Our search for meaning is a preoccupation that can push us on to great heights of achievement; but can also lead to significant existential distress and self-destruction. For many, meaning is believed to exist in abstractions. Be it identity, religion, work. Both of these require the sacrifice of the present in order to realise an idealised conception of the future. We both discover and invent meaning, constructing the mental concepts to support these inventions that we believe are necessary to sustain a life that is worthwhile.
Meaning is important, a life without a shared sense of meaning would have some dark implications for the way in which we live and treat each other. However, there is a problem that lies in the fact that meaning is often sought in abstractions. We look up and outward, over and past one another to potential signs and symbols that we believe justify or vindicate our own personal decisions. We sacrifice years of our lives toward work or ideals that we believe will one day provide us the time and space to engage with what we hold most dear, a final delivery to our imagined paradisal paradisal future – a delivery that we hope will finally reward our negation of the present.
A diversification of meaning refers to spreading what is important to us beyond just mental abstraction. Spreading it to relationships, hobbies, personal interests and physical activity. By finding a small slice of meaning in our daily activities, we can maintain mindfulness of the present, whilst also spreading the risk of having all of our spiritual eggs in one basket. By spreading this risk beyond a narrow idealism, we lower the risk of being laid low by some crisis of faith if that ideal or our conception of it sours.
Meaning is not necessarily an unalloyed good. The individual suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, is someone who has a lot of meaning in her life, however this meaning isn’t shared with anyone and so casts her out of society. The meaning in the life of the fanatic willing to kill for their cause is also palpable, but is blind to reason, or alternative points of view, leading to destruction. Meaning can sustain us and push us to become better versions of ourselves, but it can also turn back on itself and destroy the person who previously had invested so much in a narrow vision. Meaning, too narrowly focused, becomes fanaticism. By diversifying what we find meaning from, we can reduce the risk that we are stumbling blind on a path into the darkness, cutting ourselves off from the present moment and the people within it.
Meaning is important, but it becomes dangerous when it is coupled by all or nothing thinking that holds a particular ideal or vision as the only way to live a valuable life.
As the telling of a story deepens, it becomes more therapeutic. As I journal, I notice there is a quality of depth, a feeling of descent as I continue to write. As the descent continues, the practice of just writing what comes to mind becomes more therapeutic.
Is this the value of free association that Freud was originally advocating? Let the person talk until they land into a depth of feeling that speaks some significance or meaning.
Can story still be in the here and now? Story in a coaching or therapeutic relationship has often been looked down upon as a ‘resistance’, or a ‘projection’, a defence against an interlocution that might reveal unwanted truths. And yet our mythology, our novels, our poetry, our erotica, they all make you feel something vividly.
The drama of our stories – their contradictions, fantasy, horror, absurdity, lustfulness, hatred and self-centred heroism – drive our feeling. We project the dramas within onto the canvas of our novels, our poetry, our erotica; they are personal mythologies that collectively infuse the cultural narrative.
The images created in these forms and the effect they have, impact our feeling and our sense of who we are. They become not just stories but visceral exchanges that unfold our depth and realisation of the self.
The challenge for us are the nagging internal questions of “is it real?”, “does it matter?”, can I grasp it? Our desire for certainties can lead to stories that close us down, make us rigid, snuff out potential. The desire to grasp, to understand, to have some kind of final destination kills the vitality that kindled the story in the first place.
Stories are the tremor of our day-to-day experience of the world. They are the winds that whip up the oceans of our emotion and drive the clouds of thought and feeling across the sky of the mind.
Coaching is the process of guiding someone through change. This change is often couched in the language of goals, and these goals could be based on many different (and at times competing) domains of life. Goals may be related to performance (e.g. sales targets), skills (e.g. develop public speaking ability), or developmental/lifestyle (e.g. “I want to act with more conviction”), but what is constant is a desire for change. Often when we engage another person to help us with a problem, we are in a state of conflict, a feeling of being lost in a sea of possibility or locked in a prison of maladaptive behaviours. The above painting by Jackson Pollock, literally paints a picture of how many people feel when engaging a coach, there is confusion, noise, ‘stuckness’ – a feeling of being lost. The purpose of a coach is to enable the development of an individual by helping them overcome the internal and external impediments that drive feelings of polarisation and ‘stuckness’. To overcome these feelings a client needs to understand what is relevant to their ultimate aspirations, how goals are framed to achieve this and how to act appropriately. This is an ongoing, dynamic process – with the coach serving as a guide along the journey.
The answer isn’t the answer
This process is not about giving the client the answer. Even if a coach had the answer, by telling someone what to do, it fosters a sense of dependence on the coach’s knowledge, which in any case is abstracted from the clients lived experience. The complexity of most problems faced by coaching clients, precludes the exclusive use of any rule-based, algorithmic-like decision making inherent in being given ‘the answer’. It also potentially reinforces a sense of self-deficiency in the client, by reinforcing a misbelief in their own lack of resources to deal with a problem – the primary reason for why the client sought coaching in the first place. Whilst the client may desire knowledge of how to act, to be shown the way, the job of the coach is to reinforce the client’s own sense of efficacy and capacity for self-leadership. Fundamentally the purpose of the coaching relationship is to help clients catalyse the change they seek by realising what is relevant to the achievement of their goals.
Heuristics, or shortcuts to realising relevance
The nature of the world we live in is incredibly complex and as such the impediments a client faces reflect this reality. We deal with this complexity of everyday life through what psychologists call heuristics; shortcuts for decision making that highlight what is relevant and allow us to act. A significant amount of evidence supports the Dual-Process Theory of Cognition, which holds that there are two ways that our minds process information. The title of Daniel Kahneman’s bestseller “Thinking Fast and Slow”, refers to how the majority our thinking is fast (automatic, intuitive), with the requirement for slow thinking (deliberative, analytical) when a problem requires deeper levels of investigation.
One of the key mechanisms in our use of heuristics is what psychologists call, attribute substitution. Attribute substitution refers to how our mind replaces a difficult question requiring high cognitive effort with an easier, heuristic answer. An example being, “how likely is it that this new job will provide the happiness I am looking for?”. There are so many unknown variables involved in this question that it is impossible to calculate or deduce the answer to it. Instead, a person may substitute this question with an easier one, “how do I feel about the prospect of the job following the interview?”. The individual has substituted an automatic/intuitive response for the more difficult and possibly unknowable, deliberative/analytic response. They have swapped ‘thinking slow’ for ‘thinking fast’.
Most of the ‘questions’ we face in our day-to-day life are like this, in fact everyday simple actions, if we stopped to analyse every possible step, would make our lives impossible. We would be overwhelmed by all the myriad elements in a problem, lost in a sea of possibility. Heuristics narrow down the questions we need to ask and allow us to find patterns in our environment that are relevant, affording us the opportunity to act. Working with a coach involves wrestling with assumptions. Reflecting on how we have gotten to a certain point and what is needed to achieve future goals is a process of understanding our own use of heuristics and how relevant or irrelevant these might be for our desired future.
The concept of Relevance Realisation and its application for coaching
John Vervaeke‘s, Assistant Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Toronto, theory of Relevance Realisation refers to a dynamic, self-organising process that is central to decision making. He refers to this concept as a capacity to transform and self-correct decision making through new understandings (realisations) of what is relevant to a person’s goals. An example of relevance realisation in coaching can be seen in the context of an early part of the coaching conversation. A client comes to a coach with a problem and often that problem has been framed in a way the client believes is relevant to the achievement of a goal. Through the initial conversation the coach will ask questions relating to how the goal is framed, how observable it is (i.e., can you track progress), and to what purpose the client wants to achieve this goal.
