Brainwave Basics for Peak Achievement Training®
The Three Parts of the Peak Achievement Learning Process
training process starts by teaching you to do something so fundamental
that you will be astounded that you don’t already know how—to pay
attention to how you pay attention! The conscious awareness of the way
you pay attention is a fundamental skill that few people have mastered or
even tried to learn.
The second step is to direct it--to
develop a more controlled cycle between focusing and recharging. Recent
Air Force studies of the pilots in the B2 bomber, who are very carefully
selected peak performers, show that they are constantly cycling between
concentrating on cockpit tasks and taking brief recharging breaks, which
we call microbreaks. The Peak Achievement Training program teaches you
how to focus and to recharge separately, and then combines them into a
cycle. The figure shows several cycles in which Focus (yellow) and
Alertness (orange) are interrupted by microbreaks. There are vertical
bars every five seconds.
The third step in training is to learn to
apply this cycle to enhance skills and experiences that are important to
you. You will be able to identify the cycles in many of your activities,
to pay attention to the cycle and understand how you do it, to video
yourself and discover the sequence of your brainwave patterns as you
perform important skills, and then to enhance your skills by refining the
Brainwave Basics for Peak Achievement Training
When the Air Force
designed the B-2 Bomber, they knew that it would be a highly complex
airplane to fly, with many different tasks to do, despite the many
automated systems. They sponsored a number of complex studies of the human
factors involved in optimizing pilot performance, many of them performed
by Dr. Barry Sterman of UCLA and the Sepulveda Veterans Administration
Hospital. In a brilliant series of studies, Dr. Sterman, who is a pioneer
in EEG (brainwave) biofeedback research, measured the brainwaves of pilots
and others, while evaluating their performance in tasks that simulate
aspects of flying. He discovered that various parts of the pilot’s brains
were constantly cycling between a processing mode and an “idling” or
recharging mode, in which the brain conserved energy and refreshed its
stores of vital nutrients.
If you wish to understand his
fascinating findings and the fundamentals of Peak Achievement Trainingä,
we need to review a few fundamentals about brainwaves and the brain. I’ll
try to simplify this as much as I can, by making some broad
generalizations. However, if you are in a hurry or just not technically
minded, you can skip ahead to the section titled Fundamentals of Peak
Achievement: A Summary.
Dr. Sterman broke down the complex
brainwave patterns he saw by analyzing how strong the output was at
various frequencies. The term frequency refers to the number of times the
waveform goes up and down (cycles) per second (called Hertz, or Hz.). You
can take any waveform, no matter how complex it looks, and break it down
into the amount of energy that it has at each frequency. This figure
shows the filtered brainwave pattern from the prefrontal part of the brain
(middle of the forehead) with a time scale of five divisions per second.
You can see a large, almost regular pattern near the end. This idling
rhythm at 9-11 cycles per second, usually called the alpha rhythm, occurs
more frequently when someone is relaxing with the eyes closed. It is much
more prominent when you are recording from the back of the head.
This figure shows the frequency breakdown that the Peak Achievement
Trainer performs on the raw brainwave. As the Spectrogram scrolls from
the right (now) to the left (past), each colored vertical bar shows the
analysis of a short period of the brainwave pattern. It separates out the
amount of energy at each frequency (on the vertical axis), and shows a
color corresponding to its intensity. As the scale at the bottom of the
figure shows, more intense energy produces more intense color. Generally,
brainwave patterns will show the most energy from 0 to 7 cycles and a high
energy alpha brainwave stripe at 9-11 cycles.
Dr. Sterman divided the frequencies into chunks, so
that he could look at how much energy output he could detect from 1-3 Hz.,
3-5 Hz., 5-7 Hz., and so on, by every 2 Hz. He did not use the
traditional Greek letter analysis of brainwaves, which includes delta (0-4
Hz.), theta (4-8 Hz.), alpha (8-13 Hz.) and beta (13-30 Hz.), because he
thought it was too inexact. The relationship between these Greek letters
and various states of consciousness, such as sleep, daydreaming or
reverie, relaxation, and focusing is now known to be very imprecise, and
in some cases, misleading, so I’ll only use them to designate these
The Prefrontal Cortex
One of the major complications here is that
brainwaves and their frequencies correspond to different experiences as
you look in different locations on the scalp. For our purposes, the most
important distinction is between the frontal lobe and the “back” of the
brain, which includes central, parietal, temporal, and occipital
locations. Very roughly, you can think of the frontal lobe as the part of
the cortex, the outer layer of the brain, forward of the lines from the
front of the ears to about an inch in front of the very top of the head.
