Category Archives: Science

The Self As Soliloquy – The Mind’s Inner Voices Make A Winner Or Loser Out Of You During Exercise And Competitive Sport

I was watching the highlights of an Australian Open warm-up tournament a few days ago, and noted how players often spoke aloud to themselves during the game, either congratulating themselves, or telling themselves to keep on going, or being critical of themselves when making an error. I have been trying to keep cycling through the Christmas break, even though it has been pretty cold and occasionally icy in the North-East UK, and I have had to have conversations with myself (internally, rather than out loud like the tennis players) both to get on the bike when sitting in front of a warm fire with a good book seemed a better option, and when I was out on the cycle path, and my toes and fingers felt frozen, to not stop, and keep on going. I have always been aware of the inner dialogue that continues incessantly in my mind throughout the day, either thinking of a science puzzle that I can’t work out, or how best to sort out a challenge at work, or being reminded by an inner voice to get presents for the family for Christmas, amongst a million other discussions I have with myself, and I am sure each of you reading this is aware of these inner voices similarly. Curiously, there has not been a lot of attention paid to inner dialogue or the inner voices, which is surprising given how central one’s inner dialogue is to one’s life, and are indeed a constant component of one’s life of which one is usually very aware of. Even less work has been done on the effect of inner voices, either positive or negative, on athletic performance (or indeed any type of performance, be it sport, work, or any activity which puts stress on one), or indeed if one’s inner voices alter during either competitive sport or exercise participation. A few years ago, I worked with one of the absolute legends and mavens in the Sport Science academic community, Professor Carl Foster, from Wisconsin in the USA, in order to try and understand a bit more about this curious yet fascinating subject, and we eventually published a theoretical review article on it a decade ago. All of these recent observations reminded me of this article we published, and the role of inner voices and the inner dialogue they create, and how this inner dialogue affects, and is altered by, competitive sporting activities and challenges.

Inner speech has also been described as self-talk, private speech, inner dialogue, soliloquy, egocentric speech, sub-vocal speech, and self-communicative speech, amongst others. Inner speech is predominantly overt during early childhood, and children up to four years of age believe that a mind of a person sitting quietly is ‘not doing anything’ and is ‘completely empty of all thoughts and ideas’. With increasing age, and associated increasing self-awareness, children reduce the quantity of overt inner speech, particularly when in large groups or around teachers, until overt inner speech only occurs when the child is alone, due to them becoming aware of the social consequences of unchecked overt inner speech. This change of inner speech from overt to covert appears to be related to appropriate physical and cognitive developmental changes, as children with Down’s syndrome continue to use overt inner speech, and folk who are Schizophrenic also use overt inner speech, and indeed feel that their inner speech is generated ‘outside’ of their heads and by an external agent, and often feel tormented by the ongoing dialogue which to them appears to be ‘outside’ of their minds. In adolescents, increasing negative or self-critical inner speech has been related to psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety and anger.

As described above, the makeup and function of the inner voices during sport have not been extensively researched previously. However, Van Raalte and colleagues examined overt inner speech in tennis players, and found that a large percentage was negative, and that there was a correlation between the quantity of negative inner speech and losing, which was not present between positive inner speech and winning, a somewhat puzzling finding. The laboratory group of father and son academics Lew and James Hardy have done some excellent work in this field. A study by their group, first authored by Kimberley Gammage, where they looked at the nature of inner speech in a variety of sports, found that 95% of athletes reported they used / were aware of inner speech during exercise (why 5% of folk do not is perhaps more curious than those folk that did), and noticed their inner speech to a greater degree when they were fatigued, when they wanted to terminate the exercise bout, and near the end of the exercise bout. Their inner speech was described most often to be phrases (such as ‘keep it up’ or ‘don’t stop’) rather than single words or sentences, and interestingly, they used the second person tense more frequently than the first person during exercise. The athletes perceived that they used inner speech for motivational purposes, maintaining drive and effort, maintaining focus and arousal, and to a lesser degree for cognitive functions such as ensuring correct race strategy, or using methods that would enhance their performance, such as breathing regularly. Helgo Schomer and colleagues did a great study where they got folk doing long Sunday runs to take walkie-talkies (the study was done in the 1980’s) and he would contact them randomly during the run and ask what they were thinking. While there will always be a degree of self-censorship of personal thoughts and inner discussion, he found that at lower running speeds, most inner speech was described as conversational chatter or problem solving social or work issues, and at higher speeds monitoring their body function, and the environment.

While all this work is excellent in describing what type of inner speech is ‘spoken’ at rest and during exercise, some of the best ‘deep’ theoretical work I have ever read in this field was generated by George Mead more than a hundred years ago, where he suggested that inner speech is a ‘soliloquy’ which occurs between at least two inner voices, rather than a single voice in one’s mind / brain. Mead defined these as an ‘I’ voice, representing the voice describing a current activity, or urging one to act, and a ‘Me’ voice, which takes the ‘perspective of the other’ and with which the ‘I’ voice is assessed. Mead also suggested that previous social interactions with other individuals allowed one to gain a viewpoint of oneself or one’s actions or thoughts, and therefore that ‘taking the perspective of the other’ is the ability to understand that another person’s viewpoint may be different to one’s own, and to use that opinion to change one’s own behaviour or viewpoint. Inner speech thus allows or creates the internalisation of this mechanism for taking another person’s perspective, as one can describe to a ‘real’ person (someone whom one has interacted with in the past that was significant to one), or an imagined person one has never previously interacted with, in one’s mind the reasons for behaving in a certain manner in a previous or ‘current’ situation, or how one is ‘feeling’ the effects of current activity, and the ‘Me’ voice takes the opinion of the other (and can be a conglomeration of many others, and be a ‘generalised other’) to assess the validity of how one says one is feeling. These concepts fit in well with the findings of Gammage and colleagues, who as described above, suggested that inner speech as mostly being reported as occurring in the second person tense (‘Me’), but with first person speech also occurring (which would be the ‘I’ voice), though why the ‘Me’ voice would be ‘heard’ more than the ‘I’ voice during exercise, if the findings of Gammage and colleagues occur in all athletes during all sporting events, is not clear.

A further fascinating hypothesis about inner speech was made by Morin and others, who suggested that inner speech was crucial for self-awareness (and one’s sense of self), by creating a time distance or ‘wedge’ between the ‘self’ and the mental or physical activities which the ‘self’ was currently experiencing. This time-wedge would enable retrospective analysis of the activity in which the individual was currently immersed in, thus facilitating the capacity for self-observation and thus both awareness of the ‘meaning’ of the activity and its effect on the individual, and self-awareness per se. In other words, if an individual was completely immersed in their current experience, they could not understand the meaning of the experience, because a time or perceptual gap is needed to create the time required to get enough ‘distance’ from the activity and assess and understand the meaning of an experience, and whether it is a threat to the individual if it continues. Inner speech therefore has been suggested to be the action that generates the time-wedge by creating a redundancy of self-information. This redundancy is the result of the difference between the actual physiological changes associated with the experience creating one unit of information about the event, and the descriptive ‘I’ inner speech creating a second (retrospective) unit of information of the same activity or event, separated from the first unit of information by a time-wedge. This time-wedge and redundancy of the same information allows retrospective comparison and analysis of the two different activities – the one in real time, and the other a retrospective copy, and a judgement is made of what is happening and how best to respond to it, by the ‘Me’ voice. This theory would suggest that all inner speech is retrospective, even the ‘I’ voice, and allows the retrospective analysis of an event in an ordered and structured way. Lonnie Athens, one of my all-time best creative thinkers, suggested 10 ‘rules’ that well describe all these complex inner speech processes described above: 1) People talk to themselves as if they are talking to someone else, except they talk in short hand; 2) When people talk to each other, they tell themselves at the same time what they are saying; 3) While people are talking to us, we have to tell ourselves what they are saying; 4) we always talk with an interlocutor when we soliloquise – the ‘phantom others’ (which is the ‘Me’ voice as described above); 5) The phantom community is the one and the many. However, we can normally only talk to one phantom at a time during our soliloquies; 6) Soliloquising transforms our raw, bodily sensations into perceived emotions. If it were not for our ability to soliloquise, we would not experience perceived emotions (like fatigue during exercise) in our existence. Instead, we wold only experience a steady stream of vague body sensations; 7) Our phantom others (the ‘Me’ voice) are the hidden sources of our perceived emotions. If we generate emotions by soliloquising about our body sensations, and if our phantom others play a critical role in our soliloquies, then our phantom other must largely shape the perceived emotion we generate; 8) Our phantom community (the ‘Me’ voice) occupies the centre stage of our life whether we are alone or with others. Talking to the phantom others about an experience we are undergoing is absolutely essential to understand its emergent meaning. Only in conversation with our phantom community do we determine its ultimate meaning; 9) Significant social experiences shape our phantom community (which are incorporated into our ‘Me’ voice); and 10) Given that some soliloquies are necessarily ‘multi-party’ dialogues, conflicts of opinion are always possible during inner speech soliloquies.

Relating all this fascinating theoretical work to an exercise bout therefore – as exercise continues, and physiological sensations change, these changes would be picked up by physiological sensors in the body and transferred to the brain, where they would be raised into our conscious mind by the ‘I’ voice, which already has a time-wedge to make sense of the raw feelings. Therefore, the athlete’s ‘I’ voice would say ‘I am tired’, and the ‘Me’ voice would respond to this assessment of the ‘I’ voice, based on their ‘perspective of the other’ viewpoint. The ‘Me’ Voice may be either positive in response (motivational – ‘keep going, the rewards will be worth it’) or negative (cognitive – ‘if you keep on going, you will damage yourself’). As the race or physical activity continued, as described above in the work of Kimberley Gammage and colleagues, athletes become more aware of their inner speech, probably because the symptoms of fatigue and distress described by the ‘I’ voice becomes more profound, and more persistent, and the ‘Me’ voice has to keep on responding to the more urgent and louder voice of the ‘I’ voice’, given that the ‘I’ voice is describing changes that have greater potential to be damaging to the athlete. It is likely that the relative input of each of the ‘I’ and ‘Me’ voices (and of course the subconscious processes that generate them) are either related to, or create, the temperament and personality of the individual, and their perception of success or failure in sport. For example, the ‘Me’ voice may suggest that it is not a problem to slow down when the ‘I’ voice indicates that the current speed the athlete is producing is too fast and may damage the athlete, if the familial, genetic or psychological history that created the ‘phantom others’ / ‘Me’ voice of the athlete perceived that winning sporting events to not be of particular importance. In contrast, the ‘Me’ voice may disagree with, and disapprove of, the desire of the ‘I’ voice to slow down, if the familial, genetic, psychological history of phantom others that make up the ‘Me’ voice believed that winning was very important, and slowing down a sign of personal failure and weakness. These relative viewpoints of the ‘Me’ voice will therefore likely shape the personality and self-esteem of the athlete (and indeed, all individuals), and whether they regard themselves a success or failure, if they try to keep on going and win, or try to keep on going and slow down due to having reached their physical body limits, which may not be congruent with the athletes psychological desires and demands. Furthermore, the ‘will’ of the athlete is probably to a large degree related to the forcefulness of the ‘Me’ voice in resisting the desire of the ‘I’ voice, or if the ‘I’ voice remains relatively silent even under times of duress or hardship, and is also likely created by the family history or genetic makeup of the athlete when creating the generalised phantom other / ‘Me’ voice. The relative input of both the ‘I’ and ‘Me’ components of an individual’s inner speech and the ‘viewpoint’ of the ‘Me’ voice may therefore be the link between the temperament and performance of an athlete, or may actually be part of or influence both.

