Breathe, breathe in the air
Don't be afraid to care
Leave but don't leave me
Look around, choose your own ground
For long you live and high you fly
And smiles you'll give and tears you'll cry
And all your touch and all you see
Is all your life will ever be
Breathe – Pink Floyd
Nowadays it’s fashionable to breathe.
It never used to be. You just did it. All was banal. But then people used to drink water from the tap, or draw it out of a well. Instead we now consume it by the gallon (litre) in plastic bottles manufactured god knows where. And supposedly containing some pure spring water from France or high in some distant magical land where the air is fresh, the water clear, the animals frolic in a Pixar like haven of serenity....
We’ll believe (or subscribe to, and pay for) anything these days.
Having said that there is nothing new under the sun as they say. It was in fact always fashionable to breathe. If you belonged to a certain enlightened class. Or social set. Or partied with the Maharishi and were part of the rock star or celebrity firmament.
Yoga. Qi gong. Meditative practices, Zen or otherwise. Systems that were pre-packaged in an earlier age. Ritualised and followed with zeal. The promise of Samsara. Or Nirvana. Or just peace amidst chaos.
Now it’s Wim Hof and the new marketing era is upon us. It’s fast becoming the trend to breathe once again. A different guru. One that wears his achievements on his sleeve, claims to have the Academy beating down his door to establish credibility and reveal hitherto misapprehended mechanisms of the human physique (and mind). Breathing is more than fashionable; it's becoming a way of life.
Have we really lost touch with how to breathe? Or did in fact we not know how to do so in the first place? Perhaps it’s as much a testament to the fast paced, hypertense time in which we are living. Threats have retreated from the forest shadows to be replaced with the anxiety of an always-on cultural sensibility. Where too much choice, or the disparaging glances of a narcissistic society impress a more insidious stress upon us: a constant effort to maintain a façade, keep up with the zeitgeist of opinion, gossip, alignment to causes, dispositions, and the proliferation self-branding that keeps all the social media plates spinning all the time.
Breathing the new way (or is it the old?) is about centering oneself. Re-establishing control over one’s hyperactive physiognomy as it remains electrified with all this pallaver in the world. Deeper, more fulsome inspirations. Languorous, controlled expirations. Slowing the system down. Re-connecting homeostatically with the parasympathetic system (Jerath et al, 2006).
This is at core about attention.
How and where one focuses attention ultimately governs one’s control over self, one’s response (reactive or, optimally, proactive) to the environment. To allow ourselves to be at the behest of environment, and reactive homeostasis (internal environment or bodily state) is to invite stress and entropy (towards chaos) into our personal space. Like a badly inflated balloon that increasingly bows to the ambient pressure outside (or a plastic bottle sinking ever deeper into the ocean), we will soon collapse inward, unable to balance our demeanour relative to our surroundings, helpless, subsumed. But if we can expand our own internal pressure, if not to resist so much as balance, establish equilibrium with the outside forces, then we are in a better place, asserting our own rightful position in the scheme of things. With a little practice and a little extra impetus, exertion, our inner pressure, can more than compensate for the outer, and propel us more assertively into the world to transport ourselves where we deign necessary. And to leave our mark as active agents.
From this perspective we might then see breathing as indeed that expression of a capacity to stamp our mark on our environment. Far better to be buoyant and capable of drifting on the wind than being subject to crushing gravitational forces that perpetually squash any capacity to move.
Evidence suggests (Jerath et al, 2006) that slowing the breath, taking it in more deeply, can help downregulate the sympathetic nervous system that normally prepares the individual for action, response (‘flight or fight’), and instead brings to bear the Parasympathetic Nervous System. This component of the Autonomic Nervous System is responsible for maintaining bodily functions when the individual is at rest, sustaining basic functions pertaining to feeding, digesting. These are the vital functions that can get on with keeping the organism operating properly (and optimally). We need to counterbalance a proclivity to be hyper stimulated, overactive in Sympathetic activation. Otherwise we are in danger of burn out due to stress, manic responsivity and preparedness to act constantly to keep attuned to a chaotic environment. Even on the Savannah, prey must find down time to rest and recuperate. As with the predator.
How we breathe has ramifications for our cognition. It is no coincidence, from this standpoint, that systematized practices with ancient origins reveal cognitive benefits when subject to more in-depth (scientific) scrutiny. Meditation is good for you! At the heart of meditative and mindful pratices the world over, is a strong tradition of focus on observing one’s breathing, and seeking to relax and breathe more slowly and deeply (as is won’t to be the case with relaxation anyway, including the aforementioned down regulation of SNS and instantiation of PNS activity). Restricting breathing can have marked impeding effects on cognition (Paulus et al., 2012), unsurprisingly. Attention is disrupted and alerted to a homeostatic change that will accompany circumstances that prompt a shift in respiratory patterns (Heck et al., 2017; Paulus et al., 2012). This invokes interoceptive signalling.
The insular cortex is involved in the regulation of homeostasis (Craig, 2002; Craig, 2009; Strigo and Craig, 2017; Hannapour et al., 2018), including processing the attentional salience of information pertaining to bodily state awareness in response to environmental changes. Ultimately, this leads to the formation of emotional responses based upon this information. The sensation (interoceptive awareness) of perceived pain is also modulated by respiration, including reduced perceived intensity with slow, deep breathing, and with inspiration – breathing in (Heck et al., 2017). My own Master’s thesis (Gallagher,1995) concerned attentional focus on a particular form of (Tibetan) meditative chanting, key in which is the proper expression of a mantra, or phrase done in conjunction with diaphragmatic breathing on the exhalation, intoned with a resonant sound. As with singing. The central proposition of my research was how this attentional focus, and it’s bearing on how the brain galvanises executive control processes, can mitigate against response to homeostatic signals of an interoceptive and noxious nature. In short, pain. Cold stressor pain, this being a proxy for environmental cold stress. One observation, aside from an increased capacity to tolerate the cold stressor when accompanied with this attentional focus on a meditative technique, was that the decision to withdraw from the test (the time course to such a decision being the dependent variable metric) would occur at the renewal point in the cycle of breaths - i.e at the termination of an iteration of chanting coinciding with the end of the exhalation...
So if you want to improve your cognition, and enhance your health, both physical and mental, you need to breathe. There are techniques available to assist you in doing this correctly, including devices that you can employ to provide the right feedback to this progress. There is a revolution afoot, and at our disposal are many sources of inspiration. Although we mustn’t neglect the expiration! Indeed, a line of thinking proposes that a key to increased cardiovascular fitness and which benefits the whole mind-body collective, relates to CO2 tolerance (https://powerspeedendurance.com/experiments-art-breath/). A test of one’s capacity to tolerate build up of CO2 involves nasal breathing and a long controlled exhalation (through the nose, as we should only ‘blow out’ CO2 via the mouth when ‘hanging out’ as it were during intense exercise) for as long as can be managed. ‘Normal’ is in the range of 20-40 seconds, and ‘elite’ might be seen above 80 seconds. Interestingly, when I tried this, and having always felt prone to inefficient breathing patterns marked by irregular and tense characteristics, I expected to perform poorly. My first attempt came in at around 68 seconds, and moments later (though you aren’t meant to repeat this), I managed 87 seconds! This is why it is important to gain objective measures of one’s behaviour – we seldom exhibit in our self-perception the characteristics that manifest to others!
Forget what you ‘know’. Find objectivity in your quest to improve and optimise yourself. Breathing is a means to centre your ‘self’. It is a direct route into your homeostatic functions that you can access and direct. It can restore balance (‘sympathovagally’) and set you on course to focus your mind, intention, attention. Consequently, this is the route towards achieving goals, performing at your best, and being in tune with the environment.
Inhale, sigh and let all it all out, repeat.
Craig, A. D. (2002). How do you feel? Interoception: the sense of the physiological condition of the body. Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 3, 655–666. doi: 10.1038/nrn894
Craig, A.D. (2009). How do you feel — now? The anterior insula and human awareness. Nature REviews Neuroscience. 10, 59-70
Gallagher, D (1995). Cognitive-Induced Analgesia: Attentional Processes and Meditative Chanting. MSc thesis, Lancaster University.
Hassanpour, M.S., Simmons, W.K., Feinstein, J.S., Luo, Q., Lapidus, R.C., Bodurka, J., Paulus, M.P., and Khalsa, S.S. (2018), The Insular Cortex Dynamically Maps Changes in Cardiorespiratory Interoception. Neuropsychopharmacology, 43, 426–434
Heck, D. H., McAfee, S. S., Liu, Y., Babajani-Feremi, A., Rezaie, R., Freeman, W. J., Wheless, J. W., Papanicolaou, A. C., Ruszinkó, M., Sokolov, Y., & Kozma, R. (2017). Breathing as a Fundamental Rhythm of Brain Function. Frontiers in neural circuits, 10, 115. https://doi.org/10.3389/fncir.2016.00115
Jerath, R., Edry, J.W., Barnes, V.A. and Jerath, V. (2006). Physiology of long pranayamic breathing: Neural respiratory elements may provide a mechanism that explains how slow deep breathing shifts the autonomic nervous system. Medical Hypotheses Volume 67, Issue 3, , Pages 566-571
Paulus, M.P., Flagan, T., Simmons, A.N., Gillis, K., Kotturi, S., Thom, N., Johnson, D.C., Van Orden, K.F., Davenport, P.W. and Swain, J.L. (2012). Subjecting Elite Athletes to Inspiratory Breathing Load Reveals Behavioral and Neural Signatures of Optimal Performers in Extreme Environments. Plos One, 7, 1-11
Strigo I.A., and Craig A.D. (2016). Interoception, homeostatic emotions and sympathovagal balance.Phil. Trans. R. Soc.B371: 20160010.
