May 23, 2011
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.
“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” 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.
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.” 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.” 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.” 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.
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.” 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.”
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. 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.
 Ibid., 12.
 Ibid., 298-99.
 Deacon (1997) op. cit., 452-3.
 Donald (2001) op. cit., 300.
 Deacon (1997) op. cit., 436.
 Ibid., 375.
 Donald (2001) op. cit., xiv.
 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.
May 11, 2011
This blog describes how our consciousness is under excessive control from our prefrontal cortex (pfc). But it’s not just our own pfc that controls our consciousness. Far more powerful is the control exercised by the external pfc, that cumulative collection of symbolic patterns over countless generations that governs how our own brains connected up as we developed in infancy. That’s what this section of my book, Liology: Towards An Integration of Science and Spirit, is about.
The external pfc
With all the discussion of metaphors, you might be tempted to think that the notion of an individual’s pfc being molded by the thought structures around her is itself a metaphor, that it’s not literally describing a physical process. However, in this case, it’s no metaphor. The pfc of each individual infant growing up in her culture is quite literally shaped by the structures of thought that have evolved in that specific culture.
In order to see how this can be, it’s necessary to understand the basic process of how an infant’s brain matures. In recent years, neuroscientists have made great progress in identifying these dynamics, and it’s now become clear that infant brain development is to a large extent a pruning process. In the embryo and the newly born infant, massive amounts of neuronal connections, known as synapses, are formed quite variably and spontaneously. As the infant gets used to certain behaviors, such as grasping, nursing or cooing, the synaptic junctions that led to a successful behavior quickly get strengthened by increased usage. However, those connections which are never used by the infant begin to wither away. As the infant grows, this process of synaptic reinforcement continues until some pathways are massively strengthened while countless others which turned out be useless have died out. A useful analogy to visualize this process is an uncultivated field of tall grass through which, all of a sudden, people begin walking to get to various places they need to go. At first, everyone’s beating about the bush, but after a while, certain trails begin to appear in the grass, as the most successful routes taken become more popular and cause the wild grass to get flattened down, so that eventually clear pathways emerge through the field. The clearer the pathway, the more likely it is to be used by the next person, thus leading to a positive feedback cycle. This process in the brain is sometimes referred to as synaptic pruning, because the less useful neurons and synaptic pathways are pruned away by lack of use.*
This is how the pfc of each individual infant is literally molded by external factors which, as Donald describes, “can actually change the operational architecture of cognition in the individual by influencing the developing brain.” In a 2009 paper entitled “Foundations for a New Science of Learning,” one team points out that human infants remain immature for a far longer period than other animals, as the brain continues to grow throughout childhood. This slow process of maturation permits the brain to adapt to the specific variables of the outside world through a process that they call “neural commitment,” whereby the brain’s “neural architecture and circuitry” is molded based on the “structured models” of the environment that the infant perceives. Another research team supports these findings, describing how “the extended postnatal development of the human cortex” permits “synaptic proliferation and pruning” to “restructure the maturing brain in response to the environment and to the community of practices in which development is embedded.”
Because of this process, a human born in the modern world might be genetically identical to one of our ancestors born before, say, the Upper Paleolithic revolution, but if a brain scan could be performed on both individuals at maturity, they would look very different. Cognitive neuroscientist Wolf Singer points out that “the organization of our brains is not only determined by the genes” but is also shaped by the influences of our “socio-cultural environment … This is the reason why the fine-grained connectivity of our brains differs from that of our cave-dwelling ancestors despite the rather similar genetic dispositions.” He explains that the differences in our brains would not be in the general layout and gross structure, but rather in the “the dense meshwork of local intracortical connections.”