In summary therefore, those tennis players with their overt inner speech (usually accompanied by fist pumping or smashed rackets depending on its positive or negative nature) open a window for us to understand one of the most potentially crucial and amazingly complex constituents of the perceptual loop of how sensations generated by the body under stress are changed into emotions that we ‘feel’ and respond to, which both explains to us how our body is feeling, behaving and ‘doing’ by the vocalisation of an ‘I’ voice, and at the same time creates our sense of self as a result of how the dialogue responds to this explanation, vocalised as inner speech, through our ‘Me’ voice, which is both reflective and created by the phantom others which shape us and regulate us. However, the inner voices can be our worst enemies, if they are too strong, or too harsh, or too demanding on us, and if so, they are probably produced by a damaged childhood with over-demanding parents, coaches, or teasing peer children which make us feel like what we are doing is never ‘enough’, even of course though what ‘enough’ is will always be a relative thing, and different for every different person on earth. Some Sport Psychologists have tried to improve sporting performance of athletes they work with by altering the content and nature of their inner speech, though Lonnie Athens made the relevant point that if one’s inner speech was too changeable, one’s sense of self would be fluid and not permanent, which in most folk it seems to be, and that only extreme psychological trauma, such as assault, divorce, near death or death of a loved one, where a state of existence is created which the ‘Me’ voice has no frame of reference, will allow the ‘Me’ voice be changed, and of course, it may change from a positive or neutral to a more negative ‘commentary state’. Having said that, my own inner voices have changed subtly as I have aged, and are (fortunately) more tolerant and forgiving as compared to what they were like in my youth. Often when doing sport, in contrast to when I was young when my ‘Me’ voice was insistent I keep going or be a failure, my inner voices now I am in my fifties often encourage me to slow down and look after myself, now that my body is old, less efficient, and damaged by the excesses of sport and wilful behaviour of my youth. So clearly there is some capacity to change and maintain one’s sense of self. Having said that, my sense of self is also subtly different from what it was in my youth, so this may be related to the changes in the make-up of my inner voices (and their underlying subconscious control mechanisms, perhaps due to the desires of my youth mostly being fulfilled in my life to date), or may not be related to them at all. More research work is needed for us to better understand all these concepts and mental activities that are continuously active in our mind and brain.

At this point in time our inner speech is the only real-time window we have into our subconscious, and is both ‘ourselves’ (as hard a concept this is to understand and accept) and our continuous companion through each minute of each day of our life. Often one wishes to turn off one’s inner voices, and interestingly some drugs do seem reduce the amount of ‘heard’ inner voices, but this does open up the philosophical challenge of whether if one has no inner speech, whether one will be aware that one is conscious, or aware of one’s current state of being. My inner voiced has been ‘shouting at me’ during the last two paragraphs of writing this, telling me I am tired and hungry, and it’s time to stop writing for the day and go in from my garden shed home working office to spend time with the family, and get some food and drink to replenish my energy levels. While I resisted their siren tune until completing this piece of writing, now it’s done, I will bow to my inner voices incessant request and sign off and head in for some welcome rest and relaxation. Of course I know that after a short period of relaxing, my inner speech will be chattering at me again, telling me to go back to my garden shed office and check the grammar and spelling of this article, and start preparing for the next. There is no peace for the wicked, particularly from our ever present, and ever demanding, inner voices!

Advertisements

Plato’s Horse And The Concept of Universals – Can You Have Life As We Know It Without Rules That Govern It

My young daughter’s precious Labrador puppy, Violet, has grown up, and recently turned two. As a family, we usually traditionally have Schnauzers as pets, and it’s been strange but nice to have a different breed around the home, and Labradors have great personalities. What struck me forcibly when Violet came in to our life, was that while she has a very different shape and form to our two Schnauzers, she is as instantly recognisable as a dog, as all our dogs are. It again struck me when the family watched a program on the most loved one hundred dog breeds in the UK (for those interested Labradors came in first), that while each of the different breeds had very different characteristics – think Chihuahua as compared to a Great Dane, or a Pug compared to a German Shepherd – they are were all instantly recognisable by our family members watching it, and I am sure just about all the folk who watched the program, as being dogs rather than cats, or lamas, or sheep. In the last few years of my academic career (and perhaps at a subconscious level for my entire research career), after having been an Integrative Control Systems scientist for most of my career, trying to understand how our different body systems and functions are controlled and maintained in an optimal and safe manner, I have come to understand, and have been exploring the concept, along with great collaborators Dr Jeroen Swart and Professor Ross Tucker, that perhaps general rules are operating across all body system control mechanisms, whatever their shape or form, and we recently published a theoretical research paper which described our thoughts. In my new role as Deputy Dean of Research at the University of Essex, I am fortunate to be working with the Department of Mathematics, helping them enhance their research from an organisational perspective, and it has been fascinating working with these supremely bright folk and seeing the work they do, and having it reiterated to me that even simple mathematical principles are abstract, and not grounded in anything in the physical world (for example knowing that 1 plus 2 equals 3 does not need any physical activity for it to be always true). All of these recent activities have got me thinking of the long pondered issue of universals, their relationship to rules and regulation governing and maintaining life, and which came first, the rules, or the physical activity that requires rules and regulation to be maintained in order for the physical activity to continue and be both organised and productive.

Universals are defined as a class of mind-independent (indeed human-independent) entities which are usually contrasted with individuals (also known as ‘particulars’ relative to ‘universals’), and which are believed to ‘ground’ and explain the relation of qualitative identity and resemblance among all individuals. More simply, they are defined as the nature or essence of a group of like objects described by a general term. For example, in the case of dogs described above, when we see a dog, whether it is a Labrador, Schnauzer, German Shepherd, or a myriad of other breeds, we ‘know’ it to be a dog, and the word dog is used to cover the ‘essence’ of all these and other breeds. Similarly, we know what a cat is, or a house, or shoes, despite each of these ‘types of things’ often looking very different to each other – there are clearly enough characteristics in each to define them by a universal defining name. Understanding universals gets even more complex though than merely thinking of them as being just a name or group of properties for a species or ‘type of thing’. Long ago, back in the time of antiquity, one of the first recorded philosophical debates was about universals, and whether they existed independently as abstract entities, or only as a term to define an object, species or ‘type of thing’. Plato suggested that a universal exists independent of that which they define, and are the true ‘things which we know’, even if they are intangible and immeasurable, with the living examples of them being copies and / or imitations of the universal, each varying slightly from the original universal, but bound in their form by the properties defined by the universal. In other words, he suggested that universals are the ‘maps’ of structures or forms which exist as we see and know them, for example a dog, or a horse, or a tree, and they exist in an intangible state somehow in the ‘ether’ around us, ‘directing’ the creation of the physical entities in some way which we have not determined or are currently capable of understanding.

In philosophical terms, this theory of universals as independent entities is known as Platonic Realism. After Plato came Aristotle, who felt that universals are ‘real entities’, like Plato perceived them to be, but in his theory (known as Aristotelian Realism), he suggested that universals did not exist independent of the particulars, or species, or ‘things’ they defined, and were linked to their physical existence, and would not exist without the physical entities they ‘represent’. In contrast to realism, Nominalism is a theory that developed after the work of these two geniuses (Nominalists are also sometimes described as Empiricists) which denied the existence of universals completely, and suggested that physical ‘things’, or particulars, shared only a name, and not qualities that defined them, and that universals were not necessary for the existence of species or ‘things’. Idealism (proposed by folk like Immanuel Kant) got around the problem of universals by suggesting that universals were not real, but rather were products of the minds of ‘rational individuals’, when thinking of that which they were looking at.

This dilemma of both the existence and nature of universals has to date not been solved, or adequately explained, given that it is impossible with current scientific techniques, or perhaps psychological ‘power’ in our minds, to be able to prove or disprove the presence of universals, and folk ‘believe’ in one of these different choices of universals depending on their world and life points of view. Religious folk would suggest that the world is created in God’s ‘image’, and to them God’s ‘images’ would be the universals from which all ‘God’s creatures’ are created. In contrast, with respect to evolution, which is diametrically opposed to the concept of religion, it is difficult to believe in both evolution and the presence of universals, as evolution is based on the concept of need and error-driven individual genetic changes over millennia in response to that need, which led to different species developing, and to the variety in nature and life we see all around us. In the evolutionary model therefore, the concept of universals (and the creation of the world by a God as posited by many religions) would appear to be counter-intuitive.

While a lot of debate has focused on ‘things one can see’ as the physical ‘particulars’ which are either a product of universals or not, there are more abstract activities which support the existence of universals independent of the mind or ‘things that they are involved with’. For example, the work done by Ross, Jeroen and myself developed from the realisation that a core principle of all physiological activity is homeostasis, which is defined as the maintenance by regulatory control processes or structures of physiological or physical activity within certain tolerable limits, in order to protect the individual or thing being regulated from being damaged, or damaging itself. Underpinning all homeostatic control mechanisms is the negative feedback loop, where when a substance or activity increases or decreases too much, initiates other activity as part of a circular control structure which has the capacity to act on the substance requiring control, and normalises or attenuates the changes, and keeps the activity or behaviour within required ‘safe levels’, which are set by homeostatic control mechanisms. The fascinating thing is that the same principle of negative feedback control loops occurs in all and any physical living system, and without it life could not occur. Whether gene activity, liver function, or whole body activity, all which have very different physical or metabolic regulatory structures and processes, all are controlled by negative feedback loop principles. Therefore, it is difficult not to perceive that the negative feedback loop is a type of universal, but one that works by similar ‘action’ across systems rather than ‘creating’ a physical thing in its likeness. Mathematics is another area in which folk believe universals are ‘at work’, given that even the simplest sums, such as one plus two equals three, needs no physical structure or ‘particular’ for them to always be such, and true. While we all use mathematical principles on a continuous basis, it is difficult to believe that such mathematical principles do not ‘exist’ in the absence of humans, or any physical shape or forms.

