Understanding the Mind

Integrative Nature of the Mind

The purpose of learning about the different facets of mind is so that you can identify the useful information from your mental experiences about what your needs and core beliefs are in order to change them or better cope. The more diverse the modalities that you use, the easier your brain will be able to change. It helps to know what your inner world is because sometimes one domain of experience is dominant and we see the world primarily through this one domain, or a small number of the domains. Getting to know these different domains can also help you to better identify and deal with the challenges that come up in each of the domains of experience. The following are some key domains of your mind as physiologically delineated by your brain.


There are various levels of consciousness which operate differently because of our evolutionary history. The different layers of consciousness are: reflexive, emotional, cognitive, and meta-cognitive. This parallels the evolution of the brain, starting with reptiles (reflexive), mammals (emotional), primates (cognitive), and humans (meta-cognitive). The difference between humans and other species is how the brain is used. For example, the difference between macaque monkeys and humans is that humans use more areas of the brain during the same tasks.

Most of our awareness is actually below the cognitive and meta-cognitive levels of consciousness – this is the body’s awareness of the inner and outer environment (reflexive and emotional consciousness’). Understanding the different layers of consciousness that have developed over evolution is important because this can help us to become aware of why we automatically think, feel, and have the impulses to behave in certain ways because these levels of consciousness have been adaptive throughout most of our evolutionary past, and so they are still with us.

The first evolved layers of consciousness are the foundation of our higher levels of consciousness – the cognitive and meta-cognitive layers – and they have a profound influence over these higher levels. So, with all of these different awareness’ it is no wonder why we may feel ‘emotionally’ pulled in so many different directions, and why impulses, feelings, and automatic thoughts are not necessarily pro-social initially. This is not to say that acting on these is okay. And, this is not to say that we should be uninhibited, as the inhibition and redirection of our more basic impulses is important to live in harmony with others. But, it is important to recognize the origins of these so we can have more empathy toward ourselves and others for initially and automatically feeling and thinking in anti-social ways. And so that we can better manage and channel these impulses into more prosocial constructive and adaptive ways of being. These concepts also help to understand the layers of consciousness so that we can better meet the needs of these brain regions associated with the different types. The core needs of these different layers are safety, satisfaction, connection, and meaning/purpose which we will get to in the “Resilience” section.

Fast & Slow Sensory Processing Systems

For our purposes, there are two main ways that the brain takes in experiences and sensory information. The fast is associated with the reflexive and emotional levels of consciousness, and the slow the cognitive and metacognitive levels. As previously mentioned, the fast processing route happens outside of conscious awareness at speeds of 50 to 90 milliseconds. The second processing system is slower, conscious, and processes sensory information at 250 to 500 milliseconds. There is not much context when we initially perceive something and so we tend to see the negative first and make wild associations so we can become aware of possible danger to avoid it. This works great for life and death situations; however, it can be maladaptive when the stresses are not life and death.

The same stress response systems activate for physically dangerous situations as well as social and emotional adversity. The difference is a matter of degree as to what extent the stress response is activated. When a person experiences above moderate anxiety this can impair how well your higher thinking capacities work. The higher thinking capacities can add context and detail to the initial interpretations and expectations from our unconscious processing system. But, when we are stressed, the slow, conscious system doesn’t work as well, so we tend to spiral into negative thinking and broad generalizations which also leads to troubling behaviour.

The key takeaways here are that the fast processing system creates generalized, negatively biased interpretations faster than we can consciously process, and that do not have context/perspective of reality, which eventually leads to conscious impressions, feelings, expectations, and interpretations of reality that are worst-case scenario biased, without perspective, and influenced by implicit memories of the past. The slow, conscious processing system can add context. During higher stress levels the slow processing system does not work as well. So, stress regulation is an important skill so that you can be operating on all cylinders.


