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Essay: Psychiatry and Human Experience

March 12th, 2015 by Robert DePaolo | Posted in Psychology | No Comments » | 18 views | Print this Article

By Robert DePaolo


This article discusses a modification of Freud’s tripartite theory of mind, in the form of a dualistic model in which only two essential tasks face the psyche; the search and accommodation of periodic conflict/uncertainty and the periodic resolution of uncertainty or conflict reduction. This model is described in the context of human evolution.

Freudian Functionalism..

Sigmund Freud’s structural model of mind (its topography as opposed to psychoanalysis per se) continues to exert an influence on clinical practice, (Dvorsky, 2013). While the clinical zeitgeist has shifted in recent times toward cognitive and behavioral methodologies, it seems the basic analytic premise of three aspects of mind either competing or meshing to produce both mental health and mental breakdown seems still relevant. Like a sturdy, massive tree trunk giving rise to various branch networks, the notion of a reality-modulating ego, a conscience-driven superego and an energy-fomenting, primal id is arguably so entrenched in even modern concepts of personality as to constitute a virtual tautology.

To an extent the triadic model of mind has been supported by neurological studies, (Miller & Katz 1989), some of which typically describe the human brain as part primal (the id function residing in the limbic system), part social-perceptual (the ego function residing in the cortical regions) and part ethical moral and self-conscious (the superego function residing in the pre- frontal lobes).

Despite the apparent soundness of this model, there is another way to look at the personality, which is consistent with both every day (and perhaps even unconscious) experience and also the neural functions on the human brain. It is a much simpler model consisting of only two components and it derives from the brain’s evolutionary development.

Advent of a noise-busting machine…

In the course of evolution, (evidently around 200,000 years ago) it appears the human brain rapidly added substantial neural mass (Fu, Giavalisco et. al (2011). it is possible, given the evidence of our remote ancestor’s cultural evolution that there was not a strict correlation between brain mass and cultural advancement – certainly not on the same progressive timetables seen today. In effect it seems the size of the human brain initially rolled over the domain of functional necessity.

Even today, it is arguable that our brains are too massive. This is more than a philosophical point. It is well known that after childbirth, the brain sheds significant amounts of tissue at various stages of development; a process typically referred to as pruning. Interestingly, the reduction in brain cells actually leads to more sophisticated cognitive abilities. The reasons why are two-fold. First, in child development neural circuits develop vastly increased interconnections. Vertical neural hookups (established in early development) come first, followed later by cross-grid connections. The latter correlate with language development so that categorical thought sets the stage for integrative thinking. That enables the brain to think economically and holistically. With the onset of what Piaget called operational cognition, a child no longer has to store separate memories in pathways, devoted for example to “apple”, “orange” and “banana.” He can now retrieve the memories of each by referencing the concept of “fruit.” Such linguistic bridge building is typically followed by pruning, both because having multiple access to memories precludes the need for sheer neural volume and because retaining such volume would create noise interference with regard to memory retrieval.


The above discussion is not intended to imply that as it passes through the several post- pruning stages the brain is absolved of noise interference. To the contrary, since the brain remains extremely large relative to body size there is still too much volume to process experience in simple terms. Add to that Lashley’s principle of mass action (Rutherford, Francher (2012) and it becomes clear that with each experience so much brain activation occurs that a super-sifting mechanism becomes necessary to find our thoughts and summon our best behavior. That somewhat deliberate, sifting cognitive style is what makes humans so…er… deliberative. We can (indeed must) pause, delay, contemplate, appraise and engage in many of the secondary thought-appraisal mechanisms described by Lazarus (1984) as a direct function of brain volume and interconnectivity.

That means human experience is characterized by fairly constant noise. Our percepts are not as clear and concrete as smaller brained creatures. In fact it is possible that what we call instinct (and often demean as beneath the parameters of human experience) is actually the neural norm; in the case of humans, not absent but rather eclipsed and camouflaged by competing, interfering inputs that rework instincts into more complex, multiply influenced cognitions and behaviors. In that instance it is conceivable- though highly speculative to think of learning as being merely the modification and enhancement of instinct. If that rings true then it is possible to think of the psyche as, not a triadic mechanism but as a dual process caught inexorably on a continuum between noise and resolution.

The evolution of the psyche…

The evolution of all organic systems carries with it an adaptive mandate. While many anatomical mutations are probably inconsequential with regard to survival, such changes are tested in one way or another by nature. In the case of the human brain that was most certainly true. After all, the brain regulates cognition, emotion, vegetative functions and movements, all of which must be adroitly orchestrated for us to function efficiently. When brain mass reaches a certain point and noise interference creates a bottleneck on experience the human psyche must adapt to that. In some instances this occurs by cancellation, in others by compensation, in still others by using it to our advantage.

One way to accommodate a massive brain that modifies, blurs and embellished experience, while at the same time being able to perceive and react to the outside world with enough efficiency to survive is to develop a bi-modal mind; one part of which accommodates systemic noise by seeking out conflict, inconsistency, negativity and other irresolute aspects of the inner and outer environments, the other by resolving those uncertainties.

For this type of mind to operate would require equal capacity and proneness to seek questions and answers alternately via on ongoing, nearly constant flow of experience. To do otherwise would render us dysfunctional. For example if the human brain was wired/skewed toward seeking resolution, noise would lead to an overwhelming state of unresolved arousal – perhaps leading to what Pavlov called protective inhibition. It would be forced to shut down. By the same token, a brain attracted to noise or uncertainty would become mired in confusion, and unable to select efficient behaviors and thoughts. Thus the sheer size of the human brain might in a sense render it too vast for common experience,. Because it would be internally as well as externally driven it would have to adapt to itself and the outside environment in an inverse Darwinian scenario. It would have to adopt an “on the balls of its feet” basal status so that an obligatory search for noise could insulate it homeostatically against potential novelty-induced overload while the alternate search for noise/conflict reduction could provide temporary relief when uncertainty presented itself.

In that context, in order for the psyche to function optimally it would have to be dually oriented toward a sequential conflict-induction, conflict-reduction process. The net psychological effect would be for the human mind to sense states of discomfort both when there is a dearth of uncertainty (a mental state of entropy) and also when conflict/ uncertainty reaches a high threshold. Like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in physics, whereby the motion and location of particles, and the shifting wave/particle duality seem both separate and integrated, the mind could be viewed as caught somewhere between resolution and noise, with no capacity for a permanent emotional state.

The Libido…

One interesting aspect of Freud’s triadic model of mind is that it entails an energy source. Since all bio-information systems require that, so must this bimodal model of mind. The question to ask is, where does the energy source come from? Freud viewed the energy source as emanating from the primal id. Yet, taken to its logical endpoint, that argument raises questions. For example why should it be that a primal aspect of mind “allots” energy to the rational components of mind? Does not the process of ego-fostered rational cognition require acetylcholine and norepinephrine to conduct impulses? Isn’t all brain-psychic activity dependent on sodium/potassium differentials across the neuron membranes? To say the primal component of the psyche is the source of energy, would seem to skew the process of mentalism in a way that does not coincide with basic brain physiology.

On the other hand the dual model of mind can address that question in a bio-consonant way. If the source of energy is arousal – as it must be, and if it can be shown that arousal is some function of neural noise, i.e. a state of uncertainty, then the source of the libido will have been ostensibly found.

Studies on the correlation between perceptual and cognitive conflict and brain arousal are fairly well documented (Berlyne 1960) (Jepma, Verdonschot et. al 201 ), so the argument is at least plausible. Beyond that the dual model is more consistent with the nature of energy in metabolic terms. For example it is known that the human body operates by an alternating sequence of anabolic (energy build-up) and catabolic (energy usage or break down) mechanisms. Since mind and body are both physical systems the dual model mind would seem to be more in line with the body’s metabolism.

The Ego…

With regard to the above contentions, what are we to say about the ego – the structure responsible for the advent and propagation of human culture itself?

One way to incorporate an ego function into duality theory is to view it not as a referee in a bout between impulse and conscience but as an arbiter doling out (and advocating for) just the right proportion between uncertainty and closure. In that context its main task – leading to mental health and overall social/intrapersonal adaptation – would be to ensure that the person is neither too assured or confused, neither too certain nor uncertain. A healthy, functioning ego would foment energy in the psyche by first looking out at the real world. In hyper-certain, experientially stagnant times it would seek out some degree of conflict. Conversely, in hypo-certain times it would shift gears and seek resolutions. Its version of consciousness, i.e. a higher order meta-cognitive state, would entail awareness of the fact that both conflict and resolution are interdependent. As information theory so convincingly attests, there can be no information without a prior state of uncertainty.

By that line of reasoning the logical endpoint of a mentally healthy life – to the extent that it can be defined beyond subjectivity, would be one typified by a sense of constant growth and a dual search for never-ending arrangements of challenges, conflicts and subsequent resolutions. Existentially this would take the form of trying new things, taking resolvable risks, never presuming there is chronic happiness or permanent closure, instead acknowledging that all emotional states are temporary points on a continuum; as conjured up by the brain via its natural proclivities.


