Looking to the Brain to Understand Personality, Cognitive and Emotional Challenges

byDaniel S. Dinsmoor, Ph. D.

For the first time in history, we can get a clear idea of how the brain operates. The explosion in our understanding of the brain has come about by new neuroimaging tools that allow us to see inside the brain as it operates to accomplish everyday emotional and cognitive tasks. Currently we know more about which brain structures affect personality traits and learning styles, as well as those that might impede emotional and cognitive functioning.

Here are a few of the things that we have learned:

The basic geography of the brain helps us understand important dimensions of our emotional functioning. It is well understood that the cortex has among its functions the job of inhibiting and controlling the more primitive subcortical regions of the brain that evolved earlier. Primarily, part of the cortex called the prefrontal cortex has the important role of inhibiting or “cooling down” the amygdala.

The amygdala is a subcortical area of the brain that is thought of as the emotional center of the brain, central to the experience of anxiety. Thus, by inhibiting excessive activation of the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex plays an important role in the regulation of anxiety. Furthermore, the cortex has many other functions of inhibition or quieting down excessive subcortical activity, such as excessive electrical activity that if not controlled can cause seizures.

Right versus Left Hemisphere:
The distinct roles of the right and left hemispheres in emotional and mental functioning are also clearer. The right hemisphere is said to mature earlier than the left hemisphere, and is the seat of the personality. If the right hemisphere is severely damaged, then there appears to be a loss of the person as we knew them. The right hemisphere is responsible for an intuitive, emotionally colored understanding of the world.

The left hemisphere is responsible for language, sequential cognitive activity, and linear thought; the more logical functions. Damage to certain areas of the left hemisphere can lead to an inability to talk and to understand language.

Left versus Right Activation:
Interestingly, personality and even the trait of optimism versus pessimism may be linked to brain activation. Whether we see the glass as half full or half empty may be determined by brain activation patterns of left versus right activation.

Imaging studies indicate that when the right prefrontal cortex is more activated than the left side people tend to be pessimistic; more strongly affected by negative experiences. People whose left prefrontal cortex is more activated than their right tend to be more optimistic and resilient.

Inter-Relationships between Parts:
Basic brain geography tells us important things about brain function, but it is also important to understand how these specific brain areas interact to create a complex brain system.

An example of a simple relationship between parts of the brain is the interaction between the prefrontal cortex with another brain area called the nucleus acumbens. The nucleus acumbens is a part of a reward circuit which generates the sense of derived pleasure. People whose prefrontal cortex persistently activates the nucleus acumbens by sending electrical signals tend to have a more positive outlook on life whereas people whose prefrontal cortexes have a less robust connection to the nucleus acumbens experience a sense of reward less often.

A more complicated example is the complementary relationship between the prefraontal cortex and the amygdala, which was mentioned earlier. In addition to the prefrontal cortex’s role in quieting the amygdala, and therefore helping to soothe our emotions, the hippocampus is another brain area involved in our experience of anxiety and fear. This is because the amygdala by itself has little capacity for memory, but is connected to the hippocampus (the “memory center”). When the amygdala sends signals that something is dangerous it activates the hippocampus, strengthening our memory of what is happening when we feel fear or anxiety, probably to help us to avoid similar situations in the future.

Complex Connections (Neurocognitive Networks):
In recent years we have come to understand that the brain is also organized via large scale neurocognitive networks. These networks become evident by tracking physiological changes that occur in the brain when the individual is faced with different types of cognitive and emotional challenges. The challenges may vary from tasks that require high levels of attention, to those that involve the identification of novel events, to those that have to do with the experience of anxiety.

Arguably the most interesting network identified to date is a network of increased activity that occurs during the “resting state” when there is no specific external challenge. This network is called “the default mode network”. An interesting observation about this network is that the electrical activity of this network fluctuates slowly in contrast to many other operational systems of the brain. The importance of this observation will be commented on at a later point in this article.

Amplitude of Electrical Activity:
For a long time, it has been known that electrical activity can be characterized by the frequency of cycling of that activity and this is also true of the electrical activity in the brain. There are four frequency bands commonly referred to; delta (2-4hz), theta (4-8hz), alpha (8-12hz), smr (12-15hz) and beta (15-18hz). The electrical activity of the brain is usually characterized by the mixture of these frequencies, but a predominance of electrical activity in one particular band is usually correlated with a change in mental state.

So, for example, when we see high amplitudes of delta frequency in the brain, the individual is usually drowsy or asleep. When we see a predominance of theta, the person is usually day dreaming or in a state of reverie. When we see a predominance of alpha activity, the person is usually paying attention, etc.

However, when the activity occurs is also important. For example, if we see a predominance of theta in the front part of the brain when a child is supposed to be paying attention to the teacher, we suspect challenges with attention. When we see a predominance of delta in an awake child, we become very concerned about the possibility of a serious learning disability.

Connectivity between Regions:
In addition to understanding the electrical frequency patterns in the brain, it is also useful to understand how well different brain areas “talk” to each other. The simplest metrics to measure this is called a measure of “coherence”.

When we see an increase in beta activity at a particular location in the brain, do we see a similar increase in beta activity in certain other brain areas suggesting that the two areas are “talking” to each other and coordinating in their efforts to perform a task? This metric can suggest that two areas are hypo-coherent (that is they don’t communicate with each other much at all), hyper-coherent suggesting that they communicate with each other too much- blocking communication with other brain areas, or appropriately coherent (that is communicating with each other adequately and flexibly).

The concept of coherence between different brain areas is particularly important in autism, where individual brain areas may function adequately resulting in islands of ability, but brain areas do not communicate well with each other, resulting in deficits in integrated brain activity (comprehension of language, abstract thought, social relationships, representational play).

Understanding Brain Function and Treatment:
Understanding brain function has many and varied implications for treatment. Knowing which brain structures are implicated in different cognitive and emotional problems lessens some of the mystery involved. For example, when we think that a very active insula contributes to the intense experience of the heart racing in panic attacks, we can aim at increasing awareness of the bodily sensations of anxiety and in this way increase control of the prefrontal lobe that would inhibit the overwhelming sense of bodily anxiety. Or when we understand that the gaze aversion we see with some children with autism is rooted in excessive activity of the amygdala and the resulting experience of anxiety, it guides us to think about ways to reduce the amygdala’s activation and resultant anxiety.

Brain based concepts may help us understand and maximize what we are already doing in therapy. In the process of talk therapy we may be integrating the more intuitive, feeling side of our brains with the more logical, language based parts of our brain. A brain based understanding of this process might encourage us to strengthen that process by suggesting, for example, daily journaling to our clients so they may more efficiently and powerfully proceed with treatment.

Brain Research and Neurofeedback:
Finally, knowledge about the brain is directly translated to treatment protocols in my work with neurofeedback (click here for article). Here, the connection between brain findings and treatment is very direct. For example, when a person is depressed a goal in neurofeedback might be to increase prefrontal activation of the left side of the brain. As I described earlier, increased activation of the left side of the prefrontal lobe is associated with a more positive outlook. The connection between brain findings and neurofeedback treatment protocols are an evolving and exciting field. But this will be covered further in future articles.