How we deal with toxic thoughts

May 20, 2006 | By | 4 Replies More

I have long been confounded that otherwise intelligent people can claim, straight-faced, that the earth is only 6,000 years old or that a virgin got pregnant.  Such people are utterly sincere, of course.  Many of them excel at highly technical jobs and they generally embrace the results of science (they choose doctors who use high-tech medicine and they dare to fly on airplanes) and they are capable of great skepticism (they scoff at the dogma of everyone else’s religion and if one of their own unmarried daughters gets pregnant, they don’t believe her story that she didn’t have sex). 

I’ve spent much of my life trying to understand this unevenness of skepticism. Though fundamentalists are generally intelligent, inquisitive, and skeptical, they are science-adverse only with regard to a limited range of topics. While in their “Believer” mode, they seem to be totally transformed people. What is grabbing their brains and making them say such things, I’ve often wondered.

The deepest, most treasured, assumptions of many religious Believers are somehow cordoned off.  Once hooked on religion, they seem incapable of truly considering whether God exists.  They seem psychologically and intellectually incapable of considering that the writings and history of the Bible seem flawed, self-contradictory and all-too-human

Before you start thinking that I’m picking on religious fundamentalists . . . well, I am.  But I’m also picking on anyone else who’s ever shuddered and become glassy-eyed at simple questions aimed at their most basic assumptions.  I’m talking about all of us, much of the time. We often “rope off” our own access to our own thoughts much as a traumatized person might deny his or her own access to traumatic events.

Perhaps your first reaction to this broader claim is to think “Not me!  No, I always look Life straight in the eye. I am a ferocious skeptic.”  Really?

Very few people let intense skepticism run off the leash. For reasons of sanity, most of us don’t attack our own most basic beliefs.  We all make leaps of faith that are one or two good questions away from being exposed.  Here are some examples: 

  • Ask philosophers how they are so certain that the unexamined life is not worth living. 
  • Ask people drinking $200 bottles of wine how they know that it’s OK to drink that money rather than to donate it to save the lives of dozens of starving children.
  • Ask a patriotic people how America can be “the world’s greatest democracy” when U.S. voter turnout rates are pathetic and when corporate money makes a mockery of almost everything taught in grade school civics classes.
  • Ask proponents of education how they are so certain that more knowledge won’t actually harm humanity.
  • Ask non-Believers how anything can matter, since we’ll all be dead in 100 years.
  • Ask Darwinian biologists whether people aren’t essentially complicated machines for which “free will” is an illusion.
  • During the 7th game of the World Series, ask ardent sports fans whether it is “just a game.”

This list could go on and on and on.  We are incapable of living peaceful lives without protecting many deep assumptions we harbor.  Although we might have some pat answers available to those who question our assumptions, our assumptions are, well . . . assumptions.  In many ways, then, we ultimately hold ourselves up by our own bootstraps.

How do we manage to live our lives in relative peace given the existence of so many fragile thoughts scattered throughout our minds, thoughts whose disturbance would be disorienting and potentially explosive?  This question came to mind when I first started learning of the psychological condition of dissociation. 

Dissociation is a “psychological state or condition in which certain thoughts, emotions, sensations, or memories are separated from the rest of the psyche.” 

Dissociation is not invariably linked to trauma, but is “properly considered a skill . . . This skill can be viewed as an ability to manipulate attention in various ways . . . Those persons with this capacity to control attention can narrow the window for defensive purposes, focusing on a limited segment of experience (e.g., a sensation, an image, a fantasy) and excluding the rest, thus leaving out aspects of the self and not updating autobiography.” Diagnosis and Treatment of Dissociative Disorders, by J.G. Allen & W.H. Smith, (1995).  Dissociative Disorders are often referred to as a highly creative survival technique because they allow individuals enduring “hopeless” circumstances to preserve some areas of healthy functioning.

Adults who report themselves as able to focus and shift attention also say they are less prone to depression and anxiety that those who report themselves as less able to control their attention.”  See Images of Mind, by Posner & Raichle.

Sometimes, however, in an attempt to divert attention from a painful thought, the mind throws out the baby with the bath water.   The mind dissociates–not simply by diverting attention but splitting attention–walling off toxic memories, temporarily or permanently, from our otherwise integrated mental existence. “The brain has the means by which to sense, without conscious intervention, any ‘toxic’ associations that need to be dissociated in order to maintain psychic equilibrium.”  See The Corruption of Reality, by John Schumaker (1995).  

Schumaker writes that dissociation constitutes a distortion of attention: “[A]ll forms of dissociation-based reality distortion and self-deception are limited to the window of consciousness.   At the level of unconscious awareness, reality remains undistorted.” Schumaker suggests the following:  “[A]n active cerebral process, operating outside of conscious awareness, makes assessments on an ongoing basis in the course of deciding how and when the dissociative mechanism should distort reality by modifying the information available to us.” Id. at p. 49.

