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.
ck here to edit.
The science of cognition and perception in context
This is where I elaborate upon brain science relating to cognitive functioning dependent on environmental context.