Feature Article from Jackie Lee

The Biology of Tilt

Jackie Lee

4/3/2013 10:01:00 AM

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To outsiders, Magic slang can seem pretty prohibitive. I mean, between the language and the game's history, there's a crazy amount of trivia you could learn.

“Sorry,” you might interrupt a person who's beginning to launch into a rant about some implicit 'Sligh' deck. “I can't understand your story. Instead of playing Magic for as long as you have, I spent an equivalent amount of time and energy on an M.D., Ph.D.”

Yet, I don't believe we've delved very deep into one of the game's most defining terms:


A Neural Act of Treason

The brain is a pretty complex place. That's good, because if it weren't, I'm pretty sure we wouldn't have as much fun playing Magic.

What's weird is that a part of the brain that's hundreds of thousands of years old can suddenly interfere with how you tap your mana. Please, join me as I explore “what's up with that.”

Hundreds of millions of years ago, our ancestors had only a crude “reptilian” brain that controlled basic bodily functions, like remembering to breathe and keep their heart going. It's shaped roughly like a Gomazoa.

Very early mammals grew a “limbic system” of brain matter on top of that reptilian brain, giving them emotions and memories. This is why mammals got to survive in E.V.O.: Search for Eden, for the Super Nintendo.

Now, we've got a final prefrontal cortex, adding the final layer and ensuring that the layers of our brains are easier to understand than the ones in Magic. The prefrontal cortex is where all the logic and reasoning happen. It's pretty much the most important region for higher-level functioning, such as in Magic.

The amygdala, located in the limbic layer, is the part of the brain that freaks out if something goes wrong. It's that annoying brain section whose car alarm keeps going off for no reason. With only low levels of stress, the prefrontal cortex is able to shut it up, which is what usually happens.

When the amygdala becomes extremely stimulated by stress, however, it “hijacks” the brain, causing the prefrontal cortex to shut down. This makes a lot of sense for an early mammal because it had to snap into fight-or-flight mode immediately in the face of danger. If it wasted time thinking about stupid things like what kind of berries it would like to eat for supper, that'd be the end of it.

It probably makes a lot of sense for someone like Borborygmos, but times are different now. We can't just be running around the forest, costing eight mana and sporting a loincloth. We have decks to build and turns to plan. Even our mulligans require lots of consideration and are worthy of debate.

So if our prefrontal cortex shuts down? We are screwed. Sorry, logic and reasoning. We've got other things to take care of, like making sure to breathe.

This sort of response can be triggered by any strong emotion that poses a threat, according to the amygdala. Fear is one, but so is anger.

Psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal explains:

"During rage attacks … those parts of the brain that are central to feeling and expressing anger, such as the amygdala and the hypothalamus, Commandeer the rest of the brain. In this wholesale takeover, the cerebral cortex is overwhelmed and restraint and reasoning are impossible. … Although rage—by which I mean anger that is extreme, immoderate or unrestrained—may be adaptive as a response to severe threat, in most situations it destroys much more than it accomplishes.”

Rosenthal says that "an old myth is that it is best to let your anger out when you feel it. New evidence, however, suggests that releasing it only makes it worse. To your nervous system, the release may be more a rehearsal, enhancing the neural pathways involved."

Who knew? Practice makes perfect—even for such activities as "getting incredibly pissed off."

In therapy, safe expression of anger is healthy only if it leads to resolution and a deeper understanding of oneself. If it doesn't go anywhere, however, it could only be making things worse by ingraining the habit.

Solutions: Disarming the Goblin Car Alarm

Thankfully, there's a lot that can be done about the amygdala entering such a “tilted” state. Rosenthal describes some strategies for managing anger, which include:

Recognizing that your anger is a problem.

If you don't honestly acknowledge this, you're enabling the anger to keep controlling you. It may feel somewhat cathartic to rage to your friend about how lucky/stupid/unattractive your last opponent was in game three, but you're not doing yourself any favors by pretending this is helpful.

Take a time-out.

When you're angry, the body is physically surging with hormones. Taking some time to cool off can also give them time to Dissipate from your blood stream.

Relax your body to retrain your mind.

You can't be both highly aroused and relaxed simultaneously, so by breathing deeply and changing your thoughts, you can recondition yourself to remain cool in difficult situations. Over time, this becomes easier.

Start to change the way you think.

It's not easy to replace your negative thoughts with more constructive ones, as evinced by everyone who has ever used the chat feature on Magic Online. But it is worth it, because over time, you'll be happier and more cool-headed. That will keep your prefrontal cortex large and in charge.

Sending Signals: In The Body's Draft, Heart Passes to Brain

There are actually more layers to tilt than merely “the Amugaba causes something bad to happen.”

Studies have demonstrated that emotional stress can actually reduce blood flow to the heart. This can't be regarded as a good thing in any way, but how bad is it?

Well, studies having correlated weak heart function with atrophy of brain matter. When 20% of blood is going to powering your brain, that's not too surprising. But if you're chronically stressed, it could be sad times for your prefrontal cortex.

 Curse of the Pierced Heart
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Magic MTG Card
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Magic MTG Card

As it turns out, the heart is an emotional “mini-brain” that sends information to the actual brain. Telling the amygdala to push the emergency stop button on your prefrontal cortex is one of the things it can do.

"The heart sends more information to the brain than the brain sends back to the heart. … When we're experiencing stress, the heart's pattern gets jerky and arrhythmic and signals a chaotic pattern to the brain. The heart tells the brain, Go into survival mode. Shut down higher cortical functions. Thus, when our heart registers stress, it signals our cortex to shut down and go into survival mode."
—Dr. Deborah Rozman, president of HeartMath, Inc.

