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Transforming the Mind ~ by Peter Shepherd


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High Arousal


As we move through our daily lives, the balance between arousal-seeking and arousal-avoidance will be a reflection of the balance between situations we encounter in which we have learned to feel safe and capable, and situations in which we have learned to feel that we are at risk of danger or not able to cope. We form a protective frame of reference, a sense of how 'close to the edge' we can afford to go, in different situations. Crucial experiences may affect this, e.g. learning that someone loves you, having a piece of amazing luck, overcoming some personal handicap, may have reassuring effects. Suffering from a painful illness, being let down by someone you trusted, losing money in a business venture, a traumatic loss and other unfortunate experiences make it more difficult to sustain confidence, when otherwise you would have been able to do so.

There are a variety of means for introducing a protective frame into experience. Our culture sets up many kinds of places for us to feel safe in - areas demarcated for play in its broadest sense: parks, leisure centers, concert halls, art galleries, and so on. For most of us, our home can also constitute a safety-zone. Being with people who are reassuring (especially friends) can have the same effect: friends can create safety 'auras' for us to bask in.

Thus if you are strongly arousal-seeking (paratelic) dominant, then you will be more likely to enjoy sports, games, fiction, parties, and the like., but you may have difficulty taking seriously some of the things that have to be dealt with if you are to succeed in long-term projects, such as your career. On the other hand, if you are strongly arousal-avoidance (telic) dominant, you are more likely to be intensely aware of all the serious consequences of your actions, and not be distracted by passing diversions or misled by spurious feelings of safety. But you may miss out on activities that are inherently enjoyable but have no further significance, and in this respect you would not live life to the full.

A full and meaningful life requires being able to experience both of these states readily and appropriately: to face up to things that are genuinely important and to have fun when it is time for that.

What are the general properties of stimuli (things we perceive) that cause them to arouse or soothe us? Firstly, there is their basic sensory qualities - the colors, shapes, smells, sounds, tastes and noises that make up the fabric of our conscious experience. Everyone seems to be able to develop a sensitive relationship to at least certain kinds of experience that are special to them - the gourmet to food, the gardener to plants (and even manure), the sun-lover to both the intense heat of the sun and no doubt also the smells of sand, sweat and suntan oil, and so on. But if we are fortunate we can derive much sensory excitement from any aspect of the world as it impinges on us during the course of our everyday lives.

Secondly, stimuli may act as signs of impending pleasure or pain, or remind us in some way of joy or misery - the tuning up of the orchestra, the sound of the dentist's drill from the waiting room, the telephone ringing. These may play some part in determining whether we are in arousal-seeking or avoiding mood - whether we like this new arousal or not.

Thirdly, there is the factor of interest in the situations that confront us: something puzzling, ambiguous, unusual, unexpected or novel, unpredictable or uncertain. A 'synergy' is particularly effective in raising arousal - this occurs when one experiences something in opposite ways, either simultaneously or in quick succession, which surprises and confounds logic. A woman dressed as a man, a puppet appearing to be alive, an absent-minded professor, a pistol cigarette-lighter, are examples. In the telic mode, these things may be considered irritating or a nuisance; or threatening and dangerous; in the paratelic state they are actively sought or created.

A good example is the circus, which may be regarded as a veritable feast of synergy. The lions are simultaneously wild and tame, the human cannonball is both object and person, the ponderous elephants are made to do things that are dainty, chimpanzees have tea parties, the jugglers and acrobats do impossible things, the clowns are adult but childish, stupid but wise. humor is fundamentally synergistic, and requires seeing both sides - 'the funny side of things'. In comic synergies, something purports to be one thing when in reality it turns out surprisingly to be another lesser thing. For example, the pistol that is no more than a cigarette lighter may raise a laugh, especially if it is a large and dangerous looking weapon, the roles have been acted convincingly, and then it produces a small and feeble flame. Or if the victim recognizes it as a lighter and offering his cigarette gets squirted in the face with water. Good comedy, or even cliched comedy like that, has synergy upon synergy woven into it. Comedy can only work if the hearer is in a paratelic mode, otherwise he will not 'get the joke', and so comics will use all the tricks of their trade to get the audience lightened up, and the laughter of a few soon infects the majority.

“In the arousal-seeking state, frustrations are deliberately confronted, in order to overcome the barrier that they represent.”
Similarly there are many active strategies to raise arousal. One is that of exploration, in pursuit of discovery. The excitement of discovering new patterns, understanding and insight is an implicit motive for artists and scientists. Many people find this pleasure in travel, and there is the mutual exploration involved in a developing relationship, in mind and body.

In the arousal-seeking state, frustrations are deliberately confronted, in order to overcome the barrier that they represent. Imagine a rock climber coming up against an overhang, a scientist discovering something intriguingly anomalous in the data, an artist finding a technical difficulty that must be resolved to achieve the desired effect. It could be said that the whole of sport is based on frustration - that created by the opposition, and difficulties deliberately built into the structure of the sport. Overcoming basic physical limitations is another active strategy - toying with the force of gravity on trampolines, flying planes and mountaineering; going faster than our bodies can take us, on skates, motor bikes, power boats and so on; extending our range of contact with shooting or golf, or star-gazing and modem communication; or overcoming time with astrology and fortune-telling.

A fourth active strategy is negativism: the desire to do the opposite of what is required or expected in any given situation. This may mean smoking or drinking when it is not allowed, saying something provocative or risqu, trespassing in a private field, going through traffic lights on red, pretending not to hear an order, wearing the wrong clothes, smuggling something through customs, complaining in a restaurant. Not that negativism is not necessarily harmful or irresponsible: much that is creative and original seems to have its origin in this arousal-seeking strategy - questioning accepted ideas or rejecting previous approaches to a problem. Few sensations can compare to the ecstasy of resistance or rebellion, when they are heart-felt. At its best negativism represents people's refusal to be less than they could be, their obstinate commitment to freedom and self-determinism.

What these active strategies have in common is that they all involve the individual in gratuitous problems, difficulties and challenges. The person behaving in this way is leaving the tried and tested paths and exposing him or her self to unknown dangers (explorations); confronting extra barriers on the way to goals (frustration); is playing at doing things that have previously seemed difficult or impossible (overcoming limitations); or is looking for trouble (negativism). Those who want a quiet life will of course avoid all of these active strategies, and instead just watch them on TV!


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