysiological research methods on topics that so far have been dominated by psychology.”

The researchers carried out four studies comparing world-class performers to average performers. This recent study and two others examined top performers in management, sports and classical music. A number of years ago Harung and his colleagues published a study on a variety of professions, such as public administration, management, sports, arts, and education.

The studies include using electroencephalography (EEG) to look at the extent of integration and development of several brain processes.

The researchers looked at three different measurements that reflect how well the brain works as a whole: coherence, which shows how well the various parts of the brain cooperate; amount of alpha waves, which reflect restful alertness; and how economically or effectively the brain works. The three measurements are then put together in the Brain Integration Scale.

In all the groups, measurements were checked by using control groups of average performers, such as low-level managers or amateur musicians.

While two of the studies showed major differences between the high-level performers and the control groups, this wasn’t so among the musicians — both the professionals and the amateurs turned out to have a high level of brain integration, the researchers noted.

“We believe that for musicians, the explanation might be that classical music in itself contributes to such integration, regardless of your performance level,” said Harung.

The researchers also found it’s not just that their brains function differently — the world-class performers also had “peak” experiences.

These peak experiences are characterized by happiness, inner calm, maximum wakefulness, effortlessness and ease of functioning, absence of fear, transcendence of ordinary time and space, and a sense of perfection and even invincibility, the researchers report.

The first study was done on world-class athletes selected by the National Olympic Training Center in Norway and the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences. Besides screening their brains using EEG, each athlete was interviewed about their experiences while performing at their very best.

The result was a wide range of peak experiences, such as this one from cross-country skier Thomas Alsgaard, who won 11 gold medals in Olympic Games and World Championships:

“The senses are so open that you have the ability to receive signals that are almost scary: In a way it is a ‘high.’ I receive an unbelievable amount of information. Much, much more — 10-20 times more information — than what I manage to take in if I sit down and concentrate and try to perceive things. But I am so relaxed. And the more relaxed I am, the more information I register.”

His statements are similar to those gathered from other top performers, both among musicians and business leaders, the researchers said.

“There must be some common inner attributes and processes that make top performers able to deliver at the top level, regardless of profession or activity,” said Travis. “We found this common inner dimension to be what we called higher mind-brain development.”

The researchers have developed a new theory, a Unified Theory of Performance, which suggests that higher levels of mind-brain development form a platform for higher performance, regardless of profession or activity.

“It seems like these mind-brain variables represent a fundamental potential for being good, really good, in the particular activity one has decided to carry out,” said Harung.

The researchers also found that top-level performers outscored the control groups in a test of moral development. Higher moral development implies an expanded awareness where one is able to satisfy the interests of other people and not just their own needs, the researchers said.

Harung said he finds it remarkable that high levels of performance are connected to high moral standards.  “This should give an extra push to act morally, in addition to a better self-image, fewer sleepless nights and a good reputation,” he says.

The research leads to some interesting questions, according to the researchers, such as, “Is there a way to develop one’s brain to have more of these characteristics and perform at a higher level?” or “Can measuring a person’s brain predict the potential for someone to be a world-class performer?”

The researchers have explored whether meditation techniques, for example, can help to actively cultivate one’s brain. Researchers have found that Transcendental Meditation practitioners do have greater EEG coherence, greater presence of alpha waves, and, in some advanced practitioners, a very efficiently functioning brain. A coherent brain is a high-performing brain, Travis noted.

In addition, researchers have been exploring possible applications to predict performance ability.

Source: Maharishi University of Management

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.