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.

Two Worlds

Rodin-The-ThinkerI seem to live in two worlds. One that might be called my “inner world” consists of my private thoughts, emotions, images, and sensations. The other which appears to me as an “outer world” is a shared world that consists of other beings (those who seem to possess an inner world) and objects (things that do not seem to possess an inner world). These two worlds make up my universe; nothing else exists…for me.

The interplay between these two worlds is complex. Much of what could be said to exist in my outer world, exists only in my inner world. For example, I have never been to Africa, so I have never experienced it in my outer world, I have never touched it, seen it, heard it, tasted it, or smelled it. The continent of Africa is an outer world shared by over one billion people that for me, exists only in my inner world through second hand experiences.

neo-wakes-upMy office, where I sit now, exists in my outer and inner world. My inner world, ostensibly fed by the “actual” outer world through my senses, makes my office appear to me as a part of my outer world. It seems real, but how do I know for certain what is real? The philosophical position of solipsism holds that the “outer world” cannot be known. Extreme forms of solipsism deny any outer world, which includes all the other inner worlds. The plot of the science fiction film “The Matrix,” plays with the concept that the outer world is constructed by the mind. The Matrix, a designed outer world, is a complex computer program which humans directly interface with through ports connected to their brains. The humans in the Matrix experience an outer world that does not really exist “out there.”

Chaplin.mirrorDebates about the nature of the outer world are not only happening in philosophy and science fiction, but increasingly in the scientific community. Thinking about the “realness” of my outer world can twist my mind in a Gordian Knot if I am not careful. Yet, I must also take heed of the other extreme, namely over-belief in the outer world. Questioning the outer worlds’ existence generally comes from an intellectual position, not an experiential one. Experientially, the outer world feels certain. Much of my inner world does too. I tend to believe my thoughts and interpretations. Certainty feels good, and these feelings are often necessary for survival — doubting the realness of the world is not a trait that will likely contribute to many descendants.

We crave certainty in both of our worlds; so much that we fight for it when someone challenges our sense of it. While we like suspense, surprise, and mystery, we do not like to sit with these feelings indefinitely. We ultimately want resolution; we want certainty. This can drive us in positive ways to understand our experience, and to use that understanding to improve our existence. But, this craving for certainty has the potential to destroy us. We see evidence of this in political, religious and other interpersonal clashes. What happens when two sides both feel certain of incompatible positions? Certainty can block mutual understanding, empathy, giving others the benefit of the doubt, or meeting in the middle. These are essential diplomatic and interpersonal relationship skills.

I am trying to learn how to question my own certainty, and to live a life that can embrace uncertainty. The scientific method, an approach based on confirming or disconfirming hypotheses based on empirical evidence, may be the closest that we can get to certainty in a subjective world. It provides a structured way to dialogue and find consensus about our shared outer world. Yet, consensus is still lacking, even science is subject to biases and current paradigms. Humans are naturally stubborn and resistant to evidence that works against their beliefs, even when it might provide a better explanation.

population-2014There are over seven billion people in our consensual outer world, each possessing a different inner world; each providing a unique perspective on the outer world; each potentially at odds with many of the others; each feels their “truth” deeply, craves understanding, and desires some sense of connection. The interplay of these many worlds might not be survivable, but if we are going to make it, then we must learn how to live together between the inner and outer worlds. Science alone is not enough, we must also find ways to understand, abide, and share our bewildering inner worlds.

“I like the scientific spirit—the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them: this is ultimately fine—it always keeps the way beyond open—always gives life, thought, affection, the whole man, a chance to try over again after a mistake—after a wrong guess.”

Walt Whitman


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

Unconscious Leakage

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

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

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

 


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

The New Arrival

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

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

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

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


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

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.