When we think of memory we often assume it’s explicit memory about what we can consciously recall. However, memory comes in different forms. There are two main types of memory, which are: 1) implicit; and, 2) explicit. Implicit memory is characterized by a lack of conscious awareness in the act of recollection. By contrast, explicit memory requires conscious recollection of previous experience.

Implicit memories are more connected with somatic/sensory (bodily senses & motor impulses), procedural (behaviour), and emotional processing systems in the brain and body. These are called “implicit” because they are involuntary, visceral, and can operate outside of conscious awareness. Think of a child who doesn’t have the ability for language yet – they experience the world non-verbally predominantly through the body, senses, movement, and emotion. This is the type of memory that needs to be targeted and changed in order to deal with the inner turmoil.

In order to change it, there needs to be more done than just talking about it. While making what was implicit, explicit through talking, and talking abstractly about the problem, can be helpful for exploration, this is just a small piece of the puzzle. There needs to be a more dynamic and embodied approach so that the implicit memory systems responsible for the actual issues are being impacted and changed. Implicit memory automatically forms outside of conscious awareness, and it can be difficult to consciously interpret because it is not originally (directly) formed with language. Implicit memory is stored in 3 regions of the brain. The first region is the amygdala, which stores emotional memory. The second region is the striatum, which stores habitual memory. The third region is the cerebellum, which stores procedural memory.

Regarding explicit memory, it consists of: 1) Working memory (immediate memory); 2) Short-term memory (seconds to days); and 3) Long-term memory. Working memory and short-term memory are localized in the prefrontal cortex. Long-term memory is distributed among many brain regions, but the hippocampus and surrounding regions have been found to be of especial significance to explicit memory. The hippocampus is necessary for the conversion of short-term explicit memory to long term memory (note: the hippocampus is not needed for the conversion of implicit memory). The consolidation process from the hippocampus to the respective memory regions for explicit memory can take anywhere from days to years.

Traditional therapy (talk therapy) tends to focus on just the verbal forms and leaves the experiential forms largely on the sidelines. However, the explicit form is of great significance too because making what was implicit explicit brings the previously dissociated memories into cortical control that allows processing, inhibition, and organization of impulses, reflexes, and emotions. However, it seems that ‘talk therapy’ must also combine action and adaptive simulated lived experience in order to impact the experiential memory systems (i.e., somatic-sensory, motor, and emotional). The experiential memory systems are the first to arise in development and form most of the information processing that occurs, which happens outside of conscious awareness.

To some extent there seems to be a reciprocal impact of the memory systems on one another. This is not to say that one can form an embodied sensory-motor and somatic memory through conceptual and abstract thinking, but it can produce greater awareness of that domain, and can mutually have limited interrelated effects within the sphere of each capacity of each domain. For example, cognitions can trigger emotions; emotions can elicit cognitions; impulses can elicit emotions; and, emotions and impulses can lead to behaviour.

The limitations of this reciprocal impact is the type of memories that can be formed from the presence or absence of embodied experience and action. Trauma can form without embodied experience, but this is due to the increased neuroplasticity that occurs from fear and an automatic generalized interpretation. We are trying to form a positive, contextualized interpretation and the manner to do this consciously is through embodied awareness, simulating the context and other techniques discussed in the “Self-Directed Neuroplasticity” section.


Thoughts can be consciously directed (at least our perception that they are) or automatic. They can happen above the surface in semantic consciousness, or below the surface in the nonconscious. We are so used to utilizing, and so caught up, in the world of language because of its necessity to communicate with others; however, there is also a personal inner world that many people are distant from. This is the world of emotion, imagery, metaphor, impressions, sensation, and impulse. This is not only the world of dreams but it is also the source of vitality, meaning, and relational connection. Ironically, the conscious semantic or language state that allows us to connect with others also distances us at an emotional level. The greater balance that we have in experiencing and accessing both domains – the semantic and the affective/metaphoric/sensory/motor – the more whole we feel ,and the more connected and interdependent we will perceive ourselves in relation to others and the world.

