Novelty and the Brain: Why New Things Make Us Feel So Good
Belle Beth Cooper (like her on Facebook) does a wonderful job of explaining why "Oooo..! Shiny!" is so much a part of our functioning that we need to make fun of it to make it less painful. We are all suffering to some degree with Attention Deficit Disorder in that we are quite capable of being equally enthralled by the new USB drive we just bought to backup all our photos as we are by the packaging it came in. That's especially true if said packaging is unique in any way, like shaped like a frog or requiring tools to open. I borrowed the illustration from her article because, well, it made me look twice, thus proving her point.
That this applies to horsemen is a no-brainer. Check my tack room:
|Yes, there's only one of me, and that's only one side of the room. |
So sue me!
Cooper's research indicated that the distraction needed to fall into the category of completely unique stimuli in order for the SN/VTA (see the illustration in the article) to be enthralled, but I wonder how that result might change if the subjects were horse people who've been so completely indoctrinated in the nuances of novelty between, for instance, shapes of mouthpieces in snaffle bits or knee rolls in jumping saddles. I have no statistical proof, but I think it is possible to train the brain to be so discerning that "His left hoof angle is .03 degrees off!" is a statement that actually has been made and worried about and obsessed over and screamed into the ear of a long-suffering farrier.
What this has to do with my current theme of mindfulness and using our innate ability to help us in our interactions with our horses is merely that it offers a physiological excuse for our periodic inability to quiet our minds and let our brains take over. It's our brain's fault! Like the RTPJ, the SN/VTA region is pre-programmed. It has a job to do, and that job is to notice when a unique stimulus is passing through our neighborhood and glom onto it like horse hair on corduroy. Is is worth fighting our natures to gain a more enlightened approach? Of course it is. The point here is that we must not waste energy hating ourselves for our brain structure. We need to be kind, understand that working past the built-ins is a journey, not an end, and let ourselves screw up with abandon as necessary.
We also need to avoid trying to fit every horse into a mold that has no basis in the reality of that particular animal. We notice the differences between our current horse and our last one because we're programmed to do so. When we then try to "correct" those differences, misery happens on both sides of the saddle. Noticing is excellent. Being unable to accept and adapt is not. I would be much happier to see FT's ("Famous Trainers") use their forums in the pages of the horse mags to publish examples of different types of horses and not critique them as if there is only one perfect model to which all others must aspire. Helping horsemen learn to adapt to the horses they work with would be more valuable.
But we also need to always come back to the task at hand, no matter how long the side trip might be. There's a good place waiting down the road for us to visit, and we will get there, briefly, if we work at it.
Intro to Meditation
I promised in the last post to offer some instruction for beginners who aren't quite sure how to go about quieting their minds to allow their brains to breath. What follows is a simple relaxation technique with a huge payoff.
1. Lie down or sit comfortably with both feet on the floor. Lights off or dim will help tremendously. Close your eyes. Shut off the phone. Yes, really.
2. Take five deep breaths, filling your lower lungs first and then your entire lungs. Hold each for a count of five, then release in the same order, breathing out from the bottom first. Let your belly swell as you breath in. It's okay. No one is watching.
3. Begin with your toes. Tighten them all as much as you can, hold for a few seconds, then release. Notice your toes.
4. Tighten your calf muscles, hold for a few seconds, then release. Notice your calves.
5. Repeat with your knees, thighs, hips, pelvis, abdomen. Notice all of those parts (without judging, just awareness).
6. Move to your fingers and repeat the process there, with your forearms, upper arms, shoulders.
7. Move your awareness to your neck, head, scalp. Repeat the process. Move to your eyes, lips, chin, forehead.
8. Breathe deeply again five times. By this point you should be very relaxed. If you're not, just enjoy whatever relaxation you have managed to achieve and go on about your day. Try again tomorrow. Don't judge yourself. You're going to have to figure this out as you go along.
Now, when I did this with my classes, I followed it with guided imagery that left them feeling as if they were amazing students. It worked. If you want to follow through, you might record for yourself a guided meditation about your connection to your horse. Better yet, just achieve this meditative state repeatedly until it becomes second nature and you can quiet your mind on command. Then go mess with your horse. It will be a different experience.
We'll revisit this in the next post. You have your assignment.