A Therapist's perspective?
In a so-called normal world, it would seem somewhat irrational to talk about something that doesn't actually exist as if it did. This is the stuff of Harry Potterdom! Yet, when it comes to the mind that is exactly what we are doing! So, why do we refer to something that doesn't exist, at least in the sense of it being an anatomical structure, the way we do? To compound this dilemma, people actually debate exactly where it is? For example, is it in the brain, heart, tissues, or even in our bones or, maybe, it's out there in the universe? Quips to one side, I think an explanation, at least to some extent, can be found in people who suffer some form of brain injury. For example head injury, stroke, tumour, neurological disease or viral/bacterial infection, nutritional deficiency, even stress! When something like this happens, it often leads to pronounced changes in the person's functionality, e.g. how they talk, walk, think or behave! Sometimes these changes are temporary and others, permanent. Perhaps one of the most studied people, relating to changes to one's personality, was railroad worker, Phineas Gage (read about him here). Phineas was involved in a tragic accident where an iron rod ploughed through his skull and took a small but significant part of his brain with it on exit! So, for the purpose of this article (please humour me as I challenge this anomalous worldview), the mind is both within and a function of the brain. From a therapeutic perspective, I take the view, that the mythical structure of the mind is a useful way to describe what is going on inside our heads. Consciously, a function of our awareness that we exist and are having an experience of which we play a part. Subconsciously, where we have an awareness that something is happening, from within, but have no idea exactly what that is or how it influences our experience of life! Where we usually find ourselves, is having an awareness of the outcome of our brain's subconscious processing. That point at which we have a conscious awareness of having had a subconscious experience! Collectively, whether we like the outcome of that processing or not, goes on to determine the quality or difficulty of our life!
However, I need to explain myself and, hopefully, make some sense of how and why we become affected by the apparent quality and quantity of our subconscious processing. So I will start by expanding on what led me to take this radically different viewpoint on the mind! Over the past 13 years, I spent a lot of time researching the vast number of regions within the brain. From there, I began to observe the way various parts, in their own unique way, contribute to the function of the whole. This research created a paradigm shift, so to speak, in the way I view the brain/mind paradox! The philosophical/hypothetical construct we call mind is merely the nomenclature that adequately explains the way the brain communicates within itself and consequently, us!. Essentially what we call “the mind” is our way of describing the neurochemical language of the brain! If we go back far enough in history, it becomes apparent that some of earlier forms of communication were not linguistic, cave drawings being one example? The fact that there are so many languages somewhat confirms that language evolved in different places, at different times. Nowadays we use our native language to communicate with others and ourselves (self-talk). It helps us to make sense (sometimes, non-sense or nonsense) of the world we live in. It's how we explain to ourselves what we are experiencing, thinking and feeling and from there, it helps us to navigate our way through life. Language is also one of the main reasons why we maladapt or become dysfunctional. From a human perspective, it is the outward, conscious, observable function of the brain because everything we say, do or think first occurs within the brain! And it is somewhat further complicated because we can articulate, through language, our awareness of this non-conscious processing! It kind of demonstrates how our spoken language becomes the interface between the world we live in, and, the world that lives within us!
There is no question that the brain communicates with and across itself. Language is the word we use that describes methods of communication, be it verbal, non-verbal, sign language, morse code, drums, flags or even smoke signals. Each of these nonlinguistic forms of communication is then translated into a native language to extract meaning. What we term the subconscious mind, is merely another form of language, one that occurs within the brain but outside of conscious awareness. For me, this makes the concept of the mind all the more hypothetical and, consequently, these days, I think of its actual presence more metaphorically! That said, it is useful in explaining the things we communicate relative to the way we think and behave. It just makes the explanation of our life, good or bad, a lot simpler, if only by convention. Everything I know about the brain demonstrates, that what we call the subconscious mind, is merely brain activity that occurs before conscious awareness. This non-conscious processing, inter alia, drives autonomic functions, like breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure, thirst, sleep, feeding, digestion, temperature etc. It also plays a role in goal-directed behaviours, e.g. mating, procreation as well as activities like sports, music, dancing and socialising and, of course, fighting. How our brain encodes experience, through memory creation and recall, then dictates the way those activities add to or detract from the quality and achievements of our life!
In that sense, the brain's language, the mind, actually works by using different methods of electrochemical transmission to communicate. This occurs via a vast array of neurotransmitters, enzymes, peptides and hormones, as well as low-frequency electric impulses. Yet somehow, one can't help but pause briefly, because at times it feels like the mind is totally independent of the brain. It's as if this nebulous thing we call the mind is somehow a separate entity from our-self? In some sense, we see that, which we call the self, as the driver of the process, as opposed to it mostly being an observer of it! So, to clarify my point, the mind is merely a hypothetical/philosophical construct that explains, somewhat, how we communicate with ourselves and the outside world!. The uniqueness of being human is by virtue of our ability to think and talk. However, psychologically speaking, thinking is as much our nemesis as it is our uniqueness! Generally speaking, it is believed that thinking is overrated or maybe, it's just that we're not that good at it?
