Cognitive Vigilance, Stress, and Addiction

How does catching our own errors and correcting them protect us from stress? Can doing so also protect us from addiction?

Many recovering addicts make detailed, ruthless inventories of their daily thoughts and behaviour with the aim of catching mistakes and setting them right immediately. Authenticity and ethical action in the moment are assumed to be the key to staying sober.

Being honest and willing to apologise for any wrongs done somehow keeps people away from the drugs which they had started using in an attempt to sail through life on a high, or to deaden various pains. But is this not a bit of a leap, particularly when dealing with highly addictive substances and exceedingly strong compulsions? How does the “moral inventory” used in many addiction treatment programmes actually work?

A fascinating post by Wray Herbert from the blog We’re Only Human discusses an experiment undertaken by Rebecca Compton of Haverford College and her colleagues, which aimed to observe the vigilance of the brain and explore the connection between this type of error spotting and correction and a serene state of mind.

The mechanics of the experiment in “error-related negativity,” or ERN are quite beyond me. Apparently there is “a bundle of neurons known to watch out for mistakes”. I have to take this on faith. There is also apparently a “nearby part of the brain responsible for correcting errors once they’re spotted.” Students taking a difficult cognitive test were wired up to an EEG, so researchers could see how much brain power was devoted to spotting errors and how quickly the students reacted to them and changed their answers. Then the participants kept a journal of their emotional life for a few weeks, focusing on their stress levels and moods.

The results point to a fascinating phenomenon which I think has much potential to be developed in therapy. Those students who had been the most vigilant in catching errors and correcting them were the most relaxed and calm, even in stressful situations, whereas those who had spent less energy on watching out for errors and correcting them were actually far more stressed.

In a way this seems counter-intuitive: those who concentrate on the negative feel more positive? Those who are not worried about making mistakes and kind of assume they are doing alright actually feel more under pressure?

In another way though the results are logical: cognitive control works in all areas, and if you are good at finding and correcting errors in a test, you can apply this skill to your own thinking processes as well. This is more or less the conclusion the researchers came to: “mental regulation and emotional regulation draw on the same set of skills, perhaps even powered by some common neurons.” An active stance is also more empowering than a passive one. The more mistakes you make, the more you get the chance to take positive actions to correct them!

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Wray’s post does not take the argument back to the question of how people become addicts in the first place, but you could speculate that the kind of willfully unconscious living of those who prefer not to spend too much energy on working out what they might be doing wrong, preferring maybe a kind of “positive thinking” or a hedonistic kind of “living for the moment” and worrying later if any damage has been done, might be more susceptible to addiction.

It sometimes seems that all roads lead back to mindful awareness. For me, anyway! I conclude that if we are vigilant and aware of what is going on both in our heads and out, not in a passive detached way but an active one, ready to step in and put things right when we can, we are off to a head start (ahem!) in avoiding all kinds of relationship and “mental health” problems.

What I am not sure about in the addiction programmes’ use of the principle, or observation, is the moral element. This is an extra element, certainly not covered by the experiment, in which the only concern was to “get the answer right”.

The moral dimension I think is a reflection of how vital good relationships are to us, and how caring for them so they flourish keeps us protected from the need to satisfy our needs elsewhere, with alcohol for example. Saying sorry, and watching out for when we have hurt people’s feelings, may not ultimately be important in the sense that we are doing the right thing and so justice will be done in a religious or spiritual sense — but rather they are important for our psychological, emotional and even physical health, because they keep our relationships healthy and nourishing. And that is what we human beings need the most.

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