Out of sight, not necessarily out of mind

by Malek Mneimne, M.A.

In a comprehensive review of 20 textbooks on psychotherapy and counseling, Dryden (2012) reported on a number of commonly held misconceptions about REBT, one of which is the notion that B causes or creates C.

Through personal communications with colleagues, I too have heard this misconception. Over a year ago, I had the unfortunate, though not awful, experience of being given an incomplete in a clinical seminar in part because my supervisor asserted that “thoughts cause emotions” and I disagreed, pointing out multiple findings inconsistent with this assertion. In this blog, I will highlight some of those findings and point out problems with the notion that “B causes/creates C.”

In a series of experiments on a phenomenon known as blind sight, Beatrice de Gelder has found that individuals with no conscious awareness of what they are looking at can nonetheless be affected emotionally by images of facial expressions of emotion. In these experiments, individuals with damage to their visual cortex, often as a result of a stroke, which precludes the perception of light (and therefore sight), are presented with images of actors expressing various emotions to their blind visual field and are asked to guess (i.e., perceive) the emotion, which they do with better-than-chance accuracy. Additionally, electrodes affixed to facial muscles of these individuals indicated that these individuals often mimicked the facial emotion presented to their blind visual field.

Even individuals with the ability to see are affected when presented with stimuli that they are not aware or conscious of (as in the case of “subliminal” images or messages). Multiple studies have found that emotionally evocative images flashed too quickly for individuals to perceive activate the limbic (emotional) system and influence emotional experiences of subsequently presented and perceived emotional stimuli (e.g., images). A scene from one of my favorite movies, “Fight Club,” portrays this phenomenon nicely.

Joseph LeDoux has proposed a theory of emotion based upon extensive research that may provide an explanation for such findings. His research has focused on and provided support for the existence and involvement of two interdependent pathways of emotion in the brain, one pathway that is phylogenetically older, quicker, and projects coarse visual information from the visual centers of the brain to the brainstem and limbic system before the cortex (primary source of our awareness) and another pathway that is phylogenetically newer, slower, and projects more detailed visual information from the visual centers of the brain to the cortex prior to the limbic system. Information diffusing through the former, subcortical route can account for the aforementioned findings; the pathway itself has been thought to have evolved to allow our ancestors to escape from dangerous events more rapidly (e.g., within 100 ms of visual sensation, prior to visual perception). As part of this theory, conceptual knowledge is activated by information traversing the latter, cortical route.

According to REBT, as noted by Dryden (2012) and Albert Ellis on many occasions, even prior to the emergence of such findings, irrational beliefs largely account for disturbances in emotion, but don’t cause or create them as I was once told. Although the argument may seem like a play on words, the notion that “B causes/creates C” implicitly places too much responsibility on individuals for their emotions, lacks evidence, and ignores the aforementioned findings. Indeed, people have control over their emotions, but not absolute, 100% control.

This entry was posted in rebt-cbt-post. Bookmark the permalink.