A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
What do you think it is that makes HSPs so self-reflective? We inherently have the internals for deep processing, deep reflection, and deep emotional churn, but is this all that is at play here? Is this a sufficient explanation?
In reading Michael Pollen’s book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, I discovered a term that intrigued me. He speaks of the default mode network (DMN) and how psychoactive plants and drugs interfere with the function of the default mode network in the human brain. The DMN is a brain network of various brain structures instrumental in creating moments of self-reflection and daydreaming when the brain is engaged in a task-negative state. It is where our minds go when we are not in goal-seeking, active task mode.
It made me wonder if this is a state that HSPs are prone to enter more than non-HSPs. This type of reverie and disengaged self-reflection reminds me of the rumination many HSPs get caught up in regularly. If so, does this explain our tendency for long periods of deep reflection, and are we naturally drawn to this state because of our deep processing capabilities and the need for self-reflection?
What is the Default Mode Network?
Hans Berger first proposed a default mode network, the inventor of the electroencephalograph (EEG), to account for his observation that the brain, even at rest, is busy. Marcus Raichle of the Washington University School of Medicine later coined the term default mode network. DMN is characterized by daydreaming, future-looking thoughts, gauging other’s perspectives, and especially with self-reflection. An output of DMN state is often spontaneous thinking which can lead to creative thinking. DMN seems to begin developing in the human brain around ages nine to twelve.
DMN may also be implicated with disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Autism and Schizophrenia, by reduced activity of the DMN. Even in the DMN state, the brain consumes about 20 % of the body’s energy, much more than any other organ. DMN is not still fully understood.
The Purpose of the DMN
The DMN is now often associated with the social brain and the social understanding of others. It appears to be involved with emotion perception, empathy, theory of mind, and morality. This leads to aiding in understanding others, understanding self, controlling self, and processes that control the social interface between self and others. Its tie to memory also aids in making predictions about the behavior of others and provides a framework for moral judgments of other’s behaviors.
It is also most notably tied to the notion of ego or self-identity. The ego is our self-definition of who we think we are, regardless of how subjective and incorrect that definition may be. In other words, when the brain is not task busy, it often turns inward to think of itself. The operative word here is daydreaming, something that HSPs do regularly. Another reason to suspect that DMN has special meaning for highly sensitive people.
To me, this sounds much like a type of twilight thinking mode, a reverie state, much like twilight sleep, that few moments of in and out of consciousness we experience just before bedtime. This mode of thinking sees the world through our perceptions and ideals, sometimes to exclude external feedback. I have often mentioned this in the blogs and my book, Confessions of a Sensitive Man. As deep-thinking individuals, we often create ideas of ourselves that have no social confirmation because we hold them tightly to our vests. We lock ourselves in these self-contained prisons and never test our theories in the outside world. We are, perhaps, locked in our DMN based logical loops.
What is the relevance to HSPs?
Are we more prone to activation of this state than most of the population? Just following anecdotal social media discussion group conversations would indicate that this may be the case. Many HSPs, especially introverted HSPs, would find comfort in this type of state – brain at rest, task neutral and reflecting on self, and predicting the behaviors of others. A controlled state of mind, where outcomes are constantly evaluated in a safe place, evaluating memories (rumination) and developing strategies of future behavior. A staging ground in facing the world.
I am not placing a value judgment on this, simply looking at the likelihood that this would be something that many HSPs, myself included, would find comforting in our downtime. It is also a place of spontaneous idea generation, resulting in some very creative ideas and could explain our tendency towards creativity. Conversely, it could lead to too much rumination, which is often the antecedent to depression and anxiety.
Can this state be induced and controlled?
Since the brain “defaults” to this mode when we are not actively engaged in task-positive activities or goal-seeking activities, whenever we remain in a task-negative situation, we are going to be in DMN, unless, of course, we are asleep. The extent that we are more “active” or “non-active” may be the determining factor as to whether we are in DMN or not. It is interesting to note that meditation, a task that would seem task neutral, helps facilitate the entering of DMN and can positively affect both DMN and TPN modulation.
In a Buddhist sense, the DMN can be like the monkey mind, scattered and full of intrusive random thinking. Meditation is a way to help harness the monkey by applying mindfulness to aid in controlling daydreaming for purposeful pursuits. Daydreaming can be positive constructive (creativity seeking), or guilty dysphoric (obsessive anxiety), or attentionally out of control (scatterbrained). If we use the DMN for constructive pursuits, we are fully utilizing its positive capacity.
Since the DMN is both forward and backward seeking (attachment to memory), it can keep us from staying in the present moment. It can also take us down well-worn neural pathways that can lead us to anxiety, worry, and pessimism. The DMN can be overactivated, leading to hyperconnectivity, which sounds like something many HSPs should be familiar with, much like our overstimulation.
