Superfluidity: Decoding the Enigma of Cognitive Flexibility

Brain researchers have new tools for predicting levels of cognitive flexibility.

Posted Sep 02, 2015

Source: Agsandrew/Shutterstock

An international team of researchers have identified unexpected brain mechanisms associated with cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility represents a person’s ability to switch between modes of thought and simultaneously think about multiple concepts while multitasking.

Previous research has shown that cognitive flexibility requires the dynamic integration of multiple brain regions and results in fluidity of thought and performance. However, until now, the real-time aspects of how neural networks distribute the integration of various cognitive functions have remained enigmatic and poorly understood.

The September 2015 study, "Dynamic Reconfiguration of Frontal Brain Networks During Executive Cognition in Humans," was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers used a combination of advanced tools to map how participants’ brain activities rearranged during each period of a working memory task, each period of the control task, and during the in-between periods as the brain switched gears.  

A New Frontier: “Dynamic Network Neuroscience”

Danielle S. Bassett, the Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation at University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, is senior author of this study which uses advanced analytic tools to probe neural networks that create pathways between brain regions which are linked to specific communication patterns within the human brain. 

Bassett has been conducting fascinating research on the brain mechanisms behind cognitive flexibility for years. Bassett is part of a burgeoning field of research called “dynamic network neuroscience” which uses a variety of cutting edge techniques to advance our understanding of brain structure and function. Unlike most brain imaging research which focuses on the role a single region, Bassett is interested in the interconnections between the regions as indicated by synchronized brain activity.  

For this most recent study, Bassett used fMRI brain imaging to measure which parts of the brain were “talking” to one another in real-time as study participants performed various tasks. Using this technique, the researchers were able to see how groups of brain regions cluster together into densely interconnected structures whose interactions change during the execution of a single task or while multitasking. 

Having a better understanding of cognitive flexibility and how our brains handle multitasking could lead to more effective interventions for a wide range of medical conditions related to reduced executive function such as autism spectrum disorders (ASD), schizophrenia, and dementia. In a press release, Bassett described her research saying,

We try to understand how dynamic flexibility of brain networks can predict cognitive flexibility, or the ability to switch from task to task. Rather than being driven by the activity of single brain areas, we believe executive function is a network-level process.

The nodes in the network that are most involved in reconfigurations are cognitive control areas in the frontal cortex. More flexibility within the frontal cortex meant more accuracy on the memory task, and more consistent connectivity between the frontal cortex and other regions was even more predictive.   

By monitoring the level activity of neural networks within the brain's frontal cortex—a region associated with control over thoughts and actions—housed in the cerebrum (Latin for brain) the researchers could gauge various degrees of cognitive flexibility. Bassett et al identified that the more fluidly these networks reconfigure themselves while someone switches from task to task predicts his or her level of cognitive flexibility. 

“Disconnecting” the Frontal Cortices Improves Cognitive Flexibility

In a previous April 2015 study, “Learning-Induced Autonomy of Sensorimotor Systems" which was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, Bassett reported that people who had the ability to “disconnect” their frontal cortices quickly did better when researchers measured the connections between different brain regions as participants learned to play a simple game.

Notman Studios/Public Domain
William James (1842-1910) c.1890
Source: Notman Studios/Public Domain

Bassett’s use of the word “Disconnect” to describe disengagement of the frontal cortex jumped out at me because it echoes the timeless wisdom of William James from over a century ago when he described cognitive flexibility in The Gospel of Relaxation using a different vernacular. 

In 1911 James wrote, “Unclamp, in a word, your intellectual and practical machinery, and let it run free; and the service it will do you will be twice as good.” As an athlete and writer, I’ve always interpreted James’ advice to “unclamp” your ‘intellectual machinery’ as being another way of saying "unclamp" your frontal cortex from overthinking.

In the April 2015 study, the researchers discovered that participants who showed decreased neural activity in the frontal cortex were actually the fastest learners. Bassett found that participants who showed high activity in the frontal cortex while trying to master the task at hand appeared to be overthinking a simple problem and choked. 

Why would the fastest learners show less activity in the prefrontal cortex? My educated guess is that it has something to do with the Purkinje cells of the cerebellum (Latin for little brain). This is my personal hypothesis based on conversations with my father. 

