Our Minds, Our Futures.
Author: Alexandrea Day Contributor: Lorelei E Walker, PhD MPH
“The most dangerous and misunderstood threat to humanity is the human mind,” according to an article in Quartz. The thesis posed suggests that while we have amazing innovations that have decreased poverty, improved education and lengthened life expectancy we have also created climate change, pollution, economic and social disruption, political polarization, misinformation, inequity, and large-scale conflict, all major challenges for humanity to overcome, arisen from it. These are the outcomes of the industrial revolution and globalization. Their solution is to look inward for answers to the most pressing questions of this time because they are about ourselves (Barr, Nathaniel, PhD, Pennycook, Gordon, 2018).
This speaks to the WHY of the Adaptive theory concept; why it is important. It demonstrates that our perceptions not only shape our own personal world, but they also create our collective experience and if humanity is going to continue, it must come to terms with the impact of its perceptions.
Modifying our perception is critical to reducing the suffering and poor outcomes caused by negative and stressful experiences. Stress-induced disease rates remain alarming. It is well established that emotional stress is a major contributing factor, if not cause, of the leading causes of death: cancer, coronary heart disease, accidental injuries, respiratory disorders, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide (Sallah, 2008). Reducing any physical and mental burden created by stress environments improves reasoning and our sense of well-being, but only when we experience life through a positive lens.
To back our claim, a Harvard Psychologist says, “Change those limiting beliefs you still have about yourself,” saying “we all have deep-rooted, deeply limiting beliefs about ourselves that just aren’t true” (Mautz, Scott, 2021).
The human operating system (HOS), a new term adopted by futurists, is what links our body, mind, and the rest of the world, similar to a computer operating system that provides an interface to engage with its hardware and software, to initiate a request, triggering a response. Extending this concept to how humans operate, the environment around us offers stimuli (request) that produce a behavior (response). This human response is triggered by emotion. The idea that emotion directly causes behavior, and moreover that that is the proper function of emotion, is well established in psychology. It has been asserted in various forms by many theorists (see Baumeister, Vohs, DeWall, & Zhang, 2007, for partial review).
What then triggers an emotion that has the power to produce behavior? Scientists have discovered that our emotions are often caused by our thoughts (Scherer, K. 2009). In Adaptive theory, these “thoughts” are defined as perceptions formed about previous experiences that quickly and successfully preserved life and limb (Day, Alexandrea, 2022). Perceptions establish predictability to reduce uncertainty. Mental healthcare professionals define stress as not having much or any control over the outcome of a situation causing uncertainty (Mind, 2017).
Sensory data informs the operating system, triggering a response. Stored previous responses are used to perfect the response in the future based upon continual recall and execution, reinforcing its quality. Hence, execution of existing programs supersedes original thought and may even be considered a “reflex” that bypasses the brain, initiated instead from the spinal cord (Cherodath, Dr. Sarika 2022). To support this concept, research has revealed that spinal cord lesions or injury reduce an emotional experience significantly leading to the probability that some emotional reactions exist outside of the brain (Hohmann, George W. PhD, 1996).
Not only is the stress response operating system common across all mammals, a more basic system is found in amphibians, reptiles, and even in insects, mollusks, and marine worms. Life did not need advanced processing or complex brain systems to successfully survive adverse conditions. It wasn’t a kind or easy life, but it worked for mostly everything still reproducing today. Our body’s stress response system is even more complex today and sits at the interface between perception-based negative behavior and chronic disease.
If we function in this way, it seems that humans are trapped in a behavioral response cycle to environmental stimuli across the workplace, in the grocery store or within a family. Yes and no. Humans operate better automatically based upon past experience, leaving cognitive processes to more important things. After all, why do we need to think about how to behave in a new way when it’s a repeated environment? The HOS does not care if it’s how to stand quietly scrolling through a mobile while waiting in a coffee shop for a latte, or a spouse nagging (again) about how commitments are not being met. It’s more efficient and it worked out last time so, wash, rinse, repeat. Psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West, postulate there are two systems in the mind, one operating automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control, and the cognitive operation for complex problem-solving (Frankish, Keith, Evans, Jonathan, 2009).
Cutting edge technology is advancing brain-based research and closing the knowledge gap on how humans have free will (agency) to defy their HOS root programming. In Adaptive theory, we can choose to operate differently from the past, but the stress response system (SRS) is triggered due to the threat of thinking vs. elegantly reacting spontaneously. After all, thinking about how to respond is slower, inexperienced, and cognitively assessed/determined to be risky. This heightened state is not comfortable, so humans typically drift back into conformity.
This repeated response is so common in our daily lives we are rarely conscious of it. For example, think about a repeated task you do, that is well-known. You don’t think about how to do it; you automatically do it while thinking about something completely different. However, if you get a phone call that interrupts you then you do need to consider (think) where you left off to continue. You then lapse back into task automation. The same occurs within relationships, especially with people we know well.
