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The Neurology of the Ego: Implications for Diagnosis and Treatment

February 21st, 2014 by Robert DePaolo | Posted in Psychology | No Comments » | 185 views | Print this Article

By Robert DePaolo


This article discusses a neo-Freudian view of ego function, as a mechanism not dependent on a specific element of a triadic psyche but as a checks and balances process modulating extreme, unilateral thoughts, emotions and behavior rising quite naturally from multi-access to cognitive templates widely scattered in memory throughout the brain. The argument is presented that self-regulation and impulse modulation (two functions of the ego) require both storage of and access to varied thoughts. attitudes and behavior patterns which by their very diversity, preclude the emergence of extreme, linear non-contextual emotions, thoughts and behaviors. The argument is presented that compulsivity (linearity) rather than anxiety comprises the essential psycho-pathogen and potential focus in psychotherapy.

The Freudian Ego Function…

While Sigmund Freud is presumed to have broken new ground via psychoanalytic theory, his model of the psyche was somewhat derivative. As a young intellectual he was influenced by new and provocative ideas; one of which was Darwin’s theory of natural selection. In ‘Origin’ Darwin wrote about the evolution of various organisms and implicitly about the descent of man. He also painted a less than benevolent view of the natural world in which competition, sexual opportunism, aggression and cunning were essential criteria in determining fitness.

Freud’s theory of personality revolved around this concept but whereas Darwin was concerned primarily with the broader functions of the biotic world and stopped short of trying to explain how humans can be at once competitive, aggressive, sexually opportunistic and altruistic, compassionate and cooperative, Freud, blessed with a psychiatrist’s more comprehensive take on human nature, felt addressing such polarities was necessary in defining the functions of the human psyche.

Darwin wasn’t the only influence on Freud. Other revolutionary ideas were emanating from the field of science at the time as well. One in particular was Helmholtz’s notion of energy constancy – the idea that energy cannot be canceled out, but can only change from one form to another (Cahan, 1993)

In addition to Freud’s sheer genius it was the juxtaposition of those two ideas – energy dynamics and natural selection that provided a framework for the development of psychoanalysis.

This is not to diminish his massive contributions to modern clinical practice because as is suggested in cultural-ecological theory, genius has less to do with the creation of new ideas than with the creating a new synthesis out of old ones.

In developing his model of mind Freud began with two postulates. First, he believed that the mind must be viewed as an energy system that can change form as a result of outside influence – as water changes to ice when frozen and vice versa.

Implicit in his thinking was that the capacity of energy to flow from one source to another (in accord with the third law of thermodynamics) enabled it to move around the psyche depending on need and be drive by experiential mandates, including changes in social norms. It meant that at times, mind could focus on atavistic needs, but then be transferred to other functions as society became more populous, sedentary, agricultural and rule-governed – thus requiring greater behavioral restraint.

It was a brilliantly conceived idea, and one that despite criticism by modern thinkers is hard to refute in both biological and ergonomic terms. That is because the underlying premise of psychoanalysis was that man is part of the natural and physical world and therefore must operate within its parameters.

The Problem – From “What” to “Where” and “How”…

Freud never really attempted to define the psyche in neurological terms – largely because other than Pavlov’s loosely constructed model of the brain (1941) and isolated experiments by Lord Sherrington (1932) not enough was known about the brain at the time. Since he believed there were physiological correlates of the id, ego and superego Freud no doubt would have addressed this problem.

To a large extent that barrier no longer exists, Given current knowledge about brain development and function there is enough information to speculate about how the ego originates, develops within the brain and how enhancement of its adaptive functions can be accomplished in a therapeutic format. The following discussion is concerned primarily with those issues.

The Psychic Grid…

The brain of a child undergoes a number of changes in development. One has to do with a process known as meshing. Between the ages of 6-12 months neural fibers are connected primarily in vertical fashion. During this period the child accrues piecemeal associations in auditory, linguistic, motor and perceptual systems at a rapid rate but these associations are not highly integrated. One reason a child becomes upset over loud noises is because the noise has a singular impact on the brain. Once the child develops more enhanced, integrative cognitive and perceptual capacities it can use attribution to modulate the effect of loud noise; for example recognizing it as the sound of a playful adult or a toy. In that sense associative breadth not only serves as a language reference point but also as a stimulus buffer, potentially ameliorating the impact of what might otherwise be overwhelming inputs.

