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The Modular Brain

How Our Minds Really Work

The human brain is made of many parts. Each has a specific function: to turn sounds into speech; to process colour; to register fear; to recognize a face or distinguish a fish from a fruit. But this is no static collection of components: each brain is unique, ever-changing and exquisitely sensitive to its environment. Its modules are interdependent and interactive and their functions are not rigidly fixed: sometimes one bit will take over the job of another... The whole is bound together in a dynamic system of systems that does millions of different things in parallel. It is probably so complex that it will never succeed in comprehending itself. Yet it never ceases to try.
                                                   --Rita Carter, Mapping the Mind


In his prolific discourses Aristotle assumed—without any empirical evidence to back him up—that the human mind is a single, monolithic, unified system. Two and half millennia later the Western world still operates, for all practical purposes, under this assumption, even though brain scientists have shown it to be wrong.

     It wasn't until empirical, split-brain research initiated by Nobel Laureate Roger Sperry and expanded by Michael Gazzaniga and others, proved conclusively how the human brain is organized.

     It is not a single, holistic, unitary system at all. The brain, to paraphrase Dr. Gazzaniga, is a confederation of various modules capped by the "normally dominant computational systems" of the left brain, that has the "capacity to interpret our multiple self."  "These modules can compute, remember, feel emotion, and act. They exist in such a way that they need not be in touch with the natural language and cognitive systems underlying private conscious experience," Gazzaniga points out. This means that not only are our brains made up of many different modules, but also that the modules function on their own, often outside of our conscious awareness and control.

     "The emerging picture is that our cognitive system is not a unified network with a single purpose and train of thought. A more accurate metaphor is that our sense of subjective awareness arises out of our dominant left hemisphere's unrelenting need to explain actions taken from any one of a multitude of mental systems that dwell within us," explains Gazzaniga. "There are many parallel, co-conscious systems in the brain, not just one. There is no 'general' in charge. To make sense of all the different behaviors, there has to be a system that interprets and formulates theories. Language is closely related to it, but isn't the thing itself."

     Some of these systems and modules are pathways that cross and interconnect with various parts of the brain rather than being confined to narrow regions of the brain.

     As we saw in the last chapter, very powerful conduits interconnect our brain, known as reward pathways. They are believed to be originally tied in with our species survival and were initially linked with food, procreation, family and social cohesion.

     What Sperry's and Gazzaniga's research disclosed on the neurological level parallels what Eric Berne and Robert Goulding discovered on the psychological plane. Some of the brain's modules create "ego states," or modules of circuitry within the cortex. There are five standard components making up our "self" and have been named by Berne and Goulding as the "Adult," "Nurturing Parent," "Critical Parent," "Free Child" and "Adapted Child."

     Briefly defined, the Adult is the rational, reasoning, logical, analytical part of us-our problem-solving, reality-testing component. The Nurturing Parent nurtures, comforts and promotes growth. The Critical Parent controls and makes up our critical faculties that sees through fraudulent sales pitches. The Free Child is our spontaneous, creative, playful, humorous, fun part. The Adapted Child compromises, conforms and sabotages. It is the devious, con artist within us. You know it is operating when you hear yourself saying "I'll try to do it," "I should or need to do it," or "I can't," when it really means "I don't want to do it" or "I won't do it." The Adapted Child resists change and is devious and clever in undermining and defeating the intentions of the Parent and the Adult for change. It is good at rationalizing or giving the appearance of changing while actually sabotaging it.

     Let's look at a simplified example of how our modular brains operate through these ego states.

     After a shower, you look at yourself in a full-length mirror. Your Critical Parent sees a body that is not as attractive as you would like it to be. The Adult kicks in and says, "I'll go on a diet and lose the extra weight." For a while all goes well and you do lose some weight. Then you notice that you begin to feel mildly depressed. Food has been a big source for stimulating your reward pathways and now they are being deprived. You find yourself sliding off your diet, eating junk food, and raiding the refrigerator late in the evening and at night. Before long you are totally off the diet and your weight shoots back up. You feel defeated. What happened?

     You deprived your reward pathways, one of the most powerful parts of the brain, of the needed stimulation that your accustomed amounts of food provided-without substituting other pleasurable activities to compensate for that loss. The serotonin and dopamine levels in your brain plummeted, contributing to your feeling depressed and anxious. At this stage your reward pathways overrode your Adult and shut down your dieting efforts. In Chapter 15, "Weight, Fun & Fitness," you will see how to manage your weight without the dangerous weight yo-yoing that dieting produces.

     As we go through the day and the situations call for it, our consciousness and behavior switches back and forth between the various ego states. At any one time the individual may be in the "Adult" ego state, then switch to "Critical Parent," "Free Child" and so forth.

     But what does this have to do with being stuck and not being able to change behavior, habits or lifestyles? A lot. Different modules and ego states kick-in at unpredictable times, producing contradictory feelings and behavior. Incongruities between the modules and ego states lead to contrary, inconsistent, conflicting, self-defeating, self-sabotaging and even self-destructive behavior and can result in feelings of depression, phobias, general dissatisfaction and unhappiness.

     When you look at a model cross section of the human brain, you don't need to be a brain scientist to see how disjointed the evolutionary process appears to have been in adding layers upon layers of different brain sections. At the base we find the brain stem and cerebellum, also known as the "reptilian brain," which evolved 500 million years ago and is like the entire brain of present-day reptiles. Its components are still functioning and form the bottom part of the three-tier human brain system. On top of that additional layers developed: the thalamus, amygdala, hippocampus and the hypothalamus, collectively known as the limbic system that make up the mammalian brain. It developed between 200 to 300 million years ago. Finally as we evolved into humans, we developed the cortex and neo-cortex. As the human embryo develops it appears to go through this evolutionary process in a highly accelerated fashion.

     The human brain has been compared to a "ram-shackled house that was built long ago for a small family and then added on to ... The original structure remains basically intact, but some of the functions have moved elsewhere in the house... The brain is not like a sleek, modern house, one with each cubic foot well organized. It is chaotic, it consists of 'room' upon 'room,' [or modules] of different structures..."

     Given this apparent chaotic architecture of our brain, it's not hard to understand how various modules and ego states pull us in different, sometimes opposing and contradictory directions, and explains why being stuck is such a common phenomenon. In Chapter 7 you'll see how to bring order to this confused situation via the Cortical Integration Process. But first we need to find out just how vital sensation seeking is for our brains-the subject of the next chapter.

The above is a very rudimentary description of the human brain, that, with its 100 billion neurons, makes up the most complex system in the known universe. For more details see "Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General, Chapter 2 - The Fundamentals of Menatal Health," the Complexity of the Brain pp 32-39.

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