March 23, 2010
Big Brother’s not just watching… he’s shaping you.
Imagine you walk into a conference room for a meeting and a perfectly respectable man whispers in your ear: “Big Brother’s controlling our minds… There’s no escape: everything we’ve ever thought has been shaped by forces outside of our control.” You might be forgiven for backing away cautiously and looking around for the exit. But this is no paranoid fantasy. In fact, it’s the deeply considered opinion of some of the leading and most influential thinkers in the areas of cognitive neuroscience and anthropology.
Who is this Big Brother? And how does he control our minds? One key to answering this question lies on the cave walls of Stone Age habitations, such as those found in Lascaux in southwestern France. When our ancestors first started painting images of wild animals on those cave walls, over thirty thousand years ago, they were creating more than just pictures. They were beginning the construction of a symbolic network outside their individual consciousness which has grown over the millennia to shape our world today.
We don’t know exactly what these images meant to the original artists, but we can be sure that the meaning was understood by their fellow clan members. The symbolic meaning, which had previously been shared through mimetic communication and language, had now become fixed in an external form. And after those original artists died, their children, and their children’s children, saw these images and shared in the symbolic meaning. The original symbol lived on, even after the creators had died.
This was the birth of what cognitive anthropologist Merlin Donald has famously called External Symbolic Storage (ESS): the network of symbols stored in tangible materials outside of the human mind that becomes the durable record of a culture’s construction of meaning.1 The significance of ESS is that it’s not just a passive record: it’s actively involved in structuring each new generation’s “cognitive interactions with the world”2, in framing each growing child’s understanding of their reality. These networks of symbols are so powerful that none of us can control how they influence our world or how they shape our collective future. They have, in Donald’s words, “assumed a certain autonomy” separate from our conscious activities.3
Even back in Stone Age times, the ESS was far more extensive than cave art: it would have included jewelry, clothing and all kinds of representations in wood, animal parts and other materials that haven’t survived the eons. Nowadays, you can extend the notion of ESS to incorporate books, TV, music, the internet, fashion, automobile and building styles, and just about every constructed design that frames how we make sense of our world.
Elsewhere in this blog, I’ve written about how the prefrontal cortex – the mediator of symbolic meaning in our brains – has established such dominance over our consciousness that I call it a “tyranny.” When we examine the development of the ESS, we can begin to see how this collective network of individual pfcs over the millennia has given rise to an “external pfc”: a connected web of symbolic meaning that pervades every aspect of our lives and structures every aspect of our consciousness, shaping how we think about ourselves, our loved ones, our future, our values, the very meaning of our lives.[a]
The external pfc is not just a metaphor: it’s real.
The importance of the external pfc is that it’s not just a metaphor: it’s a real, external, objective force. As Donald explains, “each time the brain carries out an operation in concert with the external symbolic storage system, it becomes part of a network. Its memory structure is temporarily altered; and the locus of cognitive control changes.”1 While we may feel that we have control over our own minds and bodies, it’s critical to recognize how our very sense of who we are is constructed by the external pfc that’s constantly interacting with us. Here’s how cognitive neuroscientist Terrence Deacon describes it:
Its virtual nature notwithstanding, it is the symbolic realm of consciousness that we most identify with and from which our sense of agency and self-control originate. This self is indeed not bounded within a mind or body, and derives its existence from outside – from other minds and other times. It is implicitly part of a larger whole, and to the extent that it too contributes to the formation of other virtual selves and worlds, it is virtually present independent of the existence of the particular brain and body that support it…4
Deacon points out that, throughout history, “abstract representations have physical efficacy. They can and do change the world. They are as real and concrete as the force of gravity or the impact of a projectile.” Without a powerful image in their minds of the Heaven that awaited them on the other side, would the hijackers have flown the planes into the World Trade Center on September 11?
How the external pfc wires your own pfc
That’s a dramatic and terrible example, of course, but it’s important to understand that the external pfc, massively powerful that it is, is a force both for good and bad. In fact, its influence is an essential part of our development as human beings. “Shortly after birth,” as Donald puts it, “the infant is wedded to a specific culture that takes control of its cognitive development through a series of transactions.” The infant’s parents and family, and all the cultural influences around, are the “front lines of the infant’s encounter with vast collective forces that it never sees and whose existence even the surrogates may not suspect.”3
Neuroscientist Patricia Kuhl has studied how infants first perceive language, and her findings support Donald’s claims. She describes how infants perceptually ‘‘map’’ critical aspects of their native language “in the first year of life before they can speak.”5 What the infants hear in those first few months structures their very perception of speech, as their brain reconfigures itself to do a better job of mapping onto the particular speech patterns of the infant’s culture.