For the thinkers out there (Rodinians), let me explain why. Basically, humans are feeling animals, at least in the context of what we call life because we mostly function in response to our feelings. Contextually, the most pervasive emotional feeling affecting modern society is the feeling we know as fear. In other primates and mammals, there is no apparent convincing evidence that they respond to fear (fight or flight), subjectively, the way we do! This, subjective response to fear, actually seems to be fairly unique to us? They might cower and freeze but those are merely essential components of the fear response, not evidence of the existence of subjective fear itself. New research, by Joseph LeDoux, evidentially, suggests that the part of the brain that detects and responds to threats is an innate defensive mechanism. Subsequently, the feeling, we know of as fear, arises out of the conscious awareness of the stimulation of that defence system. Through maladapted stimulus conditioning, the feelings of fear can arise in the absence of a real threat. We have come to know and express this feeling as anxiety. Anxiety, although an expression of the fear response, is different, in that it is, the anticipation of danger, not necessarily the presence of it?
Why is this you may ask? It is because the emotional and cognitive systems of the brain are separate systems within the brain. However, they experience danger (a fear-provoking experience) almost simultaneously as part of the same event in real-time (with emotion having a slight advantage). The perceived danger enters the brain via the sensory thalamus and then splits in two. Part 1 goes to the sensory cortex and onward to the cingulate cortex and part 2 goes to the hypothalamus and then splits again. Here is where it gets a little complicated because a portion of the hypothalamic sensory experience goes to the amygdala. The amygdala, an important centre of emotion in the brain, is a shorter and, therefore, quicker route than that to the sensory cortex. Which basically means, we feel and act before we think! Part 2 of this hypothalamic circuit feeds back to the cingulate cortex, via the anterior thalamus, thus completing the loop (Joseph Le Doux – The Synaptic self 2003). Simplistically this means that we have a cognitive awareness of the emotional content, but this cognitive awareness lacks real emotion! The feelings of emotion, in the context of bodily responses, are a consequence of arousal of the amygdalae and related regions; of which there are many! Humans have a natural predilection that dictates we make sense of everything we experience. So once we become aware of the feelings of fear, we must find the reason, any excuse will also do, to explain or justify these feelings. The major issue here is that the descriptor comes after the fact and what we're attempting to do, is make conscious sense of non-conscious processing. Because of this, we have a tendency to believe our conscious/cognitive rationale, whereas, in reality, we often have no real proof that we are right. To expand on this a little, let's say I was stuck in a lift with three other people, they are fine but I am freaking out. It would be easy to assume the lift is the problem but if that were true, then we'd all be freaking out, wouldn't we? Let's assume the others are OK because they know help is on the way and in all probability it's merely an electrical or mechanical malfunction. So, in that context, there isn't a real danger! However, what I am doing, is responding to my perception of real danger, not an actual danger. So, there has to be another, more valid, reason behind my response? This adds weight to my argument that our conscious assessment of this non-conscious response, is likely to be a real experience of a false reality experienced as anxiety?
So, what does this mean for us? Well, quite a lot actually. Just because we can feel, does not necessarily mean our articulation of those feelings is correct. Sometimes the articulation is simply a consequence of verbal globalisation! What does that mean? Verbal globalisation means that we use global words that have no real understanding of definitive meaning. For example, many clients say “I feel anxious,” but what does this actually tell us about what they are feeling? In reality, nothing. The only way you can make sense of what they are feeling is to ask them, or self-reference. Experientially, self-referencing appears to be what most people do, we assume we know what the other person means. Consequently, self-referencing can make us think their anxiety is like ours! But in many instances, those who self-reference, often don’t fully articulate what they are feeling either. This can leave us in a certain or uncertain state of mental confusion or emotional limbo! The reason for this may be better explained by what is known as explicit memory (declarative) and implicit memory (non-declarative). Explicit memory is that which we can easily declare/explain, it is in the realm of consciousness. Implicit memory is a memory we cannot so easily declare. Implicit memory is in the realm of non-consciousness and many emotional memories are formed within implicit memory systems! However, this does not necessarily imply that implicit memory is part of what we refer to as the subconscious mind. For example, a large part of driving a car is an instrumental aspect of implicit memory, as is playing a musical instrument. In fact, driving or playing an instrument may be better explained as a function of memory; than the mind? And there is no doubt that higher cognitive ability plays a role in our ability to uniquely expand our musical prowess! Therefore, memory is a unique aspect of the brain's ability to communicate. But whether what we call memory is a form of communication or merely the place where the information is stored is not totally understood! However, it is well understood, that memories are an intrinsic part of brain function and how those memories are encoded and stored, inevitably leads to the outcome! In relating this to the mind, I believe this better illustrates that mind, is the means by which memory, stored mostly at synapses, is transmitted into conscious awareness? In this context, conscious awareness is any action or behaviour, e.g. a word, a movement, a thought etc. While we are aware that things are also happening subconsciously, that only becomes a topic when we become aware of the subconscious processing!
