I have written about “the conductor,” a mental construct useful for shifting perspective. The conductor likely has major neural components in a network of areas in the brain: the default mode network, the salience network, and the executive network.
In this column, I will focus on the default mode network and its link to the insular cortex. I believe possibilities for improving outcomes for Parkinson’s patients lie here.
Damage to the default mode network has been noted for Parkinson’s patients. The default mode network is connected to the insular cortex. The insular cortex acts as a switching gate between the default mode network, the salience network, and the executive network. Switching performed by the insular cortex allows sensory input to be evaluated by the desired network. The analogy would be a train that engineers direct down specific tracks to get to the right station — or to avoid hitting other trains! “Hitting a train” equates to us feeling overwhelmed.
Parkinson’s causes damage to the insular cortex. I propose here that damage to the insular cortex, particularly the anterior portion, causes faulty sensory input. Continually using this faulty input will, over time, result in new (but inaccurate) patterns of thoughts, feelings, and actions. These are the lies our brains tell us, which jeopardize our already difficult life with Parkinson’s.
Continual faulty processing in the brain can result in the person with Parkinson’s acting differently. I first experienced this in 2014. I overreacted to a student in class, not being able to control my emotional input in that social situation. It was the first time I did this in over 20 years of teaching. I wanted an answer as to why my brain was acting in a way so contrary to my history.
There is a lot of clinical research on the default mode network. It is difficult to make sense of all the scientific and medical descriptions. Simply put, I label it “our resting mind state.” I think of it as the place where our mind wanders during creativity and brainstorming, or the pause before using the conductor to observe thinking and enter deeper meditation. It is a place where one is mentally quiet so that the mind can function without being constantly interrupted by a stream of sensory input.
I find it difficult to enter that resting mind state when my brain is being bombarded with exaggerated input. I experience this faulty input as surges of exaggerated emotion and other symptoms. We know that damage to the insular cortex affects the default mode network’s functioning. It may also explain my recurring moments of depression or anxiety that I did not have prior to Parkinson’s.
The insular cortex is considered a dopamine-producing center. Why does the brain need it? Parkinson’s patients lose dopamine constantly. I think my frequent use of the conductor helps access sources of this chemical so I can function better with Parkinson’s.
Being able to be a calm presence in social situations was always my strength. That ended with Parkinson’s. Now, I must practice calmness, with exercise, and do so throughout the day. The further the disease progresses, the harder I need to work to show up ready to find the possibility in each day.
Calming down requires daily practice in combination with exercise. I discovered a cleansing effect that combines the two. I can quiet down the insular cortex input. I can find the quiet resting mind. I have failed many times, but more importantly, I have also found that I can succeed.
As I practice quieting down that noisy input, I discovered I need to also relax my muscles. I practice a routine of stretching and massage before and after exercise and sometimes during bad off periods. When I combine this conductor/exercise training with a purposeful life guided by a sacred wellness map, I find something new emerges. I wasn’t just calmer. I was functioning better.
I believe that one of the functions of the default mode network (the conductor) is to instruct the insular cortex to dampen down the input. It buffers the sensory input. It is easier to be more productive and in control of my thinking and emotions when I use the conductor to quiet my mind. In activating this buffer, I believe I am also activating the dopamine-producing neurons. I am not just calmer. Conductor/exercise practice decreases Parkinson’s symptoms that affect quality of life.
Conductor/exercise practice may also contribute to the slow disease progression I experience. I find comfort in understanding what Parkinson’s is doing to me and what I can do to affect the negative outcomes. It is an understanding fitting the running title on my columns: “Possibilities with Parkinson’s.”
Note: Parkinson’s News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Parkinson’s News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Parkinson’s disease.
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