May 17, 2010

Towards a Harmony of the Hemispheres

Posted in Book/article Reviews, consciousness, Pfc tyranny: overview tagged , , , at 3:53 pm by Jeremy

The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

Iain McGilchrist

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.[1] 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.[2]

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.”[3] 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.[4]

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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] Gazzaniga, M. S. (2000). “Cerebral specialization and interhemispheric communication: Does the corpus callosum enable the human condition?” Brain, 123(7), 1293-1326.

[4] 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.

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March 23, 2010

Big Brother’s not just watching… he’s shaping you.

Posted in consciousness, Pfc tyranny: overview tagged , , , , at 5:29 pm by Jeremy

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.

Lascaux cave art: Stone Age artists were creating more than just pictures

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

Abstract representations can – and do – change the world.

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

Infants’ brains are shaped by language even before they can speak.

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.

Equipped with the architect’s plans, we can explore the foundations of our thought.

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.

March 17, 2010

“Punctuated equilibria” as a special case of emergence in complex systems

Posted in Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture, Emergence in self-organized systems, Language and Myth, Pfc tyranny: overview, Scientific Revolution tagged , , , , , at 5:00 pm by Jeremy

I’ve just completed my first draft of an academic paper I’ve been working on entitled: “Punctuated Equilibria” as Emergence: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Change in Social Systems.

Readers of either of my two blogs will know that I think recent advances in thinking about complex adaptive systems can offer a tremendous amount to disciplines outside the traditional ones of physics and systems biology.

In this paper, I propose that Stephen Jay Gould’s famous theory of punctuated equilibria may be seen as a special case of emergence in complex adaptive systems, and the same approach can be used to gain a better understanding of major changes in human social systems: in pre-history, in historical times, and in our present day.

Here’s the abstract to the paper:

The theory of “punctuated equilibria” proposed by Eldredge and Gould is conceived as a special case applied to the field of paleobiology of the more general dynamic of emergence in self-organized adaptive systems.  “Punctuated equilibria” has been sporadically applied as a descriptor of change in social systems, and elsewhere the underlying methodological linkage to emergence has been noted.   However, it is proposed that a more formal application of emergence theory to changes in human social systems offers the potential for new insight.  The distinction between “epistemological” and “ontological” emergence is discussed and the key concept of “reciprocal causality” introduced.  Documented examples of ontological emergence in animal and ecological self-organization are reviewed.  A theoretical framework is then applied, for illustrative purposes, to three cases of pre-historical and historical emergence in human social systems – language, agriculture and the scientific/industrial revolution.  The framework is then applied to potential phase transitions in the current human system.

Here’s a link to a pdf version of the working draft of the paper.  Anyone with an academic interest in this subject is invited to read and comment, either in the comments section below or by e-mail.

February 22, 2010

Stages in the tyranny of the prefrontal cortex: an overview

Posted in Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture, Language and Myth, Monotheism, Pfc tyranny: overview, Scientific Revolution tagged , , , , , , , , , at 6:26 pm by Jeremy

[Click here to open pdf file: “Stages in the Tyranny of the Pfc” and view the table that accompanies this post.]

In this blog, I propose that the prefrontal cortex has created an imbalance within our human consciousness, gaining power over other aspects of our cognition.  I’ve called this situation a “tyranny.”  That’s a pretty dramatic word, and I’ve offered a detailed review of why I think it’s appropriate.

In this post, I’m going to trace a high-level overview of the historical stages I see in the pfc’s rise to power.  It will be much easier to follow this post if you click here to open a pdf file in another window, containing a table that summarizes what I’m describing.  If you can keep both windows open, you can follow what I’m describing more easily.

For each stage of the pfc’s rise to power, I’ll briefly describe the main human accomplishments and primary new values arising from that stage.  Also, I’ll touch on the changing view of the natural world.   Whenever you want to drill a little deeper, click on the section’s title (or the links in the pdf file) to get you to a blog post that describes the pfc-stage in some more detail.  I’ll be continually adding more detail on this blog, so keep posted.

Pfc1: Stirrings of Power

Stirrings of symbolic expression: female figurine from over 30,000 years ago

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 30,000 years ago in Europe, comprising symbolic communication in the forms of art, myth, and fully developed language.[1] The prevailing metaphor of Nature was probably something like a “generous parent.”  Uniquely human values began developing, such as “parochial altruism” (defend your own tribe but fight others), “reciprocal generosity” and fairness.[2]

Pfc2: Ascendancy to Power

Specialization of skills: writing tablet from Mesopotamia, c. 3000 BCE

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.  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.

New sets of values arose with these sweeping changes in human behavior.  Property ownership and hierarchies elevated the social values of wealth and power.  Patriarchy became a driving force, leading to increased gender inequality and the commoditization of women.  People’s identity began expanding beyond kin and tribe, to incorporate national identity.

The natural world was increasingly seen through the metaphor of an ancestor/divinity that needed to be worshipped and propitiated.  Nature could cause devastation as well as benefits to society.  Human activity was seen as integral to maintaining the order of the natural world.

Pfc3: The Coup

Saint Paul: Early Christianity merged Platonic and Judaic themes

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.

For the first time, people identified themselves with universal values (such as salvation of the soul), which were seen as applying even to other groups who had no notion of these values.  Increasingly, mankind was viewed as separate from the natural world.  Following Genesis, Man was seen as having a God-given dominion over the rest of creation.

Pfc4: The Tyranny

Descartes: the natural world was increasingly seen as a soulless machine

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.

Nature was increasingly seen as a soulless, material resource available for humanity’s consumption.  The natural world and the human being were both seen through the prism of a “machine” metaphor.

Multiple new values arose, that were seen to be universally applicable, derived from newly developed intellectual constructs, such as: liberty, reason, democracy, fascism, communism, capitalism.  These values all shared the underlying assumption that natural resources were freely available for human consumption, and differed in their proposed division of power and resources within human society.


[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.

[2] Some of these values have been seen in modern chimpanzees and bonobos, but they are far more developed in humans.

February 12, 2010

What does “the tyranny of the prefrontal cortex” really mean? A detailed critique.

Posted in Pfc tyranny: overview tagged , , , , , at 3:26 pm by Jeremy

Throughout this blog, I make the argument that in our modern society we are experiencing a tyranny of the prefrontal cortex (pfc) over other aspects of our consciousness.  Some people have a hard time swallowing this argument, for a number of reasons.  So I’ve written this post for anyone who’s interested enough to read further, but who’s feeling skeptical about what I’m suggesting.

[If you’re not familiar with my blog, please click here for an introduction to my theme, and then click back to this post for more detail.]

How could the prefrontal cortex really be a tyrant?

First, what do 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.

This entire blog is dedicated to explaining and providing the evidence for this argument.  The rest of this post, however, raises some fundamental and reasonable objections to my use of the phrase “tyranny of the pfc” to describe this dynamic, and attempts to answer them.

Please feel free to leave comments below if you find yourself with objections to my approach that remain unanswered.

“How can you refer to the pfc as a ‘tyrant’ when it’s just a part of our brain?”

This is a great place to begin.  Back in 2003, neuroscientist M.R. Bennett and philosopher P.M.S. Hacker teamed up to accuse many other neuroscientists of committing what they called the “mereological fallacy in neuroscience.”[1] This, they explained, is the fallacy of ascribing human attributes like thinking, believing, understanding, etc., to the human 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.”  It’s called the “mereological” fallacy because mereology is the study of relations between parts and wholes.

So, clearly, accusing the pfc of tyranny falls foul of the mereological fallacy?  The pfc can’t act like a tyrant.  Only a person can.  Well, that’s true to the extent that a tyranny literally means rule by a tyrant.  But, 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.”  That’s the way in which I’m using the word.  There’s one definition of tyranny that I came across (unfortunately I can no longer find its source) which captures well what I’m describing.  It goes as follows:

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.

The pfc is more frequently viewed as our benign chief executive.

By the way, this “mereological fallacy” is pervasive throughout neuroscientific thought, especially when applied to the pfc.  Usually, though, the pfc is referred to in more benign terms as our “chief executive” rather than our tyrant.  For example, in his book on the prefrontal cortex, neuroscientist Elkhonon Goldberg refers to:

…the frontal lobes as the brain’s CEO, capable of taking ‘an aerial view’ of all the other functions of the brain and coordinating them; the frontal lobes as the brain’s conductor, coordinating the thousand instruments in the brain’s orchestra.  But above all, the frontal lobes as the brain’s leader, leading the individual into the novelty, the innovations, the adventures of life.[2]

I think that everything Goldberg says about the pfc here makes sense (if you can accept the mereological fallacy).  The difference is: I argue that in Western civilization over the past two thousand years, our “leader” has taken inordinate control, and this leadership might now be viewed more accurately as a tyranny.

“But why should we even use a political metaphor in the first place to describe the workings of the human brain?”

