The essence of cognition in Chinese medicine



“If you like the intersection between philosophy and psychology you will really enjoy this article about cognition or sixiang moxing interesting. You will find many digressions and thoughts from old times and more modern times. So, enjoy. ”

Nils Volden



思想 模型- Sīxiǎng Móxíng

Thought pattern:

Cognitive model, mental activity and Conflict theories

The word cognition comes from the Latin word cognscere. Cognoscere means to know, conceptualize or recognize. Cognition is made with processing of information; but it is also common to associate cognition with changes of preferences and the actual use of knowledge. A cognitive model is a model that describes how thinking and cognition happens. When a person has proses that related to that we name this a cognitive proses or cognition. Depending on your academic point of view you are likely to analyze cognition different. Different angles to the same phrase will be phrased in multiple ways. The most common way of analyzing cognition is through the way of Thomas Aquinas. He divided behavior into two groups: cognitive and affective; how we know the world and our emotional world. Ever since Aquinas the emotions have starter to move in the direction of cognition again. Cognitive models often focus on the flow of information and its connection to behavior. Only rarely we find cognition seen through the brain angle. Leading us to conclude that the theoretical world often is dominated of cognitivist; cognitivist often stay theoretical.


To understand the Chinese cognitive model we have to start explaining the concept of 优势 Yōushì (dominance) or cognitive dominance. This is what happens when we have two conflicting ideas in a Yin/Yang opposition, and we need a solution for this. We need to find the correct balance, and that is commonly done through selecting one of the two options, Yin or Yang. The understanding of Youshi (cognitive dominance) with the conflict solution where one of the ideas are selected, Of course, this will not happen if the person have learned helplessness like Martin Seligman (1942) described for us.


Learned helplessness is a condition where a person has learned to behave helplessly.  The interesting point is that a helpless person will not try to solve the problem, even if provided a good solution. Chinese psychology often names this type of persons for living in a state of 无奈 wúnài or helplessness. No matter how discomfort able the situation is experienced by him he stay Wunai (helpless). No matter that he has the possibilities to do something – he will not. He has learned to behave helplessly or to act with helplessness in given situations through the experience of no control of outcome of situations. Wunai is learning to somebody through teaching a person through experience that it is no escape from something discomfort able. Discomfort able is permanently there, and just accepts it as a part of your life. Initially the person will try to resist, but after a while he will give in to the situation and stop acting to the discomfort able; a state of Wunai starts. Given that he has learned helplessness, he will not try to change this discomfort able situation even if presented with a good solution to it! Because Wunai is a permanent state first present. To erase Wunai from a person are a difficult task, and often it fails to happen. The person will just continue the suffering and most likely to develop a no expressive attitude as the discomfort continues to escalate. Seligman conducted an experiment together with Steve Maier on dogs and electric shock (with variations). The main observation was that dogs that have learned helplessness did not move away from electric shock when they got it, even though the exit from the electricity was near.  They just lay down and cried receiving electricity through their bodies.


Seligman found that 75% of the dogs showed this behavior after being thought helplessness. Researchers think that the 25% that did not show this behavior had an inborn style of optimism; making them prompt to not break down under pressure.  In Chinese psychology we see the antagonist to Wunai to be 乐观主义 Lèguānzhǔyì or optimism. Wunai will create an external Yin state and often an internal Yang state. Because even though the movement comes, the person thinks about taking the step away from the discomfortable Leguanzhuyi (optimism) will create the opposite external Yang state and an internal Yin state. The person will take the move without thinking deeply about it. If it is painful, move away…


