Beyond Thoughts & Prayers: Bridging Brain Research to the Public Sphere (Pt 2)

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Have you ever wondered Do bacteria have intelligence? You haven’t? Me neither. Neurobiologist Antonio Damasio has asked this question throughout his career investigating the origins of consciousness and his answer is a resounding Yes.

In his book Feeling and Knowing: Making Minds Conscious, Damasio tells us that simple single-celled organisms such as bacteria do display intelligence. They import energy from the environment, they export waste to the environment, they sense the environment, and they display a certain level of sociability in that they can detect others like themselves through what Damasio calls quorum sensing. “They [bacteria] are individual beings, capable of picking the best spots in their environments to live well and capable of fighting for their lives even if they do so without the help of a mind, let alone of consciousness,” reveals Damasio. Damasio calls this unminded intelligence.

You may now be asking yourself how these simple organisms are able to pull off what appears to be a fairly high level of intelligence. Well, here’s where things get dicey. Damasio points to what in the world of biology is known as homeostasis. “These beings do what they do,” writes Damasio, “based largely on efficient chemical processes guided by a fine-tuned but hidden competence attuned to the dictates of homeostasis so that most parameters of the life process can be maintained at levels compatible with survival.” Man! That’s a mouthful. It’s a mouthful because in that one sentence Damasio takes a stab at trying to define what homeostasis is. That’s like trying to define Newtonian or quantum principles in one sentence.

Homeostasis is a key principle that is held by what is known as organic systems theory. We hear about Sir Isaac Newton in school. Quantum physics has gained some notoriety through the recently released movie Oppenheimer. But where do we hear about organic systems theory? Simply, it is rarely acknowledged let alone applied here in the U.S. If you get nothing else out of the this blog series, then please get this: The project of bridging brain research to the public sphere will be severely crippled without a wholehearted embrace of organic systems theory by the U.S. scientific community.

Honestly, I could stop this blog series right here by saying that the bridging project I propose is so crippled that it simply will not happen. With all due respect to one of my intellectual heroes, Antonio Damasio, he uses the concept of homeostasis no less than 35 times throughout his book Feeling and Knowing[1] and never once takes the time to enlighten us concerning organic systems theory. How is this possible? Unfortunately I run into this all the time. In his book The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy, neuropsychologist Louis Cozolino uses the concept homeostasis no less than ten times, again, with no mention of organic systems theory. As an example, Cozolino, in talking about John Bowlby’s idea of Inner Working Models or Maps (i.e., schemas), tells us that they have the ability to “determine whether we can utilize intimate relationships for physiological and emotional homeostasis.” What does this mean? And, yes, even Bowlby used the concept of homeostasis in his writings about attachment without ever bringing in a discussion of organic systems theory. And Bowlby had direct contact with Ludwig von Bertalanffy. Who the heck is Bertalannfy? you may ask.

Ludwig von Bertalanffy, working in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, is arguably the father of organic systems theory. Yes, there is a theory of organic systems, the same one that holds homeostasis. Bowlby was in contact with Bertalanffy through a series of conferences that took place in the 1950s. Bowlby released the first volume of his three-volume set on attachment theory in 1969, which just happens to be the same year that Bertalanffy released his book General System Theory: Foundations, Development, and Application. So, why didn’t Bowlby specifically bring organic systems theory into his work. Bowlby certainly knew of Bertalanffy and directly interacted with him. Why do current researchers like Damasio and Cozolino continue the tradition of not specifically bringing organic systems theory into their work? Heck, allow me to go one bigger. I just read a textbook entitled Earth System Science: From Biogeochemical Cycles to Global Changes. No mention of organic systems science. How is this possible? I would suggest that Bertalanffy provided us with a possible answer way back in 1969.

