Here are some observations made concerning psychological and cognitive aspects of the journey of Skycatcher as elaborated upon in Part One. As an 'Adventure Psychologist' and cognitive scientist interested in how the brain functions in the 'real world', such an experience is hugely rewarding to understand first hand what factors come into play, how the brain adapts to its environment, and how an individual can benefit from being exposed to the challenges thrown up by circumstance out 'in the wild'!
A key component of effective seamanship rests on the qualities of the crew. The crew must work together, shoulder responsibilities, look out for each other, work in unison, take shifts and put in extra work where needed. They must be flexible, amenable, ready to act, considerate. People come down ill, so extra responsibilities are assumed. Shift patterns necessitate a recalibration of one’s own capability and preparedness. You must learn to snatch rest when you can. I normally do not sleep well outside my own decades long established pattern. And I tend not to nap. I have a highly active mind and seek to stimulate it during rest periods. Not so on board. You work, you assist, you eat, you rest (sleep) you do it again. Get rest in the bank so that when rest is sparse and shifts double, you have enough stores of energy to get you through.
Personalities change, but groups of individuals accentuate differences, and facilitate commonalities. A rumbunctious individual may be reduced to withdrawn quietude when stricken with sea-sickness. Resolve comes out in such moments. Moods ebb and flow like the tide. Discipline is a cornerstone for prevailing, particularly against one’s normal routine.
There will be low points where you doubt yourself, your resolve, your purpose being here, even your sanity! Then the tide shifts and you perk up, finding extra energy stores, humour, capability. Enjoying yourself even in adversity. At the moment when I may have been most anxious ‘turning the corner’ rudely awakened at Land’s End, I found myself grinning manically. It felt all so surreal, wild, primal. The darkness and mist beckoned, the wind threw it’s might against us, we pitched and yawed. It was exciting! This carried me through the night with zero sleep.
Slow progress led to frustration, a sense of hopelessness. At times like these, as the Foo Fighters might have intoned, you learn to live again (!), actually no you learn to knuckle down, take redundant systems offline, focus on the task.
This latter is key and the foundation of my research into brain functioning under duress.
We have an internal focused ‘network’ of brain regions that allow thoughts to percolate, attention to wander, daydreaming to be enabled. We also have an externally focused network that processes the outside world, keeps attention on the task at hand, accommodates information from ‘out there’ that supports completion of the task. At the helm, keeping the ship a-sail, responding to environmental circumstance, necessitates being in this ‘zone’ of attention, and importantly means keeping the internally-centred network ‘switched off’. This was highly apparent when sleep deprived, struggling to keep eyelids from shuttering down the windows to the world. No room for rumination, for daydreaming. As soon as your attention falters even for a second or two, you lose course, the hand on the tiller slips and the compass bearing goes off-kilter. And at these moments just imagine a ship comes careering out of the gloom, invisible in thick sea fog. You need to be switched on at all times, alert, scanning the environment, preparing for adaptive action if need be.
Add to this the extreme fatigue, and if you lapse into daydream, then surely you will also fall swiftly asleep. Do not fall asleep at the helm!!! Number one directive at sea on lone watch (or any watch).
This situation is cognitively demanding. But the solution is an adaptive capacity to take offline the components in the brain that ‘at rest’ actually use a lot of energy and resources. And which indeed, if allowed to buzz away as background noise, will sap energy further, and reduce effectiveness on the main task. So, by being task focused, and disciplined with it, you can become more efficient, more productive. And better able to switch off unnecessary noise. Incidentally that ‘noise’ is a key component in construction of ‘self’, the internal narrative that tells us who and what we are, admonishes, critiques, distracts. Turn this off and you get a better handle on what you are capable of, losing your self momentarily, and better able to deal with circumstance and the passage of time...
Interestingly, and obviously due to extreme fatigue, you tend to fall asleep quickly. This is a revelation for someone who is normally plagued with insomnia due to an overactive ‘default mode’ (internal rumination). The very discipline of, for concerted periods of time repeated throughout the day and night, keeping my ‘task-focused’ networks on the external realm and preventing the internally-focused ‘default mode’ from activating, massively helped by ability to rest and recuperate, and sleep more or less on demand.
As a brain scientist and cognitive psychologist, the opportunity to observe how the brain operates in an extreme environment (at sea) was of great benefit to my work. I endeavoured to capture some data ‘live’ using a portable EEG system coupled with physiological data concerning ‘sympathovagal balance’ (I.e. heart rate variability which gives an indication into the status of the Autonomic Nervous System preparing the body for ‘fight/flight’ or ‘rest and recovery’). This was somewhat challenging given my multiple roles in the proceedings (crewing the vessel) as well as the conditions themselves (difficult to set up an experimental protocol whilst heeling or buffeting violently in a turbulent sea state, let alone whilst pumping out the bilge, or indulging in numerous other bespoke tasks and duties). I gained some data nevertheless, and of course the insights into the challenge of capturing meaningful data. Observational insights were invaluable throughout of course, not least from an introspective perspective, seeing and feeling first hand what it is like to go through this experience. And I got sea sick for a good day and a half at the start of the proceedings which hampered my abilities significantly early on!
Nevertheless, being at sea under conditions where inevitably things go wrong and one must deviate from the plan, is an invaluable experience to develop an ‘adventure mindset’. It encourages flexibility in attitude, and a capacity to adapt to circumstance. Resolve is built through the process, sometimes quite challenging, and an ability to focus on what needs to be done. The result of this is better control over one’s own distracting mind, and ultimately a greater efficiency in brain functioning! Finally, the ‘self’ becomes better controlled – by learning to ‘switch it off’, or at least give it less indulgent attention or pander to its needs. And from this process, one grows, develops, becomes more attuned to one’s capabilities. The trick is how to RE-ADAPT once back on land, for that is when the culture shock comes back to the fore! After a night or two of rest and sleep restored, you ‘ll be clamouring to be back out in the blue, plying the waves and broadening your mind!!
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