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
In 2001, (not the film, although that features heavily in my writings for various reasons), Marcus Raichle coined the term that refers to what is deemed to be the brain’s default state at rest. The application of neuroimaging techniques was logically focused on scrutinising brain activation when a given task is performed by the ‘lab-rat’ (often a peculiar species of rodent termed ‘undergraduate student). This makes perfect sense – which bit of the brain ‘lights up’ when I get participant X to perform task Y? such that region Z can be localised and hey presto we have a nicely coloured map of regional functionality.
But we are all taught in science 101 from an early age that in order to understand an experimental effect we ought to have a control condition. In the case of typical fMRI studies, this will involve lying quietly in the scanner doing little else other than listen to the humming noise of the contraption in which one is lying, and the steady hum of one’s own internal monologue chattering away. Some bright spark took a closer look at brain activation data in that period of rest, and rather than throw out the baby with the bathwater, noticed something interesting. It is fairly obvious that the brain, with it’s disproportionate thirst for metabolic energy, and its constant crackle of electrical activity, even at rest is a busy organ. It is working constantly to keep the organism regulated, monitoring it’s internal state, ready to alert the ‘owner’ to any aberrant signals that might require jumping into action to rectify any survival threatening incidents. But what was interesting was the degree of what is termed ‘functional connectivity’ observed when the participant was ‘at rest’.
In this so called resting or ‘default’ state, actually there is a high level of metabolic activity, with attention directed inwards, and in fact this activity ‘falls off’ when attention becomes more directed outwards. This ‘functional connectivity’ in fact serves a purpose with respect to generating internal cognition that may involve diverse modes of thought including thinking about one’s ‘self’ and emotional state, recalling facts and instances from one’s own past, or ruminating about the future, or others’ states of mind. Or simply, to indulge in a state of thinking termed ‘mind-wandering’ (daydreaming by a more ‘scientific’ name). For a comprehensive review of the functional anatomy, history of ‘discovery’ and pertinence to normal and ‘aberrant’ mental functioning, see Buckner et al. (2008).
In short, the default mode network (from hereonin ‘DMN’), could be construed as being the seat of ‘self’. Bereft of a specific task to concentrate upon, the mind turns inwards, a parade of thoughts, memories, fantasies, ruminations progresses. It is quite remarkable how much energy is consumed by this ‘resting’ state, with the ‘ego’ as it were being given the floor to pontificate upon it’s own sense of worth. And how easily this ego can run away with itself. Any insomniac will be painfully aware of how this unfettered mind will whip a still pond into a whirpool of turmoil, spiralling in on itself in torment. The night is anything but restful…Aside from debating what is the ‘self’, it is interesting to couch it in terms of the brain activation and blood flow to specific connected areas of the brain. And moreover to consider how that ‘basis’ is ‘easily’ disrupted by a ‘simple’ neurophysiological diversion of energy, blood flow, electrical activity to other parts of the brain. What I am referring to is the interesting supposition that in the same way a network such as the DMN can be connected to such meaningful cognitive experience leading to a (often painful) awareness of a ‘self’, equally can such a network be ‘turned off’. For remember, the evidence for a so-called default network arose from observations that the ‘control’ state in experimental studies called for the subject to NOT engage in a task during that ‘rest’ period. Which means that when engaged in a task, a different set of regions, betrayed by elevated local activity is / was in evidence. The so-called ‘task positive network’ (TPN) encompasses a set of brain areas that ‘functionally connect’ when engaged in a goal-directed task. This is also known as the central executive network (CEN), and as the name alludes to, involves regions that deal with executive control and governance of attentional resources relating to cognitive performance.
So what we have here is at least two different networks of brain regions that subserve different purposes if you like. And which can be represented by different activity and metabolic energy distribution. There are certainly more than two differentiated networks in the brain but for now and to keep things more comprehensible I will restrict discussion to these. The really interesting part of this equation is the notion that these two networks are anticorrelated. This term essentially describes the mutually exclusive status that when one is ‘on’ the other is ‘off’. Or more correctly, one may exhibit greater functional connectivity (i.e. stronger activation when engaged in it’s own ‘purpose’) than when the other takes precedence. For instance, when engaged in a directed task, the TPN will show strong functional connectivity within it’s network of regions, whilst at the same time the DMN will show reduced levels of activation and consequently lower functional connectivity.
