hydraulics of the mind the horror of a couch potato

It’s not you but your cells that believe in thoughts

So far, we have examined how the belief in reality of thoughts and the content of thoughts translate into the intensity of an emotional reaction. Now let’s try to understand what determines the degree of faith in a thought. Each of us is intellectually aware that thought is not something that is actually happening, but merely a mental projection of reality. The intensity of this projection, however, does not depend solely on intellectual recognition. We can compare this situation to an optical illusion. For example, consider the Necker cube below.

Do you see the depth in it? Which side is closer? Note that the mind is constantly trying to determine which side of the cube is closer to the observer. Depending on what part of the picture the attention is focused on, the top or bottom square comes to the fore. In fact, it is only an optical illusion and in reality there is a flat figure in the image. Despite the fact that we are intellectually aware of this, the mind constantly generates a sense of depth, so that one of the squares always appears closer or further from the observer.

A similar illusion takes place in case of a  thought. On the one hand, we intellectually recognize that thinking is merely a virtual projection, which in itself is only a flat image that does not have a direct impact on us, on the other hand, we feel as if this projection was real. Let us take memory as an example. Similarly to projections of potential future events, memory itself is merely a simulation made in the present and labeled “past”. However, we perceive memory as being  real,  nearly material. We feel the reality of memory so much that we react with an emotion of anger when someone suggests that the events we remember (that is, what we are simulating at the moment) never happened. However, psychological research shows that our memory is very unreliable. It turns out that we do not remember the original event that took place in real time, but only the simulations that our mind generated after the event, when we are trying to recall the event. Our memory is not much different from the  “telephone game” in which we are recording the recalls of the recalls of an original event.

Another example is the image of the world around us. Think of the room next to the room in which you are now sitting and reading. Do you have a feeling that this mental image of the room is just a thought, an ephemeral mental creation, or do you have the feeling that it reflects something real? Now remind yourself that it’s just a projection. Has anything changed? Probably not. Despite an intellectual realization that the image of the next room is merely a thought process, the mind constantly feels that there must be something real behind this projection. This feeling of realness of a thought is very little affected by intellectual recognition of their purely virtual nature.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the fact that we think there’s another room behind the door next to us or that our car is parked in a garage. However, here we are only concerned with pointing out that the belief in the reality of thoughts happens at the cellular level rather than at the intellectual level only.

hydraulics of the mind the horror of a couch potato

fighting the holograms

The intensity of an emotional reaction to a scenario played out by a mind depends on the content of that thought, AND on the intensity of the simulation itself. What do we mean by that?

If we compare a thought simulation to a movie that is displayed on a transparent screen placed very close to our eyes, the intensity of the simulation will be inversely proportional to the degree of transparency of the screen. Hence, if the screen is 90% transparent then the simulation has an intensity of 10%, if the screen is 40% transparent, then the simulation has an intensity of 60% etc.

If the screen is completely opaque (we can’t see anything other than the simulation) then the simulation has an intensity of 100%. This means that we are unable to distinguish mental projections from the real world. We deal with this type of simulation in dreams. During sleep we are completely immersed in a dream world (mental reality) and react to it as if it was our reality.

Thus, if the mind simulates a negative event that causes a defensive reaction in the body (stress), the degree of this reaction will depend on the intensity of the simulation (the transparency level of the mental screen). This transparency level of the screen can be compared to the degree of the mind’s belief that the simulation is real. If the mind believes in 100% that the generated projection is a real event, then the emotional response will be equivalent to the reaction to a real event. If the mind does not believe that the event is real, then there may not be any emotional reaction at all. This does not mean that the mind will cease the simulation, but merely that it is fully aware of the fact that the thought is merely a virtual event that cannot cause harm to the organism itself.

The less faith in the reality of thought (in the reality of the simulation), the lower the emotional reaction (and vice versa).

