The Reptilian Brain

Deep Blue vs. The Triune Brain

By Jane Wardlow Prettyman

IBM and the media ask:
"How can we make computers as smart as humans?"
The real question is:
How can we make humans as smart as humans?
First off, humans have not just one brain but three.

Headlines called it “The Brain’s Last Stand” and “Man vs. Machine” as chess champion Garry Kasparov met IBM's Deep Blue.

Well, man and brain “lost.” What does that mean?

IBM spoke of computers "catching up to humans” and “becoming as smart as humans.” The twain between humans and computers may indeed meet as computers smart-up and humans dumb-down. The unasked question is: how can we make humans as smart as humans?

Kasparov said he wanted to “defend the integrity of chess against the scientific idea of splitting everything into pure numbers.” A noble aim, yet what needs defense is not chess but the capacity for comprehensive human thinking. This requires education of more of the brain than the “thinking cap” which Deep Blue glorifies.

The computer’s talent for computation corresponds to the mere topmost third of the brain, the neocortex. Now the neocortex is certainly important. It allows us to speak and to plan and to "fly forward in thought," to make tools and weapons and games like chess. But there are two other major intelligences. They don’t speak in words but they express themselves eloquently and are intrinsically part of our overall human intelligence.

Let’s step back and look at the whole picture. The human brain contains three major stages of evolution layered one over another--from reptiles (R-complex, routines for survival) to mammals (limbic system, affection, nursing the young) to humans (left and right hemispheres of the neocortex, prefrontal lobes, verbal ability, planning, “thinking”).

The scientific research on the triune brain was well-established in the 1980's by Dr. Paul McLean at the NIH Laboratory for Brain Evolution and Behavior in Bethesda, Md. Dr. Elaine de Beauport recently published “Three Faces of the Mind” based on McLean's work--with educational applications. The background for this article derives from my work with Dr. de Beauport for several years in New York as she developed educational exercises for all three brains. These techniques of self-care now prepare nurses entering high-stress positions at Mt. Sinai Hospital in NYC and other major urban hospitals. Elaine is also a member of a UN panel looking into triune education in relation to peace.

But how many of you ever heard of the triune brain?

A basic understanding of our three brain systems--taught from childhood onward--would have enormous impact on our lives. Exercises for practicing their orchestration could save marriages, families and relationships, reduce crime, improve health, benefit parenting, enhance life satisfaction. How to deal with anger, how to fight with your lover without hurting each other: Did we miss the briefing? Why did we never learn these simple techniques until we spent a small fortune on therapy?

“If it’s in time, it’s education. If it’s too late, it’s therapy.”

Our young assumptions said the older parts of the brain were "unconscious" and "uneducable."

The fact is that the older brains are indeed educable--they can learn. But educating the limbic emotional brain, in particular, is resisted by our dominantly neocortical (“thinking”) culture which tends to be organized according to logic and separations, whereas the limbic brain is organized according to feeling and affection. We don’t dismiss the value of the thinking brain (we couldn’t write this without it), but we do challenge its exclusivity. We want to bring the sister and brother brains back into the fold.

The Feeling Brain

The limbic system or “feeling brain” is located just below the neocortex and is essentially a chemical-hormonal system of organs that govern affection, feeling/emotion, short-term memory, smell, oral activity, pleasure/pain, fight-or-flight, mood, and sexuality. That’s one heck of a list of things we’re not taking very good care of. Because the limbic brain controls the autonomic nervous system, health is profoundly affected by feeling. We may think we’re unemotional when we think but all “thoughts” are neuronally run through the limbic region and influenced by its emotional activities. Well-ordered boardrooms are disrupted daily by the unpredictable limbic brain. Kasparov himself, with his colorful outbursts, is a perfect example of the limbic style coming to the surface of thinking.

We hear frequent reports of children ages 5-12 and older committing cold-blooded murders with no sense of emotional consequence. It happens that the nerve connections between the thinking brain and the feeling brain (giving rise to emotional consequence and empathy) are not fully formed until puberty or even later in adolescence. Before these connections are complete, the raw curiosity of the neocortex that wonders “what would it be like to kill?” may not yet be tempered by the caring limbic affection center. The imagined consequences are not yet felt. The relative lateness of these links in the child's brain--coupled with unaffectionate and sleepy parenting that abandons the child within the same room--may help us understand the lack of even rudimentary empathy in some children.

In the media event with Deep Blue, the same emotional part of his brain that gave Kasparov's chess game unpredictable brilliance also made him throw his head in his hands. His limbic behavior was displayed in a tantrum, a sign of weakness in machine terms--an embarrassment for the emotional brain that makes us, in the context of machine-like perfection, not want to deal with it.

IBM didn’t count on Garry’s moody blow-up, but generations of judgment of “emotionalism” brought one primary if silent conclusion: The computer was more “reliable” than the human in ways that are valued by corporations and workplaces. All of IBM's efforts were said to be for "the benefit of human beings." One might ask which human beings IBM means.

Kasparov may have choked, that is, been defeated by his own feeling brain, possibly because he’s more used to playing humans than machines. He had no limbic-feeling “opposite” with which to interplay. Faced with the limbic vacuum in Deep Blue, Kasparov went a little paranoid. Paranoia is (loosely speaking) the other side of empathy: a combination of thought (from the neocortex) and fear (from the limbic).

These qualities--from paranoia to empathy--define the range of our evolutionary potential. The limbic brain is the place to go to work.

Then there’s the perspective of IBM. When one considers the uneducated limbic system's messy addictions and unruly behavior, one can easily see that computer labor, not having limbic brains at all, would be far more efficient than human labor. Much less trouble.

Here’s a paranoid thought: One wonders whether the general gist of the idea--not conscious, of course--is to keep humans under-educated in their emotional intelligence (not far from "pregnant and barefoot") so that corporations can complain about "problems" with humans like drug abuse or illness among workers. Then they can throw up their hands and reach to "intelligent" (compliant, dependable, no back-talk) computers (or people who think like computers) to replace human workers. Everybody will understand. We have to be efficient to compete, and the emotional part of human beings is not (certainly not in its uneducated state) efficient for their uses.

That's reaching but something similar may be happening by default.


A panel from the IBM Website:
How accurate a portrait they (unknowingly) drew when they placed "the team behind the technology" inside the technology,
while Kasparov's nose and mouth (two limbic organs)
hover softly in the background.

The conflicts of interest between the social/corporate establishment and the limbic emotional brain are multiple and they are serious. One symptom of resistance was the annoyed employer reaction to ADA-mandated accommodations of psychiatric illnesses in the workplace. That's a big one.

But what if we reduced psychiatric illness by respecting the limbic-feeling brain in the first place? Cost-cutting HMO’s won’t help us much with therapy to repair the damage. Education is our only hope.

Business (a good thing in moderation) and our society that thrives on business are up against a big question: Will we accept feeling as a form of intelligence and value that intelligence enough to educate it?

A Crocodile in the Sun

The third but not least of our three “minds” makes its home way down deep in the oldest evolutionary structure in brain. It sits on top of the brainstem and it’s ancient but not a fossil. It’s alive and active in quiet and disruptive ways. It is called the R-complex and has come to be known as the “reptilian brain” to describe the stage of evolution this intelligence is--still--responsible for dealing with.

The reptilian brain is quite a performer. It gives rise to our ability to mimic, imitate, repeat, accumulate, build. It organizes routes, routines, habits, patterns, arts, rituals, religions, bureaucracies, governments, and institutions. These all have limbic and neocortical input, too, but they all start in this brain and are preserved here.

The reptilian brain makes sure that what we accomplished in evolution is preserved intact. These are the safe routes found over the years of one's life and safeguarded from generation to generation.

Routines and rituals define and preserve lines of power and order. Most business activities and money transactions are reptilian. Efficient reptilian routines get the job done and increase productivity. Henry Ford’s assembly line (repetition in motion) was a reptilian invention. Automobile traffic is the reptile on wheels.

It is a very powerful, sometimes explosive, little brain. Territoriality arises from the reptilian brain and makes us touchy about our “space.” When our territories or routines are disturbed, we can strike out in irritation or violence. We curse at the car that cuts into our lane. We snarl at loved ones for “silly” reasons that are not at all silly to the reptilian brain. We start gang turf rumbles and full-scale wars.

When happy, this is a very beautiful little brain. It arranges flowers. It goes to the beach. It likes to be comfortable in a favorite spot, like a crocodile in the sun.

The reptilian brain's talent for imitation was itself imitated in the structure of Deep Blue. Again, just as IBM glorified the neocortex’s most limited talent (computation), they selected the most simple-minded skill of the reptilian brain (copying). This was done by means of programming Deep Blue with thousands of previous chess games and strategies. Data retrieval from a massive library of copies joined the most mechanical talent of the neocortex to produce Deep Blue’s chess challenge to Kasparov.

A dubious achievement at best.

Humans have the capacity for “data retrieval” from millions of years of evolution in our own triune brain. The evolutionary organs within our skulls unfold a roadmap to our history of facing the unknown, prevailing and loving. These are what intelligence is for.

The "evolution" of technology is not nearly so ecological. Technology leaves itself in pieces on scrap heaps, unremembered, abandoned for the new. The triune brain remembers everything, all the way back to the era before the origin of the human species. It makes us relive the stages of evolution again and again, so we'll never forget the skills it took to get here and go on from here together.

Given how many wonderful things the two deeper brains do, one wonders what the neo (“new”) cortex does except make trouble. Of course the neocortex does some great things, but (chiefly because of its verbal ability), it is powerful enough (valued by society) to effectively suppress the other two brains, thinking of them as “emotional” and judging them as “irrational” or “unconscious.”

It's a little dictatorship inside our heads. That's a problem.

(Would Deep Blue think it was a problem?)

When IBM highlighted the educability of Deep Blue, their PR team deftly shifted public focus from the human priority to the priority of the machine. Human qualities--the term "Deep," for example--were assigned to the machine, while machine-like qualities were assigned to Kasparov, such as whether he could calculate as fast as Deep Blue.

The news media, by and large, followed IBM's advertising plan. But facing off Blue's number-crunching ability with only one-third of the human brain was disingenuous and misleading. We were focused by a grandiose PR event entirely on improving the intelligence of machines. Meanwhile, educational neglect of two complete brain systems in human beings is one of the major causes of the broad failure of education in our culture. Public schools are a chaos of the ignored--and therefore ignorant--triune brain. This neglect contributes to the failure of culture itself in individual human failures and social unrest because we don’t know how to orchestrate these highly active but unskilled “brains.”

Cocaine abuse, for example, may be (in part) an attempt to replicate pleasure chemicals produced naturally inside the brain--when the limbic-feeling brain is educated and stimulated, as it can be. The boredom is deep. Manic workouts in health clubs aren’t enough. The natural hormones flow in the process of relating with others and being affected by other human beings, not just machines. The human interplay is the potent limbic stimulation.

Issues like race and adultery dominate the news--those are limbic-affectionate subjects in a struggle with our “thoughts.” We think we’re talking about morality but it’s also about feeling. Often we find the thinking brain is bollixing the limbic feeling process, hardly allowing the flow and forcing extremism. We’re afraid of “losing control.” We’re certainly likely to lose control if our emotional brains are uneducated from the beginning of life.

By "educated" we mean (from the Greek) "led out, drawn out," played with, moved, loved, affected. Play and affection are the ways the limbic brain learns.

"Play" means "at play." It is free and spontaneous. Dr. MacLean has shown that play stimulates limbic brain development in children, enhances those empathic connections and sociability, and doesn’t stop with childhood. Dolphins are models of playfulness--and of affectionate intelligence. Play is not the same thing as sport, although spectator sports have largely supplanted play in humans, as has media entertainment.

But play can run amok. The Sixties were, in a sense, a limbic decade, and the mixed results of the Sixties might be attributed to the non-educated limbic brain that binged on drugs and sexuality. It was also a great decade (non-violence was a contribution), but it could have been greater. It goes to show you what can happen when under-educated intelligence rises to the surface of history.

Will investment in the triune brain ever be seen to be in IBM's (or any company’s) interests? Someday soon the evidence will be obvious to stockholders that the corporate bottom line can grow with the education of the whole human being. Already, some CEO's are realizing it would cost less to educate the limbic and reptilian brains than it now costs not to educate them.

If IBM spent as much money promoting the whole human brain as they spent on programming Deep Blue, a start would be made toward improving not just computer intelligence (which is helpful as an electronic tool) but the fullness of human intelligence which is helpful for red-blooded living.


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