Concomitant with this neurophysiological index is the cognitive functioning and perceived experience that relates to one or the other network. In the case of the DMN this may involve patterns of thought that associate with a sense of self, be that fantasy based flights of fancy, or depressive ruminations, or just wandering thoughts about past, present or future. But this also means any task related performance will suffer, as the mind really is not focusing on that task at hand. One is internally distracted. On the other hand, when the TPN is active, engaged and functionally connected, by virtue of the anticorrelated state of affairs, the DMN will not be given leeway to ruminate about it’s ‘self’. Therefore there will be little awareness of self. By definition this TPN dominant state becomes selfless. And as with a selfless state of being, if we allow for a little zen-style analogy, performance should be on point.
This leads in future directions into discussion of optimal functioning, and the so-called flow-state. For that state is frequently alluded to when talking about high performing situations when one loses all awareness of self, of time passing (logically the sense of time calibrates to an awareness of self-involvement in proceedings). The positive mental health benefits, and creative innovation output that may arise from such a state of optimised brain functioning are multifarious. This is intended as a primer to the DMN and associated brain networks. This is an introduction to slowly bring in the complexity of a systems neuroscience approach to unpacking the neurocognitive factors that underlie perceived experience. For it will be seen that this is not so black and white a case. Mittner and colleages (2016) argue for a role of the DMN in certain task focused states which do require internally focused cognition for example, and postulate phasic fluctuation in functional connectivity dependent on an integrative framework between DMN and the locus-coeruleus-norepinephrine system. This has relevance to levels of alert and arousal, and sustained attention pertinent to task performance. I will explore that in later pieces.
The thrust of this piece though is to lodge in mind that the brain has specific functional capacity, localised to various networks. Also, that these networks associate with different types of cognitive functioning, and with that comes variation in subjective perception. This is linked to attentional control, and effectively when one network is active the other is significantly reduced in its activity, essentially tuned down. There are wide ranging philosophical ramifications with respect to the notion of self awareness, and ultimately where ego and identity and sense of one’s own control or agency is ‘located’. It is fascinating to think that one could feasibly alter blood flow preferentially from out of the DMN and into the TPN (simplifying massively!) in order to ultimately harness control over one’s self. At the very least this gives pause for thought with respect to how one can strategically alter one’s subservience to the ruminating self by focusing one’s attention wholly on a task, or at least attempting to engage in a task if one is plagued by self-rumination.
Another strand of discussion to be had at a later stage involves implications of research into the pharmacological and neurophysiological effects of psychedelic compounds on functional brain connectivity. And with that comes a whole load of interesting associations with perceived phenonoma and disrupted cognition. The DMN plays a significant role in that research regarding functional connectivity, ‘mind-expansion’, and the dissolution of ego…
To bring this back to ‘CognitvExploration’, a purpose of this site is to forge links between subjective perceptions of environments / adventurous experiences and the science of brain functioning. By discussing topics such as functional brain networks we can start to understand how it is that the brain as a physical system is affected by the physical environment in which it operates. In turn, the cognitive demands of operating in a given environment then impinge upon the metabolic energy required for given cognitive states to be managed. This before we get into a discussion on the homeostasis management requirements of maintaining an organism’s physiological equilibrium in response to environmental stresses. I will diverge into that at a later stage and introduce a compensatory framework that links cognitive resources to biological priorities for survival.
For now, we can see that there are at least two clear and distinct states of being that favour either self-negating absorption in performing a task (perhaps that is a focus on getting from A to B in an adventurous landscape) or else a self-aware (all consuming?) state in which one is distracted by internal status and less aware of the surrounds (perhaps consumed by the beauty and significance of a vista, and in a contemplative mood that pays less heed to any hazards or functional requirements of the environment). But let us ruminate further on the Default Mode Network, and the importance of task focus in adventurous environments to help us figure out ways for self-transformation and personal growth! That is one to ‘allow’ the DMN to ponder on in the depths of the night…
Andrews-Hanna JR. (2012). The brain's default network and its adaptive role in internal mentation. Neuroscientist. 2012 Jun;18(3):251-70. doi: 10.1177/1073858411403316. Epub 2011 Jun 15.
Buckner, R.L., Andrews-Hanna, J.R. and Schacter, D.L. (2008). The Brain’s Default Network Anatomy, Function, and Relevance to Disease. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1124: 1–38
Mittner M1, Hawkins GE2, Boekel W2, Forstmann BU (2016). A Neural Model of Mind Wandering.Trends Cogn Sci. 2016 Aug;20(8):570-578. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2016.06.004. Epub 2016 Jun 25.
