Reposted from The Yellow Times.
The Human Theater of the Absurd
John Brand, D.Min., J.D.
The litanies expounding the absurdity of human behavior are chanted throughout the ages by a hundred different voices. From Amos to Jared Diamond, from Erasmus to Michael Moore, from Voltaire to Barbara Tuchman, the folly and brutality of our species has been described and decried. Yet over the millennia only one substantive change in the inanity of our behavior has occurred. Instead of coloring the killing fields red with human blood, inflicting death by cudgel and cannon, we cover the earth with human charred remains resulting from atomic firestorms and all-consuming flamethrowers.
The horrors are part of our ethos. Burned into our memory are scenes from All Quiet on the Western Front and Armageddon. But reasons for our miscreant deeds are far harder to discern. Oh, the popular chant is that the Liberals, the Conservatives, the Republicans, the Democrats, the Protestants, the Roman Catholics, the Jews, the Muslims are the cause of the evils we deplore. We think by pointing our fingers we have found a solution. Of course, the only substantive observation from finger pointing lies in the fact that when we point our index finger at someone else, three fingers are pointing straight back at us.
Of course, we can’t be too hard on ourselves for failing to understand the cause behind our schizoid behavior. Not until the second half of the last century did we finally get a handle to help us understand one basic reason for our miscreant behavior. So new and so confrontational is the unearthing of this fact that only a small number of people know about it. The insights revealed from this research are more far-reaching than Galileo’s observation that not everything in the cosmos revolves around an earth standing perfectly still in the center of all heavenly bodies. What a handful of scientists have brought to our attention is the evolutionary development of the human brain.
What in the world, you might ask, does that have to do with politics, economics, and religion? There are far more important issues, you might claim, that need our attention and concerns. Afghanistan is still in the throes of battles between warlords. President Bush is speaking of an all-out attack on Saddam Hussein. Rumsfeld rattles his sabers. The danger of terrorism has not been eliminated. What in the world does arcane research of the human brain have to do with all this? Why should the readership of YellowTimes.org, so interested on commentary of current events, spend time reading about this “stuff”? It is a fair and honest question.
But you cannot comprehend, I believe, the reasons behind the screaming headlines without understanding the cerebral dynamics responsible for human behavior. Your sense of decency, of righteousness, of justice can be aroused by the atrocities extending from the Twin Towers to America’s Board Rooms and the Halls of Congress. One can get angry but can’t understand. This article is the first in a series seeking to bring the light of understanding to the fires burning in the world.
One major cause for the foible of our behavior is found in the peculiar way in which the contents of our skulls developed. In Shakespeare’s time human folly was, in part, blamed on moon and stars. In King Lear, the Bard writes, “This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune – often the surfeit of our own behavior – we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains by necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion.” In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare drives home the point, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves, we are the underlings.”
Until research led by Paul D. MacLean, M.D., former Chief, Laboratory of Brain Evolution and Behavior, NIMH, we did not know that there is a biological reason for the absurdity of our actions. This article and several more to come will provide a basic understanding for the reasons of the human Theater of the Absurd.
One cannot understand either the current political disaster – the Kenny Boys, the George Bushes, the Bill Clintons, or anyone else’s behavior, including yours and mine – without some understanding of the make-up of our brains. MacLean’s tome is The Triune Brain in Evolution. Let me cut to the chase and quote the author from two journal articles that were published earlier and a conclusion stated in his major work.
These three paragraphs pretty much summarize the major conclusions of his primary concerns. On page 361 of his Brain Roots to the Will-to-Power, he says, “This situation suggests that our psychological and behavioral functions are under the joint control of three quite different mentalities. For us human beings there is the added complication that the two older formations do not have the power of speech.” The first claim made by MacLean is that three different mentalities are responsible for our behavior. In other words, you have three, quite distinct brains telling you what to do and what not to do.
