By Claude Steiner, PhD, TM.

Abstract: The question of the existence of emotions in the Adult ego state is explored. Evolutionary and neuroscience research is referred to. Love of truth is proposed as the essence of the Adult emotion.

“…This produced in my twelve year old self a sort of ecstasy. The sense (in Einstein’s words) that ‘a corner of the great veil had lifted’”
Oliver Sacks, upon discovering Mendeleev’s periodic table of the chemical elements . From Uncle Tungsten; Memories of a Chemical Boyhood.


When I, as a twelve year old, constructed a radio from instructions in Mecanica Popular, (the Spanish edition of Popular Mechanics) using a toilet paper roll, some copper wire and a crystal and was able to extract Perez Prado Mambo music from the ether I had, to my present memory, my first experience of the joy of discovery. In this paper I explore that exclusively Adult emotion.

The Adult: Berne’s definition.

In Sex and Human Loving and What do you Say After You Say Hello, the last two books written by Berne and the ones which represent his latter views most accurately he says about the Adult: “the Adult functions like a human computer.” In SHL “…taking in information from the outside world and deciding on the basis of reason what course of action to take and when to take it…

Later, still speaking of the Adult he writes,

“ has nothing to do with being mature (or grown up) since even babies can make such decisions…in crossing the street for example it works like a very complicated computer estimating the speed for all the cars from both direction and then picking the earliest possible moment for starting across the street without being killed or rather without having to lose your dignity by running.”

“The Adult is an ego state oriented to objectivity, autonomous data processing and probability estimating.”
However, he also defined an ego state as

“a consistent pattern of feeling and experience directly related to a corresponding consistent pattern of behavior.”

which raises the question: What is the “consistent pattern of feelings” associated with the Adult?
On that issue, in the late 60’s there was a brief discussion at the SF Seminar: The question was “Does the Adult have emotions?” and it was Berne’s opinion that it did not, in the usual sense of the word. In a typically Bernian understatement (when it came to feelings) he allowed for what he described as a subtle, pleasant experience that accompanies an elegant insight as when solving a complex mathematical equation. He likened the experience to a diffuse “blue light.”

The question was answered to our satisfaction and the matter was laid to rest. Here I am revisiting the question. Does the Adult have feelings?

Eric Berne gave birth to transactional analysis 50 years ago when he recognized that the ego was differentiated into separate functions. His insight came when a grown man, a lawyer uttered the now famous phrase “I am just a little boy.” What Berne realized is that it was important to distinguish people’s “mature, grown up behavior” which can be easily feigned, from a particular ego state–the Adult–which is in turn distinct from another ego state, the Child. At that moment he divided people’s behavior (the ego in psychoanalytic parlance) into two portions; the archeopsyche which he called “the Child” for short and the neopsyche which he called “the Adult.”

Observers of human behavior had long noticed that some people appeared to have more than one personality, but this was generally regarded as a pathological development. Berne’s contribution was to observe that these two distinct personalities, the Adult and the Child, were a normal occurrence in all people. Psychopathology did occur when the ego states became isolated from each other and operated as if there were no connection between them or when one ego state became fixated and excluded the other.

Berne’s thinking was intimately based on both neuroscience and evolutionary knowledge, at a time when evolution was not considered a politically correct subject in psychological science. However one need only read Chapter 1. of Sex In Human Loving “Why is Sex Necessary?” to see just how evolutionary his thinking was.

On the neuroscience end he frequently referred to W. Penfield’s findings in which stimulation of certain parts of the brain of waking subjects, presumably in an Adult ego state, aroused vivid childhood memories. Based on this information, Berne assumed that the two ego states, and later a third one which he called the Parent, had “specific anatomical representations” within the brain, in particular, that the Adult was located in the neocortex. The three ego states became cathected (energized) or dominant separately–one at a time–and could be easily recognized by the average observer.