The purpose of this conversation is to help the client formulate and define the goal in a way that makes it achievable. The initial conversation itself is a way of helping the client develop awareness of what is relevant to them. Realising what is relevant helps the client overcome various impediments to achieving the goal or prompts the client to redefine the goal itself as something more in line with a broader aspiration. For example, the client may come to coaching with a desire for more fulfilling work, this is an admirable aspiration, but it may not be possible to track progress or achievement. The coach’s role is to help the client re-frame this aspiration into more observable goals, enabling the client to develop confidence in their capacity for change as they reach those goals.
In a successful engagement this process continues throughout the lifetime of the coaching conversation and flows through into the everyday life of the client. A developmental coaching conversation will work with the client in a process of unfolding realisations that build on one another, however it will also work to break down or reframe patterns of thinking that are no longer relevant, and which act as impediments to change.
The Shadow of Heuristics: When relevance realisation goes awry
Our effective use of heuristics is predicated on our accurate mapping of patterns we can see in the environment and how well those patterns map onto the reality of what is happening. As discussed, the mental shortcuts we use to make decisions are essentially shortcuts to realising what is relevant so we can act. However, these shortcuts whilst efficient can also lead to biased or deluded thinking by mis-framing something as relevant when it is in fact irrelevant. Misplaced realisation of what is relevant can lead to vicious loops of thinking that are deluded and detrimental to the achievement of goals and to the process of change itself.
Vervaeke emphasises that otherwise intelligent people act irrationally due to a misuse of automatic thinking (thinking fast) in the place of more deliberate analysis (thinking slow) or vice versa. Vervaeke suggests that what is missing in these situations is a way of thinking that can reflect on the relationship between the automatic, fast thinking and the deliberate, slow thinking so that use of each is properly managed. He goes on to say that self-deception is about being locked into a feedback loop that maintains and reinforces the incorrect framing of problems and situations, and subsequently the misjudgement of what kind of thinking needs to be applied to a particular situation.
We can often see it in ourselves and others that maladaptive patterns of behaviour continue to repeat, despite our best efforts to change. If the way we are framing the problem hasn’t shifted, then it is likely that the changes we make are only going to lead to manifestations of similar problems, albeit in different forms. What is required is a re-framing of our experience, something that requires the cultivation of our capacity to reflect on our thinking, something referred to as meta-cognition.
Meta-cognition and self-awareness
The capacity of reflecting on our thinking is referred to as meta-cognition in cognitive science. This capacity is also commonly known as self-awareness. Self-transformation, often the reason for why someone employs a coach, is predicated on self-awareness; a clarity of thinking that enables someone to see through the illusions created by their own framing. The road to self-awareness, and subsequently self-transformation is paved with insights into the nature of our problems.
The coach’s role is to act like a mirror for the client, enabling them to develop greater insight into their own thought patterns, and enhance their realisation of what is relevant to their goals. This mirror works via the coach’s reflecting back the client’s words or actions in the context of a specific impediment or issue, as well as through the interpretations of the coach. The value of these interpretations isn’t necessarily their accuracy (although accuracy is helpful) but rather the reflection of the client’s thoughts and actions as a means of helping a client see into their own cognitive processes (perception, attention, thought, knowledge, memory). Having the client either recognise and/or reject and re-affirm a more relevant interpretation is an expression of insight that helps develop the client’s own capacity for further insights and self-awareness. In this way coaching can be looked at as a “mindfulness for two”. The client is being mindful of what they are feeling/saying and the coach is mindfully tracking and reflecting this back to the client, with the client re-defining or re-articulating a more accurate description as required.
Impediments and Insight
The impediments that a client faces are the result of fixed and rigid patterns of behaviour, what psychoanalysts call defence mechanisms. These defence’s whilst being valuable in the past, a classic example being workaholism, have now become a barrier to the client living in a way that aligns with new aspirations for life. Insight in a coaching conversation can help a client not only reframe what is relevant for a new direction in life, but also develop a kind of intelligent ignorance to the many irrelevant facts that cause confusion or internal conflict. This process is one the Psychoanalyst and Professor of Psychology, Robert Kramer refers to as “Learning and Unlearning”, something we do each day, but which is accelerated in the coaching conversation.
However, momentary insight isn’t enough to facilitate transformation. A singular insight is like a reassuring conversation with a friend, a sugar hit to our sense of self-worth or confidence. Without a sustained shift in framing or attitude the ‘hit’ from these insights gradually fades. As the quote from John Vervaeke at the start of this article states: “development is a systematic form of insight”. This means that sustained transformation is reliant on insight into the entire system of cognition (perception, attention, thought, knowledge, memory), not just isolated parts, although this process may start with the isolated parts.
Bringing it all together
As much as it is possible to understand ourselves and live more alignment with our values we need to realise what is relevant. Realising relevance requires the self-awareness inherent in reflecting on our thinking and the accurate framing of our problems. Coaching is one avenue that can help an individual enhance their self-awareness by acting as a mirror to their perception, attention, thought, knowledge, and memory. By doing this systematically through integrative practices with the coach, clients can develop a muscle of understanding that allows them to act in a more aligned way in service of their goals and aspirations. Self-awareness, systematic insight and action aligned to what is relevant enables the small and big changes that catalyse transformation and lasting change.
Last year a report by Microsoft Work Trend Index showed that Australian workers were the most burnout of those surveyed, with 62% reporting that they felt ‘burnt out’ during 2022. Extensive research across multiple countries has shown work intensity has been steadily rising over the last two decades. Heavy workload is a major cause of work-related stress, depression, and anxiety, which are all key indicators and symptoms of burnout . In the UK, an alarming report at the end of last year showed that 1 in 6 of the workforce was sick with more than 50% of those illnesses being work-related mental health issues. The term burnout is now ubiquitous, and it could be argued that almost everyone has now experienced this syndrome at one point or another over the last few years. Journalist Sarah O’Connor in the Financial Times last year, referenced statistics showing that whilst work has become physically safer. It has become psychologically more dangerous as workloads and expectations become unmanageable.
The key components of burnout include exhaustion, detachment from work and inefficacy, the sense that you can’t accomplish what you need to with the resources you have. Christine Maslach and Michael Leiter, psychologists, and leaders in the research of Burnout, define it as a syndrome “emerging from chronic interpersonal stressors at work”. It is these interpersonal stressors that have been accelerating over the last two decades, so what is driving the acceleration?
Computers, clients, and colleagues
The constant use of technology is a key component in the increasing intensification of work over the last two decades. In a recent article titled “Working Still Harder”, Professor Francis Green of University College London and his colleagues found that the rising complexity of computers and related technology was thekey factor for this rising intensity.
Similar findings were also found in a 2021 paper by the Institute for the Future of Work, who found that the next two biggest factors in work intensity were demands from clients and colleagues (including managers). We can understand work intensification as being driven by the accelerating intensity of client, colleague and manager demands, the engine of this acceleration being our digital technology.
Demands from clients and colleagues now pervade our homes, and what used to be our personal time. No wonder that people feel as though the intensity of work has increased. We are always on. This constant ‘always on’ state meaning that there is little time to rest and reflect on the work being completed and to generate the new ideas and approaches that are critical for creativity. Not only do these demands feed into exhaustion, but they can drive a sense of inefficacy and the resulting cynicism that was captured in the “quiet quitting” movement of 2022.
