Overfocusing: Cognitive Inflexibility and the Cingulate Gyrus
Tuesday, September 18, 2012 48 Comments
Stubborn? or Stuck!!
by Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
A bit of Review to Catch You Up
As I said in the previous article entitled ODD & Oppositional Rising: Most of us know somebody who seems to have an argument for just about everything — somebody who almost always has to “go through NO to get to yes.”
I likened those individuals to old television sets with stuck channel changers (way back before the days of remote controls).
Almost ALL of us, I added, ADD or not, have a small — perfectly “normal” — part of our personalities that balks unless a task or idea is totally appealing in the moment we are “supposed” to take it on.
We don’t WANT to change the channel — we want things to keep on being the way we thought they were going to be – NOW!
ADD and Oppositional Rising
A subset of those who qualify for an ADD diagnosis seems, a bit more than average, to struggle with changing that channel. (be sure to click ODD and Oppositional Rising for more on the concept)
A subset of individuals who do NOT qualify for an ADD diagnosis struggle similarly.
- ADD or NOT, these individuals are not diagnosically Oppositional Defiant [ODD], but it can try your patience mightily to work and live with these guys.
- In the previous article, I explained why I referred to that change-averse group as being at the effect of ODD Rising.
In THIS article, we’re going to take a look at what being “stuck” looks like, and to begin to look at what has to happen in our brain to be ready-willing-and-ABLE to “change our minds,” which is not too very different (in concept) from changing a channel on an old television set.
The Sticky Channel Folks
The genesis of my list of cingulate behavior problems, below, came from conference notes taken at a session by Dr. Daniel Amen, well over a decade ago. It illustrates the range of behaviors that have, at their root, lack of cognitive flexibility due to communication glitches involving the cingulate gyrus.
Cingulate Behavioral Problems
- worrying “by default”
- holding onto hurts from the past
- uncooperative, argumentative
- automatic tendency to say no, deliberately uncoorperative or oppositional behavior
- rumination (over-focusing on thoughts — can be/don’t have to be obsessions)
- stuck on behaviors (can be/don’t have to be compulsions)
- hair-trigger anger/frustration response (either “over the top” or “freezing you out”)
- road rage
- addictive behaviors (eating disorders, alcohol or drug misuse or abuse, chronic pain)
- obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or OCD spectrum disorders
- cognitive inflexibility
So what is Cognitive Flexibility?
Cognitive flexibility is a term used to describe a person’s ability to deal successfully with new situations. If we expect to navigate life’s transitions successfully, learning how to shift rapidly and gracefully to adapt to new systems is a critical skill.
Most of life’s tasks and domains are easier for those who are adaptable, but there are many situations in life where cognitive flexibility is essential.
Starting a new marriage, a new relationship or a new job, changing schools (or changing classes) requires those involved to incorporate new systems.
Some people have a great deal more difficulty with change than others, even changes of the types above, that the rest of us navigate with relative ease.
Even if we aren’t crazy about the idea, most of us understand intuitively the need to be flexible in differing situations because “the rules” change.
For example, we tend to behave one way at the office, another at a football game, and still another in formalized situations like church services, funerals and weddings. As long as they are not pervasive – or deliberate – most of us can manage even sudden changes in expectations with emotional ease.
If we suddenly see our boss approaching at the football game, or if, in the middle of a spousal disagreement, unexpected guests were to ring the doorbell, most of us would be able to shift our emotional state as necessary, and practically immediately.
Those with cingulate problems are likely to remain “edgy,” however, even if only in ways that those of us who know them well can pick up. More than a few of my clients have described a feeling of “walking on eggshells” when they pick up those “edgy” signals, hoping to avoid the explosion that is likely to follow in private.
What’s going on that some of us can bob and weave with life’s ebb and flow and others can’t seem to change the channel whenever it becomes necessary or appropriate?
A channel changer in our head: the cingulate gyrus
Commonly associated with cognitive flexibility, stimulation studies have found a particular structure in the brains of mammals to be responsible for bodily responses to associated emotional sensations (pleasure, as well as fear and anxiety). Not surprisingly, feelings of safety and security are frequently attributed to this part of the brain.
