Transactional Analysis and the Triune Brain

by Claude Steiner


Eric Berne, originally a psychoanalyst, gave birth to transactional analysis 50 years ago when he divided people's behavior (the ego in psychoanalytic parlance) into two portions; the archeopsyche which he called "the Child" for short and the neopsyche which he called "the Adult."  

Observers of human behavior had long noticed that some people appeared to have more than one personality but this was generally regarded as a pathological development. Berne's contribution was to observe that these two distinct personalities the Adult and the Child were a normal occurrence in all people. Psychopathology does occurs when the ego states become isolated from each other and operate as if there were no connection between them or when one ego state becomes fixated and excludes the other. All of these phenomena have been observed by other disciplines; in evolutionary psychology, as an example, what we call ego states are called mind modules.

Berne made reference to evolutionary science and found support for his ego state theory in the neuroscience of the day, especially W. Penfield's findings in which stimulation of certain parts of the brain of waking subjects aroused vivid childhood memories. Based on this information, Berne assumed that the two ego states, and later a third one which he called the Parent, had "specific anatomical representations" within the brain, in particular, that the Adult was located in the neocortex. The three ego states became cathected (energized ) or dominant separately--one at a time--and could be easily recognized by the average person.

The ego states were the foundation of Berne's method of transactional analysis which was based on the analysis of people's interactions and the ego states involved. When the transactions were negative or pathological he looked for disturbances in the Child and as a therapeutic method he called for Adult control and after that was achieved, "deconfusion" of the Child.

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The triune brain

In 1973, Paul MacLean, senior research scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health proposed that the brain is made up of three distinct subdivisions corresponding to three consecutive evolutionary eras; the reptilian, the limbic and the neocortical.

He calls this three-part brain the “triune” brain. He points out that in the human brain, the neo-cortex and the reptilian brain are clearly separated by a structure that is of a different nature than the other two. This clearly demarcated area of the brain was called the limbic brain (after the Latin limbus or border) by Paul Broca, its discoverer in 1879.  

These findings, very much in vogue for some years, have recently been questioned by neuroscientists who point out that the brain does not function as a collection of separate functional units but rather as a set of interlaced networks which evolve in intimate connection with each other.

In spite of this objection it can be said without violating any neuroanatomical dicta that the two evolutionary stages--reptilian and limbic--are present and distinguishable in the present stage of human evolution. It can be said as well that in the human, evolution of a larger and larger brain lead to the full development of the neo-cortex. Each one of these evolutionary stages is represented in a neural network which has its own, separate function and which is capable of inhibiting and stimulating the other two. 

The Reptilian Brain

The reptilian brain, the first highly complex neural bundle to appear in evolutionary history, supports the basic physiological functions; circulation, respiration, digestion, elimination. It is also involved in mating and territorial behavior; pecking order, defense, aggression and the emotions of anger and fear. In the human being it sits atop the spinal cord and while it has evolved from its original form in lizards and snakes it performs similar functions while at the same time communicating with the two subsequently developing brains, the limbic and the neocortical.

The Limbic Brain

Not concerned with its offspring, reptiles have no protective behavior repertoire and will abandon or even eat their own eggs as soon as the issue from the female. As evolution progressed and protection of the offspring became an effective survival strategy the limbic brain, according to Lewis et al in A General Theory of Love, developed to fulfill that function. Protection of the young within a territory secured by  reptilian function is the limbic brain’s purpose. Protection required an affiliative drive based on a hunger for contact and mutual recognition. This hunger for contact maintained the bond between mother and offspring and generated closely knit groupings all of which maximized survival of the young.  The emotions of love, sadness, jealousy, hope have their source in the limbic brain and can be observed in "higher" species such as cats, dogs, horses and other warm blooded animals.  

The Neo-cortical Brain.

The protective social environment of the limbic brain made it possible for the offspring to be born before its brain size was fully accomplished. Evolution of a larger and larger brain permitted the full development of the neo-cortex in the present stage of human evolution. The neo-cortex permits higher functions of imitation; speaking, writing, planning and symbolic reasoning and conceptualization, all of which are functions of the neo-cortex.

These higher cortical functions elaborated the affiliative drive into intricate maternal love ideation, ideation regarding love between father and mother and between members of the social group. In A Natural history of Love Diane Ackerman chronicles the evolution of the many ways in which humans have expressed that emotion from early Egypt to Romeo and Juliet.

Parallel with the elaboration of affiliative ideation was the elaboration of territorial, hierarchical, defensive and offensive  ideation and the artifacts (property, nations, weapons, military strategies)  that accompany that behavior.

Neo-cortical functions are also applied to the modulation and even modification of the two lower brains’ functions. Rational control of the procreative, aggressive, protective and affiliative drives are one of the byproducts of human neo-cortical evolution. However as Joseph LeDoux point out in The Emotional Brain there is a distinct asymmetry in the way these two portions of the brain affect each other, namely that the reptilian and limbic brain have a far greater influence upon the neocortical brain than vice versa "making it possible for emotional arousal to dominate and control thinking." "Although  thoughts can easily trigger emotions we are not very effective at turning emotions off."

The triune brain’s operation.

Let me give an example of how the three brains operate and interact in humans:

Harold is a caring and loving father. On a slightly chilly fall day, as his son, Pedro, 11 years old, is leaving for school he suggests that he wear a warmer coat. Pedro is not interested and politely declines: “That’s OK” 

Father insists “C’mon you’ll get cold and this way you can be sure to be comfortable.”

