Internal decision making conflict – something we are all experiencing

For example, most of us will probably easily indentify that we are always somewhat internally torn when we have to make decisions.

We all know that it is easy to sit in the chair and say that we will go and get fit eventually.  But that is easier said than done as ‘something’ inside of us seems to stop us from actually doing it.

Or we may have the idea that we will start eating more healthy, stop smoking, etc., but when it comes to actually doing it, one part of us seems to provide some real resistance whereas the other part is all for it. It is a battle of the wills within, and more often than not, the ‘bad’ guy seems to win.

For instance, in the case of the smoker who wants to stop the addiction, the question of crucial importance here to the therapist is ‘who am I talking with, the part of you that doesn’t want to smoke, or the part of you that wants to smoke?’ Can I make the client ‘believe’ that he or she has what it takes?

Or for those who are severely depressed, there is that part that really wants to get better whereas the other part is completely unwilling to make that move. It is as if we are under a hypnotic spell and it takes immense effort to affect change, even though that conscious part of us really wants to do things differently.

Whenever I ask a client ‘who am I speaking with right now? – the one who wants to change or the one who wants to keep doing the same old thing as yesterday’, most clients are at a loss of how to answer that question. But it gets them thinking that there is a clear internal distinction between what they want and what they believe about themselves.

In my experience, the lower a clients’ self confidence the more they are inclined to listen to their inherent negativity and the more they are afraid, insecure and in complete disbelief that they could ever get a better outcome.

They are trapped in their ‘belief’ that nothing ever good can come to them. Even though unwanted, this is their mantra, this is their philosophy, and this belief has usually its root cause in their early years. It is in our younger years where we have been most impressionable, it is here where we take on what is modelled through our parents, society and the environment. It is here where we come to belief or disbelief that we’ve got what it takes or not for that matter.

But what do we do if there are no good mentors when we are of tender age? What do we do when our parents do the best they can, but they just don’t know any better? Well… then the best we can do is to take on what we can get and make do with that.

Whatever the belief that we have developed in this manner, we seem to have a tendency to keep reinforcing it throughout our lives.

For instance there is the example of the 45 year old man who has been told by his mother while struggling with his math homework back at age 6 – ‘Good lord – you really are dumb – I wish you would just be as smart as your brother!’ Feeling rejected, these words became stuck in his mind and whenever he had to do his math work all he could think about was ‘I am dumb!’ ‘I am less worthy than my brother!’ I don’t like math!’ ‘I feel inferior to my brother!’

Believing strongly in all of this, he started to show that he was indeed pretty bad at math. Whenever there was a test to complete he had no confidence in his ability and thus the results of his failure to produce good marks kept reinforcing not only his belief, but also that of the surrounding environment. Especially his mother felt reinforced in her belief about her son.

Of course, depending on the circumstances this scenario could have played out differently. For instance her son could have excelled at maths just to show his mother that he was good enough and thus appease her and win her admiration.

However, in both cases the feeling of rejection and worthlessness would have been the same and served as a cause for his motivation to either fail or excel in his endeavour to master math.

From my own clinical understanding I have come to realize that once we have experienced an event that has caused a conflicting belief within us, we are likely to project it on the environment.

This is of course perfectly OK for as long as it is not something that is irrational and thus serves no purpose other than that of making our life miserable.

For instance, fear and anxiety is a good thing when we stand in front of a lion, but it may not be of much value when we have a deep seated phobia of fruit and vegetables and thus are unable to attend dinner parties or go socialising with others in pubs and restaurants, as was the case with one client that presented with just such phobic condition.

He associated fruit and vegetables with weakness and sincerely believed that others would not perceive him as a real man if he ate them. Part of him was completely aware that these thoughts were utterly irrational. However, his deep seated belief was much stronger and told him otherwise.

Thus, it is to no surprise that a tree is perceived differently by those who had a good time building a tree house compared to those who fell off it. The tree itself is impartial to the way we perceive it. It is our internal representations that make things look good or bad.

Yet, no matter what might befall us, practising faith in Buddhism enables us to see things in their true perspective. No matter how conflicting we may feel inside about our past or present experiences, the distinctions we used to make will become nothing more than observable phenomena in an ocean of life because we know that we have the power to change anything, all we need is ‘belief’ that we are a lot more than we think we are (i.e. a Buddha).

How we project our conflicts onto the environment around us

There is much evidence that we have a tendency to project our beliefs on the environment as the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) shows.

The Thematic Apperception Test is a psychological assessment tool that was developed by psychologist Henry Murray from Harvard University in the 1930’s in order to explore the underlying dynamics of personality within a person such as internal conflicts, dominant drives, and likely motives.

