Mental Flexibility–Who’s Driving Your Car?

I am in awe of the creation that is our brain/mind* for so many reasons.  One of those reasons is the flexibility to adapt to changing situations, and the classic paradigm of explaining/exploring mental flexibility is the top-down/bottom-up heuristic.  Sometimes our mind needs to emphasize strategy, planning, and control (top-down), while other times, our brain just needs to let it be, and ride it out (bottom-up).

A quick example might be helpful.  When driving, most of us who have been driving for a few years or decades generally operate from muscle memory and automatic processing.  Our minds just sort of go along for the ride (as it were), for the most part.  It’s called bottom-up, because the older, physically lower parts of our brains can handle automatic processing–we don’t need to think about every little maneuver we make when driving.

The basal ganglia and cerebellum (the parts of our brain that, together, guide automatic processing) can act as a sort of “automatic pilot.”  These structures are evolutionarily older and they are physically lower down in the brain.  However, when we are driving along and unexpectedly encounter a road block, our minds (hopefully) switch from bottom-up processing (automatic) to top-down processing (strategic planning and control).  The road block presents a problem that requires some assessment (wait, what is going on here?), analysis (what are the circumstances, what are my choices?), planning (I’m going to turn around and go right), and execution (let’s do this!).  It’s literally a top-down interaction in which the evolutionarily newer and physically higher parts of our brain, the frontal lobes of our cortex, take control and direct the lower processes in a focused way.

It’s definitely a lot slower and inefficient, but (hopefully), it’s an effective way to deal with the complex, changing environment.  Bottom up: efficient processing of (over)learned behavior in routine, day-to-day contexts; top down: slower processing, but useful especially in novel contexts or circumstances which require a little strategic thinking, problem solving, planning, and complex analysis.

I love that about our brain.  It is so cool!  Of course, it’s not fool-proof.  Sometimes we are in automatic mode when we need to be in strategic mode (perhaps looking like inattention or impulsivity), or maybe we are in strategic mode when an more automatic mode would be more appropriate (perhaps looking like overcontrol, scrupulosity, or obsessiveness).  Of course, our brain’s output (our behavior) tends to be a synthesis of control and automatic behavior.  We are functioning well when we can allow for the greatest automatic thinking with an optimal level of top-down control.

I tend to focus on that top-down control a little more than I would like, and knowledge about the relative importance of automatic processing helps me “let go” a little bit.  To be, without overthinking–that’s what I need to do a little more of.  To live and to breathe and to act without too much regard strategy and control.  Of course, a little too much automatic processing, too much acting without thinking, too much behaving without regard to the consequences isn’t ideal as well.  It’s all about balance.

*I am hyperaware of the dangers of materialist reductionism, especially when neuroscience is brought into the picture.  The relationship of the brain to the mind (soul?) is complex and beyond this post to go into greater detail.  To get a taste of my thinking on this topic, check out Daniel Siegel’s The Developing Mind, which posits that the mind is actually an unobservable composite comprised of the relationships between the physical body, the physical brain, intrapsychic processes (thinking), and interpersonal transaction.

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