Three kinds of meaning and the management of complexity

Three kinds of meaning and the management of complexity
Three Forms of Meaning and the Management of Complexity
Jordan B Peterson
Department of Psychology
University of Toronto
In K. Markman, T. Proulx, & M. Linberg (Eds.). The Psychology of Meaning. Washington, DC:
American Psychological Association.
The complexity of the world
Most psychological models, even those as sophisticated as Gray’s (1982), are based on
the assumption that the world is made of objects, existing independently and given, or, more
abstractly, of stimuli. That assumption is incorrect: the boundaries between objects or stimuli are
largely situation-dependent and subjectively-determined. Half our brain is devoted to vision. This
indicates that we do not simply see what is there. The “frame problem”1 encountered by AI
engineers producing sensory systems for machines provides another indication of perception’s
complexity. This profound problem – the infinite search space for perceptual representation –
looms over all other current psychological concerns. We live in a sea of complexity (Peterson &
Flanders, 2002). The boundaries of the objects we manipulate are not simply given by those
objects. Every object or situation can be perceived, in an infinite number of ways (Medin and
Aguilar, 1999), and each action or event has an infinite number of potential consequences. Thus,
as the robotics engineer Brooks (1991a; 1991b) points out, echoing Eysenck (1995), perception is
the “essence of intelligence” and the “hard part of the problems beings solved.” The world does
not present itself neatly, like rows of tins on a shelf. Nature cannot be easily cut at her joints. We
frame our objects by eradicating vast swathes of information, intrinsically part of those objects
and categories, but irrelevant to our current, subjectively-defined purposes (Norretranders, 1998).
How do we manage this miracle of simplification? We will address this question from a
neurodevelopmental and evolutionary perspective.
The nature of reality
The reality of things consists in their persistent forcing themselves upon our recognition. If a
thing has no such persistence, it is a mere dream. Reality, then, is persistence, is regularity. (C.
S. Peirce)
The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes,
either for good or ill. (J. J. Gibson)
Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion. (Diogenes Laertius)
The objects and categories we use are neither things nor labels for things.2 Instead,
“objects” are entities bounded by their affective relationship to a goal.3 We perceive meaningful
phenomena, not the objective world. The intuitions that guide us are pragmatic and embodied
(Gibson, 1979; Lakoff, 1987). Objects have certain properties, at the “basic-level” category
system we are biologically prepared to use (Brown, 1986). They are solid, opaque, massive, and
reasonably permanent – features that become salient because of their consequence for action.
Solid objects can be gripped and manipulated. Density and solidity thus seem more real than
experiences such as color. Our embodied, basic-level intuitions also lead us to understand the
constituent elements of the objects we manipulate as bits of matter, increasingly smaller, but
similar in kind.
J.J. Gibson, addressing such issues, defined the “ambient optic array at a point of
observation” as the central concept of ecological optics (Gibson, 1979, p. 65). This array is a
heterogeneous, differentiated arrangement. Such an array necessarily surrounds the point of
observation in ecological space. “The structure of an optic array, so conceived, is without gaps….
completely filled. Every component is found to consist of smaller components. Within the
boundaries of any form, however small, there are always other forms” (p. 68). His observations
(“a new, deep, epistemological problem,” according to Daniel Dennett (1984, p. 129)).
(as St. Augustine originally proposed)
J. J. Gibson described such entities as affordances: “an affordance is neither an objective property nor a subjective
property; or, it is both if you like. An affordance cuts across the dichotomy of subjective-objective and helps us to
understand its inadequacy. It is equally a fact of the environment and a fact of behavior. It is both physical and psychical,
yet neither. An affordance points both ways, to the environment and to the observer” (Gibson, 1979, p. 129).
prove very useful for forging a deep understanding of the potential in the real. Gibson also
pointed out that the array is segregated, perceptually, into a perspective structure, changing with
every displacement of the point of observation, and an invariant structure, common to multiple
points of observation.
Democritus, who formulated ancient atomic theory, noted that the void in which atoms
were distributed was just as real as the atoms themselves. This seemingly self-evident
observation has many interesting consequences. Atoms can differ in arrangement, given space.
This allows for both randomness and ordered pattern, or array. Something random cannot be
fully represented except by something as complex as the random elements themselves.4 Ordered
arrays, by contrast (where some elements repeat) can be represented by using elements within the
pattern to stand for the whole. A square composed of an equally-spaced 4 X 4 array of dots is
thus “1 line of 4 dots repeated 4 times.” Representation of the whole by the part, akin to Miller’s
(1956) chunking, massively decreases computational complexity. Now, modern space is more
complex than that of Democritus: it is spacetime, with 4 dimensions – height, length, width, and
time. This means that the constituent elements of things are arranged in a (quantized) 4dimensional array of varying heterogeneity.
Intelligible arrays have been identified at many levels of resolution: from that of the
quark, 1/10,0002 as large as an atom, to the supra-galactic, at 1025 meters. All things-inthemselves exist simultaneously at all those levels, and partake in multiple arrays, at each level.
A perceptible object is thus an array segregated, arbitrarily and for subjective, purposeful
reasons, from its participation in endless other arrays. However, some aspect of the original array
must be retained. Otherwise, the object cannot be said to truly exist, and must be regarded as
fantasy. Those aspects of the spacetime array we perceive as objects tend (1) to be homogeneous
at some resolution-level in some structural aspect against a comparatively heterogeneous
background; (2) to persist for a biologically-relevant length of time; and (3) to serve as
affordances or obstacles in relationship to a goal. Knowledge of these facts help us understand
(1) how the object can have a subjective property (as an affordance, for example), (2) why the
object is less than the thing-in-itself and (3) how the object can still be empirically “real.” The
perceived object is simpler than the thing-in-itself (a prerequisite to comprehension) – while
remaining importantly related to the actual thing. This relationship is the encoding of some
genuine regularity across some dimension(s). The perceived object is thus a low-resolution image
of the thing-in-itself. The concept, in turn, is an abstracted simplification of the perceived object
(but retains some not-entirely-subjective relationship to that object).5
The constituent elements of an object, the object itself, and the many objects and
situations of which the object itself is a constituent element are all equally real. All of this
extraneous reality must be stripped away, before a given object can be perceived, much less put
to use, by applying a pragmatic framework of reference to the object, specifying its relationship
to a goal. Perception simplifies the world, without sacrificing functional grip. The perceiver
learns what resolution-level is relevant to a given operation by interacting pragmatically with the
patterns amenable to perception. The pattern that manifests itself at the appropriate level is
granted object status. In every act of perception, therefore, entropy at some levels of resolution is
reduced to a minimum, while at others it is allowed to approach the infinite. Thus the complexity
characterizing the thing-in-itself can be successfully, if temporarily, dealt with.
When we see, we do not see much of what is there (Simons & Rensink, 2005). The fact
that each object-pattern is involved in many invisible arrays means that things have many
invisible properties. This is a good thing, when new problems emerge. Old objects can be
This is something equivalent to Kolmogorov complexity.
This implies as well, that the perceptual object is an axiom of the concept and, conversely, that an object may be nothing
more than an well-practiced concept – of the species, the social group, or the individual, following Barsalou (1983). What
is axiomatic about the object is that it is a representation of the thing-in-itself, sufficient for some delimited purpose.
What is axiomatic about the concept is that it is a sufficient representation of the object.
investigated for new properties. However, it is also a bad thing. Since each object-pattern is
involved in many arrays, we can perceive incorrectly. Furthermore, the outcome of a
hypothetically finite act cannot be definitively calculated. This means simplified knowledge,
constant blindness, and endless opportunity for error. What we fail to see can manifest itself,
unexpectedly, forcing us to attend to objects of perception that appear utterly, even traumatically,
new (though they may have been lurking in the background, forever).