The second conclusion is found on page 313 of Evolution of the Three Mentalities: “It deserves reemphasis that the three formations are markedly different in chemistry and structure and in an evolutionary sense eons apart. . .Moreover, it should be emphasized that despite their interconnection, there is evidence that each brain type is capable of acting somewhat independently. . .with the evolution of the forebrain, the neural chassis acquired three drivers, all of different minds and vying for control.” Not only do three brain formations exist in our skulls but they also reflect an evolutionary history covering millions and millions of years.
So there you have it. You and I have three brains that developed individually over millions of years. Each brain seeks to exert control over our behavior. On page 9 of his major work, MacLean says, “. . .the forebrain could be compared to the driver of a vehicle. . . A fundamental difference is that in the course of evolution the brain has acquired three drivers, all seated up front and all of a different mind. While the three brains are interconnected, they also act individually.”
That is our predicament. We have three brains and each one has its own priorities that, at times, are not too well coordinated. Our problem, MacLean says, is one of schizophysiology. That is just a nice way of saying that we all are a little bit nuts because of the physical make-up of our brains. Koestler puts it more bluntly on page 11 of his book Janus: “To put it more crudely, and in a more direct way, evolution has left a few screws loose between the neocortex and the hypothalamus.” On page 96 he says, “The schizophysiology of the brain provides an essential clue to the streak of insanity running through the history of man.”
The following paragraphs are an explanation of the origin as well as the contents of the three brain formations. Later articles will discuss these matters in greater detail. Some of this is a bit technical. I have tried to keep it as simple as possible and still be true to the evidence. Yet, I believe having a basic understanding of both the geography and the history of the brain is essential to understanding what goes on in our lives. Let me give you a brief timeframe of the development of these three brains.
The oldest one, the basal ganglia, can be traced back about 240,000,000 years. The middle-aged one, the limbic system, seems to have first appeared during the Jurassic Age, about 180,000,000 years ago. The neocortex, the most recently developed part of the brain, is only about 3,000,000 to 5,000,000 years old. It all depends which account of the discovery of our earliest ancestors you wish to accept. From my point of view, it makes little difference which date is chosen. The difference of the time span between 180 million years ago and either three or five million years is of small significance. What is important is that a vast time span elapsed between the formations of our three brains.
Inside of our skulls are parts of brains separated in their development by eons. While they get along pretty well most of the time, each brain does act independently. I think that is the reason why Paul plaintively cried out, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:19) Of course, Paul had no idea what was causing his dilemma. Neither did anyone before or after his day until very recent times.
So, in an effort to find the relationship between cause and effect, our forebears invented the snake that supposedly caused Eve and Adam to sin. I mention Eve’s name first because, according to the Bible, she listened to the snake’s hissing and then tempted Adam to eat the apple. Women have gotten the short end of the stick since Day One. Of course, that poor snake also has gotten a lot of bad press.
Let me share with you how MacLean arrived at his conclusions. Let’s start with a simple description of the human brain. Again, let me repeat that we can’t understand why St. Francis behaved differently from Kenny Boy unless we know the basic neural geography and history.
MacLean informs us about the inner landscape of the organ controlling our lives. And in doing that, he shakes the foundations of commonly accepted wisdom. This information pretty well revolutionizes the way we think about ourselves. Such a reorientation is always painful. Folks prefer to stay in a comfortable rut even though it leads nowhere. To leave our comfort zone, even if eventually destructive, is always traumatic. But somehow, facing the absurdity of our world, the “old time religion” isn’t good enough for anyone any more.
When you look at an MRI of the human brain, you see several quite distinct formations. In reality each one of these separate parts of the brain has quite a complicated anatomical structure and each consists of a variety of separate components. For our purpose, a simple but accurate description suffices to put the case before us.
Extending through a hole in the base of the skull and sitting atop the spinal cord is the hindbrain and its extension the cerebellum. The hindbrain is responsible for basic life support functions such as respiration, heartbeat, swallowing, vomiting, and guttural noises. The cerebellum is responsible for muscular coordination.
