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Sandeep Gautam is a psychology and cognitive neuroscience enthusiast, whose basic grounding is in computer science.

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Finite nature of human control and the Existential Givens


In one of the earlier posts we looked at the four existential givens and linked them to the ABCD model. I also related them to personality and emotions here.  To recap, the four existential givens,  are:

  1. Life (vs death): We all live, yet we also all know that one day we will die.
  2. Freedom (vs determinism): We are in charge of (some of) our actions, and yet we are also driven by outside forces.
  3. Community (vs isolation): Man is a social animal and yet one is alone in one’s personal private experiences.
  4. Meaning (vs absurdity): Life seems to be endowed with meaning (and worth living), yet the universe seems incomprehensible, apathetic and absurd.
Towel with the words "Don't Panic" o...

Towel with the words “Don’t Panic” on Towel day (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not navigating the contradictions inherent in these existential givens successfully, leads to conflicts and gives rise to anxiety, depression, guilt and even rage. And yet we know that we can not transcend/overcome these ultimate concerns, but have to learn to live with them.

At root these problems are problems of control, especially the desire for control, while being limited by human capabilities and potentialities. At the one hand we are seriously limited and on the other hand we do have a great potential; and yet our control over these conditions of our life are not infinite, but very much finite and limited.

Let me explain. At core, these problems are respectively problems of control over our bodies, over self, over others and over our understanding of the world. To elaborate,

  1. Death/Life: We have finite control over our bodies and their lifespan. We can prolong life, but never get rid of the fact that one day we will die. We may try to symbolically live forever by making contributions to the world, but that too is ephemeral on the scale of historical time. We are confronted with the finite nature of our existence. And to resolve this, we have to come to terms with our non-being to fully appreciate and indulge in being! To live fully one must first confront death. Despite the fact of our eventual non-being we choose to be! and this is a non-trivial fact. As a matter of fact, Camus started ‘Myth of Sisyphus‘ with this quote: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”
  2. Determinism/Freedom: We have finite control over our own self and its actions. We can exercise free will to an extent, but never get rid of all the different form of conditioning, learning and genetic and other factors that drive our behavior. We are confronted with the finite nature of our agency. And to resolve this, we have to get in tune with our underlying genetics, upbringing etc, to become more self aware and thus more free/ effective. To exercise one’s will fully, one must first leverage and comprehend the outside influences. Can you choose your environment so that in future it elicits out your desired behavior? Despite the fact that all our actions are not under our conscious control, and are driven largely by unconscious (and possibly deterministic) processes, we persist in making our choices. As the famous interaction between Smith and Neo goes: “Smith: Why, Mr. Anderson? Why, why? Why do you do it? Why, why get up? Why keep fighting? …….Why, why do you persist Mr. Anderson?  Neo: because I choose to.”
  3. Isolation/Community: We have finite control over others and how deeply we can relate with them. We can feel connected to some people, at some times, but not to all people at all the times. We have a desire and a need to merge for the common good, expressed in the form of love, and yet an instinct to remain separate and alienated from others, especially when our love is not reciprocated. We are confronted with the finite nature of our vulnerability and ability to reach out. And to resolve this we have to come to terms with our separateness, by getting unhinged from the actions of others , but still putting our best foot forward, we can create positive relationships. To create truly powerful and positive relationships, one has to not think in terms of merging/ dependence/reciprocity,  but move to a space where one is a specific individual in intimate relation to another individual and caring about that individual. By discovering our individuality, we create stronger bonds! Despite the fact of our remaining separate individuals, we choose to love and work towards common /shared identities. Love and community and deep bonds is paradoxically about no bonds. As Richard Bach says: “If you love someone, set them free, if they come back, they’re yours, if they don’t, they never were
  4. Meaning/Absurdity: We have finite control over our knowledge of the world and of whether things make sense, and if so how? We can find correlations and causal relations between a few things in the world, but there are things that happen randomly, unpredictably or by pure luck/ chance. We have a burning need to make sense of things (after all this sense making makes us predict and thus survive), and yet our intellect also makes us acutely aware of the meaninglessness, randomness or absurdity of the things in the larger scheme of things. We feel special and unique and yet know that we are a mere speck in the universe. We are confronted with the finite nature of our ability to know and comprehend. And to resolve this, we have to come to terms with the absurdity of life/universe. Once we discover that life/ world around us may not have any inherent meaning, its left upon us to endow life with meaning and significance. Despite the fact that things don’t make sense, the fact that the world may be random/ insane, we still choose to be sane and consistent. As Douglas Adams mentions in ‘Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy‘ we need extreme amounts of sanity when confronted with absurdity of our position :” And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex — just to show her. And into one end he plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it. To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.”
English: 42, The Answer to the Ultimate Questi...