How do we control this? For one, we can alter our consciousness with mindfulness mediation. What has also been suggested is the use of mind-altering plant medicines (i.e., psilocybin, mescaline, ayahuasca, et al.) Psychedelic drugs deactivate the DMN’s integration function within the brain, a homeostatic state that leaves us in a state of “baby “consciousness, a primitive functioning state. I’ll leave that for another day’s discussion but mounting research in the use of psychoactive plants is showing promise for this in a controlled way with therapeutic supervision.
Another option is to change the neural pathway route by invoking TPN-related tasks. This is essentially leaving DMN mode by thinking outside of the box, in essence creating new thoughts. This may lead to another option that utilizes unfettered creative thinking. Thinking abstractly, like purposeful playfulness, opens the door to new ideas and breaks the sameness of DMN thinking. I liken this to hopeful, optimistic thinking. Finally, we can change the channel by focusing on the positive past versus the negative past. Focus on successes and not dwell on failures.
A recent study highlights the observation that tactile stimulation appears to deactivate the DMN as well as does the use of visual and auditory stimulation. So, get out there and hug someone, with their permission, of course. Watch a movie or listen to some meaningful music if you get trapped in DMN no man’s land.
Are there any benefits to this state?
It appears that DMN is part of the standard equipment with human brains. It has both positive and negative attributes, which we should all be mindful of. It seems clear that harnessed with mindfulness being in DMN mode can lead to moments of creativity and reverie. Its use of memory to look backward and forward can, without your control, lead to depression or anxiety or positivity and confidence, depending on your controlling the focus.
It appears to some extent to be a gateway to the unconscious or at least unconscious long-term memory. That can be good or bad, depending on what is retrieved. And it appears to be a fine line between states of dementia, PTSD, depression, and Autism. Nevertheless, we should be aware of when we are in DMN and how it is affecting us. By reducing unbridled DMN thought creating, we can allow ourselves to experience the present moment with greater objectivity, which Shapiro calls “re-perceiving.”
With focused attention via mental training to reduce competitive distraction and daydreaming, we can spend some of the negative DMN time on something more optimistic and positive. Although I must be honest, I do love my daydreaming time.
Please share your thoughts in the comment section.
A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
One of the big four traits of Highly Sensitive People is the propensity for overstimulation, often referred to as overwhelm. Sensory inputs become too much to handle, and the finely tuned HSP systems begin to shut down or, at the very least, require downtime. This time is essential for HSPs to regroup, recover and restore. All HSPs will experience this at some time or another. Many in difficult work or home environments experience this frequently.
For some of us, this overwhelm is embarrassing, especially for HSP males, who struggle with their masculine pride to admit that emotions, environments, and engagements can cause us to go into shutdown mode. We have been socialized to believe that this type of reaction is a sign of weakness-- not being able to tough it out and press on. But can we control overwhelm? Head it off at the pass at the first sign of onset? And more importantly, should we? Is overwhelm a sign of an undisciplined mind?
What is overwhelm?
What happens to the highly sensitive mind when it reaches overwhelm? Because HSPs process stimuli at a much deeper level both internally and externally, they often get caught in cycles of strong visceral and mental reactions, leading to depletion, exhaustion, and overstimulation. With poor coping skills or lack of support, many HSPs find themselves caught in a vicious cycle of overstimulation, shutdown, and then overstimulation again. This cycle is exceedingly exhausting and leads many HSPs into avoidant or withdrawn behavior. This behavior compounds personal and socially derived stress and stigmatizes the HSP into feeling negative about themselves and their ability to cope. And emotional reaction is often the root cause of overstimulation.
Without getting too much in the weeds about the anatomy or dynamics of emotions, emotions play a large part in human behavior, and for HSPs, emotions are our currency. Much has been said about the limbic system, particularly the amygdala, in driving emotional response. The amygdala is most often associated with fear response and plays an essential role in alerting to danger, including fight or flight.
However, there appears to be a three-tiered model for the emotional function that works above and below the limbic system or the midbrain. At the base, the brain stem contains a primary stimulus-response adaptive reaction. From there, emotion moves up to the more complex reactivity within the hypothalamus and thalamus, followed by memory and cognition of the limbic/cortex neural networks. Each level represents more complexity of the emotional response to the environment. From an evolutionary standpoint, the continued higher-level function extends and expands the brain functioning not to replace earlier, more superficial structures but to enhance them. The use of memory paired with emotion allows for past experiences reference to determine future action. This apparatus is key to enhancing recall by pairing memory with emotion to provide a more robust memory encoding.
