The Rcomplex

If the preceding view is correct, we should expect the R-complex in the human brain to be in some sense performing dinosaur functions still; and the limbic cortex to be thinking the thoughts of pumas and ground sloths. Without a doubt, each new step in brain evolution is accompanied by changes in the physiology of the preexisting components of the brain. The evolution of the R-complex must have seen changes in the midbrain, and so on. What is more, we know that the control of many functions is shared in different components of the brain. But at the same time it would be astonishing if the brain components beneath the neocortex were not to a significant extent still performing as they did in our remote ancestors.

MacLean has shown that the R-complex plays an important role in aggressive behavior, territoriality, ritual and the establishment of social hierarchies. Despite occasional welcome exceptions, this seems to me to characterize a great deal of modern human bureaucratic and political behavior. I do not mean that the neocortex is not functioning at all in an American political convention or a meeting of the Supreme Soviet; after all, a great deal of the communication at such rituals is verbal and therefore neocortical. But it is striking how much of our actual behavior-as distinguished from what we say and think about it- can be described in reptilian terms. We speak commonly of a "cold-blooded" killer. Machiavelli's advice to his Prince was "knowingly to adopt the beast."

In an interesting partial anticipation of these ideas, the American philosopher Susanne Langer wrote: "Human life is shot through and through with ritual, as it is also with animalian practices. It is an intricate fabric of reason and rite, of knowledge and religion, prose and poetry, fact and dream. . . . Ritual, like art, is essentially the active termination of a symbolic transformation of experience. It is born in the cortex, not in the 'old brain'; but it is born of an elementary need of that organ, once the organ has grown to human estate." Except for the fact that the R-complex is in the "old brain," this seems to be right on target.

I want to be very clear about the social implications of the contention that reptilian brains influence human actions. If bureaucratic behavior is controlled at its core by the R-complex, does this mean there is no hope for the human future? In human beings, the neo-cortex represents about 85 percent of the brain, which is surely some index of its importance compared to the brainstem, R-complex and limbic system. Neuro-anatomy, political history, and introspection all offer evidence that human beings are quite capable of resisting the urge to surrender to every impulse of the reptilian brain. There is no way, for example, in which the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution could have been recorded, much less conceived, by the R-complex. It is precisely our plasticity, our long childhood, that prevents a slavish adherence to genetically preprogrammed behavior in human beings more than in any other species. But if the triune brain is an accurate model of how human beings function, it does no good whatever to ignore the reptilian component of human nature, particularly our ritualistic and hierarchical behavior, On the contrary, the model may help us to understand what human beings are about. (I wonder, for example, whether the ritual aspects of many psychotic illnesses-e. g., hebephrenic schizophrenia-could be the result of hyperactivity of some center in the R-complex, or of a failure of some neocortical site whose function is to repress or override the R-complex. I also wonder whether the frequent ritualistic behavior in young children is a consequence of the still-incomplete development of their neocortices.)

In a curiously apt passage, G. K. Chesterton wrote: "You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. . . . Do not go about . . . encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end." But not all triangles are equilateral. Some substantial adjustment of the relative role of each component of the triune brain is well within our powers.

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