May 25, 2012

Video of Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex presentation

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

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

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

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

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.


“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 20, 2011

External symbolic storage

Posted in Language and Myth, Values and the pfc tagged , , at 10:11 am by Jeremy

My last post described what I call the “external pfc” – the accumulation of symbolic networks of meaning that literally sculpt the growing brain of every infant born into a particular culture.  This idea is not completely new.  A celebrated and influential cognitive neuroscientist, Merlin Donald, has described the power of what he calls “external symbolic storage,” an idea that has generated much interest in academic circles, including symposia dedicated solely to exploring this idea further.  This section of my book, Liology: Towards an Integration of Science and Spirit, describes the linkage between Donald’s idea of “external symbolic storage” and my concept of the external pfc.


External symbolic storage

Through these mechanisms, the external pfc exerts a profound influence on the shaping of the individual mind.  However, the power of the external pfc is magnified even further by the existence of what Donald refers to as “external symbolic storage.”  When early humans arrived in Europe and began carving and painting their first artefacts, they were forming external manifestations of the symbolic web of meaning structured by their mythic consciousness.  These were, in Donald’s words, “the first irrefutable expressions of a symbolic process that is capable of conveying a rich cultural heritage of images and probably stories from generation to generation.  And they are the first concrete evidence of the storage of such symbolic information outside of a human brain.  They mark a change in the structure of human cultures.”[1]  These were the original forms of external symbolic storage: the set of physical objects constructed, shaped or used by humans to hold and communicate a symbolic meaning beyond mere utilitarian function.

An early example of external symbolic storage: cave paintings from Lascaux, France.

While artwork is the most obvious example of external symbolic storage, it also includes personal ornamentation such as jewellery, stone-working styles, and even the spatial patterns of how a campsite is used.[2]  The crucial importance of this new form of symbolic storage is that now, the external pfc no longer resides merely in the network of other people’s minds.  It now takes up permanent residence in a set of concrete symbols that remain fixed, outliving  those who initially constructed them, and communicating stable symbolic meaning to countless new generations.  As Donald puts it, “this is more than a metaphor; 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.”[3]

The power of external symbolic storage to shape the human mind arises partially from its fixed and stable attributes, but also because the nature of its symbolic meaning is different from the meaning that arises within a human mind.  Donald explains this crucial distinction by contrasting the biological memory records created by the brain, known as engrams, with external symbols which he calls “exograms.”  Engrams, he writes, are ” impermanent, small, hard to refine, impossible to display in awareness for any length of time, and difficult to locate and recall…  In contrast, external symbols give us stable, permanent, virtually unlimited memory records.”[4]

Because of this distinction, engrams and exograms store a qualitatively different type of information.  Consider a common abstract notion, such as patriotism.  Each time you think of your country, your mind will produce something slightly different than the previous time.  The concept arises within a tangled, momentary web of feeling, emotion, symbol, memory and narrative.  Now think of your nation’s flag.  The information stored in this external symbol is far more fixed, virtually unalterable.  The next time the flag is unfurled it will store the same symbolic information that it held the previous time.  Of course, over extended periods, even the information of exograms may degrade or disappear.  We no longer know what the Lascaux cave paintings symbolize.  But it is the relatively fixed nature of exograms that gives them so much power to influence each new generation of human minds.

A more modern example of external symbolic storage

External symbolic storage may therefore be said to stabilize symbolic meaning within a group, thus permitting communities to expand massively in size and complexity without disintegrating.  As Tomasello has pointed out, institutions that we take for granted such as marriage, money or government, exist only because their reality is grounded in “the collective practices and beliefs of a social group” that relies on external symbolic storage to maintain permanent and stable meaning.  Since the days of the Upper Paleolithic revolution, the sheer volume of external symbolic storage has of course expanded vastly.  In our modern world, it incorporates virtually everything around us, including books, newspapers, the internet, television, music, architecture, interior design, fashion, road signs… the list is endless.   Without external symbolic storage, human civilization could never have developed.  However, it has implications for the autonomy of each individual pfc’s search for meaning which need to be clearly understood.

[1] Donald (2001) op. cit., 374.

[2] For a full discussion of these other types of external symbolic storage, see Wadley, L. (2001). “What is Cultural Modernity?  A General View and a South African Perspective from Rose Cottage Cave.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 11(2(2001)), 201-21.

[3] Donald, (2001) op. cit., 313.

[4] Ibid., 308-10.

May 11, 2011

The External Pfc

Posted in consciousness, Language and Myth tagged , , , at 10:46 pm by Jeremy

This blog describes how our consciousness is under excessive control from our prefrontal cortex (pfc).  But it’s not just our own pfc that controls our consciousness.  Far more powerful is the control exercised by the external pfc,  that cumulative collection of symbolic patterns over countless generations that governs how our own brains connected up as we developed in infancy.  That’s what this section of my book, Liology: Towards An Integration of Science and Spirit, is about.


The external pfc

With all the discussion of metaphors, you might be tempted to think that the notion of an individual’s pfc being molded by the thought structures around her is itself a metaphor, that it’s not literally describing a physical process.  However, in this case, it’s no metaphor.  The pfc of each individual infant growing up in her culture is quite literally shaped by the structures of thought that have evolved in that specific culture.

In order to see how this can be, it’s necessary to understand the basic process of how an infant’s brain matures.  In recent years, neuroscientists have made great progress in identifying these dynamics, and it’s now become clear that infant brain development is to a large extent a pruning process.  In the embryo and the newly born infant, massive amounts of neuronal connections, known as synapses, are formed quite variably and spontaneously.  As the infant gets used to certain behaviors, such as grasping, nursing or cooing, the synaptic junctions that led to a successful behavior quickly get strengthened by increased usage.  However, those connections which are never used by the infant begin to wither away.  As the infant grows, this process of synaptic reinforcement continues until some pathways are massively strengthened while countless others which turned out be useless have died out.  A useful analogy to visualize this process is an uncultivated field of tall grass through which, all of a sudden, people begin walking to get to various places they need to go.  At first, everyone’s beating about the bush, but after a while, certain trails begin to appear in the grass, as the most successful routes taken become more popular and cause the wild grass to get flattened down, so that eventually clear pathways emerge through the field.  The clearer the pathway, the more likely it is to be used by the next person, thus leading to a positive feedback cycle.  This process in the brain is sometimes referred to as synaptic pruning, because the less useful neurons and synaptic pathways are pruned away by lack of use.[1]*

Neuronal connections grow over time like trails through tall grass

This is how the pfc of each individual infant is literally molded by external factors which, as Donald describes, “can actually change the operational architecture of cognition in the individual by influencing the developing brain.”[2]  In a 2009 paper entitled “Foundations for a New Science of Learning,” one team points out that human infants remain immature for a far longer period than other animals, as the brain continues to grow throughout childhood.  This slow process of maturation permits the brain to adapt to the specific variables of the outside world through a process that they call “neural commitment,” whereby the brain’s “neural architecture and circuitry” is molded based on the “structured models” of the environment that the infant perceives.[3]  Another research team supports these findings, describing how “the extended postnatal development of the human cortex” permits “synaptic proliferation and pruning” to “restructure the maturing brain in response to the environment and to the community of practices in which development is embedded.”[4]

Because of this process, a human born in the modern world might be genetically identical to one of our ancestors born before, say, the Upper Paleolithic revolution, but if a brain scan could be performed on both individuals at maturity, they would look very different.  Cognitive neuroscientist Wolf Singer points out that “the organization of our brains is not only determined by the genes” but is also shaped by the influences of our “socio-cultural environment …  This is the reason why the fine-grained connectivity of our brains differs from that of our cave-dwelling ancestors despite the rather similar genetic dispositions.”  He explains that the differences in our brains would not be in the general layout and gross structure, but rather in the “the dense meshwork of local intracortical connections.”[5]

The external pfc is the sculptor of each individual's brain

So the brain is literally sculpted by the influences it receives in its early years.  But what’s doing the sculpting?  What I’m calling the “external pfc” is the cumulative symbolic network of meaning that’s been constructed by countless generations of minds within a given cultural tradition.  The pfc of each person born into that tradition is sculpted by the previous accumulation of symbolic meanings, and then may contribute its own unique interpretations of the inherited symbolic network to modify incrementally the external pfc for the next generation.  It’s important to understand that, although the external pfc, with its accumulation of prior meaning, is far more powerful than any individual pfc, the relationship between them is, to a certain degree, mutually interactive.  As described by one team of cognitive scientists:

The nervous system, the body and the environment are highly structured dynamical systems, coupled to each other on multiple levels.  Because they are so thoroughly enmeshed – biologically, ecologically and socially – a better conception of brain, body and environment would be as mutually embedded systems rather than as internally and externally located with respect to one another.[6]

The integration of symbolic meaning between an individual and his culture allows “human beings to, in effect, pool their cognitive resources both contemporaneously and over historical time in ways that are unique in the animal kingdom.”[7]  This symbolic interaction is the hallmark of culture and is viewed by many experts as the major driver of the massive changes that humans have brought to their environment over the millennia.  The famed evolutionary biologist, Conrad Waddington, sees as the defining characteristic of humanity “an extremely elaborate system by which the whole conceptual understanding of the past is made available to present recruits to human society.  We have here what in effect amounts to a new mode of hereditary transmission.  It may be referred to as the cultural or ‘socio-genetic’ system.”[8]

Is the external pfc, then, merely another term for what’s generally known as culture?  While there are subtle differences between the two, this is largely correct.  However, the word “culture” is often very broadly and loosely defined, and so I call it the “external pfc” to emphasize the symbolic network of meaning that interacts with the pfc of each individual growing up within a culture.  Two different definitions of culture by experts in the field will illustrate my point:

1.  “Culture is information capable of affecting individuals’ behavior that they acquire from other members of their species through teaching, imitation, and other forms of social transmission.”[9]

2.  “By cognition, I mean simply the internal structure of ideas that represent the world and that directs behaviors appropriate to the world represented.  By culture, I intend only the distributed structure of cognition, that is, the causal networking of ideas and behaviors within and between minds.”[10]

The first definition emphasizes a one-way flow from society to the individual and focuses on the behavioral, rather than cognitive, effects of cultural transmission.  There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this definition, but it misses the dynamic I’ve been describing.  The second definition, on the other hand, points out the “distributed structure of cognition” and emphasizes a two-way flow of causal networking.   This cumulative and dynamic network of meaning “within and between minds” is what I mean by the external pfc.

However, interactive as the relationship may be between the external pfc and the individual mind, it’s certainly not a level playing field.  The external pfc is guaranteed to shape the individual’s pfc far more extensively than vice versa.  There are a number of reasons for this.  The first is that the external pfc, as a cumulative aggregation of meaning, offers a far more extensive modeling of the universe than an individual mind could ever hope to achieve.  Secondly, the individual mind is being molded when it is too new and unformed to make up its own patterns of meaning, so that by the time an individual has achieved a level of self-awareness enabling him to attempt to structure his own meaning, the neural pathways in his mind have already been largely sculpted.

Donald describes well how the process he calls “deep enculturation” begins from birth to “affect the way major parts of the executive brain become wired up during development”:

Shortly after birth, the infant is wedded to a specific culture that takes control of its cognitive development through a series of transactions.  This may sound improbable because cultural linkages are invisible to the child.  They hide behind many surrogates, such as parents, family, tribal customs, institutions, and so on.  These are the carriers of the culture, the front lines of the infant’s encounter with vast collective forces that it never sees and whose existence even the surrogates may not suspect.[11]

The impact of deep enculturation is “so close to us,” Donald notes, “that we are normally unaware of it.”  In fact, as we mature, the most structural aspects of this enculturation become embedded deep in our unconscious.  “All of our knowledge and beliefs,” write Lakoff and Johnson, “are framed in terms of a conceptual system that resides mostly in the cognitive unconscious,” which acts like a “hidden hand that shapes how we conceptualize all aspects of our experience…, how we automatically and unconsciously comprehend what we experience.”[12]


[1] The neuroscientist Gerald Edelman is credited with first developing this understanding of infant brain development, with his theory of “neural Darwinism.”  See Rosenfield, I. (1986). “Neural Darwinism: A New Approach to Memory and Perception.” The New York Review of Books, 33(15 [Oct. 9, 1986]).  Also see Edelman, G. M., and Tononi, G. (2000). A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination, New York: Basic Books, 83-4 for a discussion in Edelman’s own words.  Separately, neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changeux developed a similar theory of “learning by selection”; see Rosenfield, I., and Ziff, E. (2008). “How the Mind Works: Revelations.” The New York Review of Books, June 26, 2008, 62-65 for a discussion of Changeux’s approach.

[2] Donald, M. (1999). “Material Culture and Cognition: Concluding Thoughts”, in C. Renfrew and C. Scarre, (eds.), Cognition and Material Culture: the Archaeology of Symbolic Storage. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, pp. 181-187.

[3] Meltzoff, A. N., Kuhl, P. K., Movellan, J., and Sejnowski, T. J. (2009). “Foundations for a New Science of Learning.” Science, 325(17 July 2009), 284-288.

[4] Brooks, P. J., and Ragir, S. (2008). “Prolonged plasticity: Necessary and sufficient for language-ready brains.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 31(5 (2008)), 514-515.

[5] Singer, W. (2009). “The Brain, a Complex Self-Organizing System.” European Review, 17(2), 321-29.

[6] Thompson, E., and Varela, F. J. (2001). “Radical embodiment: neural dynamics and consciousness.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5(10), 418-425.

[7] Tomasello, M. (1999). “The Human Adaptation for Culture.” Annual Review of Anthropology(28), 509-29.

[8] Waddington, C. H. (1959). “Evolutionary Systems – Animal and Human.” Nature, 183, 1634-1638.

[9] Richerson, P. J., and Boyd, R. (2005). Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[10] Atran, S. (2002) op .cit., 10.

[11]Donald, M. (2001). A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness, New York: Norton, 211-12.

[12] Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, New York: Basic Books, 13.

November 28, 2010

The patterning instinct

Posted in Hunter-gatherers, Language and Myth tagged , , , , at 12:11 am by Jeremy

The human prefrontal cortex (pfc) instills in us a patterning instinct that shapes patterns of meaning to make sense of our world.  This section from my book Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness explains how this patterning instinct forms the essence of our mythic consciousness that is the source of religious thought.  It then begins to explore the question of how an infant’s pfc first begins to lock into the patterns of meaning of its specific culture.


The patterning instinct

The !Kung Bushmen possess one of the most ancient unbroken cultural traditions in the world.  As noted earlier, they belong genetically to one of the earliest lineages of the human race, dating back to before the takeover by the L3 lineage which now dominates the globe.  Their technology, “if uncovered by an archeologist and taken in isolation, would place them in the late Stone Age.”  Not surprisingly, anthropologists have been drawn to study them to gain insights into the earliest forms of human cognition.  Merlin Donald describes how “myth and religion permeate every activity” of their daily lives from the way they hunt wild animals to the celebration of a girl’s first menstruation.  The !Kung take their beliefs so seriously that they will rarely even discuss them; when they do, it’s only with hushed voices, and they’re afraid even to utter the names of their gods.  Donald summarizes their mythical thought  as “a unified, collectively held system of explanatory and regulatory metaphors.” He sees their sophisticated and complex ritual and myth as a paradigmatic example of how the human mind “has expanded its reach … to a comprehensive modeling of the entire human universe.”[1]

!Kung Bushmen: their mythic consciousness arises from the patterning instinct of the pfc

This is the essence of the mythic consciousness that arose with the Upper Paleolithic revolution, and it’s one that Donald relates closely to the development of fully modern language.  Modern language was first used, he proposes, “to construct conceptual models of the human universe.  Its function was evidently tied to the development of integrative thought – to the grand unifying synthesis of formerly disconnected, time-bound snippets of information.”  The pre-eminence of myth in early human society, Donald argues, is “testimony that humans were using language for a totally new kind of integrative thought,” which involved the “first attempts at symbolic models of the human universe.”[2] This is why, as Boyer has put it, “religion as we know it probably appeared with the modern mind.”[3]

In the previous chapter, we discussed how the pfc’s patterning instinct works to mold the young infant’s brain by picking up patterns in the voices she hears around her until she locks into those sounds that match her particular language, ignoring those that don’t fit.[4] Similarly, we now see the pfc honing into patterns of meaning to make sense of the everyday world, to create Donald’s “comprehensive modeling of the entire human universe.”  Crucially, the way the pfc applies meaning is to use the same symbolic behavior that it had developed for its social and linguistic capabilities.  As Deacon describes it, “the symbolic capacity seems to have brought with it a predisposition to project itself into what it models.”  Deacon compares the pfc’s symbolic predisposition to the relentlessly focused perceptions of an autistic savant.  The savant, he writes, “instead of seeing a field of wildflowers, sees 247 flowers.  Similarly, we don’t just see a world of physical processes, accidents, reproducing organisms, and biological information processors churning out complex plans, desires, and needs.  Instead, we see the handiwork of an infinite wisdom, the working out of a divine plan, the children of a creator, and a conflict between those on the side of good and those on the side of evil.”  This is the inevitable and all-embracing power of the mythic consciousness.  “Wherever we look, we expect to find purpose.  All things can be seen as signs and symbols of an all-knowing consciousness at work… We are not just applying symbolic interpretations to human words and events; all the universe has become a symbol.”[5]

It’s only in recent years that advances in cognitive neuroscience have enabled the linkage of our symbolic drive for meaning with the physiology of the pfc.  However, earlier observers have at times noticed the same unyielding drive for meaning in the human condition without the explicit attribution to the pfc.  The father of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin, saw this “craving to understand” as a natural consequence of human cognition, writing that “as soon as the important faculties of the imagination, wonder, and curiosity, together with some power of reasoning, had become partially developed, man would naturally crave to understand what was passing around him, and would have vaguely speculated on his own existence.”[6] The influential 20th century anthropologist Clifford Geertz saw something similar, describing a human as a “symbolizing, conceptualizing, meaning-seeking animal,” whose “drive to make sense out of experience, to give it form and order, is evidently as real and as pressing as the more familiar biological needs.”  Geertz sees religion, art and ideology – the products of mythic consciousness – as “attempts to provide orientation for an organism which cannot live in a world it is unable to understand.”[7] More recently, other observers have arrived at similar conceptions to the pfc’s patterning instinct, one group describing a “cognitive imperative” for humans to “construct myths to explain their world,” and another researcher summarizing it as a “narrative drive” to “create meaning to our world.”[8]

Clifford Geertz: saw a human as a "symbolizing, conceptualizing, meaning-seeking animal"

