Mental Help Net blog

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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If you lived here…

There's no place like home.When I was growing up, our summer vacations were usually opportunities to visit family members who had moved away from Wichita. We knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore when the landscape suddenly became three dimensional. When we visited an uncle in Colorado, my parents would wake my brother and me up as soon as they spotted mountain peaks in the distance. When we traveled to Missouri, the centrifugal force created by the winding roads would rock us awake. These contrasts seemed so exotic that we would get caught up in discovering details that seemed so much more interesting than things back home.

I remember seeing real estate advertisements that taunted us with the idea that if we actually lived there, we’d be living the good life without having to go anywhere but out our own front door. A life lived in a land of perpetual vacation sounds great to kids, but adults realize that the magic carpet would wear thin under the ceaseless traipsing of guests through their living room.

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Waiting for the Weekend

People who practice mindfulness strategies like to talk about the various small habits of resistance we all tend to accumulate. We point out the dangers of putting off our happiness until some point in the future. But isn’t there some value in motivating ourselves through unpleasant tasks and activities by imagining the relief that will follow? Is there really anything wrong with taking a bit of comfort during a tedious meeting or lecture on Wednesday morning by imagining how much fun we’re planning to have on Friday evening?

The answer has to do with our assumptions about the skills of paying attention. What is the point of learning to stay in the present more often? Isn’t this just one more trendy drop in the ocean of self-improvement strategies that fail to live up to their promises?

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Recognition

Billy Batson and the Council of Elders

I liked how the top Oscars were awarded last night. Having a pantheon of previous category winners, each carefully matched with a nominee, was a satisfying blend of grandiosity and tenderness. It did ride a fine line between cool and awkward, but the words of praise from the respected role models with established reputations were more moving and memorable than most of the acceptance speeches. I was moved by the reactions of the nominees. I can’t think of any other consolation prize that has allowed participants to walk away with such affirmation and dignity.

What a curse it must be for the entire world to know you crave something that you do not get. Most of us are fortunate to experience a significantly smaller circle of praise and embarrassment.

We live in a niche market world now. It’s a silly tradition to select one performance from the year and pretend it was the best. If you see movies outside the mainstream, you know that many truly artistic performances go unnoticed by the majority. So much talent never finds a large audience.

But we like to build pedestals. I’m not sure that’s an entirely bad thing. Around the time of the presidential election, I heard Harry Shearer talking about how he can’t do worthy impersonation of Barack Obama until he figures out who Obama is impersonating. It’s true, isn’t it? Consciously or unconsciously, we are all emulating the people we admire.

My favorite acknowledgment last night came from one acting goddess to another. Sophia Loren said that Meryl Streep’s name has become synonymous with the highest standards of her craft. It made me think about how much influence we really do have in creating the perception of ourselves in the minds of others.

Who would you most want to summarize and approve of your efforts and accomplishments?

What would you like your name to mean?

What one thing could you do today to increase your odds of ever finding even a small audience of respect?