As brain development proceeds, a meshing process occurs, whereby horizontal fibers cross over vertical pathways, thus creating a grid-like structural and functional system. The grid format creates greater multi-accessibility. It represents a vast cognitive improvement on the previously vertical and experientially raw and narrow processing capacities of the toddler.
As meshing occurs, cross references become more voluminous and at that point what we call experience takes on a whole new meaning. In some ways that is a bad thing, because pure experience becomes swayed and distorted by interfering cross circuits – like a party line in the old telephone systems. Because of the meshing process pleasure, irritation, love and hate are subject to qualifications and confusion. This can blur one’s view of the world, of social relationships and ultimately of self-definition.

In other ways it is a marvelous thing because meshing provides three significant psychological benefits. First, as discussed earlier, it serves as an experiential buffer, taking the sting out of aversive experiences by broadening and diluting them into tolerable perspectives. Due to meshing, funerals can be sad but also mark a celebration of one’s life. Defeat can be disheartening but then become a stimulus to future success. Tragedy can be debilitating, that is until one decides it is God’s will. Then calmness ensues. Thus the neural cross-grid mechanism enables humans to convert experience into more tolerable forms, allowing us to move forward despite setbacks.

A second benefit is that a cross grid brain mechanism forces deliberation. All inputs are, under normal circumstances, cross-referenced. They are in effect gobbled up by the breadth of the grid. That slows down the thought process, makes it more likely that emotion will be accompanied by cognition, gives us time to plan, rehearse our actions, and thereby render them more effective. Postponement of gratification – especially with some expectation of even greater gratification down the road – become possible.

A third benefit has to do with what might seem a drawback to the meshing process – uncertainty. Cross-referenced experience is by definition no longer pure and unadulterated. It is, in a sense, muffled by peripheral inputs. Some byproducts of that integrative tendency are uncertainty, and a substantial expenditure of psychic energy to attain closure on experience.

The temporary irresolution arising from meshed brain interference patterns leads to something called creativity. That is because (perhaps unbeknownst to some modern educators) the human brain is more a conflict-resolving organ than a fact finding machine. It prefers questions to answers and abhors dogma. That is why, a certain trend holds true in the classroom; one of which is that the more the teacher asks, the greater student investment. Conversely, more dictating and pre-resolution tends to diminish student investment.

That mesh-driven tendency to create neural checks and balances, modify experience and foster uncertainty enables us to create not just ideas and skills but to create self-images as well.

All things considered. that should lead to the development of a healthy and functional ego, and people should end up patient, self-aware, confident, organized in thought and behavior, with perspective sufficient to override impulse and ego-centricity. Unfortunately things don’t always turn out that way and that is where a re-definition of the ego becomes relevant.

Neurological correlates – the integrative mechanism…

Research led by Courchet, Polleux et al (2013) offers a more in-depth description of how meshing occurs and why in some instances it does not. He discovered that, particularly in the cerebral cortex, an enzyme known as kinase LKBI transmits a signal to a second enzyme (Kinase NUAKI) which in turn mobilizes mitochondria in immature brain cells. The motility and transference of mitochondria provides the chemical energy needed to produce extension of dendrites across the brain and thereby create the cross-grid effect. Absent that mechanism brain cells remain disconnected or at best meagerly interconnected. As a result, sensory integration is compromised (as are the other benefits of meshing alluded to above). As a side comment; the Courchet-Polleux study noted that a disruption in this process has been observed in autistic and Alzheimer’s patients.

To infer from this that the neural substrates of the ego is genetically, and biochemically driven might seem a bit simplistic; especially since many clients with poor ego development exhibit no apparent neuro-pathologies. On the other hand meshing can be subject no non-genetic influence.

The cross grid connections between brain pathways can also be effected by experience. This can be seen in a triadic interaction within the brain during maturation.


There seems to be a temporal coordination between meshing, frontal lobe development and a restructuring of the brain in general. Frontal development has spurts and lags in child development, beginning in the first 6-12 months and then off and on until just before adolescence, when the largest growth spurt occurs. During these growth stages, there is a concomitant discarding of brain tissue via a process called pruning (Chechik, MeliIjsm et al (1999), (Low & Cheng (2006). Discarding of excessive brain tissue runs parallel to frontal expansion. Under ideal circumstances this should not pose a problem either emotionally, cognitively or in the capacity to integrate experience. That is because meshing and frontal expansion facilitate integrative thought, which makes detail memory less important and allows the brain to be less specific in its analysis of the outside world. For example once a child learns the integrative term fruit, he can, from that conceptual vantage point reference any number of specific details. As a result he no longer needs to establish specific, isolated pathways devoted to memorization of apple, orange, peer, etc. In simpler terms, integrative, conceptual thought, ameliorates a reliance on details in memory retrieval.

