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Night Owl Interviews Teresa Gentry on Phenomenological Psychology #2

Welcome to another edition of Night Owl, where people with unusual perspectives on life get a chance to be heard. This interview is with Teresa Gentry, a phenomenological psychologist who uses introspection to study issues of interest. The following is a transcript of the live interview done with Teresa over Zoom. For brevity, I’ll simply use initials to indicate who is speaking. Subscribers can watch the video of the interview on the Night Owl web site. Let’s dive in.

NO:     For openers why don’t you tell us briefly what a phenomenological psychologist is and what introspective methods are.

TG:     A phenomenological psychologist studies one subject — herself or himself. Introspection attempts to observe the thoughts arising in the mind and to allow a free association among those thoughts without attaching one’s thinking mind to any of them.

NO:     That doesn’t sound like a very scientific approach. It certainly isn’t objective.

TG:     No. It isn’t objective. It is clearly subjective, which is the nature of phenomenological research. No one is truly objective. Researchers who claim to be objective are deluding themselves. We inhabit a holistic universe. How can a researcher stand aside from the whole and conceptually isolate an aspect of the whole as an object for study and not bring anything phenomenological to the investigation? It isn’t possible. There are methods that can be employed to minimize phenomenological confounding, but they can’t be eliminated. The phenomenological self decides on what questions to ask, what methods to use to obtain an answer to a questions and what the answer means. The mere act of studying an objectified aspect of the whole has the potential to significantly impact the study.

NO:     How can you learn anything generalizable to others by simply studying yourself?

TG:     It is pretty simple. What you do is observe thought patterns until the more personal ones fade and deeper patterns begin to emerge. Through an evolving process of extinguishing personal patterns one begins to reveal core patterns.

NO:     And what is a core pattern?

TG:     A core pattern is similar to what Jung called an archetype. It is somewhat like a template that is shared by all people or subgroups within a larger population. Personal patterns are permutations or individualized elaborations of core patterns that adapt the template to an individual. At the core level, common patterns are revealed that are generalizable beyond the research subject, that is, me.

NO:     Is there a methodology to introspection or is it a personal talent?

TG:     Certainly, some untrained people will be better at it than others. However, there are a variety of protocols that are taught that facilitate the introspective method. These begin with contemplative and meditative practices, use of autosuggestion, conditions of sensory deprivation and psychoactive substances, to name a few.

NO:     Do you have a specialized focus for your studies?

TG:     Yes. To return to Jungian terminology, I currently focus on the anima.

NO:     Please define anima for our viewers.

TG:     Anima, in depth psychology, is related to the female archetype or the core patterns related to being female.

NO:     Please tell us something of what your studies have revealed to you.

TG:     As a female researcher my goal was to uncover core patterns unique to females.

NO:     Did you find any core patterns and, if so, what was their nature?

TG:     Yes. First and foremost was the core physical pattern. This pattern is one that begins to be understood at an early age. Even as a child, a female recognizes that she has a body designed for a specific and complex biological function. She may not fully understand this pattern yet but she is aware of it.

NO:     Are there any other core physical patterns?

TG:     Size and strength are observed by female children to be attenuated in adult females relative to most adult males. Later in development this is personally experienced with male peers. Thus, a female child comes to see females as physically smaller and weaker than most males.

NO:     Rather obvious to adults, but I can see where it might be a significant understanding when it first arises in a child.

TG:     Yes. This is recognized as a defining characteristic of the species. This core physical pattern is compounded by recognition of a core temperament pattern. In general, the temperament behind actions executed through the core physical pattern is more assertive or aggressive when articulating male behavior relative to female behavior. In short, the female child recognizes that she will probably be physically smaller and weaker and that her physicality is less energized by temperament.

NO:     Yes. I can see where the first realization of these core patterns could have a psychological impact for both female and male children. What follows on this realization?

TG:     The earliest stage of social development rests upon a perception of “like me” or “not like me.” This usually leads to differentiation into male and female peer groups and the development of different peer cultures reflecting differences in physicality and temperament. These groups tend to stereotype one another while viewing themselves to be diverse and complex. This tendency is reinforced and elaborated by the family and society into several layers of secondary patterns. The two groups move through childhood on different tracks with minimal cross-over or overlap.