Note, however, that the degree to which the mind believes in the reality of thought is not an intellectual calculation. Belief in thought is not an intellectual construct, but rather a mental feeling (more on the difference between intellectual recognition and mental feeling in the article: “it’s not you but your Cells that believe in a thought“). As with an emotion that arises as a result of certain conditions, the feeling that a thought projection is real is a result of many factors.

To understand what these factors are, let’s imagine the following situation. We sit in a room and watch a movie. If the film has a captivating plot, we can easily sink into the film world, identify ourselves with the main character and in consequence experience a whole range of emotions. However, if we watch the movie with someone else who has an annoying habit  of constantly commenting on different scenes, asking us questions and distracting us with other activities (like hitting a pause button in a middle of a captivating scene due to a sudden desire to get something out of the fridge), then it becomes more difficult for us to be emotionally involved in the plot. What is the difference between these two situations?

The difference is the degree to which our attention is focused on the film. If we are alone and nothing distracts us, we can fully engage in the film. On the other hand, if something or someone constantly distracts us from the screen, our attention is distracted – the degree of concentration is lower. Our emotional reaction to the events in the film will therefore be proportionally smaller. The mind will not have the right conditions to build faith that what is happening on the screen is really happening. The mind will stay being aware of the fact that the body is not in the virtual world created by the director of the film, but in a room on the couch, with someone distracting us all the time. The mind knows (or rather feels) all the time that despite the various terrible dangers that threaten the protagonist on the screen, our body stays completely safe.

The same is true of emotional involvement with mind-generated thought stories. Attention must be concentrated on thoughts to the extent that the mind forgets the actual conditions of the physical body.

The main factor determining the degree of faith in the reality of a thought is the level of attention paid to the content of that thought.

As a result of increased concentration on thoughts of the imminent danger, the mind begins to believe that the body is in real danger. This triggers a series of defensive reactions aimed at bringing the body out of a dangerous situation (reactions that are perceived as a feeling of stress). The problem arises when the thought concerns a distant or completely abstract situation. The body is ready now to fight a threat that is present in the now. The heart beats faster, the jaws are clenched, the muscles are tense. However, the physical body cannot remove the virtual threats, just as a seasoned martial art adept cannot defeat an opponent who is only a hologram. As long as the story of a thought will not be changed (i.e. the mental danger is not removed) that long the physical body will stay in a state of combat readiness.

As long as the story of a thought will not be changed (i.e. the mental danger is not removed) that long the physical body will stay in the state of combat readiness.

How do we convince a mind, that put its all resources into the fight with the holograms, to stop doing that?

Our previous reflections point to three possible solutions:

a/ we could try to beautify the hologram (mental history) by changing it to a more pleasant one,

b/ we could try to turn off the projector,

c/ or we could lower the degree of faith in the reality of the hologram.

hydraulics of the mind the horror of a couch potato

the horror of a couch potato

We already know that the body reacts with a real somatic change to a virtual threat. This type of solution works very well for shorter thought processes. The minds of dogs, cats, squirrels, mice, hamsters and monkeys create projections covering short periods: the nearest 5 seconds, the next minute, the next 5 minutes, or a day. The emotional states that arise in the bodies of these organisms are being “used” immediately. The fear that something will come out from behind the tree that a cat is approaching, based on the memory of a previous event, causes immediate behavioral changes (for example, making a larger circle around the tree) and is immediately fading away.

body reacts with a real somatic change to a virtual threat

The problem arises when the ability to create complex mental scenarios increases rapidly. As big brain mammals, we create scenarios that concern much longer periods. We think about what we will be doing in 5 minutes, in an hour, in a day, in a week, in a month, in a year, in 5, 10, 20 years. An efficient mind can generate an infinite number of scenarios of events (both nice and very unpleasant) that can happen to us over such long periods. If we now respond to each of these scenarios with a physiological change in the body, we can easily see that this can quickly overload the entire system.

