Saturday, September 2, 2006

Magic Words and Alchemy

Much of the Cognitive brand of psychology tells us that we create our own reality with our thoughts and perceptions. A nice summary (from the above linked wikipedia article) of this approach to psychology is as follows:

Cognitive theory contends that solutions to problems take the form of algorithms—rules [processes] that are not necessarily understood but promise a solution, or heuristics—rules [exploratory or trial-and-error processes] that are understood but that do not always guarantee solutions. In other instances, solutions may be found through insight, a sudden awareness of relationships [intuition].

I must confess that I've had a longterm love/hate relationship with this Cognitive approach. While it seems to be one of the 'best' approaches to understanding our minds it still is missing something. And those "rules that are understood but that do not always guarantee solutions" are just not satisfying. When I was in school there was little discussion about the physical/biological aspects of our thoughts and behavior other than some brain anatomy about which structures were 'believed' to be related to different thought processes, etc., and even then the brain imaging technologies were still in their infancies so we just didn't know that much. All of that is probably the main reason I was unsatisfied with this 'cognitive only' approach. Apparently, many other people felt this same way because these fields were much more widely researched and developed shortly after I graduated.

Now I have the benefit of many more years of living and experience to add to my education. I've had plenty of time to observe, examine, study, and learn about my own thought processes and behaviors so that I've been able to figure out what's what (for the most part). Of course, not all people are like me so I can't assume that because something works for me that it must work for everyone else. But it's probably safe to assume that I'm not an anomaly either.

Besides, one of the things I've noticed over the years is that the things I get interested in are almost always very 'popular' soon after I get into them. I think it's just that I somehow have insights about future events/trends a little sooner than most people. And largely, when I talk about being "psychic" that is what I mean- "having insights about future events/trends sooner than most people." However, as I get older I'm finding that I'm becoming more accurate in more 'specific predictions' in addition to the more general trends. Maybe this is some brain mechanism or process that "burns" an 'easy track' in the neurons so that it speeds up with use. Maybe it's like a 'smoothing' or 'polishing' effect more than just a simple 'carving' out of space. Whoa, where'd that come from?? *snickers*

(Okay, so, I just got a little lost in the smoothing-and-polishing visuals ;-), sorry.)

"Neural Perturbations"

Anyway, this cognitive approach to understanding behavior has successfully spawned a large movement of psycho-spirituality which advocates the idea that we are ultimately in control of our mental environment (and by extension our outer environment somewhat) by adjusting our thoughts and perceptions of the world and how we react to them. The Four Agreements are a reflection of this movement, too, even though the Toltec Wisdom that bases them is much older than modern cognitive psychology. Part of this psycho-spiritual movement's growth has happened because of the compatibility of that older wisdom with the newer 'discoveries.' And in many ways it can and does work for people. We can stop thinking a certain way about things and therefore change our 'reality' (extrinsic and intrinsic environments) within limits.

But at what point does it fail to work? I've always thought that it is at some physical or biological point in the process, a threshold of sorts. I'm tempted to call this the Point of Alchemy*, meaning the point of "an inexplicable or mysterious transmuting," but that term is not optimistic enough for me. ;-)

It's pretty clear that there are many things we can't do just by thinking about it. We can't think up a rose out of thin air. We can't change water into wine just by thinking it. But at some point we are able to alter our reality with our thoughts, and by extension, with our words. And this is pretty much the basis of the Cognitive Therapies as well as the concepts of prayer and magical incantations.

We have lots of 'magic' words - words we can say that change our realities. Probably one of the most powerful is "love." If someone tells us, "I love you," it has the power to make us soar. How is it that one word (or three) can have so much power or 'magic'? And in case someone's heart is so hardened that "love" can't work its magic there is most likely some other word that would work just as well to change that person's reality.

Cognitive therapies are largely based on 'talk therapy' and working on 'controlling' or altering thoughts and behaviors through the use of words. The same is true for prayer (spoken or not). This cognitive practice in whatever form it takes can work at large scales of influence on people just as it can work on individuals. I think a good example might be the way the media can use particular words to alter reality. But again, I'm asking myself about the boundaries, or thresholds, or constraints. ;-)

Let's return to the quote at the beginning about cognitive problem solving. What it seems we need is something to 'consummate' or bridge the gap between the "algorithms" and the "heuristics". Even in psychology we need a 'unifying' theory of everything. Is it some 'physical' or biological process at which this 'alchemy' of reality happens? We know that many psychiatric drugs work by altering the 'chemical imbalances' that result in 'wrong' thoughts and behaviors. It seems we understand the chemistry of that action. But what about the changes that aren't assisted by introduced chemicals? What about those changes we induce ourselves by our own thoughts, etc.? Through biofeedback we do know of some things we can alter by our thoughts, like heartrate, pain relief, etc. But again, we don't know exactly why or how or to what extent.

I certainly hope that whenever someone does discover and 'prove' a Theory of Everything that he/she or another someone will be able to translate it easily enough to terms that describe how our minds work. And in many ways translations are a type of magic words and alchemy too. ;-)

*Alchemy was the medieval chemical science and speculative philosophy aiming to achieve the transmutation of the base metals into gold, the discovery of a universal cure for disease, and the discovery of a means of indefinitely prolonging life. Personally, I can't imagine why anyone would want to live forever, unless you could remain at your youthful peak forever. ;-) And besides, I think that life is indefinitely prolonged no matter what we do. That's probably my Christian upbringing and its "eternal life/eternal damnation" influence showing. ;-)

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