The Winner's Brain

8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success


By Jeff Brown

By Mark Fenske

With Liz Neporent

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Ever wonder why some people seem blessed with success? In fact, everyone is capable of winning in life; you just need to develop the right brain for it.

In The Winner’s Brain, Drs. Jeffrey Brown and Mark J. Fenske use cutting-edge neuroscience to identify the secrets of those who succeed no matter what — and demonstrate how little it has to do with IQ or upbringing. Through simple everyday practices, Brown and Fenske explain how to unlock the brain’s hidden potential, using:

Balance: Make emotions work in your favor
Bounce: Create a failure-resistant brain
Opportunity Radar: Spot hot prospects previously hidden by problems
Focus Laser: Lock into what’s important
Effort Accelerator: Cultivate the drive to win

Along the way, meet dozens of interesting people who possess “win factors” (like the inventor of Whac-A-Mole) and glean fascinating information (like why you should never take a test while wearing red). Compulsively readable, The Winner’s Brain will not only give you an edge, but also motivate you to pursue your biggest dreams.


For Karen, Jake, and Nathan, my very favorite group of Winners.
For Carolynne and Grant.
Brown Team Go!
In loving memory of my father, Lewis Marshall Neporent, M.D.

The Winner's Brain

Understanding the Winner's Brain
PEOPLE WHO ARE SUCCESSFUL in life have one thing in common:
They all seem to be doing something different and special with their neurocircuitry to maximize their potential and achieve their goals. We believe that's what gives these people a Winner's Brain.
The average brain does a pretty good job of getting by day to day. After all, it has over one hundred billion brain cells serviced by a superhighway of blood vessels to help you think your thoughts, move your body, and experience the world around you, acting with a combination of speed and efficiency that even the most advanced computers can't rival. But presumably you are reading this book because of a desire to move beyond just getting by. You want to excel in life and achieve the goals that matter to you most.
Maybe you're considering a career change or launching a new business, yet haven't had the wherewithal to take the leap. Maybe you feel stuck at work and are unclear how to get ahead. Perhaps you've lost your job and are searching for a better situation. Wherever you are in life, whatever your goals, you want to expand your limits and open up your possibilities.
Contrary to popular belief, high personal achievement has very little to do with your IQ, your life circumstances, your financial resources, knowing the right people, or even luck. Take, for example, the great French sculptor Auguste Rodin, who came from a poor family and was rejected from art school three times. Despite butting up against constant rejection, he bounced back time and again, using each failure and disappointment as an opportunity to fuel his talents and his passions. As you shall see once you dive into the upcoming chapters, Resilience and Motivation are two of the critical abilities for which Winner's Brains are wired.

