The Reptilian Brain

Perception and Behavior

by Kort E Patterson

It's become a distressingly common event on the evening news. First a short segment describes yet another violent crime followed by interviews with friends, relatives, and neighbors of the perpetrator all saying they can't understand why the criminal did what he did, or expressing disbelief that such a nice guy could do such a thing. And yet offenses against individuals and even society itself continue to occur. And the phenomenon isn't limited to individuals. History recounts many social systems that evolved based on principles and practices that appear abhorrent within the perspectives of our current society.

Why do some seemingly good people commit such bad acts? Why is it so hard to understand the motivations of our fellow man? While there are some truly evil people who glory in doing harm, most of us remain the heroes of our own movie. Those who commit what are to the rest of mankind unspeakable and unthinkable acts must somehow see themselves and their actions in a positive light - at least at the moment of commission. And yet we all live within the same world, operate within the same laws of physics, are exposed to the same reality. How is it that humans can arrive at such a wide variety of interpretations of good and bad, right and wrong?

The problem starts with the very concept of right and wrong. We try to judge the actions of others by the slippery measures of right and wrong. The slipperyness of right and wrong comes from cause and effect being on the outside, and right and wrong being artifacts of the individual's internal world view. Nature doesn't bother with concepts like right and wrong.

The concepts of right and wrong are artificial constructs created by the human mind in order to help predict the outcomes of only partly understood causes. Things that are "right" are expected to have beneficial effects, while things that are "wrong" are expected to have adverse effects. The system works fine when "right" gets accurately mapped onto causes that are actually beneficial. The concepts of right and wrong are largely subject to the perspective in which they are viewed.

Changing perspectives can often radically change the perceived rightness or wrongness of an action. Within their own minds, even monsters like Hitler saw their actions as "right" within the context of their own peculiar world view. The problems arise when the mapping gets misdirected or distorted. Aberrant or inappropriate human behaviors become the logical consequence of the potential difference between human perceptions of reality and "real reality" that result from the biological compromises in our basic design needed to deal with information overload.

There is way too much reality out there for any known biological system to accommodate. Nervous systems and neural synapses just aren't fast enough to do real time processing of all the available information. In order to deal with the information overload, every species restricts the amount of information its senses collect to just a tiny segment of the total information available. To compound the problem, reality is constantly changing and generating new information. So all organic species including humans must both heavily restrict and filter the information they are able to sense in the real world. The trick is to construct an appropriate understanding and response to the real world using only the minimal amount of information.

Consider the process of visually identifying an object in the real world. The filtering begins with our eyes. The discrete rods and cones in our retinas select out certain frequencies of light, and further reduce the image into just those photons ("dots") that strike receptive cells. The optic nerve is an information transmission bottleneck so the retina streams the information to the brain in a sort of serial form, with the general overall pattern information tending to be sent first.

The image doesn't get to the brain as a single flash but rather as a stream of bit and pieces that are reassembled as they arrive. As the image is assembled the brain continually tries to match the emerging pattern with stored patterns in its memory, ideally succeeding in making its identification before the entire image is transmitted from the eyes.

In the primitive world the incoming image might be an approaching predator, and acting on the information quickly might mean the difference between life and death. So in the interim while waiting for the data to get through the optic nerve bottleneck the brain starts to immediately do what it can with what information has been received so far. While trying to interpret inadequate information might result in initial misidentifications, the advantages of quick response even if it requires having to revise the identification several times while the image arrives are worth it - at least in the primitive world within which most of our evolution occurred.

The process is most apparent when trying to make out an object in the dark. It takes longer to receive an image in dim lighting, and the delay can often stretch long enough to be apparent to the conscious mind. Surely you've experienced "seeing" something in the dark that slowly resolved into something else. Children are particularly prone to the phenomenon - seeing monsters in the shadows that turn out to be just a teddy bear when they look at it long enough.

Once we've identified the object we must then attempt to interpret what we're seeing. This is the tricky part - and the point where variations of human behavior occur. The key is that the brain never actually "sees" anything in the real world - it gets only a very limited amount of the available information and must construct an understanding based on incomplete data. It performs this trick largely by relying on expectations based on its past understanding of the world. What we "see" today is what we expect to see based on what we think we saw in the past. Since it lacks a comprehensive connection with the outside world, the mind creates or acquires a set of rules and expectations with which to interpret the limited information coming in through its sensors. These learned rules and expectations become the mind's world view - its internal definition of reality.

Once a world view has been established, the mind uses it to interpret the limited information received from the senses into useful information and to determine the rest of the body's reactions to that information. From that point on, the mind's world view becomes more important in the interpretation of reality than the raw information coming in from the sensors - raw data that doesn't fit the mind's expectations is either rejected or distorted to fit.

Humans developed the psychological component in our perception specifically because of the physical limitations of our "wetware" to process the information overload of reality. What we "see" is by definition not what's really there. The physical limitations of our sensors not only delay the arrival of information at the brain because of bandwidth problems, but the total amount of information about the outside world our senses give us is only a tiny fraction of the total information available. I've been using the example of vision, but the same limitations apply to all our other senses.

From the inside looking out, our minds are trapped inside our craniums wanting to know about the outside world but only able to obtain a thin trickle of raw data from our senses. As our consciousness evolved we needed to know more about our environment, and unable to greatly expand the physical limitations of our wetware, we instead expanded our image processing capabilities - turning to interpretation to compensate for our organic limitations. At our current state of evolution we rely far more on our internal interpretations than on the raw data from our senses.

However, since the mind's world view is entirely built on previous potentially flawed internal interpretations of experiences coupled with the legacy of past potentially flawed experiences the child learns from its parents and peers as the rules of his local society and culture, the potential for a child to build up a seriously flawed world view is very high. Add to the potentials for basic flaws in an individual's world view various physical malfunctions that can occur in such a complex assembly as the human brain, and you have the potential for a wide range of internal behavioral responses to any specific external reality.

The key is that while the organic processes of sensing (the nature and operation of retinas, optic nerves, etc.) is largely a function of hard wired genetic instructions, most if not all of the psychological components of perception are acquired - programmed in after birth. It is this after-the-fact programming that provides the opportunity for variations in human behavior and major differences in perceived reality. What we see is more dependent on what our culture, personal experience, past misinterpretations, etc. have taught us to expect than on the minimal raw data our senses are able to provide.

To further complicate the process, it has been suggested that we have 3 major components in our brain function - instinct, emotion, and intellect. The 3 layers of function correspond to the major layers of brain matter that have been added as we evolved through various stages. Evolution didn't throw much away as humans evolved - our brains have added new layers on top of what was already there instead of the more difficult total restructuring or replacement. We still harbor a primitive Reptilian brain at our cores that runs a lot of our subconscious systems like digestion, respiration and circulation. Along the way we picked up a number of only marginally compatible and integrated layers, evolving our conscious minds only with the addition of the outermost layer.

Instinct is the oldest and is defined largely from genetics. Emotion was added next, and is predisposed by genetics but is also partly learned. "Lower" animals like reptiles operate mostly from instinct with some basic learned responses to action/reward experiences. Those animals we're most likely to make into pets operate with a combination of instinct and emotion.

Intellect appears to be a largely human aspect that is genetic only in its potential, and is almost entirely learned after birth. The subconscious is largely a function of instinct and emotion. Consciousness is a sum of the three factors. Perhaps most importantly, each layer evolved to operate the entire being by itself. The first layer by definition grabbed the closest connections to the rest of the body, and has largely retained them. While intellect can overcome genetic predisposition during normal operations, when under stress our more basic genetically defined natures (instinct and emotion) can come to the top - revealing aspects of an individual that are completely hidden most of the time when the intellect has control.

When we were primitive reptiles our primarily instinctual brain was all we needed to run our physical systems, and to provide basic motivations and guidance on how to interact with our environment. Our instinctual brain comes largely prewired with its programming hard-wired into the neurons by our genetic coding similar to the way the BIOS code is "burned into the silicon" in modern computers.

When we added our emotion driven mammalian brain, it somewhat pre-empted the existing instinct driven brain, but not entirely. In some ways our emotion driven mammalian brain became the manager of the older instinctual Reptilian brain. When under stress we would still respond first to our instinctual brain and only if time allowed shift to our emotional responses. Once again, our mammalian brain evolved as the primary operating system intended to be everything we needed - and without any consideration for the future evolution of additional layers on top.

Humans evolved another layer - what I've been referring to as our intellectual layer. Once again this layer was added on top of what was already there, partly pre-empting the emotion driven mammalian brain which was partly pre-empting the core instinct driven Reptilian brain. While there are often major flaws in the real time implementation, each layer is far more capable of being aware of the layer(s) below than those above.

We have basically three different brains each trying to be the primary operating system for our bodies. While it may be currently in fashion for our intellectual brains to deny the existence and influence of both our lower emotional mammalian brain and instinctual Reptilian brain, these lower systems continue to operate. When blocked by our intellect, pressures build up in our lower brains that like a squeezed balloon seek other means of expression. Also our lower brains have some amount of flexibility and adaptability in order to compensate for injuries and the other mishaps of life, and so when blocked from operating the body by the intellect seek other means of affecting control.

Our system of perception that depends so heavily on after-reception analysis and internally influenced reactions can be a boon or impediment to understanding. It all depends on the effectiveness and accuracy of the learned analysis process and the degree of cooperative integration of the individual's multilayered brain. On one hand, when the system works well it allows us to know aspects of reality that are entirely outside of the range of our senses. For example we know about infrared and ultraviolet even though we're only able to see visible light. But when the learned analysis process is flawed, it can keep us from understanding even the most obvious aspects of the universe. Take for example the Aztecs who created a flawed world view that convinced them the return of the sun each morning was entirely dependent on ritual human sacrifice, genital self-mutulation by the rulers, and assorted other religious blood rituals.

While our perception system works well for some purposes and allows us to expand our understanding of the universe far beyond the limitations of our physical senses, it also imposes functional limitations that will likely limit our total understanding. It seems likely there are aspects of the universe that are so far outside our limited perceptions that we don't even suspect them. It's hard to discover something that you don't expect to be possible. For example there may be additional dimensions to reality that exist outside of the 4 dimensions within which we believe we exist. We may never be able to identify and understand those dimensions that are so far outside our perceptions we have no suspicion they exist.

With our unique evolutionary focus on developing complex brains instead of the more usual physical adaptation to different environments, we're perhaps the most adaptive - and therefore least specifically adapted - of all species on earth. To compound the problem, the environment most of us live in today is more an artificial extension of some other human's fevered imagination than a reflection of the natural world in which most of human evolution occurred. As such, it's no surprise that some/all humans fail to accurately "fit" the world in which they find themselves. That is the tradeoff we've made to evolve into generalists instead of the specialists that make up the rest of the animal kingdom.

Humans have the potential to develop either a greater understanding of reality or conversely suffer a greater misunderstanding, depending on the accuracy of their internal world view. When the system works, it's beyond equal in the natural world. When it gets distorted the system can eliminate any ability of the individual to understand the world around him.

Returning to the original issue, understanding the motives of another human being requires being able to adopt at least for a moment that person's world view. The accuracy of our understanding becomes primarily a factor of our ability to accurately emulate that person's world view. Some people are so tightly tied to their own world view that they are incapable of adopting any other even temporarily. While empathy may well increase in those with a more flexible world view, a too easily distorted world view can become a serious impediment to functioning in society. Functionality seems to favor those with at least a predisposition toward a relatively stable world view that is largely compatible with the world views of those around them. The tradeoffs needed to maintain a functioning society appear to carry the side effect of limiting our ability to truly understand the perspectives and motivations of those who do not share our world view.

Kort E Patterson
Copyright 1997 All rights reserved

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