What Dreams May Come : Neural Substrates in Resilience

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,

-Shakespeare, Hamlet

On December 5, 2013, Neuron published case study “The Will to Persevere Induced by Electrical Stimulation of the Human Cingulate Gyrus.” Although researchers at Stanford University came across these intriguing results by accident, the implications may prove in the future to be of some consequence. In order to gain knowledge in the neurological source of seizures, study co-author Vinitha Rangarajan explains they were in the process of delivering an electrical charge to the anterior midcingulate cortex region (involved in emotion, pain and cognitive processing) of two persons with epilepsy when the finding occurred. When the charge was delivered, both individuals experienced increase in heart rate, and various sensations in their chest and neck. These physiological sensations were accompanied by a psychological expectation of challenge, and the desire to surmount it.

When, in following, the patients only thought their brains were being stimulated (but were not), they did not experience any of the prior symptoms. This process of assumed stimulation was repeated 5mm away, with the same result – an absence of any or the previous physical or psychological effects. In a press release, lead author Dr. Parvizi explains “Our study pinpoints the precise anatomical coordinates of neuronal populations, and their associated network, that support complex psychological and behavioral states associated with perseverance.” Dissimilarities in this neuronal structure may be tied to innate differences in our capacity to cope and endure amid trying circumstances.

The study highlights dictate:[i]

  • Electrical stimulation of the anterior cingulate region performed in two subjects
  • A stereotyped set of cognitive and autonomic changes was elicited in both subjects
  • This included feeling of anticipated challenge and strong motivation to overcome it
  • Site of stimulation in both subjects was a core node of the brain’s salience network


Anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is known to be involved in functions such as emotion, pain, and cognitive control. While studies in humans and nonhuman mammals have advanced our understanding of ACC function, the subjective correlates of ACC activity have remained largely unexplored. In the current study, we show that electrical charge delivery in the anterior midcingulate cortex (aMCC) elicits autonomic changes and the expectation of an imminent challenge coupled with a determined attitude to overcome it. Seed-based, resting-state connectivity analysis revealed that the site of stimulation in both patients was at the core of a large-scale distributed network linking aMCC to the frontoinsular and frontopolar as well as some subcortical regions. This report provides compelling, first-person accounts of electrical stimulation of this brain network and suggests its possible involvement in psychopathological conditions that are characterized by a reduced capacity to endure psychological or physical distress.

In brief departure, I am reminded of William James’ thoughts on the notion of the “threshhold.”

Recent psychology has found great use for the word ‘threshold’ as a symbolic designation for the point at which one state of mind passes into another. Thus we speak of the threshold of a man’s consciousness in general, to indicate the amount of noise, pressure, or other outer stimulus which it takes to arouse his attention at all. One with a high threshold will doze through an amount of racket by which one with a low threshold would be immediately waked. Similarly, when one is sensitive to small differences in any order of sensation we say he has a low ‘difference-threshold’- his mind easily steps over it into the consciousness of the differences in question. And just so we might speak of a ‘pain-threshold,’ a ‘fear-threshold,’ a ‘misery-threshold,’ and find it quickly overpassed by the consciousness of some individuals, but lying too high in others to be often reached by their consciousness.[ii]

What is it that allows some individuals to fall off the horse fifty times, only to get back up fifty one? To attend one hundred grueling auditions whilst retaining the hope and inertia to continue showing up? To find love and then betrayal, and yet continue to open one’s heart to the vulnerabilities of emotion? Findings such as these in neuroscience are critical to the understanding of pain, fear, and crisis thresholds, and leave many open pathways for discovery in the realm of physical and psychological resilience.

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.


[i] Parvizi J, Rangarajan V, Shirer W, et al. The Will to Persevere Induced by Electrical Stimulation of the Human Anterior Cingulate Cortex. Neuron. 2013.

[ii] The Varieties of Religious Experience, New York: Longmans, Green, 1916. Originally published in 1902.

Fellowship Applications Now Open – CASBS Stanford University

Fellowship Applications Now Open 

at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences 

at Stanford University


Stanford, CA:  August 6, 2013 – The Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University is now accepting applications for residential fellowships for the 2014-2015 academic year. Interested scholars may apply or seek more information at the Fellows page on the Center’s website (www.casbs.org).  The deadline to apply is October 3, 2013.

 The Center’s bucolic setting has offered accomplished and promising scholars an academic idyll, wherein they may pursue the research of their own choosing, as well as interact with their peers from a wide variety of disciplines within the behavioral sciences and humanities.  Former Fellows have described their time here as transformational.

 About the Center

Since its founding in 1954, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University has brought together distinguished scholars in the behavioral sciences to confront societal problems worldwide. The Center is honored to count among its Fellows 22 Nobel laureates, 14 Pulitzer Prize winners, and 44 MacArthur Fellows, in addition to hundreds of members of the National Academies.

Fellows have contributed to fields as diverse as medicine, education, electoral politics, crime prevention, and international development, as well as the core behavioral science disciplines.  And they’ve played key roles in starting new interdisciplinary fields such as behavioral economics.




Creativity in Constraint: Exploiting the Boundaries

Daniel LevitinIf one were to Google “This Is Your Brain On…”(fill in the blank), they would find everything from drugs, to football, to Jane Austen. This Is Your Brain On Music spent over a year on the New York Times bestseller list. Empathetic humans have a basic need and survival tendency to understand ourselves, and our behavior. Music has proven to be somewhat of an outlier and unifier simply due to the capability for a universal method of notation and expression. The expansion and sharing of music leaps from country to country, from people group to the academy and back again like wildfire. In culture, it is often a greatest common factor.