Things can get even worse if you add to it thinking about the past events. For what is the past?

The past is also a thought, which is some kind of scenario that is played out in our minds in the present moment. As in the case of thoughts about the future, we also react to scenarios about past events with a real emotional state that changes the state of the body. If in the past we found ourselves in a situation in which our body had prepared itself to fight or flee, now if we recall the event, that is, recreate it in our mind, our body will be preparing itself to fight or flee again. The stress response will occur in the body and a feeling of stress will appear in the mind.

Remember that our thinking does not only concern our own physical or mental health, but also people close to us, people with whom we are related. In addition, thinking can include completely abstract characters from films, books, etc., and abstract concepts such as society, humanity, planet, etc. Current amount of grey matter in our brains allows us to dwell in virtual reality of thoughts non-stop during the day and for a large part of the night. As a result our bodies are in a state of constant emotional agitation, ready to take action forever .

This may not be a special problem for people who are gifted with positive thinking, whose minds are creating positive scenarios. However, people with a tendency to create darker scenarios find themselves in a rather dreadful situation.

our bodies are in a state of constant emotional agitation, constantly ready to take action

However, we know from our own experience that our reactions to mental stories differ and are not always so dramatic. The same story may cause a whole series of stressful reactions in one moment, and not be particularly exciting at another time. The degree of emotional reaction to a thought depends on the degree of faith in its reality.

hydraulics of the mind the horror of a couch potato

word becomes flesh

Thinking is a mechanism that enables an organism to create a virtual simulation of itself and its environment. It allows it to predict opportunities and threats resulting from its potential interactions with its environment. During the process of thinking the mind creates a series of mental scenarios of its interactions with its environment  and chooses the best one. But how does the mind know which scenario to choose?

It turns out that the so-called somatic markers are the mechanism necessary to choose the right scenario defining the set of actions to be undertaken. A somatic marker is a change in the body (an emotion) that occurs when you mentally act out a scenario.

The concept of somatic markers was first introduced by the Portuguese professor of behavioral neurology Antoni Damasio. In the book “Descartes’ Error”(which basically changed my life), he presents how the existence of somatic markers is essential to undertaking any rational decision. According to the author, the mistake that Descartes made was to assume that the rational mind works in isolation from emotions. Damasio shows that it is the emotion or somatic marker that is necessary for the body to make any decision regarding its well-being.

In simple terms, the mind plays out several possible scenarios and at the same time feels the physiological changes (emotions) that occur in its body. On this basis, it selects the scenario related to the most pleasant or least unpleasant physiological change.

If the virtual body experiences danger in the virtual world, an emotion of stress will arise in the real world, i.e. in the real body.

In the article on stress, we saw that stress is a state of the body’s readiness to take action to avoid danger.

So now we can see that the body reacts with a real somatic change to a virtual threat. In this way, the virtual world becomes the real world from the point of view of the body. The word becomes flesh. Events that are merely simulations cause reactions similar to those that would occur in the body if these events were happening in the real environment of the organism.

virtual world is a real world from the point of view of a body

Thanks to this mechanism, the body can react much faster to a possible threat. If a mere thought image of a predator prepares the body to act, it will significantly shorten the reaction time when a real predator jumps out for the bushes.

body reacts with a real somatic change to a virtual threat

However, this solution works well only when a thought about a threat concerns a very near future (next second, next minute). The situation becomes much more complicated in the case of projections concerning more distant events.

hydraulics of the mind the horror of a couch potato

virtual reality

Every living organism strives to maintain the balance of its life processes. The disturbance of these processes, the loss of homeostasis, is immediately compensated by taking specific actions aimed at restoring the state of equilibrium. In fact, life comes down to a very long series of moments of losing and regaining that balance. From this perspective, death is a moment of irreversible loss of balance.

Factors that cause the disturbance of homeostasis (stressors) can appear both in the physical environment of an organism, in its social environment, or inside the very organism itself. These threats may be physical or mental.

In the course of its evolutionary development, organisms have developed an ability to estimate the probability of a specific stressor to occur. At the same time they developed another ability – to plan actions allowing them to avoid the potential harm caused by the stressor. The common name for both these skills is “thinking”.

One of the main differences between different species (apart from the number of legs and their facial expressions) is the degree to which they are able to create virtual models of the reality around them.

Most likely, relatively simple organisms do not create a model of the reality in which they are located, but instantaneously react to a direct stimulus. In the case of more complex creatures, the situation seems to be more complicated. A bird that is choosing its path of flight through the forest, a fox that is chasing a rabbit, or a homo sapiens that is preparing its scrambled eggs in a kitchen, all these organisms need to perform a great deal of calculations on the potential effects of selecting specific series of actions before these actions are actually taken.

The bird, the fox and the human, all generate in their minds virtual projections of the worlds they are in. As part of these projections, they simulate various scenarios of actions, the aim of which is to avoid danger (e.g. oversalting eggs), and on the other hand, to take advantage of the potential opportunities (e.g. swallowing an escaping fly).

Thinking is a process in which the body creates a virtual representation (or rather interpretation) of the world in which it is located, generates its own virtual / mental counterpart (avatar) – the self, and then simulates potential changes in the environment and possible responses to these changes.

Thinking is a form of virtual world which, unlike the real world, does not exist in a physical sense, but is only a projection of the organism’s mind. By means of a thought process, the mind creates virtual variants of future events and, based on previously gained experience, assesses the probability of their occurrence. This enables it to predict the consequences of actions that it is going to undertake in the present.

The ability to remember events and simulate possible variants of the future situations was of colossal importance for the survival of the human species. Thinking has become an amazing tool that has enabled us to eliminate a significant number of stressors from our environment.

However, for having such a highly developed thought process, we have to pay a huge price  – an increased stress level. 

The role of stressors in the modern human has been taken over by thought processes.

Why is it so? After all, the main advantage of the thought process was the elimination of threats from the environment of an organism. And so it happened, but the role of stressors for modern man has been taken over by mental processes, and more precisely by virtual projections of potential threatening situations. To understand why this happened, let’s examine the relationship between thought and emotions.

hydraulics of the mind the horror of a couch potato

battle ready

Stress is a physical and mental state that occurs as a result of the body’s contact with a factor that poses a potential threat to the balance of its life processes.

Imagine the following situation: suddenly a tiger appears in front of you. Your brain quickly assesses the situation and decides that the situation poses a threat to the survival of the organism. As a result of this assessment the brain causes a number of physiological changes aimed at preparing the muscles for an increased work – the fight or flight response (the sympathetic system is activated and stimulates the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and noradrenaline, causing the pupils to dilate, accelerate heart rate and breathing etc. ). At the same time, other parts of the brain constantly monitor the changes taking place in the body. They register the increased readiness of the body to take actions and transmit the information about this state to consciousness in the form of – a feeling of stress.

A feeling of stress is how the mind feels a readiness of the body to take an action in order to avoid a danger in its environment. In other words a feeling of stress is the way how an emotion of stress feels (if you’re uncertain on the differences between a feeling and an emotion please read the following article: emotions vs feelings)

A stress response plays a very important role in the survival of the body.

The feeling of stress is how the mind feels the readiness of the body to take an action in order to avoid a danger in its environment.

If the body has not been generating the stress responses (an emotion of stress) while facing a danger, it would be fairly quickly eliminated by the process of evolution. It would be unable to cope with challenges posed by its environment. In short, it would be eaten before it had any chance to leave an offspring behind. Therefore the purpose of stress reaction is to prepare the body to undertake a specific physical activity in order to avoid a threat.

