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“You talk as if a god had made the Machine," cried the other. "I believe that you pray to it when you are unhappy. Men made it, do not forget that. Great men, but men. The Machine is much, but not everything.”
― E.M. Forster, The Machine Stops
Consider a simple proposition. That ‘self’ is the basis for human suffering, discontent, inequality. That ‘self’ has a basis in specific and malleable physiology. That ‘self’ can therefore be ‘turned off’, re-moulded, inhibited, put to ‘better use’. Directly controllable in effect.
Age old traditions, modes of thinking, pincipled systems purport the above. Eastern methods for banishing the ‘illusion of self’ have perpetuated for millenia. Yogic practices, ancient spiritual ceremonial rituals, and even more modern day techno-philosophies abound to tackle this ‘realisable’ premise.
What if a future version of our society encompasses an Artificial intelligence enhanced state of being that has established this capacity to overrule ‘self-indulgence’? Would this be a preferable state of affairs? Max Tegmark (Life 3.0, 2017) refers to a future scenario of ‘Libertarian Utopia’ in which machine derived superintelligence lives in harmony with human (standard) intelligence and a plethora of hybridised human-machine variants (cyborgs, upgrades, augmented intelligences). Now this may or may not come to pass, but the question Tegmark is posing is to what degree one or another envisoned future scenario may be selected? This is effectively dependent on humanity’s current role in defining where artificial intelligence may take us as a species, as well as a development in itself that perhaps WILL at some point fly the nest, break out of the confines of human-limited intelligence as dictated by our biological machinery...
I would like to pose a proposition as per the opening gambit, and which seeks to get at the heart of the issue with respect to the human element determining this future. The core of my thinking is lodged in a ‘simple’ notion that the self is indeed ‘locatable’ within a physiological frame that can be notionally influenced, moulded, ‘turned off’ even. As our understanding of ‘intelligence’, or at least brain functioning pertinent to cognition, our perception and construction of ‘reality’, we can begin to envision ways to address the existential question of ‘selfhood’ and its basis in suffering, individual ambition and collective inequality... This understanding takes into account the motivators of our own behaviour within the world at large, how we can mould our own environment, and how through technology to extend ‘intelligence’ into that world, and expand (or shrink) our awareness within this wider system,
The ‘simple’ proposition is that a ‘default state’ within the brain feeds (metabolically) a network of regions that are involved in internally-directed cognition, pertaining to one’s perspective of where one is in space, what one has previously experienced through the course of one’s life, and what may happen to ‘one’ in future anticipated scenarios. This ‘self’ can be seen to be a cause for anguish, greed, obsession and addiction. These ‘cortical mid line structures’ (amongst other areas) essentially could be said to define ‘self’ at a neurophysiological level. Conversely, a set of brain regions involved in ‘goal-directed’ cognitive functioning, and located for instance in pre-frontal cortical structures, work together, in conjunction with an attentional system that maintains focus on task (or fluctuates between ‘default’/self-distraction and task-focus). With task focus comes productivity, enhanced performance, and, actually, banishment of the self. When the ‘task-positive’ network is engaged, the individual is exactly that – engaged in, absorbed by, purposeful action. The ‘default’ / self-related network is tuned down as these networked regions operate in a mutually exclusive fashion by and large (though as evidence from research becomes more granular there will be greater understanding of nuanced interaction/fluctuation between networks under certain productive conditions).
In our technology-enhanced future scenario we can, underpinned by burgeoning awareness of how our biological machinery supports our cognitive functioning, perceptions and behaviour, begin to consider how we might influence this state of being. Through technological interventions. Technology can be described as ‘the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry’ (thanks google). ‘Industry’ can be interpreted as ‘productivity’ and as directed towards sustaining economic activity that advances affluence of a society, an individual, a ‘quality of life’. So we might defer to ‘technology’ in the sense of computer/artificial intelligence imbued apparatus, but in fact can apply this more generically to any practical intervention wherein knowledge can enhance and inspire change, progress, development.
Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler (2017) have written about how science and technology can (and has already begun to) inspire interventions that transform thinking, prompt innovation, and connect with more ancient traditions of self-mastery, so I owe a debt to this for referencing many strands of research I have mined to inform my own. A central conceit of all this is that indeed technological interventions can target, neuroscientifically, the brain construct of selfhood. This can effectively be boiled down to three possible means of ‘intervention’:
It should be emphasised here that this task-positive state of being comes with it a sense of satisfaction and wellbeing as a consequence of being focused, and aligned: one’s skills are being employed to their best, in harmony with the environment. When one ‘returns’ from this task-focused ‘journey’ one has grown, strengthened from that experience. Skills consolidated, learnings gleaned. And re-connection with ‘self’, however momentary gains a feeling of being more in control, more fulfilled (and better capable of disconnecting as needed back into a goal directed state).
Now the interesting thing from an egalitarian perspective here is that focusing on a goal and tuning down the brain regions that are ‘self focused’ naturally lends itself to being more outward focused, and altruistic in a sense. For it is not about one’s individual role or goal per se. When the default ‘self’ is ‘banished’ it’s own self-interest ought to retreat from focus within the context of pursuing goal-directed tasks, opening up to possibilities that are beyond self and more in the interests of a wider societal context. This is the tricky part to define when it comes to structuring tasks that do not become too individually constrained, but that is a piece for future exposition. This idea has not yet been fully qualified in research and care should be taken simplifying the argument too readily, as in fact areas within the default mode are involved with Theory of Mind which consider the thoughts and feelings of others (see Filkowski et al., 2016). As such there will doubtlessly be components of default activity that may be necessary to preserve when engaged in tasks that have collective benefits. But nonetheless in principle, the removal of self paves the way towards harmonious interrelationship with other and the wider community and environment. Further research as mentioned will tease out the nuances of functionally connective brain resource distribution when in task-positive states.
Summing up then, the basis here is that ‘self’ is a function of brain regions that demand a lot of energy, somewhat wastefully, and which detract from effective performance on goal related tasks. Now there is deeper understanding of how this is based in brain activity that can be relatively localised, we can also seek to intervene in that system and divert resources to more producitve networks of brain regions that optimise task performance. In doing so the self ‘switches off’, and a more industrious and fulfilling state of being arises. Through this scientific understanding we can devise technological interventions that help in this process of ‘self mastery’. We can do this through structuring our environment in a way to motivate and direct participants towards task focus at expense of internal distracting ‘self-thoughts’. We can do it by offering pharmacological substances (which may target quite specifically receptors such as serotonergic 5-HT2A) that dissolve self and desynchronise electrophysiological activity associated with ‘normal cognition’ (Muthukumaraswamy SD, et al. (2013)), or creating observable impact on the ‘balance’ of stress hormones such as cortisol and noradrenaline (influencing arousal and therefore motivation). Finally we can devise better measuring apparatus that can probe this brain activity, and even through ‘neurofeedback’ give better control over the distribution of activity and its cognitive associative processing. And in accord with this, through Internet of Things enabled connectivity with our WHOLE environment, perchance synthesise a means for ‘controlling’ all aspects of our ‘being’. Like a thermostat controlling the heating system in your house,you could ensure that your brain state resonates most harmoniously with the wider external environment and the demands of any task that requires fulfilling. All the whilst being more attuned to collective goals, needs of society, needs of the planet...
So a future could exist in which a more egalitarian status is conferred societally-wide by understanding how to guide individual ‘self-absorption’ more towards altruistic goal directed focus through application of technology (as conceptualised in different ways above). The techno-spiritual revolution could go hand in hand with the resurgence of ancient practices (as is happening anyway) so that we all reconnect with our species’ purpose to evolve harmoniously with the machines that will eventually replace us. But at which point, with self banished there is no ‘one’ left to mind!
