Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2010

Toward a Sacred Brain

by Dan Levine

Perhaps no field of biology evokes the fear of loss of the sacred more than neuroscience, the biology of the brain. We fear that if we understand the biochemical events that accompany our feelings of meaning or meaninglessness, pain or pleasure, good or evil, it will "reduce" those feelings to "nothing but" a bunch of chemical reactions. We are willing to trust our digestive and circulatory systems to scientific analysis but resist it for the organ by which each of us interprets our environment (including other people), reacts to that environment, and in turn generates behaviors that alter the environment.

Yet sacredness and meaning pervade the musings of many neuroscientists. Writing in Man on His Nature, Sir Charles Sherrington, the discoverer of the synapse, by which one brain cell can influence another, gave us, or at least popularized, a metaphor that is widely used for the complex set of electrical patterns in the brain:


Swiftly the head mass becomes an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern though never an abiding one; a shifting harmony of subpatterns (emphasis mine).


How do we understand the "enchanted loom" in a way that promotes enchantment, and not disenchantment, in day-to-day life? The first step is to liberate neuroscience from the confinement of an orthodox form of Darwinism.

It's Not All Survival and Reproduction, Stupid!

The orthodoxy in biological science is that natural selection explains everything. The noted geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky said "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." In particular, evolutionary biologists and psychologists, including Edward O. Wilson, Steven Pinker, and many others, have tried for a long time to explain human behaviors in terms of advantages they gave over competing possible behaviors for survival or for ability to reproduce. Evolutionary arguments have been advanced for war, for economic oligarchies, and for gender roles and double standards, but also for cooperation, reciprocity, and altruism.

If all human behavior is evolutionarily determined, this can easily make one believe that because war, social inequality, and environmental damage are part of our biological adaptations, all actions of ours to prevent those things are doomed to failure. Indeed, one of the sources of some religious people's opposition to evolution, such as William Jennings Bryan's, has been a feeling that evolution somehow makes ethical standards obsolete.

But does evolution really constrain us that tightly? No, it endows us with multiple possible responses to a situation, and sometimes those responses are in conflict in the same person. Evolution, for example, has selected for our tendency to respond to danger or stress by aggression or escape, which has often been called the fight-or-flight response. Yet also evolution has selected for what the social psychologist Shelley Taylor calls tend-and-befriend: responding to stress by mutual support in friendship, help in rearing offspring, and (for nonhuman animals) grooming. Taylor noted gender differences in these responses, with female animals and women choosing the tend-and-befriend response more frequently than male animals and men. Yet in humans, both sexes clearly are capable of either type of behavior, and their choices between the two response patterns are influenced by other variables including both early upbringing and a sense of trust or distrust for those they are with. There is also a third characteristic response to stress, called dissociation, which includes withdrawing from danger and trying to feel good in isolation from other people.

Surely, then, evolution has also selected for a mechanism for deciding between those patterns. In our article in a 2002 issue of Brain and Mind, Riane Eisler and I outlined some brain pathways for evaluating a complex social situation and making a choice among the possibilities of fight-or-flight, tend-and-befriend, and dissociation. There is a part of the frontal lobes called the orbitofrontal cortex (because it's located near the orbital bone, which is around the eye) that processes emotional and social cues through its connections with both the complex reasoning areas of the brain's surface and the areas below the surface that connect to internal organs and endocrine glands. Eisler and I mapped out how the connections of the orbitofrontal cortex with deeper brain regions can select among the different behavioral responses to stress. But clearly our choices are not always for the best, considering how often people choose to fight or dissociate when they could be tending and befriending.

Hence evolution by natural selection chooses for behavioral tendencies, and chooses for the brain system that enables us to decide among those tendencies, but doesn't tell us exactly what behaviors we perform moment by moment. That's where our social structures and customs can help us decide. Many scientists and philosophers of science believe that the laws of the physical universe completely determine everything that will happen, including human behavioral choices. But the question of determinism versus free will is one that science has not yet settled, leaving room for faith. For those of us interested in tikkun olam, in making the world a better place, we need to have faith that our actions make a difference. In the ironic words of Isaac Bashevis Singer: "We have to believe in free will. We've got no choice."

In the Torah, Yahweh said: "See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil" (Deuteronomy 30:15, King James Version). What was ascribed to Yahweh seems to be just what evolution does for us. It makes our brains into an "enchanted loom" that can "weave" both life-affirming and life-denying patterns and choose between them. Evolution also leaves room for other motives beyond survival and reproduction.

The outlook of many mainstream biologists can be compared to Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign, in which he took on the mantra of "it's the economy, stupid." Tikkun and others in progressive movements rightly criticized this statement because it omitted universal needs for meaning and connection that could not be fully expressed in dollars-and-cents terms. "It's survival and reproduction, stupid" omits the same needs for meaning. Then where do those needs reside in the brain?

