August 15, 2012

Humanity’s Changing Metaphors of Nature

Posted in Pfc tyranny: overview at 10:02 pm by Jeremy

In early August, I presented some of the ideas of this blog at two connected conferences in Grand Rapids, Michigan:

At the International Big History Association conference, I gave a presentation on the Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex. Here is a pdf of what I presented.

At the Midwest branch of the World History Association, I gave a presentation on Humanity’s Changing Metaphors of Nature.  This presentation explains the power of metaphor in human cognition, and shows how humanity’s metaphors of Nature have changed as we transitioned through different stages of our history.  It also looks at current metaphors of nature proposed in response to global climate change, and some of their disturbing entailments.

Click on the picture below to open up a pdf of the presentation.

Here’s the abstract:

This presentation employs the emerging discipline of cognitive history, tracing humanity’s changing conceptual metaphors of nature throughout history.  It examines how each predominant metaphor evolved at a different stage of human development, framing humanity’s behavior towards – and impact on – the natural world.  The four primary stages identified are: hunter-gatherer, agriculture, monotheism and the current scientific age.

The paramount hunter-gatherer metaphor of nature, arising from a foraging, nomadic lifestyle, was GIVING PARENT.   With the rise of agriculture, increasingly hierarchical societies became vulnerable to the vicissitudes of nature, leading to increased cosmic anxiety and a transformed metaphor of nature as DIVINITY TO BE PROPITIATED.  With the advent of monotheism, humanity  was given a special dominant place in the divine order resulting in a new metaphor of nature as SUBJECT OF MAN’S DOMINION.  Finally, the scientific revolution of the early 17th century introduced the modern predominant metaphor of nature as a desacralized MATERIAL RESOURCE to be subdued and exploited.

This current metaphor of nature underlies our global materialist culture and drives our unsustainable trajectory towards ever-increasing economic growth while plundering the earth’s dwindling resources.  A new primary metaphor is required to achieve sustainable living on the earth, but what?  Current leading alternative metaphors, all of which are well-intentioned but contain dangerous entailments, are: PROPERTY FOR STEWARDSHIP; SOURCE OF ECOSYSTEM SERVICES; and SUBJECT FOR BIO-ENGINEERING EXPERIMENTATION.  An alternative metaphor is offered – FRACTALLY CONNECTED ORGANISM – based on the principles and findings of systems biology and complexity theory.

Here’s a pdf version of that presentation.


May 25, 2012

Video of Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex presentation

Posted in Pfc tyranny: overview tagged , , at 6:04 pm by Jeremy

Here’s a video of the presentation I gave at the conference Towards A Science of Consciousness in April.

It’s called the Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex and summarizes what this blog is all about, and a major theme of my book Liology: Towards A Science of Consciousness.

I hope you’ll find it a worthwhile twenty minutes.

April 20, 2012

Presentation at “Towards a Science of Consciousness”

Posted in Pfc tyranny: overview tagged , at 2:54 pm by Jeremy

Last week, I gave my presentation on the “Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex” at the Towards a Science of Consciousness conference in Tucson, Arizona.  I’m glad to say it was very well received, and an interesting and wide ranging set of questions ensued.

Here are a couple of pictures of me at the podium.

Image  Image

I’m working on editing a video of the presentation, which I’ll post on this blog as soon as it comes available.  Meanwhile, you can click here to download a pdf version of the presentation.

July 22, 2010

Chapter 1: The Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex

Posted in Pfc tyranny: overview tagged , at 2:24 pm by Jeremy

I’m posting a pdf of the first chapter draft of my book, Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness.

[Click here to open the pdf file]

Chapter 1 is entitled “The Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex” and explains what I mean by that phrase.  It examines the exponential rate of change experienced by human civilization since prehistory, and places it in the context of the pfc’s increasing dominance of human consciousness.  The chapter covers some possible criticisms of the notion of the pfc’s “tyranny,” and also introduces the idea of a “cognitive history,” as a kind of archaeology of the mind.  Finally, it summarizes the four stages of the pfc’s increased power in history that the book will examine in more detail.

As always, constructive comments from readers of my blog are appreciated.

July 21, 2010

Four steps in the pfc’s rise to power

Posted in Pfc tyranny: overview tagged , at 11:17 pm by Jeremy

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


Four steps in the pfc’s rise to power

No good archaeologist would dream of entering a dig without having some kind of plan in place and preferably a map of the area showing what to anticipate.  Similarly, before diving into our cognitive history, it may be helpful to chart out where we expect to go.

