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.



Horse and Rider

Most of us would like our feelings to line up with our will. We want to “feel” like doing, what we “think” we want; short of that, we want more willpower to overcome the strong pull feeling exerts away from our goals. Experiencing inner wrangling and a lack of control over ourselves, we regularly see ourselves succumb to instant gratification — sabotaging our long-term intentions. This daily internal struggle blocks our efforts to direct our behavior in constructive ways. Our perceived “failures” can lead to a negative self-regard and a sense that we are powerless to change.

Internal strife suggests that we are not of one mind. We know this to be true, yet our inner executive resists the idea that his or her influence is not absolute. A true examination of our experience suggests that we are informed by many influences within us, which may or may not be moving in the same direction. They seem to glide in and out of the executive’s chair, and we often sense a fight in the board room as they scuffle for takeover. The mind is complicated, as is the brain, and whatever relationship these two have to one another, both have many components. To keep it simple, we have conscious aspects and subconscious aspects of mind. Our consciousness has the will, but our subconsciousness possesses the power.

Horse in ControlI think the metaphor of a horse and rider aptly symbolizes the subconscious and conscious mind. The rider has the will, but the horse provides the power. When a horse and rider are in sync with one another, they can accomplish amazing tasks. BuckingBroncoWhen not in sync, it gets ugly fast. What they are capable of achieving depends entirely upon the relationship that is forged between the two. This is a lifelong relationship, but the horse has the jump start.

The horse’s training begins immediately, but it is not the rider who early on wields the reins. The rider is slow to develop and is initially just along for the ride like a child on a pony ride. Training and support is dependent upon external sources, such as parents and other guardians. The horse has had significant training by the time it is even possible for the rider to exert any influence. Each horse and rider are unique: Some are bold, and some are timid; some have constructive training, and some do not. Along the way, they encounter circumstances that will interact with their training. The combinations are infinite and will shape their path through the terrain of life.

Yet, training and relationship building are ongoing — horses and riders can change. Improved relationships can be forged. We all need to become better horse whisperers, especially when there has been trauma or difficult circumstances. Our horse does not forget and will remember events unknown to its rider. Experiences can trigger a fight, flight or freeze reaction which the rider may not understand. Horses are powerful and cannot be forced. They need patience and compassion to build the trust and consistency, which will make them more responsive to their rider’s will.

It’s a lot like nuts and bolts – if the rider’s nuts, the horse bolts!  — Nicholas Evans

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

Harnessing the Wind

classic-sailingThe sailor harnesses the wind but has no power over it. By manipulating the sails and the rudder, the sailor directs the boat to achieve what movement is possible within the imposed constraints. Unlike most of us, the sailor has no illusions concerning what can and cannot be controlled.

Our illusions stem from our conscious awareness (the executive suite) believing it is in charge and running the show — believing doesn’t make it so. Freeing ourselves from our illusions may not be fully possible, but the effort to notice them may be worthwhile and might make us more effective in our lives.

Thinking like the sailor and clarifying what we do and do not control might be a good first step. In our case, this is more complicated since some of the “wind, weather and tides” come from within the subconscious mind. Identifying our controllable sails and rudder can be confusing since the whole system can run on autopilot without conscious involvement (e.g., highway hypnosis). However, our conscious executive does have some controls, and these can be used to influence what is outside of our direct control.

The difference between control and influence can be illustrated by comparing how you slow your breathing (control) versus how you slow your heart rate (influence). The former is a direct experience; if asked how you did it you might be stumped … “I just did it.” The latter is indirect; if asked how you accomplished it, you could likely explain how you calmed your breathing, relaxed your muscles and visualized a peaceful scene. You are explaining how you used your direct controls to influence what is outside your direct control. It can be a subtle but important distinction that A → C (control) is different from A → B → C (influence) — especially as the chain extends.

When it comes to our mental life there are fewer aspects under direct conscious control than we may have realized. Many features of our mental and physical experience are actually only consciously “influenced.” For example, we often hear “control your emotions,” but technically speaking, we don’t have “control” of our emotions. While it might sound a bit more ponderous to ask one to influence their emotions, it would be more accurate.

Mental control is a powerful tool, but one that is highly inefficient because it draws considerable energy resources, and can really only do one thing at a time. When our conscious mind attempts to micromanage, performance always declines. Our system “wants” to conserve energy, and running on autopilot is far more efficient than using our executive controls. It helps to think of this in terms of the executive suite metaphor. While we need the executives, they are expensive; given that corporate CEO’s make on average 250 times what the average worker does, we need to conserve their use for specific, necessary tasks. This principle is well stated by the United States Chief Executive, President Barack Obama, “Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable. Otherwise, someone else would have solved it.” And, I might add, it makes no sense for him to solve what someone else could solve. 

Our primary mental control is the ability to focus our attention. This is similar to using a flashlight in a dark room, because where we point the light dictates what will be in our awareness, what is not illuminated remains in darkness and subsequently out of the executive suite’s awareness. This ability to focus our awareness combined with our other mental controls such as analysis, problem solving, planning and language expression have built kingdoms and space stations. However, this combination also contributes to the perception that we can or should be able to control all of our thoughts, since these conscious activities do result in thoughts. While we can create and direct some thought, much of our thinking occurs outside of voluntary activity. Most of our inner dialogue is involuntary and is so familiar to our awareness that it becomes like background music.

A great deal happens outside the light of conscious awareness over which we are not wired to have direct control. Fortunately we have an autopilot mode and can do many things without conscious involvement — but not everything. With our voluntary control over our attentional spotlight, along with some important executive mental functions that also include directing our movement and breathing, we can influence a great deal. These meager resources allow us to yield significant influence and ultimately harness the wind … and maintain our illusion of control.

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

Unconscious Leakage


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.

“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.


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.