Blind to our own psychological functioning

Aaron Beck (1921-), ‘father of CBT therapy’ proposes that one’s beliefs about ourselves, others and the world around us are at the core of one’s psychological functioning.

Although we know that these learning constructs originate in childhood experiences, there isn’t a coherent explanation as to why we learn them. Their function is to save cognitive resources in order to operate in our environment like a software programming of a computer, but what exactly would have contributed to the developing if such a software remains unknown?

These notes would like to explore such understanding and generate a rather daring hypothesis of ‘love’ being the key code of our own psychological functioning. More exactly it investigates love as a function to keep humans together. The theory of evolution and the theory of implicit learning will assist us in this journey.

Any definition of love recognises the variety of feelings that the word ‘LOVE’ encompasses: affection, pleasure, desire and attraction for another, attachment. Love has been regarded to as one of the greatest ‘free’ pleasures of life. The key element of love stays within the relationship with ‘other’, whether other is another person, situation, object or self.

Evolutionary psychology has attempted to promote an understanding of love as a survival tool. It makes sense that love and bonding will enable the offspring to stay close to their parents to ensure their survival. Attachment between two adults will work on the same principle of uniting them to produce an infant to ensure the perpetuation of species.

Could it be that love can be understood as a ‘gift’ received from our ancestors to ensure continuity of species? And if yes, how?

Let’s take a look at what evolution is teaching us, the fact that we could not have survived on our own, that we would have been easily killed by an animal. Together we would have been more powerful, we would have increased our resources to stay safe and protected against menaces and adversities. Therefore togetherness means longevity and continuity of species.

I’m proposing to use the terms of love, togetherness and connection interchangeably.

Biological models of love tend to see love as a ‘drive’ that brings us together, understood in a way that is similar to thirst and hunger, and yet again ensuring survival.

Psychologically, we can not survive on our own either. If our thoughts and behaviours do not get validated or invalidated by others, we are running the risk of developing and maintaining irrational thinking. The cognitive behavioural model has explored at great length the errors and biases in thinking as maintaining factors for depression and anxiety. With the risks of suicide in depression, combined with the risk aversion strategy in anxiety, us as human beings and ultimately as a species would have become extinct.

Psychologically, love is seen as a more complex phenomenon, which has an emotional, cognitive, social and cultural dimension. It is likely that as an emotion, cognition/thought, pattern of experiences, felt sense, love is being processed by our emotional (limbic system) and more rational brain (cortex, frontal lobe).

To continue this line of argument, we would have needed to unpick the meaning of love from our early childhood experiences, with no awareness of learning, with raw emotional experiences being stored and processed in our prime brain.

Cognitive psychology uses the term of implicit memory or implicit learning to explain how we learn whilst having no awareness. An example would be learning to play tennis or riding a bike, which is hard to put in language. Our brain is likely to have what we call a ‘pattern matching’ to store and make sense of information, data, experiences in order to save up cognitive resources. These patterns are likely to be stored at higher level of category, for example for a chair, desk, coffee table, I can use the word ‘furniture’ to name them all or even better ‘objects’ to capture huge amount of information in one word.        

What if this happens with our emotional experiences, too? That we have higher and higher levels of category, of meaning to capture our experiences? We know that we are learning them implicitly through our experiences with others and ourselves in the world. This means that everybody will be learning something else as not only will the experiences be different but what we make of them will be different. This makes us extremely powerful as species.

Meanings are not actual experiences, but what we make of them - our own impressions that leave marks on us like the imprinting on our fingertips. Freud (1856-1939) argued that the vehicle from unconsciousness to consciousness is language. If we try it to put meanings into words, we are likely to find beliefs, rules, assumptions, formulas, which take us back to procedural knowledge, part of our software programming.

We are inviting our readers to reflect on their meaning of love by considering the following:

  • When do you ‘know’ that you are loved/connected?
  • Think about some examples in which this was/is true.
  • And what do these memories, images, impressions say? What do they mean?
  • Some examples always come handy to guide our own understanding. The memory of ‘my dad coming from work, holding in his hands a guitar that I had so longed for’ meant for me that ‘he/others have me in their minds when they do or do not do something’. ‘When my dog jumped up in my defence when I was attacked, I knew that he loved me, he/others are loyal to me’. ‘I know I am loved when others go the extra length for me’. Love means ‘no demands placed upon me’. 'I know I am loved when there is a sparkle in the other’s eye; I know ‘I am welcomed’.
  • And now consider the opposite of connection, which is disconnection; and also tap into some experiences in which this was true for you.

If love is so important to our survival, could it be that it has something to do with our core beliefs? Could it be that the way we come about to connect/love is through fear of disconnection?

Fear is another ‘gift’ that we have received from our ancestors and its function is to prepare the individual to detect and deal with threats. We use a signal detection mode (appraisal of danger and own ability to face it) to ensure survival. We no longer talk about physical danger, but psychological danger: the fear of not being liked, loved, attractive, included, accepted (through lacking qualities or status).

Ultimately, one’s journey in life is to achieve connection, love and togetherness. Our childhood experiences are the ones that shape our learning, since for somebody to feel accepted/liked/loved would be to achieve, to be successful, for others would be to be seen as knowledgeable/clever, for others it would by pleasing others, or seeking to feel confident. Unfortunately, we end up losing sight of our journey and the journey in itself becomes being successful, portraying ourselves as clever, pleasing others or feeling confident with no awareness of what drives us to be like this. More importantly we might run the risk of doing this irrespective of the costs associated with it. 

And here is where the journey starts… with views of the world and us, with impressions, felt sense and beliefs that seem true for us (reflections of the reality): If I feel confident, others are going to like me. If I am successful, others are going to accept me. If I am great, perfect, there is no near miss. If I please people, they will be kind to me, they will like me. As we learn our fear of disconnection implicitly, it means that we are blind to it. We know ‘it’, we feel ‘it’ rather than having words for ‘it’.

We propose in this discourse that love has different meanings for different people. Despite the benefits of making humankind more powerful, it is also our own weakness as different meanings lead to ambiguity. And in the absence of knowing with certainty our brain will fill in the dots. We are more likely to ‘see danger’ when experiences are ambiguous. If someone does not say hello, in the absence of knowing why, our brain will be automatically filling in the dots and making assumptions…. consistent with our own psychological danger/fear of disconnection (she does not like me. I am just a doormat for her).

The moral of these notes is that we all have a software programming and that its key code is ‘LOVE’, the power to stay together, understood as connection vs fear of disconnection. In order to arrive at an emotional experience into here and now it is likely that it would have come from somewhere, but we are blind to it. Whenever we experience a felt sense/a mode it is good practice to ask ourselves where we learnt it from, when/how we experienced it for the first time. And trust your brain. If an event is relevant, important, you will remember it. With increased awareness (of the overdeveloped strategies) come increased options to respond differently (rather than automatically). Good luck on this journey.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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