You Can’t Fully Control Your Own Mind: Affect at Work

It is tempting to say that having control over own’s emotions, or more generally one’s affect, is necessary for cognitive productivity and overall well-being. But “control” is too strong a word. For the mechanisms that generate “affect”—moods, emotions, feelings, urges, wishes, wants and so on–are not under direct voluntary control. You can effectively instruct your finger to scratch your nose. In contrast, (normally) you can’t simply will yourself to stop feeling pain, hunger, sadness or fear. It’s worth noting that the instruction to scratch your nose is not directly effected because human behaviour and perception are always very indirect, mediated by several neural layers and several virtual layers, as a bit of neuropsychology or computational modeling quickly reveal. (Going forward, you will notice that many authors overlook this critical fact when they talk about “direct perception” of the world or their minds. They’re wrong. In fact, people can be mistaken about the contents of their own consciousness!)

Nobel prize winner, Herbert Simon, in an important paper published in 1967, emphasized that the mind contains a system that can interrupt higher-order (conscious) processes. This system is critically involved in emotions. Professor Aaron Sloman extended this idea in a theory of emotion. (My Ph.D. thesis research and some of my subsequent work extended Sloman’s theory, which is now referred to as H-CogAff, for “human cognition and affect”.) Sloman proposed that the human mind contains mechanisms that generate motivators and determine their insistence, that is, their propensity to interrupt higher-order mental processes. These mechanisms by definition operate outside conscious awareness, for they determine whether a motive (e.g., a desire to eat) becomes conscious. Evolution has designed the mind such that most motive generators are not directly controllable by conscious processes.

When a motivator becomes very insistent, the system can experience a “perturbance”. That type of emotion happens when the agent would find it difficult to remain focused on tasks that are unrelated to the motivator. (I’ve deliberately worded that statement in a counter-factual manner, because that’s how the concept works.) Consider insistent longing, itchings, hankerings, anxiety, jealousy, etc.

So here we have a problem. How on earth is a person supposed to remain focused, in control—to maintain equanimity—if parts of his mind generate these distracting motivators? Fortunately, most of us are designed by evolution and our environments to effectively regulate ourselves despite perturbances—most of the time, at least.

However, life can interfere with the functioning of even a psychologically healthy person. Cracks then start to show. Concentrating on other matters becomes difficult. You can easily imagine situations that generate perturbant emotions. For no one can dodge the bullets of life forever. For example,

  • your child starts using illicit drugs,
  • you consider divorcing your spouse,
  • you discover that your spouse has had an affair,
  • your sibling dies suddenly,
  • your parent is diagnosed with malignant cancer,
  • your pension plan has imploded,
  • your identity has been stolen,
  • you develop severe back ache,
  • you’ve fallen in love.

While understanding emotions can help one deal with affectively potent situations, understanding in itself does not prevent perturbance, as I suppose most people who study perturbant emotions discover first hand sooner or later. Perturbance is inevitable. Neither does understanding emotions, in itself, help one fully deal with emotions.

There is a psychotherapeutic framework that hinges on a similar assumption. It is called Acceptance and Commitment therapy/training (ACT). In the penultimate chapter of Cognitive Productivity, I suggested that ACT could meaningfully be combined with our theory, H-CogAff. Each theory recognizes that conscious processes have limited control. Each fills a void in the other. ACT provides well researched therapeutic elements; but it lacks a model of mind and mental processes, which H-CogAff provides. We’ve noted H-CogAff’s potential for therapy (e.g., in a paper on grief and my Ph.D. thesis), but the work to derive and test practices has yet to be done for H-CogAff. The melding will not be easy, but it seems promising.

My next post will convey a very informal introduction of the perturbance theory of emotion and acceptance and commitment therapy/training.

Why this focus on emotion? Well, the “Zest” in CogZest conveys that neither cognitive productivity in general, nor using knowledge to become profoundly effective in particular, is merely a matter of “dry” cognition.


Beaudoin, L. P. (1994). Goal processing in autonomous agents. Birmingham, England. Retrieved from

Beaudoin, L. P. (2013). Cognitive productivity: The art and science of using knowledge to become profoundly effective. CogZest. Retrieved from

Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (2011). Acceptance and commitment therapy: The process and practice of mindful change. The Guilford Press.

Simon, H. A. (1967). Motivational and emotional controls of cognition. Psychological Review, 74(1), 29–39.

Sloman, A. (2003). How many separately evolved emotional beasties live within us? In Emotions in humans and artifacts (pp. 35–114). MIT Press.

Sloman, A. (1987). Motives, mechanisms, and emotions. Cognition & Emotion, 1(3), 217–233. doi:10.1080/02699938708408049

Wright, I., Sloman, A., & Beaudoin, L. P. (1996). Towards a design-based analysis of emotional episodes. Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology, 3(2), 101–126. doi:10.1353/ppp.1996.0022

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

2 thoughts on “You Can’t Fully Control Your Own Mind: Affect at Work”

  1. There are ways to alter how your body responds emotions and urges. These can be voluntarily induced. The after effects of Meditation and getting into Flow (like that defined by Czikszentmihalyi) immediately come to mind.

  2. (Sorry for the delay, I thought I had hit the approve button.)

    I agree, Mike. That’s why the title includes “fully” (“You Can’t Fully Control Your Own Mind”). We have partial control, not complete control. Ch. 7 of Cognitive Productivity gives other examples of limitations in our mental control, e.g., with respect to sleep and memory.

    In those and several other cases, we need to be quite indirect in how we “control” (influence) our minds. When you look at meditation from a Buddhist perspective, or at acceptance and commitment therapy/training, you’ll also see an emphasis on the limitations of our mental control. Alexander Luria described Zasetsky’s case history: a very interesting example of how limitations induced by brain damage can effortfully be overcome, but only partially. (Merlin Donald’s excellent book A Mind So Rare documents this very well.)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.