NO:     I have observed exactly what you’re describing. I have also observed a significant weakening of this division later on.

TG:     Specifically, one sees the division broken down to some degree by the onset of puberty. The introduction of sex hormones into the relatively stable same-sex groups is disruptive but is not sufficient to destroy the groups and their respective gender cultures. Hormones also initiate additional core patterns.

NO:     Elaborate on these patterns from your studies, please.

TG:     In the pubescent female, sex hormones stimulate two new core physical patterns. The first core pattern in puberty is the transformation of the body by the development of secondary sexual characteristics. The second core pattern is the initiation of internal physical changes that initiates fertility. These two patterns then become the stimuli that trigger the full activation of sexual orientation that in most cases casts males in a different and more desirable light.

NO:     So it would seem. What do you find following on from these changes?

TG:     Along with the full activation of sexual orientation comes desire for male attention, along with anticipation of pleasure and intrusive thoughts and feelings related to sexual activity and conception.

NO:     This suggests to me a potential conflict with earlier core patterns that you described.

TG:     Indeed. The development of secondary sexual characteristics, coupled with awakened sexuality, puts a young female in an awkward position. Such a girl gets a lot of attention both covert and overt from males ranging in age pretty much across the spectrum from adolescents to seniors. The attention can be and often is intrusive and unwelcome. The girl wants attention but realizes that it has to be managed because there isn’t any way to selectively attract it with high precision.

NO:     I can see how it could be something of a shock to unexpectedly find yourself the center of unwanted sexual attention. So, how is it managed?

TG:     Yes. Attention that is unsolicited, unwanted and often difficult to repel. Keep in mind the other earlier realization that one is smaller, weaker and less aggressive than most males. Physically managing unwanted attention isn’t generally an option. Fortunately, during the preadolescent period the same sex peer group provided an educational experience in which young females had an opportunity to refine their social perception and skills.

NO:     Why is this fortunate?

TG:     Because it provides skills that help a female become more adept at picking up on social cues and to then deploy social skills suitable for manipulating an undesirable situation.

NO:     Is this usually effective?

TG:     It can be effective in situations where the male is well socialized, not highly aroused and not intent on imposing his sexual arousal on the female. However, all too frequently this is not the case. To see that this is true one need only look at how common sexual abuse and sexual assault are in society.

NO:     So, it is often the case, isn’t it, that a female in her very person is a walking advertisement that has a general rather than a selective appeal, which can attract potentially dangerous attention and even assault.

TG:     Yes. In fact, society uses females as sexual objects, which exacerbates the situation. I refer to enhancement of secondary sexual characteristics for social ends such as commerce.

NO:     Are you saying that society socializes women into roles that require them to make a certain type of presentation if they are to be seen as socially acceptable.

TG:     Clarify “presentation.”

NO:     I mean things like fashion in clothing, sensual fabric, color, make-up, adornment, styling of hair, as well as patterned movement and mannerisms. Things that are aimed at stimulating sexual attention in males.

TG:     I know that women can and do present themselves with the intent of being sexually attractive at certain times. However, my research suggests that many women actively work on their presentation out of an aesthetic sensibility or a desire for beauty that is on average much stronger in women than in men. In short, their presentation is usually for the appreciation of others with a similar aesthetic sensibility, which is largely other women, though it also captures the appreciative attention of some men.

NO:     What do you think is the basis for this aesthetic sensibility?

TG:     It is an ability that evolved over the history of the species and is intimately tied to women’s use of aesthetic sensibility to select for traits in males that altered first their appearance and then their behavior in order to further female sexual autonomy. This is, evolutionarily speaking, driven by the desire in females to produce the most viable offspring possible. Especially, male offspring that have a high probability of being, at maturity, selected by females as mates and therefore highly likely to successfully reproduce.

NO:     I’ll have to give this idea some thought. How does this lead to fashion, make-up, adornment and so forth, if its origins lie in an evolutionary need for women to mold male appearance and behavior?

TG:     You are correct about the origins, but once an aesthetic sensibility was established, it took on a life of its own. In short, it became a foundational block in the establishment of a female culture. A culture that has generally been interpreted wrongly because it has been viewed from a male-centric perspective in the context of an overall male-oriented culture or patriarchy.

