The anterior cingulate cortex is the receptionist to your thoughts, directing these as appropriate. The primitive part of your brain is hardwired for emergency action, it is engaged easily without much involvement of the ACC as required for carrying out functions such as the emergency stop we discussed in part 1.
For the creative more powerful part of the brain to be engaged, the ACC needs to identify the fast moving thoughts and ‘lift’ these to the LPFC. It’s role in focus is perfect for being present and mindful of the thoughts that occur in any given moment. It has the ability to observe the thoughts triggering the primitive part of the brain and influence these and allow us to engage in an alternative manner.
Often, we can be caught up in the thoughts in our mind and run on auto-pilot. When we are calm and do not immediately react to the emotions we experience through our amygdala (like the child counting to 10), then we can observe the thoughts objectively and think around these.
Studies have shown that activity such as meditation has a profound impact on the anterior cingulate cortex. These investigations observed an increase in the density of grey matter that the ACC is made up of. This activity itself is akin to strengthening the ability to monitor attention conflicts, more easily engage and use the executive functions of the pre-frontal cortex such as problem solving or emotional regulation.
Interestingly, meditation also has as impact on the primitive part of the brain too. The hippocampus, responsible for memory and templates is greater connected and therefore able to create new positive templates and interestingly, the amygdala actually reduces in density of grey matter over time. This shrinkage of the amygdala also brings with it a reduction in the strength of the neural pathways to the hippocampus, allowing the hippocampus and ACC to more readily engage with the pre-frontal cortex.
Meditation is an activity that is best carried out as part of a daily routine. It is doing 10 minutes or more on a daily basis that will significantly help the control of thoughts and feelings.
I personally use the Headspace app and Sarah my wonderful wife, has a preference for the Calm app and uses that. These apps cost in the region of £6 – £10 per month, however different options and offers are available that make this cheaper. For example, those with membership to anxietyUK.org.uk get Headspace included as a benefit for free.
Meditation for me, calms my mind and body. I feel relaxed after just a 10 minute session, whilst at the same time present and clear thinking. I can write down the individual tasks that i want to complete and execute these more effectively than before meditating. I don’t feel the stress, worry or chatter that gets in the way of what I need to do and that is a great feeling.
There are of course other ways to be some more mindful and strengthen the ACC. Some of these are things such as getting involved sports, Tai chi, Yoga, plaything music, breathing, walking, colouring, dancing or even sex! They all have us out of our amygdalas and into the creative more powerful regions of our brains.
When we get involved in activities that are good for us as many of the above are too, then we get the benefit of the positive checmicals released through our bodies such as serotonine and dopamine. We feel great and when we feel great, we naturally think from our left pre-frontal cortex’s. Which means we can engage with the world from a positive place and do what we need to or solve the problems that are facing us.
Part 4 goes on to explain more about the benefits of positive thoughts, positive action and positive interaction and why they help us stay in the creative part of the mind and move away from the primitive.