Unconscious Leakage

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Making sense of the unconscious has been an intriguing and challenging endeavor for centuries. As I discussed in The New Arrival, the capacities for self-consciousness and self-management seem to be facilitated by the “latest and greatest” of the many modules that constitute our brains. These newer modules are found in a number of species at varying levels, including some birds and mammals. They seem to be the most sophisticated in the more complex social species due to the need for social creatures to navigate a challenging interpersonal environment involving both competition and cooperation. The human version allows for reflection on personal mental states, as well as the ability to infer the meaning of other’s mental states.

The television show Lie To Me was inspired by the work of psychologist Paul Ekman, who served as a scientific adviser to the series. Paul Ekman studied non-verbal expressions of emotions and along with Wallace Friesen, E. A. Haggard and K.S. Isaacs discovered what came to be known as “microexpressions.” By filming subjects and slowing things down, they could see these momentary involuntary expressions of emotion (as fast as 1/15th to 1/30th of a second), often highlighted by the subject’s conscious effort to conceal emotion or to present a more “acceptable” emotion. These microexpressions can reveal any of the seven emotions universally expressed by the face, including disgust, anger, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise and contempt.

Microexpressions are part of our nonverbal communication repertoire and are an excellent example of how our unconscious “leaks.” This leakage spoils our ability to fully control our communication and self-presentation. Nonverbal communication has been the only form of communication through most of evolutionary history and is our unconscious mind’s mother tongue. Verbal communication and language, which is facilitated by the newest modules, should actually be considered our second language. All of our communication incorporates nonverbal expression and interpretation, most of which is outside of our conscious control; as a result, our conscious “executive suite” has a very limited ability to fully manage the process. Ekman’s research required technology to see these extremely fast microexpressions, but our built in unconscious technology does it automatically. As you attend to these two languages in your own life, you will likely notice that whenever they seem to be in conflict you will “feel” the truth of what is communicated nonverbally and doubt the verbal content. Our conscious self makes a valiant effort to control these unconscious leaks, but it has limited access to the plumbing.

 


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

The New Arrival

stork_baby_deliveryIt has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.  — Bertrand Russell (1950)

Our unconscious brain is an automatic and fast parallel processing system of interacting components oriented towards our survival and adaption in the world. The primary script is to avoid what is painful and to seek out what is pleasurable. Emotions at their fundamental level involve judgment about whether to approach or avoid. These basic impulses are reflected in our broader array of human emotions which developed in large part to the interpersonal world we live in. Our advanced brains are the accumulated product of a long, long history of life adapting to changing conditions. With time self-consciousness emerged, though it was a late arrival to the evolving brain. Like a newborn, it demanded a lot of attention and energy. This part of the brain, capable of executive functions like planning, troubleshooting and resisting temptation, came along to support and advance what was already in place. This means that the part of our self which we most identify with, the part that “feels” like it is in charge, is really just one of many modules that have advanced fitness. Given that it is the new arrival to the project, it is not primary and like our newborns (while it may sometimes seem otherwise) is not really in charge.

Our felt experience is that the “executive suite” of the brain is running things, but that is because this awareness has its office in the executive suite. Executives often “feel” like they are in charge, but in truth they can only be aware of a small part of what is happening in the organization. Every level of the organization deals with what it needs to and only goes up the “chain of command” when it needs to. President Barack Obama once said, “Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable. Otherwise, someone else would have solved it.” The executive of an organization would quickly be overwhelmed if they had to deal with or approve every decision, and in truth, they would be clueless about many of those lower level decisions. The executives only hear from those close and only speak to those close. This means that the executive suite only hears about a small subset of information and is only capable of making certain types of decisions, those it is specialized to make.

This organization was not designed top down but it evolved bottom up. We did not begin as “rational animals” but evolved the capability to use reason. Most of what we do moment to moment is unconscious to us. “We” spend our time in our executive suite handling what is given to us from the vast organization “below” us. These activities keep us busy, help us feel vital to the organization and very self-important, but “we,” evolutionarily speaking, are just the new kid.


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

God Talk

michelangelo-buonarroti-creation-of-adam

The easy confidence with which I know another man’s religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also.” — Mark Twain, a Biography

Since most of us may not be as comfortable questioning our own beliefs as Mark Twain, we are likely to benefit from the etiquette rule which warns us of discussing religion. Unfortunately this rule inhibits us from sharing some of our deepest and most intense experiences, thoughts and feelings as well as our foundational values; this rule may indeed prevent conflict but it does so at the expense of intimacy.

You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.  — Anne Lamott

I think the basis of the difficulty we have with these conversations lies in our failure to realize how trapped we are by our subjectivity. The source of our conflict is when we forget that our God talk isn’t really about God but our “God-image” – could it be otherwise? How does one describe what is ineffable? Given the many warnings of creating false gods and graven images, you might think we would be more cautious. But how can we throw caution to the wind and talk about God? Perhaps we start by recognizing that “God” is a three letter word that has a whole lot attached to it. What I have attached to it is deeply and inextricably tied to my subjective experience. If you can agree that you are in the same boat, we may have a chance at some “God talk.” This is true whether you consider yourself an atheist, an agnostic or a religious person of any flavor.

We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are. — Anais Nin

Now when we talk we aren’t talking about God, we are talking about ourselves and sharing our experiences and our interpretations of those experiences. We are talking about what we’ve been taught, what we have believed and what we have doubted. Now, we are connecting rather than conflicting. Now, maybe we are open to new possibilities. I like to think that this approach can help bring science and religion together; perhaps both are seeking some of the same things. We are all trying to comprehend the mystery of our existence. It seems that the meaning of the Hebrew name, YHWH, points to existence itself. Perhaps the essence of the spiritual/religious perspective is emotionally experienced mystery, and the essence of science is analytically experienced mystery … either way, we get back to our mysterious experience.

Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of the mystery that we are trying to solve. — Max Planck

 


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

Implicit Guidebook

Children implicitly absorb language from those around them, but they also absorb culture, beliefs and what it takes to make it in the world. They soak up what helps them get their needs met and prevents them from experiencing pain. They observe others’ experiences and learn vicariously. All of this flows in unconsciously and uncritically. These implicit learnings form the basis of our personality and our subjective perspective, and they write the initial chapters of our “implicit guidebook.” The implicit guidebook is a term I use for our underlying sense of what is right and wrong, how we are to live and our basic construction of how things are. It is our working hypotheses for ourselves and the world. While this sounds cognitive it is really at the essence of our emotional experiences. Because this “book” is implicit, we can’t sit down and read it, show it to others or fully know what has been written on its pages. This guidebook acts as a lens or filter that is as invisible to us as contact lenses can be to the wearer. It both shapes our perception and proves itself true in that shaping.

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Yet … the implicit can partially be made explicit. Ironically, understanding that our experience is subjective allows that subjectivity to become an object of our awareness. As we start to notice our inner dialogue, beliefs, rules, assumptions, expectations, etc., we are noticing our guidebook. The challenge is to get just enough space to notice it so we can make it an object of inspection. This happens with dialogue, with meditation, with writing, with contrasting our reality from those close to us and at a distance and in many other unexpected ways. As we engage in this process we may want to pull out our editing tools. We will see much that we want to strike through, many parts to rewrite and some which we will want to highlight or underline.

If only editing was this easy. It is not. This is the mind’s effort to reprogram itself. This is using the minuscule programer that is our conscious self to edit the code within the massive super-computer that is our unconscious. The programer is always vulnerable to being swallowed up by the program before the changes can be saved.

And yet … it can be done.

 


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

“Dark” Awareness

We are aware of what is in our awareness, and we are not aware of what is not in our awareness – could anything be more obvious? Awareness is our everything and as a result it gets all of our attention, but that means everything outside of our awareness is getting none of our attention. Astronomers of old used to only pay attention to what they could see, but as the technology and science progressed they started paying attention to what couldn’t be seen. Some astronomers now hypothesize that dark matter and dark energy constitute more than 90% of the universe. These “dark” forces are inferred but not seen yet have a huge impact. Our human universe also has forces outside of awareness which dramatically influence our thoughts, feelings and behavior.

We have a natural bias that our conscious mind plays a greater role in controlling our behavior than it actually does. This is simply because it is the part of our self that we are aware of and identify with, our “me-ness,” if you will. Like the astronomers, psychologists are able to use experiments that allow them to observe the impact of the unconscious mind.

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David Eagleman is a neuroscientist who delves into the significant influence of the unconscious in his book Incongnito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (1). Early in the book he discusses an experiment where men were asked to rank how attractive they found photographs of different women’s faces. The photographs were very subtly altered in a way none of the men in the study noticed but which served to dramatically influence the results. In half of the photographs the eyes of the women were dilated, and as it turns out, these were the women the men found more attractive (eye dilation corresponds with sexual excitement and readiness).

Chances are that the men might be able to come up with reasons for their attraction, but this would likely be a confabulation not unlike those of the split brain subjects I discussed in Pretty Good Stories. We naturally explain our actions with what is in our awareness; but as a great body of research literature demonstrates, we are significantly influenced by what is out of our awareness.

Much of our behavior is as unconscious to us as what happens within our computers when we manipulate the keyboard or mouse. While we have no idea how we do most of what we do or why, we don’t generally experience life in a state of total confusion. We have evolved to know enough to live our lives and adapt to our world, just as the astronomers of old knew enough to predict the changing seasons. The challenge now is how to make sense of and function in a world where we have discovered “dark” awareness.

(1) Eagleman, D. M. 2011. Incognito: The Secret Lives Of The Brain. New York, NY: Pantheon Press.

John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

Dream World

My assumption is that mind or consciousness is not generated from the brain. I assume the inverse, namely, that the brain (and matter more generally) is an emergent property of consciousness. One might call this a non-materialist perspective since it does not assume that mind can be reduced to matter.  This approach suggests that “matter” and the material world exist within mind or consciousness. It views consciousness as primary over matter; therefore, consciousness is not contained within the body. The “body” is something consciousness generates.

Consciousness

Each of us experiences an intimate model of this every night as we create a world within our consciousness – our dreams. The people, places and things which are our dream objects exist only within our dream consciousness. From our dream self’s perspective, our dream objects seem fairly real and solid albeit with the strange twist of our dreaming physics.

This approach does not mean that we can dismiss the laws of physics in our waking life; nothing practically changes. Objects still feel solid and real, and a fall is still going to hurt. However, it may be an approach that helps better explain the strange physics at the extreme macro and micro ends of the observable universe. It may also open up greater acceptance and understanding of parapsychology’s research. As physicists search for the fundamental building blocks of matter, they aren’t finding them; but they are finding that measurable matter may need consciousness to be realized.

The 1925 discovery of quantum mechanics solved the problem of the Universe’s nature. Bright physicists were again led to believe the unbelievable — this time, that the Universe is mental. According to Sir James Jeans: “the stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the Universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter… we ought rather hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter.” But physicists have not yet followed Galileo’s example, and convinced everyone of the wonders of quantum mechanics. As Sir Arthur Eddington explained: “It is difficult for the matter-of-fact physicist to accept the view that the substratum of everything is of mental character.”  (R. C. Henry, “The Mental Universe”; Nature 436:29, 2005)

Our only way of knowing this world continues to be through our five senses, through our observations.  As always, we will continue to experience those observations mentally — through consciousness where all things “really” exist.

 


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.