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A theory abandoned but still compelling

A theory abandoned but still compelling

In Paul MacLean’s triune brain, primitive emotions overruled conscious thoughts.

In 1977 readers were enthralled by The Dragons of Eden, a book by the astronomer Carl Sagan that explored the evolution of the human brain. Dragons won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction and helped to launch Sagan’s celebrity as a spokesman for science in the 1980s.The real star of the book, however, was a theory of human neural organization that took root some 30 years earlier in writings by Paul D. MacLean, M.D. ’40. MacLean, who died last December at age 94, was a highly original—some say eccentric—thinker whose model of the triune brain, though now discredited, has had a lasting cultural impact.“Paul never traveled with the herd,” said Thomas R. Insel, M.D., director of the National Institute...

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