Breaking Mental Barriers: The Science of Positive Thinking

It was 5:15 pm on a wet and windy day in Oxford on 6 May 1954. Roger Bannister, a 25-year-old medical student, was nervously warming up with his pacemakers at the Iffley Road Track. Bannister was about to become the first man to run a mile in under 4 minutes. It was a feat many people thought was out of reach.

Bannister scheduled his first attempt to run a sub 4-minute mile at a meet between Oxford University and the Amateur Athletic Association. He knew that weather conditions needed to be just right to break the barrier, but things weren’t looking good. Bannister had almost pulled out of the attempt because of strong winds and rain. About 30 minutes before the race, he looked at a nearby flagpole:

It fluttered more gently now, and the scene from Shaw’s Saint Joan flashed through my mind, how she, at her desperate moment, waited for the wind to change. Yes, the wind was dropping slightly. This was the moment when I made my decision. The attempt was on.

At 6 pm, the gun fired. Bannister was led by two pacemakers: Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway. Bannister tucked in behind Brasher as he completed the first half mile in 1 minute 58 seconds. Chataway then moved up to the front and led Bannister through 3 laps in 3 minutes 01 second. The sub 4-minute mile was in reach. Bannister could feel it. He would need to run the final lap in 59 seconds. Bannister went for it:

I had a moment of mixed joy and anguish, when my mind took over. It raced well ahead of my body and drew my body compellingly forward. I felt that the moment of a lifetime had come.

With 50 yards to go, Bannister’s body had long since exhausted all its energy. His physical overdraft was powered by adrenaline and motivation. He now had 5 yards to go, but the tape seemed to recede. “Would I ever reach it”, he recalls. He leapt at the tape “like a man taking his last spring to save himself from the chasm that threatens to engulf him”. He’d made it to the finish line, and his body collapsed almost unconscious. He knew he’d done it before the announcement was made. The call came over the loudspeaker – “Result of one mile... time, three minutes...” – the rest was lost in the roar of the crowd’s excitement.

Bannister's time was 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. He was the first man in history to conquer the Everest of running.

Breaking Mental Barriers

Bannister’s record is cited as one of history’s greatest athletic achievements. But why was it such a big deal? After all, records are broken regularly.

For starters, Bannister was not a professional athlete, he was a medical student. But more importantly, his story is unique because he pushed the boundaries of human capability. He showed the world that many of our barriers are psychological. We make them and we can break them with the right mindset. Bannister realised that there wasn’t a physical barrier stopping men from running the 4-minute mile.

There was a mystique, a belief that it couldn’t be done, but I think it was more of a psychological barrier than a physical barrier.

Bannister knew the 4-minute mile was possible. His positive mindset allowed his brain to focus on taking action.

Positive thinking gets a bad rap sometimes. When you hear the term, your mind might think of new age hippies meditating on a beach. But we can’t achieve our goals if we don’t break through mental barriers and then take action. Look at it this way, every single world first had to be envisioned before it became a reality. Feats as grand as putting men on the moon to something as simple as building the chair you sit in started in one person’s imagination. When we break down mental barriers and take action, we push our own limits. In turn, this provides a new reference point for others. Once Bannister had run the 4-minute mile, the world knew it was possible.

Just 46 days after Bannister set the record, it was broken by his Australian rival John Landy with a time of 3 minutes 57.9 seconds. Before Bannister broke the record, Landy had said “It’s like a brick wall. I’m not going to attempt it again.” But after Bannister had done it, Landy and the world now had a reference point. The mental barrier had been broken. Bannister opened the floodgates by proving the 4-minute mile was possible. The record has been broken many times since 1954, with Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj setting the current record of 3 minutes 43.13 seconds.

Let’s dig a little deeper into how your brain turns thoughts into reality and why positive thinking is essential to success.

How Your Brain Turns Thoughts Into Reality

Have you ever bought a new car and then noticed the same model everywhere you went? Maybe you bought a new pair of shoes and automatically started noticing other people with the same pair.

