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Posts Tagged ‘self-consciousness’

Have you had one of those moments – at work, in relationships, in sport – when you are full of confidence, at the top of your game, and suddenly everything goes pear-shaped. You felt perfectly natural and at ease, and suddenly you are afflicted with a paralysing self-consciousness, an inability to do simple things well, an outer clumsiness combined with an inner terror at the prospect of failure. It’s England at the penalty shoot-out; it’s every second romantic comedy when the guy fumbles his words on the first date.

Ashley Cole agony after missing penalty for England

This is the psychological experience of ‘choking’, and it’s in the news a lot simply because we are all going sport crazy at the moment.

Simon Haterstone gives some examples:

Britain is no stranger to the choke. Reading the newspapers, or overhearing pub conversations, you might well imagine it’s a national pastime. The England football team? Ach, we’ll crack up when it comes to penalties. Murray at Wimbledon? Wait till it comes to the crunch. The Olympics? More tears from Paula Radcliffe. Of course, this is an unfair generalisation. All those cited have performed at the highest level, and Britain has produced any number of champions. Yet it’s undoubtedly true that in a summer in which so many will be playing for the highest stakes, many of the great sporting hopes, from whatever country, will buckle under the pressure.

Not surprisingly, sportspeople don’t like the word choking. Some prefer to say they lost their rhythm, others that they played too aggressively or were outplayed. And there may be some truth in their analysis. But certain catastrophic chokes are indisputable. There’s Jimmy White, who lost six snooker world championship finals and failed to pot a simple black to secure victory against Stephen Hendry in 1994; Jana Novotna, 4-1 up in the final set against Steffi Graf, double-faulting her way to defeat and weeping on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent in 1993; French golfer Jean Van de Velde who could have made a double bogey in the British Open at the 18th in 1999 and still won – but failed. The picture of Van de Velde paddling knee-deep in Barry Burn, trying to hit his ball out of the water, is one of sport’s most comic and desperate images.

Matthew Syed reflects on his table tennis meltdown at the Sydney Olympics:

It’s like you’ve reverted to being a beginner again. You don’t think about how you’re moving your right knee and right elbow or wrist when you hit a forehand slice when you’re a professional table tennis player. And suddenly I’m thinking about it, and as you try harder and harder you get worse and worse. You can see it when someone is choking; they become very stilted, the integration of all the moving parts of the body becomes decoupled and it just looks pretty hideous. Before he knew it, he had been annihilated. It wasn’t a loss of form, it was major psychological meltdown.

And then he draws some wider conclusions:

Syed believes choking affects most of us at one time or another – whether it’s at a job interview, on a date, in an exam, or simply when we’re on public display. “When you walk normally, you never think about how you’re moving your body. But when you walk in front of lots of people, say to pick up your graduation certificate, you are paranoid about falling over and suddenly you’re thinking about how you move your feet and it feels incredibly awkward. You feel like a caricature of somebody walking. That’s kind of what happened to me at the Olympic Games.”

What is really happening? Steve Peters, sports psychologist, explains:

Peters says if we have to use the word choke, let’s at least accept that it’s an umbrella term for a number of things – athletes might go into freeze mode (runners sometimes stop at 250 metres in a 400m race because that’s when it gets painful); flight mode where they sabotage their chances (in 2006, O’Sullivan walked out of a match with Stephen Hendry when he was 4-1 down but there was plenty to play for); they might over-think or under-think; they might become self-conscious because they are playing badly or playing well, or because they suddenly become aware of the crowd or the significance of the moment. He mentions Novotna’s collapse at Wimbledon. “It was unbelievable. Unbelievable. You did really think this poor woman, she’s moved from aspects of the brain that automatically flow, to a part of the brain that is actively thinking and trying to work things out – how to put a good service in. Well, you’re back to somebody who almost doesn’t know how to serve.”

Peters is a high-level sportsman himself. He didn’t start sprinting seriously till he was 40, then won world titles at masters levels, and astonishingly was called into the Olympics training squad at 44 as an “up and coming” athlete, having finished the 200m in 21.9 seconds. His experience makes it easier for him to understand what goes on inside the heads of champion athletes and his job is to find the reason why they behave in the way they do, treating the cause, not only the symptom.

He has broken down the sporting brain into a simplistic model of “chimp” and “human”. When it is working well, it’s a computer. When problems start, either the chimp (emotion) or the human (reason) take over. “When I go to compete, my chimp starts kicking off. It’s all about me managing what my chimp throws at me, like, ‘I can’t lose this, I mustn’t look stupid, I’m not fit enough’, it’s the classic stuff I’ll get when I work with elite athletes. So I can relate to that and the intensity of the feelings. If the human wakes up you become too rational, analytical, lose spontaneity and you can choke.”