In order replace the triadic model with a dual model something else would require subjecting it to certain tests; one of which could be whether it agrees with other, well accepted clinical ideas?
The idea of manageable conflict does coincide with Seligman’s dual notions of learned helplessness and hopefulness (1972). Indeed his idea that behavioral inoculation, i.e. exposing persons to challenges they can regularly overcome can build a resilient personality runs along the same lines. Jung’s dual concepts of growth and stagnation are also similar in nature, as is Erikson’s theory of personality with its bimodal, conflicting stages of development (1959). Even the concrete ideas conveyed in Skinnerian behaviorism leads to similar conclusions. For example, Skinner demonstrated that the variable schedules of reinforcement (particularly the variable ratio schedule) tend to provide the most enduring response patterns. While his findings were outlined in mathematical terms, the organisms he conditioned were subject to periods of uncertainty, which apparently enhanced their sense of hopefulness, their response energies and their persistence during these experiments.

Clinical Implications…

Another test of the bi-modal psyche has to do with clinical application. For example, how would a clinician use this model in diagnosis and treatment? Like the Freudian model, which gave rise to ego-therapy, rational and cognitive-behavior therapies, this model could be used in a variety of ways. All, like the C-B and rational models would probably require some degree of philosophy in the curative mix. Ideas about seeking out new ventures, inducing moderate conflict (what Selye referred to as eustress (1983), about avoiding stagnation, developing conflict resolution skills, would be grist for the therapeutic mill. Meanwhile realizing that happiness is episodic, rather than a psychological resting place, would magnify its importance. The clinical philosophy would propose that noise will recur, and that to avert depression, compulsivity and anxiety would require a preventive life style, whereby the client not only addresses immediate stressors but is coached to pursue a life style of reasonable risk, conflict tolerance and a sense that experiences like growth, achievement, success are momentary lulls on continuum that must and will shift back, simply because nature designed us in that way.


Dvorsky, G. (2013) Why Freud Still Matters, When he was Wrong About Almost Everything. Article of Daily Explainer 8/7/13

Erikson, E. H. (1959) Identity and the Life Cycle. New York. International Universities Press

Freud, S. (1933) New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Penguin Press – Freudian Library

Fu, X. Giavalisco. P. Liu. X. Catchpole, G. Fu< N. Ning, ZB, Guo, S, Yan, Z. Somel, M. Paabo, S. Zeng, R. Wilmitzer, L. Khaitovich, P. (2011) Rapid Metabolic Evolution in Human Prefrontal Cortex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, April 2011: 108, (15) 6181-6186

Jepma, M. Verdonschot, R.G. Fu, X. van Steenbergen, H. Rombouts, S.A. & Nieuwenhuis, S. (2012) Neural Mechanisms Underlying The Induction and Relief of Perceptual Curiosity. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. 6:5

Lazarus, R. & Folkman, S. (1984) Stress, Appraisal and Coping. New York, Springer Publishing Co.

Miller, N. Katz. J. (1989) The Neurological Legacy of Psychoanalysis; Freud as a Neurologist. Comprehensive Psychiatry. Vol. 30 (2) 128-134

Rutherford, R. & Francher, A. (2012) Pioneers of Psychology: A History 4th Edition. New York W.W. Norton

Seligman, M.E.P. (1972) Learned Helplessness. Annual Review of Medicine. 623 (1) 407-412

Selye, H. (1983) The Stress Concept: Past, Present and Future. In Cooper C.L. Stress Research for the Eighties. New York, NY John Wiley & Sons pp. 1-20

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November 25th, 2014 by Robert DePaolo | Posted in Psychology | No Comments » | 77 views | Print this Article

By Robert DePaolo


Methods for treating school phobia typically involve systematic desensitization and/or cognitive therapy. The former purports to undo (i.e. counter-condition) the association between anxiety reactions and the stimuli and/or circumstances that provoke them. The latter purports to change the structure of schemata and override anxiety by changing the quasi-logic responsible for provoking and sustaining the phobia. While both methods can be effective, the following treatment suggestions, which incorporate CBT, SD and assertive therapy approaches, adds another factor to the therapeutic mix – the element of self-talk regulation.

The types of social-emotional disorders seen in and outside of school settings seem related increasingly to students’ incapacity for self-regulation (Gross 1998), (Mennin 2004). This skill – referred to variously as metacognition, self-control, conscience and executive functioning is quintessentially important in almost all aspects of the school experience. Once anchored down, students can more easily attend, memorize, modulate emotions and profit from peer interactions. Conversely, with deficiencies in this area a wide variety of negative outcomes tend to crop up.

Dealing with the problem in schools would be easier if one could define in concise terms what self-regulation really means. In psychological terms this is a somewhat Byzantine endeavor – witness the various characterizations mentioned above. In neuro-psychological terms it is a bit easier to do. It is known that the frontal lobes of the brain – which unfortunately for schools and society in general do not fully mature until around age 25 – provide the self-regulatory function. But how is this accomplished?

The frontal lobes are curious structures because they are not devoted to any sensory or motor function. In fact they are a fairly new evolutionary byproduct of brain expansion branching off the parietal lobe which gives us language, fine motor control (including orchestration of mouth, tongue, fingers and hands which are coincidentally responsible for the advent and expansion of human culture). As the parietal lobe moves forward into the frontal area it is met by vast inhibitory circuits that parse and refine its pathways (Sakagami, Pan et. al 2006). The end result is that speech and motor functions become whittled down to fractional versions of language and speech. That process enables us not only to talk implicitly to ourselves but to listen covertly to ourselves, because even covert auditory attention in governed by the prefrontal cortex (Benedict, Shucard et al (2002). It also enables us to manipulate the environment covertly and in effect rehearse, reflect and predict events and outcomes. It is interesting that despite having no specific function – as seen in the classic Phineas Gage head injury episode (MacMillan (2000), the frontal lobes have more connections to other brain sites than any other (Lacruz, Gracia-Seone et al 2007). Thus they are both general and highly influential –the perfect format for an oversight circuit capable of converting external into internal experience.

Some students are less developed in these functions. While they might have normal speech and fine motor proficiency, they are less adept (developed) in the area of fractionated motor and speech functions. In simpler terms they do not, cannot talk and listen to themselves covertly in working their way through task work, social situations and as a means by which to modulate emotional reactions. In effect they have limited internal access.

This is especially important with regard to emotional dynamics, because many types of phobia seem to be related to skill deficits in the self-regulation domain (Rapee & Heimberg 1997). For that reason it would seem a therapeutic/behavior management model that incorporates self-talk, self-regulation into a treatment approach might be effective. The following suggestions incorporate anxiety-reducing tactics such as relaxation training and assertive training as well as self-regulation. The model is not based on research, rather is proposed as a speculative model (subject to the creative revisions by school counselors and psychologists) that just might prove effective in dealing with school phobia.


Anxiety can be defined as an unmanageable arousal level of global, uncontrollable proportions. The main problems with it are uncertainty (not having a behavior by which to control it) and over-generalization (not being able to compartmentalize arousal so as to parse and minimize its impact).

The method here includes three components: Relaxation/Desensitization,
Assertiveness and Self-talk regulation.

Strategies; Anxiety in specific or general situations or can be controlled behaviorally by reversing the factors mentioned above, for example by…
1. Whittling arousal down to narrower influence through self-talk and self-control labeling skills to categorize, parse and ameliorate its effect.
2. Employing relaxation exercises to reduce arousal prior to engaging the anxiety-laden situation
3. Expression of assertive behaviors to enable a semi-aggressive response to drown out the inhibitory effects associated with anxiety in those circumstances.


The first step involves discussion of student’s commitment and motivation.

The second step involves identification of anxiety-provoking circumstances and completion of a rating scale (perhaps 1-10, from least to most fearful )

The third step involves learning and practicing relaxation exercises, self-talk strategies and assertive behaviors (scripts to use) that are comfortable to the student and which will be used in real situations. This is done in counseling office for several sessions.

The fourth step involves use of imagination in anxiety-laden situations in states of relaxation and while engaging in an assertive behavior (in office)

The fifth step involves the student will be asked to
a. Use a brief relaxation exercise before in entering the anxiety-provoking situation.
b. Use two self-talk scripts while in the situation…
The first involved first acknowledging the anxiety (“Oh boy, this is hard”… etc etc

The second involves compartmentalizing/parsing using the self-talk response (“It’s just a damn classroom; it won’t kill me”

The third involves expression of the assertive response in the anxiety-provoking situation – possibly a firm greeting to another student or a witty remark to override inhibition/anxiety.

These steps would be carried out gradually, the actual gradation will depend on the person’s learning curve


An ongoing fear rating scale could be filled out weekly at first to see if anxiety has diminished and to what extent – the feedback will help the student recognize his mastery over the fears as well as provide an assessment of progress.


Benedict, R. Shucard, D.W., Santa Maria, M.P. Shucard, J. Abara, J.P. Coad,
M., Wack, D. Sawusch, J. Lockwood, A. (2002) Covert Auditory Attention Generates Activation in the Anterior Rostral.Dorsal Cingulate Cortex. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience Vol 14, (4) 637-645

Gross, .J.J. (1998) The Emerging Field of Emotional Regulation: An Integrative Review. Review of Generall Psychology. 2; 217-299

Lacruz, ME, Garcia-Seoane, J.J. Valentin, A. Selway, R. Alarcon, G. (2007) Frontal and Temporal Functional Connections of the Living Brain. European Journal of Neuroscience. Sept. 28 (5) 1357-70

MacMillan, M. (2000) An Odd Kind of Fame; Stories of Phineas Gage. MIT Press pp. 116-119

Mennin, D.S. (2004) Emotional Regulation Treatment for Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy: 11, 17-29

Rappe, R.M. Heimberg, R.G. (1997) A Cognitive-Behavioral Model of Anxiety in Social Phobias. Behavioral Research and Therapy. 35, 741-756

Sakagami, M, Pan, X, Utll, B. (2006) Behavioral Inhibition and Prefrontal Cortex in Decision Making; Neurobiology of Decision Making. Journal of Neural Networks. Vol 19 (8) 1255-1265

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Essay: On The Nature of Intelligence

November 6th, 2014 by Robert DePaolo | Posted in Psychology | No Comments » | 49 views | Print this Article

By Robert DePaolo

This article discusses the neuropsychological and operational factors that go into defining the nature of intelligence with reference to academic performance, intelligence tests and social-emotional functioning.

Classical Definitions…

A number of definitions have been employed to describe the nature of intelligence. Binet felt the essential component was judgment, that other faculties were less relevant (Bergin & Cizek 2001). Wechsler defined it as a global capacity to act purposefully, to think rationally and to adapt to his environment (1958). Cyril Burt offered a rather concise definition, to wit: Innate general cognitive ability (Jensen, 1972).

More recent definitions have come from the field of neuroscience but with not much more specificity. For example in using MRI studies, Haier (2007) found a modest correlation between glucose metabolism in the brain and scores on IQ tests. McDaniel found a correlation of .40 between brain size and IQ test scores and Rushton’s research yielded similar results (2009). The problem with studies like these is that they view IQ as an independent variable and provide no insight into the nature of Intelligence.

While meaningful, these studies and descriptions are also broad and tautological, which is perhaps why one of the fail safe definitions familiar to most psychology graduate students is that intelligence is best defined as what is measured on intelligence tests.

It is probably a good idea to pivot off that sarcastic characterization in broaching this issue because so many skills, faculties, behaviors and feelings have been encompassed in the word intelligence that it is conceivable there is no such single entity; that perhaps intelligence is merely another anthropocentric manifestation of the human need to label experience.

Yet the question is important, and for several reasons. First we use intelligence as measurement for so many social, educational and vocational purposes that to dismiss it as too vague leaves out a lot of life and experience. Also, there are clinical aspects to intelligence that are important to consider; for example as a means of determining baseline levels, pre and post morbid capacities in the aftermath of organic brain damage or psychosis.

Beyond that are deeper implications, especially in light of what Darwin called sexual selection. This is a process whereby females select males based on species-specific traits deemed favorable to survival. It is no secret that human females place high value intelligence in males, whose cognitive assets would not only make them desirable mates but also make them better providers, parents, etc. In that sense intelligence would have to be socially, sexually, economically, culturally and experientially important. But then what is it?

Instruments and Rationales…

The Wechsler intelligence instruments are probably the most widely used in clinical, school and vocational settings. It is not just due to their pristine standardization formats, their performance-predictive value or their statistical correlation with other tests. The construct of these instruments is also an important reason for their popularity. With verbal comprehension, perceptual reasoning, processing speed and working memory sections, these tests would seem to tap into a variety of brain sites and functions, as well as into the mind’s capacity to integrate those functions as a measure of inter-cephalic accessibility.

In an indirect way, the Wechsler tests ask questions such as; can the visual processing occiput of the brain perceive details and utilize figure-ground perceptual skills to identify visual components based on associative relevance? Moreover, can the occiput interact with the parietal strip in the processing speed section of the Wechsler instrument so that the eyes, hands and visual memory can co-function toward a singular goal? These tests also ask whether rote memory can be separated from operational memory, where numbers and letters have to be re-organized in mind as well as be repeated from a simple, sequential recitation of digits.

While the Wechsler instruments contain four functional categories, they arguably entail neurological functions beyond the rubric of verbal comprehension, perceptual reasoning, processing speed or working memory. In fact there are neural underpinnings to each of these functions which can enable one to dig deeper into the nature of intelligence.

Complexity begets simplicity…

We can begin discussion of brain-and-intelligence by referring to information dynamics because beyond all else the brain is an information-processing system. Information has specific parameters; one of which is that it can only exist as material extracted from a prior state of uncertainty. That means intelligence must be some function of a capacity to sift through neuronal networks efficiently enough to find information pertinent to the task at hand – be it academic, social, emotional, mechanical, auditory, visual, proprioceptive, motoric or combinations of those. Thus one component of intelligence is a streamlining neural search capacity enabling the person to extract information from noise. For the sake of convenience we can call that the sifting function.

But there is more to it than that. The neurology of the noise-laden human brain, with its 86 billion neurons, places limits on searching and sifting. Each foray into neural information extraction is accompanied by an enhancement of neural activation (Lashley 1950) (Kak, 1996). Therefore one must not only be able to search and sift but do so before arousal levels reach an aversive threshold. In that context we can posit that another component of intelligence is arousal tolerance. It is perhaps akin to what Eysenck referred to as tough mindedness.

But even that won’t suffice. No one is capable of tolerating brain arousal for an extended period of time and in that sense two other factors come into play. One is rapidity – the capacity to “beat the arousal clock” so that information extraction can occur before an aversive state is reached. We can call that the rapid processing factor.

With that we come to the next requisite component. With so many neurons and inter-axial, dendritic connections one can only process so rapidly. It isn’t just speed of processing that does the trick but a capacity to streamline the search, that is, to narrow it down so that extraction is made more convenient. That is done in several ways. One of which is by having what Piaget called effective schemata. These are expectations of what an answer or response should look like, i.e. an a priori mechanism for judging relevance so pathways can proceed from global to narrow (task-specific) activation.

Streamlining can occur in several ways. One is through neural synchrony; which is a rhythmic coordination between excitatory and inhibitory neuronal activity in the brain that can override randomness by a well-coordinated, regulatory tempo. That in turn requires that brain waves be relatively free of spike activity, with smooth check and balance interaction among brain sites to create the optimal learning wave activity – which is in most instances is high frequency, low amplitude activity typified by beta waves.

Most learners are not aware of being able to summon beta wave activity at will, and with certain cognitive assets do not have to be, particularly if they can streamline the search through use of a cataloguing mechanism. This component is analogous to the card catalogue system in a library which preclude our having to search for books at random. it is called categorical language.

Mass Encoding in the Brain…

Once upon a time language was presumed to reside in frontal-parietal sections of the human brain, in areas known as the Broca and Wernicke lobes. More recent research has shown that human language deriving circuits are actually spread widely throughout the brain (Binder, Frost et. al 1997). Such linguistic dispersion is a tip-off to its most essential function.

While language certainly enhances social communication, cultural advancement and any number of other aspects of life, its main purpose might be to guide and streamline the inter-cerebral search for information so as to prevent hyper arousal, categorize memory and place a secondary code on experience so that memory can itself be spread around the brain (Luria 1973) (Windolz 1990).

If language is a beacon of light cutting through the fog of neuronal complexity, then one obvious criteria in defining intelligence would be a linguistic categorical capacity. Note that this is different from language per se, i.e. its idioms, inferences, tonality etc. It is a labeling mechanism. For example, saying my cat is cute and cuddly is an example of language but it is not necessarily categorical. Lots of things are cute and cuddly. On the other hand saying, my cat is a mammal and member of the genus Felidae with a flexible backbone enabling it to leap from heights without hurting itself is highly categorical.

In that context, one could ask why categorical language is so important in the retrieval/arousal modulating process. One reason is that every label provides two bits of information that corresponds to the excitatory/inhibitory process. A label tells us what something is, and by extrapolation what it is not. In other words labeling a cat in a specific way, excludes it from being some other creature. In that sense every categorical language bit enhances the efficiency of the brain’s rhythm via orchestration of excitation and inhibition. The fact that language phenomena are dispersed throughout the brain speeds up the information retrieval process.

Internal Speech…

When one discusses language the usual reference is to overt language, that is, the spoken word in all its manifestations. Yet as Luria pointed out language development is more complex than that (1973). Speech is like reading, it begins with overt expression then in the course of development gets whittled down into fractionated, silent language via the inhibitory incorporation of language pathways in the prefrontal lobes. Through that developmental process we become capable of talking to ourselves in sub-audible ways.

The notion of self-talk regulation is as old as history itself. It was discussed by the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius and in modern times has been incorporated into the various rational and cognitive-behavior therapy formats.