A corrosive contagion
Burnout is a contagious syndrome and as such it can be a toxin that poisons the culture of a workplace. However, according to research by the McKinsey Health Institute last year, organisations underestimate the role that they play in creating this syndrome. What tends to happen as a result is that wellness programs are rolled out, which whilst well intentioned, put the responsibility of managing and dealing with this syndrome back on the individual. It becomes another thing for them to do or complete or succeed at whilst the same issues creating the problem remain. Without meaningful organisational change, individual efforts to cope with burnout are likely to fail, feeding into those feelings of inefficacy and cynicism, or worse.
What can be done? ‘Psychological Flexibility’ and ‘Self-Efficacy’
Research by Jacqueline Brassey and colleagues from McKinsey Health Institute state that the starting point for change is with leadership teams. The effective role modelling of behaviours by leaders can help to alleviate their own symptoms of burnout whilst adapting behaviours that change how team’s function. Without positive examples of leaders tackling these problems for themselves and their teams, broader organisational change is impossible.
Brassey and her colleagues found that teaching the skills of what is known as “psychological flexibility” has a significant impact on a leaders sense of efficacy. Remember that efficacy or its lack of, is a key component in the development of burnout. In fact, Michael Leiter, one of the leading researchers in the field refers to burnout as a “crisis in self-efficacy”.
Psychological flexibility is the capacity to remain in the present moment despite unpleasant thought, emotions, and bodily sensations; whilst choosing to act based on the situation and one’s values. Psychological flexibility has been found to be highly effective in the treatment of mental health issues in clinical and workplace settings.
The 3 core pillars and six sub processes of Psychological Flexibility
1. Being Open to Experience, with Acceptance and De-fusion
Being open to experience, is being aware of the different thoughts, emotions and sensations taking place. Opening to experience involves acceptance, something often misunderstood as passivity. What acceptance means is an act of will based on what is here now, what is available. Defusion, relates to identifying internal experiences such as thoughts as being just that, experiences, not fixed truth. In fact, it is easy to think of defusion in context of its opposite, fusion. Psychological flexibility is about ‘de-fusing’ or creating some space between our thoughts and emotions, not being caught up in them.
2. Being Present, via contact with the present moment and ‘Self-as-context’
Being present means maintaining a non-judgmental awareness of what is happening now, without trying to change it. It is otherwise popularly known as mindfulness. Self-as-context can be understood in comparison to its opposite which is ‘self-as-content’ i.e. you are the content of your thoughts and feelings. Self-as-context refers to the sense that you are the one experiencing the content of your mind, rather than being the content itself. An example of ‘self-as-context’ is when a mistake is made at work, or a conflict arises, the individual sees this in context of the bigger picture, rather than catastrophising this event into their downfall.
3. Do what matters, informed by Values and through Committed Action
Doing what matters implies that you need to know what is important before committing to action. This commitment requires the understanding or discovery of your values so that your goals align with them. Values are the compass pointing in a certain direction, whilst goals are the destination. To reach this destination, committed actions are required to follow through, action that persists even when unpleasant bodily sensations, feelings and thoughts arise.
Self-Efficacy and the benefit of social support
Through two 4.5 workshops and one 2.5 hour ‘booster’ workshop, Brassey and her colleagues from Maastricht University and the McKinsey Health Institute demonstrated that the psychological flexibility skills listed above could be cultivated and that this had a positive effect on self-efficacy, one of the key factors in burnout.
One of the benefits of developing these kinds of skills in a group setting relates to the social context and support inherent in the training. Extensive research has shown that one of the best treatments for burnout is providing social support for those struggling. Group settings remove the isolation and misplaced sense of personal failing and provide social reinforcement and support for learning new skills.
Caveat and conclusion
What is important to note here is that psychological flexibility doesn’t mean happiness. The aim of developing these skills isn’t to promote a grin-and-bear-it attitude, but to help people navigate the shoals of shifting circumstance.
Maslach and Leiter make clear in their research that Burnout, is syndrome fundamentally caused by organisations and as such requires an organisational response. One of these organisational responses is equipping leaders to role model the right behaviours so they cultivate a culture of support. Psychological flexibility is a mindset and set of behaviours that can be a pillar of this support. The development of these psychological skills is an evidenced based way of alleviating one of the key factors in burnout, self-efficacy. However, without additional changes to organisational elements like workload, employee autonomy, rewards and quality performance reviews, these efforts will be in vain.
“If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life…”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
This is a re-write of a previous article originally posted in September 2022.
For many of us, personality seems fixed, like an essence; the fully formed ‘me’ that sits in the driving seat of consciousness. But what if personality was more heavily shaped by learning and environment than we think? And what would the implications of this be for someone’s ability to change? The above quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald views personality as a series of successful gestures, and psychologists seem to agree; defining personality as the characteristic patterns of thoughts, behaviours and emotions that mould individual difference.
Chicken and the egg
Whilst this definition is useful, it begs the question: What is the starting point of these patterns of thought, behaviour, and emotion? The anthropologist Helen Fisher, states that these characteristic patterns are shaped by two fundamental traits: one being temperament, the other being environment. Fisher quotes the Spanish Philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset who said, “I am, plus my circumstances”, stating through this quote that temperament is the container that that our character and personality grows out from.
What this implies is that personality is more malleable than we realise. That as we learn from our environment we have the capacity for change, but not infinitely so. As F. Scott Fitzgerald shows in The Great Gatsby, there is great folly in thinking that you can turn yourself into anything, regardless of your past. There is no clean break or blank slate. The paradox of this is that we also have the freedom to imagine who we would like to become and with an open mind, can unlearn old patterns and learn new ones, changing in accordance with our ideal.
The brilliant film Whiplash, riffs on this eternal chicken-or-the-egg like puzzle of nature versus nurture and of how much temperament and environment influence who we become. Toward the end of the film, the driven, yet by now traumatised jazz student played by Miles Teller confronts his tyrannical teacher, asking if the brutal environment he created may discourage the next jazz greats from emerging. His teacher, played by J.K. Simmons, states that no environment would ever discourage a great from being great, that if the person has the drive, then they will drive through anything, no matter how unpleasant, to get there. Talking about the jazz great Charlie Parker, Simmons character describes the hostile musical environment he grew up in (almost being decapitated by a symbol for messing up a set) as the catalyst for Charlie Parker becoming Charlie Parker.
What is interesting in J. K. Simmons view is that despite the harshness of his beliefs, he is effectively saying that Charlie Parker needed both the temperament and the tough environment to become who he was. He required a certain obstinacy which allowed him to be shaped, and not crushed, by the difficult environment he grew up in. The view of this character is that there was a speck of a great jazz musician already there, yet it was the cauldron his environment, that forged him into who he became.
An instructive way of approaching this question of how we become who we are is by looking at the views of Carl Rogers and B. F. Skinner, two giants of 20th century psychology. Carl Rogers and B. F. Skinner had antithetical and competing views to one another, however both viewed learning as critical to the development of personality and personal growth. A marrying of their views can go a long way to explaining personality in the context of learning experiences with beneficial implications for understanding a person’s potential for change.
