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The Quality of System One

If you have trouble remembering what I wrote about dual-process theory, take a minute and reread this postRecall that my theory ties System 1 (fast intuition) with the darkness–brilliance continuum, and System 2 (slow intention) with the dullness–brilliance continuum. The purpose of this post is to get more specific about how darkness contrasts with brilliance.

The darkness–brilliance continuum is a metaphor about the overall quality of a person’s System 1 activity.* After addressing a few strong-but-wrong conceptions, I will single out a truly definitive quality of System 1. As noted below, this post focuses on the quality of System 1 in the domain of Agreeableness (the yellow section of the Bright Triad).

*The claim that we could essentialize System 1 at all may seem absurd to readers familiar with the complexities of memory, consciousness, emotion, and creativity. And I agree. System 1 cannot be encapsulated by any single word. Even calling it “fast intuition” feels a bit cheap. With that said, it may not be important to delve into all the complexities of this system. Plus, it helps us conserve energy when we can employ a name, a category, a heuristic. So I will continue using “fast intuition” for now. And I will name this overall quality.

Strong-but-Wrong Candidates

Color is often used as a metaphor for emotion, and this 2007 paper in the journal Emotion suggests that humans associate light with positive emotions and darkness with negative emotions. The distinction between positive and negative emotions is known to affective scientists as the valence dimension of emotionality.

Jaak Panksepp’s book Archaeology of the Mind has greatly influenced my understanding of System 1. Panksepp invented a bunch of contraptions which enabled him to prove that mammals experience both positive and negative emotions. His contraptions allow the animal to “turn on” and/or “turn off” their own experience of emotions such as play, rage, care, grief, panic and lust. Animals have clear preferences for some emotions (e.g., play) and against other emotions (e.g., grief). As interesting as this is, the valence dimension of emotionality does not define System 1.

In part, this is because the days of most animals (especially babies) are roller coaster rides between positive and negative emotions. I wish my theory could reify the metaphor of light-dark with positive-negative, but emotional valence is far more labile than the overall functional quality of System 1. This is also why I have ruled out the seeking / expectancy drive, which is prone to high-frequency fluctuations (e.g., animals stop seeking food once they eat a meal).

Let me discuss one more strong-but-wrong idea. According to Seymour Epstein’s Cognitive-Experiential Self Theory, people demonstrate relative preferences for System 1 or System 2 which he calls cognitive styles. The preference for System 1 is  “faith in intuition” and “need for cognition” is the preference for System 2. Having faith in one’s intuition is a cognitive style that has also been called implicit self-esteem (as measured by the Implicit Association Test, among others). This is a compelling cluster of concepts, deserving of much more attention than I will give it here. Without going into much detail, let me just say that I have ruled-out implicit self-esteem and faith in intuition because higher levels of these traits often predict overconfidence and under-motivation.

So, if the darkness–brilliance continuum is not defined by amotivation–seeking, or by negative–positive emotionality, or by low–high implicit self-esteem, then what is the defining attribute of System 1?

The Woman Behind the Curtain

C. Sue Carter is a super-star behavioral neuroscientist who specializes in the mechanisms postulated by attachment theory. Dr. Carter recently wrote a paper for Annual Reviews: Psychology titled “Oxytocin Pathways and the Evolution of Human Behavior.” I read this paper shortly after reading Panksepp’s discussions of oxytocin’s effect on the social behavior of rats, in which he describes how rats that are hopped-up on oxytocin maintain their grit and social confidence whether or not they are bullied.

In combination, these papers blew my mind. Essentially, Dr. Carter agrees with Panksepp that oxytocin is the foundation of social confidence and grit, however she takes this logic a step or two further postulating that there would be no human civilization were it not for oxytocin pathways (which include vasopressin).  In her abstract, she writes:

Unique actions of oxytocin, including the facilitation of birth, lactation, maternal behavior, genetic regulation of the growth of the neocortex, and the maintenance of the blood supply to the cortex, may have been necessary for encephalization. Peptide-facilitated attachment also allows the extended periods of nurture necessary for the emergence of human intellectual development.

This means that the woman behind the System 1 curtain is, drum-roll please, … your mom. Well, kind of. More specifically, the overall quality of System 1 functioning is defined by a person’s attachment security, which is mediated by the stimulation of oxytocin pathways in the brain. In other words, the darkness–brilliance continuum is really a metaphor about the insecure–secure attachment continuum.

Security is a type of confidence that is distinct from implicit self-esteem. Unlike having high implicit self-esteem, being securely attached does not lead to overconfidence and under-motivation. Instead, it encourages seeking behaviors while enhancing one’s tolerance of the inevitable pains of learning and exploration. Further, attachment security is not as labile as emotional valence or the seeking / expectancy drive.

How to Foster System One-Brilliance

It is doubtful that whether the parent is male, female or transgendered matters; how the parent acts around the child is what really matters. Secure attachments are fostered by warm, encouraging and reliable parenting behaviors.

A person’s attachment style is usually consolidated during early childhood and remains pretty stable across life. Yet the mechanisms of neuroplasticity are alive and well in System 1, and it is possible to change one’s attachment style, for example in a well-run group psychotherapy context. It is also likely that intranasal oxytocin (something like Sinex for the common cold personality) facilitates social bonding by increasing confidence and emotion recognition, thereby increasing System 1 brilliance.



After-thought: This is a Yellow-Bellied Post

This discussion of the overall quality of System 1 has focused heavily on the Yellow area of the Bright Triad (agreeableness: the personality mechanisms responsible for social cooperation). Perhaps I have underemphasized the contributions of System One to areas in Blue (conscientiousness: the mechanisms responsible for self-control) and Red (openness/intellect: the mechanisms responsible for exploration and mental map-making). That said, I will not apologize for the  yellow-bellied nature of this post.

I have overemphasized the role of oxytocin because my competitors underemphasize its role. Future posts will bring together the roles of serotonin (the stability chemical [most active in the red]), dopamine (the plasticity chemical [most active in the blue]) and oxytocin (the confidence chemical [most active in the yellow]).

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