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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Rest in Peace: The Cinderella Effect

The Cinderella Effect

In our workaday lives, to literally get to where we consciously or non consciously want to go, the striated musculature is employed. Yet, the striated musculature is divided into two main types that are different physiologically and are activated separately and not necessarily simultaneously. The question is whether they are different psychologically. Type 2 or fast twitch muscular fibers are phasically activated when we physically manipulate our world and as operant behavior are modulated by their consequences. However, another class of muscular fiber, or type 1, slow twitch, or ‘Cinderella’ fibers (responsible for the maintenance of posture) are tonically or persistently activated during conditions of choice wherein one choice results in the imminent feasible or avoidable loss of an alternative, and their sustained activation causes pain and exhaustion. Type 2 fibers are commonly thought to embody voluntary, operant or R-S* (response-stimulus outcome) mechanisms, whereas the activation of type 1 fibers is commonly attributed to be directly or indirectly elicited by involuntary, reflexive or S-R* (stimulus-response outcome) mechanisms as a component of a ‘flight or fight’ response. But is this indeed the case?

The problem for an analysis of the activity of type 1 musculature as a learned or operant behavior is that tension is a core component of emotional responses such as anxiety, fear or anger that are difficult to precisely define, and it is hard to tease apart the S-R from the R-S components that are purported to control the neuro-muscular aspect of emotionality. Perhaps the easiest way to analyze the discriminative stimuli that activate Type 1 musculature and to control for the confounding influence of S-R processes is to examine this behavior under conditions that minimize the presence of real or imputed reflexive S-R mechanisms. This is the case when we become tense as we make day to day choices between alternative contingencies wherein the choice of one marks a small opportunity loss of the other, or ‘distractive’ choices. Because the initiating cause for this tension is a simple discrimination between two alternative contingencies or choices, and not complex linguistic (rumination) information or the sudden perception of threatening physical stimuli (e.g. an oncoming train or a spider underfoot), tension may be examined as a function of simple cognitive and not reflexive mechanisms. This also implies that tension can be easily manipulated through the regulation of elemental aspects of decision making rather than the complex manipulation of rumination or the avoidance of Pavlovian like stimuli or stressors. In other words, tension is an attribute of simple and easily managed information rather than an artifact of complex cognitive or ruminative processes or a reflexive ‘flight or fight’ response.

But if tension is due to information, how can we assume it is maintained by reinforcement? The argument for the operant nature of type 1 muscular activity is that if tension only occurs when imminent decisions result in feasible or avoidable (i.e., opportunity) losses, then tension will not occur if there is no possibility of avoidance, or no opportunity loss. Thus, if tension occurs because it signals behavior that leads to the subsequent avoidance of the events that elicit tension, then tension is therefore ‘reinforced’ by avoidance, and is an operant behavior. Most importantly, this hypothesis may be easily tested through a simple method that I call Cinderella.

(This hypothesis is similar to but different from theories, most notably Freudian signal anxiety, Dollard and Miller’s theory of anxiety, and Damasio’s somatic marker, which posit that autonomic arousal is the learned behavior rather than the micro-behavioral muscular events that elicit it. However it conforms with the striated muscle position hypothesis of the bio-behavioist F. J. McGuigan. This position holds that the critical controlling event for autonomic arousal is covert neuro-muscular activity, and that arousal is an artifact of striated muscle conditioning rather than vice-versa.)

Finally, it is important to note that the Dollard and Miller hypothesis held that arousal or ‘anxiety’ was reinforced by avoidance and thus was operant in nature, and that for Damasio arousal assisted one in successfully parsing choices, and was elicited as a respondent due to pleasant or unpleasant emotional events.)


Rest in Peace (and Quiet)

In the literature of stress, stress is commonly attributed to a monolithic ‘flight or fight’ reaction that accounts for all attributes of the stress response, from fear and anxiety to the tension that is elicited in a distractive day. Yet for minor or small scale non conscious choices or distractions, this ‘stress’ response begins with merely the slight yet sustained activation of low threshold or Type 1 muscular fibers. These muscles are activated easily and rapidly, deactivate slowly, and when sustained quickly fail and cause pain and exhaustion. (This is why at the end of a distraction filled working day we commonly report not fear or anxiety, but merely a state of exhaustion) This activation pattern does not entail fear or anger and is generally not reported as anxiety. Because of the neuro-muscular characteristics of this type of muscular activity, reducing the salience or frequency of distractive events is not enough to disengage this sustained or tonic tension. Distractions instead must be totally eliminated for a sustained period of time, and this is what is implicitly done in meditative practices. The question, yet unanswered, is what is the relative role of rumination and distraction in the maintenance of these low level stressors.

The Cinderella Effect

A common truism is that distractions not only cause us to get tense and remain tense during the day, but that tension ‘builds’ until we are sore and exhausted. However, the neuro-muscular processes behind this event are not widely known. Named after the fairy tale character who was first to awake and last to sleep, this ‘Cinderella Effect’ represents the fact that slight but continuous distractions (e.g. the continuous choice opportunities of surfing the internet or accessing email instead of working) elicit the continuous activation of low threshold units (also called Type 1, slow twitch, or Cinderella fibers) of the striated musculature, which unabated will lead to their failure and the successive recruitment of other muscular groups to take up the slack. The result is pain, exhaustion, and often a literal pain in the neck. (To elicit a similar result, try lightly clenching your fist for a minute or so.) In addition, as the name Cinderella underscores, this muscular activity does not immediately cease when distractions cease, and is sustained even when we take a break or rest.

