Two Very Different Brains

“This is almost like a hiddden world of stuff that, if you don’t know about it, then you don’t know anything about it. And that’s really unfortunate. There’s so much power we have, if we have the right tools.”

— Dr. Leslie Sherlin, CEO and founder, SenseLabs, which creates technology that gives people—and athletes—a way to look at their brains by using their iPhone

This is adapted from Chapter 1 from Head in the Game. 

It’s the 2015 NFC Championship game, and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson lines up in shotgun with a nearly impossible task ahead.

The Seahawks, the defending Super Bowl champions, have just gotten the ball back from the Green Bay Packers at the thirty-one-yard line, and they are losing 19–7 with only one time-out and 3:52 left to play.

That’s a lot to think about. A lot of pressure on young shoulders.

So far in his short career, Wilson’s shown he can handle it. After all, he was the Seahawks’ starting quarterback last year in only his second season as a pro, and he’s one of the less likely rising stars in the league, proving a lot of people wrong with every game he and the Hawks win. He’s physically talented, with above-average arm strength and accuracy, and he moves well, but even so, he’s been doubted for some time now, even losing his job as a starting quarterback in college a few short years ago. He was a middling draft pick in 2012, selected in the third round seemingly as an afterthought behind several other much-hyped quarterback prospects. Most people thought that his talent wasn’t enough to make up for one glaring and uncontrollable weakness: he’s short for the NFL, less than six feet tall in a league where the average quarterback is six-three. Analysts and pundits called him a waste of a pick. ESPN graded the Hawks’ choice a C-, CBS Sports a D, Bleacher Report an F.

And tonight, Wilson has lived down to expectations, throwing for a paltry seventy-five yards, running for an even more paltry five, getting sacked four times, throwing zero touchdowns—and throwing a nightmare four interceptions.

So if ever there is a time to turn things around, it’s now.

After running back Marshawn Lynch runs for fourteen yards, Wilson and the rest of the Hawks hustle into position, in an urgent no-huddle offense now. Next play, Wilson throws to wide receiver Doug Baldwin for twenty yards. Play after that, incompletion. Then Lynch beats his man down the sideline, and Wilson throws a gorgeous thirty-five-yard lob that lands soft in Lynch’s hands. Lynch jukes a tackler and drags another into the end zone. TOUCHDOWN.

But then replay shows that Lynch stepped out of bounds at the nine.

Lynch runs for four yards, then, unshaken, Wilson runs into the end zone to score. There’s 2:09 left on the clock.

Then the Seahawks convert an onside kick.

Wilson runs for seventeen yards, Lynch runs for another three, Wilson throws for eight more, and then he hands off to Lynch, who runs the last twenty-four yards for another touchdown.

Suddenly, with 1:25 left in the game, the Hawks have gone from desperate and running out of time to in the lead with too much time.

Up 20–19, they can’t count on Aaron Rodgers and the Packers to not at least make it into field goal range, so instead of kicking the extra point, they’re going for two.

In shotgun, Wilson takes the snap and rolls right, scanning the field, searching for an open receiver, but there’s already a Packer defender in his face. The play has totally fallen apart. Wilson’s got nowhere to go by air or by land, and he’s about to be sacked. For him to panic right now and just drop to the ground to soften the blow would be perfectly acceptable.

But he doesn’t. He ducks and spins left.

The defender stays on him in hot pursuit, and there’s another right behind him.

Wilson turns again, now running almost directly backward. He hits the fifteen-yard line, thirteen yards from where the play began. Another half turn and he’s back at the seventeen-yard line, still dancing away. “In big trouble,” deadpans Fox television announcer Joe Buck.

Another defender flies in and latches his arms around Wilson’s legs, and as he starts to fall he slings the ball across the field. Buck says how it looks for everyone watching: “Just up for grabs!”

But it isn’t. In the chaos, Wilson has somehow seen tight end Luke Willson on the far side of the field, guarded but open enough to score if he gets a good enough pass. Russell gives it to him. Willson fights off a defender, catches the pass at the one-yard line, and turns into the end zone.

Everyone goes nuts. It’s an all-time great, ridiculous, clutch play.

The Packers kick a field goal before time expires, and the game goes into overtime, where the first score wins.

