The starting point for this (non-academic) exploratory post is the work done by Philip Barnard and John Teasdale on “interacting cognitive subsystems”. They put forward a model of the mental architectural substrates needed to account for the ways in which cognitive and emotional processes interact with each other, particularly in the maintenance of clinical depressive states.
They described how experiences are mentally encoded in different ways and at different levels. For example, when we recall a recent conversation we remember the words spoken, the setting, the tone of voice, and other non-verbal aspects of the exchange.
The researchers make an important distinction between two different types of meaning:
This is a specific, low-level meaning corresponding to everyday language, in which the truth of the situation can easily be demonstrated or refuted. The chicken crossed the road. The cat sat on the mat.
This is a more generic, high-level meaning built on experiential evidence and not so amenable to confirmation or refutation.
The important point to note is that only implicational meaning is directly related to emotion. The significance of this will be apparent to therapists using Cognitive Behavior Therapy to help clients recognise and challenge their negative automatic thoughts. We need to really understand the idiosyncratic meaning that particular situations, words and images have for our clients.
The cat sat on the mat. At a propositional level, no problem. Yep. The cat is guilty. We can see the hairs. We have it on CCTV.
Possible implicational meanings:
“I am a failure as a cat trainer”
“I should have kept the door to the lounge closed when I went out More evidence that I’m useless”
“That cat hates me and just wants to make me look like an idiot”
These beliefs, these ascribed meanings, are likely to give rise to strong emotions. Also, how do you begin to challenge their truth?
And don’t even get me started on why the chicken crossed the road. I know – I should have mended that chicken wire last week!
[Note to Self
Explore further in future posts – links with Brewin’s VAM and SAM systems, and dual-processing theory (role in emotional regulation/mindfulness)