So the brain is literally sculpted by the influences it receives in its early years. But what’s doing the sculpting? What I’m calling the “external pfc” is the cumulative symbolic network of meaning that’s been constructed by countless generations of minds within a given cultural tradition. The pfc of each person born into that tradition is sculpted by the previous accumulation of symbolic meanings, and then may contribute its own unique interpretations of the inherited symbolic network to modify incrementally the external pfc for the next generation. It’s important to understand that, although the external pfc, with its accumulation of prior meaning, is far more powerful than any individual pfc, the relationship between them is, to a certain degree, mutually interactive. As described by one team of cognitive scientists:
The nervous system, the body and the environment are highly structured dynamical systems, coupled to each other on multiple levels. Because they are so thoroughly enmeshed – biologically, ecologically and socially – a better conception of brain, body and environment would be as mutually embedded systems rather than as internally and externally located with respect to one another.
The integration of symbolic meaning between an individual and his culture allows “human beings to, in effect, pool their cognitive resources both contemporaneously and over historical time in ways that are unique in the animal kingdom.” This symbolic interaction is the hallmark of culture and is viewed by many experts as the major driver of the massive changes that humans have brought to their environment over the millennia. The famed evolutionary biologist, Conrad Waddington, sees as the defining characteristic of humanity “an extremely elaborate system by which the whole conceptual understanding of the past is made available to present recruits to human society. We have here what in effect amounts to a new mode of hereditary transmission. It may be referred to as the cultural or ‘socio-genetic’ system.”
Is the external pfc, then, merely another term for what’s generally known as culture? While there are subtle differences between the two, this is largely correct. However, the word “culture” is often very broadly and loosely defined, and so I call it the “external pfc” to emphasize the symbolic network of meaning that interacts with the pfc of each individual growing up within a culture. Two different definitions of culture by experts in the field will illustrate my point:
1. “Culture is information capable of affecting individuals’ behavior that they acquire from other members of their species through teaching, imitation, and other forms of social transmission.”
2. “By cognition, I mean simply the internal structure of ideas that represent the world and that directs behaviors appropriate to the world represented. By culture, I intend only the distributed structure of cognition, that is, the causal networking of ideas and behaviors within and between minds.”
The first definition emphasizes a one-way flow from society to the individual and focuses on the behavioral, rather than cognitive, effects of cultural transmission. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this definition, but it misses the dynamic I’ve been describing. The second definition, on the other hand, points out the “distributed structure of cognition” and emphasizes a two-way flow of causal networking. This cumulative and dynamic network of meaning “within and between minds” is what I mean by the external pfc.
However, interactive as the relationship may be between the external pfc and the individual mind, it’s certainly not a level playing field. The external pfc is guaranteed to shape the individual’s pfc far more extensively than vice versa. There are a number of reasons for this. The first is that the external pfc, as a cumulative aggregation of meaning, offers a far more extensive modeling of the universe than an individual mind could ever hope to achieve. Secondly, the individual mind is being molded when it is too new and unformed to make up its own patterns of meaning, so that by the time an individual has achieved a level of self-awareness enabling him to attempt to structure his own meaning, the neural pathways in his mind have already been largely sculpted.
Donald describes well how the process he calls “deep enculturation” begins from birth to “affect the way major parts of the executive brain become wired up during development”:
Shortly after birth, the infant is wedded to a specific culture that takes control of its cognitive development through a series of transactions. This may sound improbable because cultural linkages are invisible to the child. They hide behind many surrogates, such as parents, family, tribal customs, institutions, and so on. These are the carriers of the culture, 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.
The impact of deep enculturation is “so close to us,” Donald notes, “that we are normally unaware of it.” In fact, as we mature, the most structural aspects of this enculturation become embedded deep in our unconscious. “All of our knowledge and beliefs,” write Lakoff and Johnson, “are framed in terms of a conceptual system that resides mostly in the cognitive unconscious,” which acts like a “hidden hand that shapes how we conceptualize all aspects of our experience…, how we automatically and unconsciously comprehend what we experience.”