NO:     So, you would say that there is a biologically based tendency within the female population to individually take their person as a canvas on which to make their best attempt at creating beauty?

TG:     Yes, I have no disagreement with that as a summary statement. I would also mention that this tendency also manifests itself not only in personal presentation but also in contexts associated with the person, such as the beautification of living spaces.

NO:     A most interesting digression. Shall we get back to the original topic concerning the objectification of woman as a sex object and the conflict this leads to ?

TG:     Certainly, the need for attention in some ways creates an approach-avoidance conflict. The female desires male attention to find a mate and seeks to attract it but fears unwelcome and intrusive attention and tries to avoid it. This creates the potential for a lot of anxiety about cross-sex interaction, because it is often difficult to predict how such interactions will develop.

NO:     I hadn’t thought much about it, but I see your point. Are there further points that you would like to bring out?

TG:     Yes. Not only is the maturing female faced with the real possibility of becoming the victim of male sexual assertiveness, if not outright aggression, but she also recognizes the potential for long-term complications.

NO:     Are you referring to an unwanted pregnancy?

TG:     That is one possibility, though that risk is more easily managed than in the past. Even so, the risk still exists and has many social, economic and personal consequences. Coupled with this risk are others. There is always the possibility of being physically injured or even killed, of acquiring a sexually transmitted disease and even long-term mental health problems such a PTSD.

NO:     You paint a pretty scary picture.

TG:     It can be, especially for some young females, but also for mature females as well. It is not uncommon for significant problems related to anxiety to impact female behavior. Social anxiety and withdrawal as well as problems such as eating disorders and substance abuse are also possible.

NO:     I have never really thought much about it, but what you say makes a lot of sense.

TG:     I’m sure you’ve had little incentive to think about it. However, imagine running around on a firing range with a target on your back and you may get some sense of the situation.

NO:     Being aware of your predicament then leads to anxiety?

TG:     No, not initially. There are social conventions that serve to provide some protection from potential problems, especially if one exercises discretion in combination with social conventions.

NO:     I take it bad experiences are most likely if one lets her “guard” down at some point?

TG:     Yes, it is easy to get relaxed and feel comfortable as one sort of habituates to one’s circumstances. I don’t think it is necessary to go into detail, but most women probably could tell you about getting “cornered” on dates when alone with a male who has been a “gentleman” up to then and suddenly becomes both aroused by the situation and is motivated to be very demanding. I would also point out that letting one’s guard down is not the only problem.

NO:     What else poses a problem?

TG:     Males have historically used chemical means to reduce or eliminate resistance to their intentions. For a long time alcohol was probably the most widely used chemical disinhibitor. More recently a range of intoxicants have been introduced that can be employed to make “date rape” much easier to accomplish.

NO:     It is becoming clear to me that the circumstances you describe have potentially serious psychological and lifestyle consequences.

TG:     One should become very vigilant and always on the alert for suspicious circumstances, suggestions and invitations. It can become difficult to openly trust many of the people you encounter. Such a state of vigilance is a precursor for a rather persistent feeling of general anxiety, which can lead to a psychological disorder.

NO:     Do you have any parting words that you’d like to leave with the audience?

TG:     Yes, most people either don’t see or refuse to see the degree to which they are driven by evolutionary biology. We are self-replicating organisms and our evolution has left as little of that to chance as possible. We are driven by biological processes that we veil with all kinds of cultural and personal narratives. The purpose of such narratives is to delude ourselves into believing that we are free agents rationally choosing our actions in the world. We aren’t necessarily zombies but most of us come pretty close. A few of us take the trouble to understand their true nature and find ways to stand aside from it when appropriate.

NO:     Would you say a little more about biological processes?

TG:     Sure. I would divide these processes into three basic categories. We all have them, though they vary somewhat by biological sex. The first category is purely biological. These programs regulate basic biological functions such as heartbeat, liver function, kidney function, menstrual cycles and so on. Not many of us think we have any degree of control over these functions other than in marginal ways. For example, you can do things to slow down or speed up your heart but that is mere influence, not control. We do have some influence over our breathing as well but that is not control. If you think you control your breath, just try stopping it for an extended period of time, say five minutes. You’ll feel the force of the biological program.

