Walking through millions of years of image-making evolution
Jul. ’Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself though, not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O! be some other name:
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title.
Romeo, doff thy name;
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.
Romeo and Juliet
Looking, even superficially, we discover that there is not one ‘self,’ rather what we perceive as ‘self’ is a streaming composite of sensations, feelings and mental images generated by the dominate brain systems; core or sensory motor, limbic-mammalian, neocortex, the prefrontal regions, the heart (65 percent of the cells that make up the heart are neurons), and most likely others. Each brain center generates a unique form of image, more precisely a resonate representation of that center's domain. It might be helpful to understand ‘image’ or resonate representation as unique expression of meaning. The ancient sensory motor brain may use pictures to express its meaning, what we call seeing, for example. We might think of emotions as music. Each brain center communicates with all others in a unique form. We are using the term ‘image’ to represent these different forms.
That we have each of these centers is misleading. Each center with its unique capacities must be unfolded, fully developed and integrated before we have a whole, mature functioning system. Arriving at this mature, fully integrated state is what child development is all about. What we experience as ‘self’ is an abstraction of this composite which changes with each age and stage of development and with every encounter we experience. Impaired development of any center implies an impaired self-world-view, a less than whole ego. Even more confusing, ‘self’ for a five year-old is nothing like a fifteen year-old or senior. Plus, moment by moment one brain center may completely dominate the others. What we call ‘self’ is never static. Raging hormones of the adolescent is a good example. Narcissism is another.
Building on this framework, significant neurological research focuses on early development, the first eighteen months of age, when the social image, what we generally call the ego, forms as a coping strategy defending and adapting to culturally imposed approval and rejection. While all brain centers contribute to the gestalt we perceive as ‘self,’ the neocortex with its vast associative memory and capacity for language and imagination is so powerful that it dominates in the uniquely human experience of self-as-a-social-entity or ego. Appreciating how the brain creates images brings a startling new perspective to Juliet's muse: “What’s in a name?”
One of my more life-changing conversations occurred some years ago when Keith A. Buzzell,B.A.,D.O., shared his deep insight into this question. Referring once again to the self-deception and concealment that hides the magician’s trick we play on ourselves that David Bohm described, we take a ride with Keith as he walks us through millions of years of image-making evolution.
A unique characteristic that defines a brain is the capacity to take a slice through all of the variable forms and energies ‘out there’ and build a resonant representation or an image of the external world. And then, within the confines of that creature, act upon these images for survival. Then you have a brain.
Over 600 million years ago, with the appearance of the cold-blooded vertebrates, there appeared sensory systems, which could construct a resonant representation, or image, of some portion of the external world. The life of cold-blooded vertebrates, what I call one-brain creatures, is determined by the spectrum of sensors and imaging capacity of this basic core brain. The primary function of this reptilian brain is survival, focused around the triad of food, reproduction and defense.
Once the first brain becomes well-established as a whole sensory/motor instrument, which occurred about 200 million years ago, elements of what neuroscientist Paul MacLean refers to as the Limbic Brain, or the Second Brain, began to appear. The critical difference is that the world that the second brain opens to is not the world ‘out there’ beyond the bounding membrane, but the inner world of dynamic metabolism and motions. Self-perception, when limited to the first brain, is a representation only of the body surface. Certainly, a lizard has receptors that will tell it to some degree the amount of pressure it is putting on one of its fore limbs. However, it does not relate the internal dynamic state of the limb itself, the muscles, the blood flow, etc. This capacity evolved with the second brain.
The core brain senses and represents an image of the external world. The second or limbic brain monitors and images inner bodily states. When we take all of the states of both brains, the resonate representations or images that are formed from those states, including feelings, this is what neuroscientist Paul MacLean very appropriately calls the emergence of the Sense of Self.
As we move up the evolutionary ladder over the last 200 billion years, we see increasingly dense neural structures, which begin to open capacities and functions that look like the third brain. Cleverness, a monkey digging with a stick for food. We see the emergence of curiosity, not for food, not for survival, but curiosity for its own sake. All this requires the neural matrix of a third brain. As this third brain develops, we see in the life of many mammalian forms, aspects, which appear surprisingly similar to those that emerge with the full human brain. But the third brain in other mammals isn’t complete. When it is complete, it will have the capacity to create various forms of abstract images - of letters, words, numbers; of comparisons, analogies, similarities; of spatial, and sound forms. It will ‘image’ logical sequences, and ‘play’ with symbols, word, colors, sounds, and forms. This is the world of the third brain.
