Monday, August 24, 2009

Attentional Deconcentration

In the New Yorker's Free Diving article by Alex Winkinson, a diver named Natalia Molchanova describes a technique called Attentional Deconcentration, in which attention is spread out evenly across the sensory field:

To still the unbidden apprehensions that might interfere with her dive -- what she describes as "the subjective feeling of empty lungs at the deep" -- Molchanova uses a technique that she refers to as "attention deconcentration." ("They get it from the military," Ericson said.) Molchanova told me, "It means distribution of the whole field of attention -- you try to feel everything simultaneously. This condition creates an empty consciousness, so the bad thoughts don't exist."

"Is it difficult to learn?"

"Yes, it's difficult. I teach it in my university. It's a technique from ancient warriors -- it was used by samurai -- but it was developed by a Russian scientist, Oleg Bakhtiyarov, as a psychological-state-management technique for people sho do very monotonous jobs."

I asked if it was like meditation.

"To some degree, except meditation means you're completely free, but if you're in the sea at depth you will have to be focussed, or it will get bad. What you do to start learning is you focus on the edges, not the center of things, as if you were looking at a screen. Basically, all the time I am diving, I have an empty consciousness. I have a kind of melody going through my mind that keeps me going, but otherwise I am completely not in my mind."
(quote transcription via kottke).

Note that this technique is distinct from common one-pointed meditational techniques, such as concentration on mantras or a visual focus like a candle flame, where the proximate goal is to decrease the frequency of distracting phenomena.

There is a greater similarity to the Yoga Nidra techniques. Yoga Nidra attempts to overlay a deep state of relaxation modeled on Stage 4 (abyssal, dreamless, delta wave) sleep on top of an alert consciousness. The method used to accomplish this is remarkably similar to the deconcentration techniques.

In the version I was taught, the first stage is to rapidly switch among three or more sets of auditory stimuli (e.g., soft music playing in the room, noise from within the building and noise from the street outside) without clinging to any one or paying attention to loud sounds over soft, or harmonious sounds over dissonance.

The second stage involves rotating one's somatic attention to different parts of the body: each toe in turn, all the toes together, the top of the foot, sole of the foot, ankle, shin, calf, knee...up to the head and then to the body as a whole. Eventually, one is able to freely expand and contract one's attention throughout the somatosensory field.

Visual field methods typically involve either a sequence of guided meditation techniques, or a simple intent to attend to the entire visual field by "stepping back" from it, as if looking out through a window or looking at a screen, allowing the image to move or change without attaching or following any changes that may occur.

Molchanova's ability to maintain dispersed perceptual attention in the face of high physiological stress is remarkable. In contrast, think of descriptions of police or soldiers experiencing "tunnel vision" at the outset of a firefight; tempering this adrenaline-mediated response enables better performance and greater stamina. The deconcentration technique is easy to practice, but difficult to maintain under stress conditions like a deep dive or a fight.

I'm also reminded of a friend of mine who recommended tight focus on the source of pain as a technique during torture. Most people, he said, will try to focus elsewhere, but what you really want to do is experience the pain as comprehensively as possible, to the point where you simply pass out. Being resistant to pain actually makes you a better subject for torture, and more likely to break than someone who is very sensitive.

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