Follow your heart, but only if you know who’s leading who – Part 1

Follow your heart, but only if you know who’s leading who – Part 1

Finding a channel for the nervous energy in my heart
After I was knocked off my bicycle by a container truck it required an extraordinary amount of energy to put my life back together again. Forced to operate way outside of my comfort zone for prolonged periods, I was extremely desperate to find a way to channel the excessive nervous energy that bombarded my broken heart.

In the past I would burn up this nervous energy by running/cycling in the mountains or out on the roads, sometimes for hours on end. Not that I was training for anything specific, but rather to maintain my health, wellbeing and my sanity. Without the escape valve of exercise my stress levels soon became unmanageable. However that may be, getting rid of stress was not my main motivation for exercising. I exercised because it made me feel alive (especially just after exercising), because I was good at it; and most importantly, I exercised because I felt good when my body was fit and strong.

The opposite also applies, as we are all well aware: I did not feel good when my body was weak and uncoordinated. At first I channeled all my nervous energy into finishing my PhD and into my daily intensive rehab sessions, but after I graduated with my PhD at the age of 34 – that focused on ultra-endurance exercise performance – my defensive behavioural response came strongly to the fore. I felt like a deer caught in the headlights; my unsettled nerves panicking my brain and I did not know which way to run. I was frozen in inaction. I was approaching my mid-thirties without a vision of where I was going. Everything I had done up to my accident had focussed on peak sporting performance; something which demands every last ounce of energy from you.

I now had to find something else to channel my nervous energy into, something that gave me energy rather than something that demanded energy from me. A paradox if ever there was one, given the realities of the Performance-Arousal curve.

Facing up to my Performance-Arousal curve
After 4 years of intense rehab I forced myself back into the arena by applying for a postdoctoral position at the UCT/MRC Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine headed up by Prof Tim Noakes. Though I had an idea of what I wanted to research, coming up with an appropriate research question was not as straightforward. Essentially I was wanting to research how to go about managing the overwhelming stress in my body due to the combination of having 3 physical disabilities and having to perform in a highly competitive Research Unit.

This so-called Performance-Arousal curve that confronted me is shaped like a hill. What this means is that any performance increase requires an increase in bodily arousal (stress), but only up to a tipping point. After this point, further increases in bodily arousal is then associated with decrements in performance. This is so, because at this tipping point further increases in bodily arousal (sympathetic nervous activation) starts to panic the brain. While we may well be able to increase our speed and/or strength for one final effort when our Sympathetic Nervous Systems (SNS) are overactivated (with attendant mass release of adrenaline and energy), the panic we would feel in our brain means that our ‘all or nothing’ responses are not very productive as far as outputs are concerned. This tipping point sits at the outer limits of our comfort zones.

I was operating on this tipping point for my entire postdoc, doing my all to prevent complete overwhelm. My productivity – as far as outputs were concerned – was thus essentially non-existent for 4 years. It took most of my self-regulatory abilities just to pitch up, work on my research proposal and engage in the daily activities in the Unit. The sheer challenge of coping with a severely injured brain and spine and having only one leg meant that forging a niche for myself would have required me to operate with an unmanageably high level of SNS drive. A SNS drive that would have completely swamped my heart and my brain. As it was, my panic levels were steadily climbing. By the 4th year of my postdoc, i.e. a full 7 years after my accident, I still had no outputs (other than that stemming from my pre-accident research) to show for all my efforts during a period of our lives that are usually very productive, our thirties. It was a vicious cycle indeed. The more tense I became the less productive I was.

Following my heart would have ended my career in Exercise Science, because my heart was screaming at me to find an alternate career.

Part 2 to follow.

Thought Control

Thought Control

Thought Control

Do you take steps to control your thoughts, or do you allow your thoughts to control you? A good way to become aware of the point at which your thoughts start controlling you is by taking note of those ineffectual behavioural responses of yours, eg binge eating, biting of nails, procrastinating, fidgeting, chain smoking, aggressive behaviour – the list, for most of us, goes on. This is a very simple, but also a very powerful progression: thoughts-feelings-action.

Mastering your thoughts-feelings-action progression.

