Take a tour through key brain states and learn how to fully engage with yourself, your clients and your environment.
Research supports the notion that the physical body and the mind/brain are intimately intertwined—knowledge that many fitness professionals embody with awareness. Attentional states, such as mindful awareness, have been shown to increase the benefit of physical fitness training (Demarzo et al. 2014), while reducing the somatic response to stress (e.g., Galla et al. 2015). However, a mindful, open-awareness state is just one of many mind/brain states you can employ to purposefully and productively control attention and benefit the body. With deliberate activation, these states can reduce stress, enhance well-being and connection with others, and allow you and your clients to perform at peak levels. In this article, we’ll describe a new model of organizing your mind that incorporates guidelines for managing your brain states. This can help you and your clients to be more focused, creative and present in your work and in your personal life.
What Is a Brain State?
A brain state is a specific pattern of activation in different brain regions that are interconnected to form networks. When you activate a particular brain state, you change the way you access information, both from the environment and from your personal memory stores. Through imaging techniques like fMRI, we can see how brain network activations are associated with particular mind states. For example, certain networks “light up” when we are deeply focused on a task, whereas others light up when we allow our minds to wander (Buckner, Andrews-Hanna & Schacter 2008) or direct them to be mindful (Ives-Deliperi, Solms & Meintjes 2011). Although there is much research left to do, our knowledge of how physical brain states are related to various aspects of what we call “the mind” is improving at a rapid rate (Carson 2010). Your brain state influences what you pay attention to and how much you control your focus. How can this knowledge improve your success? You can upgrade your impact by noticing your current brain state, then altering how you focus your attention and retrieve information, to fit best with your moment-to-moment goals. This know-how is important in our 21st century lives, where we have collectively become more reactive and attention-hijacked, and less proactive and deliberate in how we use our minds.
The 14 Brain States
The mind locator map—expained in the sidebar “Where Is Your Mind Right Now?”—is populated by a set of 14 key brain states, each with its ideal application in daily life (see Figure 1). Most of these states can be used in preparation for, during and between fitness sessions.
Reboot With Open Awareness
Let’s start at the bottom right of our mind map, the open-awareness state. Engaging this brain state is like rebooting your brain’s computer just before a new training session. In this state, activity in the prefrontal cortex associated with judgment and self-criticism is reduced, but areas further back in the brain that process information from your senses are active (Ives-Deliperi, Solms & Meintjes 2011). You are experiencing the here and now without judgment. You breathe in and take in the moment.
Similar to a mindful state, the open-awareness state is an effective way to become present and pause before moving intentionally into the next activity. You slow down to take in what’s around you—you see light coming through a window, hear noises around you or touch the smooth surface of an exercise ball. You may take note of your emotional state, but you don’t get stuck in the emotion. You simply observe the world within and around you with gentle curiosity, mildly activating the reward centers in your brain and preparing the mind for the fruitful work to come (Gruber, Gelman & Ranganath 2014).
Engage the Thinking State to Get Ready
Now that you have rebooted, you make an agile and intentional shift, traveling from the bottom right of the mind locator map to the top left. You prepare for the next session, engaging your brain’s executive-control function. Maybe you’re reviewing your notes, recalling what happened in the last session or going through a mental checklist. Your mind uses a tight focus, not a creative, wandering, somewhat defocused state. Your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), the executive center, is activated as you prepare, stocking up your working memory with important pieces of information to draw on during the session (D’Esposito, Postle & Rypma 2000). This is a good moment to connect to your intention for the session, by asking questions such as, “What do I want to have happen in this session?” or, “What can I do to make this a great session?”
Sync Up in the Rapport State
Your client arrives and stands in front of you. It’s time for another agile shift as your mind travels quickly from the top left to the top middle of the map, moving from the thinking state to the rapport brain state. Imagine your brain focus moving from the DLPFC to the centerline part of the brain just behind your forehead and the array of mirror neurons spread throughout parts of the brain involved in sensation and movement. Mirror neurons are brain cells that fire when we are experiencing a sensation or observe what others are experiencing. Both the centerline medial frontal cortex (Rameson, Morelli & Lieberman 2012) and the mirror neuron system (Iacoboni et al. 1999) are active when you engage compassionately with others.
You now slow down and sync up with your client using gentle, warm eye contact and a friendly greeting. You tune in to sense your client’s energy or mood. You convey the energy of “I care about you. I have your best interests at heart,” without saying a word.
Collaborate on Goal or Strategy
From rapport you shift into the collaborating brain state, by beginning a conversation with your client: “What is your goal for today? How can I best support you? What would make this a good workout for you?” During the session you might ask, “What felt good about that exercise, and what didn’t? How could you invest more of your attention into doing the exercise and fully experiencing your body, limbs and muscles?”
As you see in the illustration, the collaborating brain state is beautiful and rich. The left and right PFC regions are balanced and integrated, and the social brain is fully engaged. Brain activity is strong in many regions. Not surprisingly, this is a highly generative state that, over your time together with a client, can lead to shifts in mindsets. These are the “Aha!” moments and insights that have the potential to elicit small brain changes that add up over time to transform the brain—mindset, behavior and body.
Bring Narrow Awareness to Muscle Movements
In contrast to open awareness, narrow awareness focuses sensory awareness like a laser on a specific problem or object, filtering out irrelevant distractions. You and your client can use the narrow-awareness state to shine the spotlight of awareness on the specifics of your client’s exercise. Sense your client’s arm movement through the up and down of a biceps curl or triceps extension. Have your client do the same, focusing his mind on the experience of his bodily sensations, tuning in to sense the moving, working muscles.
Coach Your Client to Embody Learning
Embodied learning takes place when humans learn by watching, observing and even absorbing others keenly. As you were training to become a fitness professional, no doubt you closely watched the movements and interactions of a masterful mentor and engaged your mirror neuron system. We saw in the rapport brain state that mirror neurons fire when we observe the experience of others. Mirror neurons are also located in the motor areas of the brain, and these neurons fire when we watch others performing a physical action.
The mirror neuron system allows us to learn through imitation (Iacoboni et al. 1999). In the embodied-learning state, the sensory and motor cortices (which are rich in mirror neurons) are active, and the DLPFC—the thinking brain—is turned down. Have your client use this brain state when you are demonstrating an exercise. If the client can latch on to a deep, undistracted focus, she can bypass the thinking brain and replicate your movements.
Enjoy the State of Flow
Described by Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi (2008) as the key to optimal psychological well-being, flow states are those periods when we are immersed in and enjoying an activity so much that we completely lose track of time. In a flow state, we execute activities to the best of our ability without undue effort.
At their best, your sessions are flow experiences in which you are completely immersed in supporting your client and are not thinking about yourself, the clock or your appetite. You’re just absorbed in the rhythm of the client’s movements and reactions, adjusting as you go.
Flow states are associated with decreased activation of the amygdala (the brain’s fear center) and parts of the brain associated with self-referential thinking (your inner critic). Activation is increased in the sensory and motor control parts of the brain and in the very front tips of the brain, called the frontal poles (Ulrich et al. 2014).
Help Your Client Imagine His Best Self
The imagining (or envisioning) brain state is critical to the human creative process. Developing a fit lifestyle is a creative process as your client finds new ways to add exercise into a demanding life. In the imagining brain state image, we see reduced DLPFC activity, but that doesn’t mean nothing is happening. The action is in the visual processing areas near the back of the brain. Research has found that when we visualize with the mind’s eye, we use many of the same brain areas we do for actual visual processing (Kosslyn, Thompson & Ganis 2009).
Helping your client imagine a vision for the session—or for his health and fitness—engages the envisioning brain state. Have the client visualize his exercise activities before your next session. Ask what the activities look like, what they feel like, what their outcome is. Using a quote, poem, brief description, picture or memento can be a fun way to anchor the vision of one’s better self in memory for future retrieval.
Get Creative With Nonlinear Thinking
Perhaps your client is dealing with a challenging barrier to regular exercise; too little time or energy, for example. This is an opportunity for a little creativity and some brainstorming on ways to navigate around barriers. Brainstorming is not a step-by-step, linear process. It is what neuroscientists call a nonlinear process—new associations or connections are made in what we call the research-and-development region of the brain (the associational centers located just above and behind the ears). In this creative process, we get ourselves and our clients out of “normal” thinking patterns and into a space of creative possibilities. This state generates new perspectives and ideas.