I don’t like this language/labelling: as if we are more like computers when things are going well; as if we have to disconnect out humanity if we want to succeed at the highest level. But the idea of not being overcome by emotion or analysis seems valid. See how much you can apply to everyday struggles, even if you are not sprinting at the Olympics this summer.

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I finally saw The Artist at the weekend. It’s great fun – I came out smiling. But I wouldn’t say it’s a great film. The two central characters are just not interesting enough to carry the film. I’m not sure if this is intentional. Maybe they are symbols of all the silent-movie characters who had to emote and over-act and gesticulate, but couldn’t reveal any emotional depth. I think it’s probably just a weakness in the screenplay: the lead male, especially, was basically a spoilt teenager; and the resolution [minor plot spoiler coming up…] was just him getting his toys back. I’m not complaining, just reflecting!

But the psychological experience of watching a silent film for the first time in years was interesting. I was more detached as an observer. I was more aware of my own experience of watching the film, as if there was a kind of veil between me and the situation on the screen in front of me. I was less caught up in the imaginary reality of the story, but enjoying it just as much.

It made me realise that in a normal cinema experience, it’s as if I am inside the world being portrayed in the film – lost in it. But in this silent experience, it was as if the film was in my head, and I was conscious of myself watching it, and of the film becoming a part of me – but not taking over. Put it another way, I didn’t lose my self-consciousness; or my ‘consciousness-of-self’ as the French put it (because they don’t have the reflexive use of ‘self’). Interesting.

What did you think of the film?

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What if there were another you? I don’t mean just an identical twin or a clone with the exact same genes. I mean someone who was like you in every way, the same body and mind and heart, the same past and experiences and memories, the same thoughts and feelings, the same decisions taken and the same mistakes made, standing in front of you now – but not you.

This is the idea at the heart of the film Another Earth, which jumps straight into my Top Ten films of the year. [Major plot spoilers follow – sorry!]

Another planet appears – just a dot in the night sky. As it comes closer it becomes apparent that this planet is the same size as ours, that it even has the same structure of continents and oceans as ours. Then, in a magical sci-fi moment, as the woman responsible for ‘first contact’ with the new planet speaks on a microphone, she realises that the woman talking to her on the other end is herself. [It’s on the trailer here – I’ve ruined it for you!]

So the synchronicity between the two planets and between each corresponding person is absolute, apart from the fact that it inevitably gets broken by the appearance of the other planet – so the woman is not hearing the same words ‘she’ is speaking on the other planet, but actually having a non-symmetrical conversation with her other-self.

First of all, you are simply in sci-fi territory. I love these films. And in fact this film is really a re-make of another film from the ’70s (I can’t remember its name – brownie points for anyone who can help) where the US sent a spaceship to another planet on the other side of the sun, only to discover that the planet was the same as the earth – apart from everything being a mirror image of this earth. So our astronaut lands on the other planet, and another astronaut from that planet lands on our earth, with everyone thinking that our astronaut has come back early – until he sees that all the writing here is in reverse. Anyway – this is classic sci-fi.

But very quickly it becomes philosophical. Looking at this other earth in the sky above, marvelling that we can behold such a world, you realise that this is exactly what we do whenever we reflect on our experience, or use our imaginations, or question what is going on in our own minds. The remarkable thing about human beings is that we can ‘step back’ from our own experience (inner and outer) and view it; that we can ‘see ourselves’. The strangeness of the film brings to light the strangeness of ordinary human life.

We take this ability to reflect for granted, but it really is the key factor that seems to distinguish us from other animals. No-one today would deny that animals can be incredibly sophisticated and intelligent; and on many measures of intelligence they would beat us. But this power of self-reflection seems to be one of our defining characteristics; and it surely connects, in ways that aren’t always clear, with human freedom – the freedom we have to think and imagine and act in ways that go far beyond the instinctual programming we receive as bodily creatures.

So the wonder that Rhoda Williams feels staring up at this other planet is no more than the wonder we should feel whenever we step back and reflect on ourselves.

Then there is a theological angle too. To cut a long story short: Rhoda unintentionally kills the family of musical conductor John Burroughs in a driving accident, soon after the planet is discovered. He is haunted by the loss of his family, and then receives a ticket to travel to the other planet – a ticket that Rhoda has for herself, but she decides to give it to him. Why would he go? Because if the synchronicity between the two worlds was broken when they started to impact on each other, then perhaps the accident did not happen on the other planet, and ‘his’ family is still alive up there.