There are other processes like thought that we have or can develop control over for specific tasks such as solving problems, planning or creating. But, before you conclude that you fully control your thoughts, try to stop them for a significant period of time. You’ll soon be dissuaded of the idea that you are in control. It is true that some meditators can achieve protracted states free of linguistic thought, but thinking continues in more subtle ways.

The second category I think of as bio-social programs. These are programs that have a primary biological component and a secondary social component. Another way of looking at this is that the same biological program may be expressed somewhat differently depending upon the socio-cultural context in which it has been refined. A simple example is hunger. Pretty much everyone feels a biological urge to eat but what we find appealing as food, how it is prepared and consumed is learned through our culture. If you feel erotically attracted to someone, you can be sure that there is a biological program at the root of it. This program too is likely to have a secondary cultural overlay. Further, biological programs are at the root of such phenomena as the impulse to engage in sexual activity, to conceive a child, to bond with a child and so on. These programs too usually have a social overlay that varies by culture. We often think of these things as personal choices and we have narratives that explain why we believe we make the choices we do, but in the final analysis these narratives are just rationales for things we do and don’t really understand.

The third and final category I would call idiosyncratic or personal. These are programs that we learn through our experience. These include many skills that we acquire such as driving a car or solving an equation. Such skills are subject to our control, though even these become automatic with practice. Of course, in a sense, even these are biological in nature. In one sense because we are biological organisms and learning is a capacity built-in to us. In another sense, learning these skills may often be motivated by programs of the other two types, because they indirectly contribute to meeting the purpose of such programs. For example, think of the possible links between an adolescent learning to drive and potential for sexual activity or assertion of independence.

Finally, I’d like to say that in physical terms we are biological animals. To the extent that we identify with our physical body, we are “slaves” to our biological nature. However, the truth is that we are spiritual entities that merely inhabit these physical bodies temporarily. These vehicles provide us with an opportunity to gain experience, learn and grow. Learn to identify with your unconditioned awareness or spiritual nature and you will be able to stand aside from your biological or animal nature when you wish and make choices less driven by biological and social programs.

NO:     Well, you have certainly left us with a lot to think about. Thank you sharing your thoughts with us.

TG:     It was a pleasure talking with you and your audience.

Why We Believe

          As a psychologist I have often asked myself, why people seem to easily commit to belief systems? This predisposition is clearly evident in a wide range of human activities. It includes things as diverse as religions, conspiracy theories, political ideologies and pseudo-scientific theories.

Albert Ellis’ rational-emotive theory (see also Foundations sub-section Part I) makes a useful distinction between what he calls rational and irrational beliefs. The former have some objective basis and depend upon evidence. The latter have no empirical basis and their adherents usually have a strong emotional investment in the belief, which is largely supported by faith in its correctness. Ellis’ theory rests upon two assumptions about human nature. First, we have a biological predisposition toward irrational thinking, e.g., over generalization and illogical association. Second, one of the major tasks of socialization is to establish a system of beliefs. It is a major developmental task because belief systems help us interpret our experiences, organize our thoughts and observation and make decisions to act.

The second assumption helps to explain why we adopt beliefs systems. They are to varying degrees useful schema for imposing order on our world, understanding the events in our lives and guiding our behavior. The first assumption indicates why many of the belief systems we adopt are irrational and without empirical foundation.

What might be the basis for the assumed predisposition for irrational thinking? Michael Gazzaniga found evidence, in his research on the brain, for what he calls the Left Brain Interpreter (LBI). Gazzaniga thinks that the LBI is a function of the brain acquired through evolutionary selection pressures. The LBI evolved because being able to organize and explain experience has survival value. Having an explanation for a phenomenon, even an incorrect explanation, makes it easier to interpret and respond quickly. If our beliefs lead to successful responses more often than not, this success would give an ability to use explanations to quickly evaluate and respond survival value. While it is often the case that our beliefs lead to successful responses, such success doesn’t necessarily make them valid. However, we usually take success as evidence confirming the correctness of our belief. For example, if you believe that people who look different aren’t trustworthy and are potentially dangerous, you will avoid contact with such people. If you then find that you are seldom assaulted, you will probably attribute your safety to avoiding contact with people who look different from you. Of course, the absence of assault experiences may be due to entirely different reasons but it will be attributed to the belief that motivated your avoidance behavior.

