Surfing on the Alpha Waves

More SEAL Stories and a Remarkably Pleasant Way to Solve Life’s Toughest Riddles

seals-2The modern SEAL is a freak of nature. It takes year of conditioning and training to get ready to go to the training where, in all likelihood, you will fail in your attempt to become a SEAL. The people walking in the door are world-class athletes and scholars. Doing a gazillion push-ups, paddling “itty-bitty-ships” or IBS (inflatable boat small) for endless miles, enduring the ultimate mind game called Hell Week is all part of the plan. SEAL instructors know that it is very difficult to pick those that will succeed—and only about 20% will make it.

It turns out the big differences aren’t usually associated with athletic or even logical capabilities. It is a mind thing. It is about the way some people think and deal with problems. It is a way they have come to know. It is a trained capacity. Were these people born special?—Maybe, but to get to the place where someone is pinning a Trident on your uniform—you have to have found the key to control your mind more completely.

A SEAL instructor took the time to compare notes with trainers at the US Olympic Training Center. What he found was not surprising. The differences between medal winners and losers are rarely about physical readiness. It is about the ability to perceive and use information in high stress situations. It is not about being super-human; just the opposite.

SEALs know what happens to the body under stress and they take steps to train under very intensive situations to habituate their reactions to the biology of stress. They never “rack” their handguns with their fingers, because they know that fine motor skills go out the window when the poo hits the fan. (Instead they use the edge of their hand—like a Karate chop.) For an outstanding and deeper dive into the tricks the SEALs use for mind control check out this awesome article from Men’s Health (I know, Men’s Health…really?).

Training and repetition under stress works.  Here is a quote from the aforementioned article:

During my research, many SEALs shared the mental tricks they use to instill what we might call bravery. A SEAL in Fallujah told me that a single 16-man platoon of SEAL candidates fires as many small-arms rounds in 2 weeks of training as an entire marine regiment fires in a year. “We push ourselves so far that we reach that level of fear where we think we’re going to die,” he said. “You’ve done it a thousand times, so when you do it for real, there’s less fear. You go and do it just like you trained for it.”

The instructor also has his family unplug the house phone and dial 911 about 200 times…sometimes laying on the floor, while moving, with people yelling… That simple act could be nigh on impossible in a true crisis situation. The training could provide that edge that says, “I can do this.”

Blur Your Eyes and See the Future

In our book Evolutionaries, Carmen and I observed that Evolutionary leaders seem to live in the future. They are constantly “out there” seeing a different world than the one the rest of us seem to inhabit. Jeff Bezos saw Amazon in 1994—well before the internet was developed in any substantive way. But he saw it because he was able follow hundreds of converging trends and see the opportunities they offered. No doubt Bezos is brilliant. But modern brain research is suggesting that it is just as likely that Bezos was simply able and ready to listen to another part of his brain.

When we are going through a normal day, driven by habit, rules and patterns we are generating beta waves and our prefrontal cortex—right behind our forehead—is handling most of the work. When we look at real innovators and problem solvers we realize they have learned two things: how to quiet the role of the prefrontal cortex in imaging the world and how to listen to product of an “unleashed” mind. They are surfing in a world of alpha waves. The same effect generated by Tai Chi, meditation, and other “in the zone” behaviors. Check out the awesome work of Sharon Thompson-Shill of the University of Pennsylvania. Her team’s studies show that innovation and creativity are a function of learning to suspend the constraints of linear thinking, a condition she calls Hypofrontality.

In stress and crisis situations, most of us are abandoned by our “beta-based” thinking patterns. We shut down, or at the very least “tunnel” our thoughts often blinding ourselves to options.  SEALs—and I am arguing to some degree Evolutionary leaders—are actually comfortable with thinking that goes beyond the beta-waves of logic and linear problem solving.

macgyverWe know for example, that innovation can be enhanced by training people to see things not as a “chair” (for example) but as a four posted metal base supporting a square wooden structure fitted with foam and covered in tacked fabric. Tony McCaffery at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has trained people in this kind of thinking and those people showed a 67% problem solving “boost” over those who did not receive the training. No doubt MacGyver was all over this.

If you lead a meeting and you want people to think differently: Try starting the meeting by actually thinking differently.  Offer five common objects and ask to come up with a dozen new uses for each object. Studies suggest this simple example changes the cognitive patterns that trap us in same-old patterns of problem solving.

In every planning meeting we are hearing the need for more innovation, more cross functional capabilities, more on-the-spot problem solving—and the list goes on.  We have to realize that we are asking for this in the context of hyper-linear rule-bound top-down my-way-or-the-highway organizations. When it does happen, when employees really are innovative in these environments, they will likely be breaking or bending the rules and others will think them crazy. When we do organizational assessments I am always interested in the people others think are crazy. There is a good chance they have the answers I am seeking and the guts to tell me.

So here is what we know:

  • Stress does not necessarily debilitate; we can learn to think and act in states of stress—if we train our bodies and minds.
  • Great innovators live in the future; they can let go of the status quo and fly over it looking at new possible contingencies. Many others will think them crazy.
  • We can learn to “Surf the Alpha Waves” of our brains. If you don’t know what that feels like—make it a mission in your life. Do yoga. Do Tai Chi. Meditate. Run or bike. Daydream. Dream—and remember your dreams.

This is not a hippy-dippy suggestion from a tofu eating goof-ball naïve to the ways of the soul-crushing world. This is direct from the SEAL team playbook and they seem to get %$#@ done.  I am not a SEAL—but I am glad I am on their side.

About Randy Harrington, Ph.D.

CEO of Extreme Arts and Sciences.
Co-Founder of Strategic Arts and Sciences.

Harrington completed his doctorate in Communication at the University of Oregon in 1992 and immediately began working as a consultant. Over the past 20 years Harrington has conducted hundreds of planning sessions and developed a wide range of change management strategies for companies large and small. His clients include companies like Microsoft, Adobe, hospitals, government agencies, and financial institutions all over the country. Harrington is also a sought after keynote speaker with a reputation for high energy provocative presentations. He is currently the CEO of Extreme Arts and Sciences and a partner with Strategic Arts and Sciences.