Anil K. Rajvanshi
Since time immemorial, humans have been intrigued by the idea of who am I or the nature of ego, ‘I’, etc. Philosophical and psychological tomes have been written on it. One of the tenets of Indian philosophy is to reduce or eliminate the ego so that liberation from cycle of birth and death takes place.
However, very few have been able to identify what ego, ‘I’, etc is, and where in brain it is located. Modern science and discoveries in brain research may be able to provide a possible answer to this riddle.
Recently scientists have been able to identify a small part inside the frontal portion of brain as the seat of ego, consciousness and sense of self. According to them in the areas called Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) and Fronto-insular Cortex (FIC) lies the sense of ego or awareness .
In these areas are also found densely packed von Economo Neurons (VENs). These neurons, named after the German scientist Constantin von Economo, were discovered in late 1920s. But only recently have they been thoroughly studied and scientists believe that they help to give us a sense of ‘I’, empathy and to organize and monitor other parts of brain . It is as if these neurons (which are just few hundred thousand in numbers) are like a symphony director and direct our thoughts and help in our concentration. Just like a symphony director who does not play any instrument himself but directs other players, VENs do not produce any thought themselves but direct other thoughts.
The VENs are different and much bigger (50-200%) than the other brain neurons. They are characterized by having a single branch (dendrite) through which the signal flows. In the other neurons, there are many branches emanating from each of them, which attach to other neurons and hence the signals flow through all the branches to form neural pathways, memory and thought. The single-branched, bigger VENs on the other hand allow much more rapid transfer of information and processing since they are faster conducting than the regular neurons and also the signal goes only through a single branch .
The ACC and FIC parts of brain are also very well-connected to sensory inputs and areas related to automatic control, decision-making or awareness. Thus, the rapid processing of information from these areas by VENs therefore allows them to act as policemen and “reality checkers”. Since VENs are few in number (two to four hundred thousand out of total of 100 billion neurons of brain) they do not form a thought on their own but simply compare the signals from the sensory organs with those emanating from the brain. This constant comparison of information from outside world and within gives us a sense of reality !
As ACC and FIC areas of the brain are densely populated by VENs it is possible that these neurons maybe acting as a group. We can therefore call them von Economo Neuron Group (VENG). VENG is also initiator of ego.
Ego results when VENG synchronizes the information and signals from the rest of the brain. It is similar to music being produced when the symphony director directs individual musicians. In the same way ego results when signals from the brain-map of our experiences are directed by VENG; though one is not sure which part of the brain these signals emanate from. Thus ego is like music ! Since each person’s brain is unique, depending on their experience and genetic makeup, their ego is also unique.
VENs start forming just after birth and reach their maximum number of 2-4 hundred thousand by the age of eight . This is also the age by which time a complete sense of self is ingrained as brain map. Thus it is possible that this early brain map/VENG interaction gives rise to ego. With time and experience the deep personal memories add to this ego.
This line of reasoning of VENG helping in ego production is validated by observing the effect of hallucinatory drugs like LSD on brain. When LSD-type drugs are taken, VENG signaling is reduced resulting in unchecked production of thoughts, hallucinations and visions . Some call it as creation of heightened reality and vision of god but almost all report absence of ego and self-awareness during drug-taking episodes ! The brain with its 100 billion neurons when left to itself, and without the direction of ego or ‘I’ can create a myriad of thoughts, hallucinations and visions. The VENG acting as a director gives the brain a certain order and keeps the hallucinations in check. It is as if in the absence of cat, mice have free reign ! Ego (mediated by VENG) helps in controlling these hallucinations.
This experience of heightened reality is also obtained by advanced yogis in Samadhi. In fact the definition of Yoga, according to Patanjali, is suppression of thought waves . Thought waves cannot be suppressed because a brain devoid of thought is a dead brain. I therefore think that Patanjali and other ancient Indian rishis intuitively knew about VENG and its suppression to bring calmness to the mind. Also the Samadhi experience of suppressing VEN activity is more useful and powerful than drugs since it allows controlled activity of other parts of brain by will. Hence the rich experience of heightened or altered reality is enhanced and lasts for longer time than the psychedelic experience.
Similarly during sleep VENG becomes dormant giving rise to rich dreaming process. VENG activity is probably also affected during the hypnosis so that the suggestions of the hypnotist directly control the brain of the person hypnotized.
Ego production by VENG may also explain the old brain riddle of why people with brain damage to certain section still retain their identity. VENG simply directs the brain signals from the remaining brain-map to give a sense of a new ego.
VENG also plays an important role in concentration. With controlled activity of VENG it has a great ability to direct various signals from the brain and keep them in vision field for a long time. This is the basis of meditation. In mathematics there is a term called limit cycle where non-linear systems (brain waves or thoughts are non-linear) can be made to oscillate in a stable fashion for ever by having a proper controller. Thus the oscillations, which are cyclic in nature, become stabilized and hence are limited within bounds – thus the word limit cycle . VENG, which is a controller or the director, has the ability to do so. To my mind this is also the basis of Patanjali’s Sanyam which is a combination of concentration meditation and Samadhi .
But how is VENG controlled ? I think it is an autonomous self controlling process where VENG and brain signals control each other to form a stable ego. The ancient Indian yogic system of concentrating on the center of forehead might also be a mechanism of taming the VENG since its location is in that area.
The nature of VENG also throws light on anger emotion. I think anger emotions result when there is conflict between the reality validated by VENG and the brain map. Thus when somebody shouts at us or says harsh things, there is a conflict between our sense of self and the reality (insult by others) which results in our getting angry. Similarly when we do not get what we want (again a conflict between our ego and reality) we get angry and so forth. The reduction of anger and calmness of mind comes when VENG is controlled by Yoga and conflict resolution takes place. This resolution happens when the brain map can be resolved through reasoning.
Reasoning can also take place when VENG makes it possible for the brain to modify its map according to the reality so that minimum conflict results. Thus conflict resolution is one of the very important aspects of an evolved human being and comes from the calmness of the mind.
Thus there is no single place in the brain where ego or anger rests but is a dynamic process mediated by VENG. This is just like music which one can never say where it is but when played by musicians exists!
(Anil K Rajvanshi, Ph.D is Director and Hon. Secretary, Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute (NARI)
Tambmal, Phaltan, Maharashtra. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org )
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