Taking shelter in despair

The following is extracted from the attached document, a public letter of encouragement to political activists.

We humans hate uncertainty. We hate it so much that we are likely to assume the worst possible outcome in frightening situations. This is because the awfulness, miserable as it is, feels more under our control and thus easier to bear than tolerating simply not knowing. […P]ut your worry … on a shelf, and focus on what is within your power: Doing what you can to get the outcome you want.

The author is presumably uninformed by PCT, but she communicates an understanding that is “doing what you can to get the outcome you want.” I have found that this is intuitively obvious to most people.

In a 1998 post “Taking PCT for Granted”, Rick advanced several ideas about acceptance of PCT. The first seems to agree with my observation that most people have an immediate intuitive understanding that we have purposes and that we use variable means to bring them about.

He then drew a parallel to the Copernican revolution–the change from a flat earth surrounded by rotating heavenly spheres to a spheroid earth rotating with other planets around our day-star amid the other stars. This parallel has often been made in the PCT literature, notably the sly allusion in the title of the Runkel-Powers correspondence, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Approaches to a Science of Life: Word Pictures and Correlations versus Working Models.

However, an understanding of geocentric astronomy has little relevance to the everyday conduct of human affairs. (It certainly has esthetic, cultural, and spiritual relevance: the poetic “fool on the hill” is not engaged in practical concerns, but nor is he doing science.) I believe an understanding of PCT is importantly relevant to everyday life, and I think people will find that relevance by being shown its practical ramifications beyond the obvious “doing what you can to get the outcome you want.”

In that 1998 post, Rick proposes that

The parallel is clear: We walk and drive around as though the world is flat (more or less), and generally pay little attention to the sky, but we know conceptually that the earth isn’t really flat. Just so, in the future we will carry on as though environmental events cause our behavior, even though we will know conceptually that this is not true.

Umm…wait a minute. I’m sure that is not what Rick intended to signify by drawing a parallel between the Copernican revolution and a PCT revolution in progress.

Yet there is some truth in it. It is true insofar as our perceptions in the somal branch of the hierarchy are not subject to cortical control in the same way as our perceptions in the behavioral branch. (See Bill’s model of emotion,) nor for the most part are we aware of intensities and sensations in the body. Consequently we have little awareness and no direct control over the origins of our emotions.

Emotions arise from combining environmental inputs with inputs from the somal branch of which we in general are not conscious. And those somal inputs change due to unconscious control processes by the limbic brain preparing the body for action appropriate to the perception that it forms based upon inputs from the environment. The same environmental inputs are the basis of higher-level perceptual signals involved in decisions and in the behavioral branch, but as we know the limbic systems in the brain construct perceptual signals from environmental inputs much more quickly than the cortical systems do.

Consequently, by the time those higher systems create those complexes of perceptual signals that we call emotions, we are conscious of the emotions as being “about” the associated environmental variables and “about” the success (or not) that the behavioral branch of the hierarchy has controlling those variables. We do not appreciate the extent to which perceptions from the somal branch contribute to this. The limbic system prepares the body appropriately in respect to to it’s rapid assessment, and consequent changes in somal perceptions contribute perceptual signals to the process of constructing emotion perceptions, although its broad-brush pre-judgement of the situation is already in effect and tipping the balance quite out of our awareness before any of this reaches the cortical systems.

I believe we are justified in paraphrasing the political activist’s advice with greater specificity:

[The amygdala and other limbic systems] hate uncertainty. [They] hate it so much that we are likely to assume the worst possible outcome in frightening situations.

A “frightening situation” is a complex perception resulting from interaction between sensed conditions in the body, limbic functions, and cortical functions.

But why would the next assertion follow from this? If indeed we “assume the worst possible outcome”, why would we do so

because the awfulness, miserable as it is, feels more under our control and thus easier to bear than tolerating simply not knowing"?

On the one hand, the phrase “feels more under our control” can only refer to conscious control by higher cortical functions. On the other hand, the emotional perception of awfulness, and the sense of certainty of it, is not a rational conclusion, it is grounded in those primitive lower-brain functions. Here, these are being linked. Positing now that inability to control at any level is emotionally distressing, and tracing backward through the process I’ve just outlined, suggests that something to do with “being in control” is among the matters that are monitored (controlled) by those limbic systems that guard the watchtowers of the body, so to speak. They sound the alarm and activate the troops not only when current input evokes memory of hazard, but also when current input evokes no clear judgement from memory. Uncertainty is itself a hazard.

This is consistent with recent investigations comparing brain physiology of self-identified conservatives and progressives. I wrote about this almost three years ago, with these links:

Sweeping a broad paint brush devoid of nuance, fear makes conservatives of us all, people with an overdeveloped amygdala live in a world of fearsome hazards and are conservative, and those with an underdeveloped amygdala lack both fear and empathy and are psychopaths or sociopaths.

The limbic system plays an important role in the creation and maintenance of long-term memory. What we think of as emotion-laden memories are the most lasting. Such memories are said by many schools of therapy to be stored in the body–that is, recall of such a memory evokes the preparations of the body for action which were associated with those perceptions which then give rise to somatic perceptions that contribute to formation of present-time emotion-perceptions.

[This is a draft in process, delayed by circumstances. Evidently I can’t start a new topic without first saving this one.]