The Human Operating System

Posted on 17th Apr 2019

So much of the time we're flying blind. Or, more accurately, we're on autopilot. We think our thoughts, feel our feelings, and perform our actions without examining how thoughts and feelings affect one another or how together they determine our actions. That's how we humans have evolved and the process works very well - until it doesn't. When you're in a plane, don't you just assume that the pilot is trained to take over the controls and fly manually if a problem arises? Didn't "Sully" become a national hero for doing just that?

When it comes controlling our own lives, we don't have a pilot's formal training so we generally learn by experience and trial and error. To add a little more oomph to our training, let's take a look at the Human Operating System. It's the one that comes factory-installed in each of our brains.

For starters, our brains are like radios that receive information from the environment in the form of waves (sight, sound, touch) or particles (smell, taste) or our own internal thoughts (no one knows what they are . . .) We convert this information into thoughts we can use, which means we need to organize the newly created thoughts into categories. Not surprisingly, the "safety category" gets first dibs on our thoughts as they are created. If the new thought tells us our situation is unsafe, we react to protect ourselves. If the new thought passes cleanly through the "safety filter" and doesn't pick up on a threat, we react by enjoying our safe situation. So we can think of our thoughts passing through a safety filter and dropping into one of two buckets: the safe bucket or the unsafe bucket.

When a thought drops into the safe bucket, it creates a feeling in keeping with the type of safe situation we're in. That's right, our thoughts create our feelings. So if we perceive through our senses that it's safe to walk through the park in the afternoon, we're likely to feel relaxed and go for a stroll. But if we perceive that it's unsafe to walk through the same park at midnight, we're likely to feel frightened and stay home. There's a good reason for our thoughts to create our feelings: we can't think about every thought and still function effectively. It would be too time-consuming and cumbersome. So our operating system lets thought emerge and flow in the background, but puts our feelings out front as "feelers" to let us know if a good situation is turning bad or a bad situation is getting better. In this way, we feel our way through the day and our thoughts remain largely on autopilot. Of course, our feelings affect our thoughts and our thoughts affect our feelings in a continuous loop, but our thoughts are the drivers of the process.

Where do actions fit in? We choose what we do based on our thoughts, which are influenced by our feelings. But since we can't directly control our feelings, we can only change them through our thoughts combined with our actions. Have you ever been in a foul mood and said, "I'm going to watch some TV (or listen to music, or do some housework)"? The combination of a thought ("I'm going to watch TV") and an action (watching TV) can turn a negative mood into a positive one. Of course, the opposite can occur - as when we happily turn on the news and get upset. That's why we sometimes have the thought ("I'm going to practice the piano instead of watching the news") and the action (playing the piano) to keep a good mood going.

On the other hand, our feelings can alert us to an actual threat which our brains then counter with appropriate thoughts and actions. That walk in the park at midnight? The feeling of fear makes sense.

The whole system works incredibly well, most of the time.

So what's the hitch? Well, sometimes we put thoughts in the "safe bucket" when the situation is unsafe or, more often, we put thoughts in the "unsafe bucket" when the situation is actually safe. Once a thought tells us we're unsafe, we react with fear in the form of worry, panic, anger, or any number of negative emotions. Then we follow with protective actions such confrontation, avoidance, or defensiveness. But what if, in reality, the situation is safe? Then our negative emotions are inappropriate and our protective behaviors are ineffective. This reaction is known as emotional reasoning and it leads to many of our needless worries and avoidable difficulties.

To put our thoughts in right bucket and prevent unnecessary worry and anger, we can respond to negative feelings by switching our thoughts from autopilot to manual. When upset, we can examine the situation as realistically and rationally as possible, then make a decision about how to proceed. Just because we feel anxious, it doesn't mean there's a threat. And because negative feelings influence our thoughts, we shouldn't believe everything we think. That's what flying on manual means: think it through realistically and take direct control of our thoughts and actions. Then, indirectly, we can take control of our feelings. Otherwise we're flying blind and that can be a bumpy flight.

So that's the Human Operating System in a nutshell. It's simple to understand, but that doesn't make it easy to master. Like any other skill, it take a lot of practice to learn. The particular challenge of mastering the Human Operating System is that we must practice in the most emotionally-charged situations. At such times, it seems for all the world that our inflamed emotions and skewed thoughts are accurate. But realistic thinking is a powerful alternative that, with practice, can pull us out of a dive very effectively. Then we can switch back to autopilot and enjoy the rest of the flight.

Gregory Powell, Ph.D., 2019