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The Neuroscience of Proactive vs. Hyper-Reactive Thinking

Hyper-reactive cognitive processing is linked to poor white matter organization.

Source: adike/Shutterstock

Recently, an international team of researchers identified that robust white matter connectivity between specific brain regions is key to fluid intelligence and thinking proactively. Conversely, the scientists found that hyper-reactive cognitive control processing is linked to anxiety and poor white matter organization. These findings are published in the latest issue of the journal NeuroImage.

This study was spearheaded by Alexander Olsen, who is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology and Director of the Clinical Neuroscience Laboratory at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). Olsen is also a Clinical Neuropsychologist at St. Olavs Hospital, Trondheim University. In many of his research projects, Olsen collaborates with the Centre for Early Brain Development and Asta Kristine Håberg at the Trondheim fMRI Group, as well as other experts from the University of Southern California's Imaging Genetics Center at the Stevens Institute for Neuroimaging and Informatics.

What Is the Difference Between Proactive and Hyper-Reactive Thinking?

The human brain utilizes a proactive system and a reactive system to navigate daily life and perform a variety of thinking tasks. The proactive system relies on fluid intelligence to connect the dots of various moving parts and come up with a streamlined game plan. On the flip side, the reactive system scrambles to become reoriented when the brain is caught off guard and needs to problem solve quickly in seemingly novel situations.

“The brain is constantly working to create meaning out of the flood of information that comes at us every waking minute of our day,” Olsen explained in a statement. “The reactive system kicks in when something happens that is not expected. Then you need to adapt your behavior and react to the new information. You have to throw away your old plan and come up with a new plan."

Geir Mogen/NTNU
Chief Radiographer Bjarte Snekvik and Associate Professor Alexander Olsen from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) illustrate how study subjects perform the fMRI task (the person in the photo was not a study participant). Study participants used specially designed response buttons (as shown) and could view the task through video goggles.
Source: Geir Mogen/NTNU

For this study, Olsen et al. recruited participants from a long-term, ongoing study on the impact very low birth weight (VLBW) at various stages of life. Their objective was to gain a better understanding of potential consequences of VLBW on cognitive control and hyper-reactive cognitive processing in adulthood. Study participants ranged in age from 22 to 24. The VLBW cohort was matched with a healthy control group of the same age. Participants from both groups were monitored using advanced fMRI neuroimaging as they responded to various cues designed to elicit proactive and/or reactive brain responses.

Although the VLBW study participants ultimately completed the tasks in the fMRI as well as the healthy birth weight cohorts, they relied much more on reactive brain activation during the process than proactive thinking. Notably, this hyper-reactive brain activation signature was accompanied by poorer white matter organization, lower fluid intelligence, and higher rates of anxiety.

"Their brains reacted as if they were encountering something new each time," Olsen said. "It suggests their brains are hypervigilant due to suboptimal organization of the central nervous system. One interpretation is that they are less prepared and more surprised each time, which might create more anxiety problems."

Courtesy of Alexander Olsen/NeuroImage
The orange-yellow areas show where low birth weight individuals had less proactive cognitive control (Stable Task-Set Maintenance) activation in the brain. The blue/light blue areas show where they had more reactive cognitive control (Adaptive Task Control) activation, compared to the normal birth weight control group.
Source: Courtesy of Alexander Olsen/NeuroImage

One of the most important takeaways from this research is that poor white matter organization can result in paying too much attention to irrelevant stimuli. Hyper-reactive brain activation signatures are associated with atypical top-down modulation of proactive cognitive control. Ideally, you want to maintain a well-regulated balance between proactive planning behavior with the ability to stay nimble and quickly react to unexpected circumstances using reactive cognitive control processes.

How Can Someone Become More Proactive and Less Reactive in Daily Life?

Clinically, Alexander Olsen focuses on the neuropsychological assessment of children, adolescents, and adults with acquired brain injuries. Part of his ongoing research is to identify components of effective neurorehabilitation interventions by utilizing state-of-the-art neuroimaging techniques along with neurocognitive and other clinical measures.

Because Olsen is both a researcher and clinical neuropsychologist, he’s always looking for ways to link his findings in the laboratory to real-world situations. "When we work with people with cognitive dysfunction or anxiety problems, we are trying to help them be more proactive in how they prepare for certain situations, so they don't have to rely on reactive problem solving as much," Olsen said. "When you work with cognitive behavioral therapy or cognitive rehabilitation, you work on getting structure into people's lives, so they don't have to rely too much on their online cognitive control processing. Creating structure and routine in your life frees up cognitive control resources that can instead be more effectively used for dealing with those things that can't be planned for."

When I was seventeen, I became much more proactive and less hyper-reactive after I discovered my love of running and started working out regularly. As a teenager who suffered from symptoms of depression and anxiety disorders, running turned my life around. Based on this transformative anecdotal experience, I was curious to find out if Olsen had any clinical evidence that aerobic exercise might be an effective intervention for making people from all walks of life more proactive and less reactive.

