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The reticular activation system: alarm bells

Our nervous systems are constructed so that oft-repeated actions become "robotized."

Compare how conscious you were of driving when you were first learning with how

conscious you are of it now — especially, say, how conscious you are of driving a

route you know well, like your way to or from work. For that, our bodies no longer

need our conscious "guidance" at all. No route-planning is required; our nervous

system recognizes all the intersections where we always turn, keeps the car between

the lane lines, maintains a safe distance from the car in front; all the complex analyses

involved, what those brake lights and yellow flashing lights mean, how hard to push

on the accelerator, when to push on the brake and how hard, when to upshift or

downshift, are unconscious.

But let the highway department block off one lane of traffic for repairs, or send

you on a detour down less familiar streets; let a child run out into the street from

between parked cars, or an accident happen just ahead anything unusual — and you

instantly snap out of your reverie and become painfully alert, preternaturally aware

of your surroundings, on edge, ready to sift and sort and analyze all incoming data

so as to decide on the proper course of action.

This is a brain function called reticular activation. It is what is often called "alarm

bells going off" — the sudden quantum leap in conscious awareness and noradrenalin

levels whenever something changes drastically enough to make a rote or robotic,  habitual or subliminal state potentially dangerous. The change in your experience

can be outward, as when a child runs into the street in front of your car, or a family

member screams in pain from the next room, or you find your pleasant nocturnal

stroll interrupted by four young men with knifes; or it can be inward, as when you

suddenly realize that you have forgotten something (an appointment, your passport),

or that you have unthinkingly done something stupid or dangerous or potentially

embarrassing. When the change comes from the outside, there are usually physical

outlets for the sudden burst of energy you get from noradrenalin (which works like

an amphetamine) pumping through your body; when you suddenly realize that you

have just done something utterly humiliating there may be no immediate action

you can take, but your body responds the same way, producing enough noradrenalin

to turn you into a world-class sprinter.

Our brains are built to regulate the degree to which we are active or passive, alert

or sluggish, awake or asleep, etc. Brain scientists usually refer to the state of

alert consciousness as "arousal," and it is controlled by a nerve bundle at the core

of the brain stem (the oldest and most primitive part of our brains, which controls

the fight-or-flight reflex), called the reticular formation. When the reticular formation

is activated by axons bringing information of threat, concern, or anything else

requiring alertness and activity, it arouses the cerebral cortex with noradrenalin,

both directly and through the thalamus, the major way-station for information

traveling to the "higher thought" or analytical centers of the cerebral cortex. The

result is increased environmental vigilance (a monitoring of external stimuli) and a

shift into highly conscious reflective and analytical processes.

The translator's reticular activation is generally not as spectacular, physiologically

speaking, as some of the cases mentioned above. There is no sudden rush of fear,

shock, or embarrassment; the noradrenalin surge is small enough that it doesn't

generate the frantic need for physical activity, or the feeling of being about to

explode, of those more drastic examples. Still, many translators do react to reticular

activation with increased physical activity: they stand up and pace about restlessly;

they walk to their bookshelves, pull reference books off and flip through them,

tapping their feet impatiently (a good argument against getting those reference books

on CD-ROM, or finding on-line versions on the World Wide Web: it's good to have

an excuse to walk around the room!); they rock back violently in their chairs,

drumming their fingers on the armrests and staring intently out the window as if

expecting the solution to come flying in by that route. Many feel a good deal of

frustration at their own inability to solve a problem, and will remain restless and

unable to sink fully back into the rapid subliminal state until the problem is solved:

it's the middle of the night and the client's tech writer isn't at work; the friends and

family members who might have been able to help aren't home, or don't know;

dictionaries and encyclopedias are no help ("Why didn't I go ahead and pay that

ludicrous price for a bigger and newer and more specialized dictionary?!"); every

minute that passes without a response from Lantra-L or FLEFO seems like an eternity.



Channel 1

Channel 8 Channel 2

Channel 7

Channel 6

Channel 3

Channel 4

Channel 5




Figure 7 The systematic assessment of flow in daily experience

(Source: Fausto Massimini and Massimo Carli, "The Systematic Assessment of

Flow in Daily Experience" [1995: 270] (with permission from the Cambridge

University Press))

On this diagram, channels 1 and 2 are the optimal states for translators and

interpreters; channels 3-8, because they involve varying degrees of mismatch

between challenge and skill, are less desirable (though quite common). Channels

3-5 are found in competent translators whose work isn't challenging or varied

enough; channels 6-8 are found in translators of various competence levels in

overly demanding working conditions (impossible deadlines, badly written source

texts, angry and demanding initiators/ inadequate support).

The channels might also be used to describe translator and interpreter training

programs: the best programs will shuttle between 1 and 2; those that are too easy

will bore students in channels 3-5, and those that fail to maintain the proper

balance between challenge and student skills (fail, that is, to keep the former just

slightly higher than the latter) will demoralize students in channels 6-8.

Channel 1, Arousal: full conscious analytical awareness, activated by the reticular

formation. When the challenge posed by a translation task exceeds the translator's

skills by a small but significant amount, when a problem cannot be solved in the

When habit Jails 213

flow state, s/he must move into full arousal or conscious awareness. The subject

of this chapter.

Channel 2, Flow, the subliminal state in which translating is fastest, most reliable,

and most enjoyable - so enjoyable that it can become addictive, like painting,

novel-writing, or other forms of creative expression. The ideal state explored by

most of this book.

Channel 3, Control: a state of calm competence that is mildly satisfying, but can

become mechanical and repetitive if unenhanced by more challenging jobs.

Common in corporate translators after a year or two in the same workplace. New

variety and new challenges are needed for continued or increased job satisfaction.

Channel A, Boredom: the state that develops in translators who rarely or never

work anywhere close to their capacity levels.

Channel 5, Relaxation: a state of calm enjoyment at the ease of a translation job,

especially as a break from overwhelmingly difficult or otherwise stressful jobs.

The key to the pleasantness of this channel is its shortlivedness: too much

"relaxation/ insufficient challenges over a long period of time, generate boredom.

Channel 6, Apathy, a state of indifference that is rare in translators at any level

- except, perhaps, in undermotivated beginning foreign-language students asked

to translate from a textbook twenty sentences with a single grammatical structure

that is easy even for them.

Channel 7, Worry: a state of concern that arises in inexperienced translators

when faced with even mildly difficult problems that they feel they lack the

necessary skills to solve.

Channel 8, Anxiety: a high-stress state that arises in any translator when the

workload is too heavy, the texts are consistently far too difficult, deadlines are

too short, and the emotional climate of the workplace (including the family

situation at home) is insufficiently supportive.

When the solution finally comes, if it feels really right, the translator heaves a big

sigh of relief and relaxes; soon s/he is translating away again, happily oblivious to

the outside world. More often, some nagging doubt remains, and the translator

works hard to put the problem on hold until a better answer can be sought, but

keeps nervously returning to it as to a chipped tooth, prodding at it gently, hoping

to find a remedy as if by accident.