Fuelling the cognitive engine
Imagine a cold morning, the car sounds rough when you turn the ignition and takes a while to start. Everything feels sluggish. The engine stutters into life. You give it some revs and slowly pull away, grinding up through the gears. As it warms up and you hit a clear stretch of road, working up through the gears, it finds it’s biting point and the vehicle gains momentum, giving a smooth ride and a relaxed sense of control.
This might act as a useful analogy to how our brain’s capacity to manage attention and motivate action operates. Focusing and managing finite attentional resources requires an impetus and a ‘kickstart’ at times, and galvanising oneself into action can be a taxing process. The system (‘me’) feels lackadaisical, sluggish, lethargic. The brain requires metabolic energy, and our cognitive functions are naturally dependent on the underpinning machinery of neural wiring, biochemical ‘fuel’ and systems architecture (speak to Rene Descartes if disagree). Until the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ is solved and some clear definition of where brain ends and mind begins can be established, we must accept that cognition is metabolically derived and energy intensive.
Therefore, as noted, energy must be expended to supply relevant brain regions and networks with impetus to generate cognition, to ‘invest’ attention, be that as it may to external stimulus cues from which information can be derived and plans formed. Or else to internal processes that formulate goals, monitor progress, and make decisions about how to act upon the information and plans available. As with any physical requirement to overcome inertia, the hard part is in the initial stage, but once in operandus and momentum, velocity, direction is achieved, the system may become more energy efficient and the ride smoother (to return to the above analogy). Whilst any real world context may likely generate friction in the form of obstacles, unexpected events, deviations from course, unaccommodating texture on the ‘surface’, sometimes the situation is amenable to optimal functioning. On this basis let me introduce the notion of ‘effortless attention’ into the proceedings.
When circumstances allow, an effortless state could be said to be occurring. The system is in the right ‘gear, the road surface is smooth and friction co-efficient accommodating, momentum is sufficient, and the operator is in control. The right level of challenge motivates this skilled capacity to engage the whole apparatus in action. A high level of performance is likely occurring, high demands in a situation are being responded to effectively, but in fact a perceived drop in energy expenditure is experienced. Now whether this is reflected in terms of actual energy expenditure reducing is less clear and difficult to define in absolute objective physiological terms. But it is likely that the system is more efficient in this state at managing those energy resources. Given the human predisposition to respond and act according to psychological factors rather than innate sense of physiological functioning, it is an important observation that ‘optimal functioning’ should be tied up in a subjective sense of effort.
We are very influenced by how we feel, as emotive beings sensitive to changes in our homeostasis, and motivated by awareness of apparent ‘energy state’. So with this in mind, there is something key to understand here regarding how the brain’s attentional resources are deployed to switch from an acute sense of effortfulness to one that is deemed ‘effort-less’. An initial ‘low energy’ or at least ‘standing start’ status shifts to a higher energy, aroused and active status that is not so much perceived as ‘effortless’ so much as reflecting an absence of the perception of any effort.
A couple of key points to note in this will shed some light on the significance behind effortless attention or ‘optimal functioning’ (also referred to as ‘flow’ as a more populist term). One is the notion of ‘engagement’. The other is the concept of ‘self’. Firstly, it would seem that being engaged (perhaps ‘wholly’) is a pre-requisite for successful focusing of attentional resources on task, and ensuring that a smooth alignment of processes occurs in a goal oriented state. ‘Finding the right gear’ might be an appropriate analogy as mentioned earlier. Here the vehicle is functioning efficiently and operating in a zone that plays to it’s engine capacity – flat out on the motorway if that befits its specifications, or in a more fuel efficient context (family saloon?)! ‘Engagement’ is a bit of a catch-all term for being immersed/absorbed in a task. Here let us use it to refer to a state of affairs wherein attention is directed towards the task requirements, and perceptual processing selective to cues only relevant to task (undistracted by those irrelevant). But importantly also, there is an emotionally arousing component of the experience. By this I mean there is a stimulating aspect to what the task requires, i.e. matching interests, skills, competencies and challenge to the individual, and also being in accordance with the individual’s homeostatic equilibrium.
This latter term refers to the biological imperative that underpins physiological signals about the organism’s internal bodily state relevant to the environment. All things being well and equal and as criteria for optimal functioning, the individual will not be too hot, cold, hungry, fatigued, in pain, and is in accord with the environment (both internal and external). As organisms dependent on our environment for sustenance we are finely tuned and sensitive to changes in sensory input. The brain is not just a thinking machine. It evolved if anything to allow adaptive movement with respect to an environment that can provide nutrition, and to allow greater perceptual differentiation of objects within that environment such that further sustenance can be achieved, so contributing to the evolutionary cycle. It also of course governs the biological systems within the body.
