Tag Archives: homeostasis

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.

Advertisements

Anxiety, Stress And The Highly Sensitive Person – Too Much Of Something Always Becomes A Bad Thing That Damages One In The End

I am one of those people that worries all the time. If there is an issue at work or at home that is of concern, I will up at 2.00 am in the morning wondering how best to solve it and worrying about it until I am sure it is solved. When all is as well as it can be I will find something to worry about – the plans for the future, pension funds (or lack of them), my kids health, anything and everything. In many ways this has been a good thing, as it has helped me always plan ahead, find solutions to problems and be aware of challenging situations as they develop, or even before they do. In many ways this has been a bad thing, as it means I get irritable and stressed when things are not working out well, and I am at the age when this continued mental ‘strain’ has the potential after many years of being the ‘status quo’ to cause cumulative physical damage to my body resulting potentially in such clinical conditions as migraines, high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes amongst others. There is clearly a genetic or physical environment component to this ‘worry’ state, as my father was very similar, and always seem to be worried when he was not almost overly exuberant and happy (there never was a middle ground with him, which made life as a child both fun and challenging), and for most of his adult life until he suffered a series of heart attacks in his early fifties, he smoked ninety cigarettes a day (and was in his early years ‘proud’ of this fact and his capacity to smoke prodigiously, given that in his era it was the ‘done thing’ to smoke) and was never to be seen without a cigarette in his hand, surely as an antidote for and a mechanism to assist him to cope with the stress he felt on a daily basis and which he surely worried about continuously. I have noticed since the advent of the mobile phone, during meetings I sit in at work, or when I go out for a social evening, folk around me check their phone for text messages or emails on a regular basis, with some folk doing so seemingly every few minutes, which is also surely a pathological sign of something ‘worrying’ these folk, or of a ‘worry’ type of personality in these folk who seem to need to check on information coming to them on an almost continuous basis. All these got me thinking about ‘worry’ – known clinically as anxiety – and what causes it to occur, and why some folk appear to feel it more than others and seem to be ‘highly sensitive’ to stressful situations.

Anxiety is defined as a worry about future events before they occur, and is different, though related, to the concept of fear, which is defined as a psychological reaction to current events. Related to both concepts are those of stress, homeostasis and allostasis. The theory of homeostasis suggests that our natural preferred state of existence is one where we are in ‘equilibrium’ with the environment in which we live, and our body and mind are in a ‘steady state’, free of requirements, needs and challenges. When this steady state we exist in is challenged, for example by low energy levels in the body, we notice this as a stressor to our steady state existence (‘hunger’ is the mechanism by which we ‘notice’ this particular stress factor), and this stress induces us to respond to it, by in this example generating actions and plans that will allow us to source and eat food, thereby increasing our body’s energy ‘levels’ back to the state in which we are comfortable and ‘happy’ with. Similarly if we become hot, we move to a place where cooler conditions exist. In more complex examples, if our social or community life changes in a way we feel uncomfortable with, we make plans and enact changes that will attenuate this social stress by either moving to a new place or environment, or taking steps to remove whatever or whoever is causing us discomfort if it is in our power to do so. The process of achieving stability, or homeostasis, using behavioural and psychological changes, has recently been described as allostasis (though some of us believe this is an unnecessary definition as the definition of homeostasis incorporates what is now described as allostasis). These allostatic responses attenuate stressful changes, or changes which are at least perceived as stressful by us, by means of releasing stress hormones in the body (for example cortisol) via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal gland pathway in the body, or by activating the autonomic nervous system (for example the sympathetic nerves which are responsible for initiating ‘fight or flight’ responses in the body), or by releasing cytokines (which are humoral blood-borne ‘signallers’ which also induce a number of physical body responses to stress), or other systems which are generally adaptive in the short term. These pathways all induce a number of ‘general alarm’ or ‘specific response’ changes in the physiological systems and different organs in the body, such as increasing the concentration of glucose in the blood and re-distributing it to areas of the body that need it most as a result of the induced stress, increasing cardiac output, blood pressure and blood flow to specific organs in the body such as the muscles while reducing blood flow to the digestive and reproductive system, and altering the immune system response, amongst others – which all in turn lead to symptoms one ‘feels’ such as dry mouth, rapidly beating heat, increased breathing rate, shaking muscles, nausea, diarrhoea, and even dizziness and confusion in extreme conditions. Like all things, some stress and occasional activation of this stress response ‘allostatic’ system is beneficial to one both for reducing the targeted stress and for making the response systems more efficient by ‘practice’. But, like all things, if the stressor is not removed, or if multiple different stressors occur at once, and these responsive systems remain ‘wide open’, this can result in a status of ‘chronic response fatigue’ in these systems, and ultimately cause damage to the body by the very mechanisms which are designed to protect (for example a raised blood pressure allows blood to pumped quickly to targeted organs requiring increased blood flow for their optimal function, but chronically raised blood pressure causes ‘backflow’ problems to the heart which leads to heart failure eventually, or ‘forward flow’ problems to other organs such as the kidneys, which are eventually damaged by continuously increased blood pressure over a period of time). What is defined as the ‘allostatic load’ is the ‘wear and tear’ of the body (and mind) which increases over time when someone is exposed to repeated or chronic stress, and represents the physiological consequences of chronic exposure to the hormonal and neural responses described above which are ultimately damaging to the person who is ‘feeling’ the stress and whose body is continuously trying to react to it.

