FRONTAL CORTEX PUSHUPS
While the frontal cortex is typically thought to be the center for rational thought, in reality it’s primary function is as the control center for the rest of the brain.
In this article we dive into how it accomplishes this role and talk about specific ways to strengthen our control of our thoughts, ability to focus, motivation, and habits.
To begin, we need a quick refresher about how the brain works. The primary cell that the brain uses to function is the neuron. The neuron takes in information and passes it along to other neurons. Through the magic of biology, when you get enough neurons firing in a specific order, thoughts and actions are created. For more specific information about neurons and how they work, check out this article.
My favorite way to explain how the frontal cortex helps control the rest of the brain is by talking about going pee. When your bladder gets full it sends a signal up to your brain saying “i’m full”. At this point a part in the middle of your brain called the periaqueductal grey (PAG) picks up the signal and starts yelling “GO PEE”.
Eventually the PAG will get loud enough that signals are sent back down to the bladder to commence peeing. If peeing at this particular moment is a bad idea, the Frontal Cortex can send signals to the PAG telling it to be quiet.
Eventually, you will find yourself in a restroom at the appropriate place to go pee. At this point all your frontal cortex does is quiet down. This allows the PAG to get louder again which sends the signal to your bladder to get working.
This process illustrates the way that the frontal cortex asserts its control over your brain. Its primary job is to quiet down the other parts of your brain. If you get scared it is your frontal cortex that quiets down your fight or flight reaction. If you need to focus it is your frontal cortex that quiets down the distracting parts of your brain. And if you are trying to diet it is your frontal cortex that tells your hands not to reach into the freezer for some ice cream.
We can see from this that mental willpower is a direct function of the strength of one’s frontal cortex. Thus, if we want more control over ourselves we need to strengthen our frontal cortex’s ability to assert that control.
Frontal Cortex push ups is a term that I have been using with the kids that I work with for a few years now. It works particularly well in helping people identify specific areas of growth, rather than just seeing their whole Self as a failure.
For example, one of my clients was struggling in school because he would blurt out the answer to questions without raising his hand or giving others a chance to answer. When we talked about this he told me that when he knew the answer, it was physically uncomfortable to keep it in.
Tolerating discomfort is a classic example of the frontal cortex telling the parts of your brain screaming for relief to quite down (think about when you really have to go pee).
I told my client the story of peeing, the Frontal Cortex, and the PAG: relating the sensation of holding in pee to holding in the urge to blurt out the answer in class. With this simple reframe, he was able to see his blurting out as a function of his brain rather than a defect in his personality.
Naturally, a simple reframe did not fix all of his problems. However, this new context allowed us to talk about changing his behavior by strengthening his Frontal Cortex. Thus we started in on frontal cortex push ups.
Frontal Cortex push ups are exercises designed to highlight the moments that one asserts control over a previously unconscious habit. The strategy is to find a habit that one does without thinking, notice when you are about to do it, wait 5 seconds longer than you would have, and then complete the action.
The habit that my client chose to work with was his need to check his facebook before he went to bed. So for him, when he felt the impulse to check facebook as he was climbing into bed, he would take out his phone, pause, notice that he was engaging his frontal cortex within that pause, and then relax and choose to continue to check facebook.
The strategy behind this was two fold. First, he was practicing mindfulness by taking a moment to notice his thoughts and actions. Second, he was strengthening the theoretical (and literal) neural connections within his Frontal Cortex by engaging it to assert control over a process that is typically automatic. By choosing to check facebook, rather than doing it out of habit, he was actively engaging himself in a process that is typically passive. Thus strengthening his ability to do so in the future.
After some practice with the sensation of inserting conscious thought into unconscious actions we decided that it was time to practice at school. This involved recognizing when he wanted to blurt out and pausing before doing so. Originally we decided that he just had to count to 5 before blurting out and then choosing to do so. Just as I had hoped, the act of bringing conscious thought to his action helped him choose to raise his hand instead. This want the case every time, but each time he was able to do so reinforced the fact that he could learn to control behaviors that he did not want