Upstairs/Downstairs in our Brain - What's running our show?
A talk given at the Sept. 9, 2014, session of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Chaos Seminar Series.
Upstairs/Downstairs in our brains -
running our show?
This talk starts with a brief brain
101 elementary anatomy review, and then offers a cherry picking review of recent trends
in brain systems research that correlate what is going on in our brains with
our behaviors. We want to know what normally makes us tick, what distortions
might underlie addictive, impulsive, aggressive,
stressed, depressed, or anxious behaviors, and what therapies might counter
these distortions. I will focus on
structure-activity-behavior correlations in three brain state distinctions that
are currently being emphasized: Upstairs/downstairs and attentional/default mode systems that are a spontaneous part of our normal behavioral repertoire,
and the cognitive therapy or mediation systems whose training, development, and
expression can alter them.
Brains are a good topic for a chaos
and complexity seminar.
My first college biology course over
50 years ago had the standard joke “the brain has 1010 neurons, except for the cerebellum, which has 1012 and a common
number you see is that the average neuron has 10,000 to 100,000 connections,
each of which can be extremely complex and plastic, changeable. Those estimates have gone up since
then, Current estimates are that a complete anatomical diagram would require at
least one zetabyte, or 1021, or strictly, 270 bytes of
This talk presents some brain 101
elementary anatomy and then notes some recent trends in brain systems research
that try to relate what is going on in our brains to our behaviors. We want to
know what makes us tick, and also
perhaps tweak the system a bit when we are not getting things together so
well. We would like to obtain a
better understanding of what might be going on in OCD, stress, chronic
depression, impulsive or aggressive behaviors.
You frequently see descriptions
emphasizing alternative brain states in a nice either/or bipolar way. Terms like
System 1 (fast) /System 2 (slow)
This can be partly correct,
useful, but is a bit simple minded.
We’re really dealing with complex networks with many nodes or
hubs, like an air traffic network. I thought of switching the title to simply “what’s going on in our brains” but that didn’t sound very sexy, so I stayed with the upstairs/downstairs
There’s a lot of buzz today about brain science, Obama’s Brain Initiative, etc., so I
thought I would start us off with a bit of showbiz that reinforces this and
promises more than we can really deliver. We’ve
come a long way from the crude PET images of Posner and Raichle that were
getting us excited 20-25 years ago, you’ve
probably seen these images, reproduced many times.
The same areas that register more
activity during vision, hearing, speaking are where strokes or other lesions
compromise those function.
These images are a far cry from all
the bells and whistles of this 3-D animation of brain activity from Gazaley’s fly through brain. (You should be able to click on the image
and view the video.)
This is supposed to be an
anatomically-realistic 3D brain visualization depicting real-time
source-localized activity (power and "effective" connectivity) from
EEG (electroencephalographic) signals. Each color represents source power and
connectivity in a different frequency band (theta, alpha, beta, gamma) and the
golden lines are white matter anatomical fiber tracts. Estimated information
transfer between brain regions is visualized as pulses of light flowing along
the fiber tracts connecting the regions.
Here is the descriptive gobbledegook (to
me, that is) that goes with the movie… please
let me know if you find a refereed scientific article that has this
information, as of August 2014 I haven’t been able to.
Carl Zimmer's article that pointed me
to this said that "the volunteer was simply asked to open and shut her
eyes and open and close her hand." If so, what about at least labeling the
moving graphics "eye shutting" "eye opening" "hand
opening" "hand closing," and could they maybe tell us which
colors refer to which frequency bands? Very frustrating. I dug around for a while
on their websites I could find anything approaching a manuscript or reference
information, but wasn’t
willing to spend more time on it.
This is an extreme example of the
kind of presentation people doing psychology and cognitive neuroscience seem to
feel compelled to offer these days, whether due to the difficulty in attracting
funding or the quest for celebrity status. You can’t
just send in a paper and have it reviewed and published. You have to do a press release through
your institution, fire off an op-ed piece to the new york times, get your agent
to send a spiel to science writers and bloggers, maybe even before the work is
submitted for publication, and
certainly by the time it under review or accepted for a forthcoming date. At least once a week I get a ‘we think your MindBlog readers would
be interested in….
fill in the blank.)