The problem with pruning, however is that it is subject to experience and falls under the rubric of use it or lose it. In childhood discarded neuronal cellular pathways are typically those used least frequently. In effect, the brain decides what pathways are essential on a probabilistic basis. Those most often used are retained, those seldom used are discarded. Interestingly, some research has shown that the pruning process is carried out though phagocytosis (Smith 2011 ) – as if seldom used neurons are somehow “viral” and by inference physiologically harmful by their presence on the brain. If this proves accurate it would provide significant insight on the relationship between cognition and neurobiology.

Thus it is possible for the brain of a child who seldom experiences, observes or uses empathic behavior patterns to shed pathways infrequently employed for that purpose. That doesn’t necessarily mean the child will be incapable or empathy as he matures, because the human brain is malleable enough for some pathways to compensate for others. However, it does mean, that like the young stroke victim who regains speech after a head trauma, re-learning empathy will be difficult process. Meanwhile the higher probability pathways are meshed together in development to form new non-empathic neuronal templates.

With regard to the advent of psychopathology, herein lies a problem. Just because neurons that might be devoted to social interest and empathic development, including:
1. An ability to recognize emotional features reflected in facial expressions and voice tone.
2. Expectation of receiving nurturance from others.
3. A history of being reciprocally reinforced for responding empathically to others…
are discarded due to infrequent usage does not mean the non-empathic person operates in a superego-depleted void. More likely is that an intra-personal conceptualization will develop which revolves around the self.

In such circumstance, the frontal lobes might function in a neurologically intact manner but be primed to conceptualize experience in an egocentric fashion – thereby justifying the psychopaths anti-social acts based on his perception of being slighted or victimized. For diagnostic purposes it would signify that ego-centric psychopathologies are not the result of a neuro-experiential deficiency but of a re-synthesis around the self. In other words the superego of the socially detached individual would be presumed intact but internally governed –with conscience and self-preservation/ gratification being two sides of a single coin.

Brass Tacks and Re-definitions…

The pruning process, as it relates to frontal maturation coincides with Freud’s view that the ego is learned through social experience. The difference between his definition of the ego and the one offered here is that this version is ostensibly broader in scope. It is presumed to develop not just to compromise between conscience and impulse but as a facilitator of creative thought, as insulator against aversive experiences and as an uncertainty inducing precursor to cognitive resolution. That has significance with respect to the human evolution model espoused by Freud.

Tools for Survival…

Freud believed the human psyche had its roots in the advent of agricultural civilization. In the sedentary confines of urban settings, families remained intact to satisfy work requirements. Since agricultural production could feed larger groups of people, heavily populated towns rose up which entailed greater para-familial alienation, social conflict and sexual competition. Freud’s assumption was that during this time psychic energy had its first migration from the id to the superego and ultimately the ego.

The neurologically-based ego model here harks back a bit further in time, specifically to the epoch in which homo sapiens – with his fully developed brain of some 1500 centimeters – arrived on the scene. It was during an Ice Age and survival came hard. Fortunately the large brains of our ancestors provided two significant tools enabling them to persist. One was the finely honed circuits around the fronto-parietal lobes supporting enhanced manual dexterity, spatial perception and the oral-motor precision that gave rise to a broader phonetic vocabulary leading to improvements in the crafting of tools, the use of communicative signals for hunting, cooking, making clothes and for the use of fire.

A second tool was equally important. It was a neurologically-driven capacity to distort experience – via the meshing of vast networks, so that pain, discomfort, tragedy, hunger, cold and hopelessness could be diverted. That ego – that capacity for intra-cerebral consultation and experiential modification enabled the inhabitants to press on in circumstances to which their hairless, slender, bipedal anatomies were not inherently suite. In that context, the first function of the ego, according to this model was the creation of hope and futuristic cognition. Such musings are not typical fare in discussions on human evolution but it’s hard to imagine humans coping in the Ice Age without such psychological resources.

Human Nature and the Moral Conundrum…

As mentioned earlier, in addition to its benefits the meshing process serves to distort pure experience. Life per se is edited constantly due to the obligatory intra-consultations that occur in the integrative mind of man. That somewhat curious feature is something of a paradox when it comes to the brain’s structural and functional impact on human civilization.

The paradox is this. The same distortion that leads us to generalize experience –which can take the form of racial stereotyping and hyper-emotional labeling (what Albert Ellis referred to as “catastrophizing” (2001) also enables us to create concepts known as rules, which in the final analysis enhances our ability to get along with one another. Thus human brain development, like everything else, involves a cost vs. gain trade-off.

In that context this model of the ego can be considered both psycho-socially adaptive and potentially problematic since it is forced to compromise within itself rather than acting as detached arbiter.

Theoretical Comparisons…

The question could be asked as to whether the neurologizing of the ego still coincides with Freud’s tripartite model of mind, i.e. as a modulating function amid id and superego. In one essential way it does not.

For Freud the primary psycho-pathogen was un-channeled anxiety. Here it is something else. For example, while an ego that derives from meshing and pruning would have an integrative capacity, both the id and superego would be viewed as non-integrative processes; – not separate elements of mind but a manifestation of networks operating outside the parameters of broad neuro-experiential consultation. In the case of the id, atavistic impulses, including sexual urges, aggression, a-moral opportunism could be described as a reflection of narrowly-driven, piecemeal acts and emotions. Meanwhile, the singularly moral, guilt-laden impact of the superego would be similarly defined as narrowly driven. Both would be typified by psychic tunnel vision.

According to this model, many forms of psychopathology would result from limited access to broad neural consultation and would therefore be described most fundamentally as a form of compulsion. By the same token the treatment of psychological disorders falling under this category would involve a search by client and counselor for broader thoughts, experiences and memories to create a psychic check and balance system and be used as both a here-and-now curative agent and preventative strategy against future breakdowns.

Implications for Diagnosis and Treatment…

While much of the modern literature on psychopathology is veering toward biological root causes, one can apply this model to treatment of the less obviously biological syndromes. The key to such an approach would be two-fold. One component would be to label and confront the narrow interpretations of experience that sustain the pathology. Once the “maladaptive tunnel vision” is discussed in counseling, use of broader labels and attribution can be broached, enabling the client to develop a more broadly consultative psychic system. Increasing neuro-experiential breadth and frame of reference in this phase of counseling could involve traditional sessions, discussions, reading materials, group sessions, or conceivably any other information-gathering mechanism.

A third phase of counseling would be didactic, and it would involve practice in session at re-labeling experiences so as to broaden the intra-consultative capabilities of the client. Once consultative skills improved, not only would the client be able to resolve presenting problems. He could also provide himself with a buffer against subsequent duress for post-therapeutic experiences.

Snags – the Counselor’s Moral Responsibility…

The obvious drawback of such a method would be that clients could learn to intra-consult their way past the socio-moral codes by which most of us live. One of the elegant aspects of Freud’s ego model is that it is both internal (anxiety-reducing) and external (used to accommodate social norms). In that context, it would be up to the counselor to guide the client toward reasonable, rational consultative resolutions that buffer experience, foster creativity but remain consonant with social mores.

Another drawback to this method is that being able to juggle social norms and consultative breadth to facilitate functioning and ameliorate compulsive, narrow percepts, behaviors and emotions would require adequate cognitive and language abilities. In that sense it suffers from the same limitations as most talk-therapies which modern clinicians have yet to overcome.


Cahan, D. (1993) Hermann Helmholtz and the Foundations of Nineteenth Century Science. University of California Press.

Chechik, G. Merlisjm, I. Ruppin, E (1999) Neuronal Regulation: A Mechanism for Synaptic Pruning During Brain Maturation. Neural Computation: 11(8) 2061-80

Courchet, J. Lewis, T. Sohyon, L. Courchet, V. Liou, D-Y. Atawa,S. Polleux, F. (2013) The LKB1-NUAK1 Kinase Pathway vis Postsynaptic Mitochondrial Capture. Cell 153(7) 1510

Ellis, A. (2001) Overcoming Destructive Beliefs, Feelings and Behaviors: New Directions for Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy. Prometheus Books.

Freud, S. (1929) Civilization and its Discontents. London, Penguin

Low, LK. Cheng, H-J (2001) Axon Pruning: An Essential Step Underlying The Developmental Plasticity of Neuronal Connections. Philos. Trans. Biological Science of London 361, 1531-1544.

Note: Regarding Freud and Darwin. As a young medical student on Trieste Freud spent time dissecting organisms under the supervision on Carl Claus, a Darwinist. Later Freud used many of Darwin’s writings in developing the theory of psychoanalysis.

Pavlov, I. (1941) Physiology of the Higher Nervous Activity. Lectures on Conditioned Reflexes. Vol. 2 New York, International Publishers.

Sherrington, C. Histology Demonstration Slides. History of Medical Sciences. University of Oxford Press. Retrieved 2/22/13.

Smith, D. (2011) Brain Devlopment and Decay: More Cannibal Neurons. On line Article in Brain Study: Archives of Neuroscience

Strachey, J. (2001) The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Vol XXI (1927-1931. London, Vintage

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