It’s in this way that the external pfc literally affects how our own individual pfcs shape themselves. Donald writes how “symbolizing cultures own a direct path into our brains and affect the way major parts of the executive brain become wired up during development,” causing the growth of “totally new cognitive architectures.”3 This is the reason why, in cognitive neuroscientist Wolf Singer’s words, “the fine-grained connectivity of our brains differs from that of our cave-dwelling ancestors despite the rather similar genetic dispositions.”6
Big Brother’s in charge… and it’s no contest
For those of us who revel in our notion of free will and independence, the realization of the impact this external pfc has had in shaping our minds from day one might feel a little threatening. And, in fact, here’s where Merlin Donald invokes Big Brother to really get his point across:
Our cultures invade us and set our agendas… Big Brother culture owns us because it gets to us early. As a result, we internalize its norms and habits at a very basic level. We have no choice in this… They threaten our intellectual autonomy. They can rob us of the freedom to think certain kinds of thoughts.3
When we consider the force of the external pfc, it gets easier to understand how each of us suffers from a “tyranny of the pfc” within our individual consciousness. It’s the pfc – the frontal lobes in each of our brains – that is responsible for locking into this massive, insurmountable web of cultural symbols that invades us. It’s our individual pfc that gets influenced, shaped and reinforced by the external pfc all around us.
When you consider the forces the external pfc has at its disposal, versus our own puny individual pfc, you can see that there’s really no contest. Donald describes how, when our individual brain constructs a thought, it creates a fragile, temporary neural network known as an engram. Engrams are “impermanent, small, hard to refine, impossible to display in awareness for any length of time, and difficult to locate and recall.”3 Engrams are, by their nature, analog in type, manifesting in a tangled web of feeling, emotion, symbol and narrative. And each time they’re recalled, they’re slightly different from the last time, with new accretions of meaning.
Now contrast this with the permanent symbols of the external pfc, embedded in “powerful external media” that are stable, “infinitely reformattable and more easily displayed to awareness.”3 The external pfc traffics in a different type of information than our individual pfc. Its symbolic storage is fixed, conceptual, abstract, and digitizable. And the same fixed symbolic structure can be communicated, again and again, to a virtually unlimited number of other people.
So what are the implications of all this? Do we give up on free will and passively accept what Big Brother tells us to think? I’d argue strongly against that position, and here’s why:
First of all, although the fundamental structures of our neural wiring have been culturally fixed from infancy, this still allows plenty of room for us to pick and choose how we refine those structures. For example, none of us raised in a Western culture may be able to experience a relationship with the natural world like that of a hunter-gatherer living thousands of years ago. But that doesn’t stop us choosing whether to view the natural world as a source of material resources or a source of wonder – or both. Our cultural manifold allows for many widely variant expressions of meaning. And our globalized society permits us to borrow aspects of meaning from other cultures and apply them to our own embedded symbolic structure.
Secondly, by identifying the power the external pfc has had in shaping our thoughts, this knowledge in itself gives us a critical weapon in mitigating some of that power. If you’re never aware of the foundations your house is built upon, there’s not much you can do about them. But if you have the architect’s plan in your hands, you gain the ability to dig down and see for yourself what your edifice is standing on. And perhaps you might even add a retaining wall or two to make it a little more stable.
That architect’s plan, the mapping out of the foundations of our thought, is what this blog, Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex, is all about. So, although the title at first might sound a little dramatic, even a bit scary, it’s really a clarion call for an exploration of greater freedom of thought that we might have realized was possible.
1 Donald, M. Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. (Harvard University Press, 1991).
2 Tomasello, M., Carpenter, M., Call, J., Behne, T. & Moll, H. Understanding and sharing intentions: The origins of cultural cognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28, 675-735 (2005).
3 Donald, M. A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness. (Norton, 2001).
4 Deacon, T. W. The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. (Norton, 1997).
5 Kuhl, P. K. A new view of language acquisition. PNAS 97, 11850-11857 (2000).
6 Singer, W. The Brain, A Complex Self-Organizing System. European Review 17, 321-329 (2009).
[a] To be precise, Donald’s ESS does not map exactly on to the “external pfc.” You could equally well posit, for example, an “external hippocampus” that extends our individual memory capabilities. And the “external pfc” comprises non-ESS networks such as spoken language. In describing the “external pfc,” I’m referring specifically to the network of symbolic meaning that gets interpreted and internalized by our individual pfc, which then relies on this symbolic structure to apply its own meaning within our individual consciousness.