“Thanks no,”  Pedro  responds.

Again Harold tries with a repeated rejection by Pedro.

Suddenly, Harold face turns red. His attitude changes completely.  He is abruptly angry and holding Pedro by the shoulder tries to force the coat on his arm. Pedro resists and now Harold is furious. “I told you to wear a coat so put it on!”

Pedro is now angry as well. “Leave me alone!” he grabs the coat and with an unhappy face is off to school.

I had observed this interaction and noted the sudden shift from  a loving nurturing Parent to a critical, persecuting Parent. In other transactional analysis terms this was a Drama triangle shift from Rescuer to Persecutor. But it was clearest to me as a shift from limbic to reptilian behavior.

I asked Harold how he felt about the interaction with his son. He was visibly shaken and in response to my question said, still angry. “He won’t take care of himself, he’ll get cold and have nothing to wear. Now at least he will.”

“Are you feeling badly about what you did?” I asked

Harold reflected a few seconds and said, unconvincingly: “I should not have yelled at him but it’s the only way to make sure he stays warm.” After some more thinking he said: “Of course I am not really sure, in fact he is likely to lose the coat rather than wear it.”

He looked at me sheepishly:  “Actually its pretty clear that there was something wrong with how I acted. It’s a game we play a lot; I try to protect him and wind up persecuting him.”

I said: ”Perhaps he is old enough to be making these types of decisions on his own. You may be Rescuing him with the inevitable consequent Persecution.” Harold thoughtfully responded; “Yeah you are probably right. I’ll work on that.”

“You might consider setting the stage for a change by apologizing for getting angry this morning.”

“Good idea,” he agreed.

In this example 1.) Harold’s limbic, protective  behavior is rejected by Pedro 2.) This triggers Harold's reptilian, territorial, dominant behavior. 3.) Harold's bid for dominance in turn triggers Pedro’s own angry, reptilian reaction. Finally,  4.) my neo-cortical questioning inhibits Harold's reptilian behavior and elicits a neo-cortical, rational response.

The TA view

From a TA perspective we can see the following:

1. Ego states. Harold’s ego states shift from Nurturing Parent to Critical Parent when Pedro refuses his nurturing, from Critical Parent to Child when Pedro rebuffs him and from Child to Adult as a response to my questions.

2. Drama Triangle roles. Harold begins as Rescuer, doing more than is his share in a situation, which concerns his son’s health. He shifts to Persecutor and then to Victim when his son turns on him. When I engage him in Adult dialogue he exits the Drama Triangle.

3. Games.  This is game of Uproar, a repetitive set of transactions beginning as an attempt to exchange strokes and ending in negative strokes. As is the case with all games it contains an existential “payoff,” in this case an increasing alienation between father and son with possible long-term script consequences. My intervention establishes Adult control and alternative options for future behavior.

How can transactional analysis incorporate the facts of brain functioning into its theory?

It would be sweet news if the facts of brain function that are now being revealed would map perfectly onto Berne’s theories of fifty years ago. 

Based on some of the ablation and stimulation findings of the time it became clear that the brain has several phylogenetically distinct structures with different functions. Berne identified the Adult ego state with the neocortex, hence the neopsyche. The Child he called the archeopsyche, which could be vaguely connected, to the reptilian brain, and (here the correspondences with neuro-science break down) he called the Parent the exteropsyche suggesting that the Parent is an acquired rather than inborn function.

The intuitive bull’s eye in this postulation was that by ascribing different phylogenetic histories to the three ego states he established a certain relationship between them: The primitive inborn emotional Child, the equally inborn but more recent, rational, emotionless Adult, and the acquired, rather than inborn, Parent.

In my own thinking at this time the limbic system may well be best represented by the Nurturing Parent with its protective functions and the reptilian system by the Critical or Pig Parent with its territorial and hierarchical functions. This view also makes sense in that human evolution has been working in the direction of cooperation and democracy away from competition and patriarchy.

Whatever the final answer becomes, the ego states have proven to be extremely useful tools for explaining and understanding human interactions. In our survey of the core concepts in TA, the ego states were mentioned most often. This highlights a very important aspect of our theory’s history. Certain concepts like egos states which became part of the theory were based on partial research findings cobbled together intuitively by Berne. As our practice and further research illuminates these concepts they are being differentially validated. In the case of strokes the research is wholly affirming, in the case of egos states and their neural correspondences some is affirming some is not. Scientific rigor requires that when facts diverge from a theories’ postulates that the theory be changed.  

But egos states, three of them, each of them relevant to full functioning are not only concepts in our theory but icons, emblems. Even before the possible contradiction of their validity by research, people have been tilting at them and wanting to depose them. Why not two egos state, why not four, or five or eight of sixteen why not one that integrates all? 

Ego states are extremely useful concepts that dramatically facilitate human understanding of human behavior. In the absence of anything but more than a feeble and capricious flight of fancy there is no reason for changing our system’s principal icon. It may be that eventually three ego states will not be theoretically tenable. But that day is far and on the other hand it may turn out that three ego states are spot on. That should be decided by research.

Meanwhile the triune brain and the three ego states are a daunting set of overlapping theories that could enjoy a felicitous marriage.

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