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.
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
For my peace of mind, I earmarked 20 minutes for meditation on the terrace. With my eyes closed, I sense my hands on the chair and feel the numbness in my feet.
I feel my breath flowing through my nose, my throat, my chest and my stomach. I can hear the chirping of birds, the phut phut of auto rickshaws, the occasional roar of a truck and the insistent hooting of horns.
The wide sky and the treetops come to my attention, when I open my eyes, I see a pale moon over two hundred thousand miles away. I see the nuclear fires, blazing for millions of years in the pale globe of the setting sun. I see a single star millions of miles away in space.
I can see green shoots coming up on a tree, watch the dives and swoops of birds, the great circles of the hawks and flocks of birds flying home for the night.
Diffused light from the sun reflects off a parrot on the tree and enters my eye through a pinhole opening. I sense the bustling mood of the bird, even though it is smaller than a drop of water in my eyes.
All these things are seen and felt by me in a few brief minutes. In the distance, is the head of a man seeming to be no bigger than a pea. Yet, that head too sees and feels such things. Ten million people in this great city see and feel in ten million ways.
My mind wanders to a misty view of postwar London; an exciting glimpse of Disneyland. An awed view of Tiananmen Square. The looming Himalayan ranges. My mind takes me to distant galaxies.
It carries me into the heart of millions of invisible neurons, where electrical charges flash thousands of times a second powering my contemplation. I see the campaigns of Julius Caesar and Alexander. I feel the longings of Jehangir.
Already my mind has taken me to palaces, battlefields and even the stars. If I lost everything, but can just see and feel, in just a few brief minutes, my mind can travel the world, or imagine the cosmos.
While my thoughts wandered far and near, the thought "20 minutes is a long time" also kept floating in. And yet, life has already blessed me with over twenty million waking minutes! I have an infinity of time on my hands. Have I a right to expect more from life?
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