Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Anatomy of the Mind

I presented a version of this article last week at my Masonic Lodge, Braden #168 in St. Paul, Minnesota. The version published here has been edited to remove specific references to the Masonic degrees, but most of the material remains intact. Readers of this blog should find my basic thesis relatively familiar, as I have written on this topic several times before - notably here and here.

Presentation: Modern neuroscience has reached some interesting conclusions regarding the workings of the mind, especially over the course of the last decade. One of the most important of these is that the psychoanalytic model, in which an “unconscious mind” directs our thoughts and actions, is probably completely wrong. There are brain functions that can be considered “unconscious,” but those functions lack the sort of coherence that would put them even remotely on par with our normal conscious awareness. Similarly, dreaming is not some “gateway to the unconscious” but rather a consolidation process in which memories are sorted and recombined.

The basic anatomy of the mind can be thought of as three distinct systems that work together. The first of these is the declarative mind, or thinking system. This is the portion of the mind that operates according to the general laws of reason and which processes information in the form of thoughts. When somebody asks you what you are thinking about, your answer is what your thinking system is currently processing. The second of these systems is the emotive or feeling system. This is the portion of the mind that produces emotional states. When someone asks you how you are feeling, what you are describing is the current state of your feeling system, whether you’re happy, sad, bored, frustrated, and so forth. These first two systems can be thought of as the “conscious” mind, in that you are always aware of what you are thinking and how you are feeling.

The third system is the conditioning system, which operates according to the principles of behaviorism. The conditioning system is essentially like a machine – its function is to repeat behaviors that have been positively reinforced. Because the conditioning system has no goals and does not think, the behaviors that it prompts can prove problematic. Often, when you do something and are left thinking “why on earth did I do that?” the usual answer to that question is that the behavior was reinforced at some point in the past. This system operates unconsciously, but to call it an “unconscious mind” is a mistake. It does not think in any declarative sense, and lacks the overall internal coherence that we generally associate with the concept of “mind.”

Taken together these three systems constitute what I sometimes think of as the “golden triangle” of consciousness. What we experience as a coherent mind arises from the interaction between them, and they can work together or they can get in each others’ way. If you ever have been in a situation where you have needed to do something difficult or uncomfortable but which nonetheless needs to be done you know how the feeling system can conflict with the thinking system. On the other hand, when you’re in a situation where what you need to do is also rewarding and fun you know how it feels when they work together.

When Masonry was founded the conditioning system was not well-understood. Pavlov was working with dogs in the late nineteenth century, but it was not until the twentieth that behavioral psychology really came of age. The idea of subduing one’s desires and passions is rooted in older ideas that Sigmund Freud integrated into the theory of psychoanalysis, the Victorian concept that the personality is simply a collection of wayward drives that must somehow be channeled into a socially acceptable framework. According to this model what we experience as our "conscious mind" is just the tip of a vast iceberg, with limited power to manage the whole of the personality.

Modern science tells us that this is simply not the case. I will submit that one of the key goals of the Masonic system is training our conditioning systems to work in harmony with our long-term goals rather than producing behaviors that sabotage them. Constantly working to restrain the behaviors that our conditioning system is telling us to repeat is draining and difficult, and there is an easier way – exploit the laws of conditioning ourselves and reinforce those behaviors that we know will lead to success.

So how do we do this? Psychologists have defined two basic types of conditioning, classical and operant. Classical conditioning is based on the work done by Ivan Pavlov in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He discovered that physiological responses could be conditioned in such a way that they could be triggered by a previously neutral stimulus. In his most famous series of experiments, he would present food to dogs and at the same time ring a bell. Once he had repeated this action enough times, he found that he could just ring the bell on its own and the dogs would salivate as if they had also been presented with food.

Operant conditioning is more useful for structuring one’s life. It essentially consists of conditioning goal-directed behavior through reinforcement, and is based on the work of John Watson and B.F. Skinner that went on during the middle of the twentieth century. A simple operant conditioning experiment involves a rat placed in a cage with two levers, one which dispenses food and one which does not. The rat will quickly learn to press the food lever whenever it is hungry and completely ignore the lever that does nothing.

Changing up this experiment demonstrates a practical method for managing our own conditioning systems. If the scientist sets the food lever to stop dispensing the rat will continue to press it for awhile and eventually give up. In behaviorism this process is called extinction and it is quite slow. Once the rat has been conditioned it will keep pushing the food lever for some time, even though no food is forthcoming. Humans often do exactly the same thing, repeating behaviors in adulthood which were reinforced in childhood but which no longer serve any purpose.

