Beyond Thoughts & Prayers: Bridging Brain Research to the Public Sphere (Pt 6)

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Thanks for making it to the end of this blog series. In this final installment I’d like to mention some of the brain science we now have access to that has real world implications. As this blog series makes clear, this is the type of information that is not getting out to the general public where it would have a chance of influencing political discussions and public policy. In my opinion, this information carries with it the very real possibility of taking us Beyond Thoughts & Prayers.

Executive Functions—I covered Executive Functions (EF) in some detailed in the blog series that preceded this one entitled Executive Function and the Art of Diesel-Powered Car Repair. Briefly, EF consists of a suite of cognitive abilities and skills that includes

  • Mental time travel and valuing the future
  • Problem solving
  • Reflection (e.g., thinking about thinking or metacognition)
  • Planning
  • Appropriately focusing attention
  • Appropriately shifting attention
  • The creation and use of mental models, especially for spatial cognition and running “what if” scenarios
  • Empathetic connections with others

Researchers typically associate EF skills and abilities with the upper brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex. I would refer the reader to Russell Barkley’s excellent 2012 book entitled Executive Functions: What They Are, How They Work, and Why They Evolved. Barkley argues that many forms of civilization, from art to rules of law and governance, could not have come about without the help of EF skills. In his work, Antonio Damasio refers to EF capacities as a form of extended consciousness. According to neuropsychology researchers such as Barkley and others,[1] EF skills do not fully develop until as late as age 25. This begs the question, What brain are teens and younger children using if the upper brain is still under construction? Yes, they are largely using the midbrain. Let me briefly tell you the story of Phineas Gage, a story that every new psychology student hears about in Intro Psychology 101.

Phineas Gage—Poor Phineas worked for the railroad back in the late 1800s. His job was to use a heavy tamping iron to pack gunpowder into drill holes that were drilled into a rock outcrop that needed to be removed so that a new train line could go through. One day the gunpowder prematurely ignited sending the tamping iron through his skull. Miraculously Phineas survived. If you do a Google search on “Phineas Gage” you can find many pictures and illustrations of his unfortunate accident.

Prior to his accident Phineas was a hard working, loyal, dependable railroad employee. Actually the job he held as a foreman was coveted and required skill and knowledge. He was after all working with explosives. After his accident, Phineas changed. He appeared to be OK, however, he was no longer dependable and responsible. In fact he started drinking and generally carousing. He lost his job at the railroad. After a period of aimless wandering he did eventually find a job as a stagecoach driver. He died at the age of 36.

In a nutshell, the accident damaged a large portion of Phineas’ prefrontal cortex. As a result, he lost most of his Executive Function skills. Sure, he could get by without EF skills but he lost purpose and lived in the moment. As Louis Cozolino writes in his book The Neuroscience of Human Relationships (pulling from work by Schall), “Without the ability to reflect, imagine alternatives, and sometimes cancel reflexive responses, there is little freedom from being a biological machine reacting to the environment.” So, yes, you can live out of your midbrain, however, life will be a challenge. Let’s look at another example.

Executive Function Deficit Disorder or ADHD—Dr. Barkley, who is an ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder) expert, recently started a YouTube channel. I’ve watched a number of his videos and they are well done and informative. Barkley is stepping up and being a public intellectual. Kudos to Barkley. A point that Barkley makes is he would like to see ADHD changed to EFDD or executive function deficit disorder. Why? Well, because in his mind many of the behaviors associated with ADHD, like inattentiveness and hyperactivity, can be framed as an inability to access the EF centers of the upper brain.

In one of his YouTube videos Barkley shows a brain scan of a person with ADHD that shows areas of the upper brain simply not there. Apparently persons with ADHD can have a genetically-medicated condition whereby the upper brain does not fully develop. And, yes, the resulting behaviors are not unlike the behaviors that Phineas Gage displayed after his accident. As an example, in one of his videos[2] Barkley talks about how persons with ADHD can have difficulties with driving automobiles. Apparently the driving environment for persons with ADHD can cause agitated and aggressive behaviors that may ultimately end in a form of road rage. In what can only be called a poignant moment, Dr. Barkley reveled that his own brother, who had ADHD, died in a tragic car accident. So it would seem that persons with ADHD have a difficult time accessing EF skills and abilities. Can they live this way? Sure. And many are successful[3], but it requires a lot of work and, most importantly, a lot of support.

