Sunday, August 12, 2018

Higher Cognitive Processes: Thinking and Consciousness

This thesis focuses on an in-depth exploration of an advanced topic in cognitive psychology, Higher Cognitive Processes: Thinking and Consciousness. My argument is (1) Explore higher order cognitive processes, ones that more drastically separate the human species from other animals involving judgment, logic, problem solving, creativity, intelligence and introspection. (2) Explore the realms of consciousness focusing on the nature of mindfulness, the role of acceptance in the phenomenon, the relation between mindfulness and meditation, and the measurement of mindfulness in meditative and other contexts, including spirituality. 


Image © Scheme Color
“A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.” (Whitman, 1983).

Creativity is a process where the artist accesses the unconscious mind allowing the thinking mind (conscious) to dissipate which in turn allows the subconscious to enter even though “creativity is a natural phenomenon, part of the very structure and function of consciousness.” (Adams, 2018). What then is consciousness? Numerous definitions exist according to one’s perception and reality. 

The 14th Dalai Lama (meaning teacher, ocean, in Tibetan), Tenzin Gyatso, following the teachings of Buddha to decrease human suffering; believed consciousness to be “choosing spiritual development over material gain.” (Dalai Lama, 2006). Buddhism practices the belief that human beings are “understood as fundamentally good, but monetarily confused.” (Dalai Lama, 2006). Through the writing of Walt Whitman and the teachings of Buddha, consciousness is everything you experience.

Whitman was “tapping” into all three areas of the mind, the conscious, subconscious, and unconsciousness, including his own spirituality, when he wrote poetry. In his lines above from Leaves of Grass, Whitman has no conscious reply to the child for he, like the child, is humbled before the universe, nature, and existence. How then is it possible to allow all three areas of the brain to work simultaneously? All three parts work together to create our own reality that produces knowledge utilized to change habits and create a happier, more peaceful and confident self, like Buddha suggests. 

Scientifically, the brain as a whole generates experience, every day, all day; however, the “seat of consciousness” goes much deeper to “physical footprints” from the brain to the spinal cord. Consider a tetraplegic (paralyzed in legs, arms and torso, no bodily sensations, damage to the cerebellum) that continues to see, hear, smell, feel emotions and recall memory. 

Then consider the cerebellum (little brain behind the brain), a “brain circuit” for motor control that has by far the most neurons, about 69 billion, four times more than in the rest of the brain combined.” (Koch, 2018). One would think damage to the cerebellum would affect consciousness; however, “even being born without a cerebellum does not appreciably affect the conscious experience of the individual.” (Koch, 2018). Neural tissue found in white and gray matter regions of the brain compose the “seat of consciousness.”

Science has long debated that when you are observing something, you are conscious of what you are experiencing and different areas of the brain access that information and if you do something unconsciously, that information is local to the specific sensory area of the brain itself. For example, typing these words, I am doing that automatically. If asked how I type, I do not really know because I have little conscious access to that information, it is the local brain circuits that tell my eyes and fingers to move. This theory is known as the Global Neuronal Workspace.

Sigmund Freud, psychoanalyst, created a model of the mind, separated into three tiers, the conscious mind or ego, the pre-conscious or subconscious, and the unconscious mind. Each area is represented by a percentage showing an estimated use of each part of the brain. 

(Image © Journal Psyche, 2018).

Freud’s model is the simplest way to attempt to define conscious, subconscious and unconscious. The conscious mind communicates to the outside world and the inner self through speech, pictures, writing, physical movement, and thought. The subconscious mind is in charge of recent memories and is in continuous contact with the unconscious mind. The unconscious mind is the storehouse of all memories and past experiences, repressed and consciously forgotten. It is from these memories and experiences that our beliefs, habits, and behaviors are formed. 