Our cognitive history correlates different phases of human cultural evolution with different levels of the pfc’s power of the rest of human consciousness.  These are very briefly summarized as follows:

Pfc1: Stirrings of Power

The pfc’s stirrings of power began with the emergence of modern Homo sapiens, around 200,000 years ago.  These ancestors of ours were all hunter-gatherers.  Basic tools and fire had already been mastered by previous Homo species (such as Homo erectus).  But Homo sapiens began a symbolic revolution which erupted around 35,000 years ago in Europe, comprising symbolic communication in the forms of art, myth, and fully developed language.[1]*

Pfc2: Ascendancy to Power

Roughly ten thousand years ago, in the Near East, some foragers stumbled on a new way of getting sustenance from the natural world and occasionally began to settle in one place.  Animals and plants began to be domesticated, evolving into forms that were more advantageous for humans and relied on human management for their survival.  Agriculture was born.  Notions of property and land ownership arose.  Hierarchies and inequalities developed within a society, along with specialization of skills (including writing).  Massive organized projects, such as irrigation, began to take place.  Cities and empires soon followed.

Pfc3: The Coup

In the Eastern Mediterranean, about 2,500 years ago, a unique notion first appeared: the idea of a completely abstract and eternal dimension in the universe and in each human psyche, which was utterly separate from the material world of normal experience.  Humans had always posited other-worldly spirits and gods with different physical dynamics than the mundane world.  But these spirits were conceived along a continuum of materiality.  Now, for the first time, the idea of a universal, eternal God with infinite powers arose, along with the parallel idea of an immaterial human soul existing utterly apart from the body.

Christianity merged the Platonic ideal of a soul with the Judaic notion of an infinite God to create the first coherent dualistic cosmology.  Islam absorbed both of these ideas into its doctrines.  Together, Christianity and Islam conquered large portions of the world and brought their dualism along with their military power.

Pfc4: The Tyranny

In the 17th century, a Scientific Revolution erupted in Europe, leading to a closely linked Industrial Revolution, beginning a cycle of exponentially increasing technological change that continues to the present day.  Although the seeds of scientific thinking could be traced back to the 12th century (and even to ancient Greece), a radically different view of mankind’s relationship to the natural world caused a uniquely powerful positive feedback cycle in social and technological change, leading to increasing destabilization of this relationship.

These stages in the pfc’s rise to power may also be mapped out in the form of a conceptual graph, as seen in Figure 3.  The horizontal axis (approximating a logarithmic scale) represents the time in years before the present day.  The vertical axis is a conceptual measure, representing the increasing levels of the pfc’s power over human consciousness.  If you follow the curve of the graph, you will note four inflexion points, with the curve’s steepness increasing at the beginning of each new phase, such as the first use of symbolic communication and the beginning of agriculture.  This represents the notion that, not only does the pfc’s power increase in each phase, but the rate at which it gains power also increases.  If you compare this curve to the two earlier graphs, you’ll see that they all share the characteristic that the curve starts going almost vertical a few hundred years ago, around the time of the Scientific Revolution in the west.

Graphic representation of the pfc's rise to power

Figure 3: Graphic representation of the pfc’s rise to power

You may also note that the line bifurcates at the beginning of monotheism.  This reflects the thesis of this book that, with the dualist cosmology of monotheism, the Western mind became more subject to the pfc’s power than the minds of other cultures.  This gap continued to increase after the Scientific Revolution in Europe.  Finally, you’ll notice that the curve for “non-Western consciousness” doesn’t quite make it to the present day.  This signifies how, in the era of globalization, what was originally a “Western consciousness” has really now become a global consciousness.  While there are some groups living in remote parts of the world who still hold a fundamentally different worldview, they are few and far between, and for all practical purposes, the pfc’s tyranny has become a worldwide phenomenon.

So now, with map and instruments in hand, it’s time to begin digging.


[1] The precise timing of these developments continues to be fiercely debated.  The biggest open issue of all is the timing of language (anywhere from one million to one hundred thousand years ago), and whether a proto-language existed for a long time before modern language developed.  Some of these timing issues will be discussed in more detail in the relevant chapters.

