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