The TAT is a projective test and assesses what a person projects onto a set of ambiguous images. In other words, you will be shown a series of pictures and make up a story of what you see and in the process you are asked questions such as:

  • what is happening at the moment
  • what the characters are feeling and thinking, and
  • what the outcome of the story was
  • what has led up to the event shown

Critics may say that the TAT is based on the Freudian principle of repression which some see as outdated or even unscientific due to its lack of statistical validity and reliability. However, having used it myself  there is little doubt in my mind that after a client has interpreted about 10 images in the manner described, their situation in life becomes quite clear as they somewhat unconsciously project their issues and personal circumstances onto the images they are viewing.

Thus, one could argue that the TAT suggests that we do this in our daily life as well. In other words, we seem to project our beliefs onto the environment around us and may see events and situations in an unrealistic or in a distorted manner.

Therefore, one could argue that it is what we project that creates our reality which in turn then keeps creating our subsequent experiences in life. For instance, if we have come to believe that we are unworthy of respect and things are ‘unfair’, we will see and find evidence for it anywhere and everywhere we go.

We may see our perception confirmed through that waiter in a restaurant who just doesn’t seem to pay the ‘proper’ attention to our needs, or the government that ‘appears’ to send us an undue bill, it is all proof of the unfairness towards us that we perceive. This happens over and over until our view eventually becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Thus one ‘becomes’ what one believes to ‘be’.

Yet a person with a different belief may not even notice the waiter serving the drink, and the governmental bill hardly raises an eyebrow. They don’t have the same ‘baggage’ and thus have an entirely different awareness of the presented environmental stimuli. In such case, there is no need for negative projection and thus the potential for conflict is minimised.

In the case of the depressed person, the function of the positive negative paradigm that exists within all of us and which should ideally be balanced can thus be seen as having almost completely tipped towards the negative end of the scale of an otherwise ‘normal’ internal conflict dialogue. As a result, the voice that would normally throw in some positive affirmation is almost completely silenced. The depressed person is typically stuck in believing that they are unable to get out of their negativity. There is little hope that things will ever get better and the struggle to ‘function’ in everyday life takes all their energy.

They tell me ‘please assist me in getting a handle on that part of me that I seem to have so little control over, I am tired of that constant internal struggle. I’ve got nothing left. I don’t believe very much that you can help me, because I just can’t see that this is possible, but I have an inkling of hope left that you might be the one who can make things better’.

The physiological evidence of internal conflict

In my clinical experience I come across this kind of internal conflict almost every day. Clients present with ‘issues’ that in most cases are between what they would like to achieve and their perceived inability of actually getting there. In short, it is a conflict between their conscious, rational mind and some undefined mostly irrational hindrance that is beyond their conscious awareness (i.e. the subconscious or unconscious). As a first step, therapy deals with this by investigating where these often irrational thoughts or beliefs have their origin (also called the Initial Sensitising Event in professional terms) and by doing so making the conscious rational mind aware of the possible reasons behind the irrational or unwanted behaviour.

Yet, even if the client is thus made aware, the desired changes don’t necessarily take place. In fact, there appears to be ‘someone’ within the client that just doesn’t want to make that change at all. As mentioned, there is the smoker who wants to stop, but somehow cannot really do it, there is the overweight client who wants to be slim, but finds him or herself unable to engage in a healthier lifestyle, there is the depressed client who wants to think positively but hears and sees only negatives. The list is endless and the multitude of internal conflict knows no bounds.

The question then occurs, if everyone can identify with this, is conflict a normal state of mind? And if this is indeed the case, is there some evidence for this in the real world?

Splitting the human brain reveals two distinct memory systems

Perhaps the answer lies with people who have experienced the ‘Split Brain Syndrome’ (SBS). The SBS is a consequence of surgery performed mostly to relieve violent, drug-resistant epileptic seizures. It involves the cutting apart the two hemispheres of the human brain by severing the corpus callosum, a band of 200-250 million nerve fibres connecting the left and the right hemisphere.

The surgeons who have pioneered this technique, Roger Sperry (who received the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1981) and Ronald Meyers initially operated on cats then monkeys and in 1961, humans joined the list. Psychological testing after the procedure revealed some very intriguing results which prompted Sperry to call the brain “Two separate realms of conscious awareness; two sensing, perceiving, thinking and remembering systems.”

In other words, Sperry and other neurologists are of the opinion that the brain houses two minds, each in one hemisphere and they orchestrate into a single personality when communicating with each other.

Initially, after the surgery patients appeared perfectly normal. They had no problems with talking, reading and recognizing the world about them. Finding their seizures eliminated, they appeared happy, healthy and alert, until a certain Jekyll and Hide effect became apparent.

Michael Gazzaniga a psychologist who conducted a lot of the early psychological research on split brain patients discovered that if the patient would hold something in the left hand (like a cup or a hair comb for example) and it was out of the visual field of the right side, he or she couldn’t say its name. However, when the item was transferred to the right hand –the patient had no trouble at all verbalising it.

Similarly, Gazzaniga found that the same happened with words. He would hold up a card with a large printed word but observable only in the patient’s left visual field. Unsurprisingly, even though there was absolutely nothing wrong with the left eye, the patient was unable to read it out. But when the same word was presented to the right visual field (i.e. the right eye) the patient had no trouble recognising it and saying it out loud.

