Rewire your brain with Mindful, Purposeful Swimming
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on April 1st, 2010

Dr. Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin brought 32 subjects to his lab for study. Half were Buddhist monks, each with 10,000 to 50,000 hours of meditation experience. The rest were “control subjects” of similar age with no previous training, who were taught the fundamentals of compassion meditation for two weeks prior to the experiment.

All were placed in an MRI scanner and asked to think loving thoughts about friends or family, then to think compassionately about people in general. When the monks meditated this way, their left frontal cortex—where optimistic and constructive thinking happens– showed at least 100 percent greater activation; two showed increases of 700 to 800 percent! The novice meditators increased activity in that area by just 10 percent.

This study was the first to document that thinking patterns can be improved . . . in the same way as skills for, say, music or sports . . . by stimulating cell growth in the region of the brain where that kind of neural activity occurs. The scans revealed that the monks, through thousands of hours of meditation, had grown significantly more robust brain circuits and, with it, the ability to generate far more “brainpower” in that region.

“People are not stuck at preset points,” Dr. Davidson says. “We can take advantage of our brain’s plasticity and train it to enhance chosen qualities.” In a study at Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MRI scans showed that regular practice of mindfulness increased cortical thickness in the brain region we use to sustain attention and increase sensory awareness – precisely what it takes to improve stroke efficiency. This proves that the habits of excellent swimming are wired into the brain by targeted practice.

12 Responses to “Rewire your brain with Mindful, Purposeful Swimming”

  1. Terry, you are transcending the label of a swim instructor. I’m not sure what your new label will be…

  2. Suzanne
    You’ve read my mind. I’ve been thinking lately that the job description “swim coach” is no longer accurate for TI coaches. I’ve been pondering what might replace it. One term that came to mind is “Swimming Advocate.” We persuade people of the physical and mental benefits of mindful, purposeful swimming then show them how to maximize them.
    I kinda like the ring of Advocate – like Coach, both a verb and a noun.

  3. robpolley says:


    1. I’m getting the same basic message from several sources now – that is, our brains can change/learn at any age. I recently read 2 books – Social Intelligence and Emotional Intelligence that deliver the same message.

    2. Regarding the title – a few years ago, a guy named Guy Kawasaki had the title “software evangelist” for Apple Computer. Maybe Swimming Evangelist would work.

    3. Maybe what you are doing is even bigger than what you are thinking – maybe you are REDEFINING what it means to be a swim coach, or a coach of anything!

    In the back of my mind, as I read and participate in the TI system, my overriding thought is, “Finally, someone gets the drills, the goals, and the mental side of this sport!

    Many thanks for all you are doing!


  4. Kevin Dees says:

    Your total immersion swimming techniques have changed my life and world for the better. I’m learning how to surrender more and more to the water each day. Thanks for adding peace to my swimming practice.
    Today, getting in the water is an integral part of my spiritual recovery.
    I try to say this famous prayer (to the water) before entering the water… some believe that God is in everything…. “God… i offer myself to you… to build with my and do with me what you will… relieve me of the bondage of self abandonment… that I may better do your will… take away my difficulties so that victory over them would be a witness to those I would help of your power, your love, and your way of life.” – Then I slide in the water and practice total surrender.

  5. Rob
    Let’s get together after I return to New Paltz following marathon #1 in Tampa Bay. I’ll be back around Apr 28. Would love to meet for a bite or a beverage and a chat.

  6. Kevin I’m delighted to hear you get spiritual sustenance from your swimming practice. It increases the similarities with yoga, which of course started thousands of years ago as a spiritual practice.

  7. Will Hayden says:

    The phenomenon you are describing is often referred to as neuroplasticity. In essence it says that the brain is not “hard wired” as people used to assume. It changes minute to minute with each experience.

    Neuroplasticity is the new big thing in psychology and social work. I think it’s a great thing to inform your swim fans about!

    Though not about sports and swimming, there is an excellent book about how brains develop over the lifespan called the Neuroscience of Human Relationships by Louis Cozolino. His book discusses the brain as a social organ that needs contact with other brains (aka people) to grow and function well.

    If you’re at all interested in how the brain continues to grow and change over the lifecourse, it’s worth a look.

  8. Carl Feldstein says:

    We are the sum total of our thoughts. Imagine having a swimming mantra repeated over and over again. As we reach and pull we repeat our mantra driving the thought deep into our sub conscious. Each stroke takes us to the change we desire. The swim is a time to relax, to reach, to grow, to change. Is any one doing this? If so what are your successes? What changes have you seen come together. Two thousand strokes, Four thousand strokes. We can change the world with our swimming mantra.

    Imagine we all had the same mantra. That synergy can be all powerful. What Mantra do you suggest.

  9. Carl
    How about “Swim WITH the Water.”

  10. Will
    Thank you for that recommendation. I’ll order that book today – Kindle edition if it’s available. The social interaction aspect of stimulating neuroplasticity is one of those that holds particular interest for me as interacting with swimming partners – synchronizing stroke tempo’s, making micro-adjustments in course and pace to stay in synch with them — is one of my favorite exercises in open water. We demonstrate such exercises in the Swimming With Friends section of our open water video, “Outside the Box.”

  11. Maryjane says:

    Hello Terry,
    I live in Italy but in the summer, I am on the east coast, in Maine. But every summer, I notice there are no TI courses in New England. How can I convince you to offer a course one summer? I would love to improve my swimming and doing it with a book is just not the same as taking a lesson with a person.

  12. Maryjane. Summers in NE, particularly ME, and colder months in Italy sound like a felicitous combination. I suggest you contact our coach in ME, Bob Nelson and let him know of your interest in TI instruction —

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