active mind
assertiveness and social skills
biology
conscious mental activity
feelings and emotions
goal setting and achievement
history of psychology
judgment
love and expression of values
mind and brain
mortality
nervous system
understanding others

parenting
personal growth and self-actualization
nurturing relationships
self-concept
self-esteem
self-exploration
self-image
self-worth
sensation and perception
sense of life
sexuality
spirituality
subconscious
values

Psychology Topics

Active mind

We acquire information most adaptively through having an active mind, one that seeks to gather all the available facts and weigh the pros and cons. This represents an autonomous consciousness that puts nothing in the way between it and the search for truth.

Of course many factors need to be considered in the search for truth. Context of knowledge and the topic at hand are important. Yet, whether on the philosophical, psychological, or scientific level, we can accept and embrace the facts of reality that we do know as well as those that we discover.

Rather than throwing up psychological blocks and defenses to ward off what may be disturbing or what may demand change from us, we can flow with the truths that we encounter. The truth hurts most to those who view it as an imposition on their isolated emotional viewpoints which disregard reality.

Assertiveness and social skills

Social skills and assertiveness may be two distinct psychological abilities, but they are also interdependent ones. Assertiveness pertains to the broad sphere of human action. We need to assert our thoughts so that they form into practical actions. Assertiveness unlocks dormant creativity and expands the possibilities for human activity. It also enables us to put more of our self into reality, to express who we are confidently and courageously.

In the realm of social interaction, asserting our needs and desires, as well as conveying our thoughts and feelings when appropriate, amplifies the benefits of interaction with others. We can all offer each other many things, but until we communicate the availability of such things, our relationships (and our self) remain unactualized.

What is commonly referred to as social skills basically entails understanding the cognitive and emotional context of others so as to foster cooperation and alliances rather than alienation. While some use such skills to manipulate, only sincerity can engender respect in the long run.

Biology

Biology is of concern to us psychologically because it speaks of our origins. We are beings of evolutionary design. This of course puts us into an historical context. Hominids branched off from the great ape lineage about 8 to 10 million years ago. Over those few million years some amazing things have happened! Things that led us to becoming a very distinct species—one that can conceptualize.

Our brain, especially the cortex area, has tripled in size since our most distant bipedal ancestor, Australopithecus. Currently we share upwards of ninety-nine percent of our DNA with chimpanzees, our closest cousin of the great apes (which also includes the gorilla and orangutan).

As we map more of our brain structure and better understand its constituents and processes, we will come closer to grasping how awesome biology is. Our health and well-being ultimately rests on knowledge of our bodies, which includes how they got to be the way they are today.

Conscious mental activity

Conscious mental activity takes place during our waking hours. It is a process with which we are all intimately familiar. We make identifications, we ponder ideas and discuss them with others, we deliberate, we evaluate, we make informed judgments, we decide, and so forth.

As we experience what early American psychologist William James called the "stream of consciousness," we learn how our mind functions and thus more about who we are. Numerous images, impressions, words, and voices (as in "hearing" ourselves think, not hallucinations) form in our consciousness at any given moment. It is our choice whether to attend to any of them, or to clear our mind and concentrate on a present moment external experience—or even nothingness (as in deep meditation, or the random "spacing out" that all of us do on occasion).

Yet one may wonder about dreams. Dreams can be classified as quasi-conscious activity, but more subconscious—our awareness is not fully activated while we are having them. Misguided philosophical thinkers sometimes ask "How do we know that we are actually dreaming? How do we know that this is not all a dream (or a simulated, computer generated world, as portrayed in the movie The Matrix)?"

Those who have spent much time comparing dreams to real life experience will notice significant differences, to say the least. Noticing these differences can only occur by way of conscious mental activity. Although one might find a particular dream compelling in its realism (for instance, actually carrying on a philosophical discourse with other characters during one), eventually one wakes up and becomes aware of the entire dream context.