 The neuroscientist Gerald Edelman is credited with first developing this understanding of infant brain development, with his theory of “neural Darwinism.” See Rosenfield, I. (1986). “Neural Darwinism: A New Approach to Memory and Perception.” The New York Review of Books, 33(15 [Oct. 9, 1986]). Also see Edelman, G. M., and Tononi, G. (2000). A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination, New York: Basic Books, 83-4 for a discussion in Edelman’s own words. Separately, neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changeux developed a similar theory of “learning by selection”; see Rosenfield, I., and Ziff, E. (2008). “How the Mind Works: Revelations.” The New York Review of Books, June 26, 2008, 62-65 for a discussion of Changeux’s approach.
 Donald, M. (1999). “Material Culture and Cognition: Concluding Thoughts”, in C. Renfrew and C. Scarre, (eds.), Cognition and Material Culture: the Archaeology of Symbolic Storage. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, pp. 181-187.
 Meltzoff, A. N., Kuhl, P. K., Movellan, J., and Sejnowski, T. J. (2009). “Foundations for a New Science of Learning.” Science, 325(17 July 2009), 284-288.
 Brooks, P. J., and Ragir, S. (2008). “Prolonged plasticity: Necessary and sufficient for language-ready brains.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 31(5 (2008)), 514-515.
 Singer, W. (2009). “The Brain, a Complex Self-Organizing System.” European Review, 17(2), 321-29.
 Thompson, E., and Varela, F. J. (2001). “Radical embodiment: neural dynamics and consciousness.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5(10), 418-425.
 Tomasello, M. (1999). “The Human Adaptation for Culture.” Annual Review of Anthropology(28), 509-29.
 Waddington, C. H. (1959). “Evolutionary Systems – Animal and Human.” Nature, 183, 1634-1638.
 Richerson, P. J., and Boyd, R. (2005). Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
 Atran, S. (2002) op .cit., 10.
Donald, M. (2001). A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness, New York: Norton, 211-12.
 Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, New York: Basic Books, 13.
May 17, 2010
New Haven: Yale University Press. 2009.
In this blog, I’ve been piecing together what I call a “cognitive history” of human cultural evolution: tracing when, how and where we’ve constructed the thought patterns and underlying worldview that most of take for granted in our daily affairs. It’s a fairly new approach to understanding our history, so I was intrigued to come across Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and his Emissary, which offers a cognitive history (although he doesn’t use that phrase) of the Western world from the perspective of the conflict between the right and left hemispheres of the human brain.
I stumbled across McGilchrist’s book in a New Scientist review written by Oliver Flanagan, a philosopher whose writings I’ve enjoyed and respected. My pulse quickened a little, as I dove into the article. What new perspectives would enlighten my mind? To my surprise and disappointment, the piece read more like an attempted character assassination than a serious review. Flanagan was so dismissive of McGilchrist’s approach that he seemed to feel that scorn and sarcasm was sufficient for his critique. For me, this only deepened the mystery. What had gotten Flanagan so upset? Was it the contents of the book? Or was it the approach, the attempt to link neuroscience and history in what I call “cognitive history”? Not surprisingly, I went straight to Amazon and ordered the book so I could see for myself.
Well, my first takeaway was that McGilchrist had accomplished an extensively researched and impressive analysis which deserved far more respect than the scorn Flanagan had piled on. (I hope I never get a review from Flanagan when my own book gets published!) Whatever your viewpoint on McGilchrist’s thesis, I think he shows tremendous intellectual courage in combining the disciplines of neuroscience, history and literature in a unique way, offering perspectives that would not be available through one discipline alone.
So what is McGilchrist’s thesis? The foundation of his approach is the well-documented difference in the characteristics of the two hemispheres of the human brain. The left brain is more rational, linear, detail- and narrative-oriented; the right brain is more integrative, fuzzier, emotional and holistic. This distinction has been noted for a long time, and evidenced by studies of split-brain patients who respond differently to things depending on whether it’s seen by their right or left hemispheres. It’s also led to a lot of New Age clichés about “right-brain” versus “left-brain” thinking, which may explain part of Flanagan’s scorn and certainly says something for McGilchrist’s courage in attempting a rigorous, intellectual approach to a potentially toxic subject.