Using a political metaphor in describing our human cognitive process is part of an old tradition that linguistic philosophers Lakoff & Johnson refer to as the “society of mind” metaphor.  Here’s how they describe it:

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.[3]

They then go on to describe in detail the “folk model of faculty psychology” composed of “individual people, each with a different job and each with a distinct, appropriate personality.”  For example, Feeling is “undisciplined, volatile, and sometimes out of control.”  Reason “has good judgment, is cool, controlled, wise, and utterly reliable.”  Will “is the only person in the society who can move the body to action.”  They note that, “after several hundred years, a version of this folk theory of the mind is still influential in philosophy of mind, as well as in the various cognitive sciences.”

In support of this claim, three leading cognitive scientists (Varela, Thompson & Rosch) strongly defend the “model of the mind as a society of numerous agents,” arguing that:

… the overall picture of mind not as a unified, homogenous entity, nor even as a collection of entities, but rather as a disunified, heterogeneous collection of networks of processes seems not only attractive but also strongly resonant with the experience accumulated in all the fields of cognitive science.[4]

So in this blog, I’m taking a model used by others, but turning it around somewhat, arguing that these friendly old characters like Reason and Will may actually be agents of a force that’s become tyrannical, and that perhaps some of the other folk, like Feeling, may be have been unfairly tarnished by the tyrant’s propaganda.

In fact, I’ve come to believe that the “society of mind” metaphor may have run its useful course, and that as our understanding of consciousness reaches a new level of sophistication, there may be far more helpful metaphors to use, such as “music”, in describing the workings of human cognition.  I offer this approach in my other blog, called Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness.

“You can’t localize any significant brain function in one place, like the pfc.  All major brain functions are highly distributed.  This is like positing the pfc as a ‘homunculus,’ an idea that’s been discredited in neuroscience.”

Don’t look for a homunculus in the brain. There isn’t one.

I agree with the fact that all major brain functions are highly distributed.  And it’s wrong to attribute “intelligence” or “agency” to any one part of the brain, including the pfc.  However, it’s equally apparent from neuroscience that certain parts of the brain are necessary (but not sufficient) for enabling a particular function.  Obvious examples are Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas for language; the visual cortex for sight; amygdala for fear responses, etc.  There is a vast body of evidence from the past twenty years of neuro-imaging that the pfc is responsible for mediating symbolic meaning, among its other functions.  And it’s this symbolizing function of the pfc that I believe has led to its tyranny.

Here’s how anthropologist/neuroscientist Terrence Deacon describes the evolutionary process:

The prominent enlargement of prefrontal cortex and the correlated shifts in connection patterns that occurred during human brain evolution … gave human prefrontal circuits a greater role in many neural processes unrelated to language.

… prefrontal overdevelopment has made us all savants of language and symbolic learning… We tend to apply our one favored cognitive style to everything… we cannot help but see the world in symbolic categorical terms, dividing it up according to opposed features, and organizing our lives according to themes and narratives…  We find pleasure in manipulating the world so that it fits into a symbolic Procrustean[5] bed, and when it does fit and seems to obey symbolic rules, we find the result comforting, even beautiful.[6]

“Your separation of conceptual consciousness (pfc-mediated) from animate consciousness makes no sense.  Brain processes are all integrated and embodied.  There is no separate conceptual consciousness.”

On a neurophysiological basis, this is absolutely true.  I’m not suggesting that there are separate neural pathways for conceptual consciousness.  But most sophisticated analyses of consciousness distinguish primary consciousness (which we share with other animals) from secondary consciousness, which is uniquely human (with the possible exception, to a very limited degree, of chimps and bonobos.)    Here’s how neuroscientist Gerald Edelman describes the distinction:

In animals with primary consciousness, the self that emerges and serves as a reference is not self-conscious. Only with the flowering of higher-order consciousness and linguistic capabilities does a self arise that is nameable to itself…

[H]igher order consciousness… is dependent on the emergence of semantic capabilities and, ultimately, of language… [W]e can, through symbolic exchange and higher-order consciousness, create narratives, fictions, and histories.  We can ask questions about how we can know and thereby deliver our selves to the doorstep of philosophy.[7]

When I’m describing conceptual consciousness, I’m referring to the exclusively human attributes of what Edelman calls our “higher order consciousness.”

“So how can that be a bad thing?  In describing a ‘tyranny of the pfc,’ aren’t you criticizing the very essence of what makes us human?”

Criticizing the prefrontal cortex is as nonsensical as criticizing the heart or the liver.  It’s a fundamental part of our existence and, as we’ve seen above, 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.  Goldberg proposes that “without the great development of the frontal lobes in the human brain … civilization could never have arisen.”[8] 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.”[9] I share his admiration and awe.

