If we were all free-floating beings, able to change our surroundings with the power of our thoughts, it’s unlikely that we would suffer from much anxiety. Quite apart from the fact that we could change anything that was non-optimum, we would have perfect conditions around ourselves all the time in the first place — it’s hard to imagine how something ‘non-optimum’ could arise.
In fact, to move away from this paradise towards something resembling our current condition, we would have to accept a framework in which something could even be non-optimum: what would that actually mean?
Theoretically, it would be something which, for some reason, was not subject to our powers of control. Something would have to appear which didn’t respond to our wishes. It might be a pleasant thing, at least at first — something which we admired and which might not at first prompt us to want to change it. But our discovery that we couldn’t change it, even if we wanted to, might cause us concern. After a while, we might become obsessed with changing it, just to prove that we could. Failure to make the slightest difference to it might give us pause for thought, literally. Our attention would probably hang up on it; we might even go into orbit around it, trying to ‘solve the problem’ of it continually.
Another way of envisaging this might be to think about a person looking at a large painting. At first, the person’s eyes drift wherever they wish — if for some reason the person didn’t like a particular part of the picture, or grew bored with looking at it, they could shift their gaze elsewhere. But the knowledge that there was an unchanging and unchangeable part of the painting which they didn’t like but couldn’t do anything about might be irksome after a while. Though we might like to let our gaze linger on the other parts of the painting, undoubtedly our eyes would be drawn back again and again to the annoying portion.
Now look at the universe in which we live. For whatever metaphysical reason, we find ourselves subject to physical forces which thought seems powerless to control; random things happen which we apparently cannot do anything about; things have a solidity and presence which can be painful and extremely unwanted at times. You might say we are ‘trapped’ in that part of the ‘painting’ which we don’t like — with an emphasis on the ‘pain’.
As thinking beings, we struggle to cope with this: we can use reason and imagination to compute with most of what we encounter, but we obviously also need some kind of automatic warning system to deal with the worst aspects of this new, disobedient environment.
Over time, as children, we come up with methodologies for managing it all. Some children learn to manage their parents, for example, by throwing tantrums whenever they want something: a few successes at this, and they have ‘learned’ that the way to obtain something they want is to become overly dramatic until they get it. This thought/behaviour pattern extends into later life. The now-grown person fails to spot that nine times out of ten he is making a fool of himself and failing to get what he wants — he’s convinced that ‘it worked before and must work again’. He’s adopted a piece of distorted thinking; he’s evaluated that success comes about in a particular way which worked in the past. It escapes his attention that it really isn’t rational: he would rather have the irrationality than the uncertainty.
You see this all around you: people doing crazy things to cope with a world which doesn’t respond to their immediate wishes. They keep on doing the crazy things because at some point they worked — maybe once, maybe twice, maybe more times — but now they are the ‘go-to solution’ for a particular situation, rather than stopping and reassessing everything newly.
The person adopted the piece of distortive thinking when, in an extreme situation, he felt endangered by something but could not control it with pure thought.
A baby, perhaps, cold and hungry, wishes for warmth and sustenance. Nothing happens. It wishes again, harder this time — no result. It wails its head off out of instinct — and still nothing happens. So it bites the nearest hand or arm and is rescued and given warmth and food. Conclusion: biting gets results in this mean world where wishes don’t work.
Distortive thought is held onto and used because it has worked in the past.
To put it more romantically: broken wishes are better than nothing in a universe devoid of magic.
A cognitive distortion has been of some use at some point or other. If it were measured up in present time it would fail the test, probably by a long way — but rather than risk uncertainty, and because of the memory that it has worked in the past, the person grabs it and uses it again.
Human beings would much rather control things with pure thought. How pleasant the world would be then, they think. But when the world doesn’t respond to thought, they retreat into ‘safe’ solutions: decisions, conclusions and practices which have worked before, no matter how twisted or inadequate. They’re comforting. The fact that they don’t work very well is ignored: better something that doesn’t work too well than something that doesn’t work at all.
The amygdala is the biological equivalent of this, if you like: it’s installed as an automatic mechanism, designed to activate pre-set physiological reactions in case of any kind of failure on the universe’s part to respond to wishes.
If the universe responded to wishes, there’d never be a need for an amygdala because there’d never be a departure from an ideal scenario. But it doesn’t (apparently). So we’re left with a subconscious alarm system and a set of developed cognitive distortions to compensate.
Luckily, there are still some parts of reality which do respond to wishes. We can learn anew.