Schizophrenia—In his book The New Executive Brain—Frontal Lobes In a Complex World, neuropsychologist Elkhonon Goldberg talks about schizophrenia. I found this discussion to be fascinating. Goldberg asks the question Why is it that schizophrenia typically appears at around the age of 18? His answer. This is the age at which the upper brain begins to make requests of the middle brain to give up its executive control and release control to the upper brain. In Goldberg’s mind this is a normal part of brain system development, one that takes place as the older teen begins the transition to full adulthood. In schizophrenia something goes wrong with the development of the communication links between midbrain and upper brain. As a result, the midbrain “hears voices” that seem to be issuing commands. Well, in a way, the upper brain is issuing commands. It’s trying to tell the midbrain that it will take control of things like making decisions and making plans. For most of us this transition just takes place without much comment. For persons who develop schizophrenia the transition can be most disturbing. Now, here’s where the story gets real interesting.

In talking about schizophrenia, Goldberg brings in a 1976 book by neuropsychologist Julian Jaynes entitled The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. As chance would have it, I read Jaynes’ book probably in the 1990s. Goldberg tells us that in his book “Julian Jaynes advances the idea that internally generated executive commands [from the upper brain] were mistaken by primitive humans for externally originated voices of the gods.” Goldberg continues, “Thus, by implication, the advent of executive functions at early stages of human civilizations may have been responsible for the molding of religious beliefs.” Wow! I have to admit that I missed this connection as I read Jaynes book, however, the 1990s was a time before my readings in neurological texts began. It’s a big connection nonetheless. So, persons with schizophrenia are experiencing a mental phenomena that may have been widespread back when the upper brain and Executive Function skills came onto the evolutionary scene. Note what’s being said here: the evolution of the upper brain and resulting EF skills is very new, maybe only 10,000 years, which is a drop in the bucket in terms of evolution.

OK, I’m going to go way out on a limb here. Why does it seem that many mass murderers commit such atrocities at about the age of 18? Could they be hearing “commands” that can arise under certain brain system challenges as the upper brain comes online? Could the communication links between midbrain and upper brain be malfunctioning in these individuals? Honestly, I have no idea, but “by implication” (to use Goldberg’s phrase) it seems like a possibility worth considering, one that might take us past Thoughts and Prayers. I would suggest that initiation rituals were designed to help the adolescent move from midbrain to upper-brain life. These initiation rituals, typically brought about through fathering practices, are all but gone here in the U.S. Now, teens are trying to go through “self-devised rituals,” many deadly, such as these on TikTok: blackout challenge, Benadryl challenge, choking challenge, nutmeg challenge, skull breaker challenge, and the list goes on.

Brain Center Commandeering—What happens if the midbrain “decides” to not give up executive control to other brain centers such as those in the upper brain. Louis Cozolino talks about just such a situation in his book The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy. According to Cozolino’s research, the brain’s main fear center, the amygdala, could takeover control of brain systems once the amygdala is triggered in some way. “When the amygdala hijacks executive control of the brain during states of emotional arousal,” writes Cozolino, “the reflective self disappears.” Recall from above that reflection is one of the EF skills. “All in all, this pattern of functional activation [of the amygdala] makes [persons] less able to stop, reflect, and evaluate their situation,” reveals Cozolino, “while more likely to act, react, and be guided by their primitive fear and other emotions.” (Think Phineas Gage, or TikTok challenges.) Cozolino goes a step further and suggests that the amygdala could commandeer, say, left brain structures, and command them to start telling stories in an attempt to make sense out of vague and ill-defined states of fear. Once the amygdala has commandeered or hijacked other brain centers, it is close to impossible to “just say no” as some cognitive behavioral therapists would have a client do. Pathological liars may be persons who regularly have brain centers commandeered by the amygdala.

Addiction—Addiction could be framed in different ways. One way that speaks to me is to frame addiction using attachment theory. This is a topic I take up in my book A Question of Attachment, so I will be brief here. Drawing from the 2014 edited volume entitled Addictions From an Attachment Perspective: Do Broken Bonds and Early Trauma Lead to Addictive Behaviours?, the search for the object of addiction—gambling, the Internet, alcohol & drugs, sex, consumer goods, etc.—could represent an early search for and never finding, a safe and secure attachment figure. As the various neuropsychologists I mention above point out, early attachment relationships play a large role in structuring brain systems. A history of insecure attachment could produce a brain susceptible to addiction. Addiction, it would seem, tries to answer what I call the question asked by insecure attachment: How do I bring to myself a sense of connection, even intimacy, while at the same time distancing myself from the pain and heartbreak that connection and intimacy inevitably bring? Objects of addiction answer this question. From a neuropsychological perspective, it would appear that the brain’s fear center is trying to protect itself by not triggering a sense of loss it is not able to process. In addition it does the best it can by processing such things as faces and social relationships by using the “object-processing networks” available.[4] This is at the heart of objectification.

