Author Archives: sandygautam

About sandygautam

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

Optimizing Your Life

Long time readers of this blog will know that I am enamored by psychology, especially that, which can be put to practical use. While I have developed some expertise in psychology, especially positive psychology, I have always been pondering whether I have been able to apply it equally well, and that too at scale.

As a matter of fact I left a very high paying (and satisfying) job in software industry to venture forth on my own as a strengths coach, working with professionals and students and am currently scaling that part of my life, poised to create massive impact. Living a self actualized and optimal life, that is causing ripples of positive impact, is a dream I aspire to.

Along the way, to practice more deeply what I preach, I have tried 365 days of gratitude journey for myself (which I discontinued after 3 months) and writing 90 days 90 sonnets challenge for myself – all in the hope that I will finally get over my limitation of not being consistent. If you have followed The Mouse Trap over the years, you would know that writing consistently has never been my forte.

All that is about to change! One person I have admired for his consistency (and quality) of output is Brian Johnson. Over the years I have kept track of how he has produced good quality content day in and day out. And I just enrolled into his Optimize Mastery Program (starting Jan 3rd) which he has made available for $300 (as opposed to regular price of $1000) along with an option to bring a friend for FREE. And I would recommend that you too sign up here. I really hope to become more consistent and make everyday of 2022 and beyond a masterpiece day. I’m sure that would reflect in the frequency of my blogging too.

You may be struggling with some other issue; maybe you need help with other areas of your life, maybe you need to get your sleep routine or eating routine settled. Do check out what would be covered in the Optimize Mastery class here (scroll down for syllabus outline).

What’s more, if you think this is something you are not ready for or willing to invest in, you can sign up for Optimize premium lifetime membership for FREE here. There are no catches; no credit cards required etc etc . 600 + Personal-growth books, summarized as PhilosopherNotes, 101 classes and byte sized +1 videos, all around achieving personal mastery. Do check it out here.

Brian’s credo has been moving from Theory to Practice to Mastery and I am so looking forward to moving up the value chain. The Optimize Mastery program is a 300 day program scientifically proven to help you be the best version of yourself. Sonja Lyubomirsky’s lab was involved in its validation.

So what are you waiting for? You can sign up for the $300 Optimize Coach/Mastery program here and the FREE Optimize premium program here.

Full disclosure: These are affiliate links and I will get a commission if you sign up, but if you are a long term reader of The Mouse Trap you will know that I have rarely promoted a product/service (including my own:-) ) here and wont do it if I wasn’t convinced it would benefit my readers.

The Mouse Trap is not Retiring (and remains available on old domain)

Update: With generous help from Rob Capili, I have switched my hosting service provider and The Mouse Trap blog remain available at the-mouse-trap.com. Accordingly, references to the wordpress.com blog has been deleted from below to avoid confusion. The original post follows with slight modification.

The posts on The Mouse Trap are my life’s work- for a long time I derived my identity as a psychology blogger- however that phase of my life is sort of coming to an end, or at least pausing for a while. I have been more and more inconsistent when it comes to blogging. I am moving the-mouse-trap.com to a new host. The new blog may or may not have new posts, but it will serve as an archival home to my earlier psychology blog. I would encourage those who are old timers to bookmark the new blog, just in case I do write on it again…

I had recently deleted my twitter account too; I am still available on Facebook and the new The Mouse Trap posts will still be available on the old TheMouseTrapBlog Facebook page. I will try migrating the feedburner feed also to new blog. For those who might drop in the process my apologies in advance. For the rest who continue to remain associated, I remain forever indebted- they made The Mouse trap on of the top 100 science blogs in the world at its Prime and me personally as top 100 psychologists (though I don’t qualify as a psychologist) on twitter lists by say BPS. In a textbook on citation, one of the Mouse trap blog posts link was chosen as an example of how blogs should be cited- I apologize to the authors as they will probably need to revise or end up with a broken link.

I have got a lot of love as the blog author and made wonderful connections and friends in the process, so its with a slightly heavy heart that I decided to do this transition. The Mouse Trap was never commercially viable but still I kept financing it , because it was never about the money. However, with my current blog hosting provider, I’m unable to renew my hosting account due to technical reasons and that has prompted me to rethink and reevaluate and come to this alternate arrangement. I know I will lose a lot of search traffic, and I’m truly sorry for the 200/300 daily users who visit the mouse trap using organic search- as they may suddenly lose that source of information/ knowledge/ hopefully wisdom. If anyone knows how I can redirect search traffic to the new blog that would be awesome.

Take care and by for now!

ABC of emotions

All of psychology can be summed up as a combination of Affect, Behaviour and Cognition. Emotions are affect proper, but being in an affective or emotional state also carries along with it certain changes in behaviour and cognitions. For eg, an angry person not only feels angry but also behaves in an aggressive manner and his whole perception of other conspecifics is coloured by his being in a state of anger.

Now consider certain basic and prototypical emotions like joy, sadness, interest, fear, love , anger and surprise, disgust. While all of them have a distinct affective tone associated with them, less is known about the behavioural and cognitive dimensions to these emotions. Today I’ll like to share my thoughts regarding the same.

Joy is associated with being playful (B) and thinking creatively and divergently and imaginatively (C); sadness on the other hand is associated with being withdrawn (B) and has been shown to be associated with thinking more critically, convergently and in a intellectual fashion (C). As is apparent there is an opposing way in which these emotions and their behavioural and cognitive tendencies are associated. While positive emotions help you sample a greater universe out there , negative emotions help you focus on a salient selected stimuli.

Now consider interest; its is associated with being able to explore a given environment (B) and learning new information (C). While fear is associated with exploiting a given environment (B) (and not venturing beyond the unknown) and performing as per the given knowledge structure (C). Again we see the dichotomy and opposition.

Consider love that is associated with nurturing/protecting (B) the loved ones and with whom you feel a sense of belonging/ kinship (C). Anger on the other hand is associated with aggression or attack (B) on people considered different from self (C). Different perceptions or thinking may get evoked for same person based on emotion. For eg, you may feel anger towards your son when he disobeys and then literally want to slap him and want to disown him/ distance form him in the angry mood.

Finally consider surprise. Its associated with leaning with wonder and being fascinated (B) and trying to accommodate the new information (C) ; on the contrary, disgust would be associated with recoiling away in contempt and being judgmental (B) and trying to assimilate everything in the black and white schemata (C).

The above is broadly in line with the broaden and build theory of positive emotions and the specific action tendencies theory of negative emotions. What do you think, do share your comments.

Shaping Psychology: A book review

‘Shaping Psychology: Perspectives on Legacy, Controversy and the Future of the Field’ is a book by Tomasz Witkowiski and aims to do a review of the field of psychology by interviewing prominent psychologists that have had a seminal influence on the field. The 15 interviewees included in the book include such diverse stalwarts as Daniel Kahneman (behavioral psychology), Naom Chomsky (linguistics) and Michael Posner (neuroscience of attention etc).

The fact that the list included some of my favorite people like Joseph LeDoux (a mutual friend on twitter/FB), Roy Baumeister (whose master class on self control I was fortunate to attend courtesy Ben/MentorCaoch) and Robert Sternberg was enough to pique my interest. Inclusion of others whose work I was already familiar with like Elizabeth Loftus, Robert Plomin, Susan Blackamore and Jerome Kagan was enough to convince me that the selection is not only wide ranging but also authoritative.

I was eager to learn about other featured psychologists including Brian Nosek whose work on Open Science I was familiar with, but also people like Erica Burman, Carol Tavris, Vikram Patel and Scott Lillienfeld which were somewhat stranger to me (despite being fascinated by psychology for so long). And I must say I was rewarded adequately, for I found the interview with Vikram Patel utterly fascinating and providing me with a different perspective and odes of inspiration.

Each interview/psychologist is one chapter in the book. The chapter starts with a very brief profile of the psychologists work (and here I think Tomsaz could have done better) followed by an edited transcript of Tomasz’s interview with the psychologist. If you are already familiar with the work of the psychologists then some of the questions and answers make more sense as compared to when you have little knowledge of psychologists background / research interests. There are some questions that he asks almost all of them in way or the other- including advice for young psychologists joining the field, role models they would suggest to them, what they think is their major accomplishments, and what they see the future of the field.

The above are usual questions you would expect in an interview; what sets this book apart is also some relentless questioning around the replication crisis in psychology, or say the relevance of AI to the field in coming years. And it is here you see a divergence in views; When he asks Roy Baumeister about replication crisis, esp in light of the fact that ego depletion has also been questioned despite 100s of studies around it, one gets interesting insights when Roy admits that at one time p-hacking was actually an accepted practice amongst psychologists in the not so recent past. On the other hand, the interview with Brian Nosek provided another insight that current trend for more power and larger samples has tilted the filed towards self -reports and M-Turk samples at the cost of small sized studies that measure say behaviors.

Lest it sound as if the book is all about dull methodological debates/ controversies, it spans other controversies too like false memory/ eye witness testimony research of Loftus, or the allegations of social Darwinism/ eugenics against Plomin to the controversial concept/ theory of memetics.

Some of the chosen psychologists have a bent toward skepticism and it is apparent Tomasz is a skeptic too. Some of the chapters like the one on Erica Burman were clearly beyond my capacity and went over my head- still scratching my head to understand ‘child as a method’ concept. Others like the chapter on Vikram Patel were god send – bringing much clarity to issues of global mental health about which I am quite passionate.

The chapters also reflected , to an extent, the featured psychologist’s personality. Some were drab and to the point, while other more humane and humble in their tone. It definitely provided a window not only on the subject of psychology but also on some of the key players who have shaped it and are continuing to shape it.

I would readily recommend this book to anyone interested in, and slightly familiar with, the field of psychology and who cares about its future and is interested in its recent influences. It would be time well spent.

Full Disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review.

Optimal Living: Insights From Flow Theory

What does it mean to live optimally? Is there any difference between self actualization and self-transcendence? Do peak performances and peak experiences differ? The last question was asked yesterday by Scott Barry Kaufman on twitter and it got me thinking.