5th December 2053: sat by the virtual fireside in my condominium, preparing for the day’s ‘work’. Have installed my fNIRS headband and ensured it’s synced with the Human-Environment integration system, networked world-wide via the Global Internat of Things. The AI huge-data analysis framework has concocted my task list for today and is now through real time neurofeedback providing my own digital augmented operating system with impetus to optimise my large scale brain networks connectivity protocol. I can feel now in tune with my own cognitive capabilities, switching effortlessly into a cenrtal-executive prefrontal cortex connective state. My ‘self’ is dwindling as my engagement tunes in to my goal which is to provide innovative solutions to sustainable energy technology challenges affecting a community in India. I am virtually in my remote ‘neighbour’s shoes, understanding and experiencing what daily challenges he faces making ends meet. But importantly I can help focus all my energies onto a constructive solution that can be fed across the web network to stimulate further solutions and innovations, coupled with AI enhanced superadditive innovation engineering. We can test it all iteratively in VR, 3D print concepts and then test for real in-situ. After a day’s work like this I can return to my ‘self’ space briefly and review how better ‘I’ feel for it. I don’t even need to use the fNIRS interface to marshall my own thought processes, that;s more for my ‘working day’ conncting planetary wide for industrious applications. No this is for personal ‘benefit’ as I strengthen my own resolve and motivation as a person to be a better version of myself, content, fulfilled, and eager and full of energy to get into tomorrow’s working day helping my fellows across the worldweb.
Sinister? Against the spirit of human potential? Granting too much 'power' to AI? Or idealistic and unattainable? To be explored....
Carhart-Harris, R. and Nutt, D.J. (2017). Serotonin and brain function: a tale of two receptors. J Psychopharmacol. 31(9): 1091–1120
Filkowski, M.M., Cochran, R>N. And Haas, B.W. (2016). Altruistic behavior: mapping responses in the brain. Neurosci Neuroecon. 2016; 5: 65–75.
Muthukumaraswamy SD, et al. (2013) Broadbandcortical desynchronization underlies the human psychedelic state. J Neurosci 33(38):15171–15183
Sitaram, R., Ros, T., Stoeckel, L., Haller, S., Scharnowski, F., Lewis-Peacock, J., Weiskopf, N., Blefari, M.L., Rana, M., Oblak, E., Birbaumer, N., and Sulzer, J. (2017). Closed-loop brain training: the science of neurofeedback. Nature Reviews Neuroscience volume 18, pages86–100
Tegmark,, M., (2017). Life 3.0. Pemguin Books: UK
Wheal, J. and Kotler, S. (2017). Stealing Fire:How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs and Maverick Scientists are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work. Harper Collin
“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions... Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding...”
― William Gibson, Neuromancer
As a cineaste and ardent fan of the craft and storytelling potential for the immersive medium that is film, I have sat through (suffered) many an experience that has bored me to tears, frustrated me, annoyed me, or sent me to sleep. But I don’t believe I have ever actually walked out of a film. Though I have come close. In fact I think the closest I ever came was whilst watching the grandstanding motion picture event that is/was AI: Artificial Intelligence.
I confess to being a diehard afficianado of Stanley Kubrick (3 of his film are in my all time top 10 – which ones I wonder...?! - there’s not that many to choose from tbh), and I suppose I had high hopes for the long germinating project of his that posthumously was realised by none other than Steven Spielberg. I guess I had hoped that in his spirit, a sort of sequel (thematically at least) to 2001 might have followed up on notions about machine intelligence as a natural evolution of consciousness, perhaps questioning the role of emotion as redundant in a more clinically perfectionist universe where ultimate limits of cognition might enable intelligent expansion across the void of space. At the expense of sugary sentiment. But no, Spielberg indulged himself and the viewer in a particularly overly saccharine take on ‘what it means to be human’, and how the future of machines rests in their capacity to evolve emotional connectivity. So far so Hollywood.
It made me squirm in my seat, long for it to end. I had to compel myself to not storm out of the cinema with half an hour more to go, muttering indignantly.
Perhaps this speaks to me as a cognitive psychologist, skeptical of ‘cod’ ideas about emotion – what is emotion? - as espoused in popular fictions, or an over amplified sense of how humanity will prevail due to some special status. Couched in this ‘feel-good’ but ambiguous notion of ‘emotion’. Am not here to write a PhD on ‘what is emotion and how does it relate to the concept of man vs machine dominance of the future Intelligence Landscape and evolutionary Darwinist cyber-thinking' (!) - though perhaps I could? Rather I want to begin touching on (from hereonin) in a series of pieces about what AI might mean more generally in a discussion about humankind’s reliance upon technology, notions of ‘self’ and ‘consciousness’, and how inevitable progress is simply the prime directive for evolution, and that’s something we need to accept and put up with...
Hopefully this will touch on some notions such as emotion, including more up to date thinking on that subject (such as the ‘constructionist’ framework as championed by the likes of Lisa Feldman-Barrett, 2014, – wherein at the heart of the matter is consideration of the human brain as a prediction-machine in itself, permutating iterative algorithms that learn, fail, adapt, succeed, grow, with emotional ‘signals’ in the mix as important functions facilitating that process). Within this line of thought, we can look at the brain and its architecture as indeed analogous to a ‘machine’, with mechanistic causal chains and connections, feedback loops, networks, which beget the cognitions, ‘qualia’ of experiential perception, in short the ‘programs’ (programmes) and operating software dependent on this infrastructure.
A good source of popular reference I shall draw on amongst others is Max Tegmark’s (2017) book ‘Life 3.0’ which nicely elucidates upon the field of Artificial Intelligence research, it’s ethical role in determining the future of AI development (to avoid the fateful Cyberdyne Systems ‘incident’ of 1997), and a serious look at where AI may present significant benefit to our species’ co-development into the near, intermediate and long term future. It’s here to stay, it’s growing exponentially, and we really don’t know truly where it is going to take us (or leave us).
It is becoming an ever stranger world day by day. Yesterday I conversed with a chat-function online attempting to source some virtual reality equipment compatible with slightly outdated computer hardware. Frustrated at the speed with which everything updates and creates redundancy in old equipment, I was somewhat exasperated and defensive with the agent with whom I was chatting. I rather tersely conversed with him and came close to asking irritatedly if he was a human or an AI and if the latter could I please have a human instead (perhaps I prefer some’one’ with the capacity to obfuscate more and put me at ease even when getting nowhere?!). The tenor of his responses suggested to me he was indeed human. But in retrospect I can’t be 100% sure. Such is the bizarrre state of affairs (at least interactively speaking) that we live in. Is it a good or a bad thing? Is devolving responsibilities such as providing consumer advice (or health advice, fitness advice, legal advice etc. etc.) to AI a sensible, effective, preferable course of action?
Much research in AI, and psychology, would argue that non-human agents can provide the appropriate rapport cues that put humans at ease, engender trust in the communication process, even elicit deeper levels of openness than human counterparts may do so (Fiske et al., 2019). It's still early days, but one thing for sure is that machine intelligence will certainly exponentially improve, learn, develop, extend beyond it’s original operating system, program, limitations. And perhaps it is best to see that as an exciting opportunity to be harnessed, or guided where possible.
Or we pull the plug now...before it’s too late. Damn, Shroedinger’s Cat is out of the bag. The mice have escaped the interface and are scurrying after the silicon cheese. The red eyes are glowing in the dark, metal legs scraping across the tarmac, relentless, rasping ‘we’ll be back’...
Next up: how AI may ‘solve’ our modern day political crisis, putting the meaning of democracy back into the lexicon. All politicians from the year 2037 will be required to register their profiles on the Mechanical Turk, henceforth their political machinations at the behest of the crowdsourcing algorithm that determines whose proposition wins the big data-analysed consensus of opinion, carefully weighing into the equation socio-economic equality formulae, balanced against environmental impact (from the worldwide IoT net), offset against predicted movement of key stocks and sustainable business practices. Nobody profits from politics, financially or status wise. Protected anonymity is key to ensure the latter. Everybody gets what nobody wants.
And lo it’s Metal Mickey. In a blond wig and puckered visage. Running the whole show.
Some things might just never change.
"The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."