Raichle ME, MacLeod AM, Snyder AZ, Powers WJ, Gusnard D, and Shulman, G.L. (2001). A default mode of brain function. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 98:676–82.
Uddin LQ, Kelly AM, Biswal BB, Castellanos FX, Milham MP. (2009). Functional connectivity of default mode network components: correlation, anticorrelation, and causality. Hum Brain Mapp. 2009 February ; 30(2): . doi:10.1002/hbm.20531.
Virtual Reality is a useful concept for thinking about actual reality. Alongside perennial questions such as the hard problem of consciousness (connecting mind to body), or what came before or is outside of the universe, it is difficult to pin down without finding some analogy that ‘will do’ for the time being. But we can use the technology, and idea of ‘virtual’ reality to create reality, explore it’s uses, it’s boundaries, and it’s credibility. And by inference make some assumptions about what constitutes reality, what it may in itself be useful for. In short, how we can engineer reality for our own purposes. Particularly with respect to stimulating and directing behaviours to purposeful and profitable ends!
We live in a particularly innovative period of history where the digital age is upon us, the revolution has started, and we really are tuning in across the board, turning on to the benefits of connectivity and dropping out of physical reality at an alarming rate. So it is even more pertinent that we re-establish connection with nature, with the planet. For our own health and mental wellbeing sakes, as well of course for the sake of the ecosystem that threatens to be demolished by our own insatiable appetite for consumption and exploitation of natural resources. I sit firmly somewhere in the hinterland between early adopter and luddite. Which I appreciate sounds nearly meaningless. I suppose what I mean is I have an interest in how technology mediates our immersion in the world, and how our senses, and cognitive capacities also mediate our perception of that world. Yet I pine for an earlier golden age where technology did not milk the human race’s supply of attentional resources dry. And yes, no golden age ever really existed in a sociological sense. It is perchance myth. And all progress, technological and otherwise is good, yes?? So I like to take the stance that technological evolution, as somewhat inevitable thus is a positive thing to be embraced, and directed, lest it insidiously coral the masses into a herd like state of being.
There are limitations of course to the technology of virtual reality, but as with Moore’s law of exponential return, it is improving and will improve yet further as it becomes more ubiquitous. But this is helpful with respect to the potential to understand how this mediating experience affects the perceptions and behaviours of the user. And with that a window into how the brain constructs the rules of it’s reality in order to generate meaningful actions resulting. The proof of the pudding is in the acting. As Jeremy Bailenson (2011) introduces in his (co-authored) book Infinite Reality’, the term virtual reality means so much more than just the donning of a set of weird goggles a la in an ‘80s David Cronenberg movie. In fact with respect to the earlier comment about mediation between the observer and the world via the senses and cognitive processes, it is helpful to think of ‘virtual’ as referring an interpretation or ‘representation’ of something else (‘the world’).
In fact much current scientific debate revolves around whether ‘consensus reality’ in fact means anything objective at all – the world as a simulation in some advance computer programme (Donald Hoffman talks a lot on this subject with great authority - http://www.cogsci.uci.edu/~ddhoff/). In this sense of ‘virtual’ it helps to also acknowledge that the simplest form of ‘virtual reality’ resides in one’s own mind when thinking about stuff, imagining things that aren’t directly there in front of us, dreaming at night. Telling a story around a campfire elicits an empathic response with the audience,: a compelling narrative evokes emotional engagement, leading to various behaviours stimulated from a lack of any ‘real’ stimulus. (Making someone involuntarily shiver or gasp in response to a sinister tale, or having them wracked with mirth at a funny anecdote.) The point is, we are wired for suspension of belief.
It is this very capacity to engage with, empathise with and react to, an idea, a concept, an evoked experience lodged in the mind of the beholder, that is the essence of how we embrace the ‘unreal’. Reality becomes something of a meaningless ideal in this sense, for it is the behavioural response evoked in a situation by an idea that is impressed upon the mind which drives action and motivation going forward. And this helps then understand how it is that actually it is the brain that ‘creates’ it’s reality in this sense. Everything is mediated effectively. The brain sits inside its cranial casing, a lightless, Platonic cave. The eyes are not windows to the outside world. Rather they feed optical fibrous lines of communication conveying electrochemical signals to the inner-computer. This in turn organises those signals to be transmitted via network ‘cables’ to autonomous ‘committees’ that ascribe some significance to what becomes ‘information’ that can be utilised in a grander context of meaning.