The thoughts triggered were too large to fit in a few tweets, so here is the longer blog post; thanks Scott for the inspiration.

To start off, lets recall what flow is ; its typically associated with deep engrossment and peak performance during a task. When thinking about tasks two dimensions are relevant: how difficult is the task and what are the skills of the person executing the task.

When task is of high difficulty, and skills are low, it may lead to experience of anxiety in the person; when task is of low difficulty and skills are high, it may lead to relaxation/ boredom. Only when task difficulty is slightly greater or matched than skills does the possibility of flow emerges. With adequate in time feedback and no distractions, one can get into a state of flow. Another point to remember is that the idea is to keep increasing task difficulty and keep adding to you skills – thus high task difficulty and high skills are associated with flow; while low task difficulty and low skills lead to apathy.

Flow diagram courtesy Wikipedia

It is safe to assume that micro moments of flow where task difficulty/challenge is slightly greater than skills, helps in building up your skills over time leading to increased probability of peak performances in the limit. Thus peak performances are related to flow and are evident in some task related activities.

Now, one of the framework I have been using is to divide our focus of inquiry among TASK, SELF, OTHERS and LIFE. Basically in some contexts you are totally TASK focused, and your primary goal may be achieving success, in some you are SELF focused and your primary goal may be achieving eudiamonic happiness; in yet others your focus may be (significant) OTHERS and your primary goal finding meaning via connection while in yet other contexts, you be focused on LIFE as a whole and your primary goal being a moral person. Now you don’t have to believe in this framework, but I used this to derive some insights below:

First off, analogous to TASK having two dimensions related to performance, I think its useful to think about two dimensions of SELF related to expression of SELF. First is self-discrepancy operationalised as distance between ideal and actual self. The higher the discrepancy the more the ideal, sought after self differs from actual self. The other dimension of interest is self-acceptance. This is operationalised as how much at peace we are with our actual self.

Now consider someone with high self discrepancy and low self acceptance. They are likely to feel sadness; on the other hand someone with high self acceptance but low self discrepancy will be complacent as far as growing and expressing ones true self is concerned, because there is no/ little internal pressure to change. Growth happens when self discrepancy is slightly greater than self acceptance; you are comfortable with who you are but also aiming to change and become better. Analogous to flow, one maybe led into these micro moments of growth that I call flowering. Over time as you keep raising the bar for ideal self and keep accepting who you are: your strengths as well as limitations – you re likely to experience peak expressions of your self and likely to become self -actualized.

I wish I was not lazy and could make a diagram/ figure to explain this better, but if you are feeling stuck make a 2D graph for SELF with self discrepancy on y axis and self acceptance on x axis, analogous to the flow diagram.

Next up, consider the context where we are dealing with (significant ) OTHERS . Consider two dimensions that may underpin that dynamics : our mutual demandingness from/ towards others and our mutual caringness/ concern from/towards the others. Consider for example a parenting relationship: if demandingness is high, but caring is low one feels anger / irritability; if however demandingness is low, but caring is high one start taking things for granted, gets lax/ stagnant. For a mutually beneficial relationship, the demandingness has to be just slightly above the caring/ nurturing that enables one to meet the demands. When that happens one experiences moments of love/ intimacy and the relationship grows and connection is felt. Over time as mutual demands increase and mutual care increases, one feels peak experiences characterized by love and connectedness and moves towards self transcendence.

Finally, consider LIFE. The two dimensions of relevance here are life responsibilities and life supports. When life responsibilities are high and life supports (like social support, adequate income etc ) are less, one is likely to feel guilt and maybe disgust at the life one is living: life will feel a burden. On the other hand if life supports are high , but life responsibilities are low, one is likely to feel dissipated and lead a life of decadence. However, when life responsibilities are just matched or greater than ones supports , one is likely to be in a zone where life is felt a gift to be enjoyed and a privilege. These micro moments of living up to your responsibilities, may lead to peak living.

So that is my basic premise: Peak Performance (in a task) can be distinguished from Peak Experiences (in our relationships with others ), which can further be distinguished from Peak Expressions (of self) and Peak Living. Hope these lead to some insights and Scott/ someone else actually tries to elaborate/ verify the model .

A disclaimer while I am familiar with Mihaly’s original work on Flow/ peak performances my knowledge of Malsow/peak experiences is via secondary sources and readings only.

Resilience: More Than Preventing Negative Outcomes

Resilience is typically studied as either a recovery/ bouncing back factor where you return to baseline levels of functioning before an acute stressor had occurred, or as a sustainability factor where you continue performing/ adapting well despite the presence of a chronic stressor.

How resilience is typically operationalised, in terms of outcome, is whether the individual survives the acute trauma/stressor and/or chronic stress and still remains psychopathology free. If he doesn’t then he is non resilient, but if he indeed remains free of negative outcomes then he is resilient. Sometimes, very rarely, in case of trauma, the concept of post traumatic growth is studied, whereby an individual actually grows following the traumatic experience. While that is important, today I wish to discuss something different.

