Monthly Archives: March 2015

Athlete Collapses – Paying The Price For a Rampant Id Or An Incomplete Ego

A few days ago, I read of a veteran athlete who collapsed and died during an endurance event. Last weekend I watched the highlights of an epic six day off-road cycle event around the beautiful Cape Town countryside, and noted that a number of competitors were ‘veteran’ folk whose best athletic days were perhaps past, but were still pushing their physical limits to their utmost as part of the event. These got me thinking of why athletes push themselves to the point of collapse, and occasionally past it to the point where they die during the sporting event they are participating in. I was reminded of some theoretical and research work I did a while ago with some great work collaborators – Professors Kevin Thompson, Carl Foster, Jos De Koning, Jack Raglin, Dom Micklewright and Bill Roberts, with whom we developed an ‘alternate’ theory of the reasons why athlete collapse, during a wonderful ‘brainstorming’ session where we all got together at Vrije University in Amsterdam to work on the theory as a team a few years ago.

Our bodies and minds have some exquisite protective mechanisms that usually prevent us from pushing ourselves to fast and collapsing / damaging ourselves when playing sport – an obvious example being the inner voices we hear when ‘pushing it hard’ urging us to slow down, and warning us that there may be negative consequences of continuing performing the exercise bout too long or too hard. But athletes and folk exercising, particularly during competitive events, often ‘resist’ these cautionary ‘voices’ and processes, and usually push themselves as hard as they possibly can in order to perform the best they can during their chosen competitive event. So there is a competition between homeostatic protective mechanisms and psychological drives to achieve success that are in a continuous ‘negotiation’ during any exercise bout or competitive event.

There are a number of reasons why folks competing in an event collapse, often related to heart dysfunction, such as heart attacks, arrhythmias (faulty electric rhythms in the heart), and cardiomyopathies (an enlarged heart), but also potentially due to a host of other non-cardiac reasons, such as exercise-induced bronchospasm (asthma), low blood sugar, exertional heat illness (when one’s body becomes too hot), hypothermia (when one’s body becomes too cold), and exercise induced postural hypotension (low blood pressure) amongst other causes. It’s interesting that the majority of folk collapse close to the finish line or just afterwards, or close to the cut-off times for medals or race closure times, which clearly indicate that athletes collapse and die usually when trying to complete or reach a particular set ‘target’ for the competitive event they are performing. An athlete that collapses during an exercise bout without feeling any symptoms of any of these disorders is understandable and unfortunate – they just collapse without knowing they have anything wrong with themselves, and there is not much that can or could be done for folk like this. There is perhaps an element of ‘bad luck’ in folk who collapse such – while numerous studies of performing exercise on a regular basis indicate that it is healthy to do so, and enhances longevity, numerous studies have also shown that during an exercise bout itself, the risk of sudden death increases significantly, so there is a ‘play off’ always between the long term benefits of habitual exercise and the increased risk of dying each time one does exercise. Therefore, in folks who collapse without symptoms, in effect the risk ratio / chance has simply worked against them, from a statistical and ‘luck’ perspective.

A more ‘interesting’ group of folk who collapse during performing exercise, from an academic and research perspective, are those who feel warning symptoms of impending collapse or medical catastrophe, such as chest pains from a heart disorder, or dizziness due to either heart disorder or decreasing blood sugar for example, and yet still continue exercising. There is clearly an issue in these folk, who must feel that completing the event and achieving their set goal is more important than the chance of collapsing and dying, and who try and do so with obvious ‘warning signs’ such as these physical symptoms that disaster for them is impending. With my colleagues I mentioned above, we had a long think about this, and came to the conclusion that social factors must be associated with either winning or completing an event to the individual that does this, that are important to a greater degree than they would be to most ‘normal folk’ who don’t feel the need to compete in athletic events, or who stop when they feel the development of such symptoms and go to their doctors to be assessed as a matter of urgency. These ‘needs’ may include the need to appear fit and healthy and perhaps therefore more desirable to prospective sexual partners, or to increase one’s perceived esteem in one’s social circle, or to simply ‘prove’ to oneself’ that one can complete a challenging event, for example. They also may be indicative of overt psychopathology, such as an addiction to the sport being performed. Several studies have shown that habitual exercisers get depressed when they cannot perform their routine exercise or are unable to challenge themselves by competing routinely, due to illness or other reasons. A neat study performed by some excellent graduate students and colleagues of mine examined this concept of social need in the sporting context, in a study on male runners who ran three times on a treadmill at the same speed. The first time they ran alone, in the second an attractive female ‘actor’ came into the room halfway into the trial and spoke to them while they were running, and in the third, a muscular male ‘actor’ did likewise. They were asked to rate how tired they felt, and with the introduction of the attractive female, the male runners told the experimenter, who was present at the room at the same time, that they felt significantly less tired when in the presence of the attractive female as compared to when running alone (though they did not realize they had rated it differently at the time). In contrast, when a muscular male spoke to them, they reported feeling significantly more tired after the male actor interacted with them, despite the pace being the same in all three trials. This study shows that there are social factors at work during any exercise bout, and a large ‘ego’ involvement occurring during exercise performance, and this study perhaps gives us some clues on why folk push themselves during competitive activity, even in the presence of warning symptoms of impending physical catastrophe – the psychological need to do so is greater even than the need to keep oneself alive, and in these folk, who continue exercising even in the presence of warning physical symptoms, is surely evidence of some psychological issues that have not been resolved, and are in need of attention.

