January 13, 2012
Towards a Science of Consciousness
I’m pleased to tell you that I’ve been invited to present at the biennial conference Towards a Science of Consciousness to be held in Tucson, Arizona on April 9-14, 2012.
Here’s how the conference describes itself:
Known for rigorous and leading edge approaches to all aspects of the study of conscious experience, TSC includes neuroscience, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, psychology, philosophy, neurobiology, medicine, quantum physics and cosmology as well as art, mind technology and experiential and contemplative approaches. TSC is the largest interdisciplinary gathering probing fundamental questions related to conscious experience. An estimated 500 scientists, philosophers, psychologists, experientialists, artists and students from over 60 countries are due to take part.
I’ll be presenting a talk on the subject covered by this blog: the Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex. Here’s the abstract:
The human prefrontal cortex (pfc) is widely recognized as mediating the executive function: our ability to plan, conceptualize abstractions, make rules, and impose meaning on experience. It controls our physiological drives and turns basic feelings into complex emotions. This paper asserts that the effect of the pfc on other aspects of human consciousness has become so overbearing that it may be analogized more accurately as a tyranny than an executive function.
The unique evolutionary expansion of the pfc in the human brain, combined with the dynamics of culture (itself a product of pfc activity) has created a positive feedback loop leading to an imbalance within the human psyche, both collectively and individually. Collectively, this imbalance manifests in the extreme characteristics of our global society, such as our unsustainable use of natural resources to fuel exponentially accelerating material growth. Individually, this tyranny refers to our unreflective absorption of fundamental values that prioritize pfc-mediated abstractions at the expense of other aspects of human experience.
The paper introduces the discipline of “cognitive history,” tracing the steps whereby the pfc gradually gained dominance in the human collective consciousness. With the evolution of early humans, the pfc mediated the sense of self, theory of mind and a concept of past and future. The resulting enhanced ability for symbolic thought led ultimately to the development of language and a mythic consciousness among hunter-gatherers manifested through shamanism. The next phase in the pfc’s rise to dominance was the emergence of agriculture, bringing with it a sense of separation from and partial control over the natural world, along with new core human values such as ownership, hierarchy and patriarchy. The next major transition took the form of the extreme version of dualism that emerged in ancient Greece, whereby pfc-mediated abstractions – the deification of reason, the notion of an eternal, immaterial soul – became the foundation for the monotheistic-based Western mentality that separates reason from emotion, mind and soul from the body. This in turn engendered the scientific revolution that forms the basis of the current worldview which ultimately drives the unsustainable trajectory of our global civilization.
Acknowledging this tyranny and understanding its dynamic is the first necessary step towards achieving re-harmonization within our individual and collective consciousness. Another step involves exploring alternative root metaphors for the pfc’s role in human consciousness, such as “conductor” in an orchestra, or an executive serving for the benefit of the complete human mind/body organism rather than in service of externally imposed cultural values. The Taoist notion of wu-wei (non-purposive action as opposed to pfc-driven goal-oriented action) and the Buddhist conception of the self as a dynamically interactive process rather than a fixed entity, offer potential paths for unseating the “tyranny of the pfc” and achieving a “democracy of consciousness,” both in individual and collective cognition. These may be integrated with recent theoretical progress in systems biology and the investigation of self-organization in complex living systems, to offer an alternative, scientifically valid, approach to meaning that could supersede the current pfc-centered dualistic tyranny.
I look forward to seeing you there in Tucson in April!