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Defeating Mental Noise

Series: Improv Lessons

Occasionally it occurs to me that I don’t remember locking my car. There I am, in the middle of Kroger or whatever, and I’m wondering if I need to go back out to my car and make sure it’s locked. My mind gets fixated on that idea and I can’t focus on the task at hand. Then I get caught up in this mental pattern that I often find myself caught in. I get so busy thinking, calculating, and worrying about what’s going to happen that I fail to experience it actually happening. The present moment gets washed out with noise.

Noise, as it happens, isn’t just about sound. You might hear the word “noise” and think about a large crowd of people or that airplane passing right over your head on its way to land at the airport, or maybe somebody listening to (insert your least favorite genre of music). Noise can also just be a series of “irregular fluctuations that accompany a transmitted electrical signal but are not part of it.” That’s a bunch of two-dollar words which basically mean that noise is simply unnecessary and unwanted junk that gets in the way.

I often encounter noise in photography. An option on most cameras these days is called the “ISO” setting. Without getting into too much mumbo jumbo (even though I am a fan of that, as you may know), the ISO setting essentially sets the “gain” on the image sensor in the camera. Wait, now I have to define what that means. Well, “gain” is simply the mean ratio of the signal amplitude or power at the output port to the amplitude or power at the input port. This paragraph has gotten away from me, and so maybe I should start over.

Okay, so gain is just a multiplier. A higher gain multiplies a signal by a higher number, resulting in a more intense, or perhaps louder output. In photography we call this the “ISO” setting. In the world of audio, we call it “volume.” When you increase the volume on your (insert your most favorite genre of music), you’re telling your stereo or whatever to take the signal and multiply it by a higher number, resulting in a louder output. What happens if you increase the volume too much, though? Anybody who has tried to impress their friends by turning their new stereo all the way up (because nothing is more impressive than temporary deafness) might have noticed that when you turn it all the way up, it starts to sound pretty awful - full of noise. Okay, so a good stereo is designed to not let you turn it up high enough to get to that point, just like a good camera is designed to not allow ISO numbers that degrade the image too much, but hopefully you get the point. When you increase the gain, you’re multiplying all the extra garbage along with the actual signal you want to amplify. In the end, the noise takes over.

So let’s go back once again to photography. If I increase the ISO setting on my camera, I’m increasing the gain on the image. This is how, along with the shutter speed and aperture value, I am able to get pictures in lower light situations. If it’s darker, there’s less light to capture in the camera, which means I need to increase the gain on what light we have. However, what happens when I increase the gain too much? The picture looks terrible, because there’s too much noise. Just take a look at those pictures you took with your cellphone telephone last night at the bar (or, if you’re me, that late-night boardgaming session).

Where else do we experience noise in our lives? Let me put it another way. Did you, like me, just take a moment to stare off in the middle distance and let your mind wander? Did you have to take a moment earlier to make sure your car is locked? These are examples of something I have come to know of as “mental noise.”

My mind likes to wander, especially in situations where I know I need to perform, or at least be put on the spot. In the professional world, there’s always that situation where, to kick off a meeting, we start “going around the room” to introduce ourselves. As the turn gets closer and closer to me, my mind gets more and more distracted thinking or worrying about what I’m going to say. Then, after my turn is over, I am still distracted, this time with analyzing and assessing what I said, and worrying about all the things I could have done better. If you were to ask me the names of the people on either side of me, chances are I couldn’t tell you, because I was too busy worried about what I was going to say or what I said.

The threat of mental noise is everywhere. As a performer, of course, I face it every moment I’m on stage or otherwise in front of an audience. As a teacher, I face it every moment I am in front of a group of people expecting me to say something profound or amazing. As an individual, simply being addressed by someone else can send me spiralling down the rabbit hole of thoughts. I can of course only speak to my own personal experience, but I have a feeling I’m not alone in this challenge. The act of losing oneself in one’s own thoughts is, I think, rather universal to the human experience.

Acknowledging this phenomenon is only the first step. It raises a few obvious questions. Why does this happen? What purpose does it serve? How do I control it, and if necessary stop it altogether? I’m not sure I have all the answers, but the cool thing about Improv is that there are no wrong answers.

