“Control of consciousness determines the quality of life.”
The Evolution of Consciousness
In 1976, the American Psychologist Julian Jaynes published an amazing and intriguing book with an equally amazing title. It was a book that rocked both my world and mind at so many levels, and its implications and applications still echo and reverberate to this very day in my life and work.
The title of Jaynes book was, ‘The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind’. A hell of a mouthful!
The book covers a lot of ground, but at its heart it says that somewhere around 2500 to 3000 years ago, the meme (self-replicating idea) of self-consciousness (of reflective meta-consciousness) was bootstrapped in the human brain and that meme, over a number of generations lead to the breakdown of bicamerality (of split brained-ness – our left and right hemispheres of our head brain operating separately as ‘bicameral’ [two lobed]). Along the way, Jaynes explored the nature and structure of metaphor and how humans use it to organize their reality and make meaning. He examined what the evolutionary purpose of consciousness was. And he looked at extant literature as an archeological record, finding that the expression of self-consciousness only arose around 2500 years ago, and before that humans had no language or symbolic references for self-consciousness and allied conceptualizations.
“It is now well known that behavior, and therefore brain activity, naturally changes the structure of the brain.”
John L. Locke
Harvard Medical School
Before talking more about what Jaynes’ ideas mean to us today, I need to make a quick detour into the processes of neural plasticity. Modern neuroscience, over the last several years, has discovered that our brains are incredibly plastic. It was once thought that you were born with all the neurons you’d ever have and that slowly over time brain cells would atrophy and die off and the number of neurons in your head would inevitably dwindle. This meant that if you suffered from some debilitating brain disease or damage such as a stroke, then you were forever broken and your brain would not and could not repair itself. This has now been overturned, literally turned on its head (so to speak). Science has uncovered that our brains (and not just the ones in our head, but also the ones in our heart and gut regions i.e. the cardiac and enteric brains) grow new neurons, new dendrites and new synapses all the time. This is called structural plasticity. Our existing neural connections also undergo ongoing change and adaptation, modifying hour by hour the synaptic strength and response of our neural connections. This is known as functional plasticity.
As neuroscientists like to point out, “Our brain is a verb”, it’s not a fixed object but an ongoing changing and evolving process. I like to think of it as a garden, an ecology, and the thoughts, feelings and experiences that you generate in your life, change the physical structure of your neural networks – of your brains. As Dr. Norman Doidge points out in his excellent book on neural plasticity, “The brain that thinks changes itself”. And in keeping with this garden or ecology metaphor, it turns out that cells called micro-glia in our brains, monitor this garden and tend it, helping to build new dendrites and synapses for those neurons that are being used and eating up and dissolving dendrites and synapses that are no longer being used. As a result of this ‘gardening’, as the neuroscientists like to say, “Neurons that fire together, wire together; and neurons that are out of synch, unlink”. Another way of saying this is use it, or lose it. And that the brain builds itself based on focus, attention and action. We’ll come back to this later.
“There is no singular mapping to create the mind;
there is, rather, an unforetold plurality of possibilities.”
Dr. Gerald Edelman
Now while we are on this detour into neural plasticity, I’d like to pay a quick visit to another fascinating and incredibly important set of understandings. To do this I need to tell you about another pivotal thinker and scientific genius. Back in 1992, Dr. Gerald Edelman was awarded the Nobel Prize for his foundational work in immunology. Edelman had shown that the immune system operated as a Darwinian selection system. Another way to say this is that the immune system functions in such a way that it evolves itself to cope with the pathogenic environment it’s living within. Now, having won the Nobel for this work, Edelman decided to challenge himself by stepping beyond immunology and applying his considerable intellect to the human brain.
He reasoned that if the human genome (and thereby the human organism) operates as a Darwinian selection system, and the immune system, the part of the body tasked with tracking and maintaining bodily self/not self (and good self/bad self) operates as a Darwinian selection system, then given that evolution works by building on and extending existing processes, it’s likely that the human brain may also operate as a Darwinian selection system. So he created the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego USA, attracted funding and some of the top scientists from across the globe, and set out to explore this notion. What he and his colleagues ultimately uncovered is what is now called, ‘The Theory of Neuronal Group Selection’. [If you are interested in reading more about this, then check out one of his most accessible books entitled ‘Bright air, Brilliant fire’.]
“Competition for advantage in the environment enhances the spread and strength of certain synapses, or neural connections, according to the ‘value’ previously decided by evolutionary survival. The amount of variance in this neural circuitry is very large. Certain circuits get selected over others because they ﬁt better with whatever is being presented by the environment. In response to an enormously complex constellation of signals, the system is self-organizing according to Darwin’s population principle. It is the activity of this vast web of networks that entails consciousness by means of what we call ‘reentrant interactions’ that help to organize ‘reality’ into patterns.”
What Edelman has shown, and it’s supported by the work and ideas of a growing number of independent neuroscientists, is that the human brain (and of course this ultimately means, head brain, heart brain and gut brains) function as evolutionary systems. Our brains evolve and change based on their informational (and physical) environment. The way they evolve is that groups of neurons fire and wire together and build ensembles of allied neurons working in synchrony together. And these neuronal groups compete with each other and get selected based on their success in their environment. Again, we’ll come back to this later. The take home message however is that the brain is a verb, it’s an evolutionary based system that evolves over hours, days, weeks and months. The neural groups evolve, grow, morph, connect and reconnect based on the thoughts, feelings and actions you are generating in your life. This is an incredible insight and its implications are profound.
Combining the insights on a journey to Consciousness
Now when we combine the insights of Julian Jaynes, with the understandings of neural plasticity and those of Gerald Edelman, an incredible thing happens… But let me share with you how I first came to the insights I’m about to uncover… It was 2004 and I was driving across the great Australian outback.
The roads in Central Australia are long and straight. You can drive for hours across the vast sweeping planes of red sand and low harsh scrub without coming to a curve or bend in the road. It’s an ancient vista and lends itself to deep and philosophical thoughts. I’d decided to bring Jaynes book on this outback chataqua, re-read it at night and then cogitate upon it during those long mesmerizing drives each day. I’d already read it and absorbed it a couple of times, but it’s a book that deserves and rewards many readings. And I well remember the epiphany I had on that long hot day when it finally hit me!
Jaynes was saying that at some time long ago, the meme of self-consciousness started. He suggests that it got started with the metaphorization of time – that we started to see ourselves and our lives as external agents operating through time. And that when we did this, new ways of thinking, doing and being opened up for us. (In NLP we would talk about this as our time coding and how it relates to ‘time-lines’.) Over a number of generations, this ability to do self-consciousness’ing grew to dominate the societies it was bootstrapped into, probably in large measure because it provided greater levels of success. And remember, children learn by unconscious modeling of their parents’ behaviors, amplifying and refining what they see the parents do, and thereby building new neural structures that perform these operations, largely outside of conscious awareness. So here’s the epiphany that hit me…
Jaynes combined with Edelman and neural plasticity are saying that around 2500 years ago, through a new and pivotal way of using our brain, we evolved new neural structures that had not existed on the planet before. These were actual physical structures. While it came about through what the evolutionist Richard Dawkins calls ‘memic evolution’, because of the Darwinian selection processes of neural plasticity, this means that it actually created and evolved new neural structures. These neural structures and processes aren’t coded by DNA, and are not passed down through the genome. But they are passed down from brain to brain and generation to generation through a process that the great General Semanticist, Count Alfred Korzybski termed ‘time-binding’. Korzybski noted that humans as a species uniquely do a process via language, abstraction and symbol use that binds information in time and allows it to be passed down through generations. Each generation learns and stands on the semantic shoulders of the generation before it, not having to reinvent and recreate knowledge and insights. Instead, we have time-bound societal practices and human modeling processes that allow us to learn from all that has gone before us. In part, we call this education.
Evolving our neural networks
But this learning isn’t just ideas stored in abstract memories. Learning changes the structure of the brain that learns! We evolve our neural networks. When we systematically and with emotional salience, learn something new, we create new neural structures. A great example of this was described in a talk I heard recently from one of the fathers of the field of neural plasticity, Dr. Michael Merzenich. Merzenich, using the example of reading, stated that when we learn to read, we create the neural machinery for reading. In the case of non-readers or those who haven’t learned to read properly, it’s because they haven’t developed (through neural plasticity) the correct neural circuitry for reading in their brain. Wow! This is incredible. This is profound!
In a TED talk, Dr. Merzenich summarized this evolution of the self in an even more succinct way:
“What it's all about is the selective representations of things that are important to the brain. Because in most of the life of the brain this is under control of behavioral context. It's what you pay attention to. It's what's rewarding to you. It's what the brain regards, itself, as positive and important to you. It's all about cortical processing and forebrain specialization. And that underlies your specialization. That is why you, in your many skills and abilities, are a unique specialist: a specialist that's vastly different in your physical brain in detail than the brain of an individual 100 years ago; enormously different in the details from the brain of the average individual 1,000 years ago.
Now, one of the characteristics of this change process is that information is always related to other inputs or information that is occurring in immediate time, in context. And that's because the brain is constructing representations of things that are correlated in little moments of time and that relate to one another in little moments of successive time. The brain is recording all information and driving all change in temporal context. Now overwhelmingly the most powerful context that's occurred in your brain is you. Billions of events have occurred in your history that are related in time to yourself as the receiver, or yourself as the actor, yourself as the thinker, yourself as the mover. Billions of times little pieces of sensation have come in from the surface of your body that are always associated with you as the receiver, and that result in the embodiment of you.
You are constructed, your self is constructed from these billions of events. It's constructed. It's created in your brain. And it's created in the brain via physical change. This is a marvelously constructed thing that results in individual form because each one of us has vastly different histories, and vastly different experiences, that drive in us this marvelous differentiation of self, of personhood. “
Dr Michael Merzenich
A profound insight
Driving across the desert I was so blown away by this insight. I had to pull over our Campervan, stop and walk around in the hot and drying desert wind, exclaiming over and over to my beloved Fiona who was travelling with me, “Oh my god! This is amazing, this is profound!” When I finally calmed down, and hopped back in the air-conditioned driver’s seat and resumed our journey, I then explained to her my insight and what it means to us all…
The structure of our brains (head, heart, gut) isn’t fixed. It isn’t determined by our genetics. Instead, it is evolved within the social and informational fabric of our personal world. And it changes on an hourly, daily and monthly basis. When we think (and feel) specific thoughts and take specific actions in a repeated way, with focus and emotional value and salience, we can and do build/evolve/grow/garden new neural structures. This means that if we think, act and feel in ways that have not explicitly been done before on this planet, if we use new metaphors, new abstractions and engender new ontological (ways of being) and phenomenological (subjective experience) experiences, then we can evolve brain structures that have not been seen before on this planet. And if we time-bind this through educational processes and societal mechanisms (such as a new personal evolution field like mBIT – multiple Brain Integration Techniques) then we can lead a change that can bring new evolutionary wisdom to what it means to be human.
Evolving your World!
And that is both exciting and incredibly profound! It changed my world. I could no longer live the same. And ultimately, this epiphany and insight lead to me co-creating mBIT and a number of other technologies for generative human change. And this is just the beginning…
As neuroscience uncovers greater knowledge and distinctions on how neurons and brains work, about how to target and strategically change specific neural structures, about what produces the quickest and most enduring neural plasticity, we’ll be enabled to empower even greater engineering of our brains. But this power comes with a great risk. Thoughts change the thinker and the neural structures that embody the thinker. If we use this great power to pursue selfish goals and myopic greed based outcomes, then we’ll create monsters in our brains. Instead we need to evolve our brains and our worlds through greater wisdom, through that which is the highest expression of ourselves and through ways that bring the innate human spirit alive.
To do this we need to time-bind ways of tapping into the most transformative and adaptive ways of human-being and human-becoming. We need to bring Compassion, Creativity and Courage, aligned through our multiple brains (head, heart, gut, reproductive, ANS etc.) and facilitated via ANS balance, to the evolution of our neural structures and to the fabric of our society. We need to create and promulgate throughout society, throughout our businesses, our education systems and our daily lives, rituals, metaphors and behavioural mechanisms/practices that embody new ways of wisdom’ing. And when we do, we’ll have evolved new neural patterns, never perhaps seen before on the planet. A race of neurally wise bodhisattvas. A connected and aligned way of mBraining our world, so that we evolve it generatively and for wiser ecological complexity.
What’s the most Compassionate, Creative and Courageous you?
And this is what inspires me, and drives me every day when I awake, and ask myself the life enhancing question: “What’s the most compassionate, creative and courageous way of being and doing that I could do today?”
What inspires you to be the highest expressing of yourself? What are you evolving in your brains, life and world?
You can make a wise and generative difference! Make sure you do. It’s life enhancing.
“Experience coupled with attention leads to physical changes in the structure and future functioning of the nervous system. This leaves us with a clear physiological fact…moment by moment we choose and sculpt how our ever-changing minds will work, we choose who we will be the next moment in a very real sense, and these choices are left embossed in physical form on our material selves…”
Dr. Michael Merzenich
Smiles and great thoughts and wishes