The term dream has a definite meaning, as does the term conscious. To call into question the basic distinctions between the two concepts of mind, one would have to defy logic and reality. Even if what we experienced in the real world were truly a computer generation by some mastermind, would it really have any practical significance in terms of our lives on Earth? The burden of proof in such an outlandish proposition (which would greatly violate a parsimonious view of the world) rests on those who propose it. Such a proposition has the same illogical status as arbitrary assertions about a supernatural world. (Plato, Augustine, and Kant would perhaps each be proud of such a claim nonetheless.)

Feelings and emotions

Feelings and emotions are often taken to mean the same thing. For clarification though, a feeling can also be used to describe the physical aspect of an emotion—as well as of an illness (e.g., feeling feverish). An emotion is a psycho-physical response of something being good or bad for one in relation to oneself and/or one’s values. As a response to either an internal or external stimulus, an emotion doesn’t happen arbitrarily. Emotions tell us important things about ourselves and how we view the world.

Researchers tell us that the only innate fear in humans is the fear of falling. (This obviously does not include the startle response, a near universal mammalian trait.) Infants stop short of venturing off a ledge presented to them, even with a pane of glass bridging the gap preventing a fall. One might argue that such infants have experienced previous falls and unless researchers have monitored them from birth, learning might be a factor. Nevertheless, before we can judge something to be dangerous or whatever else, we have to isolate the nature of the thing being judged. For example, it is hard to fear a particular beautiful flower until it spews forth a toxic chemical onto one’s face (let’s hope we never encounter such a flower).

The same applies to everyday experiences. Emotions are mixed in with the extent of the reasoning we have (and have not) done. If we haven’t properly identified aspects of reality that are important to us—which is actually a sizable amount of ideas, relationships, and experiences—we may end up having emotions that are inconsistent with what is warranted.

An major example of this is the emotion of joy. Many people appear to have rendered themselves unable to experience this emotion as an underlying theme in their lives. Some even see life as a truly miserable experience. Before we entertain such subconscious beliefs, which are what give rise to most of our feelings, we had better check our premises for contradictions.

Goal setting and achievement

Goal setting and achievement arise from the value we place on purpose in our lives. When we wander through life with few real aims, we let our mind slip into a semi-conscious mode that asks little. Life may then seem to pass us by, and we may lose confidence in our abilities to set goals and achieve them. When we choose to direct our focus and accomplish something meaningful to us, we activate our resources and encourage further achievement.

Nature has granted us over ten billion neurons to put to use. The satisfaction derived from doing so contributes to a cycle of further achievement. We are naturally inquisitive and perceptive creatures, and our faculty of reason enables us to explore and deal with the universe in unlimited ways. Because the mind is our tool of survival, we need to use it in ways that provide abundant survival opportunities. By developing mastery in the decision-making process, we can extend our health, happiness, and even longevity. The numerous goals we set during this process are the specific points providing feedback about the direction we have chosen.

History of psychology

The history of psychology is relatively short in comparison to other disciplines, notably philosophy. Psychology established itself as a separate field of study about a hundred years ago. Previously it was under the rubric of philosophy, which goes further back than even ancient Greece.

During the start of psychology per se, research was done mostly by the German psychologists. They tried to ascertain the contents of mind and various mental processes. Introspective and psychophysics experiments were used to understand the workings of consciousness and the relationship between mind and body and the physical world.

In the name of being scientific, however, psychologists soon sought to quantify the entire discipline. They wanted to make it akin to the physical sciences, in which things can be measured.

Mental processes have two basic descriptions—quality and intensity. Since these cannot be directly observed, researchers abandoned a rational methodology based on introspection and logical inference and embraced a behavioristic methodology.

Observations of studies done with other animals (e.g., rats, monkeys, dogs, and pigeons), provided researchers data by which to extrapolate human psychology, which was considered only different in degree of complexity, not different in kind. Ivan Pavlov’s Classical Conditioning theory and B.F. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning theory became mainstream. Variants of these bahavioristic theories continue to this day, even though more cognitive models have also taken hold. By separating itself from philosophical ideas, especially those concerning human nature, psychology abandoned its intellectual foundation. It needs to reclaim it.

Judgment

In a society that entertains the ideas that we should "judge not" or that any form of "discrimination" is bad, we need to look at judgment from a more enlightened perspective.