“To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom” - Socrates (said just before he scored the winning goal...)
To quantify thyself...well that’s the key to measurable improvement... -Me, just now
Today I am unleashing my inner cyborg.
To access my ‘optimal state’, I need to plug in. As a step towards becoming that self-actualised ‘guru’ fully in tune with mind and body first I need a little feedback. Fortunately, science and technology are providing the tools for this.
I sit here ‘wired up’ and ready to roll. On my head is a Muse-S EEG system to monitor brain activity and cognitive-attentional state. The latest complement to this, and a key tool in the armoury, is a Polar H10 chest strap sitting just above my diaphragm. The latter measures my Heart Rate Variability. In lay person’s terms this refers to the variation between individual heart beats over time, and is an indicator of ‘sympathovagal balance’ (Strigo and Craig, 2016). It essentially refers to how your brain-body system uses the ‘accelerator’ and ‘brakes’ of the two main functions of your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), to prepare your ‘homeostatic’ response to the environment. This means being ‘in sync’ and either ready for action, or in a state of rest and recovery: towards a healthier, positive and more balanced state of being. These two functions are the Sympathetic (SNS) and Parasympathetic (PNS) Nervous Systems. The former prepares the body to act, react (fight or flight), to rise to a challenge and to engage with stress. The latter promotes recovery, compensates to stress, puts the ‘brakes’ on so to speak.
If we are in a state of high Sympathetic activity all the time (always ‘on’) we are over stressed, and prone to the onset of ill-health. If we are 'overly' Parasympathetic we might not be getting out and about much or getting stuff done! It’s all about the balance.
Using 'tech' that is now freely available, we can seek to gain direct feedback over the ANS and thereby influence our own responses to stress, and a method of entry into an optimal state. Which is not to be sniffed at in today’s stressed out world!
I shall delve deeper into the world of breathing elsewhere, as this is a key facet of gaining control over this homeostatic state of affairs, including harnessing attention, and a productive, task focused mindset. It also serves to calm the overactive default mode and clear the mind. For now though, it is sufficient to understand that with tools such as the Polar H10, we can quickly gain insight into our current state of sympathovagal balance, and recognise the signs and symptoms of stress-response, as well as relaxation-response. Then we can seek to redress that balance at will.
There are performance implications for turning up and down the SNS and PNS in relation to each other and the environment in which we are operating, especially with respect to cognitive functioning. Again, I will seek to unpack this at a later date, but suffice to say when thoughts are racing through your head, a little Parasympathetic ‘exertion’ can seek to slow the system down, to deactivate elements within the default mode, and regain a sense of composure. Clearing the mind as it were. Conversely, ramping up the SNS to a degree (whilst maintaining a little PNS in the mix) can give sufficient impetus towards attentional focus and motivation when addressing situations that require cognitive resource. This includes the ‘executive processes’ that govern problem-solving and decision-making. Indeed, it is said that there is an ‘optimal balance’ between the two, and that this can be quantified numerically at around 92% SNS and 8% PNS (Chin and Kales, 2019). This seems to engage so-called ‘flow’ and provides the right combination of acceleration and braking to hit that racing line round the bend, and a high level of performance....
With the sorts of cheap devices mentioned to plug ourselves into, we can explore further how to get the most out of our engine (in conjunction with the knowledge of how the system works, combining brain and body functions harmoniously).
The approach I take (and offer) is to understand how different variables affect this capacity to balance competing systems and functions so as to get the most out of performance. That performance may be a productive state of action and task-focus. It may also be a means to gain composure and reduce stress and anxiety influences on one’s state of mind. But equally it is about setting the right conditions to achieve the desired balance. This additionally means looking at the environment in which you are situated, and thinking about how to better design it, adapt it, tailor it to your needs. The ultimate goal is to align ‘you’ harmoniously with ‘it’, and thereby facilitate said balance, motivation, and, of course, optimal performance! Imagine if you could not only understand how to dial up and down your own responses to favourably adapt to your environment, but also had the wherewithal to tweak and shape the environment to facilitate getting the best out of those responses...The possibilities in your favour would shift exponentially!
The key to satisfaction and productivity in life is rooted in the ‘self’: how it is managed, and balanced in accordance with the environment and the body within which it is situated. Take heart (pun unintended) that it can be quantified, modified, and developed...
Let us therefore come together, like The Borg (!), and assimilate the knowledge and technology that is at our disposal. The future (of self) is an inevitable fusion of mind-body, and insight-enabling, wearable tech!!!
Chin, M.S. and Kales, S.N. (2019). Is There an Optimal Autonomic State for Enhanced Flow and Executive Task Performance? Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 1716
Strigo I.A., and Craig A.D. (2016). Interoception, homeostatic emotionsand sympathovagal balance.Phil. Trans. R. Soc.B371: 20160010.
By way of further utlity for this line of thinking, Segerstrom and Nes (2018) have identified a correlation between the capacity to exhibit self-control, via regulatory behaviours - such as choosing not to satisfy a behavioural impulse, or deciding to take a healthier option instead of a less healthy one - and heart rate variability. So higher HRV predicts, and associates with, better self-regulation (the experimental example involved eating carrots versus cookies!). The ramifications for this are that if one can become more attuned to techniques and attentional focus that affect Parasympathetic activation, one can potentially increase one's self-control. In fact the benefits of making this psycho-physiological association lead to a conclusion that if one concentrates on addressing one's HRV, by mindful attention, breath control and a commitment to exercise, then cardiac 'fitness' will indeed improve. It's a healthy choice in itself to elect to pursue this strategy! The beauty of making such a 'no-brainer' decision, is that immediately, by this logic, you are affecting your HRV, and the associated Paraysmpathetic variables. Simply nodding along to this proposition as you read it and saying to yourself "yes, that's what I could do with doing" is initiating the process of wresting back control over your autonomic nervous system response to circumstance, a capacity for self-control, and a path to enhanced health, fitness and a more productive and satisfied life! (Make sure to take a nice slow deep breath whilst you read and nod.) So what are you waiting for, go grab a carrot!!!
Segerstrom, S.C. and Nes, L.S. (2018). Heart Rate Variability Reflects Self-Regulatory Strength, Effort, and Fatigue. Psychol Sci,18(3):275-81
“The Brain — is wider than the Sky --
For — put them side by side --
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside “
How often do you look up? (And no it’s not a trick question a la Shaun of the Dead - that most pressing of conundra: “can dogs look up?”)
Do you spend time casting your eyes towards the heavens, to soak it all up, gain perspective, broaden your horizons?
It’s a simple notion, that to gaze skywards is uplift one’s spirits. Surely it’s no coincidence that some of the greatest works of art, architecture of the Renaissance were concerned with promoting heavenly glory, compelling common Man to crane ‘his’ neck to regard the great cathedral spires, take in the Cistine chapel’s ceiling, as painted by Signor Michaelangelo and Sons.
In the same period of history, astronomy moved forward, with hugely significant progression in thought and importantly perspective as the earth ceased to be regarded as the centre of the universe. That honour shifted to the sun, courtesy of the likes of Nicolas Copernicus, with the proposition that the earth and other celestial bodies of the solar system relegated to supporting roles orbiting the parent star. Galilei Galileo corroborated Copernicus, Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler established precise measurements of the planets and stars and their movements. Perception of Humanity’s place in the scheme of things fundamentally shifted, downgrading our collective ego somewhat, and perhaps instilling some humility into the proceedings!
So a simple act of looking up can conjure up something of that heritage of revived thought, vision, and perspective that might otherwise be lacking as we shuffle through our daily lives hunched and mesmerised by a small rectangular object nestled in our hand, dancing our fingertips over it’s surface as if in a bizarre mockery of Mozart’s efforts to create piano music for the ages.
There is a burgeoning area of research into the psychology of ‘Awe’ which probes our relationship with environments, vistas, aesthetic interactions and the effect on our perceptions, emotions, and general wellbeing (Guan et al., 2018; Yaden et al., 2016). This field asserts how standing at the edge of spectacular natural landscape (or work of art) can overwhelm the viewer’s mind to the extent that the mindset itself must shift, re-organise. This is the principle of ‘accommodation’. Our minds sometimes cannot accommodate scenes or experiences that: a) we have not encountered at such scale before; b) are so complex and rich and for which we have no prior reference. This is perceptually, conceptually and emotionally overwhelming. The only solution is to ‘upgrade’ one’s cognition, re-order one’s mental models, and incorporate new information into the scheme of things. Stretching the mind so to speak.
It is not necessarily practical to roll out of bed and straight onto the edge of the Grand Canyon. And the nearest cathedral may be out of reach (particularly in lockdown times). But the beauty of the imaginative and enterprising mind is that it can appropriate the stimulus in other more accessible ways. By looking up. By taking in the vast dome that is the sky. By casting off the shackles of earthbound (phonebound) attention. By projecting into the stratosphere.
We tend to fluctuate constantly in our attention, between things ‘out there’ which serve a purpose (“where did I put my trousers”) and the stuff that babbles away inside (“what shall I have for dinner”). This constant flux creates a restless mind, one that is driven by impulse, by anxiety, by a hyperactivity that is the cause for stress, uncertainty, lack of productivity. We don’t focus on one thing, less so the aesthetic properties of our environment that can, for a moment, re-invigorate the senses, and stimulate the mind to wider ambitions. It takes a simple effort of will to break out of that reflexive mode for a moment, to look outwards and broaden one’s view. And looking upwards, regarding the sky, trying to take it all in (you won’t be able to), is a valuable exercise, and lesson, in stretching the mind. As you pull back your shoulder, your lungs open, so take a deep breath! Expand your awareness AND your physique at the same time...
