Critical Functions of the Prefrontal Cortex

Excerpt from “Nine Ways Mindfulness Can Change Your Life,”  by Elisha Goldstein, Mental Help Net, September 28, 2010:

Through his experience in working with brain trauma, Daniel Siegel, M.D., author The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being, The Mindful Therapist: A Clinician's Guide to Mindsight and Neural Integration, and others found that the prefrontal cortex hosts nine critical functions that happen to associate with outcomes in mindfulness research and healthy attachment in children.

1. Response Flexibility — Here is a trait that lies at the cornerstone of Viktor Frankl ’s quote. “In between stimulus and response there’s a space…” and when we become aware of that space, there are choices. This is where we can break out of the auto-pilot of past conditionings and become aware of more options and be more flexible. We don’t have to pick up the bottle, or go back to the abusive partner, or walk around the block without noticing the flowers. Having this as a trait allows us to automatically recognize that there are choices and options.

2. Fear Modulation — While a little fear can be helpful (“I’m afraid of driving too close to the car in front of me”), more often it seeps into the intricacies of our lives and keeps us stuck in old patterns. For example, “I’m afraid to open up to him because I don’t want to be hurt.” I always give the analogy that if babies were afraid to learn how to walk because of the multitude of times they fell, they’d never learn to walk. Learning how to turn the volume down on our fear can help drop our anxieties over our imperfections and come back into a playful adventuring of daily life.

3. Body Regulation — In moments of overwhelm it’s easy for the heart to start beating faster, muscles to tense, the breath to become more rapid, getting the body ready for fight, flee or freeze. The activation of fighting or fleeing is a result of our sympathetic nervous system getting revved up. Stopping, resting or freezing is an activation of our parasympathetic nervous system. The ability to regulate our bodies means that we have a natural balance of these two nervous systems reliably telling us when to go and when to rest.

4. Attuned Communication — If a stressful day is upon us, it’s likely that we’re primed to not attune to others around us. At work, this leads to miscommunications and frustration, at home this leads to thoughts of not being cared about and distance in a relationship. Being able to naturally feel the internal state of another persona and reflect that back to them breeds security and feeling connected. The man on his deathbed said, “It’s about who you love and how you love them, and the rest of it never mattered.” You don’t get that experience in life without being able to attune to others.

5. Emotional Resiliency — It’s easy to get swept up on auto-pilot, being taken for a ride and not knowing how we suddenly ended up depressed, anxious or with a hot temper tantrum. Have the ability to be emotionally resilient means being better able to monitor our mood and lifting ourselves up when we’re down and down when we’re too up. This doesn’t mean living a neutral existence, just a more balanced one. We still experience the myriad of emotions that are out there, they just less often take us for rides into unhealthy emotional spirals.

6. Improved Insight — People often ask, “Do you think it’s important to look at what happened to me in the past or is all that matters in the here and now?” My response is always, “All your experiences of the past make up who you are today. So your past lives in the present. In order to find true self-acceptance we have to understand where our reactivity comes from and then turn to it with a sense of compassion and caring.” We can also intentionally pay attention to the future as we do with any of our aspirations. Through insight we get to know and befriend our auto-pilot so we can work in concert rather than in conflict.

7. EmpathyEmpathy allows us to connect and feel love for others. We are putting ourselves in their shoes and being able to discern where they are coming from, what they are thinking and feeling. The way we’re defining empathy here is also with a lens of kindness and compassion and with an eye on the greater good. 

8. Morality — This is defined as having your eye on the greater good in concert with your actions. Moral thoughts alone are not enough to cultivate morality, we need to be walking the talk.

9. Reliable Intuition — One of the follies of western culture at this point is the Descartian split of thinking and feeling. An overemphasis on the intellect without an appreciation for the wisdom of the body. After all, we now know that we have neural networks in our hearts and intestines. Reliable intuition is a reliable auto-pilot. We may not be aware in the moment of the underlying reasoning, we just get a sense for something. It is cultivated when we’re able to connect with the sensory world of the body that may tune us in to sensing when something or someone is safe or unsafe. Without experience and practice this intuition is more likely to be less reliable breeding misperceptions and unhealthy actions influenced by mood or prior trauma.

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