My recent sequence on the Three Brain Issue triggered an important question from someone who commented on the third post in that sequence: she asked “Could you add something here about what you feel that intuition actually is?” I hadn’t addressed that because a much earlier sequence had gone into the matter in some depth. I felt it was worth republishing it now in the hope it would be helpful.
The title of this post suggests we are in for a painful operation. Don’t worry though. We can manage this one without anaesthetic. For some, the technical terms and psycho-jargon in this post will be an anaesthetic in themselves in any case.
Though I find the model that Tart explains, based on his understanding of Georges Gurdjieff, has considerable appeal, I feel that it needs tweaking significantly in terms of the material aspects of body, emotional and intellectual brains and even more significant modification in terms of the spiritual dimension. This post is focusing on the brain aspect of things.
To tackle this I am unashamedly drawing upon the insights of experts in the field of neuropsychology. What they say goes a long way to confirm Gurdjieff’s sense of how things are but modifies it significantly in my view.
The Biological Foundations of Emotion
When you start to examine the neurophysiology of feelings it gets quite hard to separate body from emotion as Gurdjieff seems to do, at least in Tart’s explanation of his ideas. Most of what we term ’emotion’ is generated by brain centres that go back to our evolutionary origins and cannot really be separated from our body. It is easier to see them as ‘gut feelings’ rather than anything higher.
Take a classic text on this subject – Ledoux’s The Emotional Brain. He writes (pages 112-13):
. . . . modern researchers have gone into remote areas of the world to firmly establish with scientific methods that at least some emotions have fairly universal modes of expression, especially in the face. On the basis of this kind of evidence, the late Sylvan Tomkins proposed the existence of eight basic emotions: surprise, interest, joy, rage, fear, disgust, shame, and anguish. These are said to represent innate, patterned responses that are controlled by “hardwired” brain systems. . . . Paul Ekman has a shorter list, consisting of six basic emotions with universal and facial expression: surprise, happiness, anger, fear, disgust and sadness.
People such as Plutchik, he explains, have built on these basic emotions by suggesting they blend to make more complex emotions. It would complicate the picture unnecessarily to go into that in detail here. In any case the idea of more complex emotions being merely blends of more basic ones does nothing to weaken the case I am seeking to make.
The full picture of how sub-cortical brain structures trigger feelings that relate to our physical survival is too complex to go into here. The link that follows will give you a very brief overview if you are interested (The Emotional Centres of the Brain). What I want to do is provide enough information to support my contention that such structures exclusively generate our ‘gut’ feelings which are aimed largely at enabling us to survive long enough to reproduce and protect our offspring until they can do the same. Even if these are blended at higher levels of our brain it would be a mistake to see them as a likely source for impulses that would lead us to transcend our physical nature and tune into a more spiritual dimension. For that we need to look elsewhere.
Very often if not always the amygdala is involved in all that is going on. Ledoux writes (page 168-69):
The amygdala is like the hub of a wheel. It receives low-level inputs from sensory-specific regions of the thalamus, higher level information from sensory-specific cortex, and still higher level (sensory independent) information about the general situation from the hippocampal formation. Through such connections, the amygdala is able to process the emotional significance of individual stimuli as well as complex situations. The amygdala is, in essence, involved in the appraisal of emotional meaning. It is where trigger stimuli do their triggering.
It is worth while taking a little time to see where some key survival emotions are triggered, even if we have to simplify a little for the sake of brevity. For us, as social beings, survival is not simply a question of reading our physical environment well: we need to be able to interpret our social world effectively also.
I quote at some length from my sources here with little modification, except abbreviating them. The brain structures referred to are all sub-cortical and ancient in evolutionary terms unless otherwise stated.
a. of Anger
Daniel Goleman’s popular book Emotional Intelligence explains what goes on inside our brain and body when anger occurs, causing us to have a flood of angry emotions. Goleman outlines research undertaken by Psychologist Dolf Zillman who has undertaken much research relating to anger and rage. Zillman has found that the universal trigger for anger begins with a sense of endangerment to our lives or the lives of those close to us. This does not necessarily mean physical endangerment, but also includes symbolic threats to self-esteem and dignity such as being verbally insulted, being patronised or put down, and the frustration that comes when we can’t complete a task or goal.
Upon the initial trigger, catecholamines are released by the limbic system (amygdala) which immediately put the body into a “fight or flight” mode – that is, preparing the body for some form of action. Additionally, the trigger also makes the amygdala alert the nervous system to be ready for possible action. This effect lasts much longer than the initial surge of catecholamines, keeping the emotional brain on stand-by for potential arousal, should we need it, further down the line. This is why people are often more easily annoyed or quick to anger if they have experienced an angry situation recently.
I recognise that Baumeister’s concept of the depletion of will power is also relevant here but I am seeking not to complicate the picture anymore than is necessary to make my basic point,
b. of Disgust
Wicker et al (Neuron, Vol. 40, 655–664, October 30, 2003) performed an fMRI study in which participants inhaled smells producing a strong feeling of disgust. The same participants watched video clips showing the facial expression of disgust. Observing such faces and feeling disgust activated the same sites in the anterior insula and to a lesser extent in the anterior cingulate cortex (see The Emotional Centres of the Brain for an explanation of some of these brain areas). Thus, just as observing hand actions activates the observer’s motor representation of that action, observing an emotion activates the neural representation of that emotion. This finding provides a unifying mechanism for understanding the behaviors of others.
As other important work indicates (follow the links from this post to the work of Chua and Hauser), disgust is an emotion at work in pogroms against out-groups where labelling them as cockroaches, as happened in Rwanda, makes killing them far easier. They are not only no longer human: they are also a disgusting pest that justifies extermination.
c. of Shame
Petra Michl et al (Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Advance Access published November 19, 2012: Neurobiological underpinnings of shame and guilt: a pilot fMRI study) used a functional magnetic resonance imaging paradigm to look for emotion-specific differences in functional brain activity within a healthy German sample, using shame- and guilt-related stimuli and neutral stimuli. Activations were found for both of these emotions in the temporal lobe. Specific activations were found for shame in the frontal lobe (medial and inferior frontal gyrus), and for guilt in the amygdala and insula. These results, as well as those I haven’t quoted to avoid jargon shock, suggest that shame and guilt share some neural networks, as well as having individual areas of activation. It can be concluded that frontal, temporal and limbic areas play a prominent role in the generation of moral feelings.
This will prove an important consideration when we are looking at possible sources of spiritual understanding. The Bahá’í Writings suggest, in line with these findings, that conscience is not innate but conditioned.
See then how wide is the difference between material civilization and divine. With force and punishments, material civilization seeketh to restrain the people from mischief, from inflicting harm on society and committing crimes. But in a divine civilization, the individual is so conditioned that with no fear of punishment, he shunneth the perpetration of crimes, seeth the crime itself as the severest of torments, and with alacrity and joy, setteth himself to acquiring the virtues of humankind, to furthering human progress, and to spreading light across the world.
(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Sec. 105, pp. 132–33)
d. of Fear
Building on the role of the amygdala, Ledoux explains further (page 174)
the remarkable fact is that at the level of behavior, defence against danger is achieved in many different ways in different species, yet the amygdala’s role is constant. It is this correspondence across species that no doubt allows diverse behaviours to achieve the same evolutionary function in different animals. This functional equivalence in neural correspondence applies to many vertebrate brains, including human brains. When it comes to detecting and responding to danger, the brain just hasn’t changed much. In some ways we are emotional lizards. I’m quite confident in telling you that studies of fear reactions in rats tell us a great deal about how fear mechanisms work in our brains as well.
I may have loaded the dice of my argument rather by placing this quote at the end of the sequence, but I do think there is a case for saying that most of what we regard as our key emotions are reptilian in origin, not even mammalian.
This has all been a necessary but rather long-winded way of preparing the ground for my next post, which attempts to contend that the love spoken of in spiritual texts in not reducible to such feelings as we have looked at so far, anymore than the wisdom found there is the same as intellectual understanding.
So, in my view, even at this basic empirical level, Gurdjieff has separated what should be seen as essentially the same, i.e. the emotional and the body brains. Even more crucially, as we will see, he has possibly separated love from wisdom in hypothesising that there is both a higher emotional and a higher intellectual centre in the spiritual realm. Until next time, then, for those who are still awake!