Untapped Energy

Last week Saturday I heard an excerpt of a story on NPR’s RadioLab. Without going into the nitty gritty details of the ongoing scientific research, I learned that the brain has some sort of triggering mechanism that tells us when we can no longer exert physical energy towards a task, say when performing hard labor or running long distance, etc. The interesting fact from this research is the brain signals this message with plenty of reserve energy left. The example the radio hosts provide is a low fuel indicator light on a car. Instead of that indicator light flashing with only a gallon of gas left. The brain’s “indicator light” is triggered with something closer to a quarter of “gas” left in the tank. Why does the brain leave an incredible amount of energy in reserve? According to the researchers, one theory is when a person is absolutely convinced her or his life is on the line, the brain will release its reserve supply of energy in order to survive the life-threatening scenario.

Can we trick the brain into releasing this incredible supply of energy reserves? One way a researcher tricked the brain was through an experiment where bicyclists periodically swished a sports drink around in their mouths and then spit it out. The sugar on the tongue made the brain believe it was receiving more energy, so the brain’s low energy indicator light never went on.Even though the bicyclists never swallowed the sports drink, those who received the energy drink had a 1 to 2 minute faster time than the bicyclists who received the placebo.

Athletes like Julie Moss has been able to convincing the brain to release its energy reserves to push the body to the absolute limit. She willed herself to finish the Ironman Triathlon in 1982. If you are too young to remember this historic sports moment, watch it on You Tube. As she explained on RadioLab, somehow she could ignore her brain’s signals to stop and continue to push the limits of her body.

So does our body and mind have absolute limits? Can we develop a mindset or mental ability to push our brains and bodies to go farther than we think?

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8 thoughts on “Untapped Energy

  1. Welcome to the slicing challenge! Interesting thinking about the brain and reserve energy. I did a stress test once and they said stop a few seconds before you think you have reached your limit. How do I know when my limit is approaching, I wondered. So according to your information, I should have been good to press on a while longer. I hope I never have to use every bit of my energy to survive.

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  2. I think we can push our bodies farther than we think, but we have to ease our way into it. Case in point: I started swimming again after 3+ years away from it. Back in December, I could only swim four laps at a time before stopping. By January, I was able to swim 1/4 mile nonstop. Today, I swam 3/8 mile without stopping, alternating between breaststroke and freestyle. I didn’t think, just 2.5 months ago, that I would be able to get to this place again, but I did. I outsmarted my brain that said I couldn’t and I have.

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  3. Cool concept, but I prefer to trust the wisdom of our bodies. Western culture focuses too much on pushing past limits and ignoring bodily cues. It seems to be the opposite of being present.

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  4. What an interesting topic, and a great analogy of the gas tank to illustrate the premise. I have a feeling I’m going to learn a lot by following your blog during this SOLSC challenge–welome to our writing community! (And on a personal note, as a woman who has given birth to two children…yes, we can push past preconceived limits (pun intended)!)

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  5. Jason, this idea is fascinating. Plus, it ties into all of our growth mindset work, too. But wouldn’t the body just stop once it hit the wall? I wonder what this also could do for me as a middle-aged (ish) woman who really wants to break a 10 minute mile again. Should I be optimistic?! This is great writing here, and you are DOING IT!!!!!!!!!!! Do you think you’ll do more science-y stuff like this? I definitely wanted to read more. This is going to be an awesome March!

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  6. I did not have a chance to hear RadioLab this weekend, so thank you for sharing this thought-provoking piece. Wow, our body is so good to us: reserve supply of energy. This concepts rings true to my life: I have experienced moments when I was actually sick and then a key incident occurred, i.e. birth or death in the family, and I found myself fueled by energy I did not know I even possessed.

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