He gave these two ego states very different but very important functions each one in its own right. The Child, he said, was the best part of the person; its creative, procreative and recreative aspect but the Adult had the important function given by Freud to the ego; to interface and deal with reality in an effective manner. As a therapeutic method he called for “Adult control” and after that was achieved, “deconfusion” of the Child. Colloquially he gave the Adult its due when he said, about what is important in psychotherapy: “Feelings shmeelings, the important thing is to think.”

The triune brain

In 1973, Paul MacLean, senior research scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health proposed that the brain is made up of three distinct subdivisions corresponding to three consecutive evolutionary eras; the reptilian, the limbic and the neo-cortical.

He points out that in the human brain, the neo-cortex, the limbic brain and the reptilian brain are clearly separate morphological structures. He calls this three-part brain the “triune” brain and assigns each of the three portions specific functions. These findings, very much in vogue for some years, have recently been questioned by neuroscientists who point out that the brain does not function as a collection of separate functional units but rather as a set of interlaced networks which evolve in intimate connection with each other.

In spite of this objection it can be said without violating any neuroanatomical dicta that the two evolutionary stages reptilian and limbic are present and distinguishable in the present stage of human evolution. The reptilian presence is manifested in territorial, mating, defensive/offensive and dominant/submissive behavior. The limbic presence is manifested in protective, nurturing and affiliative behavior.

In the human, evolution of a larger and larger brain lead to the full development of the neo-cortex. The neo-cortex permits higher functions of imitation; speaking, writing, planning, symbolic reasoning and conceptualization.

As a portion of its activities the neocortex elaborates the function of the earlier reptilian and limbic networks. In the case of the reptilian “brain” it develops territorial, hierarchical, defensive and offensive ideation and the artifacts (property, nations, weapons, military strategies) that accompany that behavior in humans.

In the case of the limbic functions the neocortex has elaborated the affiliative drive into intricate maternal love ideation, ideation regarding love between father and mother, lovers, and between members of the social group. In A Natural History of LoveDiane Ackerman chronicles the evolution of the many ways in which humans have expressed that emotion from ancient Egypt to Romeo and Juliet.

Adult Control

The neo-cortical functions are applied to the modulation, stimulation and inhibition, of the two lower brains’ functions. What’s more it has been found (see Mind Sculpture by Ian Robertson) after many years when it was believed that the brain, once formed, does not change, that neo cortical influence can create new brain networks that affect the whole brain.

Rational control of the procreative, aggressive, protective and affiliative drives are one of the byproducts of human neo-cortical evolution. However as Joseph LeDoux points out in The Emotional Brain there is a distinct asymmetry clearly established by research in the way these two portions of the brain affect each other, namely that the reptilian and limbic brain have a far greater influence upon the neo-cortical brain than vice versa “making it possible for emotional arousal to dominate and control thinking.” “Although thoughts can easily trigger emotions we are not very effective at turning emotions off.” Both possibilities—the neocortical control of reptilian and limbic behavior and emotions on one hand and the capacity of the neo-cortical functions for independent action from reptilian and limbic influence would be one way of defining Adult control. “Adult control” has been eyed with the suspicion of being a mixed blessing in that it can just as easily completely squelch all emotional experience and expression leaving the person “dead from the neck down.” That of course would be Adult control gone out of control and is the source of emotional numbing or alexithimia.

How can the Adult perform its rational symbolic problem solving and creative function without squelching or ignoring, but rather acknowledging and empowering the emotional realm?

The Pure Adult

In early 2000 I had occasion to attend a ten-day, silent meditation retreat from which I emerged with some insights about the Adult, which can be applied to this question.

The method of meditation that I pursued is Vipassana. Vipassana means “seeing things as they are” and indeed it was my experience that as I progressed in my meditation practice the state that I achieved was one of perceptual clarity not only about myself but also about the world that I inhabited.

This state was accompanied by a distinct emotional experience quite different from the coarser emotions with which I was and still am all too familiar; it was more akin to love than to anger, fear, guilt—the feelings that have been associated with the emotions.