First if resilience is about preventing negative outcomes or psychopathology, we need to understand why psychopathology happens in the first place. One popular model to understand psychopathology is the stress-diathesis model.

Basically, what the model says is that there is some vulnerability in the individual (diathesis) and some adverse life experiences (stress) the individual is subjected to, and that combination may lead to psychopathology or negative outcomes.

Now daithesis is your pre-psychopathology brain biochemistry that is affected by your genetic makeup and your early childhood experiences. The genes and early environment cumulatively make you vulnerable to future threats.

Stress can be of two types : acute stress or traumatic experiences like death of a spouse and chronic life conditions like living in poverty/ working in a high pressure job with an nonsupporting boss.

By themselves, neither vulnerability factors nor stress factors may be enough to trigger psychopathology, but cumulatively they raise risks and make it more likely that one could get unhinged.

To sum up, the risk factors for psychopathology are:

  1. Genetic (as evidenced in personality factors like high Neuroticism)
  2. Early environmental (as measured by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) like abuse, neglect etc
  3. Chronic environmental (chronic life conditions like unemployment )
  4. Acute situational (acute life events like bereavement etc)

The above are all very well studied and sometimes resilience is just studied as moderators of the association between these risk factors and negative outcomes/psychopathology. For eg, given that high Neuroticism leads to high chances of developing depression / anxiety , are there any other protective factors say high Exraversion or presence of secure attachment that can prevent or moderate the effect of High Neuroticism on depression/anxiety. The same logic applies to other risk factors: given a child had suffered 4 or more ACEs, what is the risk of psychopathology and whether and how it is moderated by presence of protective factors like a caring caregiver.

Now, the above is only applicable if you are descriptive and trying to find what elevates and what depresses the risk of psychopathology; however resilience studies have moved ahead and now also focuses on how resilience is achieved or looks at the underlying processes.

But I want to take the discussion in a whole new direction: by conceptualizing resilience also as the presence of advantages be it genetic, early childhood, chronic environmental or acute situational and how that may lead to positive outcomes like flourishing and growth.

Now admittedly, the discussion of resilience would necessarily be descriptive in this sense for now; later a full science could be established looking at how one is able to harness things like Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) for later flourishing outcomes. You may think I just made the term but PCEs actually exist in the literature.

To cut a long story short, I want to propose an opportunities- strengths model of flourishing on the lines of the stress-diathesis model of psychopathology. Now we all know that not all people flourish in life and most, if not suffering from psychopathology, are at best languishing in life. And we don’t really know why some people flourish, go on to self actualize and self transcend while others don’t.

What I propose is that analogues to the risk factors we have some promotive factors in our life; they are not just protective from stress/psychopathology but helpful in us reaching our potential and being happy/ thriving.

These promotive factors are:

  1. Genetic (as evidenced in personality factors like high Extraversion/ positive emotionality )
  2. Early environmental (as measured by Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) like enriched environment, secure attachment etc
  3. Chronic environmental (chronic life conditions like high education/ income )
  4. Acute situational (acute life events like peak experiences etc)

However , not much work has happened on these promotive factors and how they lead to positive outcomes. At best, they have been studied in the context of providing protection/buffering against risk factors and studied in context of psychopathology only. And some promotive factors like personality traits have been studied more. I could only find a handful of studies looking at PCEs; one looked at PCEs and increased remission from Personality disorders; another looked at PCEs leading to presence of social and emotional support in adulthood and absence of depression/ poor mental health.

The whole field of opportunities or chronic/ acute advantages like lucky breaks, being born and living in privilege and their impact on life trajectory and positive outcomes is very much unexplored. Whats more we even lack any vocabulary or listing of these acute/chronic advantages/ opportunities.

What we desperately need is a new framework for resilience (or may use another term) where we look at the role of promotive factors in enuring positive outcomes; once we have such a framework in place we can look at underlying processes too.

Why am I stressing the need for this? Once upon a time therapy could hope to achieve more than lifting people out of deep misery to common unhappiness; since the advent of positive psychology we have started to aim a little higher looking at ways people can lead flourishing lives.

Preventive interventions based on understanding the risk and protective factors have done a good job in reducing psychopathology (or not!), I think its time to up the ante and star t thinking about what promotive factors and life experiences can be harnessed in a the most optimal way to ensure flourishing.

I hope people will explore this new paradigm and start conceptualizing and doing research around this framework…

Attention Networks: The role of NE

Attention has been studied heavily and as per a popular model of attention by Posner et al, we have 3 systems for attention: alerting, orienting and an executive control network.

Now let me propose a radical fourth network for the same, but before I do that I want to clear some misconceptions about attention. Way back in 2009 I had blogged and elaborated on a couple of posts that attention allocation and action selection utilized the same mechanisms and were conceptually similar; at that time I was not much aware of the Posner et al model of attention. Today I want to go further and claim that attention processes are involved in action initiation and selection.

But lets start from first principles.