So coming back to the point raised above on the number of veterans competing in testing endurance athletic events, which seems to be increasing, one has to consider what is ‘at play’ in the minds of these folk. I have to be honest and say in my youth I exercised and competed to extremes on a regular basis, and collapsed twice during competitive athletic events, once from hypoglycaemia and once I think from hyponatremia (low blood sodium) and had to be revived in the medical tents on both occasions, so I know myself the ‘feeling’ of pushing oneself beyond one’s limits to a state of unconscious. But after a decade or so of doing competitive sport, I came to realize that I was doing it to ‘prove’ something to myself. Somehow, perhaps by doing so for a long period of time, and / or perhaps eventually understanding after some self-reflection that a ‘need’ underpinned this extreme level of activity I was performing in my early twenties, made it no longer a ‘need’, and sport took its ‘rightful’ place in my life since then of being something to do for enjoyment and to keep as fit as best possible within the constraints of a busy career and family life, but not as a key factor of my daily activity (psychology folk like Jung would perhaps say my ‘ego’ had been requited and I had achieved ‘wholeness’ eventually – at least in this sporting realm). So when watching the older folk competing in such epic events such the multi-day cycle race, one admires them for being ‘up for’ such challenges, and part of one wishes that one could still be doing such events that look to be such fun. But one also wonders if there is some unfulfilled need in such folk / an ego not yet complete / a midlife crisis being acted out – and a dangerous one at that, given that the risk of heart dysfunction increases significantly with increasing age. And if some of these veteran (and indeed all) competitors are feeling such symptoms and still keep on going, we need to understand why such individuals feel the need to complete such competitive athletic events, that in the ‘grand scheme of things’ are almost completely unimportant, in the face of impending physical catastrophe, which may be life threatening. As Freud suggested more than a hundred years ago, one’s ‘muscles are the conduit through which the ego imposes its will upon the world’, and folk who feel the need to compete against others, or perhaps more importantly with oneself, particularly at an older age, need to think carefully what are the issues and causes of such ‘needs’ that induce one to do so. There’s a lot to be said for a relaxing cycle on a Sunday morning with one’s mates and / or family. But there is also a lot to be said for sitting quietly with a cup of tea admiring the roses – particularly as we move closer to the end stages of our allotted ‘three score years and ten’, if we are to perhaps give ourselves the best chance of seeing out our allotted time on earth!


Psychology – A Discipline Struggling To Find Its Identity, Direction and Technical Development Focus

I finished an excellent biography of the Harvard Psychology Professor, William James, this week, and also had a great email interaction with my old Dean at Northumbria University, Professor Pam Briggs, who is a quintessential Psychology researcher and was a charismatic and creative Dean, and both these got me thinking of Psychology, a discipline I have increasingly become immersed in both from my own research and from a human interest perspective. Psychology is broadly defined as the study of mind and behaviour, and psychology practitioners and researchers examine a broad array of concepts associated with the function of the mind and the behaviour which results from the minds activity, including perception, cognition, attention, emotion, intelligence, motivation, personality, interpersonal and social relations, resilience, brain functioning, and states of consciousness, including the activity and nature of the unconscious. The word psychology derives from Greek origins, where it meant the study of the psyche or soul, though of course attempts to understand these ‘big’ concepts stretches back to scholars in ancient cultures in Egypt, Greece, China, India and Persia, amongst other places. I am sure most folk in their daily lives at some point in time have wondered why they do certain things, why they thought about something in a certain way, or why they responded to different external stimuli in the way that they do, and these thoughts probably occurred in most folk all the way back to antiquity and the beginning of the capacity for self-reflective thought, whenever that was and however it happened.

Psychology as a discipline has been pretty good at answering the questions relating to ‘why’ we do specific things or react in a certain way, and has flourished in many unexpected ways because of this. For example, its principles are used by advertising and marketing companies, with products being created and marketed based on the industries understanding and uptake of psychology based research of human behaviour and function such as the need for comfort, pleasure, and / or excitement. Many of us will have had an experience previously related to the visceral feeling one gets when watching an advert that appeals to one (and which makes us go out and buy the advertised product), but equally of course will associate with feelings one gets when watching or listening to adverts that are annoying and ‘hit the wrong spot’, and which make us not want to associate with or buy a particular product. Psychology has also helped us understand things like why we identify with different social groups, and why we need affiliation and belonging to both create and enhance our sense of self and social identity. For example, some excellent work from old colleagues of mine, Dr Matt Lewis, Dr Melissa Anderson and Professor Sandy Wolfson has shed light on ‘fandom’, and why so many folk become so fervently attached to their sport team of choice, and subject themselves to the highs and lows associated when their chosen teams win or lose. These type of emotions, related to the outcome of events which essentially have no direct bearing on one’s personal life, have always puzzled me (and I feel them often myself), but the work of these quality researchers have shown it comes down to psychological requirements and needs of the folk that feel them, and is an example of how psychology has helped academia, society, and folk like myself understand emotions and reactions which are puzzling and appear to be ‘wasteful’ of one’s emotional energy (at least to me).

Where Psychology as a discipline has perhaps not done as well is in explaining ‘how’ things happen in the brain which produces ‘behaviour’, and where and how the mind works. After several years reading basic psychology texts, in my opinion the ‘golden years’ for Psychology were in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, where astonishing hypotheses on mental and human functioning were developed by groups of clinicians and researchers around the world, which changed both Psychology and indeed how we view the world and understand ourselves. Think names like Freud, Jung, Adler, Hall, James, Janet, amongst a host of others, who brought into popular culture concepts like the unconscious, the ego (and id, though it has not been as well assimilated as has the ego concept), and the inferiority complex – all concepts we now use in our routine language as ‘fact’, yet were pretty much unknown before that golden epoch. Incredibly, most of these concepts have still not been completely ‘proven’ or been clearly associated with any particular brain function or activity, and unfortunately, in many ways it appears that Psychology has ‘regressed’ as a discipline, moving from these very ‘deep’ / ‘basic’ theories to current day theories. For example, the fairly recently developed self-determination theory explains human behaviour as either caused by ‘intrinsic’ or ‘extrinsic’ motives, which to me appear as a theory to be somewhat ‘trite’ in contrast to what came 100 years before (though all credit to the researchers who developed them). While most Biology based disciplines each decade seem to go to ‘deeper’ levels of understanding, Psychology appears to have regressed, and often astonishingly seems these days to ignore the rich work produced in that ‘golden era’ of psychology research alluded to above.

The reasons for what has happened to Psychology is perhaps principally related to the way Psychology developed after this ‘golden era’, and to the unfortunate dearth of investigative laboratory techniques available to Psychology researchers attempting to understand ‘how’ the brain ‘creates’ psychology, and how and where the ‘mind’ exists in the brain. In the 1900’s, after the ‘golden era’, Psychology research subsequently focussed on behaviourism (think stimulus-response work and Pavlov’s dog experiments), then developed areas of research such as ‘cognitive’ psychology, and produced theories of brain function with wonderful, but absolutely speculative and currently unproveable, models such as Baddeley’s ‘visuo-spatial sketchpad’ model of working memory. Most theories that were developed generally always were, and are, accompanied by line diagrams of how different parts of the brain would work and be involved with the particular theory which was being developed, which look good as figures, but tell us very little of ‘how’ things really would work in the brain as related to the theory. A further problem for Psychology also is that it has increasingly relied on its ‘twin-sister’ discipline, Neuroscience, to provide the equipment and techniques which Psychologists believe would be able to answer the ‘how’ questions Psychology as a discipline has generated. Unfortunately, from an understanding of how the brain works perspective, Neuroscience has itself proved to be an almost complete failure in its attempts to understand basic brain function. I can say this with some certainty myself after being a Professor of Integrative Neuroscience for many years – before each lecture I give on brain function, I start by saying us neuroscientists are dismal failures, given that we have so little understanding of basic brain function, mostly because of the lack of sensitivity of our currently available laboratory research techniques and equipment, and the difficulty of performing invasive investigations, both ethically and technically, on the brains of alive humans. These thoughts have been echoed / predated by such luminary scientists as Francis Crick, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in the 1950’s for his work on how genes replicate, then moved into Neuroscience as a researcher. After a few years Crick came to the same conclusion that the lack of any brain laboratory techniques available to Neuroscience researchers then, which were suitable to understand basic brain function, was blocking his and any others attempts to understand how most of basic brain function occurs that are still a mystery to us, such as consciousness, perception, and memory formation, amongst other processes and functions. Unfortunately, in the last few decades any Psychology paper to be perceived to be ‘worth’ anything needs to be associated with MRI scanning or other similar current brain techniques available in Neuroscience related brain research, which generate images that are really no more than ‘pretty pictures’ showing huge brain areas that ‘light up’ when a task is performed, and tell us almost nothing about how the brain operates dynamically, let alone how the ‘big’ concepts such as consciousness and memory ‘work’. So Psychology as a discipline has perhaps ‘gone wrong’ by ‘hitching itself’ to the wrong partner, by allying itself to Neuroscience, which has so little to offer currently to assist it with understanding and explaining the basic concepts and theories generated more than a century ago. It does not help either that some of the ‘big questions’ Psychology examines, described above, perhaps belong to a large degree in the realm of Philosophy, and would be difficult to answer even perhaps with any technological development whatsoever, such as what and where is the ‘soul’ and ‘mind’, which are difficult to define conceptually, let alone explain with any reductive laboratory technique that has been, or will be developed in the future.