Digressing for a moment and let's use dementia for illustrative purposes. At the onset of dementia, it starts by affecting explicit memory, people have difficulty in remembering recent events. It affects our ability to form new memories and, to varying degrees, impairs short-term, working memory, memory systems that rely on the hippocampus for retrieval and storage. Cognitive impairment mostly starts in the entorhinal cortex of the hippocampal region. That is why memory lapses are amongst the first major indicators of there being a problem! Dementia, as a general descriptor of cognitive disease, is a gradual and progressive condition. While similar memory lapses occur in retrograde and anterograde amnesia, the patient usually makes a full recovery from amnesia. In contrast to that, things learned via implicit memory systems, e.g. playing an instrument, driving or sport are seldom affected until much later in the disease. In creating an emotional/mental link, fear, as an emotion, is more closely aligned to implicit memory than declarative memory. Some emotional responses to threats are innate while others are learned by experience via observational and instructive learning. This is why conscious thought (mostly explicit memory), is rarely effective in controlling innate/learned emotional responses (implicit memory) using rational thinking, analysis or logical processes!
To continue. It's quite common for clients to say, I don’t know why I do this (ritual/habit/behaviour), I’m intelligent, I should be able to control my emotions. Why do I keep on behaving or responding this way? In a logical rational sense, they know what they should do; they just don't or can't do it! That said, it would be incorrect to claim the cognitive system to be totally neutral or ineffective! This is because thoughts can (via the feedback loop explained above), stimulate emotions. Having a frightening experience can potentially create an instinctive non-conscious fear response (fight or flight). At the same time, subsequent thoughts and self-reporting of that event can cognitively create a consciously framed emotional response. Albeit it is likely for there to have been some form of external or internal stimuli involved. Because emotions and thoughts are separate aspects of the same fear-provoking experience, it can lure us into believing that we can rationally and logically analyze them? Maybe we somehow believe we can change the behaviour in an intellectual or cognitive way? And while there may be some truth to that, basically this is wrong thinking! Through conditioning, thoughts alone are capable of arousing the emotion and, in time, thoughts can become part of the conditioned fear response. This is the method Ivan Pavlov developed, using a bell to make his dogs salivate, known as, classical conditioning! Thoughts can arise as a consequence of the emotional reasoning attached to language, in that, we can literally talk ourselves into fear! There is a famous saying, "whatever you do, do not think of a pink elephant". What comes to mind, of course, is a pink elephant! The rationale being, you just can't actually, not, think of something; without thinking about it!
So, where is the mind in all of this you may ask? Well, assuming my description is correct we have one mind, on two levels. One level we call the conscious and the other the subconscious or unconscious. Conscious thought is facilitated by working memory, a function of the frontal lobes, in conjunction with the cingulate gyrus, hippocampus and several other cortical and sub-cortical regions. Subconscious thought refers to aspects of everything else, memories, emotions, feelings; essentially it is thought without the awareness of it! That said, there is a vast difference between what we term the subconscious mind and subconscious neural processing, although anatomically, they are one and the same thing?. That means, that while we may have an awareness that our brain is functioning; we have no awareness of that actually happening! I've heard people say breathing is part of our subconscious mind. However, in the context of the way we think of the mind, I disagree with that. Whilst we can consciously control our breathing, in and of itself, breathing is mostly a function of the hindbrain. This is the most primitive part of our brain, which, as far as can be established, preceded conscious/subconscious thought! So basically, not everything that goes on out of conscious awareness is a function of a mind in the way we humans usually infer!
Over my many years as a therapist, I have developed ways to assist my clients to gain a better and more effective way of neural communication. Put simply I helped them to think in a way that better serves their emotional life experience. The evidence to support this is the many testimonials received from clients saying how I helped change their life. Although I am mindful, that realistically, at the end of the day, it is they who did the work!
One of the most profoundly satisfying aspects of being a therapist comes from helping clients make the changes they want in their life. At one level it appears this is achieved by working with these seemingly non-existent structures called the mind(s). But in reality, it a consequence of changes made at the level of individual and networks of cells within the brain! The philosophical mind is as much a function of the brain, as it is a description of the way we function? In either event, I believe it to be a symbolic system by which I help you implement and direct the way you choose to live your life. Once you learn to use and work with your whole brain/mind system, in such a profoundly non-instinctive way; the results can be truly Life-Changing!
So, on reflecting on the efficacy of therapy it's worth noting, because it's somewhat evidential, that therapy offers us an excellent opportunity to put the past behind us. If the past blighted a client’s mind and that was not the case following therapy; then therapy was likely instrumental in bringing about that change? Since I cannot medicate or operate and I certainly can’t change the past, I ask, what is it that promotes change? I believe it is a consequence of helping the client better utilise their whole brain/mind system. From a neurological perspective, we appear to be the outward manifestation of our inner (neuro)chemical experience at any given point in time. And that which we refer to as our mood or state of mind is consequential to the neurochemical soup and neural-networks that pervade. In a sense, it seems as if neither part of this brain/mind system can function fully, at least from a human perspective, without the other? Therefore, the whole brain/mind approach appears to have some validity after all!
Thom Bush. © Copyright 2020, all rights reserved.