In the second part of this series, we looked at a couple of examples of the way a film director can make choices about the presentation of a scene in order to elicit predictable emotional responses from a film’s audience. That these responses are actually predictable tells us something about how the human mind applies value to everything it receives from the senses. The mind takes in sensory input from an enormous range of different physical locations in the body, and synthesises it all to give the impression of a single integrated personality, something still entirely mysterious in neurological terms.
(Readers of Ian MacEwan’s excellent Saturday pick up quite a lot of contemporary neurological thinking, but it’s easy to go too far with the confident “this experience is the consequence of activity in this part of the brain” pronouncements which litter the book. We’ve been able to measure glucose consumption in different parts of the brain under various conditions and during various activities – it would be a step too far at this stage to read everything into glucose consumption that is correlative to these situations and activities, as we don’t yet know to what degree correlation and causation coincide.)
Anyone reading sports psychology will come up against “visualisation” almost immediately. Visualisation is the use of internal mental representations of sporting situations to do three main things: train, prepare, and pre-programme victory. Mentally rehearsing a repetitive activity has been shown to be very effective, perhaps almost as effective as real physical practice of it. (At least once you’ve learned the technique you are going to practice. I wouldn’t try to learn golf from scratch purely in the head). Top British athletes are taught to “visualise” their races over and over, running through every possible eventuality, until they are confident that nothing is going to happen that they aren’t ready to cope with. By always seeing themselves as winning through, they raise their own expectations and thus their performance. In practice, a lot more complicated..
The trouble with visualisation is that it assumes our internal mental representations are in the same class of experience as cinema or television. I doubt this. Cinema or television are the closest useful comparisons that can be made, but there are important differences between simile and reality. A few moments comparing your memories of watching “Casablanca” whilst actually watching “Casablanca” shows that. Internal mental representations are muddier, darker, more elusive, deeply selective, stranger in every way, than a passage of film or a photograph.
Some people, not realising that it’s like this for everyone, say that they can’t “visualise”. They imagine that everyone else is having the full HD widescreen surround-sound experience while they are stuck with their own dulled, reluctant, fade-out smog. (Just for the sake of completeness, my guess is that those with a strong visual memory – certain artists, savants like Stephen Wiltshire, chess players and the like – are no different: I suspect that their advantage comes from elsewhere.) Some neurologists theorise that the shifty, muddy, slightly surreal nature of internal mental representations prevents us from mistaking them for sensory experience – from perpetual hallucination, in other words. (Actual hallucination is another question for another day).
Compared with cinema, the mind has a far wider repertoire of ways to express value. Film directors employ only a few – those that can be roughly translated onto screen. The others are far harder to pin down.
Some years ago, when I was still working out of a practice in Oxfordshire, I spent some time helping a young man whose career was being held back by his endless procrastination. At one point, acting on a hunch, I asked him to describe, in director’s terms if you like, his internal mental representation of someone he liked and felt positive towards. His description tallied fairly closely with this picture:
It’s a Singer Sargent, of course, but what’s of interest are the directorial features of it. The colours are warm; the figure is seen whole; there’s a certain depth of field, a sense of 3 dimensions, a sense of movement, and that movement elegant and smooth. We’re looking at the figure from slightly below her.
I then asked him to picture himself, mentally. This he found far harder. After persistent questioning about what he was representing himself as, he described something very similar to this picture: (again, click to enlarge).
It’s a Francis Bacon – a painter I suspect of having a very good idea of the kind of thing I’m discussing here. Poor David Sylvester: how much he loved Bacon, and what lies Bacon fed him. Still. Notice the absence of a complete figure -and the distorted, twisted, writhing form that is present there. We’re looking straight at it – there’s no depth, and we’re quite close to it. The colours aren’t cold or unharmonious – but they’re disturbing nonetheless. My client’s description also included limbs – but incoherently positioned, confused, separate from the body and tangled as though the whole of him had been tossed like a rag doll.
Little by little, I got him to change the directorial features of his self-representation to match those of the person he liked. It was slow going at first. Then, all at once, it fell into place – and he sat up in his chair, suddenly energised, looking at the backs of his hands as though seeing them for the first time (I find people have a habit of doing that when treatment is starting to get somewhere). He was feeling terrific – without really knowing why.
Of course, a short while later, the emotions that lay behind the first self-representation soon restored the status quo ante. But the whole experience got me thinking.
Anyone familiar with NLP will notice that what we’ve done here is essentially a sophisticated version of a “submodalites” exercise. I suspect that the NLP founders did indeed stumble across something interesting in submodalities, but I don’t think they’ve done very much with it. For one thing, I’ve never seen it used in quite this way – the film/photograph simile is used without awareness of its limits and what those limits reveal. The Bacon painting is no photo – or if it is, it has more in common with surrealism or ethnic art. And that takes us towards Jung and Freud, not Bandler. Nor are the NLPers terribly interested in the emotion that drives internal representations – emotion that means we can’t just substitute one representation for one that feels better but is out of kilter with our overall emotional weather. So much for that, anyway.
Since the World Cup, I’ve talked to dozens of people about their own internal mental representations of themselves. That’s not a large sample. And this is entirely subjective, given that we can’t actually see into someone else’s mind to check the accuracy of their self-reporting. But the answers are consistent. Feelings of low self-worth directly accompany an inability to internally represent the self as a coherent human being. Feelings of low self-worth are Bacon. Feelings of being in control, being calm, content, relaxed etc. are Sargent.
But what’s more interesting in this context is what happens when you take someone who is Sargent and put them in a situation they are less sure they can handle. Take your big confident roaring boy away from his mates and put him in front of a hostile interview panel. Take your postdoctorate seminar star out into New Bond Street and ask him to approach strange women for a date. I’m finding that Sargent begins to break up into a version of Bacon. The coherent figure becomes surreally incoherent: the colours change, the depth of field changes, the limbs begin to blur and writhe, all while that person’s sense of ease and capability erode away.
This change – if I’m right – is quite obviously emotionally led. That does seem to be the order in which things happen – emotion (as an external expression) precedes conscious inner feeling, which precedes intellectual consideration. (Paul Ekman makes for interesting reading if you’re interested).
In essence, the nature of someone’s internal representation of themselves changes to fit their situation. The better they are feeling in a given situation, the more coherent their internal self-representation. They’ll be more Sargent, and less Bacon.
(Aside: this also seems to work with our internal representations of people we know only through photographs. The way I represent Nelson Mandela, say, is quite different from the way I represent e.g. Vladimir Putin, for all that the way I’ve experienced both men is via the same kind of news coverage. The same goes for two people I’ve only ever seen via mugshots – Fred West is quite different, to me, from Harold Shipman.)
It doesn’t seem to make a real difference whether or not someone is used to seeing their own photograph. (People who voluntarily allow themselves to be photographed often and enjoy it seem, however, to have more robust coherent self-representations). “Bacon” type people are apt to find it hard to remember what photographs of themselves look like, and interpret photographs of themselves differently from other people who are looking at the same print.
What I’m getting at is this. In a penalty shoot-out situation, we see top players, accustomed to performing under pressure, in front of huge, demanding crowds, go to bits. The body language collapses, the head drops, and the ball gets blasted over the bar. Or lobbed weakly into the arms of the keeper. Or it swings wide. Rarely do you see someone whose bottle is gone score, even through luck or accident. What I’m suggesting is that, in the context of penalties, a player’s normally coherent internal self-representation has corroded – it’s gone from Sargent, or their equivalent of Sargent, to Bacon.
If I’m right, and all my experiments since the World Cup suggest that I’m not far off track, then there’s something we can do about it. That something will be the subject of the next article in the series.
N.B. I’m just using Sargent and Bacon as vivid examples – they’re just to give a feel, a sense of the basic idea. It’s worth bearing in mind that these examples suffer from the same weaknesses as the film/photography simile.