The Partnership of Brain and Behavior

Our combined expertise as a cognitive behavioral psychologist (Jeff) and a cognitive neuroscientist (Mark) places us in a unique position to explain how the cognitive mechanisms of the human brain are associated with success. We have seen from our respective work how the strategies shared in this book can influence thoughts and behavior and help individuals push past unpleasant life circumstances, allowing them to blossom and grow. Seeing people routinely rise above challenges—sometimes incredibly harsh ones—and consistently flourish is one of the primary reasons Jeff became so interested in the science of success. And we've also seen evidence that these same strategies can literally reshape the brain. Brains that perform successfully really do "light up" differently and work more efficiently, and Mark has investigated just how the structure and function of brains are altered as a result of how their owners use them.
Winner's Brains actually operate differently than the average brain. We know this, in part, because of technological advances that let us see individual differences in how neural areas light up on scans of brains as they spring into action. By measuring physiological changes related to neural activity, such as increases in blood flow within the brain, techniques such as f MRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) can help us see which areas of the brain are relatively more active and participating as a corresponding thought, emotion, or behavior is playing out. (If, for example, someone sneaks up behind you and yells "Boo!" that instant jolt of fear that surges through your body is associated with increased activity within the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure in the medial temporal lobe—the structure that's most closely associated with identifying threats and evaluating the possibility of harm.) We've found the following:
A Winner's Brain is very good at tuning out distractions and choosing the best way to focus on a task (there are different types of focus the brain is capable of) in order to get the best outcome. A study led by Daniel Weissman at the University of Michigan showed that participants were able to stop and reorient their brain's processing power to help them perform better despite interruptions. We call the deliberate form of this strategy focus reinvestment. With practice, this type of skill is something you can develop for yourself to reduce your own attention-related errors. Even if previous tries to change jobs, find a mate, or attain any other objective have failed in the past, an extra dose of focus may be just what you need to get you over the hump.
Winner's Brains seem to maintain a bottomless effort supply. A youngster who is forced to practice his piano lessons one hour every day, even if he doesn't want to and has no interest in playing, is unlikely to become an accomplished pianist. But a child who loves music, is interested in playing, and understands the potential of success will prioritize and complete her practice sessions—even at the end of her most tiring days. She is more likely to become a proficient, successful player because of her ability to sustain the effort.
Support for this idea comes from studies like one by Debra Gusnard and colleagues at Washington University School of Medicine, who measured people's brain activity while they viewed a random series of images that were either emotionally stimulating or dull. These people also filled out self-assessments regarding their day-to-day level of persistence in completing tasks. Subjects with high persistence scores showed, during periods of the experiment containing mostly dull images, increased activity in brain regions known to contribute to motivational drive. Subjects with low persistence scores showed decreased activity in these regions. Winner's Brains fire up Motivation to push through boredom, while brains of less tenacious individuals seem to run out of steam.
Winner's Brains adapt in exceptional ways over time, harnessing a process known as neuroplasticity. Every time you think a thought, feel an emotion, or execute a behavior, there is always some sort of corresponding change within your brain. In some instances we can detect these alterations in the brain's physical landscape. Later in this book, you'll read about London Black Cab drivers who have regions of the hippocampus—an area of the brain involved in memory and spatial navigation—that are considerably larger than that of the average person. Research by Eleanor Maguire and colleagues at University College London suggests that these cab drivers likely started out with fairly ordinary brains. But when motivated to commit routes to memory, they quite literally built a better brain, neuron by neuron. This is something virtually anyone should be able to do—including you—if you quite literally put your mind to it.
Many people view the brain as a mysterious, abstract structure—almost like a set of master controls that run on autopilot behind a locked door to which one has no real access. This simply isn't the case. You have the ability to unlock the door and consciously, deliberately, and successfully control much of your brain's switchboard in order to better position yourself to achieve your goals and dreams. The brain is active and subject to change no matter what you do—this is one of the key discoveries of modern neuroscience. What sets the owner of a Winner's Brain apart is the desire and the know-how to take charge of the process.
Our definition of Winners encompasses the usual conception: people who meet with extraordinary success in the particular aspects of life they value the most. Winners achieve what they set out to accomplish, whether they wish to master a golf swing, raise a confident child, or climb the corporate ladder. But we would add more: The kind of Winners we are talking about revel in the journey toward their goals almost as much as the destination itself, and they strive for the type of success that helps make the world a better place. And whether they realize it or not, virtually all Winners rely on the specific brain strategies we lay out in this book to come out on top.
Throughout this book, dozens of our Winners tell their stories, which illuminate the science and theories. They come from all walks of life: artists and inventors, musicians and business people, a high-altitude window washer, an Olympic champion. Many are well known, like blues great B. B. King, Olympic gold medalist Kerri Strug, actress Laura Linney, and motivational speaker Trisha Meili, the Central Park jogger. They all meet the definition of success in their own unique way. Our interviews reveal surprising, often touching, and enlightening information aimed at showing how anyone can change their thinking to improve their life.
To be clear, not everyone with a Winner's Brain walks around with a gold medal, an Oscar, or a million-dollar paycheck. Some of the people you'll meet consider their greatest accomplishment being a college graduate, a superb cab driver, or a working artist. They are every bit as amazing as the celebrities you will meet in this book because they have accomplished the things in life that are most important to them personally, often in the face of extreme adversity.