So where does all this leave us in understanding universals and their relevance to life as we know it? Perhaps what one’s viewpoint is regarding the existence of universals depends on one’s own particular epistemological perspective (understanding of the nature of knowledge and how it is related to one’s justified beliefs) and world view. Though I can in no way prove it, I believe in universals and would define myself as a Platonic Realist. This viewpoint comes from a career in science and working with exceptional scientists like Jeroen Swart and Ross Tucker getting to understand the exquisite and universal nature of control mechanisms which keep our bodies working the way which they do. However, I do not believe in any God or religion in any shape or form, and have greater faith in the evolutionary model, which is counter-intuitive relative to my belief in the presence of independent universals. Therefore, the potential similarities and differences between religion and universals, and evolution and universals described above is clearly redundant for my specific beliefs, and there is probably similar confusion in core beliefs for many (particularly research involved) folk. However, it is exciting to think (at least for me) that there may be universals out there that have no link to current activities or functions or species, and which may become evident to humans at some point in the future, by way of the development of new species or new ‘things’. Having said that, I guess it could be argued that if universals do not exist, progress and the evolution of ideas will lead us to new developments, species or ways of life in an evolution-driven, error-associated way. One cannot ‘see’ or ‘feel’ a negative feedback loop, or a maths algorithm, or universal for even something as simple as a dog, which is why perhaps to a lot of folk with a different epistemological viewpoint to mine it is challenging to accept the presence, or indeed the necessity, of and for universals. But when I look at our Labrador, and ‘know’ as such it is a dog as much as a Schnauzer, Chihuahua, or German Shepherd is, I feel sure there is the Universal dog out there somewhere in the ether that will perhaps keep my toes warm when I leave this world for the great wide void which may exist beyond it. And surely, given what a stunning breed they are, the Universal dog, if it exists out there, can only be a Labrador!


Homeostasis And The Constancy Principle – We Are All Creatures Of Comfort Even When We Go Out Of Our Comfort Zone

It is autumn in our part of the world, and the first chills are in the air in the late evening and early morning, and the family discussed last night the need to get out our warm clothes from storage in readiness for the approaching winter, in order to be well prepared for its arrival. After sharing in the fun of Easter Sunday yesterday and eating some chocolate eggs with the children, a persistent voice in my head this morning instructed me to eat less than normal today to ‘make up’ for this out of the normal chocolate eating yesterday. It is a beautiful sunny day outside as I write this, and I feel a strong ‘urge’ to stop writing and go out on a long cycle ride because of it, and have to ‘will’ these thoughts away and continue writing, which is my routine activity at this time of morning. After a recent health scare I have been checking on my own physical parameters with more care than normal, and found it interesting when checking what ‘normal’ values for healthy folk are, that most healthy folk have fairly similar values for things like blood glucose, blood pressure, cholesterol concentrations and other such parameters, and that there are fairly tight ranges of values of each of these which are considered normal and a sign of ‘health’, and if one’s values are outside of these, it is a sign of something wrong in the working of your body that needs to be treated and brought back into the normal range either by lifestyle changes, medication, or surgical procedures. All of these got me thinking about the regulatory processes that ensure that the body maintains its working ‘parts’ in a similar range in all folk, and the concept of homeostasis, which as a regulatory principle explains and underpins the maintenance of this ‘safe zone’ for our body’s multiple activities, including the sensing of any external or internal changes which could be associated with the potential for one of the variables to go out of the ‘safe zone’, and initiates changes either behaviourally or physiologically which attempt to bring the variable at risk back into the ‘safe zone’ either pre-emptively or reactively.

Homeostasis is defined scientifically as the tendency towards a relatively stable equilibrium between inter-dependent elements. The word was generated from the Greek concepts of ‘homiois’ (similar) and ‘stasis’ (standing still), creating the concept of ‘staying the same’. Put simply, homeostasis is the property of a system whereby it attempts to maintain itself in a stable, constant condition, and resists any changes or actions on the system which may change or destabilize the stable state. It’s origins as a concept were from the ancient Greeks, with Empedocles in around 400 BC suggesting that all matter consisted of elements which were in ‘dynamic opposition’ or ‘alliance’ with each other, and that balance or ‘harmony’ of all these elements was necessary for the survival of the individual or organism. Around the same time, Hippocrates suggested that health was a result of the ‘harmonious’ balance of the body’s elements, and illness due to ‘disharmony’ of the elements which it was made up of. Modern development of this concept was initiated by Claude Bernard in the 1870’s, who suggested that the stability of the body’s internal environment was ‘necessary for a free and independent life’ and that ‘external variations are at every instant compensated for and brought into balance’, and Walter Cannon in the 1920’s first formally called this concept of ‘staying the same’ homeostasis. Claude Bernard actually initially used the word ‘constancy’ rather than homeostasis to describe the concept, and interestingly, a lot of Sigmund Freud’s basic work on human psychology was based on the need for ‘constancy’ (though he did not cross-reference this more physiological / physical work and concepts), and that everyone’s basic needs were for psychological constancy or ‘peace’, and when one had an ‘itch to scratch’ one would do anything possible to remove the ‘itch’ (whether it be a new partner, a better house, an improved social status, or greater social dominance, amongst other potentially unrequited desires), and further that one’s ‘muscles are the conduit through which the ego imposes its will upon the world’. He and other psychologists of his era suggested that if an ‘itch’, urge or desire was not assuaged (and what causes these urges, whether a feeling of inadequacy, or previous trauma, or a desire for ‘wholeness’, is still controversial and still not clearly elicited even today), the individual would remain out of their required ‘zone of constancy’, and would feel negative emotions such as anxiety, irritation or anger until the urge or desire was relieved. If it was not relieved for a prolonged period this unrequited ‘itch’ could lead to the development of a complex, projection or psychological breakdown (such as depression, mania, anxiety, personality disorder or frank psychosis). Therefore, as much as there are physical homeostasis related requirements, there are potentially also similarly psychological homeostasis related requirements which are being reacted to by the brain and body on a continuous basis.

Any system operating using homeostatic principles (and all our body systems do so) has setpoint levels for whatever substance or process is being regulated in the system, and boundary conditions for the substance or process which are rigidly maintained and cannot be exceeded without a response occurring which would attempt to bring the activity or changes to the substance or process back to the predetermined setpoint levels or within the boundary conditions for them. The reasons for having these set boundary conditions are protective, in that if they were exceeded, the expectation would be the system would be damaged if the substance or process being regulated (for example, oxygen, glucose, sodium, temperature, cholesterol, or blood pressure, amongst a whole host of others) was used up too quickly or worked too hard, or was allowed to build up to toxic / extremely high levels or not used enough to produce life-supporting substrates or useable fuels, which would endanger the life and potential for continued activity of the system being monitored. For example, oxygen shortage results in death fairly quickly, as would glucose shortage, while glucose excess (known as diabetes) can also result in cellular and organ damage, and ultimately death if it is not controlled properly. In order for any system to maintain the substance or process within homeostasis-related acceptable limits, three regulatory factors (which are all components of what is known as a negative feedback loop) are required to be components of the system. The first 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 or external environment or other systems which interact with or impact on the substance or process being monitored. The second is a control structure or process which would be sent the information from the sensory apparatus, and would be able to make a decision regarding whether to respond to the information or to ignore it as not relevant. The third is an ‘effector’ mechanism or process which would receive commands from the control structure after it had made a decision to initiate a response in response to the sensed perturbation potentially affecting the system it controls, and make the changes to the system decided upon by the control structure in order to maintain or return the perturbed system to its setpoint value range.

The example of temperature regulation demonstrates both the complexity and beauty of homeostasis in regulating activity and protecting us on a continuous basis from harm. Physiological systems in most species of animals are particularly sensitive to changes in temperature and operate best in a relatively narrow ranges of temperature, although in some species a wider range of temperatures is tolerated. There are two broad mechanisms used by different organisms to control their internal temperature, namely ectothermic and endothermic regulation. Ectothermic temperature regulators (also known as ‘cold-blooded’ species), such as the frog, snake, and lizard, do not use many internal body processes to maintain temperature in the range which is acceptable for their survival, but rather use external, environmental heat sources to regulate their body temperature. If the temperature is colder, they will use the sun to heat themselves up, and if warm, they will look for shadier conditions. Ectotherms therefore have energy efficient mechanisms of maintaining temperature homeostasis, but are more susceptible to vagaries in environmental conditions compared to endotherms. In contrast, endotherms (also known as ‘warm-blooded’ species), into which classification humans fall, use internal body activity and functions to either generate heat in cold environments or reduce heat in warm conditions. In endotherms, if the external environment is too cold, and if the cold environment impacts on body temperature, temperature receptors measuring either surface skin temperature or core body temperature will send signals to the brain, which subsequently initiates a shiver response in the muscles, which increases metabolic rate and provides greater body warmth as a by-product of fuel / energy breakdown and use. If environmental temperature is too warm, of if skin or core temperature is too high, receptors will send signals to brain areas which initiates a chain of events involving different nerve and blood-related control processes which result in increased blood flow to the skin by vasodilatation, thereby increasing blood cooling capacity and sweat rate from the skin, thus producing cooling by water evaporation. All these endotherm associated heating and cooling processes utilize a large amount of energy, so from an energy perspective are not as efficient as that of ectotherms, but they do allow a greater independence from environmental fluctuations in temperature. It must be noted that endotherms also use similar behavioural techniques to ectotherms, such as moving into shady or cool environments if excessively hot, but as described above, can tolerate a greater range of environmental temperatures and conditions. Furthermore, humans are capable of ‘high level’ behavioural changes such as putting on or taking off clothes, in either a reactive or anticipatory way. It is evident therefore that for each variable being homeostatically monitored and managed (on a continuous basis) there are a complex array of responsive (and ‘higher-level’ pre-emptive) options available with which to counteract the potential or actual ‘movement’ of the variable beyond its ‘allowed’ metabolic setpoints and ranges.

There are a number of questions still to be answered regarding how homeostasis ‘works’ and how ‘decisions’ related to homeostasis occur. It is not clear how the regulatory mechanisms know which variable they ‘choose’ to defend as a priority. Brain oxygen would surely be the most important variable to ‘defend’, as would perhaps blood glucose levels, but how decisions are made and responses initiated for these variables preferentially, which may impact negatively on other systems with their own homeostatic requirements, is not clear. Furthermore, there is the capacity for ‘conflict’ between physical and psychological homeostatic mechanisms when homeostatic-related decisions are required to be made. For example, one’s ego may require one to run a marathon to fulfill a need to ‘show’ one’s peers that one is ‘tough’ by completing such a challenging goal, but doing so (running the marathon) creates major physical stress for and on the physical body. Indeed, some folk push themselves so hard during marathons that they collapse, even if they ‘feel’ warning signs of impending collapse, or of an impending heart attack, and choose to keep running despite these symptoms. To these folk, the psychological need to complete the event must be greater than the physical need to protect themselves from harm, and their regulatory decision-making processes clearly valences psychological homeostasis to be of greater importance than physiological homeostasis when deciding to continue exercising in the presence of such warning symptoms. However, running a marathon, while increasing physical risk of catastrophic physical events during the running of it, if done on a repetitive basis has positive physical benefits, such as weight loss and increased metabolic efficiency of the heart, lungs, muscles and other organ structures, along with enhanced psychological well-being which would be derived from achieving the set athletic performance-related goals. Therefore, ‘decision-making’ on an issue such as running a marathon is complex from a homeostasis perspective, with both short and long term potential benefits and harmful consequences. How these contradictory requirements and factors are ‘decided upon’ by the brain when attempting to maintain both psychological and physical homeostasis is still not clear.

