Scourge of Tribalism

For many thousands of years, human tribes have competed against each other for their very survival. Tribe coalitions that were more cooperative and cohesive not only managed to survive but also were able to appropriate land and other resources from other coalitions.

Thus the idea that humans have a need to belong to social groups is very fundamental in psychology. Belonging does not just feel good but is often essential for our very survival, even in modern times. Insider-outsider distinctions are innate and are well entrenched. This favouritism is the result of substantial benefits derived from group solidarity in early human evolution, and we still live with this grouping tendency even today.

It should not therefore come as a surprise that tribal loyalties tend to override objectivity and rational decision making. One such manifestation of group loyalty was reported in The New York Times, where the Orthodox Jews of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn shunned a neighbor after learning that he complained to police about a fellow Jew who was sexually abusing his son. As an objective person, you would think that a father protecting his son would be the sort of behavior that would be appreciated and endorsed. Unfortunately, such objectivity is thrown to the winds if it is considered disloyal to the tribe.

Something that goes almost unquestioned in many circles is nationalism which is another strong form of tribalism. Mukul Gupta writing in The Economic Times says “Building walls, promoting hate and distrusting refugees, persecuting minorities, fuelling the nationalist propaganda for narrow political gains are all being used for winning elections at the expense of national wellbeing”.

The divide of ‘us’ vs ‘them’

Harvard professor David Ropeik has written a poignant essay on How Tribalism Overrules Reason, and Makes Risky Times More Dangerous. He argues that tribalism is all pervasive and controls a lot of our behaviour, readily overriding our reasoning faculties. He reminds us of the inhuman things that we do in the name of tribal unity. Wars, for instance, are essentially, and often quite specifically, tribalism. Genocides are tribalism with the idea of wiping out the other group to keep our group safe taken to the extremes. Other examples are racism that lets us feel that our tribe is better and superior to the others, resulting in parents resorting to honour killing of their own children when they dare to marry someone of a different faith or colour. 

Another horrific case is the serious plight of ‘Rohingay’ Muslim community of more than a million staying in Myanmar. Many of them had migrated during the British colonial rule, from across the Bay of Bengal, at that time a part of composite India and now Bangladesh. They had settled down mainly in the Rakhine State of Myanmar. The ugly manifestation of  tribalism in Myanmar has resulted in persecution of this community to such an extent that it has been described by international media and human rights organizations as a genocide. 

After fleeing Myanmar army troops, hundreds of Rohingya children struggle for food at Balukhali refugee camp in southern Bangladesh. 

What is playing out in most of the countries around the world is that people with vested interests are exploiting our tribal instincts to create fear psychosis. Fear is a very strong tool in their hands that can completely destroy our rational thinking and then change our behaviour for the worse. 

These tribal narratives are effectively framed and publicised by the tribal leaders in such a way that it creates a strong feeling that the threat from outside is real and will lead to destruction of our tribe. Such a propaganda engenders a sense of urgency in us to act in order to secure a better future for their our children. 

We need to recognise that all nations, religions, cults, gangs, subcultures, fraternal societies, internet communities, political parties, social movements and sports fans are all groups of people that can be called as tribes. They all tend to have a common bond, be it worshipping a certain deity or speaking a certain language or belonging to a certain geographical region or supporting a certain sporting club etc. Their interactions more often happen with one another in the tribe rather than with outsiders. They all develop an internal culture such that members of the groups often like the same foods, wear the same clothing, play the same sports and have the same philosophical beliefs. An excellent example is the Non-Resident Indian (NRI) community in the US and elsewhere. Tribes also tend to develop legendary histories, where they celebrate and exaggerate the deeds of their founders and past champions. They tend to express their pride in their tribe through conspicuous use of group symbols, group attire and other cultural artefacts. 

Victor Hanson of the Hoover Institution and author of ‘The Second Wars’, calls tribalism as one of history’s great destroyers. With tribalism, loyalty to larger commonwealth is gradually compromised as the influence of smaller and more intimate groups like race, religion, ethnicity, local region etc. increase. This leads to gradual erosion of loyalty and commitment to the larger entity over time, giving rise to fissiparous tendencies. We can clearly witness all around the world, that national interests by many countries are overriding multi-national global cooperation thus effectively nullifying the healthy benefits that we had derived from globalisation. As we go down the hierarchy, we can see that allegiance to religious or political or local entities is overshadowing national interests.

Former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, a Stanford Graduate School of Business professor, was very honest when she said “Let me let you in on a little secret. There is no such thing as an international community. There are only self-maximizing, self-interested states that will push their interests as far as possible.”

Most of the Middle East and Africa remain plagued by tribalism. In Iraq, a civil servant sees himself first as Shiite or Sunni rather than Iraqi, and acts accordingly. A Kenyan’s first allegiance is to his tribal first cousin rather than to an anonymous fellow Kenyan.

The result is inevitably the violence seen in places like the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Syria or Iraq. Back home in India, there is no attempt to hide the religious, caste and regional calculations during elections. The political parties unabashedly select candidates during elections based on religion or caste or linguistic considerations. A leader from Thakur, Brahmin or Dalit community in Uttara Pradesh or a leader drawn from Lingayat or Vokkaliga community in Karnataka will be chosen for leveraging the particular vote bank that gives maximum advantage. More unfortunately, religious loyalties and political affiliations are trumping national interests in India and there is complete lack of consensus on even important issues, including the critical area of security of the nation.

It is amazing that the Sunni and Shia Muslim sects who had lived for hundreds of years years as fellow citizens in many parts of Middle East have become enemies overnight thanks to Islamic extremists waging global jihad and power struggles. Surprisingly, both Sunnis and Shias look very similar to each other, live around in the same neighbourhood and believe in the same God albeit with small differences in theology. It is the very same violent aspect of tribalism that played out traumatically during the partition of ‘colonial India’ into two nations of India and Pakistan resulting in massacre of thousands of people. 

The level of inhumanity in these tribal conflicts is mind-boggling. For instance, the Fulani tribes in Sahel region of Africa were targeted by the other tribes. A ten day old baby was killed along with the mother. People of the tribe were thrown into a ditch of burning oil before being fired upon. One village chief was captured and summarily executed in front of his own mother. There were also pregnant women and elders who were killed and some people’s throats were cut while others were burnt alive.

When ex-president Donald Trump likened immigrants to poisonous snakes, biologist and behavioural scientist Robert Saplosky had this to say.  The author of Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst” observed that this comparison coming from a powerful leader, is a textbook definition of dehumanization of the ‘other’ group. When group or tribal leaders exhort their tribesmen with phraseology that activates their neurons in the insular cortex, the part of the brain that responds viscerally to disgusting things, then they have succeeded in creating the platform for genocide.

Saplosky had another profound observation.  He says that we do our worst when we are surrounded by a lot of people who agree with us. For example, devout religious belief is not necessarily a predictor of extremism. Devout religious observance also does not give rise to extremism. But devout religious observance in a large group setting does engender extremist tendencies. Studies show that support for terrorism in Muslim majority countries was unrelated to how often they prayed or how devout they were about various religious prohibitions. But it was definitely related to how often they prayed in mosques, in large group setting. The same was also true of right-wing Jewish extremists in Israel. Things take on a new meaning and a different perspective when sacred values are re-affirmed in group settings.

Jonah Goldberg in his new book, Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy’, describes what he calls the West’s suicidal tendency to surrender to tribal and nationalist forces from both the left and the right. 

World Economic Forum (WEF) Study finds that the world is witnessing a deepening distrust of each other thanks to growing tribalism and intolerance of those with different beliefs and backgrounds. Economic factors are playing a central role in terms of rising inequality, stagnant incomes, job insecurity and the division between prosperous cities and “left behind” regions. But the perfect storm of conditions for social fragmentation is coming from the convergence of economic forces with changes in culture, technology and the proliferating communication media landscape. 

WEF urges political leaders and civil society to appreciate that maintaining the rule of law, accountable institutions, independent media, social trust and strong civil society networks have become extremely critical. It points out the need to lower the barriers so that ordinary citizens are engaged more meaningfully in national affairs instead of restricting such participation to the loudest voices with the most strident views. There is also a crying need to incorporate serious consequences to those politicians, advocates and campaigners who pursue victory at any cost undermining the critical public trust in the system.

Neuroscientists have been researching this field for some time now. When in experiments black and white Americans were flashed pictures of the other race, their amygdala, the brain’s center of fear and anger, were activated so quickly and subtly that the conscious centers of the brain were unaware of the response. The subject, in effect, could not help himself.

On the other hand, when appropriate contexts were added like the approaching black man being a doctor and the white person his patient, things were different. Then, the two other sites in the brain, the cingulate cortex and the dorsolateral preferential cortex of the brain integrated with the higher learning centers, effectively silencing the input through the amygdala.

In a paper published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Eva Telzer of UCLA showed that the racial sensitivity of the amygdala does not kick in until around the age of fourteen. Such racial sensitivity is also not uniform across people of the same age group. Racially diverse groups had a less strong amygdala effect. In fact, with really high levels of diversity in the group, racially sensitivity almost disappeared. These findings therefore suggest that neural biases to race are not innate and that race is a social construction, learned over time.

Living Meaningful Life vs Pursuing Happy Life

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” Aristotle

The field of Positive Psychology (PP) has been in the forefront propagating this perspective. PP assumes that people, like all animals, are governed by the instinct of pursing happiness and avoiding pain as much as possible. Consequently, the first wave of positive psychologists focused on painless and easy activities to achieve happiness and success.

PP has tended to be defined in terms of a concern with ‘positive’ psychological qualities. However, over recent years, a more nuanced ‘second wave’ of positive psychology has been germinating, which explores the philosophical and conceptual complexities of the very idea of what constitutes the ‘positive.

The new wave of Positive Psychology (PP), which some people call as PP 2.0, assumes that people are spiritual beings. It accepts that there is more to life than either our physical needs for pleasure & comfort or our psychological needs for power & fame. What we crave for is for meaning in our lives and self-transcendence. Therefore, the second wave of positive psychologists prescribe the long path of pursuing self-transcendence.

The new wave of PP researchers do not bash happiness perse, but remind us that negative emotions also serve a purpose. Anxiety, for instance, helps to alert us to problems before they loom larger. Anger helps us to mobilize ourselves and others to confront challenges or threats. For instance, social psychologist Carol Tavris and others have argued that anger could motivate someone to act against and change an invidious situation that had been hindering their wellbeing. They caution that human experience is complex and sometimes bad things lead to good outcomes. Also, sometimes good things lead to bad outcomes. To ignore this simple truism is to leave humanity undiscovered under a patina of illusion.

The overemphasis of PP on self-directed happiness completely ignores collectivist mindset. People in strong collectivist cultures may be more concerned about securing a better life for their family than for themselves. Many professionals from developing countries work at low-paying jobs in developed countries so that their children can have a better education and a better future. They endure their own marginalization and downgraded social status in order to promote the happiness of their children. Thus, there are cultural differences in the balancing act between Me and We. Positive benefits for self-centred individuals include life satisfaction, achievement, and self-esteem, while positive outcomes for group-centred individuals would encompass harmonious relationships, group morale, and collaborative success.

“He who has a Why to live for, can bear almost any How. Friedrich Nietzsche

A meaningful life is not necessarily a happy life. We feel happy, when we get what we want and when our needs and desires are easily met. We need to realize that such happiness is short-lived. It is experienced in the here and now, and it then fades away. Meaningful life, on the other hand, is enduring. One way we derive meaning is from sacrificing ourselves for the benefit of others and by facing hardship and challenges in life. The meaningful life thus connects us to the others and to the bigger picture and encompasses both the past and the future.

Although researchers are agnostic about what kinds of meaning-in-life can be considered “best”, they argue that as people mature, their concept of meaning-in-life gets increasingly directed at a greater good which transcends their own individualistic desires. Incidentally, this notion of self-transcendence is often a descriptor that is used for people experiencing a mindful mindset.

Researchers have established that we do not become happy by pursuing happiness. We can become happy only by living a life that means something to us. Closely linked to meaningful activity in life is finding one’s purpose. Purpose provides the impetus for getting us out of our beds every morning. One’s purpose might be personal, like rearing children in a loving environment or as noble as saving the planet from environmental destruction.

Viktor Frankl said, “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”

In September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp along with his wife and parents. Three years later, when his camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished — but he, prisoner number 119104, had lived. In his bestselling 1946 book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who managed to live and those who had died in the concentration camps came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he had become aware of very early in his life.

Frankl wrote “To the European it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy’.”

It is worth emphasizing that what makes us uniquely human is our ability to care deeply for other people and for causes larger than ourselves. Putting our selfish needs aside, helps us to realize that there is more to a good life than just the pursuit of happiness. Deep happiness comes from using whatever strengths, skills and talents that we have to somehow make the life better for others. Prof Stew Friedman of Wharton, puts this into words beautifully in his book ‘Leading the life you want’. He says, “Significant achievement in the world results from consciously compassionate action, from using one’s talent to make the world somehow better. It’s a paradox that leading the life you want actually requires striving to help others.”

Behavioural economist Prof Kathleen Vohs says “While happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others, people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others”.

UCLA’s Semel Institute of Neuroscience has identified a part of the brain, the posterior superior temporal cortex, that seems to be hard-wired for contributing to others. Researchers hypothesize that altruism has allowed us to survive as a species by compelling us to help one another. The reward for helping comes in the form of a rush of oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin – what neuroscientists call the ‘happiness trifecta’. Oxytocin supports empathy and social bonding. Dopamine plays a major role in motivation and movement. Serotonin regulates mood.