Because of biological prioritisation, it follows that any threat to the homeostatic equilibrium will overrule management of cognitive resources out of urgent necessity to redress the balance. So brain functions required to process signals arising that inform of a pending, or occurrent change in state will be requisitioned from more abstract, or perhaps energy-demanding cognitive tasks that are not so critical for performance. The good news is that there appears to be a compensatory mechanism in place to ensure that any relatively critical tasks being performed by ‘standard cognition’ can still be kept online. We can take as given that cognition and general brain function are dependent on physiological resource. It follows that this resource can be managed in such a way as to ‘increase supply’ to areas of the brain where this cognitive functioning is ‘online’ in order to maintain performance (Hockey, 2011). There is nevertheless a cost to the system, and at some point when overly stressed and unable to ‘cope’ with deploying its limited resources towards balancing homeostasis AND facilitating cognitive performance, something will have to give. (And that will be cognitive performance as biological need overcomes ‘thinking’ per se.)
Craig (2002) proposes an intriguing take on how emotions ‘arise’ as a function of cognitive processing of signals pertinent to homeostasis. This relates to an area of the brain known as the insula cortex, and ‘interoception’ of information about internal bodily state. This has bearing on the position being outlined here with respect to governance of attentional resources, cognitive functioning, and emotional engagement facilitating ‘optimal performance’. [Craig, Hockey and also further positions espoused with the psychological constructionist fraternity including Feldman-Barrett and Russell (2014) and Posner et al.’s (2005) ‘valence-arousal circumplex amongst others, coalesce in my thinking with respect to unpacking further the brain mechanisms involved in ‘flow’, ‘optimal functioning’, ‘effortless attention’ and so on.]
Emotional processing plays a significant part in this model of ‘engagement’ and management of attentional networks. At the same time this entails a cognitive-physiological interdependency in which attentional resourcing is a function of internal brain connectivity (with ‘functional’ purpose), mitigation of biological needs with respect to balancing homeostasis (relative to environmental influences) and emotional responses/processing that comes into play in this complex system of factors. Perhaps the emotional component is a product of the fluent governance of attention in sync with nicely balanced homeostasis. Or perhaps it is an instigating factor in itself that arises as a function of ‘attuned’ status in homeostasis linked to efficient cognitive processing on-task. Nonetheless, ‘engagement’ requires an emotional valence that ‘locks’ the monitoring capacity of the organism onto the task at hand – if a large predator hoves into view whilst I am performing a maths task, one can be pretty assured I will become rather emotionally invested in dealing with this threat possibly to the detriment of performing the task. It has been proposed that different attentional ‘systems’ / ‘streams’ may differentiate in specialist capacity with respect to emotional attentional versus cognitive attentional processing (Viviani, 2013).
Part two will delve into these ‘dorsal’ and ‘ventral’ streams and their contribution to the construction of ‘self’ and it’s bearing on this perceived effortless state that underpins an optimally functioning cognitive agent focused on task requirements whilst attuned to the environment. Ultimately, this has positive bearing on 'self' development and enhanced ability to achieve goals and emotional growth. Environments that support and promote adventurous activity potential can facilitate access to this effortless attention and 'flow' state.
Craig, A. D. (2002). How do you feel? Interoception: the sense of the physiological condition of the body. Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 3, 655–666. doi: 10.1038/nrn894
Feldman-Barret t and Russell, J.A. (2014).The Psychological Construction of Emotion ISBN 9781462516971
Hockey, G. R. J. (2011). A motivational control theory of cognitive fatigue. In P.L. Ackerman (Ed.), Cognitive fatigue: multidisciplinary perspectives on current research and future applications (pp. 167-188). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association
Posner, J, Russell, J.A.,c and Peterson, B.S. (2005) The circumplex model of affect: An integrative approach to affective neuroscience, cognitive development, and psychopathology. Dev Psychopathol. 2005; 17(3): 715–734
Viviani, R (2013). Emotion regulation, attention to emotion, and the ventral attentional network
Frontiers in human neuroscience. November 2013 | Volume 7 | Article 746 | 1
The science of cognition and perception in context
This is where I elaborate upon brain science relating to cognitive functioning dependent on environmental context.