All of these allostatic responses are reactive to an already occurring, or perceived to be occurring, stressful situation or environment, and the sensation of fear would be the psychological accompanying emotion associated with perceiving such already occurring situations. But as described above, anxiety is somewhat different, in that it is a worry about future, rather than already occurring events. When one is anxious, one is thinking about all the potential, rather than actual, implications of possible scenarios that could occur based on ones ‘reading’ of current situations or events occurring around one that may, rather than will, occur and potentially impinge on one and possibly cause stressful situations at some time point in the future. Interestingly, anxiety ‘uses’, or is at least associated with, a number of the physical allostatic ‘response’ systems described above, such as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system, autonomic and interleukin systems, and a number of the symptoms of anxiety are associated with activity of these ‘fight or flight’ response systems and the physiological perturbations they induce. In episodes of acute anxiety (also known as panic attacks), symptoms including trembling, shaking, confusion, dizziness, nausea and difficulty breathing occur, all of which are induced by the allostatic stress-related pathways described above. While some anticipation of the future and resultant planning for it can only be good for one from a long term safety and security perspective, and therefore occasional anxiety can also be beneficial in ‘encouraging’ the planning of and ‘making ready’ future reactive plans for potential stressors one is concerned about after ‘reading the runes’ of one’s current life, generalized anxiety disorder is a clinical condition that is characterized by excessive, uncontrollable and often irrational worry about future events that occurs in between three and five percent of the population word-wide, where folk have a high level of anxiety about everyday problems such as health issues, finances, death, family / social / work problems, or anticipated catastrophic situations which are not commensurate with their actual level of probability of occurring. Individuals with chronic anxiety disorder have a wide variety of ‘psychosomatic’ (body and mind) symptoms, including fatigue, headaches, nausea, muscle aches and tension, numbness in their hands and feet, fast breathing, stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhoea, sweating, irritability, agitation, restlessness, sleep disorders and an inability to either control the anxiety and / or its physical symptoms. If not adequately controlled, generalized anxiety disorder can result in a number of what are known as chronic ‘lifestyle’ disorders, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, migraines, heart attacks and strokes, as well as depression or irritable bowel syndrome, as well as a host of what are defined as ‘psychosomatic’ disorders’. What causes an individual to develop a generalized anxiety disorder is currently not well understood (it occurs more often in folk who have a family history of it), but it most often begins to manifest itself between the ages of 30-35, but can also occur in childhood or late adulthood, and appears to ‘tap in’ and chronically activate the allostatic physiological response mechanisms described above.

