The self-referential brain

Contents of this page

* Being in the Flow - here and now
* Mind wandering versus concentration
* DMN (default mode network)
* PCC (posterior cingulate cortex)
* The Selfreferential system
* Mindfull concentration
* Alpha waves and self-referential thoughts

Being in the flow

The theory of “flow” was first defined by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Flow means to be fully absorbed in an activity to the point of losing yourself. To be totally involved means peak performance, focus, and clarity. A mind in “flow” is concentrated and calm, it can be intensely pleasurable.
In a flow state we are totally focused on just the present moment. The reason we can not get into flow is because we get in our own way.

Happy daydreaming?

Daydreaming is the opposite of flow. In daydreaming - or "mind-wandering" as psychologists so aptly call it - we'r caught up in our fantasies and self-reflection.
Investigation by M.Killingsworth at Harvard with 200 people showed that we are daydreaming almost 50 percent of the time. And his team discovered that people were the least happy when daydreaming. As Killingsworth summed it up, "A wandering mind is an unhappy mind". Simply put, it feels good to be focused on the moment in a flow state and bad to be fantasizing about greener pastures, or the purple vistas of what might have been".

The self-referential DMN

The brain's default mode network (DMN) has become closely associated with self-referential mental activity. The DMN as the " self referential brain" consists of refelective activity about “ me” (self-referential thoughts) and others (social cognition thoughts).
The DMN is activated by a " first person perspective" and " episodic memory" (personal memory) and goes along with " introspective mental processing" and less attention for the environment.

DMN” s role is allowing self-referential processing to take place so that reflective awareness become possible. With no (less) activity within the DMN raw sensory stimuli, that originate from both the outside and within the organism, could not be integrated in the context of a first-person meaningful narrative. You might say that DMN enhances the proces of Selfishing (making references to a Self).

We need self reflective thoughts, but in my opinion selfconciousness had trapped us into the believe that we are these thoughts. This identification can get us into a “obsessive loop” of fearfull self-referential ideas and convictions. For example negative self-evaluations. In the USA people have 4 times more negative self-statements than what is considered “ normal”. This focus on the self may be the reason that DMN activity is significantly correlated with depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders.
Another example, if you ask a binch drinker why he does so, he might answer : " to get rid of myself” . As AA literature states, this proces of selfishing is main the cause of adiction. This is in agreement with the findings of Judson Brewer that - if PCC (part of DMN) is disabled - the result is an imediate loss of craving and addiction!

Picture by Matthew MacKinnon, MD

DMN can simplistically be thought of as being made up of “medial” (towards the middle) parts of the brain: the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), the hippocampus (located in the medial temporal lobe), and the amygdala (also located in the medial temporal lobe)

The PCC is a structure deep in the middle of the brain that serves to integrate self-perception and emotionally relevant memory retrieval. We can refer to it as the “Emotional Integrator”.

The mPFC is located in the center of the frontal lobe and processes social and emotional information. Imagine your best friend is frowning at you. Your mPFC is the part of your brain that reacts and tries to make sense of your friends frown. Did I do something wrong? Am I a bad friend? Is he a bad friend? We can refer to the mPFC as the “Emotional Sensor.”

De posterior cingulate cortex (PCC)

This structure is probably part of the "default mode network" (DMN)
Judson Brewer at neuroscience Lab of Yale University was invesigating addiction and the location of "flow" . Brewer dicovered taht the PCC is more active while we are daydreaming. When the PCC calms down, on the other hand, we become more mindful of our immediate experience, making it easier to enter a flow state. The whole point is to "be here now" . If PCC is damaged or disabled the result is an imediate loss of craving and addiction!
As Brewer states the method to de-activate the PCC is mindfulness and meditation.
In a state of “ flow” (less PCC activity) the "me concept" disappears in the direct experience.
An actiev PCC mean being "caught up" in the experience of "mental dreaming" .
Self-related processes are driven via PCC activity in connection with DMN.

Mindfull concentration

A concentrated task is connected to less activity in the DMN (less self referential thoughts). There is more “flow” and less selfishing. These findings are in line with Buddhism in which suffering is related to the five hindrances (Pali: panca nivaranani) which are negative mental states that block the " right concentration" . Right concentration is being present - just like being in the flow. In Buddhism a balanced and peacefull mind is about stopping the mentalisation of ourselves, also called the imaginary or false self . That is a mind without (attachment to) self-concepts.

Alpha waves and self-referential thoughts
In general alpha is related to a state of quit wakefullness. Being without a specific task there may be more " mind wandering" and more activity in DMN/PCC connected to higher alpha and b\'e8ta (B1).
A study using questionary” s about self-referential thought found a relation between alpha waves and the amount of self-referential thought. Alpha is slightly related to activitivity in DMN as also seen on fMRI scans. Alpha is may be related to the integration of internal mental processes.
Asking people to describe themselves they might do it in terms of concrete behavior (called object referential) or in more abtract terms (called self referential). The first ones have realtively more alpha and gamma compared to the “ abstract ones” . So alpha activity may enhance (or coordinate) the first-person perspective as subjects are engaged in active self-conscious behaviour.


Article by Judson Brewer
Great article by Andrew A Fingelkurt e.o.
Michael W.Taft about EEG and Flow