The Meaning of Meaning
The world therefore manifests itself to us, as religious thinkers and philosophers alike
have insisted, in the form of meaning. Such meaning, however, does not take a single form.
Instead, it makes itself known in three different classes. The 1st class includes the most basic,
universal and evolved forms of functional simplifications. This class, meanings of the known,
familiar or determinate world, includes the meanings of individual and social identity that
simplify and structure the world. The 2nd class includes those that arise to challenge the integrity
of our current known or determinate-worlds. This class, meanings of the unknown, foreign or
indeterminate world, includes the meanings of anomaly or novelty – the unexplored world. The
3rd class includes those that arise as a consequence of the integrated interaction of the first two
classes. This class, meanings of the conjunction of the known and the unknown, includes the
meanings arising in the course of voluntary exploratory behaviour. These are the existential
meanings intrinsic to individual experience. Consideration of all three classes provides a
comprehensive, differentiated portrait of meaning, free from paradox.
The Known, Orderly, Explored, Determinate World:
Motivation-Action-Perception (MAP) Schemas and their Hierarchies
MAP Schema, considered as individual units
If it is impossible to perceive the world, how do we do it? The simple answer is that we
don’t. We sense it well enough so that some live long enough to reproduce. We maintain our
integrity, momentarily, while the complexity of the world swirls around us, and lays us low.
Induction is a scandal, famously, because things change – on different timeframes and scales, but
on every timeframe and every scale, eventually. Thus, no solution to the problem of perception is
final. In the face of such change, Darwinian hyper-production of potential solutions, allied with
severe post-production culling, maintains life. Life-forms vary, in tandem with the endless
transformations of the world. Enough variation exists, so that a solution to each deviation from
inductive predictability has so far been found. The price paid for this, however, is endless deadly
failure. Most genes do not propagate themselves across the generations. The best laid plans fail,
and most species go extinct.
Some forms and strategies, nonetheless, have proved themselves, and have been
conserved. These are evident at different levels of resolution, from the sub-cellular, where the
symbiosis between mitochondria and eukaryotic cell has lasted for several 100 million years,
through the individual, comprised of the uneasy union between the single-minded personalities of
thirst, hunger, sexuality, and aggression, to the social, where the dominance-hierarchy structure
governing individual relationships has ruled for at least 100 million years. Such forms and
strategies allow us to cope with the slowest-changing of patterned complexities: our biological
structures presume air, water, light, and darkness, although some of these things have been and
may again become scarce. More short-term psychological realities are also presumed: social
structure, cooperation and aggression, to name a few.
It is motivation that provides the most stable of the psychological strategies. Motivation
does not drive behavior, deterministically; nor does it simply set goals. Instead, it provides the
current state of being with boundaries and values (Barsalou, 1983). These remain unquestioned,
if current action produces its desired ends. These bounded states may be conceptualized as
determinate micro-worlds of experience – as motivation, action and perception (MAP) schemas.
As there are qualitatively different states of motivation, such as hunger, thirst, lust or aggression
(Rolls, 1999; Swanson, 2000), there are multiple MAP schemas, manifesting themselves singly
and sequentially. The basic MAP schema consists firstly of perceptions of point a, the undesired
beginning-state, and point b, the desired end-state, and secondly of motor actions designed to
bring about the transformation of the former to the latter (Peterson, 1999). Objects and events
relevant to the current schema are perceived; those assumed irrelevant fade into non-existence.
Human beings are low-capacity processors, with an apprehension capacity of < 7 objects
(Cowan, 2001; Miller, 1956). Our perceptions, tuned by our motivational systems, are limited by
our working memory: a good goal thus requires consideration of no more things than we can
track. Perhaps it is in this manner that we determine when to deconstruct a task into sub-goals –
all goals are motivated; all reasonable goals are perceptually and cognitively manageable.
A given MAP schema arises as a consequence of insufficiency, emerging along a basic
motivational dimension. This can be brought about by a decrement in the value of the present, or
the imagining of a better future. The emergence of a particular motivation induces a state of
radical world-simplification. Someone sexually deprived, for example, increasingly frustrated by
the present, increasingly sees the future, single-mindedly, as a place of physical satiation. The
motivational significance of beginning-and-end states is given by biology, or secondarily and
rapidly derived from biology through learning. We confront the environment, innately, with
loneliness, playfulness, hunger, thirst and sexual yearning (Panksepp, 1998). We will work to
increase wealth, however, after learning its association with pleasure, satiation, and dominancehierarchy position.
How therefore might motivation be given its proper place, in the study of perception?
We might start with an analysis of the most basic animal strategies, building in stages from there,
seeing how evolution solves the problem. Swanson (2003) describes the relationship between the
simplest multi-cellular animal, the sponge, and the complex thing-in-itself. The sponge lacks a
CNS, entirely. Instead, it is composed of “sensorimotor” cells, arranged in an array, all over its
body. This array maps limited detectible environmental patterns directly on to a specialized range
of motor actions, with no perceptual intermediation. At this primitive level, it is not objects that
evoke responses. Instead, the same cells are used for detection and output, and one pattern evokes
The hydra, a stage above the sponge, possesses a primitive, differentiated CNS, with
sensory, neural and motor cells. Thus, it can detect a wider range of patterns, and map them on to
more actions. Neural cell intermediation provides the precursor to perception, so that the same
“thing” can produce different outputs, but the hydra still essentially pattern-matches. With its
increased flexibility, the hydra appears to have every advantage over the sponge, but it is
handicapped in one manner: speed. Information moving across more switches means longer
reaction time. This problem becomes acute, as the nervous system increases in complexity.
Conscious human perception can take .5 seconds (Libet, 1999). Sensory systems therefore retain
dual branches: one to the motor system, for reflex-like speed; the other, to the cortex, for slower
elaboration of response (Swanson, 2003). As behaviour proceeds from reflexive to voluntary,
among complex animals, it is regulated by an increasingly complex control hierarchy (Swanson,
2000). At the simplest level, somatomotor neuron pools in the spinal cord ventral horn innervate
the musculature of the major limbs. At the next level (the locomotor pattern generator),
operations are are surprisingly sophisticated,6 although still spinally localized and reflexive.
A “spinal” animal (one that is classically paralyzed as a consequence of surgical severing of the spinal cord from the
brain) can still manifest coordinated limb movements characteristic of locomotion if suspended above a moving treadmill,
with its limbs in contact with the surface of the treadmill (Swanson, 2000). This means that the spine, in isolation, is
essentially capable of walking if sensory input reminiscent of locomotion is received by the spinal pattern generator.
However, the spinal animal is not capable of any spontaneous or voluntarily-controlled or even complex involuntarilycontrolled motor behavior. Note that what this means, at least from one viewpoint, is that the “representation” of the
treadmill-stimuli is, from the spinal perspective, “move limbs in walking pattern” – without any intermediation of
representation independent of or abstracted from the treadmill. The spinal animal is therefore clearly not using an object6
Animals with the brain-body connection severed at a higher level, mid-brain, are still without
spontaneous motor behavior. However, when intensely stimulated, they can manifest complex
actions, which can be adapted to new situations (Whalen, 1998). The midbrain region is a
locomotor pattern initiator – a area producing action to more abstract stimuli than those
associated with, for example, a treadmill.
The hypothalamus basically constitutes the next stage of the hierarchy, the locomotor
pattern controller. Its presence in an otherwise decerebrate animal allows for spontaneous
behaviour, of the fundamental, survival-oriented kind: ingestive, defensive, and reproductive.
