Right now at least five articles, all with highly regarded sources, sit within arm's reach and declare contradictory ideas about how the human mind works - "The Science of Optimism", "The Power of Negativity", humans as great pattern recognizers, humans think they see patterns where they don't, control emotions, control behavior...

It's easy for the layperson or even (maybe especially) the PhD trained in one theory or another to believe that their view is as true as gravity. Unfortunately with the human mind, nothing could be further from the truth. 

Let's just take emotion. Did you realize there is a reigning idea, an emerging idea and a solidly researched revolutionary idea? One could describe the reigning idea as the one where emotions are inferior to intellect. The emerging idea is that emotions are pivotal but they are still regulated by an executive-type intellect. The revolutionary idea is that maybe emotions and even the mind are something altogether different than either one.

On on my right is a beautifully written and researched book called The Age of Insight by Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel. For anyone interested in the mind, perception, art and psychoanalysis, it is a must. Kandel is brilliant and he synthesizes work from Freud to cognitive science to creativity to perception and finally to the latest neuroscience into a readable tome.

Dare I however note that from my perspective however it seems to fall only into the 2nd category - the emerging idea. Emotions are critical, often unconscious and maybe even good but are still to be regulated. Most highly regarded academics buy into this "regulation" idea. It means that we (and our brains) do things to make ourselves feel differently. And I guess on one level that is indisputable. In the socially acceptable category, we take a run to get our endorphins going and improve our mood. We also have a glass of wine to calm the stresses of the day. 

The issue I have is not that we do indeed do these and many more extreme things to change (or regulate) our emotions but 1) is it really a good idea and 2) is it really how the mind is designed?

On the latter question, many believe in the pain/pleasure principle - or we will seek pleasure over pain. That idea is so accepted it seems no one ever questions it. Yet if it is true why do people remain in painful situations ALL the time. The pain/pleasure motivator doesn't seem to answer that.

Furthermore, if any form of psychological excavation - i.e. any analysis of what might be lying in our unconscious's - is valid, how does that fit with "regulating" (or controlling") a feeling.

I think the third and radical view of the mind says it is NOT the way the mind is designed and to my way to thinking, therefore not a good idea. What we experience as emotion - or what an academic would call affect - is proving to be the seat of consciousness and indeed even located in the brainstem. Highly respected neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio and Mark Solms are talking about "the primacy of feeling".

This fits more into the psychological constructionism model which to me at least, the leader is Lisa Feldman Barrett of The Affective Sciences Institute.

As I can say it no better, here are the summary paragraphs from their research page:

"Our Conceptual Act Model hypothesizes that "anger," "sadness," "fear," and similar mental events are not basic building blocks in the mind, but instead are mental events that result from the interplay of more basic psychological systems that are not themselves specific to emotion. Think how basic ingredients like flour, water, and yeast can combine to make diverse foods that look and taste very different from one another. Our research suggests that emotions — and other mental events — are constructed in much the same way from basic mental ingredients. This is called a psychological construction approach.

We identify four core systems (core affect, conceptualization, language, and executive control) that correspond to large-scale, distributed networks in the brain. These systems continually shape one another as they combine — like ingredients — to make a variety of mental states... only some of which people call "emotion."

Intuitively this seems more right to me. What I mean by that is it fits with my experience and the reported experience of my clients. Repeatedly people find that how they feel - core affect - is the foundation to how they think and behave.

I just can't get my head around how regulating that helps us. It seems the only thing that needs regulated is the behavior - i.e. I may feel furious but that doesn't mean I am going to beat-up the bank teller or the person in the car in front of me. It seems that understanding and actually feeling the emotion reduces the odds of "doing it". Research is indeed showing that saying "I am terrified of that tarantula" gives one the ability to actually touch a tarantula.

I'll go a step further. I think the last 60 years of emphasis on cognition and behavior - to the detriment of feeling and emotion - is the source of some of our most vexing problems. We have been trying to understand and improve our minds - like growing better tomatoes - but we have been ignoring the soil.

In short, a whole new view of what emotion is leads to a whole new view of what the mind is. A whole new view of how the mind works leads to a whole new host of problem solving angles that just might make a notable contribution to how to prevent another Newtown, how to get Washington to work and even how to make the best decisions for everyday family events.

About the Author

Denise K. Shull, M.A.

Denise Shull is the author of Market Mind Games, a game-changer in how we think about anything that seems risky.

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