As Wayne Gretzky famously said, "I skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been." In essence, the Great One was tapping into the power of cognitive anticipation, a fundamental advantage available to anyone in the pursuit of peak performance.
As a neuroscientist specializing in brain imaging, the ability to isolate cognitive anticipation in human brain waves definitely represents a disruptive breakthrough in performance. It turns out our brains constantly "crystal ball" the future. Not only can this ability be benchmarked, but it can be easily improved through training for competitive advantage.
Enter the well-established cognitive processing brain response called the N400. Recorded as an evoked potential by portable EEG (electroencephalography), the N is due to a negative-going peak measured around 400 ms after unexpected cognitive events. For example, when you read the sentence "The pizza is too hot to … ." What happened? Your brain quickly moved ahead and anticipated an ending like "eat." It turns out that if there's an unexpected ending like "sing,"—it evokes a larger N400 response. This fundamental ability is inherent in us all and occurs when we look, listen and feel for incoming information. It literally guides us to "where the puck is going" across any such situation.
In essence, the faster the N400 in milliseconds, the quicker our brains predict the future. Staying with the hockey example (I'm Canadian, after all), we recently benchmarked cognitive anticipation in elite hockey players with NeuroCatch. The breakthrough showed that the N400 was significantly faster for players who were forwards compared to those who were defenders. Overall, this is consistent with different demands to anticipate and find an opening to score versus react to prevent an opening from being scored on. Interestingly, training for cognitive anticipation improved the speed of the N400 in these same athletes.
But what does this mean for the rest of us? Well, there are distinct competitive advantages to training cognitive anticipation for performance. By optimizing our brain performance, we can become better decision-makers, problem solvers and overall more effective in our daily lives. While much of the focus has been on physical performance optimization, imagine harnessing our untapped brain power in terms of our current limits.
So, how can we promote and manage cognitive anticipation and optimize our brain performance? First and foremost, it starts with taking care of ourselves. Common to all peak performers is a disciplined focus on a healthy diet, regular exercise and sleep hygiene. For example, exercise is a powerful neuromodulator with many benefits spanning cellular/molecular, circulatory and neurophysiological levels. Secondly, as highlighted, cognitive anticipation is trainable. There are an increasing number of accessible cognitive training programs, which we have begun to evaluate scientifically.
To Improve Cognitive Performance In The Workplace, Try These Five Things:
1. Prioritize workplace health: Exercise, diet and sleep. Many workplaces provide exercise facilities/programs and healthy snacks, which is always a great place to start. Regular movement programming is also vital for cognitive performance. We think better and faster when we move. Where it is possible to structure work activities around natural circadian rhythms, for example, deep work early for "morning people," this helps. Additional resources can support the importance of healthy sleep hygiene.
2. Training programs: It is also possible for employees to "take their brains to the gym." Many free options exist to help engage cognitive training, often in the form of common games (e.g., Wordle). Workplace-level subscriptions are also possible for more scientifically tailored cognitive gym products and activities.
3. Cognitive fitness support programs: In our workplace, we have a BDNF fund for all employees. BDNF stands for "Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor," which is important in neuronal health and neuroplasticity. Employees can access funding to support healthy activities that promote BDNF.
4. Team cognitive fitness: With the increasing return to work, team-based cognitive performance is another important factor. It is often possible to provide creative options for teams to co-think together through cultural programming. For example, many companies offer regular dedicated time for employees to explore undirected ideas and share these innovations together. The lateral thinking in this sort of programming is vital to support cognitive fitness.
5. Healthy competition in cognitive games: Competition in the workplace can be quickly leveraged into optimized cognitive performance. There are many easily accessible and simple ways to have healthy competition among employers that promote brain health and cognitive performance. For example, in our workplace, we compete on simple challenges like balance, which, as it turns out, positively improves our cognitive fitness (as it's all connected in our brains).
Stay tuned. More to come on this front in the future. Until then, readily available training programs are scientifically developed and practically accessible as "brain gyms." Two of our favorites in the clinic are BrainHQ and NeuroTracker. And for those who want to go the extra mile, we are looking closely at innovative supplements like Synaquell+ (by Thorne), cranial nerve neuromodulation (e.g., PoNS device), a number of photobiomodulation technologies (e.g., Titan-IR, Vielight Neuro Pro, and BioFlex Laser Therapy) and autonomic nervous system balancing (e.g., Shiftwave), to name a few.
In conclusion, our brains constantly predict the future to read and react faster—beyond what is physically possible if they don't. This phenomenon gifts us the inherent ability to cheat time. We can gain an untapped competitive edge by training our cognitive anticipation skills and optimizing our brain performance. The "Gretzky Effect" spans competitive sports to all rapid decision-making abilities in our lives. We take the time to invest in our physical health and performance, so why not our brain health and performance? It might pay off in ways that your brain already knows.