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