B. F. Skinner and the ‘keys to human nature’
B. F. Skinner was a key figure in the psychological movement called Behaviourism, which originated at the start of the 20th century out of Pavlovian conditioning (the monitoring of instinctive reactions). For undergraduate psychology students, B. F. Skinner is often perceived as a villain, the stereotypical “man in white coat” that was pilloried in novels such as Brave New World, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and A Clockwork Orange. Skinner famously denied the concept of personality entirely, claiming that what distinguished one person from another, didn’t emerge from internal mental states, but from learning experiences in the environment. His influence is still felt across psychology and education today, most notably in the use of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which is partly based on his theories.
Skinner was a seeker for the ‘mechanisms’ of human behaviour, believing that if this could be found, the keys to understanding (and predicting) human nature would be assured. Skinner’s theory of Operant Conditioning held that all elements of human behaviour were shaped by the provision and withdrawal of rewards or punishments in the environment. According to this theory, administering a reward or removing a punishment would strengthen behaviour, whilst removing a reward or administering a punishment would weaken behaviour.
A simple illustration of this theory is the example of a child that has the desire and temperament to draw. If the child’s drawing is produced in an encouraging environment, then according to Skinner this will reward the behaviour of drawing. The child will learn from this, which then reinforces this behaviour into an important part of the child’s personality. An environment that doesn’t encourage drawing, or actively punishes it, would lead to a weakening and possible extinguishing of this behaviour, as the child is pushed into different behaviours.
Skinner would claim that the child’s desire and temperament has been shaped by an uncountable number of reinforcing experiences going all the way back to parental genetics. Whilst it may feel to the child that this desire to draw emanated from his personality, Skinner believed this was a delusion, claiming that this desire was shaped by the micro-learning experiences of the environment. Coming back to the Whiplash example, Skinner would say that Charlie Parker didn’t become who he was because of some essential, fateful drive; rather it was his environment that had shaped and determined who he became.
Carl Rogers, Free-Will and Potential
Carl Rogers is one of the most influential figures in the fields of psychology and psychotherapy. He was one of the leaders of the Humanistic Psychology movement that grew out of opposition to Skinner in the 1960’s. As a psychotherapist and researcher with decades of clinical experience, Rogers observed that individuals have the power, given the right conditions, to change their own lives. His view of learning as fundamental to personality development is encapsulated in his theory of Learner-Centred Teaching which emphasised an approach to learning that gave students more freedom to learn what was valuable to them. For Rogers, temperament would have been primary to how a person responded to their environment.
In direct opposition to Skinner, free-will was a fundamental assumption for Rogers. Rogers believed that human beings were future-oriented, and it was the goals set in the future that influenced how they responded to learning experiences in the present. Roger’s concept of the fully functioning person posited that there was an ideal self within everyone, a guiding potential to which they were oriented. Popularising the term incongruence, his clinical experience demonstrated to him how an individual learnt from their personal experience of whether they were living up to their potential and adjusted accordingly.
For Rogers, it was this guiding, future-oriented-will that shaped the individuals responses to the environment. Rogers would have agreed with J. K. Simmons character from Whiplash, alluding to the fact that nothing would have stopped Charlie Parker from becoming Charlie Parker; that his future-orientation to being a great jazz player was what allowed him to learn from his environment in the way he did. The feelings of shame and humiliation of not living up to his potential were what led him to hone his skills and become who he was. However, without the initial ideal, there would have been no guiding principle to guide his practice. Where he would disagree was in the way the environment had been structured. If Charlie Parker had had the freedom to learn how he had wished, would he have been even better?
These differing views of Skinner and Rogers view psychological agency or freedom very differently. Skinner’s view implies a lack of free-will, as though our personality was completely at the mercy of our environment. In contrast, Rogers viewed the fully functioning or self-actualised person as the type of person most likely to learn from environmental circumstances, but only when psychological freedom had been maximised.
In a further deviation from Skinner’s determinism, Rogers believed that psychological freedom could only be achieved by learning to fully experience one’s own thoughts, behaviours and emotions.A famous quote of his states:
We cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are. Until we thoroughly accept what we are. Then change seems to come about unnoticed.
This speaks directly to Roger’s experience that someone comes to accept themselves by learning to fully experience and reflect on who they are. If we are in the process of learning anything, there is a necessary phase of observation before we can take any action. We need to see what is being done, or how it is being done, before we take the necessary steps to do it ourselves or do it in a new way. For Rogers, his view of the importance of learning experiences leads to the conclusion that to change into something we desire, we need to be aware of what we are changing from.
Bringing it all together
Looking at learning as a key to change is an optimistic view. Firstly, it implies that personality is not as fixed as we think and that given the right circumstances, people can transform their lives. This is critical to the process of teaching, coaching or therapy, the success of which according to Rogers is to facilitate change in a way that concords with an individual’s goals. For both Rogers and Skinner, the environmental processes within and without a person’s control, are critical for understanding personality development. By attending to the reinforcers in their environment and their thoughts, behaviours, and emotions; individuals can become more aware of that which is satisfying or dissatisfying and subsequently move toward a state of positive development.
On the surface, the differing views of B. F. Skinner and Carl Rogers have little in common. However, the dichotomy of their philosophical assumptions, when combined, provide a useful framework for understanding how personality can be shaped by our learning experiences. By incorporating both views managers, teachers, coaches, and psychotherapists can bring a holistic understanding to how the process of learning and unlearning can help employees, students and clients achieve their potential.
No discipline will turn one man into another, even in the least particle, and such discipline I call presumption and folly
The quote above from Blake, is from the novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk. For some reason it reminded me of the novel Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, a novel I have such vivid memories of. Memories as though I had actually been there, watching the couple Frank and April. Strange how a page of words can project self constructed images that embed themselves as memory; memories that are often more vivid than what we do in our daily lives. Extraordinary really. Just words on a page. Meaningless as individual squiggles of ink on paper, carrying such weight as a whole.
I read Revolutionary Road on my honeymoon, much to the concern of my wife. I knew the ending to the story, as did my wife, hence her concern. I read it as a cautionary tale of what I perceived at the time to be the lesson in the story; the dangers of complacency, conformity and fear. There was something in the two characters that spoke to me, especially the male character Frank. Frank was an idealist, a romantic I suppose, who having come back from the Second World War, found himself in a post-war America that felt alienating and shallow.
Frank wakes up at the age of thirty and realises that, despite his and Aprils’ youthful intentions, they have become trapped in the vortex of the 1950’s version of the American Dream. Married with two children, in a large house, in a respectable suburb, both Frank and April feel asphyxiated by their coddled circumstances and the deadening effect this has on their spirit. Frank holds onto the notion, seeded from his time in Paris during the war, that life is happening elsewhere, and the people in these places are ‘truly alive, not like here’. It is April, who suggests they act on a long dormant fantasy of moving to Paris.
Both Frank and April, surrounded by what they perceive as borish neighbours, always had a view of themselves as exceptional, as somehow special, separate from those who through time and habit they increasingly resembled. This idea of Paris, was a way of manifesting this specialness, a dramatic, grand gesture that would prove their exceptionalism, transforming them into those special people they imagined themselves to be.
The grand gesture, whilst dramatic and often perceived as bold, is often the low road to transformation, a bypass of the difficult lived experience that is essential for the new sequence of habits that we call a new life. For years after reading Revolutionary Road I had always interpreted it as a tale warning against the moral cowardice exhibited by Frank. Whilst I think that cowardice plays a large part in the couples downfall, the real lesson here is the danger of self-deception. The couple believe, despite any supporting evidence, that they are somehow special, different, separate from those around them.