The capacity to empathise with a concept or narrative espoused through a mediating technology such as VR lends itself to some potentially useful, even ground-breaking, applications. This is particularly so with respect to engendering greater empathy with the natural order of things and the wider environment. Whilst people will pay sincere lip-service to pro-environmental ideals and believe they are acting accordingly, there is a notable dissonance between word and deed. But this speaks to an issue with human motivation, and again rests with the brain’s proclivity to make it’s own life easy. For acting takes energy, and a great deal of that energy is required to overcome inertia. And anyway, ‘promising’ to do some pro-environmental action is as good as having done it, right? but without actually having to expend further energy to carry through…?
The brain lays down it’s neural grooves as an efficient operating system that makes habitual patterns of behaviour the default. Like the stream that finds its own way downhill, it will seek the path of least resistance. To create a new groove means deviating the flow of the old. But emotional engagement can provide it’s own impetus. For emotional responses can shake up the homeostasis of the organism, releasing hormones and neurochemicals such as cortisol or dopmamine, stressing the system and rewarding it in a cocktail of re-balancing nourishment.
Virtual reality can provide an experience that plays on the brain’s capacity to engage with an imagined world, to smooth out it’s edges and to become a complicit actor in it’s narrative. And in this respect, the brain is happy to incorporate the elements of this narrative into it’s own script of experience. The system that processes the sensory signals, organises this into meaningful information, finds purpose in laying down the grooves that make it such an efficient organ. The neurochemicals consolidate the resulting network (dopaminergic reward), and the system will look to use this revised network to prompt its decisions and actions.
The point here is that using mediating technological experiences as can be devised with VR, can have utility in changing people’s behaviours and attitudes without the need for effort on their part. Because the user is presented with this ‘reality’ they only have to let go and allow their brains to do the work that is naturally enjoys. So an experience may involve transporting virtually into a far off place where they become part of that environment, perhaps engaging in an activity that has direct repurcussions on the natural surroundings. This experience will be imprinted in the cortices as being something that they themselves had agency over. Their actions in the virtual world will be motorically imprinted as ‘real’. Their memories will be encoded as having take place ‘for real’, and this will in future be drawn on for reference when making decisions in the ‘actual’ world. If that action experienced brought home a sense of consequence, of immediate cause and effect, of responsibility for this, then future action-decisions will draw on the weight of that responsibility to motivate perhaps more positive behaviours. Studies are emerging that draw on this facet of the usefulness of VR and ‘persuasive technologies’ to help change behaviours, particularly with respect to sustainability issues.
VR can of course be used as a marketing tool, particularly to engage consumer interests in tourism and natural recreation possibilities. But more of interest to me is how analogously this concept of meditated experience can engender positive changes in attitude, motivation and ultimately behaviour. And how the learnings from ‘virtual reality’ transfer to how we approach thinking about (with the aid of the imagination) how we engage with the natural world directly (albeit enhanced by certain ways of thinking about it). I’ll talk elsewhere about how certain places can become elevated in their emotional and perceptual impact via the medium of photography and cinematography, with reference to virtual reality as well.
In summary, reality is in itself a mediated experience (via our senses into our brain, informed by the processes therein). What is important in consolidating this ‘consensus’ of reality is the empathic response engendered by this mediated process. Consequently, the experience that results and is immersed within can stimulate further behaviour, motivation and perspective change. And this can in principle be achieved with little ‘mental effort’ using technology such as virtual reality, for the brain does not like having to invest energy in disrupting the ‘grooves’ it has laid down based on past experience. The challenge is to promote direct experience with the natural world such that behaviours are ecologically-sustaining, and the connection with the environment is empathically-inspiring! A paper which talks more about how virtual reality and persuasive communications more generally can inspire greater connection of self with nature is referenced below (Ahn et al., 2016).