We can always be in either an alert state on the lookout for stimuli or in a more sleepy/drowsy state where we will probably ignore stimulus, the extreme being when we are sleeping and ignoring all stimuli. This system is also know as arousal system and is fairly unequivocally associated with Norepinephrine (NE) system. Tonic NE levels (tonic meaning the baseline/spontaneous firing rate of NE neurons in LC (locus coerelus) ) as per one theory drive the activity of this alerting network in the brain. The higher the tonic NE and more alert you are; lower the NE and you get drowsy /sleepy. Too much NE/alertness and it actually becomes distractability where you cannot remain focused on task at hand but get distracted/ alerted by each and any irrelevant stimuli. So the relationship of alertness/ tonic NE with task performance follows inverted U of Yerkes Dodsan law.

So to detect a particular stimulus (of relevance) the first step is to be on the lookout for stimuli in general. And alerting system does this beautifully – it provides a knob to tune whether you want to ignore most stimuli or to attend to most stimuli in your current state. By playing around with tonic NE levels that can be easily accomplished.

Once you are in varied state of readiness to detect stimuli in general (on various levels of alertness), you may be primed to attend to a particular spatial location or a particular modality for a particular stimulus. On ANT (attention network test) this is accomplished by providing a spatial cue that indicates where the target will appear and primes the human/animal to turn its gaze either covertly or overtly to that location. In real world phenomenon, some CS will predict that an UCS is going to follow and teh animal/ human will react by directing attention to the location/ modality of that UCS prediction. For eg., when you hear thunder, you will be on lookout for a lightening visual to follow and will be using orienting attention to become primed for the same. Typically, orienting attention is based on prediction: there are hundreds of locations one can attend to, but due to predicting cues one orients to a particular location in space, in anticipation of a stimulus of relevance.

So the second step to detect a stimulus of relevance is to orient one’s attention keeping in mind the preceding cue(s). Its not clear whether this is accomplished by tonic NE levels or phasic NE levels, but what is known is that this is a faster response as indicated by pupil diameters (of eyes) which are somehow associated with NE levels and dilate faster in orienting than in alerting.

And once you are both alert and oriented then the stimulus of relevance appears (or doesn’t).

Once the stimulus appears, it rarely appears alone. Only in contrived lab settings does the stimulus appear alone; and even there in some conditions it is flanked by flankers (distractors) which can be either congruent or in-congruent. So we need to suppress irrelevant stimuli and attend selectively to relevant stimuli. Now one can debate what is relevant- for the purpose of this section it is the stimulus on whose lookout we re as per the previous step of orientation. Because it is surrounded by irrelevant background information/ stimuli executive networks kicks in and suppresses the flankers/ irrelevant information.

So the third step in detecting a stimuli is a ‘hot’ process where we latch onto the relevant stimuli and suppress irrelevant stimuli. And this is accomplished beautifully by phasic NE firings which ensure that once a decision is being made, it is widely amplified and winner takes all happens.

However the story is not complete yet.

The final stage in detecting a stimuli is doing deep processing of selected stimuli (a ‘cold’ process) and determining what action to take / response to met out. This is akin to final selection of stimulus as worthy of action and further processing.

So to summarize:

  1. Readiness to detect stimuli (alerting)
  2. Priming for a particular stimulus (orienting)
  3. Stimulus appears
  4. Suppressing irrelevant stimuli (executive control – conflict )
  5. Selecting final stimuli for deep processing (executive control- decision)

So the above is the way in which action happens in detecting and selecting stimuli in my view.

However , the story is not complete even now.

Consider, the parallel path associated with response/ action.

One can be in various states of readiness to respond. If you are highly aroused and edgy you may jump at slightest stimuli or act with hyperactivity. On the other hand if you are aroused pretty less you may be sleepy/drowsy and sluggish in your responses. In the extreme case of sleep you wont respond at all. This arousal system as is well known is mediated by tonic NE levels. To me, this is the same alerting network – though this time attuned to responding and not detecting stimuli. And this is a non specific general readiness to respond.

So the first step to responding is being in various states of alertness as to whether and how fast you would respond to any stimuli in general.

The next step of course is based on cues you would be in state of readiness for a particular (set of ) action (s). The CS that leads to orienting response and attention to where the UCS may appear also primes a response set or UCR. To take our crude analogy, when you hear thunder you would be primed to seek shelter (or stay away from trees) etc). In a nutshell a response set will be activated and a goal needs to be maintained. This is the orienting network in action in the response leg. Note that all this is happening in parallel. That is Alerting stimulus leg and alerting response leg are running in parallel and so too are orienting stimulus leg and orienting response leg.

So the second step to responding is being primed with a particular response set. In ANT this would be responding with ether left hand or right hand .

And then the stimulus happens.

Given that the stimulus has happened a primary response gets activated, however there are competing responses : in the contrived laboratory settings this may be in the form of STROOP test where habitual response competes with more relevant response. So the third system kicks in suppressing irrelevant/ habitual responses that are not relevant. This as you would have guessed is the executive control – conflict system.

So the third step to responding is suppressing irrelevant responses. And this is beautifully accomplished by executive control – conflict system.