So for me, after finishing the biography of William James this week, and having read over the last few years (occasionally labouring through) just about all of Freud’s and Jung’s basic writing from all those years ago, I do perceive (and perhaps being an ‘outsider’ to the discipline, or at best a ‘late disciple’ allows me to do so), that Psychology needs to perhaps have a bit of ‘navel gazing’ itself as a discipline about where it is, why it may be going in the ‘wrong’ direction from the ‘how’ perspective, and that perhaps it has currently ‘allied’ itself with a discipline (Neurosciences) that is currently in absolute disarray / still very much in the ‘dark ages’ laboratory wise, and is struggling itself with its own identity, and I can say this with some knowledge perhaps (though always with caution) after working for more than 20 years as an Integrative Neuroscientist. How to do this as a generic discipline is obviously difficult, and I am fairly sure that the problems both Psychology and Neuroscience currently face will be solved by an engineer / physicist, rather than by a Psychologist or Neuroscientist, who does not work in either field, and who develops technology that will allow a ‘thoughtometer’ to be developed, or something similar, which will be able to ‘tap into’ the unconscious / psyche and will thus help clarify whether Freud, Jung et al from the ‘golden era’ were wrong or right in an absolute way, and will thus help Psychology as a discipline find its ‘way forward’ again from a ‘how’ perspective.

I do know though, if I could go back in time and attend one conference as my absolute first choice from an academic interest perspective, it would have been the Psychology conference organised by Stanley Hall at Clarke University in Worcester, Massachusetts in the USA in 1909, which was attended by and at which talks were given by all of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, William James, Ernest Jones and a host of others who changed our way of thinking about life and our behaviour, whether their ideas were right or wrong. I also know that in 2006, after 15 years of doing lab based physiology and neuroscience related research, and after I had got into reading all the basic texts of these golden era Psychology folk, that before a talk I was due to give back then, I wrote in my ‘ideas’ diary which I always carry around with me: “Strange paradoxical thought when preparing for this talk on the role of biological sciences in the control of exercise and activity, that so much of the neuroscience that I have worked on, read and discussed seems to be completely nonsensical, although it is based on experimental facts, whereas the psychology theories of Freud and Jung appear to make almost complete sense, and ‘feels’ right, even though it is at this stage almost completely unverifiable.” I hope that before I retire, or indeed ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’ I will see the development of that ‘thoughtometer’, that I will see Psychology rediscover it’s ‘mojo’, and that I will observe some of my wonderful Psychology colleagues and friends go on and get Nobel prizes for discovering where memories are and how they are stored, where consciousness resides and how it works, and perhaps more importantly, why I wake up in the wee hours of the morning worrying about things that I don’t even realize before I go to sleep are an issue to me. And hopefully also, as in the football fandom example above, why I get grumpy when my beloved football / rugby team loses on a Saturday afternoon, why this has the potential to ruin the rest of the weekend, and where in the brain these ‘crazy’ attachments and emotions are stored!


The Negative Feedback Loop – The Absolute Fundamental Principle Governing All Life Processes

I was asked this week in my current work role to give a welcoming address to the Society for Endocrinology, Metabolism and Diabetes of South Africa later this year as the University of the Free State is hosting their annual conference this year. This got me thinking of diabetes as a disorder, which occurs as a result of the failure of regulation of blood sugar concentrations due to a number of different reasons and causes. Understanding generic regulatory processes and system control mechanisms and activity has been the major focus and interest of my research career to date, and I have spent a lot of my life trying to understand and make sense of what are life’s underlying governing principles. Perhaps the most basic control mechanism (and an astonishingly simple one), without which life could not exist in any shape or form, is the negative feedback loop, which can be described as either a governing principle or regulatory process.

Negative feedback is defined as occurring when some function or product which is the output of a system, process, or mechanism, is fed back into the same system in a manner that tends to reduce the output being generated by the system in response to an external input to the system or a perturbation of the system by an external agent. Negative feedback can be thought of as planned corrective behaviour of any system which brings it back to baseline whenever it moves away from the baseline. It is also important in purposive behaviour, as negative feedback mechanisms allow corrective behaviour to occur if activity is performed which is not in the direction of the intended goal of the purposive behaviour. A nice example describing how negative works feedback was put forward by my long time polymath collaborator and friend at the University of Cape Town, Professor Vicky Lambert. When one plans to leave a house, one forecasts what clothes one will wear by looking outside and seeing if it looks cold or warm from visual cues one picks up looking through the window at the external environment which one shortly plans to enter, or from checking the local weather forecasts. Whether one has put on too many or too few clothes will only be apparent when one actually goes outside and one’s skin temperature receptors are exposed to the outside air, and this initiates feedback regulation – either taking off clothing, or putting more on, or going back inside if it the temperature is different to what one predicted it would be and is either too cold or hot when outside. These different corrective responses to the stimulus would result in the correct body temperature occurring to allow survival, no matter what the elements outside, and this temperature regulation by addition or removal of clothing is a nice example of how a negative feedback loop control mechanism occurs in our daily life.