I’ll show you another gee-whiz macro depiction that comes
from the new Clarity technique, which uses a clever mixture of solvents to
replace nerve membrane lipids with a transparent gel so that fluorescently
labeled neurons can be visualized.
Here’s a 3-D animation of a mouse brain’s neurons (Again, click to
I’ll throw in a final visual treat that gets down to the
ultrastructure of individual nerve cells. Getting into detailed brain wiring requires the analysis of thousands of
serial sections of electron microscope images, here is a reconstruction of a
group of retinal bipolar cells.
This work is extremely laborious …50 hrs to do one retinal neuron from electron
microscope serial sections. Seung, at MIT and now Princeton, has asked for help
from the general public (“citizen
to crowd source it. Their data on
how bipolar cells connect to amacrine motion detecting cells in the retina has
suggested a model for motion detection (two bipolars, first delays output so
arrival at amacrine is simultaneous, this might signal motion of moving spot
that serially excites the bipolars.) This model is hand waving until electrical
recording are done from the suggested circuit’s cells.
This animation of their results at
the indicated URL is a treat to watch. (Click to watch).
Knowing this anatomy doesn’t get you there, a functional
description would have to include information that synapses are awash in
neurotransmitters, hormones, modulatory peptide (small proteins), neural-growth
factors that alter the transmission of signals. Synapses constantly form and
dissolve, weaken and strengthen, in response to new experiences. Old brain
cells die, new ones are born, genes are constantly turning on and off. The
brain is most likely processing information at many levels below and above that
of individual neurons and synapses…. Obama’s Brain initiative and the Brain
Activity Map project can only be groping to define the playing field, rather
than assuming that we now know what it is.
As noted in the above summary graphic
by Grillner, we’re
not going to be able to avoid detailed and tedious studies of the many levels
of organization that go into building a behavior.
OK, enough of the fancy
So, three questions make the gestalt
for this talk: a general introduction on what’s
there, then get into some structure-activity-behavior correlations focusing on
these three brain state distinctions that recent work has more explicitly
distinguished: Upstairs/Downstairs, attentional/default, meditation systems. And then a bit on the ‘so what?’ question.
Why do I list meditation? It is not
like the Upstairs/Downstairs and Attentional/Default mode networks that are spontaneously going on all the
time - it requires training. Well, because meditation or cognitive
therapy correlates with brain changes and is training in discriminating where
we are at - at a given moment - with respect to IIa. and IIb., and perhaps allows us to have some
influence on their expression.
I’ll start with a
bit of brain 101, reminding of some core areas it is useful to be familiar with.
The assignment of functions to brain areas has come from correlating sensory or motor behaviors with imaging or electrical recordings, as well as noting the behavioral effects of regional brain
damage from strokes or tumors.
The figure labels the primary visual,
auditory, somatosensory, and other areas. In general information coming in first projects to the back of the brain
and then moves forward in a dorsal stream that is figuring out the spatial
relationships in the environment so that it can act on them and a ventral
stream that is concern with the identity and meaning of what is coming in. The frontal lobes that are focusing
attention actually feed back to the primary sensory areas to enhance processing
Kosslyn and Miller have done a recent
trade book called “Top
Brain - Bottom Brain: Surprising In sights into How You Think.” in
which they offer this ventral/dorsal pathway distinction as a general description of a bottom brain system
that classifies and interprets information from the world and a top brain system
that formulates and executes plans.
They charge on to explain four basic
personality types based on this simple distinction:
The Movers are your winners, top brain action people who actually
also use the bottom have to pay attention to the consequences of their actions
and use the feedback.
Their stimulator is more a ‘damn the cannons, full speed ahead’ kind of person, less inclined to
attend to bottom pathway, the consequences of their actions and know when
enough is enough.
The Perceiver is mainly bottom brain
interpreters, unlikely to initiate top brain detailed or complex plans.
Finally, the people with lazy top and
bottom brains are your ‘whatever…’ types, absorbed by local events and
immediate imperative, responsive to ongoing situations. i.e. the U.S. electorate.
Other popular books offer alternative
modern phrenologies that emphasize different sets of functions.