- George Orwell, Animal Farm
Feldman-Barret t and Russell, J.A. (2014).The Psychological Construction of Emotion ISBN 9781462516971
Fiske, A. , Henningsen, P., Buyx A (2019). Your Robot Therapist Will See You Now: Ethical Implications of Embodied Artificial Intelligence in Psychiatry, Psychology, and Psychotherapy. JOURNAL OF MEDICAL INTERNET RESEARCH, 21 (5), 1-12
Spielberg, S. (dir) (2001)/ A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Dreamworks Pictures. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A.I._Artificial_Intelligence
Tegmark, M. (2017). Life 3.0. Penguin Books: UK
"I'm free, to do what I want, any old how" K. Richards and M. Jagger
Would you jump off a mountain in good faith that a parachute will spring open and convey you gently back down to the ground?
What would it take for you to make that step out into the void, eyes screwed shut, and your fate thrust forth into the lap of the gods...?!
Just how much of a decision would you be taking consciously to do this? You have free will, you are in control, the decision is yours and yours alone...right??
You might be a little surprised if I told you that actually the decision you would be making would actually be already decided upon BEFORE you actually decided to do it! Confused? You should be.
The scenario of jumping from a clifftop is an extreme example but serves also as a metaphor for taking risks, making commitments, pushing boundaries in life. So substitute a more relevant contextual challenge that fits with your lifestyle and read on with that in mind...
The question of free will is a contentious one, debated by philosophers, neuroscientists, psychologists and their ilk. But delve down into the human brain and you will find some intriguing propositions about how it works, how the thoughts that appear to be our own, and the actions that we choose to take, may rest upon the foundation of an illusion.
A position that is increasingly gaining traction in the scientific community concerns the ambiguous nature of human agency, and veridicality of 'reality' being called into question. By this I mean what we think of as true, or real, be it from the perspective of cause-and-effect, our capacity to determine our fate through our actions and decisions, and how we exhibit control over an environment that we can define clearly all around us, is in fact just the tip of a shimmering iceberg whose constitution is far more complex. The nitty-gritty is somewhat hidden below the surface of a realm we take for granted as being 'how things are'.
The brain in its infinite complexity, computes and processes a vast amount of information that we can not hope to comprehend or keep track of from a conscious standpoint. Motorically speaking, the information flooding in from the environment continuously and impinging on our senses, demanding adjustment moment-to-moment from our bodily position in space, is just mind-bogglingly incomprehensible (to paraphrase an observation from Douglas Adams upon the scale of the Universe, but which could equally be directed at the brain itself). It is said that the brain has evolved to the size and density that it has, in order to accommodate the computring power necessary for ambulatory functioning (i.e. moving about, including fiddling with implements called 'tools'). We might surmise proudly and smugly that we sit atop the food chain with our weighty grey (and white) matter on account of our superior intellectual capacities, our amazing perceptual abilities including the propensity to make grand art, send our kind to the Moon, create huge shopping malls and invent reality TV. But actually that most likely betrays a false sense of what our cerebral machinery is all about. Why is it that we stuggle to make robots that can perform the fluid movements we take for granted, and that exponential advances in computing (following Moore's law) only now decades later are yielding some developments in 'lifelike' motor coordination? It's 2019 and I don't see Replicants standing on every street corner, so Ridley got that one wrong. But computers have been able to beat people at chess for some time now...
Ironically the most metabolically demanding component of the brain seems to be lodged in the very structures that give us this grandiose sense of our own importance, and can in fact get in the way of producing great achievements as mentioned above. And when movement is effected in a most efficient way, or when boundaries of human endeavour associated with refined movement skills (eg. leaping from great heights, whizzing about at high speed, and so on in athletic pursuits), it is believed that these areas of self-indulgence are in fact turned 'off' (tuned down). Arne Dietrich (2006) talks about this, referring to it as the transient hypofrontality theory. So in that sense whilst the components of movement are computed and implemented 'effortlessly', i.e. efficiently by an complex infrastructure, the 'self' and it's luxuriant ramblings put a strain on resources and give rise to feelings of fatigue and perplexity at the hard work of it all...go figure.
Returning to the questions posed at the start, let us bring to bear on this argument a point about free will or it's potential absence in the proceedings. The brain's mechanisms below the surface of conscious awareness manifest algorithms and heuristics that rely on past experiences, encoded in memory and motor cortices, predict outcomes probabilistically, and feed forward courses of actions (also 'decisions') to the higher centres of awareness that then inform what 'I' will do (or say) next.
A marvel of discovery in the neuroscientific canon around 1964 was the so-called Bereitschaftspotential (Kornhuber and Deecke, 1964). This measure concerns activity in the motor cortex and supplementary motor area which precedes voluuntary activity in muscles. That it can be identified in experimental situations prior to an apparently conscious act being made raises a near metaphysical challenge to the notion of conscious decision making based in volitional agency. Instead we may postulate a decision as representating the sum total of unconscious proccesses from which an outcome is determined and made accessible to the conscious agent ('me'). Benjamin Libet (Libet et al., 1983) found that this response would occur abour 0.35 seconds before an experimental subject reported awareness of a desire to make a motor action.
I have talked at length elsewhere about the brain networks that turn on and off (so to speak) based on whether attention is focused outwardly on a task to be performed or inwardly on internal mentation, rumination, mind wandering, or notions aout one's 'self' and its indulgent concerns. And how by focusing outwards and being immersed in 'doing' rather than 'thinking' per se, one in fact loses sense of self, an awareness of being an agent in that sense. So from this we can at least propose that 'self', 'awareness', 'agency' and associated concepts in some respect are dependent upon the state of the brain, how it's resources are managed within this bogglingly convoluted connective system. And could also make further assertions about the availability of resource for 'cognition' (in the higher/abstract sense of the term) being very much down to a prioritisation within that system based on demands for sustenance of the body (and it's brain), and its biological imperatives. A luxury perhaps?
So from this basis, a sense that we are entitled to a free agency, volitional 'will' to do with a we please, to make decisions as we see fit, and to have a vainglorious demeanour about how marvellous this all is that we can do what we want, does perhaps rest on a fallacy.
A final point to make with respect to the Bereitschaftspotential, refers to a recent paper in whcih researchers in Germany and Austria conducted an experiment studying the BP/brains of bungee jumpers. Jumping from a 192m bridge (I know it well having done likewise a couple of years back), the BPs were recorded and conclusions drawn. This study sought to ascertain just 'when' that go-no-go decision occurs vis-a-vis one's propensity to leap forth as if against the mores of sanity and survival. The answer would seem to be that lo-and-behold the potential registers as one would expect, in advance of the decision 'to go'. Interestingly, and as this represents an 'extreme' or 'life-threatening' type of scenario (despite the safety strictures in place), participants will still exhibit fear and reticence and must overcome the tendency to abort the decision 'to go'. But at some level whilst this conflict is raging internally, that potential/tendency has already been set. What has yet to be investigated further (and this is where my own research seeks to bridge gaps, pun unintended) is how the fronto-parietal attentional networks, and the shifting activation in functional connectivity between 'task'focused' and 'task-irrelavant' (or 'self' indulgent) comes into play in individuals taking part in extreme activities, and harnessing their 'willpower' to jump into the abyss...'Free won't', to coin a phrase, perhaps being the order of the day when it comes to a capacity to inhibit a predetermined action. Watch this space as this line of reasoning develops further....!
At the end of the day 'you' will come to a decision as to whether 'you' are going to do the act as posed in the earlier question. But that is not to say that you have full agency over that 'doing'. For within your own makeup there will be a brain network-driven tendency to mitigate impulse, whether that is to do a bold act such as jumping from a cliff, or to not do that act in a month of sundays! Likewise, if taking this metaphor and applying it to your impetus to make a committing decision about a life event, or even to make changes that go against the impulse to stay the same, the fact remains, that motivation rests inside your brain, and to an extent outwith your 'control'.
