Againstness

Epistemic status: Mixed

The concepts underlying the Againstness model (such as the division of the autonomic nervous system into the sympathetic and parasympathetic subsystems, or the bidirectional relationship between physiology and stress response) are all well-established and well-understood. The relationship between SNS activation and the experience of stress is somewhat less well-established, but still has significant research behind it. The evidence supporting physiological interventions for stress reduction is slightly less firm. The formal combination of all of the above into a practical technique for changing one’s psychological state and reasoning ability is therefore tenable, but vulnerable to disconfirmation.



We often pay insufficient attention to the fact that our minds live inside of our bodies, and cannot help but be powerfully influenced by this fact. The fields of economics, decision theory, and heuristics & biases have plenty to say about human irrationality, and disciplines like embodied cognition and evolutionary anthropology are uncovering more and more about how our physiology affects our thinking, but there’s currently not much bridging the gap, and where such connections do exist, they often offer little in the way of concrete guidance or next actions.

The Againstness technique is the tip of what we hope will prove to be a very large iceberg, with lots of useful content for developing physical rationality and overcoming metacognitive blindspots. It’s less an algorithm, and more a set of reminders about how to deal with the reality of being a program that wrote itself, running on a computer made of meat.


Mental shutdown

Sometimes, under certain kinds of stress, key parts of our mental apparatus shut down. Depending on the circumstances, we might have trouble thinking clearly about consequences, making good choices, or noticing and admitting when we’re wrong.

This isn’t always the case, of course. Sometimes, stress is energizing and clarifying. Sometimes the pressing need to act helps bring the important things into focus, and empowers us to take difficult-but-necessary actions.

The trouble is, most of us don’t know how to choose which of these effects a given stressor will have on us, and—from the inside—many of us struggle to tell them apart. Have you ever found yourself incensed in the middle of an argument because the other party had the audacity to make a good point? Or noticed—after the fact—that when you said the words “I’m not angry!” you were actually shouting?

This is againstness—many of us find that we tend to make certain sorts of decisions when we’re upset or high-strung, and that those decisions often seem obviously flawed once we’ve calmed down and de-escalated (despite the fact that they seemed crystal clear and correct, at the time).


While there may be a few level-headed people out there who’ve never made a mistake of this type, there are many, many more who think they haven’t, and are simply wrong. When stress impairs our cognition, part of what shuts down seems to be our ability to notice how much functionality we’ve lost. It’s like someone who’s had four beers thinking they’re good to drive—if we want to navigate stress sensibly, we can’t rely solely on our own introspection, which is one of the first casualties. We need something more objective, the metaphorical equivalent of a sobriety test or a blood alcohol absorption curve.


The autonomic nervous system

To find that objective measure, we first need to understand the mechanism by which stress causes impairment, so we can evaluate whether a given tool is vulnerable to the same corruption we’re hoping to circumvent.

The part of our nervous system that governs stress and recovery is called the autonomic nervous system (ANS). It has two subsystems, which are roughly equivalent to the accelerator and the brakes. The accelerator is the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), and the brakes are the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). These are literally two parallel physical networks of nerves running throughout your body, and they affect many of your metabolic systems (such as heart rate, blood pressure, perspiration, and digestion), as well as influencing smaller phenomena like pupil dilation.

As with the accelerator and brakes of a car, you can activate either system more or less independently—they aren’t two ends of a spectrum so much as two separate spectra with opposite signs. What matters for our discussion in this section is the relative arousal of the two systems—which system is more active than the other, and by how much. If someone is “on the SNS side,” that doesn’t necessarily mean their PSNS is inhibited or off, just that it’s less dominant at that moment.


SNS-dominated experiences tend to feel intense, energized, or “charged.” The SNS governs the “fight, flight, or freeze” response, so things flavored with anger (irritation, annoyance, frustration, rage) or fear (nervousness, anxiety, petrification, terror) usually come with heightened SNS activity. The SNS also governs more positive things like exhilaration, excitement, and jubilation—for instance, many of the emotions that come with energetic physical movement.

PSNS-dominated experiences, on the other hand, are more relaxed or “chill.” There is often a soothing, relieving, or lazy quality to them. Imagine times when you were dead-tired an hour or so after a hard workout, or the sort of pleasant relaxedness of sunbathing or a hot tub, and you’re on the right track. Social situations where you feel quietly open and free to share vulnerability seem to have the PSNS-dominant quality as well.


