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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
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.
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
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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