Term Paper: Left Prefrontal Cortex: Hobbies and Serenity

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Left Prefrontal Cortex: Hobbies and Serenity -- is There a Connection?

LEFT PREFRONTAL CORTEX

Over the past 40 years, brain imagery of the left prefrontal cortex region (LPFC) indicates a positive association between attention and serenity. Inferences, therefore, seem to be that the greater the amount of attention dedicated to a hobby, the greater the amount of serenity the individual possesses. Although Csikszentmihalyi has conducted research on 'flow' and shown that that significant correlation exists between focus and serenity, little if any research seems to exist on the connection between hobbies and serenity. This essay seeks to fill that lacuna.

The Left Prefrontal Cortex

Scientists have been intrigued by the LPFC. Implicated in significant components of psychological well being, researchers have recommended engaging in behaviors that are characteristic of that organ (Mental Health Weekly, 2004). The seat of human power and reasoning, the frontal cortex is located at the rostral end of the frontal lobe that receives input from the dorsomedial nucleus of the thalamus. Compared with the functions of sensory and motor cortical areas, the functions of the prefrontal cortex is relatively poorly understood, but because it is so well developed in humans, it is assumed that the PFC is responsible for characteristics such as self-awareness and capacity for complex planning and problem solving.

Of the frontal cortex, the left seems to be particularly involved in analytical planning, whilst the right reserves itself for focusing on emotions. In fact, Luria (1982) conceptualized the frontal lobes as master executive of afferent and efferent signals and was highly interested in the contributions of the LPFC to planning and the intentionality of behavior.

An abundance of research implicates the LPFC as necessary for obtaining peace of mind:

[The] left prefrontal activation appears to be associated with a constellation of positive attributes, including reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and reductions in other biological and immune parameters that are associated with negative affect. (Davidson, 2000, p.12).

Two theories - the approach withdrawal opinion (Davidson, 1994; 1998) and the valence-arousal model (Heller & Nitshcke, 1998; Shankman & Klein, 2003) -- account for the findings. Research, on the whole, seems to support the approach-withdrawal perspective. Davidson's model posits two separate systems of motivation and emotion -- one for approach behaviors and one for withdrawal (Davidson, 1994) and that both systems are represented by separate neural circuits that involve different regions of the frontal cortex. Greater activity in the LPFC is hypothesized to indicate approach behavior, whereas greater activity in the right PFC is associated with activation of withdrawal (Davidson, 1994; 1998). Damage in either of these systems produces emotional syndromes such as depression and anxiety disorders (Davidson 1998). The other model, the valence-arousal theory, is similar in that it also predicts associations between hemispheric asymmetries and emotional disorders, but differs in that it proposes that asymmetries for posterior regions of brain (Shankman & Klein, 2003), specifically in the right posterior regions of the brain are associated with anxiety (Heller, 1993).

In a similar sense, repeated neuroimagery show happiness to be a prime locus of the LPFC. As Davidson observes:

The prefrontal cortex appears to play a critical role in the uniquely human capacity to modulate emotions… Damage to the left side of the brain, which leaves the right side in control, [is] more often associated with a negative mood, including symptoms of uncontrollable crying and other indicators frequently associated with depression. Damage to the right side of the brain, when the left [is] spared, [is] reported to be associated with a very different, more positive constellation of mood reactions. (Davidson, 2000; p.13)