Of the two systems, the SNS is the one that’s relevant for short-term survival in stressful situations. It recruits and consumes resources, where the PSNS husbands and conserves them; it energizes, where the PSNS relaxes; it reacts, while the PSNS reflects. Both systems tend to turn on “across the board” rather than piecemeal—it’s rare, for instance, to see the SNS-dominant signs of tense muscles, flushed facial skin, and taut, choppy speech alongside the PSNS-dominant signs of open body posture, deep breathing, and low heart rate. Because of this, we often see interesting anachronisms and idiosyncrasies, such as the gritted teeth and hunched shoulders of someone attempting to open a stuck jar or the sudden freeze mid-step when you remember that you forgot to lock the front door. Jars usually aren’t vulnerable to biting or threatening to our vital organs, and unlocked doors typically don’t have visual centers that are keyed to movement, but our SNS, fine-tuned as it was in the dangerous ancestral environment, doesn’t know this.

That’s not to say that it’s stupid or wrong or ill-adapted, just that it’s potentially miscalibrated for modern life, such as when it causes us to misinterpret a spat with a coworker as a potential existential threat. That zinger of an insult that gets us in trouble with HR—why would we say it, when it’s clearly a bad idea, and something we’d never endorse saying on reflection?

One theory is that our reflection is suppressed, and that our SNS-charged brain treats the insult in much the same way it would treat a heavy rock, close to hand—as social creatures, we evolved to view threats to our status and reputation as potentially lethal, and thus some part of us prioritizes winning the immediate exchange over things like acting in accordance with workplace policy. It’s plausible that this is the same process that lets us the phrase “I’m NOT ANGRY!” past our usual filters—the autonomic nervous system doesn’t care about epistemic integrity, it cares about survival.


Remembering your feet

The benefit of understanding the effects of SNS dominance is that the relationship between physiological and psychological states provides us with both an objective measure for evaluating our current condition and a powerful tool for changing it. It’s no coincidence that our parents and teachers told us to take deep breaths and count to ten to stave off inappropriate outbursts; those techniques gain their power from the same source that allows Buddhist monks to maintain perfect equanimity. The arrow points in both directions— agitation in the mind creates agitation in the body, and taking steps to calm the body can produce a corresponding effect on one’s thoughts and emotions.

The two main skills that the Againstness technique seeks to impart are:

  1. An increased awareness of where you are on the autonomic spectrum at any given moment

  2. An increased ability to move yourself toward greater SNS or greater PSNS dominance at will

To notice where you are with respect to SNS or PSNS dominance, check your body. Notice your posture, your breathing, your muscular tension, and the sensations in your torso. Are you curled? Tense? Energized? Is your chest tight, or your stomach fluttering? Is your face hot and your voice taut? Or are you calm? Relaxed? Open and loose?

Remember that each person has their own baseline, and every body expresses autonomic nervous system shifts differently—you’ll want to calibrate by setting up TAPs to remind you to observe yourself under various levels of stress. It may help to watch others, too—noticing how their physiology changes in various situations.

To shift your position on the autonomic spectrum, one possible method is to mimic the look and feel of where you want to be. In practice, most people tend to find it easy to slip into an SNS-dominant state, and hard to shift away from that state once in it (easy to lose one’s temper, and hard to calm down). Since the SNS-dominant state also seems to be more problematic for holding on to rationality, most of the skill to be gained here is in shifting toward PSNS-dominance while under stress. There are many ways to do this, but a good starting point looks something like the following:

  • Notice that you are in a state of SNS arousal. This can be accomplished through a TAP, where the trigger might be something like a feeling of heat in your neck or face, a sudden feeling that others are against you, or a friend or colleague saying “calm down.”

  • Open your body posture. Uncross your arms and legs, if you are sitting, and create as much space between the bottom of your ribcage and the top of your pelvis as you can. Lift your chin, and elongate your neck. If your arms are crossed or your shoulders are forward, draw them back and to the sides, and spread your fingers.

  • Take a low, slow, deep breath. Breathe deeply, so that your belly expands outwards and your shoulders drop, and relax as you exhale, letting the exhale go a little bit longer than the inhale.

  • Remember your feet. Get into the experience of your feet—where do you sense pressure? Temperature? What can you feel with your skin? Can you sense the bones, and feel the tug and stretch of tendons as you wiggle and spread your toes? Once you are fully aware of your feet, let that awareness expand to include the rest of your body, bringing each new sensation in to a broad perspective rather than switching to focus on specific body parts.

  • Take another low, slow, deep breath, and enjoy.