July 15, 2010

Archaeology of the mind

Posted in Pfc tyranny: overview tagged at 7:19 pm by Jeremy

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


Archaeology of the mind

As we all know from reading the newspapers, one universal characteristic of tyrannies is that they control the press.  And in the best run tyrannies, the media is so well controlled that most people aren’t even aware that they live in a tyranny, and aren’t too concerned about it even if they do know.  This is particularly true of the tyranny of the pfc, which has achieved its dominance by imposing on us a worldview so ingrained in our minds that the vast majority of us – intellectuals as well as the rest of us – barely recognize that the world could be seen any other way.  Worldviews as a rule are like that: most people would remain completely unaware that they even had a worldview unless they’re presented with a contrasting worldview for comparison.  Here’s how a group of environmental scientists have described them:

Worldviews are broadly defined as our perceptions of how the world works and what is possible, encompassing the relationship between society and the rest of nature, as well as what is desirable (the goals we pursue).  Our worldview is unstated, deeply felt, and unquestioned. These unconscious assumptions about how the world works provide the boundary conditions within which institutions and technologies are designed to function.[1]

The historian Edgar Zilsel once said about ideologies that they “are extremely conservative.  They never can be explained by present conditions alone, but mirror the whole past too.”[2] That is even more true about worldviews.

It’s helpful, in this regard, to think of a worldview as an edifice, a construction built layer by layer upon older infrastructures put together by generations past.  Imagine our worldview as a house we live in comfortably, which was built in a place inhabited by humans from time immemorial.  One modern philosopher, Mary Midgley, has disarmingly taken this analogy of a house to describe her philosophy as a form of plumbing, saying:

People think of philosophy as a special and rather grand subject cut off from others, something you could put on the mantelpiece. I think it is much more like plumbing – the sort of thinking that people do even in the most prudent, practical areas always has a whole system of thought under the surface which we are not aware of. Then suddenly we become aware of some bad smells, and we have to take up the floorboards and look at the concepts of even the most ordinary piece of thinking.[3]

The amount of digging we have to do depends, of course, on the scale of the problem.  If you have a plumbing problem, taking up the floorboards is a good place to begin.  But what happens if a hurricane or earthquake threatens?  In that case, it may be necessary to dig deeper, to examine the very foundations of the edifice.  As those who live in regions susceptible to earthquakes (as I do) know well, there are retrofits that can sometimes be done to those foundations which can make your home far more resilient and able to survive “the big one” if and when it comes.  In the case of our current civilization, there’s a growing awareness that our society may be creating its own “big one” in the form of global climate change, resource depletion and species extinction.  If our worldview is built on shaky foundations, we need to know about it: we need to find the cracks and shore up the weaknesses.

But unlike modern houses, where the foundations are part of the blueprint and constructed specifically for the house, the foundations of a worldview comprise the earlier worldviews of previous generations.  It’s as though our house was built directly over an archaeological mound, or “tell”, made up of the detritus of countless generations before us.  And as we go further into history, we excavate deeper into the cognitive layers of our ancestors.   That’s why we can think of this exercise as an “archaeology of the mind.”

Cognitive history

In recent decades, real archaeologists have made use of new technologies such as carbon dating to greatly improve their understanding of the fragments they find.  Similarly, our archaeology of the mind will use of some of the recent findings of neuroscience to try to make sense of what we dig up.  Specifically, as already noted, we will examine our findings through the lens of the pfc’s functions, enabling us to understand the evolving stages of cultural thought in terms of the pfc’s ever-increasing power over the rest of human consciousness.

In the broadest terms, the analytical study of the workings of the human mind is known as cognitive science.  This is an interdisciplinary tradition that began in the decades following the second world war and has since expanded in many different directions.  Cognitive neuroscience is the name given to the discipline that analyzes the neurological substrates of human cognition, and is a major source of the findings mentioned frequently in this book about the pfc’s functions.  However, cognitive science has also branched out into other disciplines that, traditionally, have been less involved with the functioning of the mind.  One area, for example, that has achieved great breakthroughs is called cognitive linguistics, which focuses on the conceptual underpinnings of specific languages, and of language in general.

Another emerging area is known as cognitive anthropology, which interprets patterns of human behavior in terms of the evolutionary and neurological drivers of people’s thought structures.  Here is the view of celebrated anthropologist Bruce Trigger on the need for a cognitive approach to anthropology:

What is needed is a better understanding, derived from psychology and neuroscience, of how the human brain shapes understanding and influences behavior…  Social scientists must cease analyzing human behavior without reference to humans as biological entities.  Evolution, both biological and cultural, is a process that adapts humans with specific but as yet poorly understood biological, social, and psychological predispositions… It would appear to be in [evolutionary psychology and neuroscience] that anthropologists must seek explanations of certain cross-cultural uniformities in human behavior.[1]

The approach of this book seems to fit within the parameters of what Trigger is calling for, with one notable difference.  Trigger refers to “certain cross-cultural uniformities in human behavior,” and in the early sections of this book, that’s exactly what we’ll be investigating.  However, once we reach the period known as the Axial Age, roughly twenty five hundred years ago, we’ll begin focusing on increasingly divergent conceptualizations of the world between different cultures.  We will, however, continue to analyze this divergence through the lens of pfc attributes, and examine how different cultures responded to these attributes in very different ways, defining the future directions of their histories.

For this reason, I view this book as attempting a foray into a field that I would call “cognitive history.”   Like other cognitive studies, cognitive history analyzes its subject with reference to the conceptual structures of the human mind.  In this case, however, it attempts to interpret historical events, such as the rise of monotheism or the scientific revolution, from a cognitive perspective.  It is hoped that this somewhat unprecedented approach to history will permit insights that might otherwise not be achievable.[2]*


[1] Trigger, B. G. (2003). Understanding Early Civilizations, New York: Cambridge University Press, 683.

[2] I see this book’s attempt at cognitive history as ground-breaking, but not unique.  For another example of cognitive history, see The Master and his Emissary by Iain McGilchrist, which traces the development of Western philosophy, art and literature in terms of conflict between the right and left hemispheres of the brain.

[1] Beddoe, R., Costanza, R., Farley, J., Garza, E., Kent, J., and Kubiszewski, I. (2009). “Overcoming systemic roadblocks to sustainability: The evolutionary redesign of worldviews, institutions, and technologies.” PNAS, 106(8), 2483-2489.

[2] Zilsel, E. (1942). “The Genesis of the Concept of Physical Law.” The Philosophical Review, 51(3: May 1942), 245-279.

[3] Quoted in Else, L. (2001). “Mary, Mary quite contrary.” New Scientist (3 November 2001).

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:

[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.

July 10, 2010

An exponential rate of change

Posted in Pfc tyranny: overview tagged , , at 11:10 pm by Jeremy

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


An exponential rate of change

Let’s start by scoping out the magnitude of what the pfc has accomplished in a relatively short time.  For most of us, busily managing the daily challenges of our lives, it seems that things have always been somewhat like this.  Sure, technologies change from one generation to the next, and we all know that modern times are more frenetic than they used to be… but isn’t that just what every new generation says?  Because we live in the continually swirling events of our own age, it’s difficult sometimes to stand back and see just how different our current age is from every other time in history.

Perhaps the most unique feature about our age is the very rate of change itself.  It’s getting faster and faster.  At an ever accelerating rate.  But how can we quantify something like that?  One instructive approach is to look at just one particular changing technology, which happens to lend itself to some fairly good historical quantification: the measurement of time.

Long ago, the Chinese had time wrapped up tighter than anyone else in the world.  Their clocks could track time with an error of just a minute or two per day.  And they gradually improved on their time-keeping technology, so over a thousand years or so, the error was reduced to about ten seconds a day.  That was about the same accuracy of the first pendulum clock in the West, patented in 1657 by the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens. But then, something very strange happened.  The accuracy of Western clocks kept getting better and better.  And the rate of improvement itself kept getting faster and faster.  So in less than two centuries the Western clocks were a hundred times more accurate than Huygens’.  And less than a century later, a hundred times more accurate still.  And in the past century, they’ve become ten thousand times more accurate than that.  That’s known as an exponential rate of change, which follows a logarithmic curve, and can be seen in Figure 1.[1]

Figure 1: The exponential rate of increase in the accuracy of time measurement.

In fact, there are many graphs depicting human achievements historically that follow this same exponential curve.  Perhaps the most fundamental and striking of them is the graph showing the rise in human population to its current level of nearly seven billion people, as show in Figure 2.[2] The close match between these two curves and their inflection points, where they start going vertical, is no coincidence.  It is, in fact, the dramatic increase in technological innovation that has permitted the human population to grow so rapidly.

Figure 2: The exponential rate of increase in human population

If you look closely at Figure 1, you might notice a couple of interesting things.  First, see how the Chinese rate of improvement (depicted by the dotted line) was very stable and consistent.  It was only the Western rate of technological change that went exponential.  And then, take a good look at the right hand side of the graph, representing our current age.  In recent times, the line seems almost vertical.  But how much longer can it continue on that course?  And when you extrapolate this out to all the other areas of technological innovation with similar exponential curves, it’s difficult not to ask, where is this taking us?  How did it all get started?


[1] Chart reprinted from Aveni, A. (2002). Empires of Time: Calendars, Clocks, and Cultures, Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  Additionally, see Needham, J. (1969). The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, for an earlier version of the same chart.


July 8, 2010

The “tyranny” of the prefrontal cortex

Posted in Pfc tyranny: overview tagged , at 8:07 pm by Jeremy

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.[1]

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.[2]*

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[3]* 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.[4]

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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] The term “frontal lobes” is often used interchangeably with “prefrontal cortex” and describes the front section of the brain that incorporates the prefrontal cortex.

[4] Goldberg, E. (2001). The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind, New York: Oxford University Press.

July 6, 2010

Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness

Posted in Pfc tyranny: overview tagged , , at 8:56 pm by Jeremy

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

[Click here for a pdf version of this post].








Imagine a satellite being launched into geosynchronous orbit, but its controls aren’t working too well.  If the trajectory gets too steep, the satellite will break through earth’s gravity field and soar into outer space, leaving earth behind forever.  On the other hand, if the calculations were wrong, the resistance of the atmosphere might become too great, and the satellite would come crashing down to earth in a fiery ball.  Only if everything is managed with great care will the satellite achieve its stable orbit, locking into synchrony with the earth.

I see our human trajectory like that satellite.  Our ever accelerating rate of technological innovation has allowed the human race to accomplish things that couldn’t have been dreamt of even a hundred years ago.  And the daily advances in areas like microchip technology and genetic engineering offer promises of ever more fantastic achievements.  At the exponentially increasing pace of this technological change, it won’t be too long before artificial intelligence transcends human intelligence and human DNA can be safely enhanced to produce an improved species.  That’s the analogy of the satellite breaking through earth’s gravity field to leave its home planet behind forever.

But there’s no guarantee that this is what the future holds for our species.  Our technological progress has been based on exploiting our world’s natural resources at an ever-increasing pace, to the point that the current rate of material progress appears unsustainable on many fronts.  In addition to the threat of climate change, there is a rapidly accumulating list of equally daunting issues such as capacity limits in crucial resources like oil and water, deforestation, desertification, oceans emptying of fish and a massive extinction of species.  If the convergence of these multiple threats becomes too much to handle, our global civilization might face a total collapse.  This is the analogy of the satellite hitting too much resistance and crashing down in a fiery ball.

To me, and most likely to you too, neither of those scenarios is attractive.  But is it possible for the human race to manage the trajectory it’s on closely enough to reach a stable orbit?  What would it take for us to achieve that?  That’s a question this book attempts to answer.  But the approach taken in this book has very little to do directly with global economics or environmental politics.  There are plenty of other books currently being published offering plans for social and political transformations that could help to put us on a more sustainable course.  The fundamental problem, however, is that as long as each of us continues to live according to the values infused in us through our culture, it’s not realistic to expect any real change in the human trajectory.

This book is based on the premise that there are some fundamental, structural elements to our modes of thought that drive our global culture on its accelerating and unsustainable path.  Understanding those foundational structures requires looking deeply into the historical and psychological sources of how we currently think.  It may not be a simple journey, but it’s only when these foundations are clearly understood that we can explore possibilities to rebuild our patterns of thought in ways that might permit us to enjoy a sustainable future on our planet.

This book takes us on a journey into the depths of our modern consciousness and identifies some faults in the foundations.  At the same time, it offers an alternative foundation of thought, based on a fusion of scientific insight and traditional wisdom, that could provide us with a sturdier basis for the next phase in our human project.

In order to accomplish this exploration, the book is divided into three parts.  The first part attempts to understand what happened historically to our collective consciousness that put us on our current trajectory.  It offers what I call a “cognitive history,” an investigation into the major historical factors that structure our modern consciousness, from the earliest days of the human race to the present day.  The second part examines the biological source of our consciousness and explores the new view of life as a dynamic, self-organized system proposed by leading thinkers in biology and complexity science.  The final part of the book integrates learnings from the first two parts, offering a way of thinking about ourselves and our relationship with the natural world that synthesizes major themes from both Chinese and Western thought traditions, proposing a worldview that could bridge the chasm that currently exists between science and spirituality and could potentially offer a path for sustainable living on our earth.

What follows is a more detailed description of each of these three parts.

Part I:  An archaeology of the mind

The first part of this book conducts what may be thought of as an “archaeology of the mind.”  It attempts to uncover the layers of cognitive structures that comprise our modern consciousness and investigate how they were originally formed.  In order to do that, we have to go back to the very origins of our species and determine what it was that made homo sapiens unique in the history of our planet.  From that foundation, we take a look at the worldview of our hunter-gatherer ancestors  who have accounted for the vast bulk of human history.  Then, layer by layer, we’ll trace how the phenomenon of agriculture transformed the world, and how this in turn paved the way for the great early civilizations that spanned the continents.