So rather than sweat it out in the middle of the night wondering what 'you' would do, take some solace in the thought that actually all 'you' can really do is just follow whatever that inner voice tells you to do, as it has by and large been determined in advance by a much more well informed committee in the recesses of your brain's parliamentary chambers!!
Footnote - updated positon on the above
Actually, the validity of the Bereitschaftspotential in terms of claims made with reference to it's status in the debate on free will has been revisited in recent years (Schurger et al., 2012), with the inflation of it's significance attributed to interpretation of signal-within-noise in brain activity fluctuations relative to decision making. If anything, evidence suggests that the brain weighs up 'evidence' based on sensory information in order to make a decision, and the activity corresponding to 'evaluation' of that information accumulates towards a 'tipping point' at which a decision can be assertively made. [Could it fact be that our conscious thoughts are 'echoes' of this underlying activity? Or shadows on the Platonic cave wall? Continuing this analogy, even a projection, an echo, can have physical ramifications and influence the course of events - an Alpine avalanche for instance caused from sound waves bouncing round the mountain ampitheatre, or a shadow demarking an area of shade to escape the suns rays (stretching the point somewhat!) Perhaps consciousness, and by association 'will' is indeed an echoic manifestation of underlying automatic processing, yet who's reverberations as a by-product (waste?) can actually alter the course of actions that have been set in motion. This is an intriguing proposition, as if evolution has bestowed a circular economy upon the neural system such that it's 'waste' generated propels the organism forwards via emergent 'agency', like a bat echolating to navigate, or using that waste to reshape the path ahead...].
The BP in itself may be an artefact of the analysis and not as it has been asserted provide a pre-emptive signature of a foregone conclusion, as it were, of decision having been determined prior to conscious awareness of that. The matter is open for debate. Likewise the question of free will is also unresolved. The fact remains though that the brain processes a huge amount of data, and as a 'subconscious' committee of information gatherers, the likely direction of a decision may already have been weighed up prior to a conscious selection of that decision. At which point the conscious agent exhibits so-called free will to decide X vs Y. Up until the moment of say jumping off a cliff one has the capacity to 'change one's mind'. But somewhere deep down there is an impetus to do it or to not do it. And effort may require being expended to counteract that impetus to overcome inertia that has metabolic roots in availability of resource and direction to employ (literally in this case fight or flight - i.e. step into the abyss and 'fly' or 'fight' the urge to do so/not do so depending on the personality and motivational state of being! - turning the actual concept on it's head for a moment!). An interesting take on this to pursue further concerns a biological/physiological impetus to act upon energy stores available to direct in the service of an intention, a goal, a drive to do something when one is engaged and motivated towards an activity (inspired!). Namely, how the underlying neurophysiological/neurocognitive mechanisms organise operationally in order to make that act/final decision to 'go for it' happen. Do we really 'know' that we will do X when in situation Y? We can surmise a probability of likelihood (perhaps approaching but not absolutely certainly 100%) based on past experience, or perceived motivation to do so. But do we really 'know' that we WILL make that commitment in the moment (as opposed to 'choking' at the last minute?). If so then it may be true to say that actually the decision will become apparent when the systems subserving that reach their conclusive judgement and provide the 'conscious agent' with the answer that allows 'it' to decide at the last moment.
Free will if we must use such a vague term in this sense perhaps represents a culmination and a finite time point in an act that has heritage in the build up (to which the conscious agent is not fully granted access) and a 'tipping point' of opportunity to exhibit itself. Perhaps then that moment of time is not entirely 'available' until this build up of sufficient momentum is achieved, and the window of 'free will' is somewhat granted at the behest of the unconscious committee actually providing the energy and drive to empower the agent to finally 'decide'. Finally I might contend, hypothesise, and seek to confirm further scientifically, that a moment of action perhaps coincides with a reconfiguration of brain networks that have a conscious and 'volitional' element yet represent a transitional phase between 'self-referent' processing, and task-focused (and possibly motor-orientated) processing. And as such manifests as a sort of 'meta-conscious' state of being (transitional, enactive, beyond conscious). By this I hypothesise, in the given example of leaping forth into the void, the moment of commitment and 'decision' coincides with a quietening down of self-reflective processing, thus de-amplifiying the 'voice' of conscious awareness in the sense of an introspective dialogue concerning choice, and decision-making. In it's place, a motivated, action-based network of processing puts into practice strongly focused schemas that are directed at performing the task, removing potential interference by these reflective structures which might seek to undermine the smooth, fluid and automatic patterns of behaviour and compromise that performance. And at this transition (and immersion within the task focused state) the 'conscious agent' is somewhat removed from the equation. Again giving over to the effortless automatic system that allows exemplary performance to take place.
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The Shawshank Redemption (‘Hope springs eternal’) has been a very poignant influence on my attitude to life. It is a beautiful story that melds key elements of Stephen King’s ability to craft mesmerising prose (in the novella form) with a heartfelt and inspiring message behind it. It was brought to the screen in near perfect translation and cinematic elaboration by Frank Darabont in 1994, being nominated for several accolades including Best Picture although it did not win). At the story’s heart is a character who bides his time, takes what life throws (unpleasantly) at him, and holds true to a core maxim predicated on optimism and singular belief that the future will eventually yield reward. Through perseverance.
The modern propensity towards 'positive thinking' rests upon a façade that ‘if you believe it will happen’, ‘hard work pays off’. The millennial prerogative towards acquisition of whatever one wants one shall have. A well known Stanford psychology study (Mischel et. Al., 1972) revealed the ‘marshmallow effect’ which has some bearing on the notion of what one might expect is due (what is it with Stanford – though perhaps their Prison Experiment has some unconscious bearing on this current blog piece wirth respect to compliance – or ‘not giving in’ but I digress).
In said experiment, children were allowed the option of an immediate or a delayed gratification by means of a marshmallow or cookie. Two rewards if willing to wait. The gist being the revelation that personality traits concomitant with immediate gratification imply impulsivity, lack of self control, and perhaps later detrimental bearing on life satisfaction and success. Conversely, those children displaying patience and capacity to wait awhile for the reward may display traits later in life of greater competency and self control. And perhaps greater success in chosen endeavours? (somewhat extrapolating here). Brain imaging asserted connection with areas of pre-frontal cortex in the control of impulse and capacity to delay gratification. This fits with themes espoused in other blogs with respect to capacity to ‘re-route’ brain networks towards successful accomplishment on tasks away from those involved in self-absorption or distraction (and consequent reduced capacity for performance on cognitive tasks and goal-directed behaviour).
Returning to Shawshank Penitentiary, the protagonist, Andy Dufresne, exhibits a pronounced calm, and withdrawn exterior throughout the tribulations experienced, to the marvel of other inmates and friends. The ‘shock’ twist (spoiler warning) is that after literally decades of incarceration in which other institutionalised associates have ‘accepted their lot’, one day Andy simply disappears. He has been tunnelling out for 20+ years. The surprise in this rests in how he could possibly have done it. But the key is that he began with small increments of activity, tempered with some good fortune (discovering the wall mortar to be somewhat less robust than one might expect). He began to scrape away at the concrete. He increased the size of his effect, and his tools again incrementally, unnoticed by others as the scale magnified.
He endured his time inside, maintaining composure and resolve against adversity, keeping his cards close to his chest. Even his closest friends did not suspect. He had bumps on the road in which his resolve, like the prison walls themselves, threatened to crumble. But this adversity tested him, and re-inforced that resolve, now tempered with experience and the burgeoning skill and confidence that imbued. And eventually when the time was nigh, his grand plan was put into execution. With the attitude of now or never, no turning back, he undertook the most risky of actions and set in motion his escape plan. Literally crawling through tunnels of excrement in his bid for freedom.