McGilchrist interprets this right/left hemisphere distinction as “two fundamentally opposed realities, two different modes of experience” each of which is “of ultimate importance in bringing about the recognisably human world.” But most importantly, he believes that, although the hemispheres “need to co-operate,” they are in fact “involved in a sort of power struggle” which explains “many aspects of contemporary Western culture.” This struggle, in McGilchrist’s view, has already been decided and the left hemisphere has won hands down, which is the reason why we live in a society dominated by left-hemisphere values such as systematic and linear thinking, competitiveness and power. Or, as McGilchrist himself puts it:
An increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualised world, marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness, has come about, reflecting, I believe, the unopposed action of a dysfunctional left hemisphere…
For McGilchrist, it’s pretty clear: the bad things we experience in our modern world can be traced to the dominance of the left hemisphere. Although McGilchrist disavows the simplistic stereotyping of the New Age right/left hemisphere distinctions, there are times when I feel his contrasts are equally black and white, leaving no room for the complex grays in between that ultimately make our reality so rich when we recognize them. For example, here’s how he summarizes the right/left contrast:
The world of the left hemisphere, dependent on denotative language and abstraction, yields clarity and power to manipulate things that are known, fixed, static, isolated, decontextualised, explicit, disembodied, general in nature, but ultimately lifeless. The right hemisphere, by contrast, yields a world of individual, changing, evolving, interconnected, implicit, incarnate, living beings within the context of the lived world, but in the nature of things never fully graspable, always imperfectly known – and to this world it exists in a relationship of care.
So what side would you choose to be on? Fixed, static, manipulative and lifeless, or evolving, living and caring? But of course it’s not as simple as that. For one thing, greater activation of the left hemisphere is associated with more positive affect, leading to an overall sense of happiness. McGilchrist interprets this as inappropriate optimism in a world that’s careening out of control, but I think there’s much more to it than that. For example, in a detailed review of the neuroscience of meditation, the left hemisphere of the prefrontal cortex is seen to be more heavily activated by experienced meditators and its greater activation has even been correlated with a better immune response to influenza vaccines.
But in spite of McGilchrist’s tendency to see things in stark opposition, I think his overall argument is convincing and compelling, and I fundamentally agree with an underlying current in his thesis: that an ever-increasing imbalance in our collective human consciousness has led to an acceleration of forces that are rapidly driving our world out of control.
Which led me to an interesting internal debate as I read McGilchrist’s book. (Interesting to me, at least!) As any casual reader of my blog will know, my own thesis is that the increased domination of the prefrontal cortex (pfc) over our consciousness has led to what I call a “tyranny of the pfc,” with the consequent dire results of our unbalanced global civilization. Well, doesn’t that sound suspiciously like McGilchrist’s own thesis… just substitute “pfc” for “left hemisphere”? So, assuming one agrees that a dangerous disequilibrium has arisen in our collective psyche, which is it? Left hemisphere or pfc?
To a large degree, I have come to believe that the answer is… both. For example, neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, in what is perhaps the most celebrated thesis of left-hemisphere function, describes the left-hemisphere as the “interpreter,” which “creates order out of chaos, and creates a narrative of and explanation for our actions, emotions, thoughts, memories, and dreams.” Now, Gazzaniga’s not talking about the whole left hemisphere, he’s really focusing on the left side of the pfc. As Goel et al. describe in a 2007 paper:
In terms of hemispheric lateralization, it is widely accepted that the left prefrontal cortex (PFC) has a critical—even dominant (Gazzaniga)—role to play in knowledge-intensive reasoning and decision-making processes.
