Alexi Berry, used with permission
Source: Alexi Berry, used with permission

A great deal of my writing focuses on how the human brain lies, and creates stories about who you are and why you do what you do. Psychology supports this. In fact, a new movement in psychology goes beyond that, and suggests there isn’t a centralized you at all.

This is not necessarily a new idea in psychology. Since before Freud, those in the field have looked at the power the unconscious exercises on an individual and his behavior. C.G. Jung went so far as to identify different archetypes that influence perception and behavior when enacted, and identified the integrated self as something rarely achieved. Yet people continue to believe in a unified and autonomous self over which they have the majority, if not full, control. However, this seems to be far from reality. As psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett says, “You think there is some essence to who you are that will endure regardless of the situation or the context, but the fact is that is not the case.” (Barrett, L; 2017).

People are generally aware that at times they behave in a way that is not typical. This usually happens when one believes he or she has lost control. Recent experiments have demonstrated that researchers can make changes in stimulus to create even subtle changes in the decision making of their subjects. In other words, people think they are making decisions based on taste, when their decisions are influenced by evolutionary needs.

I recently attended an online course through Coursera, titled, “Buddhism and Modern Psychology”. The course introduced me to a theory focused on the modular theory of the mind. In this theory there isn’t a central you, but instead sub-selves which make decisions based on evolutionary needs. In several experiments researchers changed an initial stimulus (pictures of women or neutral pictures in one experiment, either a scary movie or romantic movie in another, a room with just males or both males and females in another) and then offered subjects choices. In a statistically significant manner subjects chose according to a theory of evolutionary needs (Wright, R; Week 4, “What Mental Modules Are”). For example, in one of the studies listed above, subjects were shown clips from either a scary movie or a romantic movie. They were then asked how likely they were to visit a museum in an ad. When they saw the scary movie they were more likely to respond to the advertisement focused on how many people visited the museum, when they saw the romantic movie they responded more positively to the ad focused on standing out from the crowd. Evolutionary theorists posit this is because the scary movie activates the fear module, and results in wanting to be around more people (to feel safer) and the romantic movie activates the coupling module, and results in wanting to stand out, and be more likely to be chosen to be a partner. (If you are interested, you can take the course for free. It is listed in the references.)

This coincides with the idea that many psychologists hold that the situation has a great deal to do with behavior. Studies such as the “Obedience Study” by Stanley Milgram, the “Conformity Study” by Solomon Asch, and “The Stanford Prison Experiment” by Philip Zimbardo all demonstrated the influence of the situation over personality. In these experiments people behaved in what were considered uncharacteristic ways. These studies seem to exemplify how a situation has more influence over behavior than individual personality does.

A podcast called, “Invisibilia” has looked at this idea several times; in an episode in season 2, and as a concept running throughout the third season. First, in season two, they looked at, “The Personality Myth”. In it they use the work of Walter Mischel, of the famous “Marshmallow Study”. He explained in the episode how his study is often misrepresented (Mischel, 2016). The study is often used to demonstrate how personality is consistent throughout one’s life. Kids who could not delay gratification and wait to eat the first marshmallow until the second came, later in life were less successful in a number of ways than peers who could delay gratification. However, Dr. Mischel, in the interview, clarifies that there are three aspects to behavior: personality, the situation, and your mind. What he states he was showing with the experiment is that if you can get people to change the way they look at a situation, they can change their behavior.

In an interview for Invisibilia, psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett said, “The point is that we can acknowledge the perceptions are constructed or we can ignore it and just keep doing what we're doing anyways. I think it would be much fairer if we just acknowledged how our brains actually work.” (Barrett, L; 2017; 47:58). In this interview, the expert on emotions explains how our emotions are constructed. The human brain initially acknowledges only four emotional states: pleasant, unpleasant, calm, or aroused. Our brain then applies context from our experiences to explain the emotions we are having. In other words, we have been taught all of our emotions, they exist in concepts we have about the world, which influence our perception, and as such, reaction and behavior.