At that point, though, our archaeology dig stumbles on a strange bifurcation in its cognitive search.  We’ll take a close look at how, roughly twenty five hundred years ago, a unique confluence of cultures in the Eastern Mediterranean led to the emergence of an unprecedented dualistic cosmology, a complete separation of the eternal and sacred from the material and profane, which has formed the basis of our modern worldview.  At the same time, we’ll see how in China, separated by the Himalayas from their contemporaries in the West, a sophisticated and fundamentally different cosmology emerged from earlier shamanistic and agricultural traditions.  We’ll begin to explore the significance of these contrasting worldviews, and see how they led to a divergence in the way people understood themselves and their relation to the natural world.

Back in the West, we’ll trace how the Christian view of the universe permitted the astonishing transformation of thought that led to the Scientific Revolution, the gateway to our modern world.  We’ll see how fundamental concepts that we take for granted nowadays, such as Reason, Truth, Measurement, Time and Progress, evolved over the past two millennia into their modern forms.

The tyranny of the prefrontal cortex

As we conduct our archaeology of the mind, we’ll be viewing our findings through a lens that’s been provided by recent developments in neuroscience.  A major thesis of this book is that a crucial part of the human brain – the prefrontal cortex – has played a central role in the human story.  The prefrontal cortex (hereinafter referred to as the “pfc”) is that part of the brain responsible for mediating those cognitive abilities we view as uniquely human, such as symbolic thought, abstraction, planning, rule-making and imposing meaning on things.  It’s a part of the brain that’s far more developed in humans than in other mammals.

Neuroscientists have already established for some time now that the pfc is a central component of human uniqueness.  But this book’s thesis goes beyond that.  It argues 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.  Within each culture, a cognitive network of symbols constructed over countless generations imposes itself on the mind of each child growing up, structuring the pathways of that child’s cognitive perception.  This structuring gives each individual’s pfc a greater role in shaping a person’s consciousness than it would otherwise have.

This has been true for all the different cultures that have evolved throughout the world over the millennia.  But this book proposes that, along with the rise of a dualistic worldview, something unique happened to the relative power of the pfc within human consciousness in the Western world.  For the first time in human thought, the pfc’s function for abstraction became a core value in itself.  Reason was separated from emotion.  Abstraction became conjoined with the notion of an eternal and omniscient monotheistic God.  The human soul became defined on the basis of the abstracting function of the pfc, and viewed as eternal and holy, the link between human and God.  Conversely, that part of the human experience that we share with other animals and is less dependent on the pfc – our instincts and our physical sensations – became viewed as inferior.  Paralleling this dualistic, split view of the human being, mankind’s relationship with nature experienced a similar divergence: nature became increasingly seen as something separate from mankind, something that lacked an eternal soul.

While the pfc’s capability for abstraction was forming an eternal God in its own image in the Western world, a very different cosmology was developing in East Asia.  Over the course of a millennium, two indigenous Chinese thought traditions – Taoism and Confucianism – became infused with Buddhist ideas imported from India, leading to the flowering of a philosophy known as Neo-Confucianism.  Around the time that William the Conqueror was invading England, the Song dynasty of China was conceiving an integrated view of the relationship between the spiritual and material worlds that placed the pfc-mediated functions in harmony with the other aspects of human experience, in direct contrast to the dualism developing in the West.  Specifically, the Neo-Confucianists thought of the universe in terms of dynamic patterns, or li, which organized how matter and energy, or ch’i, were manifested.  They saw the living world as one gigantic, interconnected organism, and in fact their cosmology has been referred to as an “organismic” worldview.

In recent centuries, however, traditional Chinese thought – along with other indigenous cosmologies around the world – has been overwhelmed by the modern, scientific worldview which hitched a ride along with the global military and industrial conquests of the Western powers.  And the first section of this book goes on to examine the cognitive roots of the scientific revolution that has so transformed our world.

In the traditional narrative of European history, the rise of the scientific worldview is generally seen as being in opposition to Christian theology.  The current ongoing raucous debate between the two sides may be presented as evidence enough for this.  But viewed from the lens of the pfc’s influence over human consciousness, the scientific revolution appears as yet another stage in the pfc’s rise to power.  In fact, “power over nature” (including our own human nature) may be identified as the hallmark of the scientific revolution, a theme introduced by Francis Bacon in the 17th century that has since become a foundation of modern thought.  And the systematic application of reason has now become generally viewed as the only way to arrive at an objective truth.