The prefrontal lobe, which extends behind your forehead and then folds to
lie on top of the roof of your mouth, is the part of the brain that is
responsible for integrating various aspects of your experience and making
decisions about how you act on them. The back of the brain is primarily
involved in processing specific information, such as the sensory inputs
from your eyes, ears, and body. The two systems, specific and
non-specific, are each primarily connected to different parts of the
thalamus, an egg-shaped nucleus in the middle of the brain, which relays
information to the cortex.
The central part of the prefrontal
cortex is strongly influenced by a network of nerve fibers carrying
messages which help us to consciously focus on interesting and/or
important experiences that are useful for survival. These fibers contain
the key neurotransmitter, dopamine.
The Executive Attention Network
Recent studies of the brain by
researchers using powerful new technologies such as PET and SPECT scanning
and f-MRI have led to the discovery of the Executive Attention Network,
the part of the brain that is most involved in directing where we focus
our attention. In other words, it choreographs the dance of the brain,
by turning on and off various parts of the brain that are necessary to
direct our attention to certain aspects of our experience. According to a
Scientific American Library book, Images of Mind, by Dr. Michael Posner (a
cognitive psychologist) and Dr. Marcus Raichle (a PET scanner), the
Executive Attention Network is located in the cleft or fissure between the
two hemispheres of the brain, right below the midline of the scalp, an
inch or two forward of the vertex, the very top of the head. This part of
the anterior cingulate cortex may actually be the central part of the
brain’s master delegator, somewhat like the executive assistant to the
Chief Executive Officer of a corporation, responsible for carrying out the
CEO’s orders by coordinating the resources of the corporation.
Peak Achievement Trainer uses brainwave Sensors located a little forward
of this point—in the middle of the forehead--to detect what is happening
in the central prefrontal cortex and the Executive Attention Network.
When the Executive Attention Network encounters an experience that the
brain judges to be unfamiliar, an experience that can’t be easily
categorized on the basis of prior experience, it turns on the prefrontal
cortex, along with many other regions of the cortex. As a result, we
become aware or conscious of this new information. The processing of this
new information is spread widely across the cortex at first, producing a
lot of high frequency messages from one part of the cortex to another.
The Cortex Idles to Save Energy
However, continuing this high
frequency processing indefinitely is not a very efficient way to run the
brain, since it takes a tremendous amount of energy. Even with the energy
conservation measures it uses, the brain takes about 20% of the body’s
blood flow and up to 65% of its metabolic energy. Taking any more energy
than it absolutely needs would be a real disadvantage to our survival.
The major energy conservation measure that is implemented by the
Executive Attention Network, in collaboration with the thalamus, is to
place parts of the brain that are not needed into “idle mode”. As it
sorts out the parts of the cortex that aren’t necessary for a particular
task, it sends them a message to slow down or turn off the energy
consuming, high frequency processing. With additional similar
experiences, the Executive Attention Network forms habitual ways of
information processing that save energy by idling more and more of the
cortex via these messages. When it is in idling mode, the brain performs
a number of system maintenance tasks that can improve subsequent memory
and information processing. However, there are virtually no EEG studies
of the role of the midline prefrontal cortex in learning and memory. Since
the rich network of dopaminergic fibers is centered there, it may behave
very differently than other regions of the cortex.
The EEG Detects Idling Rhythms
These messages to the cortex that
put it in idling mode are rhythmic brainwaves—idling rhythms--that can
affect large portions of the cortex at the same time. In fact, they are a
very large portion of what we see in the visible EEG. Furthermore, since
the waveforms of many of these idling rhythms are irregular (not smooth
sine waves), they have overtones, which show up on the Peak Achievement
Trainer as higher frequency (beta and above) brainwave outputs.
higher frequency brainwaves that are produced when regions of the cortex
are turned on are much harder to detect with an EEG instrument for three
- There are several layers of tissue that surround the brain, and then
the scalp and the skin. Higher frequency brainwaves find it much harder
to go through these various layers.
