Posts Tagged ‘American Psychological Association’

Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges

March 5, 2020

The title of this post is the same as the title a book written by Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney. This post is the first of a series of posts based on this book. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, threats and even significant sources of stress—such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stresses.”

Here are the key brain regions with respect to resilience:

The amygdala, which is associated with fear and alarm; it plays a central role in fear conditioning and in triggering raw emotions and the “fight or flight” response.

The prefrontal cortex, which is commonly referred to as the brain’s “executive center,” facilitates planning and rational decision-making; it helps regulate emotions and acts to keep the amygdala ( the “fear and alarm center”) in check.

The hippocampus, which plays a critical role in learning, forming new memories, and regulating the stress response; more so than many other brain structures, it is vulnerable to the effect of chronic stress.

The anterior cingulate cortex, which plays an important role in our ability to focus attention, detect and monitor errors and conflicts, assess the importance of emotional and motivational information, and regulate emotions; it is connected both to the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala.

The anterior insula, which is located in the fold of the cerebral cortex that marks the boundary between the frontal and temporal lobes; it is involved in functions related to emotions, and aids in the brain’s awareness of the body’s internal physical state.

The nucleus accumbens, sometimes referred to as the “pleasure center,” plays a central role in the brain’s reward circuitry; in association with the ventral segmental area, it mediates the experience of reward and punishment, and is associated with the pleasurable effects of food, sex, and drug abuse.

The limbic system refers to the inner portion of the brain—located beneath the cortex—which is involved in emotion, memory and other functions. It includes the amygdala, hippocampus, and a number of other structures and regions. Although the limbic system is neither a system nor a structure, the term provides a useful shorthand for referring to this area of the brain.

The autonomic nervous system is composed of two parts. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS mobilizes the body under conditions of stress. The PNS conserves resources and maintains functioning under normal stressful conditions. During healthy functioning, it is beneficial for the SNS to have a robust response to stress and challenge, but also for the SNS to return to baseline rapidly after the stressful event is over. Another major system is the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal axis (HPA axis), which responds to stress with a complex set of reactions involving the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands.

Here are the different hormones and neurotransmitters that are involved in the stress response and resilience:

Cortisol is a stress hormone released through activation of the HPA axis. It produces energy by converting food into fat and glucose (a form of sugar). It also temporarily bolsters the immune system.
Epinephrine, also known as adrenalin, is part of the SNS. It is erased by the adrenal glands under conditions of stress and accelerates heart rate, constricts blood vessels and dilates air passages as part of the SNS fight-or-flight response.

Norepinephrine, also known as noradrenaline, is also part of the SNS. It facilitates alerting and alarm reactions in the brain and is critical for responding to danger and for remembering emotional and fearful events.

Serotonin is involved in the regulation of mood, as well as sleep, appetite, and other functions.

Dopamine is associated with pleasurable feelings and plays a key role in the reward systems of the brain. For this reason, it is an important factor in cravings and addictive behaviors.

Neuropeptide Y (NPY) is associated with decreasing anxiety and hastening return to baseline after the nervous system reacts to stress.

Oxytocin is associated with maternal behaviors, pair bonding, social communication, trust, social support, and anxiety reduction.

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) acts in support the nervous system through the repair of existing neurons an growth of new ones.

What Is Your Stress Mindset?

June 14, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in Dr. McGonigal’s book, “The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It.” This is the fifth post on her book. You should look at the two following mindsets below and consider which set of statements you agree with more strongly—or, at least would have agreed with before you read the immediately preceding posts:

Mindset 1: Stress is Harmful.
Experiencing stress depletes my health and vitality.
Experiencing stress debilitates my performance and productivity.
Experiencing stress inhibits my learning and growth.
The effects of stress are negative and should be avoided.

Mindset 2: Stress is Enhancing.
Experiencing stress enhances my performance and productivity.
Experiencing stress improves my health and vitality.
Experiencing stress facilitates my learning and growth.
The effects of stress are positive and should be utilized.

