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How can we be exerting physical effort yet the experience still seems effortless?
A great question that has stumped scientists for decades until recent developments in the field of neuroscience.
To understand how this is possible, we first have to look at what ordinarily happens in effortful acts. What happens under pressure, stress, or times of conflict.
Note: I won’t go into a detailed explanation here, as there are whole articles on this subject.
To be brief. There is a stream of physiological mechanisms which tighten our mind and body. The sympathetic nervous system primes our body to react, tensing brain and body. The amygdala in our brain fires warning signs to our prefrontal cortex to activate our thinking and ensuing anxiety. When we feel that our competence is being threatened, for example, our heart -rate increases, blood goes to our extremities, our attention narrows, and attentional nodes or resources get attributed to our cognitive load to help buffer wih the demands—all of which feels intense and effortful.
In moments of effortless action, however, a considerable amount of this activity may still be going on, but it feels different.
The story behind this phenomenon of effortless action during effortful acts can be explained by what scientists call ‘conflict-monitoring hypothesis’.
Let me explain.
In our brain there exists a specific area called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) which has a special function to detect any conflict when processing information. An example of a conflict could be a threat to our competence, confusion in what we see or feel, or a mismatch between our behaviour and our feelings. The ACC detects this conflict and steps in. Energy or ‘load’ is attributed to resolving this conflict by directing consciousness inwards.
In other words, we divert some of our energy to solve and contain the situation going on inside us. In doing so, our attention and actions become more subjectively effort-full.
To help you conceptualise what this may be like practically, imagine how you feel when you finally get into bed only to realise that you left the light on, which needs turning off. Suddenly, the act of getting out of bed to turn off the light seems monumentally effort-full—compared to how it should.
The mechanism behind this perception of increased effortfulness, and the reduction thereof, is precisely why we feel effortlessness in our effortful actions. In flow, for example, a state of absorption and fluidity in our control, there are fewer external and internal conflicts being perceived, eliminating all of the unnecessary attribution of effort and the friction this then produces.
This reduced effort, or lack of attributing more attentional resources and subsequent perceived effort, allows us to feel more space and increases our moment-to-moment capacity. The net result is that we see more, get better feedback, make smarter and faster decisions. We see opportunities rather than problems.
In this manner, the ACC takes a backseat, the troops are undivided, and effort is no longer (or massively reduced) attributed to our processing. Combine this with the reduced activity of our thinking brain, or our medial and lateral prefrontal cortex, and we have a massive reduction in felt effort.
In states of effortless action, we may feel like we are floating or flowing, not because we have untapped some supernatural energetic power or because it is all transpiring automatically, but because our usual signalling for conflict and effort is minimised.
An incredibly liberating and eye-opening insight into how your experiences could be felt, most of the day, everyday, with training.
“Control of consciousness determines the quality of life.” - Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
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Until we meet,
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