Look up! (because unlike dogs, you can!)
Guan, F. Xiang, Y., Chen, O, Wang, Wand Chen, J. (2018). Neural Basis of Dispositional Awe. Front. Behav. Neurosci., (12) 209, 1-7
Yaden, D.B., Iwry, J., Slack, K.J., Eichstaedt, J.C., Zhao, Y., Vaillant, G.E. and Newberg, A.B. (2016). The Overview Effect: Awe and Self-Transcendent Experience in Space Flight. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, 3, (1), 1–11
Do you fantasise about a brighter future? Revelling in the success of achievement, and enjoying the fruits of a dream lifestyle?
Well don’t. Because it won’t get you anywhere. It will remain simply that. A fantasy. Doesn’t this run counter to all that positive thinking, the intonations of the self-help movement that stipulate all your dreams will come true if you spend time thinking, believing it will come to pass?!
Actually, serious research shows that simply fantasising about this future utopian state has the effect of NOT leading to the realisation of dreams. You don’t end up doing anything about it. Because you are enjoying the fantasy rather than tackling the reality of your current situation (Kappes and Oettingen, 2011; Oettingen et al., 2009; Oettingen and Schworer, 2013). Experiments revealed that people were less likely to achieve goals such as losing weight, improving their academic scores or other domains of visualised success when they fantasised positively about the end rewards. This is thought to be because the brain does not feel motivated to put the effort into achieving said goals, as if they already have occurred.
Don’t panic, it’s not all doom and gloom. You can recover the baby before it goes down the sink along with the bathwater. There is a way to realise your dreams, and it does involve fantasising. But that’s not all. The strategy of ‘Mental Contrasting’ is what has been shown to be effective in galvanising individuals towards pursuit (and achievement) of goals. The conceit is straightforward. By all means think about your future goal, the positives associated with that, but instead of indulging in such thoughts, pull back your attention to focus on the current reality - the elements of your life that do not conform to this rosy picture. This sets up an opposition, a tension between what you have now that is holding you back, and what you desire in the future as the associated ‘reward’. In effect you present yourself with the scenario that current reality is an obstacle that needs to be addressed, tackled, surmounted inorder to progress towards the future ‘you’. This is impetus for progress.
Most significantly, it has been shown that by seeing the present and future worlds in this contrasting, obstacle strewn way, you energise your system ready to rise to the challenge of moving forward. This is associated with changes in systolic blood pressure. By setting challenges which have an end-state goal associated with these, the cardiovascular system responds to supply increasing demand for oxygen and nutrients that are required for the effort involved in rising to the occasion. This is a mobilisation of reserves that excites the system as a call to action! The higher the expectations that you can set with respect to the overcoming of present challenges towards achievement of future goals, the more your sympathetic nervous system responds in this way – it thrives on excitement!
So as a pragmatic approach towards focusing on future goals and activating behaviour change at a neurocognitive and physiological level, take stock of your current predicament, be realistic about the obstacles that surround you (be they circumstantial or pertaining to aspects of your own attitudes and behaviours). Seek to draw on the negatives as Impetus to mobilise energy to overcome the challenges these represent!
So, to reiterate, behaviour change and motivated action towards goal achievements can be progressed using visualisation techniques, and drawing on the brain’s capacity for ‘Mind-Wandering’. But this requires a dose of realism injected into the proceedings. The future is the yang, the bright and positive, the present is the yin, the dark and negative. The contrast is what gives the capacity to move fom present to future, and with it comes a mechanism for physiological mobilisation of resources to get things going!
So I ask you again. Do you want to imagine a brighter future, or do you want to change a darker present? Dial up the contrast and see what happens...
Kappes, H. B., and Oettingen, G.(2011). Positive fantasies aboutidealized futures sap energy.J. Exp.Soc. Psychol. 47, 719–729.
Oettingen, G., Mayer, D., Sevincer, A.T., Stephens, E. J., Pak, H., andHagenah, M. (2009). Mental con-trasting and goal commitment: themediating role of energization.Pers.Soc. Psychol. Bull. 35, 608–622.
Oettingen, G.,and Schworer, B (2013). Mind wanring via mental contrasting as a tool for behavior change. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 562
"The Eagle has landed"
- Neil Armstrong, The Moon, 1969
Neil Armstrong takes control of the Eagle lunar module as the autopilot threatens to land on the rocky flank of a large crater. He determines that such a location might unbalance the craft and compromise safety of the crew and the mission. Too much is at stake, but still, the consequences of making a ‘manual’ mistake are unthinkable...Under the weight of pressure of an entire planet watching through splayed fingers, he maintains impeccable composure as fuel dwindles and a safe spot can be found to touch down. The world breathes a sigh of relief and a cheer resonates across the globe!
What distinguishes a ‘high’ performer from a ‘low’ performer? How does stress impact on ability to maintain composure and fulfil the task at hand?
Stress affects people in different ways. Different types of stress can affect a single person in different ways...
Environmental stress including heat, cold, reduced oxgyen availability (such as in high altitude environs), as well as more ‘commonly experienced’ stressors such as noise, vibration - in industrial settings for instance), or even the ‘workload’ in everyday life, be it cognitive, or physical, all have an impact on one’s ability to perform tasks, from simple to complex, familiar to novel (Taylor et al., 2015).
It is pretty much a ‘given’ that with increasing stress, to a critical mass, it doesn’t matter who ‘you’ are, stress will get the better of you, and your performance will suffer. There is no ‘superhuman’ who is impervious to high stress-loads (I have met and associated with many individuals who exhibit high levels of performance under extreme conditions, and all seem pretty ‘normal’ to me – at least in the sense of sharing ‘standard’ personality traits, hopes and fears, insecurities, character flaws that signify their being all members of the human race – give or take the odd ‘lunatic’ characteristic!). Having said that, individuals DO have the capacity to deal with that stress in ways that adaptively compensate for the stress, and perform ‘optimally’, or at least manage to stave off ‘suboptimality’. This appears to be down to strategic management of the stressor context, and the task demands of the moment. By studying examples of this ‘high performance’ demographic (which is not exclusive to athletes, impresarios, elite ‘operators’, executive managerial types, by the way) we can learn how ‘stress-management’ is indeed a strategy rather than an innate, inborn trait per se. Strategies can be learnt, the principles behind them applied to any individual to improve capacity for resilience, adaptation, and ‘optimal performance’.
Thus, it is the contention that ‘optimal performance’, particularly under stress, is derived from efficiency and effective ‘streamlining’ of cognitive and attentional resources that ‘prune off’ redundant activity in the brain and maximise ‘spend’ of the available energy towards the task at hand. The brain is a highly redundant, plastic organ that prides itself in finding multiple avenues to tackle problems, using its plethora of functions and processes to connect together different regions with specialised functioning to arrive at the solution. Its plasticity is evident in cases of brain injury where one area takes on the role and functioning of another that has been damaged (blind people ‘see’ by adaptively using their visual cortical areas to map the world, extending their other sensory capabilities into these ‘redundant spaces’). It’s the reason why learning new skills is easier when one is younger but as more ‘fixed’ patterns emerge and consolidate into older age, that plasticity is less in evidence.
A particular connection of ‘nodes’ or regions with specialised functions come together to more ‘globalised’ effect dependent on cognitive demands, particularly with respect to goal-directed behaviour and the governance of attention. The Central Executive or ‘Task-Positive’ Network (TPN) does this in order to galvanise resource towards performance on specific tasks, including processing of salient cues in the environment that facilitate ‘getting the job done’ appropriately. Meanwhile, a separate network of specialised nodes forms strong connections when at rest, or when thoughts wander ‘off-task’ - the so-called Default Mode Network (DMN). The strength of connectivity or ‘activation’ of these networks fluctuates, along with attention when the individual preserves or relinquishes focus on the task at hand – favouring the task-positive network when ‘on-task’ and the default mode network when ‘off-task’. This is clearly displayed in experimental studies using neuroimaging and other measures of attention and cognition. There will be times when ‘default mode’ activation remains to some degree ‘on’ even when a task is being performed successfully, but this may be due to the nature of the task requiring some input from this ‘internal cognition’ status (for instance where reliance on memory for past events – autobiographical memory – inform the current task requirements, or perhaps simulation of future events that help solve the current problem and which draw on ‘self-referential’ mental content). There is a broader role also for the default mode network in ‘broadband’ monitoring of the external environment pertaining to potential updates in information that need to be factored into current attention task-focus. [See various reference sources, selectively: Kirshner et al., 2012; Lin et al., 2017; Mittner et al., 2016]
A further network known as the Salience Network plays an important executive role in determining where attention is deployed – externally (goal-focused and ‘task-positive’) or internally (allowing ‘mind-wandering’, spontaneous off-task thought to arise, or as mentioned, in the case of DMN ‘self-referent’ thinking relevant to the current task, or even in situations where creative thinking can provide new ideas and solutions through a focused use of DMN functioning) [see Chand et al., 2017]. Finally, the Salience Network comprises two sub-networks, the Dorsal Attentional Network (DAN) which is more concerned with goal-directed, top-down facilitated or ‘voluntary’ attention subserving cognitive processes, and the Ventral Attentional Network (VAN), which is involved in orienting attention to unexpected behaviourally salient cues, and has a role in emotional processing. The DAN will come in to play ‘effortfully’ to put attention ‘back on track’ where it threatens to be derailed from the task at hand by spontaneously arising ‘off-task’ thought, restoring functional connectivity to the TPN and deactivating the DMN. Meanwhile, and of relevance to a discussion on stress effects, where the individual struggles to disengage from the environment and the stress it is imposing currently, the VAN has been shown to display heightened functional connectivity, and a proclivity of the system to processing the emotional ramifications of the situation, preventing deactivation of the DMN and the optimised shifting to a more TPN state that enables fulfilment of task goals (Soares et al., 2013).
