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!


About Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

Professor Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson MBChB PhD MD - Deputy Dean (Research), Faculty of Science and Health, University of Essex, Colchester, United Kingdom View all posts by Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

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