If I could choose only one brain area for my kids to Super-size, it would be the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC). Why? Well, six reasons for starters.
The ACC is a part of the larger Cingulate Cortex located in the center of the brain. It wraps around, and is hardwired into the corpus collosum – the superhighway of nerve fibers that connect the left and right halves of the brain. This primo location makes the Cingulate Cortex a kind of central, neural switching hub for much of the brain’s wiring. Anterior simply means “front.” So the ACC is the front part of the Cingulate Cortex. It’s often identified as Area 24 in Brodmann Brain Cytoarchecture. And because it’s activated by opiods, it’s growth and development is generally associated with feel-good activities.
Attention Must Be Charged
One of the most important and exciting features of the ACC is that it is the part of the brain that is not only responsible for kids (and adults) being able to pay attention, but it also allows us to pay attention to attention – to think about what we’re thinking, to observe what we’re doing while we’re doing it. It’s taken me a long time to realize this is not a function that everybody’s brain is readily able to do, and certainly for most of us, not all the time. William James, the father of psychology, once said that “the education of attention would be an education par excellence.” He didn’t realize it, but he was essentially talking about building out the ACC! So that’s the first reason to help kids grow a Super-sized Anterior Cingulate … so they can learn to easily attend to what they’re attending to.
The ability to think about our own thinking is a prerequisite for being able to think about other people’s thinking. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, this is known in the research literature as Theory of Mind. Being able to think about what others think is a first step in being able to make the jump in understanding how they feel. Understanding how others feel and being able to authentically resonate with those feelings is what we generally experience as empathy. The Anterior Cingulate Cortex is a significant structure in the empathic Social Brain. (Note: being able to think about how others feel is not the same as feeling how they feel. Each of those experiences arises in different areas of the brain). So a second great reason to Super-size the ACC is that we will produce children with great capacity for empathy. Put enough such children together and you create the possibility of … an Empathic Civilization as Jeremy Rifkin so wonderfully illustrates in this compelling RSA Animation.
DISHing it Out
Recently I went through my check register online and suddenly noticed that my monthly DISH Satellite TV automatic deduction had mysteriously increased 50%, from $50 to $75. My ACC is responsible for noticing that discrepancy. (Different parts of the brain however, are responsible for me being pissed off at the bait-and-switch deal in DISH TV’s fine print that surreptitiously signed me up for a $25 a month automatic subscription to Cinemax after one year). So, I can thank my ACC, which hones in on errors and anomalies, that I am no longer being ripped off by DISH Networks.
Also, as a result of it’s central location, the ACC acts as a bridging interface between cognition and emotion. The ACC is one of the reasons I’m able to be pissed off at DISH Networks and still maintain sufficient emotional control such that I don’t end up going postal on their employees at corporate headquarters. Without that bridging interface having sufficient neural wiring, my emotions would easily get the better of me. Our prisons are full of kids who somehow managed to suffer the misfortune of an ACC wiring deficiency.
In addition to helping bridge what I think and how I feel, the ACC also helps me recognize and work toward resolving conflict. When I call the Customer Service rep at DISH Networks, I know that she is not directly responsible for their duplicitous practices. Having a well-wired ACC allows me to modulate my voice and creatively problem-solve even in the midst of feeling pissed off at being ripped off. My mother used to say, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” but she never really taught me the oddball practice of transforming vinegar into honey or something equivalent. Filling my life with activities which increase the connectivity in the ACC is one way to accomplish that transformation. Neurologically speaking, George Herbert was right: the best revenge really is living well.
The Momification Area
According to one of my favorite neuropsychologists, Louis Cozolino, the ACC is also centrally involved in effective maternal behavior, nursing and play. So, by Super-sizing our own kids’ ACC we significantly increase the probability that they will grow up to be outstanding parents themselves. One skill they will most likely demonstrate as nurturing parents is the one that attachment researchers have identified as the main ingredient in Secure Attachment – contingent communication: the easy ability to patiently pay attention to kids and respond to them in a timely and effective manner (as a reminder: adults like to be contingently responded to as well!).
Finally, the Anterior Cingulate Cortex is one of the few places in the brain that contain spindle neurons, also known as von Economo neurons. These are a special class of neurons that fire during intense lovemaking. They are also involved with intuition, which makes sense as their central location is constantly receiving information from inside and outside our bodies. So, any time we have a hunch that someone’s operating on our wavelength, we can give thanks to the spindle neurons in the ACC. When optimally wired up they allow our kids to grow up to love others and themselves enough to support everyone in being both lovers and Gandhi-like fighters for truth, equality and justice in the world. That kind of bigger, better ACC-optimized world works for me.