In a post not so long ago in a galaxy very near here, we discussed neuroception and the hierarchy of needs. In it, I described how the nervous system's subconscious evaluation of threat determines one's ability to engage with, or disengage from, the environment.
This ultimately shapes the resting tone of the nervous system across a spectrum of open and engaging vs closed and disengaged which I described here. Those who do not feel at risk (whether physically or psychologically - if there's even a difference) are more likely to pay attention, learn, and adjust to the environment. In other words, they are more successful at the tasks they are asked to perform whether in sport or function.
Which leads to the following question: What are we really doing when rehabilitating and training? Are we getting stronger and more endurant? Less stressed?
In my opinion, we are developing new brain pathways and improving the efficiency of established ones in order to systematically decrease the perception of threat. This allows our bodies to better develop and express strength, endurance, power, etc. All that is to say, essentially, that we are learning and changing our perception.
So how can we set up a proper environment for all these mad gainz to occur?
Consistency and Security
In April of this year, I was fortunate to hear psychiatrist Todd Stull, MD speak at the PRI Annual Symposium. One of my biggest takeaways from his excellent talk was the concept of developing consistency and security in coaching and relationships. He described how consistency thru interactions affects how the brain generates behavior. Expanding upon this, I feel that these two variables also influence the ability to pay attention and learn.
My working definitions:
Consistency is a predictable set of circumstances, or context, that allows one to form patterns.
Security is the neural assessment of the environment as relatively safe or non-threatening. This includes other people within the environment as well as their perceived expectations.
The nervous system depends on consistent patterning in a non-threatening environment in order to best learn and perform. Patterns create security (though these patterns may not always be ideal). Security allows for one to pay attention and integrate sensory cues with minimal internal noise or distraction.
When we are functioning in this state we are better able to acquire and develop skill thru trial and error because it comes from a place of security. The brain is able to pick up and process signals with minimal, transient noise making the response to errors more effective. Think of it as a non-scummy rich guy playing the stock market: he can afford to take more risks because he has financial security - allowing him to learn from his risks and ultimately make more money.
Being secure in a situation also allows us to best access the brain's attentional resources, namely the nucleus basalis, needed to learn and to have the psychosomatic "flexibility" to perform.
So what happens when these two needs are not met:
Loss of Security: Too much threat and the brain loses prefrontal regulation - we revert to our reptilian brainstem, becoming reactive and rigid. This is paralleled in Stephen Porges' The Polyvagal Theory and in Robert Sapolsky's Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers with extensive evidence that those who are raised or function in stressful environments are less able to self-regulate, make good decisions, and recall information. Dopamine is still released under stress but it acts to reward outputs that could be considered suboptimal - such as solidifying automatic, reflexive movements.
Loss of Consistency: Perform a task that is way too complex or difficult as compared to prior tasks and the brain is unable to adapt with new patterns. Perform a task that is much too easy or boring, like that which you would probably see in a traditional therapy setting, and attention is lost. Loss of attention is the bane of effective learning. A loss of consistency can also be a loss of security as too much unpredictability gives the sense of having no control - this is why your dog freaks out when you come home late and break routine.
If consistency and security are lacking, then the brain gets overly busy and cannot properly process and integrate the information it is receiving. The signals coming into the brain cannot compete against the background noise caused by the brain being tied up with stress - the brain is unable to focus. "Muddy signals in, muddy signals out".
Setting the Stage
So here a few ideas for clinicians and coaches to create a consistent and secure environment:
Now this is not to say that everything we do should be warm, cozy, and stay the same in order for us to learn. Far from it. Improving function requires that we gradually stress and challenge the organism following the principle of minimizing danger and maximizing reward. Acute, moderate stress with the opportunity to recover is necessary for growth and adaptation - it just needs to be manageable and in a safe environment. We will discuss this more in future writings.
Without setting up a proper environment, using the principles of consistency and security, our goals of improving resilience and efficiency while mitigating the stress response - all thru the formation of neural patterns - are sabotaged.
As I did back in April, once I reach a critical mass I will post the most salient points from books I've found highly engaging. This month's additions to the reading list are focused on three of my most favorite of topics: stress, neuroplasticity, and the mind.
Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky
This book is now in its third edition and despite my being relatively late to the party, it is an immense resource on the effects of stress. The body has a surprisingly predictable set of responses to stressors, irrespective of the modality, that affect the way we think, interact, and move in the environment (though not much is addressed on the neuromuscular component of the stress response unfortunately).
Our human condition is such that the stress-response is chronically mobilized not only by physical or psychological stressors, but also in our anticipation of them. This is of significant importance in working with clients as we are often the source of such stressors when using techniques, language, or movements that are threatening thus amplifying what we should be trying to reduce. Sapolsky's writings were a major source of influence in my last post. Realizing that the stress response is a catalyst to alterations in the super-system ultimately causing dysfunction, if chronic, is so powerful that the importance of this book cannot be understated, bro.
The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge
Probably the best known mainstream book on neuroplasticity, Doidge writes about some of the pioneers of plasticity and their clients' success stories. Neuroplasticity is an immune-mediated property inherent to all humans. Salient stimuli that grab our attention are particularly powerful in changing neural patterns - something that most clinicians fail to incorporate in their treatment/training paradigms.
Every input to the nervous system alters it in some way, perhaps transiently at first but over time repeated stimuli change the way our brain perceives the body and the environment. Without concentration and attention, learning is slow and flimsy - if it occurs at all. In order to change biobehavioral patterns we have to get our clients to pay attention. This book is full of amazing stories (and references - I geeked out following the articles referenced in each chapter) and it's principles crucial for driving the profession as it appears many clinicians don't know (or have forgotten) even the basics of neuroplasticity.
Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris
I'll keep this one short: this is a neuroscientist's explanation of how we perceive the world around us and how the illusion of self drives much of our suffering and preoccupation with the past or future - preventing us from engaging in the present moment. Harris teaches a mindful, contemplative approach from a scientific viewpoint which eliminates much of the vagaries associated with the religious aspects of meditation.
Back next week with some new stuff.