As per this example, a negative feedback control system therefore requires three components to work. The first component is the presence of a sensory apparatus that can detect either changes in whatever substance or process is being monitored, or changes in the internal environment or other systems which interacts with or impacts on the substance or process being monitored. The second component would be a control structure or process which would be sent the information from the sensory apparatus, would have stored information about the baseline / routine levels of the system which need to be maintained to allow continued successful function of the system, and would make a decision based on comparing the changes detected to what these baseline ‘setpoint’ values are, and ‘decide’ whether to make changes as a result of the information received, or to maintain the current level of activity of the system if deciding that the changes detected do not have the capacity to harm the system. The third component would be an effector mechanism or process which would enact or make the changes to the system decided upon by the decision making control structures. These basic negative feedback loop components are found in all life processes and structures, and are fundamental to life, as if they were not present activity that is potentially harmful would continue or accelerate until the system is overwhelmed to the point of being damaged and eventually destroyed. An example is in cancer cells, where for some unknown reason the normal inhibitory feedback mechanisms regulating cell division become dysfunctional, and normal body structures are overwhelmed by aggressively proliferating cells that cannot be ‘turned off’ by negative feedback processes.

Negative feedback loops are not just found and control the human body, but occur in and regulate all structures and systems that we use in daily life, such engines, airplanes, airconditioners, speaker amplifiers, for example. All activities we do, such as turning a boat’s rudder when seeing an iceberg, or moving a baby away from a hot kettle, or to changing our behaviour or environment after a non-optimal social interaction, are examples of negative feedback control loop mechanisms ‘at work’ in our daily lives. Indeed, philosophers often suggest that the capacity for negative feedback is the essential factor necessary for determining whether a system, process or structure is ‘alive’ – though these debates are often surely didactic rather than pragmatic, such as in philosophical discussions of whether thermostats can be considered to be ‘alive’ as they respond automatically to stimuli, something which sounds easy to answer, but in essence when one thinks about it becomes difficult to take a firm opinion about from a defining ‘life’ perspective, even if one is aware that such a debate is fundamentally absurd.

Diabetes and the regulation of blood sugar levels is a classic example of the negative feedback loop and how important to us for our survival. In healthy folk, after one has a meal, one’s blood sugar concentrations start to increase as the meal is ingested, and this would be picked up by sugar level sensors in different parts of the body. These sensors quickly send signals to regulatory control centres in the brain and body, which then directs the pancreas to release insulin, which quickly converts the blood sugar into other forms of stored energy in the different cells of the body (such as fat), and by doing so the blood sugar levels are maintained between fairly tightly ‘allowed’ boundaries. In diabetes, after food is ingested, for a variety of reasons, when ‘instructed’ to do so, the pancreas does not respond appropriately, or cannot do so, and insulin is not secreted in some types of diabetes, while in others, no matter how much insulin is secreted, the cells do not respond to it. So the negative feedback loop mechanism starts failing, and this causes the blood sugar levels to drift either above or below the normally ‘acceptable’ boundaries allowed by the body, and the elevated blood sugar can cause direct damage to tissues and cells in the body if it stays high for too long a period of time. Interestingly, when the fast-acting blood sugar controlling feedback loop starts failing, as it does in diabetes, a number of longer / more complex negative feedback loops are initiated, some involving other hormones being secreted that are not normally utilized to the extent they are in diabetes, in an attempt by the body’s regulatory control centre to return the blood sugar levels to tolerable levels, and others being behavioural in response to the symptoms induced by too high blood sugar (such as increased tiredness, weight loss, and increased passing of urine), such as decreasing ingestion of food with high sugar content, exercising more, or seeing the doctor and being given pills and medications to counter the effect of the non-functioning insulin pathways. All these changes would be in themselves examples of longer time-duration negative feedback control loop mechanisms, which are brought into action when the basic negative feedback loop fails, in an attempt to restore the blood sugar levels to the most optimal level possible, in order to ensure life continues as optimally as possible, for as long as possible, even in the impaired state from a system regulation perspective which the diabetes condition creates for those suffering from it.

So from my own research interest perspective, I am looking forward to hopefully hearing a lot about the latest developments in diabetes management and how metabolic regulation is better understood when the conference comes to town in a few months time. I am pretty sure though that whatever new information has been found and will be described at the conference, the principle of negative feedback control will remain sacrosanct as the accepted mechanism by which all metabolic activity is controlled in the body. Beyond diabetes though, it creates quite a paradigm shift in how one views life when one understands that just about all activity one does throughout one’s daily life (actually, all activity, period) is associated with some particular negative feedback loop cycle – whether it is getting food to maintain our fuel supplies, doing exercise to maintain one’s health, visiting friends to maintain one’s wellbeing, going to work each day to ensure one has enough funds to allow basic shelter and survival requirements to be ensured, everything we do is related to some negative feedback loop being active and occurring to ensure our ongoing survival and future wellbeing. How such a relatively simple principle came to underpin all of our activity and be so fundamental to life and existence, and how such a ‘principle’ came to be the one that controls and regulates all life at some point in our past, is of course another story, and provides ‘grist for the mill’ for many years more future study, research and thought!