Footnote from Jäncke et al. (2009):
"A “negative connectivity” between right-sided DLPFC activation and brain areas was found in the dorsal visual stream, extra-striate areas, the SPL and the IPL, and in the PMC (Figure 3). Based on this finding, we indicate that the right-sided DLPFC down-regulates the activation in the dorsal visual processing stream. Considering the specific role of the dorsal stream in egocentric processing of the visual environment, it can be proposed that the right DLPFC is recruited as part of a strategy for regulating the experience of presence by constraining the egocentric processing of the roller coaster stimulus display. It can also be proposed that by increasing the activation in the dorsal visual stream during strong presence experience (with diminished activation in the right-sided DLPFC), the brain attentively prepares actions in the virtual environment as if the brain actually responds to real-life situations. It is known that the dorsal visual stream and the connected parieto-frontal areas are strongly involved in action and movement control. Hence, the stronger the participants are involved in the virtual scene, the stronger they plan to act attentively in the virtual environment."
Ahn, S.J.,Bostick, J, Ogle, E., Nowak, K.L., . McGillicuddy, K.T., and Bailenson, J.N. (2016). Experiencing Nature: Embodying Animals in Immersive Virtual Environments Increases Inclusion of Nature in Self and Involvement with Nature. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Volume 21, Issue 6, 1 November 2016, Pages 399–419, https://doi.org/10.1111/jcc4.12173
Blascovich, Jim, and Jeremy Bailenson (2011), Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution , Hammersmith: HarperCollins ebooks.
Jäncke, L., Cheetham, M. and Baumgartner, T. (2009). Virtual reality and the role of the prefrontal cortex in adults and children. Frontiers in Neuroscience, Volume 3 | Issue 1 |
JJ Gibson’s theory of affordances has been a mainstay influence in my thinking for many many years (Gibson, 1979). This theory refers to a dynamic, coupled systems approach to behaviour in context with the environment in which the organism is embedded. This is also referred to as an ‘ecological psychology’ approach. Gibson developed ideas based on understanding properties of optic flow in relation to an animal’s movement and the visual information informing motion and perspective from the surrounding scene. This flow of visual information, as he propounded, lends itself to providing stimulus to motivate possibilities for action within the environment. The animal can decide which way to go, what behaviour to select (run, slow, turn, jump) based on this dynamic visual stimulus impinging on the optic nerves.
A later development in the cognitive psychology of vision and action professed dual visual pathways in the brain (Goodale and Milner, 1992, building on Ungerleider and Mishkin, 1982) that accommodate different streams of visual information processing. One (‘ventral’ or occipito-temporal) for discerning ‘what’ an object or stimulus is – qualities that describe object features – and one (‘dorsal’ or occipito-parietal) that discerns relative positioning of the object in space (describing object location and spatial coordinates). Simply speaking, it could be said that the ‘dorsal’ stream subserves the capacity to coordinate motor actions of the organism with respect to the scene and its constituent objects (though of course both pathways have their key functions in visual perception leading to motor behaviour).
Loosely tying these strands of theoretical background together, ‘affordance’, as Gibson put it, describes a capacity to act upon the world by virtue of the object and environmental scene features that allow action to be made upon them. So to reiterate, this is a dynamically coupled systematic approach. Or if you like, behavioural action is an emergent property of this coupled system. That is, I, myself as the agent in this environment (my office), have the capacity to act relative to my environment, as a function of this interrelationship with the objects within that environment and the spatial elements of this scene. So it is well within my action potential to rise from my chair (affording sitting currently), navigate across the room from behind my desk, and stroll out (or dash, hop, twirl) into the corridor and seek out the nearest toilet facility.
But none of that is intrinsically derived either from myself operating in isolation as an independent and isolated individual being, nor the environment in and of itself (the toilet does not beckon me against my volition – my homeostasis has a key part to play in that). And so to the point with relevance to environments, motivated action, and potential to seek adventure. I wish to use this forum to elaborate upon certain scientific principles and theoretical (and applied) frameworks that inform my perspective on adventure psychology. This includes brain functions, and cognitive psychological models concerning the mechanisms by which we process information from the environment and translate that into actions. This ultimately drives our capacity to perform efficiently and optimally.
The concept of affordances, couched in an understanding of how the brain organises the sensory information flooding it at every turn, helps to define which elements of the environment preferentially determine what ‘I’ want to do next. Be that to sit still, close my eyes and try to avoid engaging with the outside world. Or else to use the environment and sensory stimulation to arouse my interests, ignite my enthusiasm, and disrupt my homeostasis to the point I career out into the world (to climb the mountain, dive in the sea, slide down the white slope) in an attempt to restore equilibrium to that system. Dynamic equilibrium in fact. Hereafter, the ‘natural’ state of being may well be to remain active and engaged, and making full use of my vestibular and proprioceptive capacities, balancing on a figurative tight rope straddling two pinnacles.