Knowing that the visual field of the right eye crosses into the left hemisphere, while the visual field of the left eye crosses into the right (see picture underneath) Gazzaniga and others decided to investigate this phenomena further.

Gazzaniga decided to set up a number of experiments designed to investigate whether the brain was a combination between genius and idiocy or whether there were other reasons for the apparent differences in perception.  He knew that vision and touch were most definitely transferred from one visual field to the opposing brain hemisphere, so much was clear.  Based on this, he knew that the left hemisphere could verbally express itself, but what about the other?

He also knew that he could cue his patients by voice, as sound would reach both hemispheres simultaneously and that learning occurs in a verbal and non verbal format (for example in art, music, geometry, abstractions, etc).  Thus, he decided to design a screen behind which he would hide 10 commonly known objects that the patient would be able to touch, but not see.

He would then flash a picture of an object in the left visual field of the patient (i.e. cueing the right hemisphere) and ask him/her to find that object behind the screen. The reader should remember, in previous situations patients who were presented with an object in the left visual field were unable to ‘speak’ of what they saw.  However, this time, to his amazement Gazzaniga found that the patient had no difficulty finding the object behind the screen by means of touch.

Being of two minds – a well established fact

In other words, one part of the brain wasn’t really aware of what the other part was actually doing. There was no communication between the hemispheres, and thus their independence was confirmed.

The implications of this research were ground breaking as it became evident that the right hemisphere, although mute and illiterate, was indeed an intelligent entity that was very imaginative and even had a sense of humour, as other experiments would confirm. However, even though it had great capacity to deal with abstraction, it had next to none capacity to deal with words, while the opposite held true for the left hemisphere.

Further experimentation lead to the understanding that people would use different kinds of memory to make sense of the world, and the earliest memory when one comes to think of it, is usually non-verbal. For instance in early childhood most learning is non verbal and our experiences are thus very much memorized in non-verbal format. A baby doesn’t have words for ‘feeling’ hungry, sad, joy, and it doesn’t necessarily consciously know why it feels that way. The conscious understanding usually progresses with age where logic and analysis would become more and more dominant.

Thus, a specialisation occurred where one hemisphere would do that what it had learned to do best. For the right hemisphere there was no need to learn words, as the left would have to do this job. In other words, if a word had to be identified, all the right hemisphere had to do was to transmit a request to deal with that situation to the left hemisphere, something we would call ‘good teamwork’.

However, the truly amazing part of the research became apparent when the word lazy and illiterate right hemisphere of patients was suddenly confronted with the fact that this kind of teamwork was no longer possible.

But instead of giving in to such obstacles the right hemisphere started to learn to be more independent from the left within a space of six months. Researchers were amazed to find that even though there was such obvious hemispherical specialisation, the right hemisphere would be able to hang on to information coming from the external environment and eventually express itself verbally (although never to the level and expertise of the hemisphere that was originally responsible for that ability) .

It is a proven fact that each brain hemisphere can hold different emotions about a subject and thus may think and feel quite divided and conflicting when it comes to making decisions of how one should feel and think about what is presented. Gazzaniga points out that SBS patients who are devoid of the kind of communication that normally takes place between hemispheres via the corpus callosum learn how to do this by simply speaking out loud what they want the other hemisphere to know. The most interesting part about this is that should a conflict arise, such as who operates the voice, the dominant hemisphere always wins out.

From a psychological perspective, this is a very relevant discovery.  For instance, the topic of psychotherapy and especially hypnotherapy has been surrounded by a lot of controversy and mystery. However, when using guided imagery or hypnosis with my clients I often come to experience firsthand how they enter into an altered state of mind where part of their personality seems to be functioning independently without the other part being consciously aware that this is actually happening. Thus, facilitated by the hypnotic process, they are often surprised when they find themselves unconsciously doing what is suggested, such as elevating their arm into the air while consciously thinking about something entirely different. Nevertheless, they are still able to observe what is going on, yet to them it appears to happen automatically without their own conscious input.

This would suggest a disassociation between hemispheres during hypnosis similar to that achieved in SBS patients, and thus it may be warranted to refer to the left hemisphere as the conscious mind whereas the right hemisphere is responding to unconscious processes.

Whether this is truly as clear cut as saying that the left or the right hemisphere is entirely responsible for either subconsciousness and the other for conscious processes is perhaps a little too simplistic. However, knowing that the right hemisphere is generally non verbal and therefore largely hidden from conscious awareness this may not be too far from the truth.

Either way, we seem to be pre-programmed to often experience internal conflict because of our inability to reconcile the rational thoughts of the left hemisphere with the sometimes rather irrational thoughts of the right.

Therefore, it may be beneficial at this stage to elaborate on the various concepts of ‘consciousness’ as it is as elusive and mysterious today, as it was many centuries ago. Yet the understanding of consciousness forms an important and integral part of Buddhism just as it does to the field of psychology and psychiatry.

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