What Is Patience?

Patience is a time critical emotion, which provides the energy for perseverance in a task. The emotion is positive and it stills anger and annoyance in the face of delay, or provocation. It also energizes a person to carry on.

The emotion is initiated by the expectation of a reward and terminates, at the expiry of the expected time period for receiving the reward. Time is critical for patience.

While patience is advocated by religions as a virtue to be cultivated, it is mostly initiated and terminated by subconscious pattern recognition processes. Self control, heredity, culture and life experiences resolve the particular signals, which initiate and switch off the patience emotion within each individual.

  • Religions advocate patience as a virtue to be cultivated. Being patient brings its own reward of being virtuous.
  • Dopamine is released in the forebrain, when a reward is expected. Activation of the prefrontal regions inhibits activity in the amygdala, reducing negativity.
  • The release of dopamine is conditional. So those conditions determine the quality of patience.
  • Patience improves the quality of judgment.
  • Even among animals, the level of patience is determined by the timing of expected rewards.
  • Persistence is not necessarily the quality of patience.
  • Patience functions only during clear periods of rational thinking.
  • Optimists are likely to be more patient.
  • Patience is a matter of educating the mind to wait.

What Is Patience? - The Religious View
All religions praise the virtues of patience. The Hebrew Torah praises the patient man, because he “shows much good sense, but the quick-tempered man displays folly at its height." Christianity advises believers to be "be patient with all. See that no one returns evil for evil; rather, always seek what is good for each other and for all." The Quran advises Muslims to “be firm and patient, in pain and adversity and throughout all periods of panic.”

In Buddhism, patience is the ability to control one's emotions, when being criticized or attacked. Both Hinduism and Buddhism advise meditation, which helps to choose a patient approach to life itself. Since devotees believe patience to be a virtue, the practice of patience brings them its own reward in the induced satisfaction of being virtuous. An expectation of the rewards of virtue grants them the patient energy to withstand trials and tribulations.

What Is Patience? - Reduced Negative Emotions
Patience persists in the efforts to achieve a rewarding objective. Such persistence becomes possible because, a patient person is less vulnerable to the attacks of anger and annoyance in the face of setbacks. Professor Wolfram Schultz discovered that reward oriented behavior is promoted by the release of a group of neurotransmitters by neurons in the approach or avoid system, within the early reptilian part of the human brain.

These neurons detect signals in the environment, which indicate the possibility of a reward within a specific time frame. The time frame is decided by the duration of effort required for past fruitful experiences. By releasing dopamine, these neurons increase neural activity in the forebrain, mainly in the prefrontal regions, where attention and analysis take place. Heightened prefrontal activity inhibits the amygdala, a major emotions center. Reduced amygdala activity causes a patient person to be systemically less deterred by fear, anger and annoyance in the face of provocation.

What Is Patience? - Novelty And Time
It is not the reward, but the expectation of a reward, which releases dopamine. Its levels rise even if your objective is something as simple as wanting to cross the road. Increased dopamine strengthens forebrain activity, which brings clarity to objectives and makes a person feel more energetic and elated. Nature schedules the induction of such added focus and energy, timing it precisely to be sufficient to achieve desired objectives. Schultz recorded the timed release of dopamine by these neurons on detecting signals, which indicate the possibility of a reward.

Schultz noted that the release increases, if the reward is greater than what is expected. It continues only for the predicted time period, when a reward can be expected. The release reduces at the end of this period. The releases stop if the rewards have become a matter of routine. Evidently, creative effort is not needed, if the objective can be achieved mechanically. Thus, true patience, which overcomes obstructions creatively and without resentment, requires novelty and a systemic knowledge of the precise timings of expected rewards.

What Is Patience? - Judgment
An accurate judgment of the possibility of a reward, regardless of setbacks, is a prerequisite for patience. When the brain receives conflicting reports from different control nuclei in the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) decides the brain region, which should decisively control the motor system. Laboratory tests reveal the function of ACC, when a subject is asked to name the color of ink of a written word. While ACC is passive if the word “RED” is written in red ink, it becomes activated, if "RED" is written in blue ink.