The point here, if not obvious, is that one’s goal in life is not something that one is bequeathed as a birthright and which one is pre-destined to achieve at the drop of one’s hat. And simply by believing that it is so it will magically come to pass. Rather instead one has to fixate on that goal as a possibly distant, but realisable thing. But then almost to give over to any sense of the timeline on which that ought to be achieved. For instead it is the path and the work that requires focus as one takes steps towards that ‘endpoint’. Perhaps it is like giving one’s ‘unconscious’ mind a remit that it should work towards this defined goal, and be left to it’s devices to find it’s way round the obstacles that inevitably, and productively occur. (For those obstacles provide the impetus for building the resilience and the adaptive skills to achieve the necessary goals.)
So when the prison walls close in at the fearful time of lights out, sounds of torment echo and rattle round the bars, this is the time to lie back, compose oneself and consolidate one’s mindset towards the small but significant tasks that are required to pave the way towards escape and freedom. The torment is without not within. Inside is focus, is imagination, is capacity to solve problems and find motivation. Then pick up your rock hammer, slip out from under the sheet, check the coast is clear, and start to scrape quietly away at the widening crack. Smiling to yourself and inwardly whistling the theme to that Steve McQueen film…
[Just make sure you are prepared for (and relish the opportunity) to crawl through a tunnel of shit to get to the light at the end of the tunnel!!!]
Darabont, F (Dir) (1994). The Shawshank Redemption. Castle Rock Entertainment. (Movie) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Shawshank_Redemption
King, S (1982). Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. In Different Seasons. Viking Press
Mischel, W., Ebbesen, E. B., & Raskoff Zeiss, A. (1972). Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21(2), 204-218.
The effortless 'other'
The self is high maintenance. It spends all the resource, makes constant demands for attention, gets in the way of jobs being done…! But now we have seen that the brain divides its attention across different streams of processing, with specific functional roles. And with an understanding of this underlying infrastructure we can start to figure out how to undermine this selfish dominance and seek to enter into more beneficial effortless states of being. I will pick up on the dual attentional state of affairs now with reference to the ‘self’ versus ‘other’ functional specificity that entails.
A further distinction (as discussed by Austin, 2010) concerns egocentricity vs allocentricity with respect to these two attentional networks. The former implies a frame of reference relative to self (‘ego’), whilst the latter refers to ‘other’ (‘allo’). So the dorsal system is effectively concerned with responding to stimuli that have bearing on proximal significance to the observer (‘me’), and interestingly have strong proclivity towards somatosensory systems involved in touch and proprioception (‘soma’ literally to do with the body). The dorsal system ‘passes through’ the parietal lobe, which is generally concerned with proprioception and spatial information pertinent to navigation of the body through space. It subserves the capacity to interact with the surrounding environment motorically.
Attention is paid towards how the environment can provide me with means to navigate through it, how items within it can be touched, handled, afford uses, or have direct and immediate bearing upon my survival state needs. As such, beyond psychoanalytical notions of ‘self’, in this case the self in it’s purest form refers to a referent frame wherein the environment has direct potential for interaction with the body and it’s distal elements (peripersonal space or ‘arms’ reach’ as it were – or perhaps through extension via tools). A framework within cognitive psychology for understanding how the ‘self’ extends into space beyond the immediate extents of the body is known as embodied cognition. Self-referential awareness in this sense implies being knowledgeable about the capacity to act upon and be in turn acted-upon by the immediate environment.
Meanwhile, the allocentric perspective is embodied within the ventral attention network. This is because that system deals with incoming information about stimuli in the environment from the point of view of what these things are in and of themselves. It is about an object-centric ‘viewpoint’. These things exist ‘out there’, they have intrinsic informational meaning which can be appropriated concerning what purpose they serve. This is initially irrespective of their bearing to ‘me’ or my own dorsally motivated sense of bearing upon my self and my capacity to interact with them.
(Take note when discussing these systems in isolation it is easy to fall into a trap of viewing them as distinct and not overlapping. In fact as with the brain being an holistic operating system, getting further into the complexity of cognitive-perceptual operations will undoubtedly reveal cross-talk and integration of information from different streams and networks converging towards a common goal.)
The ventral system is perhaps more predisposed towards the senses of vision and audition: these senses serve in the capacity of alerting the organism to stimuli that are more ‘distant’. As opposed to those proximally detected and responded to by the somatosensory/motoric capabilities. (For an utterly fascinating speculative take on why the brain is wired as is and how the different quadrants of the visual field are segmented and represented topographically by the brain see Austin’s illustrations in the same chapter.)
Nevertheless from this exercise in delving beneath the underlying neural infrastructure of attentional networks, it can be surmised how the notion of ‘self’ is underpinned by the functional connectivity of separate streams of processing. These have differential purposing with respect to processing information from the different sensory channels and facilitate different consequent behavioural response capacities with respect to the environment. ‘Effort’ is perhaps a consequential perception of which attentional network may be operating more ‘prominently’ and which other brain networks are activated with respect to tasks being performed within the environment.
Self’ seems to be a construct of the brain dependent on specific network activation. This is associated with an attentional system that processes cues in the environment immediately pertinent to ‘me’ in terms of bodily proximity and capacity to act upon them via my motoric and somatosensory ‘tools’. This self-referent or egocentric perspective also contributes to the further processing in executive higher level networks of associative elements that ladder up into autobiographical memories and abstract thinking about ‘me’, my own sense of awareness and ‘being’ and also simulations of what it might be like to ‘be someone else’ as it were (so called Theory of Mind). This Default Mode Network activates and sets the mind a-wandering, becomes self-absorbed, and impacts on performance on more goal directed tasks.
To be engaged in a particular task that can be accomplished to a high degree of success, is to coral the components of an attentional network that focus resource on a brain network specialised in task-positive goal orientation. The Central Executive Network, once ‘strongly functionally connected, will bring its full capacity to bear on doing what is necessary to achieve that success. Consequent to this, and via anticorrelational reciprocation with the DMN, distracting mental contents due to mind-wandering will be muted, the ‘self’ (or rather awareness of self-referent frame of reference) will be absent. This state of being also referred to as ‘flow’ engenders a deep satisfaction at this fluidity of experience (when one comes out of it perhaps and is allowed access to ‘self’ to realise how ‘I’ subsequently feel). It also encompasses a disrupted sense of time passing (for the self has not been apparently involved, so there is no relative awareness of time passing in relation to the self). In all a state of effortless attention has been attained. The self has become the 'other'.
I have skimmed the surface introducing a complex framework that considers different systems, networks and neuro-cognitive-emotional factors impinging on optimal task performance. Individual elements can be unpacked in due course in greater detail, and with hypotheses as to the nature of their collective contributions in the wider scheme of performance, and neurogenesis (essential growth at a neural and personal level – with respect to ‘self’ and enhanced ‘being’ as it were). By understanding the components of optimal performance and ‘flow’ we can start to test hypotheses and develop principles that facilitate this state in individuals. We can also bring focus back to how the environment itself can contribute to this. It also includes how certain activities we can undertake within the environment (afforded by it) enhance the likelihood of achieving this state.
No one size fits all, but if we can form a general impression of the optimal environment, circumstances, emotional and cognitive components interacting with each other, the ambition is that engineering ‘flow’ may be more practically achievable. Having introduced a variety of concepts in order to attain a consensus on terminology and definitions of the cognitive elements we can explore further how environments impact on these more specifically. I will talk in due course about a burgeoning line of research that indicates how some of the brain networks I have been talking about are impacted on by exposure to natural or wilderness contexts. This exciting area alludes to how literally one’s self and environment are unified as part of an interconnected system. A highly accessible overview can be found in the National Geographic article linked to here: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/01/call-to-wild/
Austin, J.H. (2010). The Thalamic Gateway: How the Meditative Training of Attention Evolves toward Selfless Transformations of Consciousness. Pages 373-407 in Bruya, B. (Ed.). (2010). Effortless attention: A new perspective in the cognitive science of attention and action. Cambridge, MA, US: MIT Press
Rules of engagement- managing attention, motivating behaviour: Part one - Fuelling the cognitive engine
Rules of engagement - managing attention, motivating behaviour: Part two - 'Who' or 'where' am 'I' in the brain?
'Who' or 'where' am 'I' in the brain?