This mode of action could well grant access to an epic vista and an emotional thrill that I would not be able to see from any other vantage in a more sedentary (homeostatic) state. In due course I will elaborate further on different aspects of the scientific influences I incorporate into a grander perspective of ‘CognitvExploration’.
Gibson, J. J. (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin
Goodale MA, Milner AD (1992). "Separate visual pathways for perception and action". Trends Neurosci. 15 (1): 20–5. doi:10.1016/0166-2236(92)90344-8. PMID 1374953.
Ungerleider, L.G. & Mishkin, M. (1982). Two cortical visual systems. In D.J. Ingle, M.A. Goodale & R.J.W.
"Open the pod bay doors, HAL." - Dave Bowman, 2001: A Space Odyssey
I like to reference the visual arts, and in particular the medium of cinema, when talking about facets of cognition and perception that inform our view of the world. What better source springs to mind to relate to when discussing how reality is constructed by the brain, than examples of directorial vision that fabricate intoxicating worlds that captivate and inspire audiences. With this in mind I would like to offer a perspective on the influences of two of my personal favourite directors: Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick.
These two giants of contemporary cinema exhibit certain tropes that hint at a genius for constructing worlds on celluloid which leak (or even flood as of blood torrenting from an elevator) out into the actual world and permeate the consciousness of the viewer. Not to mention the cultural milieu in which we live…
Given my interests in how we view and construct our reality, how our perceptual apparatus, influenced by our cognitive capabilities creates and immerses us in the world around us, these auteurs stand out particularly. Their filmic motifs have had significant influence on how I think and view things.
First Scott. Perhaps it’s a common geographical ancestry (he’s from South Shields), but I feel an affinity towards Sir Ridley. I admire his stylistic approach to visual form (I hold up my hands – I am very much into visual aesthetic, possibly to the exclusion of substance), as well as his plain speaking (gruff?) exterior. His sublime vision has strongly influenced cinema, particularly in the science fiction and future-dystopian genre (Blade Runner of course).
Certainly in the earlier pictures (some of the later Hollywood offerings I feel Ridley has succumbed to CGI and to formulaic ways of doing things) there was a distinctive and affecting visual style. Blade Runner, Legend, The Duellists, Alien all stood out with a painterly form. His style exploited the pure enhanced power of the medium to manifest the richness of imagination, the afterglow as of a psychedelic trip, emphasising colours and sharpness of vision, enriching the external perceptual world beyond any mundaneity of actual content in scene. He showed that film could represent everyday reality (as well as realising far more fantastical worlds) as truly beautiful, with the camera a mode of enriching experience. This as opposed to merely facsimilising, representing or simply documenting what we ‘see’ as a matter of course. This resonates with me because I strive always to understand how we can optimise our perceptual faculties to interpret, project and render reality in as striking and aesthetic a way as possible. In Kantian terms we can bring richness to the world ‘out there’ by our imagination interacting with our sensory input. It is a two way process.
Kubrick, meanwhile, brings the intellect to full force in his composition of what is laid bare on screen. There is a meticulous, cognitive element to the whole perceived aesthetic. (Possibly to the detriment of emotional substance.) He was noted for his obsessive detail, his dictatorial style in crafting even the minutiae of every frame of every scene. Much has been written about the exacting process actors were put through with scores of takes for even the 'simplest' of scenes (eg. Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut, or Shelley Duvall in The Shining). Conspiracy theories abound with respect to symbolism 'hidden' clearly in mundane background detail (see the film, Room 237, which is born of a fan's obsessive deconstruction of the 'meaning' of The Shining).
But this is where the mystique proliferates. For even the most ‘mundane’ of scenes might encompass a wealth of information, of totally controlled composition where nothing is left to chance. All elements of background as well as foreground were carefully placed, coordinated, calibrated. For he was seeking to control, influence, manipulate, stimulate the unconscious as much as focus in on the principal scene elements. All was suggestive. All was there to enable endless supposition after the fact about the meaning and significance of what had been viewed. The consummate magician, he went to great ends to set up a simple scene, in order to not necessarily misdirect as to embellish perceptions. He strove to completely dominate the perceptual experience and to masterfully immerse the viewer in HIS world, in order to effectively replace the viewer’s perspective with one he has engineered.
