May 23, 2011

“Ensnared in an inescapable web”

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

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

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

[PREVIOUS POST]

“Ensnared in an inescapable web”

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

Our cultures invade us and set our agendas.  Once we have internalized the symbolic conventions of a culture, we can never again be truly alone in semantic space, even if we were to withdraw to a hermitage or spend the rest of our lives in solitary confinement.  Big Brother culture owns us because it gets to us early.  As a result, we internalize its norms and habits at a very basic level.  We have no choice in this.  Culture influences what moves us, what we look for, and how we think for as long as we live.  We work out the vectors of our lives in a space that is defined culturally.  In some cases, this process involves a hierarchy of influences that are normally invisible to us.[2]

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

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

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

The symbolic universe has ensnared us in an inescapable web.  Like a ‘mind virus’, the symbolic adaptation has infected us, and now by virtue of the irresistible urge it has instilled in us to turn everything we encounter and everyone we meet into symbols, we have become the means by which it unceremoniously propagates itself throughout the world.[6]

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Ibid., 12.

[2] Ibid., 298-99.

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

[4] Ibid.

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

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

[7] Ibid., 375.

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

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

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.

April 22, 2010

Even bugs have values! – The biological foundation of human ethics.

Posted in Values and the pfc tagged , , , at 3:44 pm by Jeremy

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”

Bob Dylan stated it clearer than most: the irresolvable conflicts that can arise when different value systems clash.  In one of the most memorable scenes of the Old Testament, God wants to test Abraham’s faith, so he tells him to sacrifice his son, Isaac.  Abraham is faced with a clash of values: his paternal bond to the son he loves versus his commitment to an invisible, all-powerful authority.  And even to this day, that conflict resounds.  As Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg notes in a 2008 article in the New York Review of Books, “even someone who believes in God can feel that Abraham in the Old Testament was wrong to obey God in agreeing to sacrifice Isaac.”[1]

Abraham sacrificing Isaac: a fundamental clash of values.

Where do these different values systems come from?  Why do they conflict with each other?  And how do they affect the way we live our lives every day?  In a series of blog posts, I’m going to explore these questions.  We’ll see the crucial role that the prefrontal cortex (pfc) plays in constructing our values.  And if you follow me to the end, perhaps we can arrive together at some ideas about how we might evolve our value system to respond to major 21st century issues such as our ever-accelerating effects on the global environment.

Oftentimes, when people talk about values, they begin with some great externality such as God.  Alternatively, more recently, many evolutionary psychologists note the fact that homo sapiens has spent 99% of its career in bands of hunter-gatherers, and focus accordingly on the core values that evolved in that environment.  I agree in general with the approach of the evolutionary psychologists, but I think if you really want to understand values, you have to go back even further.  Values begin in the body.  Values were embodied before we evolved the capacity to talk about them.  And, in fact, I’d go back even further than that.  Back to the very earliest, primeval times on the earth.  Back to the days, over a billion years ago, when the only living things around were single-celled organisms.

What, you might ask, does a bacterium wallowing around in a primordial ooze have to do with values?  Stuart Kauffman explains it well:

Consider then a bacterium swimming up the glucose gradient.  The biological function that is being fulfilled is obtaining food… Here, the bacterium detects a local glucose gradient, which is a sign of more glucose in some direction.  By altering its behavior and swimming up the gradient, the bacterium is interpreting the sign… Thus meaning has entered the universe: the local glucose gradient is a sign that means glucose is – probably – nearby.  Because natural selection has assembled the propagating organization of structures and processes that lead to swimming up the glucose gradient for good selective reasons, glucose has value to the bacterium.[2]

A pseudomonas bacterium: even it has values.

OK, I hear you say, but that’s cheating.  Maybe the glucose has value to the bacterium, but that’s not the same as our values… we’ve advanced well beyond that.  Yes, we certainly have.  For one thing, we have brains with complex neurological structures that no bacterium can ever imagine.  But our brains evolved in order to help the other parts of our body do their jobs more efficiently.  Our bodies are, after all, composed of about ten trillion cells, and each of these cells, just like that bacterium, needs nutrition in order to live its life to the full and keep us healthy.  So it’s not surprising that neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, one of today’s leading theoreticians on human consciousness, sees an inextricable link between amoebas and us:

A simple organism made up of one single cell, say, an amoeba, is not just alive but bent on staying alive.  Being a brainless and mindless creature, an amoeba does not know of its own organism’s intention in the sense that we know of our equivalent intentions.  But the form of an intention is there, nonetheless, expressed by the manner in which the little creature manages to keep the chemical profile of its internal milieu in balance while around it, in the environment external to it, all hell may be breaking loose…

What I am driving at is that the urge to stay alive is not a modern development.  It is not a property of humans alone.  In some fashion or other, from simple to complex, most living organisms exhibit it.  What does vary is the degree to which organisms know about that urge.  Few do.  But the urge is still there whether organisms know of it or not.  Thanks to consciousness, humans are keenly aware of it…[3]

Between the two extremes of self-aware humans and amoebas lie the millions of species of multi-celled organisms that inhabit our world.  For many of these species – the animals – a nervous system evolved to create a bi-directional feedback system connecting the brain with the other billions of cells that make up the animal’s body. In a 2009 paper, physiologist Michel Cabanac traces the evolution of the nervous system from an elemental reflex-oriented mechanism to a more sophisticated one where a basic form of consciousness appears.[4] Cabanac sees a major transition occurring between the class of animals that nowadays includes amphibians such as frogs and toads and the class that led to other animals such as birds, turtles, snakes and mammals.  For amphibians, a basic feeling will elicit a hard-wired, instinctual response.  A frog feels hunger and sees a rapid movement in front – its tongue shoots out to catch a fly.   But for more evolutionarily sophisticated animals, responses go beyond these basic steps.  A far more complex series of primary emotions, such as anger or fear, can drive the animal’s response.

A frog: Cabanac contrasts its hard-wired instinct to creatures with basic emotions.

With the evolution of humans, something unique happens to those primary emotions.  The symbolizing power of the human prefrontal cortex enables us to experience a range of emotions that go way beyond simple things such as anger or fear.  Our complex social awareness leads us into areas such as pride, shame, and all kinds of intangible emotions far too nuanced to even have a name attached to them.[5] And finally, we humans have awareness of these emotions.  So, whereas another animal can feel anger, only a human has the ability to look at herself and say “I feel angry.”  See the diagram below for a visualization of these differences (click on it for a bigger version).

Now, we’re getting close to the point where we can begin to understand how our values arise out of those embodied emotions that evolved over hundreds of millions of years.  In an interesting 2007 paper, psychologist Darcia Narvaez has traced what she calls the “neurobiological roots of our multiple moralities.”[6] She takes as her evolutionary framework the model devised by renowned neuroscientist P.D. Maclean called the “triune brain theory,” which views the human brain as comprising three layers: an evolutionarily ancient “reptilian” brain enveloped by an “early mammal” brain, which is in turn overlaid by the more recent neocortex (which incorporates the pfc.)

In Narvaez’s view, each of these three layers drives different sets of ethical values, leading to our current human condition where “three distinctive moral systems, rooted in the basic emotional systems, propel human moral action on an individual and group level.”  In summary, here’s the gist of her three systems:

  • The “Reptilian brain” produces a Security Ethic incorporating physical survival, fear, anger, basic sexuality.
  • The “Early Mammalian brain” produces an Engagement Ethic incorporating feelings of intimacy, care-giving, loneliness and sorrow.
  • The Neocortex produces an Ethic of Imagination incorporating logic, reason, consideration of alternative actions and “perspective taking.”

So now we’ve reached the starting point.  We don’t necessarily have to accept the exact categorizations that Narvaez offers, but the general framework is what’s most important.  We can now begin to see how God telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac might come from Narvaez’s Ethic of Imagination whereas Abraham’s reluctance – “you must be puttin’ me on” – arose from his paternal instinct that was part of his Engagement Ethic.

In the next posts, I’m going to dig deeper into some of the findings of evolutionary psychology, which examines how these different systems converged in the minds of our paleolithic ancestors to create a set of hunter-gatherer values.  And as we move along humanity’s cognitive career, we’ll see how the different stages of social development led to the flowering of different sets of values, all of which interweave through our current system of thought.  Yes, we have come a long way from that primordial ooze.


[1] Weinberg, S. (2008). “Without God.” New York Review of Books, LV(14: September 25, 2008), 73-76.

[2] Kauffman, S. (2008). Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion, New York: Basic Books, 86-7.

[3] Damasio, A. (1999). The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, New York: Harcourt Inc, 136-7.

[4] Cabanac, M., Cabanac, A. J., and Parent, A. (2009). “The emergence of consciousness in phylogeny.” Behavioural Brain Research(198: 2009), 267-272.

[5] Many ethologists, such as Sue Savage-Rumbaugh who has extensively studied great apes such as chimpanzees and bonobos, also claim most of these complex emotions for advanced primates.

[6] Narvaez, D. (2007). “Triune ethics: The neurobiological roots of our multiple moralities.” New Ideas in Psychology, 26(1), 95-119.

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 2, 2010

So What Really Makes Us Human?

Posted in Language and Myth tagged , , , , , , , at 2:38 pm by Jeremy

What is the human version of the elephant’s trunk?

Elephants have trunks; giraffes have necks; anteaters have tongues.  What do we humans have that makes us unique?  At first blush, it seems that answering that should be pretty easy, since we do so much that no other animal does: we build cities, write books, send rockets into space, create art and play music.  But these are all the results of our uniqueness, not the cause.  OK, how about language?  That seems to be something universal to all human beings, which no other animal possesses.[1] Language definitely is a major element in human uniqueness.  But what if we try to go back even further, before language as we know it fully developed?  What was it about our early ancestors that caused them to even begin the process that ended in language?

The influential cognitive neuroscientist Merlin Donald has suggested that, beginning as far back as two million years ago, there was a long and crucial period of human development that he calls the “mimetic phase.”  Here’s how he describes it:

a layer of cultural interaction that is based entirely on a collective web of conventional, expressive nonverbal actions.  Mimetic culture is the murky realm of eye contact, facial expressions, poses, attitude, body language, self-decoration, gesticulation, and tones of voice.[2]

What’s fascinating about the mimetic phase is that we modern humans never left it behind.  We’ve added language on top of it, but our mimetic communication is still, in Donald’s words, “the primary dimension that defines our personal identity.”  You can get a feeling for the power of mimetic expression when you think of communications we make that are non-verbal: prayer rituals, chanting and cheering in a sports stadium, expressions of contempt or praise, intimacy or hostility.  It’s amazing how much we can communicate without using a single word.

A cheering crowd reflects the continued power of mimetic communication.

So before we talked, we chanted, grunted, cheered and even sang.[3] But that still doesn’t explain how we started doing these things that no other creature had done over billions of years of evolution.  Over the past twenty years, a powerful theory, called the Social Brain Hypothesis, has gained increasing acceptance as an explanation for the development of our unique human cognition.  This hypothesis states that “intelligence evolved not to solve physical problems, but to process and use social information, such as who is allied with whom and who is related to whom.”[4]

The underlying logic of this approach is that, when hominids first began adapting themselves to a less wooded environment, they didn’t have a lot of physical advantages: they couldn’t compete well with other predators for food, and were pretty vulnerable themselves to hungry carnivores.  So, more than ever before, they banded together.  As they did so, they faced ever-increasing cognitive demands from being in bigger social groups.  And it wasn’t just the size of the group, but the complexity of the lifestyle that increased.  If you were going out with your buddies on a long hunting trip, how could you know for sure that nobody else was going to jump into bed with your partner while you were gone?

With dilemmas like this to face, early hominids got involved in “an ‘arms race’ of increasing social skill”, learning to use “manipulative tactics” to their best advantage.[5] But a newly emerging implication of this line of research is that cooperation may have played just as large a part as competition in contributing to our human uniqueness.  Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga summarizes this viewpoint as follows:

although cognition in general was driven mainly by social competition, the unique aspects of human cognition – the cognitive skills of shared goals, joint attention, joint intentions, and cooperative communication needed to create such things as complex technologies, cultural institutions, and systems of symbols – were driven, even constituted, not by social competition, but social cooperation.[6]

In fact, some prominent anthropologists go farther and suggest that it was “the particular demands” of our unusually “intense forms of pairbonding that was the critical factor that triggered” the evolution of our large brains.[7]

Whether it was competition, cooperation or love, all these new forms of social complexity required a radical breakthrough in the human brain: the ability to look at others and realize that they had a mind that functioned somewhat like your own; to realize that when they did something, they were most likely being motivated by the same sort of things that motivated you.  This realization has been called “theory of mind,” and in the past thirty years, has come to be recognized as fundamental to human development. [8]

Once you become aware that other people seem to have minds like yours, you will naturally start speculating on what goals, beliefs and intentions they might be holding in those minds.  And at that point, it takes only a small step to turn the gaze inward and start asking the same questions about your own mind.  A small step, but a gigantic leap for mankind.  Because that inward gaze, that application of “theory of mind” to one’s own mind, was what led to the dramatic emergence of self-awareness, the consciousness of oneself as an autonomously existing entity.[9]

It was in this momentous evolutionary transformation that the human prefrontal cortex (pfc) first initiated what Terrence Deacon calls “the translation of social behavior into symbolic form,” which I refer to as its “stirrings of power.” Neuroscientists have identified that the unique pfc-mediated attributes known as “executive function” – self-awareness, inhibition, symbolization, etc. – are the same skills required for theory of mind and other aspects of social interaction.[10] In particular, a part of the pfc called the medial frontal cortex has been identified as having “a special role in social cognition,” including knowledge about the self and perceptions of the motivations of others.[11]

Identifying hoofprints: an early adaptive advantage of the pfc.

In terms of daily survival, this meant that our early ancestors could take the same cognitive tools they were using to figure out the motivations of others, and apply them to the external world.  This would have opened up an enormous set of possibilities for better foraging.  Archaeologist Steve Mithen gives a great example of identifying hoofprints.  “Footprints,” he points out, “just like symbols, must be placed into an appropriate category if correct meaning is to be attributed.”[12] A deer’s hoofprint looks nothing like the deer itself, so only a human mind, equipped with its symbolizing pfc, is capable of imputing the meaning of the one from the other.

Another powerful capability arising from this new cognitive toolkit was a sense of past and future.  Research in neuroscience has shown that “thinking about the future, remembering the past, and taking another person’s perspective activate a common brain network involving the prefrontal cortex.”[13] As has been noted by psychiatrist Russell Barkley, without a sense of the future, it would be “nearly impossible” to exercise self-control.[14] After all, you’re not going to stop yourself from instant gratification unless you can convince yourself that the same “you” will still be existing in some future period.  This is the reason why little children, with undeveloped pfcs, have such difficulty deferring immediate rewards.

The cognitive toolbox of the pfc, in Deacon’s words, “provides a means of representing features of a world that no other creature experiences, the world of the abstract.”[15] But these great leaps in human capability didn’t come without some dire costs.  Perhaps the greatest of them all is awareness of our own eventual deaths.  As psychologist Gordon Gallup points out, “to be aware of your own existence raises the possibility of confronting the inevitability of your eventual demise… Death awareness is a unique price that we pay for self-awareness.”[16]

We humans, alone among the animals of this world, know that we’re going to die.  We’re also alone, as far as we know, in asking the question “Why?”  The “social intelligence”-driven question of “Why did my partner do what she did?” eventually leads to: “Why does the sun rise in the morning?”  “Why did my loved one have to die?” and ultimately: “Why are we here?”

Other animals, to varying degrees and in different forms, ask the other major questions in life: “What?” “Who?” “Where?” and even to a limited extent “When?”  But only we humans seem to have the capability to ask “Why?”

So the next time someone asks you what’s really unique about humans, I suggest that the best way to respond to them is with this very simple, profound and memorable verse:

Fish gotta swim
Bird gotta fly
Man gotta sit and say
Why why why.[17]

[1] Other animals such as chimpanzees, parrots and dolphins, have been shown to have the rudimentary capabilities of language; but no other animals appear able to communicate with each other using the complex, recursive web of symbols characteristic of human language.

[2] Donald, M. (2001). A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness, New York: Norton, 265.

[3] A number of recent theories of language suggest that we sang long before we spoke, and raise the possibility that language evolved from a form of song.  See, for example, Mithen, S. (2006). The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

[4] Emery, N. J., and Clayton, N. S. (2004). “The Mentality of Crows: Convergent Evolution of Intelligence in Corvids and Apes.” Science, 306(December 10, 2004), 1903-1907, summarizing the original hypothesis published by Byrne & Whiten in Machiavellian Intelligence: Social Evolution in Monkeys, Apes and Humans.

[5] Byrne & Whiten quoted by Gazzaniga, M. S. (2009). “Humans: the party animal.” Dædalus(Summer 2009), 21-34.

[6] Gazzaniga, op. cit. describing the so-called “Vygotskian Intelligence Hypothesis” of Henrike Moll and Michael Tomasello.

[7] Dunbar, R. I. M., and Shultz, S. (2007). “Evolution in the Social Brain.” Science, 317(7 September 2007).

[8] See Povinelli, D. J., and Preuss, T. M. (1995). “Theory of mind: evolutionary history of a cognitive specialization.” Trends in Neurosciences, 18(9:November 9, 1995), 418-424; also Singer, T. (2006). “The neuronal basis and ontogeny of empathy and mind reading: Review of literature and implications for future research.” Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews(30 (2006)), 855-863.

