“Mr. Jones, at night, was fishing for something down a sewer drain under a street light. A passerby asked him, ‘Did you drop your keys down this storm drain?’
‘No, I didn’t drop them here. I dropped them down the street, but this is where the light is.’”
When we consider the evolution of the human species, what makes us human is not defined by our unique human functions, such as opposable thumbs, abstract thinking, reasoning, or computational abilities. Those are good, but the defining feature of our species is the ‘play of consciousness’. Consciousness is organized as a play, a living drama, in the theater of the brain. This is not a metaphor, it is literal. The brain creates a representational world that consists of a cast of characters who relate together by feeling, scenarios, plots, set designs, and landscapes. Once formed, we perceive the world as filtered through an already existent prism of its narrative, and inner movie super-imposed onto reality.
The billions of dollars of research into fictitious brain diseases, which traces apparently faulty genes or neurotransmitters, is a fruitless enterprise looking in all the wrong places. A lot of brain research at best hits on a fad and metastasizes. At its worst it follows the big money from the pharmaceutical companies or tries to suit the self-serving political agenda of the APA in its current agenda: the search for biological markers. Most brain researchers study ‘parts’ of the brain, but they miss the ‘whole.’ Scientists leap to speculative conclusions from the parts, much like the blind men and the elephant in the old story. These false promises never amount to anything. The brain operates globally as a ‘whole,’ and is greater than the sum of the ‘parts.’
As a psychiatrist I have had the unusual situation to see so many different people, who over the years have had the full range of human suffering. I am so indebted to my patients to be entrusted with their deepest vulnerabilities in the special intimacy of therapy. It was throughout the many therapies, that I learned about the play of consciousness itself. I don’t feel entirely worthy to have found this understanding. It is reassuring to show some research that addresses the brain as a whole, and supports this understanding of consciousness.
The brain distills our experience through the top-down cortical processing of the play, to create the meaning and coherence of our moment-to-moment living. It determines our images of our individual selves and our emotional relationship life. Top-down processing is the cortical brain function that simplifies and makes possible our ability to perform the complexities of living. It would be too unwieldy for the brain to analyze the whole host of information from the senses and body nerves anew and connect it with our motor abilities, along with our intention, every moment. You wouldn’t be able to lift a spoon to your mouth, never mind balance a strawberry on it, or encompass your intention, or have a cohered sense of “you.” The cortex establishes a way to do all of this, with as little expenditure of time, effort, and attention as possible. Top-down processing creates symbolic form out of huge amounts of information, and imposes its images on reality. (See Part II)
The creation of images of personas, their emotional relatedness, and life plots—the full range of tragedy and comedy—is the drama. It describes the highest level of order in the organization of the brain. We walk around all day long, each of us, in this brain-body synthetic bubble of consciousness, our genetic endowment.
The specific and unique aspect of the human genome that generates the play is our finely developed amygdala, limbic system and hippocampus. It is through their functions that our consciousness is created. I will emphasize here the implications for psychiatry, although the vast richness of the play encompasses dreams, myths, religion, and art. For an understanding of consciousness to be valid, it has to conform to the actual brain-body in its development and organization. It cannot be a pastiche of ideas that fits somebody’s theory but does not correspond to the actualities of the human genome, as it orchestrates morphogenesis into the brain-body. Likewise, in order for an understanding of the operations of consciousness to be meaningful, it has to be consonant with the actualities of human life.
The play of consciousness crystallizes when a baby is about six weeks old. The function of the early fetal amygdala and limbic system was to map our survival interactions with our maternal environment in the womb. This brain circuitry links the body, hormones, subcortical brain, and the cortex—the amygdala for impulses of fear and pleasure; the hippocampus for gluing memories; the cingulate gyrus for attention and autonomic functions, such as heart rate and blood pressure; the hypothalamus for regulating the autonomic nervous system; and the thalamus, the relay station from the subcortex.
The development of our limbic system is progressive and ongoing throughout our fetal/newborn life. By the time we are born, these limbic circuits have sufficiently developed to be organized for our foundational appetites and rudimentary emotions of fear, anger, alarm, sadness, satisfaction, pleasure, hunger, and thirst. We map our maternal attachment, responsiveness, and provision experience through our limbic system. This is all through feeling.
By six weeks old, these mappings create high enough symbolic form to generate two personas, the ‘Authentic Being’ and the ‘Responsive Other’ in the brain theater. They relate together through the feeling of maternal love. This is the beginning of the play. These personas are as yet formless. The brain is still too immature to create representational form. The Authentic Being is a ‘feeling’ of a being without form. In fact, the litmus test as to when consciousness begins, is when the mother feels a stirring in her chest resonating with her baby. And her baby responds to her feeling. Prior to this, the mother is predisposed to love her baby. At six weeks, she feels and falls in love with him. Prior to that time, the baby mapped physical reality, motions and physical holding. But now he maps emotions. These personas will not mature into fully three-dimensional representational form until approximately age three. Nonetheless, these rudimentary personas are the beginning of the play. From now on we process our experience, no longer directly, but filtered through the ongoing play. When the brain creates representational form, we put together images of people and things. From then on we live in a three dimensional world, and we identify with those representational images.