The unconscious mind constantly communicates with the conscious mind via our subconscious mind through feelings, emotions, imagination, sensations, and dreams that provide a perception. Not unlike a chain-link fence, these regions of the brain are interconnected. Definitions of the mind vary according to one’s perception. For example, a philosopher may view mind as one’s personality, identity, and memories, a religious individual may view the mind as a vessel that houses the spirit, or awareness of God and to a scientist the mind is the generator of ideas and thoughts.  

In 2012, neuroscientist Jaak Pankseppat, published The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. This declaration (witnessed by Stephen Hawking), stated that, “scientific evidence showed clearly that non-human animals have “conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors.” (Coombs, 2015). This declaration proposes that mammals, birds and other organisms have the same brain structures that make consciousness possible in humans. 

Affective consciousness (core emotions in animals and humans), is a neglected form of animal/human consciousness experienced via emotional states, and other mammals do have affective experiences. Humans have the capacity for consciousness because we think, make decisions, have feelings and have a sense of self. 

Higher order cognitive processes, ones that more drastically separate the human species from other animals involving judgment, logic, problem solving, creativity, intelligence and introspection is secondary awareness or secondary consciousness. Primary consciousness is simple awareness and perception in both animals and humans. 

Affective consciousness, the simplest form of consciousness, is the ability to have core feelings and emotions. Secondary consciousness is the ability to move beyond the limits of primary consciousness to access self-reflection, abstract thinking, and metacognition. Metacognition is awareness and understanding of one's own thought processes. This state of consciousness is what separates man from animal. 

Metacognition is “thinking about one’s thinking [and] refers to the processes used to plan, monitor, and assess one’s understanding and performance.” (Chick, 2018). Metacognition is critical awareness of one’s thinking and learning and oneself as a thinker and learner. 

One key aspect of metacognition in humans in relation to animals is that humans have the ability to recognize the limit to one’s own knowledge and figure out how to expand that limit. An example of this is knowing what one’s strengths and weaknesses are. In contrast, humans that are unaware of metacognition are “people [that] tend to be blissfully unaware of their incompetence, lacking insight about deficiencies in their intellectual and social skills.” (Chick, 2018). It is integral to consistently ask oneself, What am I learning? moreover, How am I learning? Such questions challenge one to test self-efficacy. 

Albert Bandura, social cognitive psychologist, postulated, “people with high assurance in their capabilities approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than as threats to be avoided.” (Bandura, 1994). Bandura believed that through mastery of experiences, resilience, sustained effort, overcoming obstacles, persistent effort, allowing setbacks and difficulties as a learning tool, and believing in one’s self establishes a strong sense of efficacy. 

After people become convinced they have what it takes to succeed, they persevere in the face of adversity and quickly rebound from setbacks.” (Bandura, 1994). Sticking things out through tough times causes one to emerge stronger via adversity. As Carl Jung wrote in Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious, which addresses variances between healthy and unhealthy self-efficacy, “One man’s optimism makes him overweening, while another’s pessimism makes him over anxious and dependent.” (Jung, Pg. 87). As with everything, balance. 

In regards to psychology and cognitive processes, metacognition is regulated by forethought such as embodying valued goals, personal goal setting and motivation. The stronger the self-efficacy, the higher the goal challenges set. In addition, the belief in oneself as an affective process controls thought processes that regulate “thought produced” stress and depression. Human accomplishments and positive well-being require an optimistic sense of personal efficacy. 

Strong self-efficacy can come from suffering severe distress and trauma, recovering, and growing; and practiced, such as mindfulness and meditation. Different periods of life present certain types of competency demands, which everyone must pass. “There are various pathways through life and, at any given period, people vary substantially in how efficaciously they manage their lives.” (Bandura, 1994). 

How then is it possible for the brain (a physical object) to have nonphysical thoughts and feelings? Imagine you wish to say hello to someone and you do, by saying, Hello! Your mouth, lips, vocal chords and muscles are physical objects that move to form words; however, your idea was to say, Hello, which is not physical. How does a nonphysical idea allow your mouth, lips, vocal chords and muscles to move? This is a form of dualism, mind and body separation, meaning the mind (nonphysical) and its thoughts and feelings are a different entity from the physical (body/brain), and yet the two influence each other. 