A further challenge to homeostatic regulation is evident in the examples of when one has a fever, where a high temperature may paradoxically be beneficial, and after a heart attack, where an altered heart rate and blood pressure setpoint may be part of compensatory mechanisms to ensure the optimal function of a failing heart. While these altered values are potentially ‘outside’ of the ‘healthy’ setpoint level range, they may have utilitarian value and would be metabolically appropriate in relation to either a fever or failing heart. How the regulatory homeostatic control mechanisms ‘know’ that these altered metabolic setpoints are beneficial rather than harmful, and ‘accepts’ them as temporary or permanent new setpoints, or whether these altered values are associated with routine homeostatic corrective responses which are part of the body’s ongoing attempt to induce healing in the presence of fever or heart failure (amongst other homeostatically paradoxical examples), is still not clear. Whether homeostasis as a principle extends beyond merely controlling our body’s activity and behaviour, to more general societal or environmental control, is also still controversial. For example, James Lovelock, with his Gaia hypothesis, has suggested that the world in its entirety is regulated by homeostatic principles, and global temperature increases result in compensatory changes on the earth and in the atmosphere that lead to eventual cooling of the earth, and this warming and cooling continues in a cyclical manner – and most folk who believe in global warming as a contemporary unique catastrophic event don’t like this theory, even if it is difficult to support or refute without measuring temperature changes accurately over millennia.

Homeostatic control mechanisms can fail, and indeed our deaths are sometimes suggested to be the result of a failure of homeostasis. For example, cancer cells overwhelm cellular homeostatic protective mechanisms, or develop rapidly due to uncontrolled cellular proliferation of abnormal cells which are not inhibited by the regular cellular homeostatic negative feedback control mechanisms, which lead to physical damage to the body and ultimately our death, for these or other reasons that we are still not aware of. In contrast, Sigmund Freud, in his always contrary view of life, suggested as part of his Thanatos theory that death in the ultimate form of ‘rest’ and is our ‘baseline’ constancy-related resting state which we ‘go back to’ when dying (with suicide being a direct ‘mechanism’ of reaching this state in those whose psyche are operating too far away from their psychological setpoints, whatever these are), although again this is a difficult theory to either prove or disprove. Finally, what is challenging to a lot of folk about homeostasis from a control / regulatory perspective is that it is a conceptual ‘entity’ rather than a physical process that one can ‘show’ to be ‘real’, much like Plato’s Universals (to Plato the physical cow itself was less relevant than the ‘concept’ of a cow, and he suggested that one can only have ‘mere opinions’ of the former, while one has absolute knowledge of the latter, given the physical cow changes as it grows, ages, and dies, while the ‘concept’ of a cow is immutable and eternal). It is always difficult scientifically to provide categorical evidence which either refutes or support concepts such as universals and non-physical general control theories, even if they are concepts which appear to underpin all life as we know it, and without which function we could not exist in our current physical form and living environment.

As I look out the window at the falling autumn leaves and wonder whether we will have a very cold winter this year and whether we have prepared adequately for it clothes-wise (pre-emptive long-term homeostatic planning at its best, even if perhaps a bit ‘over-the-top’), while taking off my jersey as I write this given that the temperature has increased as the day has changed from morning to afternoon (surely a reactive homeostatic response), and as I ponder my health-related parameters, and work out how I am going to get those that need improvement as close to ‘normal’ as possible (surely as part of behavioural homeostatic / health-optimization planning), I look forward to that bike ride now I have managed to delay gratification of doing so until I have completed writing this (and feel a sense of well-being both from doing so and by realizing I am now ‘free’ to go on the ride and by doing so can remove the psychological ‘itch’ that makes me want to do it and therefore return to a state of psychological ‘constancy’ / homeostasis). Contemplating all of these, it is astonishing to think that all of what I, and pretty much all folk, do is underpinned by a desire to be, and maintain life, in a ‘comfort zone’ which feels right for me, and which is best for my bodily functions and psychological state. Given that all folk in the world have similar physical parameters when we measure them clinically, it is likely that our ‘comfort zones’ both physically and psychologically are not that different in the end. Perhaps the relative weighting which each of us assigns to our psychological or physical ‘needs’ create minor differences between us (and occasionally major differences such as in folk with psychopathology or with those who have significant lifestyle related physical disorders), though at the ‘heart of it all’, both psychologically and physically, is surely the over-arching principle of homeostasis. While on the bike this afternoon, I’ll ponder on the big questions related to homeostasis which still need to be answered, such as how homeostasis-related decisions are made, how the same principle can regulate not just our body, but also our behaviour, and perhaps that of societal and even planetary function, and how ‘universals’ originated and which came first, the physical entity or the universal. Sadly I think it will need a very long ride to solve these unanswered questions, and remove the ‘itch that needs scratching’ which arises from thinking of these concepts as a scientist who wants to solve them – and I don’t like to spend too long out of my comfort zone, which is multi-factorial and not purely bike-focused, but rather is part bike, part desk, part comfy chair, the latter of which will surely become more attractive after a few hours of cycling, and will ‘call me home’ to my next ‘comfort zone’, probably long before I can solve any of these complex issues while out on the ride watching the autumn leaves fall under a beautiful warm blue sky, with my winter cycling jacket unused but packed in my bike’s carrier bag in case of a change in the weather.


Muscle Dysmorphia And The Adonis Complex – Mirror, Mirror On The Wall, Why Am I Not The Biggest Of Them All

I have noticed recently that my wonderful son Luke, who is in the pre-teenage years, has become more ‘aware’ of his body and discusses things like ‘six-pack abs’ and the need to be strong and have big muscles, probably like most boys of his age. I remember an old colleague at the University of Free State mention to me that her son, who was starting his last year at school, and who was a naturally good sports-person, had started supplementing his sport with gym work as he perceived that ‘all boys his age were interested in having big muscles’, as my colleague described it. A few decades ago, my old colleague and friend Mike Lambert, exercise physiologist and scientist without peer, and I did some work researching the effect of anabolic steroid use on bodybuilders, and noted that there were not just physical but also psychological changes in some of the trial participants. I did a fair amount of time in the gym in my University days, and always wondered why some of the biggest folk in the gym seemed to do their workouts with long pants and tracksuit tops, sometimes with hoods up, even on hot days, and how in conversation with them I was often told that despite them being enormous (muscular rather than obese-wise), they felt that they were small compared to their fellow bodybuilders and weightlifters, and that they needed to work harder and longer in the gym than they were currently doing to get results. All of these got me thinking of the fascinating syndrome known as muscle dysmorphia, also known as the Adonis complex, ‘bigorexia’, or ‘reverse anorexia’ and what causes the syndrome / disorder in the folk that develop it.

Muscle dysmorphia is a disorder mostly affecting males (though females can also be affected) where there is a belief or delusion that one’s body is too small, thin, insufficiently muscular or lean, despite it often being normal or exceptionally large and muscular, and related to obsessional efforts to increase muscularity and muscle mass by weightlifting exercise routines, dietary regimens and supplements, and often anabolic steroid use. This perception of being not muscular enough becomes severely distressing for the folk suffering from the syndrome, and the desire to enhance their muscularity eventually impacts negatively on the sufferer’s daily life, work and social interactions. The symptoms usually begin in early adulthood, and are most prevalent in body-builders, weight-lifters, and strength-based sports participants (up to 50 percent in some bodybuilder population studies, for example). Worryingly, muscle dysmorphia is increasingly being diagnosed in younger / adolescent folks, and across the spectrum of sports participants, and even in young folk who begin lifting weights for aesthetic rather than sport-specific purposes, and who from the start perceive they need to go to gym to improve their ‘body beautiful’. Two old academic friends of mine, Dave Tod and David Lavallee, published an excellent article on muscle dysmorphia a few years ago, where they suggested that the diagnostic criteria for the disorder are that the sufferer needs to be pre-occupied with the notion that their bodies are insufficiently lean and muscular, and that the preoccupation needs to cause distress or impairment in social or occupational function, including at least two of the four following criteria: 1) they give up / excuse themselves from social, occupational or recreational activities because of the need to maintain workout and diet schedules; 2) they avoid situations where their bodies may be exposed to others, or ‘endure’ such situations with distress or anxiety; 3) their concerns about their body cause distress or impairment in social, occupational or other areas of their daily functioning; and 4) they continue to exercise and monitor their diet excessively, or use physique-enhancing supplements or drugs such as anabolic steroids, despite knowledge of potential adverse physical or psychological consequences of these activities. Folk with muscle dysmorphia spend a lot of their time agonizing over their ‘situation’, even if it is in their mind rather than reality, look at their physiques in the mirror often, and are always of the feeling that they are smaller or weaker than what they really are, so there is clearly some cognitive dissonance / body image problem occurring in them.

What causes muscle dysmorphia is still not completely known, but what is telling is that it was first observed as a disorder in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, and was first defined as such by Harrison Pope, Katharine Phillips, Roberto Olivardia and colleagues in a seminal publication of their work on it in 1997. There are no known reports of this disorder from earlier times, and as suggested by these academics, it’s increasing development appears to be related a growing social obsession with ‘maleness’ and muscularity, that is evident in the media and marketing adverts of and for the ‘ideal’ male in the last few decades. While women have had relentless pressure on them from the concept of increasing ‘thinness’ as the ‘ideal body’ perspective for perhaps a century or longer from a social media perspective, with for example the body size of female models and advertised clothes sizes decreasing over the years (and it has been suggested that in part this is responsible for the increase in the prevalence in anorexia nervosa in females), it appears that males are now under the same marketing / media ‘spotlight’, but more from a muscularity rather than a ‘thinness’ perspective, with magazines, newspapers and social media often ‘punting’ this muscular ‘body ideal’ for males when selling male-targeted health and beauty products. Some interesting changes have occurred which appear to support this concept, for example the physique of GI-Joe toys for young boys changing completely in the last few decades, apparently being much more muscular in the last decade or two compared to their 1970 prototypes. Matching this change, in 1972 only 15-20 percent of young men disliked their body image, while in 2000 approximately 50% percent of young men disliked their body image. Contemporary young men (though older men may also be becoming increasingly ‘caught up’ in similar desire for muscularity as contemporary culture puts a price on the ‘body beautiful’ right through the life cycle) perceive that they would like to have 13 kg more muscle mass on average, and believe that women would prefer them to have 14 kg more muscle mass to be most desirable, though interestingly when women were asked about this, women were happy with the current mass of their partners, and many were indeed not attracted to heavily-muscled males. Therefore, it appears that social pressure may play a large part in creating an environment where men perceive their bodies in a negative light, and this may in turn lead to the development of a ‘full blown’ muscle dysmorphia syndrome in some folk.