I’ve called this cognitive imbalance the “tyranny of the pfc” over the rest of our consciousness.  The choice of this term is designed to communicate the notion that it’s both an unnatural and unstable dynamic.  In fact, this tyranny of the pfc has been responsible for creating the current unsustainable trajectory for the human race.  Whether it continues to successfully harness technology to take us into a future of genetically engineered super-humans and artificial super-intelligence, or whether it ransacks the desacralized natural world into ruin, either way life as we know it will be headed for extinction.  Either our humanity or our civilization is at risk.

Part II: An exploration of the pfc, consciousness and life

The term “tyranny of the pfc” is used in the first section to describe how our modern set of values overemphasizes certain characteristics of our thought processes that are mediated by the pfc, to the profound detriment of both our own experience of ourselves as well as our relationship to the natural world.  The second section explores the fundamental question: since the pfc is a central part of our human uniqueness, is the “tyranny of the pfc” an inevitable outcome of humanity’s cultural evolution? Or is there in fact another basis for us to understand ourselves and to experience our relationship with the world around us?

The section begins by using recent insights from neuroscience research to examine the ways in which the pfc makes us uniquely human, and then starts digging down into the very roots of consciousness and life.  It distinguishes between the kind of pfc-mediated consciousness experienced only by humans, conceptual consciousness, and the kind that we share with other animals: animate consciousness.  But where does animate consciousness come from?  As we uncover the remarkable complexities of other life forms and the astonishing workings of individual cells,  we begin to see how even individual bacteria make choices.  This exploration leads us to a form of intelligence existing at a cellular level, which has been described as “the intelligence that lurks in nonhuman nature,” and which I refer to as animate intentionality.  Understanding animate intentionality takes us on a path that opens up a different perspective on human consciousness and indeed, on life itself.

Finding the li

How do creatures without a brain – plants, fungi, bacteria – figure out what to do?  How do creatures with tiny brains – ants, bees, termites – act so smart as a group?  Biologists have achieved major insights into these puzzles in recent years by analyzing what is known as self-organization: the principles by which highly complex living systems can achieve sustained levels of intelligence, order and flexibility.  This has led some biologists and philosophers to the fundamental notion of life itself as a self-organized system, which becomes a cornerstone for the new way of looking at ourselves and our world proposed in this book.  In this view, the dynamic organization of a system, the ways in which each of its parts interrelate, are more significant than the physical matter of which the system is comprised.

Think of a photograph taken of yourself when you were a child.  Most of the cells that were in that child no longer exist in your body.  Even the cells that do remain, such as brain and muscle cells, have reconfigured their own internal contents, so that probably none of the molecules forming that child in the photograph are part of you now.  So what is it that still connects you to that child?  It’s the principles of self-organization in your body, the ever-dynamic but remarkably stable interrelationships existing within and between the cellular components of your body and your brain.

But these interrelationships don’t just stop at the boundary of your body.  In fact, these principles of dynamic self-organization apply to all living systems, from the tiniest cell to the largest ecosystem.  From this perspective, all living organisms can be seen as both comprising smaller self-organized systems, and at the same time being a part of one or more larger self-organized systems.  In this view, no living system is self-sufficient, but is interdependent within what is known as the holarchy, a conceptual model of systems acting within systems.  The largest system of all in the holarchy would be the biosystem of the Earth, which is sometimes referred to as Gaia, named after the Greek goddess of the Earth.

If this description of life reminds you a little of the Neo-Confucian view of the world as one giant, interconnected organism, this is no coincidence.  Remarkably, the principles of self-organization that modern biologists and complexity theorists have uncovered may be understood as the very same dynamic that traditional Neo-Confucian philosophers in China described as the “li.”  In both cases, the emphasis is on understanding the interrelated, dynamic qualities of a living system as its most important feature, rather than merely analyzing the system’s physical components.  However, whereas modern scientific investigations use advanced mathematics and computer modeling to understand these principles, the Neo-Confucianists used their perspective on the li to achieve profound spiritual insights.  This astonishing and informative congruence of modern scientific thinking with a sophisticated, traditional worldview that flourished a thousand years ago becomes a major theme in the final section of the book.