Philosopher Rene Descartes in the 17th century presented the “metaphysical stance that mind and body are two distinct substances, each with a different essential nature.” (Mehta, 2011). With dualism, the body is subject to mechanical laws and the mind is not. In this vein, people can exist with two histories, one consisting of what occurs in and with the physical body, the other, what consists in and of the mind. As a result, one history involves events in the physical world, the second history, events in the mental world. 

The mind and body connection, in addition to dualism, represents how the mind and body, while separate, influence the other by occurring on a physical and chemical level. The mind encompasses mental states including thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and emotions and varying mental states positively and negatively affect biological functioning. “The nervous, endocrine, and immune systems share a common chemical language” (Weinberg, 2018), that allows communication between the mind and body through hormones and neurotransmitters. Examples include feeling your heart pounding out of your chest with anxiety or butterflies in your stomach when nervous. 

Mindfulness, conscious present thinking and awareness, in psychotherapy is utilized when people are encouraged to pause, pay attention to, and take delight in, the present moment. In spirituality, mindfulness is practiced via meditation, prayer and song. Mindfulness helps to reduce stress, alleviate some symptoms of mental illness, and improve the quality of life. 

Paying attention allows one to identify emotions as they arise, process them, and choose how to react. Meditation helps the body control emotional responses and increase awareness of the body’s biological processes (neurotransmitters) that may flood the body with stress hormones. Mind-body modalities help control psycho-emotional health (mind), as well as physical health (body). Thus, while separation of mind and body exists (dualism), mind and body influence each other.

Joseph Campbell explained meditation, mindfulness, and all three forms of thinking; conscious, subconscious and unconscious, by focusing on “the journey “of life instead of focusing on “the destination.” Campbell, along with Bill Moyers, discusses higher consciousness in The Power of Myth, where Campbell states, “The end of the world is not an event to come, it is an event of psychological transformation, of visionary transformation.” (Campbell, Pg. 285). 

Campbell continues, “It’s been said that poetry consists of letting the word be heard beyond words. Everything that’s transitory is but a metaphorical reference.” (Campbell, Pg. 286). Moyers then asks how we, humans, worship, love and die for metaphor. 

Campbell introduces one word, AUM, used during meditation and yoga, and continues, “AUM is the word that represents to our ears that sound of energy of the universe of which all things are manifestations.” (Campbell, Pg. 286). The origin of AUM/OM (Sanskrit, Hindi, Tibetan, Latin), is defined as "all." 

Three phonemes, a, u, and m, symbolize states of consciousness. A is conscious or waking state, U is the dream state, and M is the dreamless sleep state. The combination of the three represents the full state of realization. “This final state is the aim of yoga: Samadhi - a complete union between breath, body, mind, and spirit.” (Soul, Body, Yoga, 2011). OM embodies the essence of the entire universe.

Aum is the birth, the universe, all images and fragments, and the proof of “being” in the world. Campbell compounds on existence deciding that the “meanings” humankind searches for are, essentially, meaningless because language has limitations. It is in this vein, Joseph Campbell asks us to focus from the conscious to the subconscious to the unconscious. 

 * * * 


Adams, William. (2010-2018). Research on Steiner Education. Creativity and Consciousness. Retrieved from:

Bandura, A. (1994). Encyclopedia of human behavior. Stanford University. Self-efficacy.  Retrieved from:

Campbell, Joseph, Moyers, Bill. (1991). The Power of Myth. Pgs. 285, 286. Print. 

Chick, Nancy. (2018). Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Metacognition. Retrieved from:

Coombs, Chelsey, (2015). Science Line. Do animals have consciousness? Retrieved from:

Dalai Lama. (2006). Living Wisdom. Introduction. Print. 

Journal Psyche. (1994-2018). Freud’s’ Model of the Human Mind Image. Retrieved from:

Jung, Carl. (1971). The Portable Jung. Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious. Print. Pg. 87. 

