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A Biological Basis for vMEMES…?

Updated: 16 November 2015

vMEMES, the motivational systems identified in the Gravesian approach and termed such in Spiral Dynamics, clearly have to have a neurological basis. Whatever your views on Dualism and the ‘Mind-Body Debate’ – whether or not we think there is a ‘mind’ or ‘soul’ distinct from the brain – the motivational effect we recognise as the product of what we call a ‘vMEME’ has to have a concomitant pattern of neural activity.

So where is it? Or: where are they…the 8 vMEMES identified so far from Clare W Graves research, that is?

When Graves career’ imploded in 1978 (due to major health problems), CAT scans – the first technique for providing truly detailed images of the brain – were only just coming onstream and research into the brain was still relatively primitive. With exceptions such as the remarkable mapping of motor and sensory areas of the brain by Wilder PenfieldWilder Penfield & Edwin Boldry (1937), Wilder Penfield & Theodore Rasmussen (1950) – research was largely dependent on invasive surgery on animals, post-mortems and cognitive and behavioural studies of brain-damaged patients.

Early in the 21st Century, the technology to ‘look inside’ the brain is considerably more advanced and fairly widespread, though it is prohibitively expensive to use – especially in non-treatment contexts such as psychological studies. Moreover, there still exists the problem of matching up what the scanning technique displays (objective but limited in meaning) with the reported (phenomenological) experience of the individual being scanned (rich in information but totally subjective).

1st Tier vMEMES and Sigmund Freud
The general ignorance of Graves’ work amongst many university Psychology departments and the recent fashion for disdaining other developmental psychologists, such as Abraham Maslow and Jane Loevinger, as ‘unscientific’ has produced real difficulties in obtaining funding from the limited resources available to conduct studies with scanning technologies.

Thus, in our quest to track how vMEMES might function neurologically, it is helpful to consider the work of arguably the single most influential psychologist ever, Sigmund Freud. It is possible to create a rough match between Freud’s structure of the mind (based on observation and reflection) and that of Graves (based on arduous empirical research from content analyses).

Freud’s (1920) concept of the Id can be seen as the self-expressive side of Graves’ Spiral – with its ultimate and most visceral expression in nodal RED. The development of the self-sacrificial/conformist side of the Spiral also parallels Freud’s thoughts to some considerable degree. Firstly, the PURPLE vMEME’s restriction of BEIGE instincts (such as sex drive) to gain social acceptance in your tribe/community sounds like the Ego’s determination to avoid the consequences of the young Id’s intentions. Then, the Superego’s Conscience element is reflected in BLUE’s drive to ‘do the right thing’ while there are strong echoes of the Superego’s Ego Ideal element – how things should be – in GREEN’s idealistic intentions toward human inter-relations.

If Graves’ structure of the mind can be matched to Freud’s, then research into whether there is a neurobiological basis for the Freudian view of dreaming can point us in the direction of which brain structures might be involved in the functioning of vMEMES.

Freud (1905, 1920) said that dreams were “the royal road to the unconscious”. Through much of the second half of the 20th Century Freud’s ideas – especially to do with dreaming – fell more and more by the wayside. Various theories were put forward to explain dreaming. These were mostly biological in nature and usually tied to the paradox of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep – when the sleeper’s brain is aroused even though they are sound asleep.

On an average night most people spend around 25% of our time in REM sleep. Between 70-95% of those woken from REM sleep report vivid dreams. In contrast between 5-30% of those woken from slow wave sleep (SWS) have experienced dreaming of routine actions. (Sleepwalking, when it happens, takes place during SWS.) Because of the strong correlation between REM sleep and vivid dreaming, for a while REM sleep was portrayed as the physiological concomitant of dreaming. In 1977 Allan Hobson & Robert McCarley postulated that REM sleep is associated with random firings of cells in the brain stem which appeared to give the experience of dreaming. Hence the bizarre, random nature of dreams, it was thought. If dreams are just the results of random firings of neurons, then dreams could not have the kinds of meaning Freud attributed to them.

However, Mark Solms, a leading neuro-psychoanalyst, has put forward strong evidence that dreaming and REM are separate processes controlled by different mechanisms in the brain. Solms (1999) found that people with severe damage to (or even destruction of) the cortical-limbic circuit do not report dreaming – though they still experience REM sleep. Work with 9 such patients (7 had suffered cancers, one had an abscess and one had suffered a stab wound) had faced him with this puzzle. Solms then researched the literature on pre-frontal labotomies in which the cortical-limbic circuit was cut in an attempt at treating mental disorders. He found that 70-90% of lobotomy patients reported loss of dreams.

Since it is known that REM sleep was triggered from the pons, it was clear to Solms that REM sleep and dreaming, though they seem to coincide, are not one and the same. A fact further confirmed by studying patients with damage to the pons whose dreaming was unaffected.