Another interesting ‘relative’ of anxiety disorders is what has become known as the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) ‘disorder’. Folk who are highly sensitive people have a high degree of what is known as sensory processing sensitivity, or in other words they appear to respond to, or be aware of physical body symptoms of stress and anxiety, or to social or environmental situations, to a greater degree than folk who do not ‘suffer’ from this disorder. Folk who have HSP ‘feel’ all these body allostatic responses in an extremely sensitive way, via mechanisms that are still currently not well understood. Because of this, they are also ‘hyper-aware’ of social situations or environments that may trigger the ‘release’ of these physiological anxiety / stress-related response pathways in their bodies (or vice versa and they may be hyper-aware of these social situations because of their natural ‘up-regulated’ physical sensory state). This HSP state is either a curse or a blessing (or both), as it makes folk who ‘suffer’ from it prefer low stimulation environments and try to construct their lives to avoid over-stimulation, and predisposes them potentially to higher risk of chronic stress / anxiety related disorders, but it also make them ‘feel’ life more, have more insight into and early awareness of developing social situations that others may not even be aware of, and make them more ‘intuitive’ to what is going on around them. Whether HSP folk have higher levels of anxiety or greater incidence of a generalized anxiety disorder is currently not well known, but given both ‘tap into’ the same allostatic physical body systems and mechanisms make it more likely that this is indeed so. It must be noted that the concept of a highly sensitive person has been differentiated from that of a hypersensitive person, who are defined as folk who over-react to any stimuli or slight. Folk with HSP may simply be quiet, appear introverted or ‘shy’, or are able to ‘hide’ their HSP ‘condition’, while hypersensitive folk are typically very challenging to deal with socially, but they also may have underlying anxiety as a cause of their over-reactions, ‘temper-tantrums’ and rages. The treatment of all of these different anxiety related disorders is challenging, and requires lifestyle change, psychological intervention (such as cognitive behavioural therapy) and / or medication, but there is always a relatively poor cure rate and a high degree of recidivism, and folk with anxiety and stress related disorders need to themselves understand, acknowledge and work on their underlying condition, though the problem for doing so is that a hyper-sensitivity responsive ‘state’ or condition is very difficult to understand, let alone treat. A number of folk use smoking, alcohol consumption, or avoidance behaviour, as methods of ‘dealing’ with their anxiety or high level of sensitivity, but these short term ’emollients’ create their own specific problems and may themselves paradoxically increase anxiety and stress in those that use them as a stress / anxiety reducing mechanism.

Worry, therefore, can be a useful thing to prepare one to enact future potential responses to what one is ‘picking up’ in one’s current circumstances that causes one to worry, if it continues for a short period of time only and if it is about a specific issue. Worry, if chronic or if it is a clinical disorder, through the allostatic pathways and circuits it uses to initiate and mediate ‘fight or flight’ body changes, can cause a wide array of unpleasant symptoms and diminish one’s quality of life, and can ultimately cause major physical damage to one’s body if one does not manage it carefully, or treat it as something that needs to be ‘cured’. The ‘trappings’ of modern society such as mobile phones and increased work and social connectivity and immediate communication capacity have many benefits, but these can also ‘tap into’ and reinforce these anxiety-related allostatic pathways and create continuous stress of their own making – it is likely that those folk who compulsively reach for their phones to check their messages every few minutes almost certainly have an anxiety disorder, or are prone to developing one, and future research is surely needed to ascertain the veracity of this possibility. I myself am a ‘worrier’, and almost certainly am a highly sensitive person, as was my father before me. This has created blessings and challenges both for us and those around us – life can be beautiful, but life can also be challenging, on a daily basis, with most of it ‘raging’ around in our own minds rather than in the ‘real’ life around us per se. At twenty five, I would have said the benefits of being and living such as a highly sensitive person and ‘worrier’ surely outweighed the challenges – the rose surely smelt better, the rain surely felt softer, the love was deeper, the anger stronger, the passion for life greater to and for us compared to how most folk around us probably experienced their less ‘perceived’ life. However, now I am about to reach the age of fifty, and am reaching the ‘tiger territory’ period of life for high blood pressure, heart attacks and other ‘diseases of a lived life’, I am not so sure, and the thought of a calm life, without worry, without stress, lived in soft colour and tranquil shades and hues, seems to be perhaps the better one, and one that should have been chosen as preferential way of living all those years ago, or at least changed to now I am more aware both of my own highly sensitive ‘condition’ and the potential negative effects such a life can have on one’s physical response mechanisms and body organs and physiological systems. But, at the end of the day, can one ever really ‘choose’ one’s own ‘sensitivity to stimuli’ levels? Perhaps our own anxiety and stress levels, or at least our own perception of them, were set in our ancestors body’s thousands of years ago and passed down to us, even if they are redundant as a ‘need’ in our modern life, and are therefore almost impossible to materially change despite our wishes and best efforts to do so. More research is needed to better understand if sensitivity to stimuli levels, and indeed those of anxiety itself, can ever be permanently attenuated, or rather if they stay permanently ‘as is’, and one merely learns rather how to cope and ‘deal with’ them better with the passing of time or with enhanced understanding, treatment or therapy.