Signals from this structure seem to help us understand how to alter behavior in a variety of situations or in different surroundings, especially of a social or cultural nature
Attribution: Thanks to Gray727; Wikipedia Commons
The cingulate gyrus is an area of the brain that is commonly associated with communication and sociability. Interestingly, it is also associated with maternal bonding. In fact, the more highly developed the cingulate gyrus, the more clearly attachment is expressed.
A brain with a highly developed cingulate gyrus is also more likely to express language. This makes sense when you consider that the cingulate gyrus is considered a part of the limbic system, in the innermost part of the brain, involved in memory, emotion, arousal, and learning.
However, the primary function of the cingulate gyrus in human beings seems to be facilitating cognitive flexibility. This is the part of the brain that allows us to adapt to change — to shift our attention from option to option, idea to idea — to go with the flow.
When functioning properly, the cingulate gyrus promotes future-oriented thinking in ways that help us organize actions to be able to attain realistic goals, helping us to continue to grow and change throughout our lives.
Cingulate gyrus dysfunction (improper functioning in this area of the brain) is not its own unique medical diagnosis, however — it becomes part of the diagnostic pattern recognized in other disorders. Improper functioning in the cingulate gyrus contributes to any number of disorders related to cognitive inflexibility.
- Instead of learning from those frustrating, embarrassing, or painful experiences that we all encounter from time to time, those with cingulate problems are more likely to get “stuck,” dwelling on the negative feelings.
- As a protective measure, an individual with an overactive cingulate gyrus tends to exhibit an emotional developmental level similar to a two-year old child, saying NO without thinking, frequently without even listening to the question.
Another Site, another explanation (and some great suggestions)
Since the Cingulate Gyrus helps us deal with thought patterns, cognitive issues such as obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders and addictions are frequently linked to this neurological component, sharing a common “stuck” quality that is indicative of overactivity in this brain structure.
Abnormal functioning in the cingulate gyrus and its related structures might have been brought on by chronic stress or trauma. Some research has indicated that this area of the brain is abnormally stimulated in individuals with characteristics of the autism spectrum.
Thanks to Coloring Drawings for the Winnie the Pooh gang
BY THE WAY: Since stimulant medication frequently used for ADD can exacerbate problems related to the cingulate gyrus, “over-focused” ADDers are often treated with antidepressant drugs.
There are other types of [non-pharmaceutical] alternatives that are frequently effective as well – so while you are waiting for the second part of this article, jump over to Doug’s ADHD Information Library to take a look at what he has put together about “over-focus” (the page includes a video by ADD icon Dr. Russell Barkley).
Cowan’s site presents a well-balanced look at [non-pharmaceutical] alternatives as well as medication, so be sure to check it out.
There is helpful information in my previous article entitled ODD & Oppositional Rising, so if you haven’t read it yet, you might want to.
Meanwhile, stay tuned. In the next part of this article I am going to include some client stories that may sound all too familiar to some of you who are still struggling in ways that they have learned to manage.
As always, if you want notification of new articles in this series – or any new posts on this blog – give your name and email to the nice form on the top of the skinny column to the right.
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Related articles here on ADDandSoMuchMore
- ABOUT ADD Comorbidities – Comorbid or Co-occuring?
- ADD Seldom Rides Alone
- Trouble with Transitions
- ABOUT ADD and Sleep Struggles
- Differential Diagnosis – distinguishing ADD from Comorbidities
- Remembrance of Selves Past
- Amen Clinic’s ADD Overview
- ADHD Information Library: Over Focused ADD
- Study: Many With ADHD Can’t Control Emotions (inkarasworld.com)
- Brain Imaging in PTSD: Part II (brainposts.blogspot.com)
- Adding Letters To The Alphabet Soup (littlefallofrain.wordpress.com)
- Help For The ADHD Mom & Child (kidsincowtown.wordpress.com)
- Is It Lying or Is It ADHD? (rakadd.wordpress.com)
- Nevada Equine Assisted Therapy (sucessfuleducationforfosterchildren.wordpress.com)
- Selections: Reason or Emotions… (theaaroncraig.com)
- Conservatives And Liberals Have Different Brains (CBSNews.com)
- Sharp as a Tack at 90: Here’s Why (nlm.nih.gov)
- When it comes to competition, the anterior cingulate does it best. (blogs.scientificamerican.com)
- The Anterior Cingulate: a Cortex in Competition (madinamerica.com)