The feeling that one’s life has meaning can come from any number of things. It could come from the work we do that we feel is worthwhile. It could come from our cherished relationships, from religious faith or even from sitting down and appreciating the sunset regularly. While it does not matter what gives us the purpose, it does matter that we do find it somewhere.

Prof Jennifer Aaker of Stanford and Emily Garbinsky claim that people who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need. They say, “If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need”.

In his book ‘Springboard’, Prof Richard Shell of Wharton, describes ‘deep happiness’ as a kind of feeling that transcends momentary happiness. Its source connects us to our souls, our purpose and to something larger than ourselves. As Shell writes, “It is the path that leads to look into ourselves and to build deeper connection with others. It is a path that is very likely to include tension, challenges and struggles along with happiness”. Thus people who pursue happiness for the sake of happiness may be missing out on this kind of deep happiness which is experienced when we live a more meaningful life.

People’s perception of their own purpose may have profound consequences not only for the legacy they leave behind for others, but also for the quality and quantity of their own life. We have all heard of anecdotes of people who have suffered tragedies in their lives only to persevere and move forward with newfound purpose and zest for life. Current research in an area called Purpose in Life (PIL) reveals exciting correlations between higher levels of PIL and variety of positive health benefits. Researchers, for instance, found that a higher baseline PIL was linked to a lower risk of heart attack. They also found that for each standard-deviation increase in PIL score, adults reduced their stroke risk by 22 percent. One study found that a strong sense of purpose was associated with a 72 percent lower rate of death from stroke, a 44 percent lower rate of death from cardiovascular disease, and a 48 percent lower rate of death from any cause.

One particular area of health where PIL is proving to be very useful is the CNS or the central nervous system. Research has shown that knowing one’s life purpose and mission may help protect the brain physically, increasing its ability to withstand greater injuries. In particular, PIL seems to help people protect what is known as a cognitive reserve or cognitive resilience, which is the human brain’s ability to recover from trauma and protect against diseases.

Similarly, a study in 2019 by JAMA Network Open (Open access medical journal published by the American Medical Association covering the biomedical sciences) found that adults over the age of 50 who scored highest on a scale that measured “life purpose” had a longer life expectation and were also much less likely to die from heart, circulatory or blood conditions. This was further endorsed by Eric S. Kim, PhD, of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who said “There have been a number of studies suggesting that a higher sense of Purpose in Life is associated with reduced risk of early death”.

Research has shown that people with higher levels of meaning-in-life had increased connectivity within nodes of the default mode network of their brains, implying that purposeful people have stronger mental connections between the many functions the default mode network plays. What’s more, people with more meaning in their lives had better cross-network connectivity, indicating that it was easier for their brains’ limbic and default mode networks to work together.

The default mode network and the limbic network are two key sets of structures in the brain. The limbic network controls emotions, motivation, and long-term memory, among other functions. The default mode network regulates our sense of self, our memories, our emotions and helps us envision the future.

Meaning is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future. In other words, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the struggles and sufferings of the past as well as things they want do in the future, felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.

Even our achievements have their own set points. When we achieve them, we feel happy but this happiness does not last long. Once the condition is met, we start looking for the next goal that we need to pursue to remain happy. What we might eventually discover is the idea that happiness is not at all related to setting goals and achieving them, but in finding that sense of happiness and joy within ourselves and in our daily lives.

In his book ‘Out of the Darkness’, bestselling author Steve Taylor of Leeds Beckett University, tells the stories of more than 30 people who have undergone permanent spiritual awakening after intense trauma and turmoil in their lives. These “suffering-induced transformational experiences” include being diagnosed with terminal cancer, or suffering bereavements, or becoming seriously disabled, or losing everything through addiction or having close encounters with death during combat. What all these people had in common is that after undergoing intense suffering, they felt they had “woken up”. They stopped taking life, the world and other people for granted and gained a massive sense of appreciation for everything. They spoke of a sense of the preciousness of life, their own bodies, the other people in their lives and the beauty and wonder of nature. They felt a new sense of connection with other people, the natural world and the universe. They became less materialistic and more altruistic. Possessions and career advancement became trivial, while love, creativity and altruism became much more important. They felt intensely alive.

Fortunately, we do not have to go through intense suffering to experience these awakening effects. There are also certain temporary states of being when we can sense meaning which Taylor calls as ‘awakening experiences’.

The most common characteristics of these experiences are positive emotional states, including a sense of elation or serenity, a lack of fear and anxiety, intensified perception, and a sense of connection which can be towards other human beings, nature, or the whole universe in general. Other significant characteristics include a sense of love and compassion, altered time perception which often includes a sense of being intensely present. Then there is this strong sense that a person has transcended a limited state and that awareness has become more authentic than normal.

Scientists have coined the phrase self-transcendent experiences (STEs) for these transient mental states of decreased self-salience and increased feelings of connectedness. This occurs under certain circumstances when the subjective sense of one’s self as an isolated entity temporarily fades into an experience of unity with other people or one’s surroundings, involving the dissolution of boundaries between the sense of self and “other.” These temporary mental states are experienced along a spectrum of intensity that ranges from the
routine like when losing ourselves in music or a book, to the intense and potentially transformative like when we feel connected to everything and everyone, to states in between, like those experienced by many people while meditating.

Professor William Damon, one of the world’s leading researchers on the development of purpose-in-life, offers another approach to help people to develop a sense that their lives have been worthwhile, even in the face of difficulties and wrong turns. The idea is to reminisce one’s past in ways that balance negative events with positive achievements which can lead to feelings of gratitude and tranquillity. Life satisfaction does not mean avoiding all misfortunes which anyway is impossible. Nor does it mean always avoiding mistakes which is also impossible. Rather, we aim to do the best we can, learn from our past experiences, and remain hopeful for the future. In this way, our past, present and future selves become integrated into a positive identity that can provide the fulfilling sense of ego integrity that development psychologist Erik Erikson described. Erikson wrote that ego integrity, the most fulfilling form of personal identity, requires a positive sense of where we’ve been, who we’ve now become, what purposes we are seeking to accomplish, and where we hope to be heading.

Every human life, even the most fortunate, is filled with pain. Painful loss, painful disappointments, the physical pain of injury or sickness, and the mental pain of enduring boredom, loneliness, or sadness. Pain is an inevitable consequence of being alive. Thus all the good things in life entail suffering. Writing a novel, running a marathon or giving birth to a baby – all these cause pain and suffering but are done in pursuit of the final joyous results.

How much are we influenced by others?

How much are we influenced by others?
The simple answer is “Quite a Lot”

In the African Bantu language, the word ubuntu means that a person becomes a person only through other people (Interview of Desmond Tutu, New Scientist, April 2006).

Neuroscientists endorse this view that our brains are continually reshaped by our interactions with other people. We can easily visualize that the physical presence and even the mental image of another person influences our brain, our behavior and our attitude. While our social interactions are mainly through our communication in all its forms, they also include cooperation, competition, imitation, helping, playing, informing, questioning, negotiating, bargaining, bluffing and so on. These interactions are strongly influenced by our own personalities, our own developmental history, stereotypes we wish to imitate, our own concepts of how things operate in our environment etc. Also “social emotions” such as pride, envy and regret influence and drive these interactions.

Herb Kelleher, cofounder and CEO of Southwest Airlines, was hailed as the most beloved leader of our time and Fortune magazine voted him as “Perhaps the best CEO in America”. Neuroscientists studied the firing of social neurons in various participants while analysing a video of Herb Kelleher. When Herb Kelleher was strolling down the corridors of the airline’s hub, the researchers could practically see him activate the mirror neurons, oscillators, and other social circuitry in each person he encountered. He offered beaming smiles, shook hands with customers as he told them how much he appreciated their business, hugged employees as he thanked them for their good work. Typical was the flight attendant whose face lit up when she un-expectedly encountered her boss and she gave him a big hug.

Psychologists define “Theory of Mind” as our ability to interpret the mental states of ourselves and that of others which enables us to come up with reasonable explanations of behavioural patterns of others. Psychologists explain that we become aware of others only because our brains can apply this “Theory of Mind”. Part of “Theory of Mind” consists in thinking about what other people are thinking about some other people. As an example, “What does Kumar think about Joseph’s behavior towards Ahmed, given that Ahmed is already upset about his father’s illness?” This is a very complicated kind of mental ability and is unique to humans. It is interesting that evolutionary anthropologists contend that our brains have evolved over the years to become as big as they are today for a reason. It is for enabling us to increase our deep intellectual abilities so that we can manage our relationships with other people more effectively.

The importance of human social connections cannot be overemphasised. Prof John Cacioppo of Chicago University has researched loneliness for thirty years. He has shown quite convincingly that lonely people are unhappier, live shorter lives and are more likely to be depressed. He explains that loneliness is an evolved mechanism that alerts us to a lack of social connection and social support. This is somewhat similar to hunger alerts that we feel when we need food. As a corollary, he claims that as a fundamental component of wellbeing, human beings require good quality social connections with other people and more importantly with close friends and family members. He also found that the frequency of interactions and the feeling of being connected to larger groups such as clubs or nations are also important factors in warding off loneliness.

It is worth noting that the social norms that guide our everyday behaviours and create social influence are mainly derived from our culture. We can look at culture as representing a group of people, normally living within a given geographical region, who share a common set of social norms, including religious and family values and moral beliefs. The culture in which we live also affects our thoughts, our feelings, and our behaviour. It is our culture that defines our lives as much as our evolutionary experiences.

We would like to think that we are largely in control of our day-to-day lives, yet most of what we do, from what we eat to who we sleep with, and even the way we feel, is significantly influenced by those around us and also those around them. It may surprise us to know that our actions can change the behaviours and the beliefs, and even the basic health of people that we may have never met.

Social media is a more recent phenomenon which has projected us into an age in which people are encouraged to express whatever they know, think, and feel. This means that, apart from information and opinions, emotions are also spread all over the net world.

A fascinating study by the New York Times Consumer Insight Group revealed various motivations that drive participants to share information on social media. These include a desire to reveal valuable and entertaining content to others, to define themselves in desirable ways to others, to grow and nourish relationships and also to speak about brands and causes that they like or support.

The use of social media has skyrocketed over the past decade and a half. Only five percent of adults in the USA were using a social media platform in the year 2005. This number has jumped to more than seventy percent today. Media psychology researchers are trying to understand how the time spent on social media is impacting our day-to-day lives.

Looking at the benefits of social media we can see that it is particularly helpful for those with family members spread out in different parts of the world, or perhaps people trying to make a long distance relationship work. We can easily relate to how we communicate despite time differences and distance by simply texting or phoning someone. By having the power to upload photos and send messages at ease, we manage to stay in each other’s lives despite being hundreds, or even thousands of miles apart. When we think about how far we have come since having to send letters and postcards, it is indeed pretty amazing. The addiction to social media and its serious consequences have been subject of lot of discussions everywhere and is not covered here.

A study has discovered that the average person checks their device 85 times a day, spending a total of five hours browsing the web and using apps. This equates to around a third of the time a person is awake, and is twice as often as many people realise (stock image)

Schadenfreude is a German term composed of Schaden, that means ‘harm’ and Freude which means ‘joy’. So the word Schadenfreude refers to the pleasure at another’s misfortune. The Japanese have a saying: ‘The misfortunes of others taste like honey’. The French speak of joiemaligne, a diabolical delight in other people’s suffering.

Psychologists found that when the Dutch team missed a goal, the smiles on German fans appeared more quickly and were broader than when their own German team scored a goal. Let us not fool ourselves. When it comes to making ourselves happy, we humans have long relied on the humiliations and failures of other people. The more we envy someone who is better off than we are, the greater is the pleasure that we feel when they fall down.

It is relevant in this context to talk about Social Anxiety. Virtually all of us have experienced concerns about being judged negatively by other people from time to time. Being concerned with other people’s opinions of ourselves is something we learn to live with from childhood onwards. For some individuals, however, these concerns about negative evaluation are so extreme and frequent that they impair everyday social life and becomes psychopathology, called Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD).

Social anxiety disorder is also known as social phobia. Anxiety is a fear that arises in anticipation of an event whereas phobia is an irrational fear of certain objects or situations.
The National Institute of Mental Health reports that twelve percent of adults in the United States experience social anxiety disorder at some point in their lifetime. It is more common in females than in males.

We can not but talk about sympathy, empathy and compassion when we are looking at any society. Sympathy means that we can understand what the other person is feeling. Empathy means that we actually feel what the other person is feeling. Compassion on the other hand goes beyond sympathy where we are willing to relieve the suffering of another.

Thanks to the mirror neurons in our brain, empathy may arise automatically when you witness someone in pain. Research indicates that empathy has a genetic component but is also influenced by parenting, the schools, the community, the environment and the culture.

Prof Paul Bloom of Yale University, makes the case for rational compassion rather than just empathy. He argues that empathy is counter-productive because it enmeshes us in the feelings that are not our own. Instead of taking on the problem as our own, having compassion means we understand where the person is coming from without adopting the emotion ourselves.

By the way, empathy is not reserved only for unpleasant feelings. We can feel empathy when we witness joy, too. When someone walks into our room smiling, we ourselves tend to smile.

When we are sympathetic, we are not really experiencing the feelings of another. Instead, we are able to understand what the person is feeling. For example, if someone’s father has passed away, we may not be able to physically feel the pain that the person is undergoing. However, we can understand that our friend is sad. This explains why we send sympathy cards when our friend’s loved one has passed away. we are not feeling that person’s pain, but we want our friend to know that we are aware of her suffering.