The couples belief in their own exceptionalism is a fantasy they hold, whilst simultaneously tying themselves in knots through the daily commitments of their real, conventional life. They pull away and isolate themselves from those around them, bored by the pettiness of their friends. It is this idealism that leads to separation, which in turn creates a deeper emptiness, that is filled, momentarily, by their desire to go to Paris. It is this delusional, idealised view of themselves, and the resulting cowardice to live up to it that creates such dissonance within and between them.
The problem is that this ideal of ‘specialness’ that they wish to live up to is amorphous and ill-defined, but nevertheless hangs over them as a torment. The torment is exacerbated by the fact that they are unable to take the action necessary to get what they want, as it is so ill-defined. Part of the difficulty in their definition of their ideal is that it is often done in opposition to others around them. Part of an individual’s definition of self stems from their opposition to that which they are not. However, a ‘not’ is an empty space that doesn’t allow for any further guidance on what ‘is’, what one should move toward. Frank and April’s resentment is driven by this opposition to the other people in their lives who reflect their own conventionality and ordinariness. This reflection creates a distance, an inauthenticity, between what they do and what they wish to be. Frank and April’s unhappiness stems in part from this inauthenticity, a misalignment between their values, and actions.
The fear of Frank becomes evident as their dream of Paris, mostly driven and manifested by April, become a reality. Frank pictures himself, six months into their move, sitting on a bed in a dirty bathrobe, picking his nose, paralysed by inertia. The truth is that Frank’s cowardice isn’t just in response to the move to Paris, but has been with him all along, leading him to be trapped in this life he resents. With Paris drawing closer, Frank consciously and unconsciously sabotages their plans. He does better at work, accepting a promotion, believing that the new title and small raise means something. He also manages to get April pregnant a third time.
Frank’s life is one governed by mediocrity, and this mediocrity is magnified by his self-deception of being someone special, better than what he is. The idea of American Exceptionalism, of the great man, has been internalised by Frank and now eats away at him like a devil gnawing at his soul. The difficulty of American Exceptionalism then and today is that people are modelling themselves on edge cases of successful individuals who sit at the one percent or 0.01% of a population of three-hundred-million-plus people. A perfect combination of personality, temperament, luck, drive and talent needs to converge to become the feted ‘success’. The openness to life that Frank saw in Europe, is in complete opposition to this blinkered, ambition for individual glory that is vaunted so much in America. The American idea of success, the myth of the ‘self-made’, the doctrine of positive thinking, is the proverbial carrot tied in front of the Donkey. Unreachable for most, and certainly unreachable for him.
Frank’s cowardice is justified in a way. His dissociation between ideal and actions is the result of a confusion between what he wants, which is a greater openness to life. His belief in his own specialness and exceptionalism is actually something that works against this openness, creating the fear that sees him pull away from what he needs, to live in a way that is authentic. April, who appears far more brave than Frank, believes that their Paris trip will help them define and realise what Frank is searching for, believing that through changed actions, will come changed thoughts. Ultimately though, Frank is unwilling to let go of their comforts, and cowed by a fear of uncertainty his actions lead to a spiral of dishonesty and resentment that leads to a tragic conclusion.
The tragedy of this story lies deeper than just Frank’s cowardice, it rests in the mental folly of self-deception and the inner conflict that results. It also speaks to the limits of self-improvement and how the message of the great man or woman can be toxic, a recipe for dissatisfaction in the face of impossible standards. The final, underpinning element is Frank’s lack of self-awareness and acceptance of himself. His cowardice springs from the two opposing depths of uncertainty relating to himself and to his unarticulated ideal of the future. Deep down, Frank knew that he would never be an artist, or musician or writer, he was too conventional for that, too much like his father. Ultimately Frank is a conventional man who saw exceptional things during the war in Europe. His fall of innocence that resulted from this experience, separated him from his prior conception of who he was, and he was never able to bridge that gap again.
The ‘aliveness’ he perceives in Europe stems from a ‘freedom in their bondage’ attitude, driven by a self-aware acceptance of suffering and the rejection of an individualistic, blinkered approach to success. The spiritual deadness he observes in America stems from this myopia, this chasing of either comfort or glory. The removal of these blinkers, allows the whimsy of life to rush in. What Frank wants is an openness to life, but his bravery to pursue this didn’t need to extend to moving away to Europe. Bravery could have meant pushing away the comfort of conformity where he was and living in a way that was authentic to him. A tiny, shining example of a quiet life, lived on its own terms with full awareness.
“It’s no good trying to get rid of your aloneness. You’ve got to stick to it all your life. Only at times, at times, the gap will be filled in. At times! But you have to wait for the times. Accept your aloneness and stick to it, all your life. And then accept the times when the gap is filled in, when they come. But they’ve got to come. You can’t force them.”
D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Why is acceptance so hard?
Part of the reason appears to be the uncertainty of what we should accept. We are often bound by the tension that exists between being grateful for what we have, and the desire to stretch beyond our current capacity. Acceptance isn’t about any particular situation at work or in life; it is coming to terms with who you are, and letting go of thoughts and behaviours that lead to self-sabotage
This kind of acceptance is recognising your frailties and flaws, whilst honouring your strengths. Ultimately, acceptance is self-awareness. Self-awareness can provide you with the confidence to act in accordance with your values, rather than being pulled by others expectations. Without understanding your own values, it is easy to fall for someone else’s. It is when we are pulled by a “should” that we descend into the morass of self-deception, and its resulting cynicism and resentment.
Acceptance is hard because it is uncomfortable. It is often confused with passivity, when in fact it is in direct opposition to passivity. Acceptance implies wrestling with uncertainty and contradiction; of accepting and coming to terms with uncomfortable truths. Through acceptance, there can still be change, however this change can only occur without being forced or pushed by fear. Fear of being inadequate, of not having enough, pushes us to distraction. This distraction manifests itself in the blind ambition and greed that tries to plug an emptiness that can never be filled, like Tantalus and his grapes.
Acceptance appears to be a willingness to become who we wish to be, by having the willpower and patience to conform into who we think we should be. So much of how we think is determined by our social environment, and so we may not even realise that we are being led astray by the ‘Royal Should’. Putting up with the discomfort that arises from the resistance of ‘shoulds’, can open up the space needed to listen, examine and, let go. This process is uncomfortable because our thoughts and actions don’t exist in a bubble of isolation; it can be difficult to find the space needed to begin this process of uncovering. Indeed, we may even fear what lies underneath, instead choosing to distract ourselves with busyness, pushing away the pain that needs to be addressed.
Acceptance appears fundamental to the experience of the good life. It is also a key aspect of many psychotherapeutic techniques that are used to treat those struggling with mental suffering or illness. The difficulty of acceptance lies in its opposition to our intuition. Our mental life is so often focused on solving problems, moving from one to the next, that it can be very difficult to accept a problem, rather than trying to remove it. The problem that we rush to fix may only be the tip of a much larger iceberg of issues that we are unconscious of, and therefore unwilling to approach. Trying to fix problems without understanding their root cause is like cutting the head off a hydra. Acceptance starts with the psychological flexibility of making peace with contradiction and uncertainty. It can be the inflexibility and rigidness of our mental life that starves us of the vitality we crave.
I think and compare, see with a feeling eye, feel with a seeing hand.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Have you ever had a ‘feeling’ about something? Or felt a deep understanding or affinity for a piece of music or art that you couldn’t quite explain? A lot of our intuitive and emotional reactions to experiences are like weather patterns in our bodies and minds, unconscious, willful, with a significant impact on how we consciously pay attention to the world. So many of our phrases for emotions; ‘they rose within me’, ‘I lost control, ‘I was swept away’, speak to a sense of these processes having a will of their own and one that has more of an impact on our conscious thought than we realise.