One’s life will surely happen to oneself, as it does for each of us as we move through life and its challenges, whether one worries about it or not, or whether one ‘feels it’ more or less, I guess, but in many ways it surely ‘feels’ more like it is ‘happening to one’ when one worries about it than when one does not – though doing so appears to damage one’s physical survival mechanisms by over-use as part of the process. It must be wonderful to live a life in the always warm, always comfortable environment which is the one in which has no worries. But, equally, one can never maintain a hot fire without some internal combustion occurring which creates the heat, or even more so, put out a fire once it has been burning for a long time and has created the ‘heat’ which is manifestly evident in the life lived with maximal sensitivity to stimuli and responsivity to all around it. Would one choose to put this ‘fire’ out and reduce the ‘heat’ in oneself if one could do so? How one answers that question will perhaps ascertain for oneself where on the spectrum of anxiety and sensitivity to stimuli scale one is, or at least where one would like to be (without the need to reach for one’s mobile phone to get the answer to it as we do these days, or lighting up a cigarette in order to help one reflect on it like they did in my old man’s days). I’ll ponder this question myself as I listen with delight to the sound of the birds chirping in the garden outside that ‘feels’ as if they ‘pierce’ my ears, as I sip my coffee and go through what I have written this morning wondering if it has been a good or bad writing session, as I bang the table in frustration when I discover that my printer has run out of ink and I can’t print it out for my records, and as at the same time I worry if I have all my ‘ducks in a row’ ahead of those important meetings I have at work on Tuesday after the public holiday Monday. Reflect, reflect, reflect. Worry, worry, worry. For some there is no peace, even on the quietest of days!


The Sensation Of Fatigue – A Complex Emotion Which Is Vital For Human Survival

After a couple of weeks back at work after a great Christmas season break, I have noticed this week a greater than normal level of fatigue than I normally ‘feel’ at the end of a routine working week. After one of the hottest December months on record in my current home town, where temperatures for a while were consistently hovering around forty degrees Celsius, we have had a wonderful rainy, cool period, and I have noticed that I feel less fatigued in the cooler environment, and routine daily activities seem ‘easier’ to perform than when it was excessively hot. As part of a New Year’s resolution ‘action plan’ to improve my level of fitness, I have increased my level of endurance exercise, and as always have enjoyed the sensation of fatigue I feel towards the end of each long (though I know that ‘long’ is relative when compared to younger, more fitter folk) bike ride I do as part of this ‘fitness’ goal. All of these got me thinking of the sensation of fatigue, an emotional construct which I spent a great many years of my research career trying to understand, and which still is very difficult to define, let alone work out its origins and mechanisms of elicitation in our physical body structures and mental brain functions.

As described in these three very different examples from my own life, fatigue is experienced by all folk on a regular basis in a variety of different conditions and activities. Perhaps because of this, there are many different definitions of fatigue. In clinical medicine practice, fatigue is defined as a debilitating consequence of a number of different systemic diseases (or paradoxically the treatment by a variety of different drugs) or nutritional deficits. In exercise physiology, fatigue is defined as an acute impairment of exercise performance, which leads to an eventual inability to produce maximal force output as a consequence of metabolite accumulate or substrate depletion. In neurophysiology, fatigue is defined as a reduction of motor command from the brain to the active muscles resulting in a decrease in force or tension as part of a planned homeostatic process to prevent the body from damage which could result from too high a level of activity or too prolonged activity. In psychology, fatigue is defined as an emotional construct – a conscious ‘sensation’ generated by the cognitive appraisal of changing body or brain physiological activity which is influenced by the social environment in which the activity changes occur, and the mood status, temperament and background of the person ‘feeling’ these physiological changes. It will be evident from all of these different definitions how complex fatigue is an ‘entity’ / functional process, and how hard it is for even experts in the field to describe to someone asking about it what fatigue is, let alone understand it from a research perspective.

A number of different physical factors have been related to the development of the sensation of fatigue we all ‘feel’ during our daily life. During physical activity, it has been proposed that changes in the body related to the increased requirements of the physical exertion being performed cause the sensation of fatigue to ‘arise’. These include increased heart rate, increased respiratory rate, increased acid ‘build up’ in the muscles, reduced blood glucose or muscle or liver glycogen, or temperature changes in the body, particularly increased heat build-up – though for each study that shows one of these factors is ‘causal’ of the sensation of fatigue, one can find a study that shows that each of these specific factors is not related to the development of the sensation of fatigue. It has also been proposed that changes in the concentration of substrates in the brain structures associated with physical or mental activity are related to the sensation of fatigue – such as changes in neurotransmitter levels (for example serotonin, acetylcholine, glutamate), or changes in the nutrients supplied to the brain such as glucose, lactate or branched chain amino acids. But, again, for each study whose findings support these hypotheses, there are studies that refute such suggestions. It has also been suggested that a composite ‘aggregation’ of changes in all these body and brain factors may result in the development of the sensation of fatigue, via some brain process or function that ‘valences’ each in a fatigue ‘algorithm’, or via intermediate sensations such as the sensation of breathlessness associated with increased ventilation, the sensation of a ‘pounding’ heart from cardiac output increases, the sensation of being hot and sticky and sweating which result from temperature increases in the body, and / or the sensation of pain in muscles working hard, all of which are themselves ‘aggregated’ by brain structures or mental functions to create the complex sensation we know and describe as fatigue.

