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 by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.