The most common drawings you see,
like this, just show the external surface of the neocortex,
We need to look also medial views
like the right side of this figure of divisions of the frontal lob.
and also cross sections showing how
the convoluted cortex curls around
on the inside:
I’ve labeled cingulate, amygdala, insula - all considered
part of the inside or bottom brain limbic lobe system.
Here is a slide of a cross section
with colors marking the areas.
The insula is like the sensory cortex
of interior self, sensing viscera, interoceptive awareness, homeostasis,
emotions like disgust, social emotions, part of the downstairs brain limbic
The amygdala has a primary role in
emotional reactions, also decision making and memory. The right amydala activity correlates
more with negative stuff and left amygdala activity with positive stuff.
The cingulate cortex lies just over
the corpus callosum, the bundle of fibers linking the two hemispheres, sort of
linking cognitive frontal functions with emotions. Error detection,
conflict monitoring, pain, motivation and reward.
The insula plus the dorsal anterior
cingulate cortex connect as the central part of the salience network that gives
the first cognitive signal of behaviorally salient events such as errors.
These internal structures are harder
to nail down than the outer layers of the cortex (visual, motor, somatosensory,
auditory, etc.), have their fingers in many homeostatic and other functions,
(If you lesion the former, you get fairly tidy agnosias of vision, hearing, or
smell, or motor deficits of some sort, lesions of the latter generate more
chaotic global effects).
More recent work has moved beyond the
above visualization of large blobs of areas to get down to finer parcellations,
down to about 1000 regions of interest, arrived at by using a flavor of MRI,
magnetic resonance imaging, called diffusion tensor imaging that looks at
perturbations of water diffusion caused by obstacles, from which the paths of
bundles of axons, i.e. white matter tracts, and brain connectivity (bottom
right of figure below) can be computed.
The connectivity profile of brain
networks looks something like an
air traffic network with larger and smaller airports… a group of 12 strongly interconnected
bihemispheric hub regions form, called a “rich club” comprised of frontal and parietal cortex, precuneus,
cingulate and the insula, as well as the hippocampus, thalamus, and
putamen. This is work published in
2011. More recent work has done a
more fine grained analysis finding subnetworks, and suggesting alternative
You can watch these connectivity
networks go bonkers during something like watching a scary movie when your
pumping adrenaline, the blue stuff shows brain regions that get more active and
connected, averaged over many subjects. β-adrenergic receptor blockade diminishes this increase.
Exposure to acute stress prompts a
reallocation of resources to a salience network, promoting fear and vigilance,
in which the dorsal anterior cingulate and anterior insulas are central at the
cost of an executive control network. After stress subsides, resource
allocation to these two networks reverses, which normalizes emotional
reactivity and enhances higher-order cognitive processes important for
Nudging more into the second topic,
II activity behavior correlations,
Let’s start with upstairs/downstairs.
Here is an example of the sort of
graphic you can see in the literature:
This is from work of Kevin Ochsner
and colleagues at Columbia who used functional magnetic resonance imaging to
compare the neural correlates of negative emotions generated by the bottom-up
perception of aversive images and by the top-down interpretation of neutral
images as aversive.
They found that both types of
responses activated the amygdala, although bottom-up responses did so more
- bottom-up responses activated
systems for attending to and encoding perceptual and affective stimulus
properties, whereas top-down responses activated prefrontal regions that
represent high-level cognitive interpretations
-self-reported affect correlated with
activity in the amygdala during bottom-up responding and with activity in the
medial prefrontal cortex during top-down responding.
Looking at data like this makes
descriptions like top brain/bottom brain, upstairs/downstairs seem a rather
crude way of putting it…you’re seeing activities all over the
place, but the blue stuff, that
shows greater activity for top-down processing, does in general reside above
the yellow orange stuff, greater for bottom up than top down.
