A short extract from my last book Volitional Attention Training, hope you enjoy.
Sensory acuity Acuity occurs when individuals train certain senses and behaviour to a degree of expertise, defining what makes an expert in a certain activity is difficult as the parameters for measuring expertise are vague. Time and experience, might be one measure, however I have already discussed the possible errors that can occur in teaching and training behaviours that could be seen as maladaptive to your field of expertise. In general, sensory acuity requires training in a particular field and can involve all five basic senses within the human body. A chef hones his ability to define taste and can distinguish the difference between many different ingredients; a perfumer has the nose to sniff nuanced fragrances and a superlative sense of smell, providing the individual with the ability to identify scents with precision. A musician has the ear to create orchestral masterpieces; a blind person the ability to decipher a closely arranged multitude of dots on the surface of paper and interpret them into words, and an artist has the ability to see colours and composition, to create a visual masterpiece. Today, modern scientific understanding of the human body and the 5 basic senses has expanded the number of senses within the body, there is now no longer just the big 5 and depending upon what you read, the new number of senses range from the standard list of 5 senses to 14 and 20 different senses. A short definition needs to be understood in order to provide us with an understanding of why this number has now been significantly increased. To be able to sense something both within our bodies and in our environment requires a sensor of some description and depending upon its function, will mean it has either one specific job to do or it gathers a multitude of incoming stimuli. For example, your eyes detect light through two different types of sensors, ‘rods’ work in low-light and detect light intensity ‘cones’ require intense light and detect colours, there are three types of cones, one for each of the prime colours. So although sight falls under one category, there are two senses that make up the one and one of those is subdivided into three. Our skin is the barrier between ourselves and the world around us and as such is one of the main sensors to incoming stimuli and has five different types of nerve endings that are independently sensitive to heat, pain, itch, cold and pressure, they are responsible for providing us with a sense of temperature, pain, touch and itch. Our sense of smell can bring on a flood of memories that effect our emotions and moods also known as our olfactory system and is part of the brain’s limbic system, an area associated with memory and feeling. Smells can evoke strong and vivid memories that are capable of activating the body’s reflex system to protect itself, it’s just like the wild cat with its nose in the air detecting its prey and any potential danger from smelly humans. Within your muscles and joints, there are sensors that provide you with awareness information as to where your body parts are within space and time. These sensors also allow control of movement and tension that enables complex locomotion and co-ordination skills, this internal sensor system is discussed in greater detail within the chapter on Neuromuscular Programming. Having the ability to be mindful of your internal and external states will provide a degree of self-regulation over your body, training particular sensory acuities will also allow for a heightened awareness in certain situations. As a professional, either in the field of security, police or the military, training a heightened sensory acuity that enables faster responses to potentially life threatening situations should be on the list of required skills to perform your job effectively. This method of training will help enhance your ability when exposed to real time encounters. Volitional Mindful Attention is a skill that should be trained alongside any practical skill set, the difference is that you need to pay attention to sensory acuity to help you survive and respond to violent and aggressive encounters and not, as with most meditation practices, relax you to a state of stillness within the mind and your body, although this is not a bad thing, as long as it’s done within the correct context, going into a relaxed state may not be ideal when having to deal with an armed aggressor.