Finally, the ‘cold’ system needs to take over and finalize, initiate and execute the final action. This is the executive control- decsion network.

So the sequence is :

  1. Readiness to respond (Alerting)
  2. Priming for a particular response (Orienting)
  3. Stimulus appears
  4. Suppressing irrelevant responses (executive control – conflict)
  5. Selecting final response for deep processing (executive control – decision)

I should again emphasize that the stimulus leg and response leg run in parallel. I believe there is great value in talking about both legs when we focus on attention and underlying attention networks.

In my next post I will elaborate a bit more on underlying brain structures / functional networks and neurotransmitters underlying these networks .

PS: Some of my musings are based on studying these articles in depth and I express my debt to them.

Dualistic model of Passion, Perseverance, Purpose and Persona

Some of you may be already familiar with the Dualistic Model of Passion as advocated by Robert Vallerand et al. To recap, passion is of two types: harmonious and obsessive. Both of them have different antecedents (autonomous vs controlled integration) and different consequents ( well-being vs Mal-adaptive).

I wont go deep into what an obsessive or harmonious passion is; suffice it to say that in harmonious passion you can be passionate about more than one activity, the activity is not all consuming; while in obsessive passion the activity has control over you than vice versa and you feel pressured to spend time in the activity at the cost to other important activities/ relationships.

Important to note is that both types of passions are indeed passions about activities as we value those activities, love to do them , they form a core of our identity and we spend an exorbitant amount of time and energy indulging in those activities: This is true for harmonious as well as obsessive passions.

Passions are nothing but motivations as they propel us to keep doing something.

Before we move ahead we will take a quick detour of Self Determination Theory (SDT). As per SDT there are 3 basic psychological needs all humans have: need for Autonomy, Mastery (competence) and Connectedness (relatedness) . To that, many, including myself, add a fourth need, the need to find Meaning.

SDT actually is many mini-theories: one of them concerns how people are intrinsically motivated to do some activities which they find pleasurable or fun to do. At other times people are motivated by extrinsic motivation like rewards, status etc and parents say motivate their child to do homework by using such extrinsic mechanisms when the activity by itself is not enjoyable or fun to do. Over time, the child may internalize such motivations and they become more and more autonomous in the sense they are driven by the child’s sense of identity (I am a student who likes to study) than say the child’s internalized guilt or pride (I have to study so that I can live upto my parents expectations) . The process of turning external motivation to more autonomous motivation is called internalization.

The process of internalization can be helped or hindered by satisfaction of basic psychological needs. Of these autonomy support by significant others is the most studied. When an autonomy supportive person is present , then the recipient (say the child) is more likely to internalize well and have more autonomous forms of motivation to indulge in the activity.

Now lets connect this back to dualistic model of passion (DMP). As per Vallernad, people may develop passion for an activity because they value it and start investing time and energy in it; however the type of passion they develop will depend on whether they choose it themselves and have autonomy supportive parents etc (in which case they develop harmonious passion) or whether they feel controlled and coerced in their choice due to overt or overt pressure by parents etc. (in which case they develop obsessive passion).

To sum up, we all need to get motivated to do things that are not fun and thus need to internalize and own up to various external motivations. Internalization of external motivation so that it approaches intrinsic motivation is thus an important part of growing up. Autonomy support aids this and leads to better and more harmonious outcomes, while controlling behaviors (by significant others) lead to maladaptive and discordant (obsessive) outcomes.

We can now extend the analogy to other domains. Consider the whole behavioral paradigm of reinforcement learning. When we encounter the world there are reward contingencies (which we should approach) and punishment contingencies (which we should avoid). While the rewards are goals that are desirable end states and hence finite; the punishments are anti-goals or undesirable end states and hence infinite. Learning is needed to make such anti-goals goals. Learning can be facilitated by either mastery experiences where tools like small wins, vicarious learning etc can be used to build self efficacy of the person; or it can be facilitated by failure experiences where you put a mouse in water to make it learn how to swim and thus by approaches like fail fast learning you make them learn. Now obviously both kinds of learning, whether building confidence using mastery experiences or building doggedness using repeated trial and error fail fast learning can result in Perseverance; the former would be harmonious perseverance while the latter obsessive perseverance. In the former you would pursue goals from a position of strength, while in latter you might be narrowly focused on one particular goal and not ready to give it up (think John Henryism). The fact that we all need to move towards and learn better form reward contingencies means we have a need for mastery/ competence.

Next let us consider relatedness/ connectedness need. Consider the fact that we can live in an other oriented environment or in a self-focused environment. We all have a desire to leave our imprint on the world or to put a ding in the universe, we can do that either by leaving a personal legacy or by having a generative impact. Self expansion where we include others in the self is a process whereby we move away from a focus on personal legacy towards generative impact. As you might have guessed other oriented / relatedness need driven environment leads to better self expansion leading to harmonious purpose; while self focused environment leads to obsessive purpose that is less fulfilling and inflexible. Our need for connectedness derives from our need to self expand.

