Winning at Arguments by Enlarging your PNS

Here’s a video of me. It might be helpful to read the text below before watching the video. Actually, on second thought, this post was adapted from an email to a friend who said “I am grinning ear to ear from watching the video on your wall. I’d love to hear more about it!” so maybe watch it first. Your call.

The Autonomic Brain & Againstness

So, in late January I was at a 4 day Applied Rationality workshop, which was absolutely amazing. The first 3 days were classes, and the 4th was to practise what we’d learned already. That’s when this video happened. The relevant class is called Againstness, and the practice session is fondly referred to as “Torture Court.” The againstness class is about the two halves of the Autonomic Nervous System (the part of your brain you don’t consciously control directly) which are the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems.

  • SNS = fight + flight + freeze (stress/againstness)
  • PNS = rest & digestion + (empathy)

The idea is that while againstness (or SNS dominance) was effective back when stress = wild animal or armed opponent, it isn’t when stress = fight-with-your-partner or performance anxiety. As mentioned, you don’t have a sense of empathy when you’re in that state, so it’s basically impossible to consider that the other person might be right, or to even think of how the situation might be resolved peacefully. We were taught several techniques to release from againstness and shift to PNS dominance… basically:

  1. Be grateful for the chance to practise this skill (gratitude is incompatible with SNS)
  2. Relax your body and open it up to expose your organs (body gestures like crossed arms are both symptomatic of againstness and reinforce SNS-dominance)
  3. Actively try to feel the situation from the other perspective, or feel a sense of connection to the other person.
  4. (repeat as necessary. if gratitude for the chance doesn’t work, be grateful that the chance is so tough that it’s beyond your ability to be grateful for it!)

Astrology & Arguments

Then. We come to the question of how exactly I came to be standing up there freaking out about astrology. I’ve historically not really liked astrology, but I was mostly indifferent. Sometime (I’m not sure where) in the past few years I developed a deep frustration with it. It really hit a peak this past summer when I had a very heated argument about it with my partner at the time. This had come up with past partners as well, although not so intense. Anyway, in another class at the workshop, called Winning at Arguments, we were asked to think of a heated argument, so I thought of that one. We looked into the word “winning” and how it can mean a variety of things, but that the most useful definition is that both (all) people involved achieve their goals. The next step there was to pause and think “what is my goal? what is their goal?” and I realized that ultimately she was trying to understand me and I was trying to be understood. Pretty compatible, eh? And yet it was one of the most intense arguments I’ve ever had.

However, despite having that understanding on Sunday, there was still a lot of pent-up negativity surrounding the subject of astrology. Very silly. Like, no matter how much I ultimately dislike it, there is nothing to be gained by being angry or stressed about it. Hence, the torture court exercise. I was one of the last people to go from our group, and a lot of the other people had been doing pretty tame things like singing I’m a Little Teapot—the main source of stress there was uncertainty surrounding the lyrics, not fear of performing. Another participant had to sidestep a punch from Val (the male instructor you can hear) but do so without flinching—just moving relaxedly. A lot of this is actually related to Aikido, but that’s another topic.

Torture and Laughter

The other instructor running the Torture Court was Cat, who was also the one who did the arguments class, so when I finally went up I had this anticipation (a scary but hopeful one) that it would be astrology-related. If it had come up as something else that was boring, actually, I would have suggested it be revised as such. Anyway, I had given my phone to a friend to film me, and so then Cat proposed what she did and man it was overwhelming! One of the profound realizations I had was that I use laughter as a stress response. Like, I sort of knew this, but I didn’t realize how obvious and dramatic it was. Where others became frozen or defensive, I became, well, as you see in the video.

Immediately following the session I was walking around in a very intense physical, emotional, and mental state. My body felt… kind of tingly. I was feeling totally drained but simultaneously full of life. It was kind of like being dizzy but I wasn’t off-balance. This lasted maybe 10-15 minutes. It has, however, substantially reduced my aversion to astrology. Again, I still don’t care for it, but it doesn’t get me worked up anymore. At least, it hasn’t yet.

Malcolm, the Aries

A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm trying to figure out how humans work so I can help make humanity work. More about me.

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