English: 42, The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life according to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. ???????: 42, ????? ?? ??????? ?????? ????? ? ???????????? ?????????? ?? ?????????. Deutsch: 42, die Antwort auf die große Frage nach dem Leben, dem Universum und dem ganzen Rest, bezogen auf Per Anhalter durch die Galaxis von Douglas Adams. Italiano: 42, La risposta Fondamentale alla Domanda sulla Vita secondo la Guida galattica per gli autostoppisti. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the end I would like to end with two quotes: One from Camus: “It was previously a question of finding out whether or not life had to have a meaning to be lived. It now becomes clear on the contrary that it will be lived all the better if it has no meaning” and the other a popular anonymous quote: “Relax. nothing is under control.” 

It is only by coming to terms with our finite control, and the possible meaninglessness of it all, yet being driven by our potentialities, that we can hope to live a good life!

Between the Stimulus and the Response: the four functions of the Mind


“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Victor E Frankl

Schematic of an idealized analytical instrument.

Schematic of an idealized analytical instrument. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In today’s post I will be drawing heavily from the spiritual traditions of India (Yoga etc), and interested readers are redirected to these excellent sources for more information about the same.

As per the spiritual tradition of India, Mind (or Antahkaran) is made up of four functions or parts. These are Manas, Chitta, Ahamkar and Buddhi. These are typically translated as sensory-motor mind, memory bank, ego and intellect respectively. As an interesting aside, Buddha derives from the common root of Buddhi (budh- to know) and stands for the enlightened one.

Here is a brief description of the four functions:

Manas is ordinary, indeterminate thinking — just being aware that something is there and automatically registers the facts which the senses perceive.


The subconscious action, memory, etc., is caused by chitta. The function of chitta is chinta (contemplation), the faculty whereby the Mind in its widest sense raises for itself the subject of its thought and dwells thereon.


Buddhi determines, decides and logically comes to a conclusion that something is such-and-such a thing. That is another aspect of the operation of the psyche — buddhi or intellect. buddhi, on attending to such registration, discriminates, determines, and cognizes the object registered, which is set over and against the subjective self by aha?k?ra.


Ahamkara — ego, affirmation, assertion, ‘I know’. “I know that there is some object in front of me, and I also know that I know. I know that I am existing as this so-and-so.” This kind of affirmation attributed to one’s own individuality is the work of ahamkara, known as egoism.

There is also a hierarchical relation between these with Buddhi at the top and Manas at the bottom. Now, lets look at each of these more closely.

Manas, or sensory-motor mind, is not just registering stimulus but also responsible for executing actions and may be equated with the sensory/ motor cortical functions of the brain.  It controls the 10 Indriyas (5 senses and 5 action-oriented faculties). Its important to note that Manas is doing both the functions associated with stimulus as well as the response,  though its the first one when it comes to stimulus processing (registering the stimulus)  and the last one when it comes to executing responses/actions ( it blindly executes the action that has been decided / chosen upstream). Of course one could just have a reflex action where a stimulus leads to response, but in majority of human action, there is a space between the two. That space is provided by the rest of the mind functions.

Chitta, or memory-prospecting mind, may be typically equated with the association cortex part pf the brain. Many refer to chitta as the memory or impressions bank, but forget to mention the future oriented part of it. Here is a quote:

The part of the Mind thinking and visualizing the objects, events and experiences from the past or the future (emphasis mine) is called the Chitta and this act is called Chintan.

Its thus evident that Chitta drives Manas not only based on past memories, but also based on future expectations or predictions. From brain studies , we know that the same part of the brain is used for memory as well as prospection.  Chitta using past memories to drive manas (and thus behavior or motivated cognition) I view as being conditioned by classical conditioning processes. Chitaa using future expectations/ predictions to drive behavior and motivated cognition, I view as being conditioned by operant conditioning processes. In many philosophical and spiritual traditions, one of the aims is to get over (social) conditioning. Chitta hinders spiritual awakening by using habits, which is an integral pat of chitta function. The habits are nothing but the conditioning, but again one in stimulus path and the other in response/action path.

