How cognitive inflexibility prevents fluid thinking

Source: Gerd Altmann / Pixabay

“Superfluidity” is a term I borrowed from the world of physics to describe a state of frictionless flow marked by absolutely zero viscosity or loss of kinetic energy when an athlete is. really in the zone.

As an ultra-endurance triathlete and marathoner, I realized soon after reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s founding book, Flow: the psychology of optimal experience, that I needed another word to describe episodic bursts of awe-inspiring fluidity that were more sublime than the daily states of flux I experienced by heart in my daily training. On this continuum, superfluidity must flow as orgasm is coitus.

When I retired from sports and became a writer, I realized while typing the manuscript for my first book that during most 8 hour writing days – when I was technically “in the zone.” “and that my skill level matched the challenge perfectly – that my day’s work could result in 2,000 words of usable content.

Notably, just like in sports, during my weekly process of trying to create states of flux as a writer and optimize my creative thinking, there were episodic bursts of superfluity on the keyboard when my brain appeared to be completely “unbridled” and was able to operate without any friction or stickiness.

During those brief windows of extreme, turbocharged cognitive flexibility on my typewriter, I could produce 6,000 words (three days of work) in a third of the time with much less mental effort. As a writer, it has become clear to me over the years that superfluous thinking is the antithesis of cognitive inflexibility.

Life Sciences Databases / Creative Commons (CC-BY-SA-2.1-jp)

Cerebellum (Latin for “small brain”) in red. cerebellar means “relating to the cerebellum”.

Source: Life Sciences Databases / Creative Commons (CC-BY-SA-2.1-jp)

Cognitive flexibility: the cerebellum can coordinate fluid thoughts, just as it coordinates fluid movements

During episodic bursts of superfluidity, I have a hunch that every part of the brain and cerebellum co-ordinates like a well-oiled machine; the whole brain (the four hemispheres) works together to connect the dots between seemingly unrelated ideas in new and useful ways.

Almost all “Eureka. Found it!” flash of insight I have ever experienced occurred in a superfluid flow state. These “Haha“The moments usually happen when I’m jogging, which means I have to type the ideas into a text message and send it to myself on my smartphone, so I don’t forget how the concepts are interconnected when my superfluity goes downhill. fades.

Because my late father was a neuroscientist who wrote The fabric of the mindI grew up looking at athletic and academic activities through the prism of brain (“book intelligence”) and cerebellar (“muscle memory”) skill sets. For The path of the athlete, Dad and I created a split brain model that showcased the cerebellum as the key to creating automaticity, which promotes states of flux and minimizes brain over-thinking in sport and everyday life. (See, “Cerebral-cerebellar Circuits Remind Us: Knowing Is Not Enough.”)

In terms of creating superfluidity on demand, the million dollar question for me has long been: “How do the brain and cerebellum work together to create frictionless and viscous flow states?” “

    Photo and illustration by Christopher Bergland (circa 2009)

This map of the brain shows cerebral-cerebellar circuits connecting the two hemispheres of the brain and the cerebellum.

Source: Photo and illustration by Christopher Bergland (circa 2009)

My decades-long quest to decode a hand-drawn brain map

Since 2009, I’ve been filtering all neuroscience-based research related to cerebral-cerebellar circuits through a map of the brain that I drew with sharpies and colored highlighters decades ago. In a recent article, I explained why solving the mysteries in this brain map is like searching for buried treasure or a holy grail. New research is helping decode this enigmatic map.

This week, researchers at the RIKEN Center for Brain Science in Japan published an article (Balan et al., 2021) that sheds light on how atypical neurodevelopment of the cerebellum may be linked to autism-like cognitive inflexibility in “knockout” mice lacking the SUV39H2 gene.

RIKEN’s recent discovery of an association between cerebellar abnormalities and cognitive inflexibility reminds me of Jeremy Schmahmann’s “thought dysmetry” hypothesis, which postulates that just like the cerebellum helps coordinate fluid movements, it can also play a role in coordinating fluid thoughts in different ways. that promote cognitive flexibility.

Another recent study (Molendowska et al., 2021) suggests that mastering a new skill via ‘practice, practice, practice’ can rearrange white matter in such a way as to modify architectural microstructures and rearrange plans of the building. brain.

Overall, the latest research suggests that finding ways to optimize the structure and function of the white matter pathways and cerebral-cerebellar circuits that connect different regions of gray matter throughout the brain may increase the chances of ‘avoid cognitive inflexibility.

Much more research is needed to identify which interventions and daily lifestyle choices create brain changes that facilitate “superfluid” states of flux and cognitive flexibility.

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