The Milgram Electric Shock Experiment – Is Evil Innate, Learnt, Or Created By Group Dynamic Behavior

Perhaps one of the most horrific things I have seen to date in my life are the pictures which circulated recently of a captured pilot in a cage being burned to death in the cage by his captors, while his death was filmed by them and then displayed on public internet viewing sites. I read in the newspapers this week of a teenage boy who died after a long period in hospital after being attacked and beaten by a group of older boys on his way home from school. I read also that a film came out in the cinemas recently about a sniper who was famous for killing several hundred individuals in the ideological group who his country opposed. My emotional response to these images was to hope and pray that similar fates to those described above never came the way of my loved ones and children, and that they manage, like I have to date, to stay out of harm’s way or such situations as these horrendous ones described above. My academic response was to wonder what were the underlying causes of such evil acts, and I spent a bit of time this week reading up again on the famous Milgram electric shock experiments, which potentially shed some light on how individuals that live on the same planet as I do, breath the same air that I do, and see the same sun each day that I do, can have done such things to other individuals probably at the same time as I walked my dogs, spent quality time with my family, and worried about how I was going to solve the latest management issues that need attention at work.

The Milgram electric shock experiments were performed in the 1960’s at Yale University by Professor Stanley Milgram. His graduate dissertation work examined conformity in decision making. Being affected by the violent events of world war two which still resonated in his (and others) mind at that point in time (and still do), he extended his dissertation work to examine whether evil acts such as torture, murder, and genocide could be related to conformity / obedience to the system that ordered it, or whether it was related to psychopathic tendencies in those that performed them. In his experiments he asked volunteers to give electric shocks of increasing intensity to people sitting in an adjacent room who were trying to learn a task but were making errors in the task, in order to punish them each time they made an error and in this way attempt to enhance their task performance. Of course the people who were being shocked were actors, and they did not receive shocks, but they did scream each time they were ‘shocked’ and begged for mercy / not to be shocked, and these screams could be audibly heard by the volunteers who were giving the shocks to the ‘actors’ under instruction of the laboratory scientists.

The astonishing finding of Milgram’s study was that nearly two-thirds of the volunteers did not refuse to give the shocks when hearing the screams of the ‘actors’, and did not stop participating in the experiment, but continued increasing the voltage on the demand of the laboratory scientists until they had reached what they was told was the maximum voltage output of the shock-giving device. Milgram expected that the maximal number of subjects that would do this if psychopathy was the cause (ie individuals with a personality disorder that predisposed them to perform evil acts without any empathy or conscience for the victims), to be around / a maximum of 10 percent of the volunteers as per the putative societal prevalence of psychopathy. The much greater number of volunteers who he found were happy to continue shocking the actors suggested that ‘normal’ folk could do something evil like this if they were told to do so and in an environment where they thought they were doing the right thing – in this case presumably given that they were part of a scientific experiment and were told to perform the shocks by the scientists in control of the study, they may have felt it to be ‘right’ to do so. The study was repeated with the ‘actors’ in the same room, and again with the volunteers required to actively hold down the ‘actors’ hands on the shock device, and while the number of volunteers who continued the experiments was reduced in these follow up trials, still approximately 30 percent of the volunteers continued giving the shocks to maximum levels despite the ‘actors’ screaming in pain and begging them to stop. Despite several concerns being raised about the study since it was published all those years ago, mostly about the conclusions Milgram reached about his findings, it has been repeated a number of times over the decades since and had the same outcome described for it wherever it has been performed. Milgram concluded that the capacity for evil was innate in all people, and that similar evil actions which caused such anger during world war two could be performed in a created environment where people were instructed to perform evil acts by any individual from any American town. Sadly for Stanley Milgram, apparently this conclusion was too controversial to be accepted by his University and the broader American community, and he was denied tenure by Yale, and had to move on to complete what was a successful career at another University, despite producing one of the most robust study findings ever.

So what does this fascinating study tell us about the terrible acts of evil that I used as examples above. Perhaps there is a higher than the mean incidence of psychopaths in those people who become snipers, or who prey as a group on weaker individuals, or who burn someone to death in a public forum. More likely from Milgram’s findings is that the people involved in performing such evil acts believe they are doing ‘right’ due to the idea, as Milgram suggested, that they are being obedient to the group they belong to, and perceive they are doing ‘right’ due to an affirmatory belief generated by being part of the group itself. This latter hypothesis is troubling in itself, but does allow one also to believe that if the group dynamics of those committing evil acts are altered, or can be externally influenced to change, there is a hope that such evil behaviour can be attenuated. An example is that of war and killing – during war it is perceived to be ‘acceptable’ that soldiers kill in the course of performing their duties, and they are protected if doing so by international law. Fortunately, most soldiers when they return to their non-war home environments understand that to continue killing would not be societally or legally acceptable, and most soldiers returning to their non-combat environments change their ‘killing paradigm’ accordingly. The problem of course is how to change those whose living environment is continuously abnormal, and those who are so brutalized by their environments that such a change to a ‘good’ rather than evil state cannot occur.

