Judgment

“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.” — (Matthew 7:1-2)

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Judgment: We have judged; we have been judged; we have been warned about judging; we have tried not to judge, yet we go on judging. We continue to judge, because we are unable not to judge. One fundamental aspect of all creatures is that they make evaluations, and this built-in feature is one that we cannot disable or uninstall. We constantly make judgments about the world we encounter, and our lives depend upon these judgments. Being asked to not judge would be akin to asking us not to feel, not to have emotions, not to think … not to feel alive.

Since judgment requires taking a measure, it is intimately related to value. When we judge, we are measuring and assessing value, worthiness, or usefulness. We must make choices to survive; to make choices we need to evaluate, and because these decisions must often be made quickly and efficiently, we depend upon shortcuts. Our feelings are the shortcuts. Feelings provide us with immediate feedback. Individuals, who have lost the connections between their emotional system and their executive functions due to an accident will experience decision paralysis, stress, and grow very agitated when they must make a choice, even a simple one.

If we must judge to live, then why the negative judgment about judgment? The above verse from the book of Matthew seems to hint that the prohibition has something to do with the way you judge. Do we judge others in the way that we want them to judge us? One of the most universal human biases is the attribution bias. This is the tendency when judging others for us to assume their behavior is the result of internal factors, such as their personality, yet assuming our own actions arise because of the necessity of external circumstances. We see others as having character defects and ourselves as victims of circumstance. We are biased, prejudiced, and far from rational beings — we do not judge fairly.

A person’s judgments reflect the essence of their personality and identity, which involves an ongoing dance between their inborn traits and their experiences in life. Because our judgments are so fundamental to us, we often assume that our particular judgments should be just as fundamental to others; but our judgments reflect our unique perspective, and therein lies the problem. Our judgments reflect our valuation, rather than a universal standard. Most of us rarely question the basis of our judgments, though we are quick to question the basis of others’ judgments — when they differ from ours or are directed at us.

When others’ evaluations are similar to our own, they are felt to be right, good, or okay and sometimes universal. However, when others’ evaluations differ from ours, they feel wrong or bad. We enjoy being with others who share our perspective, because the more consensus gathered around a judgment, the truthier it feels to us, and the more justified we feel. This is often the basis for the communities with which we choose to associate. Another person’s evaluation of us can either build us up or tear us down, unite us or divide us. Most of us prefer to be to be with people who build us up, yet in doing so, we often unite through tearing down those who differ from us.

Judgment is here to stay. The challenge will be to own our judgments as a subjective viewpoint. We need more education on how our minds deceive us along with more awareness of our personal biases, prejudices, and values. This will not happen without intentional effort, practice, and feedback from supportive guides. Humanity needs more dialogue, but if we do not understand the subjective nature of our consciousness, then wars, on both the personal and global levels, will continue indefinitely.

“All war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal.”   — John Steinbeck


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

Hierarchy

We are not born with a “tabula rasa,” rather we arrive pre-wired with a number of emotionally based systems and circuits. Mental circuits do not require previous learning, but they do provide the basis for learning to occur. These instinctual systems begin immediately to interact with our experiences and the context of our lives, so that it becomes very difficult to tease apart nature from nurture. These “emotional operating systems” lurk behind the scenes of our conscious experience both shaping and being shaped by it.

Wolves.dominanceOne such system that emerges in social animals is an instinct for social status which results in dominance hierarchies. Hierarchies evolved to help groups develop a more stable and less conflictual way to regulate access to resources. How these hierarchies are organized vary between and within species. Hierarchies allow for a resolution of conflict that does not lead to serious injury. Game theory and computer stimulation analyses have demonstrated that this “limited war” strategy benefits individual animals as well as the species.

All human societies appear to have hierarchies, ascribed systems tend to be very rigid (e.g., caste, class, or rank-based systems), while achievement-based systems allow for more flexibility (egalitarian systems). They develop everywhere, and blossom even when groups try to mitigate their development. The founding fathers declared their independence from an ascribed hierarchy…

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

 …then developed a system that excluded other races and genders from sharing power.