That speaks to me at many levels. Most notably though, in terms of how one may go about crafting complete and transformational experiences for self or others, to instigate a carefully created perspective in order to allow one to fully embrace that and see differently. Essentially to understand and master one’s own view of the world by delving into the cognitive machinery underlying, to tinker, to optimise, to have ‘fullest’ control as possible over the perception generated as a consequence. 2001: A Space Odyssey still holds up for its meticulousness in detail, it's profound themes of cognitive and technological evolution. But generally because it was a bloody good rendition of what space flight may well be like without the bells and whistles (and sound in a vacuum), and the representation of worlds in our solar system even before we 'got' there (being released a full year ahead of actual Apollo 11 touch down in the lunar surface for instance).
When all is said and done, we can take lessons from the likes of these artists among others and seek to engineer the narrative and experience of the world that suits our own individual temperament. We can realise how much craft and skill is involved in just seeing, and being in the world, and we can seek to direct our own quality of that experience. By learning from others. This comes down to composition of scene as much as goal and vision underlying what we want to achieve from that scene. We can reorganise, we can have purpose to change around elements of the scene to have unconscious impact, to embellish the overall effect. This can help change the ‘habit’ of perception.
Our eyes rove about the environment, sampling information in staccato-like fashion, driven by top-down attention (expectation, intention) as much as elements in the scene itself. Our very beliefs and expectations will inform what is processed, and how that information is woven into the internal model of the outside world. This doesn't have to be done 'blindly'. With a directorial vision of our own, we can begin to craft the detail, to select the information relevant to that vision. We can render the scene through the lens we choose to view through. To light the set and consequently edit the footage. The story is our's to tell. Unless of course one is happy to sit back, switch off the lights, grab the popcorn, and revel in the stories that someone else wants to tell. Each to their own...
That’s my personal perspective anyway – and it’s no coincidence that I seek the intellectually driven/visual stylistic or cognitively-domineering examples I have chosen rather than more emotionally driven examples. That is not to say there is not a purposefully crafted emotional component to the films of these directors, but rather that I seek inspiration from the visual aesthetic and stylistical composition of the movies they have made. Perhaps in future I will give a further take on the how we may craft our own emotionally driven narrative, with reference to appropriate cinematic examples of style and mise-en-scene.
As a postscript, one of the latter films in Kubrick's canon that failed to come to the screen whilst he was alive was in fact taken up by a collaborator of his and given a take unique to that particular director's style. And presumably a very different, and more emotional tenor as is the signature of that filmaker. I am referring of course to one Steven Spielberg in his rendition of AI: Artificial Intelligence. One can only speculate how much different this would have been in Kubrick's hands, perhaps building on themes given genesis to in 2001. Notably, where machine intelligence may evolve in the sphere of inter-human social interaction, from cold and inhuman beginnings to something more calculating and meta human perhaps (here I speculate and extrapolate wildly!). Instead the resultant movie is very Spielbergian, focusing on family, childhood wonder and in my own humble opinion overly saccharine and hard to swallow (I came very close to walking out of this film as it really exasperated me - and I am normally a huge fan of Spielberg...).
And how is this relevant to adventure you might ask? I digress into areas that inform my take on visual perception and styles of cognition. Yet this is tied to my view of the world both aesthetically and in terms of the action-possibilities to explore further and construct my own model of what is 'out there'. Adventure for me is about painting the world in it's richest and most stimulating form. The natural canvas is just that - nature. And wilderness represents this canvas of nature at it's grandest scale. As the director of my own experience I can seek to construct my artwork within the studio, through illusion and technical proficiency to create a world within constraints. Or, budgetary limitations aside, I can seek to make the movie out on location, showcasing the natural environment in all it's glory, and indeed weaving it into the narrative as a crucial character in itself. This requires vision, imagination, and impetus to get out there and boldly tackle the challenge of shooting 'in the wild'. But the dividends will be prominent onscreen! This leads into further posts on how our visual perceptual system encompasses processing streams for dealing with action-relevant information as key to building representations of the world out there. And of course a further digression on the vagaries of film making (and photography) on location in the inspirational wilds of the UK!
"Viddy well little brother, Viddy well" - Alex DeLarge, A Clockwork Orange
" I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this..." - Mark Watney, The Martian
The science of cognition and perception in context
This is where I elaborate upon brain science relating to cognitive functioning dependent on environmental context.