Zoom Lens Cognition:
A Therapeutic Adaptation
by Robert DePaolo
This article discusses an adaptive cognitive mechanism, applicable in therapeutic settings, whereby the client/patient learns to make experiential discriminations based on the alternating need for broad/encompassing decisions vs. narrowly focused decisions in adapting to psychological circumstances and maintaining emotional stability via an intact, functional ego. This involves a conceptually simple self regulatory process and a modification on the classic definition of the ego.
The Ego: Defined and Simplified
The Freudian concept of the ego is complex, in as much as it involves the orchestration of experiences, emotions and actions across a broad range of circumstances and social norms (Henriques, 2013). In its essence, the ego is presumed to be a moderator between the instinctive component of mind, which worked in the wild, indeed enabled our species to survive, and the conscience-driven mind, adhering to broad moral and ethical concepts inherent in increasingly complex human societies.
The psychoanalytic definition of ego is as a hierarchical mechanism that can override both excessive need gratification and excessive guilt in the pursuit of external and internal equanimity. The ego must see, hear and feel the totality of human experience, including the rewards for abiding by rules and the repercussions involved in not doing so. It involves a balance between self and others, immediate and long term moralities and at times it must operate by proportion. e.g. (Is it wrong to steal food from a grocery store if doing so is the only way to feed one’s family?
Because it involves so many variables, the ego is hard to conceptualize into a therapeutic teaching tool. Perhaps that is why neo-Freudian ego therapies have been so reductionist; for example basic exercises in logic (Wenzel, Brown et. al. 2011). The latest revisions are seen in cognitive-behavior therapy, which uses consequential logic to counteract irrational thoughts and actions. Although this method has yielded positive results, it lacks a definitive structure and lends itself to various interpretations on what is “rational” and what is not. In some instances it also neglects to include existential aspects of the client’s experience.
For example it seems logical to suggest to a client that overeating leads to health problems, poor self image and social rejection. Yet while eating the obese client is actually solving a problem; for example alleviating anxiety and prompting the release of endorphins that can overcome temporary bouts with depression.
Co-considerations of the Ego
It is possible to introduce a slightly different concept of the ego without diluting its importance but to do so requires some discussion of the polarities involved in this aspect of mind. Ordinarily, newly trained clinicians are taught that the healthy ego facilitates patience, weighs all the ramifications and repercussions of experience before acting. It might best be captured in the phrase…all things come to he who waits.
The problem with that model is that waiting does not always equate with a positive outcome. In a competitive society, it is often the impulsive, aggressive and self-centered person who wins. Not only does he obtain material rewards but sexual opportunities and other benefits. In other words it is conceivable that in some instances an ego-dominant personality might be maladaptive – or at least non-productive. That is in part because while Freud assumed human society transcends the primal world many aspects of the wild remain in play. Competition, aggression, jealousy, hording, tribal hostility have never really been erased from human experience. While we discourage these behaviors we also know they have a place when it comes to survival.
With regard to impulse-driven success it could be argued that money and success do not equate with mental health. Yet that argument can refuted. For instance it has been shown that a high correlation between behavior and positive feedback (outcomes) does have bearing on one’s self of hope and behavioral resilience on one hand, and a susceptibility to depression on the other (Zimmerman, 1990). Clearly even an impulsive connection between action and reward can be conducive to feelings of pleasure and equanimity.
A second consideration involves the relationship between the ego and superego; specifically the question of whether and to what degree inhibition and guilt are good or bad for the person. To wit: is it possible that in some circumstances a higher morality can be self destructive?
In either case the need for psychic balance is obvious. However by its sheer complexity the id-ego-superego psychic system seems to require more than logic for a true, useful and functional understanding by both clients and therapists. For that reason it might be helpful to consider an alternative.
Lights, Camera, Stability
All of the above ego-related factors can be encompassed in the word perspective. This has a broad meaning. It is difficult to apply in the ever-changing life of a client because it has little cue value. However it is possible to use a concise cognitive cue and teaching piece to help clients cope with duress and improve the chance of self actualization.
The cue referred to here is derived from the simple mechanics of a video camera – the old fashioned kind with a knob to zoom in and zoom out depending on the need for varying visual perspectives. In some sense a zoom mechanism is consonant with how the human brain works (Leukowicz, Ghadanfar 2009). We alternately narrow and broaden neuro-experiential searches depending on circumstances (Spector, Maurer 2009). In fact it has been argued that one function of emotion is to create a narrow focus because when faced with flight or fight exigencies we must act quickly and focally (Platonic contemplation does not often work when one is chased up a tree by a leopard)
Much of human experience (and for that matter the history of clinical psychiatry) revolves around the mental dexterity involved in shifting between broad and narrow concerns. Knowing when to block out superego-driven psychic noise in adhering to focal goals in order to problem solve and instate a hope inspiring response/reinforcement relationship vs. when to await longer term considerations is quintessentially important. There is nothing new in this assertion, as it permeates the writing of Jung via his polarities theme (Sandford, 1980) Adler, as per his social interest concept (Watts, 2003) and Erikson, with his stage-oriented description of perspective (Gross (1987). As discussed earlier, even behaviorists have demonstrated the importance and benefit of language as a mediating mechanism that reinforces secondarily while also enabling the person to postpone reward attainment (Boersman (1966).
