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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

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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.

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Pick Your Poison

Clam 2

Life is difficult; we are here because we are surviving. All living creatures are vulnerable, and all have ways they protect themselves. Poison, camouflage, sharp teeth, speed, flight, claws, burrowing, strength, climbing, shells, intelligence, kindness, deception, social organization are but a few examples. Vulnerability and defense are yin and yang to one another. Since survival is not certain, our vulnerability becomes one of the elemental organizing principles of our existence. Much of who we are is a core of vulnerability enfolded by our protective strategies. The humble clam is a simple representation of these two aspects of our nature.

Our predicament is that we can only bond and grow close to others when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, yet vulnerability opens us to being wounded. Exposing our vulnerability can be one of the most terrifying moves we make, and our protective systems will sound the warning to terminate this action. Safety versus connection, how we negotiate this internal battle, sets the tone for how our life will be lived.

The battle is not so straightforward; connection reduces vulnerability and social isolation is one of the surest ways to undermine our health. Humans are a sophisticated pack animal with complicated social nuances to negotiate. Many of us get spurned, deemed unacceptable, a shocking impact which leads to a greater sense of vulnerability, which in turn leads to heightened protective measures. Ironically, these defenses often lead those most in need of connection to more social rejection or self-imposed isolation — an unfortunate self-reinforcing cycle.

However, the cycle rotates both ways. Risking can also lead to acceptance and communion, which allows the burdens of life to be distributed. Each companion can get reprieve to carry the load another day. This process strengthens the social bonds and reduces vulnerability. Defenses are softened leading to increased social accessibility.

So, pick your poison; you are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Seek safety to avoid vulnerability and risk isolation, increasing your vulnerability. Seek connection to avoid vulnerability and risk rejection, increasing your vulnerability. Or, negotiate the space between the rock and hard place to find the solace of interdependence. Succeeding in this negotiation and developing protective strategies that allow you to love and be loved may be the single most difficult but most important of your life’s endeavors. 


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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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God Talk

michelangelo-buonarroti-creation-of-adam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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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.

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“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.

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Dream World

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

Consciousness

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

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

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

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

 


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

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Every Man Is An Island

…existentially speaking, that is. We are trapped in our own subjectivity and can’t fully escape. This is the “unbridgeable gulf between oneself and any other being,” (1) which Irvin Yalom refers to as existential isolation. This unbridgeable gulf can vary in size but it is always there.

The reality which our minds generate is infused with our experience, emotion and judgment; but this is generally invisible to us, and we are regularly fooled into believing that what we experience is THE TRUTH. We believe the gulf created by our subjectivity can be bridged by TRUTH, and we are lulled into debate as we try to convince others of THE TRUTH. This is chasing after the wind, a fools errand. All we can do is share from our observation point, our experience, our personal truth and hope that the other is willing to try and build a partial bridge towards us.

This partial bridge is built with empathy, a genuine willingness to attempt to enter into the experience of another. Empathy requires awareness that we are trapped in our own subjectivity, because only then do we understand that we actually have to wade through our own subjectivity and notice its interference in the bridge building process. Empathy is a process that inspires dialogue just as belief in TRUTH inspires debate. Empathy is imperfect bridge building that never completes the full span of the gulf. Nevertheless, a partial bridge creates the opportunity for connection, understanding and healing, something which most of us crave: a healing from the wounds of our isolation, disconnection and feeling unknown.

 

Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant? — Henry David Thoreau

 

(1) Yalom, I. A., 1980. Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

 


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

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Pretty Good Stories

Understanding that our experience of the world is a “useful fiction” can open us up for major shifts in how we operate in the world, especially in our interpersonal world. To the extent that we have been fooled by our intuitive realness, our mode of communication is more likely to be debate-oriented. Debate is oppositional (e.g., my truth versus your truth, I’m right, you’re wrong). Since we believe our view of the world to be the truth, it will feel very confusing and threatening to have it challenged.

Our reality generating minds are meaning makers. We are always doing this and generally notice it only when something anomalous happens that doesn’t make sense — even then our mind has probably already come up with a pretty good story. The extreme example of “split brain” patients helps to demonstrate this. Split brain is a term to describe patients who have had a corpus callostomy to manage a severe seizure disorder. The corpos callosum is the connection between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. This extreme procedure is like creating a firebreak, in that it prevents a seizure from spreading throughout the whole brain. Since our two hemispheres are cross connected with our bodies and visual fields, information presented to the left visual field goes to the right hemisphere and vice versa with the right visual field. Since the speech controls are usually in the left hemisphere, this means that if something is presented to the right hemisphere the patient cannot say what they saw, but they can draw a picture or make a selection with their left hand which is controlled by the right hemisphere. Research on patients who have had this procedure has revealed some interesting phenomena. After being presented with an image to the right hemisphere subjects may be asked why they made the selection or drew the picture. Interestingly, they don’t plead ignorance, rather they confabulate a response.

