Our brains perform so many functions that living with one can sometimes become a confusing mess. How many times have you had mixed thoughts, feelings, ideas, solutions, and memories clammoring for some mental real estate, all while trying to stay focused on something else?

Cognitive psychologists have tried to make sense out of this for many years, but most of their output has been impractical. However, over the past 20 years a major theme emerged that was a breakthrough, which isn't something new to regular Psychology Today readers. The key finding was that our brains have two major types of processes: those that operate automatically (usually called System 1) and those that are more effortful (System 2). The research that demonstrated this won Daniel Kahneman the Nobel Prize.

I found this rough distinction to be somewhat helpful for my counseling clients, but it has been difficult to translate it into useful tools. So I have been working to find a better application for therapy, and recently arrived at what I call the Three Frames of Mind. All three have a purpose, none of them are superior to any other, and there are variations on each. Readers familiar with Kahneman's research will notice that the first two Frames, (Engaged & Automatic) are both forms of System 1 and the other (Analytic) is a practical way of looking at System 2.

Frames of Mind

For the descriptions below to make sense, I invite you to think of a great example for each one from your own life. You may have even used all 3 in the past couple of minutes reading this post. Once you get a good sense of them, they should become more obvious and easy to work with. I will also provide an example of each that happened to me recently hanging out with a friend.

1. Engaged Mind: this is the state of being totally immersed in, or connected to, what we are doing in the present moment. When we are fully present in a conversation, skiing down a mountain, crying after hearing about a friend having cancer, or taking the first bite of the best slice of pizza in the world; basically when our thoughts and attention are fully connected to what is happening here-and-now, that is Engaged Mind. People that are able to Engage in their daily activities (rather than zoning out or being distracted by other thoughts), are generally happier and more satisfied with their lives and relationships. Recent research even shows that being in Engaged mind reduces base levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Being Engaged doesn't mean an absence of pain, since what might be happening at any given moment could be physically or emotionally painful. It just means being connected to whatever is going on. Current counseling approaches based on mindfulness are designed to help people improve their experience of Engagement, and this is often one of the goals my clients have in therapy. You can read my post on Mindfulness here: An Introduction to Mindfulness.

Example: When I am hanging out with my friend I am totally caught up in listening to a story and then telling one of my own. I feel connected and the interactions are spontaneous and free of impression management. I am fully present in each moment, unconcerned with anything else that is happening outside of that conversation. Time flies by.

2. Automatic Mind: our brain is constantly conducting an enormous range tasks. For example, we become aware of any changes in the environment (new sounds, changes in light or temperature, quick movements, etc) and any pains or bodily sensations that deserve to be noticed (and some that don't). We effortlessly make evaluations and judgments about things being positive or negative (including ourselves), categorize our experiences, and make decisions about things we need to do and have to remember. We have scenes from our past triggered and have feelings and sensations about things that might occur in the future. We form habits to Automate major parts of our lives, and are pulled out of moments with memories or questions. This non-stop flow of information is part of being human, and we spend a large percentage of our lives swimming in this stream. This is Automatic Mind.

The content of Automatic Mind is determined by current internal and environmental conditions, instincts, perceptions, and prior learning. The flow is essential for our survival and helps us adapt among countless other things, but it is also full of misinformation, distortions, and biases. Although they can be beneficial, the immediate judgments and impulses, engrained habits, and intense moods that Automatically grip us are usually the source of our greatest problems and pain, especially when it becomes routine. If Automatic thoughts and feelings are pleasant, then spending a lot of time in this frame is great! But when those things are more negative or troubling, or are so strong that we can't stay Engaged, then Automatic Mind can become an unbearable place that we try to escape from. Most people come to counseling for things related to Automatic Mind.

Example: During a slow moment of the conversation with my friend, my mind wanders to what I am doing after we part. I mentally run through a list of things to get at the grocery store, and also replay an argument I got into with someone else a few hours earlier that makes me get a bit anxious. I am not completely present in what is happening here-and-now, but am off and running with this Automatic flow, losing track of the details of the conversation in the process, and feeling anxious.

3. Analytic Mind: since we are self-aware creatures, we have the ability to intentionally step back from our current thoughts, feelings, and experiences to observe them, manipulate information in our minds, and solve problems. All of the complex reasoning we can do is what I call Analytic Mind.

Since there are so many different ways Analytic Mind can work, I offer 6 broad categories below. Also, many of these thought processes also take place in Automatic Mind. The difference here is that Analytic Mind is when we intentionally choose to use these abilities.

-Observe: we can observe other people, as well as the workings or our own minds.
-Reflect: we can replay events in our memories, and arrive at new perspectives.
-Solve: we can take immediate issues and problems and find solutions or understanding.
-Plan: we can plan deep into the future and create backup options.
-Focus: we can sustain attention on something important
-Imagine: we can use our imaginations to run through how something may play out.

Most of our complex reasoning skills come online at the beginning of adolescence and develop into adulthood. When we make decisions after Analyzing a situation, we are less likely to make mistakes or have biased perspectives. Other problems can arise here when we stay in this frame too much by "over-Analyzing" things, develop a rigidity of thinking, or don't use it enough! Our Analytic Minds also come into conflict with Automatically generated emotions and intuition, which can leave us in a states of confusion, indecision, or "cognitive dissonance." You can read more about that here: Resolving Cognitive Dissonance.

Example: After noticing my anxiety, I decided to try and re-Engage in the conversation. However, I stayed anxious and kept having difficulty being involved. I decided to take a couple minutes to take a closer look at my anxiety to understand why it was so strong, and to reason through it. I reflected on the earlier argument, and realized that I made a critical mistake, and I then focused on developing a plan of how to apologize and make things right again. After doing this, I was able to Engage again with my friend.

Mastering Your Mind

There are a few basic ways I think the Frames of Mind can be used to better our lives. First, I think this breakdown can help us understand the different functions our minds have, and can help us developed a better understanding of what Frame we'd want to be in at any given time. For example, when there is something fun or important going on, we should be Engaged. Or when there is a complex problem at hand we should Analyze it.

Furthermore, I think it can show ways that these capacities can all work together to make us better. As we try to be deeply Engaged in our lives, Automatic Mind creates a barrier but also assists in keeping a read on what else is going on in the environment. Our ability to reflect on our experiences can give us new information to Analyze and learn from, which over time and repetitions will become habits in our Automatic minds.

It may also be apparent that each Frame can be related to various psychological problems. Counseling can be a great place to explore how these things work (or don't) for you.

Three Frames of Mind


Will Meek PhD is a counseling psychologist in Vancouver, Washington. Get notifications of all his new posts through Facebook and Twitter.


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