The zoom lens cueing system is really a mechanism to prompt effective “cognitive switching.” It teaches the client how to apportion immediacy and perspective on the notion that both can be appropriate and necessary in sustaining mental health. Use of such a simple concept might be beneficial in helping clients switch between these two mindsets via cognitive streamlining, and avoid being caught up in the muddle headed vernacular of psychotherapy and serve clients with varying levels of cognitive ability across a wide variety of circumstances.
All forms of counseling are arguably didactic. Even client centered and psychoanalytic methods involve the teaching of logical thought patterns, self expansion and other habits deemed necessary in maintaining mental health. However not all therapies use a concrete cueing method to fortify the ego. In fact, at the end of most successful therapeutic forays clients are hard put to describe the formulas that “worked” to get themselves on track. Even the rational therapies tend toward dialectic interactions whereby clients’ irrational thought patterns are challenged in various contexts. No single cue or concept with the potential to govern adaptation across circumstances is typically taught. That might be why even many therapists cannot describe how or why their clients improved. In that sense a visual, concrete teaching model based on a “zoom lens” adaptive cue might be effective.
Application of a “zoom cue” might be exemplified in the following way…
Having discussed the nature and origins of stress leading to the referral as well as the ultimate desired outcome, the client/counselor can eventually gravitate toward discussions of whether “resolving your problem requires turning the zoom up or down.” For under-assertive, anxiety-prone clients the development of narrow, goal-oriented “close up zooming” might be the didactic focus. For impulsive, aggressive clients with depleted ego functions focusing on a distal view might be more therapeutic.
Ultimately all clients could benefit from being able to assess when the narrow vs. broad zooming is most beneficial. It would entail an elasticizing of the ego to serve both self and society- as Freud ultimately intended.
It might seem a bit simplistic to state that overly narrow and/or broad mindsets are at the core of psychopathology. Yet a glance at the bipolar nature of psychological disorders does lend support to that idea. Aside from the psychoses – which are by now viewed as having biological causation, a great many of the diagnostic categories in DSM IV bear some relationship to either narrow or broad psychological thinking (Payne, Hirst, 1957) One type involves the narrow (id-dominant) style; for example explosive disorders, borderline personality disorders, anti-social personality disorders and narcissistic personality disorders. In those instances, self concern and the exclusion of broader considerations tends to lead to not only pathologies but to antisocial behavior patterns that lead to negative outcomes, such as drug addiction, incarceration etc. Meanwhile the anxiety disorders are often accompanied by overly broad, inhibitory patterns, whereby the person is virtually blocked in his attempt to meet needs due to fear of retribution, rejection and guilt. In such cases not only is the person psychically immobilized but is also rendered incapable to being “narrowly selfish” enough to meet his needs, self actualize and develop an enduring sense of hope and emotional resilience.
One of the most significant byproducts of over-inclusive (distal-zoom) cognition is depression. The inhibition and extreme restraint that results from overly broad thinking carries with it a number of secondary effects. In not being able to meet needs and self actualize the person with an excessively distal zoom perspective can end up with a sense of futility, hopelessness and self deprecation. In psychobiological terms this can exacerbate feelings of depression because just as an adequate relationship between behavior and positive feedback leads to the production of catecholamines (pleasure-sensitive neurotransmitters (Guerra, Silva 2010). so too could an absence of behavioral success create an opposite effect. In that sense there is an obvious connection among hope, chemistry and the “cognitive zoom”
Cognitive therapies address this issue in broad terms; mostly with regard to the client’s specific experiences on a moment by moment basis. And there are templates used in some forms of this method- as for example the phrasing employed by Ellis in Rational-Emotive Therapy (Ellis, Dryden, 2007). However the use of a zoom lens cue as a self regulatory guide offers an economic, heuristic mechanism with which to elasticize the ego and insulate clients against self-destructive thought, emotional and behavior patterns and various pathologies.
Learning and Simplicity
A relevant question to ask is whether a simple cognitive cue is sufficient. One possible answer lies in the nature of learning itself. Educators have historically (and effectively) used concise poly-applicable symbols and cues to enhance both learning and memory: for example the alphabet song, the grammatical rule “i after e except after c”, and various math formulas such as Pythagorean Theorem. Being able to whittle down information into a single rule or concept does improve learning and to the extent that counseling involves learning such a mechanism might help improve clients’ mental resilience.
The Counseling Process
As with all therapeutic interventions, the use of a “formula” can never replace the necessary preliminary features of counseling such as empathy, relationship building, gathering of background information etc. However at some point a zoom cue model could be effective, with the counselor perhaps asking questions like the following…
1. Do you believe it is sometimes okay to look out for your own interests – even if that might seem selfish?
2. Do you believe that it is sometimes appropriate to delay pleasures because a greater good can come from patience and perspective ?
3. If both of those statements are true does it not follow that life involves a proportion between the concerns of self and broader concerns, between immediate goal seeking and delaying immediate pleasures in favor of greater rewards down the road ?
4. Do you think therefore that mental health means figuring out how and when to employ one or the other?
5. If so, we now have our “golden mean” – our ideal proportion, So let’s now review what’s happening in your life and see if we can figure out when to narrow the zoom or widen it as well as the reason for those decisions.
It could be argued that the above model runs the risk of oversimplifying life; especially since human experience entails so many gray areas. Yet psychotherapy need not address every need or set of circumstances. It is not a religion. What it can do is provide a learning tool useful in dealing with occasional duress, ameliorate the oftentimes excruciating juggling act between self-actualization and social responsibility and aid in the lifelong quest for psychological equanimity and social adaptation.
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