Since the cortical-limbic circuit is strongly associated with motivation and goal-seeking behaviour, the implication is that dreaming is linked to the circuits in the brain which control our wishes and desires.

In 2000 Solms used PET scans on non-brain-damaged people to confirm that the cortical areas to do with rational conscious thought (primarily the pre-frontal cortex) – Ego and Superego? – are inactive during REM sleep while the limbic areas to do with memory and motivation are very active. Solms’ tentative conclusion was that what Freud called the Id is certain activity in the limbic system. Solms’ work supports the work of Masao Ito (1998) who had first proposed the idea that the Id is based in the limbic system while the Ego and Superego were located primarily in the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex.

On the face of it then, it could be extrapolated, in part at least, that the ‘cool-coloured’ vMEMES are linked to activity in the frontal cortex while the ‘warm-coloured’ ones are more to do with the limbic system.

Supporting evidence for the direction Solms is pursuing comes from Allen Braun et al (1997) who conducted their own PET scan studies and found similar results. According to Braun et al, suppression of the pre-frontal cortex during REM sleep may help explain several of the cardinal features of dreaming, such as bizarre imagery, loss of critical insight and logic, diminished self-reflection, inability to shift attention, morphing of time, place and identity and forgetting of dreams. Braun’s team also found that the primary visual cortex (located in the occipital lobe in the posterior of the brain) – the point of entry for visual information from the external world – was deactivated during REM. However, regions of the brain that conduct higher-level visual processing remained activated, perhaps explaining why people continue to ‘see’ while dreaming, even while the brain is cut off from the outside world. Deactivation of the pre-frontal cortex may be consistent with Freud’s ideas of encoding of wishes into dream imagery, emotional disinhibition and instinctual needs.

Freudian-ModernThe graphic left maps Freud’s concepts to Braun et al’s findings – though it would seem the Ego function would involve both primary visual cortex (representation of the requirements of the external world and the consequences for failure to meet them) and the inhibiting mechanisms of the frontal cortex.

Solms’ (2000) summary: “I think that both my and Braun’s findings suggest that dreaming is a higher mental function, generated by forebrain mechanisms. Dreams are evidently produced by motivational, emotional, memory and perceptual systems of the forebrain. It is, in short, the ‘wishing system’, to allude back to Freud. Nothing that we know about in the brain comes closer to being the neurophysiological equivalent of what Freud described as the libidinal wish or libidinal drive.”

While Freud remains immensely influential in the wider psychological world, the work of Solms and Braun has largely prevented Freud from being dumped into the academic bin of psychological history because they provided unassailable empirical evidence that could be argued strongly to support Freudian concepts. It is to be hoped that an ongoing collaborative research project being conducted by several German universities might force other academics to consider more seriously the work of Graves, Loevinger and other developmentalists.

The German Brain Studies
In the first report from this group, Svenja Caspers et al (2011) used fMRI scans to look for neural correlates to making value-based decisions. While in the scanner, participants had to choose their preference from 2 values words – the choices being replicated from original work by Graves (1970) as well as adapting Jane Loevinger & Ruth Wessler’s (1970) Sentence Completion Test. The graphic below displays the words used as stimuli. The ‘collectivistic’ groups of words fit (left to right): PURPLE, BLUE and GREEN. The ‘individualistic’ groups fit RED, ORANGE and YELLOW.

German words

German 2011The results of the choices Caspers et al’s participants made are shown in the graphic left. Those who chose in a broadly ‘collectivistic’ way tended to use the rostral inferior and intraparietal, and midcingulate and frontal cortex while those choosing in a more ‘individualistic’ way used the limbic system more – especially the left amygdala. These findings would seem to support those of Solms if the tendency to the Id is accepted as the individualist ‘warm colours’ side of the Spiral while the Ego-Superego are accepted as conformist ‘cool colours.

The clear trends to either individualistic or collectivistic choices is meta-stated by Caspers et al  “that superordinate moral concepts influence the strategy and the neural mechanisms in decision processes, independent of actual situations, showing that decisions are based on general neural principles.” For purist Gravesians, this conclusion may represent something of a challenge as Graves – and Don Beck & Chris Cowan in the 1996 book, ‘Spiral Dynamics’ – held that the vMEME(S) dominating thought in a psychologally-healthy individual at any particular instant would be appropriate to the ‘life circumstances’ prevailing. Of course, Caspers et al’s experiment lacks mundane realism – making forced choices in word pairs from within an fMRI scanner is hardly an everyday occurrence for most people! – and, thus, is low in ecological validity. However, Beck (2002a) has varied his stance to allow that a number of people do seem to ascend the Spiral with a preference for either the ‘warm’ or ‘cool’ side. The fact that Beck’s shift in position is based on personal observations in a variety of cross-cultural contexts does seem to lend credibility and face validity to Caspers et al’s conclusion. Similarly, Julian B Rotter’s (1996) contention that the tendency of an individual’s locus of control is at least partly determined innately – ie: they tend to be ‘internal’ (self-focussed) or ‘external’ (focussed on the needs and expectations of others) – also fits with Casers et al’s conclusion that such a tendency is based in neural mechanisms.

In addition to the tendency to either be either more individualistic or more collectivistic, Caspers et al found distinctions in terms of hierarchical choice – as displayed in the graphic. This shows distinctions in collectivistic and individualistic choice at different levels, thus lending support to Graves’ contention that the sacrifice self’ and ‘express self’ systems he found had sub-systems (which Beck & Cowan labelled vMEMES.) However, the researchers could not establish statistical significance for these distinctions, meaning they cannot claim the results are reliable – almost certainly due to the small sample size (20 males; 17 females) and the very tight probability level (p0.0001). (Caspers et al state that investigating the hierarchical distinctions further is an aim of future research.)

Neurobiological principles for vMEMES
Braun et al’s ascribing of some Ego functions to the occipital lobe, rather than just the frontal cortex, indicates just how complex mapping function to brain structure is.

Further complexity is added via the work of Joseph LeDoux (1992; 1996) on the limbic system. LeDoux found that stimulation of one part of a rat’s amygdala would produce crippling fear; stimulation of another part homicidal rage. From this Jerry Coursen (2004-2005), a neuroscientist at Arizona State, has suggested that, since rage can be associated srongly with the RED vMEME and fear with PURPLE, then the amygdala has to be heavily involved in the neurological workings of both these vMEMES. This makes Caspers et al’s distinction of moral reasoning (cognition) by the collectivists and moral feelings (emotion) by the individualists, using completely different neural networks, look too rigid. However, Caspers et al do caution that interpretation of their findings is ‘tentative’.

Indeed,caution is needed! Solms’ sample groups have been even smaller than Caspers et al’s – while Ledoux’s rats are a long way from being comparable to humans. Nonetheless, these important studies are beginning to find pieces of the jigsaw in understanding how motivation works in the brain.

From a combination of logic and neuroscientific evidence, we can suggest 2 principles be considered for identifying how the brain produces motivation:-

  1. The more a vMEME is self-focussed and incorporates an emotional element, the more likely the limbic system is to be involved in its working.
  2. The more a vMEME is focussed on others and involves a planning and self-control element, the more likely the frontal cortex is to be involved.

Drawing from the work of Daniel Kahneman (2003) in postulating that humans make decisions via 2 different systems – emotional: System 1 sub-cortical-emotional; and rational: System 2 cortical-cognitive – the work of Marc Lucas & Svenja Caspers (2014) suggests that the ‘warm MEMES’ influence System 1 and the ‘cool’ vMEMES System 2. (As a psychological notion, ‘rational’ and ’emotional’ processing actually goes at least as far back as William James (1890) and is clearly reflected in such important constructs as Richard Petty & John Cacioppo’s  Elaboration Likelihood Model.)

On the basis of the 2 principles above, it is then possible to hypothesise the following relationship between 1st Tier vMEMES and brain structures:-


The above is, of course, highly speculative and, even if correct, undoubtedly very simplistic. Nonetheless, it provides a potential rough scenario for how the neural networks we call vMEMES might possibly connect up.

…and 2nd Tier vMEMES?
Both Graves and Maslow saw the ‘Being’ levels (Self-Actualisation/YELLOW and TURQUOISE/Transcendence) as qualitatively different from the lower levels. Indeed, unlike the lower levels, Caspers et al found almost no distinction at all in the choosing of YELLOW-ascribed words between collectivists and individualists. While YELLOW is portrayed by Graves and Beck & Cowan as a self-oriented vMEME, the limited evidence offered by Caspers et al would appear not to support that. However, there are considerable difficulties in defining the 2nd Tier vMEMES adequately. What Caspers et al do appear to confirm is that YELLOW is indeed qualitatively different to the lower vMEMES.

There is nothing in the kinds of studies considered here to indicate what differences there might be in terms of brain structures used in the 2nd Tier. Indeed, it may not be so much different structures used as the way they are used – ie: process, rather than structure.

It remains to be seen what the German research may or may not come up with in terms of mapping 2nd Tier thinking. But, for other explorers, possibly the place to start might be with the kind of neurological consciousness investigations Susan Blackmore (2003) has been undertaking.


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6 Responses

  1. Keith E Rice says

    Rob’s Blog, ‘Neurotrash and Neurobabble’, on the potential dangers in assuming too much from brain scanning is at

    While I wouldn’t, for a second, say I agree with all the points you make, Rob, I do think you’ve done us a great service by pointing out the problems in assuming too much from biology revealed.

    Of course, then we’re just a few whiskers away from the Mind-Body Problem!

    Ouch, my brain hurts!!! 😉

    • Jon Twigge says

      I am fascinated to know why we are close to resolving the mind-body problem but that link doesn’t work. I find that people who say they have resolved it didn’t understand the problem in the first place.

      If we take a computer and make it more complex we don’t create awareness, we just have more of the same. The meaning in any computer is not actually in the computer but in our awareness of that content.

      Unless of course, there is inherent capacity for consciousness there all the time but that it only becomes apparent in complex dense information systems.

      Moving on to memes and the brain, and using the language from the Ted talk linked in the comments, it strikes me that memories, and therefore feelings and values are laid down by repeated weather patterns, without associated rain filling those streams, such that the stream network them represents those weather patterns, or life conditions. Then, when similar weather patterns are experienced the stream network flows more efficiently, carrying more energy and, that is, we remember,

      And perhaps as your great article suggests, but using the metaphor still, certain areas of the brain represent different geological terrain and supports different types of network flows.

      And as memories are laid down more, or perhaps exclusively, through emotional stimulation – sending the metaphorical shovels out into the brain, a corresponding satisfaction
      Is triggered as these memories are matched with new stimuli and inversely, dissonance occurs when there is a lack of recognition of life circumstances and our brains have to begin the much more arduous task of remaking the landscape rather than just enjoying it.

      Thank u Keith for a fascinating article (update).

      • Keith E Rice says

        Hi, Jon

        Thanks for such interesting comments.

        The ‘mind-body problem’ link doesn’t work because I took the page down a couple of years back. I realised I didn’t have sufficient knowledge – or the interest to gain the knowledge – to maintain an informed commentary on the issue. (I am in the process of pruning the site to only retain the materials I really am interested in and prepared to put in the research keep the pages up to date.)

        Your comments on memes and the brain are VERY perceptive.

        The evidence (Emil Tulving, 1972, 1989) is that the schemas of what we know (declarative memory) are located mostly in the occipital (rear) lobe. The more we activate those areas, the more myelinated the axons (tails) of the neurons in the network become. The sheath formed around the axon by the myelin causes nerve impulses to travel faster. So the more we use a circuit, the faster it becomes. Which is one reasons habits are so enduring and developing new ways of thinking often so hard!

        And talk about “dissonance…when there is a lack of recognition of life circumstances…” That’s effectively the bones of David Helmsley’s (1993) theory of Schizophrenia – that the patient loses the ability to reference the schemas in their head – making everything new – and frightening!

        So, Jon, there’s actually a lot of Cognitive Neuroscience to support your geographical metaphor!


  2. Eileen Con says

    Thanks. I was more interested in the TED talk’s info about recent physical brain research, on how the neural connections work. I just ignored the ‘I am my connectome’ as a bit of amateurish presentation method. I think pushing forward the frontiers on how the brain works physically is important, and also relevant to vmemes. But I agree it is very much in its infancy as yet. It is necessary but not sufficeint. I will check out the link you give.

  3. R.Geurtsen says

    Accepting the idea of the connectome will mean for most people still accepting we are our brain. The guy’s talk makes sense, he’s right about technology, but basically talks in metaphors like Jesus.

    We are indeed more than our brain, our physical identity is bigger than our brain. And our identity is more than our body… we are living in our environment. Accepting the Gravesian point of view, means to never ever postulate anything psychological about anyone without including the Conditions for Living and the Life Conditions.

    Don’t look for the spots in your brain, nor start looking for the networks, you might find the neural substrate of a Level of Existence, I don’t think so, but that doesn’t realy count. If you have the neural substrate of a Level of Existence the ‘R’ and ‘S’ infected minds will still be baffled and helpless because just like Obama they find out that they still don’t know how to change! the dynamics mechanism is more important. Clare W. Graves was aware of this he did not think of stable localized neurological substrate. He talkes about brain tissue, yes. But he used the following description ‘dynamic neurological system’, he was talking

    I may sound critical but still Keith’s post raises interesting points that deserve discussion, but it requires ontological commitment to ECLET and neuroscience.

    Why are current technologies might not be sufficient to reap anything useful about our brain? For the answer check ‘Neurotrash and Neurobabble’ a brief review of the problems with fMRI scan-technology.

  4. Eileen Conn says


    Thanks for these useful and interesting ideas. Couple of points occur to
    •Are you aware of the work on connectomes? See this amazing short TED talk on connectomes in the neural system; really on the frontier on brain research:
    • Might 2nd Tier vMEMES just be paralleled by the different parts of
    the brain, involved in 1st Tier, being connected? In this case I wonder if it might have something to do with connectomes which seem to be a mechanism on how information is passed between parts of the neural system.