Our mental circuits lead us to feel status, even when it is not made explicit. We seem to have hard-wired “social status detectors.” Human imaging studies at the National Institute of Mental Health have identified brain circuitry associated with social status. When a person moves up or down the pecking order or merely perceives social superiors or inferiors, distinct brain areas are activated. Feeling inferior activates brain regions associated with emotional pain, while rising in status feels pleasurable and is associated with improved mental and physical health. Rising in status comes with a price; the more we stand to lose, the higher our stress levels…the higher we fly, the further we can fall.

Given that we have inherited a social rank system from our ancestors that natural selection kept around to make our survival more likely, it is unlikely that we could eliminate hierarchies in society. They dwell in our subconscious mind and leak out when we try to eradicate them. As a result, human history is a long-running experiment testing many types of organizations and power structures. These have led to our greatest achievements and our most horrific crimes against humanity. Power feels good, and those with it do not want to lose it; the powerful want more power and will go to great extremes to hold it and increase it.

This inherited pleasure and pain based mental system, that once served to help small family and tribal groups live together harmoniously, now influences the fate of more than seven billion people and every other living organism on the planet. Life is no longer harmonious, and the planet’s homeostasis seems to be out of balance, perhaps it is time to make this implicit mental circuit’s role more explicit. The human experiment involves adding reason to our emotional nature, hopefully we can discover a way to sustainably and compassionately organize ourselves for the good of all life on Earth.

Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.

— Thomas Jefferson


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

Impending Doom

RiverThe game begins when we are tossed into the river of life. Unable to swim on our own, we begin totally reliant on others. These guardians provide the raft, and help structure our experience. The rafts vary in their capability to match the demands of the river. Some can move to smoother waters, while others never stray far from peril. Every alternative shapes our experience, pleasure and pain directing our path as we seek more of one and less of the other. Pain echoes the roar of what inextricably draws the river’s current. Is it perilous or is it benign? That roar, which reminds us that life on the river is fragile, is an existential given in our lives, and in all the life that has gone before us — impending doom.

The word impending has its origin in the Latin word “impendēre” which means to hang over, to be imminent. Doom has several contemporary meanings, including unavoidable bad fortune, ruin or death, an unfavorable judgment, decision or sentence. AlfredTheGreatYet, the etymology of doom is from an Anglo-Saxon word, “dom,” that means judgment or law. As an aside, it turns out, my 35th great-grandfather, King Alfred The Great (848-901 C.E.), compiled a dom-boc (doom book or law code) which attempted to blend the Mosaic code with Christian principles and three pre-existing Saxon codes. Winston Churchill credited the Laws of Alfred, which were continually amplified by his successors, as the basis for what grew into that body of common law, which has guided and constrained much of the world.

Games are built around rules, and the game of life is no exception. Rules of all sorts hang over us in life. Human laws, natural laws, and a myriad of rules connected to our personal and commercial interactions in the world, foremost are those we feel from within. Like King Alfred, we each create a personal dom-boc. This “creation” is an implicit process, generally happening outside our awareness, and built upon a foundation developed in our earliest years of childhood. Emotional interaction with our dom-boc is a fundamental activity of our minds. We live in fear of breaking the rules, being found out, judged, sentenced…doomed, whether by God, nature, or our fellow human — no wonder fear, anxiety, and worry play such a central role in living. While commonalities abound, we each have a unique dom-boc. We each construe the rules of the game and feel something slightly different hanging over us. While we tend to judge others based on our personal rules, since no one plays the same game or has the same rule book, we should consider caution in these evaluations.

There are many ways to play this game, so each of us faces our own version of impending doom. Each mind, to one degree or another, scans for what is deemed a meaningful threat, danger, or judgment — our flavor of impending doom. Impending doom is an inner experience, its meaning and consequences are constructed by the mind, and this perception frames our experience and sets limits on our actions and even our thoughts. We cannot cheat the game, but not all the rules are as rigid as we might suppose. Sometimes it makes sense to question authority, especially when that authority commands from our subconscious. Paying attention to the rules that guide our lives can be very revealing. When we shift our rules, the game changes. We each have to play our own game, which involves determining our purpose, our set of rules, and managing our experience of impending doom. How that balance is achieved, is the essence of the game.