What It Doesn't Take

We'd also like to dispel the myth that achievers are all born hardwired for success, that you are either born with a high-functioning brain or you aren't. We know that the brain changes based on what its owner chooses to do with it. And yes, you do have a certain amount of control over the process. Many of the studies we present in this book demonstrate this cause and effect convincingly. What has emerged from this research and our representative interviews is that Winners are often forced to do some extensive rewiring so they can leap over life's obstacles and stay on the path to success. In addition, many didn't start with the vast financial resources or the important personal connections you might expect. And very few fit the definition of lucky. All of them demonstrate a strategic and proactive use of brain power—they take charge of their brain's Adaptability rather than leaving it to chance or waiting for the perfect set of circumstances to present themselves.
In the case of how your brain operates, nature does not always trump nurture: They work together. One of the central themes of this book is that there are many ways to shape your brain to more fully express its genetic potential. As you'll learn in the chapter on Adaptability, your brain's structure and functioning will continue to change over time even if you don't do anything strategic with it—just not necessarily the way you wish. So why not take the reins and nurture the nature you have? Even into old age, we all can adapt our brain. Indeed, one of the well-established laws of neuroscience is that the brain retains a capacity for change until the day you die. You are not enslaved by a brain that can only respond in one way. There are endless opportunities for improvement; and when you actively take charge of how your brain works, you have a better chance of influencing your fortunes.

Welcome to the Winner's Brain

A Winner's Brain employs definable strategies that allow it to operate more effectively. Many books about success take a purely behavioral approach but fail to tie the essential functions of the brain to specific behaviors. Yet the two are inextricably bound. How you think and behave will affect your brain, and changes in your brain can in turn further affect your thoughts and behavior.
Here's how the book is organized: Part One begins with a quick tour of the brain itself, followed by a brief history of modern neuroscience and how it has changed the way we look at both the brain and psychology today. Then we explain the neural mechanisms you will strive to develop in the process of your journey to success. We did an extensive review of existing research and drew from clinical experience to create a Winner's Profile that describes five different categories of cognitive skills, which we call BrainPower Tools. You might be born with a combination of some or all of these tools functioning to varying degrees, but as we explain, you can strengthen them all through the use of the cognitive strategies we detail in the second part of the book.
In the second part of the book, outlining our eight Win Factors, we explain how readers can perfect their individual profile by enhancing eight different traits that govern how the brain approaches a variety of tasks—everything from heightening Self-Awareness (Factor #1) to using the right type of Focus at the right time (Factor #3) to building a more effective Memory (Factor #5). Much of our advice is simple and easy to implement, though some of it requires a little elbow grease (or is it "neuron grease" in this case?) to put into action. Each strategy you adopt can help you perform at a higher level.
Finally, throughout the book, you'll see dozens of simple to-do's we call Brainstorms, identified by the symbol shown at right.1
These often surprising and unexpected tactics are based on scientific research and have been designed to boost the brain's winning capabilities. There are no gimmicky games, puzzles, or twisters here—and many of our Brainstorms can be adopted and applied almost immediately.
The beauty is that everyone has what it takes to be successful, quite simply because everyone has a brain. Even if you've never tried particularly hard to harness the power of your grey and white matter, you have the capacity to transform your thinking, emotions, behavior, and even the physical structure of your brain itself to reach your full potential. You own your brain; it's available for use 24/7, free of charge. Just as doing bicep curls will reshape and add inches to your arms, exercising with the strategies we detail on the following pages will help reshape, develop, and optimize the neurocognitive characteristics that are essential for success.
One of the earliest casts of Rodin's great bronze statue The Thinker can be found in the gardens at the Musée Rodin in Paris. If you look closely at this famous muscular man perched deep in thought, you discover he is not a passive figure in any sense of the word. He leans forward, pressing his fist against his teeth and curling his toes around a rock, his entire body actively engaged in the effort of contemplation. He is powerful and full of intention. He's on the verge of putting his ideas into motion. As Rodin himself once remarked, "The fertile thought slowly elaborates itself within his brain. He is no longer a dreamer, he is a creator."
The Thinker is a perfect symbol for a book about how the human brain can be made your most valuable asset. Like The Thinker poised on the edge of a rock, you can proactively take charge of your mind, and in doing so, move from dreamer to creator, from someone who sits by and allows thoughts to wander to someone whose efforts and intentions translate into great ideas and decisive action. You can think your way to success.
You can become a Winner.

A Quick Brain Tour
WHEN MOST PEOPLE THINK about their brain, they don't think about it as an actual physical structure. To many, the brain is an undefined grey mass that somehow warehouses memories and experiences and controls all of our actions. But this is like defining a country only by its gross domestic product, when, in fact, it is really comprised of states, counties, municipalities, job sectors, companies, and individual workers, all contributing to the overall financial health of the country.
The sophisticated anatomy of the brain includes many names, but if you are unfamiliar with them, rest assured that we will explain and define them simply and clearly. We mention over and over again a few brain structures that are critical Winner's Brain areas, so here's a cheat sheet to them.
Cerebral Cortex: It's what helps you experience the world around you—and reflect upon it later. Think of this folded, wrinkled outermost covering of the brain as the hamster on the wheel responsible for generating your brain's considerable computational power. Often referred to as grey matter (its specialized brain cells, aka neurons, lack the insulation that gives much of the rest of the brain its white color), the cortex is important for your ability to process and interact with the world around you. The four lobes of the cortex each have broadly assigned, specialized functions: the occipital lobe (vision); the temporal lobe (hearing, language, memory, and object and scene recognition); the parietal lobe (somatosensory processing such as touch and temperature, visuospatial processing, attention, visually guided actions); and the frontal lobe (motor processing, working memory, decision making, and other higher mental functions).
3D rendering of Jeff Brown's brain by Mark Fenske.
The wiring underneath the cortex consists of neurons that are insulated to ensure speedy signaling. This white matter acts as the brain's switchboard, connecting the different cortical regions to each other and to the rest of the nervous system.
One of the most important bundles of white-matter fibers is the corpus callosum. It connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain that are separated by a deep groove, the longitudinal fissure, which runs straight down its middle. While each hemisphere contains essentially the same set of specialized neural structures, there tend to be some important differences between the two. The left hemisphere, for example, is a bit more involved with language and dealing with symbols, while the right hemisphere is predisposed to dealing with visual-spatial processing and recognizing faces, among other things. The corpus callosum bridges the gap, allowing the integration of information across hemispheres.
Prefrontal Cortex: Are you able to read this book while simultaneously keeping track of when to get off the bus and thinking about the emails you need to write once you get to work? This sort of mental multitasking involves the prefrontal cortex, a region associated with making decisions, forming goals, and planning how to accomplish them, as well as making predictions based on past experience and evaluating right from wrong. The forward-most part of the frontal lobe, this region also has critical influence on your personality and on proper behavior in social situations.
Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC): If you want a piece of cake while you're on a diet, the ACC helps to inform other brain structures, such as the prefrontal cortex, that there is a conflict to resolve. The ACC has many cognitive and emotion-related functions, but as it relates to a Winner's Brain, it's an area associated with detecting errors, balancing emotions, and making decisions. It resides near the front and center of the brain, right above the corpus callosum.
Insula: That wave of nausea you get when you get a whiff of sour milk is courtesy of the insula, a structure buried deep within the cerebral cortex between the temporal lobe and the parietal lobe. Its proper name is actually the insular cortex, and it's linked to perceiving and experiencing certain aspects of emotion, particularly physical and psychological revulsion, as well as perception and self-awareness of our internal bodily states.
Amygdala: This almond-shaped structure is found nestled within the medial temporal lobe on each side of the brain about two inches behind the eye. The amygdala is the structure most often associated with emotion, particularly emotionally charged memories that involve learning and responses, like touching a hot stove. If you're afraid of snakes or clowns, thank your amygdala, which appears to be the area most closely associated with identifying threats and evaluating the possibility of harm.
Hippocampus: The hippocampus is best known for its role in forming the sort of long-term memories that you can talk about and relate to others, like where you went on vacation last year or which short cut to take during rush hour. Also related to spatial navigation and memory, the hippocampus is useful in helping you successfully navigate a dark room you are familiar with. This structure resides within the medial temporal lobe; it's nestled directly behind the amygdala and gradually curves upward as it extends toward the back of the brain.
Basal Ganglia: Above the amygdala and hippocampus on each side of the brain lie a group of nuclei—compact clusters of neurons—which together are known as the basal ganglia. It is considered an important component of the brain's reward and motivational systems, and much of your get-up-and-go energy is channeled through there. It's in close communication with the cerebral cortex and, among other things, helps you perform well-practiced physical actions like tying your shoes and buttoning your shirt.
These are just the highlights, but don't forget: The entire brain works together in various ways to create Winning thoughts, emotions, and actions.

