Triune Brain - Roland Fischer



Maryland Psychiatric Research Center and
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences School of Medicine
Johns Hopkins University


The present view of our brain rests on a general belief in an evolutionary expan­sion of the primate forebrain along the lines of three basic patterns characterized as reptilian (the "crocodyle" in us), paleomammalian the "horse in us), and neomammalian (the "human" in us). Thus, brain stem, limbic system, and neocortex, which radically differ in structure and chemistry replaced Father, Son and the holy Ghost (in the concept of trinity) with that of the "triune brain" [1]-Note the 19th century dilemma-Darwin versus the Church-revived, but in a new variation.

Triune Brain

Our sizeable brain structure with its three evolutionary generation gaps--it grew from the 600 cm³ of Australopithecus about 1.7 million years ago to the full human size of 1500 cm³ some 100,000 years ago—is divided on its top into what we call right and left cerebral hemispheres.


In true Cartesian fashion most of us believe now that the left (the major, dominant, Aristotelian, or Apollonian) hemisphere is involved in analytical, digital field-articulating, sequence-perceiving processes such as speech, language, writing, logical reasoning, and related functions, all of which subserve rational decision-making for survival. Note that the Aristotelian hemisphere is replacing Freud's secondary process thinking. The cognitive mode of the right (the minor, non-dominant, or Platonic, Dionysian) hemisphere on the other hand, is analogical, synthesis-oriented, and non-verbal. It is a scanning mode of visuo-spatial gestalts and fields involved in symbolic and metaphoric signification; an intuitive, image-making and musical mode, basically identical with Freud's primary process.

In a more specific way, the following propositions and assumptions are implicit in the above Descartian split: a genetically given structural and functional difference between the right and left cerebral hemispheres allows man to interpret the same stimulus configurations in at least two distinct ways; the two cerebral hemispheres mature at different rates during the development of the normal individual; the functional development of each hemisphere is contingent upon optimal hemisphere-specific stimulation and training during relatively fixed developmental periods; and the scientific and technological Weltanschauung of our time contains a strong bias toward the rational thought processes characteristic of the Aristotelian or left hemisphere.

Our technological, scientific, rational belief system has resulted in an over-­emphasis on the logical-analytical cognitive mode of the left hemisphere, and this in turn has precipitated a rebound effect, characterized by a dramatic over-compensatory swing toward the cognitive mode of the right hemisphere. The present day symptoms of this rebound include a declining interest and participation in organized, pre-structured science and religion and a corresponding upsurge in experiential religious pursuits such as those offered by Eastern meditation, hallucinogenic drug use, and revivalistic, emotional-ecstatic, participatory rites (e.g., Sufi dancing). Other symptoms include increasing interest and involvement in the "esoteric sciences" and more generally all things magic and miraculous, such as astrology, numerology, palmistry, parapsychology, Tarot card and I-Ching readings, witchcraft, alchemy, and astral projection out-of-the-body.

The swing from the left to the right hemisphere is not a new phenomenon. In the past two thousand years the pendulum has swung twice from analog (right-hemispheric) cognitive style to digital (left-hemispheric) style, and back; it is now swinging toward the analog for the third time. Perhaps we have just about passed the halfway point. The great outburst of creative activity that marked the first few decades of the century may be viewed as a result of an inter-hemispheric integration of the digital and the analog zeitgeist. Apparently, artistic and scientific creativity reaches a maximum at a point midway between a digital and a subsequent analog epoch, as it did in the Elizabethan age.

Rattray Taylor believes that under extreme "patrism"—our digital times—spontaneity is too strongly repressed while under extreme "matrism"—our analog times—there may be insufficient discipline to school and direct the creative urge [2]. The most interesting question, however, is the nature of the cut off points: when does a digital age become analog? Or how and where are we to divide the two cognitive modes? According to Kuhn, science has a continuous aspect and also a discrete aspect: the textbooks of science [3]. How then do quantitative changes culminate in the emergence of a new (quality, or) textbook? And, since the science of today is the mythology of tomorrow, do outdated textbooks first become petrified science and then a source-book of symbolism or poetrified science?

Ornstein's The Psychology of Consciousness is a matrist text, while Eccles' The Understanding of the Brain can safely be considered as a patrist volume although both authors constantly attempt to maintain what is called "scientific objectivity." The Schwitzgebels make no pretenses; they speak about the electronic control of mind and behavior and mean it. Their book has a naive, joyful and charming quality. After all, this is an age of western individualists in a mass-age and we happily use individual biofeedback and other mind controlling devices to replace the elitist mass media of the past like castles or cathedrals.