- About 95% of the input to any cortical cell comes from other
cortical cells, either locally or via longer fibers. Impulses travel in
one direction and then loop back. Since the timing and direction of
these loops is random, the net effect is that most of the activity is
offset by other random activity, producing very little electrical
voltage on the surface of the scalp.
- The EEG is most sensitive to currents that run in the direction of a
straight line between the electrodes (ear and forehead), roughly in the
direction that the idling rhythms run, from the thalamus in the center
of the head outwards.
Therefore, the brainwaves that are
monitored by the Peak Achievement Trainer are primarily idling rhythms
rather than indications that important information processing is going on
in the cortex underneath the Sensor.
The Peak Achievement Trainer Detects the Absence of the Idling
The Peak Achievement Trainer is designed to detect the absence
of the idling messages rather than the high frequency activity. Although
there is evidence that there are organized brainwave rhythms in the beta
range, and that they may represent messages from one part of the cortex to
another, the empirical finding is that when you focus intensely, the
brainwave Sensor near the Executive Attention Network almost always shows
less output voltage at all the frequencies from 1 to 37 Hz. This decrease
in output was originally labeled as Concentration in the older software.
In the new FocusedAlert protocols, we have chosen to create a measurement
of Focus that (more intuitively) increases as you concentrate more, by
applying the formula:
Focus = 100 – Concentration
Aspects of Focus
The word “focus” can be confusing, since it may
be used in several different ways:
- Denoting the object of your attention—that is, what you are paying
- Changing the clarity of an image—that is, by turning a camera
- The degree of single-pointedness of attention—narrow vs. broad.
- The duration of paying attention to a particular object.
It would probably be clearest if I indicated the particular use of “focus”
each time I used it, but this would lead to many long and awkward
sentences. Since most of the uses of “focus” in this Manual will refer
to the third meaning, I will adopt the convention that when focus is used
alone as a noun, it refers to the degree of single-pointedness of
attention--the narrower it is, the more focused. Capitalizing “Focus”
will refer to the particular measurement we defined previously, unless
it’s at the beginning of a sentence. The word “concentration” in lower
case will be synonymous with this meaning of focus. In upper case,
“Concentration” refers to the measurement in the older software. As a
verb, “focus” or “concentrate” used without further description will refer
to making your attention single-pointed.
The first definition will
be indicated by using “focus on”. The second definition will rarely be
used here. When it is, I will substitute “clarifying”. When the fourth
definition is needed, I will use “Focus Time” to refer to the duration, as
formalized by our measurement.
Lessons From Peak Performers: The Air Force Pilots
Sterman examined the brainwaves of pilots doing simulated landing tasks,
he found that the idling rhythms were suppressed in the parts of the brain
that were being used at the time. He was able to fine-tune his findings
by looking at these brainwaves in various control conditions, in which the
pilots did only part of the task. To make a long story very short,
Sterman concluded that in the back of the brain the processing of sensory
inputs was associated with decreases in the idling rhythms from 11-15 Hz.,
while more complex thinking decreased idling rhythms from 8-12 Hz. The
harder the task was, the more that these rhythms were suppressed.
In fact, Dr. Sterman was able to pick the best 6 pilots--those who were
eventually selected as B2 bomber instructors--by measuring how well they
suppressed the idling rhythms in the parietal lobe. This approach turned
out to be more accurate, by itself, than all the other measures that the
Air Force used in making this selection.
The Focusing and Recharge Cycle
Studies of pilots in the cockpit,
as they actually flew their planes, showed that there was a short burst of
idling rhythm between the individual tasks that they performed in the
cockpit. The better pilots needed a shorter rest period before starting
to focus again. We call this recharging period a microbreak.
fact, there is evidence that this kind of cycling between concentration
and the microbreak is a basic way in which the brain functions. For
example, there are studies that show that when we read, there is a brief
idling rhythm in the visual cortex when we come to the end of a line and
move on to the next.