Hypothalamic animals are hyperactive in contrast to midbrain animals, who do not eat, drink, or
manifest spontaneous defensive behaviors, and to intact animals, whose behavior is more
specifically regulated.7 It is the hypothalamic medial nuclei which are particularly involved in
behavioral control. These nuclei may be divided into the rostral segment, governing ingestion,
reproduction and defense, and the caudal segment, governing foraging and exploration. The
rostral segment sets particular goals: food, a mate, escape from predation. The caudal segment,
by contrast, controls the initial analysis of the unexpected and unexplored. It includes the
mammillary body, controlling head direction, the ventral tegmental area, origin of dopaminergic
incentive reward circuitry (Legault & Wise, 2002) and locomotor behavior, and the reticular part
of the substantia nigra, regulating the orienting movements of the eyes, head, neck and upper
limbs (Swanson, 2000). The hypothalamus thus functions as follows: The rostral segment
generates a MAP schema, oriented towards some basic end, implementing appropriate
perceptions and actions. If the schema succeeds, another, based on a different primary
motivation, rapidly supersedes it. If it fails, however, the caudal segment switches to exploratory
mode, and gathers more information. Thus, at the psychological level of analysis, (1) the external
world is mapped on to motor output, before it is perceived; (2) such mapping transforms itself
into object-perception, as the CNS develops in complexity; (3) a tight connection remains
between sensation and action, even when perceptual intermediation arises; and (4) – most
importantly – that the schema within which an object is perceived is controlled by
hypothalamically grounded, goal-directed motivation.
To identify some end as valuable means to grant it consummatory-reward status,
formally, as “end” implies consummation. “Consummatory reward” has well-defined, relevant
and oft-instinctive features (Rolls, 1999). The human capacity for abstraction means, however,
that the hypothetical, arbitrary or symbolic may also come to function as consummatory reward;
may serve as goal and indicate satiety, so that current behaviours can be terminated; may come to
frame the perception of “objects,” evaluated as incentives, threats and punishments (Peterson,
1999). Such consequences of goal-setting are universal, regardless of the specifics of the goal.
This means (1) that the cortex modulates archaic motivational systems by substituting
abstractions for primordial goals and (2) that goals might be considered, generally, as a class, so
that the diversity of potential goals can be ignored, and the goal itself serve as an object of
discussion. We establish point “b,” the ideal endpoint of our linear activity. We specify and
evaluate our starting point “a,” and our actions, in reference to that ideal. We strive to transform
“a” into “b,” testing possible solutions to the now-bounded frame problem. We become anxietyridden or frustrated as a consequence of our failures, manifold and common. Alternatively, we
embody a solution, as a consequence of favourable mutation, or stumble across an answer,
communicate our successes, and move up the dominance hierarchy. Our MAP schema solutions
are inevitably evolutionary, phylogenetically (as our successful genes accumulate) and
ontogenetically (as we try many useless approaches, and conserve those that work).
like representation of the treadmill to initiate its locomotion behavior. Instead, the treadmill sensory pattern or array is
mapped more or less directly onto a walking output motor pattern.
The hypothalamus has developed subsystems providing integrated control of all three subsections of the motor system:
somatomotor, governing the operation of skeletal, voluntary muscle; autonomic, innervating smooth muscle, cardiac
muscle, and glands; and neuroendocrine, exerting its effects through the pituitary (Swanson, 2000, p. 116). The
hypothalamus also regulates temperature and the sleep/wake cycle.
MAP schema considered in their social/hierarchical multiplicity
Basic motivation helps solve the problem of pragmatic world simplification, but three
basic problems still remain. First are issues of sequence and time frame: in what order should a
set of MAP schemas manifest themselves, over the day, or week, or year? Second is the related
issue of importance: which MAP schemas should be granted priority of value? Third is the even
more complex third problem, that of social being: how should I adjust my MAP schemas to those
around me (who are facing, and trying to solve, the same problems)? It is identity, the
idiosyncratic form of personal integration, that solves these problems. Such personal identity
shades into the social; personal and social identity is the emergent, unconscious, automatic
consequence of the co-operative/competitive generation, sequencing and rank-ordering of MAP
schemas. Such organization manifests itself intrapsychically and socially as the dominance
Status is the most important determinant of survival and reproductive success.
Establishment of a predictable dominance hierarchy allows for orderly resource access, so that
every consummatory attempt does not end in competitive violence. Status tracking is so
important (Abbott et al., 2003; Virgin & Sapolosky, 1997) that group and neocortical size are
tightly correlated, among primates (Joffe & Dunbar, 1997), and advancement worth fighting for.
Juvenile chimps, our close cousins (Sibley & Ahlquist, 1984), share many MAP schema with
children, including those related to dominance-hierarchy manoeuvring. These manifest
themselves first, innocently enough, as teasing (De Waal, 1996). Teasing becomes more serious
with age, but less frequent. The infant engages in little pushes from behind, jumping away when
the adult reacts. The adolescent male manifests full-fledged charging displays, seeking to
dominate peers and, eventually, higher-ranking adults. Adults form sophisticated coalitions,
jockeying for position. Such jockeying can become horrifically violent (De Waal, 1996).
The fact of innate dominance striving, however, buttressed by aggression, does not
mean that chimps or humans lack social feeling, or that they simply come to inhibit their
aggression through fear or forethought. Primates are gregarious, much as aggressive, even in the
aftermath of violent encounters (De Waal, 1989a). Agonistic and cooperative behaviors are not
simply opposed to one another. More aggressive social creatures may have to be more affiliative
(De Waal, 1989a; Abbott et al., 2003). Interaction can be cooperative at one level, and
competitive at another. The dominance hierarchy is in fact a form of extended cooperation,
establishing the frame for within-hierarchy striving, and aggression is counterbalanced by two
powerful regulatory processes. One is innate and internal; the other, emergent and social. The
internal process is empathy, the ability to feel another’s experiences (Preston & De Waal, 2002).8
The maternal circuitry governing empathy is deeply rooted (Panksepp, 1998), and modulates
response to those deemed kin.9
Chimps are predatory. They hunt monkeys and raid foreign conspecifics (Wrangham &
Peterson, 1996). A chimp might even maim or kill a troupe-mate, during intensely agonistic
disputes. Clearly, there is no inevitable internal limit on their aggressive MAP schemas. De Waal
(1989b) has suggested, instead, that it is the whole troupe that constrains the ambitious
individual, becoming agitated en masse when any battle goes too far. Thus, a well-socialized
individual may not generally need a super-ego.10 If he is acceptable to his peers, the modulating
effect of their reactions will remain at hand, and effective. When human children are socialized,
they learn socialized alternatives to violence, which serve as more effective means to social
In addition, of course, to the basic inhibition produced by fear.
A wide range of animals exhibit empathic reactions to distressed conspecifics, including rats, hyenas and rhesus
monkeys (Rice & Gainer, 1962; Rice, 1964;Yoerg, 1991; Masserman et al., 1964). Likewise, human infants cry when
others cry (Zahn-Waxler, Radke-Yarrow and King, 1979), imitate others’ distress, and help, spontaneously (ZahnWaxler, Radke-Yarrow & Brady-Smith, 1977; Miller, Eisenberg, Fabes & Shell, 1996).
Something terrifying to consider, in the human case, given our belief in individual morality, but potentially sufficient
explanation for brutality like that manifested at Nanking (Chang, 19XX).
status. They do not simply inhibit the primal aggressive circuits. Instead, they integrate these
circuits into more sophisticated behavioural games. The child organizes her primary impulses
into higher-order, low-resolution MAP schema, within the confines of the dominance hierarchies
she inhabits.
Such organization is mediated by empathy, and then by play. Play is early social
cognition: when children play, they adapt their actions to each other. They produce and then
share a perspective, and work towards a common goal. They embody the same MAP schema, to
the benefit of both. The capacity to do so unfolds developmentally, starting with the body, in
direct physical contact with others’ bodies (Smith & Boulton, 1990). The maturing child begins
by constructing small-scale motor patterns, designed to attain individually-motivated ends. “Play
is purely individual,” at this stage. “Ritualized schemas” develop – skilled play habits – but no
collective patterns, much less rules (Piaget, 1932, p. 16-18). The child plays alone, practicing a
repertoire of functional actions and conceptions, from the spinal bottom of Swanson’s (2000)
control hierarchy to the cortical top. Before there are stateable rules, there are behavioral patterns.