Dr Thupten Jinpa associated with Dalai Lama posits that compassion is a four-step process:

  1. Awareness of suffering.
  2. Sympathetic concern related to being emotionally moved by suffering.
  3. Wish to see the relief of that suffering.
  4. Responsiveness or readiness to help relieve that suffering.

We all experience emotions all the time. Emotions are a defining aspect of the human condition. They pervade our social and professional lives, influence our thinking and behaviour and profoundly shape our relationships and social interactions.

We need to recognise that emotions are ‘intentional’, in the sense that they are always ‘about’ something: they have an object, and that object is very frequently social. It could be a person like a rival for our loved one’s affection. It could be a social group like an organisation that does inspiring work in developing countries. It could be a social event like India winning the cricket series in Australia. It could also be a social or cultural artefact like a piece of music. Of course, we sometimes experience emotions in response to non-social stimuli like fear of heights or of spiders, but social objects are much more likely than non-social objects to be the source of our everyday emotions.

Many emotions are either inherently or functionally social, in that either they would not be experienced in the absence of others, or they seem to have no other function than to bind us to others. Emotions such as compassion, sympathy, maternal love, affection, and admiration are ones that depend on other people being physically or psychologically present. Fear of rejection, loneliness, embarrassment, guilt, shame, jealousy and sexual attraction are emotions that seem to have as their primary function the seeking out or cementing of social relationships.

We tend to share our emotional experiences, some of which may be painful or shaming, with intimate people because we trust them not to share our secrets with others. And yet these people are the very ones who are likely to empathise with us and therefore will experience the emotions themselves listening to what we divulge. This makes it likely that they will in turn engage in secondary social sharing.

For technically minded, neural basis for social influence has been subject of research by many neuroscientists. It is found that persuasion directed toward social norms specifically activates a set of brain regions including temporal poles, temporo-parietal junction, and medial prefrontal cortex. Persuasion against an accepted norm, on the other hand, specifically uses the left middle temporal and supramarginal gyri. Moral judgment has been associated with the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, vMPFC, and the striatum.

Brain Research validates concepts propounded by Patanjali in Yoga Sutras.

Scientists have been preoccupied for centuries trying to understand consciousness. Even today, it remains one of the most important unanswered questions of modern neuroscience. Nevertheless, there are several insights on this subject that have been well researched and accepted by scientific community.

Science, for instance, has established that our subconscious is the storehouse of all our learnings. Once we learn something and that gets validated or repeated, then, it gets stored away in our subconscious memory as beliefs. We now know that reality exists independent of human minds, but our understanding of that reality depends on the beliefs that we hold at any given time. Michael Shermer calls this process as ‘Belief-Dependent Realism’.

Cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber further stress in their book “The Enigma of Reason” that all of us invariably use our reasoning skills to justify our own beliefs and try our best to convince others about these beliefs.

Elizabeth Svoboda author of “What makes a hero? The surprising Science of Selflessness” goes on to confirm this tendency. She says that psychological research suggests that once our minds are made up on important matters, changing them can be as difficult as stopping a train hurtling at full speed, even when we sense the danger straight ahead.

“Whatever we plant in our subconscious mind and nourish everyday with repetition and emotion will one day become our reality”
Earl Nightingale

It is interesting that these scientific concepts are validated by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras.
The equivalent of embedded beliefs is samskaras and vasanas. Repeated thoughts manifest as habits and repeated habits influence our thoughts and become samskaras. Thus samskaras are habits that get entrenched deeply in our mind and they shape our inner world and mould our personality. We all have large number of samskaras and some of these are strong while others are relatively weak. These defining attributes of our personality affect our judgment and more importantly, shape our concepts on what we consider as right or good and what we consider as wrong or bad. The term for the most powerful samskaras is vasana, a potent subtle impression that colours our mind. We, therefore, see reality through the lens of our vasanas. This lens, unfortunately, distorts our perception of others as well as our own selves. Thus, in a sense, our vision is limited by what our vasanas allow us to see.

Patanjali goes on to describe the components of our mind. Chitta roughly translates to mind but actually it is more like the source of consciousness of a person. Chitta has three distinct faculties:

It is interesting that neuroscience does cover extensively all these three faculties but does not classify them in this way.

  1. Buddhi: the essence of intelligence, which is our discriminative faculty which classifies our impressions and reacts to them.
  2. Ahamkara: the faculty of ego-sense which claims these impressions as our own and stores them away as our knowledge base.
  3. Manas: the recording faculty which receives impressions gathered by the senses from the outside world.

Patanjali also gives more expansive view of how we view things or how our perceptions get created. He calls this Vritti which is the feeling of knowing that is experienced by us both in wakeful state and even in dream state. According to his Yoga Sutras there are five kinds of vrittis.

  1. Pramana is the right perception. This could be based on direct experience, pratyaksha, using the five senses. It could be based on inference, anumana, using logic. It could also be by comparison, upamana, with other known facts. It could be based on verbal testimony, sabda, provided by someone. It could even be simply a non-apprehension, anupalbdhi.
    This translates to one of the definitions of consciousness in modern science which is that consciousness is the sensory awareness of the body, the self, and the world.
  2. Viparyaya is misconception. This happens when the perception is created due to mistakes by our five senses. Thus, sometimes, our acquired knowledge can be misconceived. This, according to neuroscience, is the subconscious part of our brain misinterpreting the reality based on past experiences that are stored away in our memories.

Interestingly, the Sanskrit word for the world prapancha literally translates into ‘perception through five senses’. The idea behind this is that everything we taste, see, touch, sound, and smell (five senses) in the world is just what we perceive through our five senses.

Again, we can clearly see that neuroscience and Patanjali Yoga Sutras look at mind, perception and consciousness in somewhat similar ways but use their own terminology.

  1. Vikalpa is our imagination which is a thought pattern of past, future or non-existent daydreaming or fantasizing. We need to realize that we do not have the need of our senses for imagination. Dreaming according to some scientists is a mental state, an altered state of consciousness, which occurs during sleep. Dreams usually involve fictive events that are organised in a story-like manner, characterised by a range of internally generated sensory, perceptual, and emotional experiences.
  2. Nidra is sleep when we lose control over deliberate processing of our thoughts.
    Modern research shows that deep sleep is a state when conscious part of our brains is not functioning. We know that consciousness can be transiently abolished by pharmacological agents or more permanently, by brain injury. Let us also not forget that consciousness is seemingly lost and recovered every day, from the moment we fall asleep until we wake up while the subconscious is feverishly at work.
    It is interesting, that in order to explain the concept of ‘self’ more easily, the Hindu Vedic scholars describe deep sleep as a state when our ‘being’ can be looked at as standing apart from us more like an observer. At that stage, we are completely and absolutely unconscious even when our body is still functioning, run by our unconscious processes.
  3. Smriti is memory which is the storehouse of our past conscious and unconscious experiences and impressions. This is our well researched extensive memory system distributed across various parts of our brains.

Now let us now look at the various approaches that the western scientific research and Yoga Sutras offer in understanding our own thinking processes, perceptions and behaviours and using this knowledge to improve our overall wellbeing.

Master of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn of University of Massachusetts Medical School
pioneered meditative approaches that are used all over the world to treat pain and depression. It is proven that long term practitioners of deep mindfulness develop a sense of equanimity without getting absorbed into their own mental processes. They become fully aware that the mental phenomena like thoughts, emotions and feeling are distinct and in reality are outside of the mind that is actually observing them.

Tasha Eurich is an organizational psychologist and New York Times best-selling author and her latest book ‘Insight’ is well received. She claims that a hugely significant 95% of people think that they are self-aware, but the reality bears a stark contrast as only 10% to 15% of people know who they really are. She cites three reasons for this disconnect. First, we naturally have blind spots which results in wrong assumptions being made. Then we are all wired to operate on autopilot driven by our subconscious and are unaware of our behaviour patterns. Lastly, we are happier when we see ourselves in a more positive light which she calls as the “cult of self”. This results in over-estimation of our traits and capabilities.

The benefits that are associated with self-introspection and self-insight, include questioning and amending our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours that happen to be dysfunctional. This, in fact, is the foundation upon which psychological interventions, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) have been developed.

Jennifer Porter in her 2017 HBR article talks about self-reflection. The most useful reflection, according to her, involves the conscious consideration and analysis of beliefs and actions for the purpose of learning. Reflection gives the brain an opportunity to pause amidst the chaos, untangle and sort through observations and experiences, consider multiple possible interpretations, and create meaning. This meaning becomes learning, which then influences our future mindsets and actions.

In tandem with these developments, a new scientific field has emerged, focusing on technology that facilitates collection and use of personally relevant information called Personal Informatics (PI). The field of PI effectively uses technologies that allow users to collect and review personally relevant information. The purpose commonly envisioned for these systems is that they provide users with actionable, data-driven self-insight to help them change their behavioural patterns for the better.

The considered opinion by psychologists, however, is that changing deeply entrenched habits invariably requires help, information, and real support from others as claimed by the five authors of the book ‘Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success’.

Let us now turn our attention to what sage Veda Vyasa says in Yoga-Bhasya or “Commentary on the Yoga Sutras“. He claims that chitta has to go through the five stages of mental processes to reach the state of samadhi or complete peace of mind. The five stages are the state of restlessness (ksipta), the state of lethargy or sluggishness (mudha), the state of distractedness or lack of concentration (viksipta), the state of focused attention (ekagra), and finally the state of restricting all perceptions (niruddha).

Yoga, however, deals with only the last two stages and provides guidance for reaching eternal peace of mind. It requires deep understanding and practice of Yoga to get to the blissful state of the mind, which is outside the scope of this blog. I will however touch on some modern research work that validates the beneficial effects of breathing control, mindfulness and meditation.

How breathing affects the brain regions responsible for memory and emotional processing was the subject of research by scientists at North-Western University. They show that even the simple act of breathing through our nose can control our brain signals and lead to improved emotional and memory processing. As regards the breath itself, slow, steady breathing activates the calming part of our nervous system which, apart from slowing our heart rate, reduces feelings of anxiety and stress. Mindful breathing emphasizes not only the breathing component, but also the mental component of paying attention and becoming aware of mind, body and breath together. By observing in a non-judgemental manner, we are able to watch our minds and feel our bodies more clearly. Our breath is powerful enough to regulate emotions and help us gain clarity, and to fully do so we must also make the effort to centre our minds to the here and now.

Patanjali advocates practice of Yoga which will provide nirodha parinama or the mental ‘transformation of dissolution’. This is the state of clarity that arises when we are fully aware of the eternal present moment after dissolving the limiting effects of our samskaras. Using western science phraseology, the deep processes embedded in Yoga similar to self-introspection, self-insight and mindfulness will help us become aware of our thoughts as they arise. Regular practise of Yoga will then help us to stop/dissolve (Nirodha) such thoughts enabling us to be clearly present in the current moment.

Yoga Chitta Vritti Nirodha” is one of the beginning sutras from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.
It tells us that effective practice of yoga will ultimately result in living in the present moment by stopping the unsolicited thoughts arising from the subconscious.

Why Do We Complain So Much?

If we are in a public place and take time to observe what people around us are mostly talking about, we will notice that there is a lot of complaining going on. We will hear people complain about a plethora of things including bad weather, unfair bosses, nosy in-laws, uncomfortable seats, bad food, unruly traffic and the list can go on. The list will make us wonder if our world is such a bad place to live. To give us an idea, Scott Bea of Cleveland Clinic, says that the rate of complaints in American conversations ranges from 70 to 84 percent. 

Complaining is, of course, a pervasive form of social communication but its social communicative functions are still a subject of research. In one study college students kept diaries of the complaints they made to other people for three consecutive days, twice during the same semester. Students recorded their complaints and also the reasons for expressing them. The results indicated that over 75% of all their complaints had no intention of changing any existing state of affairs but were meant either to vent their frustration or to solicit sympathy from others. The most frequent complaints involved specific behaviours of other people they dealt with. 

In a survey conducted in the UK, it was revealed that people spend, on an average, ten thousand minutes a year, complaining about something or the other. The survey claimed that millennials complained the most. While weather and politics dominated the list of complaints others had to do with relationships, work colleagues and rude clients. 

Types of complaints.

Experts break up the complaining behaviour into three main categories viz. ruminating, venting and problem solving. While venting sometimes and problem solving most of the times can be constructive and useful, ruminating is always harmful.

The first type of complaint is by a chronic complainer who is never satisfied with anything. These people tend to ruminate on their problems and setbacks obsessively and hardly ever notice the positives and good things that happen to them. It should come as no surprise that rumination plays a major part in making people prone to Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). Rumination has also been shown to prolong episodes of depression.

Then, we have the second type of complaints by venters who are of two types. Some make it a point to vent their emotional dissatisfaction regularly. They tend to focus on themselves and are driven by their own negative experiences. By showing their anger, frustration, or disappointment, they are, in fact, soliciting attention. They want to be constantly validated by receiving attention and sympathy. 

Eric Berne, well known for his theory of transactional analysis, describes them as  “Yes, but” people. When the listener of the complaint responds by offering suggestions on how to solve the problem, the venter will come back with “Yes, but …” and proceed to shoot down any solutions offered. The Venter is a dissatisfied person who doesn’t want to hear solutions, however brilliant they may be. In psychology circles these people are called as ‘help-rejecting complainers’. 