Final thought: Metacognitive blind spots

Over time, the Againstness course has shifted away from a pure focus on the mind-body connection, and become something of an introduction to the concept of metacognitive blindspots—flaws in our thinking that can’t be discovered through mere introspection, because part of the flaw is in our introspection. Without belaboring the point too much, we’d like to make two observations about metacognitive blindspots in general (of which the againstness mistake is just one specific example).

First, to someone in the middle of a metacognitive blindspot, having that blindspot pointed out doesn’t sound like good, sane advice—it sounds like everyone else is wrong, stupid, malicious, or crazy. Trivial examples here are drunks who think they’re good to drive, schizophrenics in the middle of a psychotic break, and people in abusive relationships who can’t see past their loyalty to their partner, but there are other, more subtle expressions of this phenomenon that are no less powerful.

Advice: when everyone around you starts sounding wrong, stupid, malicious, or crazy, take seriously the possibility that it’s you who aren’t seeing things clearly.

Second, whether or not you’re willing to put your faith in the people around you, you can often best overcome a blindspot by seeking outside, objective confirmation of the state of the world. Just as you could tell whether or not you were good to drive with a sobriety test, and can now tell whether or not you’re in an SNS-dominant state by checking your physiology, so too can you overcome other metacognitive blindspots by looking for external evidence of bias or flawed thinking.

Advice: imagine how you would determine whether someone else was “flying blind” in a given domain (without being able to evaluate their internal, subjective state), and then assess yourself using the same criteria.


Againstness—Further Resources

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) are two components of the autonomic nervous system, which regulates the body’s organs and tissues. The SNS is responsible for rapidly mobilizing resources, as seen in the stress response, which involves increas- ing the heart rate, narrowing attention, and inhibiting non-essential bodily activities like digestion. Sudden SNS activation in the presence of an envi- ronmental threat produces the “fight-flight-or-freeze” response, and the SNS can also remain active for longer durations in cases of prolonged stress. PSNS activation (“rest and digest”) serves to counteract the SNS.

http://​​en.wikipedia.org/​​wiki/​​Autonomic_nervous_system

http://​​en.wikipedia.org/​​wiki/​​Fight-or-flight_response


Research into the psychology of emotions has found that positive emotions tend to counteract the physiological stress response (e.g. lowering the heart rate in people who are about to give a speech), which has been termed the “undoing effect.” Physiological research has tracked the specific chemi- cal pathways by which the parasympathetic nervous system counteracts the stress response, including the role of oxytocin (a naturally occurring hormone closely associated with comfort, empathy, and other positive emotions).

A set of studies demonstrating faster cardiovascular recovery from stressful situations for people experiencing positive emotions:
Fredrickson, B. L., Mancuso, R. A., Branigan, C., & Tugade, M. M. (2000) The Undoing Effect of Positive Emotions. Motivation and Emotion, 24, 237- 258. http://​​goo.gl/​​AP920


A review of the function of oxytocin in humans and other species, including its social and emotional functions and its role in stress response:
Heinrichs M., von Dawans B., & Domes G. (2009) Oxytocin, Vasopressin, and Human Social Behavior. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 30, 548-557.


Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is an approach to stress reduction that borrows tools of mindfulness practice from Buddhism (but without the spirituality). Many clinical studies point toward the effectiveness of MBSR for helping decrease anxiety and depression.

A meta-analysis of 20 studies of MBSR:
Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004) Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction and Health Benefits: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 57, 35-43. http://​​goo.gl/​​5D6oM9


Based on his experiences as an FBI agent, Joe Navarro describes how a person’s body posture and movement reflect their autonomic activity. While anecdotal, his book provides a useful starting point for learning to read body language in other people and yourself.

Navarro, J. (2008) What Every Body Is Saying. New Hork: Harper-Collins. http:/​goo.gl/​o6xNu


The facial feedback hypothesis states that facial movement can influence emotional experience; for example, an individual who is forced to smile during a social event will actually come to find the event more of an enjoyable experience. While it is risky to generalize from the face to the body, the effects found do indicate a causal pathway by which physical actions may cause reflections in psychological states.

A study in which participants held a pen in their lips in various positions that mimicked smiling or frowning:
Strack, F., Martin, L., Stepper, S. (May 1988). Inhibiting and Facilitating Conditions of the Human Smile: A Nonobtrusive Test of the Facial Feedback Hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 768?777. http://​​goo.gl/​​hscfH1


A study in which participants made vowel sounds that caused facial expressions similar to smiling or frowning:
Zajonc, R., Murphy, S., Inglehart, M. (1989). Feeling and Facial Efference: Implications of the Vascular Theory of Emotion. Psychological Review, 96, 396. https://​​goo.gl/​​imI72L