A special suit for thinking like a winter’s day and other psychoactive uniforms

20.28, Wednesday 12 Jan 2022

I popped out this morning to pick up milk and eggs (as the only Covid-negative person in this house) and it was one of those beautiful winter days you get in England when the air is crisp, and the low sun is yellow with a touch of warmth when you’re standing in it.

So I was intensely aware of my skin and of nothing else: the cold only enough to draw my attention just to that sensation, yet not cold enough to be unpleasant. And, like that, I walked to the shops listening to music, mind wonderfully empty. Bliss.

Later I remembered Jason Kottke posting about freediving, that sport where divers hold their breath for upwards of five minutes – and it turns out that much of it is about mental strategies to “be with” the feelings that come from having empty lungs.

Here’s Kottke’s post: Attention Deconcentration and the Secrets of Freediving. (He links to a couple of articles in this post. Both are long, poetic.)

Attention deconcentration? It means distribution of the whole field of attention – you try to feel everything simultaneously.

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.”

Something similar happens when I’m driving I think? I can glimpse just the tiniest edge of attention deconcentration by remembering being totally in the zone when driving – hyperaware of everything in all directions, but not frantically; in control and responsive. Yet mind empty.

And there are places your mind can reach only when you’re driving, or only when you’re running, or only when you’re dancing. I don’t mean emotional states, necessarily. I remember particularly one time solving a particularly stubborn differential equation a couple of hours into dancing; it was as if the search algorithm in my head had changed, and new branches had opened up, allowing me to find a solution.

(Incidentally: one of the articles Jason links to mentions the mammalian diving reflex, which is activated when the nerves in the face come into contact with water, most effectively with cold water. I went to a party where this came up in conversation so we tried it. Hold your breath and time it. Then splash your face with really cold water and suddenly you can hold your breath for longer. It works!)

This hollow body consciousness: free divers enter it deliberately.

Walking in the cold, it’s the same but in reverse? The state of consciousness is induced by the environment. Microdosing weather.

So I wonder how much of this we’re all doing the whole time, without really putting a name to it: solving a problem by having a shower or going for a walk is such a trope but maybe if we were to be more rigorous about describing the mechanism, we could instead say that the bodily action or sensation induces a mental state that is required to solve a problem.

Like, we’re content to say that we need a quiet environment in order to concentrate on demanding and detailed work.

Could we also one day be content to say that we need an environment that induces attention deconcentration in order to, I don’t know, think poetically.

Or something.

All of which means the problem solving arrow goes something like this:

I need to solve a problem AND SO I seek the environment which will induce the required mental state AND SO I achieve that mental state AND SO I solve the problem.

No different from seeing something on a high shelf, then seeking a chair to stand on, then standing on the chair and reaching the object.

We loop the environment into meeting our intentions.

And if the problem solving arrow goes something like that, then maybe I shouldn’t have to wait for a cold, crisp day in January to think like this?

Maybe these mental states need not be subject to the weather?

There’s a passage in Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson’s wonderful sci-fi classic about colonising Mars, describing a walk on the surface… (Martian gravity is 38% of ours.)

She was just as strong as ever, but weighed only thirty kilos! And the forty kilos of the suit… well, it threw her off balance, that was true. It made her feel that she had gone hollow. That was it: her center of gravity was gone, her weight had been shifted out to her skin, to the outside of her muscles rather than the inside.That was the effect of the suit, of course.Inside the habitats it would be as it had been in the Ares.But out here in a suit, she was the hollow woman.With the aid of that image she could suddenly move more easily, hop over a boulder, come down and take a turn, dance!

Robinson captures that hollowness, hyperawareness and freewheeling thought coupled with embodiment, elation.

Maybe such a suit doesn’t need to be confined to Mars and confined to fiction?

Could you make a attention deconcentration suit to wear here on Earth?

I’m imagining something weighted such that the locus of your attention is shifted to the periphery.

Perhaps it wicks the heat away quickly so you’re cold, just enough, so that you can feel the breeze and the pavement underfoot.

The internal voice deconcentrated.

Perhaps the helmet is weighted, just enough, such that the tiny unconscious movements of your head as you (quite naturally) look around are amplified, as with a dowsing rod, swinging your head just a touch more, and you end up looking more up, around, taking it all in.

All of those sensory changes combining to induce a state of mind which is, well, broad and easy, one that usually belongs to a walk outdoors on a crisp, blue-skied winter’s day.

Perhaps a whole room of psychological suits, all lined up! One for free-wheeling thinking, another to consider head-on difficult and emotionally charged issues, another to ruthlessly cut to the heart of things, another to do your taxes, and so on.

And I wonder whether other uniforms are similarly psychoactive? Does the tight collar and tie of the stereotypical salaryman reduce blood flow to the brain and create a persona more easily subsumed to the corporation? Does the heavy crown of a king or wig of a judge require turning the head slower, giving more time to think, that extra fraction of a second opening up the possibility of wiser considerations?

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