Insecure Attachment & Obesity, Pre-K & Entitlement, and Classrooms & Digital Tech—Imprisoning Minds In the Object World (part I)

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Psychology undergraduate students just starting out often hear about neuroscientist Paul MacLean’s model known as the triune brain. Using evolution as a backdrop, MacLean’s model attempts to explain how the human brain developed. Although MacLean started sketching out his model in the 1960s, he worked in ernest to popularize his model with the 1990 release of his book The Triune Brain in Evolution. Simply, MacLean’s model puts forth the idea that the human brain is comprised of three primary layers: the primitive or reptilian brain, the emotional or limbic brain, and the rational brain comprised mainly of the neocortex. Figure one shows a graphic of the triune brain model (obtained from Wikipedia).

Figure one (This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License.)

Again, speaking simply, the primitive brain handles automatic functions like breathing and heart rate, the limbic brain handles emotional functions (i.e., happy, sad, etc.), and the so-called “thinking brain” handles functions such as rational, linear, logical thought.

Today most brain scientists view MacLean’s model as being overly simplistic. These same scientists (now armed with tons of brain imaging data) view the brain as a complex system that does not fit nicely into a layer cake model. However, the model of the triune brain does allow us to gain certain insights into the gross functioning of the brain. As an example, during an attachment conference I attended a year ago or so, the presenter told us about how neuroscientist Bruce Perry conceptualizes the functional brain. In Perry’s model (released in the late 1990s), there are four layers (and I’m pulling this from the handout we were given): brainstem, diencephalon, limbic, neocortex. Perry adds the diencephalon layer to MacLean’s model. Allow me to give you a couple of examples for each layer in the Perry model:

neocortex <==> collaboration, abstract thought

limbic <==> attachment, emotional responses

diencephalon <==> circadian rhythms, motor regulation

brainstem <==> heart rate, body temperature

The Perry model, which uses consciousness as a backdrop (more on this below), imagines increasing brian function as an inverted pyramid. As we go up in the brain structure hierarchy, such things as consciousness, context, and plasticity increase or expand. According to the Perry model, stress tends to move us downward toward more automatic responses such as fight, flight, or freeze. This agrees with attachment researchers (Peter Fonagy would be an example here) who argue that as stress levels go up our ability to engage in mentalization (MZ) goes down. MZ is often described as “minds knowing minds” or simply “mindfulness.” Empathy would be an example of MZ. And, yes, MZ is a part of Executive Functioning (EF), which takes place in the upper context brain. Oooops … getting ahead of myself. Allow me to provide you with a bit of context.

As I have blogged about before, there is a group of neuroscientists who put a spin on MacLean’s model of the triune brain. Antonio Damasio, Russell Barkley, and Elkhonon Goldberg would be examples here. (Bruce Perry, mentioned above, would also be an example.) Reflecting more of a cognitive or consciousness backdrop (but not giving up the evolution perspective), here’s how this modified model looks (and I’m dropping out Perry’s diencephalon layer for simplicity):

upper brain <==> context and meaning making

middle brain <==> object perception

lower brain < == > automatic functions

By way of bringing this model to life, allow me to present you with an example from Damasio’s work that dramatically illustrates what happens when the object brain gets cut off from the meaning making or context brain. This example, taken from Damasio’s 2000 book The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, concerns the cognitive malady known as transient global amnesia. According to Damasio, transient global amnesia (TGA) is often associated with migraine headaches. On occasion I get migraine headaches (which are no fun). As a result, I have a pretty good sense for the experience of transient global amnesia or middle brain cut off from upper brain. To use very non-technical lingo, it is a very freaky experience to say the least. Let’s listen in as Damasio describes TGA at page 203 in his book (with my editorial comments in brackets):

The person struck by transient global amnesia is … deprived of both personal historical provenance and personal future [e.g., the mental time travel abilities of the upper brain] but retains core consciousness for the events and objects in the here and now [e.g., is still able to access the middle object brain]. In effect, when a patient fails to recognize a particular object or person, there is even core consciousness for the fact that some knowledge is no longer present. [Translation: the middle object brain will “know” that it wants, but is unable, to access the upper context brain, an unfulfilled desire that manifests itself as anxiousness and hyperactivity.] In spite of adequate consciousness for the current objects and actions, however, the situation fails to make sense [e.g., to be meaningful] to the patient because, without an updated autobiography, the here and now is simply incomprehensible. The predicament of transient global amnesia underscores the significant limitations of core [or middle brain] consciousness: Without a provenance for the current placement of objects and a motive for the current actions, the present is nothing but a puzzle. This is probably why, almost invariably, transient global amnesiacs constantly [in a hyperactive way] repeat the same anxious [my emphasis] questions: Where am I? What am I doing here? How did I come here? What am I supposed to be doing?