“I am willing to take life as a game of chess in which the first rules are not open to discussion. No one asks why the knight is allowed his eccentric hop, why the castle may only go straight and the bishop obliquely. These things are to be accepted, and with these rules the game must be played: it is foolish to complain of them.”

W. Somerset Maugham


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

Status

58949722 / State Opening of ParliamentFrom the schoolyards to the networking events to the red carpet, it is intuitively felt. As a social species, humans are highly attuned to social status; one might say that we have a built in “status detector.” Natural selection has rewarded individuals having higher status with better access to mates and food and subsequently more offspring, along with other benefits that improve quality of life. Research suggests that our brain chemistry and subsequently our emotions, mood and behavior are heavily impacted by our position in the social hierarchy.

“Serotonin levels are not innate and inflexible. They are themselves the product of social status. The higher your self-esteem and social rank relative to those around you, the higher your serotonin level is…. There is little doubt that the monkey’s mood is set by its high serotonin levels. If you artificially reverse the pecking order so the monkey is now a subordinate, not only does its serotonin drop, but its behavior changes, too. Moreover, much the same seems to happen in human beings.” — Matt Ridley

Lance Armstrong Tour De FranceHumans ascribe status in many different ways, but these typically come through two basic pathways: gained through achievement or assigned in some way based on aspects such as sex, age or physical characteristics or through background such as lance-armstrongone’s ethnic group or family. Societies can differ on which types of status they emphasize and how rigid the boundaries are between the layers. Status systems create a hierarchy within society that provides those at the top more power and privilege. One might say that these entrenched ways of assigning status create a strong current that can make it difficult and at times impossible to contravene. Within these systems, there are frequently crosscurrents, when various categories of status intersect (for example, women high in social status before women’s suffrage). And, just as status can be gained or assigned, it can be lost or forfeited.

The concept of fraternization occurs when someone within a given status system engages in social relations with people from a different strata as though they were siblings, personal friends or lovers. The resulting impact of these systems is to effect inequality, which leads many institutions and societies to enforce strong prohibitions against fraternizing. This flows from the recognition that intimate relationships work best between peers. Unequal power can distort romantic relationships and create conditions of imbalance that may lead to unresolvable conflict. So, although it is based on a perceived place in the hierarchy, it has dramatic results and impacts our emotions, mood, even physiology and behavior, which one can clearly see in the conduct of winners (arms and chest held aloft) and losers (shoulders and head lowered). Feelings of contempt towards others reflect a perceived higher status, while feelings of resentment reflect perceived lower status. Those above judge and criticize, while those below defend. Aggression comes from a place of power, while passive-aggressive or terroristic behaviors spring from perceived lower status.

Status emerges in human relationships from deep within our subconscious minds, often catching us unaware. It is often reified in institutions and in society as a whole, even considered to be imbued by nature or divinity. Resistance to this idea has been germinating for years challenging nature’s push and society’s hold. There is growing concern about the levels of inequality in the distribution of wealth and resources. We almost universally find it humorous when the pompous are brought down, and some say this is the essence of much of our humor. We are also keenly aware of hypocrisy, especially of those in places of power and prestige. If we notice this force in our lives, and notice that it is based on perception, then we can more consciously consider what role we want it to actually play in our lives and relationships. Significant healing can be achieved when the lowly are lifted up and the playing field starts to level. Given our propensity towards ascribing status, perhaps with greater consciousness, healthier systems of status might emerge which draw out the best in us rather than our baser instincts.

“Human beings are a species splendid in their array of moral equipment, tragic in their propensity to misuse it, and pathetic in their constitutional ignorance of the misuse.” — Robert Wright


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

Special Collections

Special CollectionLike a museum, each one of us collects, preserves, studies, exhibits and tries to stimulate appreciation for our life experience “relics.” Many are approved for the general public, others only for specific audiences, however each of us has a “special collection.” This collection stays protected and deeply hidden; it is not placed on public display, except in acts of betrayal by another. A person makes themselves extremely vulnerable when they open this vault to another person which is why it is closely guarded. This is where we store our secrets, deep hurts, trauma and shame. When shared, this buried history must be handled delicately, and only by another person who is deeply trusted — mishandling can incite significant relational stress.

