February 12, 2010

What does “the tyranny of the prefrontal cortex” really mean? A detailed critique.

Posted in Pfc tyranny: overview tagged , , , , , at 3:26 pm by Jeremy

Throughout this blog, I make the argument that in our modern society we are experiencing a tyranny of the prefrontal cortex (pfc) over other aspects of our consciousness.  Some people have a hard time swallowing this argument, for a number of reasons.  So I’ve written this post for anyone who’s interested enough to read further, but who’s feeling skeptical about what I’m suggesting.

[If you’re not familiar with my blog, please click here for an introduction to my theme, and then click back to this post for more detail.]

How could the prefrontal cortex really be a tyrant?

First, what do I mean by “tyranny”?  I’m suggesting that the unique evolutionary expansion of the pfc in the human brain, combined with the dynamics of culture (itself a product of pfc activity) has created a positive feedback loop leading to an imbalance within the human psyche, both collectively and individually.  Collectively, this imbalance manifests in the extreme characteristics of our global society, such as our unsustainable use of natural resources to fuel exponentially accelerating material growth.  Individually, this tyranny refers to our unreflective absorption of fundamental values that prioritize pfc-mediated attributes at the expense of other aspects of our humanity.  I believe that this dynamic is the ultimate source of a large part of the social and individual discontent we all experience on a daily basis.

This entire blog is dedicated to explaining and providing the evidence for this argument.  The rest of this post, however, raises some fundamental and reasonable objections to my use of the phrase “tyranny of the pfc” to describe this dynamic, and attempts to answer them.

Please feel free to leave comments below if you find yourself with objections to my approach that remain unanswered.

“How can you refer to the pfc as a ‘tyrant’ when it’s just a part of our brain?”

This is a great place to begin.  Back in 2003, neuroscientist M.R. Bennett and philosopher P.M.S. Hacker teamed up to accuse many other neuroscientists of committing what they called the “mereological fallacy in neuroscience.”[1] This, they explained, is the fallacy of ascribing human attributes like thinking, believing, understanding, etc., to the human brain, when these attributes can only reasonably be applied to the complete human being.  “Only a human being,” they write, “can intelligibly and literally be said to see or be blind, hear or be deaf, ask questions or refrain from asking.”  It’s called the “mereological” fallacy because mereology is the study of relations between parts and wholes.

So, clearly, accusing the pfc of tyranny falls foul of the mereological fallacy?  The pfc can’t act like a tyrant.  Only a person can.  Well, that’s true to the extent that a tyranny literally means rule by a tyrant.  But, as Merriam-Webster tells us, a tyranny can also refer to “a rigorous condition imposed by some outside agency or force,” such as in the phrase “living under the tyranny of the clock.”  That’s the way in which I’m using the word.  There’s one definition of tyranny that I came across (unfortunately I can no longer find its source) which captures well what I’m describing.  It goes as follows:

Excessive control wrested by one particular agent disrupting a previous balance, in which power is maintained and used for the benefit of the controlling agent to the potential detriment of the group(s) being tyrannized.

So, when I refer to the pfc’s imbalance as a tyranny, I mean that there’s been a shift in power within our individual and collective consciousness, and the predominant pfc-mediated values that have arisen in our global society, as a result of this imbalance, work to the detriment of other aspects of our humanity.

The pfc is more frequently viewed as our benign chief executive.

By the way, this “mereological fallacy” is pervasive throughout neuroscientific thought, especially when applied to the pfc.  Usually, though, the pfc is referred to in more benign terms as our “chief executive” rather than our tyrant.  For example, in his book on the prefrontal cortex, neuroscientist Elkhonon Goldberg refers to:

…the frontal lobes as the brain’s CEO, capable of taking ‘an aerial view’ of all the other functions of the brain and coordinating them; the frontal lobes as the brain’s conductor, coordinating the thousand instruments in the brain’s orchestra.  But above all, the frontal lobes as the brain’s leader, leading the individual into the novelty, the innovations, the adventures of life.[2]

I think that everything Goldberg says about the pfc here makes sense (if you can accept the mereological fallacy).  The difference is: I argue that in Western civilization over the past two thousand years, our “leader” has taken inordinate control, and this leadership might now be viewed more accurately as a tyranny.

“But why should we even use a political metaphor in the first place to describe the workings of the human brain?”

