Central Governor Theory in Practice

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by Hazel Anna Rogers for the Carl Kruse Blog

I would like to think that I have a balanced approach to life, and that I am able to exert discipline where required in order to achieve what I want to achieve. I am generally driven to succeed, and often attempt to exceed the expectations I have of myself in any particular field. Such discipline does not come without sacrifice; weeks without sleeping an optimal number of hours, occasional injuries, and underlying health conditions such as intermittent amenorrhea being a few I am consciously able to name. But the biggest problem, aside from the aforenamed issues, is that I tend to eventually ‘crash’ or lose the racing spearhead of motivation before my goal has been achieved at all.

I could use the example of the piano to illustrate this.

About a year ago, I began learning Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G Minor, Op. 23, No. 5. It was a piece I often heard my father play when I was a child, though I don’t remember him playing more than the first few pages. It is an intoxicating piece of music, at once violent and jubilant, powerful and caressing. I printed the pages of the piece and took to my keyboard, endlessly drumming out each few bars until the muscles of my fingers understood the transitions well enough to move on. Each day would be punctuated with a few hours of scales, Hanon etudes, and little sections of Rachmaninov’s masterpiece. But after a time, the slowness of the process began to take its toll on me. I became weary of the pages and pages of notes, crammed together like flies on the rotting skin of fruit. I started to simply play the pages I already knew, rather than progressing onwards through the music. Eventually, I moved on to another piece. My mind had deemed it too difficult to continue with. I occasionally feel a pang of loss and regret at my inability to complete the piece, and though I intend to at some point soon, I feel that I have placed some sort of emotional barrier onto the idea of continuation with the prelude. It feels impossibly complicated now.

The Central Governor of Fatigue is perhaps most commonly referred to in the field of sport. The theory revolves around the hypothesis that the brain will override one’s physical ability to continue (running, swimming, cycling, etc) in order to avoid what it might perceive as a threat to life, or an unnecessary exertion of energy for no real gain (ie, running for one’s life WOULD have an end gain, namely the saving of one’s life). For example, if you’re going on a run around your park – let’s say, for the purpose of simplicity, the run is exactly 5 kilometres from house, around park, back to home – you might begin to slow down about halfway through the run. Your pace steadies, and you start to feel a little light-headed, or simply tired. The minute you’re on the home stretch, knowing that you have a big old lunch waiting for you in the fridge, you might suddenly summon up the energy and drive to power through until the end, maybe even getting into a sprint. If you think about where you were at around kilometre 3, it makes little sense that you would have the physical capacity to make yourself commit to that sprint up to your door, and yet you managed to do so. This example suggests that one cannot always trust the brain to give a reliable estimation of one’s veritable levels of fatigue. Dr Tim Noakes proposes that the signals which are sent by the brain telling the body to stop ahead of our body’s ability to continue are more of a psychology block rather than a physiological one; that is to say, most of the time, we can indeed run further and faster than our brains might make us believe we can if we have, or force ourselves to have, the impetus to do so. I like to think about a fairly recent experience of my own when trying to illustrate this model in practice. I had done about five laps of the pond I regularly swim at, the last of which had been completed using the notoriously difficult butterfly stroke, and I was waning a little. I was thinking, in fact, that I might very well get out of the pond and go home for a coffee or something akin. But just as I began swimming towards the stairs, my partner swam up, and suggested a little race up to the other end of the pond.

We took our positions. I could feel my heart quickening.

‘GO!’.

I powered forth, throwing the water back behind me as I front crawled my way to victory.

A few moments earlier, I had thought myself to be fatigued perhaps to the point of exhaustion. And yet here I was, suddenly fuelled with a new lease of energy, ready to race back the other way. We can override the brain’s own overriding mechanisms in order to pull ourselves onwards, but, in the case of both extreme sports and even in slow, creative endeavours – such as learning a piece on the piano – this kind of ‘motivation’, if one can call it that, is both unreliable and dependent on a multitude of other external factors, such as physical preparedness, pre-established talent, pain tolerance (in the case of sport), and consistent, rigid training. If all of these aspects are controlled and worked on, then such motivation could become intrinsic to one’s psyche.

 

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There are also arguments that Central Governor Theory doesn’t actually really exist due to the ability for us and many other animals to overturn it with even a minor incentive (such as the aforementioned race between my partner and I). I read a story by Hemingway some time ago, ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’, which had a moment in it whereby a heavily injured buffalo managed to get up and take a final charge before being finally shot to death. The buffalo had overridden its ability to feel pain in order to protect or even avenge itself. This kind of behaviour seems inbuilt in almost all animals.

But in the case of less life-threatening situations, I like to think that choosing to push through the barriers that are placed on the mind and body through the brain’s desire to preserve homeostasis and to prevent excessive energy depletion can be extremely useful in cases of fallen motivation. If I could find a way to make myself believe that a goal is non-negotiable, then I might get a hell of a lot more done. Perhaps all of this sounds robotic, and rather undesirably CEO-esque, but my implementation of this theory has impacted my life quite wonderfully in less than obvious ways. I had noticed that I was beginning to flag while in class from the hours of 2 till 6. My eyes would begin to glaze, my concentration drop away, and my interest in discussion nowhere to be seen. By telling myself that I had no choice but to listen and contribute and class within these hours, and also by repeating to myself that I was in fact not tired, I was able to become a far more collaborative and supportive classmate.

I understand – this whole discussion is rather dry, scientific, and perhaps dull to you. But I encourage you to consider how much more you get done, or even simply enjoy life, if you were to harness the power of your mind and put it towards achieving what you really want to achieve in life. Even something as simple as noticing your irritability towards a certain person; what if you chose to override this seemingly natural emotion and instead allow your mind to at once consider the person’s perspective, but also to put your emotional energy towards something more beneficial or which brings more joy to your life? We haven’t the time to hate, to complain, to lie around on our phones when we could be out and about, seeing people, doing things, relishing this bountiful life for all it is. I urge you to push yourself, and see what you can really do if you push your mind to its limits.

*Note: Of course, I understand that someone working a fifteen-hour shift at a hospital might not have the motivation nor the energy to override their brain telling them to take a damn rest.

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This Carl Kruse Blog Homepage is at https://carlkruse.at.
Contact: carl At carlkruse DOT com
Other articles by Hazel include A Positive Spin on Hustle Culture, Anticipation Anxiety, and Ham Acting.
Also find Carl Kruse on Soundcloud.

Author: Carl Kruse

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