Schumaker suggests for following genesis for our ability to enter dissociative states:

[T]he human brain reached a critical developmental threshold wherein we became conscious to a potentially debilitating degree.  It was then that a tandem brain capacity was needed to absorb, so to speak, the collision between amplified consciousness and many emotionally terrifying and confusing facets of this world existence.   New irreconcilable conflicts needed resolution, and new unanswerable questions demanded pacifying answers . . . This evolutionary strategy came in the form of the capacity of the brain to dissociate itself from its own data.

The dissociative process distorts rationality itself, according to Schumacher:  “Despite our cerebral talents, it seems that the mental world of the human being is often at odds with the true nature of things.  Not only that, we will fight to preserve what is false.”

Therefore, dissociation involves the creation of an artificial and palliative sense of order inconsistent with one’s reality.  Such an artificial order, since it is more complicated and energy-intensive than justified order, can be achieved “only by eliminating competing data from consciousness.”  What is there to fear about the world, which would provoke such an involved mental maneuver?  For starters, Schumaker suggests

Creation is certainly magnificent and can fill us all with a sense of awe and mystery.  But creation is also horrific in its design, consisting mostly of mobile intestinal tracts eager to consume other intestinal tracts.

According to Schumacher dissociated experiences would include religion, hypnosis, psychopathology, highway hypnosis and “unrestrained materialism.” Corruption of Reality, p. 214. 

In this post, I’m presenting dissociation merely as recognition of an intriguing interpretation of a widespread phenomenon.  I do not present dissociation as a well-charted cognitive mechanism—rigorous science has not yet caught up with it.  Dissociation intrigues me, though, because it is a fruitful way to understand how people can get away with using fragile houses of cards as foundations for their stable-seeming world views.

All of this brings to mind Nietzsche, who repeatedly wrote that most people who looked squarely at life would terrified and crushed.  The remedy? Over eons the human intellect produced nothing but errors, though “a few of these proved to be useful and helped to preserve the species.”  [Gay Science, Section 110].  This list of useful errors, included

That there are enduring things, substances, bodies; that a thing is what it appears to be; that our will is free; that what is good for me is also good in itself. 

Nietzsche’s concluded that though many of our most cherished beliefs are necessary in order to endure life, this did not demonstrate that such beliefs were true:  “Life is not an argument.” [Gay Science, Section 121].   For Nietzsche, the central question was “how much truth can a spirit bear, how much truth can a spirit dare?” [Ecce Homo, Section 3]. On some days, not much.

Occasionally, it occurs to me that not only might I die, but that I eventually will die and that there will be no escape and, eventually, no tomorrow.  These moments can be horrifying.  So horrifying that these moments help me understand why many people, much of the time, avoid contemplating their deaths.  It helps me to understand the many people with unraveled lives who have run off to therapists for existential patch jobs.

But mostly, on those days when the monster gets a toe in the door, I have a bit more empathy for those who spin tall tales in order to protect their most treasured illusions.  And I have a bit more empathy for why they hang “no trespassing” signs in so many dark corners of their minds.

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Category: Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Sujay says:

    Hi Erich!

    I enjoyed reading this post. Indeed dissociation is the most important aspect of our existence. I don't even think it is possible to have a self-identity, a sense of a separate self, cut away from the 'outer universe', in the absense of dissociation. To create a sense of 'me' and 'my world', we need to warp the reality around us, by putting ourselves in the centre of the world. A perfectly rational mind could create a sense of 'identity' only based on our distinct physical characteristics, and distinct memories. That sense of 'me' that we experience is rooted in our own distinct experiences, which we owe to dissociation. Don't you think?

    And this in turn I suppose is responsible for the love and affection that we give each other, for when we create our 'niche' of existence, and identify others who live in the same niche, we 'relate' to each other.

    That being said, I also understand the point you make about the leaps people take with logic. My family doctor, who is trained in allopathic medicine, remains a firm believer in traditional Indian herbal medicine (Ayurveda), which has very little basis in science. Though she only prescribes allopathic medicines she often uses the Ayurvedic method to diagnose health problems (which assumes that all problems in the body are caused by excess of shortage of 'heat'). You would think a DOCTOR trained in allopathy, would know better than to believe in such stuff?

  2. Erika Price says:

    I try to pick apart the thought process behind most things that I think, but of course I know I can never come anywhere close. To operate on this plane of reality, you have to accept a great deal of assumptions, begining with the assumption that this reality EXISTS, and moving up to more subjective assumptions. For example, to enjoy that World Series game, you necessarily convince yourself for the time that it 'matters'. Some people fall into the toxic logic of actually caring about the game long after it has ended, while others can manage to care about the game enough to become engrossed in it, but not to get carried away. We can't handle pure skepticism constantly, but we can make time to question almost everything if we look at everything in relative when necessary.

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