Robert Schwitzgebel quotes Platt to express his own feelings: "To be warm and full and free, these are our first needs, but we also want, like children, to have sweet smells, music, pictures, entertainment, bright lights and powerful servants" (or servomechanisms? RF). "We want to make magic, to run like the wind and to fly like the birds and talk across the miles and be as beauti­ful as poets and know how everything works." The Schwitzgebel's list of practitioners, who bring about the technology of emotional change, starts with anesthesiologists, motion picture producers, psychiatrists and street chemists (both selling drugs), and ends with some musicians, clergymen and entertainers (reminding us of Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land). The goal of the new technology is not the removal of human emotion but rather the development of self-programmable psychic adventures. Man-machine encounter groups may lead to a better understanding of machines (and thus ourselves?). A Cartesian melody is clearly ringing through these lines although the Schwitzgebels are definitely matrists who just use left-hemispheric analytical gadgetry "to be in the picture": "our body is a sensuous tool for making sensuous tools." No wonder that "the Church—having had the benefit of some of the greatest scholastics, but not technicians—survived the Reformation but not the contraceptive."

The book of the Schwitzgebels is a clear right-hemispheric document with technological underpinnings; it is directed toward homo occidentalis Americanus, the spiritual gadgeteer. Gadgets not only improve the quality of life but assist in transcending problems of the human condition. We remember how Wilhelm Reich some years ago attempted to sell his Orgone boxes for the cure of orgasmopenia (lack of orgasm or not enough of it) and now John Lilly, the former dolphin and LSD-researcher is selling, for only $900, plastic sensory isolation tanks enabling the buyer to float in suspended spiritual animation. History is the flashback of presents and re-presentations which never stop passing....

The patrism of Eccles is as left-hemispheric as it can be. "The environment is simply for discovering and using what we have inherited. This is the essence of the age-old nature-nurture problem." (Aren't we also creators of environ­ments? Or does Eccles perhaps deny the circularity of the human condition: consciousness is both creator and created.) Eccles fully accepts Popper's concept of "three worlds" and calls himself a "trialist interactionist." In his classification (figure 6-1 of the book) "there is nothing left out. It takes care of everything that is in existence and in our experience." Indeed, this classification is truly a work of Pop(per) art. It neglects the ex-post-fact(um) that whether we look at chromosomes, cathedrals or even into the mirror, we always look at our own brain. The question how the Universe becomes aware of itself through the evolutionary emergence of matter and energy into magical mythical and mental structures of consciousness is never asked. Sir John Eccles, the distinguished Nobel prize winner and high ranking dignitary in the Papal Academy has given us an authoritative and an authoritarian text as well. It is a tight outline of the neurophysiology of brain function and of Sir John's brain function in particular. His skill and cogency in handling the material are impressive. However, his treatment of the right hemisphere as a nonverbal "computer" lacking any direct liaison with consciousness is intentionally biased and a very personal construct.

Eccles maintains that, in the absence of verbal reports from the minor hemisphere, we must remain agnostic about its being conscious just as we must in the case of dumb animals.

But if speech is a necessary condition of consciousness, then the aphasic who can play the piano—as Ravel did—is playing unconsciously, and the person who has a left hemispherectomy is a walking automaton. If Eccles argument about one half-brain being unconscious is taken seriously, why could it not be reversed? Why not say the "major" hemisphere is unconscious and computer-like, since in fact it is far better at calculation and linear-like analytic functions than the right half-brain? The "minor" hemisphere does have language comprehension and at least a rudimentary verbal conceptual scheme; it is simply unable to utilize these for speech production or writing. The suggestion that it can do all these things unconsciously is not logically defensible, but neither is the suggestion that people can talk unconsciously (as they sometimes do). "Other-hemisphere" skepticism seems to be in the same epistemological boat as skepticism about other minds [4].

Ornstein's book is truly a contemporary document of the West Coast. It contains everything that the counterculture, the readers of Psychology Today and the middle-class American under thirty-five always wanted to know about consciousness, the two sides of the brain, mystical experiences, meditation, the Sufis, the I Ching and all the other goodies lined up on the other side of the generation gap. The material of the book is neatly arranged within a unified world view with the vanishing point of the perspective somewhere between San Francisco and Big Sur (Esalen).

Reading Ornstein after Eccles' book is a relief. But reading Eccles after Ornstein may be a relief, too. Ornstein's book is remarkable in many respects. It fills a need; indeed it is a best seller in the field and for the right-­hemispherically deprived and more or less affluent young American it is a credo. The average young American has not been exposed to an artistic environment and art education. For the professional-to-be, art has traditionally been a feminine, part-time recreational activity. The swing to the right hemisphere caught these young people in a dilemma. Most of them have no direct relations with the fine arts, music, and much of Western literature. They've got an all round left-hemispheric education fitted to the ignominious crew cut which is now happily out of fashion. It is in this artless vacuum that the imported Yogis, Zen and Sufi masters pump their right hemispheric Eastern cognition and, therefore, it is no wonder that Ornstein's readers know more about Tantric art than the rose windows of Charttes Cathedral and are better versed in the I Ching than in the metaphysical poetry of John Donne. Hence, Ornstein had no choice but to walk along the footprints of an East-West rapproachment, throwing the whole Westetn mystical and artistic tradition overboard. As to the other side of the coin: Ornstein's merits are undeniable; he has broken with the behaviorist tradition of American psychology and established a textbook with a humanistic-approach. Unfortunately, many of his admirers and followers believe that humanism is a fashionable, Sufisticated mixture of meditation, Jung, Hesse, mandalas, health food, antiscientism and ecology-watching; it is person-to-person trans-personalized, a sectarian countercultured hodge-podge of disparate things in need of some pot and a melting pot.

I think that each American motel and hotel should present every guest not only with the customary Gideon bible but also with Ornstein's book. When depressed and in need of right-hemispheric consolation the guest could turn on by turning to page 164 (a Sufi contemplation object) or read one of the many edifying Eastern parables.

The concluding remarks of this little essay should be addressed to the problem of continuous brain function versus dichotomized cerebral localization of function.

The crossed representation ("decussation") or perceptual mapping of the world in the brain implies an effective means of orienting an animal with respect to or away from a source of stimulation and also provides him with an effective motor control. The two ways of reality testing, namely approach and withdrawal (or on, and off), are basic to our concepts of pleasure and pain and point toward the operational origin of the two fundamental axioms of two-valued (left-hemispheric) logic, the "law of the excluded contradiction" and the "law of the excluded middle" [5]. Hence, survival value, truth value and logical structure of descriptions are all coupled to movement. Truth, and indeed, the spirit of it, is a moving experience…

Cognitive map-making on the other hand may be more efficiently handled through lateralization. Apparently, the more abstract the cognitive maps are, the more advantageous it is to have them on one side. Note that the posterior speech area of Wernicke, the "speech center," is the asymmetrical enlargement in about 80 per cent of left cerebral hemispheres (not in the 98 per cent that would be expected from the left lateralization of speech). The acquisition of language—an abstract mode of mapping—has as a prerequisite the ability to form cross modal associations. The Wernicke speech area, however, is the latest evolutionary structure and it could be argued that together with the other sequential performance involving—the motor—structures: all non-sequential cognitive activity is displaced (pushed away so to speak) to the right [6].

What we imply is that there is no specific localization for gestalt-type imagery and music, etc. on the right side of the cerebrum but that the non-sequential functions of cognitive map-making are simply pushed away from the left speech-motor areas. It would be, indeed a fallacy to revert (or regress) once again to a mechanistic localization of cognitive skills. Clinical and perceptual evidence in fact suggests that left-handers—up to this point we only spoke about right handed individuals—show a tendency towards bilaterality of hemispheric "specialization." Furthermote, it has been reported that the degree of hemispheric lateralization varies between familial and non-familial left-handed groups.

I have to apologize now for not having reviewed the three books but rather conducted a dialogue with them. They are definitely a landmark. To me, they directly or indirectly herald, assert and welcome this matrist age of Aquarius, with women's lib, and all other libido libs (ad libitum) marching out right from the right side of the cortex in colorful costumes, followed by West Coast freaks, Apollo astronauts and other rugged and drugged individualists, ESP-fans, healers and assorted matrists playing sweet electronic-spiritual music founded on Rock! On their banners Malraux has written an intensely religious text which is also my leitmotiv: "The greatest mystery is not that we should have been thrown up by chance between the profusion of matter and the profusion of the stars, but that, in that prison, we should be able to get out of ourselves images sufficiently powerful to deny our insignificance" [7].


1.  P. McLean, The Brain's Generation Gap; Human Implications, Zygon, 8, pp. 113-127, 1973.
2.  G. Rattray Taylor, Sex in History, Thames and Hudson, London, 1954.
3.  T. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1970.
4.  R. Pucetti, Brain Bisection and Personal Identity, British J. Philos. Sci, 24, pp. 339-355, 1973.
5.  V. H. Foetster, Thoughts and Notes on Cognition, in Cognition: A Multiple View, P. L. Garvin, (ed.), Spartan, New Yotk, 1970.
6.   A. Ommaya, From a personal discussion between Drs. J. Semmes, P. McLean, H. Blum, J. Foy, D. Burnham and R. Fischer, 1974.
7.   A. Malraux, Les Noyers de l'Altenburg, Gallimard, Paris, 1948.


Eccles, J. C., The Understanding of the Brain, McGraw-Hill, New York, 238 pp., illus., 1973.
Ornstein, R. E., The Psychology of Consciousness, W. H. Freeman, San Francisco, 247 pp., illus., 1973.
Schwitzgebel, R. L. and R. K. Schwitzgebel, (eds.), Psychotechnology: Electronic Control of Mind and Behavior, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, London, 341 pp., illus., 1973.