Here is another illustration of
downstairs and upstairs response systems from Dolan’s
lab at the Welcome Inst. in London. Here they are watching people play a
computer game in which they are in a maze, and are told that they are being pursued
by a virtual predator that can chase, capture, and inflict pain. When the
predator is perceived as being at some distance moving in the maze is more a
cognitive escape puzzle, but as the virtual predator draws close, things get a
bit more gutsy, and brain activity shifts from the ventromedial prefrontal cortex
to the periaqueductal gray, along with an increased subjective feeling of dread
and decreased confidence in escape
Another example…Etkin and his collaborators at
Stanford have done a meta analysis
of a large number of studies showing that in anxious and depressed individuals
the amygdala, insula and superior
temporal gyrus, and dorsal anterior cingulate are over-reactive while the
cortex and caudate body are under-reactive.
(i.e. the brain’s
downstairs is over-riding the upstairs.)
Cognitive training exercises that
reinforce a positivity bias and enhance working memory (they are easily
available on the web) lessen this upstairs/downstairs imbalance. And, MRI data indicates an enhancement of medial prefrontal activity.
So, this is an example of upstairs
telling downstairs to chill, and here is another one:
Kober et. al. do a variation of the
classic you can have one piece of candy right now or two if you wait awhile. Later versus Now trials.
The top frame shows medial and
lateral views of brain regions that show greater activation in the LATER vs.
NOW trials, when study participants use a cognitive strategy to reduce their
The circled or highlighted
activations are in regions know to be involved in regulation of aversive
The bottom frame shows coronal and
medial views of brain regions that have reduced activation in LATER vs. NOW
trials. The circled highlighted
reductions are in regions involved in cue-induced craving or emotion.
[corr, Corrected for multiple
comparisons; uncorr, uncorrected for multiple comparisons.]
In general high subjective well being
correlates with left frontal activation and anterior cingulate activation,
lower amygdala activation, the
upstairs telling the downstairs to chill.
This figure from my book describes
another feature of the upstairs/downstairs motif. Downstairs is fast, upstairs is
slow. Downstairs offers a quick and
dirty route that bypasses higher cognitive perception and interpretation to get
the amygdala excited and initiating avoidance movement before higher centers have
decided whether the shape in your peripheral vision is a snake or a wavy piece
of rope on the ground.
Of course it couldn’t be that simple, subsequent work has shown that there are
multiple waves of activation in pathways from retina to amygdala that involve
In terms of behavior
correlations, these examples have
been contrasting cognitive frontal mainly inhibitory controls than can regulate
more rapid medial lower areas like the amygdala where habitual routines and
learned emotions reside. It
takes increased activity in our frontal cortex to override addictions and
cravings fueled by deeper structures in our old mammalian brains, or to dampen
the inappropriate reactivity of our amygdala.
Ideally there is an upstairs
downstairs balance that does not allow either uninhibited limbic emotional
reactivity or a frontal control freak to run the show.
Distinguishing upstairs more frontal
and cognitive areas from downstairs more medial emotional regions segues into
another important distinction, the attentional versus default
systems. Here are the kinds of
descriptions you see in the literature:
I’m going to zoom through a number of summary depictions of
these systems so you can get the general gestalt, you’re probably not going to want to get
immersed in trying to remember all the regions or anatomy.
The attentional and control system is
more frontal and lateral - The blue stuff in this graphic from a Buckner review
The default system. the red and
yellow stuff, is associated with
the medial temporal and frontal inside of the brain, that participates in internal modes of
cognition, when we are not focusing on external environment, task oriented.
Here is what lights up during different
kinds of internal mentation…thinking about future, theory of mind, etc.
These default regions are only
sparsely functionally connected at early school age (7–9 years old); over development, these
regions integrate into a cohesive, interconnected network.
Here is a slightly more fine grained
breakdown of nodes in these systems from Fair et al. (PLOS Computational Biology (DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000381):
This slide color codes points, hubs,
or nodes in four main networks that can be distinguished in the attentional and
Red is the default mode network -
bilateral posterior cingulate/precuneus, inferior parietal cortex, and
ventromedial prefrontal cortex - all show a decrease in activity during
Yellow and black get more active in
goal-directed tasks, yellow a frontal parietal network that acts on shorter
timescales to initiate and adjust top-down control.
The black cingulo-opercular network
operates on a longer timescale providing “set-initiation” and stable “set-maintenance” for the duration of task blocks.
