The Nitty Gritty

I wrote in my last post about how you can find adventure close to home. But you can experience it even closer—inside your own head. The best example I can give, for me, is the rush of adrenaline I get when I am planning a trip. Not on a trip, just anticipating it. Looking at maps, checking airfares, considering the pros and cons of various destinations, imagining all the fun I will have with my friends.

I’ve written about how these kinds of thoughts cause physical reactions in my body, like a racing heart and sweaty palms. But I’ve never known how that works.

Strangely enough it was an article about solitary confinement that explained the phenomenon. Solitary confinement: the opposite of travel, right? The full title of the article is “How would you do in Supermax? The answer may lie with imagination and grit.”

First, here’s the negative side of solitary, which will be no surprise to anyone with a shred of empathy:

“Solitary confinement has been linked to a variety of profoundly negative psychological outcomes, including suicidal tendencies and spatial and cognitive distortions. Confinement-induced stress can shrink parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory, spatial orientation, and control of emotions. In addition to these measurable effects, prisoners often report bizarre and disturbing subjective experiences after they leave supermax. Some say the world regularly collapses in on itself. Others report they are unable to lead ordinary conversations, or think clearly for any length of time. The psychiatrist Sandra Schank puts it this way: “It’s a standard psychiatric concept, if you put people in isolation, they will go insane.”

But here’s where the article veers away from the usual, “it’s horrible, we should stop it” article about solitary. This article examines how some prisoners use mental imagery to survive, and even rehabilitate themselves.

Mental imagery is basically imagining something so vividly that it affects you physically or psychologically. Lots of us do this involuntarily—for instance since I am terrified of public speaking, if I have to give some remarks I will probably have involuntary flashes of imagining myself stammering and making a fool of myself, and this will make me even more nervous, and it may actually cause me to do what I feared.

On the other hand, controlled mental imagery is considered so effective that it is used by athletes to improve their performance. Before a competition, for instance, they will close their eyes and imagine every detail of a successful performance, and this contributes to their bodies and minds performing successfully in reality.

With all external stimulation stripped away, some people in solitary use controlled mental imagery to stay sharp, pass the time, and keep their spirits up. No one tells them about it, or how to do it; they somehow figure it out on their own.

Why are some prisoners in solitary able to summon controlled mental imagery to improve their lot, while most are at the mercy of involuntary mental images?

That’s the second point of the article. The thinking is that this small subset of prisoners possesses a quality called grit. I’ve always wondered how it is that I overcame the odds and became as successful as I am, when there are so many other unmarried teen moms out there who are still mired in poverty. Well, I’ve got grit. If you want to find out if you have it, here’s an online test. Apparently I am in the 90th-99th percentile of other users who have taken it.

What is grit? I would call it “stick-to-it-tiveness.” An innate persistence, perseverance, single mindedness, and diligence despite setbacks.

So some prisoners, who happen to have grit, are able to use controlled mental imagery to improve themselves and leave prison better, not broken.

Where does grit come from? Why do some people have it and others don’t? Can it be learned? I don’t know the answers to these questions. I do know that if I could bottle grit and sell it, I would be a wealthy woman.

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