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To our fortune, over thousands of years humans have developed an extremely powerful and large prefrontal cortex that other animal species lack. This area of the brain, also known as the thinking brain, has played a huge role in our advancement as a species and a defining characteristic which sets us apart as the superior species.
These executive functions and cognitive capabilities include self-reflection and critical thinking. an all powerful, always working, thinking brain. An ability to never stop analysing, comparing, or reflecting, about anything and everything.
In the last article about our stress response we talked about how our amygdala (small region in the brain) reacts almost indiscriminately to real, imagined, minimal, or extreme stress in a similar way.
Once a threat is detected by the amygdala, our stress response kicks in which includes a string of prefrontal activity. This prefrontal ‘thinking brain’ activity tries to resolve the threat by projecting possible ‘what if’ scenarios, endeavouring to out-think any discomfort or further distress. And thanks to the premise of embodied cognition (our biology and cognition are inextricably linked), this fear-based strained mental activity also keeps the body in a state of anxiety and stress.
Let me explain how.
When a threat is detected by the brain (specifically, the amygdala), it sounds the alarms and the sympathetic nervous system reacts. It releases stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline associated neurochemicals into the system, priming us to fight, flight, or freeze. Our heart beats faster to supply more oxygen to our muscles increasing from the average 70 beats per minute to 140 beats per minute.
This reaction can certainly be advantageous. It is a sensation familiar to all of us in situations where we have to run for our lives (or feel like we are) but is certainly a bit excessive and an unnecessary reaction to mild psychological stressors. Nevertheless, a low intensity level of this reaction is advantageous in most situations as it helps us to become initially alert, attentive, and primed for action. But our psychophysiological response doesn’t often stop there. For the most part our thinking brain comes in to ‘save the day’ and in the process disrupts this helpful physiological reaction.
In its attempts to ‘save the day’ the prefrontal cortex starts to hyper analyse and predict every possible worst case scenario, unfortunately continuously reactivating our stress response. During this loop, cortisol in our bodies continue to accumulate leading to unnecessarily high anxiety and stress levels, tightening our minds and muscles.
Put simply, our amygdala fires the alarm in our brain which creates a reaction of urgency, priming our body for action. Our prefrontal cortex then reacts to this real or imagined threat by preparing us for anything and everything. In trying to do the right thing, it ironically exasperates the process. As the prefrontal cortex jumps in to help us make decisions, it inadvertently presents us with a million different scenarios and our thoughts become clouded, and our performances effortful and strained. At the extreme, we literally fight, flight or freeze.
During this cycle in our brain and body, we tend to act like agitated chimps (i.e., fight); run away to avoid the situation (i.e., flight); or enter a state of analysis paralysis and shut down (i.e., freeze). These responses are completely normalised by all of us, that we don’t even realise that there are other realities or response opportunities. These instinctual responses are unpleasant and cause turmoil in our consciousness, yet many of us continue to do the same thing day-in and day-out.
All of this usually occurs without our conscious control, or even awareness, instead going on in the background of our experiences. We may realise at the end of the day that our body and brain is tired due to the net effect of extended micro fight, flight or freeze responses.
Flow, or optimal functioning, on the contrary, is associated with a decreased neural activity in the left amygdala, in which our threat alarms signals are reduced and our parasympathetic system continues to modulate the sympathetic activity before reaching debilitating levels. This unusual parasympathetic dominance during high pressure situations helps us to create what scientists call a ‘parasympathetic-attentional interaction’. Meaning, we have an alert body that doesn’t constrain our muscle movement nor cause our prefrontal cortex to hijack our clear and efficient decision-making. In this state, our muscles are allowed to be flexible rather than tight and strained, and the body can facilitate automatic and effortless sensations. Instead of fighting, ‘flighting’, or freezing, we flow.
So how can we identify and test this neurological ingenuity that is apparent in flow? Apart from the obvious subjective feelings of having our mind and body tense or alert and agile, physiologically, scientists are working hard to find clear indicators that we can use practically. To date, the most accessible measure outside a lab, which can be done with a mobile phone app, is examining the gap between our heart beats—heart rate coherence.Or if you really want to get fancy, then examining the cortico-muscular coherence can get really interesting.
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