What this all points to is an interconnected system of functions that favour external versus internal processing demands and which require some executive level decisions to be made on how to ‘spend’ resource in order to perform as required on the job that needs to be done. As with any system, under times of increasing strain, greater efficiency of spend is required to balance budgets and prioritise who or what gets the funds necessary to benefit the system as a whole for its immediate survival needs.
The biological system has a robust mechanism in place to deal with stress and attempt to redress the balance in needs and task requirements - a compensatory control mechanism that will ‘boost’ resources where needed to preserve performance on task (Hockey, 2007; 2011). Physiological reserves, if you like, being made available to give the brain extra energy to refocus on it’s goals. Imagine you are coming down from the top of a mountain, but cannot afford to slip and have an accident – the goal is getting safely back down, the summit representing only 50% of your true goal. You are tired, stumbling, low in fuel, but it is imperative you retain concentration, take the correct route, don’t succumb to fatigue. Your system, with extra effort injected will compensate. You’ll be doubly tired later on, but for now the extra effort is required. Adrenaline serves this function in fight or flight scenarios where pain is masked, one ‘fights on’ or runs away from the danger. The ‘dump’ comes later on as the cost of using reserves depletes the system more significantly when the danger is gone and recuperation is possible in the safety of ‘home’.
However, there comes a point when stress-loading is too great. There is nothing left ‘in the tank’ to boost flagging reserves. inevitably the system is compromised and performance suffers. An executive decision may have already come into play opting to ‘deal with the source of stress’ and look out for one’s own wellbeing, rather than focusing on preserving performance on task. This is perhaps where the VAN has input with respect to flagging the emotional relevance of the situation, and the need to deal with one’s own bodily state as a matter of priority. Where things become more desperate is when the consequences of not preserving task performance will inevitably lead to serious consequences for the organism’s wellbeing or survival, yet there is no reserve at all to draw upon.
Fundamental though to keeping this perplexing dilemma at bay is the capacity to retain efficiency of resource distribution even in the face of extreme levels of stress. This is thought to demarcate the ‘high’ from the ‘low’ performer. it is that capacity to prevent unnecessary processes from coming online in order to maximise the diversion of attention to the task-positive network’s operational needs. In effect, this is a less wasteful strategy. That is an important point to drive home. We are all wastefully-inclined beings – perhaps a product of such a redundancy-heavy brain!
The current time we are experiencing espouses the dictum that what we have in abundance we take for granted, yet the removal of certain ‘privileges’ such as freedom to go where and when we please, or to source some basic foodstuffs (flour, pasta!) sends us collectively into wide-eyed panic, high anxiety, doom-mongering! This is a very apposite time to take stock of our ‘redundant’ proclivities. Of our wasteful and assumptive practices. And to realise we have a perfect opportunity to motivate change towards more streamlined, efficient, effective attitudes and behaviours. Recognise wastefulness, and ‘privileges’. The latter will return, as the mark of an affluent and civilised society. But for now, revel in an opportunity to de-clutter one’s domicile (cognitively speaking). There is great satisfaction once clutter is cleared out, waste is disposed of (recycled!) and one can begin to see the essence of one’s being more clearly. You are leaner, meaner (!), for it. Perhaps this makes you more hungry, but unless that hunger regresses to starvation, this is potentially a good thing. For ‘hunger’ in that sense begets motivation. Removing waste is removing baggage.
Ultimately, to achieve this state begins with the recognition of ‘clutter’ surrounding you. This is effectively the clutter of ‘self’. And is evidenced in the bringing ‘online’ of areas within the Default Mode that simply do not contribute to task-performance. To be a ‘high performer’ is to recognise this influence, and train attention to firstly disengage from these ‘self-referent’ regions (which will otherwise happily indulge themselves if left unchecked!), and divert this ‘released’ resrouce to the task-positive network. The former may require a process of mindfulness training to become aware of that redundancy. The latter is more of a natural consequence of ‘deactivating’ the DMN but with a goal already in mind and the tools to begin to address that goal. I will go into more practical detail in due course on how to refocus into a task positive and productive state, and how attention can focus on more externally relevant stimuli (taking stock of the sensory environment in which we are situated rather than the internally distracted state of ‘being in one’s own head’) to this end.
But ultimately, the goal is to become ‘cool as a cucumber’ and to find insights into this by learning from examples of those who have displayed such extraordinary composure under pressure - as alluded to in the opening paragraph. And importantly, take note that extraordinary capacity is within us all – it's the strategy that’s important, not the person! One person’s ‘extreme’ is another’s ‘mundane’. It's all relative. To the single parent stuck at home, attempting to home-school hyperactive kids, manage a business self-employed, this might as well be like piloting a flimsy module through the airless wastes of The Moon!
At the end of the day ‘optimal performance’ comes down to composure, efficiency, and ‘waste-management’.
Chand,G.B., Wu, J., Hajjar, I.H. and Qiu, D. (2017). Interactions of the Salience Network and Its Subsystems with the Default-Mode and the Central-Executive Networks in Normal Aging and Mild Cognitive Impairment. BRAIN CONNECTIVITY (7)
Hockey, G.R.J. (2007). Environmental Stress, Effects on Human Performance
Hockey, G. R. J. (2011). A motivational control theory of cognitive fatigue. In P.L. Ackerman (Ed.), Cognitive fatigue: multidisciplinary perspectives on current research and future applications (pp. 167-188). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association
Jaeggi, S.M., BuSchkuehl, M., etienne, A., ozdoBa, C., Perrig, W.J., and Nirkko, A.C. (2007). On how high performers keep cool brains in situations of cognitive overload. Cognitive Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience 7(2):75-89
Kirschner, K., Kam, J.W.Y.,Handy, T.C., and Ward, L.M. (2012). Differential synchronization in default and task-specific networks of the human brain. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (6) 139
Lin, P. Yang, Y., Gao,J., De Pisapia, N., Ge, S., Wang, X., Zuo, C.S., Levitt, J.J., & Niu C. (2017). Dynamic Default Mode Network across Different Brain States. Scientific Reports (7), 46088
Mittner M1, Hawkins GE2, Boekel W2, Forstmann BU (2016). A Neural Model of Mind Wandering.Trends Cogn Sci. 20(8):570-578.
Soares, J. M., Sampaio, A., Ferreira, L. M., Santos, N. C., Marques, P., Marques, F., Palha, J. A., Cerqueira, J. J., & Sousa, N. (2013). Stress Impact on Resting State Brain Networks. PloS one, 8(6), e66500.
Taylor, L., Watkins, S.L., Marshall, H., Dascombe, B.J. and Foster, J. (2015). The Impact of Different Environmental Conditions on Cognitive Function: A Focused Review. Frontiers in Physiology. 6, 372, 1-1
The Bubble Universe - how social distancing is redefining our sense of self and others for the better
There's so many different worlds
So many different suns
And we have just one world
But we live in different ones
....My brothers in arms
- Brothers in Arms, Dire Straits
Certain physicists who are ‘out there’ proclaim that we actually live in an infinite ‘bubble universe’ or even bubble multiverse. At the fringes of the boundaries of what we can ‘see’ our vast bubble ‘pops’ to reveal another, and another, and another. We are each but one small inconsequential ‘sud’ in the foamy scheme of things!
In fact we ARE currently living in a bubble. Each and every one of us. It’s a finite bubble 2m in diameter and we refer to it as ‘social distancing’. It may be ‘invisible’ but we feel it, we respond to it, we may even flinch as other human beings (or even objects) encroach upon and threaten to burst this protective casing and cause us to frenziedly dash for the nearest hand sanitiser dispenser thence to lather ourselves soapily stupid...!
The brain is well aware of this extent that surrounds us – it's always been a facet of how we go about processing the world. Technically it can be referred to as ‘peripersonal space’ (Brozzolli et al., 2011; Pellegrini and Ladavas, 2015). Another notion is ‘embodied cognition’. The former refers to the spatial extent upon which the immediacy of the world can significantly (I.e. immediately) impinge upon our functioning. Things hoving into our ‘bubble’ are responded to rapidly and predictively. Our senses (particularly our somatosensory functions – touch, proprioception) are finely attuned to appropriate information, predict consequence, and enact behaviour in this immediate space. A sense of ‘self’ relies somewhat on the delineation of a boundary between that which can affect me/be affected by me spatially in my proximal neighbourhood, and that which lies beyond this peripheral boundary line. In line with the idea that certain brain networks turn on and off, and which pertain to construction of sense of ‘self, it is interesting to speculate on whether such ‘peripersonal space-processing areas’ might do likewise under certain conditions (such as is happening 'now'), and whether the boundary of this extent is less ‘fixed’ and more pliable. Milliere et al., (2018) review the literature on psychedelic, spiritual, meditative states and point to some evidence for an area known as the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) as a candidate for this assertion. The TPJ is involved in multisensory integration, sense of bodily awareness and self-location, and increased functional connectivity has been observed in this (along with the bilateral insular cortex) in drug-induced ego dissolution. When self disappears, perhaps because one is highly absorbed in a task, or when the ego dissolves such as in states of consciousness that are not ‘normal’ (as above) and readily requiring a sense of urgent and productive communion with the environment, these spatially-referent brain functions do not come into play to define that boundary. This has been proposed to account for feelings of ‘one-ness’ or unity with the surroundings, the world, the cosmos (boundless, limitless).