When that fight-or-flight state is entered, the stress hormone, cortisol, is dumped into your blood stream.

The problem is, these stress hormones can temporarily block access to even strong memories—like how to tap your mana correctly. In one experiment, rats had learned a particular maze and could run it easily. However, when given an electrical shock 30 minutes prior to the test, they couldn't remember how to get through.

This temporary blockage of stored memories is another way that tilt interferes with intelligent gameplay. But that's only Level One.

Here's Level Two: Chronic stress leads to loss of concentration, causing people to become “inefficient and accident-prone,” according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. “In children, the physiologic responses to chronic stress can clearly inhibit learning.”

But wait! There's more! “Studies have connected long-term exposure to excess amounts of cortisol … to shrinking of the hippocampus, the brain's memory center.”

So, over time, if you repeatedly allow yourself to become stressed, your memory storage area will actually wear away. Is that why Distress has us discarding cards, like lost memories? Thankfully, you don't need memory to play high-level Magic. (Oh wait.)

Because stress impairs memory, it can lead to a feedback loop of poor play and tournament stress.

You need to break the loop.

(Especially you, Borborygmos. You're not impressing anyone with that hippocampus-shrinking tantrum.)

Solutions: Slaying the Stress Elemental

Use Stress for Good
Cortisol has one more function I haven't described: it can also improve memory and performance.

For the maze-running rats, this happened either two minutes or four hours after subjection to cortisol. The memory-blocking effect only occurred at 30 minutes.

Instead of throwing up my hands at ever understanding rats, I think this is a hopeful sign. If our brains work similarly, then we can try to use those stressful situations to Invigorate us to perform better, rather than worse.

Just because you've made one error doesn't mean you have to throw the whole match away. Take it for what it is: a sign that you need to buckle down if you want to win.

Physically relaxing, again, can help us regain control of our faculties. Dr. Rozman explains:

"When we perform simple relaxation or coherence exercises that encourage us to feel positive emotions—love, appreciation, tolerance—heart-rhythm patterns are smooth. The brain then tells the frontal lobes that all systems are go, and you are able to open up to your most creative, intuitive, clear thinking. It's safe to develop your potential and to transform stress into creative energy."

The simplest relaxation exercise is to take a few deep breaths. A long, deep exhale activates our calming parasympathetic nervous system, the opposing side of the fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system.

You can also try relaxing your muscles, touching your lips (which contain many parasympathetic nerve endings), pleasant imagery, practicing mindfulness of your body, or meditation.

Reframe: Sharpie Black-Border, Anyone?
Stress is associated with a high perception of responsibility with a low perception of control—like when you have no idea why you just nodded and said "okay" instead of using the Syncopate you've been saving for exactly this situation.

One method of reassuming a sense of control used in stress management is called 'reframing.' This technique involves acknowledging that our knee-jerk reaction might not be completely accurate, then giving it a more positive light.

For example, take that Magic Online player we were talking about. The card you drew probably doesn't merit this reaction:

xSuperDave45x: I'm going to break into your home and urinate on your pillow.

In xSuperDave45x's mind, it seems like your topdeck was the end of the world. Actually, xSuperDave45x has a lot going on in his life, and should be comfortable taking a loss every now and then. Once he acknowledges this, he can try to reframe his anger in a positive way.

xSuperDave45x: Wow, it was really unlikely that you'd draw that card. Do you have multiples? I wonder if I let you have an extra turn somehow. This game doesn't really matter, but if I can learn to improve my play, I'll win many other games like these in the future.

Take a Break
Finally, if you need to take a week or two off, just do it. If you're not enjoying the game, don't like the format, or if you just have too much going on, then don't worry about scraping a deck together to play untested at the PTQ in two days. If you're burned out, you probably have symptoms of chronic stress, and those will only make things worse if you keep trying to push through it blindly.

Remember, it's not a sign of weakness. It's just how our bodies were programmed. For stress management, taking a break is the equivalent of power-cycling your modem.

Shorty Got Flow

If all of these concepts sound like monsters from a biological nightmare, then the theme which ties them together is flow.

Or, more accurately, the prevention of flow.

I wrote about this positive psychology concept in another article, but the short of it is that 'flow' is the psychological term for 'the zone,' and it's a state that you can achieve over time with increased mastery of a skill.

We play our best Magic in the flow state, because we're completely engaged and playing for the sheer enjoyment of playing. Our creativity is at its peak; we can see all the lines stretched out before us, like a spider web after a stock photographer has misted it with a spray bottle.

Flow requires a high perceived skill level, as well as a high perceived challenge level. If tilt has robbed us of the play skill we would have under other circumstances, then there's no way we're reaching the flow region of that graph. Magic is a game of creativity and open-mindedness. Anything that takes you out of this state reduces your chances of winning.

But on that note, we don't really play Magic to win, no matter how competitive we may be. We play to enter that flow state, and experience the game with the most possible depth. We want to see ourselves at our best, and to see what we can really do.

Whether we win or lose, we want to really shine.

It Matters Not How Strait the Guildgate

As competitive Magic players, we're really aspiring to be a sort of mental athlete. For the best trained athletes, skill is only one factor in success. How they respond to stressful and difficult situations can be even more important; it is those situations that determine how they will choose to learn and grow.

I hope that by shedding light on some of the body's processes, you can better understand what's going on inside you during a high-stress situation. There's no need to feel bad about responding the way your body is hard-wired to do. However, now that you know what's happening and why, I hope you'll find it easier to take the necessary measures to stay in control. And eventually, that will come naturally.

The Phyrexians almost had it right: We all deserve a little flow in our lives.

Love and battle,
Jackie Lee——

@JackieL33 on Twitter