We all have these experiences. But why do they happen?

There’s a small part of your brain at the back called the Reticular Activating System (RAS). Wait! Don’t go to sleep because of the boring name. This is going somewhere. The RAS is very important in all our lives. It acts like a filter for almost all of the information that enters our brain. It determines what you’ll notice and pay attention to.

We’re bombarded by huge amounts of information every second. Your RAS deletes most of it and focusses on what’s important. As a result, your RAS is responsible for the type of lenses through which you see the world. So, when you spent time and energy researching and then buying your car, you activated your RAS. Now your brain registers anything related to the car as important, so you notice it everywhere. So, we can start to see how thoughts really do shape our reality.

You can test this out yourself. Close your eyes for a moment and focus on the colour red, then look around the room. If there’s any red at all, you’ll pick up even the smallest occurrences of it.

So, when Bannister approached the 4-minute mile as a mental challenge. His RAS started looking for solutions. In turn, he practised, found pacemakers, got feedback, and was motivated by competition. Let’s take a look at how you can use your RAS to get closer to your goals.

Thinking Positively + Action = Results

Now, we need to be clear on something. I’m not suggesting that you can simply wish your way to a good life or think positively to become a millionaire. This post isn’t about some airy fairy, light some incense, think and you shall receive crap. But I can tell you that if you think you’re always going to work a shitty job, you will. If you think you can’t lose weight or be confident, you’ll act in ways that reinforce this thanks to your RAS.  

Anyone can daydream. It takes much more to create something from nothing. To break through a psychological barrier, as Bannister did, requires both mental and physical strength.

To benefit from positive thinking, you MUST combine it with action. Here’s one way you could approach a goal you’re working on:

  1. Clearly define your end goal or outcome. It helps if you can bring it to life. Put pen to paper and describe it in detail. Or you could try drawing it out, which is a much more powerful way to turn it into something tangible. Once it's defined, review your goal daily.
  2. Come up with the three most important things you can do to move closer to your goal.
  3. TAKE ACTION! This is the most important step. It doesn’t need to be huge. In fact, the smaller the better. Just start working on the three things you came up with in Step 2 regularly.

Three Ways to Develop a Positive Mindset

Your brain behaves like a muscle. You need to exercise it to make lasting changes. Here are 3 ways you can practice building a positive mindset into your daily routine.

  1. Spend five minutes each morning practising gratitude by coming up with three answers to the question ‘what would make today great’. When you do this, you’re building new pathways in your brain that allow you to improve your well-being every day. You can buy the 5-Minute Journal if you want a pre-prepared layout for this.
  2. Develop a meditation or mindfulness routine. Again, this isn’t about some new age touchy feely stuff. There’s a lot of research that shows that people who meditate regularly are more positive, healthier, productive, and generally live a happier life.
  3. Write it out. Journaling or writing about positive events has been shown to increase mood and improve health. On the flip side, if you’re stuck on a problem, writing it out can be as useful as talking it through.

The Positive Mindset Challenge – Take Action!

I write to share my experiences and knowledge with you. But my ultimate goal is to give you information that’ll help you eat, move, and live optimally. Get these right, and you’ll transform your body and change your life. So, I like to end each post with some actionable steps you can take immediately.

To get the most out of this post, commit to trying ONE of the above methods for developing a positive mindset. Do this right now, before the opportunity passes. If you really can’t drop everything, write a reminder on a post-it note and stick it to your forehead for later. Decision creates action. Action creates results.

Add a comment below and let me know if any of these approaches have worked for you in the past, or which you’re going to try.

Finally, if you want help in putting together a customised program for your health goals with a focus on mindset, book a free consultation with me.

P.S. If you liked this blog post, I’d owe you one if you could get it out there by emailing it to a friend or sharing it on social media. You might also be interested in my free e-book The Battle Tested Body Transformation Guide.