Interestingly, it has been suggested that our senses fall into two camps – those that are more ‘attuned’ to this peripersonal space (the somatosensory system) and those that are more concerned with ‘distal’ information - I.e. that which lies beyond our immediate capacity to act upon the environment, being ‘further away’ - such as vision, audition (see Austin, 2010 for a discussion). These senses perhaps serve as longer-term warning systems, giving us time to respond to dangers, needs that lie further along the plane towards the horizon. This simplifies things of course. ‘Embodied cognition’ nevertheless situates an individual, a ‘self’ in the surrounding context of the environment, and allows for some sense of extension of that self beyond the confines of one’ small-scale bodily frame (a 3m 'barge' pole could conceivably extend your ‘self’ beyond what is physically possible within the much more practical bubble and with which to poke objects out of reach).
A grandiose vision encompasses a world in which people’s bubbles, their ‘peripersonal space’ accommodates the needs, thoughts, feelings of others, and change from one that is ‘self-focused’ (inevitably we are selfish beings – we are wired to prioritise our immediate feelings, senses, actions within this ‘peripersonal’ sphere of possible action), to one that has greater awareness of and proactivity towards those of ‘others’ out there. To change behaviour first needs awareness. Intention sadly has limited proclivity to become motivated action. However, there is a groundswell of change in the air. It can be seen all around us at the moment. ‘Social distancing’ has become something of a ‘norm’ (or at least is well on the way towards being so). After initial grumblings, skepticism, outright dismissal, it is evident everywhere. Most pronouncedly at the local shops. Wander into the Spar, or Tesco’s or wherever you will, and the principle is most easily embraced.
Because the brain is at core an organ that has evolved to allow us to move efficiently and effectively throughout our environment, a large amount of it’s processing power is dedicated to finessing motor control, operating the sensorimotor contngencies that allow us to process information, and to convert that into behaviour (action). Hence, a most effective approach to changing attitudes is to affect the underlying motor systems that galvanise the brain and which flood down through the more evaluative and abstract functions we luxuriate in. Research has shown how action based, concrete words are responded to rapidly, with more abstract terms being less readily associated with motor abilities, and therefore lower down the prioritisation spectrum.... (Klepp et al., 2019)
So the efficacy with respect to changing major ingrained attitudes and beliefs and practices, can be observed all around as prompted by changing the patterns of movement throughout our ‘primal foraging’ environment (the supermarket!). Now as you approach the door, you ready yourself to enter the sanctum of distancing! You don the gloves, sanitise the hands, prepare to step in and out of ‘exclusion zones’ as demarcated by yellow and black ‘hazard’ tape, hesitating if another individual is contained within such a zone. You may wrestle with the conundrum to pass swiftly behind a (mal) lingerer to get to the next zone (but hold your breath as you do – as if a noxious bodily emission has been gifted by the previous incumbent!).
From what I have observed in my local community, by and large there is a good-humoured acceptance of this state of affairs. Consideration is given to fellow shoppers and cashiers. We are all in this together! A redefining of social boundaries and peripersonal space that, by virtue of this setting of boundaries and making such definition, in fact extends a secondary, but vital, property out beyond into the realm of ‘other’. It is common courtesy, consideration, decency, and concern for the welfare of others! In short the brain is reconfiguring, now flexibly accommodating the ‘other’ and the spatial extent of that other, as being as equally important to ‘self’. Whether this is measurable remains to be seen. But the proof of the pudding is in the social experimental crucible that we can engage in simply by wandering round to the shops.
The more ‘motorically’ this principle and these practices are embedded, certainly at the neural level, as with any habit, the more they will persist over time. For to shake a habit takes a certain trauma at times. So our current ‘trauma’ has yielded, one might say, to a positive change in behaviours, and as we are in this for ‘the long-term' the principles ought to become ever more embedded and harder to change back...We shall see!
As is generally the way with my blog pieces, I start off intent to talk about something quite specific – in this case virtual reality and how this can be used to design more impactful and engaging environments that stimulate productive and positive behaviours. But other more fundamental ideas arise and I diverge! The point is though, the real environment we are all privvy to at the moment provides wealth of observational evidence as to how human attitudes and consequent actions are changing on a massive scale. These are unprecedented times for sure, and the rich pickings are there for the taking with respect to useful data on how to change things for the better... Next time, how Virtual Reality can be used to design environments that stimulate behavioural change. I promise!
Austin, J.H. (2010). The Thalamic Gateway: How the Meditative Training of Attention Evolves toward Selfless Transformations of Consciousness. Pages 373-407 in Bruya, B. (Ed.). (2010). Effortless attention: A new perspective in the cognitive science of attention and action. Cambridge, MA, US: MIT Press
Brozzoli,C., Makin, T.R., Cardinali, L., Holmes, N.P. and Farnè. A. (2011) A Multisensory Interface for Body–Object Interactions in Murray, M.M. and Wallace, M.T. (Eds) (2011) The Neural Bases of Multisensory Processes, Chapter 23: Peripersonal Space. CRC Press
Klepp, A., van Dijk, H., Niccolai, V., Schnitzler, A., and Ruben, K.B. (2019). Action verb processing specifically modulates motor behaviour and sensorimotor neuronal oscillations. Scientific Reports, 9:15985
Millière, R., Carhart-Harris, R. L., Roseman, L., Trautwein, F. M., & Berkovich-Ohana, A. (2018). Psychedelics, Meditation, and Self-Consciousness. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 1475.
Pellegrino, G. and Làdavas, E (2015). Peripersonal space in the brain. Neuropsychologia, 66, 126-133
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples
King Lear, William Shakespeare
Everywhere you go, always take the weather with you
Crowded House – Weather with you
The wind rages, rain lashes down, you battle head-down through the storm seeking shelter, a haven from the elements. Battening down the hatches, you pray for respite lest nature’s full force sweeps away your flimsy protective cover and strips bare your resolve.
Deep breath, restore focus. Miraculously, the clouds break, the wind drops, rain ceases, and a single ray of sun pierces through, probing the land beneath, warming, instilling hope. You can venture out, fulfil your goals, prevail and prosper...
As Brits we obsess over the weather. It’s something to make conversation about and ‘break the ice’. It gives focus to the national proclivity to complain! It seems to define a cultural mood. It can dictate whether we stay in and shun it’s influence, or pour forth with white skin exposed to collective wincing from the glare, crowding any patch of available open land out of urgency to glean some nourishment from the elusive sun’s lukewarm rays.
Perhaps this does indeed inform the collective-consciousness of a nation, and reflect in the patterns of thought and mutual anxieties that proliferate amongst the masses. In effect a reversal of the ‘pathetic fallacy’ which literary motifs employ to express the moods of the protagonist through descriptions of the external weather (see King Lear as example, or Macbeth whence evil deeds and their machinations are accompanied by ‘thunder, lightning and rain’ or ‘lamentings heard I' th’ air’).
Taken further, this notion of our connection to external atmospheric conditions can be usefully repurposed to help us guide our own internal ‘weather’. As an analogy it makes sense, because the contents of our thoughts are dependent on the electrical impulses generated by the vast collections of neurons and networks of this activity that form ‘waves’, both localised and generalised, bringing ‘fronts’, characterised by calm conditions, or chaotic patterns that rage across the continents of our brain’s ‘globe’.
A calm, sunny, warm day can put one into a pleasant, happy frame of mind that can free one up from the perplexities of everyday demands. It can facilitate a ‘recalibration’ of one’s focus, and recharge the batteries for the next ‘onslaught’ of inevitably changing conditions. Likewise, as the rains thin out from tropical squall to gentle pattering on the greenery surrounding, nature’s abundance is evident, and reminds us we have a sustaining, nourishing environment in which to forage and flourish.
So with this in mind it makes sense to adopt a method for taking control over one’s own weather systems, to seek to manage and adapt to stormy tendencies rather than be at their behest, cowering in the nearest availble crevice!
I am currently trialling a device that provides ‘neurofeedback’ by monitoring brain states in real time, a so called ‘meditation’ device. This ‘MUSE’ is a commercially available piece of kit which uses ‘dry electrodes’ to retrieve signals from key points across the scalp, and which as been used in academic settings, and to a degree ‘validated’ for it’s capacity to record ‘evoked potentials’ which can be meaningfully analysed (Krigolson et al., 2017). Interestingly, the ‘meditation app’ this comes with translates in real time the averaged waveform activity into weather based imagery that helps train one to become better at ‘stilling one’s mind’. This means reducing the precedence of intrusive ‘mind-wandering’ thoughts, in order to restore focus, ‘mindfulness’. In short, reducing the default mode activity that I regularly talk about.
Whether this proves to be ‘ground breaking’ remains to be seen, but it strikes me that the weather analogy can be useful even without this device. The principle behind neurofeedback, effectively as with any training ‘drill’, is not to rely on the drill or method itself, but to become more attuned to one’s own behavioural tendencies (patterns of thought in this instance), and to automate one’s response to these – to instil an ‘unconsciously competent’ expertise if you like. The brain should learn how to change it’s own state once the relevant cues have been acknowledged and it ‘knows’ how to adapt to this new way of going about it’s business.
So you can start already by observing your own thought processes and equating them to weather phenomena. If your mind is in turmoil, then you are experiencing a storm front! Is it localised or more general? I.e. are you focusing on a single obsessive thought that goes round and round or is a general anxiety that rages globally? Can you focus in on this metaphorical conceptualisation and seek to reduce the intensity of the front, or guide it elsewhere till it loses it’s power and the clouds part to allow the warming sun to shine through?
Doing this first thing in the morning can be an invaluable way to set yourself up for the day, to determine the quality of the weather, and to prepare for unexpected turbulence.