So the question of pfc vs. left hemisphere is not one of “either/or.” Instead, it becomes a far more interesting question of how these two different sets of neurological dynamics interact with each other. How do pfc characteristics relate to right/left hemisphere characteristics?
McGilchrist and I have briefly exchanged e-mails on the subject, in which he agrees with this approach and offers a neuroanatomical explanation, that “the right hemisphere is better connected with, and takes better account of, the subcortical/limbic structures than the left,” and that as a result “the left hemisphere ends up doing the main work for the ‘detached’ aspects of frontal function.”
But how did it get that way? One way to think about it is that the unprecedented growth of the pfc in human evolution was a major driver of human uniqueness, while the left hemisphere dominance was one of the forms that this dynamic took. By way of analogy, think of a car driving down the freeway. Now supposing the driver has his foot down hard on the gas while he’s turning the steering wheel to the left. Clearly he’s heading for a crash. But what’s causing the crash… the accelerating engine or the steering? Both. If he took his foot off the gas but kept turning sharply, he’d still careen out of control. If he tried straightening up while still wildly accelerating, he’d still be heading for a crash. In this analogy, I see the pfc as the car’s engine and the left-hemisphere domination as the steering. The only hope for the driver is to harmonize his activities, gradually decelerate and straighten out.
Which leads me to something I felt was missing in McGilchrist’s book: a roadmap for getting our cognitive vehicle out of its crash trajectory. At the very end of the book, McGilchrist touches on a couple of themes that I believe are critical: he mentions that there may be things we can learn “from the East… if we can do so before its cultures are Westernised beyond redemption.” And he calls for scientific discourse to move “as far as possible” away from “the worn-out mode of scientific materialism with its reductive language.” I agree wholeheartedly with both of these directions, but I think we have to go deeper to get to the source of our problem.
In fact, I believe that as long as we maintain a dichotomy of values between right and left orientations, we might be continuing to move in the wrong direction. If our global culture is to move towards what I call a “democracy of consciousness,” I think we may have to turn our attention to approaches that harmonize the different aspects of our consciousness rather than exacerbate the conflict. In this view, it’s not about right hemisphere versus left hemisphere – it’s about integration rather than conflict between the hemispheres. It’s not about the pfc’s conceptual consciousness versus animate consciousness – it’s about harmonizing our conceptual and our animate experience of ourselves into one whole.
McGilchrist might respond to this view by pointing to the fact that the right-hemisphere is characterized by its integrative function, and that this is why he’s arguing for a greater role in right-hemisphere thinking. Well, that may be true in itself, but I’m proposing a different level of harmonization, one that integrates analytical thought with holistic thought, an approach that I explore in my other blog, Finding the Li.
That may be the reason why those experienced meditators I mentioned earlier showed increased activation of their left-hemisphere pfc. They’re permitting their entire consciousness to take control of their narrative. To continue the political analogy, what leads to a stronger, healthier government in the long-term: a well-functioning, harmonious democracy or a tyranny? The tyranny may appear, temporarily, to be stronger. Until, that is, it topples. So if, in our collective consciousness, we are experiencing a tyranny of the left pfc, perhaps the solution is not to fight back with the right hemisphere, but to use the powerful, narrative, cohering function of the left hemisphere to focus our attention better on those other, feeling-laden, instinctual aspects of our being, and learn how to integrate them into a harmony of the hemispheres: a democracy of consciousness.
 For example, see Urry, H. L., Nitschke, J. B., Dolski, I., Jackson, D. C., Dalton, K. M., Mueller, C. J., Rosenkranz, M. A., Ryff, C. D., Singer, B. H., and Davidson, R. J. (2004). “Making a Life Worth Living: Neural Correlates of Well-Being.” Psychological Science, 15(6), 367-372.
 Lutz, A., Dunne, J. D., and Davidson, R. J. (2007). “Meditation and the Neuroscience of Consciousness”, in P. Zelazo, M. Moscovitch, and E. Thompson, (eds.), Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness. New York: Cambridge University Press.
 Gazzaniga, M. S. (2000). “Cerebral specialization and interhemispheric communication: Does the corpus callosum enable the human condition?” Brain, 123(7), 1293-1326.
 Goel, V., Tierney, M., Sheesley, L., Bartolo, A., Vartanian, O., and Grafman, J. (2006). “Hemispheric Specialization in Human Prefrontal Cortex for Resolving Certain and Uncertain Inferences.” Cerebral Cortex, 17(October 2007), 2245-2250.
March 23, 2010
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.
February 19, 2010
Adam Shriver, no doubt driven by kindness and goodwill towards other animals, has written an op-ed piece in the New York Times today that is chilling in its implications. Shriver notes the unnecessary and often cruel suffering that farm animals undergo as they’re being prepared for our supermarket freezers. But then he offers hope of salvation from their suffering in a bizarre and frightening direction: apply genetic engineering to create new breeds of animals that don’t experience suffering all. They would continue to experience pain, but a crucial part of their brain – the anterior cingulate cortex – would be genetically modified to stop functioning, and as a result they would no longer suffer from the consciousness of that pain.
At first sight, this might seem like a humane research direction, and I’m sure Shriver has nothing but the best intentions. But this approach carries with it some sinister implications and augurs threateningly for a new and disturbing potential outcome of the intersection of neuroscience and genetic engineering.
Like so many stories on the subject of animal feelings, this one begins with René Descartes (1596-1650), the guy most famous for his declaration of “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes applied the same logic to animals. In his view, they didn’t think, therefore they weren’t. Or, to be more precise, only humans, with their immortal souls, have the capability to think and feel. By contrast, animals are mere instinctual machines, with no more capacity for feelings than vegetables. “We should have no doubt at all,” he wrote, “that the irrational animals are automata.”
Strange as we may now view this, it was taken seriously at the time… to the great detriment of animals. An observer at the time wrote of the gruesome torture administered to animals through vivisection, in the name of Descartes:
The [Cartesian] scientists administered beatings to dogs with perfect indifference and made fun of those who pitied the creatures as if they felt pain. They said the animals were clocks; that the cries they emitted when struck were only the noise of a little spring that had been touched, but that the whole body was without feeling. They nailed the poor animals up on boards by their four paws to vivisect them to see the circulation of the blood, which was a great subject of controversy.”
Descartes had kicked off a long and powerful tradition which remains influential to this day. It enjoyed its heyday in the behaviorism predominant in psychology throughout much of the 20th century, where the metaphor of “animal as machine” continued to be taken literally. “Behaviorists tested the capacities of animals not through naturalistic observation but through highly controlled stimulus response experiments. Speculation about the subjective experiences or thought processes of animals seemed unscientific: animals didn’t think, they reacted.”
Turns out, though, Descartes and the behaviorists were wrong. Animals do suffer. And over the past couple of decades, neuroscientists and ethologists have discovered multiple pathways of experience shared by both humans and other mammals. Hormones such as oxytocin and vasopressin, which play crucial roles in our experience of love and bonding, turn out to have similar impacts in rodents and other mammals. Evolutionary research shows that we share with other mammals “perhaps the most momentous achievement of evolution,” the subjective experience of core consciousness. This core consciousness is tied directly with a sense of self and of feelings. As neuroscientist LeDoux puts it, “I will say that capacity to have feelings is directly tied to the capacity to be consciously aware of one’s self and the relation of oneself to the rest of the world.”