Along with these two task control
networks, a set of blue cerebellar regions showing error-related activity
across tasks forms a separate cerebellar network that connects to both the
yellow fronto-parietal and black
The networks develop from a local to
distributed organization during development.
Here is the final visualization of
task positive versus default mode activities that I will flash up, done by Jack et al. Here is their MRI imaging summary of
brain regions whose activity correlates with these distinctions in both
hemispheres, left is lateral,
center medial, and right is both graphically splayed out as a continuous sheet.
Blue and green are physical task
positive areas, mostly outside lateral parietal frontal surface of cortex, yellow
and red are default mode experiential social mostly inside medial,
Their fMRI measurements show
reciprocal inhibition between social and physical cognitive domains. Empathy
and social cognition suppress analytic thought, and vice versa. We have a physiological constraint on
our ability to simultaneously engage these two distinct cognitive modes.
They suggest that where their
activities overlap could be intentional use of mental state representations for
prediction and manipulation, a co-activation of task positive and default mode
Here is their cartoon summary of the
specializations of attentional and default mode and their collaboration.
Just as with our upstairs/downstairs
behavior drivers there is an optimal balance between attentional and default
modes. With respect to their behavioral correlates, they both get a good press
and a bad press.
In general the attentional mode is
valued as giving our control to more frontal cognitively and metabolically
demanding activities. It is needed
for episodic memory formation, along with deactivation of the default mode
network. Its downside can come with being a control freak, too much attentional
control, suppression of spontaneity and creativity. The attentional upstairs frontal stuff is more susceptible to aging, and most of us
find it more of an effort to do novel versus habitual actions as we age.
A default mode wandering mind has its
virtues and constructive aspects: self- awareness, creative incubation, improvisation and evaluation,
memory consolidation, autobiographical planning, goal driven thought, future
planning, retrieval of deeply personal memories. Simple experiments demonstrate how mind
wandering can facilitate creative incubation, that the basement stuff that is
dinking around in the absence of focused effort more easily makes novel
The bad press for the default mode
includes a clever study by Killingsworth and Gilbert titled “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” (They recruited thousands of people
to use a cell phone App to note their mood when prompted and also say what they
were doing at the time.) There is a consensus that excessive
rumination or mind-wandering, activity in the default mode network may
predispose people to depression, anxiety, attention deficit, and post-traumatic
Increasing activity of the default
mode network is associated with passive reactivity and using environmental
support rather than focused frontal self-initiation. Environmental support has a bright and a
dark side: it helps aging individuals to perform but comes with a loss in
I wonder if an excess of default mode activity
might be at issue in the diagnosis du jour, especially in children, called sluggish
cognitive tempo (i.e. sluggish attentional mode), that is pushing aside ADHD.
Maybe this is characteristic of a brain that is chronically in the
default mode and unable to (or unwilling or too lazy to) activate the “attentional” or goal oriented, direct experiential
focus, task positive network appropriately. (Think about the teenagers behind
fast-food counters completely unable to remember do simple addition and
subtraction, or remember what you just told them about to go or for here, or
soft shell or hard shell taco!).
Another point is that impulsive or delinquent behaviors
appear to correlate with more than average default mode and less attentional mode
The above is a graphic from Shannon
et al, who examined resting-state functional connectivity among brain systems
and behavioral measures of impulsivity in 107 juveniles incarcerated in a
high-security facility. In less-impulsive juveniles and normal controls, motor
planning regions were correlated with brain networks associated with spatial
attention and executive control. In more-impulsive juveniles, these same
regions correlated with the default-mode network, a constellation of brain
areas associated with spontaneous, unconstrained, self-referential cognition.
The interest of groups studying the
attentional/default and upstairs downstairs systems is now overlapping with
those that have been working on behavioral and brain correlates of
meditation. So lets move on to that
for a bit.
Meditation is not something that ‘just happens’ like upstairs versus downstairs,
attentional versus default activities. It requires training and practice, in
blocks of time set apart from normal daily activities, and so the emphasis has
been on figuring out whether long term changes in the brains of meditators can
be seen that correlate with changed behaviors.