The other type of venter just wants to let off pent up feelings. There is some justification for this type of venting as some people might lose their cool if they keep their feelings bottled up. It will also reduce their stress levels. Another case is when psychological therapists encourage their patients to talk about entrenched feelings of traumas and hurts. Expressing these suppressed feelings to a sympathetic listener brings some relief to the patients.  

Another set of people use complaining as a means of crafting or reinforcing their identities. They use their complaints to manipulate how others perceive them, a phenomenon psychologists call “impression management.” Commenting that the restaurant’s wine selection is below par is meant to let others know that the complainer has high standards.

Fortunately, we also have solution seeking complainers, who are genuinely interested in finding solutions to their problems. It could be a sensitive problem like ‘how to confront and control the spouse from overspending on the credit card, without damaging the relationship’. Unfortunately, these sorts of genuine complaints account for only 25 percent of all complaints.

Damaging effects of complaining.

Guy Winch, author of ‘The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way’ says that we have lost sense of what complaining is really meant to achieve and wrongly use it as an exercise for venting and that, we know, has many negative consequences. 

Travis Bradberry, author of bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, claims that repeated complaining rewires our brains to make future complaining more likely. Over time, we find it a lot easier to be negative than to be positive, regardless of what is happening around us. Thus complaining becomes our default behaviour and it is a matter of time before people start looking at us as perpetual complainers.

Steven Parton, researcher who is obsessed with exploring the neuroscientific and psychological impacts of technology, explains how complaining not only alters our brain for the worse but also has serious negative repercussions for our mental health. In fact, he goes so far as to say that complaining can literally kill us. His advice is to strengthen our capacity for positivity and weaken our reflex for gloom by surrounding ourselves with happy people who rewire our brain with love.

Our persistent complaining damages areas of our brain by shrinking our hippocampus, an area that is critical for problem solving and cognitive functions. It also impairs our ability to create new neurons. Damage to the hippocampus is scary, especially given that it is one of the primary brain areas that is destroyed by Alzheimer’s.

Apart from brain damage, chronic complaining has other serious consequences. When we complain, our body releases the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol shifts us into fight-or-flight mode, directing oxygen, blood and energy away from everything else by focusing on only systems that are essential for immediate survival. One effect of cortisol, for example, is to raise our blood pressure and blood sugar so that we are better prepared to either escape or defend ourselves. All the extra cortisol released by frequent complaining impairs our immune system and makes us more susceptible to high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease and obesity. It even makes our brains more vulnerable to strokes.

Damaging effects of complaints on listeners.

Complaints are like viruses and it is therefore good to stay away from chronic complainers.

Research shows that If we are surrounded by complainers, then we ourselves become prone to complaining. More importantly, listening to other people complaining can have the same negative impact on our brains, as it does to the complainer. Research conducted by Sapolsky at Stanford’s medical school found that exposure to just thirty minutes of complaining and negativity in a day can physically damage our brain. 

The culprit is our mirror neurons, which duplicate in our own brains the negative emotions of others with whom we spend time. Thus, when we are talking to someone who is depressed, it will make us feel depressed, whereas if we talk to someone who is feeling self-confident and buoyant, we are likely to feel good about ourselves. This phenomenon is known as emotional contagion and our brains are hardwired for emotional contagion.

Unfortunately, negative emotions in social situations impact us lot more severely than positive emotions, thanks to this phenomenon of emotional contagion.

One of the greatest buffers against picking up emotional stress from others is to bring some stability in our thinking and also strengthen our self-esteem. When we find ourselves being impacted by moods of others, we should take notice and remind ourselves to think about things that are going very well for us. Exercise is one of the best ways to build self-esteem, because our brains are positively impacted by endorphins every time we exercise.

Shawn Achor, author of ‘Before Happiness’, says that companies like the Ritz Carlton are aware of the impact of second hand stress and have therefore started instituting the concept of “no venting” zones for their employees when they are around customers. Ochsner Health Systems  has a similar scheme to prevent a patient from catching the negative contagion from seeing a nurse seething with stress or complaint.

Why do we complain a lot?

According to psychologist and New York Time best-selling author, Rick Hanson, a negativity bias has been built into our brains over millions of years of evolution. Our ancestors lived in difficult environments and they had to gather food while avoiding deadly obstacles. Negative factors like reacting to and remembering predators and natural hazards became more important than foraging for food. Those who avoided the negative situations and thus survived, passed on their genes with embedded negativity bias. Thus our brains are simply built with a greater sensitivity to unpleasant news. Scott Bea says that our negative bias makes us focus on things that we are not happy about, rather than appreciate all the wonderful things that should make us really happy. Also known as positive-negative asymmetry, this negativity bias predisposes us to feel the sting of a rebuke lot more powerfully than the feeling of the joy when we receive praise or appreciation.

Managing children who complain a lot.

Listening to constant complaints from our child definitely tests our patience when we hear them say “It’s too hot” or “I don’t want to go to Grandma’s house” or “These peas are gross” and so on. Complaining isn’t good for our child either. Too much focus on negativity exposes our child to mental health problems which can culminate in anxiety and depression. We need to remember that our child’s peers would not like to spend time with a chronically complaining kid. We should help our child to learn to be more positive and curb the negativity and unhealthy social habits while he is still young. We should encourage our complaining child to look for solutions to his complaints. If he complains that it is hot while he is playing outside in the sun, we can ask him “What do you think we should do about it?” We can make him think of options like playing in the shade or getting a cold drink. This way, we make the child think of possible solutions to problems rather than getting into the habit of just complaining. It is also important not to make it a practice of providing solutions to every frustration of our child. If we are not cautious, our child may develop a sense of ‘learned helplessness’ where he will assume that other people will solve all his problems on his behalf.

We need, however, to recognise that sometimes kids complain because they want us to know that they are dealing with some difficult feelings or some physical discomfort. Many a times, just validating our child’s discomfort may be enough to settle him down. If our child’s behaviour requires further intervention, we need to make sure that we discipline or correct their behaviour without stifling their emotion.  We may say something like, “It is OK for you to feel frustrated but it is not OK for you to throw things around.”

How do we reduce ill-effects of complaints?

Robin Kowalski, Professor at Clemson University, says. “It’s all about making the best choice, knowing when to complain and to whom.” The most effective type of complaining takes place when the complainer uses facts and logic, is clear about the desired outcome and knows the authority who can make it happen. She suggests that instead of dumping all our complaints on others, it is better to write them down, reflect on them and then decide on the appropriate course of action.

Positive psychology suggests five habits that can protect us from negative mindsets of others and improve our own positive outlook. 

1. Writing and sending a two minute email praising someone we know.

2. Writing down three things for which we are grateful for. 

3. Journaling some of our positive experiences for two minutes. 

4. Doing cardio exercise for thirty minutes a day.

5. Meditating for just two minutes in a day.

Research shows that cultivating an attitude of gratitude reduces the habit of complaining. The trick is to shift our attention to something that we are grateful for, whenever we feel like complaining. This habit of contemplating things that we are grateful for, reduces the stress hormone cortisol by 23% thus improving our health. 

Jovon Bernal, a meditation teacher and owner of Downey Yoga, suggests complaint cleanse, which is like meditation when we notice our thoughts without judgment, then using our breath, a mantra or another technique bring our mind back to the present. Thus complaint cleansing simply challenges us to acknowledge our negative thoughts and switch them around to something we feel good about in the present.

Bhagavad Gita teaches us to treat alike both pleasure & pain as well as success & failure. It encourages us to appreciate that failure is also a step in our progress. It asks us to cultivate the practice of focusing on our actions and not worry about the results, as we have no control on various other factors that affect the results. There are many such profound thoughts and words of wisdom in many of ancient Indian scriptures.

Some References:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/significant-results/201706/the-three-types-complaining

https://www.fastcompany.com/3040672/why-complaining-may-be-dangerous-to-your-health

https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/health-family/moaning-is-bad-for-your-health-1.3965976

https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/281734

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/247746523_Complaining_Behavior_in_Social_Interaction

https://hbr.org/2015/09/make-yourself-immune-to-secondhand-stress

https://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/complaining-rewires-your-brain-for-negativity-science-says.html

https://www.verywellfamily.com/how-to-deal-with-a-child-who-constantly-complains-1094982

https://www.verywellmind.com/negative-bias-4589618

https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/02/complaining-for-your-health/385041/

https://www.latimes.com/health/la-he-complaint-cleanse-20190626-story.html

Conscious and Unconscious Thought Processes

Our unconscious processes keep us alive and respond to external stimuli:

For most of human history, only the concepts of conscious thought and intentional behaviour existed. However large body of research over the past several years have concluded that evolution has equipped us with unconscious processes for our very survival and reproduction. It is the unconscious that handles all of our basic physical functions like our breathing, heart rate, immune system, etc. It is these subconscious processes that create our feelings, intuitions and gut reactions and help us prioritize the things that are more important for us to perform. Studies indicate that our culture and early learnings fine-tune many of these adaptive unconscious processes to be in synch with specific local conditions into which we are born. Recent studies also show that contextual priming is the mechanism that generates subconscious processes that influences us to make more precise adjustments to the way we think, behave and react to all the events and people in any given context.

Incidentally, new research shows that babies display glimmers of consciousness and memory when they are just around 5 months old. What this means is, that starting from birth, it is these unconscious processes that keep us alive and kicking, helping us to adjust to the environment we live in. Thus, as babies, our body movements, crying when we are hungry and looking at things around us with excitement are all done without our explicit awareness till we reach the age of 5 years.

In fact, Infants have no control over their movements in the first eight weeks and all their physical activity is involuntary or reflex. They move their bodies while they are awake, but they do not yet know how to make each part of their body move independently. They are not even aware  that all the body parts belong to them. Interestingly, exposure to maternal speech-sounds in the muffled confines of the womb enables the fetus to pick up statistical regularities so that the new-born can distinguish its mother’s voice and even her language from that of others. 

Nobel Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman in his best-selling book Thinking Fast and Slow, characterizes automatic thought processes, which he calls as System 1,  as fast, efficient and typically outside the realm of conscious awareness, making them devoid of deliberation or planning. We do not realize that everyday activities like riding a bicycle, playing tennis, driving a car negotiating traffic and signals or even just walking – all involve mastering complex sets of motor skills, but we are hardly aware of them once we have practised enough.

It is the ‘unconscious’ that really does bulk of our so-called thinking work:

Ezequiel Morsella of San Francisco State University came to a startling conclusion that consciousness itself is no more than a passive machine running one simple algorithm — to receive and serve up what is already analysed and decided by the unconscious.

The Passive Frame Theory claims that most of our decisions and the thought processes behind them are performed by many parts of our unconscious brain, well below our level of awareness. When the time comes to physically act on a decision, inputs from various unconscious processes are integrated to arrive at a decision and then handed over to our conscious part of the brain enabling us to execute it. Christof Koch suggests that the single area in the brain called Claustrum is responsible for integrating information across distinct regions of our brain and presenting the integrated view to our conscious brain.

Cognitive scientists Stanislas Dehaene and Bernard Baars developed ‘Global Workspace Theory’ which posits that to consider ourselves as conscious, a mental state which allows us to act, respond, verbalize or take decisions, it is essential for working memory to have been provided with all the requisite contents. 

What is Unconscious and Conscious?

The unconscious is the vast sum of operations of the mind that take place below the level of conscious awareness and these deeper mental processes are not readily available to the conscious mind. Scientists know that even fleeting perceptions which are too swift to register on our conscious awareness, can nevertheless leave lasting imprints on the unconscious mind. Thus a variety of information can get registered in our minds without our explicit awareness or attention.   

Steve Ayan, in his article in Scientific American writes that where we direct our attention, what we remember and the ideas that we possess, what we filter out from the flood of stimuli that bombard us, how we interpret these stimuli and what goals we pursue—all these result from automatic unconscious processes. 

Ben Newell of University of New South Wales and David Shanks of University College of London have a simple definition of consciousness. To call a process as conscious, they claim, we should have reportable knowledge of it. Yet another definition of consciousness is that it is the sensory awareness of the body, the self, and the world.

Thus our conscious mind contains all our thoughts, feelings, cognitions, and memories that we acknowledge. Consciousness is variously referred to by scholars as “sentience”, “subjective experience,” “phenomenal state,” “qualia” etc.

We use the terms ‘feeling’ and ‘emotion’ as synonyms, but they are not interchangeable. Emotions are physical and instinctive and they act instantly prompting bodily reactions to threat, reward and everything in between. While these are thus unconscious, the feelings are the conscious experience of emotional reactions. Steve Ayan gives the example that there are instances when we consciously feel nervous or irritated misinterpreting the internally generated emotion triggered by hunger requiring us to eat to get over the feeling. Children often throw tantrums reacting to internally generated emotions without recognising that it is the feeling of hunger and the moment we feed them they are back to normal.

Extra-ordinary Efficiency of our unconscious:

We know that information is stored associatively in our brain, which is largely bundles of pathways of association. It is estimated that our unconscious can process roughly eleven million pieces of information per second compared to the pitifully low number of forty pieces of information that our conscious brains can process in a second. The limited processing capability is due to our small capacity of working memory.  

David Oakley of UCL and Peter Halligan of Cardiff University suggest that our personal awareness does not create, cause or choose our beliefs, feelings or perceptions. Instead, the contents of consciousness are generated “behind the scenes” by fast, efficient, non-conscious systems in our brains. Put simply, we don’t consciously choose our thoughts or our feelings – we become aware of them when they are brought into our working memory.

