Trial By Combat

A trial by combat, deciding a man’s guilt or innocence in the eyes of the gods by having two other men hack each other to pieces. Tells you something about the gods. ― Tyrion Lannister

TrialbyCombat

In the popular book and HBO television series, Game of Thrones, the character Tyrion Lannister, who has been accused of a capital offense, elects to have his fate decided by means of a trial by combat rather than by a council of lords.  Being a dwarf, who has little chance to overpower a much larger and more accomplished opponent, he chooses to be represented by a champion who will fight in his stead. Tyrion is in a vulnerable position and is desperate for a protector who is willing to fight to the death on his behalf.

I have discussed in recent posts the concept of executive operating systems (EOSs) that “drive” our body and brain in different directions, depending on the subconscious perception of the situation we are facing. When any particular EOS is active, our emotions, thoughts and motivations align in service of its evolved function (e.g., protection, nurturing). Since we are wired to survive our systems rapidly respond to any perceived threat. The same systems that orient us towards withdrawal or attack in response to mortal danger are likewise invoked in the face of relatively benign modern-day threats such as being cut off in traffic, being given poor service in a restaurant or in the midst of a family argument over household chores.

Couples counselors regularly witness trial by combat in their offices when romantic partners, who at times have loving feelings towards one another, suddenly bring forth their champions to defend their positions. Feeling emotionally vulnerable or wounded can elicit all manner of protectors to emerge. The defensive strategies employed by individuals in a relationship may vary, but when the partners interact under stress it is inevitably their preferred guardian EOS that is interacting. While not always a fight to the death, these encounters can leave both parties bruised, broken and even more sensitized to the next perceived slight, which triggers another cycle. The renowned relationship researcher, John Gottman, refers to this cycle as “negative affect reciprocity.” The ability to minimize these battles, escape from them once they have begun and repair the resultant damage is often the key to the relationship surviving.

Our instinct to survive is exactly what is triggered by our loved ones. Unfortunately, that instinct leads to an inhibition of empathy and sets us on a self-protective path rather than on a relationship-protective path. Orienting towards the relationship is counter-intuitive to our selected champion, as it involves exposing our vulnerability rather than shielding it. Healing a relationship caught up in negative affect reciprocity requires an environment that reduces the stress and reactivity so that the alternatives beyond fight or flight can emerge.

Relational battles are often heated (or chilled) debates between two individuals who desperately want to be seen, validated and cared for by the other. Feeling diminished, unappreciated or unloved can feel so threatening that any damage being inflicted in one’s own defense is deemed justifiable. One can be deeply wounded from active or passive defensive strategies. The interplay of fight or flight is inextricably tied together. This dance, which we so often find ourselves attending, cannot be won — it is a dance after all, and dancing is difficult when you are suited in armor.


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

 

 

River Running

Upper Gauley SwimmingMy closest brush with death occurred when I fell out of a raft in a Class V rapid on the Upper Gauley River in West Virginia (conveniently captured by the rafting company’s photographer). The pre-trip orientation had advised me to float with my feet pointed downstream should I find my self outside the raft. Unfortunately, once in the water, despite wearing a life jacket and buoyant wetsuit, I was unable to determine which way was up, let alone downstream. Eventually, the raging Gauley coughed me up only to quickly inhale me back under. Fortunately, the second time I arrived at the surface, I was immediately pulled into the raft, which provided me the welcomed opportunity to reunite my lungs with air. This experience demonstrated to me, a water lover, the menacing power of moving water.

I have a lifetime of experience playing in pools, creeks, rivers, ponds, lakes and the ocean. Much of this play has involved interacting with a current of moving water — whether body surfing or drift diving in the ocean, whitewater rafting, canoeing or swimming in rivers or just playing with sticks in a creek. The pleasure comes from moving with the current, whereas, the experience of moving against the current usually feels like work and definitely involves some technique.  I have a scar on my right knee from a fall I took during a seventh grade canoe trip, while trying to walk back upstream to repeat the fun of floating through a relatively mild rapid.

