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