Which physical brain structures are involved in the creation of the sensation of fatigue is still not known, and given the complexity of the factors involved in its generation, as described above, large areas of the brain and a number of different brain systems are likely to be involved – the motor cortex as muscle activity is often involved, the sensory cortex as signals from changes in activity in numerous body ‘parts’ and functions are ‘picked up’ and assimilated by the brain, the frontal cortex as cognitive decision making on the validity of these changes and the need for potential changes in activity as a result of this ‘awareness’ of a changed state is required, the hippocampus / amygdala region as the current changes in physiological or mental activity must be ‘valenced’ against prior memories of similar changes in the past in order to make valid ‘sense’ of them as they currently occur, and the brainstem as this is the area where ventilation, heart function and a variety of other ‘basic’ life maintaining functions are primarily controlled, for example, amongst many other potential brain areas. We don’t know how the function of different brain areas is ‘integrated’ to give us the conscious ‘whole’ sensation we ‘feel’, and until we do so, it is difficult to understand how the physical brain structures ‘create’ the sensation of fatigue, let alone the ‘feeling’ of it.

How the mental ‘feeling’ of fatigue is related to these physical body and brain change ‘states’ is also challenging for us research folk to understand. Clearly some ‘change’ in structures, baseline physical values or mental states by whatever induces the fatigue process, be it physical or mental exertion or illness, is required for us to ‘sense’ these and for our brain and mental functions to ‘ascribe’ the sensation of fatigue to these changed states. It has previously been shown that the sensation of fatigue which arises during exercise is related to the distance to be covered, and increases as one gets closer to the finish line. While this sounds obvious, as one would expect the body to become more ‘changed’ as one exercises for a longer period, it has been shown that when folk run at the same pace for either five or ten kilometres, despite their pace being identical in both, at the 4km mark in the 5 km race the rating these folk give for the sensation of fatigue is higher than it is at 4km of the 10 km race, which is ‘impossible’ to explain physiologically, and suggests that folk ‘set’ their perceptual apparatus differently for the 5 and 10 km race, based on how far they have to go (what H-V Ulmer described as teleoanticipation), by changing the ‘gain’ of the relationship between the signals they get from their body depending on how far they plan to go. Two great South African scientists, Professor Ross Tucker of the University of Free State, and Dr Jeroen Swart of the University of Cape Town, have expanded on this by suggesting that there is a perceptual ‘template’ for the sensation of fatigue in the brain, and the sensation of fatigue is ‘created’ in an organized, pre-emptive ‘way’ by mental / cognitive processes in the brain, and the sensation of fatigue is ‘controlled’ by this template depending on the distance and / or duration of a sporting event. If something unexpected happens during an event, like a sudden drop in temperature, or a competitor that goes faster than expected, this will create an unexpected ‘change’ in signals from the body and requirements of the race, and the sensation of fatigue will become more pronounced and greater than what is expected at that point in the race, and one will slow down, or change plans accordingly. Ross and Jeroen’s fascinating work show how complex the mental component of the sensation of fatigue and its ‘creation’ by brain structures is.

There are multiple other factors which are involved in the generation of the sensation of fatigue, or of its modulation. I did my medical PhD (an MD) on chronic fatigue syndrome which developed in athletes who pushed themselves too hard until they eventually physically ‘broke down’ and developed the classical fatigue symptoms associated with chronic fatigue, where they felt fatigue even when not exercising, which was not relieved by prolonged periods of rest. These athletes clearly pushed themselves ‘through’ their fatigue symptoms on a regular basis until they damaged themselves. As one of the pioneer and world-leading experts in the fatigue field, Professor Sam Marcora, has pointed out, one’s ambitions and drives and ‘desire for success’ are a strong indicator both of the level of the symptom of fatigue folk will ‘feel’, and how they resist these symptoms. In these chronically fatigued folk we studied, something in their psychological makeup induced them either to constantly continue exercising despite the symptoms of fatigue, or made them ‘feel’ less sensations of fatigue for the same work-rate (assuming their fitness levels and physical capacity was similar) to most folk who do not experience this syndrome (the vast majority of folk). To make the matter even more complex, these folk with chronic fatigue described severe sensations of fatigue at rest, but when we put them on a treadmill, some of them paradoxically felt less, rather than more, sensations of fatigue when running as compared to resting, and their extreme sensations of fatigue returned (to an even greater degree) in the rest period after they completed the running bout. Furthermore, if one gives stimulants to folk when they exercise, such as caffeine, it appears to reduce the ‘awareness’ of the sensations of fatigue. Sam is doing some interesting work currently looking at the effect of caffeine on attenuating the sensation of fatigue – as did Dr Angus Hunter several years ago – and thereby using it as a ‘tool’ to get folk to exercise more ‘easily’ as they appear to ‘feel’ fatigue less after ingesting caffeine. All this shows again that the sensation of fatigue is both a very complex emotion, and a very ‘labile’ one at that, and can change, and be changed, by both external factors such as these stimulants, and internal factors such as one’s drive or ‘desire’ to resist the sensation of fatigue as they arise, or even ‘block them out’ before they are consciously generated. More research, and very advanced research techniques, will be required for us to clearly understand how and such potential ‘blockages’ of the sensation of fatigue happen, if they indeed occur.

