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.

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.

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.

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.