Using a political metaphor in describing our human cognitive process is part of an old tradition that linguistic philosophers Lakoff & Johnson refer to as the “society of mind” metaphor.  Here’s how they describe it:

The Society of Mind metaphor is basic to faculty psychology.  In the metaphor, the mind is conceptualized as a society whose members perform distinct, nonoverlapping tasks necessary for the successful functioning of that society.  The capacities of the mind are thereby conceptualized as autonomous, individual people, each with a different job and each with a distinct, appropriate personality.[3]

They then go on to describe in detail the “folk model of faculty psychology” composed of “individual people, each with a different job and each with a distinct, appropriate personality.”  For example, Feeling is “undisciplined, volatile, and sometimes out of control.”  Reason “has good judgment, is cool, controlled, wise, and utterly reliable.”  Will “is the only person in the society who can move the body to action.”  They note that, “after several hundred years, a version of this folk theory of the mind is still influential in philosophy of mind, as well as in the various cognitive sciences.”

In support of this claim, three leading cognitive scientists (Varela, Thompson & Rosch) strongly defend the “model of the mind as a society of numerous agents,” arguing that:

… the overall picture of mind not as a unified, homogenous entity, nor even as a collection of entities, but rather as a disunified, heterogeneous collection of networks of processes seems not only attractive but also strongly resonant with the experience accumulated in all the fields of cognitive science.[4]

So in this blog, I’m taking a model used by others, but turning it around somewhat, arguing that these friendly old characters like Reason and Will may actually be agents of a force that’s become tyrannical, and that perhaps some of the other folk, like Feeling, may be have been unfairly tarnished by the tyrant’s propaganda.

In fact, I’ve come to believe that the “society of mind” metaphor may have run its useful course, and that as our understanding of consciousness reaches a new level of sophistication, there may be far more helpful metaphors to use, such as “music”, in describing the workings of human cognition.  I offer this approach in my other blog, called Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness.

“You can’t localize any significant brain function in one place, like the pfc.  All major brain functions are highly distributed.  This is like positing the pfc as a ‘homunculus,’ an idea that’s been discredited in neuroscience.”

Don’t look for a homunculus in the brain. There isn’t one.

I agree with the fact that all major brain functions are highly distributed.  And it’s wrong to attribute “intelligence” or “agency” to any one part of the brain, including the pfc.  However, it’s equally apparent from neuroscience that certain parts of the brain are necessary (but not sufficient) for enabling a particular function.  Obvious examples are Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas for language; the visual cortex for sight; amygdala for fear responses, etc.  There is a vast body of evidence from the past twenty years of neuro-imaging that the pfc is responsible for mediating symbolic meaning, among its other functions.  And it’s this symbolizing function of the pfc that I believe has led to its tyranny.

Here’s how anthropologist/neuroscientist Terrence Deacon describes the evolutionary process:

The prominent enlargement of prefrontal cortex and the correlated shifts in connection patterns that occurred during human brain evolution … gave human prefrontal circuits a greater role in many neural processes unrelated to language.

… prefrontal overdevelopment has made us all savants of language and symbolic learning… We tend to apply our one favored cognitive style to everything… we cannot help but see the world in symbolic categorical terms, dividing it up according to opposed features, and organizing our lives according to themes and narratives…  We find pleasure in manipulating the world so that it fits into a symbolic Procrustean[5] bed, and when it does fit and seems to obey symbolic rules, we find the result comforting, even beautiful.[6]

“Your separation of conceptual consciousness (pfc-mediated) from animate consciousness makes no sense.  Brain processes are all integrated and embodied.  There is no separate conceptual consciousness.”

On a neurophysiological basis, this is absolutely true.  I’m not suggesting that there are separate neural pathways for conceptual consciousness.  But most sophisticated analyses of consciousness distinguish primary consciousness (which we share with other animals) from secondary consciousness, which is uniquely human (with the possible exception, to a very limited degree, of chimps and bonobos.)    Here’s how neuroscientist Gerald Edelman describes the distinction:

In animals with primary consciousness, the self that emerges and serves as a reference is not self-conscious. Only with the flowering of higher-order consciousness and linguistic capabilities does a self arise that is nameable to itself…

[H]igher order consciousness… is dependent on the emergence of semantic capabilities and, ultimately, of language… [W]e can, through symbolic exchange and higher-order consciousness, create narratives, fictions, and histories.  We can ask questions about how we can know and thereby deliver our selves to the doorstep of philosophy.[7]

When I’m describing conceptual consciousness, I’m referring to the exclusively human attributes of what Edelman calls our “higher order consciousness.”

“So how can that be a bad thing?  In describing a ‘tyranny of the pfc,’ aren’t you criticizing the very essence of what makes us human?”

Criticizing the prefrontal cortex is as nonsensical as criticizing the heart or the liver.  It’s a fundamental part of our existence and, as we’ve seen above, is probably the most significant part of our anatomy that distinguishes us from other animals.