The Amazing History of Modern Neuroscience The Search for a Winning Formula
Modern neuroscience is built upon a strong foundation of individual discoveries, each of which has played its part in unraveling the mysteries of the brain and how it supports our thoughts and behavior. This foundation is critical for understanding how the brain works and identifying the specific factors involved in developing a Winner's Brain.
THE CHICAGO WORLD'S FAIR opened on May 27, 1933, forty years after the previous Chicago World's Fair, the Columbia Exposition of 1893, which had celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America. It was very much a science fair, and its lights and electricity were activated by rays from the star Arcturus, 40 light-years away. Visitors were awed by the towering dream city that rose up from what had been landfill and now stretched across the 427 acres of Burnham Park, on the shores of Lake Michigan. Though the fair was held in the depths of the Great Depression, more than 48 million people passed through its gates, gladly paying the 50 cents daily admission to witness the uncharted limits of human imagination and to feast upon all the information and experience the Great Fair had to offer.
The event was conceived as a tribute to science and technology, hence its moniker, "A Century of Progress." Its 400,000-square-foot Hall of Science included a miniature oil refinery, an exhibit on evolution, and a ten-foot-tall robot that explained digestion. On public display for one of the first times ever was a dazzling new invention called television.
And then there was the psychograph, which for just ten cents scanned a fairgoer's brain. This brain-scanning machine resembled an old-fashioned beauty salon hair dryer with dozens of long metal probes jutting from its helmet. The subject sat in a chair and the headpiece was lowered and adjusted, then the operator pulled back a lever to activate the belt-driven motor, which sent out low-voltage signals meant to map the various regions, or what the psychograph read as "organs," of the brain. Once the examination was complete, an enormous dot matrix printer whirred into action, providing each client with a personal "neuroanalysis" titled "The Guide o' Life."
The psychograph was the mechanical counterpart of a then century-old practice known as phrenology, a mixture of brain science, psychology, and philosophy. Phrenologists believed that certain traits literally shaped the brain, and the brain responded by pushing and shifting against the skull, leaving telltale lumps and divots. To phrenologists, an individual's talent and character were easily readable if you knew how to correctly interpret the skull's topography; for example, the phrenological brain spot for musicality was located at the base of the temple, just above the left eye. The justification for this was found in paintings of Mozart, who was often depicted with his finger placed on that very spot when composing music.
Before the invention of the psychograph, phrenologists relied on a series of charts superimposed upon ink drawings and plaster models of skulls to make their case. But by the turn of the twentieth century, many of their theories had been largely discredited and were beginning to be supplanted by the burgeoning fields of psychology and neuroscience. By the time the machine made its appearance at the Chicago fair, both professionals and the general public alike had come to regard phrenology as more novelty act than science (this may be why the psychograph was banished from the Hall of Science and placed among the circus and carnival attractions on the Midway; the Temple of Phrenology exhibit lay sandwiched between Midget Village and the Ripley's Believe It or Not tent, just around the corner from the flea circus).


On Sale
Mar 30, 2010
Page Count
240 pages

Jeff Brown

About the Author

Jeff Brown, PSYD, ABPP, is a cognitive behavioral psychologist at Harvard Medical School. He lives in Boston.

Mark Fenske, PhD, is a neuroscientist and associate professor in psychology at the University of Guelph. He lives in Ontario, Canada.

Learn more about this author