Cultural Cognitive Models—In his book The Master and his Emissary, Iain McGilchrist argues that Western culture has experienced a number of swings between being left brain dominant on one side and right brain dominant on the other. Again, the left brain is logical and linear while the right brain is vague and holistic. McGilchrist takes us through the following swings:

  • The Ancient World, with highly expressive poetry rich in metaphor = right brain dominant
  • The Renaissance and the Reformation, with the beginnings of modern science and history = left brain dominant
  • The Enlightenment, with reason wishing to see things in context = left and right working together
  • Romanticism and the Industrial Revolution, with its focus on system-building contrasted against man’s bid to control nature = a split between left and right
  • The Modern and Post Modern Worlds, with their over-reliance on the left brain = left brain dominant

In essence what McGilchrist describes are what researchers call cultural cognitive models. Cultural cognitive models are maps if you will that allow the individual to map his or her (or other) experience to the social world. Recall from part III that people, by design, are set up to map the world around them. Bowlby, in his work, suggested that inner working cognitive models allow the individual to navigate not only the physical environment but also the social environment. For a great book on this subject I recommend The Evolution of Cognitive Maps:New Paradigms of the Twenty-First Century by Ervin Laszlo and his colleagues. Simply, when a particular cultural cognitive map no longer holds sway over a culture, say, the cultural cognitive model of democracy, you will see the kinds of things that are currently going on, such as reactivation of old maps (e.g., strict, dogmatic religions) or activation of maps centered on flights of fancy (e.g., postmodernism). We are in a period of cultural cognitive model chaos, which takes a toll on the developing mind. When a person is unable to access a consistent and dependable cultural cognitive model, one capable of mapping the personal to the collective, that person experiences anxiety and confusion. Sadly, we live in an increasingly postmodern world where the goal is to “accelerate” the destruction of coherent cultural cognitive models. It’s the cultural cognitive model of “no models,” which, ironically, is still a model.

Final Thoughts

  • I think it’s clear that the brain and the mind it gives rise to, are incredibly complex organic systems.
  • To understand brain/mind we need a theory of organic systems, which we do not have here in the U.S.
  • To build a good mind we need good mothers, good nurturers, which are in short supply.
  • To bring maturation to a good mind we need good fathers, good initiators, which are in short supply as well.
  • To help teens transition to adulthood, we need appropriate initiation rituals typically provided by good fathering. Without such rituals we can expect more self-devised rituals like TikTok challenges, challenges that can often have deadly consequences.
  • To build good minds we need a lot of social support and scaffolding, support and scaffolding that is diminishing for any number of reasons such as dispersed family systems; declining neighborhoods; overcrowded schools; lack of maternal and paternal leave policies; offloading care onto teachers, police, bus drivers, etc.; a lack of quality daycare; a general lack of concern for the caring professions; and on the list goes.
  • Knowledge reserves are building up and not getting to the public sphere because of a reduction in public intellectualism. We need programs designed to train the next generation of public intellectuals.
  • A general anti-science attitude and an environment of competing cultural cognitive models that makes cognitive life for individuals exceeding difficult. Simply, we need efforts to clear up this cognitive chaos. This will take great leadership, which is in short supply.
  • A mental health crisis characterized by people giving up and losing hope resulting in high levels of drug overdoses and suicide. The number of deaths attributed to fentanyl overdose in 2023 is estimated to top 112,000, up from about 70,000 the year before.[5] There needs to be a concerted effort to address the mental health crisis that now surrounds.
  • I’ll let Cozolino have the final word here:

Our culture is much more focused on us as human doings instead of human beings and there are no obvious external rewards for being sound of mind.[6]

Postscript: As I was writing my final thoughts above, my iPhone sent me a news alert telling me that 21 people, several of which were children, were wounded and one person killed as a gunman (or gunmen) opened fire toward the close of the Super Bowl celebration in Kansas City. As I Googled this report, I was told that this shooting is the 45th mass shooting in the U.S. in 2024. What? We’re only six weeks into 2024! I have no words. This is insanity. And no level of Thoughts and Prayers will get us through this.



[1] For another example see the 2015 article The Amazing Teen Brain by neuropsychology researcher Jay Giedd that appeared on the web site in June.

[2] Here’s the link to this YouTube video:

[3] Examples here are the swimmer Michael Phelps and the musician Adam Levine.

[4] This phrase comes from Cozolino’s book The Neuroscience of Human Relationships. Cozolino points out that persons on the autism spectrum often have difficulty processing faces. Research shows that persons on the autism spectrum when shown pictures depicting social interactions will often shift their gaze to objects in the picture and away from social interactions. In other words, they shift their gaze to objects because they feel more comfortable using object-processing brain circuits. It would appear that those brain circuits typically used to process social relationships are not fully developed.

[5] See this NPR article entitled In 2023 fentanyl overdoses ravaged the U.S. and fueled a new culture war fight.

[6] This quote is from his book The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy.