16 April 2011

The tip of the iceberg

I've hit a bit of a writer's block, but I've decided that I should post more often anyway, despite a lack of ideas, because perhaps that will keep people more interested in what I have to say. Of course, this isn't guaranteed. Anyway, I just chose a topic that is very related to the homework I've completed, and given myself some time to think about cognition and learning, the conscious and unconscious mind, and a few other things. It may be boring, but at least I found something to write about, eh?

We have thoughts constantly, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; some we are aware of, some we are not. This has been drawn out time and again by different psychoanalysts- Freud, Adler, Jung, Horney (the name of a psychoanalyst), Fromm, Sullivan, Erikson, Rogers, Allport, Eyseneck, Bandura, Skinner, Rotter, Mischel- beginning with Freud and his establishment of the id, ego, and superego, as well as conscious, preconscious, and unconscious thought- through the 20th century, the theory has been tweaked to include a certain thoughts and behaviours, as well as their associations with positive and negative consequences-and continuing to today, thoughts, feelings, and ideas have been tied to different outcomes, behaviours, and lifestyles.

If you think about it, it makes sense. I mean, how can you do or think something without your brain at least processing it in some manner first? You may not be aware of it, but your brain is constantly processing things, so often in the background, in your preconscious, where you're not aware of it. You're not aware of breathing, but your preconscious mind is doing the thinking about that for you. You walk, you talk, all controlled by the activity in your brain. Even more complex, you drive, you eat, you learn new things every day. You don't choose to do these things, "it just happens"....that's your preconscious's way of saying "Hey, I'm working up here, helping you out, yanno?" You breathe, chew, swallow, and move your mouth, arms, legs, and other parts of your body without technically cognitively thinking about it. It would be awkward if we had to tell our bodies what we wanted to do every time we had to move or do something. Thus, our preconscious and subconscious step in and take those activities over for us.

So when it comes to other cognitive things like communication, studying, daily activities of living, these same types of rules should apply. For example, in order to say something, positive or negative, right or wrong, your brain has to process the thought, and send the signal to your muscles to control mouth movement, and it has to recognise the coding and language, and turn it into communication. Never thought it took so much thinking, did you?

Even spontaneous things are thought about, even if only briefly, before they happen. Freudian slips, accidentally saying what is going through your head, your brain processes all that stuff. Impulsive shopping, or gambling, or any sort of addiction or any other type of problem you might have, they are all affected by your cognition and thinking.

Before I bore everyone and chase them away with the specifics of psychological methods of conditioning and making cognitive changes, I will bring up that in order to change your behaviour, you have to realise that your thoughts and behaviours are connected; the same applies if you want to change your thoughts. If you want to feel more positive, people often recommend using positive affirmation- saying positive things about yourself in front of the mirror until you believe them- to produce and reinforce positive thinking. If you want to change the way you treat someone or something, you have to change the way you think about it. It sounds complicated, and it takes a lot of work, but it can be done. I believe, in this modern society, that there are a lot of thought patterns and behaviours that can (and should) be made, mostly for the betterment of society as a whole. I just wish everyone was enthusiastic about learning about all this psychology stuff as I am. We need more therapists, more counselors, more people experienced in this "stuff"....because there are a lot of problems out there to be solved.

Notice that when I mention these things that I have learnt in psychology class, they have nothing to do with mental or mood disorders, but rather with the way people deal with and recognise their thoughts. What is learnt in psychology classes, mostly in the lower levels, has little to do with disorder, and much to do with how everything is connected together. Some people think that psychology classes teach people about mental health disorders and subsequently cause the psychology student to think something is wrong with them, but this is quite opposite to the truth. Very rarely does a intro to psych class spend more than a week or two on disorders- more time is spent on 1) very boring brain anatomy sessions, 2) Freudian psychoanalysis, 3) the development of classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and eventually cognitive-behavioural theory, with a few other things dumped in there such as dream studies, sexuality, examining behaviour, countering misleading theories that are popular, and learning about the profession in general.

[UPDATE:] Sometimes, it's coincidental that a mental health problem will arise, or a student will seek treatment, after taking a simple intro to psychology course. Sometimes age is a factor- I took my first psychology class when I was 17, almost 18- and the requirement for seeking treatment without your parents taking you is that you be an adult- aged 18+ in order to receive services. By this time, I had finished psychology. Purely coincidental. It's a false association simply because seeking treatment is related to age, not to what courses a person takes in school. Often, those under 18 will refuse to tell their parents about any symptoms, no matter how severe, simply because they think their parents will tell them their is nothing wrong, it is all in their head. Another response related to faulty thinking, simply because most teenagers don't talk to their parents about this stuff, and the parents become clueless. It's not quite their fault- how could they have known if nobody told them? Their unconscious and conscious don't seem to believe- due to lack of previous evidence- that anything could be askew. This is a point where one must question themselves on the level of information that they have, or have had, available to them, and study their responses. Sometimes, they may find something from the preconscious that they never realised- symptoms that they may have seen but never paid much mind to, for example- and realise that intro to psychology is so broad-based that one cannot base their entire behaviour and demeanour on what is learnt in that class.

Often, in psychology, the thoughts that you are unaware of, the ones that are instinctive, like the fight-or-flight reflex, or attraction to another human being, for example, are attributed to the unconscious mind, which is often unavailable to the person themselves, as compared to the conscious mind, which is visible and can even be analysed; this is often compared to an iceberg: What you see above water is just "the tip of the iceberg"....but that iceberg stands upon a great amount of ice that is hidden beneath the water, the part that isn't obvious when taken at face value. Our thoughts are much like that- there are the few that you can see, then there are the preconscious and unconscious thoughts that aren't quite as obvious, but they are the basis for your conscious thought. Some place the numbers at 10% of your thoughts being conscious, while the other 90% are unconscious (which includes the preconscious). So, 90% of the time, we are thinking in ways that we are unaware of, that occasionally spill over into our behaviour.

What does all this mean? Sometimes it's a bit scary to me to think that 90% of my thoughts I'm not even aware of, although some of them can be retrieved- with difficulty, from the preconscious, but still available. Most of my waking hours, and all of my sleeping hours, are spent in the unconscious! People see the 10%, and it's easy to judge someone when you think you see the whole picture, but upon seeing an iceberg, it's near impossible to determine the nature of the iceberg that is "below the water" so to speak. It's difficult to judge a person and their character by the things that they are cognitively and consciously aware of.

When I think about this, I wonder about the people in the world who are cruel, evil-spirited, and just flat out cold. How much of this part of their personality are they aware of? Do they realise the consequences for their cold behaviour? Do they realise the effect it has on those around them? This also leads to questions about what truly is cognitive thought, and what are those things we keep in our unconscious simply because that is where they are stored?

This leads me to follow the school of thought that we must all consider that most of what we do and say is not controlled by something that is easily seen or monitored, and can sometimes be completely off-base. Next time someone offends you, or says something a little strange, or even behaves a little strangely, take a moment to think about whether they really knew and realised what they were doing or not. Take a few minutes to think about the things that you may have consciously or unconsciously said or done in the past- and perhaps you'll be better able to understand people and their quirks, flaws, and the beauty that all people really have, even if it isn't self evident.

A lot of unconscious stuff can come out of dream studies, because this is when the unconscious is truly at its best. Everything done in sleep is unconscious- ever wonder why it's so difficult to remember exact details of most dreams the next day....even the good ones? That's your unconscious, typically. Some call this "repression," but I believe that sometimes, it's just something that begins and stays in the unconscious. With dream studies, people can analyse the things they see in their sleep, and they can begin to *attempt* to wrap their head around what's going on in their mind. The most they'll probably get is preconscious information, but it's worth an effort, since your sleep is, naturally, unconscious. Unfortunately, we can't always be aware of all of our dreams, so we just kind of have to live life flying by the seat of our pants, letting our unconscious take over when it needs to (such as for bodily functions like eating, breathing, swallowing, etc.), and just trying to understand things about ourselves, rather than judge someone else. After all, you're just seeing their tip of the iceberg, their conscious awareness of thoughts and actions.

So, what exactly does this have to do with anything? Well, there are a lot of people that have undesired behaviours that they'd like to change, but have little idea of how to do so. Perhaps realising that some of these are unconscious in nature, and need a bit more explanation, would help them to realise that significant changes take time, effort, focus, and, of course, patience. For example, a smoker may want to quit for quite a long time, but in their unconscious mind, they might be constantly thinking about it, whether they want to or not. Sometimes these thoughts push through to the conscious, and they reach for that cigarette. They don't usually understand why  the impulse is there, but it is extremely strong, especially when it comes to addiction treatment.

Are there any things you wish you didn't do, but you can't figure out why? Look to your unconscious. Any habits that you can't figure out the reason for? Look again to your unconscious. Any pervasive thoughts that you can't determine the source? Again, look to your unconscious. Since most of your instinctive thoughts and behaviours are rooted in the unconscious, it might be something that you just have to search yourself for, try to understand yourself.

Next comes classical conditioning- where a stimulus in a person's environment that was once neutral becomes a conditioned stimulus- that is, they associate an unrelated stimulus with an unrelated response. This is what that guy Ivan Pavlov toyed around with in his classical conditioning studies. He began to notice that even if he had not produced the food yet, the dogs began to salivate because they associated the sound of the bell with the deliverance of food. Bell! Food! Completely unrelated, but when the bell is paired with food, you can remove the food and the bell will still cause the dog to think you're gonna feed him. If you want to test this, go to a fish tank and take the top off like you're going to feed them. Chances are, they'll float to the top looking for food, simply because the lid is off the tank, although the lid is not something that is related to food in any way. These pairings are unconscious, and conditioning is fairly successful, if used in the right way. How are these things paired together? Unconscious thought. It often becomes so well conditioned that the person doesn't even realise hat they have been conditioned to think this way.

John B. Watson literally tortured a child by associating rabbits with a loud noise in the background- the child soon became afraid of rabbits, even though there is nothing about a rabbit or other small, cute furry creatures to be deathly afraid of. The poor child, Little Albert, became afraid of anything fuzzy- including beards and Santa Claus!!- before being returned to his parents. He was conditioned to associate loud sounds with rabbits, and therefore be afraid of them (I had to do a little research to find the name of the psychologist and child). This is a case of extreme misuse of conditioning and experiments that more than likely scarred the child for life- it is even rumoured that he committed suicide later in life, although I could not find any resources confirming this theory. What caused such trauma in this child, just from a rabbit and some loud sounds? The thoughts that connected the two, and the result was an intense fear of furry, fuzzy things, which is also related the thought- in his mind, the two were connected.

Then come operant conditioning and the reinforcement theories. Positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, extinction, punishment, token economies, to name a few. First note: anything that says "reinforcement" encourages a behaviour to take place more frequently. There is a difference between negative reinforcement and punishment, which took me 4 straight years to completely understand. Positive reinforcement, that's easy. Intrinsic and extrinsic rewards for a desired behaviour, which lead to an increase in that behaviour. Negative reinforcement and punishment are the kickers.

Negative reinforcement is when a behaviour is reinforced by removing some type of aversive stimulus. For example, a negative reinforcer for getting up in the morning could be the blaring of your alarm clock. I know for me, I'll do anything within my power to make the sound stop- including getting up and starting my day. Granted, I shouldn't need an alarm because my day starts so late (often after 11am), but the same principle applies (since I'm an insomniac, and waking up at 11am is actually cutting short my hours of sleep). The negative reinforcer is the aversive stimulus; removing this stimulus by getting out of bed and turning it off is the increased behaviour that results from the removal of this stimulus. You don't want to listen to your alarm clock blare for 2-3 hours....That's such an annoying thing! You'll do anything to get rid of it! Thus, it is a negative reinforcer, because it increases the behaviour of getting up when the alarm goes off.