The problem is that “Meditation practice” can refer to a wide range of training
regimes, some directed at strengthening the attentional mode and others, the
default mode. Mindfulness meditation can refer to various training strategies
that emphasize or include attention regulation, body awareness, emotion
regulation, or changing self-perspective. In most mindfulness practices and other techniques linked to Buddhist
traditions, mind wandering is considered a distraction and a gateway to
rumination, anxiety and depression, so a goal is to reduce it in favor of attentional
mode. Other practices go for spontaneous non-directive
inner mind wandering,
Transcendental Meditation, Benson’s Relaxation Response, Clinically Standardized Meditation, Integrative Body-Mind regimes (IBMT) regimes, also originating from Eastern
traditions, make no effort to control thoughts, but instead a state of restful
alertness that allows a high degree of awareness of the body, breathing, and
Brain changes are seen in
practitioners of these strategies,
although most of the experiments are not rigorous enough to attribute brain changes to mindfulness
practice per se rather than to pre-existing differences in the experimental and
control groups. Grazing the
literature I find several papers saying mindfulness training increases resting
state or default activity and several others saying it decreases it.
The simple fact is that any
specialized training, of either a skilled physical or introspective ability,
causes long lasting brain activity and/or structural changes (such as increases
in gray matter volume) that persist as long as the activity in question is
practiced and maintained, and that return to the average if it is
discontinued. The brain’s
representation of the hands is enlarged in skilled pianists. It’s as simple as “Use it or lose it”. Richie Davidson and his
collaborators have a study suggesting that a kind of meditation I haven’t mentioned yet, compassion training,
increases activation of brain areas involved in mirroring, empathy and social
If you go zoomin’ around the web you’ll find reports of MRI data showing
larger or smaller Gray Matter volumes here, there, and the next place in
meditators versus controls.
Mindfulness based stress reduction
correlates with decrease in size of amygdala.
A number of studies are short term,
the behavioral and brain changes after a six weeks training regime are measured
and compared with controls
In the above study by Allen at al.,
mindfulness training increased dorsolateral prefrontal (bottom left), right
anterior insula (top right), and medial–prefrontal BOLD (bottom right) recruitment during negative
emotional processing. This is after
only six weeks of training
On balance it seems that expert
meditators, of either focused attention, open monitoring, compassion styles
show deactivation of the main nodes of the default-mode network.
The above work from Brewer et al. on
expert meditators shows coactivation of mPFC, insula, and temporal lobes during
meditation. These people are able to control cognitive engagement in conscious
processing of sensory-related, thought and emotion contents, by massive
self-regulation of fronto-parietal and insular areas in the left hemisphere
The insula appears prominently in
The above study by Luders et al.
comparing 22 controls with 22 people experienced with at least five years of
various forms of meditation. They found significantly larger gyrification and
gray matter volumes in meditators in the insula regions involved in emotional
regulation and response control. Larger volumes in these regions might have
something to do with meditator’s abilities and habits to cultivate
positive emotions, retain emotional stability, and engage in mindful behavior,
to integrate autonomic, affective, and cognitive processes.
Posner et al have done a summary of
brain correlates of default resting, attentional alert, and meditation states.
In this eyes-glaze-over summary table
listing different brain areas and neurotransmitters associated with the three
states, stage 1 refers to early effortful training that invokes lateral
prefrontal and parietal cortex, stage 2 is flickering back and forth between
attention and mind wandering, stage
3 is the advanced stage of training, usually thought to be obtained with little
or no effort, meditation is maintained by activity in the ACC, left insula, and
striatum, and connectivity between these regions is enhanced by one month of
training. There is parasympathetic dominance with strong activation in the ACC
and left insula, and reduction of activity in the lateral PFC and parietal
Their model for the neural correlates
of changing brain states includes the insula, ACC, and striatum (IAS). They
suggest the ACC is involved in maintaining a state by reducing conflict with
other states; the insula serves a primary role in switching between states; the
striatum is linked to the reward experience and formation of habits required to
make state maintenance easier.
If we move on to the behavioral
correlates of meditation (IIc), most studies being on mindfulness meditation,
the literature mainly lists beneficent effects. There doesn’t
seem to be much sentiment that you
can have too much mindfulness, like
you can have too much downstairs versus upstairs or default versus attentional
Now, back to continue with topic III
the brain behavior correlations I been illustrating.
