“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.
Dietrich A (2006). Transient hypofrontality as a mechanism for the psychological effects of exercise.Psychiatry Res. 145(1):79-83.
Kornhuber, H. H. & Deecke, L. Hirnpotentialänderungen beim Menschen vor und nach Willkürbewegungen, dargestellt mit Magnetbandspeicherung und Rückwärtsanalyse. Pflügers Arch281, 52 (1964)
Libet, B., Gleason, C. A., Wright, E. W. & Pearl, D. K. Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential) the unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act. Brain106, 623–642 (1983)
Nann, M., Cohen, G., Deecke, L. & Soekadar, S.R. (2019). To jump or not to jump - the Bereitschaftspotential required to jump into 192-meter abyss. Scientific Reportsvolume 9, Article number: 2243
Schurger, A., Sitt, J.D. and Dehaene, S. (2012). An accumulator model for spontaneous neural activity prior to self-initiated movement. PNAS 109 (42) E2904-E2913
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.
ck here to edit.
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 |
The science of cognition and perception in context
This is where I elaborate upon brain science relating to cognitive functioning dependent on environmental context.