Michael Graziano of Princeton University recognizes this limitation of working memory and quotes “The Attention Schema Theory (AST)” which postulates that consciousness arises as a solution to this most fundamental limitation facing our nervous system. There is far too much information that we constantly receive which needs to be fully processed. The brain, over centuries, has evolved increasingly sophisticated mechanisms both for unconscious and conscious processes to work in tandem. Our unconscious processes make the judgement calls on what is important for us and what is not. This results in the unconscious processes selecting only relevant signals, integrating them and  presenting them to our conscious brain while ignoring the rest of the large number of other signals received. 

We know that consciousness can be transiently abolished by pharmacological agents or more permanently, by brain injury. Let us also not forget that consciousness is seemingly lost and recovered every day, from the moment we fall asleep until we wake up while the subconscious is feverishly at work. It is interesting, that in order to explain the concept of ‘self’ more easily, the Hindu Vedic scholars describe deep sleep as a state when our ‘being’ can be looked at as standing apart from us more like an observer. At that stage, we are completely and absolutely unconscious even when our body is still functioning, run by our unconscious processes.

A large body of neuroscientific studies points out that the brain really does a lot of work when it does not appear to be thinking about anything at all, like when we are asleep. Studies reveal that this is the time when our brains work at their hardest to find solutions to any number of complex problems that we face.

The unconscious mind, of course, has long been appreciated as a deep well of creativity from which some of our greatest artworks, scientific discoveries and inventions have been dredged up. But studies show the unconscious is also a powerhouse when it comes to processing extremely large amounts of information or when trying to find solutions to our complex problems. Rose Hoare of CNN goes on to say that the concept “Got a big decision to make? Sleep on it” actually works.

Downside of unconscious processing:

While we can appreciate the unconscious part of the brain taking on so many responsibilities and executing them efficiently without burdening our conscious, there are some downsides. All our biases and beliefs operate at the unconscious level and heavily influence our decisions and actions many of which may be detrimental to our functioning. Similarly, many of our entrenched misconceptions which operate at the unconscious level are very difficult to change and these affect us adversely. Dysfunctional biases, beliefs and misconceptions together form the main cause for many of the problems that we face in social and interpersonal relationships. Our lack of awareness of these debilitating unconscious processes makes us incapable of correcting them on our own, without expert external help.

Afterall, most forms of psychotherapy aim to bring into conscious awareness all our hidden beliefs and fears, often acquired during our childhood so that they can be critically examined. The goal is to make us aware of the deeper reasons for our behaviours and our feelings in order to enable us to change them to be more appropriate.

It should therefore come as no surprise that many a times, triggered by our unconscious processes, we act and behave in ways that are diametrically opposite to our consciously expressed beliefs. As an example, many people claim that they display positive attitude towards minority groups but are astonished when social scientists prove them wrong with a simple test called “The Implicit Association Test”.

But none of this theory takes away our treasured qualities as sentient human beings — our imagination, our language, our sense of self and others — it just points to the unconscious mind as the main player on our brainy fields.

Note: I have used in this blog ‘consciousness’ and ‘awareness’ to mean the same. But experts have slightly different connotations which is beyond the scope of this blog.

References:


https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-brains-autopilot-mechanism-steers-consciousness/

https://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2013/06/22/your-brain-sees-even-when-you-dont/#4d483107116a

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19422631/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2440575/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/unconscious

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318674

https://acmelab.yale.edu/sites/default/files/our_unconscious_mind.pdf

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02207-1

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/there-is-no-such-thing-as-conscious-thought/

https://www.technologynetworks.com/neuroscience/articles/what-if-consciousness-is-not-what-drives-the-human-mind-307159

https://elearningindustry.com/non-conscious-knowledge-aspects-learning-performance

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22329762-700-consciousness-on-off-switch-discovered-deep-in-brain/#ixzz6RJofoswh

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/06/how-consciousness-evolved/485558/

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/when-does-consciousness-arise/

https://edition.cnn.com/2012/08/27/business/unconscious-mind-sleep-decision/index.html

https://imotions.com/blog/difference-feelings-emotions/

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Importance of Forgiving

To err is human, to forgive divine.

Alexander Pope

Mahatma Gandhi taught us a lot of things about non-violence, about civil disobedience and about self-governance. However his most important teaching is the art of forgiving which holds special significance in today’s turbulent world.

Forgiveness has been a cherished value for centuries and is propounded by all world religions. Religions such as Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity have all stressed the importance of forgiveness, although these religions conceptualise and address forgiveness in different ways.

All of us without exception have experienced in our lives being wronged by someone or the other. The individual offender could be a co-worker, a friend or a family member. We are also exposed to incidents of spouses who are unfaithful, parents who mistreat or abuse their children, people who killed for the sake of money etc. Whenever such things happen, we tend to seek severest punishment to the perpetrators of these wrong doing and generally forgiveness is the last thing that will come to our mind.

The following story, therefore, should come as somewhat of a surprise.

Everett Worthington had been studying forgiveness for more than a decade but one day, suddenly, he was faced with the worst possible opportunity to put his research findings to the reality test. His mother was murdered in a home invasion. Though police identified the perpetrator, the man was never prosecuted.

I had applied the forgiveness model many times, but never on such a big personal event” says Worthington, a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. “As it turned out, I was able to forgive the young man quite quickly.”

It is notable that Worthington never described himself as a superstar forgiver. He attributed his action to the skill he developed and practiced over many years, which made this forgiving very easy.

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.

Marcus Aurelius

Let us first get clarity on what we mean by forgiveness.

Forgiveness is defined as an internal process through which an individual gives up all feelings of resentment and anger towards someone who has wronged him and at the same time feels absolutely no need for any revenge and retribution.

Thus forgiveness is not just about saying the words ‘I forgive’ but is an active process in which we make a conscious decision to let go of negative feelings whether the offender deserves it or not. As we release the anger, resentment and hostility, we slowly begin to feel empathy, compassion and sometimes even affection for the person who wronged us.

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was actually you

 Louis B. Smedes

For forgiveness to occur, it is not essential for us to forget, justify, condone or absolve the actions of the offender.  What is required is a shift or change in how we feel about the offender. Forgiveness enables us to accept the offense against us without excusing it. This requires us to alter our motivation from one of avoidance or retaliation to one of empathy and reconciliation.

It is worthwhile remembering that we have no control over our memories, but we do have capability to introspect and control our thinking. While our anger may be justified when the event happened, retaining this anger over a long period of time is harmful to us. We must realistically acknowledge that we can not change what transpired in our past but we do have the power to stop events of the past affecting our current lives.

While we generally think that forgiving as a kind and selfless act, the reality is that it is a  very selfish act which sets in motion the process of self-healing, self-empowerment and self-liberation. As Desmond Tutu, South Africa’s former Anglican archbishop and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, said, “We don’t forgive to help the other person. We don’t forgive for others. We forgive for ourselves. Forgiveness, in other words, is the best form of self-interest.

From all the above, we can have a fair appreciation of what forgiveness is not.

  • It is not approving the offence.
  • It is not excusing the action or denying it or overlooking it.
  • It is not forgetting or pretending that it did not occur and to just moving on.
  • It is not justifying the offence or relinquishing possible action for justice.
  • It is not just calming down and ceasing to be angry.
  • It is more than being neutral towards the offender.
  • It is more than making oneself feel good.
  • It is one step towards reconciliation, but it is different from reconciliation, which requires a sincere apology from the parties concerned.
  • It is completely independent of  the person/s being forgiven. Consider Corrie Ten Boom, who forgave the Nazis after losing her family in the Holocaust, or Marietta Jaeger who, after her daughter was kidnapped and brutally murdered, was able to forgive. Thus people can forgive, even when the person who wronged them is unknown or dead.
  • It is not a onetime event, but a process with several steps and repetitions.
  • It is not a restoration of full trust on the offender (trust takes time to develop or to be reinstated assuming that the other party is interested too).

Bob Enright, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, who pioneered the study of forgiveness three decades ago says true forgiveness covers lot more ground by generating positive feelings like empathy, compassion and understanding  towards the person who hurt us thus making it a powerful construct in positive psychology.

Let us now examine the need to forgive.

Tyler VanderWeele of Harvard School of Public Health says “When you learn to forgive, you are no longer trapped by the past actions of others and can finally feel free.

This is illustrated by the Tibetan Buddhist story of two ex-prisoners of war who meet after many years. When the first one asks, “Have you forgiven your captors yet?” the second man answers, “No, never”.  “Well then,” the first man replies, “they still have you in prison.”

An fMRI study by Italian researcher, Pietro Pietrini, demonstrated that anger and vengeance have negative implications for us as they inhibit our rational thinking. Conversely, the steps that are involved in the process of forgiveness positively activate the areas of our brain which are linked to problem-solving, morality, empathy and cognitive control of our emotions.

We need to appreciate that the part of the brain that is associated with resolving anger is also the same part that is involved in empathy and regulation of our emotions. Research shows that there is a strong neuronal foundation for the idea that resolving conflict and granting mercy do good to our brains as they enhance positive emotions in us.

Researchers have collected massive evidence to clearly prove that forgiveness is linked to positive mental health outcomes such as reduced anxiety and reduced propensity for getting into depression or other major psychiatric disorders. Stress relief is the most significant benefit of forgiveness and we are well aware that chronic stress is highly detrimental to our health.    

Let us also look at the enormous price we pay by not forgiving. Anger is a form of stress, and so when we hold on to anger it is as though we are turning on our body’s stress response. Berkeley scientists looked at the levels of the stress hormone cortisol , in people who did and did not forgive the faults of their romantic partners. They found a spike effect in those who could not forgive such faults in their partners. Cortisol peaks are generally associated with chronic stress which is one of the nastiest ways in which we can hammer our own body from the inside out. Johns Hopkins Hospital warns us that carrying grudges poses ‘serious and enormous’ physical burden on us.   

In the turbulent days we live in, the world is suffering enormously for lack of forgiveness as we remain chained to the past.  Whether it is the war on Iraq or the conflicts in Syria or elsewhere in the world, all of these are fuelled by hatred and the need for vengeance. Collectively, humanity needs to learn forgiveness, to end the cycles of retribution and violence which are becoming a daily headline news.

While there are a lot of approaches to the forgiving process, the following four step process with some variations appears to be more prevalent.

The Uncovering Phase. During the first phase of forgiveness, we need to improve our understanding of the injustice, and how it has impacted our life.

The Decision Phase. During the second phase, we need to gain a deeper understanding of what forgiveness is and make the important decision of choosing the forgiveness option rather than vengeance.

The Work Phase. During the third phase, we need to start looking at the offender in new ways, which will allow us to reduce our negative feelings and promote positive feelings toward the offender.

The Deepening Phase. During the final phase of forgiveness, we need to further decrease the negative emotions associated with the injustice. We may, in fact, find purpose and meaning in these experiences and recognize that in some ways we have become better persons as a result of these experiences.

Here is a wonderful story of how Buddha reacted towards an offender.

A Lesson on Forgiveness

 Buddha was sitting under a tree talking to his disciples when a man came up and spat on his face. Buddha wiped it off and asked the man, “What next? What do you want to say next?”. The man was puzzled by this reaction as in the past the insulted people invariably became angry and reacted strongly unless they were cowards and weaklings. But Buddha reacted so differently asking him matter-of-factly “What next?” 

But Buddha’s disciples became angry, and they reacted. His closest disciple, Ananda, said, “This is too much. We cannot tolerate it. He has to be punished for this act, otherwise everybody will start behaving like this!”

Buddha admonished Ananda saying “You keep silent. He has not offended me, but you are offending me. He is a stranger who does not know me. He must have heard from people something bad about me, that I am an atheist or a dangerous man who is throwing people off their track or a revolutionary or a corrupter. And he may have formed in his mind some idea or a notion of me. Thus he has not spit on me but on his notion. He has spit on his idea of me. As he does not know me at all, how can he spit on me?

“If you think about it deeply,” Buddha said, “he has spit on his own mind. I am not part of it, and I can see that this poor man wants to say some thing and this is his way of saying it. Spitting is a way of saying something. There are moments when you feel that  your language is inadequate to convey your feelings like when you are in deep love or in intense anger or in hate or in prayer. When the language is impotent, you have to express your feelings some other way. When you are angry, intensely angry, you hit the person or you spit on him conveying your feelings. I can understand him. He must have something more to say, that’s why I’m asking him, “What next?”

Learning to forgive everything.

And Buddha said to his disciples, “I am more offended by you because you know me, and you have lived for years with me, and still you react this way.”

Puzzled and confused, the man returned home. He could not sleep the whole night. Again and again he was haunted by the experience and could not explain to himself on what had happened. Buddha had shattered his whole working of his mind and his whole pattern of thinking.

The next morning he went back and threw himself at Buddha’s feet. Buddha asked him again, “What next? When you come and touch my feet, you are saying something that cannot be said using words as they are not adequate for you to express your feelings clearly.” Buddha said, “Look, Ananda, this man is again here and is expressing something. This man is a man of deep emotions.”

The man looked at Buddha and said, “Forgive me for what I did yesterday.”

Buddha said, “Forgive? But I am not the same man on whom you spit. The Ganges goes on flowing, it is never the same Ganges again. Every man is a river. The man you spit upon is no longer here. I look just like him, but I am not the same and much has happened in these twenty-four hours. The river has flowed on so much. So I cannot forgive you because I have no grudge against you.”

“And you also are new. I can see that you are not the same man who came yesterday because that man was angry and so he spit, whereas you are bowing at my feet, touching my feet. How can you be the same man? You are not the same man, so let us forget about it. Those two people, the man who spit and the man on whom he spit, both are no more. Come closer. Let us talk of something else.”