Most experts believe that the cognitive control centers of the frontal cortex are responsible for what is known as “executive function.” The cerebral aspects of executive function are associated with things such as: making and following through with plans, spotting and avoiding errors and other higher-order types of thinking. Clearly, executive function is necessary for complex tasks but there is a growing belief that too much cerebral thinking might actually be a hindrance under certain circumstances.  

The frontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex are two of the most recent regions of the brain to fully develop in humans. Bassett points out that “It seems like those other parts are getting in the way for the slower learners. It’s almost like they’re trying too hard and overthinking it." Adding, "The reason this is interesting is that those two areas are hubs of the cognitive control network. It’s the people who can turn off the communication to these parts of their brain the quickest who have the steepest drop-off in their completion times.”

In her most recent study, Bassett et al found that participants who performed best while alternating between various tasks showed the highest amount of rearrangement of connections within their frontal cortices as well as the most new connections with other areas of their brains. This suggests that the frontal cortices are “unclamped” and able to run free, which I believe creates cognitive flexibility and superfluidity.

What Is Superfluidity?

While reading Bassett's latest findings over breakfast this morning, I was reminded of a Psychology Today blog post I wrote last week titled "Why Does Overthinking Sabotage the Creative Process?" The new study by Bassett appears to support my hypothesis that “unclamping” the prefrontal cortex facilitates what I call “Superfluidity” of thought, which is cognitive flexibility at its absolute best. Superfluidity was the subtitle of the final chapter of my first book, and is the main title of my next book.

In 2014, I gave a lecture at Columbia University titled "Superfluidity: Optimizing the Brain's Plasticity for a Healthier Life." On pp xiv-xv of The Athlete’s Way I describe my personal discovery of superfluidity:

As an athlete I could break free of the daily grind if I worked hard physically and used my imagination. Sweat, music, and mythology combined into a mystical brew, a life-giving elixir. Myths grabbed me somewhere deep inside. They got into my spine. It was a metaphysical experience for me as a teenager, because I realized that I and the “other” were one. This experience of complete connectedness is what I have coined superfluidity—the episodic feeling of existing without any friction or viscosity—a state of pure bliss that I will explore in this book.

Superfluidity is a term that I borrowed from the world of physics to describe the highest form of “flow.” Technically, superfluidity is when matter behaves like a fluid with absolutely zero friction and zero viscosity and appears to exhibit the ability to self-propel. Traveling in a way that defies both the forces of gravity and surface tension.

I believe that “Eureka!” moments occur when the mind, body, and brain become superfluid. Carl Jung once stated, “The word ‘Belief’ is a difficult thing for me. I don’t “BELIEVE.” I must have a reason for a certain hypothesis. Whither I “KNOW a thing, and then I know it—I don’t need to believe it”  

Dawn Mann/Used with permission
Superfluidity in motion. Christopher Bergland crossing the Triple Ironman finish line after 38 hours of nonstop swimming (7.2 miles), biking (336 miles), and running (78.6 miles) consecutively. 
Source: Dawn Mann/Used with permission

Because I have experienced superfluidity during peak experiences as an athlete, I’ve had my antennae up for clues that help solve the enigma of how psychological states of superfluidity are created and how they are linked to brain function and structure. I KNOW that superfluidity is the opposite of choking or being stuck in a loop of “rut-like” thinking, now it’s a matter of finding empirical research to prove my hypothesis.

For me, Ultra Endurance racing was a quest fueled by the archetypal ideas in The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell. As part of my “Hero’s Journey,” I romanticized leaving the ho-hum daily routine of city life, and going off on adventures that took me far, far away. Winning the Triple Ironman, completing the Badwater Ultramarathon, and holding a Guinness World Record for running 153.76 miles on a treadmill in 24 hours were akin to pursuing the Holy Grail.

The first time that I won the Triple Ironman—which is the longest nonstop triathlon in the world—I swam 7.2 miles, biked 336 miles, and ran 78.6 miles consecutively in 38 hours and 46 minutes. I won the Triple Ironman three years in a row. Each time that I crossed the finish line, I was probably more perplexed as to how my body had traveled those distances than any of the onlookers.

All of my ultra-racing victories have been out-of-body and otherworldly superfluid experiences. For example, the first time that I completed the triple Ironman, I felt as if I floated through the final three marathons. Even though I had been going nonstop for over 24 hours and already swam 7.2 miles, and biked 336 miles there wasn’t an ache in my body and my energy was infinite. It was as if I was plugged into an infinite power source and there was zero friction, or viscosity as I propelled my body through time and space.

