May 23, 2011

“Ensnared in an inescapable web”

Posted in consciousness, Language and Myth tagged , , , at 5:53 pm by Jeremy

This blog describes how our current state of consciousness may be viewed as a “tyranny of the prefrontal cortex.”  Sounds a little extreme, perhaps?  Well, hopefully browsing the pages of this blog will persuade you.  But, if you have a desire to place this view in the context of some highly respected academic viewpoints, look no further than the celebrated cognitive neuroscientist, Merlin Donald, who describes this very tyranny with reference to what he calls “Big Brother culture.”  Or check out the equally respected anthropologist/neurosocientist, Terrence Deacon, who describes how our “symbolic universe has ensnared us in an inescapable web.”

This last section of my chapter on the “Rise of Mythic Consciousness,” from my book Liology: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness, pulls together my concept of the external pfc with the viewpoints of these two other luminaries.

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“Ensnared in an inescapable web”

How much are we in control of our own constructions of meaning that we apply to the world around us?  To what extent has our culture’s external pfc shaped our minds so that we can only think in the patterns we’ve inherited from the past?  Merlin Donald warns us that the external pfc has “assumed a certain autonomy”[1] and in many ways acts like an organism with its own volition.  He makes his point with some hard-hitting words:

Our cultures invade us and set our agendas.  Once we have internalized the symbolic conventions of a culture, we can never again be truly alone in semantic space, even if we were to withdraw to a hermitage or spend the rest of our lives in solitary confinement.  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.  Culture influences what moves us, what we look for, and how we think for as long as we live.  We work out the vectors of our lives in a space that is defined culturally.  In some cases, this process involves a hierarchy of influences that are normally invisible to us.[2]

The external pfc invades our consciousness like an alien force from an old Star Trek re-run

Like an alien force from an old Star Trek re-run, the external pfc maintains its existence outside any one of us, and yet at the same time pervades our minds.  In Deacon’s description, it’s “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 … is virtually present independent of the existence of the particular brain and body that support it.”[3]  But as Deacon points out, it is most certainly not virtual in its impact on the tangible world around us.  The abstract conceptions created by the external pfc – whether it’s Valhalla, Olympus, Heaven, Hell or God – “have been among the most powerful tools for shaping historical changes.  These 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.”[4]  The generation that witnessed the tragic events of September 11, 2001 needs no reminder of the concrete consequences of abstract symbols.

This is the source of the power that has led in modern times to what I refer to as the tyranny of the pfc.  As Donald describes it, “we have created a collective organism that appears ominous at times.  Our interlinked nervous systems, newly powerful in their electronic extensions, are now challenging the supremacy of the natural world.”[5]  Deacon, perhaps even more chillingly, compares it to a “mind virus” that’s out of control:

The symbolic universe has ensnared us in an inescapable web.  Like a ‘mind virus’, the symbolic adaptation has infected us, 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.[6]

It should be emphasized that this view of the external pfc’s power over our minds is no mere intellectual exercise.  It has real and tangible implications for the future of the human race and the planet on which we reside.  It has led, as Deacon puts it, to “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.”[7]  Other tyrannies in history have eventually come undone through the will of brave individuals who have refused to surrender their fate to an external authority.  But in this case it’s our own minds that are subject to the tyranny.  We’re dealing with “a gigantic cognitive web, defining and constraining the parameters of memory, knowledge, and thought in its members, both as individuals and as a group,” a web which can “threaten our intellectual autonomy… rob us of the freedom to think certain kinds of thoughts.”[8]

Our minds are ensnared in the "inescapable web" of the external pfc

When one first realizes the immense power that our culture has had over shaping the very structures of our minds, it’s tempting to surrender to it, to abdicate responsibility for trying to disentangle oneself  from the “inescapable web.”  However, daunting as the task may be, it’s not impossible to regain at least some autonomy from the grasp of the external pfc.  Even our brains themselves, sculpted from infancy by our cultural influences, can literally be reshaped to a certain degree.  As will be discussed later in this book, modern neuroscience has demonstrated that even an adult brain remains plastic, thus permitting us the power to consciously re-sculpt some of the structures of our thought that the external pfc had shaped in us from infancy.[9]  If we go back to the analogy of the brain’s neuronal organization as a field of tall grass, where paths have been created over time from frequent usage, it’s also possible to find new ways through the bush, even after the main thoroughfares have been laid down.  Finding a different pathway through the tall grass can be inconvenient, messy and even scary, so it’s clearly something you’d do only if you discover that the old paths lead you to places you don’t want to go.

This book is dedicated to identifying some of the foundational structures of thought that have shaped our own cultural patterning, and examining how they may be taking our civilization to places where we don’t want to go.  I believe that it is only through a clear identification of these underlying structures that we are able perceive them in our own minds and thereby gain some freedom to disentangle ourselves from the “inescapable web,” to undo the tyranny of the pfc within ourselves and ultimately, perhaps, to influence the shape of the external pfc that will sculpt the minds of future generations.

We’ve seen in this chapter how the underlying cognitive foundations of social intelligence, theory of mind and linguistic capability created the groundwork for the pfc to construct meaning in our world, and how the intrinsic “patterning instinct” of the pfc led inevitably to the formation of mythic consciousness as the backdrop of the modern human mind.  Now the time has come to turn our attention to the specifics of the “comprehensive modeling of the entire human universe” that infused the lives of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, whose way of living was the only one we humans ever knew for ninety-five percent of our history.


[1] Ibid., 12.

[2] Ibid., 298-99.

[3] Deacon (1997) op. cit., 452-3.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Donald (2001) op. cit., 300.

[6] Deacon (1997) op. cit., 436.

[7] Ibid., 375.

[8] Donald (2001) op. cit., xiv.

[9] Part III, Chapter __.  For an overview of modern neuroscientific findings on the plasticity of the adult brain, see Begley, S. (2007). Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, New York: Ballantine Books.

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