Once again the Olympics are upon us, displaying excellence in mind, body, and spirit. As a neuroscientist, neuropsychiatrist, and author in the field of human potential, I am always riveted, watching all the nations of the world come together to push the envelope of human physical and mental potential. How strong can we become? How fast can we go? How flawless can our performance be? And how much pressure can our minds endure under the enormous challenge of competition?
Olympian pressures parallel what we expect today from the performance of our own brains — and our children’s minds as well. We all want our minds to produce higher and more perfect performances, to endure more pressure and stress, and handle one challenge after another flawlessly — without failure or weakness.
Who doesn’t remember 2008’s Summer Olympics opening ceremony in China? I recall an image of thousands of drummers delivering a perfectly synchronized performance. The entire opening ceremony ran like a machine. Immense. Awe-inspiring. As I watched from my couch, I felt quite lazy, insecure, and almost phlegmatic in comparison.
I recall watching the 2010 Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Vancouver, in which a lot of pyrotechnics went off without a hitch. Native dancers performed their dance steps, well … in step. And then, something happened that I have never seen in an Olympics. When it came time to light the torch, four mechanical towers were supposed to rise from the floor of the stage. Four seasoned athletes stood waiting nearby — one of them, the great Wayne Gretsky — as the music kept playing and playing. It became obvious that there had been a technical malfunction after the music replayed for what seemed the sixth and seventh times.
And what happened next demonstrated more brilliance, cognitive skill, intellectual flexibility, and social adaptability than if the opening ceremony had run like a flawless machine. The seasoned Olympic athletes improvised. In flawed conditions, they kept their nerve, good humor, grace, and faith, and executed the rest of the program in a way that truly touched the audience more than if there had been no malfunction. And although the torch was lit with three towers, not four, I found this opening ceremony demonstrated more of the true brilliance the human brain is capable of than when we see a perfect Olympic performance. Why is this so?
One of my mentors was the great Dr. Edith Kaplan, the “mother” of neuropsychology. In the old days, people used batteries of tests to measure IQ, but Edith always disagreed with such an approach to evaluate how the brain functions. She was known to say, “Batteries are for cars, not for people!” Kaplan would say that even if a patient got all the answers correct on a test, that is, delivered a “flawless performance” — you could never know much about how their brain solves problems, sees the world, pays attention, and lays down memory.
However, when someone made an error and attempted to correct the item — then could you see how their intelligence processed information. Kaplan called this theory the “process approach” to neuropsychology. In neuroscience, process and product are not equally important. Or in common parlance, “how you do it” is more important than “what you get.”
In our increasingly competitive society, let us not try to make our brains into perfect machines with pharmacology, nutrition, and other therapies: smarter, younger, more competitive and powerful, and flawless under stress. Instead, let us develop brains and minds that are adaptable and flexible — let us be graceful and have faith — in the midst of both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
This article is updated from its initial publication in Brain World Magazine’s print edition.