Judgment is important in relation to psychology because it deals with the process of gathering facts, weighing evidence, analyzing arguments, and drawing conclusions. It can also amount to just making a simple decision from a range of available choices, using intuition more than conscious deliberation. In all the variations of these processes, we may—for numerous emotional or generally subconscious reasons—hang on to preconceived notions, maintain irrational biases, omit key facts or factors, not consider particular counterarguments (e.g., proposing straw man arguments to swiftly knock down), and so on.

Of course we need to be mindful of all the potential errors we can make when forming judgments. Sometimes the road to truth in the midst of these mental briar patches may seem hard to follow. However, a crucial aspect of judgment has to deal with what could be called meta-judgment—that is, how we judge our process of judgment. This concerns self-esteem.

The individual judgments a person makes represent a most crucial function of mind. At root, we need to have respect for our thinking process. We need to see our minds as efficacious, as capable of making proper judgments. Yet many persons skip over this issue and proceed to make judgments with dogmatic authority. They state their opinions as if such opinions were researched or demonstrated facts. In contrast, some persons state researched or demonstrated facts as if they were mere opinions. Their lack of concern with the discrimination process, as well as with the optimal functioning of their own mind is thus revealed. Clearly, the more genuine trust we have in our mind’s ability to make proper judgments, the less potential there will be for errors in judgment—and for not caring about such errors.

Love and expression of values

Love can take many forms, but it is ultimately the deepest expression of what we value. Respect and admiration are central components of love; without them, one wonders what could sustain it. Caring and concern may be expressions of love, but they are not sufficient unto themselves. Shared values are the necessary conditions.

Romantic love is a distinctive combining of two individual lives in a way that expands the possibilities for each and allows greater self-expression. Each person becomes a reflective mirror to the other’s psychology. This is the principle of psychological visibility that Nathaniel Branden has noted repeatedly as a being essential to an intimate relationship. When we feel visible, we feel understood and appreciated.

Romantic love enables us to explore many otherwise unrealized aspects of ourselves. It takes frequent interaction with another who knows us well to accomplish such self-expression and self-exploration. Romantic love allows us to feel deeply attached to another person, which also makes us vulnerable in profoundly emotional ways. We should accept this vulnerability as part of the whole emotional package. This acceptance enables us to remain authentic with the other person and with ourselves.

Certainly at various life stages we have to, or sometimes choose to, remain romantically uninvolved. We may have other activities and goals that prevent a relationship at the time, or we perhaps have not found the person who would be a good match. Yet experiencing life alone as a lifestyle—i.e., as a lifelong theme—is deficient in many respects. We are social animals, to be sure. We have a need to be intimate with others (one in particular) to, among other things, share our thoughts, our feelings, our concerns, fears, enthusiasms, hopes, and dreams.

Mind and brain

Mind is an attribute of the brain. From a psychological viewpoint, mind gives rise to all our efforts to understand anything—including the brain. Clearly this sort of exploration process (our awareness of our awareness) can get confusing at times.

Some might equate brain processes with mental processes, thus rendering the latter superfluous. We know, of course, that ideas, feelings, beliefs, values, images, memories are different than neural activity. Whether we surgically open up the brain or scan it with types of MRI or PET, we see none of our thoughts or images from our past; we don’t see any memories, or emotions, or experiences—and certainly no hopes and dreams. What we do see are upwards of a hundred billion nerve cells each with thousands of interconnections. We see sodium ion transfers down action potentials. We see an untold abundance of excitatory and inhibitory responses to a variety of neurotransmitters serving as relay messengers to other neurons.

Certainly without the brain, we have not the consciousness to draw any conclusions. But without consciousness, without mind, we could not even begin to understand the brain and its mental events.

Mortality

Mortality is a topic of immense import. As we gain an understanding of the objective meanings of life and death, we gain a better understanding of what our own mortality implies.

While we can all recognize fairly well what constitutes a living creature and a dead one, it is best to rely on science to ascertain the particular instances of life and death. Death is obviously the cessation of the processes of life, metabolic processes such as cellular respiration (for those organisms requiring oxygen) and self-maintenance functions.

