Transient hypofrontality. Now if that isn’t a cocktail party turn of phrase, I ask you: what is?
So: what is “transient hypofrontality”?
Let me illustrate with an example: Meg, as I’ll call her, began jogging at a critical moment in her life: Her marriage was falling apart; she had many responsibilities: a young child, a pet dog, a large house, and a demanding job. For her, running provided distraction from her burdens and challenges. Over a couple of months, her body transformed in shape. She felt emotionally better and physically stronger.
One might expect those changes—although, being new to exercise, Meg didn’t know about these positive effects. What truly surprised her was that she found that she thought differently when she ran. She was able to sort out solutions to the big issues she was facing; she developed creative solutions; she found herself mentally organizing tasks in more holistic ways, sometimes while she ran and sometimes shortly thereafter. She was hooked.
What was happening? Transient hypofrontality.
Let’s unpack the language of the term:
Transient means temporary—so what’s occurring only lasts for a little while
“Hypo” is a prefix meaning “less,” as in, say, hypothermia (being too cold)
And frontality: that refers to the frontal lobes of our brains (the prefrontal cortex), the location of much of our sequential, orderly, systematic thinking and decision-making.
Transient hypofrontality, then, means that for a while, under certain conditions, the focused thinking part of our brain gets a rest…which allows other parts and functions of our brain to become more predominant.
Dr. Arne Dietrich, a professor at the American University of Beirut, came up with the term “transient hypofrontality.” He’s written extensively on the subject—even gave a TedX Talk. Dietrich suggests that physical activity “forces” the brain to redistribute brain resources (a process known as down-regulation). If you’re engaged in a competitive sport, you need to make a variety of complex decisions. Those will involve the prefrontal cortex. But if you’re on a long-distance run in a beautiful park, your mind lets go of that prefrontal engagement; you may experience an alteration in consciousness.
Here’s how Dietrich puts it:
The beneficial effects of exercise on mental health, the prolonged disengagement of higher cognitive centers in the prefrontal cortex also offers a neural mechanism that provides insight into the alteration of consciousness known as the runner’s high. Some of the phenomenologically unique features of this state such as experiences of timelessness, living in the here and now, reduced awareness of one’s surroundings, peacefulness (being less analytical), and floating (diminished working memory and attentional capacities), are consistent with a state of frontal hypo-function. Even abstruse feelings such as the unity with the self and/or nature might be more explicable, considering that the prefrontal cortex is the very structure that provides us with the ability to segregate, differentiate, and analyze the environment.
Does this mean that every time you run you’ll experience this altered consciousness? Well, no—but perhaps it explains Meg’s experience. Once you’ve tapped into this experience, you can attend to it, maybe even evoke it.
OK, as a reward for reading this far, here’s the big reveal: I was describing my own experience which I disguised as “Meg.” And in actuality, trying to understand this process of thinking differently, more holistically and creatively was what got me started on the path of sport psychology!
Here are the take-aways (aside from that cocktail party trick) about transient hypofrontality, from my perspective: