Beyond Thoughts & Prayers: Bridging Brain Research to the Public Sphere (Pt 3)

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Here’s your brain:

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay


Here’s your brain on conceptualization:

I do not wish to be glib here. I do, however, wish to point out that conceptualizations are not meant to be the things they conceptualize or represent. As Joseph Campbell would say of metaphors (and I paraphrase): Do not eat the menu for the meal it represents. Conceptualizations are about affording understanding. As such, conceptualizations give up claim to reality.

One of the best conceptualizations of the brain and its functioning has to be the Triune Brain Schematic developed by neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean. Does the brain work the way MacLean conceptualizes it? No, not exactly. Can we gain insight into how the brain works by understanding MacLean’s model. You bet. Now, I have modified MacLean’s model using a model that neuropsychologist Allan Shore presented during a workshop I attended.[1] In Dr. Schore’s model, he has the right brain extending along an axis that includes upper brain, midbrain, and lower brain. In contrast, the left side axis only contains the upper brain and the midbrain, thus the prominent notch in the conceptualized brain. The importance of the shorter left axis stems from the fact that the left brain is not as motivated by fear reactions as compared to the right with its deep connections to our evolutionary past. But, look at what you can see from the modified MacLean model right off the bat: There are three brain layers—upper, middle, and lower—and the left side seems to be missing the lower layer.[2] Trust me, you now know more about brain anatomy than most. Let’s dig a bit deeper.

The left brain is logical and linear, and prefers the pleasant brain states that a sense of certainty brings. The left brain has been associated with the formation and expression of language. The right brain is vague and holistic, and prefers the fearful brain states that a sense of uncertainty brings. The right brain has been associated with the formation and expression of emotion. Here’s how neuroimaging researcher and English professor Iain McGilchrist puts it:[3]

One of the durable generalisations about the hemispheres has been the finding that the left hemisphere tends to deal more with pieces of information in isolation, and the right hemisphere with the entity as a whole, the so-called Gestalt….

Simply, the left brain is a content brain whereas the right brain is a context brain.[4] Hopefully the reader notices that reductionistic science (as talked about in part II) would feel right at home in the left brain whereas organic systems science would cozy up to the right brain.[5] We will return to the left/right dichotomy and McGilchrist’s work in the final post of this six part series.

Now, I have to throw a caveat into the mix here. Neuropsychologist Elkhonon Goldberg does not feel comfortable with generally accepted generalizations. Writing in his book The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World, Goldberg points out that many higher order animals have lateralized brains (a left side and a right side) however, the left side is not being used for language per se. Goldberg sees the “left-language” association as too, well, human. Goldberg sees the left brain as being more comfortable with what Goldberg calls “routinization,” things that are routinely performed. In contrast, the right brain is more about discerning anything vague that appears on the landscape. Here’s an analogy that might help.

Imagine you are the lookout up in the crow’s nest on the Titanic. Your job is to scan the darkness or perhaps a thick fog bank for anything vaguely different like a vague shape or form. You are the right brain. Now, you see a vague outline—could be an iceberg—and shout your finding to an officer on the deck below. This officer is the middle left brain and knows the proper procedure or routine for how these sightings should be handled. This officer then reports to the captain, who, in this analogy, is actually the upper executive brain. The captain may then direct the ship’s pilot to alter course.

This may be a clumsy analogy but hopefully it gets you thinking about how the two hemispheres work together and how signals can go from side-to-side as well as bottom-up and top-down. (They also go front to back.) I should point out that the Executive Functions (which we will hear about as we go along) of the upper brain are often thought of in terms of a CEO of a company or the general of an army. So, captain of an ocean liner is not a far stretch.

MacLean, in his model, calls the lower brain “reptilian” because it is mainly concerned with maintaining basic organic systems like breathing, finding nutrition, mating, aggression, and the such. The limbic or emotional brain has been called the mammalian brain because mammals, in contrast to reptiles, are concerned with sociability and nurturing behaviors. The executive brain, as we have touched on, engages in such things as planning, reflection, perspective-taking, focusing attention, and the such. The key here is to think of the brain, and the mind it gives rise to, as consisting of various brain centers that are able to talk to each other (under normal circumstances) in very complex ways. The brain is a very complex organic system that interacts with another very complex organic system, the body.