Thoughts come in a few different forms. Let’s first define thoughts. Thoughts are either conscious words, images, or sensory/spatial perceptions. There are automatic thoughts that are more unconscious perceptions that happen below conscious awareness but can still have an impact on your emotions and physiology. Automatic thoughts can also be at conscious awareness, but this does not mean that you are consciously eliciting the thoughts. All thoughts are usually integrated to some degree with emotion, sensations, and other domains of experience but whether one becomes conscious of these domains depends on the level of stress, where attentional resources are being allocated, and a host of other factors.

There are also consciously directed thoughts that one uses to assist with observing, assessing, and analyzing things. These can all occur at an automatic level as well as a consciously directed level, however.  Consciously-directed thought is a real phenomenon and can be shown with a simple thought experiment. The next time you forgot something, try your hardest to remember it. This usually doesn’t work. Now, give yourself a light distractor and focus on a trivial matter. The variable in question usually is remembered. If there was not conscious thinking, then there would not be anything to block the automatic thought from coming up. Freewill is a different matter, though. What is demonstrated here is that there are different levels of consciousness.


To understand the concept of emotion we first need to differentiate between the motivational tendencies of emotion and the social communication tendencies of the facial and body expressions of emotion, as these domains have differing functions depending on the emotion. This is not to say that the facial expression of emotion arises only in a relational context as these expressions were selected for their evolutionary adaptive value over the history of our species – not just one individual.

The motivational tendencies have adaptive value for gearing our behavior for the regulation of our organism. The facial and body expression of emotion has adaptive value for communicating to another what our needs are, or how to relate to us in a social context. The facial and body expression of emotion can be inhibited but this depends on the context of the situation. Micro-expressions can also indicate emotion, and demonstrates the fast processing system at work in eliciting emotional expression.

Both the motivational tendencies and the facial and body expression of emotion are triggered by a combination of fast and unconscious automatic, sensory perceptions of the environment, which also filters through implicit memories from personal lived experiences. We do not need to be conscious of the emotion for our thoughts, behavior, and physiology to be influenced by emotion.

The automatic perceptions resulting in evolutionary adaptive motivational tendencies are based on biological values encoded in the brain throughout evolution. All mammals share these ‘biological values’, and are represented as circuits within our brain that relate to seeking out that which is life sustaining, anger, fear, lust, nurturance, sadness, and play or joy. All of these have had evolutionary adaptive value for mammals.

What we consciously “feel” may not necessarily be the emotions reflected in these circuits as one’s “feelings” are often a combination of emotion, sensations, and cognitions. For example, someone might say “I feel obligated”, or “I feel hopeful, or “I feel like you hate me”. This is not to say that we cannot experience core emotions consciously, but people use the term “feel” for many mental experiences – not just emotion – because our mental experiences have a predominant “feeling” quality to them because our perceptions are grounded in sensory/spatial, motor, and somatic lived experience. To clarify this further, the term “feel” is often used because the bulk of how we experience the world is non-conscious through the senses, body, and movement, which are only then potentially translated into conscious experience afterward – depending on the cognitive resources, cognitive biases, and defense mechanisms that allow, distort or prevent our experience of emotion. Because unconscious dynamic and action-oriented types of experiences are the primary source of our lived experiences, our mental experiences reflect these experiential processes in our conscious mind.

There are primary, secondary, and instrumental emotions. Primary emotion is the direct emotional impact of a stimulus. Secondary emotions form to protect the organism from the fear of experiencing the situational reality corresponding to the primary emotion. Or, to help meet the need of the primary emotion. Primary emotions can be secondary emotions for other primary emotions too, because it may be maladaptive for the context. One may wonder how it is that such a natural phenomena as primary emotion can be maladaptive. This is where it is important to understand that the emotion that is elicited in a given context can already be sensitized and formed as an adaptive reflex to past situations, which then became habits or were sensitized to features similar to the original context.