The earlier brain mappings however remain in place and activated. Consequently there is a built in discrepancy in each of us. There is a disjunction between the role of the adult self, the mask figure played upon the stage, and the person behind the mask, the Authentic-Being. (‘Per sona’ in Latin refers to Greek theater where the actors wore masks. Persona means the sound coming though the mouth hole, the person behind the mask). We all have a resonance that our deepest self is not encompassed by our ordinary sense of self. Every person feels the presence of his hidden Authentic-Being, one way or another. It is generated by established circuits of cortical limbic mappings, an artifact of the morphogenesis of consciousness. These circuits remain throughout life as the agency that generates the feeling of our being. It is the anchor of our loving. It is the quiet voice inside of us. It is our innocence. It is the source of our creativity. It is the source of our conscience. It is the fountain of our aliveness. None of this is magical. It is just the way consciousness is organized in the brain.
This is so significant for psychiatry because when we are subject to trauma, we write traumatic plays. Such plays become our referenced framework. We filter ongoing experience through our traumatic plays. I would add here that our deeply held plays are enmeshed with our temperaments. (See – “The Nature-Nurture Question – Nature”).
When the Authentic Being is subject to deprivation and abuse, we are damaged to the core. This may predispose us to the possibility of a future psychosis. Deprivation and abuse in the early years writes sadomasochistic plays of violation and darkness. This powerfully affects our personalities. As the twig is bent so grows the tree. As we get older deprivation and abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, war, loss, death, divorce, poverty, sickness, etc.) in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, have the power to rewrite our plays and generate newly minted traumatic plays.
In the theater of consciousness, “all the world’s a stage,” where we enact our invisible plays . Our plays determine our mask figures and influence our destiny. We live out and enact our invisible internal play—all of us. Now, here’s the important question: is the destiny of the internal play and the “adult self” mask immutable? Are we destined to play out its fate? Or can we intervene and thwart the gods?
This brings us to the living theater of psychotherapy. Psychotherapy operates through emotional holding with the therapist within the boundaries of the psychotherapy. This allows the patient to mourn and recover from the pain and trauma that shaped his character, as the result of our traumatic plays. The patient then deactivates his old problematic play and writes a new one in the brain in the same way the character story was written in the first place. Psychotherapy is the specific process that deals with the play of consciousness, the pains and struggles of our personalities and our lives. Ultimately psychotherapy is about the recovery of our Authentic Being. Oddly, this seems just psychological, but it is actually biological. Actually everything is biological. Most importantly, it works with, and doesn’t violate our brains like psychoactive drugs or ECT. (See “Smashing the Neurotransmitter Myth“).
There are two unusual and beautiful studies from the Gallant lab at UC Berkeley. Both of these studies reveal how memory operates at the very high level of symbolic order regarding language, and the visualization of movies in the brain. In fact, each paper actually reflects how the play of consciousness is manifest in the brain.
In “Scientists use brain imaging to reveal the movies in our mind” by Yasmin Anwar, Media Relations, Sept 22, 2011, “As yet the technology can only reconstruct movie clips people have already viewed. However, the breakthrough paves the way for reproducing the movies inside our heads that no one else sees, such as dreams, and memories, according to researchers.”
The second is “Natural speech revels the semantic maps that tile human cerebral cortex” by Alexander G. Huth et.al. As volunteers listened to hours of narrative stories in the lab their brain activity was monitored using fMRI. These scans recorded increased blood flow to different regions of the brain, broken down into tiny cubes called voxels. ‘These semantic maps give us, for the first time, a detailed map of how meaning is represented across the human cortex. Rather than being limited to a few brain areas, we find that language engages very broad regions of the brain.’ They then were able to locate how words were distributed meaningfully all across the cortex. Meaningful associations adjacent to one area of the brain for wife/mother was found to be activated by related words, including those relating to location, such as ‘household’ and ‘apartment’. The following video demonstrates the findings. The locations of the mappings for different areas of brain show that visual words are located in the visual areas, emotional words in the limbic areas. etc. The brain is mapped in such a way that the narratives and movies are the highest order of meaning.
If we then recognize that consciousness itself is a brain illusion, generated by the hippocampus. It is a simulation of reality. Our moment to moment consciousness in this on-going simulation, through time, is experienced as real. This is true in our waking life and it explains why dreams and hallucinogenic experience all seem totally real. See Matt Faw’s “Consciousness is Memory” video. We live in movies of reality which are synthetic creations by our brains, specifically from the hippocampus.