Few religious belief systems today recognize that death for an organism with consciousness, such as ourselves, means obliteration of consciousness too. Since consciousness arises from brain processes, when the brain goes, so does consciousness. This of course implies that our lives are finite. No matter how long we extend them, one day they will come to a complete end. No matter how many precautions we take, accidents will still happen. Such knowledge encourages us to live for the present and hope for the future. Yet we also must learn how to deal psychologically with the sobering realizations about the fate of our loved ones and the various fears we may have about death (and thus various fears about life).

Even if, in the future, we are able to scan our brains and make back-up copies to be stored elsewhere, we are never totally safe from accidents. And even if we somehow secure indefinite lifespans (through advances in nanotechnology and genetic engineering), we still need to appreciate the most extreme contrast—that between life and death. In doing so, we can realize how fortunate we are to be on this planet and to experience all that life has to offer.

Nervous system

The nervous system is ultimately responsible for all our activities. Nerves interconnecting our brain and branching into various tracks to the periphery of our bodies (controlling organs, glands, muscles, etc.) enable us to function. They also give rise to our sensory world. Innumerable receptors relay information about stimuli. Even our sense of self, our basic identity, is linked to an awareness of the various points of presence of our bodies. Our memories and subconscious information, as well as our daily experiences, would not be possible without our central and peripheral nervous systems.

These are certainly profound facts. Yet, it is important that we do not reduce our experiences and our knowledge to nothing but elementary processes of neurons. We have ideas, we make choices, we have feelings, we have imaginations. It is the integration of an enormously complex nervous system that gives rise to these mental processes. As more complexity was added to the hominid brain, totally new characteristics appeared—most notably a volitional, reasoning mind.

Understanding others

Interacting with and understanding others may be the second biggest reason people study psychology. The first reason, of course, is to understand oneself; by doing so, we gain a foundation to extend to the social realm. Because we are all reasoning beings who live on the same planet (not Mars or Venus), our needs are remarkably similar. The values that are objectively in our rational self-interest, are also objectively in the rational self-interest of others. Values such as reason, happiness, and liberty are definitely not exclusively our own. They are (or ought to be) shared by everyone.

Given an understanding of us as conceptual and emotional creatures, we can say that our basic nature must be grasped and respected. Such a philosophical framework serves as a tool to interact with others in a beneficial fashion. It enables us to see relationships objectively, rather than from a purely subjective perspective (like the miserable characters in many television soap operas).

Even if people do not share the same explicit philosophy, there are typically some shared basic values that remain. Listening to others contributes to having them feel understood, which is extremely important. Respecting not only the worth of others, but also the process by which people come to certain opinions, honors their capacity to acquire new opinions. Using humor when appropriate tends to connect individuals to the broader reality of the situation at hand. These and other social skills are ultimately reflections of how we treat ourselves. The relationship we have with our own self should be similar in many ways to that of a dear friend.

Parenting

Parenting is perhaps one of the greatest responsibilities that adults can exercise. The decision to be a parent is one that must entail a lot of thought and long-range planning—for it affects the rest of one’s life. Rational guidance and education are two main aspects of parenting; love, by itself, is definitely not enough. By providing a context in which young minds can feel safe and respected and flourish both cognitively and emotionally, parents can influence greatly the type of society we live in.

One of the biggest problems for parents these days is the Welfare State, in which government provides services for "free" (in exchange for large taxes). Government schooling rules the world currently, and it works to strip parents of their responsibility to educate their children (or to delegate that responsibility to a private person or organization of their choice). This commonly leaves parents dissatisfied, and it leaves teachers frustrated. But more tragically, it truly shortchanges kids. For most kids, the idea of learning things based on a real interest in the subject and a sheer joy in learning itself (rather than because teacher ordered it) becomes quite foreign as they progress in school.

The goal of rearing happy, respectful, thoughtful, and creative children of high self-esteem can be best achieved by seeing children as individuals with rights too. Rather than respecting their parents out of duty or fear, children should do so because parents have given them the respect they deserve. Children are essentially little people. They have thoughts, feelings, and sensibilities that are just as important as those of adults. Maria Montessori had it so right: The future of humankind does indeed reside in the child—and in how adults treat him or her.

