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Recognizing and stopping inappropriate, non-consciously driven, lower-level behaviors frees us for conscious thinking, for pausing before acting, for affirming the values we want to live by.
About the Author
Articles in This Issue
Nature’s Best-Kept Secret and the Journey toward Wholeness
In my forty-five years as a psychiatrist, I have spent more than sixty-thousand hours working with individuals, couples, and groups. Each hour introduced different versions of troubled human expressions, such as conflicted relationships, difficulties with addiction, mood swings, pride, and other emotional imbalances. I realized that psychoanalysis was too lengthy and slow a process to effectively resolve many of these problems. I learned to use family and couple counseling and cognitive behavior therapies, all of which helped, but not enough.
About twenty-five years ago, I had a breakthrough in better understanding the nature of feelings, emotions, and beliefs and the significant role they often play in humanity’s destructiveness. My inspiration was psychologist-philosopher William James, who in the 1800s described the damage to people’s lives caused by addictive behaviors, particularly alcoholism. He also described some surprising conversion experiences that some of these addicts had which automatically stopped their addictions. They recognized that they were being destroyed by alcohol while at the same time realizing that religion offered an alternative, and better, way of life. This combination spontaneously produced what appeared to be a permanent and improved change of behavior.
James described it as an automatic conversion process rather than a change that was consciously willed, and he concluded that similar spontaneous transformations could be brought about in ways other than religious. An example he offered was life transformations that resulted from the sudden realization of the limiting nature of feelings and emotions. He cited Horace Fletcher, whose book Menticulture suggested that letting go of feelings and emotions could immediately lead to a better life.
Most forms of psychotherapy regard feelings and emotions as needing to be understood and dealt with through outside help. That we could simply let go of them meant that we could consciously stop unnecessary behaviors before they did damage and choose better responses. I realized that this was our human nature, though it wasn’t generally realized, and I integrated this new knowledge about feelings and emotions and how we can choose to control them into my practice. My patients began to achieve rapid, positive, transformative changes, which seemed to be lasting. I had no such dramatic results with any of the therapies I had previously employed. To help patients implement this new tool, I developed a set of principles called “My Daily Rules to Live By.”
Encouraging results led me to search for an even deeper understanding of the sources of the feelings and emotions whose effects were so often destructive. I studied ethology (the mechanisms of instinctive behaviors), genetics, and finally physics to broaden my knowledge of human nature. I found that instinctive behaviors, driven by feelings and emotions, are generated non-consciously in humans, as well as in other species.
Our Lower- and Higher-Level Selves
All of us have two basic levels of consciousness, two distinct selves. One, which I call our “lower-level self,” emanates from non-conscious sources and lives in our amygdala – in the primitive, lower portion of our brain. Its purpose and function are preformulated by innate design as well as by learned reactivity. This self is always observing and monitoring environmental threats and opportunities, which it recognizes automatically. It spontaneously evokes behaviors in response to these situations, which can be crucial when our survival is threatened.
The other self, which I call our “higher-level self,” is able to see the limitations of our instinctive, lower-level self. These limitations are based upon genetically designed instincts, whose ancient purpose of predatory survival is often maladaptive in present-day, civilized environments. This higher-level self, situated in the prefrontal cortex, is designed to (among other things) take time for conscious consideration of behavior. This conscious process has purpose and values, which can lead to behaviors that are consistent with our desires for personal, positive achievement.
The following points were instrumental in my discovering that we are two separate selves – one emanating from non-conscious, instantaneous reactions and the other able to take time to become conscious of present-moment reality.
1. Emotions occur outside of conscious awareness. Formed by nature, they are instantly available to react to provocation without needing conscious participation.
2. This reactive effect is instantly transformative. It is too fast a process for the mind’s conscious participation and perception, as well as related memories and cognition.
3. Recent functional MRI studies have shown that “attitudes” are also outside the reach of conscious awareness. They are automatically evoked non-consciously.
4. The amygdala, located in the primitive brain, has been shown to provide automatic recognition and emotional reactivity to stimuli. Its purpose of survival and avoidance of being prey is singular and amoral in nature. This purpose has been shown to be different, and even at times diametrically opposed, to those that are conscious.
5. Thus, an independent non-conscious system of perception and potential reactivity is constantly present in addition to our conscious prefrontal cortex–based system, in effect producing two separate selves.
Functional MRI studies of the amygdala show the implicit nature of its emotional reactivity. In one recent study (Stanley, Damian et al., “The Neural Basis of Implicit Attitudes,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 17, no. 2, 2008), emotion-based racial attitudes were shown to be completely outside of conscious awareness. Some of the subjects in the study were shocked to discover that they had unconscious prejudicial attitudes that were different from the accepting, inclusive attitudes they were conscious of and identified with.