Sitting atop the brainstem is the forebrain. It consists of three distinct formations.
1. THE BASAL GANGLIA
The basal ganglia or striatal complex consists of a number of subsidiary parts such as the olfactory striatum, the corpus striatum and various collections of gray matter. For our purposes we don’t need to be knowledgeable about these components. Prior to MacLean’s research it was thought that the striatal complex was primarily a part of the motor cortex. However, this small part of the brain exercises powerful control over many other areas of human behavior. When I discuss the history of the brain, we shall come to understand the power of the basal ganglia. Right now I just want you to become familiar with the idea that the geography of the brain reveals several distinct areas.
2. THE LIMBIC SYSTEM
Sitting on top of the basal ganglia is the second formation known as the limbic system. It contains a number of glands whose names you know such as the thalamus, hypothalamus, and pituitary. Researchers agree that the limbic system is responsible for our moods and emotions. The hypothalamus is one of the most amazing glands in our brains. It weighs about four grams. This is less than 1/300ths of the total brain. Yet this small gland controls food intake, water balance, and the autonomic nervous system among its many functions. And lo and behold, we are told that it also controls our sexual rhythm. At my age, I wish the rascal would Ö well, it’s my own personal business what I wish. Fatigue and hunger also have their origin in this small gland.
3. THE NEOCORTEX
The third formation, sitting atop the limbic system, is the neocortex. It looks like gray, scrambled eggs. It is divided into two symmetrical halves known as hemispheres. It is common knowledge that the left hemisphere handles numbers, language, and reasoning skills. The right sphere enables us to think abstractly and conceptually.
The neocortex enables our species to do a lot of stuff that other animals cannot do. It enables us to write poetry and to engage in ethnic cleansing. It enables us to discover the world of subatomic particles and to write viruses that can louse up the entire computer world. In our neocortex we make plans to build hospitals and find excuses to cheat on our income tax.
Isn’t our neocortex a grand thing? It provides the rationale to build and to destroy, to slaughter and to love. Regretfully, without conscious and intentional intervention, the neocortex can lead us down the road of doom. Yet, willful management of our faculties gives us the chance to build a just society.
One significant aspect of the neocortex needs to be mentioned. A few years ago, right and left brain functions became part of popular knowledge. Being true to the American character, all sorts of books appeared promising to improve either side of the brain. The pitch was to make you a better painter, writer, mathematician, or whatever. A lot of that hullabaloo has disappeared. Thank goodness!
The largest bundle of nerves in the brain is the corpus callosum. Its primary task is to shuttle information back and forth between both hemispheres. While the functional division between the hemispheres seems to be well established, we need to be aware that right and left priorities are in constant communication with each other. The corpus callosum provides balance between the two hemispheres.
This, then, is the geography of the brain.
Normally, dangerous reptiles in zoos are kept inside secure areas. Visitors, non-threatening to the animals, are free to roam the grounds. In the year 2002, these roles have been reversed. The dangerous cold-blooded animals are on the loose and the hapless visitors are kept inside cages.
Who are these reptiles permitted to roam freely? Did the Loch Ness monster escape from Scotland? Did scientists clone a carnosaur from scraps of DNA, the beast escaping from the lab and free to threaten the countryside? Did space aliens drop a few stegosaurs from their UFO to menace the United States? No! From all outward appearances one cannot tell the difference between the dangerous reptiles gallivanting around America and the hapless victims they hold at bay. I will explain the metaphor after sharing some examples of the carnage leaving its bloody trail in the land of the free and the brave.
Homeland Security has now established an electronic center potentially able to monitor just about everyone in the United States. The FBI seems to have the capability of processing about 1 million electronic messages in a matter of seconds. In recent days, the United States Supreme Court ruled that undocumented immigrants lose the right to be reinstated, the right to back wages, and the right to be paid overtime if they participate in an effort to unionize. This is a group of workers who make up almost 4 percent of the entire U.S. work force and more than half of all farm workers. Is this not a version of Palestinians living in Israel?
