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.

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April 20, 2012

Presentation at “Towards a Science of Consciousness”

Posted in Pfc tyranny: overview tagged , at 2:54 pm by Jeremy

Last week, I gave my presentation on the “Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex” at the Towards a Science of Consciousness conference in Tucson, Arizona.  I’m glad to say it was very well received, and an interesting and wide ranging set of questions ensued.

Here are a couple of pictures of me at the podium.

Image  Image

I’m working on editing a video of the presentation, which I’ll post on this blog as soon as it comes available.  Meanwhile, you can click here to download a pdf version of the presentation.

May 23, 2011

“Ensnared in an inescapable web”

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

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

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

[PREVIOUS POST]

“Ensnared in an inescapable web”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Ibid., 12.

[2] Ibid., 298-99.

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

[4] Ibid.

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

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

[7] Ibid., 375.

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

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

May 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.

[PREVIOUS POST]

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.

[PREVIOUS POST]

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]

[NEXT POST]


[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.

[PREVIOUS POST]

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.

[PREVIOUS CHAPTER]

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]*

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[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.

October 12, 2010

The Magical Weave of Language

Posted in Language and Myth tagged , at 11:24 pm by Jeremy

Here’s a pdf version of the chapter on the emergence of language from my book, Towards a Democracy of Consciousness.

CLICK HERE FOR PDF VERSION.

The chapter’s called “The Magical Weave of Language.”  It examines what makes language so special as a defining characteristic of humanity, and sees the crucial neuroanatomical source of language as the prefrontal cortex.  It explores theories of language evolution, from the “gradual and early” school to the “sudden and recent” school.  It goes on to refute Steven Pinker’s concept of the “language instinct,” arguing instead that we humans have a deeper “patterning instinct” which gets applied to language from the earliest months of infancy.  The chapter proposes that there were, in fact, three phases of language evolution, with the most recent phase of modern language involving a crossing of the “metaphoric threshold,” which allowed for the emergence of a “mythic consciousness”.  This permitted humans to think for the first time in terms of abstract concepts and begin the never-ending search for meaning in our lives.

August 30, 2010

The neuroanatomy of language

Posted in Language and Myth tagged , , at 11:24 pm by Jeremy

What parts of the brain are responsible for language?  Most people up to speed on the subject would argue for Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area.  But it’s really the prefrontal cortex and its symbolizing capability that’s responsible for our language capability.  Here’s a section of my book draft, Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness, that explains in more detail.

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The neuroanatomy of language

Considering the crucial importance of the pfc in enabling symbolic thought, it has been relatively ignored until recently as a major anatomical component of our capability for language.  Traditionally, when researchers studied the anatomical evolution of language, they focused attention not just on the brain’s capacity but also on our descended larynx, which was thought to be a unique feature of the human vocal tract.  However, recent studies have shown that a number of other species, including dogs barking, lower their larynx during vocalization, and some mammals even have a permanently descended larynx.  An even more powerful argument against the descended larynx as a prerequisite of language is that infants born deaf can learn American Sign Language with as much speed and fluency as hearing children learn spoken language.  There’s seems little doubt that the human larynx co-evolved with our language capacity to enable our fine, subtle distinctions in speech sounds, but it doesn’t seem to have been required for language development.[1] In the words of Merlin Donald, “it is the brain, not the vocal cords, that matters most.”[2]

Broca discovered a crucial area relating to language in the late 19th century

Even within the brain itself, the pfc hasn’t had much press in relation to language.  In the late nineteenth century, two European physicians named Paul Broca and Carl Wernicke focused attention on two different regions in the left hemisphere of the cerebral cortex – now named appropriately enough Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area – as the parts of the brain that control language.  They made their discoveries primarily through observing patients who had suffered physical damage to their brains in these regions and had lost their ability to speak normally (known as aphasia.)  For over a hundred years, it has become generally accepted that these two areas are the “language centers” of the brain.[3] Equally importantly, both of these areas were noticed to be on the left side of the brain, and in recent decades neuroanatomical research has shown that the left hemisphere is generally the one most used for sequential processing, for creating “a narrative and explanation for our actions,” for acting as our “interpreter.”[4]

However, although Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas have long been viewed as unique to humans, recent research has shown them also to be active in other primates.  In one study, for example, the brains of three chimpanzees were scanned as they gestured and called to a person requesting food that was out their reach.  As they did so, the chimps showed activation in the brain region that corresponds to Broca’s area in humans.[5] Terrence Deacon believes that, rather than view these areas as “language centers” controlling our ability to speak, we should rather think of language as using a network of different processes in the brain.  Broca’s area is adjacent to the part of the brain that controls our mouth, tongue and larynx; and Wernicke’s area is adjacent to our auditory cortex.  Therefore, these areas likely evolved as key nodes in the language network of the brain, which would explain the aphasia resulting from damage to them.  “Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas,” Deacon explains, “represent what might be visualized as bottlenecks for information flow during language processing; weak links in a chain of processes.”[6] Neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changeux agrees, arguing that “efficient communication of contextualized knowledge involves the concerted activity of many more cortical areas than the ‘language areas’ identified by Broca and Wernicke.”[7]

Deacon also warns against reading too much into left hemisphere specialization, known as lateralization.  He sees lateralization as “probably a consequence and not a cause or even precondition for language evolution,” pointing out that several other mammals, including other primates, also show lateralization, and that even in humans, nearly 10 percent of people are “not left-lateralized in this way.”  Lateralization, in his view, “is more an adaptation of the brain to language than an adaptation of the brain for language.”[8]

So, if it’s not the larynx, not Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, and not lateralization, is there anything about the human anatomy that makes it uniquely capable of creating language?  No prizes for guessing that the answer may be the pfc.  As Deacon puts it, “two of the most central features of the human language adaptation” are “the ability to speak and the ability to learn symbolic associations.”[9] We’ve already noted that skilled vocalizations are a helpful, but not a necessary, part of our language capability.  So that leaves “the symbol-learning problem,” which “can be traced to the expansion of the prefrontal cortical region, and the preeminence of its projections in competition for synapses throughout the brain.”[10] Changeux once again agrees, noting that “propositions and structured speech can be seen as evolutionary phenomena accompanying the expansion of the prefrontal cortex,”[11] as does celebrated neuroscientist Joaquin Fuster who writes that “given the role of prefrontal networks in cognitive functions, it is reasonable to infer that the development of those networks underlies the development of highly integrative cognitive functions, such as language.”[12]

If the pfc was, in fact, the central driver of the emergence of language, what light (if any) does that shed on those raging debates about when and at what rate language evolved, and whether there is something that can be called a “language instinct”?  In order to answer that, we need to understand a little more about the social context in which language emerged.

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[1] For a full review of this issue, see Fitch, W. T. (2005). “The evolution of language: a comparative review.” Biology and Philosophy, 20, 193-230.

[2] Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 39.

[3] See Donald op. cit., 45-94, for a full discussion of the history of anatomical theories of human language.

[4] Gazzaniga, M. S. (2009). “Humans: the party animal.” Dædalus(Summer 2009), 21-34.

[5] Taglialatela, J. P., Russell, J. L., Schaeffer, J. A., and Hopkins, W. D. (2008). “Communicative Signaling Activates ‘Broca’s’ Homolog in Chimpanzees.” Current Biology, 18, 343-348.

[6] Deacon, op. cit., 288.

[7] Changeux, J.-P. (2002). The Physiology of Truth: Neuroscience and Human Knowledge, M. B. DeBevoise, translator, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 123.

[8] Deacon, op. cit., 310, 315.  Italics in original.

[9] Ibid., 220.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Changeux, op. cit., 123-4.

[12] Fuster, J. M. (2002). “Frontal lobe and cognitive development.” Journal of Neurocytology, 31(December 2002), 373-385.

August 18, 2010

So what really makes us human?

Posted in Language and Myth tagged , , , , , , at 10:39 pm by Jeremy

Here’s a pdf file of Chapter 2 of my book draft, Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness.  This chapter’s called “So What Really Makes Us Human?”  It traces human evolution over several million years, reviewing Merlin Donald’s idea of mimetic culture and the crucial breakthrough of “theory of mind.”  It examines the “social brain hypothesis” and explores the current thinking in “altruistic punishment” as a key to our unique human capability for empathy and group values.  Finally, it looks at how social intelligence metamorphosed into cognitive fluidity, and how the pfc’s newly evolving connective abilities enabled humans to discover the awesome power of symbols.

Open the pdf file of Chapter 2: “So What Really Makes Us Human?”

As always, constructive comments and critiques from readers of my blog are warmly welcomed.

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