Functional MRI studies also show that the amygdala is able to recognize and react to what flashes before the eye in as little as a tenth of a second, which is too quick for conscious perception. This virtually instantaneous recognition produces similarly reactive and instinctual behaviors that were present in our ancestors, who were instructed by the same DNA that we are. These reactions come not just from preexisting DNA instruction but also from previously learned beliefs. Instead of responding to a challenging situation from a place of conscious awareness, the lower-level self responds from a previously developed “script,” which does not rely on present-moment consciousness and can lead to inappropriate reactions and behavior. (For a twist on that notion, see “The Case of the Fear-Free Brain.”)
Recognizing and stopping inappropriate, non-consciously driven, lower-level behaviors frees us for conscious thinking, for pausing before acting, for affirming the values we want to live by. Being able to see higher- and lower-level processes simultaneously returns decisions to conscious awareness and control. We can then choose higher-level directed behaviors to achieve more constructive purposes and to serve higher values. Using this model in the “Daily Rules,” I have witnessed dramatic transformations in my work with couples and even with prison inmates.
Work with Couples
Typically, in the history of a troubled marriage, the partners start out with love and respect for each other. Each trusts that their spontaneous free expression is being heard and sympathetically understood by the other. When one is instead criticized or belittled, surprise and shock are experienced. This results in a dramatic change in which feelings of love can quickly turn to hate. This change occurs instinctively; it is not consciously willed.
In working with couples, I ask them to consider how trivial the issues usually were that brought about their lower-level transformation. With an awareness of how their impulsive behavior erased all memory of their love, they learn to stop themselves from acting on such issues and instead to see themselves and each other once again as they were – in love. Couples leave my office with knowledge of the nature of their two selves. They rediscover their loving and compassionate selves whenever they find they are losing it. Couples who follow the “Daily Rules” find that the depth of their love and a deeper understanding of self and other grow with time and are more spontaneously experienced.
Such dramatically transformative changes can occur in all relationships, which share many similarities even though circumstances vary significantly. Every human genome is largely the same, although there are enough variations to produce completely different forms of instinctive verbal and behavioral expressions in each individual. When we react to a different way of thinking as being wrong, either because it’s not the same as ours or is critical of us, it is our prideful reaction of impatience and anger that results in dismissive belittlement of the other person. This kind of reaction tends to escalate the disagreement, despite its usually trivial origin.
Once I discovered that the higher-level, conscious transformative experience within couples appeared to be lasting, I wanted to see if such dramatic changes could occur in people with severe antisocial behaviors.
Working with Prisoners
Nineteen years ago, I began to work with groups of domestic violence perpetrators and sexual pedophiles who were on probation. After six months of weekly sessions, with twelve men in each group, I reported the transformative results of my treatment at a scientific meeting dealing with psychological therapies for offenders. As a result, I was invited to do this work at a state prison, and I have been seeing groups there on a weekly basis ever since. The first groups of prisoners included men who were violent, mentally disturbed, or had addictive behaviors, to which mainline offenders were later added.
To begin, I say to them, “I would like you to take some time before you answer the following question: Do you want to do good and be a good person in your lifetime?” I ask them to take time to consciously consider how they want to be instead of immediately reacting with their usual spontaneous, instinctive reply, which considers only the present instant. The group is always quiet for the first ten or twenty seconds, then three or four of the men start nodding their heads affirmatively, slowly at first. Others say, “Yes.” One may say, “Of course.” These results have been remarkably consistent across numerous groups. About two thirds say “yes,” but no one says “no.” I ask if those who aren’t answering don’t want to be good; they respond that they don’t yet have an answer.
I go on to ask the group, “Then why did you behave in the very bad ways that got you into prison?” Their replies to this question are surprisingly realistic: “I have a bad temper.” “I’m a drug addict.” “Bad circumstances.” “I needed quick money.”
I then ask, “Does that mean that you are two different people depending on the circumstances? One of you wants to be good, and the other one reacts to situations by being bad?” The group isn’t quite sure how to respond. “Maybe we are” or “It seems that way” are common responses. And then there are a few who quickly become self-reflective: “I’ve really been evil!” “I’ve done a lot of bad things!” The tone is one of shock and remorse. When I hear these kinds of responses, I ask, “Didn’t you realize that before?” Their answers usually come down to, “I never thought about it.”
Surprisingly, I’ve found that prisoners generally believe their actions weren’t bad, no matter how destructive they actually were. Their lower-level self doesn’t see beyond the feelings, emotions, and beliefs that produced their instinctive actions. They are only aware of their reactive behaviors, which had been rationalized at the time to create a story in which their behavior was fully justified.