I was able for a time to “see things as they are” by setting aside what in Vipassana are called attachments, aversions and ignorance. In the light of transactional analysis, attachments and aversions are contaminations of the Adult by the Child’s emotions. Attachments are positive emotional responses and aversions are negative emotional responses affecting the Adult, while ignorance can be interpreted as Parental prejudices (Critical or Nurturing) clouding the Adult’s input with inaccuracies. If we think of the Adult as a human computer, attachments aversions and ignorance contribute to what in computer science is called GIGA (garbage in; garbage out), which spoil its function.

The Adult in its pure state has strong boundaries and is uncontaminated by either the Parent or the Child. Emotionally, on a daily basis it is essentially an experience of low intensity but positive sense of satisfaction. This describes the experience that I had toward the end of my ten day meditation practice which I characterize as ego-fullness; a pure Adult filling my consciousness; pleasant but free of strong emotions and prejudicial thoughts to interfere with my perception of things “as they are.” Like any emotion it has a range; from the pale blue light described by Berne to the ecstatic experience. The extatic experience experienced by some meditators and feverishly sought by many others is related to the joy I felt with my radio which is so keenly described by Oliver Sacks and Albert Einstein.

Being able to see things as they are without the emotional attachments and aversions of our Child and without the prejudices of our Parent (be they that I/You are OK, or not) gives us the power to make decisions on the basis of the closest approximation to reality that we can attain given our experience at the moment.

Of course, different people will see different things; all the experiences of a lifetime, everything we have learned and how long and well we have lived inform the Adult, regarding things as they are. Our Adult information may be as naïve as a three year old’s or as wise as an oft reincarnated avatar; it still is the best basis for decisions when decision time comes. When we make our early life script decisions we make them based on the way we see things and if and when we redecide years later, we again base our decision on what we see things to be, hopefully in a more enlightened state.

My experience with this pure Adult is that it is keenest in the midst of a long sequence of meditations but also that once cathected it is far easier to recathect in situations that require Adult function. Lest I give the impression that this state of “pure Adult” was easy to achieve let me say that only the externally enforced discipline of eight hours of strong, determined daily sitting was able to break me away from the attachments, aversions and ignorance clouding my Adult’s vision.

In addition I spent the hours between meditations pacing an up and downhill circular path in the California Sierra wilderness like a caged animal; *oh-okay* silent, eyes averted and I spent sleepless nights feverishly reviewing every aspect of my life from every possible perspective. And the effects of all this were only recognized when I returned to the “real” world and experienced its daily effects where I can say that it changed me and my life, at the root.

I was left with the awareness of that peculiarly refined emotion, a sort of calm, quiet joy that is the common accompaniment of insight and discovery, which I can only described as a certain sort of love, the love of truth, the joy of seeing things as they are without Parent or Child contaminations.

The Love of Truth

The Love of truth and the emotional experience that accompany it, like any emotion, is a powerful motivator of human beings. Fear and anger are our reptilian motivators; love, sadness, guilt and hope motivate our limbic behavior and love of truth motivate our neo-cortical brain, the locus of the neopsyche, the Adult. The pleasure of Adult exercise is in fact the only motivation that has the capacity to overcome the inborn supremacy of reptilian and limbic emotions. Berne seemed to believe at times that all the emotional maladies would yield to Adult control. Development and exercise of the pure Adult may contribute to the fulfillment of that hope.


Claude Steiner

Zihuatanejo, November, 2001.



Ackerman, Diane. The Natural History of Love. Random House, New York, 1994.

Berne, Eric. Sex in Human Loving. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1970.

Berne, Eric. What Do You Say After you Say Hello. Grove Press, New York, 1972.

LeDeux, Joseph. The Emotional Brain. Touchstone, New York, 1996.

Mc Lean, Paul. The Triune Brain in Evolution. Plenum, New York, 1990.

Robertson, Ian. Mind Sculpture. Fromm International, New York, 2000.

Sacks, Oliver. Uncle Tungsten; Memoirs of a Chemical Boyhood. Knopf, New York, 2001.

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