Punishment, on the other hand, is a negative consequence resulting from an unwanted behaviour. Often, this is considered an ineffective form of operant conditioning- that is, punishment doesn't necessarily decrease the unwanted behaviour, especially if it is not paired with that behaviour. For example, if a pet receives a scolding 3 hours after taking a dump on a rug, the dog will not be exactly aware of what it is he is being punished for, and, not making the connection, will likely do so again. Besides, the scolding only lasts a short amount of time, right?

The theory is same with punishment with children. Granted, I have never had children of my own, but in my opinion (however biased it may be), punishment in the forms of spanking or yelling/shouting are ineffective. Often, the punisher comes way too late in the game, and is unlikely to keep the child from repeating the same act over and over. Parents may be unconscious of this lack of connection, as it is not uncommon to see a parent giving a spanking. The child receives a spanking, cries a bit, then later, repeats the same behaviour, and the parents wonder why. Alternatives like time outs immediately after a behaviour have been suggested, but not having children, I am unable to test this theory, and thereby unable to make any confirmations as to the efficacy of the time out. Some parents are extremely against it- spanking is the only way to get to their children's heads....or so they think.

Another possibility is extinction. This is where a behaviour, wanted or unwanted, goes without any reinforcement or punishment, and thereby decreases. Think about what people say about bullies. If you ignore them enough, they receive no satisfaction from their negative and cruel behaviour, become dissatisfied, and move on. If a behaviour is not reinforced or punished in any way, but rather ignored, it will go away over time. If you only lose at the slot machines, you'll tire of them very quickly, the only punishment being the loss of money. Of course, the positive reinforcer is the opportunity to win, but that doesn't happen very often. Basically, a behaviour can be extinguished, or made to go away, by the simple ignorance of the behaviour.

All of these theories have one thing in common- the thought that is associated with them. In order for any of these to work, a person has to make a connection- in their head- yes, using thought- in order to pair things together and take positive or negative thoughts from the situation.

In therapy, the primary goal is to change a person's thought patterns, because it is believed that neuropathology is related to the behaviours and thoughts a person exhibits. It is believed, and probably true, that if one can change their thoughts, they can affect the environment around them. If they begin to see authority figures as someone that wants to help- rather than seeing them as an overbearing and very intensely fearing them- they can conquer a fear, but they have to be able to recognise what is wrong with their thoughts, what kind of things they can do to change those thoughts, in order to change their behaviour and emotions around such authority figures. Surprisingly, this technique is extremely popular when working with people with severe problems who are trying to change the way they interact with their environment.

In social work, we sometimes use what is called PIE- person-in-environment- theory. This takes a person's environment into account, the effect the environment has on that person, and the effect that person has on their environment- to determine what type of intervention would be best for both that person and the environment around them. This is quite a strong theory, because people are often affected by what's going on around them, and tend to have an effect on those around them as well. When you can work with both, it typically results in a better outcome than if you had worked with one by itself.

Anyway, this is just a representation of some of the thoughts that have been passing through my idle mind, as I have actually not procrastinated, and finished several homework assignments. Apologies if it seems a bit scattered- I wrote it partially last night, and the rest today.


Anonymous said...

You're so lovely to stop by my blog. Thank you for your comments. I am so glad you liked my stories. I'm going to follow your blog now. I just finished my cousin do some of her psychology assignments for uni so I was almost able to keep up with the clever stuff you've written here. I look forward to learning more from you x

Anonymous said...

Excellent post! I think you've encapsulated the mission of this blog and our challenge.

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