An interesting aspect is that Wunai, learned helplessness, can be connected to something specific or something general; meaning that a person can present this phenomenon only in a distinct situation or for a cluster of situations. Making learned helplessness very unpredictable. Research has showed that persons who manifest pessimism suffer harder from learned helplessness than others. Meaning that 厌世 Yànshì or pessimism will provoke Wunai. Since Yanshi (pessimism) will drain the psychic qi of the body, we might suspect that whatever that creates a psychic qi xu might provoke a stronger possibility for a Wunai; given resistance does not work initially. An important note is that it is not only self-experienced helplessness that afflicts a person. Through observing other persons exposed for uncontrollable events it is possible to learn helplessness. Common statements are “I am bad in mathematics!”, “It is impossible to diet!”, “School is not my thing!” and “I cannot stop smoking!”  Aspects presented in this manner will probably make a Wunai develop. We know that a psychic qi xu or mental stress causes many things in the human body, but we should never forget that that if a person experiences a lack of control or – predictability in life it WILL reduce his chances for change. In short, when it does not matter what you do, you will resignate, develop a Yanshi and as following a psychic qi xu develop. If the sensation lasts we might find a development of Wunai.


Previous and present errors can predict the future failure of a person. Learned helplessness is a conscious and subconscious factor. We do not need to know that the factor exist, but still it can afflict our lives in many ways. The most common Wunai is possibly self-justification and simply giving up after just a symbolic try to solve problems. Martin Seligman also connected learned helplessness to depression and other mental illnesses. Perceived absence of control is a pathogenic factor that drains our psychic qi and thereby promoting many mental problems. Depending different disposition in each individual we find different mental problems emerge.


It exist a very interesting experiment regarding helplessness that includes mice. First the investigator dropped a mouse in a bucket of water and measured the time it took before the mouse drowned (cruel). The mouse would swim for a long time. Then he took another mouse and holds it between his hands. The mouse moved like crazy, but after some minutes stopped to move. Then the investigator dropped the learned mouse into a bucket of water. Within short time the mouse drowned (cruel again). The last mouse has learned that to resist did not lead to any gain; it had learned helplessness.


Within Chinese psychology it is normal to see everything through the glasses of yin/ yang. Yin is often regarded to be the negative and Yang the positive. They always coexist and influence each other. To feel helpless is considered to be a Yin pathogenic factor. This pathogen will yinize the person and create a Yin mental state – negativity; nothing helps. Then when the person later is put under pressure or in a situation that requires action he will not act. Yang will not rice in a person who is blocked within Yin. Chinese psychology names this as an obstruction of yin qi; making yin qi accumulates in the mind; meaning that Yin qi does not circulate as it should. The problem that visually is connected to a lack of yang is really an accumulation of yin; it is not a Yang xu (deficiency) but a Yin shi (excess) situation. Any treatment of a situation of this nature has to be angled to circulate the obstructed or excessive; not sedate or to get rid of the excess. Never forget that excess does not insinuate that the body has a real excess of something, but rather an excess in one place of something that should have been in another place. Leading us to understand that as a complete entity the body has what it should have and nothing more, but as single entities different aspects is in Shi (excess) and others in Xu (deficiency). These processes might be called Qi stagnations and obstructions of Qi. Occasionally the person might suffer from a real Xu.  Normally we find this Xu as a Yin xu; Yin deficiency.


Wunei (Learned helplessness) will lead to a mental Yin shi or an accumulation of yin in Shen due to an obstruction of the flow of yin qi. The question is where are the Yin xu caused by the Yin shi in the mind? Exactly here is a good starting point to understand the cognition within Chinese psychology or more exact Youshi (cognitive dominance). A conflict is something experienced or something sensed. If nobody understand that a type of conflict exists; it simply does not exist. Normally we find a conflict to be based on contradicting values or conflict of interests to some degree. Contradictions are often called 矛盾 Máodùn within Chinese psychology.


Real Maodun are conflicts that have contradictions manifest or accessible for persons that want to understand. A subtle or latent contradiction will even though existing not be classified as Maodun. You will find more about this way of reasoning in taoistic classics.







The writer of this article gives seminars in Chinese medicine and Chinese psychology all over the world! Go to this page to find out how.

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