How To Hack Your Brain For Full Potential & Peak Performance

Dr Karolien Noebaert explores how the brain's amygdala and prefrontal cortex work as well as a strategy to hack the activation of these brain areas to reach full potential and become the best version of ourself.
Dr Karolien Notebaert is a neuroscientist and mindfulness expert.
learn how to hack your brain
Dr Karolien Notebaert is a neuroscientist and mindfulness expert.

We are pleased to share Dr Karolien Notebaert’s insightful TEDx Talk “Hack your brain” as an article on Insight Timer Blog. You can also listen to the full track below:

  1. Talk: Hack Your Brain Dr. Karolien Notebaert 16:52

How To Hack Your Brain: The Start Of A Journey

What many people do not know about me is that I left my parents’ home when I had just turned 16 years old. And that’s the moment that I believed I was ready for the world. I was ready to discover the world. Of course, I was very young and very naive, but the day that I left my mother, she came to me and decided to give me her final piece of good advice. She said,

“I know you have a lot of potential. However, if you want to make it in life, make sure you use your potential so you can develop the best version of yourself.”

Those words of advice did not mean much to me when I was 16, but it’s only about 10 years after that when I was working as a scientist in the field of neurosciences, that the advice came back to my mind.

That, for me, was the start of a scientific and personal journey on which I focused on one particular question, namely, how can you unlock the potential in your brain, or, differently put, how can you hack your brain, get your potential and develop the best version of yourself?

Now on this journey, not only have I come to crucial insights with respect to this topic, but it also radically changed my life. And it’s those insights that I want to share with you today.

What Interferes With Our Potential

First of all, let’s have a look at what performance and potential means.

The performance that we bring stands for the potential that we have minus the internal interferences. What’s the potential that we have? These are your talents, your skills, your expertise, what you can do well. However, in many situations, we are dealing with internal interferences and we are blocked to use our potential.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say that we all in the room have a great potential to sing. And when we are at home in the shower, we give our best performance, but then you are being asked here and now to come on stage unexpectedly to sing a song for us, what is going to happen? Well, it’s very likely that your performance is going to drop. Now why is that? Clearly you have the potential to sing, but standing here on stage all of a sudden created these internal interferences, such as nervousness, anxiety, perhaps even negative thoughts. These factors started to act like internal interferences and they blocked you in your potential to sing.

To get an idea on how we can reduce those internal interferences, so we can access our potential, let’s have a look at how this works in the brain.

How To Hack Our Brain Into More Potential

Most of the internal interferences that we experience are being caused by too much activation in one particular brain region, which is called the amygdala. The amygdala is generally very important for our survival, but if it is too active, it causes our interferences and blocks us in our potential.

Now, what do we need for our potential on the other side?

For our potential, we need a totally different brain structure, which is called the prefrontal cortex.

As the name suggests, it’s a brain structure that is fully in the front of our brain. And this part of the brain is significantly involved in all your executive functions. What are those? Planning, organizing, processing information, thinking about solutions. In fact, all the tasks that you do. Throughout the normal day, you need your prefrontal cortex for these.

Now the bad news is, and you might’ve noticed that, but the prefrontal cortex has a limited capacity. It works a bit like a battery. If the battery is fully charged, we bring a mental peak performance, but the more we use it and the emptier it gets the worst version we are of ourselves.

How The Amygdala & Prefrontal Cortex Work

To give you an idea of how the amygdala and prefrontal cortex work throughout the normal day, I’m going to tell you a story. It’s a story about you. The story about me, about what we did yesterday and what happened during the day in our amygdala area and our prefrontal cortex area.

Keep in the back your mind that we want to have the amygdala not too active, and we want to have a prefrontal cortex that is fully charged.

Let’s say you woke up yesterday and you hadn’t slept enough. And when we don’t sleep enough, our prefrontal cortex is not fully charged. You have two children, two girls, and the youngest girl, she’s two years old. And even though it’s not very warm outside she absolutely insists on wearing shorts, a tee shirt and sandals, and your daughter, she’s just like you. She’s very stubborn and she’s not giving in. So what do you do? You use your prefrontal cortex to negotiate with your child – half an hour later she’s wearing trousers.

You’re in the car. You’re stuck in traffic where you also need your prefrontal cortex. And what happens after that is your day. And I can summarize your day as follows…

We use our prefrontal cortex like crazy. And after an extremely busy day, we come home and this is our mental state: our mental battery is empty and our amygdala is having free play.

And let me tell you a secret. This is also happening with the other members of the family, because your children also have this mental battery, but it’s very tiny and empty super quickly.

So what do children do with an empty battery? They start fighting (at least that’s what mine do).  And you try to calm the children. You try to make the food, the food burns. It is absolutely the worst case scenario and it’s a moment that you think things can’t get worse. That’s the moment that your bare feet step onto a Lego brick.

Have you already stepped onto a Lego brick? It hurts, right? And after a day like that, it hurts even more because of the mental state we’re in, we have too much amygdala activation and our mental battery is empty. At a moment where we are expected to have the best moments of our lives, that’s our mental state. So I say, we can do better.

Read more: Do you know the feeling of a foggy and unfocused mind? Discover the causes for brain fog and different ways to get rid of it.