Over the last ten years there has been an exponential increase in the amount of research into something called ‘embodied cognition’. Embodied cognition is a way of conceptualising how we think and make decisions, a shift away from the predominant, and restrictive, way of viewing thought as only specific to the brain, expanding to incorporate a framework that includes the significance of the body. The dominant view of cognitive science, and therefore of psychology more broadly, is that cognitive processing only takes part in the brain and is devoid of the bodily processes of sensory input and control. The movement of embodied cognition is a way of viewing thinking, in a way that is grounded not only in the biology of the brain, but also in the feedback we receive from bodily sensations in relation to our actions, in our connection to nature and the influence of our social environment.
The importance of serotonin in understanding ‘thinking’
When considering how thinking is shaped not only by our brain, but by our body, it is important to consider the role of serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that transmits signals between neurons in the central nervous system, and is critical to the regulation of virtually all brain function. Dysregulation of serotonin function has been implicated in major depressive disorder along with other mental illnesses, with most antidepressant drugs working by increasing the amount of serotonin in the brain. It is difficult to find a human behaviour that is not modulated by serotonin, with it responsible for regulating mood and emotional responses, perception, attention and memory, along with our attitudes to rewards like food and sex.
The interesting thing about serotonin is that the vast majority of it is found outside of the brain. In fact up to 90% of all serotonin in the body is found in the gut, and this network is so extensive that scientists have referred to the gut as the “second-brain”. Often used phrases “I feel it in my gut” or “I have butterflies” in my stomach are not superstitious nonsense, but a critical factor in what drives our cognition. That intuitive feeling of ‘something’s not right’, a feeling that we can’t explain but which we ‘feel’, may have a significant amount to do with the distribution of serotonin in the digestive system.
This hypothesis is supported by research conducted on mice in 2017, which discovered that serotonin played a key role in behavioural and cognitive flexibility, something the researchers called ‘reversal learning’. Reversal learning can be thought of as the ability to change a course of action, when something in the environment changes, i.e when something no longer feels right. An example of this process malfunctioning, would be someone with low serotonin levels who is unable to adjust their ways of thinking after being made redundant. This inflexibility leads them to ruminate over and over on the fact they were made redundant, leading to a spiral of negative thinking and self criticism. Someone with higher serotonin levels may have had more flexibility in their response and instead of ruminating, re-framed the way they view the situation, taking a new course of action like volunteering their time, or re-enrolling at university.
Of course our analytical reasoning and conceptual development happens in the most highly evolved parts of the brain, but they are built on a foundation of non-verbal, intuitive processes that begin in the body.
The Four E’s of Cognition
Embodied – The body
Historically the body has been viewed as unimportant to the understanding of the mind, even as an impediment to this understanding. Religious ideas of the body as something base, even sinister; with its many temptations being a barrier to salvation, have been common across many religions and philosophical thought for thousands of years. The French philosopher René Descartes was so suspect of any physical experiences, including that of his own body, he decided the only thing we could be sure of are our thoughts. For most of Western philosophical history the body has been something to be overcome, to be tamed by the mind, as though it were separate from the body.
Without the body we would be unable to think. The brain is our seat of conscious experience, however the vast majority of what the brain does and processes is occluded from our conscious awareness. The amount of information that our body takes in from our broader environment, is the input that the brain uses to conceptualise an understanding of the world and to ignite actions within it. Our appetites for food and sex, what draws our attention, our emotional responses, all of these take place from within the body via a complex network of sensory inputs, neurotransmitter chemicals and hormones, long before our rational mind interprets these experiences.
Our bodies then can be seen as the seat of intuition, of our understanding, whilst our mind is the centre of our intellect, of our knowing. A sense of understanding in this context is our visceral, non-verbal intuition of something that we have sensed, without applying a consciousness judgement of how this fits in with our existing knowledge. An example of this is a mother responding to her child’s cries in a specific way as she understands what the needs of the child are, without necessarily knowing what these needs are. Our sense of knowing then grows out of an initial understanding of the problem. After tending to the child, over time the mother develops a knowledge of what a particular cry entails and so develops more of a conscious response.
The opposite of this is the practice of a physical skill, something like playing the piano. At first, there is a requirement to consciously attend to each specific element of this skill, a sustained focus on which key represents what note, on how these keys combine to create a chord and how these chords create a tune. Over time as this skill is continually practiced, these actions become more natural, and with increasing proficiency the action of playing the piano becomes more and more devoid of conscious attention, in fact conscious attention may even disrupt the ‘flow’ of playing. At this point the skill of playing the piano has essentially become embodied, and it is as though the body is almost channelling the music that has been learned through conscious practice.
Embedded – The environment
The materialist view of the brain is that it must be explainable by the principles of nature. This view is extended by those proponents of embodied cognition, stating that cognition is embedded and shaped by the environment in which we grew up and live. In connection to the above point, our cognition is shaped by the natural environment we are faced with, and what the sensory input of our bodies gleans from this environment. An example of this is how the cognition of two people, one in Iceland and one in Thailand, are likely to be very different based on their experiences of navigating their environments. The skills required to be learnt, and therefore the ways of thinking that need to be utilised in order to develop these skills.
We are often able to remember more effectively by using our bodies and parts of our surrounding environment to ‘offload’ storage and simplify the processing required. Essentially we map our memories onto elements in the environment, with those elements serving to remind us of what we need to remember when we see them again. Simple examples of this relate to something that psychologists call context effects, which involved experiments relating to test performance of college students. These experiments showed that those who took the test in their regular, weekly lecture hall performed better than those who took the test in a new venue. It is believed that visual cues in the regular lecture hall provided memory cues for specific information that had been learned throughout the semester, aiding recall.
Essentially this is an example of the representation of knowledge in symbolic form. We imbue meaning onto parts of our environment, almost unconsciously, and this allows us to build sophisticated structures of references and understanding. Out of its context a clock in a lecture hall is just an object, however within the context of a lecture hall, during class, the clock may serve as a reminder to a student of a particular piece of information, jogging their memory.
Extended – The Social World
Our cognition does not develop in a vacuum, or a ‘black box’ as the arch priest of behavioural psychology, B.F.Skinner referred to the brain. Our cognition is shaped by the social environments we inhabit, in fact it is almost dependent on the social environment we exist within. The social environment and our cognition are reciprocal exchanges between us and the groups we are a part of. Our ways of thinking are shaped by family members, educational institutions, work, friends, sexual partners; sculpted by the millions of gestures, actions, words and emotions of the individuals we spend our time with.
The discovery of mirror neurons by Giacomo Rizzolatti and Laila Craighero in 2004 was a major breakthrough in neuroscience. This finding represented a paradigm shift for our understanding of cognition and in particular the understanding of the mechanisms for empathy, imitation and language. The paper showed that mirror neurons in the brain ‘fire’ in the same way for an observer of an action, as though the observer had performed the action themselves. This finding was empirical evidence for a statement by the French phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty who stated, whilst talking about the reciprocal nature of communication, that “it is as if the other person’s intentions inhabited my body and mine his”.
