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.

Black Boxes

black-boxI can only dwell in my personal experience. As the protagonist of my story, I am the subject and everyone and everything else is an object to me. Likewise, I am an object to everyone else who encounters me. Not only can I not enter another’s subjective experience, but I am unable to experience myself as an object. I live inside the “black box” that I am to others, a box that prevents me from experiencing the outside of the box. From inside my black box, I interact with other black boxes. I can never experience others’ subjectivity, and they cannot experience mine. This is an existential predicament — a predicament replete with peril and opportunity.

The peril stems from our instinctive feel that we are the experts of ourselves. We do indeed have access to exclusive information about ourselves which makes us experts of a sort, but this expertise is both biased and limited. The insufficiency of our expertise tends to be neglected like a blind spot. Like the eye’s blind spot, we fill in the missing information — never realizing it was missing in the first place.

Abiding in the midst of ignorance, thinking themselves wise and learned, fools go aimlessly hither and thither, like blind led by the blind. — Katha Upanishad

Communication with others often leads to the blind debating the blind and arguing about what they cannot see. We feel so sure of what we know that what we do not know is ignored. What we do not know is in part what others know, and here lies the opportunity.

Accepting our ignorance, opens the door to knowledge and intimacy. If, in my blindness, I can accept rather than reject the perspective of another, then my world is expanded.

The road to self-insight runs through other people.
— David Dunning

Successfully negotiating this existential predicament requires skill and eloquence. Feedback can be given in many ways, only some of which are effective. Effectiveness is increased when both parties acknowledge their “blindness.” This leads to dialogue, a type of mindful communication that is collaborative and open-minded rather than oppositional and close-minded. Dialogue does not come natural to most of us, but it is vital to learn if we ever hope to be the experts of ourselves.


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

Reality

Virtual Reaility“Reality” is a term frequently used, yet it may be poorly understood and unhelpful. As a concept, it represents that which exists independent of mind. In using the term I think we are trying to make a distinction between that which is objective, observable and measurable from that which is subjective, hidden and unmeasurable. Common sense suggests that we can easily make this distinction. The “real” is valued, seen as superior and is equated with truth. Our language suggests that something which is not real is subordinate, counterfeit or fictitious. If someone is out of touch with reality, then they are considered insane.

It is quite difficult to communicate or carry on a relationship with someone who does not see reality as we do. Communication depends upon finding some common ground. Relationships and societies are built around shared perspectives. The concept of reality is explicitly or implicitly at the center of almost all interpersonal conflict whether at the micro or macro level. From marital conflict to disputes between global powers, disagreement about “truth” and “reality” are at the core. As individuals, we crave understanding and empathy from others in part because we want our view of reality validated. When others do not see life as we do, we start to feel isolated, alone and somewhat crazy. This activates our innate stress responses of “fight or flight.” Globally this can lead to terrorism, war and a host of other crises. Interpersonally, it can lead to ongoing conflict, fighting, divorce and alienation.

If reality is “really” out there and it feels so real, why do we have such a difficult time seeing it the same way? That it actually exists can be disputed, and because it can be called into question, it makes me think that reality is not a very helpful concept. Physicists and other scientists strive to identify the fundamentals of matter, which for most of us are at the heart of what is real. Unfortunately, the closer they look, the more bizarre it appears to be. Social scientists increasingly understand the impact of gender, culture, language and personal experience on our worldview.

Since language influences our perception and our thinking, we might look for ways to get away from using terms like reality. If we can achieve this, the need for common ground will be no less important, but the way we think about that common ground will need to change. I suggest this shift will highlight subjectivity and move away from concepts such as reality towards terms such as empirical and intersubjective. The former term already involves the latter. Since the scientific method involves observation and measurement along with peer review it already incorporates and tries to account for the impact of the subjective. With science, observations can be confirmed and validated but an awareness of error remains.

The more our vernacular can incorporate the impact our biology, experience and who knows what else has on our perception, the easier this change can be achieved. While this transformation can happen quickly at the individual level, there is evidence it is gradually transpiring at the global level.

Moving away from reality, in this sense, is not insane. It begins to level the playing field among Earth’s creatures. It moves us away from leaders who claim to know the truth and want to define it for the rest of us. It moves us away from shame and judgment. This moves us towards dialogue. This moves us towards consensus and cooperation. This moves us toward peace.

If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.
— Nelson Mandela


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

I need, therefore I am

Our life existsyinYang in death’s shadow. Investment in life is our resistance to the pull of death, but survival has its requisites and so to live is to have needs. Unfulfilled needs have a cost — potentially life itself. To have needs is to feel alive and to be vulnerable. Vulnerability inspires a drive to seek out or to protect; in this way vulnerability is the foundation of emotion. Emotion literally means “to set in motion,” “to stir” or “to disturb.” This is the function of our emotionally organized “executive operating systems” (EOSs)*; they each activate us to manage our vulnerability, our needs and life itself.

Our needs percolate through us to stimulate feelings, thoughts and impulses to action. Needs begin upon life’s arrival and our strategies to meet these needs develop in response to the circumstances confronting us.  This personal disposition we try so actively to define and make sense of reflects the melding of what we have brought into the world with what we face during our life’s journey. Like a river carving a canyon, life shapes our personality.

Personality is a significant determinant of what draws us towards one and repels us from another. The pull of approach or push of avoid is felt in response to the process others engage in to satisfy their needs; we measure how that might facilitate or interfere with our own efforts. Difficulties with others are not because they have needs but in response to the path they take to assuage their needs. We are capable of having empathy for the needs of others because we too understand and experience need. Connecting around this insight might help lead us away from conflict and towards awareness and dialogue.

CaptainPhillipsIn the movie Captain Phillips, we are introduced to a Somali pirate named Muse (played by Barkhad Abdi), who with a small crew hijacks an American cargo ship and takes Captain Phillips (played by Tom Hanks) hostage. In this character’s introduction we see the context in which Muse must try to meet his needs. While we may denounce his actions, we can have empathy for satisfying needs in such difficult circumstances. Empathy also opens us up to see how his actions occur within a larger global framework that makes judgment more complicated. In the midst of violent conflict, seeing needs, accessing empathy and gaining awareness of the complex interrelationships between people and the larger systems in which they are embedded is our only hope of seeking peace in war’s shadow. This is as true at the micro level as it is on the macro level.

Our ability to see through behavior to the needs and vulnerability from which it springs helps to engage our capacity for empathy. Each of us is born vulnerable and in our struggle to live we are drawn to what meets our needs in our particular circumstance. Our unique story is embedded in a larger whole and seeing another’s need, as well as their strategy for meeting the need, allows us to see their story. These are the stories of life’s dance with death.

*see Who’s Driving Now, River Running or Trial By Combat


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

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.

 

 

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.