How To Boost The Prefrontal Cortex For Peak Performance

As a scientist, I was looking for a strategy with which we can down-regulate the amygdala activation and give a boost to our prefrontal cortex because that’s what it needs for a peak performance. And I found that strategy.

It is a strategy that when you regularly practice it, the amygdala activation will go down and your prefrontal cortex will get a boost. Not only that, it even gets better. If you regularly practice this strategy, the amygdala will eventually become smaller. This means that the largest source of your internal interferences will become smaller. And as a consequence, science has shown that this strategy leads to a very, very long list of positive effects, such as a better creativity, a better cognitive and also physical performance, a better focus, better decision-making, better wellbeing, also a better health.

What’s the strategy I’m talking about here? I’m talking here about mindfulness meditation – M and M… you know the M&M’s you eat, the sweets, the next time you eat M&M’s, you think about mindfulness meditation.

As a skeptical scientist, the first time that I read that word, meditation – I still remember that very clearly – I put the article aside because I thought that meditation has something to do with putting candles in your ears or sniffing lavender or saying “Om” but I can assure you that mindfulness meditation is nothing esoteric. Mindfulness meditation is a hard core scientifically under built strategy with which you can unlock the full potential in your brain.

Read more: Explore how and if you can catch up on sleep with meditation.

How To Hack Your Brain: From Default Mode To Direct Experience

If you want to experience those positive effects of mindfulness, it is very important that you practice mindfulness in the correct way. And how do we practice mindfulness meditation in the correct way? Well, let me start by telling you that you all have a monkey in your brain. You might have noticed there is this constant voice that is constantly chatting to you. It’s telling you what to do, check your phone, check your Facebook page. It’s also telling you how to feel, to feel good, to feel bad. And it’s constantly giving you it’s opinion.

Now, this monkey in your voice, in science, we don’t call this a monkey. We have another name for it. In neuroscience, we call this voice in our head the default mode network. It’s a bit like a computer that has its default settings. This default mode network is a very dominantly activated network that constantly produces our thoughts. It’s the monkey chatting and it’s those thoughts that eventually lead to our amygdala activation.

For mindfulness meditation, we need a totally different brain network. We need a brain network that is called the direct experience network. And now why is this so important?

The power of mindfulness lies in the fact that the default mode network and direct experience network cannot be activated simultaneously.

This implies that when I activate the direct experience network, you will deactivate the default mode network or differently put, you will shut up the monkey in your mind.

Coming To Our Senses

Now, how do you do that? Well, the direct experience network is a network that is in very close connection to all of our senses – hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting. And when we bring our full attention to one of our senses, we activate the direct experience network, and we deactivate a default mode network – or we shut up the monkey in our mind.

Read more: Learn about the simple 54321 technique for grounding in the present moment and activating the direct experience network.

When we do that, what is going to happen? That monkey really likes to chat. So after a few milliseconds or a few seconds, the monkey is going to start chatting again. That’s fine. If that happens, you bring your attention back to one of your senses.

Read more: Psychotherapist and meditation teacher Andrea Wachter explains beginner-friendly strategies for what to do when thoughts arise during meditation.

The Immediate Power Of Mindfulness

Now that you understand why we might need mindfulness, let’s also experienced it. I brought an exercise for you. It’s only 20 seconds. And the only thing you have to lose is a bit of amygdala activation, which is a good thing. So we’re going to do it all together.

  1. Karolien practice Quick Mindfulness Practice 1:02

For those who have never practiced mindfulness meditation before. Well, congratulations. This is what’s your first mini mindfulness meditation session.

If you really want to have those effects, it’s important to practice, practice, practice. Start by doing this five minutes per day this week, increase it to 10 minutes next week. And if you reach an average of 10 to 15 minutes a day, it’s a brilliant start.

And you don’t always have to feel your hands. You can feel something else in your body. You can mind your breathing. And this is something you can do anywhere. During a meeting where you have no active participation, do a mindfulness meditation session. Or in your class, rather than playing with your phone.

Did you enjoy this short mindfulness practice with Karolien? Start your mornings in a conscious way by listening to this guided morning meditation – explore Karolien’s complete library on Insight Timer:

  1. Morning Meditation: Starting Our Day In A Conscious Way Dr Karolien Notebaert 4:39

Hack Your Brain With Mindfulness

Coming back now to the advise that my mother gave me 20 years ago, namely “Unlock the potential in your brain to develop the best version of yourself.” I have come to learn that mindfulness meditation is the key to high performance. It’s the way to hack your brain. And this is something that we can do for ourselves to become the best version of ourselves.

But think bigger, too. This is something we can do as a family or as a team, or as a company. As a company, we are a seldom the best versions of ourselves, or even think beyond that, the moonshot thinking. With mindfulness meditation, we can create a better version of humankind, which lies in our hands. And this, I think, was an idea worth sharing with you today.

You want to hack your brain even more and become the truest expression of who you really are? Sign up for Karolien’s popular 30-day course “Unlock Your Wise & Mindful Brain”, which will teach you the neuroscience behind performance and unlocking your unique potential through regulating internal blockages.

Learn more and start the course for free by clicking on the banner below:

How to hack your brain for peak performance

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