As the child progresses, complex social understanding emerges. The child imitates
himself, using procedure to map procedure, at the initial, embodied stage of genuine
representation. Any successful MAP schema is immediately replicated, practiced, automatized
and readied for future employment (Piaget, 1932). Imitation then extends to others. Patterned
social interactions begin to emerge, as the play partners’ exchange information about which
(re)actions are desirable, and a prototypical morality emerges (even among rats 11 (Panksepp,
1998). Control over MAP schema formation shifts to emergent systems of more complex control.
Hippocampal maturation allows for determination by context (LeDoux, 1996). The orbitofrontal
and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices increasingly grant abstractions value-status (Krawczyk,
2002), removing the individual from the short-term horizon of basic motivation (Pochon, Levy,
Fossati et al., 2002).
Higher-order, more explicit, cooperative morality emerges around 7 (Piaget, 1932).
Each child now tries to win, to dominate the hierarchy of game achievement. At first glance, this
appears competitive. However, all disagreements about the game have to be resolved before any
attempt to play, let alone win, can begin, and all striving must remain civilized enough that the
game can continue. Even these more complex play forms emerge procedurally, rather than
explicitly. If the playing children are separated, and interviewed individually, they give disparate
accounts of the emergent game’s “rules.” They still need the information provided by the others’
presence to maintain the game. Once a game becomes, a regular occurrence, however, it can be
explicitly codified. Then the patterns that constitute the game, and the explicit description of the
game, come into alignment. The children map their own socially-modified sensorimotor outputs,
and become conscious players (Piaget, 1932), able to inhabit fictional, social, dramatic worlds
(highly abstracted and communal MAP schema). It is the ability to establish these joint schemas
that allows for the modulation of motivation and emotion toward some shared end. In a good
game, there are many opportunities for joint gain. There is no need to be predatory or defensive,
so there is little need for violence. Well-socialized adults add their opinions to the process,
insisting that the players’ play fair, and act as good sports: “How you play the game is more
important than whether you win or lose.” The adults know, implicitly, that life is a sequence of
games, and that those who play properly during a given game become the popular players of
many games, benefitting cumulatively from playing each. Thus, a vital form of meta-morality
emerges: the best player is he who is invited to play the most games. Sacrificing a future
invitation for present victory is a counterproductive long-term strategy.
When juvenile rats are paired together, repeatedly, in rough-and-tumble wrestling bouts, one rat will end up on top
more frequently. However, if the now-dominant rat pins its playmate more than 70% of the time, the subordinate, who
initiates play sequences, begins to ignore the victor, and play diminishes (Panksepp, 1998). The dominant rat must learn
to respond to the cues of the subordinate, if it wishes to keep playing. Such modulation lays the foundation for the higherorder morality keeping aggression and other potentially antisocial schema properly regulated – even among rats.
A purely personal MAP schema specifies starting place, goal, objects of perception, and
implication for emotion, dealing with the bits of the world relevant to a particular desire. The
joint construction of such schema integrates perception across individuals, placing them in the
same world of objects, aligning their emotions. Diverse individuals inhabit the same experiential
space, cooper-ating both to reach a goal and to maintain the space’s integrity. This is how
fundamental agreements emerge, nullifying the very necessity for aggression – or for terror. For
the socialized, within the intact dominance hierarchy, the unbearable present predictably turns
into the desirable future. Everyone plays the same game, with the same rules, at the same time.
Emotion remains controlled.
The specific circuitry mediating such concordance has been recently outlined. Rizzolatti,
Fogassi and Gallese (2001) describe the behavior of certain visuomotor neurons, located in the
ventral premotor cortex. Some are motor neurons, but also respond to visual stimuli. Some are
activated by 3D objects. The most relevant, however, “mirror neurons – require action
observation for their activation” (p. 661). Mirror neurons, part of the system that uses motoroutput patterning as the basis of perception, have remarkable properties. They do not respond to a
motivationally significant object in isolation. Nor do they respond to the sight of a conspecific
engaged in context-independent action, such as grasping. But they do respond to the sight of a
conspecific grasping in the presence of a motivationally significant object. More to the point,
their responses match, when a motivated sequence is observed and when it is enacted. This
congruence can be strict, coinciding in goal and behavioral sequence. Sometimes, however, the
congruence is broader; generalizing “the goal of the observed action across many instances of it”
(p. 662). This is akin to a child’s playing the role of father, rather than precisely imitating any of
father’s specific behaviors. A neural mechanism allowing both for imitation and the abstraction
of imitation has thus been identified.
Mirror-neuron mediating understanding cascades downward from the abstract, through
the emotional, to the physical. The mirror system accepts sensory, cognitive and circadian state
inputs, and produces somatic, endocrine, and neuroendocrine output (Swanson, 2000). Area F5,
which contains the mirror neurons, shares connectivity to inferior parietal lobe with area “a” of
the superior temporal sulcus – part of a circuit including amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex
(Amaral et al., 1992). This implies that mirroring extends beyond action, to its emotional,
motivational, cognitive and neuroendocrine concomitants. F5 has other relevant functions, as
well. It is the primate homologue of Broca’s area, which has come to govern voluntary speech.
The development of the mirror neuron system allows a maturing child to embody the action and
motivational states of those he directly observes, with greater or lesser fidelity. The linguistic
abilities of Broca’s area, integrated with the mirror neuron circuitry, allow communicating
children to verbally instantiate shared MAP schema, not at the level of precise imitation, but at a
higher, generalized state. Thus, children engaged in pretend play can coordinate their
motivations, emotions, actions, and perceptions. Such processes of coordination, within such
schema, lay the groundwork for the understanding of imagistic and more abstract semantic
thought, including drama and fiction, and the ability to engage in increasingly adult-scale social
enterprises. A plan is the projection of a compelling fiction onto agreed-upon objects and
contexts. The successful joint establishment of such a plan, motivationally significant,
emotionally gripping, eliminates the very necessity for uncertainty, anxiety and conflict. This all
means, as well, that it is not precisely individuals who occupy a given position in a given
dominance hierarchy. MAP schema themselves cooperate and compete, within and between
individuals. The intrapsychic and social structure that results is the consequence of that process.
Thus, in a properly formulated dominance hierarchy, the presuppositions of the individuals match
the structure of the group. This matching keeps the group stable, and the individuals affectively
regulated. Any challenge to this match (and not simply to the intrapsychic or social structures
themselves) therefore simultaneously dysregulates motivation and emotion.
The Unknown, Chaotic, Unexplored, Indeterminate World:
Novelty, Anomaly and MAP Schema Disruption
The frame consisting of point “a” and point “b” can well be considered a theory-laden
MAP schema. Such a schema is also a story, however, in its simplest form, analogous to the
necessary fiction of Vaihinger (1924) and Adler (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956), the lifespace/field of Lewin (1935), the Dasein of the phenomenologists (Binswanger, 1963; Boss, 1963)
and the normal science of Kuhn (1970). A MAP schema is also a cybernetic unit (see Weiner,
1948). A broad, interdisciplinary consensus has emerged around the cybernetic framework, based
on the assumption that goal-directed, self-regulatory systems constantly compare what is to what
should be, while attempting to reduce mismatch. Piaget (1954) adopted many cybernetic
preconceptions, including the belief that “all knowledge is tied to action… on the most
elementary sensory-motor level and all the way up to the highest logical-mathematical
operations” (Glaserfield, 1982, p. 613; Glaserfield, 1999). Luria (1960, 1980), Sokolov (1963)
and Vinogradova (1961, 1975) were also heavily influenced by Wiener.12All four served as
precursors to Gray (1982; 1987; Gray & McNaughton, 2003). Miller, Galanter and Pribram
(1960) used cybernetic principles, as did Powers (1973a, 1973b) and Schank and Abelson (1977).
