Hack Your Unconscious: Why Negative Feelings Linger

Part II: Wait, my thoughts are in my body?

Posted Nov 13, 2019

Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-ANke from Pixabay
Source: Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-ANke from Pixabay

In Part One of "Hack Your Unconscious: Why Negative Feelings Linger," we learned two curious facts about how we process emotions.

1. Affective salience dictates that we process emotional information much more quickly than factual information.

In any environment, emotional stimuli will catch and hold our attention more readily than any other stimuli. And what’s more, in the hierarchy of all emotions, negative emotions come first. There is evolutionary survival value to this, but it also affects how we process feelings and how long we sometimes simmer in them.

2. Ironic processes in the mind ensure that we automatically direct our attention to things (feelings, thoughts, wishes) that we are trying to avoid (hence, the irony).

In other words, we cannot tell ourselves: “Do not eat that piece of cake!” or “Do not think of how sad you were when your spouse left you” without thinking of eating the cake or feeling a jolt of sadness.

A third unconscious faculty of the mind that determine our emotional lives actually concerns the body:

3. Embodied cognition

"Knowledge is only a rumor until it lives in the muscle"  —saying of the Asaro tribe of Papua New Guinea

Embodied cognition is a growing field of research, suggesting that all mental processes, including cognitive ones, are, to some degree, grounded in the body’s motor and sensory systems.

Traditionally, we are used to thinking of our thoughts as falling within the domain of our brain functions, yet it appears that the picture is much more complicated. More and more data indicate that the mind does not work independently of the body, but rather is grounded in the body’s physical interaction with the environment

A number of studies by John Bargh (for a full list of publications, click here) and his colleagues have demonstrated this phenomenon. In one, participants who were handed a cup containing warm liquid (hot coffee) rated the experimenter’s personality as warmer (but not different in any non-warmth-related personality characteristics), compared to participants who held a glass of cold beverage.

Another study demonstrated that participants in a lab, who were asked to solve anagrams containing words related to the elderly, proceeded to walk much slower to exit the lab than did participants who solved neutral anagrams. Simply introducing the concept of old age had slowed them down without realizing it!

But embodiment is also notable in social behavior and relationships. Even cross-cultural studies (e.g., Ijzerman & Semin, 2009) have demonstrated that giving people a warm cup to hold or increasing the air temperature in a room results in their reporting feeling closer to others.

Conversely, asking people to recall an experience in which they felt socially excluded caused them to estimate the room temperature to be lower than the participants who were asked to recall a situation of feeling included. Our bodies literally feel colder when we are reminded of isolation!

A series of studies by Wilson and Ross (2001), on the other hand, demonstrated that spatial orientation and positioning help our minds grasp the concept of time, as well as impact our appraisals of self, others, and the world. Thinking of past successes or failures as recent or having happened “way back” on a timeline can impact present self-evaluations. Actively moving forward in space—e.g., while waiting on a line or arriving at an airport—causes a perception of also moving through time.

Embodiment is also observable in the other senses. When it comes to taste, people tend to rate strangers who like sweets as more agreeable (sweeter). They also engage in more helpful behaviors after being given a sweet treat (but not a non-sweet treat), thus becoming a "sweeter" person themselves. Think about how frequently you use taste-related words in your day! It is not a coincidence we frequently describe people as sweet, lukewarm, or a sourpuss; relationships as bittersweet, or hot and spicy.

Embodied cognition studies demonstrate that the separation between senses, perceptions, emotions, and cognition is not as clear-cut as perhaps we were taught in high school. They are intertwined and mutually impactful. This, in turn, influences how we process emotions, how we manage and regulate them, and how we achieve emotional well-being overall. Physically, sadness literally feels heavy on the body, and anger feels like burning (body temperature increases).

Knowledge, as the Asaro tribe says, is in the body.

The Emotional Whirlwind of Alex and Tony

What affective salience, ironic processes, and embodied cognition add up to as follows: When a triggering event occurs, it produces an emotion—surprise, shock, anger—which quickly triggers associative networks that can be highly individualized. We are much quicker to zoom in on the negative emotions than on any other detail of the situation.

Then, the more we try to push them out of our minds, the more we seem to get stuck on them. (Not to worry—I will discuss strategies for hacking your unconscious that work better in my next article!) In turn, the associative networks connected with these emotions then become activated over and over again, producing corresponding bodily sensations. Quickly, we feel "beside ourselves."

Take Alex and Tony, for example. They are driving on the parkway. Usually, Tony drives, but today they have switched, and Alex is behind the steering wheel. A car swerves in their lane as Alex, who is trying to change the radio station, quickly gets out of the way. No big deal, right? Not necessarily.

The initial emotions of shock and maybe fear, which come with a corresponding bodily sensation, may wear off pretty quickly. However, Alex also was frequently told as a child that Alex was absent-minded. Alex also often felt invisible, overshadowed by four loud brothers and two sisters. As the bodily sensations related to fear start to give way to anger, Alex's schemas of feeling invisible, unimportant, and voiceless get activated.

Alex is now angry, but also somewhat ashamed, because of a creeping doubt about whether or not changing the radio station slowed Alex down. Maybe, as the childhood story goes, Alex is "absent-minded" and irresponsible after all! And the more Alex tries to chase these thoughts away by chanting quietly, "I am not irresponsible, I did nothing wrong," all the unconscious mind hears is one word: "irresponsible."

On the other hand, Tony, who grew up as the "protector" of two younger siblings in a chaotic household, immediately shouts: "Watch out, watch out. Go this way, faster!"

Tony's rescuer schemas get activated by the initial experience of shock. The tingling sensation of fear that the swift swerving triggered (not uncommon in such situations), is familiar and signals danger. But the danger that Tony's body remembers has to do with protecting others, hence the direction giving. Now, you can imagine how for Alex, being told what to do at this moment may feel like mistrust and judgment of Alex's competence on the road.

This cycle can take many shapes, and I will not dissect every aspect of it. However, the important thing to remember is that the processes we described in this two-part article happen automatically and very much outside of consciousness. Even though it took two paragraphs to spell out Alex and Tony's experience, it happens instantaneously.

We cannot necessarily intervene at the level of unconscious processes, but there are strategies we can use to help manage our emotions more effectively—to understand the role of unconscious processes better and harness them. More on that next time. (Or, if you're impatient, take a look at my and Joel Weinberger's book The Unconscious.)

Bonus Point: As you imagined Alex and Tony, did you assign them genders? Ask yourself why. I very consciously made sure not to use gendered language, but they do possess some characteristics that are thought of as more feminine or masculine. If you did imagine one as male and the other as female, perhaps some unconscious biases are at play!


Weinberger, J. & Stoycheva, V. (2019). The unconscious: Theory, research, and clinical implications. New York: The Guilford Press.

Ijzerman, H. & Semin, G. R.  (2009).  The thermometer of social relations:  Mapping social proximity on temperature.  Psychological Science, 20, 1214-1220.

Wilson, A. E. & Ross, M.  (2001).  From chump to champ:  People’s appraisals of their earlier and present selves.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 572-584.