Ahamkara, or experiential-agentic self, may be typically equated with consciousness/ conscious and ego-driven self. It knows and say ‘I am’  Conscious entities typically have two functions- experience and agency. It is something it is to be like that conscious entity (experience) and the entity has volition or ability to do things (agency). The concept of self as a conscious entity that has experience (in the stimulus path) and agency (in the response/ action path) is important for this notion of ahamkara. With self comes concepts like real self and ideal self which drive and are driven by experience and agency respectively. The less the discrepancy between the two the better your spiritual growth. An interesting concept here is that of coloring or external decorations- your coloring or how you see your self do lead to downward impact on chitta and manas by contaminating the stimulus/ action.

Buddhi, or knowing-deciding mind, is the final frontier on your path to spirituality.  The typical functions associated with Buddhi are knowing, discriminating, judging and deciding. I think knowing/ discriminating (between stimuli/ actions etc) is a stimulus path function, while judging/ deciding (between actions/ responses/ attending to a stimuli) is a response path function. However I also believe they converge to a great extent here or else we will have a problem of turtles all the way down. Once you start to see things as they are, you are also able to choose wisely. At least that is what the scriptures say and what Boddhisattvas aspire or achieve.

To me this increasingly fine-grained control of what we perceive and how we act , from the gross actions and perceptions of manas to the discriminating decisions of buddhi are very intuitively appealing and also appear to be grounded in psychological and neural processes.

Mindfulness (Buddhism based) has become all the rage nowadays, yet if we look at the spiritual traditions of India, perhaps while Yoga defined as Chitta vritti nirodaha (or “Yoga is the silencing of the modifications of the mind”) does refer to being in the present (here-and-now) and not to be disturbed by the perturbations of chitta (memories of past or expectations of future), one also needs to go beyond just Chitta vritti, to addressing the Ahamkara coloring and finally to try achieving the Buddha nature where there is little disparity in doing and being. (Mindfulness) Meditation needs to move beyond being curious, non-judgemental  and in the present to where one doe shave a judgement function, but one that is perfectly attuned.

Happier @ Work


I maintain a separate blog at Flourish Mentoring, which is dedicated to positive psychology based leadership and educational engagement topics. There I recently posted a series of 10 blog posts that are designed as mini-lessons (between 600-800 word each), all focused on being happier @ work.

I’m cross posting the links from that course here. Hope you enjoy reading the ten mini-lessons and are able to apply it to your work life.

Collected below are links to all the ten mini-lessons:

  1. Why Happiness (at Work)
  2. Helpful tips to be happier @ work
  3. Creating a positive, gratitude filled culture
  4. Finding meaning in work
  5. Orientation towards work and job crafting
  6. Remaining motivated at work
  7. Optimistic and Positive attitude
  8. Setting powerful goals
  9. Discovering and deploying strengths at work
  10. Leading positively

Do let me know how you liked the posts and whether you would like to see more of such themed collection of posts in the future?

Emotions and Personality : take 7


Today I want to approach the question of emotions and personality from an existential lens. In my last post I alluded to the existential givens and you can read more about them here [pdf].

English: Emotions associated with sadness

English: Emotions associated with sadness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To recap, here are the contradictions or tensions that these existential givens give rise to:

This paper considers four existential challenges:
1) Life (and death). We are alive but we will die, and we live a world that both supports and negates life.
2) Meaning (and absurdity). We have a conscious capacity and desire for
meaning, but we live in a confusing and sometimes chaotic world that offers many meaning systems and also denies meaning.
3) Freedom (and determinism). We are free and determined, and we live in a world that allows and constricts our freedom.
4) Community (and aloneness). Human desire and capacity for authentic relatedness are countered by inauthenticity, alienation and loneliness.
For the personalty traits I will be referring to Cloninger’s temperament traits. For the emotions I will be referring to the eight Rasaas framework.
Consider Death (and life). The mere thought of death causes fear, while you need courage to live despite knowing that one day you will eventually die. Navigating this existential given, leads to the emergence of polar emotions of fear and courage. This also leads to existential as well as normal anxiety. This system has a neural basis as in the Avoid system, which may be associated with Serotonin system.  Also sensitivity to this given, results in the personality trait of Harm Avoidance. To recap:

Individuals high in HA tend to be cautious, careful,fearful, tense, apprehensive, nervous, timid, doubtful,discouraged, insecure, passive, negativistic, or pessimistic even in situations that do not normally worry other people. These individuals tend to be inhibited and shy in most social situations. Their energy level tends to be low and they feel chronically tired or easily fatigued. As a consequence they need more reassurance and encouragement than most people and are usually sensitive to criticism and punishment. The advantages of of high Harm Avoidance are the greater care and caution in anticipating possible danger, which leads to careful planning when danger is possible. The disadvantages occur when danger is unlikely but still anticipated, such pessimism or inhibition leads to unnecessary worry.