Mindfulness has been around psychology much longer than its recent studies indicate. It is not always called mindfulness. A colleague who I asked about mindfulness said, “We used to just call it awareness.” Others call it being conscious. This is what Walter Miscel was trying to show as far back as the early 1970’s (and there were countless others before him. For more on Mindfulness throughout psychology see, “Acceptance, Mindfulness, and the Psychodynamic Evolution). In the episode Mischel said, “What my life has been about is in showing the potential for human beings to not be the victims of their biographies - not their biological biographies, not their social biographies - and to show, in great detail, the many ways in which people can change what they become and how they think.” (Mischel, W; 2016).

Whether you consider there to be modules of your mind which guide behavior, or simply acquiesce that there are unconscious forces influencing you, the solution is the same; make more of the unconscious conscious; understand that the mind creates stories and explanations that are not accurate depictions of reality (see also “The Big Lie” and “The Truth Will Not Set You Free”); and from as objective a mind place as one can get, make more educated decisions about how you want to behave. As Lisa Feldman Barrett said about becoming more aware of how your mind works, “You have more control over your own experience. You become more the architect of your own experience.” (Barrett, L; 2017; 49:22).

Psychological studies continue to demonstrate that the idea of an autonomous self is far from the truth. People are influenced by a myriad of forces from within and without. Evolutionary drives make us react in a fight or flight fashion to threats to our ego (not our lives), and drive toward sexual gratification. Defense mechanisms and biases influence how we perceive reality. The modular view of the mind as a function, and not as an autonomous CEO of the brain is gaining in empirical evidence and popularity. However, there is a way to become more autonomous and self-guided. That avenue is consciousness.

In the course, “Buddhism and Modern Psychology”, Dr. Wright builds the case that there is a way to strengthen the “default mode network”. This results in being calmer, and as such, having better control over the mind (Wright, R; Week 5, “Self” Control; 2017). Meditation and mindfulness are the keys to this strength. Mindfulness, awareness, or whatever you choose to call it, involves a slipping into a mind state that is calmer. It brings one to the moment, and reduces “noise” from the other modules of the mind vying for attention. This allows one to be more objective, and thereby allows one to make better choices. This is what I’ve been suggesting in most of my writing, what Walter Mischel has been advocating since the 70’s, what Lisa Feldman Barrett is suggesting regarding emotions and the workings of the mind, what a multitude of other researchers, psychologists, and therapists have been advocating for decades, if not longer, and, of course, what the Buddha taught.

One might wonder how the idea of there not being a consistent, centralized self is helpful. Many are disheartened to think an “I” doesn’t exist. In my opinion, the idea brings one closer to self-actualization or enlightenment. The feeling of shifting into a mindset where one is not pushed and pulled by inner drives (be they evolutionary or otherwise) is freeing. Resting in that space is, in itself, reinforcing. With that mental space, the calmer, “default mode network” comes the realization that all thoughts are geared at one ego need or another, and are largely unnecessary. So much energy is used up trying to meet the needs one creates in one’s head. Of course, there are genuine needs that one has to meet in order to function and survive. But much of what is thought of as necessary is not. And whether you call it the “default mode network” or simply a resting mind, utilizing this mind state is beneficial in numerous, empirically supported, ways.

Copyright William Berry, 2017

References

Barrett, L; 2017; quoted in “Invisibilia: Emotions, Part 1” (47:58) June 1st, 2017; retrieved on 7/18/17 from: http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=530928414

Barrett, L; 2017; quoted in “Invisibilia: True Self ” (3:13-3:24) June 23rd, 2017; retrieved on 7/18/17 from: http://www.npr.org/programs/invisibilia/533946953/true-yo

Mischel, W; 2016; quoted in “Invisibilia: The Personality Myth” (42:18) June 24th, 2016; retrieved on 7/18/17 from: http://www.npr.org/2016/06/24/482837932/read-the-transcript

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