Thus, even slight or intermittent distractions will elicit sustained or ‘tonic’ muscular tension, and usually to harmful and painful effect. It follows logically that only a radical and sustained reduction in distraction can result in a totally relaxed state. Thus, to be relaxed, a reduction in distractive choices is not enough, distraction must instead be totally eliminated or deferred for a significant period of time, and that is what meditative practices implicitly do. The problem is that meditation also entails a radical reduction in rumination as well as distraction, and the emphasis in meditative disciplines on the control of rumination obscures the distinctive influence of distraction in maintaining tense or anxious states. (Indeed, the respective roles of rumination and distraction have never been separately studied in the scientific literature on meditation.) However, if distraction and only distraction can be monitored and avoided in the many environments that are stressful primarily because of distraction, then one can achieve the means to be relaxed, even if the level of rumination is not altered. Thus one can learn to become relaxed even in workaday environments.

The Cinderella Method

The procedure:

First: Take a mental or physical inventory of all the minor unessential judgments in a working day that would entail minor avoidable gain/loss. These 'distractions' included doing one's work vs. reading the newspaper, watching TV, chatting on the phone, internet surfing, or other diversions. This provides a comparative or base rate to compare future behavior, and trains you to notice or attend to distractive choices.

Secondly: Establish as a daily goal a set number, say three or four, of continuous hours of distraction free work. A continuous hour is 60 successive minutes without voluntarily engaging in a distractive activity (e.g. surfing the web, checking email, etc.) If you prefer not to work, just take a time out and sit passively.

That's it.

By continuously eliminating these distractive choices from major portions of the day, you can still anticipate and be aware of them, but you cannot be stressed by choosing between them. By deferring irreconcilable choices, tension falls, relaxation occurs, and you can go about your day more relaxed, more alert, more productive, and without the painful regret that occurs from a day misspent. Finally, by providing a feedback function to train attention and to compare behavior across days, you can compare corresponding emotional behavior (i.e., tension) across behavior or 'trials', demonstrate the efficacy of the procedure, and be reinforced for the overall effort by that feedback. In the language of behaviorism, this method is essentially a ‘time out’ procedure, wherein reinforcing events (i.e. distractions) are for a set time eliminated or deferred.

What the Cinderella Method Does

Practically, the Cinderella Method is essentially a method of exercising a control over tension in its often initial form as a subliminal behavior that escapes conscious awareness. Cinderella essentially eliminates the feasibility of making alternative choices, and because their loss cannot be avoided, tension will not occur. This method allows one to sustain a natural or homeostatic resting state that otherwise is disrupted in even a slightly distractive environment. Since for small distractions the proprioceptive stimuli which alert one to tension only indicate the presence of tension after tension has been sustained for some time, the isolation and control of the discriminative stimuli that are correlated with the initiation of slight or minor tension allow for tension to be avoided before its sustained occurrence taxes the musculature and autonomic nervous system. Conversely, the method also trains one to mentally recreate or ‘learn’ the proprioceptive stimuli associated with relaxation, and thus be able to ‘voluntarily’ induce relaxation. Since relaxation as a voluntary response (actually, what is learned is the inhibition of tension, since relaxation is not a response but is technically the non-activity of the musculature) is incompatible with tension, it will also mitigate tension caused by distraction and rumination even when both are not avoided.

The Cinderella Method sharply contrasts with prevalent stress control procedures, which emphasize the modification and control through psychotherapy and other means large scale or molar distractions or problems, such as domestic or other workaday difficulties and the rumination they entail. The Cinderella method is based on the premise that tension signals avoidance behavior and is reinforced by avoidance, and is thus operant in nature. But it differs critically from rumination based strategies for stress management because it engages the control of discriminative events (i.e. distraction) that generally do not engage conscious thought. Because control is easy, time consuming therapeutic intervention is not required. It is important to note that this procedure dramatically alters how we conceive meditative protocols induce relaxed states. Relaxation in other words is not achieved primarily through the manipulation or attenuation of conscious rumination, but merely by dramatically reducing non-conscious choice.

Finally, since it is based on the absolute reduction of distractive events that usually result in the opportunity loss of more productive behavior, the Cinderella Method is also at root a time management procedure, and its practice will allow us to have a far more productive use of our time that is combined with a far more stress free use of our time. Apart from a reduction in stress, the psychological benefits of being more productive will also counter balance feelings of depression and frustration that follow when we frequently survey a day misspent in distractive pursuits.

For more on the Cinderella effect, see my new e-book:


Marr, A. J. (2006) Relaxation and Muscular Tension: A Bio-behavioristic Explanation, International Journal of Stress Management, 13(2), 131-153

Marr, A. J. (2008) The Somatic Marker: An explanation from a radical behaviorism (under review)


Michelle Wood said...

Hello Dr Mezmer,

Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving your valuable comment. I agree that self-assessment at intervals throughout the day are very effective at reducing stress.

Perhaps if people followed your method, they wouldn't need to perform the Progressive Relaxation Technique to get to sleep at night.

However, when needed, it is very effective and much safer than taking medications.

Anonymous said...

Hello Dr Mezmer,

This Cinderella Method seems worthwhile to at least test... Only one thing remains unclear: Are readers to "do" distraction free work for three or four hours in a row - "successive," daily or are they to "do" ... for a continuous hour (60 successive minutes), three or four times in a day?