I call this a theological idea, because it’s about the possibility of redemption, of putting right something that has gone irredeemably wrong in the past. That in some sense this action might not have happened, or it might be possible to go back and undo the harm that has been done. This is crazy of course – in normal thinking. But if it’s crazy, why do we spend so much time imagining/hoping that somehow we could put right what has gone wrong? I don’t think our almost compulsive inability to stop regretting the mistakes we have made is simply a dysfunctional habit that we can’t let go of; it’s a yearning for forgiveness and redemption, for someone to go back in time and allow us to change things, an echo of a possibility of renewal that we can’t justify at a rational or philosophical level – because the past is completely out of reach. It’s about hope.

Or the film is about conscience – the possibility of imagining an action now, as if it were happening, and asking if we really want this parallel imaginative world to unfold into reality, or if we would regret it. So the work of conscience, and of all conscious deliberation, brings us up against another parallel world that is exactly the same as ours – only we have the power to decide whether it shall come into existence or not.

At the very end of the film, in her backyard, Rhoda meets ‘herself’ – we presume she has come from the other planet, with her own ticket, which she didn’t need to give away, because the accident there didn’t happen. All we see is her catching the gaze of the other woman before her, and recognising her to be herself – but not. Then the film ends immediately. It’s incredibly moving. As if a lifelong search, unacknowledged, is finally over; as if, miraculously, I step away and see myself for who I am, and see myself seeing myself. And that, miraculously, is in fact what happens every time we know ourselves through self-reflection, through self-consciousness. Human beings are not just conscious. We are self-conscious. That’s the idea that the film opens up so well.

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Very rarely does an advert on a billboard make me stop and think. This one did.

In case you can’t see the image well, the poster reads:

You are not stuck in traffic.

You are traffic.

Well, I was driving along the A41 at 50 mph, so I didn’t stop. But the mental processes were interrupted for a moment, and I found myself thinking about all the times that I distance myself from the people or events around me, treating them as ‘other’, when they are really me, and I am them.

Traffic jam in Bangkok

 

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I heard this on the radio a few days ago. It’s not a trick. It’s one of those quick tests/experiments you can do to help you understand yourself better. You have to do the test quickly and spontaneously, without analysing it. I’ll tell you what to do now, and then put some pictures in between to stop you reading the explanation before you have finished.

Using the first finger of your dominant hand, trace out the capital letter ‘Q’ on your forehead.

That’s it. Remember what you did, and read on. [Here are some random photos to stop you scrolling down too quickly]:

 

 

This is from Richard Wiseman’s Quirkology website, “The curious science of everyday lives”. And here is his analysis:

This fun test provides some insight into whether you are ‘self’ or ‘other’ centered. These two types of people have a very different way of seeing the world, and one type is no better or worse than the other.

There are two ways of completing this exercise. Some people draw the tail of the ‘Q’ on the right hand side of their forehead whilst others draw it on the left.

Self-centered people tend to draw the letter Q in a way in which it can be read by themselves [as if seeing the letter on your forehead from inside your head, looking out]. They tend to come across as being the ‘same person’ in different situations, and their behaviour is guided more by their own values than the needs of others. They pride themselves on being straight with people, and expect others to be honest with them. Because of this, they are not especially good at lying, but are better at detecting lies in others.

People who are other-centered tend to draw the letter Q in a way in which it can be seen by someone facing them. They tend to be concerned with how other people see them. They are happy being the center of attention, can easily adapt their behaviour to suit the situation in which they find themselves, and are skilled at influencing the way in which others see them. Because of this they are often good at lying, but not so good at detecting lies.

The other way of explaining this is in the language of ‘self-monitoring’ or ‘self-consciousness’, which I prefer, because ‘self-centered’ and ‘other-centered’ sound like value judgments in ordinary speech. So those who draw the Q for others have a higher level of self-monitoring or self-consciousness; while those who draw the Q as they see it looking out have a lower level of self-monitoring or self-consciousness.

Does this give some profound, scientifically-based psychological insights? I don’t know! But the simple fact that people respond in different ways is intriguing enough for me. Perhaps it’s no different from the ‘do you notice what shoes other people are wearing?’ self-analysis; and the corresponding ‘do you care what shoes you are wearing in the presence of others?’

I am a ‘Q-to-myself, self-centered, low self-monitoring’ person.

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