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.
The science of cognition and perception in context
This is where I elaborate upon brain science relating to cognitive functioning dependent on environmental context.