The sensation of fatigue is therefore an immensely complex ‘derivative’ of a number of functions, behaviours, and psychological ‘filters’, and what we finally ‘feel’ as fatigue is ‘more’ than a simple one-to-one description of some underlying change in our physical body and brain that requires adjustment or attenuation. The sensation of fatigue is clearly a protective phenomenon designed to slow us down when we are exercising too hard or too long in a manner that may damage our body, or when we are working too hard or too long and need a ‘time out’, or when the environment one is performing activities of daily living in may be harming one. But there are usually more complex relationships and reasons for the occurrence of the sensation of fatigue than what on the surface may appear to be the case. For example, the increase in work related fatigue I feel is surely related not just to the fact that it is the end of a busy week – it is perhaps likely to be related to a ‘deep’ yearning to be back on holiday, or to the fact that my mind is not ‘hardened’ yet to my routine daily work requirements, or has been ‘softened’ by the holiday period so that now I feel fatigue ‘more’ than is usual. In a few weeks time this will surely be attenuated as the year progresses and my weekly routines, which have been ‘honed’ over many years of work, are re-established, and I will feel the ‘usual’ rather than excessive symptoms of fatigue as always on Thursdays and Fridays. The extreme feeling of fatigue I felt during the very hot December month may also be related to some subconscious ‘perception’ that my current living environment is perhaps not optimal for me lifestyle wise for a long term living basis, and this ‘valenced’ how I perceived the environment as one of extreme heat and therefore extreme (and greater than expected) fatigue last month. And that I am ‘enjoying’ the sensations of fatigue I feel when exercising may mean that I am perhaps not pushing my exercise bouts as hard as I could, and need to go harder, or that my mind and body is setting a pace that feels enjoyable both so I continue doing it, or to protect me from a potential heart attack if I go harder. All of these may be the case, or equally, all of these could be mere speculation – the science folk in the area of fatigue have a big mountain to climb, and many more hours in the lab, before we more fully understand the complex emotion which the sensation of fatigue is, and how and from where it arises and is controlled.

A time may come when Sam Marcora and other excellent research colleagues like him find the ‘magic bullet’ that will ‘banish’ the sensation of fatigue, and we will be able to work harder and exercise longer because of it. But then would the cold drink after exercise taste so good, or the feeling of accomplishment one gets at the end of a long exercise bout as a result of resisting the sensation of fatigue long enough to achieve one’s goals for the particular exercise bout one has just completed still occur? This is something to ponder on, when fatigued, as I am now after two hours of writing, as I sip my cup of coffee, and wait for my ‘energy’ to return so I can begin the next task of a routine Sunday, whether it be cycling with the kids, walking the dog, or any other fatigue-removing activity as I prepare for the next fatiguing cycle which is the work and sport week ahead!


Elite Athlete Performance And Super-Achievers In Sport – Is The Essential Ingredient For Success An Inner Mongrel Or Unrequited Child Rather Than Purely Physical Capacity

Above my desk at home is a picture of my great University friend, Philip Lloyd, and I in our paddling days many years ago completing a race, shortly before he switched to mountain climbing, a sport where he achieved great success and pioneered a number of astonishingly difficult routes in a very short space of time before tragically falling to his death when a safety rope failed on a high mountain in Patagonia. Each year I enjoy watching the Tour De France and I am awed by the cyclist’s capacity to sustain pain for so long in the high mountain stages, and their capacity to train for huge amounts of time on a daily basis to ensure they get to the race in peak condition. This week I read about the extent of doping in sport, and wondered not only how they appeared to have gotten away for it for so long, but how so many athletes could have and do take drugs when there is so much evidence how potentially harmful performance enhancing drugs can be to the body of those that take them. All of these got me thinking about why people push themselves to such limits to win races, and what ‘separates’ these race winners and super-achievers in sport, including those that in order to win become dope takers, not only from their less successful peers, but the vast majority of the human population to whom cycling a few kilometres would be regarded as a big effort and achievement, and who would probably prefer to have a cup of coffee while reading a newspaper as their activity of preference.

