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It's an odd paradox of therapy that we can help our clients become more consciously clear-sighted about themselves by helping them become aware of the unconscious, irrational impulses arising from the older regions of the brain. That's why openness to questioning one's assumptions—particularly when they're incorrect and self-defeating—is a key aspect of psychological mindedness and a predictor of a positive outcome in psychotherapy. We encourage clients to talk about their impulses with the hope that doing so will integrate the calmer, more reasonable, inhibitory cortical input of their brains with the regions organizing primitive urges. Psychotherapy takes a skeptical perspective when it comes to the "reasoned" output of our brains, understanding that our conscious thoughts, emotions, and self-imageare based largely on reactions and feelings totally outside of our awareness and often out of sync with our actual circumstances.
The Bias toward Anxiety and Fear
As we've seen, human survival, like that of all animals, is based on rapid and accurate decisions to approach what's safe and avoid what's dangerous. Therefore, we maintain some common anxieties—fear of spiders, snakes, open spaces, and heights—which appear to be hard-wired and linked to the survival requirements of our tree-dwelling ancestors. Because vigilance and rapid approach-avoidance reactions are central mechanisms of survival, cognitive therapist Aaron Beck postulated that evolution favors an anxious gene: natural selection probably weeded out our past relations who were too "laid back."
The core of the neural circuitry involved in fear and anxiety is the amygdala, a structure we share with our ancestors who only had to navigate their physical environments and basic social interactions. Unfortunately, these primitive fear circuits deep inside our brains still have a lot of power and are unable to tell the difference between real and imagined danger. We now have the capacity to experience anxiety associated with just about anything—from public speaking, to existential despair, to the thought of an asteroid striking the earth.