The experience of moving downstream with the current or upstream against the current can vary dramatically depending on the amount and force of the flowing water. In some cases, a river’s current is barely detectable, and moving upstream is almost as effortless as moving downstream. But in others, as in my Upper Gauley experience, you are at the mercy of the river, and moving upstream is not an option.

In Who’s Driving Now?, I discussed the relationship between our limbic system and neocortex. I introduced the concept of emotionally organized “executive operating systems” (EOSs). Briefly, researchers have identified seven to nine EOSs that activate us to deal with the challenges and opportunities humans have faced throughout their evolutionary history. Each EOS can be seen as an encompassing brain state that involves feelings, thoughts and motivations which are experienced on a continuum of intensity. As an example, the feelings in the “RAGE” EOS might range from frustration to indignation; thoughts might be organized around blame, contempt or memories of past wrongs; and motivation might be oriented to the urge to punish or hurt. The theory behind EOSs suggests that our brains are principally organized by emotions, which can exert a powerful current impacting all aspects of our experience.

Just as rivers ramble or rumble according to the quantity of water, gravity and the terrain, the flow of our emotional current can be mellow or dramatic depending upon the “gravity” and “terrain” of the situation we are encountering. Our human form of consciousness allows for the experience of internal conflict between our intentions and our feelings. The ability to see the big picture and create long range plans and goals is a function of the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex. The power of this executive brain region to guide our actions depends primarily on whether it is attempting to move with or against the emotional current of our “limbic river” and with the intensity of the current.

Like it or not, we are all river runners. We must negotiate whitewater, cross currents, tributaries and obstacles. Our feelings flow — gently or forcefully moving us downstream. At times, we must shift our position in the river or reorient ourselves to take a different line. This may involve bursts of moving upstream or some clever rudder work, either of which will depend on the current state of our “limbic river” and our past experience running our river.

We may be floating on Tao, but there is nothing wrong with steering. If Tao is like a river, it is certainly good to know where the rocks are. ― Deng Ming-Dao


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

 

 

Who’s Driving Now?

crazy-taxi-driverImagine you are traveling in a mysterious taxi where the cabby transforms into another driver. Everything suddenly seems to be different since there is a new person in charge, the driving style changes: the destination changes, as does the mood, music selection and the conversation. This unusual scenario is not too disparate from our day-to-day lives. As our emotions vacillate, a new “driver” takes charge and everything in our experience changes. Our emotional shifts can range from subtle to dramatic, and once made we experience different thoughts, feelings and motivations. We may find that we have a different outlook on life and access to different memories or perhaps an alternative interpretation of memories. In spite of these transformations, we feel like the same person. Our perception of continuity between drivers is provided by our observational self, the passenger in the back seat. This passenger has always been there, through it all — our deepest and most steadfast sense of self.

salmonSince the limbic (emotional) brain evolved earlier than our neocortex (executive) brain [see The New Arrival], its preexisting controls over the body were built into the wiring of the newer system. The limbic systems’ influence is thus expanded, not replaced. While the neocortex can have an impact on the limbic system, this influence runs upstream like a spawning salmon and must fight the more powerful emotional current. The more intense the emotional experience, the stronger the current our “neocortex’s salmon messengers” must struggle against. The neocortex evolved to serve the organism, which includes the limbic system and other bodily systems. By providing increased flexibility and adaptability to new environments, this executive system allowed humans to colonize the globe and even escape our terrestrial orbit. Yet, to the chagrin of our executive sense of control, these pre-existing systems did not evolve to serve the neocortex and, as a result, our minds are primarily organized around emotional states. As our emotional states shift, so will our mental life and behavior.

Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D. is a researcher in the field of affective neuroscience. His work focuses on understanding how various emotional processes are evolutionarily organized in the brain. He also explores the linkages of these processes to psychiatric disorders and drug addiction. Dr. Panksepp mapped the neural circuitry of seven mood states, which he refers to as “executive operating systems” (EOSs). So named because when active, these “drivers” take control and impact our emotions, perceptual biases, memories, and behavioral inclinations. These EOSs evolved to deal with crucial challenges our evolutionary ancestors faced in dealing with basic functioning, survival and procreation, as well as necessary social behavior. Judith Toronchuck and George Ellis added two more EOSs to Panksepp’s seven, rounding out the list to nine primary emotional systems: SEEKING, DISGUST [Toronchuck & Ellis addition], RAGE, FEAR, LUST, PANIC (which relates to separation distress), CARE/nurturing, Play and POWER/dominance [Toronchuck & Ellis addition]. Capital letters are used to remind us that these labels refer to the “system” and not just the emotion. The emotions, thoughts and motivations within each system can range in magnitude, for example, the RAGE EOS might involve a spectrum of feelings that extend from mild frustration to intense anger.

Living and dealing with other people leads to interactions between multiple sets of EOSs. These interpersonal encounters can be categorized on a cooperative to conflictual continuum. Social engagements have the potential to shift in dramatic, often unexpected ways, depending on which EOSs are driving and whether challenge or opportunity is perceived. It is our subconscious mind that dispatches the drivers, and this dispatcher is extremely fast and conditioned by experience. When our subconscious mind is triggered, the appropriate driver/EOS is instantly dispatched to deal with the circumstance. So when the emotional current is particularly strong, by the time the neocortex’s messenger has traveled upstream to deliver a potentially contradictory message —  for example, “don’t say it” — the dispatcher has replaced our driver, who has already said it. All the while, our observant passenger quietly notices the dramatic play unfold.

Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective Neuroscience. New York: Oxford University Press.

Toronchuk, J. A., & Ellis, G. F. R. (2012). Affective Neuronal Selection: The Nature of the Primordial Emotion Systems, Frontiers in Psychology.  3(589)


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

 

 

What if?

You are a function of what the whole universe is doing in the same way that a wave is a function of what the whole ocean is doing. 
― Alan Watts

UniversalMindThe existence of consciousness remains the greatest of mysteries. What if consciousness is not a byproduct of matter but the source of matter? What if a universal mind is the field that holds together our world of matter? … each speck of life, a unique portal through which this mind pours forth its creative impulses. A creativity that further blossoms as “matter” awakens to consciousness. “Awakened matter” ultimately notices itself as an object, and a sense of self is galvanized. Self grows cognizant of its awareness, and an unshared subjectivity is conceived. This individualized perspective can neither be replicated nor fully understood by another.

What if that perspective in us — which is aware, which notices and is our observing self — is universal mind seeing through the filter that is us with all our idiosyncratic characteristics? What if the world we notice “out there” is actually inside rather than outside — a dreamworld contained within universal mind? I, like many other seekers, desperately want to reify this mind of which I am comprised. Even naming it is a movement in this direction, but whatever is observing and experiencing through us, if it is singular, cannot be mentally captured any more than I can see my eyes with my eyes. We know this universal mind, this source of awareness, only through living and experiencing our unique perspective. Our life is this larger life, but embodied and limited in space and time.

If we believe a universal mind experiences through us, might it change the way we see ourselves and one another? Could we feel connected and unified rather than isolated and divided? Is it possible we would value ourselves and others in a more treasured way? Maybe we would be curious and open to others’ perspectives and less judgmental and intolerant. Perhaps compassion and love could flourish.

While it often seems that we dwell in separateness and look out at a world full of objects perhaps it is quite the opposite, and a knowing, experiencing and creative mind is “looking” within — seeing itself through myriad perspectives … a dynamic self with so many ways to experience, to interact … to be. Perhaps this self becomes so enamored and entangled in these multiple perspectives that in the midst of embodied experience it believes these dreams of separateness and loses a sense of unity.

Do we want “it” to wake up?

You are actually—if this is the way things started, if there was a big bang in the beginning— you’re not something that’s a result of the big bang. You’re not something that is a sort of puppet on the end of the process. You are still the process. You are the big bang, the original force of the universe, coming on as whoever you are. When I meet you, I see not just what you define yourself as—Mr so-and- so, Ms so-and-so, Mrs so-and-so—I see every one of you as the primordial energy of the universe coming on at me in this particular way. I know I’m that, too. But we’ve learned to define ourselves as separate from it. ― Alan Watts


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