Mental Strength

Question Gus was asked on Quora today: What makes people mentally strong?

Reply: Is it the design of a bridge, for example, that makes it strong? The way it harmonises with the forces of Nature rather than defies them?

Or is it the quality of the materials that went into its construction? Or is it the quality of workmanship (workpersonship?) that knits the whole thing together?

There are always several dimensions that contribute to the “strength” of any functional aspect of living.

From a neurophysiological point of view, what makes you mentally strong is the conductivity of your neural circuitry: the better your brain pathways flow, the more information and finer instructions they can carry. And by “better” in this case, I mean greater versatility: being able to carry a broader range of signals at varying frequencies—this is what a mature neural pathway can do, as contrasted with immature neural pathways which limit the range of emotions and actions which they can initiate. (Which is the source of fixed mental patterns like phobias and addictions.)

This is what produces the focused, resilient individual: who finds it relatively easy to get “into the zone” where he or she can make best use of their faculties and so perform at their best.

However, breadth of stimulus and experience plays an important role in determining when a person can be strong as well. People who develop their abilities along too narrow a spectrum, such as overly focused athletes, may too easily find themselves at a loss when confronted with situations which lay outside their normal experience. So they can only display “mental strength” in a limited range of situations. Their experience has not been varied enough to permit them to adapt to novel situations readily.

So one’s mental strength is partly a function of one’s current environment. It is not as easy to access one’s mental strength in unfamiliar surrounding as it is in familiar ones. On the other hand, a person who is used to encountering unfamiliar situations may find it easier to access their strength than when they are confronted by the routine. Hence extreme sportspeople, for example, are at their happiest and best when having to respond to the unexpected.

If you’re looking for a simple answer which distils down the functional essence of what makes a person strong, able to prevail in life’s situations without too much difficulty—or by overcoming great difficulty—then the answer would have to be: adaptability.

It is well established in zoology that this is what determines the viability of a species as well as the viability of any organism within that species, more than any other factor. How well can you find ways to adapt to new situations and requirements and challenges—or find ways to stably adapt your environment to your own requirements? That is what determines mental strength and resilience more than any other single factor.

Which begs the question: What determines how adaptable a person can be?

This is what I have been researching at a practical level for the past 30 years. And the short answer is: the command a person has over their own attention. How well he or she can focus where they want to, when they want to and to the degree of concentration they want to.

Conversely, what makes a person mentally weak is the opposite: avoidance and obsession, where a person’s finds their attention not under their own control, but is “taken” by things you can’t help thinking about, or resists focusing on what you should or could be focusing on to get better results.

Whenever you encounter persisting difficulty at doing something, or continue to feel disappointed about some aspect of your life, your ability to attend to that aspect of life needs to be boosted. When that happens, suddenly everything feels easier to cope with.

Only a few of Gus’s answers on Quora have been copied to this blog. To see more of his material on Quora click here.
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Posted March 20, 2019 at 4:40 pm by Gus Griffin · Permalink
In: Misc