The first step on your journey of learning how to control your thoughts is internalising the above key insight. Controlling your thoughts will affect the alignment of your feelings with your thoughts, which will motivate you to act on these aligned feelings. It took me a long time to internalise this simple truth and this only after I was on the brink of burnout as mentioned in a previous blog. At the time my thought life was chaotic, I felt tense and fearful, my waistline started to expand from comfort eating, I was snappy and irritable a lot of the time. What I did not understand at the time was that I was desperately trying to get rid of the edginess or ‘nervous energy’ in my heart.

But once I understood the different heart-brain perspectives of my Primate brain and my Mammalian brain I finally managed to bring my thought life under control.

How do we go about bringing our thought life under control?

This concept can be better understood by first exploring our innate behavioural repertoires such as the above-mentioned Fight or Flight response that routinely gets activated in the absence of life-threatening danger. What on earth possessed my Mammalian brain to engage its Fight and Flight setting while I was sitting quietly working on my computer? The simple reason was that my Primate brain had seemingly ‘set the goal’ of controlling the multiple deadlines I was working against. My Mammalian brain, unable to obtain the set goal, defaulted to engaging its Fight or Flight response. By way of analogy you can see your Primate brain being like a rider and your Mammalian brain and body being like a horse.

The crucial principle to take to heart from the above is that our every thought effectively becomes a goal set by our Primate brains. And this goal set by our Primate brains is then taken as an instruction by our Mammalian brains. BUT if there is no clear single-minded goal for our Mammalian brains to go out and obtain, the instruction your horse (Mammalian brain and body) gets is that the situation is uncontrollable, and it immediately engages Fight and Flight behaviour with attendant release of nervous energy in the heart, because this has great survival value.

A good example of the survival value of nervous energy in the heart are soldiers at war having to be on high alert to best preserve their lives. Children growing up in abusive homes would similarly have excess nervous energy in the heart to keep them on high alert to closely monitor the mood of their parents. The sad reality is that if we have to deal with excess nervous energy in our hearts on a daily basis it will end up rewiring our brains and set us up for a lifetime of problems.

Moving from the spine to undo the dysregulation
Fortunately, this dysregulation can be undone by reversing the order of the sequence of events described above. Excessive nervous energy in the heart – that results in us losing control of our Primate brains and prompts ineffectual behavioural responses – can be reversed by way of correcting our postures and ‘moving from the spine’. This behavioural change will immediately affect changes in the chemical balance in our brain and in our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) activations. These balanced chemicals and ANS responses then help us to take back control over our thoughts.

Why then is posture and movement so important to help calm the heart and brain? It is easier to understand this by looking at its opposite: going into a collapse. A collapsed structure has the effect of putting your body and your brain ‘on the defensive’, which then activates your Fight or Flight response that increases your heart rate and hijacks your brain. If you are on the defensive you will not feel ‘safe’ in your body. This brings us back to why posture and movement are so important to help calm the heart and the brain, because it helps us to feel safe in our bodies and prevents us going ‘on the defensive’ and ‘instructing’ our Mammalian brains to engage Fight or Flight behaviour.

Two more motivated behaviours
Apart from defensive behaviour your Mammalian brain has two more ‘motivated behavioural’ programmes, ingestive behaviour and reproductive behaviour. They are ‘motivated’ because these behaviours are programmed into your Mammalian brain to satisfy your biological needs. They play out in very strict hierarchical order. First and foremost are your defensive behaviours, second ingestive behaviours and lastly, reproductive behaviours; with each behavioural response seeking to satisfy a specific biological need; 1) settled Nerves, 2) Nourishment and 3) Nurturing.

Rule #1: Don’t ever try and control these three types of behaviours with your Primate brain, because they will just end up controlling you.

If you have unsettled Nerves do not try to ease this by seeking out Nourishment or Nurturing, which has the effect of engaging either your ingestive or reproductive behavioural programmes. Note that engaging in Instant Gratification like this will only temporarily switch off your defensive behavioural response. If there is something or someone causing your nerves to be unsettled, don’t be tempted to engage in Instant Gratification behaviour. Either attend to what is unsettling your nerves or take steps to get away.

If your nerves are unsettled for no particular reason, the best way to dissipate the unease you are feeling is to use rhythmic rotational movements around the spine to redirect the energy into your spine (and movements) while your Primate brain observes and feels whether you are doing the movements correctly to thereby prevent ‘mental interference’. Mental interference is a generic term for those unproductive thoughts of ours that instructs our Mammalian brains to go on the defensive. Putting an end to mental interference will help you to calm your heart and your brain.  

Please see our website for details about our workshops and one-on-one sessions that will teach you how to meet life’s challenges on the front foot, while KEEPING CALM on the inside, thereby energising your body and cultivating composure.

If you would like to take part in a 15 minutes slow movement intervention (that will help you get back into your body via rotational movement around the spine) please click this link and fill out the Wellbeing diary before and after doing the 15 minutes of movement as demonstrated on the video. This Wellbeing intervention is currently being done in collaboration  with Northumbria University.

A Brief Introduction to our Centred Brain

A Brief Introduction to our Centred Brain

A Brief Introduction to our Centred Brain.

After I was discharged from hospital my initial elation quickly gave way to quiet desperation. Our house was not wheelchair friendly and life became a series of frustrations. I wanted my freedom back as a matter of some urgency. Not so simple when you have severe brain and spinal cord injuries and only one leg. My head throbbed nonstop and my body felt very heavy and drained of energy all the time.

Desperation drove me to understand how the brain motivated and moved my body to obtain my goals in life. I knew this feeling very well from my racing days – how my fatigued body miraculously recovered, making me feel exhilarated and alive. One particular cycling race stands out – the feel-good rush happened towards the end of a very exhausting and very prolonged cycling race while I was cycling at a very high intensity.

On the laboratory bike I would have collapsed in a heap, but out there on the road, racing away from the breakaway group that I was in, I felt invincible! Knowing I would win were I to keep my intensity high caused my brainstem to flood the rest of my brain with dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine and other chemicals, all in the right combinations. My brainstem also saturated my spine with serotonin and increased my bodily sympathetic drive, the combination of which up-regulated both my skeleto-motor system and my motivation to the maximum.

I felt like Spiderman on speed – an unbeatable combination.
If I could tap into these feel good chemicals while engaging in physical activity, I would surely be able to reclaim my body and keep in shape ‘effortlessly’. Fine in theory but coaxing my withered body to move at greater than walking speed required an extraordinary amount of effort. It felt just plain awful.

The only time something approaching a second wind became apparent was when I haltingly made my way to the supper table to tuck into yet another of mom’s sumptuous offerings. Though our hunting and gathering expeditions are far less demanding these days, walking to the fridge or down the supermarket aisles are none the less a type of physical activity. More correctly it is a hardwired behavioural programme that initiates what is known as foraging behaviour.

As it turns out the motor control of all our behavioural programmes – whether eating or reproducing or engaging in locomotor activities like running, cycling or swimming – are regulated by the same neural circuitry in the Mammalian brain.

Think of sprinting for the line in a race you won or did very well in; or tucking into a hearty meal after a hard day’s work; or walking over to visit your first girlfriend/boyfriend. What was the overriding thought in your mind at the time? Surely not “I’m tired” or “I don’t feel good”.

Not at all, your overriding thought would be the goal of the behaviour you are engaging in and how energising it makes you feel to be on the way to obtaining your goal. This single-minded focus on the goal of our behaviour or movement – rather than on how to contract our leg muscles to run, or walk, or how to contract our finger muscles to grip our knives and forks – is possible because our Mammalian brains co-ordinates our behavioural responses to obtain our ‘biological needs’. We have only 3 main types of biological needs, safety, nourishment and nurturing and our Mammalian brains are fully programmed to engage in the appropriate ‘motivated behaviours’ to fulfil these needs.

Our motivated behavioural responses tend to run themselves.
In a lot of ways I had to start from scratch to learn how to work with my body to whip it back into shape again. Before being run over by a truck, I simply pushed through all the discomforts knowing that it was just a matter of time before my body responded to all the high intensity hill repeats, exhaustive long cycles and running up and down the mountain. After my accident I was forced to be much more attentive to my bodily needs, forced to cut back completely on the intensity, forced to learn how to let my Mammalian brain take charge of my movements and behaviours.

