We’re Less in Control Than We Think
By Brent Atkinson
At the tail end of a sweltering, humid Chicago day in 1993, I took my family to the community pool for a dip. As the children splashed gleefully, I sat nearby reading Robert Ornstein’s new book, The Evolution of Consciousness, unaware that my life was about to change.
Seven years earlier, I’d emerged from my doctoral studies utterly dissatisfied with existing answers to the question of why people continue to behave in self-defeating, irrational ways despite clear evidence that their methods aren’t working. Few questions were more important to the enterprise of psychotherapy, yet the answers at that time were highly speculative—running the gamut from unresolved childhood issues to low ego strength to family homeostasis to secondary payoffs, with little scientific evidence to support any of them. Deeply discouraged, I wondered if I’d chosen the wrong career.
From the first page of Ornstein’s book, it was clear to me that he was on to something new. Using hard neuroscience data, he proposed that we behave irrationally because our brains are simply not set up to produce rational behavior. Throughout history, he argued, we’ve been operating under a great deception—we tend to believe that our thoughts and actions result largely from our conscious intentions. In fact, while our rational mind has a degree of veto power, the inclinations that fuel our perceptions, interpretations, and actions primarily come from neural processes that operate beneath the level of awareness. The fact that most of us have fallen for the great deception isn’t our fault. Because we’re aware only of our conscious thoughts, we readily assume that they’re the prime movers in our brains. We’re a bit like the men in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, who think that because they consider themselves the “head of the house,” they’re in charge. But remember Maria’s famous quote? “The man is the head, but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants.” In the brain, nonconscious urges and impulses are the neck, and conscious thought is merely the head.
To support this idea, Ornstein cited the work of Benjamin Libet, the University of California San Francisco researcher who found that by monitoring brain activity, he could tell when subjects were going to initiate simple wrist-flicking movements before the subjects were aware of deciding to flick their wrists. Libet’s findings ran contrary to the way most of us experience ourselves. Most of us think, “When I move, it’s because I decided that I was going to move.” But Libet’s studies showed that impulse and inclination preceded conscious intention. It was as though somebody else in the subject’s brain decided when he or she would flick his or her wrist. Initially, Libet’s study stirred a storm of controversy, but over the next few decades, his findings would be replicated time and time again, with more and more sophisticated technologies, leading to him winning a Nobel Prize for his contributions.
The sun was setting by the time I reached the end of The Evolution of Consciousness. I hauled the kids out of the pool and herded them into the car. On the drive home, I remember thinking that if Ornstein were right, I’d need to rethink my assumptions about nearly everything concerning human behavior, including psychotherapy. For me, reading his work was a genuine eureka moment. But figuring out a way to actually use this new brain knowledge with my clients would turn out to be tough, painstaking work. Still, I decided that I was up for the challenge—if my clients were.
The Knee-Jerk Brain
Investigating the studies cited in Ornstein’s book soon plunged me into the work of other pioneering researchers in the as-yet-unnamed field of affective neuroscience. Researcher Antonio Damasio’s work played a key role in furthering my understanding of the power of automatic processes in the brain. Damasio studied the brains of people who’d suffered a unique kind of brain damage that had left their cognitive abilities intact, impeding only their ability to experience emotions normally. Despite testing that confirmed that all the building blocks of rationality were in place, these people couldn’t make effective real-life decisions. At first, Damasio was puzzled. Why would impairment in the emotional brain interfere with practical decision-making? He eventually realized that the emotional brain plays a crucial role in the machinery of rationality: the brain generates quick, gut-level emotional reactions that collectively serve as a guidance system for reasoning.
Until reading Damasio’s studies, I’d assumed that successful people were effective because they resisted the pull of their emotions of the moment and used reasoning to guide their actions. Damasio’s studies powerfully challenged this notion, suggesting that disciplined people are every bit as much influenced by emotional impulse and inclination as undisciplined people are. The difference is that their impulses are more balanced.
This was a revolutionary concept for me. I’d never considered the possibility that disciplined people took too much credit for their efforts. According to Damasio, a disciplined person was simply someone whose nervous system naturally generated a wider range of gut-level emotion reactions than an undisciplined person. Whereas undisciplined people are influenced primarily by the gut feelings they experience in the present moment (e.g., wanting to blow off a homework assignment and watch a movie), disciplined people are equally influenced by good and bad feelings generated while remembering the past (e.g., feeling bad remembering the grade reduction resulting from missing an assignment) or envisioning the future (e.g., feeling good in anticipation of a job completed).
Gradually, I began to accept the concept that conscious understanding and effort weren’t the mighty forces that I’d assumed they were and that automatic urges and inclinations were much stronger than I’d ever imagined. In fact, confirming evidence seemed to pop up everywhere. In my therapy practice, I began to notice the wide range of my clients’ natural inclinations. I saw some people naturally plunge into rumination whenever they got upset, while others let go and refocused with relative ease. Some naturally experienced an abundance of feelings of warmth, tenderness, and playfulness, while others rarely had these feelings—even when life was going pretty well. Some intensely felt a measure of what others were feeling, while others could only infer what people were feeling from their words and actions. The list went on.
Just as the Cookie Monster couldn’t decide one day that he liked broccoli more than Oreos, the apparently automatic reactions that determined how people behaved in these areas seemingly couldn’t be changed at will. Such behaviors appear so deeply ingrained that they seem to be part of our second nature. Nevertheless, they wield tremendous influence on the quality of our lives. People who tend toward knee-jerk defensiveness don’t function as well as those who respond less defensively: they’re impervious to corrective feedback, and their partners regularly feel dismissed. Likewise, people who don’t feel much affection toward others seem to have more trouble forming close relationships than people who experience loving feelings freely.
Up to this point, most of my therapeutic efforts had been focused on helping clients develop better understandings of their lives and, as a result, make better choices. I’d wanted to help them live more consciously, but my confidence in the effectiveness of awareness and effort was waning. With my new understanding of the brain, I knew gut-level inclinations were more likely to sit in the driver’s seat, and the most that our conscious, willful selves could do was to try to influence these inclinations from the back seat, unless—and this was a big unless—there was a way to retrain the emotional brain.