In considering my question of how they want to be in their lifetime, these men start to become consciously aware, perhaps for the first time in their lives, that they have options, that they can make choices. A different part of their brain, the prefrontal cortex, has been asked to think about their purposes and goals, and that may have never happened before. The prefrontal cortex has no direct connection to the amygdala brain, the source of their spontaneous and destructive behavior. The men often discover desires they didn’t know they had, and sometimes what they find is in conflict with those primitive drives. But by becoming aware of these two distinct selves, the conscious and non-conscious, they begin to understand the hidden nature of the lower-level self in triggering their damaging behaviors.
Tim, a thirty-year-old inmate who had been in prison ten years for murder and who had repeated violent incidents with other inmates and staff, began to attend one of my groups. In the third session, one of the inmates started angrily complaining how he wanted “to get even” with an unfair staff member. Tim, who had said very little in the first two sessions, apparently had absorbed my teaching, for he turned to the angry inmate and said: “Your problem is not his unfairness. The problem is in you. It’s your violent response to anyone who does anything that gets you angry. That’s going to happen all your life if you don’t learn to stop yourself.”
Tim’s discoveries had transformed his perspective. For the first time, he saw that the real source of his violence lived inside him and that therefore it was his responsibility to control. Knowing this, he consciously worked on taking control of his behavior. He had no violent episodes during the three years I had contact with him. The last time I saw him, he told me, “I’m always able to stop myself. Now I’m able to help a teacher in one of the classes here in prison. I’ve never been happier.”
In another group of violent men, a gang member named Joe, after learning about these different selves, raised a question: “How could I have believed that I was in a gang that was protecting my neighborhood from another gang, when I was actually selling them drugs and breaking their bones when they did not pay for them?” He could see for the first time that he had been motivated by a belief that his actions, even murder, were justified. He and other members of his gang had never known that taking time for conscious consideration could enable them to stop behaviors based on the misinformed conceptions of their lower-level self.
In the first session, I always distribute copies of the “Daily Rules,” which asks inmates to list their own damaging behaviors to remind themselves of what they urgently need to stop. A sexual predator knows he must make a permanent decision to never repeat his behavior. An addict must avoid being in places where temptation exists, or control his behavior when circumstances are challenging. A violent offender must learn how to stop his explosive anger before it damages others. After listing their behaviors, inmates start the practice of stopping themselves before acting on the impulses that have driven them. Many inmates have found that practicing the principles of the “Daily Rules” makes stopping their damaging behaviors something they can reliably achieve. Offenders who I encounter years after working with them in one of my groups are proud to report that they’ve successfully restrained themselves from repeating the actions for which they had been imprisoned.
Nature’s Best-Kept Secret
Many damaging behaviors are carried out repeatedly, even over a lifetime, because they rest upon unchallenged beliefs about the rightness of an action. The amygdala, which modulates feeling- and emotion-based beliefs, has been shown to be outside the reach of present-moment consciousness, hiding from us the awareness of its presence and actions. Nature designed our instinctive self to react automatically to achieve its essential purpose of survival and procreation. This is nature’s “best-kept secret”: how the primitive self (the amygdala) bypasses the time needed by self-reflective consciousness to ensure individual and clan survival. Although this design was an essential strength for the survival of our ancestors in the wild, it has become a limiting weakness when not consciously moderated in our efforts to become successfully civilized. And this non-conscious process is also in force when the perception of survival consists of psychological or emotional threats to our beliefs, self-respect, or our prideful sense of power and control. It is the instinctual response to such threats that have landed many people in prison – but we all have them. They can negatively affect our relationships and our ability to constructively meet life’s challenges.
When “nature's secret” is revealed or realized, it can have a transformative effect. Most of my patients are surprised to learn that their damaging behaviors were automatically and falsely rationalized by their lower-level self. Some experience regret and guilt even after they have learned that their behavior was non-conscious. This process is similar to what often occurs in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder: With the conscious understanding that was not present for their behavior in combat, soldiers experience deep depression at what they did, however unthinkingly and despite new knowledge that they were acting instinctively and appropriately at the time. When these realizations occur, it’s important for them to understand that these damaging behaviors had bypassed their conscious awareness. They can then more easily forgive themselves.
Becoming conscious of nature’s secret, which isolates our non-conscious behaviors from conscious scrutiny and denies us access to higher-level thinking and action, reveals the potential that it was hiding – the unrealized capacities that result from balanced, complementary, dual-mind function. When given the chance, our higher-level, conscious self realizes the narrow purpose of the non-conscious self and also that the two are parts of a whole, however independently they may act and however different their roles. We can then train ourselves to stop our damaging, reactive behaviors and adapt more appropriately to life’s daily challenges. Knowing the nature of these two selves enables us to direct our lives consciously. We can then choose to utilize the spark and passion of our non-conscious self to help fuel a newly conscious life purpose to be and do good every day of our lives.
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