Most people who study the pfc end up marveling at its awesome creative power.  Goldberg proposes that “without the great development of the frontal lobes in the human brain … civilization could never have arisen.”[8] I wholeheartedly agree with him.  The prominent neuroscientist Antonio Damasio describes the “admirable” and “sublime” operations of the pfc in providing us the mechanisms for “consciousness, reasoned deliberation, and willpower.”[9] I share his admiration and awe.

We are all ensnared in a web of symbols.

But I’m not criticizing the pfc.  Rather, I’m describing a dynamic that has evolved through the combined interplay of the pfc and the human culture it helped created, specifically the culture that has arisen in the Western world over the past two thousand years.  This is the dynamic that, in my view, has led to a tyranny, to an imbalance in our individual psyches and in our society that is both harmful and unsustainable.  As Terrence Deacon puts it:

… the symbolic universe has ensnared us in an inescapable web… and now by virtue of the irresistible urge it has instilled in us to turn everything we encounter and everyone we meet into symbols, we have become the means by which it unceremoniously propagates itself throughout the world…

[T]he invention of durable icons… was the beginning of a new phase of cultural evolution – one that is much more independent of individual human brains and speech, and one that has led to a modern runaway process which may very well prove to be unsustainable into the distant future.[10]

That’s the “tyranny” that I’ll be tracking in the rest of this blog.

“OK.  But I still don’t get it.  Neuroscience is one thing.  Human history is something quite different.  How can you meaningfully analyze history in terms of a neurological function, even one as pervasive as the pfc?”

In this blog, I’ll be attempting to construct what I call a “cognitive history” of human cultural evolution.  This is something that I believe is fairly ground-breaking, but not unique.  For example, psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist has recently published a book called The Master and his Emissary, which traces the development of Western philosophy, art and literature in terms of conflict between the right and left hemispheres of the brain.[11]

It’s an approach which would hopefully go some way to answering the call of prominent anthropologist Bruce Trigger, who believes that the study of human behavior needs to be driven more by a biological, neuroscience component, and who writes:

What is needed is a better understanding, derived from psychology and neuroscience, of how the human brain shapes understanding and influences behavior… Evolution, both biological and cultural, is a process that adapts humans with specific but as yet poorly understood biological, social, and psychological predispositions and needs to the natural and social environment in which they live…Social and cultural phenomena have their own emergent properties and cannot wholly be explained in psychological or biological terms.  Yet neither can human behavior or the nature of society and culture be understood without judiciously taking account of the findings of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience.[12]

I believe that looking at human history within the framework of the ever-increasing domination of the pfc’s functionality permits us to distinguish key stages of human development – language, agriculture, dualism, scientific method –through which we can trace the dynamics of our current civilization from a cognitive historical perspective.  It can allow us to see where Western thought diverged from other thought traditions, such as the one that evolved in East Asia.  It can identify foundational concepts, such as “truth” or “progress”, which we take for granted in today’s world, as products of a unique Western set of values. Finally, I believe that such an approach also leads the way to perceiving what we can do as individuals to undo some of the pfc’s tyranny and work towards what I call a “democracy of consciousness.”  This is something that I explore in more detail in my sister blog, Finding the Li.

So, if you’ve read this far, please browse the blog and enjoy, and don’t hesitate to leave any comments below if you’re still not convinced!


[1] M. R. Bennett, P. M. S. Hacker (2003).  Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience, Blackwell Publishing, pp. 68-73.

[2] Goldberg, E. (2001). The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind, New York: Oxford University Press, ix.

[3] Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, New York: Basic Books, 410.

[4] Varela, F. J., Thompson, E., and Rosch, E. (1993). The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

[5] Procrustean: Producing or designed to produce strict conformity by ruthless or arbitrary means – American Heritage Dictionary

[6] Deacon, T. W. (1997). The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain, New York: Norton, 416-17.

[7] Edelman, G. M. (2003). “Naturalizing consciousness: A theoretical framework.” PNAS, 100(9), 5520-5524 and Edelman, G. M., and Tononi, G. (2000). A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination, New York: Basic Books.

[8] Goldberg, op. cit., ix.

[9] Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, New York: Penguin Books, 123-4.

[10] Deacon, op. cit., 436, 375.

[11] McGilchrist, I. (2009).  The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. London: Yale University Press.

[12] Trigger, B. G. (2003). Understanding Early Civilizations, New York: Cambridge University Press, 686-7.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] but not convinced?  Click here for a more detailed analysis of philosophical and conceptual issues around the "tyranny of the pfc" metaphor.] [1] Deacon, T.W., (1997). The Symbolic Species: The […]


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