Three Longs & Three Shorts

Why Making Our Brains Noisier Feels Good

There is no doubt growing awareness of mental health issues, accentuated by the onset of the pandemic. As a result, the world is also learning more about the possible cures for chronic depression and anxiety. In last week’s 3L&3S we featured a piece highlighting the overuse of anti-depressants when simple aerobic activity could help equally well. This piece in the Nautilus highlights further research against the use of anti-depressants in a somewhat counter-intuitive way. Simply put, the anti-depressants were understood to control the ‘noise’ or random fluctuations in our brain. New research suggests what was hitherto considered ‘noise’ isn’t random indeed but show patterns which instead of being suppressed by anti-depressants if accentuated can help patients with mental health issues. In someways, this research adds to the chorus advocating the decriminalisation of psychedelics, such as the psilocybin (found in “magic mushrooms.”) which supposedly helps ‘amplify’ this noise in our brains.
“Neuroscientists have known about spontaneous fluctuations since the 1930s but never knew what to make of them. Researchers chalked the phenomenon up to “random background noise” and proceeded to focus on coding the more easily testable 2 to 3 percent of conscious brain activity, but now they recognize that cognitive fluctuations play a much more significant role and that their patterns aren’t random.6 In Consciousness and the Brain, French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene writes that “neurons not only tolerate noise but even amplify it.” Neurons work by amplifying cognitive fluctuations and even harness their noisiness to help generate novel solutions to complex problems. Cognitive fluctuations may be drawing us nearer to a paradigm shift where “noise is the new signal.”
Brain frequencies are how fast certain groups of neurons fire together. The frequencies of cognitive fluctuations form patterns that become “cross-coupled” into higher frequencies, around the beta (12 to 30 hertz) to gamma (30 to 180 hertz) range. As the slower waves, from infraslow (0.0001–0.1 Hertz) to theta (5 to 8 hertz), continually nest into faster ones and spread like an avalanche across various areas of the brain, we become aware that we are aware or “conscious.” That is, our thoughts are the results of syncopated patterns of noise that emerge like eddies from a turbulent stream.
For instance, if someone flashes an image on a screen in front of us for only 40 milliseconds, we will not consciously see it due to the frequency and propagation rate of conscious thought. If the image lasts 60 milliseconds, however, we will consciously see it. This is because there is time for these nested frequencies to spread out and become aware of the image. According to the neuroscientist and philosopher Georg Northoff, at the University of Ottawa, these cross-coupled frequencies eventually create metastable states of conscious awareness.
The study of these cognitive fluctuations is leading researchers to approach mental health treatment in new ways. Instead of trying to reduce spontaneous fluctuations with antidepressants, they are trying to increase them. This is counter-intuitive because spontaneous fluctuations and mind-wandering can also lead to depressive rumination and anxiety. The flux theory, however, is that these negative habits of thought can be disrupted by flooding the brain with spontaneous fluctuations. The disturbance loosens things up and allows us to change old habits.
If Northoff and Carhart-Harris are right, amplifying the noise might change our minds like shaking a snow-globe changes snow distribution. This is a good thing—such a good thing, in fact, that it is leading to some incredible breakthroughs in mental health science. Rolland Griffiths and Stephen Ross, at the NYU Langone Center of Excellence on Addiction, for example, gave 80 patients with life-threatening cancer in Baltimore and New York City psilocybin. More than three-quarters reported significant relief from depression and anxiety related to their fear of dying. These improvements remained even six months after the treatment and were related to the amplification of spontaneous fluctuations. Ross told Scientific American, “It is simply unprecedented in psychiatry that a single dose of a medicine produces these kinds of dramatic and enduring results.””