Training our attention
There are specific regions of the brain that research has shown to be active during meditation. “Buddhist monks who do compassion meditation have been shown to modulate their Amygdala, along with their Temporoparietal junction and Insula, during their practice. In an FMRI study, more intensive Insula activity was found in expert meditators than in novices. Increased activity in the Amygdala following compassion-orientated meditation may contribute to social connectedness” Wikipedia (2013) Amygdale. Here we find evidence that science has been able to bridge the gap between mystic meditation by monks and the actual effects that this type of self-regulation has on the brain, let’s look at some of the practical methods of meditation. Methods of Practice, Pranayama. Certain types of meditation and yoga practices use Pranayama breathing; they advocate the practice of volitional breath control. This type of breathing requires a practitioner to inhale, retain and exhale quickly or slowly. Yoga experts consider this type of breathing to be an “intermediary between the mind and body”. Previously I identified the word ‘prana’ and referred to it as the ‘life force’ or energy that all humans and indeed many would argue, all living organisms have. Breath is responsible for the intake of oxygen, which then via the blood stream disseminates this energy containing substance to all parts of the body, depending on the consumption requirement. The brain requires approximately 20% of the total energy of the human body which compared to its size is a very large amount. There is a direct connection between the ‘prana’ or energy of breathing and its effects on energy in the body. Cellular metabolism (reactions in the cell to produce energy) for example, is regulated by oxygen provided during breathing”. Yoga practices a slow control over the breathing process in order to generate a greater feeling of energy and relaxation throughout the body, to control the body states, to focus and clear the mind and to become aware of the internal working of the mind and body. “Pranayamic breathing, defined as a manipulation of breath movement, has been shown to contribute to a physiologic response characterized by the presence of decreased oxygen consumption, decreased heart rate, and decreased blood pressure, as well as increased theta wave amplitude in EEG recordings, and increased parasympathetic activity accompanied by the experience of alertness and reinvigoration” Jerath (2006). Jerath also states that pranayama breathing has been shown to positively affect immune function, hypertension, asthma, autonomic nervous system imbalances, and psychological or stress-related disorders. Investigations regarding stress and psychological improvements support evidence that pranayama breathing alters the brain’s information processing, making it an intervention that improves a person’s psychological profile. This evidence points to a clear process that can be trained, enabling individuals who are exposed to difficult fear producing situations, to control both psychological and body states that could severely impact on performance.
This method of breathing is not unlike any other, its name however “tactical breathing” is synonymous with combat and high stress situations, Asken (2010) talks about tactical breathing as being useful in managing the arousal or stress of a mission, he cites Siddle (1995) ‘ we would argue that breath control should be a mandatory component of survival stress management”, powerful support for the activity of mindful meditation. There is no real big secret here, it’s just paying attention to breath, meditating, being aware of your own body and mental state. One method of tactical breathing is described by Grossman in his book On Combat (2004), this he describes as the ‘four count’. Begin by breathing in through your nose to a slow count of 4, which expands your belly like a balloon. Hold for a count of 4, and then slowly exhale through your lips to a count of 4, as your belly collapses like a balloon with its air released. Hold empty for a count of 4 and then repeat the process. Remember that part of this whole process is to create a more focused mindful state, to control any stress or fear that may well be beginning to take hold of your thought process. This is not about taking five minutes to calm yourself and relax, it’s about creating an anchor mechanism attached to a thought process that allows you to manage the high emotional situation you find yourself in and do not think for a moment that this can be done ‘just like that’! It’s going to take some time and effort on your part to train this type of mindful breathing. It’s important that we remember that what we are doing here is taking control of our autonomic nervous system and using this control to self regulate our mind and body states, for the majority of the time our bodies are on auto pilot, the reason for bringing meditation into this subject is due to the fact that you cannot be at your best unless you have control over your self, breathing is your bridge between the somatic and autonomic nervous system, Grossman (2004) puts it well “ Tactical breathing is a leash on the puppy. The more you practice the breathing technique, the quicker the effects kick in, as a result of powerful operant and classical conditioning mechanisms” One thing is for sure no longer is meditation relegated to the realms of the Buddhist monks.
Asken, M, J. PhD & Grossman, D Lt. Warrior’s mindset (2010) Warrior science publications.
Wikipedia (2013). Amygdala. Accessed on 09/07/2013 @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amygdala
Grossman, D. Lt. (2004). On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of deadly conflict in war and in peace. Millstadt, Il: PPCT research publications.
Jerath, R. (2006). Paranyama breathing. Published online at PubMed.gov. Accessed on 01/10/2013 @ http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16624497