Now that we have a very basic understanding of brain structure and functioning, let’s return to Damasio’s work and ask the question What needs to happen to move from unminded intelligence to minded intelligence (as talked about in part II).

  • First Cells (such as bacteria) without nucleus — 4 billion years ago
  • Photosynthesis —3.5 billion years ago
  • First Single Cells with nucleus — 2 billion years ago
  • First nervous cells — 500 million years ago
  • Fish — 500-400 million years ago
  • Mammals — 200 million years ago
  • Primates — 75 million years ago
  • Birds — 60 million years ago
  • Hominids — 14-12 million years ago
  • Homo Sapiens — 300 thousand years ago

I have included the above table from Damasio’s book Feeling & Knowing: Making Minds Conscious as a way of drawing attention to the enormity of evolutionary time. It’s huge. It shares much in common with geological time. Both evolutionary and geological processes are often measured using time intervals consisting of millions of years, heck, billions of years. It’s easy to talk about going from unminded organisms to those with minds while forgetting the immense amount of time such a transition took. On we go.

Over billions of years of evolution, Damasio imagines that simple organisms, like bacteria, began to develop discrete “organelles” (simple organ structures like a stomach or breathing apparatus) as well as discrete sensing structures such as eyes or ears. In the diagram above labeled Nervous System Development, Or stands for organelle while Sn stands for sensing structure. As these discrete organelles and sensing structures began appearing, an evolutionary challenge presented itself: how to coordinate the activities taking place within this collection of organelles and sensing structures? Thus were born nervous systems, again, over millions if not billions of years. However, organisms with discrete organelles and sensing structures that are connected and more or less coordinated by a nervous system, does not a minded organism make. Really? I hope evolution puts in for overtime.

Damasio imagines that a nervous system in essence creates a grid (as shown in the diagram above), a grid that is capable of creating … wait for it … maps. Yes, maps. The nervous system with its grid-like nature is capable of mapping its environment, both the environment of the body (via the various organelles) as well as the environment of external reality (via sensing structures). As Damasio puts it, “The grid-like anatomy of all these neural structures is ideal for the purpose of activating neurons in a patterned fashion so that varied designs, in varied dimensions, can be ‘activated’ rapidly and wiped out just as rapidly.” Simply, for minds to come onto the scene we first need maps or images. Without maps or images there can be no minds. Organisms that have the ability to create maps or images could be said to be minded but they are not yet conscious. For consciousness to develop, Damasio argues, we need some way to store maps or images and then, most importantly, some ability to inspect those maps and images. This is where the various structures of the brain come into play.

In terms of consciousness Damasio reveals something that I find astonishing. He essentially suggests that the maps or images generated by a nervous system that simultaneously interacts with the body and external reality, have a unique quality: they are accompanied by feelings. Or, using organic systems concepts, nervous systems allow the internal and the external to come together in such a way that feelings emerge. Feelings then are hybrids if you will, part body, part mind. It is for this reason that Damasio sees no conflict between body and mind. “An astonishing consequence of this peculiar arrangement is that feelings are not conventional perceptions of the body but rather hybrids, at home in both body and brain,” Damasio tells us. He continues, “This hybrid condition may help explain why there is a profound distinction but no opposition between feeling and reason, why we are feeling creatures that think and thinking creatures that feel” (italics in original).

In case your head is not spinning at this point, there’s one more important point that Damasio makes, one concerning the self. Damasio states:

[A]ll that occurs in the mind—the maps of the interior and the maps of the structures, actions, and spatial positions of other organisms/objects that exist and take place in the surrounding exterior—is constructed, of necessity, by adopting the organism’s perspective.

In other words, through the process of the nervous system simultaneously mapping both the interior and exterior realms, the resulting images are “stamped” with not only a “north arrow” establishing orientation and the organism’s perspective, they are also stamped with the organism’s sense of ownership that in turn forms the foundation upon which our sense of self rests. Mic drop!