The Hawks get the ball first, but the Packers’ kickoff cover- age is strong and pins them deep, at the thirteen-yard line. Lynch runs for four yards, then Wilson throws to Doug Baldwin for ten yards, which Lynch follows with another four-yard run. And then Wilson gets sacked, sending them to third down. Fail to convert, and they probably have to punt to the Packers.

Wilson throws a thirty-five-yard bomb, again to Baldwin.

The next play, another bomb, also for thirty-five yards—and the game-winning touchdown.

 

For those last few minutes, Wilson was perfect, drawing on deep reserves of preternatural calm and ruthless efficiency that have since become known as his hallmarks. His teammates like to say that he’s probably half robot, and some of them sound like they’re only half joking.

Of all his strengths, this might be Wilson’s most important: he is stunningly good at ruling his emotions instead of letting them rule him. When he was a late draft pick selected by a team that had recently spent a lot of money on another free agent QB, and when he was scorned for that, and when he became successful and people said he really wasn’t that important to the Seahawks as they won the Super Bowl the year before, and when he threw all those interceptions against the Packers, he never got emotional. Maybe the most emotional he’s been since he was drafted was after that comeback, when he wept.

During that comeback, and particularly that incredible two-point conversion, Wilson faced enormous pressure, and things spun out of control in a critical moment of a game during which he had struggled greatly—and yet he never lost control of him- self. He and his brain and his body were all in perfect sync, each helping the other, all of them working together. That scene is the epitome of good performance, and it’s a perfect metaphor for this book. How did Wilson face that crushing adversity and still do . . . that?

That’s beyond mastering a game. That is mastering the mind.

 

In the fall of 2014, a few months after I started researching any of this, I came across an old ESPN The Magazine article that gave me my first real handle on my newly-piled mountain of mind-brain information. It was a profile of the Seattle Seahawks. The headline: “Lotus Pose on Two.” The lead photo: Wilson doing yoga in full uniform.

The story was about head coach Pete Carroll’s overarching philosophy of “a happy player is a better player,” geared around Wilson and the Hawks using meditation, visualization, and yoga, their weekly meetings with a psychologist, how they cut practices short so players can get more sleep, how they play weird “brain training” iPad games, and featured wide receiver Doug Baldwin throwing around words like prefrontal cortex.

The writer described it all as “a bizarro football world.”

The general consensus seemed to be that it was all some kind of hippielike way of trying to do football differently. Nobody expected much out of the Hawks that year either, remember, or for Wilson to matter much as an NFL quarterback. So it’s not all that surprising that the writer, and then the general public’s reaction after the article ran, didn’t know quite what to make of all of that, which sounded like more or less snake-oil-y psychobabble. And then, of course, that very season, Carroll and Wilson—with plenty of heavy lifting from running back Marshawn Lynch and their defense—went on to win the Super Bowl.

People that article mentioned later told me that the writer missed much of what the Hawks were really doing. Yoga, meditation, meticulously plotted sleep schedules, working knowledge of prefontal cortices, Carroll saying things like “quiet your mind”— all of those things were merely visible manifestations of deeper science at work, waves on the surface of an ocean of research teeming with answers to the very questions I was asking—and far more answers than I would have even dared to hope were out there.

And that was only the beginning.

Every new thread of a story seemed to tug at a whole new ball of yarn, to the tune of hundreds if not thousands of athletes in dozens of sports the world over. I found one story after another of men and women using one piece or another of This Stuff, some of these athletes already legends and trying to get even better, and others who were comparatively average, downright underdogs, who have then defeated the legends to become legends themselves.

At some point, I became so inundated with such stories that I no longer saw This Stuff as a novel enhancement to what athletes were already doing, but rather as a necessity other athletes were missing. Or, to put it another way, the idea of training the body without also directly training the mind began to seem like choosing a half measure.

At this point, This Stuff no longer seemed like a possible trend destined to flame out in a few years. It seemed like a revolution: I felt like I had, completely by accident, stumbled across a new frontier in performance enhancement.

“This is almost like a hidden world of stuff that, if you don’t know about it, then you don’t know anything about it,” says Dr. Leslie Sherlin, the CEO and CSO of SenseLabs, a company that has worked with Red Bull and creates technology that gives athletes a way to look at their brains by using their iPhone. “And that’s really unfortunate. There’s so much power we have, if we have the right tools.”