Take some time (5-10 minutes) and let this be your initiation to the day’s challenges. If you can ‘control’ your inner weather, then you will be more prepared for whatever the external weather throws at you – you will not be in disarray struggling to cope with the unexpected.
Listen to the sounds around you – it's not just about the weather, it’s about how you notice, and respond to the stimuli that occupy both the external world and the inner realm that you alone are privy to. But the principle remains. This equates to external vs internal attention and the systems that manage these and in effect determine whether you are ‘task-focused’ (externally-oriented) or internally ‘distracted’ (default state). If you can listen to the outside sounds and begin to differentiate those that have ‘relevance’ to you versus those that are simple background noise, you are on the way towards now using that capacity to turn inwards, to sort out signal from noise, useful thought contents that contribute creatively to managing problem-solutions versus ‘noise’ and the beginnings of a change to more destructive weather...
Ultimately what you are doing here is learning to focus, learning to inhibit the unnecessary, and also learning to recognise where spontaneous activity can derail your direction. The spontaneous is the stimulus that arises out of nowhere – a sudden gust of wind – and pulls your attention away from what you need to accomplish. It becomes the focus when it is by and large irrelevant and its importance amplified out of proportion. Before you know it you are rapt with attention at the power of the storm.
With these analogies and a simple focused discipline you can at least prepare yourself and be ready for the unexpected gust of wind that buffets you but does not hinder progress. You will be ‘inflating your weather balloon’ if you like, with the right amount of internal pressure and buoyancy to allow you to sail forth high up on the prevailing winds to alight where you will.
If this is not enough to get you started, you can always try one of the devices as I have mentioned!
So pull up your deck chair whilst the external weather is currently glorious, and empower yourself with this method. Soaking up the elements productively ready to face whatever the weather may throw at you. And wherever you may go in future you will always take a sunny disposition with you!
Krigolson,* O.E., Williams, C.C., Norton, A., Hassall, C.D. and Colino, F.L. (2017). Choosing MUSE: Validation of a Low-Cost, Portable EEG System for ERP Research. Front. Neurosci., 10 March 2017. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2017.00109
The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him. Mark 1:12-13
I have studied isolation (subjectively and scientifically) for most of my life. I wrote a thesis on it in my undergraduate days and it had bearing on my postgraduate research. Dr John Lilly did pioneering work in the 60s (didn't everyone) with dolphins, isolation tanks and LSD (!), but that's a subject for future elaboration... I have had long affinity with the notion- either through choice, in seeking out more extreme forms of isolation in wilderness settings, or through circumstance thrust upon me. My thesis was concerned with ‘Perceptual deprivation’ and entailed ‘self-isolating’ individuals in a laboratory context but by restricting the sensory input normally available. (The 'self' part of this has ramifications for productivity as will become more apparent further down.) Some interesting effects were observed even in a short space of time (one hour), including various reports hallucinating strange phenomena – be it visual colours, imagery, or sensations associated with movement, vibration, and auditory: white noise became a waterfall that invited swimming in. The brain craves stimulation, and deprived of it, will create it’s own ‘entertainment’. That is an important point to pause and consider, particularly when we think how are we going to occupy ourselves in times of enforced isolation. The brain is an ‘innovation machine’ that can spawn amazing creative achievements.
But it needs guidance. It will spin out of control autonomously if left to its own devices. It needs an operator to be on hand to direct it’s energies, to marshall it’s output and escalate productive use of the weird and wonderful stream of content that might emerge. This requires some discipline of course! Feeding it a stream of mindless entertainment will not do it much good. Overstressing it with too many problems to solve likewise. It will habituate, spin out of control, or become passive and lazy, gluttonous and lethargic. Or, with some ‘guidance’ become a sharp tool, an enthusiastic generator of new ideas, new ways of thinking, energised and excited and desperate to contribute and evolve!
This is the perfect opportunitiy to seize and drive this ‘machine’ down roads untrammelled.
Always thought of writing a novel? Get cracking! (The Stand Part 2??!!)
Fancied learning a musical instrument or become better at one you already play? Youtube can help...
What about getting fit – well prisoners in those movies always seem to come out buff and strong after all those press ups in solitary...!
It is all too easy to respond negatively to circumstance and to take a doom-laden view of things, and become less motivated, or to become depressive, or even to slide into that latter state without being aware you are doing so, by treating the isolation as an excuse for laziness, ‘holiday time’ and to binge watch netflix box sets, or just stop doing stuff productively (assuming work is not all encompassing). That is a bad mistake. Your brain craves stimulation. Not indulgence. Your ‘self’, like a demanding small child who wants what she craves, will cunningly contrive to have the ‘easy life’. But this is a self-defeating spiral into ‘addiction’, further demoralisation, lack of control over positive progress and productivity (Hamilton et al. 2015). Put your ‘self’ to one side, and switch on to task-focused mindset, instilling some discipline into your routine. Your brain does in fact operate exactly on these principles as I have talked extensively about. If you can acknowledge that your ‘self’ is taking over, telling you to sit back, binge watch, just ‘chill out’, or alternatively spiral into negative doom-laden thinking, then this in itself is the cue, the alarm that tells you to take the reins, quiet the mind, and focus on DOING. A time when I was at my lowest ebb, beset with anxiety, depression, utter restlessness and lack of clear direction, I went outside and pulled up some weeds. I went into a mania of tearing out roots, obsessively clearing my patio. Before I knew it it was dark and the patio was like a pristine chess board. I was tired, but all that anxious energy had been channelled into a productive task. I felt ‘better’ and importantly tired enough to sleep.
When you are task focused there is no room for ‘self’. The brain has this clever mechanism for ‘either-or’ being ‘self-centred’ (I.e aware of ‘I’ want this ‘I’ feel that’, what if this or that happens to ‘me’) or absorbed in goal directed (productive) behaviour. And here’s the thing, when the task is accomplished, the self comes back into focus renewed, somewhat more ‘mature’ for having had this focused experienced. And you are that little bit more in control over your ‘self-ish’ tendencies. The brain has become better at marshalling it’s resources, and ‘you’ have a better system in place for managing it moving forward.
This is where the ‘self’ networks of the brain can come into play for creative purposes beyond a ‘simple task’ (Beaty et al., 2014 found an increase in the functional connectivity between areas of prefrontal cortex and the ‘default mode’ suggestive of the link between regions involved in cognitive control and imaginative processes when new ideas are being generated). For what we are trying to achieve here is not so much a mindless zombie like plodding on with a task, but to gain a better sense of control over the brain’s tendency to go off on flights of fancy that pull attention away from doing something productive. Instead, by discipline, by instilling a sense that you can acknowledge and inhibit certain ‘off task’ tendencies (known as ‘mind wandering’), you can now start to manage these components of your cognitive functioning in a more directed fashion. There’s a time and place during task-focused mindset where you can draw on the innovative and imaginative tendency of the ‘self-network’ to come up with new ideas. Don’t repress the child – we don’t live thankfully in times where the kids need to go down the mine and tunnel into ever small spaces adults can’t fit. Let’s use that childish energy, that inventive zest to come up with novel ideas that adults (who are needfully more ‘slavishly’ driven to get the necessary and perhaps mundane elements of the job done) have become less practised at. But again, with direction and guidance, bring this facet ‘online’ when needed....
So to keep this meaningful and practical rather than abstract and navel gazing, I will reiterate. Acknowledge that you have these tendencies towards putting things off, taking the easy path, but that actually the brain will thank you for being stimulated and galvanised. Now is an unprecedented opportunity, make sure you use it systematically. This takes a routine, a discipline. A timetable, a schedule....And a degree of effort. But then so does sit ups. And this in itself can be motivating, enjoyable even! In some of the most trying times in my life when I have been at lowest ebb, I have taken this course. I have routinised my ‘sit ups’. It wasn’t for any goal other than to simply integrate into my longer-term lifestyle. It was something just to ‘get on with’. It passed the time, it made me fitter, it importantly gave me ‘time off’ from the self. And lo and behold, a week later, 6 months later, decades later, there’s that 6 pack! (not quite, but the groundwork was laid). We are in this for the ‘long haul’ after all!
Don’t think on this – oh I will do that tomorrow, next week. No just get it started now, and let the momentum take care of itself. Time will pass, but opportunity is NOW.
A week or so ago I was totally fed up with ‘isolation’ due to circumstance over past months, and what was keeping me going was the thought that the weather will start to improve, the nights longer, and there will be more opportunity to get out and about, travel, indluge in the pursuits that drive me in the great outdoors. Obviously that has all been put on hold for now. Instead I have to see this absurd situation as an opportunity to seize with all the positives and creative avenues that presents –working on my garden, knuckling down to more interior creative pursuits and so on.
To finish, my university studies saw me descend into a claustrophobic stygian darkness deep in the Yorkshire Dales. I followed a waterlogged tunnel into a hill side, like Bilbo into the Orc’s nest (!). I squeezed up a crevice that wedged my body in tight. I turned off my light source (perhaps I gave it to the companions who accompanied me this far before leaving me to my ‘fate’). Some 3-4 hours later my companions (and light) returned. What did I learn from this experience? It was part of a more ambitious aim to spend up to 36 hours alone in darkness floating in an underground pool that never came to pass, and which I suspect could have yielded some significant insights into solitude, isolation. Time lost it’s meaning. Any source of stimulation became amplified (such as dripping calcite formations). My mind quieted. My self retreated. I became one with the surroundings.
Sometimes having one’s immediate boundaries restricted, compressed, can facilitate the focus one needs. That is the way perhaps to view the current situation, to respond to your brain’s desperate craving for focus, for productivity, and renewed perspective on a world that is there for the shaping. Because I am sure we don’t all want to just go back to how things were before....
