"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.