Koch, Christof. (2018) Scientific American. What Is Consciousness? Retrieved from:  

Mehta, Neeta, Ph.D. (2011). NCBI. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Mind-body Dualism: A critique from a Health Perspective. Retrieved from: 

Soul, Body, Yoga. (2011). The Meaning of “AUM”. Retrieved from: 

Weinberg, Jennifer. (2018). The Chopra Center. Mind-Body Connection: Understanding the Psycho-Emotional Roots of Disease. Retrieved from:

Whitman, Walt. (1983). Leaves of Grass. Song of Myself. Print. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Substance Abuse and the Developing Brain

The adolescent brain and brain development is adversely affected by substance use. Peer pressure, euphoria, reward, curiosity, to mask depression or anxiety, stress, obsession, pleasure seeking, to feel better, compulsion and impulsivity are key reasons why one uses drugs, outlined in a lecture by Professor Graeme. “Impulsivity is when people do things without thinking of the consequences.” (Graeme, 19:54, Drugs of Abuse). 

Experiments in Cambridge conducted with high and low impulsive rats and impulsivity was linked to drug addiction. There was less need for cocaine in high impulsivity rats (rats with less dopamine receptors), compared to an addictive need for cocaine in low impulsivity rats (rats with high dopamine receptors). Findings suggest impulsive actions (in rats) led to addiction; however, further studies were crucial in regards to human brain development. The presence of high or low dopamine receptors in the human brain can also be a precursor to addiction. 

In addition, Dr. Amir Levine, psychiatrist and neuroscientist, stated in lectures that, Adolescence is a crucial time for the development of addiction.” (Levine,:40, World Science Festival). Adolescent development, age and addiction percentages are staggering. For example, there is a “25% chance of becoming addicted [using an illicit drug before the age of 18] but . . . after the age of 21, [there is] only a 4% chance of becoming addicted.” (Levine,:30, World Science Festival). 

Adolescent development is a period of profound change and involves several key elements with two stages. First, an outward period of fun, growth, and curiosity followed by a stage of “inner conflict and familial perturbation [that can lead to] dysfunction, apathy and alienation.” (Essau, 2008, Pg.3). 

While both stages include opportunity and vulnerability, both necessary in order to navigate to successful adulthood, “vulnerable” aspects can lead to addiction. The concepts of addiction are not always clear. Internal and external factors such as environment and personality play major roles; however, the absolute definition of addiction is difficult. 

Addiction can be physiological (physical body), bio-behavioral (changes in the brain), compulsion (similar to the D2 experiments with rats), pleasure, impulse, need and identity. 

Albert Bandura, developmental theorist, studied self-efficacy and social cognition. His social cognition theory empathizes, “behavior as being learned symbolically through central processing of response” (Essau, 2009, Pg. 7) which shows that behavior is learned via observation. Self-efficacy, one’s belief that they can succeed, promotes changes through “affective, cognitive, choice, and motivational processes.” (Essau, 2009, Pg. 7). 

Both components are necessary in adolescent development in order to abstain from or overcome addiction. For example, if one is raised in an environment where drug use is normalized, they are more apt to use. Add non-motivation, lack of praise and love and the incidence for drug use and abuse is prevalent when compared to one raised in an environment where dangers of drugs are taught and praise and love are practiced. 
In both veins, an adolescent must be motivated to not use and have enough self-efficacy to avoid using. In addition, if one does use, they must be able to have been taught and learned that they are strong enough to overcome abuse, dependency and addiction. 

Psychosocial development plays a major role in addiction. “Adolescent mental health problems can be seen to precede addictive behaviors, [and] addictive behaviors have also been shown to exacerbate mental health problems.” (Essau, 2009, Pg. 10). Social factors such as peer pressure, placement in family structure, and how an adolescent deals with issues, add to developmental challenges. 