While the concept that social pressure plays a big role in the development of muscle dysmorphia, other factors have also been suggested to play a part. Muscle dysmorphia is suggested to be associated with, or indeed a sub-type of, the more general body dysmorphic disorder (and anorexia nervosa, though of course anorexia nervosa is about weight loss, rather than weight gain), where folk develop a pathological dislike of one or several body parts or components of their appearance, and develop a preoccupation with hiding or attempting to fix their perceived body flaw, often with cosmetic surgery (and this apparently affects up to 3 percent of the population). It has been suggested that both muscle dysmorphia and body dysmorphic disorder may be caused by a problem of ‘somatoperception’ (knowing one’s own body), which may be related to organic lesions or processing issues in the right parietal lobe of the brain, which is suggested to be the important area of the brain for own-body perception and the sense of self. In folk that have lesions of the right parietal cortex, they perceive themselves to be ‘outside’ of their body (autoscopy), or that body parts are missing / there is a lack of awareness of the existence of parts of the body (asomatognosia). Non-organic / psychological factors have also been associated with muscle dysmorphia, apart from media and socio-cultural influences, including being a victim of childhood bullying, being teased about levels of muscularity when young, or being exposed to violence in their family environment. It has also been suggested that it is associated with appearance-based rejection sensitivity, which is defined as anxiety-causing expectations of social rejection based on physical appearance – in other words, for some reason, folk with muscle dysmorphia are anxious that they will be socially rejected due to their perceived lack of muscularity and associated appearance deficits. Whether this rejection sensitivity is due to prior negative social interactions, or episodes of childhood teasing or body shaming, has not been well elicited. Interestingly, while studies have reported inconclusive correlations with body mass index, body fat, height, weight, and pubertal development age, there have been strong correlations reported with mood disorders, anxiety disorders, perfectionism, substance abuse, and eating and exercise-dependence / addiction disorders, as well as with the clinical depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. There does not appear to be a strong relationship to narcissism, which perhaps is surprising. Whether these are co-morbidities or they have a common pathophysiology at either a psychological or organic level is yet to be determined. It has been suggested that a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor prescription (a type of antidepressant) may improve the symptoms of muscle dysmorphia. While these treatment modalities would support a link between muscle dysmorphia and the psychological disorders described above, the efficacy of these treatment choices is still controversial, and there is unfortunately a high relapse rate. It is unfortunately a difficult disorder to ‘cure’, given that all folk need to eat regularly in order to live, and most folk incorporate exercise into their daily routines, which make managing ‘enough’ but not ‘excessive’ amounts of weightlifting and dietary regulation difficult to regulate in folk who have a disordered body image.

Muscle dysmorphia appears therefore to be a growing issue in contemporary society, which is increasing in tandem with the increased media-related marketing drive for the male ‘body beautiful’, which now appears to be operating at a similar level to the ‘drive for thinness’ media marketing which has blighted the female perception of body image for a long time, and has potentially led to an increased incidence of body image disorders such as anorexia nervosa and body dysmorphic syndrome. However none of these are gender specific, and it is not clear how much of a relationship these body image disorders have with either organic brain or clinical psychological disorders, as described above. It appears to be a problem mostly in young folk, with older folk being more accepting of their body abnormalities and imperfections, whether these are perceived or real, though sadly it appears that there is a growing incidence of muscle dysmorphia and other body image disorder in older age, as societies relationship and expectations of ‘old age’ changes. As I see my son become more ‘interested’ in his own physique and physical development, which must have obviously been caused by either discussions with his friends, or due to what he reads, or what the ‘actors’ in his computer games look like which he so enjoys playing, like all his friends, I hope he (and likewise my daughter) will always enjoy his sport but have a healthy self-image through the testing teenage and early adult period of time. I remember those bodybuilders my colleague Mike and I worked with all those years ago, and how some of them were comfortable with their large physiques, while with some it was clearly an ordeal to take off their shirts in order to be tested in the lab as part of the trials we did back then. The mind is very sensitive to suggestion, and it is fascinating to see that males now are being ‘barraged’ with advertising suggesting they are not good enough, and if they buy a certain product it will make them stronger, fitter, better, and thus more attractive, to perhaps the same level females have been subjected to for a long period of time. The mind is also sensitive to bullying, teasing and body shaming, as well as a host of other social issues which impinge on it particularly in its childhood and early adolescent development phases. It’s difficult to know where this issue will ‘end’, and whether governmental organizations will ‘crack down’ on such marketing and media hype which surely ‘target’ folks (usually perceived) physical inadequacies or desires, or if it is too late to do so and such media activity has become innate and part of the intrinsic fabric of our daily life and social experience. Perhaps education programs are the way to go at school level, though these are unfortunately often not successful.

There are so many daily challenges one has to deal with, it may seem almost bizarre that folk can spend time worrying about issues that are not even potentially ‘real’, but for the folk staring obsessively at themselves in the mirror, or struggling to stop the intrusive thoughts about their perceived physical shortcomings, these challenges are surely very real, and surely all-consuming and often overwhelming. In Greek mythology Adonis was a well-muscled half man, half god, whose was considered to be the ultimate in masculine beauty, and according to mythology his masculine beauty was so great that he won the love of Aphrodite, the queen of all the gods, because of it. Sadly for the folk with muscle dysmorphia, while they may be chasing this ideal, they are likely to be too busy working on creating their own perfect physique to have time to ‘woo’ their own Aphrodite, and indeed, contemporary Aphrodite’s don’t appear to even appreciate the level of muscularity they eventually obtain. The mirror on the wall, as it usually is, is a false siren, beckoning those weak enough to fall into its thrall – no matter how big, never to appear as the biggest or most beautiful of all.


Consistency Of Task Outcome And The Degrees Of Freedom Problem-The Brain Is Potentially Not A Micro-Manager When Providing Solutions To Complex Problems

Part of the reason I enjoy cycling as my chosen sport now I am older is not just because it is beneficial from a health perspective, but because the apparent regularity of the rhythmical circular movement required for pedalling creates a sense of peace in me and paradoxically allows my mind to wander a bit away from its routine and usually work-focussed and life task orientated thoughts. I enjoy watching competitive darts, from the perspective of marvelling at how the folk participating in the competitions seem to so often hit the small area of the board they are aiming for with such precision, after fairly rapidly throwing their darts when it is their turn to do so. This week an old colleague and friend from University of Cape Town days, Dr Angus Hunter, published some interesting work on how the brain controls muscle activity during different experimental conditions, a field of which he is a world expert in, and it was great to read about his new research and innovative ideas as always. Some of the most fun times of my research career were spent in the laboratory working with Angus measuring muscle activity during movement related tasks, where one of our most challenging issues to deal with was the variability of the signal our testing devices recorded when measuring either the power output from, or electrical activity in, muscle fibres each time they contracted when a trial participant was asked to do the same task. A large part of the issue we had to solve then was whether this was signal ‘noise’ and an artefact of our testing procedures, or if it was part of the actual recruitment strategy the brain used to control the power output from the muscles. All of these got me thinking about motor control mechanisms, and how movement and activity is regulated in a way that gets tasks done in a seemingly smooth and co-ordinated way, often without us having to think about what we are doing, while when one measures individual muscle function it is actually very ‘noisy’ and variable, even during tasks which are performed with a high degree of accuracy, and how the brain either creates or ‘manages’ this variability and ‘noise’ to generate smooth and accurate rhythmical or target-focussed activity, as that which occurs when cycling and throwing darts respectively.

Some of the most interesting scientific work that I have ever read about was done by Nikolai Bernstein, a Russian neurophysiologist, who when working in the 1920’s at the somewhat euphemistically named Moscow Central Institute of Labour, examined motor control mechanisms during movement. As part of the communist government of the times centrally driven plans to improve worker productivity and output, Bernstein did research on manual labour tasks such as hammering and cutting, in order to try and understand how to optimise it. Using novel ‘cyclogram’ photography techniques, where multiple pictures were taken of a worker using a hammer or chisel to which a light source had been attached, he was able to produce the astonishing observation that each time the worker hit a nail or cut through metal, their arm movements were not identical each time they performed the action, and rather that there was a great degree of variability each time the similar action was performed, even though usually this variability in action produced an outcome which had a high degree of accuracy. He realized that each complete movement, such as moving the arm towards the target, is made up of a number of smaller movements of muscles around the shoulder, elbow and wrist joints, which together synergistically create the overall movement. Given how many muscles there are in the arm, working around three joints (and potentially more when one thinks of the finger joints and muscles controlling them), he suggested that were a very large number of potential combinations of muscle actions and joint positions that could be used for the same required action, and a different combination of these appeared to be ‘chosen’ by the brain each time it performed a repetitive task. From a motor control perspective, Bernstein deduced that this could potentially cause a problem for the brain, and whatever decision-making process decided on which movement pattern it would use to complete a task, given that it created a requirement for choosing a particular set of muscle synergies from a huge number of different options available, or in contrast not choosing all the other muscle synergistic options, each time the individual was required to perform a single task or continue performing a repetitive task. This would require a great amount of calculation and decision-making capacity on a repetitive basis by the brain / control processes, and he called this the motor redundancy, or degrees of freedom, problem.

Like a lot of work performed in the Stalin era in Russia, his fascinating work and observations did not become known to Western scientists until the 1960’s, when he published a text-book of his career in science, which was subsequently translated and taken forward by excellent contemporary movement control scientists like Mark Latash of the University of Pennsylvania State in the USA. Further studies have supported Bernstein’s earlier work, and it is astonishing how much variability there is in each movement trajectory of a complex action that is goal orientated. Mark has suggested that this is not a redundancy problem, but rather one of abundancy, with the multiple choices available being of benefit to the body of any individual performing repetitive tasks, potentially from a fatigue resistance and injury prevention perspective, which may occur if the same muscle fibres in the same muscle are used in the same way in a repetitive manner. Interestingly, when a person suffers a stroke or a traumatic limb injury, the quantity of movement variability appears to paradoxically reduce rather than increase after the stroke or injury, and this reduced variability of motor function is associated with a decrement in task performance accuracy and completion. Therefore, the high variability of movement patterns in healthy folk appears to paradoxically make task performance more accurate and not just more efficient.

How control processes choose a specific ‘pattern’ of muscle activity for a specific task is still not well known. A number of theories have been proposed (generally as a rule in science, the more theories there are about something, the more the likelihood there is that there is no clarity about it) with some quaint names, such as the equilibrium point hypothesis, which suggests that choice at the motor neuron level is controlled as part of the force-length relationship of the muscle; the uncontrolled manifold hypothesis, which suggests that the central nervous system focuses on the variables needed to control a task and ignores the rest (the uncontrolled manifold being those variables that do not affect task required activity); and the force control hypothesis, which suggests that the central nervous systems compares the required movement for the task against internal models, and then uses calculations and feedforward and feedback control mechanisms to direct activity against that set by the internal model; amongst others. All these are interesting and intellectually rigorous theories, but don’t tell us very much about exactly how the brain chooses a particular group of muscles to perform a task, and then subsequently a different group of muscles, which use a different flight trajectory, to perform the task again when it is repeated. It has been suggested that there are ‘synergistic sets’ of muscles which are chosen in their entirety for a single movement, and that the primitive reflexes or central pattern generators in the spinal cord may be involved. But the bottom line is that we just do not currently know exactly what control mechanism chooses a specific set of muscles to perform one movement of a repetitive task, why different muscles are chosen each time the same task is performed sequentially, or how this variable use of muscles for the same task is managed and controlled.

We have previously suggested that a number of other activities in the body beyond that of muscle control have similar redundancy (or abundancy) in how they are regulated, or at least in respect of which mechanisms are used to control them. For example, blood glucose concentrations can be controlled not only by changes in insulin concentrations, but also by that of glucagon, and can also be altered by changes in catecholamine (adrenaline or noradrenaline) or cortisol levels, and indeed by behavioural factors such as resisting the urge to eat. Each time blood glucose concentrations are measured, the concentrations of all these other regulatory hormones and chemicals will be different ratio-wise to each other, yet their particular synergistic levels at any one point in time maintains the level of blood glucose concentrations at homeostatically safe setpoint levels. The blood glucose level is maintained whatever the variability in the regulatory factor concentration ratios, and even though this variability in choice of control mechanisms similarly creates a potential for high computational load when managing blood glucose concentrations from a control perspective. Similarly, perception of mood state or emotions are thought to have redundancy in what factors ‘creates’ them. For example we can fairly accurately rate when we feel slightly, moderately or very fatigued, but underpinning the ‘feeling’ of fatigue at the physiological level can be changes in blood glucose, heart rate, ventilation rate, and a host of other metabolites and substrates in the body, each of which can be altered in a variable ratio way to make up the sensation of fatigue we rate as slightly, moderately or very high levels of fatigue. Furthermore, fatigue is a complex sensation made up of individual sensations such as breathlessness, pounding chest, sweating, pain, and occasionally confusion, dizziness, headache and pins and needles, amongst others, a combination of which can also be differently valenced to provide a similar general fatigue rating by whoever is perceiving the sensation of fatigue. To make it even more complex, the sensation of fatigue is related to inner voices which either rate the sensation of fatigue (the ‘I’ voice) or make a judgement on it related to social circumstances or family and environmental background (the ‘Me’ voice), and it is through the final combination of these that an individual finally rates their level of fatigue, which adds another level of redundancy, or abundancy, to the factors underpinning how the ‘gestalt’ sensation of fatigue is both created and perceived. There are therefore three potential ‘levels’ of redundancy / abundancy in the signals and factors which either individually or collectively make up the ‘gestalt’ sensation of fatigue, and a corresponding increased level of computational requirements potentially associated with its final genesis, and how this perceptual redundancy / abundancy is managed by the control mechanisms which generate them is still not well known.

In summary, therefore, the presence of variability during activities of daily living across a number of different body systems is not only ‘noise’ / artefacts of testing conditions which are challenges for us researchers to have to deal with, it also appears to be part of some very complex control mechanisms which must have some teleological benefit both for optimizing movement and activity, and ensuring the capacity to sustain it without fatigue or injury to the components of the mechanism which produces it. Each time I cycle on my bike and my legs move up and down to push the wheels forward, different muscles are being used in a different way during each rotation of the wheel. Each time a darts player throws a dart, different muscle synergies are used to paradoxically create the accuracy of their throw. There is real ‘noise’ that a researcher has to remove from their recorded traces after a testing session in a laboratory, such as that caused by the study participant sweating during the trial, which can affect electrophysiological signals, and there is always a degree of measurement error, and therefore some degree of ‘noise’ is present in the variability of the recorded output for any laboratory technique that measures human function. But, equally, Bernstein’s brilliant work and observations all those years ago helped us understand that variability is inherent in living systems, and after understanding this, each time I observe data, particularly that generated during electrophysiological work such as I have used for a number of experiments in my own research career, including electromyography (EMG), electroencephalography (EEG) or transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which has low standard deviations in the results sections of published research articles, I do wonder at the validity of the data and whether it has been ‘paintbrushed’ by the researchers who describe it, as my old Russian neurophysiology research colleague Mikhail Lomarev used to describe it, when he or we thought data was ‘suspect’. The inherent variability in brain and motor control systems makes finding statistical significance in results generated using routine neurophysiological techniques more difficult. It also seems to create a huge increase in the requisite control-related calculations and planning for even a simple movement, though as Mark Latash suggested, the brain is likely to not be a micro-manager, but rather some effective parsing mechanism which can both generate and utilize a large number of synergistic movement patterns in a variable manner for any task, while not utilizing much decision making power using some sort of heuristic-based decision-making mechanism. Most importantly though, it fills one with a sense of awe at the ‘magic’ of our own body, and for the level of complexity involved in both its creation and operative management, when even a simple movement like striking an object with a hammer, or cutting a piece of metal, can be underpinned by such complex control mechanisms that our brains cannot currently comprehend or make sense of.

In a laboratory in the middle of Russia nearly a century ago, Nikolai Bernstein made some astonishing observations by doing exceptional research on basic motor control, while trying to increase the productivity of soviet-era industrial work. A century later we are still scratching our heads trying to understand what his findings mean from a motor control perspective. As I type these final sentences, I reflect on this, and wonder which synergistic composition of muscle activity in my fingers are responsible for creating the actions which lead to these words being generated, and realize that each time I do so, because of the concepts of variability, redundancy and abundancy, I will probably never use an identical muscle sequence when typing other ideas into words at another future point in time. But then again, I guess the words I will be writing in the future will also be different, and daily life, like motor control programs, will always vary, always change, even though the nail on the wall on which the picture hangs becomes a permanent ‘item’, as will this article become permanent when I hit the ‘send’ button to publish it. What is never to be seen again though are the traces in the ‘ether’ of the hammer blow which embedded the nail in the wall, and the exact movement of the individual muscles in the labourers arms and hands, and in my fingers as I typed which created these words. Like magic their variability was created, and like magic their pattern has dispersed, never to recur again in the same way or place, unless some brilliant modern day Bernstein can solve their magic and mystery, reproduce them in their original form using some as yet to be invented laboratory device, and publish them in a monograph. Let’s hope that if they do so, their great work does not languish unseen for forty years before being discovered by the rest of the world’s scientists, as was Bernstein’s wonderful observations of all those years ago!


The Core Requirement And Skill Of Decision-Making In Life – Removal Of Uncertainty Is Usually Positive And Cathartic But Is Also An Ephemeral Thing

This week, for the first time since moving to New Zealand and starting a new job here, I cycled in to work, and in the early afternoon faced a tough decision regarding whether I had the level of fitness capacity to cycle back home at the end of the day. Three-quarters of the way through the ride home, I felt very tired and stopped by the side of the road, and considered phoning home and asking them to pick me up. This morning I opened the fridge and had to decide whether to have the routine fruit and yogurt breakfast or the leftover piece of sausage roll. We have been six months in our new life and job here, and we have come to that period of time of deciding whether we have made a good decision and to continue, or whether we have made a disastrous error and need to make a rapid change. As I write this my wife asks me if I planned to go to the shop later, and if so whether I could get some milk for the family, and I had to stop writing and decide on whether I was indeed going to do so as part of the weekend post-writing chores, or not. All of these activities and issues required me to make decisions, and while some of them appeared to be of little consequence, some of them were potentially life and career changing, and, even if it seems a bit dramatic, potentially life-ending (whether to continue cycling when exhausted as a fifty-something). Decisions like these have to be made by everyone on a minute by minute basis as part of their routine daily life. The importance of decision-making in our daily lives, and how we make decisions, is still controversial and not well understood, which is surprising, given how much our optimal living condition and indeed survival depends on making correct decisions, and how often we have to make decisions, some of which are simple, some of which appear simple but are complex, and some of which are overtly complex.

Decision-making is defined as the cognitive process (which is the act or process of knowing or perceiving) resulting in the selection of a particular belief or course of action from several alternative possibilities, or as a problem-solving activity terminated by the genesis or arrival of a solution deemed to be satisfactory. At the heart of any decision-making is the requirement to choose between an array of different options, all of which usually have both positive and negative potential attributes and consequences, where one uses prior experience or a system of logical ‘steps’ to make the decision based on forecasting and scenario-setting for each possible alternative choice and consequence of choosing them. One of the best theoretical research articles on decision-making I have read / been involved with is one written by Dr Andy Renfree, an old colleague from the University of Worcester, and one of the Sport Science academic world’s most creative thinkers. As a systems level, he suggested that decisions are made based on either rational or heuristic principles, the former working best in ‘small world’ environments (in which the individual making the decision has absolute knowledge of all decision-related alternatives, consequences and probabilities), and the latter best in ‘large world’ environments (in which some relevant information is unknown or estimated). As described by Andy, rational decision-making is based on the principle that decisions can only be made if certain criteria are met, namely that the individuals making the decision must be faced with a set of behavioral alternatives and, importantly, information must be available for all possible alternatives of decisions that can be made, as well as of the statistical probability of all of the outcomes of the choices that can be made. This is obviously a large amount of requisite information, and a substantial period of time would be required to make a decision based on such ‘rational’ requirements. While using this method would likely be the most beneficial from a correct outcome perspective, it would also potentially place a high demand on the cognitive processes of the individual making the decision. Bayesian decision-making is a branch of rational decision-making theory, and suggests that decision-making is the result of unconscious probabilistic inferences. In Bayesian theory, a statistical approach to decision-making is made based on prior experience, with decision making valenced (and therefore speeded up) by applying a ‘bias’ towards information that is used to make the decision which is believed to be more ‘reliable’ than other information, and ‘probability’ of outcomes being better or worse based on prior experience. Therefore, in the Bayesian model, prior experience ‘speeds up’ decision making, though all information is still processed in this model.

In contrast, heuristic decision-making is a strategic method of making decisions, which ignores information that is available but is perceived to be less relevant to the specific decision being made, and which suggests that decisions are made based on key information and variables that are assessed and acted upon rapidly, in a manner that, as Andy suggests, incorporates ‘rule of thumb’ or ‘gut feel’ thinking, which places less demands on the cognitive thinking processes of the individual. As described above, rational decision-making may be more relevant in ‘small world’ environments, in which there are usually not a lot of variables or complexity which are required to be assessed prior to making a decision, and heuristic thinking in ‘large world’ environments, which are complex environments where all information, whether relevant or not, cannot be known, due to the presence not only of ‘known unknowns’ but also ‘unknown unknowns’, and where an individual would be potentially immobilized into a state of ‘cognitive paralysis’ if attempting to assess every option available. The problem or course is that even decisions that appear simple often have multiple layers of complexity that are not overt and of which the individual thinking about them is not aware, and it can be suggested that the concept of both rational and ‘small world’ environments are potentially abstract principles rather than reality, that all life occurs as part of ‘large world’ environments, and that heuristic processes are what are used by individuals as the main decision-making principles during all activities of daily living.

Of course, most folk would perceive that these rational and heuristic models are very computational and mathematical based, and that perhaps ‘feelings’ and ‘desires’ are also a component of decision-making, or at least these are how decision-making is perceived to ‘feel’ to them. As part of the Somatic Marker hypothesis, Antonio Damasio suggested that ‘body-loop’ associated emotional processes ‘guide’ (and have the potential to bias) decision-making behavior. In his theory, somatic markers are a specific ‘group of feelings’ in the body and are associated with specific emotions one perceives when confronted with, and are related to, the facts or choices one is faced with and need to make a decision about. There is suggested to be a different somatic marker for anxiety, enjoyment, or disgust, among other emotions, based on an aggregation of body-related symptoms for each, such as heart rate changes and the associated feeling of a pounding chest, the sensation of breathing changes, changes in body temperature, increased sweat rate, or the symptom of nausea, some or all of which together are part of a certain somatic marker group which creates the ‘feeling’ of a particular emotion. Each of these physiologically based body-loop ‘states’ are capable of being components of different somatic marker ‘groups’, which create the distinct ‘feelings’ which are associated with different emotions, and which would valence decisions differently depending on which somatic marker state / emotion is created by thinking of a specific option or choice. This hypothesis is based on earlier work by William James and colleagues more than a hundred years ago, which became the James-Lange theory of emotion, which suggests there is a ‘body-loop’ required for the ‘feeling’ of emotions in response to some external challenge, which is in turn required for decision-making processes related to the external challenge. The example used to explain this theory was that when one sees a snake, it creates a ‘body loop’ of raised heart rate, increased sweating, increased breath rate and the symptom of nausea, all of which in turn create the ‘feeling’ of fear once these ‘body-loop’ symptoms are perceived by the brain, and it was hypothesized that it is these body-generated feelings, rather than the sight of the snake itself, which induces both the feeling of fear and the decision to either rapidly run away or freeze and hope the snake moves away. While this model is contentious as it would make reactions occur slower than if a direct cognitive decision-making loop occurred, it does explain the concept of a ‘gut feel’ when decision-making. Related to this ‘body-loop’ theory, are other behavioral theories about decision-making, and it has been suggested that decisions are based on what the needs, preferences and values of an individual are, such as hunger, lust, thirst, fear, or moral viewpoint, but of course all of these could equally be described as components of either a rational or heuristic model, and psychological / emotional and cognitive / mathematical models of decision-making are surely not mutually exclusive conditions or theories.

These theories described above attempt to explain how and why we make decisions, but not what causes decisions to be right or wrong. Indeed, perhaps the most relevant issue to most folk is why they so often get decisions wrong. A simple reason may be that of ‘decision fatigue’, whereby the quality of decision-making deteriorates after a prolonged period of decision-making. In other words, one may simply ‘run out’ of the mental energy which is required to make sound decisions, perhaps due to ongoing changes in ‘somatic markers’ / body symptoms each time a decision is required to be made, which creates an energy cost that eventually ‘uses up’ mental energy (whatever mental energy is) over the period of time sequential decisions are required to be made. Astonishingly, judges working in court have been shown to make less favorable decisions as a court session progresses, and the number of favorable decisions improves after the judges have had a break. Apart from these data suggesting that one should ask for a court appearance early on in the morning or after a break, it also suggests that either physical or mental energy in these judges is finite, and ‘runs out’ with prolonged effort and the use of energy focusing on decision-making related to each case over the time period of a court session. There are other more subtle potential causes of poor-decision making. For example, confirmation bias occurs when folk selectively search for evidence that supports a certain decision that they ‘want’ to make, based on an inherent cognitive bias set in their mind by past events or upbringing, even if their ‘gut’ is telling them that it is the wrong decision. Cognitive inertia occurs when folk are unwilling to change their existing environment or thought patterns even when new evidence or circumstances suggest they should. People tend to remember more recent information and use it preferentially, or forget older information, even if the older information is potentially more valid. Repetition bias is caused by folk making decisions based on what they have been told, if it has been told to them by the greatest number of different people, and ‘groupthink’ is when peer pressure to conform to an opinion or group action causes the individual to make decisions they would not do if they were alone and not in the group. An ‘illusion of control’ in decision-making occurs where people have a tendency to under-estimate uncertainty because of a belief that they have more control over events that they actually have. While folk with anxiety tend to make either very conservative or paradoxically very rash decisions, sociopaths, who are thought to have little or no emotional ‘body-loop’, are very poor at making moral based decisions or judgments. Therefore, there are a whole lot of different factors which can impact negatively on decision-making, either due to one’s upbringing or prior history impacting on the historical memory which is used to valence decisions, or due to one’s current emotional or psychological state having a negative impact on decision-making capacity, and even simple fatigue can be the root cause of poor decision-making.

At the heart of decision-making (excusing the pun, from the perspective of the somatic marker hypothesis), is a desire of most folk to remove uncertainty from their lives, or change their life or situation to a better state or place as a result of their decision, or to remove a stressor from their life that will continue unless they make a decision on how to resolve it, remove it, or remove themselves from whatever causes the stressor. However, during my days as a researcher at the University of Cape Town, we suggested that conditions of uncertainty and certainty associated with information processing and decision-making are cyclical (we called it the ‘quantal packet’ information processing theory, for those interested). A chosen decision will change a position or state of uncertainty to one of certainty as one enacts changes based on the decision (or if one chooses to ‘wait and see’ and not alter anything) from the context that one is certain a change will occur based on what one has decided to do, even if one cannot be sure if this difference will be positive or negative while the changes are being enacted. However, with the passing of time, the effects of the decision made will attenuate, and uncertainty will eventually re-occur which require a further decision to be made, often with similar choices to which occurred when the initial decision was made. Underpinning this attenuation of the period of ‘certainty’ is the concept that although one will have factored in ‘known unknowns’ into any decision one makes using either rational or heuristic principles, ‘unknown unknowns’ will surely always occur that will cause even the best strategic decisions to require tactical adjustments, and those that are proven to be an error will need to be reviewed and changed. One can also ‘over-think’ decision-making as much as one can ‘under-think’ it, as well as being kept ‘hostage’ to cognitive biases from one’s past which continuously ‘trip one up’ when making decisions, despite one’s best intentions. Having said all of this, it often astonishes me not that folk get decisions wrong, but rather that they get so many decisions right. For example, when driving along a highway, one is reliant on the correct decisions of every driver that passes for one’s survival, from how much they choose to turn their steering wheel, to how much they use their brake for a corner, to an awareness in each of them that they are not too tired to be driving in the first place. It’s amazing when one thinks of how many decisions we make, either consciously or unconsciously, which so often turn out right, but equally it is the responsibility of each of us to work on the errors created by our past, or by our emotional state, or by ‘groupthink’, which we need to be vigilant about and remove as best possible from the psyche.

Making a decision is usually cathartic due to the removal of uncertainty and the associated anxiety which uncertainty often causes, even if the certainty and feeling of goodwill generated by making a decision is usually ephemeral and lasts only for a short period of time before other matters occupy one’s attention which require further decision-making. Pondering on my decision-making of the last week retrospectively, I think I made the right decision when choosing to cycle home after work, and to do so all the way home, even if I was exhausted when I got there, given that I did not collapse or have a heart attack when doing so, and there will surely be long term health benefits from two long cycles (though of course long is relative at my age!) in one day. I did choose the healthy food alternative for breakfast this morning, even though often I don’t, particularly during meals when I am tired after a long day’s work. I will get the milk my wife asked me to get this afternoon, in order to both get some fresh air after a creative morning of thinking and writing, and to maintain the harmony in our house and life, even though it is raining hard and I would prefer to be writing more or reading a good book this afternoon. The ‘jury is still out’ about whether this move to New Zealand and a new work role has been a good career and country move, and my current decision on this is to let more time pass before making an action-generating reasoned decision on it, though of course we have already moved several times to new places round the world in the last two decades, and the family is looking forward to some lifestyle stability in the next few years, and these factors need to be part of any reflection on a current-environment rating decision. Each of these decisions seemed ostensibly relatively simple to make when I made them, yet each surely had an associated entire host of different reasons, experiences, memories and requirements which were worked through in and by my mind before making them, as will be so for all folk making decisions on all aspects of their life during a routine day. What will I have for lunch now I am finished writing this and am now tired and in need of a break and sustenance? Perhaps I will leave off that decision and relax for a period of time before making lunch-related choices, so as not to make a fatigue-induced bad decision, and reach for that sausage roll, which still is in the fridge. And I need to get going and enact that decision I made to get the milk, and head off to the shops in order to do so as soon as possible, before lethargy set in and I change my mind, otherwise I will surely be in the ‘dog box’ at home later this afternoon, and my sense of cathartic peace resulting from having made these decisions will be even more ephemeral than usual!


Testosterone And Its Androgenic Anabolic Derivatives – One Small Drop Of Liquid Hormone That Can A Man Make And Can A Man Break

I watched a great FA Cup football final last night, and was amused as always when players confronted each other after tackles with aggressive postures and pouting anger-filled stares – all occurring in front of a huge crowd looking on and under the eyes of the referee to protect them. On Twitter yesterday and this morning I was engaged in a fun scientific debate with some male colleagues and noted that each time the arguments became ‘ad hominem’ the protagonists became aggressive and challenging in their responses, and only calmed down and became civil again when they realized it is banter. I have over many years watched my wonderful son grow up daily, and now he is ten have observed some changes occurring in him that are related to increasing development of ‘maleness’ which occurs in all young men of his age. In my twenties while completing my medical and PhD training, I worked part time as a bouncer, and it was always fascinating to see the behaviour of males in the bars and clubs I worked in then change when around females ‘dressed to kill’ and out for the evening. With the addition of alcohol this became a dangerous ‘cocktail’ late in the evenings, with often violence breaking out as the young men tried to establish their dominance and ‘turf’, or as a result of perceived negative slights which ‘honour’ demanded they respond to, and which resulted in a lot of work for me in the bouncer role to sort out. All this got me thinking of the male hormone testosterone and its effect on males through their lifetime, both good and bad.

