When we are really in the moment, focused, stray thoughts are no more and the ceaseless chatter of our inner voice has stopped we are experiencing temporal hypo-frontality.

Summary by The World of Work Project

Temporal Hypo-Frontality

As we know, our brain is a complex system with many different parts to it. In our brain, our frontal lobes (pre-frontal cortex) are responsible for a lot of our systematic thinking, logical planning and decision making.

This part of the brain churns through data, analyses situations, looks for patterns, plans future strategies and generally chatters away in our heads as we work through the myriad of challenges, problems and opportunities our lives are all always full of. And this can be a bit of a drain, if we’re honest. It’s like we’ve got a non-stop chatter-box in our heads working on all kinds of hypothetical things, sometimes in a frantic and random way.

“What should I make the kids for dinner tonight? Do I need to go to the supermarket? How will we make time to visit our friends this weekend? Will those deliveries turn up today, I really need them. Things aren’t great with my mother, I wonder if she’d be better in a care home”.

And so on. It can be exhausting, distracting and unhelpful.

Sometimes though, we find ourselves in a situation where these thoughts are all silent. Where instead we are fully focussed on what we are doing. We might be in flow, in the zone, in the moment, mindful, fully present or lost in meditation. In these moments what we are experiencing is temporal hypo-frontality.

Specifically what we’re experiencing is a temporary reduction in the use of our frontal lobes (and blood flow to our frontal lobes), which is exactly what temporal hypo-frontality means.

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Achieving Temporal Hypo-Frontality

A lot of the research on temporal hypo-frontality as explored exercise. Dr. Arne Dietrich has suggested that some types of exercise actually “force” the brain to re-prioritize the way it uses energy. For example, when people are running long distances and using their bodies continuously, the brain may significantly slow down the pre-frontal cortex, reserving energy for implicit parts of the brain. This is one hypothesis as to the origins of “the runners high”.

However, exercise isn’t the only way to achieve temporal hypo-frontality. The argument has been made that the state of “flow” (where one is fully immersed in a specific activity and looses sense of time etc) is another form of temporal hypo-frontality. In flow, it’s almost as if we become so focused and engaged in a specific task that there is simply no capacity left for our frontal-lobes to interject into our minds. Though the process is different, flow gives us temporary respite from our wandering thoughts.

And there is another way we can achieve this respite too. The argument has been made that mediation can lead us into states of temporal hypo-frontality. However unlike exercise (which shifts our brain’s focus to our implicit systems) and flow (which overwhelms our brains so there is no space for distraction), meditation quiets our brain’s thoughts by acknowledging and dismissing them as they arrive, or preventing them from arriving by focusing on a specific thought, object or feeling.

Benefits of Temporal Hypo-Frontality

Flow, meditation and exercise have all been shown to lead to lasting improvements in personal happiness over time. There is something about being fully present and in the moment that helps us have happier existences. And it really seems to be the case that it’s easier to be in those moments of presence when we manage to (temporarily) shut down the chattering tyrant that is our prefrontal-cortex.

Those of you who have experienced a “runner’s high” will know that it can be a powerful thing. In those moments we can develop a real sense of eudaimonia, a sense that we’re being used for what we’re designed for, that we’re fulfilling our purpose as beings. Similar feelings can be found in the depths of meditation and in the connected, liquid and directed state of flow when we’re fully absorbed in what we’re doing.

The World of Work Project View

We’re not neuroscientists, so don’t really understand what is going on here in any type of biological way. But as humans who have been alive for decades we can fully relate to how these moments of temporal hypo-frontality feel, be they derived from exercise, flow or mediation.

In these moments of true presence, of quieting these inner thoughts, we’ve derived pure contentment.  As we look to constantly grow our own levels of contentment throughout our lives, we strive more more temporal hypo-frontality. We know it makes us happier in the round.

However, at the same time, there’s something we find uncomfortable about it. Because, in these moments of  true presence, while we are fully content, we also lose our sense of time. The moments are rich while we are in them, but flow past too quickly for us to be able to grab onto and revel in. So while we seek and enjoy them, we feel they may hasten life too much. 

So as with all things, it may be a question of balance. You might really be able to have too much of a good thing, particularly if that good thing makes life fly past.

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The information here is based on work by David Dunning and Justin Kruger. You can read more on this subject in the article: “The Dunning-Kruger effect: On being ignorant of one’s own ignorance”. 

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