The first mindset is by far the most common. Dr. Crum and her colleagues have found that while most people can see some truth in both mindsets, they still view stress as more harmful than helpful. Men and women do not differ, and age does not predict mindset. A 2014 survey conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health found that 85% of Americans agreed that stress has a negative effect on health, family, and work. The American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey found that most people perceived their own stress as unhealthy. Even people who report relatively little stress believe that the ideal level of stress is below whatever they are currently experiencing. People’s perceptions of a healthy level of stress have actually gone down; when the American Psychological Association started its annual stress survey in 2007, people perceived a moderate level of stress as ideal. Now, survey participants perceived the same moderate level of stress as unhealthy.

However, Dr. McGonigal has evidence that people can see some good in stress. In 2013 she conducted a survey of CEO’s, vice presidents, and general managers who were participating in Stanford University’s Executive Leadership Development Program. 51 % said they did their best work while under stress. In the 2014 Harvard School of Public Health survey, 67% of those who reported the highest levels of stress also said they had experienced at least one benefit from their stress. However, participants in both surveys were also convinced that they should be doing more to reduce stress. This attitude is not peculiar to America. Dr. McGonigal has encountered similar views about stress in Canada, Europe, and Asia. Even when people can recognized some benefits of stress, their overall perception of it is negative.

Dr. Crum considered the possibility that a positive view of stress might be the result of an easier life. But when she looked at the data, she found only a weak link between how people thought about stress and the severity of the stress. There was also a very small correlation between the number of stressful events (such as divorce, changing jobs) that people experienced in the past year and how negative their views of stress were. So it is not the case that people with a positive attitude toward stress have a life free of suffering. Dr. Crum also found that a positive view of stress was beneficial to people whether they were currently under a little or a lot of stress, and no matter how stressful of stress-free the past year had been.

It is true that optimists live longer than pessimists. In addition to optimism, two other personality traits seem to be associated with a more positive view of stress: mindfulness, and the ability to tolerate uncertainty. But Dr. Crum’s analysis showed that none of these personality traits could account for the effects of stress mindsets on health, happiness, or work productivity. Although how a person thinks about stress might be influenced by certain personality traits or experiences, a stress mindset’s effects on health and happiness cannot be explained by either.

Dr. Crum’s research points to the likely possibility that: Stress mindsets are powerful because they affect not just how you think, but also how you act. When you view stress as harmful, it is something to be avoided. Feeling stressed becomes a signal to try to escape or reduce the stress. They are more likely to:
*Try to distract themselves from the cause of the stress instead of dealing with it.
*Focus on getting rid of their feelings of stress instead of taking steps to decrease its source.

People who believe that stress can be helpful are more likely to say the they cope with stress proactively. They are more likely to:
*Accept the fact that the stressful event has occurred and is real.
*Plan a strategy for dealing with the source of the stress.
*Seek information, help, or advice.
*Take steps to overcome, remove, or change the source of the stress.
*Try to make the best of the situation by viewing it in a more positive way or by using it as an opportunity to grow.

Understanding Anxiety and How to Control It

October 27, 2016

This post is based largely on an article by Linda Geddes in the Feature Section of the 8 October 2016 issue of the “New Scientist” titled “Why we worry:  Understanding anxiety and how to control it”.  The reason why we worry is because we have brains to protect us from danger.  The prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortex amplify negative information and makes us pay attention to it.  Emotional memories and our learned reactions to them are stored in the amygdala.  When active, it triggers the release of hormones responsible for the fight-or-flight response.

In 1980 the American Psychological Association estimated that between 2% and 4%of people in the US had anxiety disorder.  Of course, that was before wired technology and smart phones.  Today, some studies suggest it’s more like 18% in the US and 14% in Europe.

It is normal to be anxious when confronted by threats.  It is the frequency and severity of anxiety that makes it maladapting.  Moreover, people can be anxious to specific events.  The most common type of anxiety disorder is social anxiety disorder, where you might believe the blushing will result in people laughing or shunning you.  This type of disorder  is persistent and overwhelming fear before, during and after social events.

If you have panic disorder you might think you are having a heart attack if your heart starts to race.  Then the physical symptoms of anxiety—a pounding heart, difficulty breathing, feeling dizzy or flushed come on in a rush.  From time to time everyone can experience such panic attacks, but in panic disorder the attacks are regular and become a source of anxiety themselves.

Generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by worrying about a range of different events or activities for at least six months.  Should you have this condition, the belief driving your anxiety, or that you have responsibilities that you must meet at all costs.