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https://ct.counseling.org/2017/04/self%E2%80%8Aish-act-forgiving/

https://growastrongfamily.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/forgiveness-therapy.pdf

https://liberationist.org/forgiving-is-hard-but-not-forgiving-hurts-more/

https://www.apa.org/monitor/2017/01/ce-corner

https://nickwignall.com/forgiveness/

https://www.bustle.com/articles/184793-how-forgiveness-works-and-why-its-good-for-you

https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/forgiveness-your-health-depends-on-it

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/301662629_The_Science_of_Forgiveness_Examining_the_Influence_of_Forgiveness_on_Mental_Health

https://psychiatrypodcast.com/psychiatry-psychotherapy-podcast/2019/4/10/what-is-forgiveness

https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/the-power-of-forgiveness

https://jackkornfield.com/the-practice-of-forgiveness/

https://upliftconnect.com/buddhas-beautiful-lesson-forgiveness/

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/forgotten-art-forgiveness-lessons-from-gandhi-todays-arun-ramamurthy

 

 

 

Importance of Emotion Regulation

We are no strangers to emotions. We are constantly exposed to a variety of stimuli that can evoke various types of emotions in us. For instance, walking down the city street, we may see people hugging or fighting, we may hear a baby crying, we may smell food that reminds us of our favourite restaurant and we may receive a text message with some sad news.  All these may happen within a few seconds.

It may be prudent for us get a clearer understanding on what we mean by emotion before examining the need for regulating it.

Unfortunately, there is no consensus today on a precise definition of emotion. The term emotion, however, is contextually referred to by all researchers while talking about the six basic emotions of anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise.

Six emotions

World renowned researcher Barbara Fredrickson, Director of ‘Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory’,  defines emotions as “multicomponent response tendencies that unfold over relatively short time spans”

A simpler definition is that emotion is any mental experience with high intensity and high level of either pleasure or displeasure. Another one is that emotions are bodily reactions that are physical and instinctive and are prompted by either threat, reward or anything in between.

What we do know, scientifically, is that emotion begins when a stimulus is perceived by one or more of our senses. Amygdala, the emotional part of our brain, which is consistently scanning for threats and opportunities, responds with alacrity to the stimulus. If what is sensed is recognised as a threat, then the vigilant amygdala triggers the autonomic nervous system to prepare us for the action of flight or fight.

The amygdala also instructs the hypothalamus to release hormones that activate our sympathetic nervous system. Adrenaline is released and our heart rate accelerates, blood pressure increases, and blood sugar is elevated to assist us in our fight-or-flight response to the threat. At the same time, our digestion and immune response is suppressed. The brain system has prepped up our body for quick response to any eventuality. Obviously, this heightened state of the body cannot continue for a long period. Fortunately, the body’s stress-response system is usually self-limiting. Once the perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. Adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, our heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels and other systems resume their regular activities.

We must understand that these emotional reactions occur automatically and unconsciously and in a sense are hard-wired. According to Antonio Damasio, director of the ‘Brain and Creativity Institute’, these emotions are action programs that exist not just in human brains but also in the brains of many other species. Some of these programs, he says, go all the way down to invertebrates, to little creatures like a snail that do not even have a skeleton.

We need to realize that evolution has developed these programs to achieve something very important. For example, emotional arousal of fear allows us to take action, even without thinking, so that we can quickly get away from danger without any delay. Probably, fear has saved more lives than any other emotion that we experience.

Unfortunately, there are too many situations in modern day life that can cause a stress response similar to fear in our bodies. Changes at work place, problems in relationships, family issues, demands on limited financial resources, illness, accidents can all cause stress. Even seemingly small daily hassles like someone pushing us in a queue can make us feel stressed. When these negative events keep happening to us one after the other, the body’s stress response is triggered repeatedly.

When these stress responses becomes prolonged (chronic), it has a very different effect compared to the short bursts that enhance the body’s abilities. In many cases, the system controlling the stress response is no longer able to return to its normal state. Attention, memory, and the way we deal with emotions are negatively impacted. This long-term stress can contribute to both physical and mental illness through effects on the heart, immune and metabolic functions and hormones acting on our brain.

Here is a concrete experiment that establishes the effect of negative feelings.

According to scientists at Ohio State University, a 30-minute argument with our partner can slow our body’s ability to heal by at least a day. If we keep arguing on a regular basis, that healing time scales up. Researchers tested couples with a suction device that created tiny blisters on their arms. When the couples were asked to spend enough time talking about an area of disagreement that provoked emotion, the wounds took about 40 per cent longer to heal than those in the control group. This response, say the researchers, is caused by a surge in cytokines, the  immune molecules that trigger inflammation. High levels of cytokines are linked to arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Antonio Damasio claims that emotions and feelings are two different things. His theory is that feelings in contrast to emotions, occur after we become aware of the physical changes that are triggered by emotion and it is only then, that we experience the real feeling of fear or threat.

Our memories of past experiences become encoded into triggers and these triggers automatically switch on the psycho-emotional response.

The type of feelings that are evoked in us depends on the recorded experiences of how we manged such situations in the past.

 As Antonio Damasio says, emotional stress is inevitable if we live in large urban centres. Such a stress releases certain hormones that are connected with fear and anger and they not only damage our arteries and the heart but also damage receptors that are on the surface of nerve cells and neurons. As the repeated episodes of negative stimuli continue for a long time, we get into a state of chronic stress and the neurons themselves start getting damaged.

Emotional stress not only harms our cardiovascular and immune systems but exposure to chronic stress also impairs learning and memory. Stress hormones, known as glucocorticoids of which one is cortisol, slow the birth of new brain cells in the hippocampus. They also kill existing hippocampal neurons and disconnect the networks of neurons that move information through your brain. Prolonged chronic stress can cause depression.

Another factor that works against us, is that evolution has hard-wired us to give high priority to defend ourselves from serious threats. This leads us to subconsciously give lot more importance to all negative experiences of the past shadowing our positive experiences. This “negativity bias” results in our spending much more time ruminating over the minor frustrations that we have experienced in the past. Small irritations like bad traffic and a disagreement with a loved one can fully occupy our mind making us to miss out on the many opportunities that we get to experience positive factors like wonder, joy, empathy and gratitude.

Hence, there is a critical need to become aware and then regulate our emotions in order to support our psychological and physical well-being.

Emotion regulation enables us to control and modify the frequency, intensity, duration and type of our emotional responses. Thus, emotion regulation is a mechanism enabling better coping with the environmental demands.

We cannot lose sight of the fact that emotions are useful and important signals informing us about either external circumstances or our own internal states.  If we can become aware of these signals and if we can properly regulate our responses to them, we can lead healthier and happier lives.

Although part of emotion regulation happens automatically, more effective responses by us for longer term benefits do require conscious control of information processing in our brains. To do this, we use our prefrontal cortex which downregulates emotion-related regions such as the amygdala by inhibiting neural activity in these regions.

The Cognitive Model of Emotion looks like this:

Event → Interpretation → Emotion → Response

 Let us imagine the following situation to understand all the four parts.

A blue car cuts us off very close to our vehicle while we are driving down the highway (Event). The following thought speeds across our mind: “That fool is going to kill somebody” (Interpretation). We feel angry (Emotion). So we hit the gas in a valiant attempt to catch up with the car and snap a photo of the license plate (Response).

A critical aspect of the Cognitive Model is that while the first three parts are largely automatic and outside of our control, how we act (Respond) to a great extent is under our control. If we have trained ourselves to regulate our emotions, then we don’t have to chase down the blue car, even though that’s our first instinct.

The advantage of brain regulation is that it reduces our tendency to react hurriedly to a situation, instead of evaluating the options available to us and choosing the optimal one.

With regular training and practice of emotion regulation, when we were cut off by the vehicle, our brain’s automatic interpretation and emotion would have been less intense, resulting in much less anger and we therefore would have decided not to chase down the car.

The most effective way to regulate our emotion is to re-interpret the situation. For instance, we can try to imagine that the driver of the blue car may be a terrified husband on the way to the hospital with his wife going into labour in the back seat. Such a reinterpretation would automatically moderate our emotions and we are likely to take a more pragmatic decision.

While there are many other strategies that can be used to actively regulate our emotions, especially the negative ones, the most commonly studied strategy is reappraisal, which involves deliberately changing the way we think about the meaning of an emotionally evocative stimulus or situation. In this explicit form of emotion regulation, we need to effectively use brain control processes.

Imagine another scenario that in some situation, someone is screaming at us in anger without sufficiently good reason. Our immediate desire would be to scream back or even hit the person.

But if we were to be aware that this person’s mother passed away a day earlier or that he/she is going through a tough divorce and just lost custody of the kids, our reaction will be very different. We may even respond to the anger with compassion.

Let us examine what has changed in eliciting from us two very different responses for the same event.  It is the story that we are telling ourselves about the event that has changed everything.

Kevin Ochsner, Director of ‘The Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab’ demonstrates that changes in our beliefs about a situation forces our brains to change our feelings about the same situation.

In Ochsner’s reappraisal experiment, participants were shown a photo of people crying outside a church, which naturally made all the participants feel sad. They were then asked to imagine that the context is actually a wedding and the people were crying tears of joy. Once the participants imagined the scene as a wedding and changed their appraisal, their emotional response also changed to one of joy and these changed emotions were captured in their brain scans.

On a lighter vein, on how reframing of a situation can completely change the perspective, Edward Russo and Paul Shoemaker provide an amusing story to illustrate the power of framing. A Jesuit and a Franciscan were seeking permission from their superiors to be allowed to smoke while they prayed. The Franciscan simply requested for permission to smoke while he prayed. His request, as to be expected, was straight away denied. The Jesuit, on the other hand, framed the question in a different way: “In moments of human weakness when I smoke, may I also pray?’’ He got the approval.

All of us do make mistakes at various points of time and later feel bad for having made these mistakes. The unhappy feelings or discomfort created by these mistakes sometimes can last a long time. Richard Davidson author of ‘The Emotional Life of Your Brain’ and founder and chair of the ‘Centre for Healthy Minds’ encourages cognitive reappraisal training to help us reduce the impact of distressing and uncomfortable situations that we create by our mistakes.  He says that instead of viewing our mistake as representing the way we normally think, work and behave, we can be trained to feel that the mistake was more of an exception or aberration and could have been committed by anyone. Cognitive reappraisal, can thus help us to reframe the causes of our behaviour and reduce its impact or distress.

Besides cognitive reappraisal, research also suggests that certain forms of meditation can change how the brain responds to emotional stimuli. For example, one study found that short-term mindfulness training increased the functional connectivity between the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area involved in emotion regulation, suggesting that even a few weeks of meditation training may build up emotion-regulation abilities.

Davidson, who has worked extensively with the Tibetan Buddhist leader Dalai Lama, explains that many contemplative traditions speak of loving-kindness which is the desire for happiness for others and wanting to relieve suffering of others through compassion. Loving-kindness and compassion are central to the Dalai Lama’s philosophy and mission.

Clinical psychologist Lisa Firestone, author of ‘Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion’, says that when we have feelings of caring or love for other people, we feel better both psychologically and physically.  While all of us do desire to be loved, what actually generates lot more joy and happiness is the feeling of loving. This feeling of loving is generated in us when we do kind and compassionate things for other people.

 

Positive plus

 

Now that we have a good idea of ill effects of negative emotions on our lives, let us look at positive emotions.

Among the many health benefits of positive emotions, the main benefit is a reduction in stress and a boost to our general well-being. Positive emotions can actually act as a buffer between us and stressful events in our lives, allowing us to cope more effectively and preserve our mental health. In addition, researchers confirmed that experiencing positive emotions helps us modulate our reactions to stress and allows us to recover from the negative effects of stress more quickly.

According to Fredrickson‘s research, we should aim for a positivity ratio of at least 3 to 1. This means that for every heart-wrenching negative emotional experience that we endure, we need to experience at least three heartfelt positive emotional experiences that uplift us. As we age, this ratios needs to keep moving up a bit to keep us healthy.

We now know that the difference between people who are living healthy and happy lives  and those who are not, is the ability to use their strengths and virtues for purposes greater than themselves. The magnitude of positive emotions that we are able to self-generate from everyday pleasant activities like social interactions, learning, helping others etc. will make us more healthy. According to positive psychology, what creates a fulfilling life is the steady stream of micro-moments of positivity, however fleeting and modest they may be, rather than occasional grandiose gifts of fate. So, we need to grab all these wonderful positive micro-moments in our daily lives, effectively using them to over-ride negative stimuli that we are inevitably exposed to.

A number of studies have shown that increased levels of generosity and helpfulness displayed by us will generate positive emotional feelings in us. Research has also shown that endeavours in creative pursuits,  flexible thought processes, innovative responses to situations and openness to information have all been seen to create similar positive emotional feelings. Research in the area of Positive Psychology by Lisa Aspinwall and Richard Tedeschi, has shown clearly that positive emotional feelings can improve our coping processes and can also increase health-promoting behaviour. The reasons why positive emotions really make a difference is due to improved thinking or cognitive processing by us which allows us to look at and consider lot more options and possibilities in any given situation. This improved cognitive organization and increased cognitive capacity allows us to look at more active approach to problem-solving.

Indeed, many studies suggest that charity or generous giving generates the same type of happy feelings in our brains similar to the enjoyment that we experience when we are eating our favourite food or spending time with our loved ones. These findings help to explain why behaving with compassion and generosity gives us a pleasurable, uplifting feeling, known as the “helper’s high.”

