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The psychology of energy

- Lem Chetty

Wits researchers shed light on alternative energies and how to leverage them when we’re depleted and in the dark.

Mindfulness and mental health | Curiosity 15: #Energy ©

On a Monday work morning in South Africa, the conversations over coffee are not just about the countrywide energy crisis, but the physical and mental crises we are all experiencing as a result. Taxpayers are suffering a form of ‘loadshedding fatigue’, which manifests in disrupted sleep patterns – a case in point: ‘how to turn off a beeping alarm alert’ is a top FAQ on a major security company’s website, while managing ‘heat waves and mosquitoes while powerless’ dominates Google questions. Along with working around inverter capacity, traffic chaos, and the pressure of planning meals and cooking, we need an energy shift to deal with the dearth of electrical energy.

The science behind alternative energy (not the green kind)

South Africans (and other nations experiencing similar challenges) are in desperate need of life hacks to manage our personal energy. Tapping in to our own reserves may be a solution.

Dr Sahba Besharati, a neuropsychologist in the School of Human and Community Development at Wits says, “We know there are electrical frequencies in the brain. These can be picked up by an electroencephalogram [EEG] and they do change in wavelength at times. For example, these frequencies in the brain are different during sleep and during mindfulness practices.”

A different energy emanates from the brain as a result of chemical reactions. Think of the times you’ve felt love or happiness in the company of another person. That warm, fuzzy feeling is a chemical reaction, or a type of energy exchange, between people and some animals.

“There is a neurobiological aspect, which has to do with the increase in the hormone oxytocin, not just in romantic situations but between parents and babies, while breastfeeding, or during pregnancy, and sometimes with friends, when we feel effective touch or stroking, and interacting with our pets,” she says.

Biologically, the ‘energy’ – or chemical – comes from the pituitary gland in the brain. Scientifically, this helps facilitate attachments to other people (and pets), Besharati explains. Interestingly, oxytocin is available in some countries as a nasal spray! “Neuroscientists are testing to see if it can be used to help with postpartum depression, for instance,” she says.

Put a positive charge on your energy

Dr Lucy Draper-Clarke, who holds a PhD in Mindfulness and Education, says her research at Wits focuses on how to help people “develop daily, life-enhancing, contemplative practices” and focus their energy to helping others. This work bridges first-person experience with neuroscience research and offers ancient practices to meet modern demands.

Perhaps the reaction to a dead smartphone battery in the morning is not to search frantically for a power source, but to use the time to fire up your own energy. “If you start your morning with a fragmented, distracted mind, going from a cell phone call to an email, to social media, you will experience mental exhaustion. Whereas if you meditate every morning, there’s a better chance of your focusing on one thing and getting through that task more effectively. Research also tells us that multitasking is a misnomer – you use twice as much energy shifting between the tasks than if you focused on one at a time,” says Draper-Clarke.

A researcher-practitioner and facilitator of mindfulness meditation, yoga, and expressive movement through dance, Draper-Clarke says, “Closer to home, African practices such as dance and drumming cultivate energy through movement, stamping and dancing. Traditional healers can dance all night without tiring. The music and the drumbeat coming into the body helps them harness energy.”

“Conversely, Buddhist traditions work more with silence, stillness, and solitude, and understand that ‘energy follows focus’. A meditation practice helps us to work with energy, to cultivate and direct it to help others. In Qigong, the meridian lines that connect all the organs in the body have links to disease, dis-ease or illness. Acupuncture moves energy along these meridian lines. So there are effective ways to shift energy, we just must find what works best for us.”

Complaining about things we can do nothing about exhausts us and has no positive impact on the situation. Draper-Clarke says, “Our feelings are transferred to others; we impact those around us.” For example, when an angry person walks into a room, she says our neuroception picks up danger. The angry person is potentially dangerous. It shows up as a quiver down your spine, an awareness.

But the same goes for compassion. People are easily able to identify compassionate people and when they do, they feel safer and more open. We know that when people are emotionally regulated, their brain works better. So, my suggestion is to refocus our energy towards cultivating awareness and kindness, versus fear, in difficult times.”

Science tells us that the possibility to shift our energy exists within us all.

‘Musicking’ and energy

Music and art | Curiosity 15: #Energy ©

If you’ve ever stood too close to a speaker at a musical event, you can attest to ‘feeling’ the energy that sound waves generate. 

Dr Susan Harrop-Allin, Senior Lecturer in Community Music at Wits, says, “Sound waves, like light, are a form of energy, so music can be considered as a form of energy that we experience in a sensory way.”

She subscribes to the theory of Christopher Small who coined the verb ‘musicking’, which emphasises music as human action. It encompasses all musical activity, from composing, to performing, to listening and singing in your mind. Through ‘musicking’ anyone can access the energy of music, through various forms of participation. Perceptions that you must be talented to produce music are incorrect. Neuropsychology and musical psychology tell us that your brain is hardwired to do ‘musicking’ of any kind. 

“In experience one is energised by music, and collaborative music-making creates a special kind of energy between its participants. There is a useful term called ‘musical flow’ that describes what musicians feel when they’re in synchronisation with each other; when musical challenge and achievement are matched. There’s a timelessness about it, for example, when a choir or instrumental ensemble creates overtones – those sounds are produced through intense musical co-operation and listening to each other. We hear notes ‘above’ the melodies we’re singing, but which (magically) nobody is actually playing or singing.”

In South Africa music is a commonality, especially in our strong choral tradition in churches, singing and dancing for social occasions and rituals. “Musicking is integrated into our society, and not separate from it,” she says.

Draper-Clarke’s research concurs: “Music and community can support us and shift locked energy, even trauma. We do this through stamping, dancing, any rhythmic movement.”

To access musical energy, Harrop-Allin says it is often more satisfying to make music with a group, rather than individually, whether it’s through performing, creating, or listening.

“There is an immediate engagement with many parts of the brain; it just lights up. Listening is not passive, it’s participatory, with tapping with the beat and singing or hearing a song in your head.

Music has the unique ability to be heard and replicated in your brain. Hence, all human beings have musical potential. And music isn’t only the purview of the ‘talented’ but embedded in our experiences of being human.”

While she admits that music often does require ‘energy’ to be created or heard, sometimes the opportunity to go backwards can help … perhaps in a battery-operated or wind-up wireless radio.  

  • Lem Chetty is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced by Wits Communications and the Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation.
  • Read more in the 15th issue, themed: #Energy. We explore energy research into finding solutions for SA's energy crisis, illuminate energy needs of people with disabilities, address the energy and digital divide in an unequal society, and investigate the origins of fire control.