That power, as these tools show, undoes one of the longstanding, most frightening elements of facing one’s mental needs: that unlike, say, an ankle sprain, confronting a psychological challenge feels like confronting something within yourself that might not only be damaged, but unfixable. If you’re broken but can’t be fixed, would you really want to know? (And, for that matter, would you want anyone else to know?)

Until recently, even the world’s leading scientists believed that whatever state someone’s brain was in, that’s the state in which it would remain until the end of their days.

But that all changed about fifteen years ago, with a revolution in neuroscience.

 

About two decades ago—which is virtually last week in the world of science—scientists knew, without a doubt, that by the time we reached our twenties, our brains—and thus our minds, our personalities—were set, unchangeable, for better or worse. It’s just how we’re wired, was the conventional wisdom.

In the mid-1980s, however, the foundation for that belief was already beginning to crumble, thanks to neuroscientist Dr. Michael Merzenich. While studying how monkeys adapt to injuries, Merzenich saw the physical landscape of their brains change.

That was supposed to be impossible.

So impossible, in fact, that when Merzenich announced what he’d found, his fellow scientists reacted by, more or less, mocking him and labeling him, at best, a dummy, and at worst a liar.

Well, Merzenich possessed unique drive and passion and, apparently, a real rebel streak that rivals anyone in sports (or anyone, period). He raged against the establishment, spending the next twenty years working to prove his theory to the world until, finally, his fellow scientists said he was right.

Now, they call it “neuroplasticity.” It’s almost like Merzenich was sent back in time to change our future. That’s how big his discovery was. If our brain itself can experience literal, physical change—if the physical layout and function of the brain can be reengineered—then that means Who We Are can change, too. We are no longer at the mercy of our brain. All of our worst moments can, more or less, be traced to some wiring gone awry in our heads—and neuroplasticity means we can change that wiring. Our brains don’t have to control us. We can control them.

That concept is the cornerstone of all This Stuff. Athletes don’t have to just hope they get in the zone or go unconscious or, to go with the latest hip “peak performance” jargon, get into “flow.” Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (“Me-high Chick-sent-me-high”) coined the term in his 1990 book Flow, calling it “the secret to happiness.” Journalist Steven Kotler expanded on that with his 2014 book, The Rise of Superman, in which he insists that flow is the key to success in life.

Now, though, I’m not so certain that chasing flow is as productive as building a better brain. Using This Stuff, athletes can train to do just that, meaning they can be great even without flow—and more easily slip into it when they really need it.

To put it frankly, the more you learn about This Stuff, the more it starts to feel like a gift beamed down by God, saying, “Here’s a little help everyone, enjoy!”

 

However, before any of this can make anyone better, they have to first make sure their brain is healthy. When your brain works against you instead of with you, you can become convinced that struggling at a game is a matter of life or death. That starts to feel like hell, and that’s nothing compared to what your brain does to your life outside the game, shading the way you see the world like it’s gone through some sort of murky and discolored Photoshop.

I know how badly your mind can break you because mine broke me.

This is not a story I wanted to put into print, but leaving it out would feel dishonest. When my hunt for This Stuff began about three years ago, it was personal, and many people only opened up after they heard some of my story. It seemed to unlock an unspoken trust. If this guy’s digging up other athletes’ secrets, at least he’s willing to trade some of his own.

Like a billion other kids, I grew up dreaming about being a big-league ballplayer. The oldest of five children, I grew up in a classic small Southern town in eastern North Carolina. My parents were devout Christians, holding weekly Bible studies attended by hundreds of people, starting a church, and hosting large Christian conventions. I was raised accordingly. Among many things I was taught was that God gives favor to those who honor Him. An earnest child eager to please, to put it mildly, I honored the heck out of Him.

Sometimes it really felt like I had that favor. I played varsity high school baseball starting in eighth grade, and varsity basketball and soccer from freshman year on, and my favorite days were the ones when the games came easy: when baseballs looked like beach balls, when basketball rims felt like ball pits, when I felt a gear faster than the rest of the world around me and my body was not my body but an instrument at my command. When I played my best, I felt free, and walk-off home runs and state championships and all other manner of great things happened.