While most of us have our two hemispheres connected, we are regularly faced with our behavior that has unconscious origins, as well as the behavior of others. Like the split brain patients, we too fabricate our useful fictions to explain our actions and those of the people around us. Usually these stories are close enough to the mark that we feel no need to question them, but question them we should. We are shaped more by the stories we weave than the truth. Realizing this opens us to a much better communication alternative than debate. If we can begin to share our stories, knowing that they are just stories, we can collaborate, rather than oppose, dialogue rather than debate. Think of what the five men and the elephant could have discovered through dialogue!blindmenelephant

 

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

 

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Intuitive Realness

The “realness” of the world is something we intuitively feel.  However, as I indicated in my previous post, “objective reality” might not be so objective. Even if there is a real world “out there” we can only experience it mentally, and mental experience is unavoidably subjective, unavoidably filtered. We all experience a self-biased world which feels very real, very”truthy” and actually unbiased. If you know someone who does not have access to one or more of their senses, you are very aware that you experience the world very differently than they do. Our self-biased world is also species specific, as anyone who has lived with another species has experienced. Each species highlights or tunes out part of “reality” depending upon its own survival needs. The world your dog experiences is not only different but unavailable to you. Science may have instruments more sensitive than our bodies, but these instruments cannot give us the true experience of the “real world.”

Our minds generate our reality; we are continuously and actively constructing the world we experience. Our experienced world is filtered and infused with our unique human emotions and thoughts. Donald Hoffman, a professor at UC Irvine who studies visual perception, has a hypothesis that perception is more of a multimode user interface (MUI): “The conscious perceptual experiences of an agent are a multimodal user interface between that agent and an objective world.” (1)  This theory suggests that what we experience as objects are more akin to the icons we have on our computer desktop than what is likely really going on. In the same way that the user friendly icon on your computer in no way represents the reality behind it, our observed objects are but useful fictions that allow us to interact with an unfathomable “reality” that can’t be fully experienced. Hoffman also points out that it would not be an advantage to us if we could.

Necker-Cube

The image above is the Necker cube which Hoffman likes to use as a demonstration of our reality construction. Our minds take the patterns within these eight circles and construct a cube, but this cube can be seen in multiple ways. Is it a cube on top of the red circles? Is the small red x on the front or back? Or, are we looking through the red circles to see the cube as if through small windows, and in that case is the x on the front or back? When our mind constructs the cube in front it also puts in the white connecting lines — even though they aren’t really there. These lines disappear when we are looking through the red circular windows. We can actually experience “reality” shifting as we move between these different perspectives (be patient). How does our past experience with the cube shape impact what we see? Would some people, perhaps young children, only see the red circles with patterns in them?

Our minds generate our reality and then believe that world is real. We feel like our sense organs are like open windows letting in what is really “out there.” We believe in objectivity, unfortunately, we have been fooled.

(1) D. Hoffman. Conscious realism and the mind-body problem. Mind & Matter, 2008, 6, 87-121.

 


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

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The Chicken and Egg Dilemma of Mind and Brain

Mind Brain Relationship

I think a lot about the mind and the brain and what the relationship is between these two. Minds have been trying to understand minds for thousands of years, though it is only in recent history that scientists have had the tools to study the brain. Efforts to correlate the mind’s experiences to brain regions have been in high gear. Regions associated with perception, sensation, emotion, cognition, bodily regulation and more have been identified. Most of the neuroscience community makes the assumption, based on these correlations, that mind is a function of the brain — that our mind, our consciousness, is just the subjective experience of our brain function.

Our mind is our subjective experience, and when we experience we objectify that experience. Language allows us to label “objects” and make associations with them that we can then communicate. We generally experience objects as “real” solid things. A brain is one such object that is made up of other labeled objects such as lobes, neurons, neurotransmitters, cells, atoms, etc. Language has associated all of these objects into a cohesive narrative.

The central question is which came first? Does mind create the brain, or does brain create the mind? This is a classic chicken and egg-type problem. With most problems, it is helpful to look at the assumptions we are making. For example, are objects real? Are they solid things? Keeping in mind that some “objects” are intangible, such as our thoughts and feelings, most of the others “feel” real. Realness, however, is only subjectively experienced, like every object within our mind. This is a tricky concept to get our minds around because our minds are, in function, reality generators. It is also tricky because others often communicate, through language their experience of these objects. How do we know there is a “real” world out there? While this is not a new debate, it is not a settled debate.

Culturally and experientially it may seem that the debate is settled, and the world of matter and real objects have won the day. Neuroscience is focused now on trying to understand how the brain generates our consciousness (not the other way around). The predominant assumption is that the brain and matter are primary and mind or consciousness is an emergent property of the brain. While we do know that physical or chemical changes to the brain impact and are correlated with subjective experience, must we conclude that mind is an emergent property of the brain? We also know that when we drop our television on the floor that our audio-visual experience of the television might change. Is the television generating the audio-visual experience? Is mind nothing more than the workings of the brain?

 


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

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