November 28, 2010
The patterning instinct
The human prefrontal cortex (pfc) instills in us a patterning instinct that shapes patterns of meaning to make sense of our world. This section from my book Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness explains how this patterning instinct forms the essence of our mythic consciousness that is the source of religious thought. It then begins to explore the question of how an infant’s pfc first begins to lock into the patterns of meaning of its specific culture.
The patterning instinct
The !Kung Bushmen possess one of the most ancient unbroken cultural traditions in the world. As noted earlier, they belong genetically to one of the earliest lineages of the human race, dating back to before the takeover by the L3 lineage which now dominates the globe. Their technology, “if uncovered by an archeologist and taken in isolation, would place them in the late Stone Age.” Not surprisingly, anthropologists have been drawn to study them to gain insights into the earliest forms of human cognition. Merlin Donald describes how “myth and religion permeate every activity” of their daily lives from the way they hunt wild animals to the celebration of a girl’s first menstruation. The !Kung take their beliefs so seriously that they will rarely even discuss them; when they do, it’s only with hushed voices, and they’re afraid even to utter the names of their gods. Donald summarizes their mythical thought as “a unified, collectively held system of explanatory and regulatory metaphors.” He sees their sophisticated and complex ritual and myth as a paradigmatic example of how the human mind “has expanded its reach … to a comprehensive modeling of the entire human universe.”
This is the essence of the mythic consciousness that arose with the Upper Paleolithic revolution, and it’s one that Donald relates closely to the development of fully modern language. Modern language was first used, he proposes, “to construct conceptual models of the human universe. Its function was evidently tied to the development of integrative thought – to the grand unifying synthesis of formerly disconnected, time-bound snippets of information.” The pre-eminence of myth in early human society, Donald argues, is “testimony that humans were using language for a totally new kind of integrative thought,” which involved the “first attempts at symbolic models of the human universe.” This is why, as Boyer has put it, “religion as we know it probably appeared with the modern mind.”
In the previous chapter, we discussed how the pfc’s patterning instinct works to mold the young infant’s brain by picking up patterns in the voices she hears around her until she locks into those sounds that match her particular language, ignoring those that don’t fit. Similarly, we now see the pfc honing into patterns of meaning to make sense of the everyday world, to create Donald’s “comprehensive modeling of the entire human universe.” Crucially, the way the pfc applies meaning is to use the same symbolic behavior that it had developed for its social and linguistic capabilities. As Deacon describes it, “the symbolic capacity seems to have brought with it a predisposition to project itself into what it models.” Deacon compares the pfc’s symbolic predisposition to the relentlessly focused perceptions of an autistic savant. The savant, he writes, “instead of seeing a field of wildflowers, sees 247 flowers. Similarly, we don’t just see a world of physical processes, accidents, reproducing organisms, and biological information processors churning out complex plans, desires, and needs. Instead, we see the handiwork of an infinite wisdom, the working out of a divine plan, the children of a creator, and a conflict between those on the side of good and those on the side of evil.” This is the inevitable and all-embracing power of the mythic consciousness. “Wherever we look, we expect to find purpose. All things can be seen as signs and symbols of an all-knowing consciousness at work… We are not just applying symbolic interpretations to human words and events; all the universe has become a symbol.”
It’s only in recent years that advances in cognitive neuroscience have enabled the linkage of our symbolic drive for meaning with the physiology of the pfc. However, earlier observers have at times noticed the same unyielding drive for meaning in the human condition without the explicit attribution to the pfc. The father of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin, saw this “craving to understand” as a natural consequence of human cognition, writing that “as soon as the important faculties of the imagination, wonder, and curiosity, together with some power of reasoning, had become partially developed, man would naturally crave to understand what was passing around him, and would have vaguely speculated on his own existence.” The influential 20th century anthropologist Clifford Geertz saw something similar, describing a human as a “symbolizing, conceptualizing, meaning-seeking animal,” whose “drive to make sense out of experience, to give it form and order, is evidently as real and as pressing as the more familiar biological needs.” Geertz sees religion, art and ideology – the products of mythic consciousness – as “attempts to provide orientation for an organism which cannot live in a world it is unable to understand.” More recently, other observers have arrived at similar conceptions to the pfc’s patterning instinct, one group describing a “cognitive imperative” for humans to “construct myths to explain their world,” and another researcher summarizing it as a “narrative drive” to “create meaning to our world.”
Powerful as this patterning instinct of the pfc appears to be, we would severely understate the overwhelming force of its influence in molding our human consciousness unless we look more closely at the process of how the molding and patterning takes place in an infant’s developing mind. Just as language “warps the perception” of an infant as she listens to the patterns of sounds around her, to the extent that a grown Japanese person can’t distinguish between the sounds /r/ and /l/, so the mythic patterns of thought informing the culture a child is born into will literally shape how that child’s pfc constructs meaning in her world. It’s as though there is an external pfc created by the cumulative symbolic constructions of generations of minds gone before, which has already assembled the comprehensive mythological structures of thought that will be inherited by the new generation. How this “external pfc” molds each individual’s own pfc as they grow up in their culture is what we’ll now examine.
 Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 213-16, 267. Donald cites an earlier study of the !Kung Bushmen in his evaluation of their cultural traditions: Lee, R.B. and De Vore, I. (1976). Kalahari hunter-gatherers: Studies of the !Kung Sang and their neighbors. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
 Boyer (2001) op. cit., 323.
 Chapter 3, page 39.
 Deacon (1997) op. cit., 435.
 Cited from Darwin, C. (1871)The Descent of Man by Sjöblom (2007) op. cit.
 Cited by Guthrie (1993) op. cit., 32.
 d’Aquili, E., and Newberg, A. B. (1999). The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 86; Sjöblom (2007) op. cit.