According to the article, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is likely to be the gold standard in treatment that addresses the maladaptive  beliefs that drive your anxiety.  Once they have been identified, CBT helps you address them.  Although there is a shortage of therapists, this shortage has spurred the development of online delivery of CBT.  Try searching for online CBT.

Frankly, HM would recommend Cognitive Based Mindfulness Therapy.  HM would also say you should consider just trying meditation and mindfulness.  This should not be surprising given all the HM posts on mindfulness and meditation.  Mindfulness meditation should serve as a preventive in the first place.  And it is never too late to try to regain control of your mind and emotions via mindfulness and meditation.

Physical exercise is another remedy for anxiety.  It triggers the release of mood-boosting endorphins, and forces you to concentrate on something other than your own thoughts.

Try medications only as the last resort and only under the treatment of a physician.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Psychology is a STEM Discipline

August 22, 2015

STEM is an acronym referring to the academic discipline of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  It  is significant in that it recognizes the importance of these disciplines to economic competitiveness and, accordingly, stresses their importance to educational  policy,  Psychology is recognized as a STEM discipline by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  These STEM disciplines affect immigration policy.

Unfortunately, there are people who confuse psychology with psychiatry, a medical specialty.  Although clinical psychology does deal with mental illness, and clinical psychologists do work with psychiatrists, it is but one branch of psychology, as is counseling psychology.  Psychology is concerned with how humans and animals behave.  This interest extends beyond just behavior and is heavily involved with cognitive processes and neuroscience.  This includes the behavior and interactions of groups of people.  There is a branch known as industrial and organizational psychology that deals with businesses and organizations.  One of the divisions of the American Psychological Association (APA) is the Division of Applied Experimental and Engineering Psychology.  I have had the honor of serving as president of this division.

Although psychology is an important discipline and deserves recognition as a STEM discipline, I had long thought that it was best to postpone psychology courses until college.  However, my thinking has changed.  I have long advocated that statistics and experimental design be taught in high school.  The reason for this is that it is difficult to be a responsible citizen, or to make informed decisions about medical care, without a fundamental understanding of statistics.   However, I think all adults should have some understanding about how human cognition works, and the information processing shortcomings and biases we are all prey to.  People need to learn how we understand and come into contact with our environment and our fellow human beings.   People need to understand that we are conscious of only a small percentage of our cognitive processes.  And we all need to learn about mindfulness so we can deal better not only with our own cognitive processes, but also with our interactions with our fellow human beings.

I have also found that psychology, that is scientifically based psychology, provides an expert platform for learning about science.  Psychology involves more than neuroimaging.  There are psychologists who use biological assays in their research.  Cognitive psychology is concerned with how cognition works to include memory, perception, concept formation, problem solving, language, and creativity.  Educational psychology studies the best ways to learn including teaching and computer assisted instruction.  Social psychology is concerned with how groups of humans act, how opinions are formed, and the best ways to persuade.  Industrial organizational psychology is concerned with how organizations work, and how their functioning can be performed.  This includes the performance of teams.  Different areas of research require different techniques, so a wide variety of experimental methods and statistical approaches are used.

It has been my experience that many, certainly not all, but many, from the physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering, know well the methods and techniques needed for their disciplines.  But they still lack a general ability to apply the scientific method.  The function more as technicians in their disciplines, rather than as broadly trained scientists.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A Moving Presentation

August 20, 2014

For me the high point of the APA convention was the award a former colleague of many years ago received. That colleague is Gilbert O. (Sandy) Sanders who received the American Psychological Foundation Award for his Lifetime Achievement in the Practice of Psychology. Here is the citation:

Gilbert O. Sanders, EdD, ABMP, has served as the point person for developing integrated programs of psychology and medicine in Vietnam, Alaska, California, and Germany. His leadership in psychotherapy and psychopharmacology earned him the rank of Captain, the highest rank authorized for psychologists in the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS). His contributions in the USPHS, the military, and as a civilian have improved fitness for duty of government personnel, reduced costs, and improved healthcare for the military and their families. His lifetime of achievements in the practice of psychology has served as a model for healthcare services for our United States civilian population.

