July 8, 2010
The “tyranny” of the prefrontal cortex
Here’s a working draft of the first section of Chapter 1 of my book, Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness. I invite constructive comments from readers of my blog.
Chapter 1: The Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex
The “tyranny” of the prefrontal cortex
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. While all this is going on around us, you and I sometimes feel strangely disconnected from everything 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? I believe 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 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.
The prefrontal cortex (“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 beings, and to turn the past and the future into one flowing narrative.
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 – we can 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.*
The pfc is the most connected part of the brain, linking directly or indirectly to all parts mediating our animate consciousness – those areas responsible for our sensations, instincts and 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. One neuroscientist, Elkhonon Goldberg, who has written a book on the pfc, views
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. Without the great development of the frontal lobes in the human brain (coupled with the development of the language areas), civilization could never have arisen.
The pfc is clearly 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. So 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.
But before we begin our journey through history, let’s spend a few moments on the notion of the pfc’s “tyranny.” After all, “tyranny” is a fairly extreme accusation to throw at any leader, not to mention the leader of our brain that’s been responsible for making us human and building our civilization. Anyone making that kind of accusation has some explaining to do. Why a tyranny? What kind of coup are we talking about? Why are we using a political analogy about the brain, anyway? And come to think of it, how can a part of the brain even do anything without the rest of the brain? These are all fair questions, and while it might take most of this book to answer them thoroughly, any reader considering plowing on deserves at least a brief explanation upfront.
 For summaries of prefrontal cortex function: Miller, E. K., and Cohen, J. D. (2001). “An Integrative Theory of Prefrontal Cortex Function.” Annual Review of Neuroscience, 24:167-202; Fuster, J. M. (2001). “The Prefrontal Cortex – An Update: Time Is of the Essence”Neuron. City, pp. 319-333; Goldman-Rakic, P. S. (1996). “The prefrontal landscape: implications of functional architecture for understanding human mentation and the central executive.” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B, 1445-1453.
 These two forms of consciousness are sometimes referred to as primary and secondary consciousness or core consciousness and higher-order consciousness. In Part II, the distinction between animate and conceptual consciousness will be examined in more detail, as well as the contrast between human cognition and that of other animals.
 The term “frontal lobes” is often used interchangeably with “prefrontal cortex” and describes the front section of the brain that incorporates the prefrontal cortex.
 Goldberg, E. (2001). The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind, New York: Oxford University Press.