Internal speech is a bugaboo in the field of education, with regard to assessing not only intelligence but also academic performance and emotional behavior patterns. Modern educators refer to a similar process as metacognition, and insist it is a necessary skill in thinking, writing, reading and performing in general. Clinicians in the field of psychology view it as essential in the development of self-control and conscience. Yet it is basically immeasurable. There are no tests that issue standard scores on internal speech capacities, therefore no way to gauge anyone’s capacity to guide themselves through intellectual tasks or emotional turmoil. There are a few tests and tools to assess metacognition, for example the Multiple Intelligences Test and Index of Learning Styles Questionnaire, but these instruments address overt behavior and language – as all tests must, and, except by inference cannot get inside the brain to evaluate moment to moment internal commentary. That critical component of intelligence is unfortunately hidden within the recesses of mind. Yet it is part of what makes up intelligence and is therefore included in this analysis.
Thus far, the criteria for defining collectively the nature of intelligence have been described as…

Noise-breaking (efficient uncertainty reduction) in the brain, i.e. the sifting function

Arousal tolerance during retrieval

Speed of information processing in ameliorating duration and level of arousal

Neuronal rhythmic efficiency as a means by which to speed up response time via excitation/inhibition co-activity within brain pathways.

Categorical language as a pan-cephalic mechanism serving to narrow down information search and retrieval.

Internalization of categorical language to enhance cognition, motivation and streamline task focus.

Faculties and Integration…

The above factors provide a rough outline of how intellectual ability is defined and executed. They do not address the specific systems of the brain and how they interact. It is of important to factor in those elements but customary descriptions of how these faculties parlay into a concept of intelligence are in some instances vague and problematic.

Obviously for intelligence to be manifest requires adequate capacity for sensation. For the sake of convenience specific sensory functions will be put aside, in favor of a discussion of how sensory, motor and other faculties operate integratively.

Whether in terms of specific test procedures like the Wechsler, or in every day examples of intelligence, most if not all cognitive behavior involves a meshing of sensory systems. Reading a newspaper involves the visual centers of the occiput, language processing circuits within the brain, and perhaps, depending on the nature of the article, even the emotion-registering centers within the limbic brain. Thus a facile interaction among these brain sites would seem to be prerequisite to any use of functional intelligence.

The question arises as to how integration is facilitated, and more specifically, how brain function would affect the expression of intelligence. In some sense the answer is quite simple and can be formulated in two ways. First, since these various sensory locales provide separate functions, and in many instances feature different neuronal structures, integrating them would appear to be a difficult task. Disparate pathways would have to be traversed in order to conceptualize experience. Certainly language provides a bridge across sensory systems. For example the phrase… the local football team, the ol’ red and blue is red hot after running over opponents in their first five games… is a sentence with tactile, visual and motor components brought together by language codes. But beyond language synthesis, other factors must come into play. Neural connectivity must be efficient and flexible enough to not only build bridges but do so quickly enough to prevent aversive states of arousal from overriding the need to know.

One way for that to occur is to have parts of the brain that are not in themselves concerned with specific functions, therefore neuronally malleable. These non-specific circuits would be able to scan the brain, adapt to inputs and in effect serve as regulatory, monitoring mechanisms in the integration of experience.

Anatomically there are such structures. One lies in the prefrontal lobe of the cortex. The other lies in the cerebellum, which is situated in the back of the brain. The fact that these two circuits have the greatest number of connective neural branches with other parts of the brain suggests they are oversight circuits.

Indeed the prefrontal cortex and cerebellum have been described as regulatory computers in the brain because of this structural and functional oversight capacity (Miller, Cummings 2007 ),(Herculano- Houzel, 2010), Timman (2007). Each operates in a different manner, however and that has implications for how they affect the expression of intelligence. The prefrontal lobe is an extension of the fronto-parietal lobes which have language functions. As one travels across the brain from the parietal to the prefrontal lobe there is a shift from overt language functions to more covert, self- directed language functions. In effect the prefrontal lobe enables the person to talk to himself – which provides self-regulation, subcomponents of which include moral regulation, social empathy and the aforementioned metacognition.

Meanwhile, the cerebellum provides a broad balancing function, so that other systems can operate automatically. It not only allows the person to take movement for granted – for example being able to, in the famous phrase…walk and chew gum at the same time. It also does the same for cognitive functions. For instance it enables one to concentrate through background noise, maintain fine motor stability so that a student can both anchor his left arm down on a desk and write a composition for English literature class with his right. Due to the provision of pan-stability the cerebellum facilitates sensory integration as well. Thus while the frontal lobes provide categorical and self-directive motives and information search streamlining, the cerebellum eliminates extraneous inputs and puts peripheral functions on hold by rendering them automatic and therefore less intrusive with respect to the conscious execution of specific tasks.

Ordinarily these two functions are referred to as executive functioning and automaticity. Since integration is so central to intellectual functioning and since they facilitate that process, those two components would seem to warrant inclusion into a conceptual definition of intelligence.

The Testing Zeitgeist…

At present many of these functions are measured by separate tests; for example the BRIEF instrument is used to gauge executive functional capacities. Various occupational therapy tests are used to measure motor balance. The WISC-IV integrative instrument assesses integration of various skills indigenous to the Wechsler procotol. One has to wonder if at some point a test of intelligence (as defined here, however speculatively) might be developed to encompass all the skills discussed above. Such an instrument would enable clinicians and educators to have, at long last, an instrument by which to co-evaluate intelligence and brain function. Doing so might involve amalgamation of current test formats, for example the BRIEF, Wechsler, Multiple Intelligences Test and other instruments. Or perhaps new test items could be developed to measure these skills through a test format brief enough to sustain but not overtax the client or student’s investment, lengthy enough to have face and construct validity and definitive enough to determining with precision both the nature of intelligence and the intellectual capacities of any given subject.


Bergin, D.A. & Cizek, G.J. (2001) Alfred Binet. In JA Palmer (Ed) Fifty Major Thinkers on Education: from Confucius to Dewey pp. 160-164. London Routledge

Binder, J. Frost, J. Hammeke, T. Cox, R. Rao, S. Prieto, T. (1997) Human Brain Language Areas Identified by Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Journal of Neuroscience 17 (1) 353-362.

Haier, R. & Jung, R. (2007) The Parietal-Frontal Integration Theory of Intelligence: Converging neuro-imaging evidence. Cambridge University Press.

Herculano-Houzel, S. (2010) Coordinated Scaling of Cortical and Cerebellar Numbers of Neurons. Frontiers of Neuroanatomy 4:12

Jensen, A. (1972) Sir Cyril Burt (1883-1971) Psychometrika. 37: (2) 115-117

Kak, S.C. (1996) The Three Languages of the Brain: Quantum, Reorganizational and Associative. In K. Pribram, J.King (Eds) Learning as Self-Organization. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp. 185-219

Lashley, K. (1950) In Search of the Engram. Society of Experimental Biology Symposium, 4: 454-482

Luria, A. (1973) The Working Brain. Basic Books

McDaniel, M.A. (2005) Big-brained People are Smarter: A Meta-Analysis of the Relation Between in Vivo Brain volume and Intelligence. Intelligence: 33: 337-346

Rushton, J.P. & Ankney, C.D. (2009) Whole Brain Size and General Mental Ability: A Review. International Journal of Neuroscience. (5) 692-732

Timman, D. (2007) Cerebellar Contributions to Cognitive Functions: A Progress Report After Two Decades of Research. Cerebellum. 6 (3) 159-162

Wechsler, D. (1958) The Measurement and Appraisal of Adult Intelligence (4th Edition) Baltimore MD Williams and Witkins

Windholz, G. (1990) The Second Signal System as Conceived by Pavlov and his Disciples. Journal of Biological Science. Oct-Dec.: 25 (4) 163-173

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Essay: Physics, Nature and Mind

October 28th, 2014 by Robert DePaolo | Posted in Psychology | No Comments » | 28 views | Print this Article

By Robert DePaolo


This article presents ideas on the integration of theoretical physics, brain function and morality under the rubric of Information Theory. The factors of uncertainty, ultra-stability and systemic complexity are discussed in terms of how systems develop permanence and what mechanisms underlying human cognition and moral thinking might have in common with the laws of physics. The point is made that the increasing mass and complexity of brains produced a complementary chaos-to-order transition that is also responsible for the quantum-induced order observed in nature.


In discussing any information system it is necessary to begin with an apparent paradox: the notion that due to the laws of entropy, order cannot be either a permanent condition or a true point of origin. It must either emanate, i.e. evolve, from something else or undergo fluctuations whereby it represents a transition point on the uncertainty-to–organizational continuum. (Shannon & Weaver 1949), (Berger, Calabrese, 1975) In other words, like every system in nature it is not static but rather dynamic.

Such a process is an essential component of Information Theory; one tenet of which holds that information can only be gleaned from a prior state of uncertainty. The idea that uncertainty (confusion) is a necessary prelude to organization (whether in the domain of particle physics or human cognition) it is a pervasive, credible idea. It is seen in Piaget’s writings on human cognitive and moral development – wherein a state of disequilibrium is deemed a prerequisite to intellectual growth. (Piaget & Inhelder, 1969). It is also seen in Freud’s theory of creativity, which he presumed is fostered by a state of uncertainty he referred to as anxiety. Beyond the human realm it is of course seen in Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty (1930) and de Broglie’s notions of the wave-particle duality and quantum fluctuations (1960) that seem at odds with Einstein’s equally valid (classical) theory of an orderly universe.

