I am fascinated with the human brain, and since I own one, I try as best I can to understand how it works. Without reducing all that I am to my brain and what goes on inside it, I nevertheless have a strong suspicion that everything I am is deeply dependent on this three-pound wonder between my ears. In reflecting further on the matrix of meaning and the myths by which we construct our worlds, I’ve come to a revelation concerning how all of this might be brain-based after all.
Here is my illustration of what I call the matrix of meaning – the crisscrossing polarities of primary concerns (orange) and narrative motifs (black) – and the web we construct on its frame as we weave the pattern known as our world. A deeper exploration of the matrix itself can be found in my post “Myth and the Matrix of Meaning” (http://wp.me/p2tkek-j2), while more about the peculiar construction of the web and its zones of meaning is in “Meaning and Paradox” (http://wp.me/p2tkek-sv). The opposition inherent to the four polarities gives the matrix its creative energy, which in turn compels this incessant human activity of meaning-making.
As I reflect on the matrix and particularly on the zones of meaning with the brain in the back of my mind (how’s that for a twist?), I begin to see how the three zones correspond to three main evolutionary divisions in our brain’s anatomy: (1) the primitive brain stem enfolded by (2) the limbic system and crowned with (3) a cerebral cortex. Each division evolved with specific responsibilities to the whole, and all of them work together for the survival, adaptation, and fulfillment of our potential as a species.
The brain stem (informally known as our “reptilian brain”) is responsible for the internal state and basic life-support of our body. Activities such as breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure, body temperature and the countless visceral events that must be coordinated in regulating the dynamic balance called homeostasis are monitored and adjusted from the autonomic control center of the brain stem.
Notice how the first zone of meaning, neutrality, is deeply similar to the brain stem’s preoccupation with homeostasis. Could it be that this natural balance-point in the body’s internal state is at the root of our preference for familiarity, comfort, and living on “autopilot”?
We like to stay where things are manageable, where the situational demands on our attention and effort are minimal. If we could, a part of us would prefer lounging in the warm sun as long as our animal nature is content.
Meaning-making begins, then, with our basic needs for safety, warmth, and nourishment. Once the channels of provision are flowing, it’s easy for us to stay in those grooves and succumb to the sleepy rhythm of the day-to-day.
But as we know, we can’t stay there indefinitely. Life throws us curve balls and our automatic routines are upset. In addition to a brain stem that
works compulsively to keep us alive, humans (and all other mammals) possess a limbic system, which gives us the ability to respond emotionally to our environment.
Obviously any organism that can link up an association between an external object or event and its own internal state, so that the merest stimulus suggesting that object or event in the future elicits an anticipatory response, will have a survival advantage over an organism lacking this emotional talent.
Once again we can see a correlation between the brain and meaning-making. Emotion is equipped for life in the “conflict” zone, where the polarities in the matrix generate stress and strain. The limbic brain is also the niche in our nervous system where ego begins its career, also known as our inner child. In our quest for identity (ego = “I”) – typically most desperate and dramatic during adolescence – we are trying to figure out where we belong and how we are special.
Stories of privilege, entitlement, and superiority serve to bolster the ego and make us feel that everything revolves around “me and mine.” If the body seeks homeostasis and validates our narratives of contentment and the status quo, ego frequently instigates conflict in its ambition to be first, highest, and best. There’s no need to recount the damage done to ourselves, our relationships, and our planet as ego tries to exploit conflict in its favor, whatever the cost. I want to win, don’t you?
The most recently evolved division of our brain is the cerebral cortex – all those billions of neurons and quadrillions of connections that carry the impulses of experience into conscious thought. At this level the brain is further organized into lobes, circuits, and nuclei specialized to process specific kinds of information coming across our senses.
Beyond this sifting-and-sorting business, however, the cortex also gives us the ability to restrain our urges and reflexes, to extract general ideas from concrete examples, to think critically and strategically, to imagine what’s possible and to transcend opposites. The farthest forward of specialized structures and last to come fully online is our prefrontal cortex, which is involved in self-control, rationality, forethought, and responsible behavior.
Another interesting feature of the cerebral cortex is its lateral division into left and right hemispheres. While the differences between the two hemispheres are commonly misrepresented in popular literature, research has revealed the left side (above and behind our left eye) as more gifted in abstraction and analysis, while the right side tends to be better with information that is concrete and intuitive. In the “conversation” between the hemispheres, conducted across a structure called the corpus callosum, our higher brain is able to reconcile opposites as paradoxes rather than have to come down on one side or the other (dualism).
What we’re talking about here is our higher self, also known as the soul, which is where our adult intelligence resides. Only as we are able to move out of neutrality and rise above the conflict can we refine our appreciation for the complex nature of experience. The greatest paradox of them all – the timeless mystery within us and the turning cosmos around us – is home to the soul, the zone where we construct and celebrate ultimate meaning.