One day I stumbled on the physics of Superfluidity and said...YES! That’s it. That's what it feels like to complete a Triple Ironman in 38 hours. Above is a BBC clip that explains the phenomenon of superfluidity.

Clearly, in the three-dimensional world of the human experience comparing one's life experience and psychology to helium at absolute zero seems crazy. This is why I have relied on books like The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature by William James and Ecstasy in Secular and Religious Experiences by Marghanita Laski to help me intellectually understand the potentially mind-boggling experience of superfluidity.

Autism Offers Valuable Clues on Cognitive Flexibility

Oftentimes, a neurological disorder or cognitive deficit offers valuable insights to the structure, function, and interconnectivity of various brain regions at their best and periods of being less than. From a positive psychology perspective, Martin E.P. Seligman often described the goal of traditional psychology is to get people "from a minus five to a zero." The goal of positive psychology is to get people "north of zero" or to a plus five. 

Using this same scale regarding cognitive flexibility, researchers have identified that people with autism spectrum disorders tend to be "south of zero." On the flip side, achieving superfluidity has the potential to take someone "north of five."

In 2014 researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine found that certain brain networks in children with autism don’t appear to change much when they switch from a resting state to engagement with a task. The brains of children with autism show inflexibility when switching from rest to task performance.

The researchers found that the greater this inflexibility of the brain appears, the more severe a child's manifestations of repetitive and restrictive behaviors that characterize autism also appear. The July 2014 study, “Brain State Differentiation and Behavioral Inflexibility in Autism" was published in Cerebral Cortex. In a press release, Lucina Uddin, PhD, a lead author of the study said, 

We wanted to test the idea that a flexible brain is necessary for flexible behaviors. What we found was that across a set of brain connections known to be important for switching between different tasks, children with autism showed reduced 'brain flexibility' compared with typically developing peers.

The researchers focused on a network of brain areas they have studied before. These areas are involved in making decisions, performing social tasks and identifying relevant events in the environment to guide behavior. The team's prior work showed that, in children with autism, activity in these areas was more tightly connected when the brain was at rest than it was in children who didn't have autism.

In a different 2014 study published in Frontiers in Neuroinformatics from Case Western Reserve University and University of Toronto, the scientists reported that the brains of autistic children generate more information at rest. In fact, children with autism generated 42% more cognitive information at rest on average than non-autistic children. This excess production of information and inability to "unclamp" might explain a child's detachment from their environment. Again, this is my personal hypothesis. 

Many studies recently have linked the cerebellum with autism spectrum disorders, which might explain why the cerebrum has to work overtime. I have written extensively about research linking the cerebellum and autism spectrum disorders for a link to my previous Psychology Today posts on this topic click here

In a press release, Roberto Fernández Galán, PhD, senior author and associate professor of neurosciences at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine said, "Our results suggest that autistic children are not interested in social interactions because their brains generate more information at rest, which we interpret as more introspection in line with early descriptions of the disorder."

The researchers stated in a press release that their findings support the "Intense World Theory" of autism proposed by neuroscientists Henry and Kamila Markram of the Brain Mind Institute in Switzerland. The Markram's view ASD as the result of hyper-functioning neural circuitry which leads to a state of over-arousal.

Conclusion: How Is Cerebellum Linked to Superfluidity and Cognitive Flexibility?

After retiring from sports, I turned to my father—who was a neuroscientist, neurosurgeon, and author of The Fabric of Mind (Viking)—to help me optimize my personal cognitive flexibility and deconstruct the neuroscience behind the experiences of “superfluidity” that I had as an athlete.

Together we created the split-brain model of The Athlete’s Way that puts the cerebellum in the spotlight and has evolved to emphasize the importance of optimizing the connectivity between all four brain hemispheres as being central to cognitive flexibility and peak performance.

Illustration and photo by Christopher Bergland
Optimal interconnectivity between 'nodes' in all four brain hemispheres may promote cognitive flexibility. 
Source: Illustration and photo by Christopher Bergland

Above is a rudimentary sketch that I drew to illustrate how superfluidity and cognitive flexibility occur when there is optimal interconnectivity between both hemispheres of the cerebrum and both hemispheres of the cerebellum. The "up brain-down brain" model is my original hypothesis and a work in progress...Stay tuned!

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts: 

© 2015 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

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