This allowed my Primate brain enough ‘freedom’ to appreciate and eventually start enjoying physical activity. My primary objective was to practice KEEPING CALM throughout the day to enable me to listen out for – and address – my bodily prompts. We address our bodily prompts by allowing our Mammalian brains to take charge of self-regulation. The best way to practice KEEPING CALM is via teaching one’s Mammalian brain posturally correct movement sequences that serves to regulate the sympathetic nervous drive to our hearts and viscera. In tandem we must also discipline ourselves to stop mentally interfering with our Mammalian brains.

The key principle is to find the golden mean between the goal that is set by your Primate brain and obtaining that goal in synchrony with your Mammalian brain and the behaviours it governs. In short, to find the golden mean between idealistic Primate brain top-down control and the naturalness of Mammalian brain regulation of behaviour in obtaining your goals.

Keeping Calm in the time of Corona

Keeping Calm in the time of Corona

Boost your immune system in the time of Corona.

The one thing I learnt from all my years of Wellbeing research is to keep my vagal nerve firing to optimise my immune response. This necessitates keeping your ‘heart-primate brain–vagus nerve axis’ online throughout your day. Something that is only possible if you first disengage your Fight or Flight response. Arguably my biggest challenge upon returning to research following my cycling accident. 

I was desperate to find a technique that worked with my severely disabled body rather than my having to engage in something (e.g. hard exercise) that demanded more from my body.

When our Research Unit received funding to run the StressEraser project it presented me with a make or break opportunity. An exercise scientist by training I would not have survived long in the research game had I gotten this wrong. I.e. backed the wrong horse as it were. Not only did I have to become familiar with a whole new research literature, I also had to master new measuring techniques such as heart rate variability analyses and brain wave recordings. I embraced this opportunity wholeheartedly given its promise of delivering many health and wellness benefits.

I was particularly keen to find interventions that would help me settle my jangled nerves from the effort required in reclaiming my life. I had lost 4 years of productive work towards my PhD to complete intense physical and mental rehab. After graduating with my PhD and starting postdoctoral research, I examined the physiological changes in the heart-brain axis accruing from HRV biofeedback based deep, slow breathing. The real beauty of vagal nerve activation via deep, slow 10 second breathing is that it enables one to both monitor the state of one’s heart & viscera as well as effect regulatory control over the same. I did not know what we were going to find nor indeed if we even would find anything.

The results were way more impressive that I could ever have imagined.

Restorative deep, slow HRV paced breathing not only massively increased heart healthy vagal drive, it also significantly improved cognitive performance. 

Five highly cited research articles stemmed from this data. Keeping your Immune System in tip top condition to give it the best shot at fighting of the coronavirus it is thus highly recommended. Your heart needs to be ‘restored’ every single day via deep, slow, 10 second breathing to activate your heart healthy vagus nerve. A great time to do so is during your lunch break. The serene feedback from your restored heart after 10 minutes of vagal nerve activating breathing will then help to calm your Primate brain.

This is the first step to Keeping Calm, the next step is to remain composed when your vagus nerve is ‘switched off’ during high pressure situations.

The worst thing you can do for your natural immunity is to remain in a state of constant stress. This happened to me a few years after completing the StressEraser project when a series of emergency situations, demanding immediate attention, kept me on high alert for the bulk of the year. Towards the end of the year I could feel something snap in my brain and the next morning I was unable to get out of bed. I was one step away from total burnout. Deep, slow breathing was just not enough to bring me back from the brink. At the time I was busy with an innovative research project with Performance and Natural Movement Coach, Andre Oelofse, involving a Tai Chi based natural movement and boxing intervention.

 I could hardly believe what we discovered.

After the 4-week training intervention there was a significant correlation between the body posture and joint angles of the soccer players during boxing performance and their HRV (a good marker of vagal nerve activation). This means that after Andre taught the pro soccer players how to move ‘from the spine’; the more ‘front footed’ they were during a mock boxing performance round the higher their HRV values were. A finding that is so contradictory – the closer to the challenger the players were the more relaxed they felt – that I went through the data analyses a number of times to make sure I did it correctly. Andre and I subsequently created a 4-session training intervention that teaches individuals how to balance their brain chemicals and settle their nerves when performing under pressure. This ensures that the sympathetic nervous system is kept under control of the spine that then also enables one to switch off one’s Fight and Flight response as soon as the pressure situation has been effectively dealt with. This works with your heart-Mammalian brain-spine-heart axis.

