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Mindful : June 2018
Evolution resulted in attention as a solution to the brain’s problem of information overload. How do we best utilize this resource? What do we do when it’s hijacked? Does meditation have a role to play? when there is no integrated theory, someone comes up with a term that simplifies understanding. That’s how a phrase like “executive function” is born and comes to mean our capacity to maintain behaviors in line with a goal. It becomes a convenient con- struct in institutionalized education, which began with an agenda of an individualist society needing work- ers. You wind up with this fuzzy warm feeling about accomplishing goals and being productive. And what’s the important thing we need to teach kids? To do what they’re told! To attain goals someone else sets! Contemplating, examining—those may go by the wayside. Barry Boyce: So, when we choose to call this brain activity “executive function,” it’s loaded with all sorts of assumptions that go beyond what’s going on in the brain. Saron: Yes. “Executive function” is not a fixed thing. It could be called by many names that would take your imagination to different places. It’s fractal. Labels and handles can sometimes obscure as much as elucidate. Science is a human social activity that undergoes changes based on the zeitgeist of the time. And the less and less we know about something, the more room people have to fantasize. Barry Boyce: But don’t models also have a role to play? Jha: I understand what Cliff is getting at, and I agree that as scientists we need that kind of awareness of the big picture and a humble acceptance of the limitations of what we’re embarking on, but I also want to be clear about why I think it’s useful to describe the brain to people at all. My attempts are not an abstract educational exercise. They’re always meant to help people address the way they’re suffering right now. I recently met with a military leader who was trying to understand what was going on with his own mind wandering. He had a clear and present need, because the wandering was causing problems. My interest in attention speaks to when people hold goals in their mind. How does the brain create goals and hold those goals? We can start by saying that the brain has an attention system because there’s far more in the environment than the brain can fully process. Evolution resulted in attention as a solution to the brain’s problem of information overload. It constrains what we deal with so we can more fully process it. Given that, how do you best utilize this resource and what do you do when it’s being hijacked by rumina- tion, mind wandering, or distrac- tion? When we talk about the brain networks involved in being on- or off-task, we’re leaning on findings from my home field of cognitive neuroscience. Many studies have found that the brain organizes itself into functional networks that vary in their activity and in their interac- tions over time. For example, we have the central executive network, which has to do with the ability to harness our resources to control what we’re pro- cessing more fully. The salience network involves being aware of what’s happening, internally and in the environment. The default mode network we think of as what the brain defaults to when you’re not attending to a task. (See sidebar on page 53.) These three net works—and specific networks within these networks, and other networks as well—are part of the landscape we’re going to have to deal with when we consider how our brain’s infor- mation-processing resources are utilized for the task at hand—and what might be going on when some- one experiences rumination, worry, or flashbacks due to PTSD. It’s not about good guys and bad guys. It’s about the dynamic, interactive ways various networks function in relation to each other as we experience and navigate the present moment. Saron: That’s very clear, and I can see how that can be helpful. It’s several → June 2018 mindful 51 science