Improving the perfomance of the human mind

The Human Mind

If Professor Steve Peters were ever asked to provide an impact case study for a Research Excellence Framework submission, he would probably shuffle a little uncomfortably and try to divert the conversation to another topic however he has collaborated with some of the world's most elite athletes to improve their performance using his mind management principals.

Pressed for an answer, this quietly spoken, self-effacing academic might eventually invite the questioner to take a look inside the Olympic Cycling team's crowded trophy cabinet. Otherwise, he could suggest they talk to snooker star Ronnie O’Sullivan and former England and Liverpool captain, Steven Gerrard. All these elite athletes have acknowledged the impact Peters has had on improving their performance.

It was not a goal he set himself. Balancing a busy academic career with his role as a psychiatrist in the NHS was challenging enough. “But then one of my students took a job with British Cycling as a medic. He asked me for an opinion on one of the team members, which I was happy to do. Shortly after that, the head of cycling, Sir Dave Brailsford, asked if I would work with another team member. It was Sir Chris Hoy. So I went undercover to the Olympic Games where Chris won Gold, and after a year I was persuaded to go full time with the team and leave the NHS.

“I was still undercover, so to speak, as I wasn’t very keen on the limelight, and it took two more years before Dave persuaded me that, as I was now in the world of entertainment, I had to talk to the media. They were increasingly asking who I was, and what it was that I was doing with the team. It was kind of quirky, here is this guy who is in forensic psychiatry and who suddenly pops up working with Olympic squads.”

Nowadays, the Dean of Undergraduate Studies in the Sheffield Medical School is perhaps best known to the wider world as the “brain mechanic” and the author of the runaway bestseller, The Chimp Paradox.

Less well known, perhaps, he is also the Director of a recently formed not-for-profit company, Chimp Management, which is based in Sheffield and has more than 30 bright and highly motivated staff who are dedicated to “helping people get the best out of themselves and others.” At this point, Peters is keen to point out that he is “no guru” and repeatedly downplays the importance of his role in the success of others. “I just do what I do,” he says with a disarming lack of self-promotion.

He does, however, acknowledge a gift for communicating the complex neuroscience that underpins the study of the mind to a wider audience. “I was able to hone this skill over many years as an undergraduate lecturer,” says the man who was twice bestowed the University’s coveted Senate award for teaching excellence (a fact he fails to mention, and which has never been repeated).

It’s a question of finding a language that resonates with the listener or the patient – that’s the job of any doctor, to communicate well

Professor Steve Peters

"But what makes this difficult is that everybody is unique. I don’t have a recipe for success. If journalists ask me for five tips for the readers, other people might be able to do that, but I can’t."

“There are generic principles, but each person sees the world differently and has different values, dreams and aspirations. Good advice for one person, might be seriously detrimental to another. I am very much determined by the person in front of me. Some people are able to develop the skills to manage their minds and may just want to talk to me once every six months but others need what I call a mentor, someone to catalyse and give insights, but not to make decisions for them.”

When he met Chris Hoy, the athlete was eager to push his mind as well as his body to the limits. “He is a very astute and intelligent man. Chris came to me and told me he thought he was probably not using his mind to its full potential. He wanted that bit more. We talked for a while and I could see there were no deficits, there was nothing he was doing wrong, he just wanted to do more. So we sat down and worked out how to optimise his performance and use his mind even more effectively,” Peters said.

It is because we are so unique that Peters admits a grave reluctance to put pen to paper and write The Chimp Paradox. “I didn’t want people to see it as a recipe book, I wanted them to see it as a challenge. It is just a model that tries to explain how the brain works. If you access it, if you can resonate with it, then the model could work. It starts simple and gets progressively more complex. But if people take it in bite sized chunks, the complexity is still easy enough to swallow,” he said. That more than 500,000 people have bought the book, suggests that the Peters’ bite sized chunks are not only easy enough to swallow, they are being gobbled up.