Conscious Discipline – More Dubious Neuroscience

conscious disciplineI did not coordinate my topic for today with Harriet’s excellent review yesterday of Satel and Lilienfeld’s excellent book; the timing is just fortuitous. Harriet discussed popular abuses of neuroscience, which often amount to an oversimplification and hyperreductionism of a complex area of study. I was recently asked to comment on a claim that I feel falls squarely into this realm – so-called conscious discipline.

From the conscious discipline website:

It surpasses behavioral approaches that teach specific behaviors, and offers a neurodevelopmental model of the brain…

The Conscious Discipline Brain State Model becomes a frame for us to understand the internal brain-body states that are most likely to produce certain behaviors in children and in ourselves. With this awareness, we learn to consciously manage our own thoughts and emotions so we can help children learn to do the same.

They even offer a helpful picture of the brain to illustrate their model (above).

I am a huge advocate of reductionist science – understanding how something works by understanding its component parts and how they work, as deep down as we can go. Hyperreductionism, however, is the misguided notion that higher order interactions can be understood solely on the basis of the function of their component parts.

For example, trying to understand all the complexity of life as a reproductive struggle among genes is a tad hyperreductionist. This form of reductionism also leads to a “hard science bias.” For example – claiming that biology is just applied chemistry and chemistry is just applied physics are ultimately hyperreductionist arguments.  There are biological interactions that cannot be understood simply by applying the principles of physics.

The hyperreductionist temptation in neuroscience is to reduce all of the complexity of human thought, mood, and behavior to the biological functioning of the brain. This temptation is partly rooted in our more general desire for simplification and control. We like to break the world down into bite-sized pieced and organize them into a simple scheme we can grasp and work with.

Rather, we need to look at human behavior on a cultural, social, psychological and neuroscientific level simultaneously. Further – neuroscience is very complex, and we are far from having a complete model of how the brain functions. We do know that any simplistic model of one piece of the brain having a single function and lighting up when that function is active is hopelessly inadequate.

Getting back to conscious discipline – here is a good example of how it is trying to impose a simplistic system onto the complexity of human behavior:

Similarly, an emotional state is triggered by the world not going our way. It limits our ability to see from another’s point of view. This unconscious state keeps us on autopilot so our words and tone match those of key authority figures from our childhood. We revert to disciplining the same ways we were disciplined, even if we know these behaviors to be ineffective or hurtful.

The only way to soothe the emotional state is through connection.

“The emotional state,” as if there is one emotional state, or that all emotions have the same basic purpose and effect. Humans, rather, are a complex tapestry of emotions that are a complex mixture of adaptive and maladaptive, depending on degree and context.

Emotions such as empathy, for example, actually help us to see from another’s point of view. Emotions can provide a powerful intuitive insight, especially into social interaction. When people or situations make us feel a certain way, that can be very useful information provided by millions of years of evolution.

There are slivers of truth in this model. It does seem that our brain is basically organized into a primitive “lizard” brain dedicated to basic physiological function, a more advanced mammalian brain involving emotion and instinct, and then the most recently evolved neocortex which contains our executive function. This model is not wrong – it’s just incomplete and oversimplistic.

This approach represents another common neuroscience folly – taking some basic psychological principles and then packaging them into a nicely gift-wrapped system. The system, however, does not add anything new or unique. In other words – the concept of conscious discipline does not seem to add anything to our understanding of neuroscience or human behavior.

The same criticism has been leveled against other popular psychological systems, such as neurolinguistic programming. There does not appear to be anything unique to this system, it’s just cobbling together psychological factors that can deceive or influence behavior.

The conscious discipline website has a section on research. This is typically thin and uninformative. The few studies presented that actually test conscious discipline as an intervention are ultimately useless. They are very small and do not contain proper controls. They simply introduce conscious discipline as an intervention and see that behavior changes. Since they do not compare it to other interventions controlling for observation bias, novelty bias, etc. we have no way of knowing if it is anything specific about conscious discipline that is having the effect, or simply the fact that something – anything – is being introduced and observed.


Ultimately it is not clear what conscious discipline is, other than an oversimplification of some basic neuroscience models of brain function. The evidence for it is virtually non-existent – worthless uncontrolled studies, commentary, or basic psychology that does not specifically support anything that can meaningfully be defined as conscious discipline.

The system is likely to be highly counterproductive, in fact, because it encourages (in fact formalizes) an oversimplification of our understanding of human thought, mood, and behavior. This system exemplifies many of the features of neuro-pseudoscience that Satel and Lilienfeld describe in their new book.