Even though emotion can be adaptive if one’s implicit perceptions are interpreting reality accurately, implicit memories can influence the emotion that is elicited making the emotion maladaptive. For example, someone might feel angry (secondary emotion) because they feel sad (primary emotion), and because they feel too vulnerable, they experience anger. They experience anger because of the implicit expectation (from bias, implicit memory, or even current evidence) that their need will not be met. Instrumental emotions come into play when one consciously or semi-consciously utilizes an emotional expression or behavior to elicit a response from another.

The practical significance of learning about emotion is three-fold. First, so that you can identify and differentiate the primary emotion from the secondary and instrumental emotions in order to use or shift the primary emotion to what is more adaptive and constructive for your long-term well-being and goals. A second reason to learn about emotion is to help with identifying implicit memories because experientially understanding one’s emotions are precursors for understanding implicit memories since emotion and implicit memory are inextricably connected. The third reason for the significance of learning about emotion is to assist with being able to better identify the emotions in self and others so that you can have more adaptive relational patterns by cultivating greater empathy and being more constructive.

Implicit memories are the traces of the perceptions from situations which are highlighted as significant by emotion. Emotions are the motivational or communicative tendencies that are ideally adaptive for better navigating the various interactions with people, places and things in the world. The problem is that implicit memories stick with us and distort our perception of what is happening in the present, and because of the tendency for our attention to be negatively biased and generalize features from past experience. This elicits emotion and the sensory-motor-emotional experience of the memory in the present as if the past were happening, now which distorts our perception of present reality.

Metaphorical Superimposition of the Mind

Symbols are a powerful phenomena as these help us connect with meaning and to derive fulfillment in daily experience and life overall. Just because something does not logically make sense, it can still be functional and beneficial because it provides a sense of meaning and fulfillment. The mind is a metaphor and analogy machine and is significantly associative at both explicit and implicit levels,which is why symbols can impact our degree of stress, enjoyment, and satisfaction.

There is certainly an outside reality, but our mind is such that it automatically perceives reality through a lens of sets of associations that are connected at a nonconscious level in your psyche with other objects, people, and places. The associations are not just similar stimuli. They can also be symbolic, meaning they stand for something that does not have similar features on the surface, but similar features in the essence of its action or function.

Function and action are the basis of implicit experience, implicit processing, and implicit memory. This symbolic stimuli is in essence, metaphor. Our brain actually interprets reality metaphorically first because this provides a faster way of processing than discrete logical analysis, since metaphor is grounded in experiential action. The foundations below our cognitive and conceptual understanding is sensory/spatial, motor, and emotional experiences from interacting with the world prior to advanced cognitive development. These experiences then become a foundation for being able to simulate and manipulate variables in our mind instead of reality.

It is important to remember that symbolic meaning has no validity in the scientific determination of the physical world. Symbolic meaning relates to function and action in what is emotionally significant and fulfilling, whereas science pertains to function and action as to what is materially or physically beneficial. There is some overlap where greater emotional fulfillment can foster greater health, and vice versa. But we must not conflate symbolic meaning with scientific accuracy. Each has an important place and must be used according to the specialty function that each has.  What is out in reality is not necessarily what we interpret because what we perceive and what our attention is drawn to from our implicit values and expectations can differ.

The mind best learns and understands – especially quickly and automatically – through sensory-spatial representations because these are action-oriented and therefore relevant to survival. But why metaphorical? The generalizing tendency allows for more likely identification and learning because features similar to the threat are automatically highlighted as salient and elicit an internal simulation of the original stimulus. The metaphorical superimposition upon reality is the bridge to the unconscious part of ourselves. This part of us informs the values and meaning that we experience.

We can only understand through metaphor because more complex language is reality-based and devoid of implicit metaphorical meaning. The more that we venture into the science-minded world without heeding the emotional and metaphorical world that enables us to understand our unconscious emotional and implicit experience – which is the source of our fulfillment and foundation of our emotional processing – the greater the distance and lack of meaning we will feel in ourselves and life.

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