Theoretical physicists have grappled with the apparent contradiction between classical and quantum physics for some time, under the assumption that uncertainty and order seem to be at odds with one another. The question of how the cosmos can at once be lawful (at the macro-physical level) yet chaotic (in the particle domain) has been something of a mystery for decades. It need not be; particularly uses information dynamics as a bridge-building concept. In that context one merely needs to accept that order is not a natural state. Neither is chaos. Rather they are interdependent and complementary. One cannot exist without the other. Therefore one can begin with the premise that, as Bronowksi suggested, laws are as much a function of mind as of a true reality; an internal representation rather than an isomorphic reflection of nature than of true reality (1973).

Distinctions and Causations…

The assumption that chaos and order are complementary would seem to require some sort of operational description. How and/or why are the two states interdependent? The simple answer is that since all systems tend to run down, it stands to reason that since there are only two possibilities in the natural world that as one declines the other would emerge. There are of course varying degrees of uncertainty and order but it can be inferred that, all things being equal, a transition out of one state leads to the emergence of the other. Yet while that addresses the question of “what” it does not consider the how and why of the process. To address those questions one can begin by discussing how chaos evolves into order.

As a first explanatory step, the reader is asked to imagine what a state of absolute uncertainty would be like. In effect it would be one of complete monotony, in which there were no individualized features – nothing to stand out from the crowd – so to speak. The so-called cosmic egg, which was composed of plasma, would be one example of a nearly complete state of entropy or uncertainty. Being in such a state would by definition render it completely devoid of information content because information always involves a distinction between or among signals. Just as language grammar entails different sounds, semantic distinctions, parts of speech, definitions etc. (lest it be incomprehensible) so too does any information system.

Thus information begins with some sort of break from monotony or “noise.”
The reason why is a function of two things. First, because the “info-plasma”is not yet systemic, it has no implicit order and will, as a result of quantum principles, tend toward constant flux. That would render it highly volatile.

The second reason is that due to that flux there will always be some probability that a set of distinctions will emerge from within the plasmodic state. When the cosmos began, one such distinction was the formation of matter – which ostensibly became possible when the temperature cooled enough to enable particle formation and gravitational clustering. With that came a subsequent cascade of distinctions, including separate of elements, differing masses, forces and the like. Such an info-evolutionary process led to the creation and stabilization of the universe as we know it.

As distinctive clusters increased so did the information content of the universe, but the process did not end there. The flip side of the noise-to-information ( or flux to order) relationship, is that distinctions themselves tend to run down to a state of entropy, in the process devolving into mere noise and ultra-uniformity. That is because being separate they are less-influenced by outside sources. Therefore, lacking any sort of hybrid/complexity safety net, they will tend toward sameness and uncertainty – and so the cycle continues.

Yet clearly some systems have prevailed, most notably the universe and on a smaller scale, memories in the brain. With regard to the latter, one could ask why memories don’t run down as a result of entropy.

One possible answer can be found in the idea of complexity. As W.R. Ashby proposed, any system with enough complexity to encompass both stability and flux (i.e. develop ultra-stable parameters) can incorporate within its boundaries both chaos and order (Conant, 1981). That would enable it to endure over time. In effect complexity enables the system to change without changing, which provides a degree of insulation against systemic deterioration.

The Metaphysical Universe…

When physicist inquire as to what makes order, for example why there are only so many elements, forces, charges and the confusing co-existence of matter, anti-matter, symmetry and flux many have ended up with quasi-spiritual explanations. (It isn’t just Einstein who postulated that God was somehow involved in the structure of space, time and matter). While at face value, physics and faith seem mutually exclusive it is conceivable that a god-figure, say in the form of an immutable, governing process is responsible for the organization of the universe. If so, then without refuting either religion or science one can discuss the details of how this process might operate.


That raise the question of how can one characterize this God-process in a way that satisfies both physics and metaphysics? In addressing that question, consider the following.

Suppose a common feature of all things underlying cognition, memory, morality and cosmological constancy lies can be described as a duality consisting of absorption and separation. More specifically In effect, any system with distinct elements that is capable of absorbing new elements can resist entropy and consequently will have a capacity to grow, evolve, learn, adapt and endure.


With regard to the universe, this would signify a complex system in which flux prevailed at the particle level, while constancy prevailed at the classical level – comprising all one ultra-stable system rather than two separate worlds. With respect to human functions like memory, moral thinking, learning, social relationships it would mean having the anatomical and psychological capability to both change and maintain of an overall identity or set of values without unraveling the overall system.

This idea is speculative but has interesting implications for human brain function. It is apparent that the brain operates through a flux to order, general to specific neural activation mechanism (Kak 1996). In addition to Kak’s work, Lashley’s notion of mass activation and equi-potentiality comprises another example of how mental activity unfolds (1950). Indeed the very structure of brain cells, which proceed from soma to multiple branches and back again, suggests information transmission in the brain proceeds from the general to the specific. In that sense human cognition would seem to involve an uncertainty-reducing process. By that line of reasoning terms such as intelligence, emotion, memory and cognition might be convenient but less than accurate descriptions of what is most fundamentally an information retrieval process. All of our mental activities, from artistic expression to literary endeavors, to picking out a pair of shoes in a department store to finding just the right words to say in some social context, simply reenacting the same process that gave rise to the origin and maintenance of the universe.

Encoding the Haystack…

Speaking of word finding, it is conceivable that the advent of language, while adaptive for a wide variety of reasons, was most essentially an adaptation to increased uncertainty within the expansive human brain. Having 86 billion neurons and vastly more inter-neural connections creates the potential for a lot of uncertainty. Perhaps one reason insanity is such a human problem is due to the high potential for such chaos. One way nature could have modulated human brain expansion would have been to provide neuronal configurations by which to codify experience (both from the outside world and within internal brain impulses). Such a linguistic, noise-busting mechanism, would have been essential in warding off insanity, confusion and other states of internal chaos.

One fortuitous byproduct of that would have been a new and enhanced capacity to integrate new and old ideas, familiar and novel perceptions, sounds and memories to produce broader, systemic representations of the natural world and of human experience – something we now call art. It might also have given rise to human morality, which includes themes of distinction-absorption. For example, with regard to distinctions: having an individual identity facilitates goal setting, which to leads to achievement. On the other hand with regard to absorption, having a capacity to extend experience in incorporating the feelings of others leads to empathy, compassion and a capacity to blend ideas and customs from other peoples and cultures – as the Romans did with religion, art, architecture and law in creating a template for subsequent societies.

One can even apply this model to the most basic component of life – the cell. It too has a distinction/absorption capability. It can sustain itself individually via the insulation of nuclei and mitochondria within its inner enclaves yet extend beyond itself and assimilate new inputs through a semi-permeable membrane enabling an exchange of nutrients, chemicals, light and waste materials.

Whether it is described as chaos to order, uncertainty-to information, or distinction-to–absorption, this information model might well be a core feature of our world, governing, or at least making possible, all we are, all we do and all we see around us. It could not be defined as god in the traditional sense, e.g. as a figure with specific physical traits, voice or and temperament but it could be defined in a way similar to Aristotle’s concept of a true, pervasive cosmic anchor point which he called the “unmoved mover.”


Aristotle Notes: In Book 8 of Physics, and Book 12 of Metaphysics Aristotle expressed a belief in an unchanging entity responsible for creating the order in nature. He was no other possibility than to conceive of a point of stability as being primal and capable of regulatory functions, i.e. not mired down in its own complexity yet omni-influential.

Berger, C.R. Calabrese, R.J. (1975) Some Exploration in Initial Interaction and Beyond: Toward a Developmental Theory of Communication. Human Communications Research 1; 99-112

Bronowski, J. The Ascent of Man. Boston/ Toronto Little Brown &Co

Conant, R.(1981) (ed.) Mechanisms of Intelligence: Ross Ashby’s Writings on Cybernetics. Inter-systems Publishing

DeBroglie, L. (1960) Non-Linear Quantum Mechanics: A Causal Interpretation. Amsterdam, Elsevier.

Heisenberg, W. (1930) The Physical Principles of the Quantum, Chicago, University of Chicago Press

Kak, S.C. (1996) The Three Languages of the Brain; Quantum, Reorganizational, and Associative. In. K. Pribram, J. King (eds) Learning as Self-Organization. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates pp 185-219.

Lashley, K. (1950) In Search of the Engram. Society of Experimental Biology Symposium. 4: 454-482

Piaget, J., Inhelder, B. (1969) The Psychology of the Child; The Definitive Account of the Psychologist’s Work. Basic Books

Shannon, C.E., Weaver, W. (1949) The Mathematical Theory of Communication. (Urbana, ILL) University of Illinois Press.