When I get a migraine headache, I often run a small test to asses for the presence of transient global amnesia: I try to balance my checkbook. When TGA is present, I can look at my check register and say to myself, “I know this is a check register, that it is my check register, and that these symbols are numbers.” If asked I probably could describe conceptually the process of subtracting one number from another. But here’s the kicker: When I am in the throes of TGA I simply cannot do the following type of calculation: $123.43 – $17.69 = ? Turns out that we conceptualize mathematical operations in one part of the brain and actually do them in another. This is my theory (one that fits with Damasio’s description of TGA) but I would say that the mathematical doing takes place in upper brain regions, which, during TGA for me, I simply cannot access. In keeping with Damasio’s model, during TGA “I know that I don’t know” how to do simple subtraction. I told you; it’s freaky.

Here’s a simple (but tragic) example of teenagers going into a state of consciousness that might be best described as a form of transient global amnesia: making change at fast food restaurants or department stores. Just the other day I ordered food at Burger King. The total was $6.43. I gave the teenage cashier $11.50–one ten dollar bill, one dollar bill, and two quarters. The teen froze. He said, “Dude, you gave me too much money … I only need the ten.” At times like these I try to be patient because this happens all the time. I gently said, “I don’t want a lot of singles in my wallet, just a five dollar bill.” The cashier froze again. I suggested that he punch $11.50 into the register and see what my change would be ($5.07). Still frozen. I felt really bad and let him off the hook by agreeing, “Yup, just use the ten.” Life popped back into his eyes. Most teens I run into understand the object nature of making change but do not know the meaning of making change. That a customer may wish for change to come out in a particular way (i.e., the least number of bills) makes no sense at all. Paraphrasing Damasio from above, these teens are not able to ascertain the “motives for current actions.” When it comes to making change, these teens all too easily go into a state of transient global amnesia. They are locked in their object brain. At times like these I cannot help but ask myself, “What has happened in our society that we have so failed these kids?” Let us now turn to Goldberg’s work to learn more about the cognitive or consciousness layers of the brain.

Writing in his 2009 book The New Executive Brain—Frontal Lobes in a Complex World, Goldberg tells us that “the basal ganglia [e.g., the lower brain] make their ‘executive functions’ (to act or not to act and how to act) on the basis of a very narrow context.” This would be the narrow portion of Perry’s inverted pyramid. Goldberg continues, “By contrast, the prefrontal cortex [of the upper brain] makes its executive decisions on the basis of a much broader, richer context.” Again, this tracks the Perry model mentioned above. A bit further along we hear Goldberg describe what he calls field-dependent behavior, essentially the type of behavior we would expect when a person is imprisoned within the middle object brain:

Being at the mercy of incidental distractions and displaying an inability to follow [the] plans [of the upper brain] are common features of frontal lobe disease. This is known as field-dependent behavior. A frontal lobe patient will drink from an empty cup, put on a jacket belonging to someone else, or scribble with a pencil on the table surface, merely because the cup, the jacket, and the pencil are there, even though these actions make no [upper brain] sense.

When I talk about people being imprisoned within the middle object brain, I am talking about a life chiefly characterized by field-dependent behavior. After almost 40 years of the self-esteem movement, I cannot help but wonder if we are witnessing the first generations raised on a steady diet of instruction that encourages field-dependent behavior: do whatever you wish even though such behavior may make absolutely no sense within the larger societal context. Let’s turn to Barkley’s work to get his take on the cognitive or consciousness layers of the brain.

Writing in his 2012 book Executive Functions—What The Are, How They Work, and Why They Evolved, Barkley argues that Executive Functions (EF) take place mainly within the upper brain. Here are examples of EF: planning, perspective taking, focusing attention, shifting attention, running “what if” scenarios (a topic that Damasio takes up in detail in his work), mental time travel, empathy, and collaboration (which agrees with Perry’s model). Barkley puts forth the idea that ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder) is chiefly characterized by failed attempts on the part of the middle object brain to gain access to the upper context brain. According to Barkley, ADHD should be properly framed as a deficiency of EF. Goldberg imagines ADHD to be akin to a frontal lobe disease. Sadly (and most ironically) Barkley makes it clear that, yes, behavioral drugs like Ritalin and Adderall (often used to treat ADHD) do calm the middle object brain, but they do very little as far as opening up pathways between middle and upper brain regions. Extended overuse of the types of behavioral drugs often used to treat ADHD could ultimately lead to imprisonment within the object brain. Barkley suggests that we view the use of behavioral drugs to treat ADHD as giving kids (and increasingly adults) wheelchairs and crutches. Sorry, I digress.

OK, I know what you are thinking: “What’s up with the title to this post? Why did you mention ‘Insecure Attachment & Obesity, Pre-K & Entitlement, and Classrooms & Digital Tech?’ ” Well, I recently read three articles that, when taken together, paint a picture of minds imprisoned within the middle object brain. Here are the three articles:

How Parenting Styles Can Lead to Childhood Obesity

A New Entitlement? The Right to Preschool

Obama Secures $750M in Pledges to Get Kids Online

I’ll start out part II by talking about the above articles. In the mean time, give them a look. I enjoyed the first one on parenting styles. However, I found it a bit odd because it seems to convey the sense that the connection between insecure attachment and addictions is a new revelation. It’s not. Attachment researchers have been pointing to this connection for some time now. When it comes to attachment, it’s too bad that we so often have to reinvent the wheel.