Ironically, in some aspects, our special collections are discernible. These experiences have shaped us in profound ways — not all of which are conscious to us. When accessed we are transported to the emotional encounter that led us to hide it away in the first place. This may take the form of a memory, a flashback or just the associated emotion stripped of any cognitive connection to our personal history. In their concealment, they can have a “sealed in,” preserved quality to them that covertly influence our lives and interactions with others. We see them but may not recognize them in our reactions to triggering stimuli, due to how integrated our protective schemes are in our personality structures.

Activating triggers often occur in our intimate relationships. These individuals with their increased security clearances, unbeknownst to our conscious mind, may accidentally find themselves in our vault behaving like the proverbial “bull in a china shop.” Our self-protective instincts are immediately initiated to either shut the vault or to attack the trespasser. The more frequently this occurs the more trust is damaged and subsequently the need to maintain heightened security is reinforced. The trespasser often does not realize their misstep until the moment they trip the alarm and find themselves under attack or shut off. This reaction will frequently mobilize their own security system, leading to counter-attack or their own escape tactics. This is a common negative feedback loop for a relationship.

These encounters are inevitable; as much as we try to prevent them, they may be the only way to get to know our own special collections. The challenge is to shift out of subconscious self-protection and into conscious self-exploration. Having a compassionate and curious partner willing to co-investigate is important to this process. When we have such a partner, it is possible to carefully unpack and unseal these “artifacts” and expose them to the light of the present day.


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.

 

 

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.

Growing Around

treethroughcoasterThe shape of a tree tells its developmental story. Trees grow around objects blocking their “lightward” trajectory. In some cases, these objects are permanent, making the tree’s story easily discernible. Yet in others, the original obstacle (e.g., another tree) may have been displaced or rotted away leaving only mystery and speculation.

Our personal developmental story reveals itself, not only in our physical presentation, but through our thoughts, feelings and behavior. Like trees, we too “grow around” the circumstances and people we encounter in our “lifeward” trajectory. We may remember some of the stories and circumstances behind these shaping experiences, but more likely they were never explicitly recorded. Regardless, these experiences have directed our growth. Conditioning and emotional learning write much of our implicit guidebook, which is revealed in our immediate experience and subjectively felt as we encounter life.

Conditioning refers to types of paired learning experiences, which are often involuntary. Classical conditioning, which we associate with “Pavlov’s dog,” refers to experiences that are paired together to the point where the paired stimulus reflexively induces the response normally associated with the other stimulus. Operant conditioning, which we associate with B. F. Skinner’s pigeons, is a form of instrumental learning that is based on whether behavior is reinforced or punished. Another significant way we are shaped is through social learning, which is based on direct instruction, modeling or observing the consequences of other people’s behavior. Social learning can be convoluted due to the subjective nature of our perception. Our interpretations are personal and do not always reflect what the “teacher” intended. Much of our learning is both implicit and emotional, bypassing our conscious awareness. Making it more complicated, the learning we receive is pre-filtered and colored by past emotional learning.

When we are confused by our own behavior or when it feels out of sync with our conscious intentions this often reflects that our subconscious mind is at odds with our conscious mind. Our subconscious mind follows the “rules” laid down in our implicit guidebook, rules originally drafted to keep us physically and emotionally safe, rules learned through past emotional experience — rules that might have passed their expiration date. Just as the earth can be equally shaped by intense events such as volcanoes or by slow and steady changes such as erosion, our emotional lives are shaped by the traumatic and the relentless. These experiences live on in the eternal present of our subconscious mind; rule enforcement is always on the ready. These rules are reinforced in their enactment. For example, when the guidebook’s rules prevent us from leaving our comfort zone, we are also prevented from possibly disconfirming our rules. As a result, our anxiety lives on to rule another day. It is in this way, the odd bend in our “trunk” remains a daily part of our lives, even though its origin may be a mystery.

 


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

water_leak

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.

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.

lens

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.

eye

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.