If the experimenter’s goal is to get the rat to start pressing the other lever and stop pushing the first one it is far easier to set the non-food lever to start dispensing food. As soon as the rat bumps into or incidentally trips the new food lever and realizes that it dispenses food, it will mostly ignore the first lever right away. This is because forming a conditioning loop is much faster than breaking one. So the key to re-aligning your conditioning system is to reinforce a different behavior in response to the same stimulus, which is much faster and much more efficient than simply suppressing undesirable behavior loops.

There are really only two rules that you need to keep track of when trying to reinforce yourself. The first is that whatever form of reinforcement you choose should be genuinely rewarding to you. It can be as simple as eating a piece of food that you really like, or as complex as replacing an undesirable behavior with one that you really like to do. The second is that the reinforcement should immediately follow the new behavior. The power of reinforcement is directly proportional to how quickly it follows the desired behavior, and even a few minutes will reduce its effectiveness substantially.

In Masonry and other mystery traditions, initiation also exploits the conditioning system. Research has found that in completely unfamiliar situations in which we have no idea what to expect a state is created called cognitive dissonance in which the conditioning system essentially puts itself into overdrive. One of the best ways to condition a person is to put them in a situation in which their awareness is heightened and nothing that is happening can be anticipated. This forms an ideal environment for impressing upon a candidate the basic tenets of Masonic philosophy. This is why in any mystery tradition it is a bad idea to read through a degree that you are about to take ahead of time. Knowing what is going to happen usually undermines the ritual's effectiveness.

Now in addition to the conditioning system, the feeling system can also act in ways that are in conflict with our goals. Its interaction with the conditioning system can produce fear responses based on prior experience which may or may not be relevant to your current situation. This is possible because the feeling system is closely tied in with memory, in that what is called a feeling-tone gets logged with every memory you form. So when you remember something you don’t just remember the content, you also remember how you were feeling when the memory was formed. If that feeling is unhappy, recalling the memory can “bring you down” and make you unhappy in the here and now.

This would seem to suggest that we are to a degree governed by our past emotional states, and for many people this is indeed the case. However, one of the most surprising things about feeling-tones and memories is that they are not fixed. A study that was completed only a couple of years ago showed that every time you recall a memory, it gets rewritten and its feeling-tone merged with your current mood. This is extremely counter-intuitive, in that we tend to see our personalities as relatively stable through time. The reason it seems that way is that your mind tends to call up memories with feeling-tones similar to your current mood. But like the conditioning process, this one can be worked with as well.

Emotive processing is more complex than conditioning and does not follow as regular a set of rules. However, I have worked out a couple of interesting tricks for managing memory. The first is to think about unpleasant memories when you are happy or in a good mood. The first few times you do this, you likely will make yourself feel worse, but if you keep in mind what you are doing it eventually can work very well. The unpleasant memory will be recalled, and then written back into long-term storage with a mixture of the original feeling-tone and the one in which you recalled it. The next time you remember it, the negative feeling will not be nearly as strong.

The other trick is more radical. You can use it to in effect erase a negative memory. In my experience the memory itself won’t be completely gone, but it will fade to the point where it hardly ever comes to mind and its details become hazy. The trick is this – when you recall a memory, there is a delay of around thirty seconds before it gets written back. If, in that interval, you can completely distract yourself with something unrelated to the memory you’re trying to get rid of, the “writeback” portion of the process will be interrupted and the memory will be slightly weakened. You usually need to do it a number of times to get the full effect, but once you do it’s remarkable.

Again, this is another piece that flies in the face of psychoanalysis, which was build on the idea that memories are stored forever and we only can’t recall everything that ever happened to us because the mind is somehow actively repressing them. This is not the case – memories fade all the time, and really all you have to do is keep yourself from thinking about them. Rather than “bottling up” the emotion, the lack of attention essentially “starves” the negative memory and over time it will eventually almost disappear.

This brings us to the final system of the three, the thinking system. Once you understand how the other two systems work, you’ll realize that the thinking system is remarkably easy to manage. If you want to think about something else, think about something else. Unlike the other two systems, the thinking system is full amenable to the activity of the will most of the time. Usually when you get stuck in a “loop” ruminating over something what’s going on is not that your thinking system is unable to disengage, but rather that it is continually receiving signals from one or both of the other systems.

One more word about the psychoanalytic model here – the key to understanding the thinking system to realize that what you are thinking is what you are thinking. This seems simple, but our cultural acceptance of the psychoanalytic model has obscured this simple truth for a long time. The idea that you have to constantly doubt yourself, wondering what you might “really” be thinking, is one of the biggest time-wasters out there because in the end there is no “really.” At one moment you might think one thing and at another moment you might think something else, but they both are real as long as they are present in your thoughts.