Meaning in the Brain

Many things beyond sufficient food, clothing, shelter, and the ability to pass on our genes go into any usual definition of the "good life." The good life for most of us includes a sense of meaning or purpose in our actions; bonding with others of our species; and pleasurable stimulation.

The bonding needs, at least, are shared with other mammals. For example, scientists at Emory University in the 1990s found that prairie voles, a relative of mice, form pair bonds that last for life and involve both parents in the rearing of young. These scientists also found biochemical differences, in the patterns of interactions between certain hormones and certain brain cells, between prairie voles and another, closely related species (mountain voles) that don't form pair bonds and in which fathers play no role in parenting.

The stimulation needs are also shared with other mammals. In the mid-twentieth century, the psychologists Harry and Margaret Harlow took some juvenile rhesus monkeys away from their mothers and gave them a choice of two artificial surrogate mothers. One surrogate mother was made of stiff wire and provided milk; the other was made of soft cloth and did not provide milk. The Harlows found the juveniles spent much more time with the cuddly cloth mothers, going to the rough wire mothers only to be fed. This suggested that the hugging and pleasurable physical sensations that normal monkeys receive from their real mothers is at least as important as the food those mothers provide. More recently, the animal behaviorist Jonathan Balcombe has studied pleasure seeking in nonhuman animals. He found many examples of animals working to receive tickling or other stimulation that gives them pleasure but has no instrumental value for survival or reproduction.

In humans, there have been many studies of children raised in orphanages, notably the orphanages constructed in Romania during the Ceausescu dictatorship. From the pure survival viewpoint these children were well treated, with nutritious food, comfortable shelter, and good medical care. But they were warehoused in an impersonal manner with no adult caretakers showing them affection or playing with them. This lack of love and stimulation led to brain development that lagged several years behind their peers raised in homes, a reality that became apparent to American and Canadian parents who adopted these Romanian orphans.

Emotions accompany our instincts that promote survival and reproduction. The emotion of happiness, for example, supports continuing to engage in activities that satisfy such needs as hunger and sex, while fear supports escape from danger, and anger supports overcoming obstacles. Yet emotions themselves become motivators: apart from survival value we seek to increase pleasure and decrease pain.

The pleasure motive may, to some readers, seem distant from meaning or purpose. Yet a key part of bonding with others is seeking to increase their pleasure, and decrease their pain, as well as our own. Moreover, if we consider the more complex parts of our brain function, pleasure is closely tied to higher values, and ultimately to the sacred. My colleague Leonid Perlovsky has proposed that people (and, to some extent, other mammals) possess a knowledge instinct, that is, a drive to make sense of one's environment and make one's internal representations of the world as consistent as possible. As with other instincts involving eating, sex, and bonding, satisfaction or dissatisfaction of the knowledge instinct is accompanied by emotions. Emotions accompanying the knowledge instinct are aesthetic emotions: pleasure in beauty or order when the instinct is satisfied, and displeasure in ugliness or disorder when the instinct is not satisfied. When the knowledge we seek is about human behavior, the emotion of the beautiful becomes the emotion of the sublime. Therein lies our sense of meaning and purpose.

Darwin himself never believed that natural selection could account for everything in biology. Neither have many other eminent evolutionary biologists, among them Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin. Gould and Lewontin particularly noted that many traits that were not in themselves adaptive could occur as accidental byproducts of other traits that were evolutionary adaptations. They drew an analogy between such byproduct traits and an architectural feature called spandrels, which are the spaces between curved arches in some old European churches. This is how some biologists would see the human need for meaning. While acknowledging Gould and Lewontin's contribution to healthy scientific inquiry, I find the "spandrel" explanation of meaning unappealing because it trivializes what it tries to explain. A more appealing idea is that meaning and the attendant emotions accompany evolutionary adaptations such as the knowledge instinct but have an independent existence on an equal footing with the instinct itself, and outside the realm of adaptation altogether.

How are the knowledge instinct and its attendant emotions represented in the brain? We are far from a satisfactory answer, but Perlovsky and I addressed this question in an article in a 2008 issue of Zygon. We discussed another pair of conflicting evolutionary adaptations: the knowledge instinct and the drive to minimize cognitive effort. We noted that the dichotomy of maximizing knowledge and minimizing effort paralleled Maimonides's interpretation of the Garden of Eden story. Maimonides said Adam and Eve's real sin was to ingest easy, ready-made, predetermined partial knowledge of the world rather than to do the hard work of interpreting the world on their own and understanding it well.

We are now entering territory where definitive behavioral and neurobiological data are still in short supply. Yet there is already some evidence from functional brain imaging studies, which use blood flow measurements to determine which brain regions are active ("light up") under specific task conditions. Imaging studies that Perlovsky and I reviewed indicate that the brain processes of people who are making the effort to understand things deeply are different from the brain processes of people who are just trying to get through situations and avoid thinking too much. Effortful thinking seems to be based on greater blood flow in some parts, and perhaps more efficient use of other parts, of the brain's complex "executive system" responsible for organizing planned behavior. The executive system is centered in different parts of the frontal lobes along with other regions, many of them below the brain's surface, with which these frontal areas connect. While it is difficult to separate out parts of the "loom," some areas of the brain's executive systems seem to have definable functions within the system. For example, one frontal region is particularly involved in processing social and emotional information. Another region is involved in detecting possible conflicts between two or more decision rules. And a third region is involved in discovering which rules are more likely to be the right ones to employ.

When our knowledge of the brain is further advanced (perhaps within some of our lifetimes), I believe we will be able to build a theory for optimal functioning of the "enchanted loom." The way of living that the best possible brain function generates has been given various names, the best known of which is Abraham Maslow's term "self-actualization." The differences between living at one's best and just getting by -- which Marian Henriquez Neudel (Tikkun, Vol. 3, No. 6) called "being a mensch" versus "being only human" -- cannot be captured by the criterion of survival or reproductive advantage. After all, self-actualized people do not necessarily live longer, or have more children, than people who fall far short of their potential.

Optimal brain functioning is not the traditional "triumph of reason over emotion." Reason, emotion, and intuition are deeply interdependent and we need all of them working at their best. We need both the left brain, which tends to be convergent and analytical, and the right brain, which tends to be divergent and intuitive. We need both the outer layers of the cerebral hemisphere that arrived late in evolution, constituting what the late great neuroscientist Paul MacLean called our "thinking cap," and the deeper areas involved in emotion and instinct that we inherited from other mammals and from reptiles. The brain has no "good" or "evil" parts: all of it is sacred.

Dan Levine is a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Arlington and a member of the Darwin Project Council. His review of Dennett's Breaking the Spell appeared in the November/December 2006 issue of Tikkun.

References used in Sacred Brain article

Sherrington, Charles R. Man on His Nature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1942.

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution is a 1973 essay by the evolutionary biologist and Russian Orthodox Christian Theodosius Dobzhansky, criticizing anti-evolution creationism and espousing theistic evolution. The essay was first published in the American Biology Teacher, volume 35, pages 125-129.

Wilson, Edward. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works. New York: Norton, 1997.

Coletta; Paolo E. William Jennings Bryan 3 vols. (1964).

Taylor, Shelley, Laura Klein, Brian Lewis, Tara Gruenewald, Regan Gurung, and John Updegraff. "Biobehavioral Responses to Stress in Females: Tend-and-befriend, not Fight-or-flight." Psychological Review 107 (2000): 411-429.

Eisler, Riane, and Daniel S. Levine. "Nurture, Nature and Caring: We are not Prisoners of Our Genes." Brain and Mind 3 (2002): 9-52.

Deuteronomy 30:15 (King James Bible): See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil.

Singer, interview in The Times (London), June 21, 1982

Harlow, Harry. "The Nature of Love." American Psychologist 13 (1958): 673-685.

Harlow, Harry, and Margaret Harlow. "Social Deprivation in Monkeys." Scientific American 207(5) (1962): 137-146.

Balcombe, Jonathan. The Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good. New York: Macmillan, 2006.

Iftene, Felicia, and Nasreen Roberts. "Romanian Adolescents: Literature Review and Psychiatric Presentation of Romanian Adolescents Adopted in Romania and in Canada." Canadian Child and Adolescent Psychology Review 13 (2004): 110-113

Perlovsky, Leonid. 2006a. "Toward Physics of the Mind: Concepts, Emotions, Consciousness, and Symbols." Physics of Life Reviews 3:23-55.

Maimonides, Moses. 1190. The Guide for the Perplexed, Tr. M. Friedlander, 1956, Unabridged Dover Edition.

Levine, Daniel S., & Perlovsky, Leonid I. (2008). Simplifying heuristics versus careful thinking: scientific analysis of millennial spiritual issues. Zygon, 43, 797-821.

Gould, Stephen J. and Richard Lewontin (1979). "The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme". Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B, 205, 581-598.

Maslow, Abraham H., Toward a Psychology of Being, New York: Van Nostrand, 1968.

MacLean, Paul. The Triune Brain in Evolution: Role in Paleocerebral Functions. New York: Plenum, 1990. 

Source Citation: Levine, Dan. 2010. Toward a Sacred Brain. Tikkun 25(6): Online Exclusives

tags: Biology, Science, Spirituality  
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