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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17 thoughts on “Conscious Discipline – More Dubious Neuroscience

  1. Never heard of “conscious discipline”, but it will probably turn up in the NY Times tomorrow–just as did a panel discussion of e-cigarettes appeared the day after Dr. G’s post on same; so now I’ll be ready. :-)

  2. Alia says:

    Reading this here: “[A]n emotional state is triggered by the world not going our way. It limits our ability to see from another’s point of view. This unconscious state keeps us on autopilot so our words and tone match those of key authority figures from our childhood. We revert to disciplining the same ways we were disciplined, even if we know these behaviors to be ineffective or hurtful.” I do not really see in what way it differs from a large part of contemporary psychology and therapy, which seeks to find the underlying reasons for “ineffective or hurtful behaviors” and then correct them. And often looks for them in a patient’s/client’s childhood.

  3. Tsu Dho Nimh says:

    It sounds to me like they are trying to make something new and salable and trendy out of the extremely old practice of “mindfulness”.

  4. Carl says:

    There are biological interactions that cannot be understood simply by applying the principles of physics.

    I am not sure if that is literally true. Maybe it is true that these things can’t be understood by us (not that there are any other candidates) without using chemistry or biology as a tool for summarizing physics, just as the laws of physics are tools for summarizing whatever we might call an even more basic fact of however the universe works (though physics might be defined as a special kind of catch-all discipline which claims authority over everything beneath the other sciences).

    1. Joao says:

      I see it this way: there are things that can’t be explained by the separated properties or even the joint properties of its components. There are things that are emergent, procedural – that only happen in real time interaction, and dont exist if components are stoped, away,etc. For example, magnetic fields from electric charges that show up only if they move. Or the properties of proteins wich can only be predicted from basic aminoacids if folding is simulated – a long way up from the simple sequence of aminoacids. What we seem to have found is that there are in fact things in this universe which its basic structure cannot be further divided without losing “the magic”, that cames from the functioning. Douglas Horfstadter in is cult book GEB suggests conscience might be one of them (he even brings up some godelian logic to show its ideia). Ilya Prigogine considered dissipative structrures to be another irredutible fenomena. And these might well *be* life.

      Put it this way: You can reduce things to a such a point that if you keep on going even further you no longer have the subject you are trying to understand. Somewere along the way you discarded some fundamental function, property, whatever, that you can only have in real time interection. Its not there otherwise even in principle.

      And I am a reducionist too. And a hardcore skeptic.

      1. burstaholic says:

        What you’re describing is exponentially increasing complexity, not a breakdown of determinism. Once you accept, a la quantum mechanics, that many occurrences are a function of probability rather than simple cause-effect, a breakdown analysis is absolutely possible.

        Our surprise at emergent behaviors is due more to our own inability to intuitively analyse very deeply than any lack of analysability in the subject.

        “There are biological interactions that cannot be understood simply by applying the principles of physics” is by definition untrue. Any interaction can be described by the underlying physics, even if doing so would be ridiculously complex, and therefore not remotely useful.

        There is an interesting corollary phenomenon we see when computer models of weather reach a certain level of complexity: they become just as unpredictable as the real weather, and therefore not of much use. This is where you might say, “you can no longer see the forest for the trees.”

        (Of course, the day’s weather could be described in terms of the underlying physics and/or chemistry, but trying that would be madness.)

        1. nybgrus says:

          I very much agree with what you say here. And yes, modeling something and describing it by fundamental physical forces can (and should) include motion. Reduction doesn’t mean freeze framing. It can include vectors.

      2. Marion says:

        I am glad Joao mentioned Horfstadter’s book “Godel Escher Bach” (GEB). I read that back in the early 1980s. Some quick points:
        reductionism is not simplification.
        I am very openly proud about my support of reductionism. My life’s passion has been to predict the future, predict macroscopic properties, by explicitly solving equations – such as the Schrodinger wave equation – that govern the interaction of subatomic particles, adding up over 10^30 particles. This is an incredibly difficult & complex procedure. Hence, that is what makes it such an alluring challenge.

        The problem comes when people DON’T do the hard math, don’t work through the details, and make unsupported leaps to conclusions about the way large-scale observable macroscopic phenomenon happen.

        Take astrology, for example. It is complete crap. Yet, when I have to keep explaining why to a friend of mine who keep taking this crap seriously, I am repeatedly forced to admit that the gravitational pull of the planets DOES exist, DOES have an effect upon the atoms in our bodies. Those gravitational pulls have to be added in with the gravitational pulls of all other objects in the universe, including objects standing right next to me, and objects inside my body, like genes and proteins. But, not only are the effects of those planets so incredibly small compared to all other objects, one cannot make observable simplistic predictions about what large objects – like a human being – will do in the future based upon how that gravitational pull enters the equations (Schrodinger wave if gravitational attraction is included along with Coulombic attraction and repulsion). I strongly believe and hope that one day we WILL be able to make predictions from the atoms on up, but they will NOT be of the simplistic nature “you will meet your true love this month”. Rather, they will be of the complicated nature: “the anterior muscle in your left arm will move 2 cm to the right between the year 2020 and 2025 and then lose 14 newtons of tension from 2025 to 2027.” Predictions will NOT be in the way that humans usually talk. (I have no knowledge of anatomy: I’m totally winging it here.)

  5. Andrey Pavlov says:

    There are biological interactions that cannot be understood simply by applying the principles of physics.

    I suppose there must be additional nuance to what you meant to say here, but I am not sure to what you could be referring.

    I absolutely agree that emergent phenomenon such as consciousness cannot be describes as merely the sum of the parts. Though I would posit that, given a robust enough model, we could approximate outcomes of the entire system of the parts.

    The same goes with biological processes. In a sense we have a system that has myriad interactions and that the outcome cannot accurately be predicted merely by looking at the individual physical forces going on. But I see that as a limitation of our modeling abilities rather than some intrinsic feature of a biological system that makes it unable to be described in purely physics terms.

    Put another way, the issue we currently have is that the type of “hyperreductionism” that we see extrapolates individual changes in a system from the basic level (single interactions) out to the whole system level, assuming some sort of direct (and usually linear) relationship. This fails magnificently, but not because we can’t describe the system by basic physics and chemistry, but because we simply cannot describe the totality of the system in order to accurately predict what perturbations to the system will actually lead to.

    In a hypothetical future wherein we have unified the forces of physics, described them highly accurately, modeled every aspect of a biological system, and have sufficient quantum computing power to actually crunch all that data (and yes, I know I am referring to a truly massive amount of data and computing) then I see no reason why something like the “hyperreductionist” neuroscience or “conscious discipline” sort of thing wouldn’t be possible. Granted, it would require knowing the specific system in question (i.e. each individual human mind) for accuracy, and that may be something more or less outside the realm of possibility but at least in principle I think it is sound. How well a general system models a specific one (the general human mind vs a specific one for example) I cannot possibly predict. I would guess, however, it would be pretty darned decent considering the amount of physiological constraint in place and the fact that there is much leeway in terms of error (though obviously the further out in time you are trying to model the less accurate the model would become; e.g. if I wanted to model what you would say and do in 1 minute vs 1 day vs 1 year).

    So I guess I am just wondering if you meant to say that in a practical sense or in a theoretical sense. Practically, I absolutely agree, to within the limitations of our technology which I believe will become ever more refined. Theoretically I think there is no limit to the level of reduction possible, though how far short the practical will ultimately fall from the theoretical is anyone’s guess. (Though I probably think it a much smaller gulf than most)

    1. erickttr says:

      I think there’s too much randomness and chance in the model. It seems like you’re positing a destined outcome (I react to criticism with harshness), given starting parameters (the laws of physics), which most critical thinkers would find hard to accept. There are too many events with probabilities and multiple possible outcomes to predict a the final result. I invoke lessons from fictional mathematician Ian Malcom to support my claim.

      1. nybgrus says:

        Yes, the fundamental nature of the universe is probabalistic. But that doesn’t mean we can’t model it and understand it. And predict very accurately the outcomes given enough data and processing power. All it means is that we can’t predict which single outcome will actually happen. All we can do is assign the range of possible outcomes a probability. The further out in time from the initial conditions, the more outcomes there are possible. Given enough time in a complex system and the number will be great enough that there is no appreciable difference in the likelihood between any two outcomes. That doesn’t mean we can’t understand the processes and interactions in a deeply fundamental way – it just means that we can’t predict the future like in the movies. It also means that while we live in a deterministic universe, it still possesses so many possible outcomes that it is, for all practical purposes, non-deterministic in the long term. And the more complex the system, the shorter amount of time need pass to be considered “long term”.

  6. pmoran2013 says:

    I don’t enjoy the thought that everything boils down to potentially understandable physical processes, but is there any basis upon which science can avoid that as a working hypothesis — whether we yet have the capacity to fully describe everything or not, and regardless of certain rather bleak implications?

  7. daedalus2u says:

    An example of an emergent behavior I like to use is the meaning of words printed in a book. The book is comprised of molecules, put together from atoms, but no amount of understanding of atoms and molecules would get you to understand the meaning of words printed in a book.

  8. Carl says:

    Daedalus2u says:
    no amount of understanding of atoms and molecules would get you to understand the meaning of words printed in a book.

    To start, you need to look at the atoms in our heads. There isn’t any meaning in the book.

  9. Stephen H says:

    I’m guessing you’re not an XKCD ( fan of sciences arranged by purity.

  10. Marion says:

    My personal favorite quote & inspiration of all time:

    We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect
    of the past and the cause of the future.
    An intellect which at any given moment knew all of the forces
    that animate nature and the mutual positions of the beings that compose it,
    if this intellect were vast enough to submit the data to analysis,
    could condense into a single formula the movement of the greatest bodies
    of the universe and that of the lightest atom;
    for such an intellect nothing could be uncertain
    and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.

    —Pierre Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities

    1. weing says:

      Nice quote and sentiment. Actually, I subscribed to it until I took that darn Quantum Mechanics course, where it became obvious that such an intellect is impossible because of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Chaos is the result.

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