Finally, consider need for meaning. We can either live our life such that it has a meaningful frame of reference or we can keep encountering the absurd. We all have a desire to make sense of our lives, and we can either use the narrative self to weave a story around our adventures or we can live in a stream of consciousness in-the-moment mindfulness sort of adventure. Living in the stream of consciousness mode is not feasible as it lacks coherence and we need to move that into the narrative self. Story editing, defense mechanisms of denial, dissociation etc may be operational here to move and remove materiel from the narrative self. And of course, having a meaningful frame of reference, be it religion or spirituality will aid in such story editing; while trying not to get deluded and living in the present, experiencing self will probably hinder that story editing mechanism. And the former will be associated with an integrated and harmonious persona/ personality/self; while the latter with a discordant/ obsessive one.

I know the extension of dualistic model of passion to perseverance, purpose and persona is all a conjecture as of now; but that is how science progresses. There are many a good testable hypothesis there. Hope someone actually goes ahead and tests these.

Transcend: Standing on the shoulders of Maslow

This post is a book review of ‘Transcend: The new science of self-actualization ‘ by Scott Barry Kaufman. He, and his publishers, were kind enough to send an advance copy and I think the review is just in time, as the book is formally published, and the virtual book tour gets kick-started.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and emerged wiser and kinder for having read it. I am not sure how far I am, or my reader is, on the path to self transcendence, but whatever may be your current station on your journey, you will find some much needed guidance and help here. At least I did.

The book on the outset is about Maslow and his hierarchy of needs and how self actualization and self transcendence fit in, but its also a tour de force of all that is worth knowing about the latest advances in positive psychology, humanistic psychology and various other aspects like existential psychology. More than mere re-conceptualizing Maslow’s concept of needs, and validating his insights using cutting edge finding in psychology, it is also a culmination of Scott’s interests and expertise in a holistic book form. The magnum opus of whole person psychology that Scott has produced is indeed a ‘whole’ book (pun intended).

First off, lets clarify some misunderstandings about the hierarchy of needs. Most people believe that Maslow had himself arranged them into a pyramid of five needs of inflexible ordering , and while I myself have shown them as pyramid in my earlier posts, I have at least had the good sense of highlighting self transcendence needs early on and at the top. Scott clarifies and adds nuance by distinguishing between security/deficit needs, growth needs and actualization/transcendence needs and illustrates all this with a beautiful sailboat metaphor.

While security needs like safety, connection and self esteem make the body of the sailboat, and their purpose is to make it steady ; the sail that powers and gives direction to the boat is made up of growth needs of exploration, love and purpose.

The book elaborates on all theses needs drawing inspiration from Maslow who is extensively quoted, as well as other prominent psychologists lke Carl Rogers, Karen Horney, Eric Fromm etc ; however the book is only part nostalgia about these great thinkers, it also draws on latest research findings to make its point.

The book contains extensive self assessments to figure where you stand on each of these and other needs/ concepts and helpful tips on what you can do thereof to make sure your needs are optimally fulfilled and are not thwarted. The 2 appendices are really excellent and should not be skipped; the second appendix that lists many (positive, as well as other) psychological interventions should be definitely explored and imbibed in ones daily life.

Scott’s personality shines thorugh the book, and so does Abe’s ; While Scott wanted this as a tribute to Abe, he has indeed stood on the shoulders of that giant and come out on its own – the book integrates various strands of Scott’s expertise, interests and humanism and weaves into a very palatable feast. However , at some places I felt the integration was a bit sketchy or far fetched – for example linking hope, grit, smart goals etc under purpose seemed a bit contrived. But of course as Scott has such expertise in all these topics that one juts loves reading about them and doesn’t mind the apparent disconnect with the topic at hand.

Scott’s and Abe’s message is something that needs to be told and retold, again and again, and I am so glad that Scott took it upon himself to clarify misconceptions about Abe as well as to shine a light on such an imprtnat topic of self transcendence. Here is wishing the book all the success it deserves. Well done, Scott! You are truly a giant!

Emotions and Motivations

I have written a series of posts about emotions and personality and regular readers will know my fascination and commitment to the eight basic emotions perspective. I have also written about the four fundamental drives/ motivations; as a matter of fact my Psychology Today blog was titled The Fundamental Four. Today I wish to connect the dots.

Till today, I myself was confused as to what is a motivational subsystem and what is an emotional subsystem and if my blog posts conflated the two and created confusions, I apologize. I have now come to believe that emotions are the reading by our mind of how our body is doing. This needs some unpacking.

The somatic marker theory of Damasio, and others, is inline with this formulation that there are brain areas that keep track of how the body is doing and if the body is say geared to flee a predator- then a corresponding feeling of fear may be felt by the mind. Feelings are conscious emotions and the subject of this post. The eight basic emotions to recap are Interest, Fear, Lust/ Wonder, Disgust, Love, Anger , Joy and Sadness. The emotions may even be conceptualized as indicators of bodily needs: eg. Disgust signifying the need of the body to close off / get away from source of disgust.