On July 11, 2013, Stanford University’s Center for the Advanced Study of Behavioral Sciences held its second annual Behavioral Science Summit. The daylong, invite-only event examines the state of behavioral science and its role in technology, the arts, business, and society as seen through the lens of creativity and innovation. Over the duration of the summit, fifteen noted speakers gave presentations on the arts, technology, neuroscience, culture, product design and workplace productivity.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) delivered the opening keynote. The recurring theme of the summit proved to be collaboration, integration and originality. Kahneman explains that in order to develop new methodologies and vocabularies to bring to their home institutions and fields, innovators across a wide variety of professions have begun coming together to exchange ideas, and open up a dialogue.

Following the keynote, Daniel Levitin (This Is Your Brain On Music) took the stage. His talk, entitled “Creativity in music: Constraints and innovation” was of particular interest to the creativity gurus in attendance. He began with a simple definition of creativity. “Works of art that we judge to be the most creative involve the artists working under constraints to produce something novel, or something that pushes the edges of these assumed constraints.” Levitin brings up an interesting point: Some of the most creative music has come to exist not in result of revolution, but by way of evolution. It’s not really true invention, but a wide blending of previous work. Levitin reminds us that Mozart didn’t invent the symphony or the sonata-what Mozart is recognized for is his ability to work within the tight constraints provided, and yet still be able to come up with such ground-breaking musical statements.

To illustrate his point, Levitin gave a series of examples in order to showcase his theory regarding evolution v. revolution.

  • “Rocket 88” – Jackie Brenston, 1951
  • “Sweet Little 16” – Chuck Berry, 1957
  • “Surfin’ U.S.A.” – The Beach Boys 1963
  • “Back In The U.S.S.R.” – The Beatles, 1968

When listening and comparing these examples, even the untrained ear is hard pressed not to note the similarities from beginning to end. The journey of these songs is very clearly not revolution, but evolution. By taking similar (or in Brian Wilson’s case, nearly identical) chord structures and progressions, the songwriter is able to reinvent a past work with a fresh perspective. The Beatles are notorious for this, having released countless records that may be unashamedly traced back to artists such as Buddy Holly, Elvis and The Beach Boys. Levitin elaborates, “New concepts are anchored in terms of old concepts. That’s why we so appreciate music that’s built on something that came before.” He went on to explain that links between pieces associated with preexisting others tends to be stronger than novel and isolated links in memory. By acknowledging and exercising limitations in the formative process, the creator is able to push limits in a more precise scope, often resulting in unique creative inspiration via unambiguous problem solving.

Regarding individuality in musicianship and songwriting, Levitin calls attention to the large role boundaries play in identity. “An individual musician’s style varies to the extent that you recognize Ella Fitzgerald or Paul McCartney or Arthur Rubinstein because of their own limitations. If every musician were flawless, they’d have less personality. Musicians sound the way they do because they can’t do everything they want to be able to do, and they do it in this flawed, human way. Many of the musicians we find most compelling – Springsteen, Neil Young, Bob Dylan – the really emotive singers – were responding to vast constraints to their technical ability, and you hear them fighting against it.”

How does one then use constraint to stimulate creativity? The Behavioral Science Summit aims to unite and diversify varies field strategies and project tactics. The question we need to be asking is this: How can creative persons benefit from adhering to traditional business models such as the process of phasing out, minimizing scope creep and avoiding uncontrollable expansion? William James states it well: “Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task (letter to Carl Stumpf, 1886). Without an ultimate goal, creativity left unchecked may spin out of control, only to end in the failure to produce a tangible work. Music is not idiosyncratic in terms of how creativity is addressed or assessed – this subtle concept is utilized over many different arenas. Every song in the Western world comes from a chromatic scale of but twelve notes. Every mixed and melted color comes from red, blue and yellow; every sonnet from a mere fourteen lines.

In a recent post in Forbes magazine, entitled “Creativity: How Constraints Drive Genius” David Sturt (VP, O.C. Tanner ) calls attention to a study undertaken on 1.7 million people with award-winning work. Based on O.C. Tanner’s findings, it seems that “people who create new value on the job are often inspired by their constraints” (Sturt, 2013). When Frank Gehry set out to design the Guggenheim in Bilbao or the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, he reported limitations and constraints as the most inspirational tools in his work. When an artist, project manager or designer sits down to create a work, they must begin by asking, “What problem am I trying to solve?” In doing this we are able to better perceive that true freedom can only be exerted within limits. Not unlike the music theory student setting out to compose within a tight set of guidelines, one must first learn and observe specific statutes. Once understood, we may begin looking beyond the rules, embracing the “benefit of limitations and necessity of structure to the creative process” (Gutierrez, 2013).

In conclusion, we are left then with the following: Regarding individuals with IQs categorized as genius or savant, we must ask ourselves if some of the most celebrated inventions in technology, medicine and the arts would exist with a ceiling. Can constraint be a catalyst, or is it necessary to defy the norm in order to achieve true greatness? Imitation versus innovation, evolution or revolution, restriction and an endless realm of possibilities remain to ponder. Looking back to the creativity of Beethoven versus Mozart, Picasso versus Monet, and Baryshnikov versus Fosse, these hypotheses are no longer so transparent. Is constraint essential for effective creative production, or have our greatest visions come from pushing the limits?

(Photo Credit: Matt Beardsley

Diana Hereld (@christypaffgen) is a Los Angeles based singer-songwriter, music educator and music psychology/neuroscience researcher. She blogs at As The Spirit Wanes The Form Appears.