Neurobiological factors such as dopamine, as seen in the talk with Dr. Graeme, explains how “neurobiological mechanisms [are] involved in developing an addiction to drugs.” (Essau, 2009, Pg. 10). These are all examples of the severity of how substance use disorder begins, due to an adolescent's lack of experience, lack of knowledge, and/or immature brain development.

In the BBC production, Teenagers: Secret Life of Growing Up, emotional maturity is reached “by the age of 16” (BBC, Segment 11, 2016), however, utilizing control of emotions has not yet surfaced. Most adolescents that develop substance abuse issues occur before the age of 16 when adolescents learn by observing those around them, from peer pressure and the need to experiment and take risks. 

From the age of five to the age of 18, adolescents go through horrendous changes that affect an individual on physical, biological, emotional, neurological and mental scales. These are confusing and frightening times. 

Problem solving skills, self-love, healthy risk-taking, and self-perseverance are essential tools that must be taught and learned from family, parents, and caregivers. Unfortunately, most adolescents that are dependent learn negative behaviors from the same groups of people. 

It is imperative that a child is equipped with positive tools to overcome physical, biological, emotional, neurological and mental difficulties that arise throughout adolescence into adulthood in order to combat the future possibility of addiction.


BBC. (2016). Teenagers: Secret Life of Growing Up. Films Media Group. Segment 11 retrieved from:

Essau, Cecelia. (2008). Adolescent Addiction: Epidemiology, Assessment, and Treatment. Print. Chapter One. Pg. 3, 7, 10.

Graeme, Professor. (2012). University of Bristol. Drugs of abuse - what do they do to the brain? Retrieved from 19:54, Best of Bristol Lectures:

Levine, Amir. (2014). The Teenage Brain Is Primed For Addiction. World Science Festival. :30 and :40 retrieved from:


Wednesday, May 9, 2018


This came from a writing prompt: Think of a voice sitting on the shoulder of a historical figure constantly whispering into their ear. 

So I wrote, and this is what I came up with. 

The voice is the conscience of Adolf Hitler. 

In German, these words mean: 

Vater: Father
Mutter: Mother
Lieb Junge: young dear boy
Führer: leader
Führerbunker: shelter for the leader, the Führer's shelter. 

This has been published twice. 

First, at the Carl Jung Center in Buffalo, NY in the anthology A Celebration of Western New York Poets  and recently, in a chapbook via The Poet's Haven in Ohio, titled Darker Than Fiction. 

I included my spoken word and the short story below. 

I watched your rebirth onto this plane. We all looked on, noble wolf, while Mutter solemnly masked her pain. Vater whipped you in your later years while I stood silent in shadows. The time was not yet right.       

A Bohemian should have suited you fine following the death of Vater. The canvas was to be your escape, yet you held no decree, no privilege. 

The key held tightly in my bony grasp. Waiting . . . waiting for the day you would be attuned to my voice.  

I foresaw millions waving to you in homage and showed the skin of my teeth in skeletal grin. 

Was it the constant rejection of Vienna that caused you to change your train of thought? To lie your brush down lightly to rest and pick baton in hand as whip to march the masses?

You certainly were far from unintelligent. My constant chattering eventually led you to write words I had been whispering for ages. 

When Mutter passed, you began the uprisal. I honestly did not realize the impact I had on you then. I only wanted to be heard; yet you outlived my spirit.       

You began to frighten even me with your constant babble and I held hands to my ears, drowning out the rivers of bloodletting I birthed.   

Even when you stopped listening to me, you led them through the wires. You ceased to believe in the cause. 

The message was lost when the armies marched yellow stars to silent deaths.
I only needed to speak Führer. The plans we schemed were far beyond my reach. You did not require my guidance. You forced me from your heart. 

Oh, Lieb Junge, I weep tears that do not fall from your eyes. They grew cold and dead while Berlin startled itself awake to gunshots in the night. 

Your body lies in smoke and ash, alongside family and comrades. Bitter almond trailing, colorless. 

Wisps of history lost in rubble. 

The Führerbunker safe within the breast of the beast you battled.

© 2018 Susan Marie