In contrast, individuals with low scores on this temperament dimension tend to be carefree, relaxed, daring, courageous, composed, and optimistic even in situations that worry most people. These individuals are described as outgoing, bold, and confident in most social situations. Their energy level tends to be high, and they impress others as dynamic, lively, and vigorous persons. The advantages of low Harm Avoidance are confidence in the face of danger and uncertainty,leading to optimistic and energetic efforts with little or no distress. The disadvantages are related to unresponsiveness to danger, which can lead to reckless optimism.

Consider on the other hand, Freedom (and determinism). The possibility of being free agents leads to wonder, surprise and novel behavior; while the possibility of being determined, at the other hand, fills us with disgust. This leads to polarity of Disgust-Surprise. Its my assertion that this state is associated with schizophrenic psychosis. This system has a neural basis in the Approach system, which may be associated with Dopamine system. Also sensitivity towards this given results in personality trait of Novelty Seeking. To recap:

Individuals high in Novelty Seeking tend to be quick-tempered, excitable, exploratory, curious, enthusiastic, ardent, easily bored, impulsive, and disorderly The advantages of high Novelty Seeking are enthusiastic and quick engagement with whatever is new and unfamiliar, which leads to exploration of potential rewards. The disadvantages are related to excessive anger and quick disengagement whenever their wishes are frustrated, which leads to inconsistencies in relationships and instability in efforts.


In contrast, individuals low in Novelty Seeking are described as slow tempered, indifferent, uninquisitive, unenthusiastic, umemotional, reflective, thrifty, reserved, tolerant of monotony, systematic, and orderly.

Now consider Loneliness (and community). While existential loneliness give rise to rage against the universe, the sense of community is made possible and engenders feelings of love. Thus the emotional polarities relevant here are Anger-Love. Its again my thesis that this is associated with bipolar sensitivity. This system has a neural basis in the Attach system, which may be associated with Norepinephrine system. The personality trait associated will be Reward Dependence. To recap:


Individuals who score high in Reward Dependence tend to be tender-hearted, loving and warm, sensitive, dedicated, dependent, and sociable. They seek social contact and are open to communication with other people. Typically, they find people they like everywhere they go. A major advantage of high Reward Dependence is the sensitivity to social cues, which facilitates warm social relations and understanding of others’ feelings. A major disadvantage of high Reward Dependence involves the ease with which other people can influence the dependent person’s views and feelings, possibly leading to loss of objectivity.


Individuals low on the Reward Dependence are often described as practical, tough minded, cold, and socially insensitive. They are content to be alone and rarely initiate open communication with others. They prefer to keep their distance and typically have difficulties in finding something in common with other people. An advantage of low Reward Dependence is that independence from sentimental considerations.

Lastly consider absurdity (and meaning). When confronted with the absurdity of life, the pointlessness of it all, our natural reaction is to become sad and depressed. On the other hand, if one is able to find or bestow meaning to one’s everyday acts, one lives with joy in his or her heart. This leads to polar emotions of Sadness and Joy and failure to navigate this existential given properly results in depression. The system associated with this may be called the Achieve system (all achievements being steps to endow life with essence). The personalty system associated here is Persistence. To recap:

Individuals high in Persistence tend to be industrious, hard-working, persistent, and stable despite frustration and fatigue. They typically intensify their effort in response to anticipated reward. They are ready to volunteer when there is something to be done, and are eager to start work on any assigned duty. Persistent persons tend to perceive frustration and fatigue as a personal challenge. They do not give up easily and, in fact, tend to work extra hard when criticized or confronted with mistakes in their work. Highly persistent persons tend to be ambitious overachievers who are willing to make major sacrifices to be a success. A highly persistent individual may tend to be a perfectionist and a workaholic who pushes him/herself far beyond what is necessary to get by.High Persistence is an adaptive behavioral strategy when rewards are intermittent but the contingencies remain stable. However, when the contingencies change rapidly, perseveration becomes maladaptive.