While the brain has many functions Adaptive theory only addresses the programming that is generated from an “emotional” experience involving a trusted source, repeated, and affirmed by peers or parents. This programming is used to produce reactive behavior to quickly respond to environmental stimuli, assessing threat, and delivering a learned response (experience). An example is hearing a gunshot pushes fear to consciousness and the body responds by ducking, running or freezing. The same can be said for being cut off in traffic, anger first, then the response (unique to each person depending upon their perceptions).
Given that the thesis of Adaptive theory is that humans are programmed to respond to their environment based upon past learned, successful responses, it stands to reason that 1) this programming can be re-programmed and 2) positive responses can be increased and negative ones can be decreased. In essence, there would be great value in being able to modify the flow of emotional reactions (Wright, 2017). Humans can create paradise or hell in their own minds. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,“ says Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
There is one more component to be discussed to truly understand the value of Adaptive theory, and thereby its therapeutic usefulness. If humans are programmed, then they exist in a state of homeostasis through conformity (predictable responses). What if that programming is inhibitive of one’s aspirations or the environment in which one finds themselves? What if someone can’t stick to their programming? Dissonance occurs from nonconformity to the programmed response, triggering the SRS. Following is an example:
- Homeostasis: A person trained to be seen and not heard enjoys their job working alone, i.e., as an accountant, solo truck-driver or writer.
- Cognitive Dissonance: A person trained to be seen and not heard experiences stress when required to present to others, socialize, or travel.
Long-term stress leads to disease. Scientific researchers have found that immune cells become insensitive to cortisol’s regulatory effect (known as the stress hormone). In turn, runaway inflammation is thought to promote the development and progression of many diseases (Carnegie Mellon University 2012). As a result, it is important to find ways to decrease chronic stress. So, how does a person who is programmed to be seen and not heard navigate this miss-alignment (past programming in conflict with present lifestyle)? There are three options; 1) Reprogram the perception, 2) change career from a traveling speaker to an accountant or 3) suffer (continually bombarded with stress that leads to disease).
Following is an example of how perceptions are formed:
- A child is raised in a family governed by patriarchy, and develops the belief, “Men are in charge.”
- If female, she will respond to the world in a subservient way to maintain homeostasis but if she elects to take the lead, or make decisions that impact men, she will experience cognitive dissonance, while consciously feeling something like, “embarrassed,” or “out of place.”
- If male, he will respond to the world in a dominant way to maintain homeostasis and if he is subservient, reporting to a woman or being led by one, inside or outside of the family, he will experience cognitive dissonance, and will feel something like, “walked on,” or possibly, “impotent.”
The above describes why change takes so long, a generation. It’s how we raise our children. The white male privilege is the result of programming, those privileged and those not, per the example above.
Can someone learn differently during their lifetime? We hope so, but new learning has a difficult time replacing strongly held beliefs because our identity is wrapped up in it. “The brain’s primary responsibility is to take care of the body, to protect the body,” Jonas Kaplan, a psychologist at the University of Southern California, tells us. “The psychological self is the brain’s extension of that. When our self feels attacked, our [brain is] going to bring to bear the same defenses that it has for protecting the body” (Kaplan, Gimbel, & Harris 2016).
There needs to be a great re-learning of a very simple concept to start us on a global healing path. Human behavior can be wrong, can be mistaken or fall short without one’s self being wrong, mistaken or short. This concept once learned and embraced could, in and of itself, change the world tremendously. Believing the opposite causes humans to rigorously maintain attached to their perceptions and are unable to change. If nothing else is taught in childhood, this one thing would change a whole generation.
With a common understanding of the stress response system and the ability to reprogram maladaptive behaviors that Adaptive Therapy provides, our communities and policymakers are equipped to modify and eliminate social conditions that elicit negative behaviors. This alone will have a sizable impact on health outcomes and well-being. When we are in changing conditions, we must also change to not only survive, but to thrive.
Beyond the automated responses from programming, we now turn our attention to: How do we reprogram the perceptions that drive emotional behavior? In Adaptive theory, re-programming requires removing the previous perception and overwriting it with what is desired. To accomplish this, we deconstructed how the human brain is programmed with perceptions from experience, by observing parenting behavior and the effect on children, advertising messaging, and the perception-encoding that occurs from authority figures that “empathize” with their target, and who repeat a mantra with strong emotion. It requires four elements and as mentioned already, a trusted source delivers the message with emotion, repetitively, and adoption happens faster if peers are on board.
Performing this reprogramming is also best suited for a relaxed, meditative state, repeating the statements a couple of times a day for two weeks.
Barr, N., & Pennycook, G. (2019, April 2). The most dangerous and misunderstood threat to humanity is the human mind. Quartz. https://qz.com/1306065/the-most-dangerous-and-misunderstood-threat-to-humanity-is-the-human-mind/
Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., Nathan DeWall, C., & Liqing Zhang. (2007). How Emotion Shapes Behavior: Feedback, Anticipation, and Reflection, Rather Than Direct Causation. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11(2), 167–203. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868307301033
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