This encoding of memory energized by emotion makes recall of important data significant for survival. The use of cortical influence on the limbic system to throttle emotional response signifies the importance of these higher-order facilities to allow, especially in primates, to moderate, simple stimulus-response towards more directed goal-oriented behaviors that may serve a broader and more adaptive reaction. In short, this means that we as humans can use our critical thinking capacity to redirect automatic emotional responses with more directed thoughtful actions. This ability is vital to when thinking about our ability to regulate emotional overwhelm.
Emotions may be triggered both bottom-up, which generally follows the stimulus-response model, much of which is reactive and spontaneous, or top-down, a self-created stimulus that causes the rudimentary response of the lower level to fire. This suggests that our emotions can be created automatically and instinctively or through self-initiated and controlled processes. The point is that we can control our emotional response, which leads us to the idea of emotional regulation.
The Benefits of Emotional Regulation for HSPs
Emotional regulation, which is often advocated by Dr. Aron to alleviate emotional overload, has many benefits for HSPs. Emotional regulation is the ability to respond to the demands of a wide range of human emotions with socially tolerable responses that allow for both spontaneity and restriction of emotion when warranted. It covers a wide range of processes that include feelings, physiological responses, thoughts, and bodily actions.
This capacity to regulate our emotions can aid in maintaining clear vision, focused and appropriate responses, and developing a calm mind. Part of the strategy of handling emotions is to allow the emotional experiences to flow through you and not overwhelm you. Understanding that you can override what would appear to be an automatic reaction with a thoughtful strategy will allow you to “flip the bit” in your mind turning from a panicked response to calm and thoughtful action. Putting the attention on the control and not on what would ordinarily be an automatic response. A process model suggests several strategies used for emotional control, not all of which are ideal.
So, as highly emotional creatures, how do we get to the point where emotional regulation is natural and easy for us. It so often seems that we react without much thought to emotional stimulus and create overwhelming situations that drive us to shut down and then downregulate to achieve a sense of calm. This seems quite natural for many HSPs, but is it necessary? Is this just a matter of learning to discipline our minds or, better yet more efficiently use them?
How can we train our minds not to overreact? Aside from some of the other strategies suggested above, can we retrain our minds to bypass the emotion => overreaction => overwhelm cycle automatically? In short, I believe we can.
One of the first things in changing behaviors is to become mindful of the behavior. Start by looking for triggering events; these usually happen in patterns. What triggers you? We all have our buttons, and to control the reaction, you must first identify the trigger. We do this by observing our patterns. We all have patterns. Humans are notoriously creatures of habit. If you follow the patterns, you will be able to observe the triggers and reactions. Many of our patterns are automatic behaviors, also known as automaticity. These behaviors often operate below conscious awareness and can seem to pop out of nowhere. By being mindful, we can trace back to the trigger and response to find and observe the pattern at beginning of the reaction.
The idea is to disrupt the pattern by use of explicit attention by the conscious mind, altering the outcome. The disruption of the pattern breaks off the response, allowing you to deconstruct what happened. Understanding the mechanics, without necessarily exploring the deep roots, will at least give you the ability to create a different state, perhaps, one of calm detachment. Now, aware of the pattern, you can deploy one of the process model strategies suggested or create your own. Deep seeded issues will need to be pursued with a qualified therapist. Still, for everyday emotional problems, this can aid in regulating your emotional responses and even increase your Emotional Intelligence. Learning to perceive, use, understand and manage your emotions can empower you to take control of what we often see as the uncontrollable fire hose of emotional reaction. It may simply be training, control, and discipline.
Towards creating the foundation for mindfulness awareness of our emotional patterns, we must first engage in activities that create that calm mind necessary to do self-examination. This state of relaxation is portable and can travel beyond the meditation mat. Each exercise in the real world of calm detachment requires repetition, one of the critical elements of any learning. Practice this in the real world. Seek out situations where you can practice a calm mind in choppy waters. Invoke calmness and observe the flow. Doing this will require your full attention . A study showed that this ability aids in emotional regulation.
I highly recommend using neurofeedback training to create a trained pattern of calm and learned resiliency in the brain. A recent study found that the experimental group more easily controlled top-down connectivity as measured by MRI neurofeedback. My personal experiences with neurofeedback systems, such as Neuroptimal from Zengar, on an anecdotal level did increase my brain resilience in stressful situations. As this technology becomes more personal and interactive, this approach is more available to the masses.
See my earlier post on readily available brain hacks to promote relaxation. The bottom line is finding your path to greater self-regulation.
The Benefits of a Disciplined Mind
My top five benefits of a disciplined, self-regulated mind are:
Please share your thoughts in the comment section.
Bill Allen currently lives in Lutz, Florida. He previously lived in Bend, Oregon. He is a certified hypnotist and brain training coach at BrainPilots.com. He believes that male sensitivity is not so rare, but it can be confounding for most males living in a culture of masculine insensitivity which teaches boys and men to disconnect from their feelings and emotions. His intent is to use this blog to chronicle his personal journey and share with others.