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