We’ve done a bit of defining upstairs, downstairs,
attentional, default, and meditation modes and their anatomical and behavioral
correlates - in general external attention, focus, control emphasize frontal and
parietal lateral areas and medial inside regions engage for the downstairs and default mode activity, with insula,
ACC, and striatum choosing and holding in one or another state.
We would like to use our
awareness of what is going on to influence it in a useful and adaptive way, enhance
behaviors that work and diminish those that don’t.
We’ve known since Wilder Penfield’s work in the 1950s that our conscious awareness can
influence the most intimate details of our nerve cells firings. He used the electrode that was being
used to probe the brain regions about to undergo epileptic surgery to also
record activity of single nerve cells, letting their firing be played on a
loudspeaker as staccato bursts of
noise. When he instructed the
patients to slow down and try to stop those bursts, they could do it.
There are thousands of published
reports of using autonomic nervous system feedback, skin conductance, heart
rate, blood pressure, or various kinds of e.e.g recordings or MRI recordings to
alter alertness, calm, stress, etc.
The figures below are from a Yale
group looking at real-time fMRI feedback from the Posterior Cingulate
Cortex, a hub of the default mode
network shown to be activated during mind-wandering and deactivated during
meditation. Both meditators and non-meditators reported significant
correspondence between the feedback graph and their subjective experience of
focused attention and mind-wandering.
The arrow points from posterior
cingulate to increased activity corresponding to subjective mind wandering, the
blue is the decrease in activity during focused attention.
When instructed to volitionally
decrease the feedback graph, meditators, but not non-meditators, showed
significant deactivation of the posterior cingulate cortex.
There is a consensus that excessive
rumination or mind-wandering, activity in the default mode network may
predispose people to depression, anxiety, attention deficit, and post-traumatic
stress disorder. So the use
of meditation, brain exercises, or cognitive therapy techniques to enhance
attentional network activity is therapeutic. It doesn’t require that we hook ourselves up to electrical widgets
or brain imagers.
How in fact might this work? We’ve seen MRI or other recordings of
activity increases that correlate with various behaviors, where would we see
activity if we were observing and changing our own brains, the ratio of
attentional and defaults or upstairs and downstairs influence. Its known that temporal-parietal lobe junction (TPJ)
and superior temporal sulcus (STS), are central to integrating and shifting
attention, perspective taking and theory of mind, so these areas, whose volume
is increased in meditators, are good candidates for part of that system.
As I was working up the list of factoids
and figures I’ve
been throwing at you I kept wondering to myself, how do I wrap this kind of
material up, draw us to a close? Does knowing this make us some kind of super person? No… but I guess it satisfies our curiosity to know something
about ourselves, and it probably helps more than it hurts our individual trips
to have some ability to distinguish what brain states are resident at a given
moment in our ongoing opera. And,
we can choose to engage brain exercises, or meditation techniques, whose
practice lets us better control what state we are in.
I would submit that those mind
therapies, meditations, or exercises that are the most effective in generating
new more functional behaviors are those that come close to resolving what we could
call the category error (in the spirit of the philosophical term) in
considering mind and brain. And,
that error is to confuse a product with its source, the source being the
fundamental impersonal downstairs machinery that generates the varieties of
functional or dysfunctional selves that are its product, that we mistakenly imagine ourselves to be. Mental exercises like meditation permit
the intuition of, perhaps come closest to, that more refined metacognitive
underlying generative space that permits viewing of, and choice between, more
or less functional self options.
A less wordy, maybe more useful, way
of putting this is to say that third person introspection, viewing yourself as
if looking at another actor, and placing this a historical story line, is more
useful than immersed rumination (coulda, shoulda, woulda). It is the difference
between residing mainly in the attentional versus default modes of
If there is a practical take-home
message, it is that maintaining awareness of, and exercising,
focused attentional mechanisms is important to mental vitality and
longevity. Such awareness is central in resisting the attacks on
our attentional competence that comes from the confusing media
jungle that tempts our passive default mode receptivity and reactivity.