The basis of much Masonic practice is the cultivation of consistency and integrity in terms of one’s thoughts and actions. This is facilitated by the study of the liberal arts and sciences and the contemplation of the essential qualities of nature. The ease by which the thinking system can move from idea to idea can produce both ignorance, in which facts are disregarded based on arbitrary criteria, and hypocrisy, in which contradictory thoughts are not followed to their logical conclusions and resolved into a coherent worldview. Both of these are impediments to functioning optimally in most areas life.

It should be obvious from all this, then, that success in life is directly related to these three systems and how well they work together. When you have a goal that you wish to pursue, all three should be employed in a way that serves your objectives through the application of reflection, self-discipline, and reason. I would like to conclude this presentation with a quote from Liber Librae, one of the instructional texts from my own spiritual tradition of Thelema.

Fixed thought is a means to an end. Therefore pay attention to the power of silent thought and meditation. The material act is but the outward expression of thy thought, and therefore hath it been said that “the thought of foolishness is sin.” Thought is the commencement of action, and if a chance thought can produce much effect, what cannot fixed thought do?

Therefore, as hath already been said, Establish thyself firmly in the equilibrium of forces, in the centre of the Cross of the Elements, that Cross from whose centre the Creative Word issued in the birth of the Dawning Universe.

Discussion: One of the key points brought up in the subsequent discussion of this presentation is that since the conditioning system can perform some relatively complex tasks, perhaps my statement that it "does not think" is inaccurate. First of all, I believe that much of this criticism is related to terminology, in that in this presentation I define "thinking" in a very particular way, as declarative reasoning. If you instead are defining "thinking" as "any coordinated activity done by neurons" then, really, everything the brain does is "thinking" and you're left without any useful distinction between the three systems.

It's much like coining the term "emotional intelligence," which many parents embraced in order to convince themselves that their charming but otherwise stupid children could still be called "smart." I point this out not to downplay the importance of social skills, which are extremely useful and strong predictors of success in life. The problem is that treating any specific collection of skills as "intelligence" pretty much ignores the way that the term has been used for much of the last century, in addition to the debates surrounding it in cognitive science and testing theory.

There is also a more functional objection that I did gloss over in this presentation for the sake of brevity, the concept of assimilation. The conditioning system does not only run simple loops like the rat does with levers and food pellets, but in fact can link together whole series of complex behaviors that may be reinforced as a group. Driving a car is a good example. Remember how hard driving was when you were first learning? You had to think about things like where each foot went, how far you had to turn the wheel, when to hit signals, and so forth - but now if you're like most adults you just do it without thinking about much of anything besides where you want to go.

This is because all of the complex behaviors that make up driving have been linked together as a set of loops that the conditioning system can mostly run on its own. Walking is a similar process that has proven extremely difficult to program in robots despite its apparent ease. When these loops are running there are constant adjustments that need to be made in order to respond to the environment, such as when you suddenly find yourself walking over uneven terrain or in the middle of a traffic situation in which you are trying to avoid an accident. However, when I talk about the conditioning system lacking goals or motives what I am talking about is the fact that when adjusting for environmental conditions it remains essentially reactive in nature.

I think that comparing and contrasting this idea with the "unconscious mind" model will demonstrate the point I am trying to get at. In psychoanalysis your unconscious mind is conceptualized as having its own motivations that may differ from those of the conscious mind. It could even be "plotting against" the conscious mind, and initiating behaviors out of a desire to sabotage anything the conscious mind attempts. Freud explored this idea in the The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, and it kind of amazes me that it ever caught on because when you explain it like that you can see that the whole idea is pretty silly.

But what people do experience is that the conditioning system can react to stimuli with behaviors that are maladaptive to a particular environment or circumstance. What the thinking system tries to do is fit various memories of these events into some sort of a narrative, when in fact the only "narrative" at work is that at some point in the past each maladaptive behavior was reinforced. So the tendency is to repeat them, whether or not taken together they make any sense - and because the conditioning system lacks coherence they usually do not.

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Unknown said...

hmmmmmm, interesting...

Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed this post. Intellectual ones like these probably don't generate as much conversation as the "witches in the news" ones, but I bet they generate a lot more insight in your readers. More like this, please.

Scott Stenwick said...

Yeah, as far as generating traffic goes, my #1 post of all time is the drunken werewolf. Go figure. And the most comments I've ever gotten were on the article bashing the Charlie Sheen ritual. Neither were particularly insightful from a magical standpoint.

I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed this one, though.