Since we have a strong disposition to formulate explanatory beliefs about our experiences, why do we so often formulate inaccurate and incorrect beliefs or explanations? This happens in part because evolutionary pressures favored those who quickly formulated explanations about experiences. The day-to-day struggle by our predecessors to survive allowed few opportunities for reflection. In the evolutionary environment that led to human beings the quick-witted were usually survivors and the reflective were often someone’s dinner. Thus, we acquired a disposition to formulate beliefs or explanations on the basis of little or no information and what information we had was frequently incorrect.

Frank Barron, a creativity researcher, pointed out many years ago that his research suggested that an inability to explain something made most people anxious or uneasy, which of course provides an incentive (anxiety reduction) to conjure up an explanation or accept some proposed explanation. This is possibly a motivational component to the evolved predisposition to create explanations. Barron found that most people would accept almost any explanation rather than live with uncertainty. He also found that among creative people the opposite was generally true. In short, a small minority of people would rather live with uncertainty than accept a dubious explanation. Barron would probably agree with Steven Pinker, a contemporary psychologist, who has suggested that the human mind frequently functions less like a chief executive and more like a “spin doctor” that is always busy creating post hoc explanations for our decisions and actions.

 There are many examples of this near compulsion to create explanations in human history. One need only think about the many, varied and incorrect beliefs that societies have created to explain natural events, e.g., floods, volcanic eruptions, failed crops, plagues, etc. In many cases, these beliefs have led to behavior that, from our perspective, was irrational. An irrational belief arises in one or more individuals and if it has appeal is adopted by others and often becomes a cultural belief that is perpetuated through the socialization process.

Ellis contends that our tendency to think irrationally results in distortions, flaws, and inaccuracies in our thinking. Parents, peers, community institutions (e.g., schools, churches, political parties, etc.), and the media can introduce distortions into our belief systems. Not only are distortions possible in commonly held beliefs, but personal aspects of our belief system are also prone to distortions that result from our own faulty thinking. Cognitive psychologist Yaakov Kareev’s research has identified one particularly important source of distortion in human thinking. His research has demonstrated a tendency in humans to find positive cause-and-effect associations among events. In fact, he found that people are more likely to see a positive association between two observations than a negative association even when a valid negative association is present. When we attempt to understand an event, we can usually only identify a few of the apparent components of the event. Further, due to limitations in our working memory capacity, we can only consider a small number of the apparent components at one time. Kareev and his associates have shown that our strong predisposition to find positive associations between things that appear to be associated with an event increase as the number of variables in working memory decreases.

There are differences between people in working memory capacity due to differences in cognitive abilities and due to differences in temperament, which make some people more susceptible than others to seeing false connections between events. Anyone who is susceptible to anxiety may experience a reduction in working memory capacity because anxiety has been shown to reduce working memory capacity. As the size of working memory decreases the likelihood of finding false positive associations increases. A predisposition to find positive associations among things we observe and experience has positive benefits, such as, making it easier for a young child to make associations between vocal sounds and environmental stimuli during language acquisition. It also makes it possible and even likely that we will develop cause-and-effect associations that are erroneous. This tendency to make erroneous cause-and-effect associations is sometimes called magical thinking and is most clearly reflected in superstitious and delusional behavior. In addition to our susceptibility to magical thinking, there are many other common errors in thinking that we are prone to make. In fact, Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini has investigated and compiled a catalog of errors in thinking common to human cognition.

Finally, Gazzaniga indicates that once a belief is established it is difficult to change it. There are several reasons beliefs are difficult to change. First, we find it easier to think of evidence for rather than against a personal belief; that is, validating evidence is easier to recall than contradictory evidence. Second, we also have a strong tendency to look for evidence that supports our beliefs and to ignore evidence that does not. Third, when we encounter ambiguous evidence we are disposed to interpret that evidence so that it supports our beliefs. Finally, when we are confronted with evidence that directly conflicts with our beliefs, we are inclined to discredit the evidence rather than change our beliefs. The single best antidote for irrational thinking that we have developed is the scientific method.