What is not often discussed, associated with the Milgram study, is of course that one-third of the volunteers who participated in the experiment chose to stop giving the shocks, despite the encouragement of the scientists to continue doing so, and understanding that they were part of a bone fide experiment and therefore ‘evil’ actions were ‘acceptable’ because these acts were part of the experimental conditions. There is hope for us therefore that a reasonable percentage of folk, when confronted by situations where they have to make choices, even when in a group environment where the pressure to conform and be obedient to the ‘rules’ of the group is high, will choose to negate the pressure to perform evil acts, and maintain their moral courage. The lesson to all of us from the Milgram experiments therefore is to perhaps be aware that group dynamics may cause us to perform acts of evil and condone them in our minds as being acceptable given that they are ‘group’ practice and therefore can or should be done. Each day, while most of us are not confronted with such terrible situations as where folks are burned alive or beaten to death, we come face to face with actions, whether in the workplace or social environments, where such evidence of ‘group evil behaviour’ occur, such as when fun is made of people that look or talk differently, or when an individual holds a different viewpoint to that of the group one works in or socializes with, amongst numerous other examples. In our own way, we have the choice to submit to and join in the group’s evil behaviour, or maintain our own moral courage, and the danger of course, is that each time one does not maintain one’s moral courage, and joins the group’s behaviour, eventually there is the potential that an environment will be created where we will consider it acceptable to burn someone alive, and to film it while it is being done. So we need to be individually aware of the danger of group behaviour, and be brave, always, and understand bravery is not just about saying yes in difficult situations, but often is also about saying no, and turning away from those around one. As much as we want to all be an accepted member of a ‘group’, at times we need to be an ‘outsider’ to the group if the group one is attached to chooses to perform acts which are evil, even if it means being ostracized for one’s standpoint, for the greater good. Society ultimately perhaps depends on enough folk doing so, though of course the percentages of folk happy to shock other people in Milgram’s famous experiments will always be deeply concerning, and make me worry each night whether my loved ones will stay safe as they ‘walk through the valley of the shadow of death’ / go along their own life’s journey, which has the potential to be either enjoyable or terrible, depending on which group one associates with, or bumps into on a random day when walking home from school, or when one’s plane crashes in the wrong place.


Teleoanticipation – Activity Performed During A Task Or Journey Is Set Before Starting It

Due to some poor time planning on my part this week, and a too full work diary, I nearly ran out of petrol in my car, and for two days drove it with the warning lights saying I was about to run out of petrol. These two days, during which I experienced some anxiety each time I drove it between sequential work engagements, got me thinking of the theory of teleoanticipation. This theory was generated by H-V Ulmer in the early 1990’s, and suggested that before beginning any task or journey, our brain takes into account all the factors that are likely to be involved in the task or could affect the task, including most importantly the expected duration of the planned task, and comes up with a strategy / template for how the task should be performed. This strategy would then define how one managed and performed the task for its entire duration. In other words, one plans everything for tasks and activities prior to performing them in an anticipatory manner, and this planning allows both for their successful completion in the most optimal way, and at the same time ensures that one is not harmed in any way during the completion of the task, which could be the result of either over-extending oneself, or not planning for unexpected events that could impinge on one, while the task is being performed.

The concept of teleoanticipation is underpinned by the twin concepts of homeostasis and pacing. Homeostasis is defined as the tendency towards maintaining a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, and is one of the basic concepts underpinning all life and activities in life. Pacing is defined as the optimal management of resources in order to complete a task in the fastest possible time while maintaining adequate resources in order to finish the task. So teleoanticipation associated regulatory processes set the strategy for a task with the overarching goal of maintaining homeostasis as best possible in those performing the task. Pacing, or how one paces oneself during a task, is the ‘operative manager’ of how homoestasis is maintained and how the teleoanticipatory planning processes are ‘operationalized’ during the task. What Ulmer suggested was that the endpoint of the task, whether it be a known time duration or a distance to be travelled or activity to be performed, would be the ultimate controller of the task in its entirety. Using the process of teleoanticipation, the brain would work ‘backwards’ from the endpoint, and plan the activity for each phase of the task from start to beginning with the endpoint / duration / distance in mind, and with the overarching goals of both maintaining homeostasis and completing the task in the most optimal way.

