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The Core Discovery of Neuroscience: The Mind Is Modular

Self-understanding requires us to realize that the self is not a unified whole.

Key points

  • Basic neuroscience provides the foundation for an accepting, constructive attitude toward the self.
  • The brain is not a unified entity but an amalgamation of modules with different operating characteristics and agendas.
  • Grasping the modular nature of the brain enables us to understand and accept experiences that would otherwise be confusing and disturbing.

Neuroscience research has produced an enormous amount of knowledge about how the brain works. Hundreds of studies using CAT-scans, PET-scans, and MRI machines have observed the brain in operation, and the knowledge thus acquired provides deep insights into human nature and experience. We live our lives with our brains, and the better we understand them, the more we will be able to build the lives we want.

It is not necessary to plow through the technical details to learn the most important lessons neuroscience has to teach us. The key is a certain kind of attitude toward our psychological lives, an attitude I call the neuroscientific orientation (Shapiro, 2020a; 2020b). This post lays out the essential points of that orientation.

The Fundamental Nature of the Brain (and Self)

Freud proposed it first, and in the century plus since, neuroscience research has provided abundant confirmation: The mind is modular (LeDoux, 2003). This means the brain is not one single, unitary thing—it is not one homogenous entity. Instead, the brain is an amalgamation of a number of different modules or parts.

The modules have different names, anatomical locations, functions, operating characteristics and, to a considerable extent, different agendas. Brain structures are connected by neural pathways, so they communicate and coordinate with each other, but the modules operate with a significant degree of independence.

Neurobiologically, the self is not a unified whole. Neuroscientists say the brain is like a committee—and a fractious one at that, with members frequently arguing with each other about what to do.

When brains in operation are observed, internal disputes are indicated by high rates of firing in the nerve tracts connecting the conflicting modules. This is the physical basis of what Freud called “intrapsychic conflict.”

There is even a module (the anterior cingulate cortex) that functions like a mediator trying to resolve conflicts between the other modules. This is what Freud called “the ego.”

It is only because the mind is modular that it is capable of internal conflict. A committee composed of clones would never have anything to argue about, and a brain composed entirely of the same stuff could not be “psychodynamic”—it could not interact with or come into conflict with itself.

The Neuroscientific Orientation

Understanding the modular nature of the brain can help us make sense of experiences that would otherwise be confusing, experiences such as ambivalence, cognitive dissonance, and indecision (Shapiro, 2020a; 2020b). Modularity explains how different parts of one brain can want different things at the same time. When people make statements like, “Part of me wants x, but another part of me wants y,” that is not merely a metaphor—it might be literally true.

This understanding can reduce our distress about potentially disturbing experiences. When we have feelings or thoughts that seem “stupid,” “crazy,” or that “do not make sense,” this usually means we realize the feelings or thoughts are unrealistic but we cannot get rid of them. There is nothing genuinely paradoxical about this, it happens every day.

What happens is that one module generates thoughts or feelings that, to another module of the same brain, seem stupid, crazy, or nonsensical. Once we understand the nature of the brain, our reaction will be: why not? Different modules are different, and sometimes radically so.

If experiences like this are accurately understood, they will not shake our self-esteem. The person, as a totality, is not stupid, crazy, or nonsensical because, while one module of their brain generated a thought or feeling that might have those characteristics, another module identified the feeling or thought as unrealistic and, therefore, not to be translated into behavior. The person as a whole is fine—just complex.

The neuroscientific orientation can help people who suffer from guilt or shame about emotions, impulses, and fantasies they find morally unacceptable. From this perspective, one module of the person’s brain generated an impulse that would be immoral if translated into action, but another module of the same brain identified that impulse as unacceptable and blocked its expression in behavior. People do not need to blame themselves for the output of the first module if the second one prevented this output from being translated into behavior.

What We Can Control and What We Cannot

Generally, people do not choose their thoughts and feelings, which come to us uninvited. By the time a thought or feeling becomes conscious, it is too late to prevent it. Many thoughts and feelings are generated by brain processes that we neither understand nor control.

Research indicates that trying to control thoughts and feelings is usually unsuccessful and often counterproductive (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 2016). Understanding this reality can free us from guilt and shame about our thoughts, feelings, and impulses, while preserving a sense of responsibility about our behavior, which we generally can control.

No one chooses their brain. And yet the genetically based, neurobiological characteristics of our central nervous systems exert strong influences on our experience and behavior.

But genetically-based biology is just what we start out with—the cards we are dealt. Choices and efforts are the way we play those cards (Shapiro, 2020a; 2020b).

Guilt about thoughts and feelings seems unfair, useless, and counterproductive. Guilt about behavior, on the other hand, may be legitimate. When guilt about actions is utilized effectively, it is part of a system of self-correction that helps us do better the next time.

Although the neuroscientific orientation acknowledges the unchosen nature of important forces that influence human functioning, it does not imply helplessness. Thoughts and feelings affect neurobiology, as well as the other way around. Psychotherapy is one example. A number of studies have examined the brains of clients before and after therapy. This research has consistently found that therapy changes the brain in a way we can see on an x-ray, with adaptive growth in brain structures that perform emotion regulation and problem-solving.

Knowledge about how the brain works provides the basis for an accepting, constructive attitude toward the self. This knowledge helps us stop criticizing ourselves needlessly and supports efforts for guilt-free and shame-free self-improvement.

References

Hayes, S. C., Strohsal, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (2016). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: The Process and Practice of Mindful Change (2nd ed). New York: Guilford.

LeDoux, J. (2003). Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. New York: Guilford.

Shapiro, J. (2020a). Finding Goldilocks: A Guide for Creating Balance in Personal Change, Relationships, and Politics. Amazon.com Services.

Shapiro, J. (2020b). Psychotherapeutic Diagrams: Pathways, Spectrums, Feedback Loops, and the Search for Balance. Amazon.com Services.

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