Part III: Towards a democracy of consciousness

In Part I, our archaeology of the mind identified some flaws in the foundations of our modern worldview.  In Part II, our journey into the heart of consciousness revealed an alternative biological view of life that connects with the Neo-Confucian “li” from a thousand years ago.  The third section pulls together learnings from the past and the present into one integrated worldview, proposing an approach that bridges science and spirituality to lead us away from the tyranny of the pfc and towards a democracy of consciousness.

In our modern world, the tyranny of the pfc described in Part I has led us to a chasm that separates science and spirituality.  But other, non-Western traditional worldviews never experienced that split.  How did they deal with those attributes of the pfc that make us uniquely human?

The classic Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching, begins with the words, “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the everlasting Tao,” and many of the following pages reinforce this theme.  Language – that uniquely human and most powerful of all artifacts created by our pfc – is seen as anathema to an understanding of the Tao. Similarly, when we turn to Buddhist thought, we find a systematic attempt to undo the constraints of the pfc’s conceptualizations.  The Buddhist emphasis on living in the present moment can be seen as a way to avoid the constructions of past and future that are the hallmark of pfc-mediated activity.  Interestingly, these traditions shared an emphasis on cultivating the mind through the practice of meditation, to integrate mind and body and to quiet the incessant chatter of our pfc-based inner narratives.

Of course, in the West, there have been those who fought against the tyranny of the pfc, but they didn’t have a systematic foundation of thought like Taoism or Buddhism to turn to in their struggle.  I call these people – such as Wordsworth, Blake or Van Gogh – “pfc rebels” and as such they have tended to surface in the arts, a social safety valve that has allowed Western mainstream thought to keep its structure secured.  And there has also been a philosophical tradition, from Aristotle to Spinoza and the 20th century phenomenologists, which has attempted to see the world from something like the Neo-Confucianist perspective of the li, but it’s generally been hidden by the glare of mainstream Western dualist thought, and as such I call it the “moonlight tradition.”

In our modern Western world, even without the practices of Taoism and Buddhism, there are still plenty of ways that each of us, on an ad hoc basis, finds moments to escape pfc tyranny.  Some people have experienced moments of pfc-liberation through taking hallucinogenic drugs.  The vast majority of us have known those special moments, in sporting activities, walking in nature, looking a loved one in the eyes, or making love, when the constructs and abstractions of the pfc melt away and we’re fully in touch with our animate consciousness.  Perhaps the most common form of ongoing “pfc disobedience” is music, that pervasive and primal vehicle of communication that we humans most likely used for millions of years before language evolved.


Yet all these ad hoc moments of freedom from pfc tyranny are not enough.  Individually, our lives are controlled by values that are not entirely our own; and globally, we’re all doing our part to drive that human trajectory on its unsustainable crash course with the Earth.  We need a more systematic framework on a stable foundation to move towards a democracy of consciousness.  The one that I propose is called liology.  The very word liology is designed to demonstrate that it is a fusion of Western and Eastern worldviews: the Neo-Confucian notion of the li merging with the Western scientific tradition (the “ology” part which is Greek for “study”).  Liology means a study of the organizing principles that link all living entities, a project (in Heraclitus’ words) “to know the principles by which all things are steered through all things.”  But it’s not just a “study” in the conventional Western scientific meaning of pfc-based analysis.  It’s also an investigation of ourselves and the natural world using both our animate and conceptual consciousness.  And the “li” that is studied is both a scientific and spiritual term.  In liology, there’s no fundamental distinction between the two.  Liology is proposed,  not as a substitute for conventional Western science, but as a complement to it.  Realizing the intrinsic connectedness of all things, liology would tend to lead to solutions that emphasize participation with, rather than control of, natural processes.

What liology means for us as individuals is a framework to achieve a democracy of consciousness within ourselves, to harmonize and integrate our conceptual and animate consciousness.  This has major implications for the values by which we choose to live our lives.  Liology will tend to emphasize a new set of values linking our human identity with the natural world, extending our circle of empathy beyond other humans to the interconnected li of other living entities all around us.  The destruction of the natural world, along with transcendence of our humanity into an abstract super-intelligence, would both be anathema to the values arising out of liology.

Finally, liology opens the possibility for broader spiritual growth.  The integration of our conceptual and animate consciousness, combined with an increasing awareness of the connectivity of our li with the li all around us, offers a path to transcend the fixed sense of self that our pfc-oriented culture locks us into from early childhood.  A practice of liology can help us to experience the world that Neo-Confucian philosopher Chang Tsai described over a thousand years ago:

Heaven is my father and Earth is my mother, and such a small creature as I find an intimate place in their midst.

All people are my brothers and sisters, and all things are my companions.

Enjoy the ride!

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