A great example of the teleanticipatory process is evident in the behaviour of migrating birds, who travel up to 4000 km as part of their annual migratory journey, often over seas and lakes, where incorrect ‘planning’ of their flight would invariably be fatal to them. Before migration birds calculate the metabolic requirements of their flight and increase the quantity and alter the composition of their fuel stores, embarking on their migration only when they have sufficient body fat stores. They also modulate their flight speed and flying patterns during the migratory flight to accommodate the extra body weight caused by their increased fuel reserves in order to successfully reach their destination. It is interesting that entire flocks of birds migrate as a unit, meaning that their teleoanticipatory planning processes and pacing strategies for their migration are either universal to all of them, or are commonly linked. Another example of teleoanticipation is seen in ants, which can gauge with superb accuracy the distances they have to travel in a range of different environments to go back to a food source during several different / separate journeys. In humans, we seem to very accurately predict distances we travel or the duration of tasks we perform. Our plans and way we pace ourselves during different task is usually astonishingly predictable and repetitive, although this appears to be a learned behaviour. Some fascinating work from my academic colleague and friend, Dr Dom Micklewright, has shown that pacing and task planning in children in a learned thing, and up to the age of around 6 or 7 young children have no pacing strategies, and simply start as fast as they can, and either stop before reaching the task finish point, or slow down precipitously before doing so, which would indicate a lack of teleoanticipatory capacity in young children. After the age of 8 or 9 children start using pacing strategies and become more successful in completing tasks, events and races in a well regulated manner. Therefore, prior experience, or repeated exposure to tasks, appears to be essential for setting and ‘honing’ the teleoanticipation associated regulatory control processes.

A key finding in most studies of teleoanticipation and pacing is the presence of an ‘endspurt’, where folk speed up as they reach the last 10 percent of completion time or duration for any goal. Apart from this endspurt activity occurring almost always around 10 percent from the end of a task showing that folk have extremely accurate timing mechanisms, it also indicates that we keep a ‘reserve’ capacity in all tasks we perform, as if we did not we would not be able to accelerate in the completion of any task towards its end. Why we keep this reserve capacity right up to the end of a task is probably also a protective response, to ensure we have redundancy of choice / the ability to alter out chosen teleanticipatory strategy in the case of a life-threatening event, even if from a control systems perspective, this would not be the most ‘efficient’ way of completing a task or event. Teleoanticipation as a regulatory process appears to exist in just about every task or activity we perform or are involved in, from setting our work schedules for daily, weekly, monthly and yearly durations, to how we drive cars and run or cycle races, to how stock market trading activity occurs on a daily basis, to even how folk order beers during an evening out period and as the pub’s closing bell time approaches – everything we do that has a finite goal, duration or distance appears to be regulated by these teleoanticipatory processes in our brains, which mostly seem to occur at a subconscious level, unless unexpected factors we did not account for impinge on our task performance.

So coming back to my incident this week of nearly running out of petrol, understanding the concept of teleoanticipation, and its ‘twin’ concepts of pacing and homeostasis, allows one to make a few deductions from what happened to me and how I reacted to the incident from a control perspective. My diary management for the week may have been optimal from the concept of performing my work tasks optimally, but clearly it impacted negatively on my usual teleoanticipatory strategy for ensuring I as normal had enough petrol in my car so that I did not run out, which usually operates at a ‘subconscious level’, and is very conservative, as I normally, like most folk do, fill my car up with petrol long before I reach the ‘reserve warning light’ level. My response was to be alarmed when I realized that I was operating out of the boundaries of the normal ‘plan’ for my car fuel level strategy, and I worried about this during my daily activity, even though with my diarized work commitments I could not do anything about it, which means that clearly our brain’s teleoanticipatory centres put up conscious alarm signals when the normal ‘pacing’ strategy, in this case for car travel, was ‘messed up’. Finally given that I did not run out of petrol, but made it to the start of the weekend without running out, and then went as my first task to fill the car up with petrol after judging I would just make it to the weekend before running out, even if I was driving the last two days very much ‘in the red’, indicates that in effect my ‘teleoanticipatory’ strategy in the end did ultimately ‘work’ and ‘petrol level homeostasis’ was maintained – even if by doing so (filling up the car at the start of the weekend) impinged on and ‘messed up’ my routine weekend home activities. This example show how robust the control processes underpinning teleoanticipation in our lives are, and how essential they are to our survival and optimal functioning. So next time one goes on a trip or performs a task, one can do so assured by the knowledge that one’s subconscious brain has probably performed a myriad of calculations prior to starting it in order to ensure its successful completion. How much one worries about planning for tasks is perhaps associated with how novel an environment is, and how many factors which one has little control over could be associated with impacting on it, such as my poor diary management. This is perhaps one reason why airplane travel is so stressful for so many folk, given that most of the planning for and control of the trip is taken completely out of one’s own hands, and one has to rely completely for one’s ‘homeostasis’ / life on the teleoanticipatory planning of another person (the pilot), who like the migratory birds has very complex factors to plan for, and one is very aware of the potential consequences of any error in these teleoanticipatory calculations while having no control over them. What happens with, or how, task activity without goals or duration or distance is regulated is another question, but of course do we ever really perform any activities which are such, as much as we wish that we could – even holidays are not endless and have an endpoint!


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