 Switching off one’s Fight and Flight response is crucially important for sustaining a healthy immune response able to overwhelm the coronavirus before it has time to settle in one’s body. BUT chronic stress will downregulate and weaken your natural immune response and leave you vulnerable to the coronavirus. It is thus crucial for you to disengage from chronic stress and maintain heart healthy vagal activity to allow your immune response to fire up the moment viruses or bacteria invade your body. Somewhat paradoxically it is your Fight and Flight response that enables your body to quickly mobilise a whole host of white blood cells to mop up the coronaviruses before they have time to settle and multiply.

Remember your Fight and Flight response is an emergency response only. If you keep your emergency response going it will eventually ravage all your bodily systems and organs and saddle you with lifestyle diseases. I therefore listen to my heart to help me sustain a good measure of heart healthy vagus drive throughout my day, but my number one priority always remains preventing my Fight and Flight response from getting any traction. Unless it is a real emergency.

 If you would like to learn these two immune boosting techniques for yourself to help strengthen your immune system during the COVID era, please contact us to find out more about our 4-session Composure training module and our 2 session Restoration training module.

Are you motivated to do the right thing for the right reason?

Are you motivated to do the right thing for the right reason?


Our motivated behaviours are driven by our ‘biological needs’. In descending order of importance, they are 1) Settled Nerves, 2) Nourishment and

3) Nurturing. The greater a particular biological need of ours becomes, the more the motivated behavioural circuits in our Mammalian brains will be upregulated in an effort to fulfil this need. For obvious reasons our behaviours cannot happen without muscle recruitment by the brain. This means our motivated behaviours start in the brain, the motivated brain.

Would you like to tap into the motivated behavioural circuits of your Mammalian brain to help you to always do the right thing at the right time for the right reason?

A motivated brain requires up regulation in the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, acetylcholine, etc. It also requires up-regulation of the Midbrain Locomotor Region or MLR for short. The MLR is found in the midbrain at the top end of the brainstem that then activates nuclei in the Reticular Formation in the Medulla. From here the reticular spinal nerves activates the Central Pattern Generators (CPGs) in the spine to effect what is known as locomotion – repetitive motor activities like walking, running, cycling, swimming, paddling, chewing, swallowing, etc. Locomotion is movement that can be executed completely subconsciously.

For example, we use locomotion when we engage in ingestive and reproductive behaviours. Feel good chemicals are released because these 2 motivated behaviours are specifically designed to fulfil biological needs that help ensure the survival of the individual and of the species. The reason why we are able to relegate this type of behaviour completely to one’s Mammalian brain is because the ‘goal’ of the movement is so clear in our minds. Crucially one’s Primate brain must allow one’s Mammalian brain to get on with the task without any mental interference.

One of the major reasons these 2 types of behaviours are so pleasurable is because the motor activities associated with them are completely co-ordinated by your Mammalian brain so your Primate brain can focus on the pleasure derived (from the released feel good chemicals) rather than on the effort required.  

The Primate brain is also involved, but it has a highly specific role.

The role of the Primate brain is to choose the right food. A bad choice e.g. rotten food will result in your brainstem executing what is known as a gag reflex before swallowing or a vomit reflex after swallowing.  Naturally no feel-good chemicals will be released either because eating rotten food is detrimental to our health.

Similarly, when your Primate brain chooses to engage in dangerous activities like Russian roulette or playing with a poisonous snake, your Mammalian brain will engage your Fight and Flight behavioural setting.  No feel-good chemicals will be released either, only feel bad ones. 

Unless you consider life-or-death adrenaline rushes to be feel good. 

After the fact it may feel good, but generally the adrenaline and cortisol spikes should jolt you rather than make you feel good. This jolt will hopefully snap you back into reality before you do some irreparably damage to yourself.

All too often, though, your Primate brain hijacks your Mammalian brain to engage your Fight and Flight behavioural setting when there is no real danger. Your Mammalian brain will dutifully release all those feel bad chemicals to dissuade you from your present course of action.

In the same vein, any activities that the Primate brain chooses to engage in that will train and strengthen the body to aid future survival should ultimately feel good.

