Attractors, Distractors, and Cognitive Penetrability

Written by Kevin Cann

 

When I have explained a Dynamic Systems Theory (DST), I have mentioned the term attractors.  An attractor in a dynamic system is actually a mathematical model where the system always seems to end up at this numerical point regardless of the initial conditions.

 

When we look at skill acquisition an attractor state is the chosen technique from an athlete under competition requirements.  For example, when the squat gets heavy the lifter pitches forward out of the hole.

 

We could perform a bunch of lighter weight squats that look good, but this often does not change the attractor state as it does not take into account the emotions of the lifter. Emotions come into the lift when it gets heavy.  I think what we often see is when an athlete becomes nervous, they speed things up in their mind and we see a loss of position.

 

Emotions are a distractor to the task at hand and they alter how we perform these tasks.  To further explain, we need to understand how attention works.  Our brain is sifting through a ridiculous amount of information.

 

Think of everything in your visual field when you look somewhere.  If we lacked attention, we would not have spatial awareness and we would not be able to combine light into colors and objects.  It would be impossible for us to perceive the world.

 

Our brain uses attention to focus on specific objects that give our world context.  Our brain predicts what we will see before we even turn our heads to look.  We will focus (attention) on the objects that we expect to see.  These objects will give our world context in spatial and object recognition.

 

Distractors would be anything that pulls our attention away.  Perhaps in the scenario above we hear a loud crash behind us.  This would get us to turn our head quickly as we may be predicting there was an accident.  Imagine if we were attempting to throw a ball at a target.

 

We see the target and everything around it kind of fades out of view.  Then we hear that same crash.  Our attention has gone from the target and the task at hand to seeing if there was an accident.  Or maybe we are driving along, and a person darts out in front of the car and we slam on our breaks.

 

This happens with training. Our system cannot distinguish between our targets and distractors, no matter how involved in a task we are. This allows the system to remain responsive to any unexpected dangers.

 

As a coach we can tell a lifter to slow down and control the squat as much as we want, but it most likely will not work until we alter the task constraints.  The lifter is too open to the signal of the distractors, which pull the lifter into the desired attractor state of a squat with the pitching forward.

 

In order to destabilize this attractor state the lifter needs to learn to deal with the distractors. This is why the individual is a constraint we need to take into consideration.  Their emotions, beliefs, perceptions, and past experiences are all tied to this attractor state.

 

The more a lifter experiences emotional stress while lifting, the less threat that is perceived with that distractor.  This allows greater attention to be given to the actual task.  If the task is unable to be completed with that pitching forward pattern, and only can be completed with an upright torso, we can begin to destabilize the old attractor state into a new one.

 

Get a group cheering you on and we have all 3 constraints; the individual, the environment, and the task covered.  This is basically using multiple differential equations in the real world.  Math is cool, especially complex math.  Just focusing on the mechanical stress is applying a linear regression to these equations and will yield far less results.

 

This is the theory of cognitive penetrability of perception.  Basically, our psychological factors influence our perceptual experiences. We perceive the world, and we perceive movement before it occurs.  This is where I believe the majority of our attention (see what I did there?) should be focused.

 

There is this old dogma, that breakdowns in the lifts are caused by individual weak muscle groups. This believes that the body performs a task as a sum of all of the muscles added together.  I just do not see how this can actually be true.

 

I think this became a dogma because we can measure muscle contraction in the lab.  We cannot measure psychological factors or perception in the same way.  The brain controls the coordination of the muscles.  This is why we can’t just do accessories and the big 3 go up.

 

The argument is that the accessories in combination with the big 3 work.  This may work in some cases by altering expectations.  If the lifter expects it to work, believes it will work, and has done exercises in combination with the big 3 before with success, it can work.  However, I will argue that it works for psychological factors and not mechanical ones.

 

Similar hypertrophy can be seen across a wide range of loads, even as low as 20% of 1RM, as long as we are training at or near maximal.  I do not buy the theoretical argument that a bigger muscle has greater capacity to contract.

 

I believe that a stronger mind gives that muscle a greater ability to contract.  If I train at greater than 85% of 1RM at or near failure, and someone trains at 20% at or near failure, our muscle increases will be similar, but strength will not.  The million-dollar question is “why?”

 

This doesn’t mean that you do some Jedi mind tricks and your total goes up, although it helps.  You train at heavier weights and your perceived efforts change over time because you are pushing them and challenging them. If a lift feels like an RPE 9, but everyone says to go up, and you go up and hit it you are altering your perceived effort.  Your brain needs to update its priors on what an RPE 9 is.

 

I run variations in a pretty linear fashion.  I think each week this helps the perceptions of the lifter.  If I take 400lbs for 5, I know I can take 420lbs for 4, and 435lbs for 3, and so on.  Chances are the lifter was capable of hitting that new 1RM weeks earlier, but their mind was not ready to do it.  It is not like we get to a single with a 20lb PR and that just happened from tapering volume and supercompensation.  It got the mind ready to handle the new weights.

 

We hit these PRs often with much better technique.  My theory is that the emotional stress was no longer a distractor.  That distractor has changed to much higher weights now.  With less fear and less nerves, the lifter is able to put more attention to the task and complete it at a higher level.

 

This can work in the other direction as well.  We know that training is not linear.  What explains a down performance day?  Many will just argue it is mechanical stress leading to it.  Fatigue is a common villain.  This does not make sense to me either.

 

There is no physiological explanation for a drop-in performance.  Studies showing peripheral fatigue days after a hard training session are looking at voluntary muscle contraction.  What controls voluntary muscle contraction?  The brain.

 

How does the brain alter perceived effort?  It analyzes all of these feedback loops and makes a decision.  This includes expectations, beliefs, mood, past experiences, outside stress, sleep, energy, etc.  This can be trained.  The lifter can also be educated and given tasks that violate those expectations and beliefs.  Sometimes they hit PRs when they feel like shit.

 

I am not saying that peripheral fatigue does not exist.  It most certainly does, but more in endurance events than a hard set of squat, bench, or deadlift.  Higher volume programs will most likely come with more measurable peripheral fatigue than high intensity programs.  Another reason why I prefer intensity.  People seem to get more banged up from the higher volumes in my experiences.

 

When we lift heavy in variations that punish inefficient positions, we are getting more bang for our buck. This is deliberate practice versus more practice.  You don’t need 10,000 hours if you train more adequately for competition and it all starts with perceptions.

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