The Simulation Chamber

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Inside the DFS (Dynamic Flight Simulator)A simulation is an attempt to replicate a real-world situation in order to gain insight for training, designing, modeling, or researching. They are often used when the real-world process cannot be encountered directly due to threatening conditions, inaccessibility, lack of appropriate resources, or in many other situations where to do so is impossible or unacceptable. Simulation is something the human mind does quite well —sometimes too well.

On September 12, 1962, President Kennedy delivered his “We choose to go to the moon” speech to persuade the American people to support NASA’s effort to fly a manned mission to the moon. Only a creature capable of great imagination would even consider this endeavor and only one with the ability to simulate could pull it off. On the third mission to put a man on the surface of the moon (Apollo 13), the survival of the pilots, following an explosion in space, can be attributed in large part to the ground crew’s ability to simulate and find solutions to the problApollo-13-gary-siniseems the flight crew was facing. The 1995 movie, Apollo 13, depicts the grounded crew member, Ken Mattingly (played by Gary Sinise), working diligently in a Lunar Module simulator to solve the problem of how to do a space-based power up of the Command Module that would avoid shorting out the electrical systems. The “successful failure” of Apollo 13 was described by some as NASA’s finest hour, and it was a clear example of the power of the mind’s ability to simulate.

Looking through a natural selection lens, we can appreciate how ancestors, who had a greater ability to simulate, and thus, anticipate a lethal threat or engage complex social relationships, would leave more offspring than their counterparts. In a dangerous woTiger-in-the-grassrld, it is better to make a Type I error, thinking the rustling grass is a predator when it isn’t (false positive), than the Type II error, thinking there is not a predator when there is one (false negative). Too much simulation, however, and our ancestors might never have left their caves. There was a place for the “cowards” and the “valiant” in our history, and both have passed on their genes.

Mental simulations are an essential component of being a social species. The ability to anticipate others’ reactions helps to guide our behavior. In contemporary society, our simulating minds often become carried away with “what if” simulations. “What if-ing” is a popular activity of the wandering mind. Balance is called for because mental simulations pull our emotions along with them, giving us jolts of anxiety, fear, anger, jealousy and a host of other negative and/or positive emotions. Most of us have already died “many times”  in our effort to avoid Type I errors. The worrying mind is not aided by the massive amounts of risk assessment information now instantly available to warn us of the dangers that we face in every area of our lives. Perhaps the biggest challenge is the extent to which we become so immersed in our simulations that we forget that we are even running a simulation. This leads to believing the results of these simulations as if they were prophecies. Swept up in our dark imaginings, life becomes almost uninhabitable.

Ironically, much of our suffering springs from our efforts to resist difficulty, pain, and even death. Shakespeare’s Caesar seems to advise less resistance and a more accepting frame of mind. This involves spending more time being with “what is” and that means looking “at” our simulations rather than looking “from” them.  More clearly seeing mental simulations for what they really are, means spending a lot less time suffering and dying.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Growing Around

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

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

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

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


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

Harnessing the Wind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


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.