Yes, I know that the saying “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” is not true but it’s a great conceptualization. In general what it says is that the development of the embryo traces out the long history of evolutionary development. The human embryo does start out as a simple organism, does develop organelles and sensing structures, a nervous system, and a brain, not to mention a musculoskeletal system. So, roughly speaking it does trace out the developmental scheme that Damasio introduces. Just saying.

In his book The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, Louis Cozolino makes the point that the amygdala, the brain’s main fear center and closely associated with the right brain, nears developmental completion in the last weeks of pregnancy and is fully formed at birth. In other words, we are born with a person in the crow’s nest on the lookout for vague presences on the landscape. Other parts of the brain lag behind and develop outside of the womb. In the case of the prefrontal cortex located in the upper brain, home to the Executive Functions like reflection, planning, and directing attention, full maturity may not come until age 25. In the next post we will look at the process of developing the brain after birth.



[1] This workshop took place in Santa Fe, NM, back in the mid-2000s if memory serves. If you would like the exact date, leave a comment and I’ll see if I can dig it up for you.

[2] Is the brain comprised of three, layer cake-style, layers? No. In fact, the brain is more like a jelly roll where the upper layer wraps around the layer below. Neurobiologist Dan Siegel will often ask workshop participants to hold out a hand, tuck the thumb in against the palm, fold the other fingers around the thumb, and then look at the resulting structure from the side. Boom! Perfect model of the brain. You can find YouTube videos of Dan Siegel’s model by searching on Siegel’s Hand Model of the Brain. However, to facilitate understanding it’s just easier to think of the brain as three, layer cake-style, layers.

[3] Taken from page four of McGilchrist’s 2009 book The Master and his Emissary—The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

[4] In his 2004 book entitled The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why, psychologist Richard E. Nisbett suggests that Westerners tend to privilege content to the exclusion of context or the wider environment. In contrast, Asians tend to privilege context and the environment over content that exists in isolation. Using the generalizations that McGilchrist gives us, Westerners tend to be left brain dominate whereas Asians tend to be right brain dominate. I know that I often come down hard on researchers like Bowlby, Cozolino, and Dan Siegel for being too “Western” and “reductionistic.” In truth, these researchers often argue from an Asian perspective with its emphasis on right brain and systems thinking. In this way, right brain and systems thinking is being brought, albeit slowly, into Western scientific thought. Again, I think we need to pick up the pace and be more open about this effort. In this regard I need to give a shout out to my old alma mater, UT Dallas, who just changed their Geoscience Department to the Department of Sustainable Earth Systems Sciences. Ballsy move in my opinion. This shift openly acknowledges that there is no way we can take on a problem like global warming without taking on a decidedly (organic) systems science perspective. I wish them well.

[5] I feel compelled to interject a bit of systems theory here. In her 2008 book (which was released posthumously) Thinking In Systems: A Primer, Donella H. Meadows makes the point that “Words and sentences must, by necessity, come only one at a time in linear, logical order.” In contrast “Systems happen all at once,” Meadows tells us. She continues, “They are connected not just in one direction, but in many directions simultaneously.” This concept is exquisitely displayed in Bowlbian attachment theory. Bowlby, very much a systems thinker, would point out that the attachment behavioral system concerns itself with two primary directions simultaneously: moving out into the world of exploration, and moving back to the world of safety and security. He would use the phrase “the risk of risk.” Securely attached children can seamlessly balance the simultaneous nature of attachment. Insecurely attached children have a difficult time. As an example, insecurely attached toddlers being observed within the Strange Situation Procedure will often look away and arch their backs as they are being held by their mothers. Disorganized toddlers have an even more difficult time and often roll into a ball and cry inconsolably. Because attachment is such a holistic, “multiple directions at one time” behavioral system, researchers such as Allan Schore point out its strong connection to the right brain. In my opinion, it would be difficult if not impossible to adequately understand the attachment behavioral system outside of a systems worldview.