July 13, 2010

But why a “tyranny”?

Posted in Pfc tyranny: overview tagged , at 10:47 pm by Jeremy

Here’s a working draft of the third section of Chapter 1 of my book, Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness.  I invite constructive comments from readers of my blog.


But why a “tyranny”?

So far, we can say this much: whatever has happened, whether you call it a tyranny or not, it’s something very dramatic, and it’s still going on right now.  But why a “tyranny”?

First, let me explain exactly what 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.

Now, if you describe a part of the brain like a person, such as calling it a “tyrant,” you can fall into dangerous philosophical territory.  In fact, it’s become common for popular books on neuroscience to give cartoon-like characteristics to parts of the brain, such as “my limbic system told me to run but my frontal lobes stopped me in my tracks.”  This approach has been criticized by a respected neuroscientist/ philosopher team that has called it “the mereological fallacy in neuroscience.”[1] This, they explain, is the fallacy of ascribing human attributes like thinking, believing, understanding, etc., to the human brain or part of the 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.”[2] It’s called the “mereological” fallacy because mereology is the study of relations between parts and wholes.

Does accusing the pfc of tyranny fall foul of the mereological fallacy?  It’s certainly true that a pfc can’t actually be a tyrant – only a person can.  But a tyranny doesn’t necessarily mean “rule by a tyrant.”  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.”[3] That’s the way in which I’m using the word.  Here’s a definition of tyranny that best describes what I’m ascribing to the pfc:

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.

In fact, in spite of the “mereological fallacy,” there’s been a centuries long tradition in Western culture to use the analogy of a society when describing the mind.  Cognitive philosophers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson describe how this “society of mind” metaphor works:

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.[4]

While this may seem a little quaint, this approach wins a lot of support from modern researchers.  In a highly regarded book called The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, three cognitive scientists say this about “the model of the mind as a society of numerous agents”:

the overall picture of mind not as a unified, homogenous entity, nor even as a collection of entities, but rather as a disunified, heterogenous collection of networks of processes seems not only attractive but also strongly resonant with the experience accumulated in all the fields of cognitive science.[5]

In fact, Sir Francis Crick, world famous for his co-discovery of the DNA molecule, turned his attention later in life to neuroscience, and offered a “framework for consciousness” in a paper in Nature Neuroscience, where he compared the process of consciousness to a continuous, ongoing election, with primaries, winning coalitions, journalists and pollsters.[6]

Given our “society of mind” metaphor and our definition of tyranny, the only issue remaining is why should the pfc’s recognized executive leadership be described in such a pejorative way?  After all, criticizing the pfc seems as nonsensical as criticizing the heart or the liver.  It’s a fundamental part of our existence and, as we’ve already seen, 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.  As noted above, Goldberg proposes that “without the great development of the frontal lobes in the human brain … civilization could never have arisen” and 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,” and I share his admiration and awe.[7]

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 create with its network of symbolic representations, culminating in 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 anthropologist/neuroscientist Terrence Deacon – who’s written a book on the pfc’s role in human cognition – 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.[8]

That’s the tyranny we’ll be tracing through Part I of this book.


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

[2] Ibid.

[3] Merriam-Webster’s definition: http://east.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tyranny.

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

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

[6] Crick, F., and Koch, C. (2003). “A framework for consciousness.” Nature Neuroscience, 6(2), 119-126.

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

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


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