It is clearly necessary for folk who are successful in sport to have the ‘right’ physical characteristics in order to be able to compete at the highest level, be it the right body shape for their chosen sport, or a big lung capacity, or great muscular strength, or good balance or agility. But you can have all of these, and yet if one doesn’t have the required amount of ‘will’ to push one’s body, no matter how specially ‘designed’ it is, to train for hours on a daily basis or to push oneself to near collapse during a race itself, one will never be a ‘winner’ during athletic events. Where this ‘will’ comes from, and how it is stimulated to be maintained in the face of extreme hardship, is still not clearly understood or determined. One of the biggest ‘wow’ moments of my science career was when after doing competitive sport for many years, and studying as an academic how sport was regulated for many years after that, I realized after spending thousands of hours reading about drive and motivation theories that performing sport is an essentially abnormal activity / thing to do. That might sound strange, but this ‘wow’ moment was underpinned by the knowledge that our bodies and brain have very well defined protective mechanisms, both physically and psychologically, that protect us from damage and resist any effort to get out of our ‘comfort zones’. In the physical sciences these processes are called homeostatic mechanisms, and in psychology they are described as being part of the ‘constancy principle’. Homeostasis was defined by Claude Bernard in the 1860’s as the tendency to maintain the body in a state of relative equilibrium well away from the limits of the body’s absolute capacity using protective physiological mechanisms. The constancy principle was developed by Sigmund Freud in the early 1900’s as an offshoot of his ‘pleasure principle’ theory and central to the principle is the concept that the human being is a biological organism which strives to maintain its level of ‘excitation’ at an always ‘comfortable’ level. To achieve this goal, Freud suggested that humans avoid or seek to diminish any external stimuli which are likely to prove excessive or which will threaten our internal state of equilibrium, using mechanisms in either the conscious or subconscious mind. So when we get up and exercise, which increases our body’s metabolic rate tremendously, and mentally requires effort, we are doing something that is essentially ‘anti-homeostatic’, and which would naturally initiate a number of mechanisms designed to make us resist the desire to continue exercising, or even stop completely. The symptom of fatigue would be an obvious example of one such protective mechanism which would be an overt part of or result of either physical homeostatic or psychological constancy mechanisms.

So why do folk do sport then if there are all these protective mechanisms. A possible reason may be ‘higher order’ homeostatic / constancy mechanisms, such as material or social rewards which may result from participating in sport, which are beneficial for the long term future of the individual and are ‘valenced’ as being more ‘important’ than the short term risk of being out of one’s safety ‘zone’ when doing sport. For example, being fitter would perhaps be thought to make one more desirable for a potential mate from a biological offspring choice perspective, or if one won a race this would lead to financial gain which would again one more socially desirable, and thereby enhance the reproductive capacity of the individual participating in sport because of the perceived increased ‘esteem’ associated with being a winner. This is a very biological theory for sport and race participation, and suggests that doing sport, racing and winning are beneficial from a Darwinian perspective, and involving oneself in such events would be part of some deep-rooted ‘propagation of species’ biological drive or motive.

The problem with this biological theory is that it does not explain why people push themselves to the level of collapse in sport or why folk continue competing either with warning signs of impending physical catastrophe such as angina (chest pain associated with heart disease), or take drugs in order to improve their chances of success, or become dependent on / addicted to sport (there are numerous examples of this and it is an increasing psychopathological problem), all of which would potentially damage rather than enhance one’s future life prospects and therefore also one’s reproductive capacity, so perhaps something ‘deeper’ is involved. Albert Adler, around the time that Freud proposed the constancy theory, put forward his theory of the inferiority complex, which suggested that performing great feats were related to a sense of inferiority related to prior issues, and that one competes or performs events as a mechanism of ‘hiding’ internal perceived inadequacies or short-comings of the self after previous negative experiences (being bullied in one’s youth, or teased about physical weakness in adolescence, for example). Freud suggested that damaging events in one’s youth lead to a state of ‘ego-fragility’, where in in order to ‘block out’ painful experiences from one’s past, one ‘represses’ these damaging memories or experiences and one ‘projects’ or externalises these internal conflicts into external drives or desires which are ‘transferred’ onto something or some action that can ‘compensate’ for these early formative related issues. Therefore, for example if one feels one is the cause of one’s parent’s divorce, to compensate one spends the rest of one’s life winning races or doing well at work in order to try and ‘make up’ for the ‘damage’ one perceives one has caused at some deep subconscious level, even if one is not the cause of it, and one does not even consciously realize that one is doing something for this ‘deep’ reason. Symptoms and signs of projection and transference include fanatical attachment to projects and goals, envy and dislike for other folk who are successful or receive awards, and falling apart when failing to complete a challenge successfully – all of which are endemic and part of the ‘make-up’ of the sporting world.