Dr. Sterman performed a study which showed
that these idling rhythms decrease right after a person is presented with
a target to respond to, and then increase again when they finish
processing their response to the stimulus. In the back of the brain, this
idling rhythm was an 8-12 Hz. (alpha) burst that increased as they became
more familiar with the task, and it became habituated. As he looked at
sites that were further forward in the brain, he saw that there was also
an idling rhythm at 5 to 7 Hz.
There are also good, common sense
reasons to believe that the brain is set up to cycle between focusing and
taking a recharging microbreak. Even the best of us cannot concentrate
forever. We need our breaks. They are built in to our work and school
day. The concept that each of us has an “attention span” that increases
as we mature from child to adult, and then decreases in old age is a clear
reflection of this well accepted concept. People who fail to regularly
take these necessary microbreaks between tasks set themselves up for
stress-related diseases because they accumulate the tension and anxiety
from the continuous effort in their minds, brains, and bodies.
most fundamental lesson of Peak Achievement Training is that we all need
to cycle continuously between focusing and taking a recharging microbreak
in order to consistently be at our best without overtaxing our brains.
The Prefrontal Cortex and Executive Attention Network, New Learning,
and the Cycle
The prefrontal cortex is also capable of alternating
between focusing and idling. When things are familiar to us, it can idle,
and let the other parts of the brain carry out their habitual ways of
processing inputs, turning on and off in well established sequences. When
they are unfamiliar, the prefrontal cortex and the Executive Attention
Network get turned on. They have the role of bringing these new
experiences into conscious awareness and figuring out how to process them
by activating other centers of the brain. Dr. Sterman’s research
indicated that the brainwaves of the frontal lobe, including the sites
near the Executive Attention Network, also show cycles when the individual
is continually involved in detecting a series of targets. Right after a
target is presented, the idling rhythm is suppressed, only to return in
about half a second. After an event, the frontal cortex finishes its
processing and goes into idle before the back of the brain does. The
prefrontal lobe idling rhythm is primarily in the mid-theta range, between
5 to 7 Hz.
By using the multiple displays of the
previous Peak Achievement Trainer software to examine the brainwaves of my
students, I have been able to see their patterns as they focused and did a
number of other things. At first, I looked for the relationship between
concentration and the decrease in 5-7 Hz. rhythms at the midline site
close to the hairline. I found that this was the clearest indicator of
concentration that I had observed in my clinical experience. The
Spectrogram display permitted me to look at the voltage output at each
frequency. From 2 to about 20 cycles, I saw clearly that as I and
others focused, the voltage output decreased across the board, at all
frequencies. This was less clearly true from 1 to 37 Hz. For example,
the far left side and the right side of this figure is focusing, while the
right side is recharging.
Dr. Sterman had actually noticed the same
thing, from about 5 to 15 cycles, all the frequencies that he measured, at
virtually all the brainwave recording sites he tried. Technically, this
is called “event related desynchronization”. In the frontal lobe, this
suppression is followed by the return of the theta (5-7 Hz.) idling rhythm
in about half a second, particularly after we see a target, rather than an
unimportant control stimulus.
When people learn to suppress the
idling rhythms, their attention problems clear up. Several large studies,
now being submitted for publication, show that the suppression of theta
and or alpha (depending on age and recording site) is largely responsible
for the success of other brainwave training protocols in treating people
with attention deficit disorder. Most all of the brainwave training
protocols for treating attention deficit disorder have rewarded students
for decreasing theta and/or alpha at central or frontal sites. These
decreases were much more consistently related to successful treatment than
the changes in higher frequencies that were also evaluated. Using a
protocol that teaches the student to enhance beta may actually slow down
training, because the feedback is less precise and more confusing than
that provided by the Peak Achievement Trainerä. It takes about ten
sessions for a typical student to understand that type of brainwave
biofeedback; almost everyone will understand this type of neurofeedback
during the first few minutes.
There is a common misperception that
increases in alpha rhythms denote peak performance. Actually, this comes
from studies of the back part of the brain, which actually show that as
people master a particular skill, alpha increases. However, this is
actually a reflection of the brain’s tendency for efficient operations,
shutting off more and more unnecessary processing as the skill becomes a
Interest or Absorption in Events Decreases Idling Rhythms
clear that interesting or important events also cause this decrease in the
idling rhythm in the prefrontal cortex and the Executive Attention
Network. In Sterman’s study, the targets produced a larger rapid
decrease in the 5-7 Hz. idling rhythm than the control stimuli that they
didn’t need to respond to. In working with my students, I have found that
anytime I can entice them to become more interested in what they are
doing, they generally respond by decreasing their brainwave output across
the board from 1-37 Hz.
Becoming absorbed in a particular
experience is closely related to being interested in it. In fact,
absorption can be thought of as being a result of one-pointed focus on the
experience—a focus so intense that other inputs, ideas, or conversations
with others or yourself are ignored. In working with students, I find
that it is this type of single-pointed focus and interest that is most
successful in inhibiting the idling rhythms.
Measuring and Training Alertness
These FocusedAlert protocols also
allow you to measure and train what we believe is another dimension of
attention: Arousal or Alertness. We have chosen to use the word
Alertness for this dimension. We believe it is fundamentally independent
from the single-pointed Focus measurement. In particular, it responds to
the state of higher alertness/arousal in which intense effort marshals
your resources to react--for example, when the ball is coming right at
Although at this time we intend to keep the precise formulas
we use as trade secrets, we can say that we mathematically eliminate the
effects of Focus on the brainwave pattern, and then measure the effects of
the stimulation from the Reticular Activating System (RAS) on the
pacemaker cells in the reticular nucleus of the thalamus, which produce
the EEG idling rhythms we observe at the cortical level. The two measures
are mathematically independent, and we have seen instances where they
function independently: You can increase or decrease one without changing
the other. However, it is clearly true that most people will usually
increase their Alertness in order to enhance their Focus. There are many
circumstances in which it may be useful to train people to concentrate
more calmly, minimizing the increase in Alertness.
It appears that
it is much more difficult to sustain Alertness than Focus--the peaks last
for a much shorter time. Alertness may be related to the release of
adrenaline, noradrenalin, and dopamine from nerve terminals; when these
are exhausted, restocking them may take time. Trying to increase
Alertness may also release adrenaline from the adrenal medulla. Since
this adrenaline has to travel through the blood stream, it may produce an
increase in the Alertness measure with a longer latency and slower
decrease, which will add to the effects of the RAS-mediated
Since the neurotransmitters, neuromodulators, and
hormones necessary to support Alertness are in limited supply, one of the
major goals of training may be to teach people to conserve their Alertness
by minimizing its expenditure when it isn't needed.
Another way to
think about this is that we want to find the optimal point on the
Yerkes-Dodson curve--the inverted-U shape curve relating performance to
arousal--for performing at the particular moment.
This basic truth was recognized many years ago from
experiments with animals. The highest point of the inverted U is at the
middle levels of arousal. They found that the location of the peak varies
depending upon how complex the task is. Simple tasks, such as assembly
line work, which can be accomplished with a succession of narrow foci of
attention, produce a higher optimum. More complex tasks, such as writing,
which require integrating a wider variety of information, are best
performed at lower levels of arousal.
This presumes that higher
levels of arousal (Alertness) are generally related to a narrower focus of
attention. Actually, this isn’t always true, as our experience with Peak
Achievement Training has shown us. Although it is sometimes difficult to
do so, the two can be controlled rather independently, so that, for
example, you can learn to focus more intensely at lower levels of
Alertness and conserve mental energy. This is the combination we need in
order to successfully survive hours of lectures and business meetings.
When you become too stimulated or aroused, another problem
develops—your attention becomes harder to control. It shifts around,
focusing on one thing and then another, but you can’t sustain its focus on
any one thing for very long. Often, emotional events receive the bulk of
your attention. We experience this as distraction, anxiety, or, in an
extreme, a panic reaction. When this happens, we may say that it is hard
to focus, but this problem is really quite different than the problem we
have when we don’t have enough energy to move from a wide, diffuse focus
to a narrow one. It is a problem caused by high energy, rather than low
vigor or arousal. This is the other reason why the Yerkes-Dodson curves
decrease at high arousal or Alertness.
Since you don’t want to be
at either extreme for optimal performance, but rather someplace in the
middle, the FocusedAlert protocols are designed to reinforce the optimum
range between an upper and a lower limit.
Attention as an Adjustable Flashlight Beam
One analogy is
particularly useful in understanding attention. Try thinking of it as
being like an adjustable beam flashlight, which you can tune between a
wide, diffuse focus on many different aspects of your experience at a
particular moment, and a narrow, single-pointed focus on one aspect of
the experience at that moment. You can focus this beam in a number of
different directions, or in its widest mode, use it to attend dimly to
many things at once. When you focus more diffusely, as you do during a
microbreak, you are not conscious of any particular aspect of the
experience, but rather take in all of it at once.
You can also
adjust the brightness or intensity of the beam of this special flashlight.
We generally do this by turning the energy consumption control—the
Alertness or arousal level, which enhances our capacity to pay attention.
During new, interesting, or demanding experiences, the beam is on high
intensity. This generally tends to make your focus more narrow and
absorbed, but it can also produce a brighter beam that is somewhat wider.
The Executive Attention Network has stopped idling and turned on the
higher frequency processing of the surrounding frontal lobe and other
areas of the brain in order to find an appropriate response.
contrast, when you respond habitually to an experience, the prefrontal
cortex and the Executive Attention Network is not involved, large portions
of the cortex are idling, and very little of your attention is used to
form the response. The flashlight beam is on a lower intensity. This
response is not sensed to be as conscious as is your reaction to a new or
At higher levels of arousal, you start to
lose control of the flashlight beam, as anxiety and possibly panic cause
it to shift quickly from one object of attention to another.
Fundamentals of Peak Achievement Training: A Summary
Peak Achievement Trainer responds to single-pointed focus, interest,
and/or absorption in any experience by changing its visual displays and
the sounds that it produces. It detects when your prefrontal cortex and
Executive Attention Network are not producing idling rhythms.
You will learn to use these signals to enhance your ability to cycle
between focusing and brief periods of recharging or idling, called
microbreaks. We all need to cycle continuously in order to be at our best
consistently without overtaxing our brains.
3. By strengthening
your ability to concentrate, to recharge, and to easily and flexibly
switch between them, Peak Achievement Training will enhance your
functioning, decrease your stress, and improve your mental and physical
4. Many of your important activities have built-in
cycles of focusing and microbreaks; by understanding these cycles and
strengthening your abilities, you will learn to do them more
5. Learning to control your Alertness allows you to
more consistently reach the optimal zone for a particular activity.
Alertness is used here to indicate the degree of arousal and the amount of
mental energy needed to sustain it. Enhancing your capacity to maintain
Alertness by practicing and learning how not to waste your mental energy
will enhance your reserves and decrease fatigue.
Types of Peak Achievement Training
Even without the Neureka!
protocol, there are twelve different and complementary types of training
which are possible using the Peak Achievement Trainer:
Strengthening the ability of the Brain's Executive Attention Network to
momentarily focus attention.
2. Strengthening the ability of the
midbrain to momentarily intensify alertness/arousal.
Strengthening the ability of the Executive Attention Network to sustain
4. Strengthening the ability of the midbrain
to sustain alertness/arousal.
5. Simultaneously increasing Focus
and Alertness to meet a heavy demand.
6. Keeping Focus up while
lowering Alertness/Arousal to decrease stress.
attention on parts of the body that the coach wishes to work with.
Train the user to take brief, relaxing microbreaks which recharge the
9. Find the best possible degree of alertness/arousal to
perform particular activities optimally.
10. Perform arbitrary
sequences of concentration, alertness, and microbreaks.
Discover and enhance performance of the sequences that are optimal for
12. Perform these sequences despite
distractions such as self-talk and crowd noise.
NEWS, FEATURES & STUDIES
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Are you an athlete looking to gain an edge? The Peak Achievement
Trainer® has helped hundreds of athletes develop their brain for
Now measuring & training the Three
Principal Dimensions of Mental Processing: Focus, Alertness, and
Peak Performance Center at a Fortune 500 Company doubled their
executives' focus time & realized outstanding benefits.