Our internal narrative is processed always through the feelings from our amygdala and limbic system. They are distributed in memory all throughout the brain as is shown by the Gallant lab. The morphology, organized structures, and pathways of complex neuronal webs throughout the architecture of the brain create the patterns of patterns of patterns that enable the characterological drama. The hippocampus takes our internal play narrative and generates the internal movie of our consciousness.
I will address here how the brain incorporates information and builds toward the creation of the play. The cortex gives order and coherence to information by unifying huge quantities of bits of information into more encompassing form. This follows from the ordered way its neuron channels electrochemically link up, one to another. Two neurons get permanently linked by chemical processes that get established in the synapses (spaces) between them. This allows an activated electrochemical current to travel along an established pathway of connected neurons like an electric wire. These permanent, intact electrochemical circuits create neuronal memory. Single units of information get linked into patterns. A web of neuron (memory-glued) circuits constitutes a pattern of information. These webs link up with other webs to create larger webs. These webs of webs of webs create larger webs that map all throughout the architecture of the cortex.
The multiplication of these circuits creates a pyramid of order. Sensory information from the five senses and their neuronal impulses are at the bottom of the pyramid. Those are simple units of information. These patterns get linked to other patterns and become higher level units of information. As these patterns get connected into larger and more elaborate patterns, they create even higher-level units of information. The top layers of the pyramid, arising from the high-end cortical maps, create the symbolic forms that are used in top-down processing.
The brain has additional ways of linking maps of information to much higher levels of order, over and above the straightforward pyramids of order. Since many neurons can connect into one synapse, multiple neuronal circuits hook into one another, not just two. So multiple circuits of neurons get linked. This multiplies the patterns of circuits connecting to circuits even more. And finally, there are ganglions of neurons called brain nuclei, which operate as hubs to massively increase the connectivity of neuronal circuits, creating additional webs of connections, radiating outwards. This creates a higher level of order and unifies additional patterns into constellations of patterns, creating larger patterns. These huge networks of neuronal circuits link together to create the architecture of mappings that establishes high-end cortical maps. To make it even more complicated, the various neurotransmitters of connection qualitatively color the resultant symbolic forms.
When higher levels of order take form, they are increasingly abstracted from the original information and take symbolic form. Let’s take language as an example. Language is a high level of order that a child develops at anywhere from one to three years old. Consider the word “swim.” It represents and stands for the complex activity and experience of swimming. However, from the word “swim,” I don’t get wet, I don’t kick my feet, I can’t get splashed, and I don’t need a towel. It reduces the whole thing to a four-letter word. The circuit of circuits that map “swim” are the operational unit that creates the word. “Swim” is an abstraction for a huge complex of information that allows me to communicate, in shorthand, to you.
The word “swim” is an abstracted symbol, not the thing. Once a symbolic representation is established, it becomes the prism through which we see. It is at a considerable remove from the actual experience of swimming. Once the cortical mapping for “swim” is established, the lower levels of order that comprise the host of things that swimming is, are then automatically bypassed. Language operates similarly to visual images. If I look underwater at the lake shore, I see rocks underwater. This top-down projected image of “rocks underwater,” by-passes the lower levels of order which sees literally wavy broken lines, glimmering lights and shifting colors. Instead, I see rocks.
This pyramid of order allows the cortex to organize and assimilate incredibly large amounts of information very quickly and efficiently. Language allows us to talk. However, keep in mind that language can be quite misleading. There is a price to be paid for this cortically representational shorthand. Symbolic forms, taken as reality, are at variance with the actuality they represent.
The cortical process of creating form and functional order out of an incredible mass of information is extraordinarily efficient. The pyramid of order, created by reducing information into patterns, operates exponentially. Here’s a simple example of exponential expansion. Let’s say you ripped a page out of a book. If you were to fold it in half fifty-nine times, its thickness would reach the sun. Don’t worry; you can’t physically do it—but you can do the math. Start with the thickness of one page—1/300 of an inch—and double it fifty-nine times. This results in 1,767,744,000,000,000 thicknesses of paper in a stack that will extend for ninety-three million miles.
The brain works exponentially in reverse. It gives form and order to large quantities of pieces of information by reducing them exponentially. Let’s say the brain is inundated with 1,767,744,000,000,000 pieces of information of which to make sense. It operates by linking bits together. Units of two bits linked together create 883,872,000,000,000 patterns of two units. By repeating this process and linking together two-bit patterns with other two-bit patterns, we now have 441,936,000,000,000 patterns of four bits. If this process was repeated just fifty-nine times, it would create one coherent symbolic form out of all those units of information.
The brain creates order by encompassing, associating, and reducing incredible amounts of complex and diverse information into bite-sized pieces. It does so by integrating associated maps of lower levels of symbolic form, which in turn were created by integrating associated maps of lower levels of symbolic form. These webs of connected neurons create brain maps of associations of constellations that create the shorthand of functional, coherent, symbolic form. The information at the top of the pyramid takes form as the images and emotional states that are used for its top-down processing. At the top of the pyramid is the invisible play of consciousness.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.