Powerful as this patterning instinct of the pfc appears to be, we would severely understate the overwhelming force of its influence in molding our human consciousness unless we look more closely at the process of how the molding and patterning takes place in an infant’s developing mind.  Just as language “warps the perception” of an infant as she listens to the patterns of sounds around her, to the extent that a grown Japanese person can’t distinguish between the sounds /r/ and /l/, so the mythic patterns of thought informing the culture a child is born into will literally shape how that child’s pfc constructs meaning in her world.  It’s as though there is an external pfc created by the cumulative symbolic constructions of generations of minds gone before, which has already assembled the comprehensive mythological structures of thought that will be inherited by the new generation.  How this “external pfc” molds each individual’s own pfc as they grow up in their culture is what we’ll now examine.

[1] Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 213-16, 267.  Donald cites an earlier study of the !Kung Bushmen in his evaluation of their cultural traditions: Lee, R.B. and De Vore, I. (1976).  Kalahari hunter-gatherers: Studies of the !Kung Sang and their neighbors. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Boyer (2001) op. cit., 323.

[4] Chapter 3, page 39.

[5] Deacon (1997) op. cit., 435.

[6] Cited from Darwin, C. (1871)The Descent of Man by Sjöblom (2007) op. cit.

[7] Cited by Guthrie (1993) op. cit., 32.

[8] d’Aquili, E., and Newberg, A. B. (1999). The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 86; Sjöblom (2007) op. cit.

October 25, 2010

The Rise of Mythic Consciousness

Posted in Language and Myth tagged , , , at 11:14 pm by Jeremy

This chapter from my book, Towards a Democracy of Consciousness, investigates the rise of the mythic and religious form of consciousness in human evolution, beginning with the first symbolic expressions around 70,000-40,000 years ago.  It examines recent anthropological interpretations of the cognitive drivers of religion, and proposes a way to understand these drivers within the context of the “patterning instinct” of the prefrontal cortex (pfc).  The chapter goes to explain the rise of the “external pfc,” the powerful set of symbolic structures created by cultural traditions, expressed in tangible symbolic forms that Merlin Donald has called “external symbolic storage.”  The overwhelming power of the external pfc is contrasted with our individual minds, showing how we are all “ensnared in an inescapable web” of other people’s symbols, in the memorable words of Terrence Deacon.


Chapter 4: The Rise of Mythic Consciousness

The Great Leap Forward

In  September 1940, in Lascaux, France, four boys entered a cave their dog had discovered some days earlier, and stumbled upon what turned out to be the most dramatic spectacle of Paleolithic cave art in the world.  The cave, along with several hundred others scattered around Europe, contains over six hundred magnificent paintings of aurochs (the wild ancestor of domestic cattle), horses and deer, some as big as fifteen feet long.  More astonishing than the size and number of paintings, though, is their breathtaking sophistication and beauty.  This is no mere “primitive” or “prototype” art, but an expression of the power and mystery of the natural world that awes us today as much as the greatest art of more recent times.[1]

Aurochs from Lascaux cave" a powerful expression of the mystery of the natural world

In this chapter, we’ll see how these early flowerings of the new mythic consciousness relate to the rise of homo sapiens, and examine the implications for how our early human ancestors began to seek meaning in their world.  We’ll place these developments in their historical context as one of the most important stages in all of human history, and investigate how it both originated from the pfc’s evolved functions and fuelled the rise of the pfc’s power within human consciousness ever since.

Female figurine from Hohle Fels Cave

The cave paintings of Lascaux have been dated to approximately seventeen thousand years ago which means that, ancient as they are, they’re actually part of a tradition that had already been flourishing in Europe for over fifteen thousand years.  In recent times, a cave site named Hohle Fels in southwestern Germany has been yielding a slew of magnificent carved ivory specimens, dating as far back as thirty-five thousand years ago, including a figurine of a bird, a “Venus” figure with huge breasts and carefully carved genitalia, three “lion-men” with human bodies and lion heads, and the world’s earliest known musical instrument: a bone flute complete with well-spaced holes.[2] These beautiful objects are constructed with just as much aesthetic sophistication as the Lascaux paintings, powerfully demonstrating, in the words of one archaeologist, that “instead of a gradual evolution of skills, the first modern humans in Europe were in fact astonishingly precocious artists.”[3]

Lion man from Hohle Fehls Cave

When you look at these intense expressions of artistic vision, it’s easy to understand what archaeologists mean when they say this was the time that humans achieved “cultural modernity.”[4] We may not understand what the precise symbolic significance was of the Venus or the Lion-man, but there’s no doubt that they held symbolic meaning to their makers.  This revolution in symbolic thought didn’t just occur in these carvings, but in virtually every aspect of “the entire amazing behavioral panoply that characterizes symbolic Homo sapiens worldwide today.”[5] For the first time, humans were “finely sewing garments using tiny eyed bone needles;” they were “baking ceramic figures in simple but remarkably effective kilns,” using complex tools with multiple components and devising “elaborate notation systems.” They were engaging in long-distance trade, utilizing storage facilities, and organizing their homes just like we do today, with different spaces for kitchens, sleeping areas, and eating.[6] This is why, in the view of archaeologist Paul Mellars, “to describe the Upper Paleolithic revolution in Europe as … an explosion in explicitly symbolic behavior and expression is in no sense an exaggeration.”[7] Or in the words of Peter Conard, the archaeologist responsible for many of the stunning findings at Hohle Fels, this is the “point in human evolution when people became like us.”[8]

It’s an impressive moment in human history.  However, some archaeologists have recently had the temerity to look past the great accomplishments achieved in that period and ask “why didn’t it happen sooner?”  Why did it take so long for symbolic thinking to really get going?  It’s generally agreed that humans were anatomically modern by about 150,000 years ago or earlier.  And as you’ll recall from the previous chapter, even the proponents of the “late and sudden” emergence of language, Noble and Davidson, argue that it emerged sometime between 100,000 and 70,000 years ago.[9] So what were our ancestors doing for fifty thousand or so years before they finally began acting in ways that we can call culturally modern?  “Why the long delay,” asks Merlin Donald, “before this cultural potential was realized?”[10] This rather awkward question was first framed by archaeologist Colin Renfrew who referred to it as the “sapient paradox.”[11]*


[1] Bahn, P. (2007).  Cave Art: A Guide to the Decorated Ice Age Caves of Europe. London: Frances Lincoln Ltd.  See also Lewis-Williams, D. (2002). The Mind In the Cave, London: Thames & Hudson, 55.

[2] Sinclair, A. (2003). “Art of the ancients.” Nature, 426(18/25 December 2003), 774-5; Mellars, P. (2009). “Origins of the female image.” Nature, 459(14 May 2009), 176-177; Conard, N. J. (2009). “A female figurine from the basal Aurignacian of Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany.” Nature, 459(14 May 2009), 248-252; Adler, D. S. (2009). “The earliest musical tradition.” Nature, 460(6 August 2009), 695-696.

[3] Sinclair, A., op. cit.

[4] Conard, N. J. (2010). “Cultural modernity: Consensus or conundrum?” PNAS, 107(17), 7621-7622.

[5] Tattersall, I. (2008). “An Evolutionary Framework for the Acquisition of Symbolic Cognition by Homo sapiens.” Comparative Cognition & Behavior Reviews, 3, 99-114.

[6] Tattersall, op. cit.; Mellars, P. (2005). “The Impossible Coincidence. A Single-Species Model for the Origins of Modern Human Behavior in Europe.” Evolutionary Anthropology, 14(1), 12-27; Bar-Yosef, O. (2002). “The Upper Paleolithic Revolution.” Annual Review of Anthropology, 2002(31), 363-93.

[7] Mellars (2005), op. cit.

[8] Conard, op. cit.

[9] See Chapter 3, page 37.

[10] Donald, M. (2008). “The sapient paradox: can cognitive neuroscience solve it?” Brain(December 2, 2008).

[11] Renfrew, C. (2007). Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind, New York: Modern Library: Random House.  Renfrew’s original framing of the question dealt not just with the time-lag between anatomical modernity and the Upper Paleolithic revolution, but also the ensuing time-lag until the rise of agriculture, some thirty thousand years later.

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.

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.

November 10, 2009

More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement

Posted in Book/article Reviews tagged , , , , at 5:27 pm by Jeremy

More Than Human Cover - SmallestMore Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement

By Ramez Naam

New York: Broadway Books

Johnny Ray was a healthy Vietnam vet who, one day, suffered a massive stroke, paralyzing him from the neck down.  In More Than Human, Ramez Naam describes the miraculous intervention of technology, whereby Ray, in 1998, received a neural implant, permitting him to move a cursor on a computer monitor using nothing but his own thoughts, imagining he was moving his hand.  As time went on, Ray stopped having to even think about his hands: he simply willed the cursor to move, and it moved.  As Naam describes it, “In some sense, the computer had become a part of him.”

This, to me, is the crux of Naam’s book about the promise of re-engineering the human organism.  Who could possibly deny someone like Johnny Ray the ability to regain some small part of his existence?  But then, where does the line get drawn?  The unthinkable possibilities of one generation become the avant-garde of the next, and the mundane realities of the generations to follow.  As Naam would have it, this is a good thing.  A very good thing.  In fact, he sees future biological enhancements as the next step in the great human tradition of using technology to improve our lives, from the Stone Age onwards.

In a recent post, I’ve traced the near-mystical vision those who believe in the benefits of a merged cyber-human future, back to the mind-body dualism of Plato and his followers.  Naam is clearly in this camp, but he deserves a considered hearing.  He writes his book with humanity and sensitivity.  He’s interested in the improvement of people’s real human condition in the here-and-now, and believes he’s simply exploring the path that we’re destined to take to a benevolent future.

But what a future!  Naam describes in some detail a sci-fi type of scenario where getting a neural implant becomes the de rigeur activity of the time, a bit like getting a smartphone in 2009.  The neural implant essentially puts your conscious mind on steroids, improving your power over your own bodily drives in addition to turning you into a power-web surfer simply by thinking your queries.  But then, when you and your implant communicate with other equally-empowered individuals, you’re in a whole new world.  In just the way that the network of the Internet transformed the power of an individual computer, so neural-implant communication with others would transform the very definition of being a human.  As Naam puts it:

You routinely trade memories and experiences with other implanted humans.  You learn to view the world through other people’s eyes.  You let others see through yours… You can no longer imagine a disconnected life.

What I find most fascinating in this discussion is that it’s really the prefrontal cortex (“pfc”) and its “conceptual consciousness” that’s being enhanced.  (You can see the pfc’s unique attributes summarized in another post.)  Ever since the rise of what neuroscientist Merlin Donald describes as “external symbolic storage”[1] – humanity’s entire collection of symbolic constructs ranging from cave art and necklaces to writing and computer code – each individual consciousness is structured from birth by what I can the “external pfc”.  In Naam’s future, this external pfc breaks down the barrier between external and internal and begins to morph into a gigantic superorganism.  Here’s how Naam describes it:

We individuals are, in a sense, like neurons in a global brain – a marketplace of ideas, experiences, and innovations.  The more power we gain to communicate with one another, the more integrated that aggregate brain becomes.  In the last few centuries, we’ve taken tremendous steps, from small isolated pockets of computation in individual tribes and civilizations to the World Wide Web… The next step is the integration of our biological brains: unlocking the inner ideas and experiences we have, and allowing us to share them with one another, to weave them together into thoughts in a world wide mind.

The pfc’s “tyranny” over our consciousness transforms, in this scenario, into utter domination.  “L’état, c’est moi,” in the immortal words of Sun King Louis XIV – “The state?  It is me.”

To me, what’s most interesting is to see how people like Naam eliminate the distinction between our humanity and the attributes of the pfc.  If you think of yourself as a pfc housed in a body, then of course you’ll be delighted to consider a future world where your pfc is enhanced.  To understand what I mean, consider this passage, where Naam quotes from bio-ethicist Leon Kass:

The human soul yearns for, longs for, aspires to some conditions, some state, some goal toward which our earthly activities are directed but which cannot be attained in earthly life.  Our soul’s reach exceeds our grasp; it seeks more than continuance; it reaches for something beyond us, something that for the most part eludes us.

Here, Kass is describing “our soul” purely in terms of pfc-mediated functions: forward planning, aspirations, abstractions.  This is to be expected, since our Western notion of “soul” is so closely interlinked with the Cartesian, dualistic notion of “mind” (as described in another post.)

But now let’s see where Naam takes this idea:

This hunger, this reach that exceeds our grasp, this aspiration to attain something ‘which cannot be attained in earthly life’ is the force that has built our world.  It has produced our art, our music, our philosophy.  It has built our deepest understanding of the mysteries of the universe.  Never to say enough, always to want more – that is what it means to be human. (My italics.)

Now, here’s where I profoundly disagree with Naam.  What he’s describing is not “our humanity”; it’s one of the consequences of the dominance of the pfc in our human consciousness.  As I’ve argued in another post, even this seemingly defining human characteristic, roughly comparable to what the Buddhist name dukkha, may have emerged in its current form only with the development of sedentism, agriculture, and the consequent rise of the notion of private property and hierarchy.

Have you ever experienced moments when everything seemed just right?  After making love, perhaps, or in the middle of playing sports, or hiking in the countryside?  Have you ever looked at a sunset and lost yourself in its beauty?  Did you stop being human during those moments?  Or did you, perhaps, experience the sensation of what life feels like when the never-ending grasp of our pfc quiets itself, and harmonizes with the rest of our consciousness?

I would argue that our humanity is, in fact, the result of the dynamic interaction between our animate and conceptual consciousness.  When we’re taking a piss or enjoying a meal, we’re still human.  These are just aspects of our humanity that our pfc-dominated culture tends to ignore, because they’re, well, like all the other animals.  What’s going on is that Naam – along with most people in Western culture – has conflated the features that make humans unique among animals with the definition of our humanity.  And those things that make humans unique are, by and large, incorporated in our conceptual consciousness, the attributes of the pfc.  The result of this conflation is that humanity becomes defined by the pfc.  And if we humans are our pfc, then what’s wrong with biological enhancement, neural implants, and the full-blast acceleration to cyber- immortality that (in another post) I’ve called “infinition”?

Naam chose an interesting title to his book: More Than Human.  If you think about it, it gives the game away.  Our humanity is implicitly defined as a collection of attributes that differentiate us from our animate consciousness: our rationality, our will-power, our intelligence.  Therefore, permitting technology to enhance those attributes makes us “more than human.”  But if, in fact, our humanity also incorporates our animate consciousness, then what do these enhancements make us?  Less than human?  Dehumanized? New form of human?  Human 2.0?  This, I think, it the crucial issue we need to delve into as we debate the implications of biological enhancement.  Are we as a species making ourselves extinct in paving the way for Ramez Naam’s future?  And if so, is that a good or a bad thing?

[1] Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.


October 20, 2009

Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture

Posted in Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture tagged , at 1:35 am by Jeremy

In my previous post, I discussed the stirrings of the pfc’s power during human prehistory in the form of language and myth.  As noted in that post, we see mythic symbols first appearing in the archeological record by around 30-40,000 years ago.

But it was about 10,000 years ago that an equally important revolution occurred in the pfc’s transformation of our human experience: the rise of agriculture.  Many anthropologists view the domestication of animals and plants as inextricably linked with what they call “a revolution of symbols” creating the “alienated sense of self … necessary for agriculture.” [1] Humans began to see themselves as agents separate from nature, who could plan, control and transform the plants and animals around them for their own purpose.  This was the beginning of the “domination and exploitation of the environment… the very foundations of our culture and mentality.” [2]

An important pfc function – long-term planning – became a key characteristic of agricultural society.  No longer could you just take what Nature offered.  You had to plan for the future, store seeds away for next year’s planting even if your family was hungry now.  And along with this new structure of society arose a whole host of pfc-mediated concepts that have become an integral part of our human consciousness: ownership, complex hierarchies and specialization of labor.

The gains from our transition to agriculture are self-evident: reliability of housing, food and clothing … the list goes on and on.  But something else we gained – something less beneficial – may be gleaned by Captain Cook’s description of the hunter-gatherer Tasmanian islanders he came across on his travels:

They live in a Tranquillity which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Condition: The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life, they covet not Magnificent Houses, Household-stuff etc… In short they seem’d to set no value upon any thing we gave them… they think themselves provided with all the necessarys of Life and that they have no superfluities.”[3]

There’s a highly politicized debate ongoing about hunter-gatherer culture: were they in fact “happier” and “more affluent” than humans became once we got “trapped” by the requirements of agriculture?  This debate usually tells us more about the political biases of the debaters than the realities of hunter-gatherer societies (i.e. “hunter-gatherers were happy because they had no possessions” versus “hunter-gatherers were warlike because they lacked civilization”).

In another post, I plan to explore that issue further, but for now there’s  something important (and non-political) that I’d like to focus on: something the Tasmanian islanders and other forager cultures didn’t have that we do have in plenty.  It’s summed up by the Buddhist term dukkha – the suffering that arises from clinging to things, possessions, desires, plans.  In short, I suggest that the pfc-mediated concepts that accompanied the rise of agriculture gave dukkha to human society in addition to its other gifts.

Perhaps even more important than agriculture in the pfc’s ascendancy to power was the rise of what Merlin Donald calls “external symbolic storage” – the complete set of symbols created by society on walls, papyrus, stone or clay and passed down from one generation to another.[4]

The rise of “external symbolic storage” began as early as Upper Paleolithic times, attested to most recently by the spectacular finds at Hohle Fels cave in Germany.  Now, the pfc had a means of transmitting its concepts that was even more powerful than language.  Ideas could be fixed and instilled into the pfcs of each new generation, automatically shaping each developing mind to view the world based on a previously created construct.

Early external pfc: Writing tablet from Uruk, Mesopotamia, c. 3000 BCE

Early external pfc: Writing tablet from Uruk, Mesopotamia, c. 3000 BCE

But following the rise of agriculture, and the resultant specialization of human activities, came a new, potent form of external symbolic storage: writing.   The advent of writing made symbol transmission even more powerful, creating what we might think of as an “external pfc” – a detailed symbolic construct of the world built up over millennia, outliving its human creators, shaping the mind of each new generation.

In my next post, I’m going to look at a strange, new development in human thought that began in the first millennium BCE and has profoundly affected our Western way of thinking ever since: the rise of dualism.

[1] Hodder, I.: Cauvin, J., (2001 11:1). ‘Review Feature: The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture’. Cambridge Archaeological Journal:105-121.

[2] Cauvin, J., (1994/2000). The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Quoted in: Bellwood, P., (2005). First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

[4] Donald, M., (1991). Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.