Thinking Slowly

Morten L. Kringelbach, Anthony R. McIntosh, Petra Ritter, Viktor K. Jirsa, and Gustavo Deco, ‘The Rediscovery of Slowness: Exploring the Timing of Cognition’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 19 (2015), 615-28.

I am not going to make another quip about my promise to pursue the topic of impulsivity when actually I am writing about something very different.
      Kringlebach et al. pursue the thought that, since the brain does not appear to be optimally quick in the way it performs some tasks, it’s a reasonable evolutionary assumption that it might be optimally slow instead. Healthy brains, they argue, might need to take their time. OK, so perhaps I am writing about impulsivity, but from another oblique angle.
      They draw on findings in ‘advanced whole-brain computational modeling’ to back up anecdotal and literary suggestions that slowness is special. In my post on Milton’s poem ‘Il Penseroso’ (here) you can find one of the examples I would put forward. The neuroscientific contribution comes from an interest in timing rather than ‘static spatial correlation’. (For those new to this, I set up the basic fMRI / MEG distinction here.)
      The concept of ‘metastability’ is crucial to the whole argument, and I have been finding it a very interesting concept to think with, identify, and corroborate in literature. Metastability means: ‘a state falling outside the natural equilibrium state of the system but persisting for an extended period of time’. Apparently ‘the healthy human brain is maximally metastable, which leads to a natural slowness of task-related cognition’. I think this means that our thinking has a tendency to settle into fixed states which don’t feed back efficiently into the needs of the whole cognitive system.
      One facet of this is a ‘critical slowing down’ at the point of transition or bifurcation between brain states, in both rats and humans. I think what’s meant here is that we are good at achieving this ‘metastability’ in one mode of thought, and good at retaining it (i.e., bad at relinquishing it) when a transition is offered or called for.
      One aspiration is to reclaim slowness and move from there into a fuller understanding of mental health. I suppose that an implicit presumption that cognition should be centralised and tuned for maximum speed might affect the way we understand many mental illnesses. Another is to offer more understanding of ‘how slowness can help us deal with what may feel like an ever-accelerating pace of life’. And indeed… ‘by learning to optimally balance fast and slow processes in the maximally metastable brain, we may be able to extend the “now” into the “long now”’. So it ends up with something that sounds like Mindfulness (they call it ‘a Zen-like perspective’).
      Back to metastability. In the next post I am going to discuss a couple of passages in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that, I think, create a literary version of ‘metastability’ (or something like it). The idea will be that there are indeed moments where a certain tone or genre establishes itself and proves hard to shift. Conceivably such moments – a compelling speech, a touch of comedy, a philosophical digression, a vivid description – give us an experience of the sort of slowed transition described by Kringlebach et al. It’s not just digression, then, it’s a mirror of the way our minds may work, capable of settling into marginal states.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

2 thoughts on “Thinking Slowly

  1. Jo

    You have misunderstood what metastability is. On the contrary, metastability means that the brain never settles into a fixed state. Its thought to allow for flexibility of thought.

    1. Raphael Post author

      Thanks for this. Looking back at this post, I think my use of ‘fixed’ looks like an overstatement, though I would prefer not to think of it as a total misunderstanding. The article I refer to by Kringelbach et al. defines metastability like this: ‘in dynamical systems this refers to a state which falls outside the natural equilibrium state of the system but persists for an extended period of time’. They are using the idea to account for ‘slow’ aspects of our mental processes. Persistence, and slow transitions, are not the same as fixed, but they’re still interesting to me. One problem I see now is that I don’t think I know what’s meant by ‘the natural equilibrium state of the system’; perhaps that doesn’t really apply, in the brain.

      I looked at one of the papers they cite (Tognoli and Kelso, ‘The Metastable Brain’, Neuron, 2014) and found another way of thinking about it. They are definitely not talking about something fixed: ‘Metastability offers scientific grounds for how cognitive processes come and go fluidly as the brain expresses both an interactive integrative dynamic and an individualistic segregative dynamic’. They’re stressing fluidity here, rather than the slowness of Kringelbach et al.; there may be a lot to say about these fluid dynamics, sometimes smoother than others. They go on… ‘Metastable coordination dynamics is more in tune with William James’s beautiful metaphor [from The Principles of Psychology, 1890] of the stream of consciousness as the flight of a bird whose life journey consists of “perchings” (phase gathering, integrative tendencies) and “flights” (phase scattering, segregative tendencies). Both tendencies appear to be crucial for a dynamic brain in action.’

      So, to persistence, and slowness of transitions, I will add ‘perchings’ if I ever come back to the literary versions of ‘metastability’ that I tried out.


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