Introductory post: pfc tyranny

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 (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.]

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

1 Comment »

  1. […] Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex.  This blog explores in detail a major idea arising from my research, which is that the part of our brain which makes us human, known as the prefrontal cortex, has become so powerful that it has led to the current imbalances in our global society, causing our ever-accelerating and unsustainable destruction of the natural world.  This “tyranny of the prefrontal cortex” has also led to imbalances within each of us, individually, and is at the heart of the mind/body dualism that underlies our thought patterns. […]

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