The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Michael Kerr, A Review and Presentation on Leonard Mlodinow’s book, “Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking”

Authored by The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski, MDiv, MLSW, Rector, Christ Episcopal Church

The Brain, Anxiety, and Self-Regulation

Dr. Kerr’s presentation at the Midwest Symposium on May 6, 2022, on Leonard Mlodinow’s book, “Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking” focused on a key component of Bowen Systems Theory: developing the capacity for self-regulation and the impact of anxiety on one’s ability to self-regulate. Mlodinow discusses the impact of anxiety on brain function writing: “an anxious state leads to pessimistic cognitive bias – when an anxious brain processes ambiguous information it tends to choose the more pessimistic among the likely interpretations.” (Chapter 4, How Emotions Guide Thought). Kerr emphasized two aspects from Mlodinow’s book: Motivation and Determination.


In chapter six Mlodinow describes motivation as “the willingness to put effort into achieving a goal. It is a driving force that initiates and directs our behavior.”  Some motivations are biologically driven by emotional states such as hunger. Some are social based motivations such as the motivation to achieve a goal or for approval. These are closely linked to emotions and spring from the neural network called the ‘reward system.’

The reward system provides a flexible mechanism that allows our minds to take into account a wide variety of factors as we make decisions about when to act and then sorts them for the most appropriate action. More primitive life forms act according to fixed rules which trigger automatic responses. Humans and other more advanced species have more flexible options to determine how to respond to the data and the meaning made from the data.

Motivation comes from the sensation of pleasure. However, the degree of pleasure is only part of what motivates us. Kerr referred to Mlodinow’s reference to Kent Berridge’s study with rats that focused on wanting and liking – why we sometimes want something more when it is harder to acquire. Wanting is stimulated by liking, but not automatically. Our brains take into account liking before stimulating wanting or avoidance.

The brain is attuned to context as it receives sensory data, makes meaning of it, and determines action. People differ in their response to the same situation. Education impacts our wanting and liking, the reward system, and our motivation. Learning to apply Bowen Theory in one’s life is one way that we learn about our family’s emotional system, the way our family makes meaning of life experiences and responds to them for the survival of the person and the family.

This meaning making process is outside of our conscious awareness and our response is automatic. Family emotional processes are a reward system with the family that impact motivation. Bowen Theory posits that we can learn to observe our family emotional processes bringing them into our conscious awareness and learn to make a different response from the automatic one that we have learned from our families. When anxiety is high, we can learn to be different in our family systems. We can be motivated for different reasons to behave in different ways, and we can do this consciously by changing how we interpret sensory data, make meaning of it, and determine a course of action. Bowen Theory provides concepts that one can apply to one’s life and relationships that change how we interpret data, make meaning of it and determine how we want to behave.


Determination is the second point from Mlodinow’s book that Dr. Kerr discussed. Living beings run into many barriers on our way to achieving goals. Determination is a factor that provokes us  to keep going, despite obstacles.

As a species we have a prime directive to survive and reproduce. We also seek reward and avoid punishment. Determination supports this primal directive. It is a response, a process of the brain, that is experienced as a psychological event.

Determination is a complex, multifaceted mental phenomenon that comprises two networks: the emotional salience network and the executive control network.

Emotional Salience and Executive Control: Brain Networks and Capacity to Self-Regulate

The emotional salience network are tiny nodes anchored in a set of structures that have been associated with a variety of roles in emotional lives. The emotional salience network identifies the most relevant among the sensory input and stimulates action.

The executive control network keeps us focused on what is relevant to goals and enables us to ignore distractions. The executive control network is activated after the emotional salience network has been activated.

The emotional salience network and the executive control network are two sets of anatomical structures in the brain that determine action including that which we experience as feelings and emotions.

Changing our thinking, changing our feeling

Mlodinow states that we make hundreds of decisions every day. With insight into our evolution and biology we can learn to understand our emotions and how they can help us. Emotions are contagious, sometimes for our benefit and safety. In the chapter on managing Emotions Mlodinow writes that there are times when emotions are not optimal for our needs. They trigger anxiety and panic, sadness, depression, and anger, which can be debilitating and alienating.

Learning to modulate emotions is a particularly human trait with ample benefits for our wellbeing. Certain practices help us learn how to recognize and modulate our emotions. For example, meditation teaches attention control, emotion regulation, and increased self-awareness. Working in concert with practices like meditation, Bowen Theory teaches us how to recognize patterns in family emotional dynamic and how to make choices to engage those patterns in ways that decrease anxiety. Epictetus, the ancient Greek philosopher understood this when he wrote “it’s not our circumstances that get us down but rather the judgements we make about them.”

Terri C. Pilarski is the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Dearborn, Michigan. She is the founding director of the Intercultural Community Center of Dearborn, a mission focus of Christ Church and their Partnership in Faith with Mother of the Savior, an Arabic speaking Christian congregation who share a building. She is an Associate with the Kaleidoscope Institute, the convener of the Dearborn Area Interfaith Network, and a Qualified Administrator with the IDI, the intercultural Development Inventory. She’s a trained spiritual director and a lifelong practitioner of TM. She is affiliated with the Dearborn Pastoral Counseling Center where she coaches individuals in Bowen theory. She coaches and serves on the board of, a BST approach to living whole and healthy lives. She’s currently in the post graduate class with the Center for Family Consultation. Married for thirty-seven years with two adult kids who have been her BST experiments for defining self in a nuclear family. She’s an avid knitter, a novice painter of flowers and birds, a treadmill runner, podcast listener (Mind and Life, and the MetaHour), and the grandmother of two amazing kids.



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