The perennial conundrum about who ‘I’ am, or what ‘I’ want to be (in life!) perhaps rests fittingly in terms of ‘where I am’ (at least in terms of the brain localisation of ‘self’). That is not to say that ‘self’ is akin to an ephemeral set of car keys, as oft to be missing from the hall table and likely down the back of the sofa. But rather that the ‘who’ is dependent on the localised set of metabolic processes operating in particular regions of the brain (albeit connected functionally across regions). I also alluded (in Environmental Affordances) to behaviour (and cognition) as being something of an emergent property of ‘systems’ of neural activity (dependent on context and catalysed by prospective action or capacity-to-act).
I will expand on this now with respect to how the brain assigns different attentional roles to specified streams with functional ‘specificity’, with bearing on the notion of ‘effortlessness’. This in turn is relevant to emotional engagement with given tasks, and how that in itself is dependent on interpretation of signals pertaining to internal body state as well as environmental context. Covering a plethora of interrelated topics I will attempt to introduce a wider framework for considering how immersing in adventurous environments and activities can potentially facilitate conditions for ‘flow’.
In an earlier post, ‘Part One – Fuelling the cognitive engine’ I talked about how our cognitive functions are dependent on physiological factors and biological requirements, including a need to prioritise how energy is ‘spent’ in the brain to different purposes. Homeostatic equilibrium is at the heart of this prioritisation. The investment of metabolic resources towards maintaining this, monitoring this, and providing feedback into the attentional systems in the event of perturbations to this balance, impacts on cognitive processes. Emotional responses may be derived on the basis of this monitoring/feedback, and impinges potentially on cognitive performance on specific tasks. Optimal functioning, into the so-called ‘flow’ state involves the right set of circumstances with respect to these factors allowing for engagement on task, emotionally and attentionally.
I will now reflect upon the second concept proposed in Part One with respect to the notion of the ‘self’. This includes discussion of the brain networks involved in construction of ‘self’, and how the brain segregates information for different frames of reference. [Since Part One I meandered digressively into a discussion of a ‘sub-region’ of the networks discussed here and elsewhere, notably the Posterior Cingulate Cortex. Here I pull back to the wider overview from which that digression was spawned.]
I have talked extensively about different brain networks that anticorrelate when it comes to performing certain tasks. Attentional processing is key in ‘switching’ between these. The central executive (or ‘task positive’) network is all about performing a task and minimising attentional distraction away from that. Meanwhile the default mode network (‘task negative’) involves mind-wandering, ‘distraction’ towards internal cognitive processing, perhaps ruminating on a pattern of thought, daydreaming, or being concerned with information relevant to one’s self. Simplistically speaking, one is ‘on’ the other is ‘off’ (not entirely, but meant to illustrate a point of mutual exclusivity in functional connectivity). The DMN is implicated in sense of self, identity, awareness of what one is ‘doing’ as it were and how one is ‘being’. One supposition by Oosterwijk et al. (2015) is that the DMN serves a function in ‘conceptualising’ the meaning of ‘core affective’ sensations (i.e. pleasure/displeasure and degree of arousal prompted by responses to bodily signals) with reference to the self. So ‘I’ feel something as a result of processing information (from interoceptive feedback about my homeostatic state). Structures within my DMN add layers of significance to these signals and abet the construction of emotion which in turn affects my level of engagement with my surroundings, and my own motivations and goal states.
As my task positive and task negative networks in general do not ‘get along’, it is safe to say that if I have emotional ‘distraction’ impinging upon my being then task performance will suffer and my attentional resources will be in competition. The ‘self’ in terms of activation of my DMN, it’s referential processing, it’s elaboration of emotional significance and it’s predisposition to rumination and meandering thought, is hindering my optimal performance. Conversely, when I am actually focused on the task at hand (and conditions are favourable to this – see vehicle analogy in part one), my attentional networks will be supplying my CEN with sufficient resource to get on with the task. And as a result, my ‘self’ is effectively absent! Clearly, from this standpoint, the self, if dependent on activity in the DMN, cannot be in two ‘places’ at once. For these reasons when one is performing optimally and ‘in flow’ it stands to reason that DMN activation should be reduced concomitantly.
In accordance with this presence or absence of ‘self’ awareness, the perception of effort seems to be tied up in the assignation of meaning to the interoceptive sensations experienced. That is, ‘I’ must be processing information that centres ‘me’ within this milieu of sensations arising within my body. Those sensations pertain to my-self within an egocentric frame of reference. If ‘I’ am not present –by virtue of being so task focused, engaged by performance requirements, and therefore in a state of dominant activation of the Central Executive Network – then by presumption ‘I’ should not feel anything (pertaining to ‘effort’, or perhaps pain or other ‘feeling’). [I am setting this out for now as an hypothesis to be probed further] Of course this presumes that activation of one or other network is a fixed state and cannot be easily switched, but in reality we have dynamic brain systems that organically react to the needs and stimuli of the moment. But in principle, in the moment, of task performance, this may indicate why perceptions of effort do not arise when performing in a deeply engaged CEN activation ‘state’. And one might speculate further that strength of functional connectivity is greater in such a ‘flow’ or deeply engaged and motivated task performance state. In such a case the implication is it is less pervious to interruption or diversion of resources precipitating a switch to a different network (such as DMN).
So how does ‘attention’ per se figure in all this? Elaboration on the nature of brain networks involved in attention is required. This has bearing on the determinants of which of the networks discussed predominates in a given situation. I have alluded to (in ‘Environmental affordances’) evidence for distinct pathways in the brain for processing visual information relevant to perception and action. In fact it is true to say that we in fact have two attentional systems and these exhibit this dorsal-ventral distinction. ‘Dorsal’ refers to ‘upside’ location and involves a network of brain structures correspondingly high up in brain, from the back (occipital areas) to the front, via parietal areas of the cortex (located in the upper reaches of the cranium). ‘Ventral’ meanwhile refers to the ‘underside’ or lower reaches, with cortical networks following a downward trajectory from the occipital through the temporal and frontal lobes. Austin (2010) gives a fascinating account of these two attentional systems, their neural basis and focusing on the ‘thalamus’ as a key brain structure implicated in ‘self’ construction (or deconstruction in the context of meditative training). Much of what follows in my outlining of the role of these attentional networks can be attributed to this author’s paper (within Bruya’s, 2010, excellent book on Effortless Attention).
In brief, the ventral and dorsal systems subserve very different types of function in the wider scheme of attentional processing. As with any holistic framework, these will operate together to some degree to inform the whole of experience and resulting behaviour of the organism. But they also have dissociative properties, subserving different needs and requirements as befitting context and purpose. And therefore also giving rise to different aspects of subjective experience. This is particularly with respect to the awareness of ‘self’. The ventral system is concerned with attention from a ‘bottom-up’ perspective. Its specialism is involuntary attention, reflexive to incoming novel or changing stimuli as might occur unexpectedly. It serves to facilitate disengaging of attention in order to deal with important cues that might have bearing on one’s imminent ‘survival’.
Meanwhile the dorsal system enables ‘top-down’ attention which has volitional control at it’s core. This allows us to ‘pay attention’. Note that term comes loaded with the idea of spending resources. And spending can be a painful process unless one has depthless pockets! (And remember attention is a finite resource – not just cognitively, but with respect to the physiological basis noted earlier, and metabolic energy required to sustain cognitive functioning.) Normally ‘effortless’ tends to associate with ‘automatic’ whereas ‘effortful’ implies having to consciously put work into something. So it is interesting that voluntary attentional control might associate with ‘self-referent’ brain regions and networks, and that the ‘paying’ of attention and the expending of effort (or at least awareness of this) should be linked to this notion of being ‘self-aware’. Whilst conversely, more reflexive modes of being would be automatic and ‘effortless’ by virtue of not having an awareness of self in the proceedings. [It is interesting to reflect on the notion of self being an intrinsically ‘greedy’ and effortful expenditure of metabolic resources – covered in my articles on the PCC, and addiction to chocolate cake…]
Part three will draw this introductory framework to a conclusion concerning self versus other representations in attention networks, and implications for facilitating ‘flow’ in an ‘effortless’ state.