Personal growth and self-actualization

Personal growth and self-actualization are basically about living well. To fail to take steps forward in our personal evolution is to jeopardize the opportunities we have to live optimally. Indeed, life is a grand learning experience. And so, each of us needs to be aware of the possibilities for living better, making use of time more effectively and efficiently, as well as prioritizing our values.

Cognitively, this means acquiring a set of beliefs and principles (i.e., a philosophy) based on logical thinking and a factual analysis of reality. By doing so, we live in accordance with our nature as reasoning creatures.

Emotionally, this means identifying and then understanding our feelings. We need to know where they are coming from, what they imply, and even how they can be altered. Not moving beyond a troubled emotional state can prevent us from seeing the big picture, the real meaning in life.

Behaviorally, this means not standing in our own way, that is, not concluding that something is "impossible" before we even begin. Self-actualization is about pushing the limits of what we can achieve and how we can achieve it. It is based on the conviction that we should strive to utilize our basic endowments in any manner possible (and encouraging others to do likewise).

Nurturing relationships

Nurturing relationships with family, friends, parents, and others extends our level of intimacy and sense of connectedness. An essential trade-off occurs in this matter: the closer we become to others, the more emotional ties are created; the more emotional ties we have with others, the more there is to potentially lose—and thus the more pain that might be felt. Given this, many people seek to avoid connecting on deeper levels. They maintain certain levels of superficiality, aloofness, or hostility, even with those they truly love. All sorts of motivations can be involved in this process, but the theme of avoiding loss, and therefore deeper conflict and pain, is normally present.

Certainly, we choose different levels and types of intimacy with others, such as with family members, friends, mentors, and so on. The important thing to keep in mind is how we feel about each of these relationships. Do they provide joy and fulfillment, or ambiguity, agony, or resentment. Are they based on shared values and complimentary differences, or are they constructed out of tradition or sheer convenience.

In regard to parents and other family members, obviously we have no choice in the matter of constitution. Such a situation offers each of us a challenge to connect with those whom we may or may not have deliberately befriended. We have a choice about whether to understand where individuals with different personalities, life stages, and even values are coming from—to in effect build bridges—or to alienate them by disparaging their worth and seeking out disagreements for disagreement’s sake. Since the levels of intimacy that families have to offer are unparalleled, they will always remain the context in which we initially learn (or fail to learn) the idea of nurturing relationships.

Self-concept

Self-concept arises naturally from our awareness of self. We have an idea of who we are and an idea of what is possible for us. Much of this personal conception is formed by way of interacting with others. The statement "If only we could see ourselves as others see us" implies that an objective view of self is precluded by our own personal biases. But in actuality, we do recognize the way people interact with us. We can pick up on the many ways that people convey to us what they think and feel about us. Of course, sometimes others may lack the self-assertiveness to be candid. This is to the detriment of both parties; one is left being unauthentic, the other unaware.

Nonetheless, everyone has at least a vague image of the ideal person to be. Some people view this image as unattainable or unrealistic. Others go to every end to convince themselves that they have achieved it. They hide the fact that they still have aspects of self to work on. They have yet to genuinely deal with their "emotional baggage" carried with them from years past.

Many defense mechanisms can be utilized to avoid full knowledge of the self (knowledge provided either by oneself or by others). Denial, repression, projection, displacement, reaction formation, rationalization, evasion, etc. all diminish the search for psychological clarity. It is as if persons do not want to discover truly who they are (i.e., their real self-concept). This may be because they might find themselves wanting, not good enough, inadequate, bad.

Yet no matter what basic description and evaluation a person has of his or her self, the journey toward a positive, enlightened self-concept must begin with accepting one’s present self-concept. Only by acknowledging where we are, can we begin to move toward where we want to be (as Nathaniel Branden states). Our self-awareness challenges us to question the restrictions we may be placing on our self-concept. There is always more of our potential to actualize.

