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Two Minds

William Dubin, Ph.D.

Knowing what is good for you is one thing; acting in accord with that knowledge is quite another. To explain why people act counter to their own interests, Freud proposed a Psyche motivated by Conscious and Unconscious factors. For our purposes, a model proposed more recently by Seymour Epstein is particularly useful. Epstein posits that we, like other animals, have an Experiential Processing System that learns which responses under which conditions produce immediate pleasure and pain. But unlike other creatures we have access to higher cognitive faculties; a Rational Processing System that enable us to appreciate the likely long-term consequences of our actions so that we can maximize our gratification and minimize our suffering. Rational processing can only be utilized when you have access to the cognitive resources required to think things through, so you can respond according to your interests.

two mindsThe attributes of the two processing systems are contrasted below. Because the rational processing system is only available in special circumstances, it cannot be counted upon to guide behavior during a crisis. In my office, clients generally have access to good cognitive resources; they have taken an hour out of their day to dispassionately review their problem and engage in rational problem solving. Knowing that I will point out thinking errors, most competent individuals easily adhere to the rules of inductive and deductive reasoning. But at most other times, the Experiential Processing System is the default and guides real-time performance.

Experiential Processing System Rational Processing System
Hedonistically [pleasure-pain] oriented, what feels best now Rationally oriented: What yields the greatest net benefits
Connections determined by the principals of classical conditioning Connections determined by the principals of logic
Has a long evolutionary history and operates in animals as well as humans Has a brief evolutionary history and operates through language
Holistic Analytic
Encodes reality in concrete images, metaphors and narratives Encodes reality in abstract symbols, words, and numbers
Rapid processing: Oriented toward immediate action Slower processing: Oriented toward future action
Slow to change: Change requires repetitive or intense experience Rapid to change: Changes with the speed of thought
Experience is state dependent Logic is independent of local state
Experienced passively [one is seized by one’s emotions] Experienced actively [one is in control of one’s thoughts]
Certainty is self-evident [seeing is believing] Certainty requires justification via logic and evidence


Ms. Lickfire has become dependent on cocaine. She is a competent, well-paid attorney; a body builder, and a mom. In my office she develops an excellent plan-one that would certainly produce good outcomes for her and her daughters if she adhered to it. (She has good cognitive skills, so developing the plan is the easy part for her.) Her real challenge is to get herself to adhere to the plan when she encounters a crisis and her cognitive resources are otherwise occupied. The difficulty of this challenge is demonstrated by the fact that L has already gone through several inpatient and intensive outpatient treatment programs, and has attended self-help group meetings on and off for years, yet she continues to relapse.

I interact with L's Rational Processing System, the one to whom it makes no sense to risk everything dear to her for the trivial pleasure of a cocaine high. But there are many versions of L, and I only have access to the one who shows up in my office. This version of L has access to excellent cognitive skills. It is hard to believe that this impressive individual would violate her sincere vow to put her children's needs before her desire for cocaine. But during the critical moments of a high-risk situation, her sincere vows to quit, her excellent cognitive abilities, and thoughts of her children are far away.


Real-time performance is not based on deliberate rational processing-there is no time for that. The best predictor of what L will do when faced with a particular high-risk situation is what she did the last time she encountered a similar situation. To behave differently, she will have to exercise her will to override the default reaction and to intentionally guide her behavior. This is quite effortful and requires some advance preparation. However each time she performs as intended, doing the right thing under such circumstances becomes easier.

Training the Puppy

Her rational processing system can shape her experiential processing system in the same way she would train a puppy. First, she uses her rational processing system to figure out how she wants to react to provocations, and then her task is to train her experiential processing system to react that way. The rest of this kit is dedicated to that training. While the details of this training will be different for everyone, the general principles of puppy training apply:

1. The Rational Processing System has the responsibility to setting things up so that the training is effective.

2. Be gentle and patient. Improvement is gradual, and sometimes the puppy has an accident. It is of critical importance that you are kind and do not frighten the puppy so that it does not want to work with you anymore.

3. Modeling, rehearsal and exercise are the primary methods by which the puppy acquires the skill.

4. Use the thought experiments and media exercises to practice influencing experiential phenomena and performing willfully in different trances.

5. The goal is for you and this creature you inhabit to develop the skills and faculties to respond to whatever crisis comes your way without depending upon food to help you cope.