I was a good enough baseball player to regularly make summer league all-star, travel, and showcase teams. I was better than most guys on the field any given day, but I wasn’t a superstar, and some days I struggled, and when I struggled I struggled hard, and it compounded upon itself, a million mental layers wide.

To get better, instead of playing soccer and basketball my senior year, I spent that time working out at Triple Crown, a local indoor baseball facility in a big warehouse with a turf infield, a few bullpens, a few batting cages, a weight room, all that. My American Legion coach, Mullis, ran the place.

One day in early spring, after I’d been throwing and hitting and all that with my best friend, also named Brandon, Mullis called me to the front desk to introduce me to a college scout. The scout was in his fifties or so, with gray hair, a ball cap, and wearing khakis and a polo shirt, looking like your classic old-school, wizened baseball scout. I don’t remember our conversation exactly, but from what I do remember, he shook my hand and studied it, then asked if my other hand was just as big. I didn’t realize he was joking until after I’d pulled my left hand out of my catcher’s mitt and held it up to his face.

The scout laughed and said nice things about the size of my forearms and my strong arm and quick bat and raw power and blah blah blah, and he asked me how tall I was and how much I weighed. I told him a little lie, saying I was six-foot-one—which was true, when I was wearing cleats anyway—and that I weighed 175, when really I was only around 165. The scout said if I worked with a good college coach, and polished my game, and got in the gym and put on some muscle, and had a good season, he’d probably sign me. And he said he knew just the coach, a former professional catcher and outfielder at a small Division II college up the road.

The scout called Coach right then and there. Coach said if the scout liked me, I was worth a workout; a week or two later, Coach said he wanted me to play for him. He told me he had no scholarship money left and that I’d be competing against three other incoming freshmen for the starting job. He added, though, that he’d be surprised if I didn’t win the starting spot, and if I did well, I’d get a scholarship the next year—and the scout said not to let all that bother me anyway, because pro teams often pay off college debt for their prospects anyway. That was good enough for me.

A couple of months later, my high school team won the state championship, and the star player on the team we beat was going to be one of my main competitors for playing time in college, which I took as a good sign.

That summer, however, I didn’t play well for my American Legion team, and my main competition for playing time was a catcher going to a big Division I school on a scholarship—and then when he got hurt, my coach, Mullis, still benched me for a younger catcher. I was struggling that bad. Those old feelings of having to prove myself welled back up, irrational and relentless as ever.

It hurt, but we went on to win the American Legion state championship. Later, Mullis took me to Chick-Fil-A and we talked about it. He knew I wasn’t happy about not getting to play as much—after all, he had convinced me to play for him after watching me go through a terrible experience for another American Legion team the summer before, getting treated poorly by coaches and players alike. He said I had as much raw power and talent as anyone, but for reasons he couldn’t figure out, I seemed scared of it.

That would continue in kind in college.

Everything started off well enough. I worked hard, which Coach liked, and he told me I looked like an All-American. I got obsessed with every aspect—or what I thought was every aspect—of being a great baseball player. I became an expert in fitness, in hitting, in everything. I spent hours working out every day. During my freshman year, I put on 20 pounds, and by my senior year, 35 more, going from 165 pounds to 220 while making sure what I put on was good weight, too, meticulously monitoring my body fat, which stayed around 6 to 8 percent. My teammates thought I was using HGH or steroids. The scout saw me at Pro Days and tryouts, and said he liked what he saw more every year—but he needed me to have that good season.

Problem was, I wasn’t even having average seasons. I went from maybe-an-All-American to, for a few truly awful weeks, not even making the travel squad. When I was good, I was clearly the best catcher on the team, but I was so erratic, and the other catchers were consistent. Although I was bitter about it for some time, I can’t blame Coach for playing them over me.

I don’t remember how the downturn happened, exactly, or why. I do remember a bad intersquad scrimmage, and then a bad practice, and then all of a sudden it was snowballing and I couldn’t make it stop. I’d gotten that same feeling from high school, feeling like I had to play great or I wouldn’t play at all, only now it seemed even worse. I tried too hard again. All my old insecurities flooded back up. I could not stop overthinking everything, and not just in baseball. I struggled at life itself, the bulk of which revolved the cliché doubts of a naive Christian college kid’s eyes opening up and he begins questioning his religious upbringing and all that it demands of him. My emotions over this were likely compounded by my sensitive nature, not to mention my parents’ only advice at the time being, more or less, “keep believing” and “just have faith.”

