Sunday, November 11, 2012

Listening to the Body: Neuroscience and the Art of Training


If you want to frustrate a new runner and come off as an elitist prick on message boards, there is a quick and easy path. Tell them to listen to their body. Long time runners are always offering this little nugget of wisdom, and new runners are always saying: what the heck does that mean!

I think that neuroscience can help explain.

Neuroscientists have confirmed what we have long known -- that there is an important difference between hearing and listening. In this nice little piece by Seth Horowitz, a Brown University neuroscientist, we learn that the auditory sense is quantitatively almost 10 times faster than the visual sense. In other words, our reactions to what we hear are less processed and more instinctive than our reactions to what we see. Horowitz describes the auditory sense as the human "alarm system" that operates constantly, even while asleep.

To balance that constant guardedness, we have something like "volume control" -- a way of turning up important sounds and diminishing less important sounds. This volume control is the attention. The philosopher/psychologist William James described it in the Principles of Psychology in the following way: "Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought...It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state."

The difference between hearing and listening is, of course, the quality of attention. Horowitz distinguishes between the startle, which is attention in its most attenuated, alarm-sounding, and reactive form and what he calls "stimulus directed attention." While the startle form of attending involves relatively little brain function and has been observed in every animal that has a spine, stimulus directed attention is much more complex and works through "temporoparietal and inferior frontal cortex regions, mostly in the right hemisphere." According to Horowitz, these are areas of the brain that are outwardly concerned; i.e. they are less interested in protecting the organism from danger and more interested in observing and understanding the stimulus received from the outside world. This is the sense in which they are "stimulus directed."

While hearing perhaps originated as a sort of alarm system, in the human brain it can be hooked up into a much more complex, outward oriented, and stimulus directed form of attention. When this happens, we say we are listening, rather than hearing.

Horowitz does a nice job of linking the neuroscience up with social concerns, particularly our interactions with media and with each other. It seems pretty clear that part of our political divisiveness has to do with the way our forms of attention are activated through media.

But I want to turn to running as another realm in which this distinction is important -- and as a realm in which the more complex modes of attention can be developed and trained. Experienced runners, to the chagrin and confusion of new runners, often speak of learning to listen to the body as a key, if not the key to proper training. I think that this Horowitz piece helps to articulate what exactly is meant here.

The art of listening to your body is really an art of developing more complex attention. When we start off in a sport or a new endeavor, we encounter all sorts of new "noises" in our environment, and the most natural reaction to these new stimuli is to be startled by them. The normal feelings of running -- because of their unfamiliarity -- get processed by the reptilian brain as startling, and they generate a fight or flight response. The "flight response" is usually the one activated in runners for obvious reasons, and so the new runner has a tendency to get out there and run to exhaustion on every single run.

But these runs are not the relaxed and confident runs of the well-trained experienced runner. They are painful and somewhat panicked. So, the new runner goes to the message boards and learns that they must slow down and run easy. This works for a time because it diminishes the sensations of running to the level that they can be processed and learned and hooked up to more complex modes of attention.

Once this has been accomplished, and the runner learns how to approach running in a relaxed way, new stimuli need to be introduced gradually and deliberately. This is where having a coach can be really helpful, as he or she can help the athlete distinguish between different modalities of effort and develop the organ of attention. And, in my opinion, this is where overuse or improper use of technologies like heart rate monitors or Garmin pace alerts can impede the development of attention -- in precisely the ways that new forms of media can inhibit the development of the sort of listening that leads to good communication.

I truly believe that in addition of course to genetic differences in talent, the ability to pay attention to one's effort while running in this richer and more complex sense of "listening" is what separates the best runners from the rest. Runners like to talk about pain tolerance and toughness as what makes a race effort full and complete, but the best way to tolerate pain is to understand it as a type of sensation that includes information. This is different from the traditional question of whether we should associate with the pain or disassociate from it to achieve a state of mental toughness.

True mental toughness is less rigid and inflexible than we often imagine it to be. It looks more like the complex attention that Horowitz describes. It looks like calm alertness in the face of the sensations of effort. That's what is meant by "listening to the body."

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Just Run, Baby!

