Thursday, January 12, 2017

The milliseconds of a choice - Watching your mind when it matters.

I'm finding, with increasing frequency, that an article about health or psychology in the New York Times that I find interesting has an attached note that it was first published several years earlier. While working on yesterday's MindBlog post I came across a 2014 post I wrote that I think makes some important points about our self-regulation that are worth repeating. So, I'm going to copy what the Times is doing and repeat it today. I'm tempted to edit it, but won't, beyond mentioning that I would considerably tone down my positive reference to brain training games (that I no longer indulge in). Here is the 2014 post:

This is actually a post about mindfulness, in reaction to Dan Hurley's article describing how contemporary applications of the ancient tradition of mindfulness meditation are being engaged in many more contexts than the initial emphasis on chilling out in the 1970s, and being employed for very practical purses such as mental resilience in a war zone. It seems like to me that we are approaching a well defined technology of brain control whose brain basis is understood in some detail. I've done numerous posts on behavioral and brain correlates of mindfulness meditation (enter 'meditation' or 'mindfulness' in MindBlog's search box in the left column). For example, only four weeks of a mindfulness meditation regime emphasizing relaxation of different body parts correlates with increases in white matter (nerve tract) efficiency. Improvements in cognitive performance, working memory, etc. have been claimed. A special issue of The journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience discusses issue in the research.

Full time mindfulness might be a bad idea, suppressing the mind wandering that facilitates bursts of creative insight. (During my vision research career, my most original ideas popped up when I was spacing out, once when I was riding a bike along a lakeshore path.) Many physicists and writers reports their best ideas happen when they are disengaged. It also appears that mindfulness may inhibit implicit learning in which habits and skill are acquired without conscious awareness.

Obviously knowing whether we are in an attentional or mind wandering (default, narrative) modes is useful (see here, and here), and this is where the title of this posts comes in. To note and distinguish our mind state is most effectively accomplished with a particular style of alertness or awareness that is functioning very soon (less than 200 milliseconds) after a new thought or sensory perception appears to us. This is a moment of fragility that offers a narrow time window of choice over whether our new brain activity will be either enhanced or diminished in favor of a more desired activity. This is precisely what is happening in mindfulness meditation that instructs a central focus of some sort (breathing, body relaxation, or whatever) to which one returns as soon as one notes that any other thoughts or distractions have popped into awareness. The ability to rapidly notice and attend to thoughts and emotions of these short time scales is enhanced by brain training regimes of the sort offered by BrainHq of and others. I have found the exercises on this site, originated by Michael Merznich, to be the most useful.  It offers summaries of changes in brain speed, attention, memory, intelligence, navigation, etc. that result from performing the exercises - changes that can persist for years.

A book title that has been popping into my head for at least the last 15 years is "The 200 Millisecond Manager." (a riff on the title the popular book of the early 1980's by Blanchard and Johnson, "The One Minute Manager.") The gist of the argument would be that given in the "Guide" section of some 2005 writing, and actually in Chapter 12 of my book, Figure 12-7.

It might make the strident assertion that the most important thing that matters in regulating our thoughts, feelings, and actions is their first 100-200 msec in the brain, which is when the levers and pulleys are actually doing their thing. It would be a nuts and bolts approach to altering - or at least inhibiting - self limiting behaviors. It would suggest that a central trick is to avoid taking on on the ‘enormity of it all,’ and instead use a variety of techniques to get our awareness down to the normally invisible 100-200 msec time interval in which our actions are being programmed. Here we are talking mechanics during the time period is when all the limbic and other routines that result from life script, self image, temperament, etc., actually can start-up. The suggestion is that you can short circuit some of this process if you bring awareness to the level of observing the moments during which a reaction or behavior is becoming resident, and can sometimes say “I don’t think so, I think I'll do something else instead.”

"The 200 msec Manager" has gone through the ‘this could be a book’ cycle several times, the actual execution  bogging down as I actually got into description of the underlying science and techniques for expanding awareness. Also, I note the enormous number of books out there on meditation, relaxation, etc. that are all really addressing the same core processes in different ways.

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