 

And here’s where we come to the flip side of the story, when everything feels cursed against you, when your body is not your body but some kind of enemy, when nothing is easy, when the laws of the universe feel rewritten to conspire against you.

My fears, both on and off the field, grew worse and worse until they physically manifested themselves by way of the Yips. You ever seen the movie Major League II? We watched it on the bus every road trip. There’s this character, a catcher named Rube Baker, who can’t throw the ball back to the pitcher. The Yips, they call it. Same as guys who can’t make a putt or hit a free throw or kick a field goal, Rube had a nightmare case of the Yips.

One of my nicknames was “Rube.”

I always had a cannon of an arm—one of my best traits; I loved picking runners off second who took too large of leads, some- times from my knees—but ever since Little League, for some reason, that toss back to the mound always made me nervous, and it started getting worse in high school. One rainy afternoon during an American Legion game the summer before my senior year, a throw to the pitcher got away from me, and the pitcher gave me hell. Then it kept happening, and before long, every throw came with a minor panic attack that made me so tense I felt like my throwing shoulder got stuck.

Through my freshman year of college, my brain felt like some sort of steadily burning fire. I came to imagine little dragons flying around in my skull, going nuts. I felt lost and helpless. Coach didn’t know how to help. My parents tried, but they didn’t know how to help. Books I read didn’t help. The Bible didn’t help. Church didn’t help. God didn’t help. People back home were just confused when they saw how much I was struggling, and they didn’t know how to help.

I felt like I had Yips with everything.

I screwed up signals, blew easy plays, sailed throws into the outfield. Sometimes I felt like I’d forgotten how to swing a bat. One time—I’m not making this up—when I was on first base, desperate to do something good, I tagged up on a pop fly to the catcher. Even off the field, I became a head case. I felt like I didn’t even know how to just . . . hang out. Just be a dude. Pickup basketball, something I once loved, made me so tense I could barely function. Some days, just driving, I’d be squeezing the steering wheel as tight as I could without realizing it until my hand began to cramp.

I never had a good season.

There were a few good games with a few good plays, some runners thrown out, some home runs hit—one game I even hit for the cycle—and a few times I snuck my way into the heart of the lineup. But eventually Coach, a good but old-school man, basi- cally shrugged and said, “I guess you just don’t have the mind for this.” I don’t remember my statistics, but I’m pretty sure I never hit better than .200, never hit more than a couple home runs a season, and certainly never was an All-American.

 

After I graduated in May 2009, I still should have been happy.

Life was good. I married my longtime good friend Katie. She was gorgeous and smart and a heck of an athlete herself (varsity basketball and softball team captain three years running, All-State in both, Wendy’s High School Heisman nominee, could’ve played either sport in college just about anywhere if she’d wanted to).

We’d met when we were ten after my family moved down the street from hers, into a house her father built. I’d been in love with her basically ever since, but we didn’t date until the summer between our sophomore and junior years of college, by which point she down in Georgia, going to the Savannah College of Art and Design, and we were living six hours apart during the school year. We’d started hanging out a lot again that summer, and then one day, when I was about to leave her house, she stole my keys so that I couldn’t go. I chased her until we ended up by her parents’ pool, where I grabbed her and we almost fell in, and then we kissed.

I was happy at times, but so often, and seemingly more often every passing month, my little mind dragons kept starting their fires. Part of why I fell in love with Katie was that I felt like myself with her—goofy, happy, carefree—which was ever more rare. With her I was at peace.

But as time went by, that faded, too, the dragon fire burning ever hotter.

What has haunted me wasn’t that I failed. Failure, if nothing else, makes for good stories.

What haunted me was why I had failed.

I felt like there were two of me, with the “real,” good Brandon getting pushed around by this other guy who was insecure, and afraid to reckon with himself, and who compensated by acting arrogant and bullylike so as not to reveal his true nature. I didn’t just get nervous or have a flash of temper, like all of us—it was like, when that other guy showed up, he took over.

The longer Katie and I were married, the more like a jerk I behaved. I’d walk around with this swagger, shoulders thrown back, chest puffed out, talking all about me, never asking about her. In retrospect, my problem was obvious: that was all a shield.

Inside, I was a coward.

