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How Does Brain-Wide Synchronicity Drive Peak Performance?

Cortical and subcortical synchronization may promote "superfluid" flow states.

Key points

  • Historically, neurocognitive studies have been "cortico-centric." Most research focused solely on cortical functions and the cerebral cortex.
  • Increasingly, neuroscientists are investigating how cortical and subcortical brain regions work together to optimize whole-brain functions.
  • A recent study explores how states of arousal influence brain-wide synchronization between cortical and subcortical regions.
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Getting every nook and cranny of your brain to work in perfect harmony requires what some neuroscientists might call "global wave synchronization of the whole brain's functional systems."

Semantically, references to the "whole brain" imply that we aren't only referencing cortical regions in the cerebrum's cerebral cortex; we're also discussing subcortical brain areas, such as the cerebellum (Latin for "little brain").

New research (Raut et al., 2021) suggests that the synchronization of brainwave oscillations throughout the whole brain is influenced by fluctuating states of arousal ranging from calm and relaxed to anxious and stressed. These findings were published on July 21 in Science Advances.

This research was conducted by an interdisciplinary team of researchers specializing in neurology, psychiatry, radiology, and neurobiology from around the globe. The authors of this paper are affiliated with Washington University (St. Louis) and Stanford University in the U.S., the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, and the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan.

Fight-or-Flight vs. Rest-and-Digest: Modes of Arousal Influence Whole-Brain Synchronization

In their recent study of how "global waves synchronize the brain's functional systems with fluctuating arousal," first author Ryan Raut and co-authors use fMRI neuroimaging in humans to "show that ongoing arousal fluctuations are associated with global waves of activity that slowly propagate in parallel throughout the neocortex, thalamus, striatum, and cerebellum."

As the authors explain in their paper's introduction:

"Organisms continuously regulate multiple physiologic variables. This regulation is supported by autonomic arousal fluctuations that coordinate body-wide physiology in relation to anticipated behavioral demands, e.g., cycling between 'fight-or-flight' versus 'rest-and-digest' modes. Accumulating evidence indicates that global brain function is also temporally structured in relation to these arousal fluctuations."

"We have empirically confirmed the central prediction of this model: topographically organized traveling waves that slowly propagate in cortical and subcortical structures in synchrony with arousal fluctuations," Raut et al. conclude. "A key feature of these waves is that they link together, within a unifying physiological framework, many previously described features of resting-state fMRI time series."

Want to Create Superfluidity? Find a "Goldilocks Zone" of Arousal That Promotes Brain-Wide Synchronicity

Previous research suggests that during higher-vigilance states linked to peak performance, task-evoked brain activity becomes less spontaneous and more synchronized. But much of this research was "cortico-centric," meaning that it only focused on brain activity in cortical regions of the cerebral cortex. (See, "Superfluidity and the Synergy of Your Four Brain Hemispheres.")

What makes the new study by Raut et al. noteworthy from my vantage point is that it advances our understanding of how cortical and subcortical brain regions can create brain-wide synchronicity. It also highlights that whole-brain neural synchronizations are affected by states of arousal.

Taken together, one could speculate that getting the autonomic nervous system tuned to a "Goldilocks zone" of arousal that's "just right" might facilitate brain-wide synchronization in a way that increases the odds of creating the flow states associated with fluid performance.

Perhaps the easiest way to create a sweet spot of arousal is to hack your vagus nerve by taking a few deep breaths followed by long, slow exhales. (See, "How Does 'Vagusstoff' (Vagus Nerve Substance) Calm Us Down?")

Stimulating the vagus nerve engages the parasympathetic nervous system in a way that reduces fight-or-flight hyperarousal and helps people to dial into an "energized-but-Zen" state of arousal that might be ideal for creating the brain-wide synchronicity that drives peak performance.


Ryan V. Raut, Abraham Z. Snyder, Anish Mitra, Dov Yellin, Naotaka Fujii, Rafael Malach, Marcus E. Raichle. "Global Waves Synchronize the Brain’s Functional Systems with Fluctuating Arousal." Science Advances (First published: July 21, 2021) DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abf2709

Flavia Lecciso and Barbara Colombo. "Beyond the Cortico-Centric Models of Cognition: The Role of Subcortical Functioning in Neurodevelopmental Disorders." Frontiers in Psychology (First published: December 11, 2019) DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02809