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A DISCUSSION OF READING DISORDERS: Cognitive, Perceptual and Mnemonic Elements

September 18th, 2014 by Robert DePaolo | Posted in Psychology | No Comments » | 40 views | Print this Article

By Robert DePaolo


This article discusses the interplay of perceptual, memory and cognitive skills in learning how to read and extrapolates from that as to possible causes and remedial strategies involved in the diagnosis and remediation of reading disorders.

A Perplexing Problem…

In some ways the very idea of a reading disorder makes little sense; particularly in light of the “all things being equal” paradigm – i.e. that reading teachers and curriculum materials are usually adequate vehicles by which to impart this skill. To some extent, this is also true with regard to neuro-developmental factors.

For example, assume a given child has average intelligence, which, according to a study conducted by the Council of Exceptional Children (2011) is typical of most students with reading disorders. The fact that intellectual tests measure many of the same skills needed to learn to read, i.e. auditory memory, visual perception, visual computation and spatial perception suggests the reading disabled child’s cognitive and perceptual faculties are functioning well enough to absorb a wide variety of inputs from various sources (school, family, the general environment). This is especially relevant in light of the fact that the evidence for a specific, neurological dysfunction is varied and questionable. For example while some MRI studies have pointed to prefrontal cortical and executive function deficiencies (Beneventi, Tonessen et al. 2010) other studies have suggested cerebellar dysfunction (Nicolson, Faucett et. al 2001) while still another implicated working memory – presumably arising from temporal left hemispheric roots (Berninger, Raskind, 2008). These assumptions are mostly based on brain activity levels – as derived from MRI studies and do not point to pathologies per se. In fact Berninger cautioned against drawing conclusions of neuro-pathological roots to reading disorders due to the fact that unusual brain activity patterns can arise from behavioral compensations learned by the child, resulting in skewed shifts in brain blood flow rather than from neuropathy. The idea that various brain sites could be involved in producing the disorder – as it often asserted with regard to more severe learning disorders such as autism, seems somewhat specious. Children with reading disorders are usually normal in every respect, which runs contrary to the global brain dysfunction hypothesis inferable from these various research and theoretical sources.

In that context, assume the child has normal vision, hearing and language-associative capacities. That combination of skills should enable the child to develop the visual associative capacities needed to learn letters and words, the auditory/phonetic capacities to understand sound-symbol relationships and the linguistic ability to interpret reading passages within a communicative/grammatical framework.

The fact that children with reading disorders don’t typically exhibit significant cognitive deficits (i.e. fall generally within or even above average range) does not mean all children fitting in this category will have the same level of reading proficiency. Indeed many of the cognitive and academic tests used to assess intelligence and achievement (for example the Wechsler Intellectual (WISC) and Wechsler Academic scales (WIAT) feature performance correlations as part of the measurement process. For instance a student with a full scale WISC score of 88, will not be expected to read as well as a student with a score of 115. As an aside, one of the ostensible problems with public education in the U.S. derives from the super-egalitarian cultural premise incorporated implicitly into the public education system; that if a child tries hard enough he or she can achieve anything they want. Real life, case studies and data suggest that might be a bit fanciful, and perhaps as corollary, that one-size-fits-all models, as seen in the No Child Left Behind evaluation process and the Common Core curriculum might not be terribly realistic – some discussion of that later.

On the other hand many students with strong, above average cognitive ability have a reading disorder. While some sort of soft neuro-dysfunction might be involved, the learning aspects of a reading disorder will the primary foci of this essay.

The Reading Gestalt…

An interesting parallel can be drawn between how an aspiring little leaguer learns to pitch a baseball and how he learns to read. At the risk of appearing antediluvian, this writer recalls, as a nine year old pitcher in little league a coach’s advice on the mechanics of pitching a baseball. While a certain amount of grumpiness and protest ensued (from both sides) the lesson boiled down to a single principle… make sure your wind-up, leg kick and delivery are all in one motion. Translated, the message was; don’t breakdown the movements. Instead learn to blend them together into one continuous (holistic) movement pattern.

In these words the coach was referencing unwittingly what psychologists call a “gestalt,” which means a melding of parts into a fluid whole. By his reckoning, a competent pitcher. even at little league level, would be able to take for granted – indeed virtually disregard – the nuts and bolts of the specific sequences involved in tossing the ball toward home plate in favor of a holistic, “windup.” Once the muscles and mind were trained that way, the kid can focus on strikes and balls.

Reading involves a similar gestalt process. It isn’t long after immersion that the young reader’s focus veers toward meaning (in line with his natural sense of language) and away from individual phonic, grammatical components. Most reading teachers understand that and come to expect fluency to kick in once the child acquires the fundamentals of letter, word and sound associations. Some also probably understand that teaching these fundamentals can also have a paradoxical effect on the learning process.

Why such an odd assertion? Because the early teaching methods are (not to the fault of the teacher) artificial, while the actual backdrop of reading (the language-based aspect) is natural – even ostensibly genetic.

Reading is obviously a language–related skill. Under normal circumstances language learning comes naturally to a child. As Lenneberg (1967) argued, a child does not have to be taught how to speak. Certainly he or she profits from social interaction, modeling and exposure to language idioms within the environment. However the child needn’t be taught to say his first words and the virtual explosion of vocabulary in the first several years of development appears not to be a direct function of teaching (Chomsky 2012).

Conversely, the child has no inherent predisposition toward an understanding of letters, words or numbers; a fact substantiated by human evolution. While mankind has been talking for perhaps 100,000 years, letters were only invented around 10,000 years ago and when early humans did begin to symbolize their world some 30,000 years ago it was in the form of concrete pictorials rather than abstract symbols. That historical fact makes the brain dysfunction thesis seem a bit specious – it would be akin to surmising that having difficulty fixing a washing machine was the result of deficient blood flow in the prefrontal cortex.

Because reading requires the integration (and restructuring) of a natural skill with a man-made skill, the child is forced to step back and symbolize what he already knows how to do. It is analogous to teaching him to crawl after he has taken his first steps.

Reading is a Conversation…

In some sense, reading is nothing more than a symbolic representation of talking and listening. However reading is obviously a more complex version of language. For example speech per se does not involve visuals. Nor does it require a cognitive pause-function, forcing the linguistic thought process to slow down in deference to the visual and grammatical regulation inherent in a reading exercise.

A child may refer to visual stimuli before speaking; for example seeing or pointing to an object and commenting… “horsie”…”dada” etc. But he does not have to hold back once expression begins in deference to grammatical rules and visual/symbolic differentiations.

Reading, Attention and Integration…

With reference to the above comments, it is possible to assume a reading disorder might be partially related to a difficulty melding fluidly the rapid speed, cadence and flow of natural language with the cognitive, perceptual and mnemonic inhibition involved in learning to read.

Does that imply that a reading disorder is actually an attention-related problem? In some cases that is probably true. For example research conducted at the Mayo Clinic indicated that about half the children diagnosed with ADHD were also diagnosed with a reading disorder (Mann,2010). In other cases it might be that speech cadence, vocabulary and other nuances learned in the home environment differ so markedly from the content of reading passages that the integration of natural and visual language cannot occur with adequate proficiency. To wit, if the child cannot read in the same way he talks, the new (to him) academically – scripted task of learning to read could entail an awkward juxtaposition manifest as schematic confusion.

Beyond Attention…

The fact that many children diagnosed with a reading disorder do not exhibit ADHD patterns suggests other factors are involved. One of which might be social. Language is tethered to social interaction but not all students are highly social. In that context, reading passages that are often descriptive and depict people or creatures interacting, might conflict with some children’s view of the world. While little research evidence research exists to confirm this, some studies have shown that some students are more adept at comprehending mechanical, factual, non-personal reading matter. For instance in a worldwide literacy survey it was discovered that the gap between girls and boys in terms of reading ability was not only significant but widened over time. Yet the study also indicated that boys were adept at reading newspapers, graphic novels, magazines and shortened texts whereas girls preferred and excelled at reading fiction. That suggests that cognitive style, social outlook and gender might play a role in terms of reading proficiency.

Necessary Basics…

That does not necessarily argue for a gender specific reading curriculum – anymore than it would for a math curriculum based on gender, where boys tend to out-perform girls. Moreover, In defense of elementary school teachers, the skill of reading must begin with fundamentals regardless of gender and social orientation. Unless one can recognize letters and words and sound them out, it is difficult to develop any level of fluency. Therefore across-the-board criticism of early reading programs and instructors is unwarranted, especially since elementary level teachers are typically well-versed in child development. That leads to another aspect of the problem, one discussed at length by developmental theorist Jean Piaget.

Schemes – Disequilibrium – Assimilation…

Learning new material entails certain prerequisites. The most crucial is the existence of a priori schemata – i.e. chunks of knowledge, or points of reference to serve as fulcrum, foundation, measuring stick and criteria for comparison between stored memories and new inputs.

Learning does not begin in the classroom. Instead it is initially generated from internal schemata. It is an inside-out process (As an aside, the fact that the teacher is a secondary factor in education provides another reason to abstain from blaming them solely for students’ poor academic performance). Each new input is invariably judged as to relevance and interest in terms of those cognitive schemes. If the input (i.e. teacher’s lesson) is completely in sync with the schemata, i.e. is completely recognizable, it will foster boredom.

Conversely, if the relationship between schemata and input is too discrepant, confusion, cognitive discomfort and task-avoidance will typically result; in which case the lesson will not be assimilated. In order to learn maximally, a certain degree of moderate conflict between schemata and input must incur. Piaget referred to this process as “disequilibrium.”

To maximize learning, input must diverge enough from the schemata so as to be somewhat but not completely recognizable, i.e. be semi-consonant with the schemata. Within that framework the lesson would optimally be some combination of sameness and newness. That juxtaposition is what foments curiosity (as opposed to avoidance and aversion), enhances attention, galvanizes neurological investment, extends memory and most effectively facilitates learning.
Common Core – Yin and Yang…

As discussed earlier, such learning mechanisms automatically lead to a discussion of the much-debated Common Core curriculum. Some, such as Walker (2014) have argued that it works, while others such as Butcher, McGroarty et. al. (2012) have suggested it needs to be overhauled or replaced with something else. Both are right – neither argument is encompassing. For students whose natural language experience coincides with the way reading is taught in school, advanced methods probably do work. For students whose natural language propensities are at odds with the language/reading format used in modern curricula teaching an advanced approach could be not only unsuccessful but counterproductive.

This writer has no ultimate solution to the problem of reading disorders, but one element that can perhaps be gleaned from research and theory on child development – as well as from the distinction between natural and visual language – is that certain questions and principles can perhaps be applied in addressing the problem. For example, educators might inquire as to…
1. Whether students’ schemata match the content of the reading curriculum.

2. How a teacher can evaluate the scope and particulars of those schemata – especially in large classrooms, for instance through use of a life/language experience scales (formal or informal) and interest surveys gleaned from discussion with students or submitted by parents when students cannot articulate such preferences.

3. How a conversational language sample from the student might help in gaining a sense of cadence and vocabulary so as to create a close match between the student’s natural language and the content of the reading language.

4. Whether there are ways to blend the natural flow of language with the restrictive, associative aspects of early reading skills; for example by presenting letters of the alphabet in conversational form, e.g.… A is for apple, which goes good with candy at the amusement park, and you can also put it in pies for Thanksgiving. You all like apple pie, don’t you?..Alright then, A is for apple. Meanwhile, B is the first letter in the word bee – and no one wants to be stung by a bee. Anyone been stung by a bee. Ouch!! B Is it also the first letter in the word baseball, and by the way, are there any Red Sox fans in this class? Maybe one day some of you will play on a team. Maybe you have older brothers or sisters who play on a team now – anyone? Once again, B is for baseball.

5. If there is a way to create disequilibrium – the precious semi-recognizable discrepancy between schemata and teacher input that maximizes learning functions. Here the answer might be surprisingly simple. It can be done by adding questions to the lesson. For example. A is for apple, and you can put apples in pies, you can bob for them in a contest – anyone ever put their head in water to pull out an apple and win a prize? By the way, there must be other places where you’d find apples. Can anyone tell me if there are other foods or a drinks where you’d find apples?

The general point here is that the more student-centered the lesson the more likely it is the student will learn to his or her actual ability.

Conversely as the curriculum drifts more toward a central, systematized approach, the fewer number of students will be accommodated in the achievement equation. In the final analysis, this argues for the time-honored notion that the prime variables in education are the scheme, the teacher and the student rather than data-drive curricula, methodologies or standards geared more toward homogenizing students than toward reaching and teaching as many of them as possible.


Beneventi, H. Tonnessen, F.E. Ersland, L. Hugdahl, K. (2010) Executive Working Memory Processes in Dyslexia; Behavioral and MRI Evidence. Scandanavian Journal of Psychology 51 (3) 192-202

Berninger, V. Raskind, W. Richards, T. Abbott, R. Stock, P. (2008) A Multi-disciplinary Approach to Understanding Developmental Dyslexia Within the Working Memory Architecture; Genotypes, Phenotypes, Brain and Instruction. Developmental Neuropsychology 33 (6) 707-744

Butcher, K. Manning, M.L. (2010) Gender and Reading Preference. Pearson, Allyn Bacon, Prentice Hall.

Butcher, J. Mc Groarty, E. & Finne, L. (May, 2012) Why the Common Core is Bad for America. Article in Washington Policy Center

Chomsky, N. (2012) On Nature and Language. Cambridge University Press.

Lenneberg, C.H. (1967) Biological Foundations of Language, New York, Wiley & Sons

Mann. D. Research Says Children with ADHD Also Have Reading Disorders. Article derived from Mayo Clinic Research Project. Retrieved Sept. 2012 from Pediatrics, May 2010.

Nicolon, R.I. Faucett, AJ Dean. Ap. (2001) Developmental Dyslexia: The Cerebellar Deficit Hypothesis. Trends in Neuroscience 24 (9) 508-511

Notes on: Intellectual Ability and Reading Disorders. Article in Council of Exceptional Children. NHI Study Confirms that IQ scores are unrelated to Reading Disorders. Nov 11, 2008

Piaget, J (1962) The Language and Thought of the Child. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul

Walker. T. Article in NEA Today. Six Ways the Common Core is Good for Students. Retrieved Sept. 2, 2014

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God and Mind: A Psychological Perspective

June 17th, 2014 by Robert DePaolo | Posted in Psychology | No Comments » | 29 views | Print this Article

By Robert DePaolo


This article discusses the human tendency to believe in a higher power in an integrative psychodynamic/religious context. The argument is presented that, regardless of the validity of any given religious system, a psychological mandate exists which compels mankind to exert control over his world and to adapt when that imperative is frustrated.


Any attempt to determine just when and why mankind developed spirituality is fraught with complications. In order to draw conclusions on that topic, one would have to take into account a number of neurological, anthropological, social and experiential factors. For example, how large does a brain have to be in order to integrate the cognitive, linguistic and emotional faculties needed to make such beliefs possible? Moreover, even if a brain has that potential, what socio-political phenomena have to be in place before a need for spirituality arises? Would God have summoned Moses to Sinai if the Egyptians had not enslaved his people? Would Jesus of Nazareth have sacrificed himself if not for Roman oppression and his perception that fellow Jews had drifted from the Torah? Even beyond that, did Moses and Jesus have to be of a certain psychological disposition in order to embark on their quest? Such questions are so intertwined as to preclude clear delineations of cause and effect.

One the other hand, whether one is religious, agnostic or atheistic, there would seem to be certain prerequisites in adopting a religious belief.

One requirement, as suggested by Lee (1995) and McArthur (2007) would be a state of duress. This is based on the notion that belief in a higher power derives from a state of helplessness or oppression pervasive enough to prompt the search for a hero or savior among a significant number of people. That dynamic existed during the early development of Judaism and during the early development of Judaism (Clayton, 2006 ) Christianity (Wylen 1995) and Islam (Lapidus 1988).

The question is whether that would be sufficient. For example, religious beliefs were strong during the Davidian era, when Israel wielded considerable power in Judea. In addition, strong religious beliefs existed within Roman society, despite their widespread dominance over vast Eurasian territories.

Despite “duress theory” it is conceivable that the belief in God has little if anything to do with historical forces, and that some fundamental trait inherent in our neuro-psychological wiring lies at the root of a search for transcendence. Some have even suggested that such a belief trait might not be quintessentially human. For instance, anthropological evidence seems to indicate that the Neanderthal peoples believed in an afterlife (Vegas 2011). While evidence for a specific godhead is scant among these archaic humans, it is not unreasonable to assume that if they conceived of a life after death, they must have filled in the blanks about the nature of that spiritual life – including a supervising entity responsible for orchestrating the vicissitudes of life and natural events.

Even more interesting is the possibility that a most basic root of religious belief can be seen in primate social groups, where rank order is essential in maintaining their solidarity. Chimp alpha males and females typically regulate behavior patterns, especially males, by instilling a fear-based sexual taboo through chronic vigilance and assaults on lower ranking males who attempt coitus with females during estrus. The end result is that while lower ranking males find ways to access females in estrus, dominance determines paternity to a large extent (Newton-Fisher, Thompson et. al. 2010). In addition, lower ranking members typically bow in deference before alpha males when the behavior of the former have come into question.

In that context, one could argue that adherence to hierarchical dominance, coupled with evolutionary enhancements in human cognition and language might have made a belief in and need for God inevitable for the human species, not just as a spiritual force but somewhat ironically, as an adaptive cognitive trait for maintaining social order for primates, whose large brains create vast permutations (good and bad) in social behavior patterns.

If that argument has validity, and if the alpha male (or female) comprise primate prototypes for God, one might expect humans to blur the lines between God and man. The historical record lends support to that assumption.

For instance, dominant males were viewed as gods in ancient societies; Ramses of Egypt, Constantine of Rome and Alexander of Macedonia, being among the most prominent. Beyond that, the distinction between earthly leader and God were often blurred even in monotheistic religions.
For example both Jesus and Isaiah were born of human flesh yet were elevated beyond mortal status by virtue of the fact that, unlike most common folk and even lower prophets they ascended into heaven after death to sit beside the Father.

Still, while the hierarchical process might explain some aspects of god worship, it leaves explanatory gaps. The most obvious revolves around the question of why Homo sapiens would need a transcendent god when human gods (alpha males) would be just as functional in sustaining social order and behavioral codes. For that reason, it seems one has to go beyond the primate word to gain a more comprehensive understanding of human spirituality.

Divided Morality…

A complete assessment of the origins and human impact of religion must take into account the various functions of God in a pagan system. The Greek and Roman deities were hierarchical, but also in many ways operated within divisions of labor – an interesting parallel to their systems of republican government.

The obvious flaw in the pagan model is that having various godheads, each with specific function could lead to clash among them – as often occurred in Greek Mythology. Having moral supervisors caught up in endless conflict amongst themselves would hardly be conducive to maintaining socio-moral order. From that perspective, it is not surprising that Monotheism out-lasted paganism as a religious model over time.


Another theory on the origin of religious worship was that of Sigmund Freud. He wrote that God is symbolic of the father figure, whose presence is necessary to restrain man’s violent impulses and maintain social order. (Armstrong, 1993) In some ways this is similar to the primate argument and has similar flaws. For instance it does not explain the existence and historical importance of female deities such as Shiva, Hera, Isis and Duttur – the mother of Tammuz, the Babylonian god of fertility. Nor does it address the fact that males are more prone to aggressive behavior. Having male Gods regulating morals through violent retribution – a trend seen in every religious text, including the Old Testament, (Acts 1:9-12), (Nahum 1:2) wouldn’t necessarily serve as a model of restraint. Clearly the laws and punishments of worshippers would be derived from the behavior patterns of the Supreme Being; as the stoning of adulterers, cutting off the hands of thieves in Mesopotamian cultures point out clearly. In fact, violent retribution was so much the norm in the early agricultural settlements that one has to wonder what modern society would be like today if not for revolutionary thinkers like Jesus, who reached back into doctrinal antiquity to resuscitate the idea of compassion and forgiveness, and Siddhartha Gautama who created a new spiritual template based on a presumed unity among all living things and a life style of simplicity.

Since theories of alpha dominance, father-symbolism, republican-paganism and hero-seeking would seem incomplete in explaining man’s penchant for religious belief, it might be interesting to discuss a more basic, psychological root of spirituality.

A God of Persistence…

As an introductory comment; the following discussion does not preclude the existence of an actual God, especially as a force of nature, not necessarily corporeal or personified but woven into the actual physical universe and certainly into the neuro-functional structure of the human mind.

For purposes of discussion, one can assume that on some level the idea of God is existential. That is, in order for God to exist and impart moral codes to mortals requires communications between himself and his audience (mankind). In other words if God had selected a chimp to climb Mt. Sinai, things might not have worked out so well (please pardon the reductio ad absurdum premise). Therefore one precondition of faith is the potential for a meeting of minds between mortals and God.

The “mortal” side of such reciprocity is a bit easier to explain because it can be found in the makeup of the human mind. Our brains are wired to control our environment. With fronto-parietal circuits in the cerebral cortex devoted to fine motor controls and speech precision, we are not only capable of prompting, categorizing and manipulating our world with language but also of extending such controls from mouth to hands along the motor strip so that we can make tools to actualize those categorical possibilities.

However it isn’t just the doing and talking. It is also a psychic mindset (a kind of internal metric) creating an expectation of control; a notion discussed eloquently by Bronowski (1973) One suspects that in the course of human brain evolution emotional circuits in the limbic brain networked with the control centers in the fronto-parietal catch-area so that feelings of satisfaction or frustration could result from successful or unsuccessful attempts at controlling tasks and circumstances. Lending support to this argument is the work of Mansell (2010) who demonstrated that feelings of pleasure and the onset of psychopathology are very much related to the perception of control or lack thereof.

In that context, there are certain elements of the control dynamic that play out in human psychological functioning. One instance occurs when control is attained and positive feedback signals prompt a pleasurable emotional response. Another occurs when attempts to exert control are frustrated, at which point anger and other negative emotional reactions occur in accord with the classic frustration/aggression mechanism (Berkowitz 1993). A third occurs when continuous attempts at control fail, the actor abandons his behavioral strategy and reverts to repetitious behaviors as a means of overriding goal frustration. The repetition pattern, often referred to in clinical circles as vicious circle behavior, typifies many types of psychopathology (Melvin 1979).

Obviously neither anger nor mere (neurotic) repetition is adaptive since a prolonged state of anger is both emotionally taxing and socially inappropriate. While creating the temporary illusion of control mere repetition seldom leads to response satisfaction.

That is where a fourth and more adaptive response tactic comes into play. It occurs when, after unsuccessful attempts at control, the actor is able to reverse the relationship between actor and object; by in effect resetting an internal gauge. At that point he becomes a function of the original target rather than vice versa. In so doing he relinquishes his status as controller and puts himself at the mercy of external circumstances.

The cognitive transition from the controller to the controlled alleviates tension and is thus negatively reinforced. That is because the feeling of relief resulting from relinquishing control feels good and will be repeated when similar circumstances arise again.

But the process does not end there. Despite relinquishing control the person still needs closure, i.e. some sense that the task will have an endpoint. In order to be deemed a controller, he must be deemed an actor and thus be assigned an identity. For example, the uncontrolled predator who took his son might over time be viewed as a god. The uncontrollable climate pattern would after an extended cold spell, become personified and deified. Perhaps the sun would be deemed a benevolent god, the wind a vengeful god via this conversion process.

In that context, the person would defer to and personify things he could not control, leading to attributions and the search for a hero or entity more powerful than he whose powers could help or harm him.

Still, the idea of faith fueled by psycho-adaptive submissiveness in a creature whose neuro-behavioral features emphasize control does not answer the question of how religious beliefs became so entrenched through the ages despite technological advancements that enables us to increasingly control more aspects of our environment.

One reason might be because science cannot ameliorate the need to exert control in most aspects of life, including relationships, personal feelings and concerns about things that have yet to happen. In other words, science can never keep up with the totality of human experience.

Aquinas’ Conundrum…

Since no single idea on religious origin is likely to be complete, it seems fair to ask what this conversion/submission theory implies about the existence and nature of God? For example, is God real or imaginary? Ethereal or man-made? A human-like figure (with muscles, bones and blood modeled in his image) or an amorphous entity with some sort of mysterious plan mankind might never come to understand?

Such questions are abstract and will probably never be answered definitively. On the other hand, that is what makes speculation so inviting – thus the following.

A Concept…

To begin with, while the word God will be used here for convenience sake, the term God is presumed to be a force, potentially discoverable through physical laws) that regulates the natural world but as an existential entity operates primarily through the operations of the human mind.

Now, with respect to the questions raised above, some answers are ponderable; especially if, as mentioned above, one views God as a driver of human cognition.
In that context, one can assume God was not created by man because man did not create his own mind, or its capacity to reset the neuro-cognitive gauge in reversing the natural tendency to exert control. (One could argue that was the true intended message in Genesis). As for God’s plan, and as a corollary, whether He is inherently benevolent or vindictive, it seems by granting humans a capacity to convert their penchant for control through submission He has revealed both His plan and modus operandi. It is to provide us with the gift of persistence. In accord with that notion, one could presume (for example) that He does not take lives – that’s out of his control. Instead He provides a capacity for mourners to persist in the aftermath of a loss. Nor does He punish transgressors. Instead He provides them with a capacity to adopt a more humble and submissive mind-set in deferring to laws and moral codes. Whether or not they take advantage of that capacity will determine their fate, and is ultimately up to them. (That is where the lines between free will (which most religions accept as a given) and the implied ultra-deterministic governance of a deity intersect.

This speculative account argues that God goads us on, implores humans to maintain their individual and collective momentum. He is more than a mere psychotherapist, yet perhaps his purpose is similar to a process described by Carl Jung, who wrote that life unfolds in alternating patterns of growth and stagnation – laughter and sadness served up like a day to night transition. Those who learn to accept temporary stagnation, indeed use it as a rest period in restoring energy will once again be able to regain control, at which point good deeds and human creativity can once again emerge.

The arguments rendered above are, of course, merely philosophical. They do not address the many questions about the nature of God pondered by theologians over time. For that matter the notion that faith’s origin lies in a coping strategy could be deemed reductionist. On the other hand something within the laws of nature gave us a brain with which to control our world in ways not possible for other organisms.

Such a thrust-forward cognitive style can be both advantageous and detrimental. The same need to create, explore and resolve can also destroy us. For every sky scraper we construct, for every poem we write, awaits a stress reaction in circumstances where control is thwarted. If having the ability to persist and survive by altering our internal dispositions was the only gift from God, it would be not only spiritual but all in all, a pretty good deal.


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Notes: In Nahum 1:2 In the Old Testament refers to an Unchanging God and in the New Testament Acts 1:9-12 there is reference to… A Jealous and Avenging God who would is filled with wrath.

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Vegas, J. Did Neanderthal Believe in an Afterlife? Article in Archeology. April 8, 2011

Wylen, S.M. (1995) Jews in the Time of Jesus: An Introduction. Paulist Press

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