While the neuroscience of nonlinear creative states is complex, research shows that by identifying a specific problem and then defocusing the attention rather than continuing to deliberately ponder the problem, we allow associational regions of the brain to generate more-diverse solutions to the problem (Carson 2010). This is the beauty of brainstorming—coming up with crazy ideas one after another (often the wilder, the better). Suddenly, a great, new idea or possibility emerges. It could be a walking meeting, delegation of a household chore to free up some time on the weekend, or exercising during television time.
Zoom Out to Strategize
There are moments when it’s valuable to zoom out from the nitty-gritty details to bigger-picture topics. You can help your client zoom out by asking, “What shifts are you noticing? What patterns are emerging? What are you learning? What would work better for you? How is improved fitness spilling over to other areas of your life?” Zooming out to ask similar bigger-picture questions in your own life is good brain exercise for you, too.
Evaluate and Self-Evaluate With Objectivity
When we activate the judging, evaluating brain states—when critiquing a situation, others or ourselves—both the executive-control region and the judgment region of the brain’s prefrontal cortex light up (Johnson et al. 2005). Evaluating states need to be activated with compassion and objectivity, with great care for yourself and your clients. Critical judgment can feel patronizing or defeating. However, the evaluating brain state is ideal when collaboration turns to designing next steps. The critical-thinking and evaluating brain state can provide feedback to improve future workouts and performance. In the self-evaluating brain state, it’s vital to keep the objectivity of the prefrontal cortex active so that you don’t find yourself on a downward spiral of negative self-criticism.
Pause to Get Meta
An important dimension of mindfulness is the mind’s ability to step back and get a little distance to observe oneself without judgment and with acceptance. For this ability we rely on the meta-awareness state, which as you see in the illustration is quite similar to the strategic thinking state. Basically we are zooming out a little to get self-perspective. In this state we dial down the brain activity that is task-oriented or experience-oriented in order to dial up the brain region that is responsible for self-awareness, observation and reflection. This area is called the frontal poles, the area that resembles headlamps at the front of the brain. The meta-awareness state is a place worth visiting frequently in order to pause and notice yourself in action and to get a strategic perspective on yourself, how the session is going, what you’re feeling, how much time is left and whether you need to adjust anything.
Let the Mind Wander
All of this intense use of our brains requires a lot of energy. Just as the body needs to recover after intense physical exercise, the brain needs to rest after its own effort. It needs to be unleashed, to wander freely where it will. Many creative ideas emerge spontaneously after deep focus periods, when working memory is richly stocked up with information and emotional energy and the brain is set free of ambition. Engaging in rhythmic exercise (e.g., walking, jogging or cycling) or enjoying a shower or bath can offer the mind a great opportunity to wander.
The imagining and mind-wandering brain states look very similar. The only difference is that the left DLPFC, which is slightly activated in the imagining state, is turned down even lower in the mind-wandering state. In fact, it’s fair to say that imagination is a deliberate, controlled version of mind wandering that’s directed toward something concrete (e.g., imagining the future). One reason many people are chronically distracted is that they don’t make time to let their minds wander; they spend every spare moment on their devices, and then their minds—desperate to just wander—do so at the wrong times.
Live With Gratitude
Although our mind locator map does not yet include a brain state for gratitude, neuroscientists are beginning to define the parts of the brain that are active during moments of gratefulness, including centerline parts of the brain that are also important in establishing rapport (Fox et al. 2015). This is where you want to shift attention at the end of the session, to harvest with your clients what they learned and appreciated. Generating gratitude—and modeling this for our clients—is ideal for closing a session and as a daily intervention for well-being.
Now your client session has ended. You were intentional and purposeful in your selection of brain states, taking your client with you to the deepest places of undivided attention. You were agile, shifting fluidly among many brain states throughout the session. And diversity abounded, as you used the brain states we described here, and likely others as well. Your organized mind uplifted your client, who committed to organizing his or her own mind for the next steps in an exciting journey toward a fit lifestyle.