Israeli researchers discover moods, sensory inputs connected

A team of researchers at Bar-Ilan and Tel Aviv universities suggest that changing states of mind is far more important than our personalities for determining our behavior.

PROF. TALMA HENDLER, founding director of the Sagol Brain Institute in Tel Aviv, examines a patient with the hospital’s groundbreaking brain imaging technology (photo credit: SOURASKY MEDICAL CENTER)
PROF. TALMA HENDLER, founding director of the Sagol Brain Institute in Tel Aviv, examines a patient with the hospital’s groundbreaking brain imaging technology
The way we perceive the world, what we focus our attention on, our thoughts, moods, and sensory inputs are all directly related to one another, meaning that a change in one will affect all the others, a team of researchers at Bar-Ilan university has suggested. Their model proposes that these changing states of mind are holistic, a hypothesis which opens up new horizons for understanding how the human mind works.
Prof. Moshe Bar, a neuroscientist at the Gonda (Goldschmied) Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center at Bar-Ilan University (BIU), together with Noa Herz of Tel Aviv University, and Shira Baror of BIU presented their theory on Thursday in a study published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences. In it, they propose that thoughts, feelings and senses interact to create an overall state of mind (SoM) which is interlinked like a network, and that shifting one factor will shift all the others.
If correct, their model suggests that the effects of personality are markedly less fixed than previously thought. For example, a theory which proposed that personality traits govern behavior would predict that someone who is rated high in "open to experience" on the Big Five personality scale is always more likely to be inquisitive when faced with a new situation or task. The SoM model, on the other hand, suggests that the same person may at times be more or less willing to be inquisitive, depending on whether they were happy or feeling depressed. 
Bar and his team have identified five major variables which work together: Perception, Attention, Thought, Openness to experience, and Affect, all of which exist on a sliding scale.
Dimensions of State of Mind (SoM) (photo: courtesy)Dimensions of State of Mind (SoM) (photo: courtesy)
One end of the scale, labelled Bottom Up (BU) by the researchers, is characterized by broad, creative thinking, an openness to sensory information and global inputs, a willingness to explore new situations, and a positive mood.
The other end of the scale, labelled Top Down (TD) by researchers, is conversely characterized by learned information or previous experiences over-ruling sensory input, focused attention, more detailed thinking, utilization of tools or benefits that a situation offers, and negative moods.
Shifting one variable along its scale will pull the others with it, moving the person more toward either a Bottom Up or Top Down State of Mind. As both of these states are useful, depending on the circumstances, understanding how the variables interact can help people to match their SoM to their situation.
"Just like our pupils can dilate to best match a specific amount of light, our entire mind can change depending on task and context," said Bar.
For example, a computer programmer might be focused on a task such as developing an algorithm which relies on attention to detail, the use of previously learned information, and narrowed associative thinking. But if the task suddenly shifts to require more creative, broader thinking, he can realign his state of mind by engaging in tasks which foster a more bottom up state of mind.
"The optimal state of mind is one that best fits a particular context," Bar explained. "Because our mood, breadth of thought, and scope of attention are inter-linked, changing one changes the others accordingly. Since the brain can easily switch from one state to another, understanding that we can adapt our state of mind to a particular situation can prove quite beneficial – and might just lead to a healthier state of mind."
The model also has implications for the treatment of certain mental health conditions such as depression, whereby a drop in mood is linked to increasingly narrow, insular thinking, setting up a feedback loop which lowers the mood further. According to the researchers, treatments such as learning to use mindfulness techniques can break this loop as they increase bottom up, sensory signals at the expense of top down, thought imposing ones. This in turn shifts the person's whole framework toward the broader end of the spectrum, thereby lifting the person's mood.
"Although previous [theories] argued for some of the interdependencies proposed under the SoM framework, the current framework defines SoM in an overarching manner to include all facets of our mental life: cognitive, emotional and behavioral, as well as proposing a unifying neural mechanism for aligning them together," the researchers wrote.
They acknowledge that further study into the interdependencies may reveal that they are not as linked as thought. This is particularly true regarding a person's mood, which seems less directly related because, in the short term, both bottom up and top down processes can lead to similar moods.
However, given that the theory has the potential to help people optimize their state of mind according to the task at hand and their emotional well-being – and that it can offer a useful framework for better understanding a range of common psychiatric disorders – the researchers recommend further research into the theory in both brain science and in clinical fields.
The research was supported by a grant from the Israel Science Foundation and the Sagol Family.