The implication of this finding was that it showed how fundamental empathy is to our ability to learn and think via the imitation of others in our social environment. Something that is also critical for language development and production. Without empathy, we are unable to understand another person’s emotional state, meaning that we are unable to develop lasting social relationships. Without the ability to imitate than we would never have been able to learn from one another. A child learns to walk and talk not by thinking abstractly about the concept of language or movement, but by attempting to be like those they hear and see around them.
Enacted – Our actions
An interesting way of thinking about how our thinking is enacted and how action supports thinking is by understanding gestures when we talk. In multiple studies, gestures have been shown to aid in the recall of information, particularly detailed visual memory, or memory about particular locations. The way that gesture can aid in the recall of working memory then helps in the production of speech itself.
We think as much with our hands as we do with our minds. So often when we are stuck for a word, we gesticulate wildly with a hand, almost as though we were physically grasping for the word that escapes us. This notion of grasping is critical to understanding how action and thinking are symbiotically linked. The German’s have a word for all meaningful, goal-directed activity called Handeln, which relates to an individual acting in the world, but also refers to more abstract notions of mental thought. This word of course is derived from where we get the word hand from and relates to our ability to manipulate our environment, to acquire things, including acquiring concepts, which is why we say we have “grasped” something once we understand it.
Much of the purpose of our thinking is to put thoughts into action. One of the key benefits of cognitive behavioural therapy, still the dominant form of psychotherapy sanctioned by most Western health systems and governments, focuses on how your actions can shape your patterns of thought. Clinical depression is often preceded by a life event that leads to a period of withdrawal, isolation and inactivity, and the premise of behavioural therapy is that new ways of thinking can be ‘enacted’ by changing patterns of behaviour. These patterns of behaviour, remove the individual from their isolation, exposing them to activities that bring enjoyment and connection with other people. This activity removes the self-directed gaze of rumination, bringing us back into embodied movement and an extension beyond ourselves back into the social and outside world. The feedback from these actions are what allows us to update our mental representations of what we understand to be the world and how the world works, whilst also enabling us to develop patterns of thinking that emanate from these new frames of reference.
Bringing it all together
The brain is not a black box pulling the levers on the rest of the body. The brain is the conductor of an orchestra, a body of instruments whose reverberations are influenced by the actions within the environment around them. The brain is our seat of conscious experience and where all our high level reasoning and abstraction takes place, however these mental parts of us that we rightly celebrate do not take place in a vacuum. Our ability to reason is critically dependent on the intuitive, unconscious and non-verbal understanding that comes from the body and its entanglement with the wider world. We appear to often have an intuitive understanding of something long before we develop conscious knowledge and it is critical to remember that this knowledge is built on this foundation of unconscious processes. A hyper-rational way of thinking that ignores intuition is a half-blind way of looking at the world, one that only values abstractions over the importance of context. The embodied cognition movement has major implications for how we view the world and is a promising avenue for developing a more holistic understanding of the mind, an understanding that is built from the body.
The quote above from Lord Byron was actually in reference to a collection of poets based in the Lake District of England and talks to both a desire for these individuals to push out into the world, to test their beliefs, as well as challenging them to break out of a fixed or narrow view of the world.
A lake is an enclosed space, a place of calm, where the water is predictable and the exploration bounded by the encircling shore. An ocean is an open space, boundless, where it is easy to become lost, where the waves and weather are unpredictable. A lake represents comfort, ease, leisure. An ocean represents discomfort, difficulty and adventure.
You might say, well, the lake seems pretty good to me, what’s wrong with leisure? Why push yourself into discomfort unnecessarily? And, most people would probably agree with you and do just that. It is easier to sit within your preconceived notions, the lake of immediate experience and thoughts, especially if this way of thinking has been beneficial for you. There is good reason to prefer this to the chaos of the ocean outside. However, like the black dot in the white hemisphere of the yin yang symbol, the lake contains a small part of its opposite, a whisper of the chaos outside, the distant rumblings of the ocean.
The problems of the lake are contained within what makes it great. The ease and protection of living in this encircled space can lead to a kind of complacency, a withering of skills and strength, an increase of anxiety, or even fear of what lies “out there”. The lake is no guarantee either. It is subject to the outside forces of drought, contamination, conflict and without having the skills to face the open ocean, this puts you at a severe disadvantage when the world shifts, which it will. If that time comes when you need to test yourself against the ocean then it will be better to have been prepared by previously testing your sailing skills on the ocean rather than letting them lay idle, untested, in the lake. A willingness to “change your lakes for ocean” relates to a willingness to be open to what the ocean represents; new people and ideas, uncertainty and discomfort, wonder and awe. Essentially this is a maxim that promotes an open system of thinking in comparison to a closed one.
Now, it is true that virtually no one says that they are a ‘closed-minded’ person, everyone would likely rate themselves as pretty ‘open-minded’. But as Paul Graham says in his essay, What You Can’t Say, how much of that ‘open-mindedness’ is simply taught? To what degree is it an inherited, rote learnt fixity of what a good person or citizen is? An idea that you have of yourself, as opposed to an actual behaviour? Both the arch-woke-liberal and the alt-right-troll, likely see themselves as ‘open minded’, however in their conflict, they simply reflect each other’s ignorance, a reflection that obscures the awareness of a more nuanced point of view. Both of these people are convinced of their “truth”, and as such, have picked a side, grasping onto the ideological viewpoint of their churches of thought.
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is a truism that is emblematic of what happens when we believe that we are certain. The gap between your own certainty and someone else’s is often filled with disdain for the other point of view and an incredulity of how someone else could think that way. So many of the tragedies and problems that befall the world are the result of a group, acting in a way that they are convinced is right, with those disagreeing often being labelled as dangerous, inferior or inhuman. A sense of certainty, is ultimately a fixed way of thinking, solidified by a perceived grasping of some unwavering “truth”. The grasping of this truth then leads to, in the words of the philosopher Gotthold Lessig, ‘passivity, indolence and vanity’. This represents a return to the lake, with the belief that the lake is all there is, that there is no point stretching yourself to understand any further because the truth has been grasped, paradise found, utopia ensured. A fixed system of thinking is therefore like a piece of domino art, the starting point and the final destination are set, and the sequence from beginning to end is fixed, unchangeable, unless the entire set up is interrupted or destroyed. The advantage of this system is that it allows us to achieve what we wish to achieve, the disadvantage of this system is that the sequence can’t be updated and nor can the objective of what this sequence is marching toward, regardless of what happens in the outside world.
This is not to say that ‘anything goes’ and that there is no truth at all, but to say that the “truth”, in the paraphrased words of Heraclitus and Nietzsche, is always in a ‘process of becoming’. More a question of embodied searching, rather than of intellectual possessing. The problem arises when the narrowing of our attention, continuously blocks the outside world, muffling our intuitive understanding of the broader context. This silencing of our ability to focus on what we find interesting or valuable can often lead to that feeling of ‘being lost’, or feeling like there is no escape from your rut of thinking and behaviour. When actions become dislocated from the wider context of the person’s values, this is when the grip of depression and despair can take hold.
The often quoted maxim of “an open mind is one that is willing to change” has some challenging, overlooked implications, denoting an element of inherent discomfort and anxiety. If we are to live authentically, then there must be a willingness to be in a process of perpetual change that maintains a kind of psychological homeostasis. In order to dissolve no longer useful ways of thinking, we have to continually update our conceptions, maintaining an openness to our intuitive and implicit understanding. We always have to be willing, and prepared, to change our lakes for ocean.