ACC detects conflicts and activates those related regions, which can creatively resolve the conflict. The knowledge of the possibility of a reward increases levels of dopamine and optimizes this judgmental system. Such activation of ACC improves the judgment of the existence of the reward. Activity in ACC also inhibits anger and annoyance and grants energy to patience.

What Is Patience? - The Time Perspective Of Rewards
The instinctive time evaluation component of patience exists in humans and animals. Normally, both tend to choose quick short term rewards against larger longer term rewards. But, among animal species, a study found the marmosets to be more patient than the tamarins. The responses of these animals were tested, giving them the option to pick a lesser reward immediately or wait longer for a more substantial reward. The marmosets waited significantly longer than tamarins.

This difference was not caused by the differences in the life history, brain size, or social behavior of these animals. Since the marmosets feed on gum, which takes a long while to flow from trees, those animals were prepared to wait longer. The tamarins, which feed on easily available insects were less patient. A knowledge of the period of wait for a reward decides the levels of patience.

Is Patience? - Not Necessarily Persistence
Patience is decided by the related objective. The emotion is indicated when a person remains alert and actively engaged in life, in spite of setbacks, or even defeat. The objective of such a person may be peace of mind.

This is the approach of Eastern religions. A person may not persist in his efforts and accept defeat and still be patient. The prime objective of such people is not to achieve an external goal, but to meet an internal ambition.

Their goals are to accept life with equanimity. Annoyance and anger are stilled in their minds, since the reward they value and receive is peace of mind.

But, patience in defeat can have supporting nervous energy only if the expected reward is peace of mind. Without such energy, the experienced emotion in the face of defeat is resignation and passivity, not patience.

What Is Patience? - Alert, Without Annoyance, Or Despair
In seeking external rewards, patience is dynamic. In his famous novel, James Clavell outlines the patience of Lord Toranaga in his efforts to conquer his last powerful rival and become the Shogun of Japan. His objective was to be alert until “one day, he will make one mistake and then, he too will be gone!” The lord was watchful and engaged while he waited for his lethal opportunity.

Patience takes calm control of the mind, like the emotion of a fisherman, sitting with a baited hook. While it is but human to be occasionally overcome by negative emotions, the emotion of patience functions only during clear periods of rational thinking. A patient person perseveres without negative emotions. Those who are angry, or give up, are not exhibiting patience, but the emotions of vexation, defeat and despair.

What Is Patience? - Optimism Shifts The Goal Post
Patience, which struggles on, despite heavy odds against success, may come from an optimistic nature. Tali Sharot scanned the brains of optimists, who sustained a positive outlook towards events (a home team winning after 10 consecutive losses). ACC monitors conflict and decides motor activity, based on the emotional experiences of successes and failures.

The region interprets conflicting data, generating ERN (error related negativity) for errors and ERP (positive signals) for correct answers. Tali noted that, for optimists, ACC appeared to be more active. Their positive expectations of a reward endured longer. Just as motor impulses continue firing to contract muscles till the target is achieved, dopamine release continues longer for optimists, powering them to persist longer. Though their judgments may be biased, they were likely to be more patient in their efforts.

What Is Patience? - Educating The Mind To Wait
Patience is triggered by subconscious signals of expected rewards. The reward may be as simple as reaching a counter, while standing in a queue. The governing criterion is the internally expected timing of the reward. The energy and interest triggered by patience vanishes, when that expected period of wait is over. For those prone to impatience, the simple remedy may be to accept the possibility of a longer wait, or even that the counter will close before it is reached.

Patience comes from a realistic assessment of the time it takes to achieve a reward. Like marmosets, a willingness to wait helps all aspects of life. When such an objective is expressed consciously, those waiting periods at traffic lights, or in queues, can become periods, when the mind becomes relaxed and refreshed. When the reward is seen to be peace of mind, such periods will also fill the mind with energy.

This page was last updated on 02-Jan-2014



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