And whilst this may all seem to be about those who are living alone in confinement, not so. We are all ‘an island’ and subject to isolating thought processes, and as such in the time available for ‘me’ no matter how little that might be given family and work commitments, the same principle applies. By acknowledging and taking control over one’s ‘self’ one can benefit whatever the circumstance, renewing one’s perspective, shoring up resiliene and resolve, and aspiring to be the ‘Hero’ that resides within all of us!
Beatya, R.E., Benedek, M., Wilkins, R.W.,Jauk, E., Fink, A., Silvia, P.J., Hodges, D.A., Koschutnig, K., Neubauer, A.C. (2014). Creativity and the Default Network: A Functional Connectivity Analysis of the Creative Brain at Rest. Neuropsychologia 64
Hamilton, J.P., Farmer, M., Fogelman, P. and Gotlib, I.H. (2015). Depressive Rumination, the Default-Mode Network, and the Dark Matter of Clinical Neuroscience. Biol Psychiatry. 78(4): 224–230.
"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." - Mark Twain
“CRASH TACK! CRASH TACK!” A flurry of activity violently erupts just as the squall hits us across the beam. The sea is churning, spray across faces already bitten into by the icy wind. Mr Wilson has gone into the water. We must act fast, keep eyes on his position as our course leaves him in our wake, the churning water obscuring visibility. We mustn’t lose sight or he will be lost to the elements. Crew springs into life, spotter on the stern, another on the radio seeking assistance. Helmsman adeptly spins the boat around to stop before engaging engine and setting sails to return to the casualty. We drift with the wind, and eventually retrieve poor Mr Wilson before the briny swallows him forever. The wind drops right on cue, the squall has passed. Normal service resumes.
Fortunately, Mr Wilson is alright. In fact he is smiling. A permanently cheery crewmate whatever the conditions. His marker pen face on his yellow plastic body keeps us laughing. He is used to it. His name was bestowed by our equally cheery captain, who is an expert sailor hailing from Czechoslovakia. Her favourite film is Castaway, and our resident Man Overboard (M.O.B.) ‘dummy’ is named after Tom Hank’s basketball…
The drill is one of many that are practiced during our voyage around the Sounds of the Firth of Clyde in western Scotland. It’s a course I have been wanting to complete for a long while, and where better to do it than in such spectacular surroundings. Except it’s the middle of winter, and right slap bang in the midst of the series of storm cycles that are blighting the UK this year…Well they say challenge brings out the best in you!
With my ‘Adventure Psychologist’ hat on I like to practice what I preach, and this is what I feel compelled to do during my time out at sea, as it’s all a little bit stressful (at times!). So here is a taster of my approach, some underlying principles based on understanding how the brain responds to (and under) stress. As it happens, sailing and sea-borne voyaging is an excellent metaphor for life, for addressing circumstances that throw obstacles in one’s path, and how to better oneself through prevailing under adversity. It’s no coincidence that the idioms of our everyday speech are replete with turns-of phrase that have been passed down the generations from nautical contexts!
“You’re sailing close to the wind, me-lad” as my dad used to say (usually before I got walloped for getting up to mischief)! “There’s an opportunity in the offing.” “It’s not all plain sailing." “Give that a wide berth!” “Am feeling under the weather.” etc. etc. I could go on for some time as the English language is chock-a-block with such phrases!!!
There is something primal, instinctual about being under sail, right on course, and in that zone where senses are attuned to the power of nature, the vessel is ploughing ahead through the water, and one’s goals are on track. Which fits nicely with the framework I will expand upon to help one manage mindset, emotional state and purposeful, goal-driven behaviours. Into the ‘flow’ state if you like. I have written at length already about the brain functions involved in managing our attention, giving rise to our ‘feelings’ / emotions, and the way we can switch from one brain state to another depending on whether we are ‘task-focused’ or ‘self-indulgent’. This is the foundation for a practical approach to using this understanding to firstly increase awareness of how the brain ‘works’, and secondly to apply that knowledge to take some control over what may otherwise respond reflexively, and to steer our intentions and emotions in the right direction…
To refresh briefly, there are three aspects to this:
So how can we make use of these three components practically in order to make a difference to our daily activities, to achieve aspirations and to inhibit the negative voice inside that threatens to sink the ship?
The Hero’s Quest acknowledges that we have an innate curiosity which prompts us to rove from the comfort of the home, out onto the path (maybe one that is ‘less travelled’ depending on where one ‘lives’). We gather momentum that carries us further from home and the comforts implied. At some point that momentum has taken us beyond where was planned, we are now committed to the course. To turn back is to: a) acknowledge ‘defeat’; b) realise it’s quite a long way back, so might as well carry on! Soon are encountered obstacles to progress, but again one is committed and defeat weighs heavier still on the mind. Ultimately, one progresses but the pressures begin to break one down. To persist through this inevitable stage is to build resilience, find the path home, and become re-invigorated. The ‘experience’ now under one’s belt grants an impetus to pass on that knowledge to others, but also to put to use in future when dealing with one’s own challenges (and aspirations)! This metaphorical journey can be usefully considered as a step towards self-growth and personal development, acknowledging that the cycle is inevitable and challenges help facilitate progress. In short, whilst ‘stress’ is a negatively loaded term, the fact is, stress facilitates growth, and indeed is what motivates us to get up and do things that move us forward in life. Without a degree of stress (arousal for want of a better word) we don’t achieve anything! And as this is a cycle, this means it exists in a finite time period (however much that time might seem to dilate when one is struggling uphill and climbing over the obstacles). This is an important idea I will come back to in the ‘task-focused’ brain state component shortly (time being relative and ‘manipulable’). So even though it seems like things are hopeless, traumatic, stressful, it is vital to recognise that this is something that will pass, and which is indeed facilitatory!
This leads into interoception. The Valence-Arousal model reduces the complexity of emotional/feeling states to two dimensions (one, ‘Valence’ that provokes motion towards – ‘approach’ – or away – ‘avoid’; the other, ‘Arousal’, stipulating how much energy is available in the system to generate the action associated with approaching or avoiding a stimulus). We can use this conceptualisation to effectively ‘decide’ how we feel in a given moment, and how to deal with the source of that feeling (the environmental stimulus if you like). This is easier to visualise as two axes crossing one another (Arousal on the vertical axis, Valence on the horizontal) and forming four quadrants. Each quadrant represents a collection of different possible emotional states, in a clockwise direction from upper right: high arousal and positive valence (associated with ‘positive’ and ‘active’ emotions such as excitement, delight), low arousal and positive valence (more relaxed mood, calm, contentment), low arousal and negative valence (boredom, apathy, lethargy), high arousal and negative valence (frustration, anger, typically described as ‘stress’).
Suffice to say, by sensing the core bodily signals of both arousal levels and implied direction of this energy, in a discrete moment, we can intercept our ‘feelings’ before they become fully formed and described as one emotional state or another. And by doing so, we can divert our attention from one quadrant of this model to another, to effectively shift the valence into a more positive state as desired. A simple example might be where you take note that you are in a state of high arousal (there is a lot of energy in your system) and perhaps your initial reaction is to shy away from, avoid this feeling, this circumstance that is provoking the response. In a state of potential anxiety, one has too much energy coursing through the body and the ‘flight’ response is activated. BUT, by a force of will, and a re-envisaging of what this signal means, one can decide in fact to approach this source, and therefore recognise that this ‘anxiety’ is in fact excitement! This is the principle of shifting one’s perspective by tuning into the basic bodily signals that are the basis for our behaviours. Returning to the earlier analogy, by a small shift in the direction of travel, one can cross from one ‘tack’ to another approaching the wind from different angles, and keeping the course on a positive heading! [A further way you might use the same principle, is, on asserting that you feel 'x' emotion (eg. 'fearful'), to then decide which alternative emotional state you would prefer to 'feel', and then go about shifting in that direction, steering a course around the model and towards the appropriate quadrant - so from 'fear' to 'excitement' for instance.]
Finally, having acknowledged that the journey is ‘on course’, that obstacles are there to facilitate progress purposefully, and that one can ‘take the helm’ by interocepting the source of feelings to change direction positively, the last step is to shift the brain into a ‘task-focused’ state. As it is the ruminating and indulgent ‘self’ that inhibits progress, this needs to be tuned down, turned off. A relatively simple way to do this is to now recognise there is a task to be done, and to be relished. Focusing attention externally is key to this, and to ‘get on’ with the task that is set. Very rapidly the voice of the ‘self’ will retreat into the background, drowned in the wind of progress! You might say this is easier said than done, that ‘wind conditions’ do not favour a rapid formula for success! If so, perhaps the self needs a little help in being tuned down. This is where the tried and tested technique of ‘mindfulness’ comes to bear. By first noticing that one is thinking self indulgent thoughts one now can sit back and acknowledge their arrival and their passage. [This is associated with reduced activity in the major component of the Default Mode Network in the brain known as the Posterior Cingulate Cortex, which thereby frees up energy from such a demanding hub, leaving that supply available to deploy elsewhere towards successful focus and performance on task.] Once ‘mindful’ it is easier to then shift ‘tack’ into task focused state. In such a state, one will lose track of time, for the ‘self’ and it’s obsessive reference to it’s current fixation is the source of awareness of time passing (and dragging). One could almost say we have shifted from a ‘mindful’ to a ‘mindless’ state in doing so (or at least one in which one is attuned to environment and the task proceeds as if effortless, and ‘you’ (‘I’) are not present as a distinct entity (you, the helm, and the vessel are as one!)