Besides cognitive reappraisal, research also suggests certain forms of meditation that can change how the brain responds to emotional stimuli. For example, one study found that short-term mindfulness training increased the functional connectivity between the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area involved in emotion regulation, suggesting that even a few weeks of meditation training may build up emotion-regulation abilities.

compassion

Davidson, who has worked extensively with the Tibetan Buddhist leader Dalai Lama, explains that many contemplative traditions speak of loving-kindness as the desire for happiness for others and of compassion as the desire to relieve others’ suffering. Loving-kindness and compassion are central to the Dalai Lama’s philosophy and mission.

Clinical psychologist Lisa Firestone, author of ‘Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion’, says that feelings of caring or love for other people generates happiness.  While all of us do desire to be loved, what actually feels really good is the feeling of loving. This feeling of loving is generated in us when we do kind, compassionate things for other people.

Using the compassion meditation adapted from the Buddhist practice of loving-kindness meditation, Clinical Psychologist Helen Weng conducted an experiment at ‘Centre for Investigating Healthy Minds’.  The participants in the experiment were gently instructed to extend feelings of compassion toward different people, including themselves, a loved one, a casual acquaintance, and also someone with whom they had difficult relationship.

The mental training in compassion that the participants had undergone earlier, resulted in observable altruistic changes in them towards people who needed help which were reflected in changes to their brain activity. Specifically, when compared with their brain activity before the training, the participants showed increased activity in neural networks involved in understanding the suffering of others and regulating emotions.

Generally, it is recognised that heightened sensitivity to suffering makes us avoid such situations because it makes us uncomfortable. However, the compassion training seemed to strengthen the brain’s ability to sense the suffering of others without feeling overwhelmed by it. Instead, the compassion training oriented them to look at suffering not as a threat to their own well-being but as an opportunity to reap the psychic reward of connecting with other people and making them feel better.

We also need to recognise the critical role played by social relationships in improving our overall health and happiness.

The team consisting of Gre Cucci A, Fredrickson JR and Job R, in their editorial on ‘Advances in Emotion Regulation’ observe that when it comes to interpersonal relationships, emotions are the gift that nature gave us to help us connect meaningfully with others. They say “Emotions do not come from out of nowhere. Rather, they are constantly generated, usually by stimuli in our interpersonal world. They bond us to others, guide us in navigating our social interactions, and help us care for each other. We love our partner, we get angry with a friend, we feel sad for the loss of a parent, and so on”. Paraphrasing Shakespeare they say ‘Our relationships are such stuff as emotions are made of’”.

Whether we like it or not, our lives are inextricably linked to the life of others. There is no such thing as leading an independent, individual life. From the day we are born we are dependent on our parents. We clearly cannot walk out and run our lives, go to school and get to the university without help. We live in a society where there is so much inter-dependence and inter-connection.

It is amazing that the 17thcentury philosopher Spinoza clearly identified, as a source of happiness and more importantly as a source of moral systems, the fact that you cannot be happy by yourself if you do not contribute to the happiness of others.

It should therefore come as no surprise that how we lead our lives, and how the others that surround us manage their lives, can influence many diseases of the brain, all the way from stroke to Alzheimer’s disease.

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Some references:

https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/how-do-thoughts-and-emotions-affect-health

https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_to_train_the_compassionate_brain

https://medium.com/swlh/your-emotional-brain-a-users-guide-597b8cebde52

https://positivepsychology.com/positive-emotions-list-examples-definition-psychology/

https://www.psychologies.co.uk/self/the-link-between-emotions-and-health.html

 

 

 

 

Critical Role of Parenting

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Whether “nature or nurture” is more important in shaping human behaviour has been a subject of debate and discussion for several decades. Ground-breaking research in related areas, especially in epigenetics in the recent years, clearly indicates that the effects of both heredity and environment are intensely intertwined. Let us explore the underlying scientific information that will help us better understand these influences and allow us to examine what interventions are feasible to improve outcomes.

I seek your indulgence to put with some scientific terminology in the first few paragraphs, which I have tried my best to simplify, based on my own limited understanding. In the later part of this blog, effective parenting, which is the main focus of this blog, will be covered in simple less-scientific language.

Virtually every individual on the planet carries a unique set of variations in their DNA sequence, and this is what decides, among other things, your outward appearance or physical traits, your behavioural tendencies, your susceptibility to certain diseases etc. The scientific term for our complete inherited genetic identity is genotype which in common parlance is referred to as “hereditary traits”.

The term phenotype on the other hand takes into account the environmental influences on your hereditary traits that ultimately determine your current personality. Phenotype includes several attributes like your height and eye colour, your overall health and disease history, your behaviour, your propensity to gain weight easily, your tendency to be anxious, your liking for cats and so on. In a sense, phenotype represents all the ways in which you present yourself to the world, part of which is what you have inherited.

Your genome is your complete set of DNA, including all of your genes and in some sense, it is the sum total of your inherited tendencies. The Greek term epi- denotes “on top of” and thus epigenome sits on top of genome and is the complete description of all the chemical modifications to your DNA and histone proteins.

Epigenetics thus is the study of changes in your personality brought about by modification of gene expressions without altering your basic genetic code itself.

Gene expression is such a fundamental well-studied biological process that research on epigenetics has been sprawling in scope and speed. After all, if you have a gene that has been turned off, you are going to look and behave a lot like someone who doesn’t have that gene at all.

We need to first appreciate the enormous influence exerted by the environment on our lives. Here, the term environment encompasses pretty much everything that happens in every stage of your life like social experiences including parenting styles you experienced in your childhood, good and bad experiences you had in your schools etc., nutrition in your food, your hormones, toxicological exposures you undergo prenatally, postnatally and in your adulthood etc. All these do influence your genetic activity through epigenetic mechanisms.

The implication of epigenetic understanding is that doctors and mental health professionals can treat life threatening and dreadful diseases including schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorders, mental retardation, autism and neurodegenerative disorders in novel ways.

We may eventually find molecular intervention solutions even for social challenges, such as aging, addiction, suicide, child abuse, and child neglect.

Research is allowing scientists to manipulate epigenetic marks in the laboratory set-up, which means that they are able to develop drugs that treat illness simply by either silencing the bad genes or over expressing the good genes. The great hope of ongoing epigenetic research is that with the flick of a biochemical switch, we may be able to instruct the genes that play a role in many diseases — including cancer, schizophrenia, autism, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and many others — to lie dormant without adversely affecting the individual concerned.

There are other learnings as well. Study of epigenetics shows evidence that lifestyle choices like smoking and overeating can change the epigenetic marks atop your DNA in ways that trigger the genes for obesity to express themselves too strongly and the genes for longevity to express themselves too weakly. The obvious consequence of these differing gene expressions is that you tend to become obese and your life span may be shortened if you regularly smoke or overeat.

While I have discussed so far how epigenetics can help fight dreaded diseases, my blog is meant actually to highlight how with better understanding of epigenetics we can create or influence our living environment for better health outcomes.

Technically, child development can be conceptualized as experiences becoming sculpted in our DNA through methylation, which is one of the major epigenetic mechanisms of change. Incidentally, DNA methylation was first confirmed to occur in human cancer as long ago as 1983 and the pervasive effects of methylation are far better understood now. Without explaining the scientific basis for everything, let me present important findings on the critical need for effective parenting.

It is worth quoting American psychologist and behaviourist John Watson, the 17th most cited psychologist of the 20th century, who said: “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select… regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and race of his ancestors.

While this may look like a tall claim, we do have the power to make a huge difference to lives of people with strategic early interventions.

 

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Let us examine how environment and upbringing, especially at an young age can shape or modify naturally inherited tendencies. As an example, think of one strong-willed child in one household who habitually presents a defiant attitude making it very difficult for parents to handle the tantrums. Now think of another strong-willed child in a different family setting expressing this trait very differently by channelling it into an extracurricular activity of his liking. The strong-will makes the child display positive commitment and hard work in order to excel in his chosen field. What therefore becomes important in these kind of situations, is how the personality of the child interacts with his daily experiences. We can hypothesize that the disrespectful behaviour of the strong-willed child could be due to the personality clash with his parents. The difficult situation may be further exasperated by parents not knowing or not equipped to redirect the strong will of their child into more productive pursuits.

 

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While most parenting strategies, literally hundreds of them, are generally effective in theory, the critical difference is the situational context and complexity of relationships that it needs to take into account. You need to appreciate that to make your strategic approaches succeed in managing a defiant child, you may need to make several difficult adjustments in your own lifestyle and may have to tone down your expectations.

Another study looked at so-called ‘warrior genes’ that are generally over represented among violent criminals. Criminal defence attorneys tried to use this as a new defence strategy for violent offenders, claiming that their genes made them do it.
It turns out that the inherited warrior genes by themselves do not engender violent behaviour except in those individuals who grow up in extremely abusive homes. Research indicates that children who are raised by loving parents rarely display any aggressive tendencies even when they grow up.

 

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I cannot emphasize enough that parents exert enormous influence over the healthy development of their children using a variety of strategies like talking and reading to infants, explaining importance of ethical values at various stages, inculcating the need to respect other’s points of view, accepting failures as experiences etc. Many of these important conversations happen around the dinner table. Parents, however, are not the only influencers, especially after children start going to school. There is no doubt that parents have specific responsibility to give their children a good start, but it is equally important for parents to recognize that kids come into the world with their own temperaments.

 

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Parents need to accept the additional responsibility to provide them the right interface and exposure to the outside world that eventually prepares them to become completely independent. The process of child development includes everything from sensory awareness and fine motor skills to language and socialization ability.

Decades of research in developmental psychology, paediatrics and neuroscience converge on the fact that the first five years are especially critical to a child’s outcome. As a child matures, he or she will go through phases where he will explore his environment, learn verbal and reasoning skills, socialize with others, assert his independence from his family, etc.

There is a great deal of research done on the social development of children. John Bowlby, the well-known British Psychologist, the 49th most cited psychologist of the 20th century, proposed one of the earliest theories of social development. Bowlby believed that early relationships with caregivers play a major role in child development and continue to influence social relationships throughout the life.

Bowlby believed that there are four distinguishing characteristics of attachment:

1. Proximity Maintenance – The desire to be near the people we are attached to.
2. Safe Haven – Returning to the attachment figure for comfort and safety in the face of a fear or threat.
3. Secure Base – The attachment figure acts as a base of security from which the child can explore the surrounding environment.
4. Separation Distress – Anxiety that occurs in the absence of the attachment figure.

Bowlby also made three key propositions about attachment theory.

First, he suggested that when children are raised with confidence that their primary caregiver will be available to them whenever they want, they are less likely to experience fear as adults than those who do not receive such attention.

Secondly, he believed that this confidence is forged during a critical period of development viz. during the years of infancy, childhood, and adolescence. The expectations that are formed during this critical period tend to remain relatively unchanged for the rest of the person’s life.

Finally, he suggested that these expectations that are formed are directly tied to their experiences. In other words, children develop expectations that their caregivers will be responsive to their needs because, in their experience, their caregivers have been responsive in the past.

Many of these theories are confirmed by more recent researches. One study published in Development and Psychopathology, claims that the amount of comforting and close contact between human care givers and their babies can influence the amount of beneficial DNA methylation. This adjustment to the children’s DNA may even persist for several years.

 

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In this research conducted at the University of British Columbia and BC Children’s Hospital, the study involved 94 healthy children and their parents. The parents were asked to keep a record of their infant’s behaviour – including fussing, crying, sleeping or feeding – as well as how long their caregiving involved bodily contact. The research was followed up till the babies grew to four and half years when the scientists collected their DNA by swabbing the insides of their cheeks. The results again confirmed that the children who were more distressed as infants and also did not receive as much physical contact, showed a molecular profile in their cells that indicated underdevelopment for their age compared to others.

Although it may sound like someone could be “epigenetically doomed” to bad health if their parents didn’t cuddle them enough, it is gratifying to know that other studies suggest that the epigenetic marks might be reversible with proper interventions.

If research on epigenetics that can control diseases is in its infancy, research on behavioural epigenetics is in embryo stage. Hopefully, not in the distant future, we may be able to discover epigenetic mechanisms that can moderate extreme behaviours, especially like the ones displayed by fundamentalists and extremists. We, however, need to realize the enormous promise of epigenetics will also take an enormous amount of work and lots and lots of time.
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https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/parenting

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2689140/Ugo Uche
https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/promoting-empathy-your-teen/201610/are-personality-traits-hereditary

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-human-beast/201509/what-behaviors-do-we-inherit-genes

https://psychologenie.com/nature-vs-nurture-what-affects-your-behavior

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/abcs-child-psychiatry/201710/nature-versus-nurture-where-we-are-in-2017

The End of Nature Versus Nurture

https://www.thoughtco.com/nature-vs-nurture-1420577

https://www.verywellmind.com/child-development-theories-2795068

https://www.verywellmind.com/attachment-styles-2795344

Click to access Epigenetics,%20DNA%20How%20You%20Can%20Change%20Your%20Genes,%20Destiny%20–%20Printout%20–%20TIME.pdf

Cuddling Can Leave Positive Epigenetic Traces on Your Baby’s DNA

https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/61/8/588/336969

Importance of Mindfulness

“WE DON’T SEE THINGS AS THEY ARE,
WE SEE THEM AS WE ARE.”
-ANAIS NIN

We need to appreciate that what we think we are seeing around us, is actually made up by our minds and is not necessarily what is actually out there. When we look at an object, our brain constructs a picture of what’s out there based on what it thinks is really important for us.