When reward contingencies are stable, individuals low in Persistence are viewed as indolent, inactive, unreliable, unstable and erratic on the basis of both self-reports and interviewer ratings. They rarely intensify their effort even in response to anticipated reward. These persons rarely volunteer for anything they do not have to do, and typically go slow in starting work, even if it is easy to do. They tend to give up easily when faced with frustration, criticism, obstacles, and fatigue. These persons are usually satisfied with their current accomplishments, rarely strive for bigger and better things, and are frequently described as underachievers who could probably accomplish for than they actually do, but do not push themselves harder than it is necessary to get by. Low scorers manifest a low level of perseverance and repetitive behaviors even in response to intermittent reward. Low Persistence is an adaptive strategy when reward contingencies change rapidly and may be maladaptive when rewards are infrequent but occur in the long run.

So my latest thinking based on different strands, ranging from existential strands to evolutionary considerations, seems to indicate that there are four basic emotional polarities and four basic temperaments.

These are summarized below:

  1. Harm Avoidance: Fear-Courage
  2. Novelty Seeking: Disgust-Surprise
  3. Reward Dependence: Anger-Love
  4. Persistence: Sadness-Joy

Of course, this leaves the question of what happens to the 3 (extended to 4 by me) character traits listed by Cloninger in his TCI. That and four new polar emotions family is the subject of a new post!!

ABCD and the Existential Givens


Long-time readers of this blog will be familiar with my ABCD model of psychology whereby I parse phenomena along 4 dimensions- Affective, Behavioral, Cognitive and Drive/Dynamic in nature.

I have also posted elsewhere about the four major goals of life. To recap, I believe that all humans are driven by these four major goals- Happiness, Success, Meaning and Integrity. If the parallels to ABCD are not obvious let me make it explicit.

The route to Happiness is via maximizing Positive Affect and minimizing negative Affect. Success is achieved by actively indulging in Behavior and by being engaged with the task at hand; Meaning is cognitively constructed and Integrity or morality at its core is about motivations or Drives.

All the above is more or less situated in the positive psychology paradigm, and the new Positive Psychology 2.0 looks beyond positivity to include existential concerns.

Now, I have been fascinated by the existential philosophy for quite some time, and have also explored its application to psychotherapy by Irwin Yalom etc. As per Yalom, we all must face up and try to resolve these four existential givens: Death, Isolation, Freedom/ responsibility; and Meaninglessness. All these are facts of life and we have to come to terms with them.

Death is inevitable; we can never truly get into the skin of the other, so existential loneliness also has to be dealt with; we are free to choose how to respond and that places a heavy burden of responsibility on us- we have to take ownership for our actions/ inaction;  finally given the cosmological perspective, our lives are perhaps meaningless- if anything we are burdened with providing an essence to our life(existence) , rather than otherwise.

Existential thinking is heavy stuff; but I guess all of us, start pondering such questions even when we are a small child; and continue revisiting them again and again, refining our tentative answers and resolutions to questions like these.

In the British school of existential therapy (cooper/Van Deurzen), these givens are seen as predictable tensions and paradoxes of the four dimensions of human existence, the physical, social, personal and spiritual realms (Umwelt, Mitwelt, Eigenwelt and Überwelt).

I find that fascinating. To me there appear to be two dimensions- one personal (Freedom/responsibility) vs interpersonal/ social (Isolation/ loneliness)  and the other Material/ physical (Death/ finitude/ embodiment) vs Spiritual/ psychological ( Meaninglessness/Un-Known). One has a focus on self , the other focus on others; the third a focus on the physical world, while the fourth is concerned with the spiritual realm.

And its easy to relate it to the ABCD/Four major goals of life:

The thoughts about Death (Physical) lead to embodied affective responses that can impact Happiness. Your behavior with others, whether you are able to connect authentically or not, determines your existential Isolation and loneliness (interpersonal) The interpersonal domain is also where you are able to taste your true Success/ Status. The drive towards personal Responsibility and freedom (personal) makes you moral and retain integrity. The recognition of oneself as a being striving for meaning, and impact in the real world, makes you paradoxically a spiritual person.

I like this marriage of Positive psychology and Existential Psychology and wish more and more people are driven towards the PP2.0 movement!

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