Robert Berezin M.D.

The Theater of the Brain

On Consciousness

Explaining the brain's beautiful illusion.

Posted Apr 05, 2019

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Consciousness is a brain-generated neurologic illusion. The brain creates representations of reality, self, other people, objects, set designs, and landscape, which correspond quite accurately to reality. It is, however, not reality, but simulations.

Our consciousness also encompasses the entire scope of the human narrative, developing step by step as our experience is mapped into memory from our beginnings as a fetus until death. Through our experience, the brain links together neuronal maps from all its areas. It builds higher and higher levels of cortical order into our memory.

The most fundamental mappings include the amygdala and limbic system. The function of the early fetal amygdala and the limbic system was mapping our survival interactions with our maternal environment. This begins early in utero. This brain circuitry links the body, hormones, subcortical brain, and the cortex—the amygdala for impulses of fear and pleasure; the hippocampus for gluing memories; the cingulate gyrus for attention and autonomic functions, such as heart rate and blood pressure; the hypothalamus for regulating the autonomic nervous system; and the thalamus, the relay station from the subcortex.

The morphogenesis of the limbic system is progressive and ongoing throughout fetal/newborn development. By the time we are born, these limbic circuits have matured and are sufficiently organized for the foundational appetites and rudimentary emotions of fear, anger, alarm, sadness, satisfaction, pleasure, hunger, and thirst. We have mapped our maternal attachment, responsiveness, and provision experience through the limbic system, since early in fetal life. These mappings continue to build higher and higher levels of cortical order.

From the Womb, Consciousness Springs Forth

At approximately six weeks old we experience the birth of consciousness.[1] In the theater of consciousness, limbic cortical order reaches a point in maturation where we have the first coalescence of the persona of self in our brain, which I call the "Authentic Being."

It is no different from any other morphogenic transformations. At one point, the embryo had no heart, and then one day, it did. And it was beating. Likewise, the baby had no Authentic Being. And then one day, it was there—the feeling of the baby. And you can actually feel him.

Here's my understanding. The baby continues to map his experience, in this case, his limbic experience, into memory, all the while building higher and higher levels of cortical order. At approximately six weeks old, the level of order reaches a point of maturity where it coalesces into the beginning of the play of consciousness. This rudimentary play is composed of two personas. One is the feeling of the baby's self—the Authentic Being. The other is the persona of the mother, which I call the "Loving Other." This second representation is on the same level of order as the representation of the self. They relate together with the resonance of feeling.

It is far too early for these personas to have representational form. It will take three more years of experience and maturation for the cortical order to be sufficient to create symbolic form. At that point, we have representational images of self and other. In the early theater, baby and mother related together purely on the basis of formless feeling. I have been paying close attention to these phenomena for the past 50 years.

A reader might say, "Six weeks? That sounds kind of arbitrary. What's so special about six weeks?" Simply put, six weeks is when it happens. The feeling self at that point is an actual presence. Before that, when Mother held her baby in her arms, she did not actually feel anything from him. And then it happens. She feels touched by his presence. This feeling relationship is the litmus test. The baby is present as a feeling being. Mother had been predisposed to love her baby at birth, and she did. But now, with the presence of the feeling of the baby, she falls in love with him. His feeling of tenderness and sweetness touches her, and her Authentic Being and its feeling, touches him. They resonate together in feeling. Before this, the mutual feeling was not possible.

The Dissonance Underlying Our Sense of Self

Each of us has a resonance that our deepest self is not encompassed by our ordinary sense of self. This dissonance generates a built-in and understandable confusion about our nature. Every person feels the presence of their hidden Authentic Being one way or another.

It remains as the core of its cortical limbic mappings. These circuits remain throughout life as the agency that generates the feeling of our being. It is the anchor of our loving.  It is the quiet voice inside of us. It is our innocence.  It is the source of our creativity, our conscience, our free will. It is the fountain of our aliveness. None of this is mystical or magical. It is just the way the Authentic Being is organized in the brain.

When new and higher levels of cortical order build additional levels of cortical order into symbolic form, the earlier forms of established brain-body mappings remain intact and operative, but invisible. The Authentic Being remains formless.

For example, the feeling of the Authentic Being is grounded in physical touch. It comprises the original avenue of holding and love and retains enormous power. The body-brain mappings of physical touch remain present and operative throughout life. Touch generates powerful feelings in people of all ages and is an important component of intimacy and closeness.

This can be emotionally confusing later in life when physical touch without relationship love can easily be confused with loving. And even more important, sexuality, which is inherently connected to physical touch, can also be confused with loving closeness. In the absence of real intimacy, it is not love and can be misleading. Actual love is the feeling resonance between two Authentic Beings.

Waking Life: Where Learning Builds Habits

We need to distinguish consciousness when we are awake and when we are asleep. In the 24-hour cycle, we go through six states of consciousness: five sleep states and the beta state of wakefulness. All six states, which can be measured on an EEG, serve the biological imperatives of the human organism. The two states we will focus on are waking consciousness and REM sleep.

Waking consciousness is where we live our lives. We are oriented by our senses with full-body enervation. Body consciousness and mind consciousness are actually linked expressions of the same thing. Our long childhood is spent via learning and memory to create higher and higher cortical levels of order. We develop body control, and we develop the play in similar ways. Our waking beta waves can be consciously controlled by focused attention. This is essential to both body learning and the construction of the play.

We focus our attention on a learning task, which, once mastered, functions as a habit. The purpose of learning is to create habits. This is what allows us to operate with cortical top-down functioning.

Let's say an infant learns to sit. He requires focused conscious attention to utilize his stomach muscles to hold him up and balance in space. During this time, he has no leftover attention for anything else. Once our muscle memory is neurologically mapped, with enough repetitions through experience, we shift to sitting up by autopilot. We go from almost full attention to minimal conscious attention. Then we are freed up to focus on other things.

This process is universal for all learning. It utilizes a kind of temporary split-screen in consciousness. Consequently, we neurologically learn body control as we mature: rolling over, sitting up, crawling, standing, walking, running. It allows us to just do it unconsciously. Our brain encodes this through practice so that we can repeat the activity with minimal attention, and use it in the service of our living. We create body habits.

I can release a basketball from 30 feet away and make it land in a basket. In fact, my muscles coordinate to shoot the ball through space, and it follows a prescribed arc to the basket, swish. The thrown ball is an extension of my arm, extended through space. Isn't that a miracle? This is body consciousness.

Mind Consciousness: Seeing What We Believe

In mind consciousness, we develop and digest our experience as we write the play of consciousness. The learning process maps repeated experience into memory. This links up neuron maps all over the brain and, most important, through the limbic system. Once the play has been formed, we filter our new experience through the limbic belief habits of our previous experience.

This operates similarly to our learned body habits. The new information we take in is then filtered through our play of consciousness. In general, we think we believe what we see, but in fact, we see what we believe. This is the result of limbic habits, which are in fact belief habits.

We can learn to read and write. We focus our attention on the task at hand (i.e., as we learn), and in doing so generate higher and higher levels of cortical order. This way, you and I can take these black and white symbols on this page and utilize very high levels of symbolic form. I express my thinking or story, and you can receptively receive it. You use your imagination to give form to my story. It is an artful mind meld.

As we develop in childhood by age 3, we have achieved representational images of self, others, and things. We no longer operate on the level of the formless personas. As I said, they are still there and are our essential selves. We now live in the functional illusion of representational form. It is on this basis that we function in the world.

An Artful Illusion

Let me give another example of focused attention. You go to a movie theater, park your car, wait in line, get your popcorn, and find a seat. Then the lights go down, and a movie is projected onto the screen. We utilize our focused attention by creating the split-screen in consciousness. One part of our attention goes to the movie art form, while simultaneously you still partially inhabit your regular consciousness. You are aware that you are in your seat, eating popcorn and hoping there's no gum on your shoe.

Meanwhile, while watching the movie, you cry. These stories are all limbic. We identify with them vicariously.

When the movie is over, you shift back to "real life." Sometimes, you may inhabit the feeling of the movie for hours after the movie ends. In this case, the shift back to regular consciousness is blurred, and you remain partially absorbed in the movie world you have just experienced.

All art forms operate similarly. For example, when you see a painting, you become immersed in a partial, receptive focused world and experience the human story as depicted by the artifice of the artist through symbolic forms on a canvas. This is the same for all art forms: theater, painting, dance, music, poetry.

Focused attention also defines the special processes that can be achieved by hypnosis. In this state, one gives control to the hypnotist. In meditation, the meditator can actually focus internally and control themselves into a learned alpha state.

You vicariously live the adventures on the screen via imagination. Although a movie is art and not real life, the feeling experience of the movie is real. You experience the movie limbically. As a representational illusion, it is "art-ifice." If it's a horror movie, you feel fear; with a comedy, you laugh; with a sad one, you cry.

Sleep: Repairing and Preparing the Mind

In the other third of our adult lives, we sleep. When sleeping, our body-mind rests and repairs itself. The work of sleep is for the brain to digest and clean up our body-mind for us to be at our best to take on a new day. The sleep state that we will focus on is REM sleep. In most sleep states consciousness rests, but REM sleep is that state devoted to digesting the stuff of consciousness itself, the play. One of its most important functions is to process the events of the day as it resonates with conflicts of the past so that we can be ready to take on a new day and be at our best. Otherwise, our consciousness will be overloaded with emotional conflicts and we won't be free to handle new input, life's issues. Consequently, in REM sleep, our bodies are paralyzed and numb, our senses are not taking in new information, unless emergency survival needs to activate the senses and wake us.

We devote ourselves in dreams to deal with what has been stirred up during the day. These conflicts are from the human stories that activate our play of consciousness: relations between people, judgments, our various life adventures, sexual conflicts, domination, submission, effectiveness, caring, abandonment anxieties, sadness, pain, etc. These are all limbic. When effectively resolved, we wake up at ease. If the dream resolution fails, we have anxiety dreams (i.e., nightmares) and wake up agitated.

Stories Designed to Be Forgotten

We have approximately five dreams every night. Each dream relates to the previous dream. They operate as new chapters. Keep in mind that we remember precious few of our dreams. They do their work in the dark. If you awaken during REM sleep or soon after, it is pure happenstance that dreams are remembered. The purpose of dreams is not to remember them in waking consciousness. Yes, they are fascinating and can be illuminating and very helpful in therapy because they deal with limbic issues. If informing waking consciousness about our deeper issues, disguised in a dream code, were the purpose of dreams, this would be a woefully inefficient way to go about it. Nature would never be this wasteful.

A complete state of consciousness has an impermeable frame within which we inhabit what seems to be an alive world. This takes place in regular waking consciousness as well as REM consciousness. In both cases, whatever we experience just seems real. A dream simply feels real. One feels as real in a dream as when awake. The brain-body organization of consciousness creates an alive, real, feeling world within the frame of the dream trance. There is no awareness that there is such a thing as some other state, like wakefulness. Dream consciousness is experienced as simply living life. It is not. It is clearly an illusion, a believed hallucination. Consciousness is an ongoing fountain. It bubbles along all day in wakefulness and at night in the REM sleep state.

It is through our consciousness that we live our lives and experience the world. We don't actually participate in reality directly. Consciousness, of course, corresponds closely with reality. It is a synthetic neurologic illusion created by the brain. We consciously make sense of the world through our invisible play. And finally, it is our Authentic Being that operates underneath our belief habits that is the source of our humanity.