So why does mental noise happen? It might seem obvious, but it might not be as cut and dry as it seems. I want to be successful, obviously, so when I’m given an opportunity to speak it makes sense that I am going to endeavor to speak as well as I can. Why, though, is my natural mechanism in preparation of impending action to shut down and block out my situational awareness? Shouldn’t that pumping adrenaline and fight or flight response kick in, making me more aware of my surroundings so I can react more quickly? Why does my mind instinctively look inward instead of outward?

At some level, we all have a creative process, I think. As a writer and, if I may be so bold, an intellectual (fine, you can say “nerd” if you really want), I have spent many years developing my creative process. When writing - which I happen to be doing right this minute - I am able to led ideas form and coalesce. I can skip around as ideas come to me. I can go back and erase whole sentences or paragraphs (or perhaps start over if one starts to get too technical). When I am standing in front of other people, I don’t have that luxury. I need to respond in the moment, and I only get one chance to say the perfect thing. It probably also doesn’t help that I can look right at the faces of the people listening to me, so I will be able to see the precise moment I say something stupid. Thinking in the moment means I need to think harder and faster than I normally would, so I subconsciously push my brain to work harder.

Just like when taking pictures or listening to music, I naturally want to multiply my mental power as much as I can, and just like in a camera or stereo, when I turn up the gain too high, the signal gets washed out with noise.

Is mental noise helpful? The argument could be made that keeping a running narrative on a situation could be helpful, I suppose. However, it isn’t helpful when it is distracting me from a situation, because that defeats the whole purpose. In order to react in the moment, you have to be in the moment. You have to be present. If I learn to control the mental noise, I can then use it when it is advantageous to me, and shut it down when it isn’t.

Handling noise is a simple technical process in photography. First, knowing what ISO levels are acceptable is very important. I know that when I reach a certain point the noise will be too much, so it’s a simple matter of staying below that threshold. Modern cameras have a few tricks up their sleeves, too. Noise on an image sensor isn’t entirely random, as it turns out. Each sensor has a certain pattern of noise that develops which can actually be predicted. Through a very sophisticated set of calculations and computations a camera is actually able to negate at least some of its own noise before it even processes the image (it’s rather aptly called “noise reduction”). This is all very magical and awesome, but it’s ignoring one simple fact of physics. In low light situations, you don’t actually have to turn up the gain at all. You can simply be patient and let in more light.

You may or may not be surprised to know that the human brain is actually quite a bit more sophisticated than even the most expensive digital camera. It might surprise you, however, to know that all of those noise reduction techniques apply to mental noise, too. First, it’s important to know what amount of wandering is acceptable for my mind to do. In what situations am I more likely to experience noise? Knowing what to expect means I can work to avoid those situations or prepare myself for the likelihood of distraction. Then, just like a camera uses an understanding of noise to negate it, by recognizing and acknowledging my mental noise, I can negate that, too. You might be surprised at how simply acknowledging to yourself that your mind is wandering will allow you to bring your focus back to the here and now.

Finally, the most powerful tool in defeating noise is simply patience. It takes practice, but it comes down to telling your brain to just be cool and have faith.

I think about those times I start to worry whether I locked my car or not. The thing is that I have never once actually forgotten to lock my car (well, maybe a couple times, but only at home under extenuating circumstances). It’s a simple habit for me to pull the handbrake, turn off the car, take off my seatbelt, get out of the car, grab my backpack if necessary, and then hit the button to lock the car. It just happens automatically, to the point where I don’t even think about it. I don’t even remember doing it. I am worrying about nothing.

Just like locking my car, I have never failed to come up with a response to something in the moment. Sure, I might not say the most incredible, pithy, mind-blowing things all the time, but I never fail to say anything at all. Interacting with other humans is, arguably, what humans were built to do, so (at least within a margin of error) it literally comes naturally to us, as naturally as taking off a seatbelt or locking the car. Shutting down the noise doesn’t come as naturally - at least to me. I have to make a conscious effort to engage my noise reduction. It means having faith in myself. It means taking a deep breath and telling my mind not to worry. It means reminding myself that one simple truth: I got this.

You know what? You do, too.

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