The United States House of Representatives, now renamed the House of Corporate Stooges, passed a bill purportedly protecting workers’ pension rights. However, employees are not entitled to sit on their Pension Fund Boards. They do not have the right of redress when given bad investment advice. High-level executives do not have to report any sales of their stock. POTUS appointed R.K. Pachauri to the Chair, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This dinosaur/gentleman voted against a judicial inquiry to investigate the disaster of the Dabhol Power Plant in India, an Enron enterprise. Several other anti-environmental activities appear on his Vita.
Dinosaurs are roaming the countryside and the luckless decent, hard-working people are held in captivity. How can we explain such a state of affairs? As Ross Perot would say, pointing to a pie chart, “It’s easy.” Well, it is easy to explain once one knows the rule of the game. The metaphor is clarified when one understands the behavioral priorities imprinted in the basal ganglia of the human brain.
Some basic facts about the evolutionary development of the triune brain must be understood in order to apprehend the senseless descent of our culture into the abyss of darkness. Unless there is a radical change in understanding human behavior, bin Laden may well have the last laugh. The destruction of the American dream is well under way. It is mostly the result of a few ounces of brain matter, the basal ganglia, situated above the hindbrain. What the dealers and the wheelers do not realize is that their repressive deeds have little to do with their idealistic expression of capitalism or the free market. Their toxic deeds are but expressions of a part of the forebrain extending back in time for about 240,000,000 years.
Paul D. MacLean, M.D., introduced to you in the last article, removed cells from the human basal ganglia. He stained them in the proper method for slide preparation, then repeated the process with reptilian brain cells. When placed under the microscope there is little observable difference between these slides. This simply means that our reptilian ancestry is alive and well in our brains. While dinosaurs no longer roam the earth, they bequeathed some of their performance patterns to every single baby born on the Blue Planet! MacLean applies the term “reptilian brain” or “R-complex” to the basal ganglia.
After MacLean established the similarity between the human and reptilian basal ganglia, he turned his attention to reptilian behavior. His research yielded some rather astonishing results. In addition to the physiological characteristics imprinted in the R-complex, it also generates fundamental behavioral or psychological functions. On page 100 of his book, MacLean lists “25 Special Forms of Basic Behavior” and on page 143 he lists an additional six “General Forms of ‘Interoperative’ Behavior.” For our purposes, we can generalize and reduce these 31 forms of behavior into four major categories. They are A.) Territory, B.) Hierarchy, C.) Ritual and D.) Deceit
These functions of the reptilian brain are only concerned with survival of the self. The reptilian brain has been most effective in achieving that goal. While many species have been exterminated, neural reptilian circuitry survived. I am convinced that long after homo sapiens disappear from the earth, the basal ganglia will survive in whatever life-forms succeed us. Having survived for about 240,000,000 years, there is no reason to believe it will not survive into the long distant future.
Every aspect of the basal ganglia concentrates on the needs of individual survival – it has no concerns for other members of the same or any other species. The territorial imprint in the reptilian brain, unchecked by any other dynamics, is responsible for the existence of free-roaming dinosaurs destroying the possibility of a society of free citizens exercising their privileges with a profound sense of social responsibility. While many of our leading alphas talk a good game and make idealistically sounding speeches, their actions evidence their enslavement to the R-complex.
We need to understand three important points.
1.) No self-correcting mechanisms exist among the divisions of the triune brain. Self-limiting neural ganglia do not exist to put a stop to self-centered drives.
2.) Human territoriality extends beyond the merely physical. Ideas and beliefs are a substantive part of each individual’s territory. Whether invasion comes from a burglar or someone holding a radically different viewpoint, the response of the R-complex is the same. It reacts to opposing points of view as instinctively as it does to an invasion of territory.
3.) It appears that reptiles limit their territorial aggressiveness to simply insure sufficient “Lebensraum.” In humans, however, territoriality expansiveness for many members of our tribe operates on the premise that too much is never enough.
With reference to points 1 and 2 it can be said that it is almost impossible to have a rational, intelligent conversation about differing political, religious or economic points of view. In most instances, discussion within minutes becomes a defense of one’s system of beliefs. When controlling alphas decide that the fiscal bottom line is the be-all and end-all of corporate responsibility, when politicians decide that in the name of capitalism even inhumane decisions are acceptable, then reason and logic cannot prevail. Money and power are simply modern adaptations of the territorial imprint in the R-complex.
We all remember that a car model having a defective fuel tank exploded in several instances causing a number of deaths. The company did a cost effectiveness study. It concluded that it would be cheaper to pay a few death claims than to recall and retrofit all cars on the road. The decision-making executive did not fit the F.B.I. profile of mass murderers. They just acted on the impulse of their reptilian brains.
When Enron cheated Californians of billions of dollars during their manufactured energy crises, neither Kenny Boy et al, including POTUS who refused to come to the rescue of the citizens, could be accused of looking like Al Capone. No, they just acted in accordance with their reptilian brains unchecked by any controlling elements.
Nothing, not even sex, is more important to any living organism than its own space, its territory. Thank you, Dr. Freud, but territory preempts sex as the most fundamental of all needs. Without space we can’t make love. Without your own space, you cannot exist.
It is a peculiar twist in the human species that insists on extending its territory beyond survival needs. It is not enough to merely establish and defend one’s territory. We evidence our aggressiveness by conquest and subjection of the conquered. I presume that human desire to lord over other members of our species is due to the neocortex. Recall that the newest part of the brain is only about three to five million years old. By some twist of nature, the reptilian brain made the youngest part of the forebrain its servant.
The non-linguistic and non-reasoning ancient brain uses the neocortex to develop both a rationale for the irrational and to voice supposed reasons for the unreasonable. Thus we justify wanton appropriation of another’s labor by defending practices in the name of the Free Market. The reptilian brain asserts repressive labor practices in the name of Competitive Edge, wages at levels below the minimum standards of living in the name of Capitalism. And all the while, the dominating dinosaurs vote themselves compensations that would make a common pickpocket blush with shame.
Reptiles espouse lofty religious themes while trampling justice and righteousness in the mire of their self-created reasonless drive for ever-larger profits at all cost. The selfishness engendered by the reptilian brain knows no dishonor. Have not all the reptile/gentlemen a list of reasons for their behavior a mile long? Little do they realize that the list is the eventually self-destructive creature of their own irrational basal ganglia. Does not “the glory that WAS Greece and the splendor that WAS Rome” say anything to these usurpers of the common good?
The R-complex’s territorial imperative causes leaders and rulers to trample dinosaur-like through the halls of Congress, the walnut-paneled Board Rooms, and the Oval Office. And the rest of us find ourselves imprisoned in the “cages” designed by them. Limitation of civil liberties, imposition of religious dogmatism, destruction of equal access to health care, economic enslavement through usurious interest on credit cards, and pillage of the environment are but a few examples of the cages imprisoning us.
There are no great democratic ideals to be found in sending our young men and women into combat to protect the monetary interests of the oil companies. The decision committing troops are hatched in the R-complex of the wheelers and the dealers. Nothing noble exists in pharmaceutical companies ripping off everyone with their pricing structure. These decisions are engendered in the R-complex of the wheelers and the dealers.
Dinosaurs are alive and well. The very structure of our society testifies to that fact. The next article will consider the hierarchical, ritualistic, and deceitful imprints in the human basal ganglia.
John Brand is a Purple Heart, Combat Infantry veteran of World War II. He received his Juris Doctor degree at Northwestern University and a Master of Theology and a Doctor of Ministry at Southern Methodist University. He served as a Methodist minister for 19 years, was Vice President, Birkman & Associates, Industrial Psychologists, and concluded his career as Director, Organizational and Human Resources, Warren-King Enterprises, an independent oil and gas company. He is the author of Shaking the Foundations. You are welcome to write John Brand.
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