Mental Disorders and the Limbic-cortical Theory of Consciousness

Mental Disorders and the Limbic-cortical Theory of Consciousness

No theory of consciousness can exist independent of the reality of human nature; its rules must go hand in hand with the experience of living a human life, and the way it is designed must logically connect to the products of the human mind.

As that experience of life differs so incredibly widely from individual to individual, encompassing unfathomable diversity, a unified theory of consciousness that incorporates all the elements of the human sphere (including dreams, myths, imagination, art, culture, and religion) is far from easy to create. This is almost certainly why none of the current prevailing theories of consciousness (along with most theories of child development) seem to have fully integrated the full scope of human nature.

<span”>This is in part likely due to how our understanding of the brain and nervous system developed: largely from a pieced-together knowledge of mental health diseases and pathology. This angle of assessment simply does not lend itself to a healthy overall grasp of consciousness, personality, and the experience of living a human life. No discussion of modular centres, genetic unfolding, epigenetic influences, etc., will yield a deep understanding of how the brain actually produces its greatest marvel: consciousness.

Neuroscience is certainly intriguing and at times revealing, but is often applied in a limited and dogmatic way far too rigid to be of use in developing a theory of consciousness. Then, one adds the influence of the pharmaceutical-psychiatric complex, which heavily pushes the concept that neurotransmitters and brain chemistry are the undisputed basis of consciousness and psychiatry, a profitable and therefore highly questionable construct. How scientific this system actually is has recently come under a great deal of scrutiny. A true theory of consciousness must take into account far more than simply neurotransmitters and brain chemistry; it must account for human nature, how it is manifest in the brain and body, how it is developed and organized, and how it evolved. More and more research studies find that many mental disorders listed in DSM5 could be successfully treated  by intentional deactivating of problematic limbic circuits in our brain. To understand this process we need to consider how limbic-cortical mappings develop in our brain.

limbic-cortical mappingThis can be begun by first looking at the limbic-cortical mappings of experience; these maps, incredibly intricate in their detail, reside in the limbic system and are thought to generate the organization of consciousness. We perceive this organization as if it were a play, with a full cast of characters (ourselves and those around us), knowledge of their interactions, scenarios (real and imagined), logical courses of action (plots), along with a landscape and various “sets”. We script these plays based on what we experienced in our formative years, which is why some people predict very negative plots (to the point of engaging in dysfunctional actions to ward off imagined threats, aka mental illness), and some people consistently predict more positive outcomes for the characters in their plays. These plays, therefore, are expressed via one’s character and actions.

The Development of Consciousness

The development of consciousness is thought, by those who adhere to the limbic-cortical mapping theory, to begin quite young. Its earliest genesis occurs in infants once they reach about six weeks of age, at which point the limbic-cortex is mapped just well enough to create a formless feeling of “being”, of a formless self. This mapping of experience begins while the infant is still a fetus, as the limbic cortex grows into being, and continues as the infant relates his or her self to the maternal environment. 

As the infant becomes a toddler and goes through that intensive “sponge” phase—picking up enormous amounts of information from his or her environment—the limbic cortex maps exponentially more experience, creating a defined sense of “self” and “other”. This concept becomes more and more ordered, until it reaches the stage of symbolic form, or representational consciousness—that which is necessary to work with images in the mind, creating the child’s imagination. Thus arises the child’s first true, formed sense of self. 

This sense of self is constantly built upon and refined as the toddler moves through childhood and adolescence via the now-established limbic-cortical brain maps, which rule through fairly automatic top-down processing (which makes use of the entire architecture of the cortex), guiding the child through life. Consciousness is therefore not located in any one region in the cortex, but can be seen as a product of the whole system. Each part of the cortex serves this mission of the whole, rather than existing for its own sake.

This is why abuse during these formative years can script someone’s inner play for the rest of his or her life, infusing it with sado-masochism. The maps are maps of attack, which overstimulates the brain, draining its reserves of serotonin and provoking dysfunctional attempts at coping which, over time, coalesce into mental disorder.

Using the Limbic-cortical Theory of Consciousness to Treat Mental Disorders

Hope for those with mental illness lies in the fact that these learned cortical mappings can actually be changed; problematic circuits may be “deactivated” through a lack of use, and more functional circuits activated in their place (built through new and better experience). 

This is begun through a process of mourning, in which the old circuits are laid to rest as the old play is grieved over; this is the first step to co-opting the top-down nature of old limbic circuits, and instating conscious change. 

This process underlies the premise of much of psychotherapy, and will be overseen by a therapist trained in its administration. The therapist will teach the patient, once mourning has been completed, to write a new play that is grounded in love and responsiveness rather than pain and abuse. This puts a gradual end to negative expectations, predictions, behaviours, and the psychiatric symptoms that accompany them.

Image Credit: flickr.com/photos/h-k-d/3310336516