Nowadays however, (for most of us in the developed countries) the external conditions in which we find ourselves fall short from being perfect. We don’t suffer from cold, we don’t suffer from hunger, there are no hungry predators lurking around. We spend most of our time sitting in comfortable sofas, talking to nice, cultured people, without fear of an unexpected attempt on our lives. The physical environment seems to be free from stressors, factors with which the body would immediately fight. 

The purpose of the stress response is to prepare the body to avoid danger.

It seems that in modern times the main stressors do not come from the outside world*. However, they are born entirely elsewhere. In a virtual world, popularly known as thinking.

*you may rise an argument that this situation has changed in 2020 due to the pandemic but I will still try to refute it in some other text

hydraulics of the mind the horror of a couch potato

Feelings vs emotions

conscious feelings and unconscious emotions

In everyday language, the terms emotions and feelings are often used as substitutes. It turns out, though, that from the point of view of behavioral neurobiology they describe two different phenomena*. Understanding the difference between these concepts will come in handy in further exploration of mental tension and happiness.

What are emotions

“An emotion consists of a very well orchestrated set of alterations in the body that has, as a general purpose, making life more survivable by taking care of a danger, or taking care of an opportunity, either / or, or something in between. “

Antonio Damasio

An emotion is an implementation of a very complex program of alterations to the bodily states that is triggered when a danger or a potential opportunity in the environment is detected. The purpose of an emotional reaction is to prepare an organism to face a danger that arises in its environment or to take advantage of an opportunity.

Thus, emotions refer to all possible states of the body, the purpose of which is to adapt the organism to changing external conditions. Emotions are a form of movement, movement that manifests itself outside (e.g. movement of the facial muscles in the case of a smile) and movement inside the body, i.e. changes in the work of internal organs (e.g. increased heart rate, stomach contraction, increased bowel movement, etc.) This movement also takes place at the molecular level, for example in the endocrine system (e.g., secretion of norepinephrine by the adrenal glands during a stress response). 

Emotional response programs are stored in the DNA of all species, and do not differ essentially between individuals or even between species. The emotion of joy will be very similar for both a prehistoric caveman and a modern businessman. It will also be the same in principle in a dog, an ape and a human.

However, emotions run outside the scope of consciousness of an organism. As changes in bodily states, they occur on the same level as digestive processes or the work of the circulatory system.

What are feelings?

A feeling is how the mind feels an emotion that has arisen in the body, how it feels a physiological change. A feeling is the way the mind perceives the change in the work of internal organs triggered by an emotional response. A feeling is a mental state taking place in the consciousness of the organism. In short – feelings are conscious emotions.

A feeling is the way the mind perceives a change in the work of internal organs triggered by an emotional response. 

So, if we feel fear, it means that an emotional reaction has occurred in the body, i.e. a certain sequence of changes in the state of internal organs, changes in the secretion of hormones in the endocrine system, caused by the body recognizing threats in the environment.

If we feel thirsty, it means that a program has been triggered in the body to implement a specific species-beneficial behavior. The tension associated with the emotion of desire will persist as long as the body feels the possibility of acting to release tension.

If we feel calm, it means that the body works in a neutral mode because at the moment it does not detect factors that would pose a threat to its functioning, nor does it recognize opportunities that could positively affect its current state.

The body constantly scans its surroundings for possible threats or potential benefits. He also constantly evaluates these experiences from the point of view of his functioning, and on the basis of this assessment he decides whether to trigger a specific emotional reaction or not.

An organism is incredibly complex and constantly experiences an enormous amount of sensations. For this reason, emotional programs are constantly run overlapping and intertwining. The spectrum of emotional states is very wide. At one end of this spectrum one will find bodily states (emotions) that are relaxed and neutral, and on the other end states of readiness to avoid a threat (i.e. tension) or to seize a potential opportunity (tension again).

Now that we have a better understanding of what the feelings and emotions that arise in the mind (and body) are, we can easier understand happiness and stress.

* This distinction and the strong link between feelings and emotions with physiological states was first introduced by Antonio Damasio.