October 16, 2009

The Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex

Posted in Pfc tyranny: overview tagged at 12:46 am by Jeremy

Our civilization is changing the climate of our planet.  People kill themselves and others in the name of God.  Species are going extinct at a rate not seen for 65 million years.  A billion wretched people go hungry each day though their ancestors lived fulfilling lives.  Our society makes astonishing advances in technology – yet our world seems to be careening out of control at an ever faster pace.  You and I feel strangely disconnected from it all and from ourselves.  We all agree that we spend most of our time under constant stress – but for the most part, we adapt to it all and continue living our lives as though everything’s normal.

What connects all of these seemingly unrelated phenomena of our modern world?  This blog suggests there is an overriding dynamic driving all these imbalances in our lives.  It’s so all-encompassing, so fundamental to how we think and conduct our lives that we don’t even recognize its existence.  And yet it’s responsible for making each of us, and our world, what we are today.  It’s what I call the tyranny of the prefrontal cortex over all other aspects of our consciousness.  Acknowledging this tyranny and understanding its dynamic is the first necessary step toward achieving re-harmonization within our individual and collective consciousness.

prefrontal cortex

The prefrontal cortex in the human brain

The prefrontal cortex (or “pfc”) is that part of our brain that’s primarily responsible for our thinking and acting in ways that differentiate us from all other animals.  It mediates our ability to plan, conceptualize, symbolize, make rules, abstract ideas, and impose meaning on things.  It controls our physiological drives and turns our basic feelings into complex emotions.  It enables us to be aware of ourselves and others as separately existing, and to turn the past and the future into one flowing narrative.

Figure 1: Pfc as % of totalcortex in different mammals[1]
Mammal Pfc as % of total cortex
Human 29%
Chimpanzee 17%
Gibbon 11%
Lemur 8%
Dog 7%
Cat 3%

Think of whatever we do that animals don’t do.  That’s the pfc functioning – what may be called our conceptual consciousness.  Then think of what we share with other creatures: hunger, sexual urges, pain, aggression, desire for warmth, caring for our offspring –let’s call that our animate consciousness.  While many of the pfc capabilities exist to some degree in other creatures – chimpanzees, dolphins and parrots, for example – their predominance in humans is overwhelmingly different in scope and magnitude, accounting largely for our current domination of the natural world. (See Figure 1).

The pfc is the most connected part of the brain, linking directly or indirectly to all parts of our animate consciousness – those areas responsible for our sensations, memories, internal metabolism.  For this reason, many neuroscientists refer to the pfc as our “executive function”.  Like the CEO of a corporation or president of a nation, the pfc is seen as getting information, processing it and sending out commands.

The pfc is an essential part – perhaps the essential part – of what makes us human.  But I’m suggesting that, over the last few thousand years, the pfc has staged a coup in our collective (and individual) consciousness.  It’s no longer like a democratically elected president.  Instead, it’s become a tyrant within our own minds, taking such control of our consciousness that we’re hardly even aware that there are other ways to be.

The pfc has barely, if at all, changed from an evolutionary perspective since at least Upper Paleolithic times, forty thousand years ago.  The coup that I’m referring to came about from the impact of human culture on the developing mind of each individual.  To understand this coup, we need to trace the growth in the pfc’s power through history – all the way back to our prehistory.

In future postings on this blog, I’m going to ask you to join me on a brief tour of the archaeology of the human mind.  We’re going to see how the pfc has created a conception of the universe in its own image and has even caused us to identify our own existence with it, thinking of other parts of our mind and body as separate from us, owned by us and managed by us.

We’ll see how this has led to an individual and a societal imbalance, and in a sister-blog entitled Finding the Li, we’ll explore some possible ways to mitigate the pfc’s tyranny – to attempt to move towards a democracy of consciousness.

[Interested but not convinced?  Click here for a more detailed analysis of philosophical and conceptual issues around the “tyranny of the pfc” metaphor.]

Click here for an in-depth exploration of these topics in the book I’m writing called Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness.

[1] Deacon, T.W., (1997). The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. New York: Norton.




  1. Excellent article, very intriguing work.

    Could you point me to any anthropological work that provides an estimate for when prefrontal cortex development began for homosapiens?

    Thank you,

    Martin J. Clemens

    P.s. Your site has been bookmarked.

  2. jeremylent said,

    Thanks for the feedback, Martin.

    The best book on the pfc’s role in human development, in my view, is “The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain” by Terrence Deacon.

    A nice, accessible book describing the social implications of the pfc’s “executive function” is “The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind” by Elkhonon Goldberg.

    Finally, a good anthropology paper on the subject is “Executive Functions of the Frontal Lobes and the Evolutionary Ascendancy of Homo Sapiens” by
    Frederick L. Coolidge & Thomas Wynn in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal 11:2 (2001), 255–60.

    Hope you find them interesting.

  3. Kfouri said,

    That’s a clever idea: bold, simple, and profound, but the idea in itself is tyranic, because , i think, it ignores the co-evolutionay and online-orchestrated and co-dependent flow of events, outside and inside our brains, down to those billion and busy neurons and up to people in the world at large. Surely you have a point, so where is the specific limiting force of your theory-argument?
    We have the fuzzy-enough concept of “control”. “It controls physiological drives…” That seems a bit monadological when something more ‘interactional’ is going on: on a nervous-system basis or level it seems to be the “controlling element ” but at a ‘society-of-brains’ level it’s emergence upgraded the speed and specificity-capacity (“exactness”) of human communication and has enlarged our “cultural working-memory” capacity to undreamt of levels, with the collateral effect of opening each brain (pfc inclunded) to a high degree of very specific “control” – through learned (invisible) control mainly, whose source ou location is anywhere and everywhere,ambiguous at a maximum level, because we are on a flow of continuing interacting parts that co-controls themselves.
    We can define the controlling/controlled systems in the following way: they interact in a assymetrical way: the controlled part is more “caused” or non-randomly dependent on the other part then it “causes” the other.
    But then there is a catch: the more we learn about the interacting parts less random their interactional functions seems to be and more difficult it becomes to tell who controls and who is controlled. Then we must sum another concept to the this play: the concept of “virtual entropy” of a system: the degree to which a system fulfills it’s desires or efficiently organizes itself to accomplish its “will”, something that is never fully granted or complete (humanity always creates ripples in the event-space-time continuum) because we always create new desires or even “desire to desire” (taedium).
    In this sense what can we say about the “tyranny of the pfc”?
    That if it is real it is always a half-truth, what entails that maybe we live in “the kingdom of the pfc”.

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