I am not a clinician and when I was working with him, he was not working as a clinician, although he had training and degrees in clinical work and counseling. We had completely lost touch for many years. Several years ago I ran into him and learned that he was working in the PHS. When I learned and read of his award I was overwhelmed! I had no idea what he had been up to these many year! During his speech at the ceremony Sandy said that when he received the phone call telling him of his award he told them this must be a mistake. It can’t be correct. This was characteristic of Sandy’s modesty.

At the ceremony there were others who were also receiving awards for accomplishments in various areas of achievement. Sandy led off and was modest and grateful to his deceased parents, his wife, mentors, and colleagues. The other reward recipients followed suit. Awardee after awardee expressed their thanks and gratefulness. The common theme was that they could not have done it alone. Now you might think it might have been tedious and boring sitting in the audience, but it wasn’t. The modesty was genuine and the feelings were heartfelt. And these were the stars of my profession. I’ve told others that this was analogous to baseball players being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

A Brief Summary of Sessions Attended at the 2014 APA Convention

August 17, 2014

The first session I attended was on training older adults to enhance their memories. Important here are the roles of self-efficacy and self-regulation. Metamemory refers to the knowledge we have and use regarding our own memories. Important here is one’s subjective age. That is, the age one feels. Feelings of being old can led one to self-defeating prophecies that one is old and therefore cannot do things or be successful. Consequently, one one is trying to perform a task, positive feedback is important. In studies where positive feedback, negative feedback, and no feedback was provided, it is not surprising that positive feedback yields positive results. What is interesting is that there was no difference between the no feedback and negative feedback conditions. This result suggest that people provide their own negative feedback when no feedback is given. So it is important when training memory strategies, it is also important to impart positive beliefs.

Previously difficulties have been encountered in demonstrating transfer from the trained memory tasks to other tasks. These researchers reported wide spread transfer effects Although these effects were wide spread, they were not universal. Depending upon the severity of the memory problem and the difficulty of the transfer tasks, sometimes the effects were diminished. But it seemed at most all levels of dementia, some type of transfer was exhibited.

Dunlosky of Kent State presented research on Strategy Adapted Training and a Learner-oriented approach. The notion here is to capitalize on the strengths of the elderly and to develop good metacognition. An important part of this training was self testing. This self-testing not only required information retrieval, which is evaluable itself in strengthening neural connections, but the outcome of these tests provides information for regulating future study.

I also attended the Psy Chi sponsored lecture by Daniel Schacter, one of the most renowned memory researchers (see the healthymemory blog post, “The Seven Sins of Memory”). The benefits of actually ry testing oneself and retrieving information from memory were mentioned. More shall be written about Schachter’s research in future posts.

There was an interesting session on creativity and intelligence using both psychometric and neuroscience approaches. There are standard tests for different types of intelligence and for the types of thinking that lead to creativity. Brain imaging is used to find what parts of the brain are involved in certain tasks as well as what areas of the brain are more highly activated in highly intelligent and creative people. Moreover, there are different types of creativity that foster different types of activity in the brain. For example, there was a presentation on the neural correlates of metaphorical expression. Another question is whether creative people better able to control their imaginations. The current answer is a tentative “Yes.”

Research was presented on the training of working memory. As the name implies, working memory is memory that works. For example, it is the memory used when there is a distance between the phone and the directory and you need to rehearse the number until you can dial it or you will likely forget it. Research suggest that a stronger working memory allows for more persistence trying a task, which will more likely lead to success.

There was a session on Mind Body, Creative, and Cross Cultural Extension. One presenter made the argument that mindfulness is a construct whereas meditation is a technique. I have no argument with this in a theoretical sense, but in a practical sense I would argue that mindfulness is a way of thinking and living. Meditation is used to build and support mindfulness. There are many types of meditation. This point was illustrated in a cross-cultural comparison. Unfortunately, results were presented indicating that one type of meditation was superior to another type of meditation. Let us hope that this competition will not continue. It is better to think that different types of meditation are appropriate for achieving different ends, that different approaches are appropriate for different people, and that they can all be used to increase mindfulness.

There a scale that measures mindfulness, the Langer Mindfulness Scale. It was used in a study of patients suffering from ALS, which is better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. This scale predicted physical and psychological changes independently.

