May 11, 2011
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.*
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.” 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. 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.”
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.”
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.
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.” 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Singer, W. (2009). “The Brain, a Complex Self-Organizing System.” European Review, 17(2), 321-29.
 Thompson, E., and Varela, F. J. (2001). “Radical embodiment: neural dynamics and consciousness.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5(10), 418-425.
 Tomasello, M. (1999). “The Human Adaptation for Culture.” Annual Review of Anthropology(28), 509-29.
 Waddington, C. H. (1959). “Evolutionary Systems – Animal and Human.” Nature, 183, 1634-1638.
 Richerson, P. J., and Boyd, R. (2005). Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
 Atran, S. (2002) op .cit., 10.
Donald, M. (2001). A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness, New York: Norton, 211-12.
 Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, New York: Basic Books, 13.
May 17, 2010
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. 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.
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.” 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.
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.
 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.
 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.
 Gazzaniga, M. S. (2000). “Cerebral specialization and interhemispheric communication: Does the corpus callosum enable the human condition?” Brain, 123(7), 1293-1326.
 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.
February 12, 2010
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.]
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.” 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 bed, and when it does fit and seems to obey symbolic rules, we find the result comforting, even beautiful.
“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.
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.” 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.” I share his admiration and awe.
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.
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.
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.
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!
 M. R. Bennett, P. M. S. Hacker (2003). Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience, Blackwell Publishing, pp. 68-73.
 Goldberg, E. (2001). The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind, New York: Oxford University Press, ix.
 Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, New York: Basic Books, 410.
 Varela, F. J., Thompson, E., and Rosch, E. (1993). The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
 Procrustean: Producing or designed to produce strict conformity by ruthless or arbitrary means – American Heritage Dictionary
 Deacon, T. W. (1997). The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain, New York: Norton, 416-17.
 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.
 Goldberg, op. cit., ix.
 Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, New York: Penguin Books, 123-4.
 Deacon, op. cit., 436, 375.
 McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. London: Yale University Press.
 Trigger, B. G. (2003). Understanding Early Civilizations, New York: Cambridge University Press, 686-7.