[9] See Povinelli & Preuss; Singer op. cit.  Note that some theorists (e.g. Gallup, G. G. Jr. (1998). “Self-awareness and the evolution of social intelligence.” Behavioural Processes, 42, 239-247) propose a different direction of development than my description, from self-awareness to theory of mind.

[10] See Barkley, R. A. (2001). “The Executive Functions and Self-Regulation: An Evolutionary Neuropsychological Perspective.” Neuropsychology Review, 11(1), 1-29; also Roth, G., and Dicke, U. (2005). “Evolution of the brain and intelligence.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(5: May 2005), 250-253.

[11] Amodio, D. M., and Frith, C. D. (2006). “Meeting of minds: the medial frontal cortex and social cognition.” Nature Reviews: Neuroscience, 7(April 2006), 268-277.

[12] Mithen, S. (1996). The Prehistory of the Mind, London: Thames & Hudson, 161-2.

[13] Liberman, N., and Trope, Y. (2008). “The Psychology of Transcending the Here and Now.” Science, 322(21 November 2008), 1201-1205.

[14] Barkley, op. cit.

[15] Deacon, T. W. (1997). The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain, New York: Norton, 423.

[16] Gallup, op. cit.

[17] Quoted by McEvilley, T. (2002). The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, New York: Allworth Press.

February 19, 2010

Animals Suffer? Lobotomize Them!

Posted in consciousness, Infinition, Scientific Revolution tagged , , , , , , , at 4:20 pm by Jeremy

Adam Shriver, no doubt driven by kindness and goodwill towards other animals, has written an op-ed piece in the New York Times today that is chilling in its implications.  Shriver notes the unnecessary and often cruel suffering that farm animals undergo as they’re being prepared for our supermarket freezers.  But then he offers hope of salvation from their suffering in a bizarre and frightening direction: apply genetic engineering to create new breeds of animals that don’t experience suffering all.  They would continue to experience pain, but a crucial part of their brain – the anterior cingulate cortex – would be genetically modified to stop functioning, and as a result they would no longer suffer from the consciousness of that pain.

At first sight, this might seem like a humane research direction, and I’m sure Shriver has nothing but the best intentions.  But this approach carries with it some sinister implications and augurs threateningly for a new and disturbing potential outcome of the intersection of neuroscience and genetic engineering.

Like so many stories on the subject of animal feelings, this one begins with René Descartes (1596-1650), the guy most famous for his declaration of “I think, therefore I am.”  Descartes applied the same logic to animals.  In his view, they didn’t think, therefore they weren’t.  Or, to be more precise, only humans, with their immortal souls, have the capability to think and feel.  By contrast, animals are mere instinctual machines, with no more capacity for feelings than vegetables.  “We should have no doubt at all,” he wrote, “that the irrational animals are automata.”[1]

Descartes’ view of animals as automata justified vivisection.

Strange as we may now view this, it was taken seriously at the time… to the great detriment of animals.  An observer at the time wrote of the gruesome torture administered to animals through vivisection, in the name of Descartes:

The [Cartesian] scientists administered beatings to dogs with perfect indifference and made fun of those who pitied the creatures as if they felt pain.  They said the animals were clocks; that the cries they emitted when struck were only the noise of a little spring that had been touched, but that the whole body was without feeling.  They nailed the poor animals up on boards by their four paws to vivisect them to see the circulation of the blood, which was a great subject of controversy.”[2]

Descartes had kicked off a long and powerful tradition which remains influential to this day.  It enjoyed its heyday in the behaviorism predominant in psychology throughout much of the 20th century, where the metaphor of “animal as machine” continued to be taken literally.  “Behaviorists tested the capacities of animals not through naturalistic observation but through highly controlled stimulus response experiments. Speculation about the subjective experiences or thought processes of animals seemed unscientific: animals didn’t think, they reacted.”[3]

Turns out, though, Descartes and the behaviorists were wrong.  Animals do suffer.  And over the past couple of decades, neuroscientists and ethologists have discovered multiple pathways of experience shared by both humans and other mammals.  Hormones such as oxytocin and vasopressin, which play crucial roles in our experience of love and bonding, turn out to have similar impacts in rodents and other mammals.[4] Evolutionary research shows that we share with other mammals “perhaps the most momentous achievement of evolution,”[5] the subjective experience of core consciousness.  This core consciousness is tied directly with a sense of self and of feelings.  As neuroscientist LeDoux puts it, “I will say that capacity to have feelings is directly tied to the capacity to be consciously aware of one’s self and the relation of oneself to the rest of the world.”[6]

As Shriver is no doubt well aware, the anterior cingulate cortex (“ACC”) plays a central part in this glorious process.  The ACC, in the words of one research team, “is primarily involved in assessing the salience of emotional and motivational information.”[7] The ACC acts like a super-sensitive, multi-faceted feedback mechanism for a creature’s moment-to-moment existence.  It monitors competing demands, detects unexpected changes in the environment and within the creature, funneling this information to the appropriate parts of the brain to prime a response.[8] In short, it has a key role in monitoring the self and directing attention.[9] In fact, it’s likely that without a fully functioning ACC, a creature would no longer have a self.  That’s probably why, in the experiments that Shriver discusses, rats without a functioning ACC withdraw their paws from a painfully hot area, but they don’t learn to avoid that area like normal rats.  Because they’ve lost a self to perceive the salience of an experience.

So Shriver’s proposed genetic engineering program would breed something never before seen on this earth: a mammal without a self.  Descartes, in his dualistic speculations, bizarrely proposed that the pineal gland might be the seat of the human soul.[10] Based on current neuroscience, if the soul of a creature has any one locus in the body that is an absolute prerequisite for its existence, that would be the ACC.

We now know that lobotomies destroy an individual’s sense of self.

We’ve gone down this path before, only with humans rather than animals.  In the first half of the twentieth century, neuroscientists found that frontal lobotomies seemed to miraculously cure symptoms of agitation and mental suffering.  Neurologist Walter Freeman promoted this procedure in the 1940’s and 1950’s, to the extent that by 1951, nearly 20,000 individuals had been lobotomized in the United States.[11] As we now know, as a tragic consequence of these procedures, these unfortunate victims lost not only their anxieties, but their sense of self.

I suggest that Shriver is proposing a 21st century, sanitized version of a lobotomy.  Only in this case, the lobotomy is already prefabricated through genetic engineering, and the zombie creatures formed would never even have had a self to lose.  In a ghastly irony, Shriver’s program would put Descartes right back in the driver’s seat.  Descartes said animals had no soul, no feelings.  He was proved wrong.  Now, Shriver wants to create a breed of animals that would make Descartes’ grotesque fantasy of “automata animals” come true.

I agree with Shriver that unnecessary farm animal suffering is a grievous aspect of our modern world, and that much more needs to be done to alleviate it.  But his proposal threatens an inner sanctum of nature which even we humans have not yet ventured to desecrate: a creature’s subjective sense of self.  We’ve trained, tormented, killed and eaten other animals from time immemorial; but we’ve never genetically engineered a creature to be a zombie.  Along with the powers brought to us by the discoveries of neuroscience and genetic engineering, we must establish a set of principles that incorporate a sense of what is sacred in the natural world… before we create a true Cartesian nightmare where all that’s left are we humans and our own artificially constructed environment, engineered for our consumption.


[1] Letter to Marin Mersenne, 13 July 1640, cited by Margulis, L., and Sagan, D. (1995/2000). What Is Life?, Berkeley: University of California Press, 37-8.

[2] Quoted by Masson, J. M., and McCarthy, S. (1995). When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, New York: Delta, 18.

[3] Talbot, M. (2008). “Birdbrain: The woman behind the world’s chattiest parrots.” The New Yorker(May 12, 2008).

[4] de Waal, F. B. M. (2009). “Darwin’s last laugh.” Nature, 460(9 July 2009), 175.

[5] Edelman, G. M., and Tononi, G. (2000). A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination, New York: Basic Books, 211-12.

[6] LeDoux, J. (1996). The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life, New York: Simon & Schuster, 125.

[7] Bush, G., Luu, P., and Posner, M. I. (2000). “Cognitive and emotional influences in anterior cingulate cortex.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4(6: June 2000), 215-222.

[8] Kerns, J. G., Cohen, J. D., MacDonald, A. W. I., Cho, R. Y., Stenger, V. A., and Carter, C. S. (2004). “Anterior Cingulate Conflict Monitoring and Adjustments in Control.” Science, 303(13 February 2004), 1023-1026.

[9] Gallagher, H. L., and Frith, C. D. (2003). “Functional imaging of ‘theory of mind’.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(2: February 2003), 77-83.  Note: while this study focuses on ACC’s role in the human sense of self, (including “secondary self,”) the role of the ACC in forming a mammalian sense of core self would appear to homologous.

[10] For a detailed discussion, see “Descartes and the Pineal Gland,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[11] Wikipedia entry on “Lobotomy.”

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.