Most people assume that what we see is pretty much what our eyes see and report to our brain. In reality, our brains add very substantially to the report they get from our eyes, so that, a lot of what we see is actually “made up” by the brain. Perhaps even more interestingly, the eye actually throws away much of the information it gets, leaving it to the rest of the brain to fill in additional information in its own ways.

A characteristic pattern of connections among neurons in the eyes, termed as “lateral inhibition network”, is responsible for throwing away information. Lateral inhibition helps to explain a number of “optical illusions” and, more importantly, provides an excellent example of how the brain is organized to actively “make sense” of the information it gets, rather than to simply absorb and respond to it.

Latent Inhibition is the subconscious capacity of the brain to ignore stimuli that experience has shown to be irrelevant to our needs. This is critical, as scientists estimate that we are exposed to several million pieces of information at any one time, but our brains can deal at a time with only about forty. On the flip side, latent Inhibition makes us miss out many important things that happen around us.

Timothy Verstynen of Carnegie Mellon University says that as much as 90 percent of our perception is actually mental fabrication. According to him, as we start walking about in the world, seeing and touching objects and hearing various sounds, our brain starts learning from these experiences and builds models which can help us to effectively interact with people and efficiently navigate the environment.

While these models do make it easier for us to quickly make sense of our surroundings, they also make us miss out on some important things happening around us and that is where mindfulness practice can come to our aid.

There are, of course, more powerful reasons for practicing mindfulness which has increasing acceptance around the world.

We now know that reality exists independent of human minds, but our understanding of that reality depends on the beliefs that we hold at any given time. Michael Shermer called this process as ‘Belief-Dependent Realism’. It may sound strange if I claim, that the brain is not that much interested in truth or reality. The brain is fundamentally focused on self-preservation and is constantly trying to create its own sense of reality through beliefs.

Shankar Vedantam, author of ‘Hidden Brain’, says that facts do not matter as much as people generally believe. Telling people facts that go against their strongly held beliefs can in-fact be counter-productive. It makes them dig-in their heels even deeper.

Thanks to this belief-driven human society the world is witnessing conflicts at many levels – nations engaged in wars, couples fighting over who does more chores, women demanding equal opportunities with men etc. While these conflicts occur in part because we think that we are only right and that the other nation, person or people are wrong. But the truth is that both the parties suffer from biased perceptions engendered by their own belief systems. Mindfulness practice can bring down the level of this dissonance and bring more harmony. Next time your spouse says something that you do not agree, try to understand that he or she is not necessarily wrong but has a different perspective due to different belief system conditioning.

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Racial prejudices that plague almost all societies today are due to our unconscious biases and unfortunately these biases lead to discriminatory evaluation of persons or groups based on stereotypes.

Kabat-Zinn, recognised as father of mindfulness, says “Just as our brains fill in the details of an image our eyes recorded with partial information, so too our brains fill in details about people we don’t know that intimately. In filling in the unknown details about people, our unconscious mind employs parameters such as voice, looks, dress, body language, and at times wishful thinking. More unfortunately, our prior beliefs based on ethnic stereotypes also play a significant part in this reconstruction of the individual. And we normally accept these impressions as real without realizing the extent to which they are the guesses of our unconscious mind. We are also not aware of factors our unconscious mind is employing to make those guesses or impressions”.

Even people who value equality and diversity tend to exhibit negative reactions to people of different races. These subtle biased responses are called implicit associations and they occur automatically, outside of our conscious awareness.

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The implicit bias is so deep in the subconscious that it is next to impossible to become aware of its existence. Read this interesting story.

A 34-year old white woman from Washington who had a demonstrated passion for civil rights was also a senior activist in national gay rights organization fighting against bias and discrimination on many fronts. She agreed to take the psychological bias test called Implicit Association Test (IAT) developed by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald. When the result appeared on the screen, the activist could not believe what she was seeing. The test found that she had a clear bias for whites over blacks.

“It surprises me that I have any preferences at all,” she said. “By the work I do, by my education, my background, I’m progressive, and I think I have no bias. Being a minority myself, I don’t feel I should or would have biases.”

 

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Fortunately, recent research has demonstrated that mindfulness meditation reduces implicit race and age bias by weakening the associations of the target group with negative constructs. Social psychology researchers Adam Leuke and Bryan Gibson from the University of Central Michigan conducted experiments to prove that just ten minutes of mindful meditation significantly lowered racially biased behaviour.

All of us have a natural tendency to assume that people’s actions and accomplishments reflect their innate traits and latent abilities. We do not for a moment think that some external factors might have been at work influencing the outcomes. So, if a student doesn’t pass his test in mathematics, we conclude that he is either not good in mathematics or perhaps lazy to apply his mind. We ignore the possibility that he could have missed a good night’s sleep before the test.

This tendency known as the correspondence bias refers to the idea that people sometimes give undue weight to dispositional rather than situational factors when explaining behaviours and attitudes.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, many white Americans assumed that the residents who stayed were stubborn, rather than simply too poor to evacuate. The fact was, many people lacked the resources to escape. Having no money, no mode of transportation and no friends or family in safe places, they had no choice but to weather the storm literally.

Research also suggests that this bias plays a role in the courtroom, where juries often dismiss mitigating circumstances when assigning punishment, especially when the punishment is for people of colour.

Extended period of mindfulness practice builds more empathy towards others and helps us to consider various possibilities and that someone may be acting in a certain way due to pressures they are facing or situations they find themselves in.

There is enough research to show that we pay more attention to and react more strongly to negative events than positive events in our lives—a phenomenon called the negativity bias. This bias in entrenched in us due to our early evolutionary history, where our survival heavily depended on being ever vigilant.

Whether it is a disabled person walking into the workplace or an African American student entering a predominantly white university – a history of experiences of rejection based on one’s status can create doubts about acceptance in these social institutions. Even after removal or discontinuation of such structural barriers, research suggests that some members of historically excluded or marginalised groups continue to experience such doubts in social institutions.

But mindfulness can help reduce our negativity bias and consequently can help us to be less wary of negative social encounters. Support for this claim comes from several experiments looking at how mindfulness impacts our emotional reactivity to negative stimuli.

Another study led by Andrew Hafenbrack of INSEAD examined the impact of mindfulness meditation on the “sunk cost” bias which is our tendency to stick to something like an investment or a relationship even when it is clearly not serving us well any more. We overvalue our past investment of time, effort or money, in other words our “sunk costs”, and are therefore unwilling to cut our losses and move on even when logic clearly dictates such action.

Hafenbrack and his team reasoned that our wandering minds lead us to dwell too much on the past and the future, thus providing fuel for the sunk cost bias. By focusing more on the present, they hypothesized, we allow the bias much less of a foothold.

The team then conducted a series of experiments in which some groups were encouraged to let their minds wander before being asked to make a series of decisions that were designed to evoke the sunk cost bias. Other groups were guided through a 15-minute mindfulness meditation session prior to being presented with the same decisions. The mindful group was significantly less influenced by the sunk cost bias.

Over the years we have gathered overwhelming evidence that mindfulness practice can substantially increase our awareness levels of what is going on in our minds, thus helping to reduce the automatic or habitual responses that is characteristic of all cognitive biases.

Let us now discuss what we mean by mindfulness.

Mindfulness-Quote.jpgKabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as intentional, non-judgmental awareness of moment-to-moment experience.

Despite the fact that mindfulness has been practised for thousands of years in the East, it was Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn who first recognised its potential for therapy in modern day clinical settings. He established that mindfulness-based interventions could effectively reduce negative factors such as psychological distress in those living with chronic back pain.

Thus, acceptance of things as they come, without evaluating or attempting to change them, is a skill developed through mindfulness exercises in and out of session.

Another central topic of mindfulness is paying attention to body and breathing, from a certain “distance”. This allows people to adopt a detached attitude towards the objects and the contents of their mind – like emotions and thoughts. Practitioners over a period of time develop a sense of equanimity without getting absorbed into their own mental processes. They realize that the mental phenomena observed like thoughts, emotions and feeling are distinct and are outside of the mind that is actually observing them.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a form of mindfulness based therapy which was started in 1980 theorizing that greater well-being can be attained by overcoming negative thoughts and feelings. We know that acceptance of things as they come, without evaluating or attempting to change them, is a skill developed through mindfulness exercises. ACT does not attempt to directly change or stop unwanted thoughts or feelings but instead encourages people to develop a new and compassionate relationship with those experiences. This shift can free people from difficulties attempting to control their experiences and helps them become more open to actions consistent with their own values.

ACT patients learn to stop their attempts to avoid, deny or struggle with their inner emotions. Instead, they start accepting that these deeper feelings are appropriate responses to certain situations and therefore recognise that these feelings should not prevent them from living their normal peaceful lives.

As mindfulness practice increases an individual’s ability to detach from thoughts, painful feelings related to the past lose their intensity and gradually even disappear. Acceptance, in a sense, builds the capability to allow internal and external experiences to naturally occur and reduces the urge to fight or avoid these experiences.

The science of mindfulness is still developing, but to date over 4,500 scientific studies support the practice of mindfulness. These studies show that the practice makes us less anxious, less depressed, less stressed and less judgmental. The practice also makes us more focused, more resilient, more innovative and more compassionate.

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It should therefore come as no surprise that very many organizations around the world have embraced mindfulness with very successful outcomes. Employees of healthcare insurance giant Aetna decreased their stress levels by one third after doing just one hour of yoga every week, which reduced the company’s healthcare costs by an average of $2,000 per employee. Similarly, fifteen billion dollar consumer giant General Mills instituted a seven-week employee meditation program resulting in 83 percent of participating employees reporting 60 percent increase in daily productivity once they had time to optimise their work.

The Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School had more than 22,000 people complete the school’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program (MSBR) and had more than 6,000 medical doctors and healthcare professionals refer their patients to the program as of 2017. Participants reported a 38 percent reduction in medical symptoms, a 43 percent reduction in psychological and emotional distress and a 26 percent reduction in perceived stress.

One country which strongly believes in mindfulness is UK. Its parliamentary group called Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG) published a report called “Mindful Nation UK” in October 2015.

The report said

“We have been impressed by the quality and range of evidence for the benefits of mindfulness and believe it has the potential to help many people to better health and flourishing. On a number of issues ranging from improving mental health and boosting productivity and creativity in the economy through to helping people with long-term conditions such as diabetes and obesity, mindfulness appears to have an impact. This is a reason for government to take notice and we urge serious consideration of our report”.

Their first recommendation was

“MBCT (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy) should be commissioned in the NHS in line with NICE guidelines so that it is available to the 580,000 adults each year who will be at risk of recurrent depression. As a first step, MBCT should be available to 15% of this group by 2020, a total of 87,000 each year. This should be conditional on standard outcome monitoring of the progress of those receiving help”.

The report talking about mindful parenting has this to say.

“There is an emerging body of evidence that suggests that extending the influence of mindfulness into families can support both parents and children. Mindful parenting programmes aimed at parents in socio-economically disadvantaged families, who are at greater risk of stress, can reduce parents’ destructive behaviour, increase their ability to disengage from emotionally charged stimuli, reduce parents’ stress and enhance their emotional availability and improve children’s behaviour”.

In conclusion, the important thing we learn from mindfulness is “the deep humility of not knowing”. As we practice mindfulness, we discover successively deeper and deeper layers of our biases. Recognising these patterns arising in our minds, we can begin to study their origins and observe their operation in real time. We can then gradually relate these feelings to past experiences and conditioning that is stored in our memories.

Once you become more aware of a particular bias and its origins, it holds less sway over your actions. Again, once you become aware of the tendency to lean in one direction or another, you can consciously choose a new response. Each time you recognise and become cognizant of a previously unconscious bias, your world expands.

While by definition, we can’t see our own blind spots, over time, we start realizing how little we actually know about our perceptions. With each new awareness or shift in perspective, our humility deepens. It dawns on us that there are too many things that we do not understand and there is really no need to reach some ideal state of perfection. Thus we learn to rest in the deep humility of not knowing. This kind of acceptance and openness is the most fertile ground for learning and human development.

References:

http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2014/12/mindfulness-meditation-and-implicit-bias/

https://www.psypost.org/2016/04/study-shows-brief-mindful-meditation-reduces-racial-bias-42403

https://www.pharmaceutical-journal.com/opinion/blogs/mindfulness-a-solution-to-unconscious-bias-in-healthcare/20204095.blog?firstPass=false

https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/three_ways_mindfulness_can_make_you_less_biased

http://vitals.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/08/30/13551209-storm-psychology-why-do-some-people-stay-behind?lite

Click to access Sensitivity%20to%20Status-Based%20Rejection%20(2002).pdf

15 Minutes to a Less Biased Mind

View at Medium.com

https://www.breathworks-mindfulness.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=132&Itemid=680

https://www.catalyst.org/blog/catalyzing/mindfulness-being-now-without-bias-blame-or-shame

https://www.mdpi.com/2076-3417/7/4/349/htm

Click to access Mindfulness-APPG-Report_Mindful-Nation-UK_Oct2015.pdf

Mindfulness and Transforming Bias

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/schools-use-mindfulness-to-reform-student-behavior_us_58ae03e6e4b01f4ab51c75d5

https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/acceptance-commitment-therapy

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A27067-2005Jan21.html?noredirect=on

https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/education.html

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-believing-brain/

We are mostly driven by our subconscious mind

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