Similar ideas have emerged with regards to emotions and their role in giving value to objects of
apprehension (Damasio, 1994; Jung, 1971, pp. 433-436) and indicating the interruption of goals
(Oatley & Johnson-Laird, 1987; Oatley, 1992; Oatley & Jenkins, 1992).
Luria, Sokolov, Vinogradova and Gray (LSVG) hypothesized, specifically, that complex
organisms developed a complete internal model of the world and how it should unfold, as a
consequence of current actions, and continuously contrasted this internal model, this expectation,
with what was, in fact, occurring. When things go according to plan, according to this hypothesis,
positive affect rules, ensuring that current goal-directed conceptions and actions dominate (Gray,
1982; Rolls, 1999). When something unexpected occurs, by contrast, the orienting reflex, a
sequence of rapid preparatory responses, manifests itself. Current goal-directed actions cease
(Gray, 1982), when mismatch between desire and world emerges, detected by the septalhippocampal comparator systems. Lower brain circuit function, including the amygdalic, is
disinhibited, activating circuitry in the right hemisphere (Tucker & Frederick, 1989) and, later in
the processing chain, inhibiting the frontal and prefrontal systems of the left cortical hemisphere,
associated with positive emotion (Davidson, 1992). The autonomic nervous system is engaged.
Heart rate rises (Fowles, 1980), in preparation for non-specific action, and cortisol floods the
bloodstream (Gray, 1987). Startle responses, primitive but fast, governed by brainstem circuitry,
produce virtually instantaneous physiological defensive postures, designed to protect the body,
particularly the head and neck (Yeomans, Li, Scott & Frankland, 2002). This is followed by
activation of circuits in the superior colliculus, which direct the sensory systems of the head
towards the environmental locale that quick-and-dirty systems have specified as the source of the
anomaly (Dean, Redgrave & Westby, 1989). Hypothalamic systems, particularly those in the
rostral segment, ready fight or flight, another aspect of defensive response, in concert with the
pain-sensitive systems of the periaqueductal grey (Swanson, 2000). Finally, the extended
amygdala (the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis) enhances vigilance, and provisionally
associates the anomalous occurrence with anomalies that in the past have produced negative
outcomes (Hooker, Germine, Knight & D’Esposito, 2006). This comparator theory, advanced
most completely by Gray, has become exceedingly influential, across wide domains of
psychological inquiry. It remains predicated, nonetheless, on four assumptions about perception
that can no longer be maintained. Thus, the role the hierarchical arrangement of MAP schema
plays in affect regulation has not yet been fully appreciated.
Sokolov’s (1963) subjects responded with an orienting reflex to the tiniest alterations in
lab stimuli. He used auditory tones, and elicited a galvanic skin response to any alteration in
volume, tempo, or irregularity in tone onset or offset. It was this sensitivity that produced
who published Cybernetics in Moscow in 1958 and lectured there in 1960 (Feigenbaum, 1961).
LSVG’s first error: the hypothesis of complete objective modeling. Later researchers
demonstrated that orienting only occurs toward “differences that make a difference” (Bargh &
Chartrand, 1999; Simons & Rensink, 2005) –anomalies that interfere actively with current goaldirected activity – and not to all stimulus change. Modeling is thus far from complete.
Consciousness attends selectively, to the minimum set of elements necessary to bring about the
desired transformation. LSVG assumed, secondly, that the CNS compared incoming objective
sensory data (reality) and expectation (construed cognitively). As behaviourists, they presumed
that stimuli were objectively real and simply given, and they gave short shrift to motivation.
Living creatures do not so much expect things, however, as desire them. Desire is motivation,
and it is motivational systems that fundamentally give rise to MAP schema. For LSVG,
mismatch meant error, cognitive error, error meant anxiety, and anxiety indicated that behaviour
had to be retooled. Mismatch, however, is much more than the problem of erroneous action, but
this cannot be understood without due consideration of motivation. If the desired future fails to
appear, it is not only current actions that might be wrong: current desire might be wrong, as well.
Perhaps the erroneous MAP schema is based in jealousy, for example, and the situation is such
that jealousy merely makes things worse.
Thirdly, it is not reality that is compared with expectation (now: desire). We are not
privy to reality, even in the present. Current “actuality” is modeled, much as future “possibility.”
Sometimes you cannot get from point “a” to point “b,” because you are not actually at point “a.”
We compare a motivated model of the present to a motivated model of the future. In the case of
error, this means that the very way we perceive things, past, present and future, might be
incorrect. Failure re-presents us with the frame problem. This is a very serious problem indeed,
given the multiple ways the complex world of things and situations can be perceived. Whatever
anxiety might arise at the failure of our actions is nothing compared with the terror of having to
recalibrate our perceptions. LSVG were therefore not nearly pessimistic enough about error.
When what is desired does not manifest itself, motivation and perception, as well as cognition
and action, might all be incorrect – anywhere in their structure.
This brings us to the fourth and final element missing in the standard account: the
implications of hierarchical MAP-schema structure (see also Carver & Scheier, 1998). In the
absence of such nesting, it would be impossible to disinhibit motivation and emotion at different
levels of intensity, when anomalies of different significance emerge. All errors would be equally
overwhelming or irrelevant. However, varying errors indeed produce various reactions. Each
mistake cannot be evaluated, cognitively, however. There is insufficient time for that. Instead,
potential meaning is bounded, a priori, by the breadth/import of the current MAP schema. Largescale MAP schemas are built from the bottom up, following Piaget and Swanson, established at
spinal levels; organized into more complexly sequenced routines, represented as abstractions,
communicated and verbally organized into long-term plans. A large-scale plan thus consists of
smaller plans, which consist of even smaller plans, which eventually ground out, in muscle
movement itself – where the mind meets the body. Development is simultaneous higher-order
organization of intrapsychic and social MAP schemas. Affective stability, particularly at higherorder levels, is dependent upon the match between them (to say it again). Imagine an inverted
neural hierarchy, representing MAP schema import: mismatch disruption of schemas closer to the
point of the V are more upsetting. The meaning of a high-resolution schema depends on its role
as a sub-element of a lower-resolution schema: grades in a pre-med class only matter in the
broader context of wanting to be a physician.
The objects specified by a given MAP schema are positively valenced – the 1st
dimension of emotion – if their appearance indicates (1) that progress is occurring, and (2) that
the structural integrity of the currently operative schema is valid and intact. A working schema
is therefore self-verifying, as well as providing direct, dopaminergically-mediated (Gray, 1982)
incentive reward. Obstacles, by contrast, are negatively valenced (the 2nd basic emotional
dimension). Their appearance indicates a schema-world mismatch, danger to current progress,
and the fact that the current MAP schema (or hierarchy) may not be functional. If an obstacle
does appear, it should first be evaluated for significance at narrowest and most specific level
possible. Such use of Occam’s razor limits the spread of chaotic emotion. Elements of self differ
in degree, not in kind: the upheaval produced by an obstacle is proportionate to the area of space
and time structured by the erroneous schema. The solution may lie close to hand, if the obstacle
is merely something expected under different circumstances. Other times, however, the obstacle
is too radically unknown for such easy dealings. Then the complexity of things re-emerges, with
incomputable consequences. The borders between things become questionable, and everything is
up for grabs. This is the problem of chaos, vs. order – the eternal problem, and the ultimate
reality of the world (Peterson, 1999).
We derive one important form of meaning –security and hope – from the match between
our personal MAP schemas and the social world. Such ordered meaning emerges as a
consequence of the delimitation of its paired opposite, chaos, whose manifestation produces the
second kind of meaning. Maintenance of MAP-schema meaning keeps chaos in check, rather
than revealing it (or allows it to be revealed in doses small enough to be tolerable). Determinate
positive and negative events occur, as the world manifests itself as tool and obstacle. Irrelevant
things occur, too, of course – but are in some important sense never realized. No one can pay
attention to all activity; only to all relevant activity. But what of seriously anomalous events?
Some occurrences are neither evidently good nor bad, nor immediately eradicable as
meaningless. They are not understood, not explored. They cannot be placed into the context of
the current MAP schema, nor encapsulated within that schema’s hierarchically-ordered largerscale conceptual surroundings. They violate the frame, interfering with its operation, its integrity,
and its relationship to other frames. What must happen in such cases?
What is not comprehended but is still extant must logically be experienced as
paradoxical: (Jung, 1967, 1968; Gray, 1982; Peterson, 1999): negative, in potential, positive, in
potential, irrelevant, in potential – and self and world in potential, as well. That potential, the true
complexity of the world, is chaos. Its manifestation, no mere threat, constitutes a challenge to the
full adaptive capacity of the individual. The emergence of chaos produces more than mere
anxiety; something more like generalized MAP schema disinhibition and competition, as new
and potentially appropriate means of framing war with each other for dominance. Motivation for
maintaining meaning is thus not merely desire to reduce anxiety: it is instead desire to avoid the
internal and, frequently, external war of competing options – and there is something even deeper
about the anomalous event. At some point in psychological development, however hypothetical,
all events are anomalous, though they may be rapidly constrained by the social surround. This
means that the schemas allowing for the determinate utilization of objects, situations and
abstractions are dependent for their construction, initially, on information extracted from the
overarching, ever-emerging domain of the unknown. It is for such reasons that chaos is
meaningful, a priori, and the mother of determinate being itself.
The appearance of the anomalous involuntarily produces its own specific MAP schema,
the orienting reflex, or complex, in more modern terms (Halgren, 1992; Ohman, 1979, 1987).
The beginning point of that schema is the insufficiency of present knowledge. The desired
endpoint is classification of the anomalous phenomenon, and its reduction to specified meaning.
Increased sensory processing and exploratory activity is brought to bear on the uncomprehended
circumstance, examined from the perspective of varying MAP schemas: Is it relevant to another
motivational state? Can it serve as an affordance or obstacle, and at what level? It is like other
irrelevant “objects,” and treatable as ground? Such effortful exploration constitutes (1) the
process by which identity originally comes to be (Peterson, 1999); (2) the elimination of
possibility from the indeterminate domain of the anomalous to the finite domain of a determinate
MAP schema; and (3) the reworking of identity, which is the sum total of all such schema. It is
here where Swanson’s work on hypothalamic function once again becomes relevant. The
hypothalamic “rostral behaviour control segment” establishes narrow, biologically relevant MAP
schema, ingestive, reproductive and defensive. The caudal segment, by contrast, is the origin
point of the ventral tegmental dopaminergic system, which governs approach and exploratory
behaviour, and whose activation is experienced as incentive reward. Thus, the hypothalamus has
a powerful, primordial backup system, which grips control, when its more specific rostral
systems fail in their efforts. Exploration in the face of the unknown is thus as ancient as hunger,
thirst, sex and aggression. It is a primary “drive,” manifesting itself in the form of the orienting
complex, under the control of the septal-hippocampal and anterior cingulate CNS systems.
In 2001, shortly before her death, Vinogradova delivered her final opinions on orientingcomplex system function. She described the hippocampus as an interface between primeval
brain-stem systems and newer, learning-dependent cortical systems. Sensory information from
the outside world is fed in a bottom-up fashion through the brain-stem systems into hippocampal
subarea CA3, providing a quick-and-dirty portrait of ongoing events. After a lag, due to increased
complexity of processing, information about what is currently desired is fed downward into the
hippocampus, first into area CA1, where it is simplified, and then into CA3, where it is compared
with the pre-processed brain stem input. If the two inputs match, CA3 sends a message to the
raphe nuclei, in the brain stem. These nuclei, in turn, suppress activity of the ascending,
excitatory reticular formation, which is responsible for increasing brain “arousal,” intensifying
attention, increasing sensory throughput (via the thalamus), placing the body in a state of
alertness and preparation for action, disinhibiting motivation, heightening anxiety and
potentiating exploration. This dissolution into chaos is the nervous system’s response to the
emergent chaos of nature: as order dissolves and transforms in the natural world, so it must in the
intrapsychic and social worlds, so that adaptation can continue. A rat’s a priori state in a novel
environment, for example, is dysregulation of motivation and affect, heightened alertness, and a
slowly developing inclination to explore (Blanchard, Blanchard & Rogers, 1991). This is a phasic
behavioral analog to the state of affairs permanently characterizing an animal, decorticated such
that its hypothalamus now occupies the highest level of CNS control remaining.
In a nonverbal animal, such as a rat, the transition from frozen anxiety to active
exploration and mapping begins with cautious sniffing, under the spell of brain systems that
minimize exposure to predators. The animal soon switches to vision, using appropriate head
movements; then begins to move, assessing territorial layout and significance as something
occurring in response to its own actions (Blanchard et al., 1991). For an isolated rat in a cage,
“territory” is something as simple as spatial layout – hence the cognitive map or spatial models of
hippocampus function (O’Keefe & Nadel, 1978), buttressed by findings of hippocampal “place
cells” (O’Keefe & Dostrovsky, 1971). Other researchers, however, note hippocampal enabling of
“transitive associations” (Bunsey & Eichenbaum, 1996) – relations between arbitrary stimuli
(Howard, Fotedar, Datey, & Hasselmo, 2005) – and suggest that place cell function is broader
identification of context. Context can also mean “behavioral task demand” or meaning (Smith &
Mizumori, 2006). Representation of such context may well be equivalent to episodic memory,
another hippocampal function (Milner, 1972).
Investigators analyzing “cognitive maps” study the behaviour of isolated animals.
However, many animals are social, Their primary “environment” is, therefore, the dominance
hierarchy they occupy locally. Primates, like rats, develop detailed maps of their social structures,
as they transform across generations and decades. The “place” mapped by the “cognitive map” is
thus a social structure, not just a geographical locale. This map is precisely the MAP schema
hierarchy, grounded in motivation, expanded through individual socialization into complex
human culture. Proper understanding of hippocampal function therefore appears dependent on
the assessment of certain features of territories currently given no consideration.13 Territories are
not places of relatively predictable objects and their interactions, but complex and dynamic social
A PubMed search for “hippocampus and “social cognition” reveals a mere 17 articles, only one of which, Spreng &
Mar, 2010, is relevant, despite the overwhelming importance of the dominance hierarchy for the mapping of territory.
dramas, whose behaviorally-associated contextual meanings depend upon on the reactions of
potentially unpredictable conspecifics. Most animals solve this problem by consorting only with
familiar peers, whose behaviours have already been mapped, and which are additionally
constrained by their particular positions in the MAP schema hierarchy. The cortex can predict the
outcomes of interactions with such conspecifics, and work so they remain positive. These
predictions/desires generally match information about a known conspecific’s behavior, as it
occurs, and is fed, bottom up, into the hippocampus, through the brain stem systems. The
hippocampus registers “match,” and the arousal systems (anxiety, aggression, panic, exploration,
etc.) remain tonically inhibited. No threat is detected. No possibility for damage manifests itself.
No disinhibition of motivation and emotion is necessary. No increase in allostatic load (McEwen,
2000), with its stress-induced physiological perturbation and damage, occurs.
Rats, adapted to a predictable, ecologically-valid social and territorial environment, with
nesting burrows, social interactions, and roaming space, react with sheer horror to the unexpected
sight of a cat in their heretofore safe, predictable environment (Blanchard, 1989, 1991). This is a
violation of physical geographical match. The animals’ behavior changes dramatically, for 24
hours (equivalent to a human month). Initial freezing, followed by flight to the chamber system,
gives way to a period of immobility, during which the rats, petrified by motivational and
emotional dysregulation, emit ultrasonic alarm cries, at a high rate. Immobilized crying gradually
transforms into “risk assessment,” where the cat appeared. The still-stressed but now curious rats
poke their heads out of their burrows and scan the previously cat-contaminated open area, for
hours. When the rats finally emerge, they explore in a manner that reduces their visibility to
predators, employing short “corner runs” in and out of the open area. These exploratory risk
assessment actions help the rats gather information about the possible danger source. The
marshalling of such information provides the rationale for their return to nondefensive behaviors
– “normal life.”
Animals are equally sensitive to disruption of the social geography, the dominance
structure, and consequent mismatch. Children, much as adults, willingly punish rule-breakers
(Piaget, 1932). Analogous behavior pervades the animal kingdom. If a well-loved rat is removed
from its familial surroundings, provided with a new odor, and returned, it will be promptly
dispatched (Lorenz, 1974). Rats identify one another by smell. A “new” rat constitutes
“unexplored territory.” His presence is thus regarded, not unreasonably, as a threat to security.
Chimps – perfectly capable of killing “foreign devils” – act in the same manner (Goodall, 1990).
Why do such reactions occur? Because a conspecific in a known action/meaning context is
predictable, even desirable. An unfamiliar conspecific, by contrast, could undermine the entire
MAP-schema dominance hierarchy structure, as his capacity for challenge and revolution
remains unspecified.
The importance of the MAP schema hierarchy, the utility of conceptualizing it as the
structure within which experience manifests itself, and its simultaneous intrapsychic and social
existence, may be additionally illustrated by the fact that social status transformation produces
functional change in the most basic, serotonergic, neurotransmitter system.14 High status elevates
serotonergic tone, decreasing negative and increasing positive emotion. If your personal schemas
come first, in the social group, your “environment” is stable, productive, and safe, and you are
confident, upright, positive and emotionally stable. If your schemas come last, however,
everything is negative and dangerous, you are confused, anxious, and depressed, hovering close
to the edge of chaos and disintegration. It is for such reasons that hierarchy maintenance and
protection is so important, to animal and human alike, and that position within that hierarchy is
vital (see Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009). Meaning-system disruption affects serotonergic function (a
broader category, by far, than mere regulation of anxiety).
The dominance position “counter” is so archaic that it is fully operative in crustaceans, whose physical posturing is
adjusted by serotonergic tone, according to their hierarchical positions. They stand taller, more threatening, when
victorious in battle, and shrink when they have been defeated.
The consequence of MAP schema shattering, particularly at low-resolution, fundamental
levels (Janoff-Bulman, 1992) can be dramatic, neurophysiologically speaking. Post-traumatic
stress disorder produces increased susceptibility to anxiety, depression, obesity, infectious illness
and heart disease, as well as hippocampal shrinkage, as a consequence of chronically elevated
cortisol levels (Brown, Woolston, Frol, et al., 2004). Such shrinkage may occurs because MAP
schema-dependent inhibition of motivation and emotion by the hippocampus should be
demolished, for functional reasons, when the models the hippocampus relies on to “justify” such
inhibition have been proven wrong. Recent research indicates that treatment with “antidepressant” serotonin reuptake inhibitors – whose biochemical effect essentially mimics the
pharmacological state characteristic of stable high-dominance animals (Kravitz, 2000) – allows
for hippocampal neurogenesis (Becker & Wojtowicz, 2007), as well as improvement in episodic
memory function (Vermetten, Vythilingam, Southwick, Charney & Bremner, 2003). This is
potentially the physiological manifestation of the reconstruction of a functional MAP schema
Vinogradova’s (2001) work also sheds light on the neurophysiological instantiation of
the MAP schema, allowing, in potential, for a developmental description of the relationship
between the development of schema hierarchies, and their relationship to the tonic regulation of
motivation and emotion, extending beyond that of Swanson (2000), to the very domain of
abstraction. She points out, first, that “habituation” of the orienting response should be regarded,
instead, as “negative learning,” and that its disappearance is a consequence of the elaboration of
an increasingly detailed model “of the stimulus.” This modeling occurs as a consequence of
sequential learning in structures that receive CA1 hippocampal field outputs: the mamillary
bodies, anterior thalamic nuclei and, finally, the cingulate limbic cortex. The higher up the neural
hierarchy above the hippocampus the structure, the more repetitions of the event are necessary to
shape the “response.” She believes that this hierarchy may be regarded as a chain of integrators,
functioning such that each starts to respond only after reaction develops at the previous link, and
as a delay line, “preventing premature fixation of spurious, irrelevant, low probability signals” (p.
579). The highest links in the system serve as the “ultimate signal for information fixation in the
nonprimary areas of the neocortex.” It is probable that the ultimate assumptions of the MAP
schema hierarchy, derived from exploration, fixed through repetition, are precisely those
governing the rules of social interaction, encoded at the highest level in our explicit conceptions
of natural rights (Peterson, 2006). It is these universal “rules,” after all, that best specify the
nature of peaceful, productive shared territory. Disruption of these most fundamental
presumptions – the active breaking of rules, or the verbal justification for such breaking – thus
presents a threat to the structure that inhibits hippocampal disinhibition of chaotic motivational
and emotional responses, corresponding in intensity to the hierarchical import of the MAP
schema level such disruption affects. Thus, it is human societies with the largest differences in
opinion with regards to “intrinsic human right” that possess the most capability for mutual
disruption of presumption, and its attendant chaotic psychophysiological and social
The Balance between Order and Chaos: Meaning in its Redemptive Form
We have now considered two forms of meaning in detail: that of delimited, pragmatic
order, dependent on the match between the intrapsychic and social MAP schemas; and that of
chaos, the sum total of all meanings that all phenomena possess, in all the arrays they might
occupy. Order structures such chaotic meaning, letting it shine forth in measured doses. When
anomaly occurs, by contrast, chaos shines through of its own accord, with sometimes
revolutionary and devastating results, and forces the alteration of the structures that delimit and
constrain what would otherwise be the overwhelming significance of being.
Many approaches to the maintenance of meaning, including those focusing on terror
management (Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, et al., 1992), consider individual belief the
primary source of meaning, and the purpose of such belief the restriction of anxiety and fear.
Within such conceptualizations, following Becker (1973) human life is a futile battle: death is the
ultimate reality; all meaning systems serve to shield their adherents from that fact. Thus, the
maintenance of meaning requires rigid allegiance to a structured system, and morality is merely
the conventionality and cowardice described by Nietzsche. The fundamental problem of life,
however, is not the terror of death, although that is an important sub-problem. The fundamental
problem of life is the overwhelming complexity of being. Animals, like human beings, have to
deal with complexity, although they do not necessarily have to deal with the terrors of mortality,
at least in their self-conscious forms. They have, however, evolved means of dealing with chaotic
complexity, as embodied in their psychophysiological structures. The same is true of human
beings, although we have taken the elaboration of the psychological means of dealing with chaos
to unprecedented levels of abstraction (and are uniquely aware of our own mortal limitations). In
doing so, we have increasingly come to pursue a third class of meaning.
A human being comes into the world with a set of evolutionarily determined tools, some
in the form of the very MAP schemas we have discussed. These general-purpose tools help
individuals deal with the constant problems of existence, such as hunger and thirst. The problem
of the complexity of being is, however, equally constant, or even more so. Thus, very
sophisticated means of dealing with that problem have also evolved. The innovation of social
being itself is one such solution. Individuals group themselves into social dominance hierarchies,
find their position within the phalanx, and employ the resources of the entire group against the
challenges of nature and the unknown. To do so, they rearrange their internal natures, so that they
can exist in productive harmony within their group. This grouping requires conflict, war, within
or between individuals – and then its resolution. As a child, matures, for example, he has to
temper his passions so that they reflect his desires, and the desires of the group. Successful
negotiation of this conflict of interests is no simple matter of subjugation, either, no mere
dominance of the super-ego. The group wants the individual to manifest the possibilities of his
being in the manner most beneficial across different spans of time and place and to the smallest
and largest number of individuals, simultaneously. The group thus offers the individual the
opportunity to extend his powers, as well as forcing their limitation. In what manner must an
individual manifest himself, therefore, in order to address all of these intrapsychic and social
demands? The answer can be found in a more elaborated analysis of exploratory behaviour and
the communication and integration of its consequences.
Consider the game, once again – and then, the game of games. The best player is not
necessarily he or she who wins a given game, or even a sequence of games. The best player is he
who plays such that the game continues, and expands, so that he and others have the greatest
chance to play and to excel. When a child is told to be a good sport, this is how he is instructed to
behave. The precise rules comprising the meta-game, “be a good sport,” may yet be implicit, in
large part, too complex to be fully formulated. This does not mean they do not exist. We dream
continuously of the individual who will manifest that pattern most successfully, and search for
him – or her – everywhere. What is the best way to successfully play the largest number of
games? The answer is not simply computable. Over time different modes of playing emerge, in
the attempt to seek the solution. Each individual wants to be maximally valued. Pure aggression
is one possible solution. The physically dominant individual can force others to value him as a
player. Sufficient display of negative emotion can have the same effect: someone may be invited
on multiple occasions into different games by appealing to the sympathy of the other players.
These are not optimal solutions, however. Even among chimps, rule of the merely strong is
unstable (De Waal, 1989b). Rule of the weak, likewise, breeds resentment: social animals want
reciprocity, and will not give continually. Such behaviour is too costly and easily manipulated.
Multiple modes of potential playing compete for predominance during childhood. Such
competition, and cooperation, extends in a more sophisticated manner, across adult being. What
is the victor among those multiple modes, across many individuals?
Extend that question further: What is the victorious mode of play across many
individuals, across many groups, over historically-significant epochs of time? Consideration of
the ancient Mesopotamian myth, the Enuma elish – one of many stories of its type (Peterson,
1999), helps answer that question. Two deities exist at the beginning of time, according to the
Enuma elish. Tiamat is the goddess of chaos, as chaos is the mother of all things. She is reptilian
in nature, logically enough, as the reptile has constantly threatened our lives and our societies,
while increasing our vision, for tens of millions of years (Isbell, 2009). Apsu, her husband, is the
god of order, the foundation of being. The pair nestles together, in the deep, just like the two
halves of the famous Taoist symbol. Their sexual, creative union gives rise to the elder gods, the
primary motivational states. Their dysregulated and careless behaviour results in the death of
Apsu, order, and the vengeful re-emergence of his bride. Hastily organizing themselves, in the
face of this threat, the elder gods elect Marduk, god of exploration, vision and speech, as King,
top of the sacred dominance hierarchy, and send him out to voluntarily confront Chaos, in the
guise of his great-grandmother. Emerging victorious, Marduk cuts Tiamat into pieces, and makes
the world (Peterson, 1999). This is the oldest and most fundamental story that mankind possesses.
It echoes through ancient Egypt, and that state’s conceptions of Horus, the redemptive, attentive
eye; Isis, the goddess of chaos; and Osiris, the god of the state. It serves as the source for the
creation story in the Hebrew bible, and profoundly influences Christianity; it is the story of St.
George, and of Christ, the perfect man, the second Adam, and the deadliest enemy of death, and
the eternal serpent (Peterson, 1999). Its existence and meaning should not be overlooked by
psychologists, increasingly cognizant of the evolutionary shaping of being.
It is time to understand these stories, instead of considering them the superstitious
enemy of science. The great myths of mankind are not theories of objective existence. They are,
instead, imaginative roadmaps to being. They have emerged, painstakingly, piecemeal, as a
consequence of our continual close self-observation, our developing understanding of the
patterns of action that are essentially adaptive, and their representation in symbolic, narrative and
dramatic form, during the transition from implicit behavioural pattern to explicit communicable
form. We tell stories about how to play: not about how to play the game, but about how to play
the metagame, the game of games. When chaos threatens, confront it, as quickly as possible, eyes
open, voluntarily. Activate the neural circuitry underlying active exploration, inhibiting
confusion, fear and the generation of damaging stress responses, and not the circuitry of freezing
and escape. Cut the unknown into pieces; take it apart with hands, thumbs and mind, and
formulate, or reformulate, the world. Free the valuable gold from the dragon of chaos, transform
leaden inertia into gilded action, enhance your status, and gain the virgin maiden – just like the
first of your tree-dwelling ancestors (Isbell, 2009) who struck a predatory snake with a stick,
chased it away, and earned the eternal gratitude of mistress, mother and group.
The third form of meaning has little to do with group identity, except insofar as that
serves as a precursor to its formation. It is instead the story of mankind, and the meaning to be
experienced when that heroic story is imitated, understood, and embodied. Under the loving
tutelage of the ever-virgin mother, guided by the wisdom of his forefathers, the alwaysthreatened nascent hero masters known territory, and becomes keenly aware of its limitations and
errors. He sees the danger threatening, before anyone else, because he is willing to see it, while
others turn away their eyes: The patriarchal structure has become too rigid and self-serving. The
widows and children are being ignored, and God’s wrath, in the form of a watery chaos,
threatens. Public morality has become too chaotic, and it is time for a return to the individual and
collective values that have always ensured the survival of mankind. The hero sacrifices himself to
God, offering up his own petty interests to the greatest possible good, and confronts the too-rigid
social structure or the looming chaos, with nothing but his own courage and truth. It is very easy
to be cynical about such things, but we have many modern examples to consider. Gandhi stopped
the British Empire dead in its tracks, following Tolstoy, whose morality was directly informed by
Orthodox Christianity. Tough-minded observers have noted that Gandhi’s strategies would not
have worked against Stalin, or Hitler, who would have just had him executed. Nonetheless, single
individuals brought down tyrannies of such magnitude in the 20 th century, as well. Solzhenitsyn’s
(1975) Gulag Archipelago, an amazing example of individual courage – of individual use of the
Word – demolished the intellectual and moral credibility of communism, forever. Vaclav Havel
performed a similar role in Czechoslovakia. It is not for nothing that we consider the individual
of the highest value in the West.
The third form of meaning is not to be found in slavish allegiance to a system of beliefs,
nor to specific position in a given dominance hierarchy, nor to incautious and wanton exposure to
chaos. It is to be found on the border of chaos and order, Yin and Yang, as the Taoists have
always insisted. It is to be found in the voluntary pursuit of interest, that subtle prodding by the
orienting complex, which turns our heads involuntary towards the most informative places in our
experiential fields, and lets us see the glimmers of redemptive chaos shining through the
damaged structure of our current schemas. That glimmer is the star that has always guided us, the
star that signifies the birth of the hero, and, when followed, is the guardian angel who ensures
that the path we trod is meaningful enough so that we can bear the burden of mortal limitation
without resentment, arrogance, corruption and malevolence. Life is not the constant shrinking
away from the terror of death, hiding behind an easily pierced curtain of beliefs. Life is the
forthright challenging of the insufficiencies that confront us, and the powerful, life-affirming
existential meaning that such pursuit instinctively produces. It is that which keeps the spectre of
mortality at bay, while we work diligently, creatively, at work whose meaning is so powerful and
self-evident that the burden of existence seems well worth bearing. Terror management, be
damned! The path of the eternal hero beckons, and it is the doomed and dangerous fool who turns
his back on it.
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