As Shriver is no doubt well aware, the anterior cingulate cortex (“ACC”) plays a central part in this glorious process. The ACC, in the words of one research team, “is primarily involved in assessing the salience of emotional and motivational information.” The ACC acts like a super-sensitive, multi-faceted feedback mechanism for a creature’s moment-to-moment existence. It monitors competing demands, detects unexpected changes in the environment and within the creature, funneling this information to the appropriate parts of the brain to prime a response. In short, it has a key role in monitoring the self and directing attention. In fact, it’s likely that without a fully functioning ACC, a creature would no longer have a self. That’s probably why, in the experiments that Shriver discusses, rats without a functioning ACC withdraw their paws from a painfully hot area, but they don’t learn to avoid that area like normal rats. Because they’ve lost a self to perceive the salience of an experience.
So Shriver’s proposed genetic engineering program would breed something never before seen on this earth: a mammal without a self. Descartes, in his dualistic speculations, bizarrely proposed that the pineal gland might be the seat of the human soul. Based on current neuroscience, if the soul of a creature has any one locus in the body that is an absolute prerequisite for its existence, that would be the ACC.
We’ve gone down this path before, only with humans rather than animals. In the first half of the twentieth century, neuroscientists found that frontal lobotomies seemed to miraculously cure symptoms of agitation and mental suffering. Neurologist Walter Freeman promoted this procedure in the 1940’s and 1950’s, to the extent that by 1951, nearly 20,000 individuals had been lobotomized in the United States. As we now know, as a tragic consequence of these procedures, these unfortunate victims lost not only their anxieties, but their sense of self.
I suggest that Shriver is proposing a 21st century, sanitized version of a lobotomy. Only in this case, the lobotomy is already prefabricated through genetic engineering, and the zombie creatures formed would never even have had a self to lose. In a ghastly irony, Shriver’s program would put Descartes right back in the driver’s seat. Descartes said animals had no soul, no feelings. He was proved wrong. Now, Shriver wants to create a breed of animals that would make Descartes’ grotesque fantasy of “automata animals” come true.
I agree with Shriver that unnecessary farm animal suffering is a grievous aspect of our modern world, and that much more needs to be done to alleviate it. But his proposal threatens an inner sanctum of nature which even we humans have not yet ventured to desecrate: a creature’s subjective sense of self. We’ve trained, tormented, killed and eaten other animals from time immemorial; but we’ve never genetically engineered a creature to be a zombie. Along with the powers brought to us by the discoveries of neuroscience and genetic engineering, we must establish a set of principles that incorporate a sense of what is sacred in the natural world… before we create a true Cartesian nightmare where all that’s left are we humans and our own artificially constructed environment, engineered for our consumption.
 Letter to Marin Mersenne, 13 July 1640, cited by Margulis, L., and Sagan, D. (1995/2000). What Is Life?, Berkeley: University of California Press, 37-8.
 Quoted by Masson, J. M., and McCarthy, S. (1995). When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, New York: Delta, 18.
 Talbot, M. (2008). “Birdbrain: The woman behind the world’s chattiest parrots.” The New Yorker(May 12, 2008).
 de Waal, F. B. M. (2009). “Darwin’s last laugh.” Nature, 460(9 July 2009), 175.
 Edelman, G. M., and Tononi, G. (2000). A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination, New York: Basic Books, 211-12.
 LeDoux, J. (1996). The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life, New York: Simon & Schuster, 125.
 Bush, G., Luu, P., and Posner, M. I. (2000). “Cognitive and emotional influences in anterior cingulate cortex.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4(6: June 2000), 215-222.
 Kerns, J. G., Cohen, J. D., MacDonald, A. W. I., Cho, R. Y., Stenger, V. A., and Carter, C. S. (2004). “Anterior Cingulate Conflict Monitoring and Adjustments in Control.” Science, 303(13 February 2004), 1023-1026.
 Gallagher, H. L., and Frith, C. D. (2003). “Functional imaging of ‘theory of mind’.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(2: February 2003), 77-83. Note: while this study focuses on ACC’s role in the human sense of self, (including “secondary self,”) the role of the ACC in forming a mammalian sense of core self would appear to homologous.