More important, so far as the emergence of the third brain, is what it does in terms of perspective. Lizards live in a one-dimensional world. They have fixed habit patterns that react and respond only to the present. They have very poor memories. Two brain creatures develop an enormous tail into the past. Memory develops and becomes longer and longer and immensely dense. But the second brain has little capacity to reach into the future. With the appearance of the third brain there is a sudden extension into the future, built upon the second brain's past and the first brain’s present. With that extension life takes on a three dimensional perspective. I cannot emphasize that too much. Another way of looking at our three-brained nature is to see that we have the outside world represented by the first brain, the inside world imaged by the second brain, and the third brain emerges as the third point of a triad, receiving input from both. Adding this third dimension alters the first brain’s sense of the outside world and the second brain’s sense of self/other. Now we get a three-dimensional perspective which gives rise to the inner representation, or the subjective experience, of an independent “I”. This third brain subjective experience of “I” is unique and enormously powerful.
Clearly, the first and second brains cannot question themselves. The third brain has that capacity, if it is developed and applied. The awareness that it is an image and not the reality is, however, a very tenuous state, one that we very quickly fall out of view, especially when highly evocative images are presented by the first or second brain. For instance, when the phone rings and it is the IRS.
As difficult as it is to sustain our impartiality to first and second brain images it is more difficult yet with regard to third brain images. The Sense-of-I naturally created by the neural imaging of the third brain brings a potent sense of singularity that is both real and imaginary. Real because of the physical and subjective feelings that we are a separate, individual. Imaginary in that this image artificially separates us from everything. It also creates a subjective ‘specialness’ that is the germ of a false and intrinsically malevolent egoism. It is this imaginary, ‘false I’ that results in monsters like Idi Amin, Pol Pot, and Hitler, as well as the abusive parent and arrogant CEOs.
To Keith’s narrative we need to add what Joseph Chilton Pearce called the intelligence of the heart.
Physicists describe fields of energy, how they imply meaning, information and intelligence. New research suggests that the electromagnetic field generated by the heart determines the general environmental conditions under which the genetic system spells out its instructions for new life.
Up to 65 percent of the cells of the heart are neurons just like those found in the brain. There is a direct unmediated neuro-connection, a direct pipeline, between the heart and the brain. The brain informs the heart of its general emotional state and the heart encourages the brain to make an intelligent response.
This resonant field produced by the heart is present in every relationship, but is particularly important for mothers and infants. The meaning of the fields shared by mother and infant contain a great deal of critical information for both.
Failing the initial bond with the mother, all subsequent bonding is not only put at risk but is very difficult to bring about. Studies at Harvard show that the nature of our early bonds is reflected throughout life, both in one's health and ability to interact socially. Allan Schore, PhD., describes how the first eighteen months determine subsequent moves of intelligence. Why? Because the emotional experience the child is given during the first eighteen months determines the nature and quality of the neural structures that develop.
Keith describes how the experience of ‘self’ changes and dramatically with the addition of each new brain center. A lizard’s experience of ‘self’ is galaxies away from an elephant or chimpanzee. We believe that what we experience is ‘reality’ and it is, given our unique sensory, emotional and cognitive composition. What we perceive as being ‘out there’ is a composite inner-image created by our unique brain constellation. Add the enlarged human neocortex, prefrontals plus the intelligence of the heart and it is easy to see that our perception of ‘self’ is unique and vastly more dimensional. To this multidimensional perspective, we must add the critical factor of development. The emotional experience the child is given during the first eighteen months determines the nature and quality of the neural structures that develop.
The ‘self’ experienced by a fully developed brain is completely different from the ‘self’ experienced by the unnurtured brain. The experience of egalitarian compassion and altruism, what we often call love, requires a fully developed and integrated brain-complex. Nature, by design, expects the center for ‘self’ to be grounded in the newer brain systems, integrating the lower systems into the service of the more evolved. This migration and expansion of the feelings and images of ‘self’ from the more primitive to the infinitely more complex and subtle brain systems is what child development is all about and prolonged nurturing is the key. Lacking this foundation, the ‘self’ remains rooted in the lower, more primitive core brain with its selfishness, aggression, lust and violence. Is the dominate center of one’s self-as-image or ego the selfish-aggressive core brain or, in evolutionary terms, the far newer and more complex prefrontal regions in dialogue with the heart? The difference that makes the difference is nurturing. When and how this develops – next.
To be continued