Testosterone is the principal male sex hormone that ‘creates’ the male body and mind from the genetic chromosomal template supplied at conception. It is mostly secreted by the testicles in men, and to a lesser degree from the ovaries in women, with some secretion also from the adrenal glands. There is approximately 7-8 times higher concentration of testosterone in males than females, but it is present also in females, and females are susceptible to (and may even be more sensitive to) its actions. Testosterone is a steroid type hormone, derived originally from cholesterol related chemical substances which are turned into testosterone through a complex pathway of intermediate substances. Its output from the testes (or ovaries) is stimulated by a complex cascade of neuro-hormonal signals that arise from brain structures (gonadotrophin release hormone is released by the hypothalamus structure in the brain and travels to the pituitary gland, which in turn releases luteinizing hormone and follicle stimulating hormone, which travels in the blood to the testicles and in turn cause the release of testosterone into the bloodstream) in response to a variety of external and internal stimuli (though what controls testosterone’s release, and how it is controlled, in this cyclical manner over many years is almost completely unknown). The nature of ‘maleness’ has been debated as a concept since antiquity, but it was in the 1800’s that real breakthroughs in the understanding that there was a biological basis to ‘maleness’ occurred, with hormones being identified as chemical substances in the blood, and several scientist folk such as Charles Brown-Sequard doing astonishing things like crushing up testicles and injecting the resultant product into their own bodies to demonstrate the ‘rejuvenating’ effect of the ‘male elixir’. Eventually in the late 1800’s testosterone was isolated as the male hormone – it was named as a conglomerate derivative of the words testicle, sterol and ketone – and in the 1930’s, the ‘golden age’ of steroid chemistry, its structure was identified, and synthetic versions of testosterone were produced as medical treatment analogues for folk suffering from low testosterone production due to hypogonadism (reduced production of testosterone due to testicular function abnormality) or hypogonadotropism (reduced production of testosterone due to dysfunction of the ‘higher’ level testosterone release control pathways in the brain described above).

Testosterone acts in both an anabolic (muscle and other body tissue building) and androgenic (male sex characteristic development) manner, and one of the most fascinating things about it is that it acts in a ‘pulsatile’ manner during life – increasing dramatically at very specific times in a person’s life to effect changes that are absolutely essential for both the development and maintenance of ‘maleness’. For example, in the first few weeks after conception in males there is a spike in testosterone concentration in the foetus that results in the development of genitals and prostate gland. Again, in the first few weeks after birth testosterone concentrations rise dramatically, before attenuating in childhood, after which a further increase in the pre-puberty and the pubertal phases occurs, when it is responsible for increases in muscle and bone mass, the appearance of pubic and axillary hair, adult-type body odour and oily skin, increased facial hair, deepening of the voice, and all of the other features associated with (but not all exclusive to) ‘maleness’. If one of these phases are ‘missed’, normal male development does not occur. As males age, the effects of continuously raised testosterone associated with adulthood become evident as loss of scalp hair (male pattern baldness) and increased body hair, amongst other changes. From around the age of 55 testosterone levels decrease significantly, and remain low in old age. Raised testosterone levels have been related to a number of clinical conditions that in the past have been higher in males than females, such as heart attacks, strokes and lipid profile abnormalities, along with increased risk of prostate (of course it’s not surprising that this is a male specific disorder) and other cancers, although not all studies support these findings, and the differences in the gender-specific risk of cardiovascular disorders in particular is decreasing as society has ‘equalized’ and women’s work and social lives have become more similar to those of males in comparison to the more patriarchal societies of the past.

More interesting than the perhaps ‘obvious’ physical effects are the psychological effects of testosterone on ‘male type’ behaviour, though of course the ‘borders’ between what is male or female type behaviour are difficult to clearly delineate. Across most species testosterone levels have been shown to be strongly correlated with sexual arousal, and in animal studies when an ‘in heat’ female is introduced to a group of males, their testosterone levels and sex ‘drive’ increases dramatically. Testosterone has also been correlated with ‘dominance’ behaviour. One of the most interesting studies I have ever read about was one where the effect of testosterone on monkey troop behaviour was examined, in which there are strict social hierarchies, with a dominant male who leads the troop, submissive males who do not challenge the male, and females which are ‘serviced’ only by the dominant male and do not challenge his authority. When synthetic testosterone was injected into the males, it was found that the dominant male become increasingly ‘dominant’ and aggressive, and showed ‘challenge’ behaviour (standing tall with taught muscles in a ‘fight’ posture, angry facial expressions, and angry calls, amongst others) more often than usual, but in contrast, there was no effect or change of the testosterone injections on non-dominant male monkeys. When the females were injected with testosterone, most of them became aggressive, and challenged the dominant male and fought with him. In some cases the females beat the dominant male in fighting challenges, and became the leader of the troop. Most interestingly, these ‘became dominant’ females, when the testosterone injections were discontinued, did not revert back to their prior submissive status, but remained the troop leader and maintained their dominant behaviour even with ‘usual’ female levels of testosterone. This fascinating study showed that there is not only a biological effect of testosterone in social dominance and hierarchy structures, but that there is also ‘learned’ behaviour, and when one’s role in society is established, it is not challenged whatever the testosterone level.

Raised testosterone levels have also been linked with level of aggression, alcoholism, and criminality (being higher in all of these conditions) though this is controversial, and not all studies support these links, and it is not clear from the ‘chicken and egg’ perspective if increased aggression and antisocial behaviour is a cause of increased testosterone levels, or is a result of it. It is also been found that athletes have higher levels of testosterone (both males and females) during sport participation, as have folk watching sporting events. In contrast, both being ‘in love’ and fatherhood appears to decrease levels of testosterone in males, and this may be a ‘protective’ mechanism to attenuate the chance of a male ‘turning against’ or being aggressive towards their own partners or children. Whether this is true or not requires further work, but clearly there is a large psychological and sociological component to both the functionality and requirements of testosterone, beyond its biological effects. One of the most interesting research projects I have been involved with was at the University of Cape Town in the 1990’s, where along with Professor Mike Lambert and Mike Hislop, we studied the effect of testosterone ingestion (and reduction of testosterone / medical castration) on male and female study participants. We found not only changes in muscle size and mass in those taking testosterone supplements, but also that participants ingesting or injecting testosterone had to control their aggression levels and be ‘careful’ of their behaviour in social situations, while women participants described that their sex drive increased dramatically when ingesting synthetic testosterone. In contrast, men who were medically castrated described that their libido was decreased during the study time period when their testosterone levels were reduced by testosterone antagonist drugs to very low levels (interestingly they only realized this ‘absence’ of libido after being asked about it). All these study results confirm that testosterone concentration changes induce both psychological and social outcomes and not just physical effects.

Given in particular its anabolic effects, testosterone and its synthetic chemical derivatives, known commonly as anabolic steroids, became attractive as a performance enhancing drug by athletes in the late 1950’s and 1960’s as a result of it being massed produced synthetically from the 1930’s, and as athletes became aware of its muscle and therefore strength building capacity after its use in clinical populations. Until the 1980’s, when testing for it as a banned substance meant it became risky to use it, anabolic steroids were used by a large number of athletes, particularly in the strength and speed based sporting disciplines. Most folk over 40 years old will remember Ben Johnson, the 1988 Olympic 100m sprint champion, being stripped of his winner’s medal for testing positive for an anabolic steroid hormone during a routine within-competition drug test. Testosterone is still routinely used by body-builders, and worryingly, a growing number of school level athletes are being suggested to be using anabolic steroids, as well as a growth of its use as a ‘designer drug’ in gyms to increase muscle mass in those that have body image concerns. An interesting study / article pointed out that boy’s toys have grown much more ‘muscular’ since the 1950’s, and that this is perhaps a sign that society places more ‘value’ on increased muscle development and size in contemporary males, and this in a circular manner probably puts more pressure on adolescent males to increase their muscle size and strength due to perceived societal demands, and thereby increases the pressure on them to take anabolic steroids. There is also suggested to be an increase in the psychological disorder known as ‘muscle dysmorphia’ or ‘reverse anorexia’ in males, where (mostly) young men believe that no matter how big they are muscle size wise, they are actually thin and ‘weedy’, and they ‘see’ their body shape incorrectly when looking in the mirror. This muscle dysmorphia population is obviously highly prone to the use of (perhaps one should say abuse) anabolic steroids as a group. There appears to be also an increase in anabolic steroid use in the older male population group, perhaps due to a combination of concerns about diminishing ‘male’ function with increasing age, a desire to maintain sporting prowess and dominance, and a perception that a muscular ‘body beautiful’ is still desirable by society even in old age – which is a concern due to the increased cardiovascular and prostate cancer risks taking anabolic steroids can create in an already at-risk population group. There is also a growth in the number of women taking anabolic steroid / synthetic testosterone, both due to its anabolic effects and its (generally) positive effects on sex drive, and a number of women body builders use anabolic steroids for competitive reasons due to its anabolic effect on muscles, despite the risk of the development of clitoral enlargement, deepening voice, and male type hair growth, amongst other side effects, which potentially can result from females using anabolic steroids. Anabolic steroid use therefore remains an ongoing societal issue that needs addressing and further research, to understand both its incidence and prevalence, and to determine why specific population groups choose to use them.

It has always been amazing to me that a tiny biological molecule / hormone, which testosterone is, can have such major effects not only on developing male physical characteristics, but also on behavioural and social activity and interactions with other folk, and in potentially setting hierarchal structures in society, though surely this ‘overt’ effect has been attenuated in modern society where there are checks and balances on male aggression and dominance, and females now have equal chances to men in both the workplace and leadership role selection. Testosterone clearly has a hugely important role in creating a successfully functioning male both personally and from a societal perspective, but testosterone can also be every males ‘worst enemy’ without social and personal ‘higher level’ restraints on its potential unfettered actions and ways of working. It has a magic in its function when its effects are seen on my young son as he approaches puberty and suddenly his body and way of thinking changes, or when its effects are seen (from its diminishment) in the changes of a man in love or in a new father. Perhaps there is magic also in the reduction of testosterone that occurs in old age, as this is likely to be important in allowing the ‘regeneration’ of social structures, by allowing new younger leaders to take over from previously dominant males, by this attenuation of testosterone levels perhaps making older males ‘realize’ / more easily accept that their physical and other capacities are diminished enough to ‘walk away’ gracefully from their life roles without the surges of competitive and aggressive ‘feelings’ and desires a continuously high level of testosterone may engender in them if it continued to be high into old age. But testosterone has an ugliness in its actions too, which was evident in my time working as a bouncer in bars and clubs, when young men became violent with other young men as a way of demonstrating their ‘maleness’ to the young females who happened to be in the same club and were the (usually) unwitting co-actors in this male mating ritual drama which enacted itself routinely on most Friday and Saturday nights, usually fuelled by too much alcohol. Its ugliness is also evident on the sporting field when males kick other men lying helpless on the ground in a surge of anger due to losing the game or for a previous slight, despite doing so within the view of a referee, spectators and TV cameras. Its ugliness is also evident in the violence that one sees in fans after a soccer game preying on rival fans due to their testosterone levels being high due to watching the game, and in a myriad of other social situations where males try to become dominant to lever the best possible situation or to attract the best possible mate for themselves, at the expense of all those around them – whether in a social or work situation, or a Twitter discussion, or even a political or an academic debate – the ‘male posturing’ is evident for all to see in each situation, whether it is physical or psychological. Perhaps it was not for the sake of a horseshoe that the battle was lost, but rather because of too little, or too much, testosterone coursing around the veins of those directing it. There are few examples as compelling as that of the function of the hormone testosterone in making male behaviour what it is which demonstrates how complex, exquisite and essential the relationship between biological factors and psychological behaviour and social interplay is. What truly ‘makes up’ a man and what represents ‘maleness’ though, is of course another story, and for another debate!


%d bloggers like this: