The introduction into neuroscience and neuropsychology of the extensive use of functional brain imaging technology has revealed, at the empirical level, an important causal role of directed attention in cerebral functioning. Neuroscientists now have a reasonably good working knowledge of the role of a variety of brain areas in the processing of complex information. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that there is at least one type of information processing and manipulation that does not readily lend itself to explanations that assume that all final causes are subsumed within brain, or more generally, central nervous system mechanisms. The cases in question are those in which the conscious act of wilfully altering the mode by which experiential information is processed itself changes, in systematic ways, the cerebral mechanisms used.
There is a growing recognition of the theoretical importance of applying experimental paradigms that use directed mental effort to produce systematic and predictable changes in brain function. These wilfully induced brain changes are generally accomplished through training in, and the applied use of, cognitive reattribution and the attentional re-contextualization of conscious experience.
Furthermore, an accelerating number of studies in the neuroimaging literature significantly support the thesis that, with appropriate training and effort, people can systematically alter neural circuitry associated with a variety of mental and physical states that are frankly pathological. A recent review of this and the related neurological literature has coined the term ‘self-directed neuroplasticity’ to serve as a general description of the principle that focused training and effort can systematically alter cerebral function in a predictable and potentially therapeutic manner.
To explicate the physics of the interface between mind/consciousness and the physical brain, we shall in this article describe in detail how the quantum mechanically based causal mechanisms work, and show why it is necessary in principle to advance to the quantum level to achieve an adequate theory of the neurophysiology of volitionally directed activity. The reason, essentially, is that classic physics is an approximation to the more accurate quantum theory, and that this classic approximation eliminates the causal efficacy of our conscious efforts that these experiments empirically manifest.
PRACTICAL RAMIFICATIONS OF THE ALTERED CONCEPT OF THE CAUSAL STRUCTURE OF SELF-DIRECTED NEUROPLASTICITY
Particularly relevant to data from first-person reports about active, wilfully directed attentional focus, and especially to data pertaining to which aspects of the stream of conscious awareness a subject chooses to focus on when making self-directed efforts to modify and/or modulate the quality and beam of attention, the structure of orthodox quantum physics implies that the investigator is not justified in assuming that the focus of attention is determined wholly by brain mechanisms that are in principle completely well-defined and mechanically determined. Conscious effort itself can, justifiably within science, be taken to be a primary variable whose complete causal origins may be untraceable in principle, but whose causal efficacy in the physical world can be explained on the basis of the laws of physics.
The cognitive frame in which neuroscience research, including research on cerebral aspects of behaviour, is generally conducted contains within it the assumption that brain mechanisms are in principle fully sufficient to explain all of the observed phenomena. But when, as happens in a growing number of studies, the subject makes an active response aimed at systematically altering the nature of the emotional reaction—for example, by actively performing a cognitive reattribution—then the demand that the data be understood solely from the perspective of brain-based causal mechanism is a severe and counter-intuitive constraint. It is noteworthy that this demand for an entirely brain-based causal mechanism is nullified, in the quantum model developed here, by a specified quantum effect, which will be described in detail below.
Surmounting the limitations imposed by restricting one’s ideas to the failed concepts of classic physics can be especially important when one is investigating how to develop improved methods for altering the emotional and cerebral responses to significantly stressful external or internally generated stimuli. An incorrect assignment of the causal roles of neurophysiologically and mentalistically described variables can impact negatively on a therapist’s selection of a course of treatment, on a patient’s capacity to recover, and on a neuroscientist’s design of clinically relevant research programmes.
In the analysis and development of clinical practices involving psychological treatments and their biological effects, the possession and use of a rationally coherent and physically allowable conception of the causal relationship between mind and brain (or, if one prefers, mentalistic and neurophysiological variables) is critical. If one simply accepts the standard presumption that all aspects of emotional response are passively determined by neurobiological mechanisms, then the theoretical development of genuinely effective self-directed psychological strategies that produce real neurobiological changes can be impeded by the fact that one is using a theory that excludes from the dynamics what logically can be, and in our model actually are, key causal elements, namely our wilful choices.
The clinician’s attention is thus directed away from what can be in many cases, at the level of actual practice, a powerful determinant of action, namely the subject’s psychologically (i.e. mentalistically) framed commitment to act or think in specific ways. The therapist tends to becomes locked into the view that the psychological treatment of ailments caused by neurobiological impairments is not a realistic goal.
There is already a wealth of data arguing against this view. For instance, work in the 1990s on patients with obsessive compulsive disorder demonstrated significant changes in caudate nucleus metabolism and the functional relationships of the orbitofrontal cortex–striatum–thalamus circuitry in patients who responded to a psychological treatment using cognitive reframing and attentional refocusing as key aspects of the therapeutic intervention. More recently, work by Beauregard and colleagues has demonstrated systematic changes in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and parahippocampal gyrus after cognitive-behavioural therapy for phobia of spiders, with brain changes significantly related to both objective measurements and subjective reports of fear and aversion. There are now numerous reports on the effects of self-directed regulation of emotional response, via cognitive reframing and attentional re-contextualization mechanisms, on cerebral function.
The brain area generally activated in all the studies done so far on the self-directed regulation of emotional response is the prefrontal cortex, a cortical region also activated in studies of cerebral correlates of wilful mental activity, particularly those investigating self-initiated action and the act of attending to one’s own actions. There is, however, one aspect of wilful mental activity that seems particularly critical to emotional self-regulation, and that seems to be the critical factor in its effective application—the factor of focused dispassionate self-observation that, in a rapidly growing number of clinical psychology studies, has come to be called ‘mindfulness’ or ‘mindful awareness’.
The mental act of clear-minded introspection and observation, variously known as mindfulness, mindful awareness, bare attention, the impartial spectator, etc., is a well-described psychological phenomenon with a long and distinguished history in the description of human mental states. The most systematic and extensive exposition is in the canonical texts of classic Buddhism preserved in the Pali language, a dialect of Sanskrit. Because of the critical importance of this type of close attentiveness in the practice of Buddhist meditation, some of its most refined descriptions in English are in texts concerned with meditative practice (although it is of critical importance to realize that the mindful mental state does not require any specific meditative practice to acquire, and is certainly not in any sense a ‘trance-like’ state).
One particularly well-established description, using the name ‘bare attention’, is as follows:
Bare Attention is the clear and single-minded awareness of what actually happens to us and in us at the successive moments of perception. It is called ‘Bare’ because it attends just to the bare facts of a perception as presented either through the five physical senses or through the mind… without reacting to them. (Nyanaponika 1973)
Perhaps the essential characteristic of mindful observation is that you are just watching, observing all facts, both inner and outer, very calmly, clearly and closely. To sustain this attentional perspective over time, especially during stressful events, invariably requires the conscious application of effort.
A working hypothesis for ongoing investigation in human neurophysiology, based on a significant body of preliminary data, is that the mental action of mindful awareness specifically modulates the activity of the prefrontal cortex. Because of the well-established role of this cortical area in the planning and wilful selection of self-initiated responses, the capacity of mindful awareness, and by implication all emotional self-regulating strategies, to specifically modulate activity in this critical brain region has tremendous implications for the fields of mental health and related areas.
In the alternative approach the role played by the mind, when one is observing and modulating one’s own emotional states, is an intrinsically active and physically efficacious process in which mental action is affecting brain activity in a way concordant with the laws of physics.This new theory of the mind–brain connection is supportive of clinical practice. Belief in the efficacy of mental effort in emotional self-regulation is needed to subjectively access the phenomena (e.g. belief in the efficacy of effort is required to sustain mindfulness during stressful events). Moreover, a conceptual framework in which psychologically described efforts have effects is needed to explain to patients what they are supposed to do when directing their inner resources to the challenging task of modifying emotional and cerebral responses. Clinical success is jeopardized by a belief on the part of either therapists or patients that their mental effort is an illusion or a misconception.
It takes effort for people to achieve therapeutic results. That is because it requires a redirection of the brain’s resources away from lower level limbic responses and toward higher level prefrontal functions—and this does not happen passively. Rather, it requires, in actual practice, both wilful training and directed mental effort.
When people practice self-directed activities for the purpose of systematically altering patterns of cerebral activation they are attending to their mental and emotional experiences, not merely their limbic or hypothalamic brain mechanisms. And although no scientifically oriented person denies that those brain mechanisms play a critical role in generating those experiences, precisely what the person is training him- or herself to do is to wilfully change how those brain mechanisms operate—and to do that requires attending to mental experience per se. It is, in fact, the basic thesis of self-directed neuroplasticity research that the way in which a person directs their attention (e.g. mindfully or unmindfully) will affect both the experiential state of the person and the state of his/her brain.
Text based on: “Quantum physics in neuroscience and psychology:
a neurophysical model of mind–brain interaction”
From group materials: Coach Support