I attended an invited address by Bryan Stevenson, JD, from the Equal Justice Initiative on the Psycho-Social Dynamics of Achieving Justice. This man is remarkable. He is one of the best, perhaps the best, speakers I have every heard, and his message is an important one. I would advise everyone never to pass up an opportunity to hear this man speak. His website is

The Neal Miller lecture was presented by Dr. Stuart M. Zola. In addition to being a psychologist, he is also a magician, so it was not surprising that his talk was titled “Memory, Magic, and the Brain.”He made interesting points and illustrated them with magic. I am unable to show his magic tricks, and as he made several points, I’ll just present one. This has to do with how our memories can fool us. The day after the shuttle disaster a psychologist, Ulric Neisser, had the prescience to have his students write down what they remembered regarding the tragedy. He had the further wisdom to have these same students write down their recollections again. The students also rated the confidence they had in their recollections. Neisser compared the two written accounts. There were some that were consistent. However, there were many more, some of which were wildly discrepant. When shown their original accounts, some swore that they were not theirs, that they had been switched. Most importantly is that the correlations between the confidence they expressed and the accuracy of their recollections were low. The lesson here is to be wary not only in the accuracy of our own memories, but certainly to be wary of the accuracy of others. Moreover, the confidence people express in their recollections should be ignored. What is disturbing is that research has found that in courts of law, jurors are much more prone to believe the confident witness, when in reality the memories of the cautious witness are much more likely to be accurate. It is likely that this tendency to believe confident witnesses has led to the execution of innocent individuals.

On the final day I attended sessions on impact validation, that is on validations of programs and interventions, and on consciousness. The papers on consciousness were interesting, but nothing was resolved, of course.

There will be subsequent posts on a former colleague who received a prestigious and deserved award, and on the work of Philip Zimbardo.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Attendance at 2014 Convention of the American Psychological Association

August 13, 2014

Before posting about the substantive information from the convention, I shall first review some human factors technology issues. The convention was held in the Convention Center of Washington DC. The informational signs were not satisfactory. Even though I had been there before, navigation was a problem. In all fairness I must admit that the DC Convention Center is not unique in having this problem. I cannot remember any place I have been that did not suffer from this deficiency. The same problem applied to highway signs. The signs are useful to people who know the area. They are not useful for those unfamiliar with the area. In all fairness to the APA, at least, there were human guides strategically placed throughout the convention center to provide directions and information.

Road signs present an interesting case. There are standards for road sign legibility, although I do not think they are well enforced, nor that there needs to be a requirement about the illumination of these signs. Now what is the point of being able to read a sign if you don’t know what it means?

The fundamental problem is that the people who design the signs know the area quite well for which they are designing. The utility of these signs need to be tested with people who do not know the area. Were this to be done effectively, the problem would largely disappear.

I also took my iPad to the convention. I am a new iPad user. I recently purchased a MacPro rather than undergo the frustration of Windows 8. I had been avoiding Apple for many years for a couple of reasons. The first being their contention that the MacIntosh was intuitive. All one needed to do was to be able to point and click. Personal experience supplemented with volumes of empirical data provide ample proof that this claim was unsubstantiated. Secondly, I could not believe the gaul of Apple to sue Microsoft for Windows. The windows graphical user interface was developed at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and implemented the their Star computer. Xerox is to be faulted for not commercializing and supporting the Star computer. They could have captured both the commercial and the academic markets. Regardless, Apple had no claim on the Windows concept.

And as far as being intuitively obvious, I found there to be nothing intuitive about the iPad. Although it does have Siri, I have not found Siri to have the information I needed when I needed it. However, she did provide a means of venting and cursing that I found to be cathartic. She never is offended and proffers, “You are entitled to your opinion.” But Apple does have Apple Geniuses. One can schedule appointments without difficulty and have a real human being, who is quite knowledgeable and easy to worth with. I hope that Apple keeps these geniuses and that other companies follow their lead.

The APA had a downloadable APP for the meeting in addition to the large, bulky conventional program of 592 pages. I found them both to be useful. Unfortunately the convention APP could not stand alone to my satisfaction. Although it might have contained all the information that the paper program had, I still found that it was easier to find certain things in the paper program.

I had planned to try taking notes on my iPad. I could do this either by typing or by writing. I found my writing to be both illegible and uneconomical. One of the benefits of typing is that it is legible. Moreover, I had read an article that disabused me of this idea. According to a piece in theMonitor on Psychology (page 21 July/August, 2014) this question was addressed by researchers from the University of California and Princeton University. In a study reported in Psychological Science. The researchers asked 65 college students to watch a TED talk with the option of taking notes via the laptop or by hand. A half hour after the talk the students answered factual recall questions and conceptual application questions about the lecture. Both types of note takers performed equally well on fact recall questions, but the laptop note takers performed significantly worse on the conceptual questions. Moreover, one week later when the students were given a chance to review their notes before taking the test, the longhand note takers still performed better.

It is interesting to speculate why this result was obtained. As the students were not randomly assigned to one group or the other, it is possible that the longhand note takers were better students. But if the students had been randomly assigned to the groups, then some of the students would be performing a different way of taking notes that might have been awkward. This was one of those situations where random assignment would have been ill advised. Perhaps the requirements of typing used up attention that could have ben spent processing the lecture. Or perhaps there was more freedom taking notes longhand as diagrams and links could have been used. This might have especially aided conceptual understanding.

Another reason for taking conventional handwritten notes, is that I feared losing information with the undesirable consequence that my posts about the Convention would have been rather thin.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Gone to the 2014 Meeting of the American Psychological Association (APA)

August 6, 2014

There will be a brief hiatus in new blog posts while I attend, assimilate, and perhaps write some new blog posts. However, with 500 plus posts already posted, I think there is plenty to read and consider in the meantime. The category mnemonic techniques contains not only techniques for directly improving memory, but also posts on mindfulness and meditation. The category transactive memory has posts on how to use technology and interact with our fellow humans to promote memory health and to grow cognitively The category Human Memory Theory and Data has posts on the fascinating and relevant topic of human cognition.

Please use the healthymemory blog’s search block. You might be surprised by the diversity of topics you will see covered.

Conscious Thought

August 14, 2011

The topic of consciousness has been addressed in a number of Healthymemory Blog Posts (“Change Your Brain by Transforming Your Mind,” “We Are the Law: Free Will, The Human Mind, and the Limits of Determinism,” “Consciousness and the Grandmother Cell,” “Fluid Intelligence and Working Memory,” “What is Incubation,” “How Do We See,” “Brain, Mind, and Body,” “What is Consciousness,”, and “Attention”) because it is an important topic. For most lay people, consciousness is psychology. It is how we deal with the world on a daily, and nightly, basis. It is a tad ironic, that for many academic psychologists consciousness is an epiphenomenon that we view in our minds, and that most, if not all, behavior and thought occur below the level of consciousness. So consciousness is viewed by some as a movie we see in our head as we proceed through our life. The believe it has no real function.

Consequently, it was refreshing to hear the presentation by Ray F. Baumeister at this year’s annual meeting of the American Psychological Association (APA) titled the “What, Why, and How of Consciousness.”1 Most theories that contend that consciousness is epiphenomenal focus on input and or output processes. Baumgartner does not address these theories as for him the role of consciousness is central to what occurs between input and output processes. He argues that conscious thought is for internal processing that facilitates downstream interaction with the social and cultural environment. Consciousness enables the construction of meaningful, sequential thought. These constructions are found in sentences and narratives, logical reasoning, quantification, causal understanding, and narratives. In short, it accounts for intellectual and social life. It is used for the simulation of events.

It is estimated that people focus an average of 30% to 40% of their thoughts on concerns that are unrelated to their present behavior. Some people’s minds wander from the here and now more than 90% of the time. Even when tied to present behavior, conscious thoughts are often used for to recall similar behaviors from the past, anticipating the consequences of present behaviors, or considering alternative courses of action.

Baumeister contends that thought sequences resemble film clips that the brain makes for itself, allowing different parts of the brain and mind to share information. The production of conscious thought is linked to the production of speech, because the human mind evolved to facilitate social communication and information sharing. This led to culture and the adaptive success of humankind as the social species.

1Although it might be difficult obtaining this address, much of its content and the citations found in this blog post can be found in “Conscious Thought Is For Faciliting Social and ‘Cultural Interactions: How Mental Simulations Serve the Animal-Cultural Interface” by Roy F. Baumeister and E.J. Masicampo in the Psychological Review, (2010), 117. 945-971.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.