Following this logic, the way to neutralise the feel bad chemicals and the excess nervous energy in your heart after you have “inadvertently” chosen to hijack your Mammalian brain to engage its Fight and Flight behavioural setting is to engage in some rhythmic movement via Mammalian brain activation of the CPGs in your spine.

Rhythmic movement ‘around’ your T7 spine by your Mammalia brain will help to refocus your Primate brain and bring you back to centre.

The key is to have a very clear goal in your Primate brain able to act as a ‘biological need’ for the Mammalian brain to fulfil.

It is easier for an athlete to derive a particular goal that aligns well with sporting performance that would thereby serve to enhance their survival potential and hence become a potent biological need for their Mammalian brain to fulfil. Pursuing the sporting goal, e.g. supreme cardiovascular fitness, then effectively becomes the no 1 priority of the athlete’s Mammalian brain, as it will lead to settling of his Nerves.

Since it is not necessarily healthy for the body to be pushed to the limit for prolonged periods, the athlete would have to push through all the unpleasant sensations to achieve his or her goal. Once the goal is achieved the feel-good chemical release will be massive – the effort expended duly rewarded.

This is a critical point to understand, your Mammalian brain is only concerned with 3 things, survival, food and water and reproduction and you must thus learn to speak its language if you want to tap into the motivated behavioural circuits subsumed in your Mammalian brain.

If your goal is wellness and longevity, then your focus should be to remain in a deep calm state for as much of your day as possible. This will ensure that your Primate brain does not unnecessarily instruct your Mammalian brain to engage its Fight and Flight behavioural setting. 

The analogy would be revving your car into the red from one traffic light to the next, rather than pacing yourself and being gentle on your body. All those feel bad chemicals and the excessive nervous energy that is released in the heart during Fight and Flight behaviour only serves to wear your body out prematurely and speed up disease processes. David Hawkins (PhD) in his “Levels of Consciousness” ladder considers ‘peace’ to be highest level of consciousness that humans can aspire to.

Maintaining a state of peace or deep calm should thus be very high on your list of priorities given that it fulfils your most crucial biological need: to settle your Nerves.

Do you need wine, workouts or wonder drugs to help calm you down?

Do you need wine, workouts or wonder drugs to help calm you down?

Do you feel wired but tired a lot of the time?
Are your nerves pushed to breaking point on a daily basis?
Do you have a ‘to do list’ that often feels overwhelming?

If you are anything like me, you will feel your nerves start settling shortly after you start engaging with/completing your task list for the day. This is all good and well, except for the harsh reality that our ‘to do lists’ tend to grow at a faster pace than we can complete them.

Almost invariably our lists aren’t done by day’s end and our frayed nerves struggle to settle without the help of a workout, a drink or a tranquiliser. Overdoing our workouts can easily lead to feeling even more wired and tired the next morning. A hangover feels even worse and popping a tranquiliser or 2 is a sure way to dependency.

The obvious answer is to slow down, but the sheer speeds our lives are running at precludes us from slowing down, never mind stopping for a breather. This constant struggle to settle our nerves as we face seemingly endless daily demands has its roots in the ‘disconnect’ between our Primate and Mammalian brains. I discovered the extent of my own disconnect when I was involuntarily knocked off my ‘treadmill of demands’ by a container truck while out cycle training. Down and out career wise for the better part of 4 years I had to find a disabled friendly treadmill to start out again. My previous treadmill was going way too fast for my disabled body to manage. The two biggest obstacles in reclaiming my life were extreme fatigue and debilitating stress. ‘Fight and Flight’ mode became my constant companion, ‘Rest and Digest’ was not in my vocabulary.

I was blessed enough to be given a second chance at a career at the UCT Division of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine under Prof Tim Noakes. Staying with peak performance, but changing my focus from sport and exercise to wellness performance allowed me to re-examine everything I had learned in my PhD through a different set of lenses. I completed 5 years of postdoctoral research to carve out a new niche for myself.

My postdoc fellowship turned out to be more like a second PhD as I had to master a whole new research area, become familiar with the literature and learn new research techniques and analyses. I searched high and low to find an appropriate physiological marker of health and wellbeing. Eventually settling on a relatively simple measure known as heart rate variability (HRV). A simple but very effective way to indirectly measure the output of the autonomic nervous system (ANS).