In an email inquiry to Alexander Olsen yesterday, I wrote: "As an adolescent, I metamorphasized from being a cynical and depressive teenager who suffered from crippling anxiety to being an ambitious, go-getter who woke up eager to seize the day—after running became a part of my daily routine. I also know there is empirical evidence that aerobic exercise improves gray matter volume and white matter integrity/functional connectivity across a human lifespan." (e.g. "Aerobic Fitness Is Associated with Greater White Matter Integrity," by Laura Chaddock-Heyman et al.)

Based on my own life experience and the empirical evidence linking physical exercise and improved white matter, I asked Olsen: "Do you think regular moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) and improving cardiorespiratory fitness could also boost proactive cognitive control by improving white matter integrity (and also providing daily structure and routine)?"

Olsen replied quickly via email, "That’s a great question, and my short answer is YES, I believe that you are right! It is actually a research question that we are interested in pursuing in our future work."

In addition to this short answer, Olsen elaborated on my initial inquiry in a subsequent email that was much more detailed. I'm sharing the content of his response in its entirety with Psychology Today readers because there is so much valuable food for thought.

Below are Alexander Olsen's insights and hypotheses about the neuroscience of improving proactive cognitive control function via moderate-to-vigorous physical activity that he shared with me in an email:

"As you mention, there is some science to back this, however, there is long way to go before we completely understand the underlying mechanisms. Cognitive control dysfunction seems to be a transdiagnostical phenomena, linked to patient outcome across various neurological and psychiatric conditions (and everyday functioning/quality of life in ‘healthy' individuals).

Improving cognitive control function, or reducing the consequences of cognitive control dysfunction (e.g. thought compensation through new strategies), may therefore be an efficient target for interventions. I believe that aerobic exercise is a very interesting and promising intervention for improving cognitive control function.

In fact, in order to study basic mechanisms involved in the potential benefits of aerobic exercise on cognitive control function, we recently performed a study using the same kind of task that was also used in the fMRI study. In this study we investigated the acute effects of different intensity levels of aerobic exercise on this task.

The most interesting finding from this study was that post-exercise reaction time on the cognitive control task decreased linearly with increased exercise intensity, indicating that higher exercise intensity may be linked to processes that facilitate neuronal efficiency (and potentially proactive cognitive control processing - however, we don't know that as we did not perform fMRI in this study). This effect seemed to be transient, however, as reaction time recovered to normal levels within 20 minutes after the exercise session.

There are quite many studies showing that people who exercise more also have better cognitive control. However, in many of those studies it's not possible to determine whether people get better cognitive control function because they exercise more, or if they exercise more because they have better cognitive control function…

Our study and other similar ones support that exercise itself actually may CAUSE better cognitive control function. Although the effects in our study were transient, they may reflect processes that are beneficial for optimizing brain function and thereby potentially facilitating neuronal plasticity and white matter organization (particularly if repeated over time).

We published a paper in 2017, “Exercise Intensity-Dependent Effects on Cognitive Control Function During and After Acute Treadmill Running in Young Healthy Adults,” where we also discuss the results in more detail.

So, there is evidence supporting that aerobic exercise is beneficial for cognitive control function. How it affects the balance between the proactive and reactive systems is still an open question. My hypothesis is that it would be associated with a shift towards a more proactive brain activation signature as this has previously (including in our study) been linked to the beneficial effects typically linked to exercise in general (e.g. less anxiety, higher IQ).

We have also looked at the proactive (stable task-set maintenance) and reactive (adaptive task control) systems and how they are changed after traumatic brain injury in a study, "Altered Cognitive Control Activations After Moderate-to-Severe Traumatic Brain Injury and Their Relationship to Injury Severity and Everyday-Life Function."

Alex, huge thanks for your dedication to this research and for taking the time to share these valuable insights with me and Psychology Today readers. Much appreciated!


Alexander Olsen, Emily L. Dennis, Kari Anne I. Evensen, Ingrid Marie Husby Hollund, Gro C.C. Løhaugen, Paul M. Thompson, Ann-Mari Brubakk, Live Eikenes, Asta K. Håberg. “Preterm Birth Leads to Hyper-Reactive Cognitive Control Processing and Poor White Matter Organization in Adulthood.” NeuroImage. Volume 167, 15 February 2018, Pages 419-428. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.11.055

Martin Wohlwend, Alexander Olsen, Asta K. Håberg, and Helen S. Palmer. "Exercise intensity-dependent effects on Cognitive Control Function During and After Acute Treadmill Running in Young Healthy Adults." Frontiers in Psychology (2017) DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00406

Alexander Olsen, Jan Ferenc Brunner, Kari Anne Indredavik Evensen, Torun Gangaune Finnanger, Anne Vik, Toril Skandse, Nils Inge Landrø, Asta Kristine Håberg. "Altered Cognitive Control Activations after Moderate-to-Severe Traumatic Brain Injury and Their Relationship to Injury Severity and Everyday-Life Function." Cerebral Cortex (2014) DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhu023

Laura Chaddock-Heyman, Kirk I. Erickson, Joseph L. Holtrop, Michelle W. Voss, Matthew B. Pontifex, Lauren B. Raine, Charles H. Hillman, and Arthur F. Kramer. "Aerobic Fitness Is Associated with Greater White Matter Integrity in Children." Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (2014) DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00406

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