Self-esteem

Self-esteem is a vast and complex topic. It is really the core of human psychology, arising from an abstract awareness of self. Because we have the ability to reason—to form concepts about reality, about ourselves, and about other concepts—we need a way of understanding this process that is consistent with our nature and the demands of reality.

First, we need to have confidence in our mind’s ability to reason. We need to view ourselves as efficacious organisms, as effective in dealing with life’s challenges and coping well with life’s stresses. To lack these things or to fake them is subversive to living beneficially and functioning appropriately. It is not a question of intelligence by any means, but rather of whether we fully grasp the nature of our abilities as well as our limitations. Such a view represents a realistic view of self.

Second, we need to believe in our fundamental worthiness as individuals. We need to feel worthy of happiness. Subconsciously we need to think that we truly deserve to live great, fulfilling lives—that our lives are deserving of respect (as are the lives of others). Such self-respect develops an understanding that we are responsible for our own happiness and emotional well-being. Thus we acquire the skills necessary to ensure this.

Self-exploration

Self-exploration is indispensable to understanding our psychology. Until we gain first hand experience about our subconscious processes, we really haven’t dealt with who we are. We can agree with numerous ideas and theories, and yet not internalize what they mean.

Granted, self-exploration is not something that is easy to do. Because we are more inclined to take action and to focus on what is in our environment, to stop and look within (i.e., to introspect) can be challenging at times. Yet it is this very process that leads to living with a heightened awareness of what we feel and what we think. It is key to living authentically.

The best way to cultivate such a way of life is to engage in psychotherapeutic exercises. Some, of course, are better or more appropriate than others in certain contexts. Yet even writing in a journal can aid in becoming more in touch with oneself. When we put our personal thoughts on paper we concretize them; we make them tangible. In doing so, we are presented with the challenge of dealing with them in a beneficial way.

Self-image

Self-image relates to how a person views him or her self, especially in terms of physical appearance and the behaviors connected to it. In this sense, it is a narrower description than self-concept; self-concept subsumes one’s self-image.

Self-image can be assessed either by self or by others. Sometimes there might not be any congruence between these two. A person can resort to various defense mechanisms to prevent seeing his or her self-image objectively. It may be too painful to admit that one views one’s body and corresponding behaviors in a negative fashion. Such an assessment would, after all, demand personal changes in order to remedy the conflict between present self-image and desired self-image. On the other hand, a person might find that fully admitting the high significance of one’s physical self is too "arrogant" to convey to others. In the name of preventing scorn or jealousy from others, one may minimize a very positive self-image.

Typically, when someone says that another has a poor self-image, we know immediately what is meant by this: The person does not see him or herself as a thoroughly attractive and worthy individual (and hence behaves accordingly). In contrast, a person with a great self-image does the opposite. Both assessments are made by watching how the person acts and what the person says. We find that saying and doing are two different actions which may not necessarily be consistent. A prevalent example of this is a fashion model who appears to have a good self-image on camera, but obsesses inside about her physical "flaws." Due to the complexity of human psychology, again, congruence between these two components, actions and words, might not be evidenced.

Still, we must all strive to develop a positive self-image. We have every right to. Each of us is unique in various ways, and therefore comparison contests are unwarranted. The greater image we have of ourselves (taking into account the changes we make, such as with diet and exercise, to bolster this) the more expressive and happy we can become; then, no limited or negative views of self inhibits us. We are free to smile and to enjoy our physical beings.

Self-worth

Self-worth is the aspect of self-esteem that allows us to live happily. When we disparage or disrespect ourselves, we have trouble seeing the joyous possibilities in life. We also preclude seeing ourselves in an admirable way, which is vital to positive self-expression.

Our worth as human beings results from the fact that we are alive. Other living things are not faced with the issue of their worth because they are unable to conceptualize it; they lack an abstract awareness of self and the world. So, it is important for us to understand that we are unique in this regard. Happiness might not come automatically for us. Many factors come into play. Other people may discount our value and we may discount our value, in opposition to what happiness demands. As a result, we may end up doing all sorts of troubling things and acting in ways that prevent the embracing of our self-worth.

Self-worth is perhaps the most important issue in psychology. It would be hard to imagine strife or misery in a world in which everyone understood how important the self is and granted it the respect it deserves.