Research in infants seems to confirm that some individuals seem to be genetically primed for happiness. Higher LPFC in infants less than a year old predicted that they would not cry when subjected to minor stress, whereas those with lower levels of activity in their LPFC reacted hysterically (Davison, 1984). In fact, animal studies have shown that the happiness producing neurotransmitter, dopamine, mediates the transfer of signals associated with positive emotions between the left prefrontal area and the limbic emotional circuits of the brain. Empirical research has shown that applying repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) to the left PFC has been found to relieve depression in individuals who withstand medication or other treatment. Apparently, the LPFC is less active in people with depression, and rTMS elevates it (Helmuth, 2001). Similarly, Robinson and Downhill (1995) have noted a correlation between depression and damaged left frontal lobe regions, and have observed that the closer the lesion is to the frontal axis, the greater the depressive symptoms. Depression has been, repeatedly, coupled with decreased activity in LPFC (Allen, Iacono, Depue, & Arbisi, 1993; Debener et al., 2000; Henriques & Davidson, 1991), whilst anxiety is consistently found with increased activity in right prefrontal regions of brain (Nitschke, Heller, Palmieri, & Miller, 1999). Other abnormalities such as panic disorder (Wiedermann et al., 1999), and social phobia (Davidson, Marshal, Tomarken, & Henriques, 2000) have also been found to correlate with either decreased activation in LPFC or increased activation in the right PFC. It must be noted, however, that some studies have failed to find an association between EEG asymmetry and depression (Reid, Duke, & Allen, 1998), and that there are paradoxical unexplained findings that the LPFC also processes the negative emotion of anger (e.g., Van Honk & Schutter, 2006; Harmon-Jones, 2004; Harmon-Jones, Lueck, Fearn, & Harmon -- Jones, 2006; d'Alfonos, van Honk, Hermans, Postma, & De Haan, 2000). My assumption for this is that anger indicates a certain energy and alertness symptomatic of the left cortex. The right cortex, on the other hand, is too passive to respond to or emit this emotion.

The left prefrontal cortex also shows indication to resilience (Curtis & Ciccheti, 2007; Ethan, 2007), but then no wonder since resilience and serenity are closely knitted. Being able to shut off a negative emotion appears to be a very adaptive feature and something that individuals who show this pattern of left-sided brain activity do exceedingly well (Davidson, 2000).

Kross, Egner, Ochsner, Hirsch, and Downey (2007) scanned the brains of highly sensitive individuals who reacted intensely to rejection, and compared results with those who were more 'thick-skinned'. Low rejection-sensitive individuals displayed significantly more activity in the left inferior and right dorsal PFC. This, the authors suggested, strongly indicate that the left prefrontal structures are indicative of resilience to rejection. Interestingly enough, depersonalization (a certain pathological disorder that includes loss of emotional feeling) displays enhanced activation in the LPFC.

Left prefrontal cortex and attention

Running through all of this and peculiar to the LPFC is the ability to focus. Attentional span, as Davidson et al. (2003) shows, is correlated with serenity hence it makes sense that ability to focus and serenity are both a central function of the lateral areas of the frontal lobes (Baddeley & Sala, 1998). Davidson's famous studies of Buddhist monks (e.g., Davidson et al., 2003) revealed that during mindfulness mediation, the left frontal lobe of the brain becomes more active and the right less so, indicating an increase in the experience of positive emotions. Since then, neuroimaging research -- both MRI and EEG - has consistently shown that meditation is accompanied by a clear increase of activity in the LPFC (and a decrease of activity in the parietal cortex, which is associated with spatial localization. The implications, in other words, indicate that the transversal from parietal cortex to LPFC enables the mediator to become more absorbed in his inner self) (Cardoso, 2007).

Congruent with this is reseach by Drevets & Raichle, 1998 who showed that when a person fixates on emotional aspects, the cerebral emotionally-involved regions are flooded with cerebral brain fluid (CBF), but that this CBF is decreased when the person fixates on intentionally- demanding, cognitive tasks . The authors presume that the amygdala and other affective regions are flooded by fluid due to emotional engagement of percept. When the observer mindfully disengages, however, and attentionally focuses on non-evaluative elements of that same target, CBF decreases, ipso facto signifying a reduction in the observer's emotional response. Since the prefrontal cortex (region associated with analytical reasoning) is involved in constructing reappraisal strategies that can modulate activity in multiple emotion-processing system (Ochsner et al., 2006), it seems that the more attentioanl focus accorded certain elements, the greater the peak of the pleasurable state.. Indeed, Drevets and Raichle (2006) proceeded to demonstrate that the CBF increased in cognition-associated neural areas with the performance of tasks that demanded cognitive attention, but decreased during emotional processing states.

That this is so is of great interest to psychology.

The attributes of the LPFC make it a potential source of interest for attaining mind / body well being for it means that choosing something to focus on induces serenity and pleasurable state of well-being. Of course the defining question is whether the LPFC creates happiness or whether it merely reflects one's current emotional state. The answer, Davidson (1984) thinks, is a synthesis of both, and this could be immensely… [END OF PREVIEW]

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