Trapped in a bubble

Have you ever been potholing?

Imagine squeezing yourself through a tight restriction. It’s dank, dark, muddy and you are stuck between rock and a hard place. Sounds awful! (Unless you enjoy that sort of thing, as indeed many adventurous types do.)

In this scenario, your light fails. It’s now pitch black. Darker than you have ever experienced, used as we are to light-polluted night-time cityscapes.

You can only rely on your sense of touch to slither through the gap.

Stressful isn’t it!

Now let’s transport ourselves to a wide-open space, striding across moorland. Looking to the distant horizon, you see a big blue sky with wisps of scudding cloud. Possibilities feel endless, optimism abounds.

Unless you are one of those potholing-afficianados, the latter scenario will be preferable.

What can be more hopeful, and empowering than seeing an abundance of possibilities and opportunities ahead of you?

The good news is that our brains and sensory systems, in particular the visual system, have evolved to identify possibilities for action. And to coordinate action accordingly to maximise our chances of survival, and success in life.

We would do well to remember that and try to find ways to make the most of our potential. Using our brains!

The above scenarios illustrate how we often let the environment dictate behaviour, particularly with respect to ‘getting stressed’. However, redirecting attention can change that stress-response.

The brain tends to have specialist functions that either interact collaboratively, or sometimes tip the balance to bias in one direction or the other.

The visual system, for instance comprises two pathways: a dorsal stream that processes spatial information, coordinating motor actions such as reaching and grasping; a ventral stream processes information about features in our surroundings, such as the meaning and functionality of objects. These are known as the ‘where’ and ‘what’ pathways respectively.

We have evolved to act upon the world as efficiently as possible: to find sources of food, pick the fruit from the tree (or climb it if necessary). In likelihood, the meaning-based visual pathway developed to help differentiate between elements in the environment – providing more information to inform action, and discern good options from bad...

Spatial proximity plays a part in this distinction. The dorsal attention system appears to be specialised to respond to stimuli within immediate (peripersonal) space. This is biased to respond to information in the lower half of our visual field (and therefore very close by), coordinating actions, and skilled movements – be that wielding a hammer, or cradling a baby close to us. It can help us respond rapidly to threats. It also favours the senses involved in touch and proprioception (we can employ motor actions without needing to necessarily scrutinise visually in prolonged detail).

Looking beyond the peripersonal to extrapersonal space (beyond immediate space), information in the upper half of the visual field tends to require less urgency to respond to – generally stimuli are further away, towards the horizon. The ventral stream can help here in detecting possible threats that are fainter and more distant. There is more time to weigh up the situation and decide on the best strategy to act. The senses of vision and audition are favoured, more than reliance on touch (as stimuli are likely too far away to interact with physically).

When we are stressed, we process threat all around, being primed to act and defend that protective bubble surrounding us in peripersonal space. In the context of rock climbing, studies show that people who are more anxious show reduced ability to see and utilise holds that are within reach, instead relying on those much closer, within a tighter frame of reference. The window of attention narrows, and movements become more restricted. Anxiety limits the possiblities for action that are available due to this coupling between perception and action being affected by the stress response.

Reducing anxiety, controlling the response to stress can open up perceptual capacity to see more possibilities and consequently expand reach and fluidity of movement in the environment.

Going back to our pothole, when stressed, we are effectively constricted to that narrow passage, reliant on touch and reactive to the threat perceived.

We would be better served raising our eyes to the horizon (assuming our immediate person is not under mortal peril), and engaging our visual capacity to see opportunities, or detect threats and obstacles in advance, whilst we have time to plan ahead. This allows us to use imagination, strategise and decide the best course of action that suits our goals.

Do you find yourself shuffling along looking at your feet, ruminating on this or that, consumed by negative thoughts? Chances are you occupy the reactive mode that is only concerned with protecting the bubble that surrounds you.

Rumination activates the self-referential default mode network and this ties up resources available for processing external information (reducing ‘perceptual bandwidth’). Interestingly, studies have found that when attention shifts to the external environment, this momentarily deactivates the self-referential network. Attention fluctuates moment-to-moment, and this is natural as we re-orient ourselves to our surroundings, whether purposefully looking for something or as things capture our attention in the periphery. In that moment of external re-orientation, thoughts that are self-centred are banished. This has been likened to ‘clearing the decks’ for action. Much as when out at sea, anticipating a change of course, either due to an impending hazard (threat) or to capitalise on wind direction (opportunity), it’s all hands on deck to adjust the sails. The crew comes together to achieve the collective goal.

It is useful to recognise when you are immersed in a self-indulgent mode, ruminating, or distracted from the task at hand. By switching to a more externally present mode, the brain can access an action state that is goal-directed and productive, purposefully engaged with the world.

This also involves embracing challenge. Appraisals of threat and challenge have different physiological consequences – reducing or enhancing capability for action, including reactivity to stress. Indeed, challenge elicits greater balance between the dorsal (action) and ventral (reaction) systems. This means focusing on potential gains rather than losses in a situation, maintaining attention to cues relevant to goal-directed behaviour, locking in on meaningful targets (aiming on course for that prize you are chasing). Threat meanwhile tips the balance, focusing on threat cues, more reflexive in response and overly reactive (increased ventral influence).

Ways to harness such brain-related insights might include shifting the focus of your gaze when confronting exposure, such as stepping across a narrow gap. Anxiety can result in the eyes being drawn repeatedly to the sheer drop, emphasising a sense of threat. But shifting gaze to the horizon can potentially jolt you out of that mode. The key is to gain some control over the system that would seek to limit the scope of action possibilities that are within reach. (Yet which can feel absent and invisible - they are because your visual system has inhibited their presence.) Reinforcing to yourself that this is a challenge, the fear can be held at bay, looking ahead and moving forward beyond that obstacle.

What this all amounts to is that, whilst the brain has evolved to optimise possibilities for action in the environment, we can end up restricting our ability to see those possibilities. Stress and anxiety shut down the wider field of attention and we react as if threat is all around. We hem ourselves into that tight underground passage becoming claustrophobic and not seeing a way forward. To overcome these limitations we need to try and balance the different systems that control action and reaction.

Appraising situations as challenging not threatening can assist in redressing this balance. This can prevent one or other attentional mode from dominating. Looking towards the horizon and into that upper visual field we can scan for opportunities otherwise unseen, and draw on a capacity to plan ahead strategically. This can inform us about further possibilities for action beyond the personal bubble that extends to arms’ reach.

Look up from that phone. See what is in the distance. Stretch your arms out as wide as you can. Expand the bubble that surrounds you and allow it to transport you further out into the world rather than become a self-limiting prison...

And importantly get out into the wild and try an adventurous challenge.

Who knows you might even like potholing...