Sensation and perception

Sensation and perception are key to our knowledge. Everything we experience and have come to know is built upon a neural receptor system that interacts with the external world (and our internal world). Pure sensations are the most elementary feedback. On their own, they tell us little about the world; we need more information with which to compare and contrast. This comes by way of percepts, or integrations of sensations that offer us more to analyze and thus understand.

On an everyday basis, we judge a wide array of things from the standpoint of our percepts. What we do with these percepts depends on many factors: for instance, our amount of attention, motivation, cognitive set, and emotional situation. We form various overall perceptions based on these factors. In this sense, perception blends into the process of reason—the process of forming concepts, making assumptions, forming inferences, and so forth.

The term perception is commonly used to imply a purely subjective experience. However, the percepts that provide us with information about the world are the result of an objective reality that continually confronts us.

Hence our perceptions should be analyzed rationally, when appropriate. The method of logic and thinking objectively (taking into account all the facts) are indispensable when our senses appear to be playing tricks on us. A simple example would be a bar that appears to bend when submerged in water. Feeling the bar tells us that nothing actually changes. Science tells us that the "bending" is a result of light rays traveling through a different medium (air vs. water), thus changing the image. A complex example would be the perception that someone is being dishonest (noticing such things as unusual eye movements and facial expressions, voice irregularities, but most especially statements that contradict facts or prior statements).

Most of what people call "perception," then, already contains quite a bit of subconscious processing and interpretation. It is important that we search out and understand any biases that may be involved in the perceptual process. This way our perceptions will not be at odds with what objective reality ultimately tells us.

Sense of life

Sense of life is a phrase that pertains to how a person sees the whole experience of his or her life in relation to reality and other people. How does a person interact psychologically with him or herself and with the world? What philosophical premises does a person maintain and express as ways to cope with various life situations? Answers to such questions reflect a person’s sense of life.

The artistic tastes of a person sometimes reveal his or her sense of life, although people have different reasons for liking the same types of art. Caution is thus advised in these matters; one must not rush too quickly to judgment, because motivations can be complex.

Personality is tied intimately to sense of life. How a person acts, thinks, and feels about other people and situations evidences whether he or she views life as something to be enjoyed, something to be explored, something to be understood, something to be fearful of, something to be uncertain about, something to cause conflict, something akin to a battle, something to be dominated, something to be disparaged, something to be resented. Needless to say, to enjoy, explore, and understand life all should be high on our list.

By developing a brilliant sense of life, we are best able to adapt to changes, overcome difficulties, and express ourselves authentically. We thus see the world as a place to actualize our potential and share our values with others.

Sexuality

Sexuality is part of our nature as sentient beings. We have powerful capacities for physical pleasure and expression of feelings. Many beliefs exist in cultures throughout the world about what sexuality means for males and females. Often, we are encouraged to take on certain roles and follow various social guidelines. Some of these may be important and rationally justified. Others may defy common sense, defy what is reasonable. It is important, then, that we question what our culture tells us. It is important that we think independently, especially when our emotions and experiences run counter to what we are being told.

Regardless of whom we choose to be sexual with, it is best not to divorce our capacity for pleasure from our basic values—from values that serve our life and well-being. To do so is to risk creating mental conflict. Meaningless sex can be just as debilitating as taking a vow of chastity.

Unfortunately, many religious doctrines foster the participation in such a dichotomy. For example, many hold an implicit (or even explicit) belief that a woman is to be viewed either as a virgin or as a slut (a "good" or "bad" girl)—not a person who seeks to express values with someone she holds dear and experience the pleasures that her body provides. Such a belief no doubt arises from mental conflict over the physical pleasure derived from sex and the holding of values that diminish or repudiate such pleasure. Yet another widespread belief is that men, by nature, are primarily interested in sex—usually at the expense of other values. They are supposedly excused from their promiscuous behaviors based on their "nature." Clearly this is yet another example of what happens when the pleasures of sex are divorced from the wider context of one’s values.

