Executive Attention Network, Focus, and Triggers

Written by: Kevin Cann

I have posted YouTube videos of the emotions of fear and frustration.  Experts are still trying to figure out what emotions actually are and there is quite a bit of disagreement here.  Emotions, for the purpose of our discussion, are nothing more than a certain release of neurochemistry.  How we act when this neurochemistry hits us is an entirely different story.

Let us look at fear really quickly.  There are people that seek out that adrenaline rush.  There are people that risk their lives to climb Everest and dive off cliffs.  There are others that run away from the fear.  I for one am not jumping off a cliff or climbing Everest.  Even though the action taken is different, the neurochemistry is pretty standard.

As an individual there is even different reactions to the context of the event.  I am terrified of heights, but not scared of heavy weights or even confrontation.  That stress response with heights cripples me, but with the other two examples it excites and exhilarates me.

I hope this got the point across that I am trying to make.  That emotions are just a neurochemical reaction to a stimulus and how we act is our learned behavior.  Focus is no different.  Focus does not necessarily mean we just think about what we are doing.  There is neurochemistry involved as well as brain circuitry.

In a paper that laid out the anatomy of the executive attention network in the brain, Amir Raz wrote that it is best to think of attention as an organ system to help understand how it works.  The executive attention network is involved in the regulation of thoughts, emotions, and responses.

One of the major brain regions responsible for this process is the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), This region of the brain is responsible for attention, reward anticipation, decision making, morality, impulse control, and even performance monitoring and error correction.  This is why errors are needed for developing high level skill. They make us pay attention. 

Before this happens, we receive input from our senses.  The thalamus, specifically the subthalamus, puts a spotlight on what the brain detects as important.  We have some conscious control over this.  It actually will dim the other information coming in by pushing it into the subconscious to be analyzed.  From here the ACC gets involved.

The parietal lobe is monitoring proprioception.  With much of life, this information can be processed with very little energy within our subconscious.  However, we get some emotions triggered such as fear or frustration, or even motivation, and we get the attention (pun intended) of this network.

Because emotions are a piece of this network, our mood actually matters for performance.  Our brain is more plastic and creative when we are in a good mood as opposed to when we are in a bad mood.  A bad mood typically makes us more analytic.  Creativity, again in the neurochemical sense, is extremely important for the development of high level skill.  In fact, many high level athletes are often described as creative.

Programs that just focus on the comp lifts at submaximal weights will not necessarily catch the attention of this network.  The brain is always trying to automatize movement to conserve energy.

You can say that you focus on something when doing the lifts.  RPE gets you to pay attention somewhat.  However, we need the focus that comes from fear and frustration.  The reason for this is with the neurochemistry.

When we encounter fear or frustration, we release norepinephrine.  Norepinephrine is a stress hormone and neurotransmitter.  Let us think of this as our learning neurotransmitter.  It increases attention, arousal, and even reaction time.  Without this stress hormone, we will not develop high level skill.  We can get better and do something good enough, but if we want to truly develop high level skill, norepinephrine is required.

When coaches say that “Westside Sucks” they clearly do not understand how high level skill is developed. Force production is a skill and a learned behavior.  Every action we take in the gym is a learned behavior.  Your muscles can’t do shit without the brain.  You would be just a bag of tissue and bones.

Westside makes a lot of sense from a learning perspective.  The manipulation of bars and force production will definitely catch a lifter’s attention.  If you have never used heavy band tension and only straight weight, give it a try.  It will take the wind right out of you.  The changing of bars will do that same thing.

The weight is heavy enough to elicit a stress response.  Not only that, but they also compete with one another in the same exercise.  That competition will increase the internal learning environment even more.    This learning environment becomes engaged for an extended period of time.  It does not just go away when the stimulus is removed.  It stays on high alert.  You train frequently enough like this and the entire internal learning landscape is turned on.

This would even trickle into the dynamic effort days.  Throw some decreased rest intervals in there to get norepinephrine flowing more and the learning will continue.  In this case the executive attention network is engaged throughout the training process.  Louie yelling at you will also further enhance this with frustration as well as immediate feedback for error correction.

Now, how do we get to use fear and frustration to our advantage and not let it cripple us?  Vince Anello, the great deadlifter, discussed using a trigger to elicit a positive response to fear.  You get into a positive emotional state and apply a trigger to it.  Visualizing yourself in a powerful moment.

When you apply this trigger before a heavy lift, it will elicit the same positive and powerful response.  Helping the lifter to harness that fear into increased performance.  That is what fear is, a survival mechanism.  Our abilities are heightened in those moments.  

This network recognizes the emotional stimulus and responds accordingly.  Eventually this can even become learned behavior.  The feeling of fear becomes addicting and the lifter will lean into it and harnessing its increased performance.  

Mike Tyson’s trainer, Cus D’Amato, said “The hero and the coward both feel the same thing, but the hero uses his fear, projects it onto his opponent, while the coward runs and hides. It’s the same thing, fear… What you do with it matters.”

Coaching is guiding this process, and training should be an environment that forces the lifter to engage with fear and frustration with a laser focus.  This is how we develop high level skill. 

Read More