Monday, December 31, 2012

Psychosis? A Waking Dream---Nightmare?

What is, A Lucid Dream & A Nightmare Psychosis?

A waking Dream or waking Nightmare?

"The best way to describe having a psychotic episode is like a waking nightmare, where things are crazy, bizarre, frightening, confusing. With schizophrenia, you have delusions and hallucinations and disordered thinking.

Like, I was on the roof of the Yale Law School, and I was saying, "Someone's infiltrated our copies of the legal cases. We've got to case the joint. I don't believe in joints, but they do hold your body together" -- so, loosely associated words and phrases.

But, experientially, the -- the feeling is utter terror." _Elyn Saks, author, "The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness." (see: here)

Is Elyn Saks predominately negative and Western worldview of psychosis an objective fact or a subjective opinion energized by a personal/cultural fear of madness, and a lingering ignorance of the reality of its organic process? Are psychotic episodes the product of a mysterious brain disease, or are they generated by a profound dis-ease, within the body? A profound dis-ease which can stimulate a profound psychic pain subjectively represented within the mind, by nightmarish sensations and images, yet can also stimulate a psychic balm represented by glorious sensations of oneness and images and feelings of love. Is there a positive aspect to psychotic episodes? And why do so many claim its like a waking dream or nightmare?

Is REM state dreaming a proto-type of waking consciousness?
Can this, evolutionarily older brain mechanism shed light on the organic nature of psychosis and origin of our minds, subjective experience? Does a personal/cultural fear of the raw power of instincts as the roots of our human emotions and intelligence, promote a socialized denial of our own existential reality? Please consider;

The Dream? A Container of Existential Reality?

Why do both the negative and positive experiences of psychosis feel like a waking dream or nightmare? Why is the dreaming state, considered the very crucible of Madness? Consider Jaak Panksepp’s brilliant, “Affective Neuroscience – The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions,” and a chapter entitled;
Sleep, Arousal, and Mythmaking in the Brain:

Shakespeare proposed one possible function of sleep when he suggested that it “knits up the raveled sleeve of care.” Each day our lives cycle through the master routines of sleeping, dreaming, and waking.
Although we do not know for sure what the various sleep stages do for us, aside from alleviating tiredness, we do know about the brain mechanisms that generate these states.

All of the executive structures are quite deep in the brain, some in the lower brain stem. To the best of our knowledge, however, the most influential mechanisms for slow wave sleep (SWS) are higher in the brain than the active waking mechanisms, while the executive mechanisms for REM sleep are the lowest of the three.
Thus, we are forced to contemplate the strange possibility that the basic dream generators are more ancient in brain evolution that are the generators of our waking consciousness.

The brain goes through various “state shifts” during both waking and sleep. Surprisingly, it has been more difficult for scientists to agree on the types of discrete states of waking consciousness than on those that occur during sleep. EEG clearly discriminates three global vigilance states of the nervous system–waking, SWS, and dreaming or REM sleep.

Some people have also thought that dreaming is the crucible of madness. Many have suggested that schizophrenia reflects the release of dreaming processes into the waking state. Schizophrenics do not exhibit any more REM than normal folks, except during the evening before a “schizophrenic break,” when REM is in fact elevated. There seem to be two distinct worlds within our minds, like matter and antimatter, worlds that are often 180 degrees out of phase with each other.

The electrical activity in the brain stem during dreaming is the mirror image of waking–the ability of certain brain areas to modulate the activity of others during waking changes from excitation to inhibition during REM. In other words, areas of the brain that facilitate behaviors in waking now inhibit those same behaviors. Many believe that if we understand this topsy-turvy reversal of the ruling potentials in the brain, we will better understand the nature of everyday mental realities, as well as the nature of minds that are overcome by madness.

Perhaps what is now the REM state was the original form of waking consciousness in early brain evolution, when “emotionality” was more important than reason in the competition for resources.”

Selected excerpts from “Affective Neuroscience – The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions.”

* * *

Certainly in my own experience the dream like state of a euphoric mania, enabled me to overcome a highly defensive muscular posture, and approach others openly instead of in a self-defeating all to wary of threat, attempts at social engagement. Defeated by the unconscious signals to others about my fearful inner state, and kept in this unconscious pattern by signals to my own brain-nervous system, from my habitual muscular bracing. My birth trauma conditioned postural attitude to life?

The dream state feeling of euphoric mania, acted as a container for an existential reality of innate fear-terror, which threatens to annihilate the conscious mind in any normal waking approach. Any normal conscious awareness which has not been conditioned by experience, to deal with this brutal aspect of our existential reality. In our modern world of assured survival, the ancient rituals of a young man's right of passage have been been largely forgotten. Yet teaching the young man to face the reality of a life eats life survival, and its real-life possibility of shear terror, were once a vital experience for survival. What ancient trace memories are sometimes contained within our nightly dreams and nightmares?

* * *

Why do we dream? And what is Psychosis?

"Strange psychotic symptoms explained.

Our observations of hundreds of depressed patients had confirmed that excessive worry puts huge stress on the REM sleep mechanism. This led us to hypothesise that schizophrenia develops in those particularly imaginative, highly sensitive people who become so stressed that the REM sleep discharge mechanism cannot take the strain, and so their ability to separate waking reality from the metaphorical reality of the dream world (where the metaphors themselves seem totally real), becomes impaired. When they wake up, they cannot properly switch out of the REM state and become stuck in it.

Naturally their thinking is then predominantly driven from the right hemisphere, the part of the brain most active in metaphorical pattern matching and dreaming. Many of their bodily behaviours could be expected to derive from those found in normal dreaming. In other words, the left hemisphere’s role, which is normally to analyse and organise reality in a rational way, and is predominantly in charge during wakefulness, has been usurped. The delicate working partnership of the brain’s hemispheres has shattered.

This, to our minds, provides a plausible way of explaining the wide variety of psychotic symptoms. The phenomenon of ‘word salad’ – the loosening of meaningful associations between words and phrases that results in people talking in a stream of apparent nonsense – is just what one might expect if the left hemisphere of the brain were to be out of sync with the metaphorical mind of the right hemisphere, as the latter would continue to generate associations without waiting for the left hemisphere to check them out and articulate them.

Catatonia, where patients can stand, sit or lie motionless for long periods in strange postures, oblivious to pain, is what the body also does during REM state dreaming, when the anti-gravity muscles are paralysed. Indeed, resistance to pain is often observed among schizophrenic patients and is even more marked during severe episodes. This is easily understood when we realise that, in dreaming also, cut off from all sensation, we experience no physical pain. That, too, is a REM state phenomenon (and is why hypnotised people can have major surgery painlessly without anaesthetic, as we have discussed).

Hearing voices.

Hearing voices is entirely predictable from our theory too. Talking is primarily a left hemisphere activity, whereas right hemisphere activity is mainly concerned with processing pattern matching and tagging emotions to those patterns to prompt action. We don’t talk when the right hemisphere is dominant during dreaming in REM sleep, although talking whilst in slow-wave sleep is common (but the content rarely seems to make sense to the awake mind.) However, during a psychotic episode, if the person were in the REM state awake, there would still be some logical activity and thinking taking place in the left hemisphere.

But, because the REM state is not anticipating any input from the left hemisphere, it has to interpret those thoughts metaphorically and comes up with the image of alien voices, which can seem to be commenting on the person’s every move, or haranguing them or giving ‘instructions’. (It might be expected that such thoughts would often be critical because the left hemisphere would, to some degree, still be able to analyse what was going on and ‘logically’ know that the behaviour is not normal.) This could further be interpreted metaphorically by the right hemisphere as being spied upon, or being persecuted, or that aliens are inside their head or that they are being followed everywhere by strange ‘rays’ that know everything they are doing. (Neurophysiological evidence confirms that, when schizophrenic people are hearing voices, the speech centres in the left neocortex are activated. And other researchers have observed and filmed REM activity when patients hear voices.)

The visual hallucinations or delusions associated with psychosis are also totally characteristic of the dream state, the function of which is to generate such hallucinatory realities. Neuroscientists have shown the same neuronal pathways are activated in psychotic episodes. Whilst dreaming we all believe completely in the reality of our dreams, just as the schizophrenic person believes in their reality.

Creativity and mental illness.

It has long been suggested that there is a connection between creativity and mental illness. Certainly, people prone to schizophrenia tend to come from creative families. And even if they themselves are not productively creative, then high rates of creativity are found among their siblings and other relatives.

Furthermore, creative people tend to be more sensitive to the emotional environment around them and are less robust in withstanding hostility, intolerance or criticism. Indeed, the higher the level of emotional criticism within the family context, the higher the rate of schizophrenic and depressive relapses. When people go into a psychotic REM trance due to emotional arousal any criticism may well be acting like a post-hypnotic suggestion, compounding the condition." © Copyright Joe Griffin, Ivan Tyrrell and Human Givens Publishing Ltd. 2007." From: Born to Psychosis, an online memoir of my own experiences with psychotic episodes.

From the creator of the royal road to the unconscious?
"A dream, then, is a psychosis, with all the absurdities, delusions and illusions of a psychosis. A psychosis of short duration, no doubt, harmless, even entrusted with a useful function, introduced with the subjects's consent and terminated by an act of will. None the less it is a psychosis, and we learn from it that even so deep-going an alteration of mental life as this can be undone and can give place to normal function. Is it too bold, then, to hope that it must also be possible to submit the dreaded spontaneous illnesses of mental life to our influence and bring about their cure." _Sigmund Freud.

* * *

A culture of Denial? In our view of Psychosis & Madness?
Throughout this blog, I have endevoured to present readers with information from leading scientists which questions an orthodox medical model of a brain disease process, in the stimulation of the kind of euphoric psychosis I've experienced, as bipolar type 1's, mania feuled altered states of mind. My recent posts have been an attempt to further coalesce my own understanding through writing here, and to make apparent the kind of self-education reading which has allowed me to transform my own fearful ignorance and avoidance of my body's dis-eased sensations, into a sense-of-myself which no longer requires a medication prop.

Discovering the physiological foundations (see: Mental Illness - Psychological & Physiological?) of my experiences of psychosis, has allowed me to understand the need of its dream-like state, as an aid to approaching an existential reality; "experientially, the -- the feeling is utter terror," which threatens to destory the conscious state of being we hold so precious? Yet if we could truthfully face up to the evolutionary nature of our conscious mind and our much vaunted intelligence, would that help us to relieve the profound states of dis-ease and conscious self-doubt, we increasingly label as a form of mental illness? Please consider;

"In truth, we avoid nature’s harsher reality like the plague whenever she demands a stress response, in the real-life reality of the lived moment? We don’t like real-life distress and we recoil from it, in the double-bind trap of nature’s instincts for survival and our socialized denial of instinctual motivation.
Watch the audience recoil reaction in this great BBC TV series, as the surface image of a beautiful face is removed to reveal the reality of evolution beneath the pleasing image?

Its an odd paradox of the human condition, that we are happy to accept our evolved nature when it saves our life, and the word instinct is fine. We are happy to accept positive sensations and feelings in consideration of the word evolution, yet quickly turn towards denial when negative sensations, feelings and "acted out" behaviors are stimulated by that same word? In our socialized consensus reality of normal and acceptable behavior though, anything abnormal is diagnosed as Illness and definitely not Instinct?

"In fact, the word instinct is rarely found in modern psychological literature. Rather it is purged and replaced with terms such as drives, motivations and needs. While instincts are still routinely drawn upon to explain animal behaviors, we have somehow lost sight of how many human behavior patterns (though modifiable) are primal, automatic, universal and predictable. (p, 231)" _Peter Levine, PhD. "In an Unspoken Voice."

Consider this explanation of our evolved nature from The Child Trauma Academy.
"Humans are Special:

Communication between one human and another is the hallmark of our species. Communication was the critical capacity required for survival during the thousands of generations of our evolution. Naked, slow, weak, and without biological armor or weapons, humans survived by living and hunting in groups. Interdependent individuals created a strong, flexible, and adaptive "whole" -- the band, the clan, the tribe.

While physically separate and self-aware, individual humans are linked by the invisible bonds of sensation, perception, and communication into larger biological units, or groups. One individual may belong to many groups -- a couple, a family, and a working group. Each group has a unique set of tasks and a set of rewards for its members. The integrity and function of the group is formed, maintained, and changed by social interaction.

The human brain developed remarkable biological apparatus dedicated specifically to social perception and communication, verbal and non-verbal. These underlying biological properties are continually at play in all human interactions -- sensing, processing, perceiving, storing, and acting on signals from other humans. All human interactions are governed by core principles of communication that are the product of neurobiological processes shaped by thousands of years of evolutionary pressures.

Through the evolutionary process, the remarkable expressive communication capacity of the face was further refined. In fact, facial expression became the most important of all social communication instruments. What else has the capacity to both reflect the internal emotional state of the individual and elicit a specific emotional and social response? The various faces we make can express the full range of human emotions.

Beware of Strangers & Anything New?

During their development, each person creates a catalogue of familiar faces and stores these as templates for familiar/safe. In these familiar faces, the infant and child learn the non-verbal language of the group as surely as they learn the verbal language. An unfamiliar face will elicit a low-level alarm response in any individual. All new faces are judged to be threatening until proven otherwise.

Two factors provoke this reaction. First, the brain's information matching process is very conservative. All novel situations and new information are judged to be threatening until proven otherwise. The second specific reason that new faces elicit a low-level alarm is that the human brain evolved in a world where, for thousands of generations, the major threats to any individual were other humans.

A new person, a new face in the typical interaction from our history meant that there were other humans around competing for the same water, fruits, game, and cave. This new person was as likely to attack as he was to decide to affiliate or cooperate. Across generations, wariness to new individuals, new groups, and new ideas was selected and built into the circuits of the human brain's alarm response." From The Child Trauma Academy.

Yet in the Western world today, it is this unconscious hard-wired wariness, which is habitually denied in our daily "I think therefore I am," social rituals of acceptable behavior. A consensus denial which causes us to unknowingly scan and diagnose others, in a mind reading fashion, rather than recognize the unconscious language of the body.

Yet beyond the daily headline drama, I firmly believe that we have reached a crucial point in so-called history, “that ever present moment,” for which we use the metaphor “eternal.” We are emerging into a dawning realization as we begin to face the reality within, where all our perceptions are actually created? The body/brain as a holistic and creative sense-of-self, or Plato’s cave and our overwhelmingly unconscious, organic motivations?

Step back for a moment and look at the big picture, of a Western world now financially and morally bankrupt, and in dire need of a new vision to light the way forward? Just as in the past, it will come from that ancient tribe who are born to psychosis, the kind of sensitive souls Greek mythology gave names like Cassandra? In a dreamlike dramatization of meaning & the human condition? Consider;

“The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, 
to match your nature with Nature.” _Joseph Campbell.

From: Born to Psychosis an online memoir of my experience with psychosis and something of a dissertation chapter, of its interpretation.

* * *

For those interested in reading more of Jaak Panksepp's views on the human condition; 

"Sleep, Arousal, and Mythmaking in the Brain:

What a strange  thing, this dreaming process, that has now been the focus of more scientific inquiry than any other intrinsic mechanism of the brain. In terms of the EEG, it looks like a waking state,  but in terms of behavior it looks like flaccid paralysis.  When neuronal action potentials are analyzed during the three states of vigilance (sleeping, dreaming, and waking), we generally get a picture of waking activity as accompanied by a great deal of spontaneous neural activity, with only some cells being silent, waiting for the right environmental stimulus to come along.

Before certain critical experiments were done, it was assumed that the waking state was sustained by the bombardment of the brain by incoming stimuli from the senses and that sleep ensued only when stimulation from environment was sufficiently diminished.

During REM sleep, most of the brain exhibits slightly more neuronal activity than during waking, with storms of intense activity sweeping through certain areas of the brain. However, many neurons that are most active during waking  cease firing completely during REM.

SEEKING: Systems & Anticipatory States of the Nervous System:


The Seeking System: Like other emotional systems, arousal of the seeking system has a characteristic feeling tone-- a psychic energization that is difficult to describe but is akin to that invigorated  feeling of anticipation we experience when actively seeking thrills and other rewards. Clearly this type of feeling contributes to many distinct aspects of our active engagement with the world.

This  harmoniously operating neurochemical system drives and energizes many mental complexities that humans experience as persistent feelings of interest, curiosity, sensation seeking, and in the presence of a sufficiently complex cortex, the search for higher meaning. Although this brain state, like all other basic emotional states, is initially without intrinsic cognitive content, it gradually helps cement the perception of causal connections in the world and thereby creates ideas. It appears to translate correlations in environmental events into perceptions of causality, and it may be a major source of “confirmation bias,” the tendency to selectively seek evidence for our hypotheses.

When this seeking system is manipulated by electrical impulse in other mammals, they will eagerly continue to “Self-Stimulate” for extended periods, until physical exhaustion and collapse set in. There are powerful descending components, probably glutametergic in part, that remain to be functionally characterized, but they may be important for the generation of self-stimulating behaviors. When these descending systems are fully characterized, they may have powerful implications for understanding such psychiatric disorders as schizophrenia. 

1, The underlying circuits are genetically pre-wired and designed to respond unconditionally to stimuli arising from major life-challenging circumstances. 2, The circuits organize behavior by activating or inhibiting motor sub-routines (and concurrent autonomic-hormonal changes) that have proved adaptive in the face of life-challenging circumstances during the evolutionary history of our species. 3, Emotive circuits change the sensitivities of sensory systems relevant for the behavior sequences that have been aroused. 4, Neural activity of emotive systems outlasts the precipitating circumstances. 5, Emotive circuits come under the control of neutral environmental stimuli. 6, Emotional circuits have reciprocal interactions with brain mechanisms that elaborate higher decision-making processes and consciousness.

It is remarkable how long it has taken psycho-biologists to begin to properly conceptualize the function of the self-stimulation system, in the governance of behavior. The history of this field highlights how an environmental-behavioral bias (world out there), with no conception of internal brain functions, has impeded the development of compelling psycho-behavioral conceptions of self-stimulation. One of the most fascinating phenomena ever discovered, yet still largely ignored by mainstream psychology.

The prevailing intellectual zeitgeist is not conducive to conceptualizing this process in psychological terms. This would involve discussion of the inner neurodynamic aspects of the “mind” and the nature of intentionality and subjective experience. A neurophysiological understanding of such brain systems can explain how we spontaneously generate solutions to environmental challenges. And how this type of spontaneous associative ability characterizes normal human thinking, as well as the delusional excesses of schizophrenic thinking.

Arousal of the seeking system spontaneously constructs causal “insights” from the perception of correlated events. Some of the relationships may be true, but others are delusional. Indeed, all forms of inductive thought, including that which energizes scientific pursuits, proceed by this type of logically flawed thinking. An intrinsic tendency for “confirmation bias” appears to be a natural function of the human mind.

The seeking system can promote many distinct motivational behaviors, and the underlying neural system is prepared to jump to the conclusion that related environmental events reflect causal relationships. It is easy to appreciate how this may yield a consensual understanding of the world when  the underlying memory reinforcement processes are operating normally ( i.e, yielding a reality that most of the social group accepts). It is also easy to understand how it might yield delusional conclusions about the world. If this self-stimulating system is chronically overactive, it may be less constrained by rational modes of reality testing.

The fact that the system is especially responsive to stress could explain why paranoid thinking emerges more easily during stressful periods, and why stress may promote schizophrenic thinking patterns. If the normal function of this system is to mobilize the organism for seeking out resources in the world, then we can begin to appreciate how the seeking system might also generate delusional thoughts. Apparently when this emotional system is over-taxed and becomes free-running (self-stimulation), it can generate arbitrary ideas about how world events relate to internal events.

Is delusional thinking truly related to the unconstrained operation of spontaneously active associative networks of a self-stimulating, seeking system? If so, we may have a great deal more to learn about schizophrenia from a study of the SEEKING circuits that mediate self-stimulating behavior? Through a study of this system, we can also begin to understand the natural eagerness that makes us the emotionally vibrant creatures we are.

One might also predict that there is an intimate relationship between self-stimulation and dreaming. REM deprivation leads to increased “sensitivity” in the self-stimulation system It is noteworthy that schizophrenics fail to exhibit compensatory elevations of REM sleep following imposed periods of REM deprivation. There appears to be a fundamental relationship between the schizophrenic process and the emotional discharge that occurs during both REM sleep and the seeking system discharge of self-stimulation. These findings suggest that there may yet be considerable substance to psychodynamic theories that relate dreaming mechanisms to symbol-&-reality-creating mechanisms of the brain.  

(Panksepp suggests that if we can accept this stress sensitized self-stimulation system as fundamentally a  SEEKING system, which requires discharge, new ways of alleviating delusional thinking may be created to provide discharge, while stimulating reality testing, perhaps via computer games for example?) 


Social bonding is of enormous importance, for if it is inadequately established, the organism can suffer severe consequences for the rest of its life. A solid social bond  appears to give the child sufficient confidence to explore the world and face a variety of life challenges as they emerge. As John Bowlby poignantly documented in a series of books, a child that never had a secure base during childhood may spend the rest of its life with insecurities and emotional difficulties. 

Until recently, we knew nothing about the neuro-chemical nature of social bonds. Even though all humans feel the personal intensity of their friendships, family attachments, and romantic relationships, there was practically no way of studying how these feelings might be constructed from specific brain activities. In the past score of years there have been several breakthroughs,  like the discovery that neural circuits mediating separation distress are under the control of brain opioids. 

The first neurochemical system that was found to exert a powerful inhibitory effect on separation distress was the brain opioid system. This provided a powerful new way to understand social attachments. There are strong similarities between the dynamics of opiate addiction and social dependence, and it is now clear that positive social interactions derive part of their pleasure from the release of opioids in the brain.

From this, it is tempting to hypothesize that one reason people become addicted to external opiates (i. e., alkaloids, such as morphine and heroin, that can bind to opiate receptors) is because they are able to artificially induce feelings of gratification similar those normally achieved by the socially induced release of endogenous opioids such as endorphins and enkephalins. In doing this, individuals are able to “pharmacologically” induce the positive feelings of connectedness which others derive from social interactions. Is it any wonder that people become intensely attached to the paraphernalia  associated with their drug experiences, or that addicts tend to become socially isolated, except when they are approaching withdrawal and seeking more drugs? 



1) Drug Dependence 1) Social Bonding

2) Drug Tolerence 2) Estrangement

3) Drug Withrawal 3) Separation Distress


Summary of the major similarities between the dynamics of opioid dependence and key features of social attachments.

(“Make Love Not War”)

Additional research on oxytocin provides yet another intriguing piece of the neurological puzzle. The chemistries that promote pleasure and family values are also known to dramatically reduce irritability and aggressiveness. It has long been known  that human societies that encourage physical closeness, touching, and the free flow of intimacy tend to be the least aggressive in the world. It has been documented that societies which exhibit high levels of physical affection towards infants and children, and permit premarital sex are generally low in adult physical violence, while those which are low in physical affection and punish premarital sex tend to be more violent.

This, of coarse makes a great deal of evolutionary sense: If one is socially well satisfied there is little reason to fight. However trite this may sound, the principle is profound and supported by brain research.  Both opioids and oxytocin are powerful anti-aggressive molecules, and they also have a powerful inhibitory effect on separation distress. Oxytocin administration reduces all forms of aggression that have been studied. Since it has been found that sexual experiences promote oxytocin synthesis in the male brain, we might expect that access to sexual contact would also make males less aggressive.

Social Bonds, Loss, Loneliness & Addiction:

“I Sing the Body Electric” 
I have perceived that to be with those I like is enough.
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough.
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough.

I do not ask anymore delight, I swim in it, as in a sea.
There is something in staying close to men and women and looking on them,
and in the contact and odor of them, that pleases the soul well.

All things please the soul, but these please the soul well.” _Walt Whitman.

One of the great mysteries of psychology is the nature of the “something” that Walt Whitman extols in his masterpiece “I Sing the Body Electric.” That subtle feeling of social presence is almost undetectable, until it is gone. We often take such feelings, like air itself, for granted. But we should not, for when  this feeling of normalcy is suddenly disrupted by the undesired loss of a lover, or the unexpected death of a loved one, we find ourselves plunged into  one of deepest and most troubling emotional pains of which we, as social creatures, are capable. In everyday language, this feeling is called sorrow or grief, and can verge on panic in its most intense form. At a less acute but more persistent level, the same essential feeling is called loneliness or sadness. This psychic pain informs us of the importance of those we have lost. This type of psychic pain probably emerges from a brain emotional system that evolved early in the mammalian line to inform individuals about the status of their social environment and to help create our social bonds.

Neuroscience is struggling to come to terms with the nature of such intrinsic brain processes, and it  is becoming clear that several ancient emotional systems control our social inclinations. In the coarse of brain evolution, the systems that mediate separation distress emerged, in part, from preexisting pain circuits.  
It is now widely accepted that all mammals inherit psycho-behavioral systems to mediate social bonding as well as various other social emotions, ranging from intense attraction to separation induced despair. There is good reason to believe that neurochemistry’s  that specifically inhibit the separation-distress or panic system also contribute substantially to the processes which create social attachments and dependencies--processes that tonically sustain emotional equilibrium and promote mental and physical health.

The brain contains a least one integrated emotional system that mediates the formation of social attachments. The affective components of this system are “dichotomous--behaviors” with feelings of separation distress on one hand, and those of social reward or contact comfort on the other. Existing data suggests that arousal within this system is controlled by multiple sensory perceptual inputs, and that the evolutionary roots of the system go back to more primitive mechanisms, such as those elaborating place attachments in reptiles, the basic affective mechanisms of pain, and fundamental creature comfort of thermoregulation.

To be alone and lonely, to be without nurturance or a consistent source of erotic gratification, are among the worst and most common place emotional pains humans must endure. Love is, in part, the neuro-chemically based positive feeling which negates the pain of isolation. Brain opioids were the first neuro-chemistries discovered to powerfully reduce separation-distress. As predicted by an opiate theory of social attachment, drugs like morphine are powerful alleviators of the psychic pain induced by grief and loneliness.

Opiate addiction, may emerge largely because individuals who cannot find the needed satisfactions of social attachment in their lives, are tempted to induce the stimulation of internal opioid systems by a pharmacological means, usually leading to a further increase in social isolation. The French artist Jean Cocteau recollects how opium liberated him “from visits and people sitting around in circles.”

(As Panksepp explains how human bonding is foundationally mediated by the primitive brain systems of pain, panic and separation-distress alleviation--he notes how fear overrides the urge to relieve separation-distress. As a primitive survival protection against predator detection, the fear system will automatically override separation-distress, which perhaps explains a hidden aspect of social bonding difficulties for those with childhood abuse histories. To what degree is an innate, predator fear system, triggered by the social environment, and its forest of faces?  What part does innate fear play in “dichotomous--behaviors,” as addictions promote isolation and separation from “social attachments and dependencies--processes that tonically sustain emotional equilibrium and promote mental and physical health.)

Panksepp, points us towards internal systems, as the hidden stimulation of human behaviors with an explanation of addiction as a behavior seeking to stimulate an internal system. Such observations on the reciprocal nature of human motivation/behavior, may lead us to ask questions about the hidden aspects of our self-stimulating belief systems? Whether those belief-systems are of a diseased brain processes in so-called mental illness, or of the cause of good and evil in society and a need for revolution? How do we divine stimulation/motivation, in a hidden, and reciprocal nature, of human behavior? 

Separation-Distress & Panic Attacks:

The selection of the term “panic” for brain systems which mediate separation distress was premised on the hypothesis that that the emotional problem known as “panic-attack” may emerge from arousal of an innate separation-distress system. People who suffer panic-attacks typically have childhood histories of separation anxiety problems. During separation-distress as well as during panic-attacks, people feel as if the very center of their comfort and stability has been abruptly removed, leading to active solicitation for help and social support. Both are accompanied by autonomic symptoms, like feelings of weakness, difficulty breathing and feeling a lump in the throat. 

The first medication found to be beneficial for panic-attacks was also found to be beneficial in alleviating separation-distress. Such a finding indicates that these emotional expressions emerge from the same system, with evidence that panic-attack is not simply caused by fearful, anticipatory anxiety, as once presumed. Patients receiving medication claimed no beneficial effect on panic-attacks, while careful observations proved a reduction in actual attacks. The patients had not noticed the reduction however, because the medication had no effect of fearful, anticipatory anxiety. This research was confirmed by anti-anxiety medications effective in reducing anticipatory anxiety, yet non-effective in reducing panic attacks.

An alternative view of panic-attacks, has been linked to the arousal of a suffocation alarm system in the brain stem. It may well be that this primitive self-defense system, is functionally coupled to the arousal of the panic system. Common in both, are respiratory and audio-vocal distress reactions, and under both emotional states, one feels in desperate need of immediate relief.   

The Nature of Social Loss & Emotional Disorders:

Chronic arousal of the panic system may have long-term psychiatric consequences. The persistent stress  of social isolation, as indicated by over-responsiveness of the pituitary adrenal system, may contribute to the despair and depression that commonly follow social loss and long-term separation. It is now well documented that the major life factor in humans, that participates depression is social loss. The genesis of many forms of depression can be linked to the neurobiological nature of the primal-loss experience--the despair of children irreparably separated from their parents.

Many believe that we will be able to understand the source of depression when we understand the cascade of central neurological changes that arise from the successive emotions aroused by social separation--from active protest (crying) to the despair response (depression). Early brain investigators did not believe in the existence of intrinsic social processes within the brain, yet it now appears most likely that a great deal of higher brain organization evolved in the service of promoting social behaviors and maintaining homeostatic balance through social regulation. 

The emotional distress that accompanies major psychiatric disorders is probably more closely linked to the changing dynamics of underlying emotional systems than the cognitive systems in which we most commonly detect symptoms. However, the separation-distress system poses a new challenge for psychiatry. It now seems evident that depression and panic-attacks are most common in people with a history of separation-anxiety, while autistic children appear to have a primary deficit in the ability to experience social emotions, and to perceive the meaning of social emotions in others. This suggests that all such disorders are at least partially modulated by separation-distress systems within the brain.

Although most investigators now accept that emotional disorder must be sought out in neurobiological imbalances rather than simply social dynamics, the recognition of of separation-distress is in the creation of affective turmoil is not yet well recognized. 

Music & the Shivers & Tingles of a Separation-Distress System:

I believe one of the most intriguing manifestations of separation-distress may be reflected in a powerful response many of us have to certain types of music It is widely accepted that music is the language of the emotions, it is one of the few ways in which humans can allow the external world voluntary access to their internal emotional systems on a regular basis. Most of us listen to music for the emotional richness it adds to our lives, and many of us love sad songs--especially bittersweet songs of unrequited love and loss. A common physical experience when listening to such moving music, especially melancholy songs of lost love and longing, as well as patriotic pride from music which commemorates lost warriors, is a shiver up and down the spine, which often spreads down the arms and legs, as a tingly sensation.

What is the underlying meaning of this emotional phenomena? A possibility is that a major component of the poignant feelings that accompany sad music, are sound frequencies which acoustically resemble separation-distress-vocalizations--the primal cry of being lost or in despair. Thus the shivers and tingles we experience while being moved by music, may represent the natural tendency of our brain’s emotional systems, especially those tuned to the perception of social loss, to react with an appropriate homeostatic thermal response.

When we are lost, we feel cold--not only physically but also as a neuro-symbolic response to social separation. The roots of our social motivational system are linked to thermoregulatory systems of the brain, and when we hear the primal sound of someone lost, especially if it is our own child, we feel cold, chilled to bone, as some describe this feeling. This may be mother nature’s way of promoting us, of mobilizing us towards the warmth of a reunion. For music that provokes a shiver, and that wistful sense of loss and the possibility of reunion, there is profoundly blended resonance in the dynamics of sound. The study of  the affective resonance of music will have profound consequences for understanding the psychology and neurobiology of human emotions. 

Emotions, and the Higher Cerebral Processes & the Self:

Central Theme:

Although primal emotional feelings arise from the sub-cortical systems of the brain, their consequences ramify widely within the unique conscious abilities of the human mind, as well as the social fabric of our cultures. Emotional feelings cannot be fully understood without understanding the evolutionary nature of our human consciousness. Example: Do animals have a spontaneous sense of themselves as active creatures in the world? Descartes suggested that animals, unlike humans, did not have a sentient self--that they were closer to reflex automatons than feeling creatures.

The evidence now assembled suggests that other mammals do have basic forms of affective consciousness, not unlike our own basic feelings. All mammals appear to experience pain, anger, fear and many other raw feelings, even though they do not cognitively reflect on felling the way humans do. They do not appear to extend feelings in time, the way we do, through the use of imagination. If such basic affective consciousness as raw feelings are a feature of shared mammalian nature, then we must confront the underlying neural nature mind, we call our sense of self.

Self-representation emerged early in brain evolution, rooted first in midbrain regions where primitive neural systems for motor maps (body schema), sensory maps (world schema), and emotional maps (value or valence schema) first intermixed. With the evolution of higher brain functions in humans, a multidimensional conscious sense of self came to be greatly expanded the human brain/mind. Although higher forms of human consciousness emerge from the cortex and higher regions of the limbic system, they are not independent of the lower reaches of the brain, which generate our basic emotions, feelings, and other instinctual tendencies. 

Although our higher cerebral functions have led to the great achievements of humankind, they have also generated the illusionary half-truth that we humans are rational creatures above all else. The interchange between our cognitive and emotional processes is one of reciprocal control, yet with processes remaining in balance only in non stressful circumstances. In emotional turmoil, the upward influences of sub-cortical emotional circuits on the higher reaches of the brain, are stronger than the top-down controls. Although humans can strengthen and empower downward controls through emotional education and self-awareness, few can ride unbridled emotions with great skill. 

The Roots of Consciousness:

By appreciating how the brain is organized, we may gradually outgrow this illusionary sense that we are creatures of two distinct realms, of mind and matter, and come to accept that we are complex creatures of the world--with complex feelings, thoughts, and motor abilities that have arisen from the dynamic interaction of our brains with environments both past and present. In thinking of the brain in terms of its ancient roots and present day capacities, the image of a tree is most useful.

Most full grown trees have a canopy of branches and leaves that interact dynamically with the environment. However, the spreading branches cannot function or survive without the nourishment and support they receive from the roots and trunk. We may see and appreciate the tree for its spreading leaves which catch the eye, but our full understanding of the substance of a tree must begin with the seed, the roots and the emerging trunk. 

The tree as a metaphor applies to the many neural trees which mediate our emotions. It is certainly likely that the dynamic changes in our feelings and moods can arise from the perceptual capacities of our cerebral canopies, but all that emotion could not exist without the emotional trunk lines. In other words, the more recent forms of consciousness are linked to the rich neural soil that allowed our mammalian ancestors to experience primary-process affective states.    

Evolutionarily, the brain mechanisms for language were designed for social interactions, not for the conduct of science. Indeed, words give us a special ability to deceive each other. There are many reasons to believe that animal behavior will lie to us less than human words. This dilemma is especially acute when it comes to our hidden feelings that we normally share only through complex personal and cultural display rules.

In addition, it now appears that our two cerebral hemispheres have such different cognitive and emotional perspectives on the world that the linguistic approach may delude us as readily as inform us. Medical research in which the non-speaking right hemisphere has been selectively anesthetized indicates that people express very different feelings when their whole brain is operating than when just the left hemisphere is voicing its views.

In short, our left hemisphere--the one that typically speaks to others--may be more adept at lying and constructing a social masquerade rather than revealing deep, intimate emotional secrets. If this is so, an indeterminate amount of information collected with questionnaires and other linguistic output devices may be tainted by social-desirability factors, making data next to useless for resolving basic issues.  (p, 302)

Human and animal affective consciousness is based fundamentally on motor processes that generate self-consciousness by being closely linked to body image representations.  Acceptance of such a seemingly incorrect premise--that the fundamental nature of  consciousness is constructed as much from motor as from sensory processes--may help us resolve some key conceptual sticking points concerning the nature of consciousness.

Consciousness is not simply a sensory-perceptual affair, a matter of mental imagery, as the contents of our mind would have us believe. It is deeply enmeshed with brain mechanisms that automatically promote various forms of action readiness. If this nontraditional view is on the right track, it may allow us to come to terms with our deepest nature in a non-dualistic way. (this is why I started to feel a non-dualistic sense of oneness in October 2011, not long after my epiphany moment on the Sukhumvit Bridge - mood was movement before the mind evolved)

If one accepts the importance of consciousness in understanding many psychological issues, the ultimate questions are;: How can a brain feel its ancestral emotions and motivations? How are the intrinsic emotional processes generated by brain tissue and intermixed with representations of specific life activities? And how can we construct a third-person consensual science that is intimately linked to first-person subjective experiences?

The Basic Nature of Human Consciousness:

The fundamental executive substrates of affective processes are imprinted into mammalian brains as a birthright. Basic emotional systems serve adaptive functions emerging through evolutionary history. They organize and integrate physiological, behavioral, and psychological changes in the organism to enable various forms of action readiness. The emergence of emotional circuits in the brain, and hence emotional states, provided powerful attractors for synchronizing various neural events to coordinate specific cognitive and behavioral tendencies in response to archetypal survival problems. 

Archetypal survival problems like: to approach when SEEKING, to escape from FEAR, to attack when in RAGE, to seek social support and nurturance when in PANIC, to enjoy PLAY and LUST and dominance, and so forth. (Evolutionarily imprinted, archetypal Affect/Emotional systems, serving basic survival problems, are highlighted in capital letters. Note, that others suggest that fear arises when escape appears impossible, that feeling trapped triggers an innate fear system. Such views fall inline with Panksepp‘s own suggestions throughout this book, that the stimulation of behaviors, often prove to be counter-assumptive to our obviously limited cognitive awareness.)

Affective neuroscience seeks to provide conceptual bridges that can link our understanding of the basic neural circuits of emotions with straightforward cognitive and folk-psychological views of the human mind, and most importantly its emotional distress-disorder. We humans do have some introspective-linguistic access to our subjective feeling states. Because of that small psychological window, and because these basic emotional systems are conserved in the brains of all mammals, the two approaches can be linked to understand the neurobiological underpinnings of our affective consciousness, with combined multidisciplinary efforts.

Currently, an increasing number of psychologists and other social scientists are developing an enthusiasm for brain science, largely due to an era of psychopharmacology and the clinical applications of brain chemistries research, and also the technological advances in our ability to image brain function. Many believe that new and advancing brain-imaging technologies will soon answer all the important brain questions. It should be noted however, that such imaging techniques are not terribly precise at highlighting the sub-cortical neural circuits or chemistries involved in basic affect/emotion processes. There are processes of multiple interacting systems which are incredibly tightly intermeshed, and lie within the brain stem.  

Many psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers believe that the transformation of brain processes into subjective experience, may be inexplicable on the basis of first principles: There is simply no way to understand the mental states we all experience firsthand, by applying the consensual observation approach of our traditional scientific method.

Mistakes in Assumptions about Forms & Function:

Examples of our tendency to assume litter the history of the physical sciences--including “the ether,” a nonexistent substance, postulated to transport light in space, and “phlogiston,”  which was thought to do the same for heat. The history of functional brain research, rooted as it is in the tradition of postulating organs for mental faculties, makes many of us shudder with shame for some of the gross oversimplifications of our predecessors. Such oversimplifications are even easier to create in psychological science’s use of “block diagrams,” and reliance the social nature of our inherited languages. 

It is certainly possible that other mammals, despite their many emotional behaviors, have no internal experience of ongoing emotional states, as asserted by Rene Descartes. Descartes formally introduced dualism into our human sciences almost 400 years ago, suggesting other species may be more akin to reflexive robots than the feeling, emotional creatures we humans are. Today’s research conflicts with Descartes oversimplification of species difference though, where behavioral changes in other species can and do predict human subjective responses. 

Hence, it seems highly likely that the pursuit of the underlying mechanisms of our affective consciousness, may be revealed by studying evolutionarily shared mechanisms of the human brain/mind. This path of reasoning may prove more worthwhile than the rather sterile views promoted by the strict paths of logical positivism and skepticism (that only the consensual evidence arising from our visual system, is to be accepted as true science). Instead we should adopt a new and more powerful criterion: Out ability to predict new observations should serve as the only credibility discriminator for various competing lines of thought. 

It is obvious that the concepts we choose to guide our experimental inquiries must be as flexible and profound as the functional processes that actually exist in nature. The recent neuroscience revolution is providing the kind of tools necessary for further study into the internal emotional powers long recognized in our inherited folk-psychology, as we begin to seek out their neurological wellsprings. How shall we ever understand how felt experiences (affective consciousness) actually emerges from brain matter?

To really understand the basic affective states of consciousness, we may need to understand the primal nature of “the self.” We need to fathom how humans and other mammals naturally come to experience themselves as active, feeling creatures in the world. To do so, we must learn to conceptualize deeper, subtle brain processes, such as “the self,” in neuro-scientific terms. Such a neural entity, in its primordial form, may constitute the preconscious foundations of all other forms of consciousness--without such a preconscious, primal-self, higher levels of conscious could never have emerged through an evolutionary process.

Within the human cortex, there is not just one single form of consciousness, but various types of awareness. The highest levels of consciousness give us an awareness of an almost infinite regress of self-reflection: we can be conscious of being conscious of being conscious, an absolute  self-observation ever shifting and elusive. Further investigation of levels of awareness, may help to distinguish lower forms of consciousness, in the nature of affective states of being.

The Higher Levels of Human Consciousness:

There is a great deal of appeal in trying to find the keys to conscious activities within the higher sensory-perceptual reaches of the human brain. However the function of most higher brain areas may be more closely related to specifically refined skills, than the construction of primary-process consciousness itself. For instance, although we are getting close to understanding the conscious experience of vision, few would argue that elimination of visual skills or any other single sensory system, markedly impairs primary-process consciousness.

The most discrete disruptions of perceptual awareness occur as a result of various forms of cortical damage. One of the most striking is the loss of consciously appreciated vision following damage to the occipital cortex. Although individuals with these impairments report being completely blind, they can still accurately identify the location of moving objects in their visual fields. This “blind-sight” has perplexed students of consciousness, for it highlights just how wrong our conscious understanding of behavioral abilities can be.

An ancient visual system allows all animals to identify where objects are in visual space, without being able to decode what they are. Our own higher levels of conscious awareness are no longer well tuned to movement information, with an abundance of “object” information. Comparable types of  affective awareness have been found with the loss of face-recognition (prosapagnosia). Such agnosias clearly show how important specific cortical information is for constructing  our human, more detailed awareness of the world.

Afflicted prosapagnosia individuals are still able to identify other by their tone of voice and typical clothes they wear, also exhibiting information processing at a preconscious level. Example: People with prosapagnosia still selectively exhibit galvanic skin responses to familiar faces, indicating that their autonomic nervous systems remain in touch with the facial features of people they have known. 

We do not know whether this type of “autonomic” information is unable to be represented in conscious awareness as we now know it, or whether it has simply been neglected during our evolutionary development, due to the power of more salient types of visual information. Perhaps it remains untapped as preconscious ability, needing to be rediscovered, as some ancient meditative practices might seem to suggest. Phenomena such as blind-sight and prosapagnosia highlight how powerfully preconscious perceptual processes may control our behaviors.

Split-Brains & The Roots of Consciousness:

A sub-cortical location for the essential mechanisms of consciousness can be derived from the many fascinating studies of  “split-brain” individuals where the main communication channels between the two cerebral hemispheres have been eliminated. Although such study data is more often used to argue how human conscious awareness is cortically elaborated, the continuing unity of primary-process consciousness and a primal form of behavioral intentionality following the splitting of the human brain, is also striking.

Despite massive hemispheric disconnection, the deep and essential coherence of each person’s personality and his or her sense of unity appears to remain intact. Most forms of intentionality and deep emotional feelings are not split in any obvious way, by a parting of the hemispheres, only the cognitive interpretations of specific events are affected. The unity of an underlying form of consciousness in split-brain individuals, suggests a deeper and fundamental sense of self, suggesting that our subjectively experienced core of being must lie deeper within the brain than the cerebral hemispheres.

Deeper primordial circuits may elaborate a fundamental sense of self, within the brain, in part by providing a basic body image that controls primitive attentional and intentional focus. Such archaic brain functions provide a fundamental reference point for the development of more sophisticated levels of competence throughout the nervous system.

If, as John Milton suggested, “The child is father to the man,” a primordial sense of self may ultimately be mother to all higher forms of consciousness. This primordial sense of self seems to be shared by all mammals, and seems grounded in various intrinsic circuits that exhibit spontaneous types of oscillatory activity. In sum, following many forms of higher brain damage, an individuals “center of being” or “sense of self” remains intact. 

Is there such a center of being within the brain, or is it a mythical entity? No one knows for sure, yet perhaps a variety of key processes in the ancient circuits of the brain stem are absolutely essential for the creation of consciousness within the brain? We may have thus far, totally ignored one of the ancient foundation processes--a neurosymbolic affective representation of I-ness or “the self” that may be critically linked to a primitive motor representation within the brain stem.

The Nature of a Primal Self:

Is there a primal monitoring function within the brain, one that observes but is not observed by consciousness? Perhaps there is a coherent foundational process, or “self-representation,” that does not observe in the conventional sense but is observed or at least strongly “intermeshed” with various higher perceptual processes.  These interactions may constitute affective consciousness. This foundation process--the primordial self-schema--was first laid out in stable motor coordinates within the brain stem. It not only helps guide higher perceptual processes, by promoting attentional focus and perceptual sensitivity, but also may provide a fundamental stability for the psychological “binding” that is characteristic of our perceptual field. This foundation process is not directly influenced by the highest levels of consciousness, but by conditioned emotional triggers, by meditation, by music, dance, and a variety of rhythmic sensory-motor inputs.

At present our knowledge about this foundational brain process is so rudimentary that we can only generate best guesses as to its nature. However, this SELF seems to first arise during early development from coherently organized motor processes in the midbrain and comes to be widely represented throughout the higher regions of brain and nervous system maturation. From this primitive motor-self, feelings emerge when endogenous sensory and emotional systems which receive inputs from the outside world, as well as the neuro-dynamics of this SELF begin to reverberate with each other’s changing neuronal firing rhythms. 

By directly modifying the intrinsic neuro-dynamics of the primal SELF, emotional circuits establish the foundations of our affective consciousness. These rippling, reverberating neuro-dynamics of the extended representation of primal SELF networks are essential for generating subjective emotional feelings and specific modes of SELF-expression and SELF-regulation.  Modes, as affective states internally experienced regulatory “value-valence” signals around which much behavioral and cognitive activity revolves.

This primitive affective awareness of a primal SELF is an evolutionary prerequisite for the emergence of perceptual-cognitive awareness. Therefore, computational and sensory-perceptual approaches to consciousness must take affective bodily representations into account if their “higher” extrapolations are to prove correct. Descartes religious faith in “I think therefore I am” may succumb to nature’s more primitive affirmation, as part of the genetic makeup of human life: “I feel therefore I am.”   

Primary & Secondary Forms of Consciousness:

To get to the root of primary-process consciousness empirically, we will surely need to distinguish between the varieties of distinct conscious abilities in different species and shared neural foundations across species. Other animals do not have our linguistic consciousness, yet do have complex affective states which emerge from the association cortices that eventually led to the evolution of our linguistic abilities. The emergence of a multimodal association cortex (emotional brain) capable of constructing ideas by intermixing information from various senses, surely proceeded the ability of such tissues to represent those ideas in concrete symbols, such as grunts and eventually words. 

Thus, while mental activity that does emerge from a multimodal association cortex in human brains and can focus on the detailed meaning of word symbols, the same association cortex in other animals must create comparatively simple holistic perceptions and appraisals, if mammalian evolution is hold a meaningful perception. Although new brain imagining technologies are now providing us with a glimmer of the higher cognitive-emotional interactions in human brains, it is premature to equate these images with the primary-process affective substrates of deeper brain regions. Affect-related brain changes observed so far, may simply reflect the secondary, cognitive contents of different states rather than underlying primary-processes. 


Self-consciousness, that ineffable feeling of experiencing oneself as an active agent in the perceived events of the world? Of which, a primitive self-representation consists of an intrinsically reverberating neural network linked to basic body tone and gross axial movement generators, providing a coherent matrix in which a variety of sensory stimuli become hedonically valenced. 

In other words, the primary-process consciousness of the self, is rooted in fairly low-level brain circuits representing the body as an intrinsic and coherent whole. When other incoming stimuli, both internal and external, interact with this “body-schema” and establish new kinds of re-afferent reverberations, the potential for an internal state of “affective-awareness” is created. For such a primitive self-consciousness to have adaptive value, it must be able to control certain basic motor and attentional processes.

Contrary to some traditional religious and philosophical thought (concerning the nature of the soul). Self-consciousness has concrete neuro-anatomical, neuro-chemical, and neuro-physiological characteristics. In such view, emotional feelings, as well as the unique character of various emotional behaviors, arise from the ways in which the basic emotional command circuits modulate neuronal reverberations or resonances within the extended representations of the-Self. Fear circuits may push the “self-body-schema” into an “up-tight” shivery state of tension. Rage circuits may pressure it into an invigorated cycle of forceful actions, and so on.

In complex organisms such as human adults, affective feelings may arise from a build-up of reverberations in the extending Self-schema, which is experienced as a mounting sense of force or pressure to behave in a certain way. With psychological development, organisms may develop a variety of counter-regulatory strategies, ranging from various cognitive-perceptual reorientations to withholding primitive behavioral impulses.

The Self-Referencing “I”

In neuroscience, many claim that there is no coherent neural referent for the pronoun “I”  No ultimate observer for the “Cartesian theater” of our philosophical thought to ponder. Yet what if nature’s theater of “I feel therefore I am,” is the body’s primary-process consciousness of ancient neural processes for the generation of spontaneous physiological reactions, motor-actions which are “observed” within our mind’s conscious Cartesian theater, by a series of more recently evolved “monitors” or sensory-perceptual processors?

The existence of an archaic-Self, especially one that is purely referenced in motor coordinates, can help solve the “ultimate observer” dilemma. If the higher monitors of the “Cartesian theater” are entranced via a central process that itself does not observe, but exists as a primordial neuosymbolic representation at the core of individual existence. This archaic-Self does not have thoughts or clearly defined perceptions, but does help elaborate primitive feelings, and it serves as an anchor that stabilizes or “binds” many other brain processes.

At a practical neurobiological level, the existence of a primitive motor-action homunculus that is the primal representation of the Self allows us to envision ways in which primary-process consciousness can begin to be empirically studied. In its essential state this archaic-self provides the first executive mechanism for behavioral coherence and bodily awareness. In brain-neural representational terms, the-self may be topographically like a body of quite primordial shape. Perhaps an image of a stingray may serve as an appropriate symbolizing-metaphor.

This is the type of primitive but developmentally flexible and intrinsically dynamic substrate of consciousness that we should be seeking deep within the brain stem--not the ultimate observer of the Cartesian theater, but a spontaneous active “stage manager” that helps create a neuro-psychic focus of existence for a multitude of higher observers to that emerge as SELF-processes migrate upwards through higher regions of the brain. Thus, a fully developed consciousness is reflected in hierarchical but recursive sets of neural processors, all still rooted in some primal aspects of SELF ontogenesis. Our neuroanatomical focus should be on the underlying  circuits of an intrinsic, motor-SELF.

A Motor “I”

The idea that a primary template or “seed” of our SELF-Consciousness processes, and hence the roots of a primary-process consciousness, reside deep within medial zones of the brain stem; is uncontroversial in the sense that the reticular formation of the brain stem, with extensions into the thalamus and hypo-thalamus, has long been considered an essential substrate of our conscious, attentional activities.

However, we have chosen to focus almost exclusively on the basic attentional systems of the ascending reticular activating  system, which allow higher brain areas to work efficiently, rather than the deeper layers of the colliculi and underlying circuits of the pariqueductal gray (PAG), as the neuroanatomical focus of an intrinsic motor-SELF. A remarkable amount of neuropsychological and neurobehavioral evidence is consistent with the possibility of a primordial, motor-SELF. 

These deeper layers of the colliculi constitute a basic motor-mapping system of the body, which interacts not only with visual, auditory, vestibular, and somatosensory systems but also with nearby emotional circuits of the PAG. The PAG elaborates a different visceral-type map of the body, along with the basic neural representations of pain, fear, anger, separation-distress, sexual and maternal behavior systems. 

Adjacent to the PAG is the mesencephalic locomotor region, which capable of integrating neural patterns that would have to be an essential substrate of various coherent action tendencies. In evolutionary terms, a level of motor-coherence had to exist, before there would arise a need for its sensory guidance. Neurophysiological evidence indicates that the somatomotor, eye-movement map that borders the PAG is intrinsically a more stable tectal circuit than are overlying sensory maps.

While the superficial layers of the superior colliculi flexibly harvest information about the location of visual stimuli, the underlying motor system generates orienting movements using a remarkably stable set of action coordinates. This stability of the somatomotor system indicates that it has primacy in the evolution of  the psycho behavioral coherence, which this system spontaneously generates. Underlying PAG tissues, which contain representations of all emotional processes, may constitute an even deeper and more primitive visceral-SELF.

Even though the extroceptive contents of consciousness are obviously created by sensory zones, these zones must send massive outputs into motor areas in order for coherent behavior to occur. I suspect this has led many thinkers to mistake sensory awareness for consciousness itself, as opposed to the toolbox of consciousness that sensory awareness really is. In sum, a careful consideration of underlying issues, indicates that primary-process and intentional consciousness is more critically linked to motor than to sensory cortices.

The Roots of Primary-Process Consciousness:

The massive and unparalleled convergence of information onto a simple and ancient body representation makes the centromedial areas of the midbrain an excellent candidate for the basic neural scaffolding for a primitive emotional self-awareness. This may have been achieved by the ability of a self-map to establish a characteristic resting tone within the somatic and visceral musculatures. 

The establishment of such a “tone” throughout the body and brain, along with a variety of reafferent processes, may provide each organism with feelings of “I-ness” Upward influences into higher areas of the brain may have been achieved through the control of certain neural rhythms (delta, theta, alpha, beta, and gamma) which control information processing; such rhythmic systems of neural reverberations may generate intrinsic meaning structures within the organism.

For example; brain hormone detectors that instigate sexual urges may do so by promoting a natural lust-type neuronal rhythmic tone within a primitive motor-”I” Such a rhythm would reverberate throughout the body and at a cultural level, be expressed in actions like the varieties of dance, or simply felt as impulse to movement including emotional up-welling.    

If various emotional and regulatory inputs modulate this primitive motor-”I” in distinct ways (each with a characteristic neurodynamic and neurochemical signature), the internal result may be a large number of subjectively experienced “feeling-states.” Obviously  we can fault such a view of primitive consciousness in its failure to specify an exact manner of emerging subjective experience, yet shortcomings may reflect our human inability to verbally symbolize these intrinsic systems of a primary-process consciousness.

The rhythmic emotional power of music, would illustrates sensory auditory inputs from the inferior colliculi invading the underlying emotional circuits of the PAG. Although it may seem unlikely that PAG tissue is sufficiently high along the neuro-axis to elaborate conscious awareness and intentionality, this doubt may be based more on our human pride in our extensive neo-cortical perceptual skills than on a critical evaluation of the empirical evidence.  

Although high-level cognitive awareness is certainly not a local property of the PAG, such higher functions do emerge from the many brain areas that especially closely linked to the PAG, including the frontal cortex. To the best of our knowledge, this tissue is the most primal source of the anguished pain and suffering that suffuse consciousness during stressful circumstances. It is the PAG that allows creatures to first cry out in distress or pleasure, and it is largely here that psychic pain arouses the unconditional state of fearfulness.    

In sum, I doubt that we can explain the secondary or higher contents of consciousness without first coming to terms with primitive SELF-representations and the ancient attentional networks with which they interact. Although it is unfortunate that these lower brain areas are currently inaccessible to scientific observation, it seems a safe assumption, that without activities that transpire at lower brain levels, the higher cerebral “observers” would not function very efficiently. 

Selected excerpts from, “Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions.” by Jaak Panksepp. (In bracket comments mine).

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