So there you have it, a model that can be used practically, drawing on a scientific foundation which can be delved into further elsewhere. Adventure experiences are dynamic and engaging circumstances in which to get the best out of oneself, partially through the harnessing of stress, and providing context to learn new skills and meet the challenges set (hence facilitating ‘flow’). It’s not easy at times, but again that speaks to the facilitatory nature of ‘stress’. But as a useful metaphor for life, one can take the principles outlined and develop a sense of self awareness that can help ‘sail one’s own ship’ towards a better land!
Everyone is his or her own ‘hero’ and everyone has within oneself the capacity to take the helm and set the right course. And most importantly, by doing so, momentum will inevitably occur, time will pass, and progress WILL be made. So pull up the anchor that is holding you fast, cast off the ropes and speed into the wind to leave the shores of despair far behind!
Windward ho, Mr Wilson, if you please!
"Life? Don’t talk to me about life”
“Here I am with a brain the size of a planet and they ask me to pick up a piece of paper. Call that job satisfaction? I don't.”
Marvin the Paranoid Android. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)
Now I am no Cosmological Physicist, but I am an ‘inconsummate’ mathematician (ie. I suck at it) but it’s good to know one’s limitations. And indeed that is the point of what I am about to extoll. As someone who ‘dabbles’ in the vagaries of perception I am more qualified to talk about...limitations.
Let’s contemplate Infinity.
Ok that didn’t work. It is just too big to get one’s head around. To steal without remorse from the inestimable Douglas Adams: “You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.”
Life can seem a bit huge and overwhelming at (all of the) times. But here’s the thing. We are bounded by our sensory and perceptual capacity to accommodate this fact. (See my pieces on Wonder, Boundaries for further musing on such subjects, as well as the likes of David Eagleman in various books such as ‘Incognito’ (2011) concerning the ‘umwelt’ or limiting window through which our sensory and perceptual bandwidth can process our surroundings.) In fact, this constraint is something we can employ fittingly to help us tackle life in ‘bite size chunks’. Let me elaborate (with, apologies, a digression into cosmological physics – but bear with as it’s REALLY interesting!!).
To steal further remorselessly I would like to reference another source of literary and scientific inspiration. Brian Greene, in The Hidden Reality (also check out The Elegant Universe as a marvellous primer to Cosmological, and Quantum Physics, including his work on String Theory to really boggle your faculties) expands upon the state of thinking with respect to multiple universes and parallel realms across an infinitely repeating cosmos. To attempt to summarise it concisely it goes something like this (apologies, Brian, I am merely an interested bystander):
The multidimensional ‘reality’ in which we live encompasses an infinite number of possibilities – for location in space, for movement, for ‘states of being’. Mathematics illustrates this – subdivide, say, a metre cube into as many ‘coordinates’ as possible. The decimal places will infinitely regress. Greene uses the analogy of a fly that can buzz at any position (or speed, to an extent) at any moment should it ‘decide’. That may be at 1m above the floor and 1m from the left wall. Or it may be at 90cm above the floor and 1m from the left wall. Or the right wall. Or at 2m, or at 1.99m, or at 1.99999999m. However, the point is, such small variations in positioning (or indeed speed if it/we were to travel at 10km per hour, versus 9.999999-to-infinity km per hour) are not necessarily meaningful at all to the individual doing the positioning (or making the decisions). Ever smaller increments are increasingly less detectable. And this is defined by the individual’s perceptual apparatus. What this means to an infinite universe, then is that infinity is defined by FINITE chunks of incremental units that are detectable to ‘our’ sensory/perceptual (and cognitive) apparatus.
The argument goes on to contend that the universe is (likely) infinite in it’s expansion, further complexified by an inflationary tendency (expanding all around continuously at very high speed since the Big Bang). The mathematics does point towards an infinite magnitude (allegedly). But here’s the thing. (And I am summarising simplistically and paraphrasing Mr Greene...) The limits of a perceivable cosmic horizon are set around 41 billion light years (basically the ‘age’ of the Universe at 13.7 billion years based on speed of light and observable signatures of the Big Bang as espoused in Cosmic Background Microwave Radiation etc. etc., combined with the rate of inflation blah blah. And the argument further continues, that beyond the limits of any given ‘cosmic horizon’ (of 41 billion light years), there is likely a repetition of functions and conditions extending infinitely. Still following??!
Due to the (also) likelihood of there being a finite arrangement of particles in the ‘Universe’ (still obviously a massive number of possible configurations), there is a limit to how far this arrangement of possibilities extends. Then it also follows (take it as read for now), given an infinite extension of the Universal neighbourhood, there being a finite number of particles/configurations/elements (whatever you want to call the stuff of ‘reality’s fabric’), this ‘pattern’ will infinitely repeat...Which does lead itself to all sorts of marvellous speculations about parallel universes, realities, possibilities, being copies spread on for ever and ever (multiple ‘I’s living out endless permutations of ‘my’ life). Right, now that’s established we can come back down to (reality?) earth.
The point being made here that might have some semblance of relevance to mere mortal concerns, involves the perceptual detectability outlined earlier. We can only take in so much of what we perceive, or speculate on the possibilities available to us. It might seem like life has an overwhelming number of possibilities, pressures, priorities. But in fact we can rest in ‘comfort’ that we cannot accommodate all the variations, we can only really deal with more manageable chunks, so why worry about the infinite variation. The likelihood anyway (mathematically at least) is that the patterns, the chunks repeat endlessly, rather than spiral out into an infinite and therefore unmanageable number of challenges. Be like the fly buzzing round the room. Why worry about being at precise coordinate x,y,z-point-one. The mind will seize upon obsessive scrutiny to detail if given half a chance, and will indeed spiral into it’s own vortex of eternal permutations of what if this, what if that, have I done this, or that, or the other...! But don’t let it. Instead revel in the limitations that are bestowed upon your apparatus.
Limitations are sometimes there to help guide action and make a response more selective. Aldous Huxley (1954) talked about ‘the reducing valve of consciousness’, prefiguring Eagleman’s ‘umwelt’ (which he ‘got’ from some German gentlemen before him) - one must take care not to ‘open’ such a valve and let the overwhelming flood of sensations and ideas in and to drown in the aftermath! Our apparatus, in effect is a manifestation of this idea that we can indeed break life down into manageable perceptual chunks – it's done this already by limiting our available bandwidth. Let us continue this practice conceptually, addressing what may seem to be overwhelming challenges by establishing finite boundaries (and recognising the repeatable, and therefore ‘ignorable’ nature of patterns outwith our immediate control). Suddenly, we can focus on and corrall if you like the ‘problems’ and address there and then, rather than run screaming from them saying they are too much to deal with, encompassing too many variables.
One other point. Again taking the contention that in a universe/multiverse dependent on arrangement of particles, every ‘state’ depends on one or other of these (finite possibility) arrangements, our own ‘mental’ and ‘emotional’ states equally depend on this physical definition. So it follows that there are a finite number of states we can be in at any moment. To push this a little further in order to make personal sense to one’s being, any state is therefore finite, and consequently has an ‘end’. So even where one may find that it’s all too much, in an endless depression or despairing frame of mind, find solace in knowing that it does indeed have an end, and will transition sooner or later. There is light (and mathematical evidence for this) at the end of the tunnel. For what it’s worth. Extending the logic one step further still, we have this extraordinary capacity to call upon our limitations to help determine how we characterise our own immediate sense of reality. So (with a little practice), we can decide to constrain and define a state of being according to the categorical boundaries we feel are most fitting and appropriate to our ‘whim’. Why dwell on a fixated state of despair (‘depression’) with infinitely spiralling associations, ruminations, obsession with detail, when you can take a step back (again with practice) and determine it has far grosser features that preclude drilling down fixatedly into further (negative) associations that overwhelm. Instead, see the ‘state’ as being a broader ‘position’ in life at a given moment, and which one can sidestep into a different state and possibility for action and thought. [The valence-arousal circumplex model of affective states is relevant here (Posner et al., 2005), and I have alluded to it before – a means by which we can ‘tap into’ our core affective bodily signals which are precursors to more elaborated emotional concepts that determine how we eventually ‘feel’ - so in essence we can intercept the core states and decide ultimately how we do feel – with something called ‘interoceptive awareness (Craig, 2002)].
Turn the screw tighter and close the valve off a little so that the extra detail has little room to squeeze through. Find the boundary with that state into a more hopeful and positive state, again at a broader level of categorisation. Again, I have talked previously about brain networks and mechanisms that seem to be accessible to allow us to switch from one ‘state’ to another by virtue of being somewhat mutually exclusive – which like the valve analogy are available to let us divert ‘states’ from one format to another. In short, we have control – if we do a little mental homework and practice to understand how it all works, what our capacities are, and also where our limitations lie, and how importantly this can be used to our own benefit.
So next time you contemplate infinity, or by proxy think that life is just too complex, holds too many variables to deal with, remember you have been bequeathed through evolution a sensory and perceptual arrangement of particles with finite configurations, and that the rest of the ‘world’ likewise is constrained. Suddenly, you may see that daily challenges are reduced into bite size chunks you can start to get your teeth into!!
Craig, A. D. (2002). How do you feel? Interoception: the sense of the physiological condition of the body. Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 3, 655–666.
Eagleman, D. (2011). Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. Canongate Canons
Greene, B. (2012).The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. Penguin. US
Greene, B. (2000). The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory. Vintage. US
Huxley, A. (1954). The Doors of Perception. Chatto and Windus. UK
Posner, , J, Russell, J.A.,c and Peterson, B.S. (2005) The circumplex model of affect: An integrative approach to affective neuroscience, cognitive development, and psychopathology. Dev Psychopathol. 17(3): 715–734
The science of cognition and perception in context
This is where I elaborate upon brain science relating to cognitive functioning dependent on environmental context.