CENTAUR – Chiron – reconciling the organ of civilization with the beast in the brain (Radford 1999)




reconciling “the organ of civilization” with the “beast in the brain”


Neil Greenberg

Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

University of Tennessee


Adapted from a presentation at the Conference on “Creative Genius & Madness,”

Radford University, June 11-13, 1999




art and science involve uncommon intensities of scrutiny, breadth of integration of information internalized, and vivid externalization of our findings, discoveries, insights about the world, ourselves, and the way they relate to each other. 

The Talmud tells us that we see the world not as it is, but as we are, and what we communicate as artists and scientists is mixtures of these two elements in varying proportion

Artists and scientists also have an uncommon appetite for both information and order — not least about the limits of our capacities to experience the world and make it intelligible.  Rimbaud said that “The poet makes himself a visionary through a long, prodigious and rational disordering of all the senses.  Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, keeping only their quintessences. . . . Even if, half crazed, in the end, he loses sight of his visions, he has seen them!”  To understand the world, to understand each other, we must experience everything.  This is the way of the Shaman, the Wounded Healer, who cannot heal what he does not understand from personal experience.

Claude Bernard once said, “Art is I, science is us.”  But, “if no man is an island,” I is us!




Introductory Notes:


“the organ of civilization” was Halstead’s (endnote 1) term for the frontal lobes of the brain; the great Russian neurophysiologist, Luria, used the same expression to underscore the critical forebrain functions in reigning in the instincts and impulses organized at deeper, more conservative levels of our nervous system.  [more on the frontal lobes][link needs repair]


the “beast in the brain” was Greenberg’s (2003) nickname for the basal ganglia and its associated systems.  This took inspiration from Paul D. MacLean’s idea of the r-complex (r- for “reptilian”) in the basal forebrain, where many of the basic instinctual impulses were thought to be organized..   


Creativity is arguably the supreme cognitive/behavioral adaptation of our species.  It flourishes when higher and lower levels of consciousness, primary and secondary functions, are communicating well with each other.  Further, these complementary functions are (or are significantly related to) the dichotomies of consciousness.






1.  Our instincts and automatized behavioral patterns are organized at a subcortical level.  Higher brain functions serve to control the expression of these behavioral patterns according to


We possess, as Miller (1978) put it, “a nervous system  endowed with an unfailing sense of biological  priorities, is characteristic of the economy with which  the body defends itself.  Instead of depending on a  large number of separate mechanisms, each one of which  is exclusively reserved for its own particular type of  emergency, the body improvises responses to the threat  of injury by assembling new combinations of pre-existing  functions.(p. 118).  Much of this is automatic, but as we mature (as we have evolved?) more and more comes under the influence of foresight and socially-acquired constraints organized at the cortical level. 


CONSCIOUSNESS in the sense of being aware of what passes in the brain, of the multiple parallel paths that often interact could result in action, involves the narrative, story-telling, skills of the left hemisphere, while the right hemisphere’s special competences involve “reality testing.”  Thus we acquire a sense of CONFIDENCE in a belief or in a course of action.


2.  The Centaur, Chiron

  • “When the gentler part of the soul slumbers and the control of Reason is withdrawn . . . the Wild Beast in us . . . becomes rampant.       (Plato, The Republic, IX 571)
  • “We are conscious of an animal in us which awakens in proportion as our higher nature slumbers”  (Henry David Thoreau in Walden)
  • The convergence of developmental dissonances with the ancient agenda of the animal mind and that of humans striving for freedom from the vagaries of the environment in which they evolved.


The abode of the beast“The Brain of Man has not abandoned it’s ancient animal foundations, it has built upon them . . . . But it has also reconstructed them as the shifting earth beneath dictates . . . . We have done the best possible in the landscape in which we have found ourselves with the raw materials we have inherited. ”


Our forebrain is built on a foundation of knotted neural tissue which, when a histologist slices through them, look striped because of the bundles of fibers that connect this mass (the “corpus striatum”) to others.  The corpus striatum has two main parts: one that seems to have a tail (thus termed, “caudate”) and one that recalls a fluted sea shell (thus called, “putamen”).  Many of their most important connections gather into and flow through a pale, globe-shaped structure (the “globus pallidus”).  The caudate, putamen, globus pallidus and associated structures (olfactory tubercle and nucleus accumbens, substantia innominata, and basal nucleus of Meynert) termed by Paul D. MacLean, the striatal or R- (for reptilian) complex.

  • Dissonance-induced stress is a constitutional element in the growth and development of central nervous systems

(1) Stress is born of “the perpetual maelstrom of disintegration and renewal” we call change

(2) The energizing effect of the stress responses is in proportion to the urgency of needs that have not been accommodated.

(3) The neuroendocrinology of stress is known to affect cognitive, affective, and motivational systems in ways that can help the organism cope –to restore  harmony, homeostasis

(4) Specific neurobehavioral functions are selectively inhibited or facilitated, and receptive or active fields of neurons are enlarged, effectively increasing the possibility of new connections.

  • Among the most effective mechanisms for restoring proportionate responses between systems is creativity, most strikingly manifest in works of art.  






The act of creation.  The primal act of creation involves the creating of connections between the myriad parts of the human psyche.

[The psyche is, of course, incorporeal.  It derives from “breath” and still implies and animating force (It is, recall, the root of psychology and psychiatry– the sciences of understanding of and ministering to the soul, spirit, mind). [In the beautiful myth, penned by the Roman, Lucius Apuleius (c. 150ad) Venus was so jealous of Psyche’s beauty that she sent her son Cupid (a young man, not a child) to punish her by causing her to fall in love with a beggar; but he wounded himself with one of his own arrows and fell in love with her himself.  Cupid courts and marries Psyche but he does not allow her to see him.  When she was goaded by jealous sisters into stealing a glance, he left her and she underwent many trials and danger, trying to win him back. Eventually, Venus becomes sympathetic, allows Psyche to succeed, and immortalizes her so she can join Cupid in endless blissful union.  The Greek Eros, son of War and Love (Ares and Aphrodite), was the model for the Roman Cupid; eventually the Greek image of a handsome young man was replaced by the now familiar cherubic little boy.  To Hesiod, Eros arose from Chaos to represent the primal force of sexual desire.  For Plato, Psyche (from the verb  psychein, to blow) represented a person’s essence: its two mortal parts, desire and action and its immortal part, intellect.  Breath was at first an animating force (“Then God . . . breathed into his nostrils the breath of life . . .–Genesis 2:7), but the early Hebrew for “spirit” or “soul” also refers to one’s personality –and in Ecclesiastes, the animating spirit was identified as capable of separation and continued existence at death (4:20-21)]       

It is amazingly robust in its inexorable persistence to manifest itself in accordance with its congenital potential, environmental possibilities, and the laws of harmony:  “accord between the structure of the universe, the canons of the social order and the good of the individual,” as Joseph Campbell (1972), put it. 

We would call it homeostasis, [There are many systems in the body which, because of misuse  or misfortune, may have their services to the organism as a  whole so altered as to be actually harmful.  Thus vicious  circles of causation become established which may lead to  death…  The development of pathological functions in a  system is quite consistent with its usual performance of  normal functions…  The problem is presented of attempting  to learn under what circumstances the transformation  occurs. . . .”  (W.B. Cannon, Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear, and Rage)] and the uniqueness of the individual can be viewed as a constellation of behavioral traits that have come into being as checks, balances, and counterweights to help establish and maintain stability.   And yet the process is exquisitely sensitive, responsive to subtle stimuli as it undertakes its life project of self-invention.

  • Creativity is first among the mechanisms we have evolved to fine-tune our development, our coping with the challenges of the change initiated by our own bodies as we develop, and by the environment as our relationship to it changes and as, in fact, it undergoes its own changes.  Recalling Alfred Adler’s theory that human productions of art and science are energized by their own sense of inadequacy . . .  Although personality is guided in its self-organizing development, the tolerances of the canons of social order must occasionally be pressed. 

The association of creativity with art, genius, and madness

  • Predisposing circumstances.  H.L. Mencken [H.L. Mencken (from Minority Report,1956) [Contributed by “Premise Checker” [Frank] to paleopsych? HBE-L?)] pointed out that “Astronomers and physicists, dealing habitually with objects and qualities far beyond the reach of the senses, even with the aid of the most powerful aids that ingenuity has been able to devise, tend almost inevitably to fall into the ways of thinking of men dealing with objects and quantities that do not exist at all, e.g., theologians and metaphysicians.  Thus their speculations tend almost inevitably to depart from the field of true science, which is that of precise observation, and to become mere soaring empyrean.  The process works backward, too.  That is to say, their reports of what they pretend actually to “see” are often very unreliable.  It is thus no wonder that, of all men of science, they are the most given to flirting with theology.  Nor is it remarkable that, in the popular belief, most astronomers end by losing their minds.”
  • The continuum from eccentricity to pathology.  In the mid 1980’s, David Weeks, a clinical neuropsychologist in Edinburgh, began a ten-year search for self-described eccentrics.  He collected about a thousand (mostly American), and set off describing them. (With collaborating author, Jamie James, he wrote, A Study of Sanity and Strangeness (Villard 1995?).  Eccentricity was distinguished from madness by the client’s awareness of the difference between theirs and the prevailing world view.  He finds them generally smarter, happier (attributable to the release from the need to conform– [as we age we conform less and less –a compensating mechanism for increasing stress?])
  • The Beast Animates Our Creativity.  The centaur has been taken by (for example) Erik Erikson and Hubert Benoit as a symbol of the integration of body and mind.
  • Primary and secondary process
  • Dueling hemispheres
  • Compensations: evoking ancient forces to help us cope.  Are Jung’s views relevant here?


Endnote 1: Ward Halstead, one of the founders of modern neuropsychology concluded his book, Brain and Intelligence, with “The frontal lobes, long regarded as silent areas, are the portions of the brain most essential to biological intelligence. They are the organs of civilization-the basis of man’s despair and his hope for the future” (1947:149).


based on the Radford presentation:


(Greenberg 1999)

recalling that the cognitive elements that converge in creative work find an element of resonance in Shelley’s lines,

“Most wretched men/ Are cradled into poetry by wrong:/ They learn in suffering what they teach in song”