We are all ensnared in a web of symbols.

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 created, specifically 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 Terrence Deacon 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.[10]

That’s the “tyranny” that I’ll be tracking in the rest of this blog.

“OK.  But I still don’t get it.  Neuroscience is one thing.  Human history is something quite different.  How can you meaningfully analyze history in terms of a neurological function, even one as pervasive as the pfc?”

In this blog, I’ll be attempting to construct what I call a “cognitive history” of human cultural evolution.  This is something that I believe is fairly ground-breaking, but not unique.  For example, psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist has recently published a book called The Master and his Emissary, which traces the development of Western philosophy, art and literature in terms of conflict between the right and left hemispheres of the brain.[11]

It’s an approach which would hopefully go some way to answering the call of prominent anthropologist Bruce Trigger, who believes that the study of human behavior needs to be driven more by a biological, neuroscience component, and who writes:

What is needed is a better understanding, derived from psychology and neuroscience, of how the human brain shapes understanding and influences behavior… Evolution, both biological and cultural, is a process that adapts humans with specific but as yet poorly understood biological, social, and psychological predispositions and needs to the natural and social environment in which they live…Social and cultural phenomena have their own emergent properties and cannot wholly be explained in psychological or biological terms.  Yet neither can human behavior or the nature of society and culture be understood without judiciously taking account of the findings of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience.[12]

I believe that looking at human history within the framework of the ever-increasing domination of the pfc’s functionality permits us to distinguish key stages of human development – language, agriculture, dualism, scientific method –through which we can trace the dynamics of our current civilization from a cognitive historical perspective.  It can allow us to see where Western thought diverged from other thought traditions, such as the one that evolved in East Asia.  It can identify foundational concepts, such as “truth” or “progress”, which we take for granted in today’s world, as products of a unique Western set of values. Finally, I believe that such an approach also leads the way to perceiving what we can do as individuals to undo some of the pfc’s tyranny and work towards what I call a “democracy of consciousness.”  This is something that I explore in more detail in my sister blog, Finding the Li.

So, if you’ve read this far, please browse the blog and enjoy, and don’t hesitate to leave any comments below if you’re still not convinced!


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

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

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

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

[5] Procrustean: Producing or designed to produce strict conformity by ruthless or arbitrary means – American Heritage Dictionary

[6] Deacon, T. W. (1997). The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain, New York: Norton, 416-17.

[7] Edelman, G. M. (2003). “Naturalizing consciousness: A theoretical framework.” PNAS, 100(9), 5520-5524 and Edelman, G. M., and Tononi, G. (2000). A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination, New York: Basic Books.

[8] Goldberg, op. cit., ix.

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

[10] Deacon, op. cit., 436, 375.

[11] McGilchrist, I. (2009).  The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. London: Yale University Press.

[12] Trigger, B. G. (2003). Understanding Early Civilizations, New York: Cambridge University Press, 686-7.

October 16, 2009

The Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex

Posted in Pfc tyranny: overview tagged at 12:46 am by Jeremy

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.  You and I feel strangely disconnected from it all 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?  This blog suggests 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 all 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.

prefrontal cortex

The prefrontal cortex in the human brain

The prefrontal cortex (or “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, and to turn the past and the future into one flowing narrative.

Figure 1: Pfc as % of totalcortex in different mammals[1]
Mammal Pfc as % of total cortex
Human 29%
Chimpanzee 17%
Gibbon 11%
Lemur 8%
Dog 7%
Cat 3%

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 –let’s 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. (See Figure 1).

The pfc is the most connected part of the brain, linking directly or indirectly to all parts of our animate consciousness – those areas responsible for our sensations, memories, 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.

The pfc is 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.  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.

In future postings on this blog, I’m going to ask you to join me on a brief tour of the archaeology of the human mind.  We’re going to see how the pfc has created a conception of the universe in its own image and has even caused us to identify our own existence with it, thinking of other parts of our mind and body as separate from us, owned by us and managed by us.

We’ll see how this has led to an individual and a societal imbalance, and in a sister-blog entitled Finding the Li, we’ll explore some possible ways to mitigate the pfc’s tyranny – to attempt to move towards a democracy of consciousness.

[Interested but not convinced?  Click here for a more detailed analysis of philosophical and conceptual issues around the “tyranny of the pfc” metaphor.]

Click here for an in-depth exploration of these topics in the book I’m writing called Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness.


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

 

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