Austin, J.H. (2010). The Thalamic Gateway: How the Meditative Training of Attention Evolves toward Selfless Transformations of Consciousness. Pages 373-407 in Bruya, B. (Ed.). (2010). Effortless attention: A new perspective in the cognitive science of attention and action. Cambridge, MA, US: MIT Press
Oosterwijk, S., Touroutoglou, A., & Lindquist, K. A. (2015). The neuroscience of construction: What neuroimaging approaches can tell us about how the brain creates the mind. In L. F. Barrett & J. A. Russell (Eds.), The psychological construction of emotion (pp. 111-143). New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.
I have a problem with chocolate and with cake. Put me in a room with either / or (occasionally in combination) and I become a slave to satiety. In other news, I was at a scientific debate a few months ago in which the topic for discussion was the prospect of downloading one’s consciousness into a computer in the (near?) future - effectively to 'live forever'. How are these two disparate subjects related I hear you cry? To continue briefly from my last post, the answer rests in the brain structure I talked about, the Posterior Cingulate Cortex.
I touched on the notion that this region plays a significant part in generating the concept of ‘self’. There was also brief allusion to the role of the PCC in addictive behaviours. To recap momentarily, activation in this region correlates with awareness of ‘self’ and particularly with ‘being involved in’ or ‘caught up in’ processing of information that has supposed self relevance. And conversely, deactivation in the area tends to associate with the absence of this, and has bearing on mindfulness, and ‘being in the present’. Unhindered by ‘self’ or constraints of ego as it were. With respect to addictive behaviours, likewise, the region is associated with cravings, with desire to satiate said addiction, with fixation upon addiction. And again, reduced activation correlating with reduced craving, reliance on feeding the addiction.
Now to the crux of the matter. On the self’s craving for immortality.
The question asked in the science discussion I mentioned centred round whether ‘I’ (be it your ‘I’ or mine) would want to live forever. Some interesting viewpoints were aired by panel members and public alike. But I felt the point was being missed entirely. I strove to think of a quick way to put my point forth but could not articulate it pithily. Here I attempt to redress that balance with more time and space to do so.
The notion of living forever seems tied up in the need for an individual to preserve his or her sense of self, of subjective perspective (‘conscious awareness’) for time immemorial. Because there is a fear (and perhaps this is culturally specific to the audience that was involved) that to ‘die’ or to ‘lose consciousness’ is the worst thing imaginable. There is a conditioning occurring here towards maintaining sense of identity and fearing being ‘switched off’ as it were. [Think of HAL the sentient computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey revealing his childlike terror of being unplugged: “will I dream?”.] Our ‘self’ has built up a defensive mechanism geared towards survival at all costs. Literally self preservation. And like an addiction, the thing we crave is the thing we ascribe all-consuming importance and power to. I must have that cake. It’s all I can think about. It will elevate my mood and reward me for it’s consumption. Without it I will plummet into despair. I can’t (as of this moment) live without it. But of course, the things that we crave we also know are ultimately not very good for us at base level: in the back of our minds we ‘crave’ overcoming that craving.
To be released from the power of addiction is to be truly set free. In rare moments where the satiation is denied us (or better still voluntarily abstained from), the boost in wellbeing afterwards is noted, responded to favourably, and shores up resolve in future moments of temptation. Like the alcoholic going cold turkey, or the penitent giving up chocolate for lent, the benefits are twofold (eventually). That is in the rejuvenation of health, increased energy, lightness of mood (in due course), but also the strengthening of resolve and the regaining of control over one’s choices and habits. Liberation in essence. The self can be construed in these same terms. It would seem to be an entirely appropriate turn of phrase to state that the preservation of self rests in the satiation of a craving. This becomes more obvious when one thinks of the basis of ‘selfhood’ in the recruitment of metabolic resources.
As discussed previously in other posts, the areas of the brain that ‘govern’ self actually use up a disproportionate amount of metabolic resources – the Default Mode Network has been shown to rely on costly upkeep even whilst the brain is supposedly ‘at rest’. And of this network, the Posterior Cingulate is perhaps the most demanding structure in consuming this energy. So it is true to say that it requires feeding. Think about that. The ‘self’ is a hungry construct, and the PCC has a large appetite. It is as if to say the brain has evolved a self that has priority towards preservation of it’s own (selfish) integrity. And it will do anything, like a spoilt and needy child, to feed it’s hunger, to keep itself at the centre of attention, and will mither its ‘parent’ to attend to it even when other more pressing matters require focus. (Again I have talked about how performance on cognitive tasks suffers when attention reverts to / is distracted by thoughts that have the self at basis – ‘mind wandering’.)
The only way to discipline a child of this phenotype seems to be to not give it what it wants, to divert attention towards more productive goals that in the long run benefit the system (brain) as a whole. Which takes resolve of course, lest one succumb to the ‘easy route’ of giving it what it wants. Consequently, the ‘child’ will hopefully grow up (leaving it’s needy ‘self’ behind), and become a mature and collaborative ‘selfless’ being that no longer drains it’s parents resources! The positives of engaging in ‘flow states’ or peak or spiritual experiences in which the self/ego seem to dissolve (i.e. by virtue of metabolic resources NOT being overly invested in these ‘self-embellishing’ brain areas) are well documented. And indeed one might argue the basis for spiritual development and personal growth does appear to rest in this reduction of self-centredness. In terms of ‘enlightenment’ or the ultimate goal to be attained at a personal and perhaps cultural level, might be said to be the abolishing of ‘self’ entirely. For then one can become more connected with the ‘whole’ (selfless and community-spirited).
Which comes back to the point being missed apparently in the discussion I attended. Why should one fear losing one’s ‘consciousness’ or ‘self’, and seek to preserve it for all eternity? Thinking about it in terms of addiction, craving, the self represents an overcommitment of metabolic resources, and a false promise of reward for being complicit in its sustenance. On the other hand, to recognise that it isn’t even a concrete ‘thing’, that we spend a large proportion of our lives absent of self, not unduly bothered by that, and even profiting because of this absence, is to get the point. We sleep and rest from our ‘self’. Many of us may not realise the extent to which we are trapped within our’self’. In a spiralling pattern of rumination, habit and addiction. And to have moments where the self retreats, the brain spends it’s resources on more productive ends, and recoups benefits in kind, is to in fact be blessed. There is nothing to fear: if anything we want to rejoice in the end of a lifetime governed by habit, a brain behaving as an undisciplined child, in it purely for itself. We want to be liberated, and welcome the prospect that this will eventually, inevitably be the case.
On the matter of preserving one’s legacy for the good of all, now that’s a slightly different issue. By doing good deeds, for others, producing creative innovations and insights, lessons that others can benefit from, that is the true path to immortality. Shakespeare, da Vinci, Einstein, and countless others live on forever in the works they offered to humankind. Not for their personal ‘I’s, but for the selfless insights and products they generated (i.e. generated whilst in states that tuned down their self-perpetuating brain resources). With all this in mind, seek to understand that there is no profitable virtue in preserving the subjective ‘I’ for time immemorial. Do you really value your own perspective and opinion so much that you wish to proliferate it through the aeons? Do you really want to be bound to the confines of a centre of reference that effectivly limits itself to one 'point' space-time (abeit frozen and paralysed forever)? Or is it not more appealing to release your dependence on such a construct and bounded notion and set free the bird from the illusory gilded cage and out into the all-encompassing boundlessness of a selfless universe…(!)
If the former still resonates most strongly, then, as Crowded House might melodically intone, ask loudly: “can I have another piece of chocolate cake?”