Writing in his book General System Theory, Bertalanffy tells us that reductionistic science is great at “analyzing elements” in isolation but then “forgets to look at the relationships between elements, their interactions, and, as a result, is ill-equipped to put all the elements together in a whole that works.” Don’t get me wrong. Reductionistic science is great at breaking down systems so that cause and effect processes can be evaluated. Reductionistic experiments are typically done in a lab where systems are reduced in such a way that they are no longer able to interact with the environment, that is to say, they are placed in a closed system. Organic systems by definition exist in open systems like our friends bacteria merrily importing energy from the environment and exporting waste to that same environment. Organic systems are reduced and placed in closed systems so that what scientists call confounding variables can be reduced and accounted for as much as possible. The end result is study of reduced systems now acting in reduced ways cutoff from their natural environment. Again, this is not necessarily bad. What’s bad is objectifying systems by reducing them and then making a part the whole. That’s bad. In essence, when you attempt to use a particular worldview, like reductionism, in a wholesale manner, problems will undoubtedly arise. Let me give you an example.

In his book The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy, Cozolino does a great job talking about the amazing organic system that is the human brain. He also does a great job talking about what happens when these various brain systems become stressed through some form of trauma or perhaps a prolonged period of fear. Simply, brain centers begin to breakdown along predictable (organic) evolutionary lines. Here’s what I’m talking about.

Way back in our evolutionary history the amygdala, the brain’s main fear center, was in executive control of the various brain systems that existed at that time. Then the cortical regions of the upper brain came on the neurological scene. The amygdala was “asked” to give up some of its executive control and allow the upper brain to take on executive control duties, making decisions, planning, focusing attention, etc. This new arrangement works well. But if the brain system becomes stressed for any reason, the upper brain may go offline and the amygdala once again is “asked” to takeover. Believe it or not, this is a great example of organic systems theory in action.

When the brain is going along swimmingly, it may be appropriate to use organic systems theory to describe its behavior. But when it breaks down, maybe as far as cause and effect functioning, yup, reductionistic science to the rescue. The presence of quantum principles does not imply that Newtonian principles have gone away. They work together, each in its own area of expertise you could say. Reductionism should work closely with organic systems principles; neither should be used wholesale. As Bertalanffy puts it, “General systems theory is scientific exploration of ‘wholes’ and ‘wholeness’ which, not so long ago [at the beginning of the last century] were considered to be metaphysical notions transcending the boundaries of science.”

I would suggest that researchers were (are) reluctant to bring organic systems theory into their work specifically for fear of evoking the specter of metaphysics, the very thing the founders of science wished to deliver us from. How do I put this delicately: Get over yourselves, people; we’re in a crisis here! I applaud efforts like the Decade of the Brain, but the time is now for a Decade of Organic Systems Theory. Bertalanffy’s theory is just waiting to be discovered by U.S. scientists.[2] Hopefully the astute reader will note that even within the scientific community, there can be anti-science trends as Kurt Jacobsen and Alba Alexander talk about in the chapter they contributed to the edited volume Anti-Science and the Assault on Democracy. As Jacobsen and Alexander make clear, “Scientism, a misapplication of a form of science from one domain to another in which it is not suited, is a persistent presence.”

I’ve been talking about brain functioning and structure without first presenting a model of the brain. Forgive me. In the next post I would like to present a thumbnail sketch of the brain system and its functioning. I would then like to return to Damsio’s work and sketch out a story of how organic systems, such as bacteria, went from being unminded and unconscious to minded and conscious. I find this to be one of the most fascinating stories I have encountered in the world of science. Stay tuned.



[1] I often read books using the Kindle app that allows one to search for key terms like homeostasis.

[2] Bertalanffy’s theory is well known in his home country of Austria. I would point to reader to the following article:

Drack M. 2015. Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s organismic view on the theory of evolution. J. Exp. Zool. (Mol. Dev. Evol.) 324B:77–90.

I was able to access an Open Source version of this article by navigating to the following link:

In addition, as I was putting the finishing touches on this post I discovered a book by one of my favorite authors Vilmos Csányi, who wrote If Dogs Could Talk (a must read for all dog owners such as myself). The book I found is entitled Evolutionary Systems and Society—A General Theory and was released in 1989. I have only just started reading Csányi’s book. However, it looks like the kind of book we need if we are to move to more of an organic systems theory perspective. In the introduction, Csányi writes that he has made an effort to make his general theory fit within the framework that Bertalanffy gives us. It’s encouraging to see that there is some effort in the area of bridging organic systems science to societal systems. Hopefully I will be able to report on Csányi’s work in a future post.