"He who lives as children live -- who does not struggle for his bread and does not believe that his actions possess any ultimate significance -- remains childlike. "

F. Nietzsche, "Daybreak"

"The beast in me is caged by frail and fragile bars." -- J. Cash


Back when I was in graduate school, one of my professors (a Freudian psychoanalyst whose primary mode of pedagogy was delicately nudging and spinning thoughts as, perhaps, a mineral collector does late at night, hopeful that an old crystal lit from just the right angle might gleam with a new shade of light) told me something that stuck with me. He said quite matter-of-factly after one of us had made some sort of comment about childhood: "Remember that childhood is an adult concept."

This professor's point was the relatively simple but often unthought truth that children have no need for the concept of childhood. Childhood is a concept constructed in response to adult life which therefore may in fact have more to do with adulthood than with the actual experience of being a child. When we think of childhood or watch children at play -- and especially when we long for a return to childhood -- often what we do is simply conjure up an image of what adulthood would feel like without its, well, adult responsibilities: the struggle for bread, the struggle for meaning.

In other words, the immaturity of childhood is simply a negation of the idea of the maturity of adulthood, which required hundreds of educable moments, more than a few punishments and setbacks, and a lot of fucking hard work to achieve. When we look at children, we look at a being who has not yet undergone the more-difficult-than-you-might-think process of becoming civilized. And we kind of envy them for that, while also forgetting the fears, lack of control, confusion, injustice, weakness, and unpredictability that is also part of the life of a child.

The concept of childhood is the reason for adulthood, as our primary responsibility as citizens and parents and simply as adults is to create a better world for the children who are about to grow up into it. And, paradoxically, it is also the dream of an escape and relief from adulthood.

I guess these thoughts came back to me now because the high school team I help out with is about to run at the state meet, and one thing that we've been struggling with as coaches is how to get these young folks back to childhood, for at least a moment. These are good kids, from a good school, and their main problem is that they are too good -- too much like adults already. Too stressed, too conscious, too analytical. They've been racing tight, and battling themselves too much, instead of battling the competition.

Running is simple, and we run best when we find a kind of animal state of innocence that is akin to childhood. The good race has none of those adult feelings: no shame, no anxiety, no stress. If we get ourselves in the right mood, we perhaps recall an ancient memory of ourselves before we became civilized. We get natural; we get intuitive; we get cruel and competitive; and we release the beast. We run simply, we run dumb, and we are able to inflict pain upon ourselves without relenting.

"Wait!" you are probably saying. Childhood is a type of beastliness? Of course it is! I think any parents could tell you that. But beastliness is not all bad, just as civilization is not all good. When Johnny Cash speaks of a war within, he is being literal. Our civilized selves tame the beast and train the beast, and this is not without consequence or loss. In fact, our civilized selves have to become quite beastly towards our inner beast in order to cage it in those frail and fragile bars. They make it cower, hold it into a corner, and even make it feel itself to be something shameful and unnatural. These are the tactics of adulthood.

You can see this in a competitive situation when the athlete "gets tight." He or she begins running consciously and becomes so intent on running according to a plan or meeting a certain goal, that she forgets that she needs actually the help of the beast to get there. The runner tries to shame himself into a good performance or berate himself into a good performance. But this never works. The controlled and civilized part of us is, after all, only part of us. To reach our full potential, the beast and the controller, the child and the adult, have to figure out how to join forces and run together.

This is difficult to do, probably impossible to completely accomplish. But we can do better. Most of us denizens of late modernity (or whatever they are calling us today) and especially the readers of a blog like this one are overcivilized. The tendency to control, tame, organize, and understand has run wild, become somewhat beastly and needs, itself, to be tamed. Our enemy on race day is clear. It's not childhood or childishness; it's not ignorance and uncontrolled power. It's the forces of civilization; i.e. knowledge and control. To run and race well, we have to become more child-like, more beastly. We have to let go, which means letting the animal inside us lead us.

So, in your next race, give your adult self a break. Let the kid tow him along for a little while, do some of the work. Because after all, it's children, not adults, who have all the energy these days. Their power and work ethic is tremendous, but too often we miss this aspect of childhood. We miss it because the child's goal is different from ours. It's not to become civilized. It's to play.

Children have no need for the concept of childhood because they are too focused on just being to reflect about who they are. For overanalytical runners in an overanalyzed times, our best race strategy might be no strategy at all.

Just run, baby!
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