If this sounds ‘odd’, or far-fetched, there are some interesting data and information that can be gleaned from athlete autobiographies and academic studies that would suggest that this theory may have a degree of veracity. Dave Collins and Aine Macnamara wrote a very interesting review a few years ago in which they suggested that ‘talent needs trauma’, and described data that would support this concept. For example, academy football players who eventually made it to become elite football players apparently have a greater number of siblings (more competition for parent’s attention) and a three times higher parental divorce rate than peers who did not reach elite level activity. They also suggested that successful footballers come from backgrounds with a higher incidence of single parent families, while rowers commonly reported an increased level of early childhood departure to boarding school (which Collins and Macnamara, rightly in my mind, suggested would be a ‘natural source of early trauma’). Looking at successful cyclists, information gleaned from their autobiographies or articles written about them describe that for example Lance Armstrong parents split up not long after he was born and he grew up with as step-father he didn’t like, Bradley Wiggins’s parents similarly split up when he was young, as did Mark Cavendish’s, and Chris Froome’s parents also separated when he was young. If all this described family history for these cycling champions, footballers and rowers is indeed true, it would be supportive of Collin’s and Macnamara’s suggestion, and that perhaps some of these athletes drive to succeed (and in Armstrong’s case to the level where he was willing to take drugs to do so) is related to some inner drive created by their challenging conditions in their youth (though of course it can be said that growing up in a divorced family environment may often be more easier than doing so in a marriage where there is continuous conflict between parents, or stifling living conditions), or is a compensation for it.

As I said earlier, us scientist folk are still not completely sure what makes an elite athlete, or why some folk push themselves to extreme levels of physical activity. My friend Phil Lloyd was interesting to me as he had such potential in all aspects of his life (and was such a great person and friend), yet he seemed to have some inner ‘edge’ that made him always restless and always want to go ‘higher’ or ‘do more’ and never seemed completely satisfied with what he had achieved – like a lot of us when we were young, there was always a more dangerous river to paddle down than the one we had just got out of, or a higher mountain that needed to be climbed. While I surely had my own demons in my youth, I remember asking Phil why he climbed these very and increasingly dangerous routes he was doing before he died. He gave several reasons, but one which always stuck with me was that when he was solo climbing ‘up there’ miles away from help and people, it felt a bit like when he was young and at boarding school as a child, and it helped him work through these memories. I did not understand his answer then, and thought he was perhaps joking with this answer, but after a career in science and reading basic psychology texts for many years, his answer eventually made sense to me (and perhaps was the ‘seed’ that led me to write this particular article). There are incredible rewards for those who achieve great success in sport. Those who do well / attain the pinnacle of success in any sport deserve our utmost admiration for what they put themselves through during races and on a daily basis when training. But perhaps there is an element that all this effort, which takes them (and me in my youth) far out of their own ‘constancy’ / homeostatic zones, is in effect in part potentially a compensation for trauma of times past which creates an ‘inner mongrel’ which refuses to give up until the ‘prize’ is won that will ‘make up’ for that past loss or trauma. In a way by doing so, perhaps (and hopefully) all these folk by winning enough will gradually attenuate the ‘unrequited child’ which may still reside in them, and reach psychological ‘peace’, and wake up one morning and choose to go and have a cup of coffee in a warm shop rather than ride a bike or kick a football for six hours in the pouring rain, and be happy and be able to feel relaxed when doing so. There is a huge energy cost and price involved over many years if indeed winning anything is related to an inner mongrel that won’t ‘keep quiet’ – and in the case of my great friend Phil, his drive to succeed in his chosen sport perhaps in part led to his death, and we never got the chance to see him reach his full potential, which he possessed in such abundance in all aspects of his work, social and sporting life, and each day I work at home I see the picture of us paddling together and feel a sadness for this lack. Equally though, if there was no inner mongrel and / or unrequited child, would there ever be winners, and would the high mountains of the world ever have been climbed? I’ll ponder that question more later today when I head off with the family to the coffee shop for our weekly Sunday coffee and newspaper routine!


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

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

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

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

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

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


%d bloggers like this: