The Ego or Personality
The individual ego or personality is probably the finest creation for each of us. By the time you reached school age it was taking shape, and you continued to refine it through your teens and in to your adult years. It is pretty difficult to survive in the modern world without our personality, but the spiritual masters teach that it can be transcended and is a barrier to each of us achieving our ultimate potential. A precise location for the ego has yet to be found, but it seems to be around the Anterior Insular cortex (AI) and Anterior Cingulate (ACC) and Default Mode Network. These brain areas are highly active most of the time. It is highly connected and is thus able to observe a great deal that is going on in the brain.
A useful role of the ego is to be the “watcher” or “watchman”.
The AI and ACC are important areas for managing body homeostasis and other autonomic functions including respiration, blood pressure and heart rate. It is interesting that many spiritual schools provide instruction in breathing techniques that aim to bring this under control. Modern MRI brain scans of meditating monks is verifying that meditation acts to decrease activity in the DMN.
I believe that there will come a time in human evolution when the ego ceases to play such a large part in our lives and as we graduate from childhood to adulthood the ego will fade into the background and our high brain functions will dominate. For now, most of us are stuck with it, and the ego and personality does make life interesting.
Recognising the ego
How do we recognise that part of us that is the ego? In fact, the ego is who we think we are most of the time (who we refer to as “I” or “me”), and a better question is how to recognise the parts of us when it is not the ego operating? Fear of death comes from the ego. It is the ego that is afraid of dying, because one day it’s short existence will come to an end.
What it is actually for
Let’s quickly review the simplified brain diagram:
Also review the section on feedback loops. A lot of the brain of humans, in common with most other animals on this planet, is all about feed-forward loops. Neural networks designed to make decisions and react on sensory inputs quickly for survival of the species. It isn’t show very well in the diagram above, but the Insular Cortex, where the ego is most likely to lie, is the brain’s internal monitor and feedback loop. The error recognition circuitry. This monitors the decisions made in the PFC and provides the ability for us to review them and make corrections. This helps us get along with those around us, socially. The response to the simple moral emotions (shame, guilt, embarrassment) fed back through the Insular cortex and ego, give us the opportunity to think them over and modify our behaviour for the next time. The DMN can mull away on these things in the background. It can be useful. It can also get out of hand. When we are wronged these feedback circuits can mull away for years, if we don’t have the opportunity to resolve the issue. And for war veterans who had experienced or taken part in atrocities, sometimes the guilt that they have no easy way of resolving can go round and round in these brain circuits for the rest of their life. There is a use for the ego and the feedback networks, but it needs to be a servant for our use and should not dominate or control us.