References: see previous post on 'Negative Psychology'
The virtues of ‘positive psychology’ are extolled far and wide these days, likely in defiance of the tide of gloom that threatens to wash us all into oblivion. Hunker down, focus on what YOU can achieve, plough forward aglow with unwavering self-belief. An industry spawned on the back of this gleaming cash cow! Well the roots of this movement can be traced back to the godfather of flow, Mihalyi Czsikzentmihalyi (and later Martin Seligman) who undertook to uncover the principles to a happy life base on observations of those resilient to hardship (spawned from a childhood surrounded by survivors of the Holocaust). But I do not want to pursue ‘positive psychology’ in this article, but rather consider it’s nemesis, and bring to attention a key brain area that is involved in both self-awareness and the processing of emotional valence. I give you ‘negative psychology’!
The brain seems fairly adept at processing negative information, consolidating this, ruminating upon it. Painful stimuli seem to us more acute, depression longer lasting (than ‘happiness’), and stressful events are lodged firmer in the neural systems dealing with behavioural response than those with an uplifting essence (Allan et al., 2012). It is posited that THREE positively emotionally valent events need to occur for every single negative one in order to ‘balance’ the brain’s neurochemistry with respect to management of stress and offsetting behavioural patterns that can determine aversive responses to a given stimulus. That means, for instance, where a traumatic or simply emotionally downbeat instance has been experienced, this will encode a certain aversive reaction in the hippocampus that is strongly likely to be activated in future. Patterns of behaviour once established are hard to shake up, and the consequence is an automatic habitual reaction. We are nervy creatures at heart, easily spooked in that sense. With the release of hormones / neurotransmitters such as cortisol and dopamine our coping systems interact with learning mechanisms that lay down the basis for future behaviours. It is telling that a greater amount of this ‘lubricant’ is required to counteract the effect of a single detrimentally perceived stimulus and imprint a more approach-centric response in future to a context or event. Three times as much by all account, the so-called ‘golden ratio’ (Allan et al, 2012).
We are predisposed to negativity! It is far easier to shrink back, retreat into the cave, bow the head and huddle under the blankets when faced with a threat. Than to draw oneself up, puff out the chest and advance boldly towards danger. Or novelty. It’s a matter of interpretation. And this is the key point. The brain constructs it’s own reality, based on incoming sensory stimuli, embellished and interpreted by internal ideas, preconceptions, expectations, past experiences about what the outside world is actually about. There is a certain amount of choice in this process of interpretation. It might not be clearly accessible choice. One may not be so aware of the fact one has a choice in the matter. But the brain at core is choosing to respond one way or the other, and it is possible to drill down into the neural architecture and identify areas and structures that play a key role in this interpretative decision making. One such area is known as the posterior cingulate cortex. This is part of the wider Default Mode Network that I have elaborated upon at length.
The DMN is involved in aspects of ‘selfhood’ as it were. When deactivated, such as when one is engaged wholly in a task that requires concentration, focus of attention to external factors, and goal driven performance, the ‘self’ all but disappears. The PCC is a central node in this network (Brewer et al., 2013). Evidence suggests (Maddock et al., 2003) that this has a function with respect to dealing with the emotional significance of autobiographical memories. It has a role in behavioural strategy employed relative to emotional salience based on memories for past experiences. So feeling a certain way based on thinking about previous instances where one has been in a certain situation will elicit a specific response (thus strengthening certain reactive patterns). It has also been linked to addiction (Brewer et al., 2013). It appears to play a role in arousal and focus of attention (be it internal or external), and introspective analysis of thoughts and awareness. As such, the likelihood of continuing with a rigid set of actions versus switching to a novel behavioural approach may depend on the level of activation and functional connectivity exhibited by this particular structure.
Based on this supposition, if we want to transform our attitudes and responses to circumstance, we want to have some level of influence over the activity in the PCC. If we can find a way to reduce activation in this structure, we stand a chance of disrupting the automaticity of our actions, decisions, instinctive responses. The result would be greater flexibility over what we do next. This may mean not reacting to a situation in a stock way (like we always react). But equally it means processing the information about a situation in a different way and not being subject to repeating patterns of rumination. It is possible to ascribe valence to a stimulus that perhaps runs counter to a previous interpretation. So a negative becomes a positive. Circumstance can be reframed according to the directional slant one wishes to put upon it. We create our own narrative, and this part of the brain is perhaps the quill with which the prose is scribed.
It is no coincidence in that case that reduced activity in the posterior cingulate has been observed in scientific studies of meditation effects (Brewer et al., 2011). In practices that stress mindfulness, awareness of the presence and ‘deactivation of the self’, the PCC tunes down, removing the valence of circumstance, and one simply observes as is. There is indeed alleged neurophysiological virtue in mindfulness training! Seeking out circumstance that promotes mindful awareness of the present, of the aspects of an environment that are ‘other’ rather than ‘self’, will help train this area of the brain to be more ‘controllable’. And with that a degree of ‘self’ control that can allow greater agency over one’s actions, one’s attitudes, and one’s ‘instinctive-responses’. To be the master of one’s habits is a lofty goal to aspire to, but think of the satisfaction and achievement that would be possible! I will explore further how the natural environments in which we can immerse voluntarily, and the adventurous pursuits that enable deep immersion in this, may help facilitate this ‘training’ of control over the PCC and associated elements of the DMN / ‘self’ centres that govern who we essentially are…(or perhaps more accurately ‘how’ we are: what we do with the information we process about ourselves, about our surroundings and the ‘other’ things that populate that, ultimately determines our fate).
So, with that, ‘negative psychology’ reflects the spirit of using awareness key brain structures (such as PCC) to help determine how we form attitudes towards concepts and circumstance. In that sense it is not the gloomy concept implied at the start of this discussion. In fact it is more concerned with acknowledging a predisposition of the brain to amplify negative effects and strongly determine behavioural response on the back of that. By drawing attention to this facet of neurobiology, and considering the different structures and brain connectivity involved (yet malleable), we can appreciate that nothing is set in stone and the underlying systems can be tinkered with to change courses of action. So sit back, focus on your breath, let your thoughts be but leaves swirling in the wind, observe their chaotic yet systematic motion, and immerse yourself in the present. For by doing so you exert your own ‘will’ over an otherwise (literally) ‘self’-perpetuating system that may ‘blindly’ rely on the past (or it’s own potentially negative narrative of that past) to determine a future over which you have increasingly less apparent control!
The idea that 'doing' can offset the predilection towards getting caught up in one's self and a ruminating spiral of negativity is one that constantly circulates here. By engaging in a goal, a task that draws upon one's resources in the grand theatre of the outdoors, one can potentially offset these self-perpetuating processes and drive the brain into a healthier, gear. And by practising a mindful approach whilst immersed in wilderness activities, or simply by virtue of being situated within nature environs, one is taking steps towards harnessing control over the brain functions that would otherwise career heedlessly towards the horizon.
Allan, J.F., McKenna, J. and Hind, K (2012). Brain resilience: Shedding light into the black box of adventure processes. Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 16(1), 3-14,
Brewer, J.A., Garrison, K.A. and Whitfield-Gabriel, S. (2013). What about the “Self” is Processed in the Posterior Cingulate Cortex? Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2013; 7: 647.
Brewer J. A., Worhunsky P. D., Gray J. R., Tang Y. Y., Weber J., Kober H. (2011). Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 108, 20254–2025910.1073/pnas.1112029108
Garrison K., Santoyo J., Davis J., Thornhill T., Kerr C., Brewer J. (2013a). Effortless awareness: using real time neurofeedback to investigate correlates of posterior cingulate cortex activity in meditators’ self-report. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 7:440.10.3389/fnhum.2013.00440
Leknes S, and Tracey, I (2008). A common neurobiology for pain and pleasure. Nat Rev Neurosci. (4):314-20. doi: 10.1038/nrn2333.
Maddock, Richard J.; Garrett, Amy S.; Buonocore, Michael H. (January 2003). "Posterior cingulate cortex activation by emotional words: fMRI evidence from a valence decision task". Human Brain Mapping. 18 (1): 30–41.
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The science of cognition and perception in context
This is where I elaborate upon brain science relating to cognitive functioning dependent on environmental context.