Crew & Cast

The theatre of the brain evolved from successful drives in our animal ancestors to survive, mate, nurture young, and live together in certain natural and social environments.  Backstage in your mind’s experience of the world today are inherited, unconscious structures for: (1) monitoring interior bodily states, (2) sensing the external world, (3) coordinating the body’s movements in it, and (4) sending emotional signals to the conscious mind.

As shown in the diagram below, the backstage crew for these functions form the “vertebrate brain” (sometimes called “reptilian brain”) in brainstem areas and the cerebellum.

Layered above that, in our brain’s evolutionary architecture, is the “old mammalian” limbic system with hubs of networks for the emotional signals that become feelings onstage in our conscious mind.


Brain chart copy

Feelings as actors, cast into the staging of consciousness, also interact with “new mammalian” and distinctively human networks of the neocortex:

(1) sensory stagehands, especially in the advanced primate areas of neocortex, the visual and spatial areas in the occipital and parietal lobes, at the back and top of your head, along with auditory areas in the temporal lobes at the sides

(2) long-term memory traces as audience members giving contextual meaning to new experiences, integrated at the sides of your head, with pictorial memories in the right temporal lobe and verbal in the left

(3) distinctively human, symbolic abstractions and narrative Self orders in the left neocortex, as playwright

(4) planning and executive Self controls in frontal areas, as director, including prosocial functions on the left, or more antagonistic on the right, in relation to sensory parietal areas that are sequential on the left and holistic on the right

So, your current physical sensations and feelings about your environment involve a backstage crew of numerous neural networks that developed for survival, reproduction, and primal social interactions.  Along with higher-order ideas (and complex social emotions), we feel the basic emotions of fear, desire, rage, lust, panic, nurturing, play, and sadness/joy (Panksepp)–as actors onstage–through the “image spaces” and “puppeteers” (Damasio) of our brain’s theatre.

Sometimes, such emotional drives overpower our symbolic, narrative Self and social, superego controls (as with fear’s short-circuit via the amygdale), producing wild imaginings inside the mind and explosive behaviors outside.  But we gradually learn, as children and adults, to tame the wild drives within–or we suffer the consequences as others react.  The art forms of theatre, cinema, television, videogames, and webcasts express such tensions between the wild and tame, animal and human, in our inner theaters, which were or might be expressed … in real life.

See Jaak Panksepp and Lucy Biven’s THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF MIND and Antonio Damasio’s SELF COMES TO MIND.


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