I tried distracting myself for a while. Work. Church. Coaching. Charity work. Things I loved as a kid, when I was a goofball who just did things to make people smile. But they didn’t make me happy anymore.

I couldn’t let baseball go, even though I wanted to. When I was alone and things were quiet, I kept thinking about how much I had worked and sacrificed, and how it all felt for nothing. Every bad play in pickup basketball and every error in rec league softball, every punk talking trash and trying to cheat—they all set my head on fire again. I’d daydream about car accidents that left me paralyzed so I no longer had the option of wishing I could play.

I knew the way I was thinking wasn’t normal and that I probably needed professional help, but that was scary, too, and only got my mind dragons more agitated.

So I distracted myself more, steadily becoming less noble and more cliché. I didn’t even know why I was doing what I was doing half the time.

I doubt anyone other than Katie noticed. I was good at covering up. People might have seen the occasional temper during softball or basketball—but at home, there was lying, and yelling, and pain, and tears, and regret, to the point where Katie said she was having a hard time recognizing me. When your wife doesn’t recognize you, you need help. But I still didn’t get it on my own.

Katie had to finally say enough. If I wanted us to survive, I had to get help. It wasn’t an ultimatum, it was a fact. She was going to lose me, because I was already losing myself.

We went to one of the most frightening places in the world. Therapy.

It took time. It was painful. Mind surgery, no anesthetic, picking apart the hollow shell of a man I was pretending to be. But then we could see where the broken parts were, and how they happened, and what could be done about them.

In time, it worked. First and foremost, it gave answers. Depression. Anxiety. Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Maybe more.

I saw my mind monsters’ seeds, their roots, the ways they grew up in me. I saw, at the root of it all, a psychological black hole of fear.

And I learned.

I saw where the monsters were born and what helped them grow. I did something I once thought inconceivable, agreeing to prescription medication—and it immediately helped. Finding the right mix took time—Celexa, then Zoloft, now Buspar and Luvox—and I weathered some undesirable and embarrassing side effects. But it was worth it.

I still have moments, and I can be exhausting, and neurotic, and needy, and moody, and I’ve had to ask for more than my fair share of forgiveness. However, I believe that Katie making me go to therapy not only saved our marriage—she might have also saved my life.

Then, a couple years after I began therapy, in October 2013, Katie became pregnant. And, as I imagine happens with most men who first learn they are fathers, the current version of myself suddenly felt wildly inadequate.

Taking medication and talking through problems had been useful, but the more Katie’s belly grew, the less adequate my treatment felt. My therapist told me that I was “breaking generational curses.” I’d heard that saying in church, but she showed me science: our parents’ struggles, and their parents’ before them, by way of our DNA, also become our own.

Even if my genes didn’t pass my problems on, however, I felt a need to know more, and to be stronger. I imagined future conversations with my son if he started to struggle. Well, son, I have this problem, and you might, too, but we can deal with it.

How, Daddy?

I could not imagine having nothing more to say than, Well, you can talk to someone who knows a lot about it, and you might have to take pills all your life, and have faith.

Something about that felt dishonest.

 

I became convinced that what people had told me so far was, if not wrong, then at least incomplete. Surely, we are capable of doing more for the mind than merely accepting what we have. I don’t know where this certainty came from. Maybe I’m just stubborn. All I know for sure is that Coach’s old criticism kept echo- ing in my head—you don’t have the mind for this—and I felt like arguing.

Maybe I didn’t have the mind for it yet, but couldn’t I have trained it up somehow?

Surely, I thought, there had to be something we could do for ourselves.

At the very least—if all we could do was throw our hands up and “give it all to God”—I needed to find the limits of what we could do.

After all, I reasoned, I learned how to build my body. Why could I not do the same for my mind?

I started thinking a lot about great athletes—not so that I could recapture a shattered dream, or make my son able to do what I failed to do, or anything so delusional. I’d made my peace with baseball.

I don’t regret failing at it. I regret forgetting to have fun, and I regret making life harder than it should have been for people I loved. But I wasn’t hung up on the game.

Rather, baseball, and sports on the whole, became a metaphor for all my hopes and dreams.

So I needed to know: What is it in great athletes—in all of us— that makes a mind strong? And how can the mind be made stronger?

I had no idea there were actually so many answers.