The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing
Anyone watching The Last Dance on Netflix over the last couple of weeks has seen what it is like to be in an embodied state of flow. Seeing Michael Jordan playing basketball is to be reminded of how much the exertion of expert physical skill is devoid of our self-conscious awareness. When watching MJ drive to the hoop, or sink an impossible layup in traffic, it is like watching poetry in motion. A kind of magic connecting body, mind and soul in a symphony of coordinated movement. This state of flow is an immersed engagement in your environment, a oneness between doing and being, a sequence of time, where time itself seems to have disappeared. What is interesting about this state is how internal thought and fixation of ourselves stops when we are engrossed in a task. Why this takes place is of particular interest to researchers and their understanding of the brain and mental functioning.
Flow State’s and the Default Mode Network
This ‘flow’ state has been investigated using neuroimaging and has been shown to represent a decrease of activity in a structure of the brain called the default mode network. This network is responsible for much of our mental processes when we are not focused on the external environment, in other words our internal chatter and mind wandering. These processes include self-reflection, mental time travel, mental constructions (ideas), moral reasoning and it is believed to be the network of the brain that contributes to our sense of self.
In a study investigating flow states, tasks that were rated by participants as ‘boring’, corresponded with neuroimaging data that showed higher activity in the default mode network, whilst ‘flow state’ activities corresponded with decreased activity. The network of structures in the brain responsible for creating that sense of what it is like to be you, are essentially switched off in these states of immersion. The default mode network is of particular interest to neuroscientists, psychologists and psychiatrists as there is a belief that a hyperactivity in this network of the brain could be the neurological basis for the development of mental disorders.
The idea of investigating psychedelic experiences for treating mental disorders is not new. Michael Pollan, in his book How to Change Your Mind, tells the story of how psychedelic science was a promising and legitimate field of inquiry in the 1950s and 1960s. Unfortunately, due to concerns relating to the growing counterculture and anti-war movement, the Nixon Government banned these compounds, effectively shutting down a promising line of research. Robin Carhartt-Harris, David Nutt and their team at Imperial College London, are two researchers at the vanguard of this renaissance and some of their theories related to the default mode network have significant implications for our understanding of psychedelic experience, the brain and mental disorder. Carhartt-Harris and his team found that the brain and in particular the default mode network, under the influence of psychedelics, exhibited decreased levels of activity, similar to those found in states of flow.
The brain is a hierarchical system, with the more recent, evolved parts, including key parts of the default mode network, exhibiting an inhibitory or repressive effect on the lower parts of the brain. Carhartt-Harris and his team argue, that the default mode network acts like the conductor of an orchestra, repressing the chaos of everyone playing their own tune, keeping the different parts in harmony. The neuroimaging research conducted showed that during psychedelic experiences, this conducting part of the brain essentially switches off, allowing for increased connectivity between different areas which are usually not in communication.
The Entropic Brain Hypothesis
This research by Carhartt-Harris and his team led to the publishing of a theory called The Entropic Brain Hypothesis, a theory which suggests that our ‘normal’ waking consciousness is the result of a slightly skewed balance between flexible and rigid states. Entropy is defined as the level of uncertainty in a system, and, as can be seen below, high entropy states are associated with flexible thought, like creative or ‘dream-like’ thinking, whilst low entropy states are associated with rigid thought, characterised by obsessiveness and addiction.
Psychedelic experiences, emotion and sensation
In a 2018 paper researching the effects of psychedelics, researchers using neuroimaging, found that LSD induces increased connectivity in the sensory and somatic motor areas of the brain. This network of neurons is mapped to the sensory experiences of our body, indicating that LSD increases these signals, whilst decreasing connectivity in the areas of ‘associative thinking’, which include the prefrontal cortex, responsible for most of our executive function. This increased connectivity also extended to the amygdala, which is heavily involved in the emotional processing of stimulus. So a psychedelic state is exhibited by high sensitivity to sensory information, increased emotional response and the reduced executive functions relating to internally focused thought (thinking of the past and future, and mental constructions of self).
What is interesting about this research is that the psychedelic state is not associated with a higher form of consciousness, but in fact a more primal, or primitive form of consciousness. The quieting of the default mode network appears to open the door to elements of our subconscious experience that are not usually available to us. The question then becomes, why do many mental health professionals believe that this state can have positive outcomes for patients?
Mental disorders including depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress, are characterised by mental constructions that can become rigid and debilitating. One theory of why these experiences have positive outcomes, is that they act as a ‘circuit-breaker’ of these rigid patterns of thought, allowing patients to regain perspective. Another possibility is that these experiences, when accompanied with psychotherapy, allow patients to access memories and emotions that are otherwise unavailable, facilitating catharsis and acceptance.
This research appears to show that psychedelic experiences allow for some of these rigid mental constructions to be switched off, providing a reset and a new, balanced perspective.
The Divided Brain
A sense of balance between competing ways of viewing the world is exactly what is proposed in Iain McGilchrist’s magnum opus The Master and his Emissary. This book, twenty years in the making, detailed the neurological research into the different “views” of the left and right hemispheres of the brain. McGilchrist makes clear that, despite the burgeoning amount of pop psychology stating otherwise, both hemispheres are involved in what the brain does.
Where things differ however, is in how the brain does what it does and how the different hemispheres ‘view’ the world. The left hemisphere’s view is more sequential and fixed, processing information linearly toward some objective that it has picked out of the broader context. In contrast, the right hemisphere takes a broader, big picture view of the world, developing implicit understanding (as opposed to knowledge). This includes the understanding of metaphor, imagery, an ability to see patterns and read facial expressions and to appreciate art and the harmony and melodies of music.
One of McGilchrist’s central concerns, is that the left’s fixed, sequential, linear view of the world leads to a re-presentation of reality, one devoid of the broader context. According to McGilchrist, the left hemisphere’s view is a reproduction, essentially a virtual reality, which is mostly interested in objects and ‘things’ as opposed to people and the environment. When our representation of reality becomes detached from the broader context for long periods, our experience can become what he terms, a ‘hall of mirrors’; an oppressive sense of being trapped within the mental constructs of our own thoughts.
This sense of being trapped in the hall of mirrors maps onto the type of rigid thinking typified by a low-entropy state in The Entropic Brain Hypothesis. Psychedelic experiences appear to open a door to this hall of mirrors, allowing a window to the outside world, a reset and rescue from the matrix of the associating minds representation of reality. There is a clear overlap between flexible or rigid thinking and the left and right hemisphere’s view of the world, between the grasping and sequential processing of the more rigid, left hemisphere and the contextually rich, intuitive understanding of the more flexible view of the right. Thousands of years of ancient spiritual traditions have spoken of the need for balance in the way we view the world and current psychological and neuroscientific research appears to have now caught up.
Bringing it all together
Whilst our sense of self and our ability to plan and reason are critical to our daily lives, it appears that these elements of our thinking can become counterproductive if they do not take into account a broader context. With the increasing digitisation of our leisure, work and social interactions there seems to be a creeping tendency to allow a more fixed, re-presented view of the world to dominate, potentially contributing to the significant increases in depression globally. Psychedelic experiences have been shown to be an effective treatment for many individuals suffering from intractable mental disorders. Organisations like MIND Foundation in Europe and Mind Medicine in Australia, along with many others, are working to educate mental health professionals, governments and the wider community as to their benefits and risks. By building awareness about these experiences, along with an understanding of who might benefit, we can remove some of the ‘war on drugs’ dogma that has shut down any debate regarding these treatments and begin to build a new paradigm of understanding for mental health treatments.