If we sought to educate young children in these matters—especially in values that are rational and objective, rather than dogmatic or self-destructive—we would not witness the vulgarity, the freakish fetishes, the sadistic and masochistic beliefs and behaviors, the mindless eroticism, and so on that have plagued society for untold centuries. We would also not see the inappropriate displays of sexuality (for either rebellious or provocative purposes) and the various Puritanical responses to it. Instead people would view sexuality as a wonderfully important component in living a happy life.

Spirituality

Spirituality is a term that has different meanings in religious and secular contexts, so it is important to explicate an objective one. Some may view spirituality strictly as that which pertains to the soul. Such a view immediately raises the question of what the soul is. Many of us were told to take it for granted that we have a soul. Of course, if the term has only a vague definition that is open for wide interpretation, then who could disagree? If we define soul as an aspect of ourselves that transcends the body and the material realm however (which means it is essentially indestructible given its ethereal nature), we then must ask: Is there any evidence for this?

Science tells us there is none. So, in order for spirituality to be comprehensible, we must explain the soul in rational terms; we cannot base our contentions strictly on hearsay or dogma. When we define soul in terminology that is consistent with what we know about human beings and reality, we discover that "soul" is really a synonym for mind. And where does the mind come from? It is an attribute of the brain and therefore is dependent on the body; it is caused by the body. Given this, it cannot detach itself from its causality and drift into another realm (be it a natural realm or a "supernatural" one).

Similar to other topics, spirituality is something that we can choose to focus on or choose to avoid (or render less important). Yet when we see the mind as key to understanding the term—and the mind is our tool of survival—we then realize that cultivation of a spiritual life is important

Spirituality ought to be viewed as the process or method by which we develop a heightened awareness of our experiences, and broader understanding of our life context (for instance, our place in the vast cosmos). Such a viewpoint helps to make our lives more meaningful; we become more cognizant of what we are doing and why we are doing it. It also opens the door to recognizing the formally unnoticed aspects of life, and appreciating those aspects that are truly worth appreciating. It connects us to our deepest essence, our most inner self, as well as with our true emotions. The spiritual life is to be cultivated and enjoyed on this planet, in this universe—for this universe is all that we will ever have.

Subconscious

Subconscious mental activity is more difficult to isolate and understand at times. It operates on the periphery of our awareness. Consciousness, being a finite faculty, can only entertain so much input at any given time. Nonetheless, our subconscious serves as the vast reservoir for all our past experiences, our memories, our beliefs, our judgments of ourselves and others, and so on. It is a huge mental world, to be sure.

Conscious mental awareness is like a projector and screen that conveys only a part of a huge archive of film. The subconscious at any given time adds to what is being projected, or rather experienced. For example, as we talk to a person, we may feel a subtle uncomfortable emotion as the conversation moves along. The feeling may be the result of subconscious processing of, for instance, an incident earlier in the day; that is, we may be thinking about something in the back of our mind and having an emotion tied to it. Because we want to have a coherent conversation about the topic at hand, we don’t stop and isolate the feeling. But we do notice it. We can bookmark it for future reference, maybe that night when we write in a journal or talk to a friend.

Such an experience is part of the subconscious aspect of who we are. It is thus important to pay a great deal of respect to this part of us. We will invariably gain in self-esteem as a result. Parts of our mind in conflict with each other need to be understood and processed.

Values

Values are the things, physical things or abstractions, we embrace or seek that give us vitality, a sense of mastery and satisfaction in life. The phrase "in life" from the last sentence is key. Before we can determine what values to adopt, Ayn Rand stated, we need to determine why we even need values.

Would something be a value if it led to our own destruction? How about the destruction of others? What if values led to us sacrificing our own well-being and happiness or what really mattered to us? Indeed, this is the nature of sacrifice.

Values must be in service to our lives and well-being. Thus they need to honor our distinctive tool of survival, the mind. It is by use of our mind that we are able to function—to make decisions, to plan, to judge experiences and attend to facts. Oftentimes, we may not be cognizant of what values we are espousing or pursuing until we examine our ideas and behaviors with logic. Such inspection will help us determine if what we are doing is indeed valuable for us (and if it respects the rights of others to pursue values as well).