My interest in the ANS was tweaked after my accident because my sympathetic nervous system (SNS) was constantly in overdrive. My nerves were jangled from the stress of catching up on almost 4 years of lost productivity in that most crucial of window periods – the early 30s age bracket. There were also sound physiological reasons for my jangled nerves. The severe traumatic brain injuries I sustained played havoc with my central autonomic cardiovascular regulation; plus, the prolonged bed rest resulted in the ramping up of the activity in the sympathetic nuclei in my brainstem.

Though perfectly suited to help me kick-start my wasted body my adrenaline levels were nevertheless way out of control. Pacing my efforts got me nowhere; I was forced to keep pushing my body too hard.


Even though it knocked me for a 6 I didn’t know what else to do.


Prior to my accident the only gear I knew was to go very hard until my body adapted. Self-regulation was just so much simpler (though never easy) when I had a super strong and fit body; and in an emergency situation I usually found an extra gear. I was soon to discover that I needed yet another gear.

Never one to sit back and wait for my body to catch up one day, I simply kept pushing myself beyond my body’s capabilities. Until I felt something go snap in my brain one night after falling into bed completely exhausted – the next morning I could not get out of bed.

This forced me to find a better way to perform at the required level. The key to unlocking this better way was learning to quieten my Primate brain and allowing the motivated behavioural circuits programed into my Mammalian brain to regulate my behaviour. The Mammalian brain analogy I am referring to consists of the spinal cord, the brainstem-hypothalamus, the cerebellum and the Basal Ganglia.

As a scientist I normally insist on covering all the angles, I like to incorporate outliers and I don’t like to generalise. Nevertheless, I am well aware of the power of a simplified neurobiological model that cuts through the vast majority of the apparent outliers, exceptions and subjective human experiences.

What exactly are these ‘motivated behavioural circuits’ programmed into the brainstem of all vertebrates from fish, amphibians, reptiles, lower mammals, primates through to humans?

There are 3 main types of motivated behaviours: defensive, ingestive and reproductive behaviours – in this strict hierarchy. In most mammals all 3 these motivated behaviours are initiated by the sense of smell that completely bypasses the Primate brain, meaning these mammals have no control over their behaviour.

Humans, on the other hand, do have a measure of modulatory control over their 3 motivated behaviours. It is thus in our best interest to ‘work with’ these 3 programmes subsumed in our Mammalian brains that are hyper-effective and can do the job far better without Primate brain interference. Trying to control our motivated behaviours with our Primate brains is a sure way to ill health, misery and addiction. Yes, drugs can regulate our Mammalian brains very effectively, but at huge cost to our overall health
and wellbeing. 

The major price we end up paying is that all forms of external drugs will lead to the rewiring of our brains to become dependent on the external drugs. While OK to use external drugs when we do need them for a while, it is essential to wean ourselves off as quickly as possible, unless we require a drug that our own brains are unable to manufacture for some reason or other.

While it is relatively easy for us to understand ingestive and reproductive behaviours, it is a lot more complicated to put our finger on defensive behaviours. Our defensive behavioural programme kicks in every time we feel ‘unsafe’ in our bodies. Referring to the strict hierarchy of our 3 motivated behaviours, feeling safe in our body is the number one ‘concern’ of our Mammalian brains.

If you feel unsafe for some reason your Primate brain will automatically instruct your Mammalian brain to engage its Fight and Flight setting. It may be a bit of a misnomer to say our Primate brain does something automatically – more correctly it is a ‘conditioned response’.

There is no denying that the Fight and Flight response programmed into our Mammalian brains is a highly effective way to stay alive in a real life or death situation, but how often should we use it in our daily lives? The Fight and Flight setting is very wasteful of bodily resources and even worse, excessive activation will damage all the organs in our bodies, especially the heart, kidneys and blood vessels.

The good news is that apart from co-ordinating the Fight and Flight response, our Mammalian brains are also very good at co-ordinating things like energy balance and repetitive limb movements for locomotor activities like running, cycling, swimming and paddling. This means that locomotor activities should feel as satisfying as eating.

If you would like to find out how to tap into your motivated behaviours and use it to enhance your wellbeing and your performance, then please join us for our next workshop or sign up for a one on one session.