Motivations, or the basic fundamental drives, on the other hand are drives that help us cope with problems in living: These are to SURVIVE , REPRODUCE, TAKE-CARE-OF-YOUNG-ONES and to THRIVE. All the steps are essential to pass on our genes to the next generation- if say we don’t take care of our young ones then our genes do not live on. So evolution has built in these four basic drives in us. These drives are action-focused: they are intentional and *about* the world; they are mechanisms via which we get our needs met. They are primed action tendencies that tilt us to act one way or the other, out in the world.

Most of us when we think about motivation think of Maslow’s needs. They are conceptualized at a higher level- the level I am taking about is the most fundamental, the most basic. Panksepp has talked about that level, but he wrongly called such neurocircuits as affective subsystems, while they should be called drives/ motivational systems to reduce confusion.

Lets unpack this a bit. SURVIVE system in an ideal world should be about finding food and nutrition to grow and maintain ones’ bodily composition. Of course we don’t live in an ideal world, so predators loom large and survival also becomes about avoiding them. However the underlying drive/ need is the same to preserve, maintain and grow ones body. Some people have focused on maintaining bodily integrity or avoiding dangers/ predators as having primary significance and thus focused more on FEAR ; I however think that’s mistake. The drive is primarily about finding nutrients for self and because in the search for food, you are likely to come across predators, secondarily about avoiding them once you encounter them.

Thus the primary neurocircuit for SURVIVAL is the SEEKING system: it is primary in the sense that it is the default program of the self when it comes to survival. It primarily enabled foraging behavior, but since then has been coopted for finding knowledge (learning) etc too and is marked by curiosity, exploration, learning, pattern finding, meaning making etc.

While searching for food (either hunting or gathering) you are likely to come in contact with a predator; at that time only the FEAR/predator avoidance system kicks in and focuses actions and body for that specific task. At least that is the purpose for which this system evolved.

The primary neurocircuit for REPRODUCTION is LUST/Seducing system. When one is in the grip of this circuit/drive one flirts, seduces, and tries to mate with conspecifics.

While trying to copulate with as many con-specifics as possible, a danger of getting infected with STD looms large. My hunch is that DISGUST evolved as a means to avoid STD’s/ be picky and selective while choosing.

The primary neurocircuit for TAKE-CARE-OF-LOVED-ONES is CARE. It evolved so that parents can take care of their children, but sine then has been coopted for taking care of all vulnerable entities.

The secondary neurocircuit comes into play because of cuckolding. While one wants to take care of ones genuine offsprings, one doesn’t want to be cuckolded and displays aggression towards the weakling which in not of self. This is the RAGE circuit.

The primary neurociruit for THRIVING is PLAY. It evolved so that we can form social bonds/ rise up the hierarchy by building coalitions and alliances.

While playing and rising up the social ladder, there is a risk of aggression by the alpha male or the risk of losing existing ties and suffering losses. This manifests as the PANIC/ separation distress system.

How do the (eight basic) emotions and the (eight basic) motivations interact? It might be tempting to assume that each motivational circuit is associated with one emotion/ feeling; however that would be a mistake. We first need to understand that emotions come in pairs (interest-fear, wonder-disgust, love-anger and joy-sadness) ; we also need to appreciate that the motivational circuits form opponent processes such that if FEAR is activated, SEEKING is suppressed etc. with that background lets forge ahead.

Feelings modulate motivations/drives. They either initiate and sustain the corresponding motivational circuit or suppress and stop it. Thus they are either inhibitory or excitatory in their effect.

Take SEEKING. If your body is feeling interest (is in a state of interest) it is more likely to explore or activate the SEEKING system. On the other hand if the body is feeling fear, it will suppress the SEEKING system. And how does the body gets into a state of interest/ fear? In the most general case its by cognitive appraisal of outside events/ stimulus. Lets take novelty, say a rat placed in a novel environment. The rat can either see that novel environment as interesting and thus get curious and explore; or it can see the novelty as frightening, get fearful and stop exploring. Thus the cognitive appraisal we make induce emotions that either inhibit or excite the motivational circuits.

Lest take another example: Take PLAY. Feelings of joy will increase likelihood of playing; while being in a sad mood will decrease playful behavior. Or take PANIC: feelings of sadness will tilt the probability of panicking , while being in a joyful mood will buffer against panic.

Or take CARE . Appraising a vulnerable dependent/weakling as in group leads to feelings of love and compassion leading to activation of CARE; appraising the same person as outgroup leads to feelings of anger over why I need to support him/her and lead to suppression of CARE.

Or take LUST. Thinking someone as attractive leads to feelings of wonder about what the person is like and activate flirting/seducing behavior aka LUST. However, thinking of the person as unattractive/ugly leads to feelings of disgust and deactivation of LUST system.

I think by now, it should be clear how the emotions and motivations are connected. In the next post I will be extending this emotions/ motivations linkage forward to personality traits and psychological disorders.

I was inspired on this line of thought while doing the FutureLearn course ‘What Is A Mind’ by Mark Solms and would like to express my gratitude to him as well as the late Jaak Panksepp.