Getting a Goodnight’s Sleep😴

Picture credits: University of Michigan School of Public Health

There are plenty of quotes I am pretty sure you have heard many times: ‘I will sleep when I am dead’, ‘There will be plenty of time to sleep when I am dead’. I am not sure who said all this but what I am sure of is that they were totally wrong and they are very bad advices to follow because by not sleeping enough we will definitely die a lot earlier.

We look at sleep not as a necessity but as a luxury and whenever we feel overwhelmed or overburdened due to some work load, number one thing we sacrifice is SLEEP. It is true that sometimes we are bounded by extraordinary circumstances like something unexpectedly has come up at the eleventh hour and demands our attention or couples having a newborn. I am not talking about those circumstances. But in general when things are relatively normal people don’t prioritise their sleep. Maybe it’s because people don’t understand well enough the significance of sleep.

Before I begin with how to get a goodnight sleep I think it is equally important to have a look at the consequences of getting an insufficient sleep.

Consequences of Getting Insufficient Sleep

  1. Mental- more prone to depression and anxiety
  2. Respiratory- more likely to catch a cold
  3. Cardiovascular- boost in blood pressure and higher likelihood of a heart attack
  4. Metabolic-propensity for packing on pounds, increases risk of diabetes

Note: The above information has been taken from  Harvard Health and researchers have come across many health hazards associated with insufficient sleep. 

Now coming on how to get a goodnight sleep so that we feel more energetic, concentrated and productive throughout the day. 

7 Tips for a Goodnight’s Sleep

1. Consistency: Number one reason why I never and I literally mean never have trouble with my sleep is because I have a consistency. No matter it’s Monday or Friday or Sunday I sleep at the same time and wake up at the same time. That kind of consistency doesn’t allow my circadian rhythm or sleep-wake cycle to get disrupted.

2. Sleeping for the adequate number of hours: While consistency is important it is not enough because it doesn’t matter if we are sleeping and waking up at the same time if we are not sleeping for the adequate number of hours. On an average, an adult human body needs at least 7 hours of sleep but for some people it can be +, – 1. I have been sleeping for 7 hours every day for the past two years but recently I have come to realise that I function relatively better if I am sleeping for 8 hours. So do your little experiments and find out if you need 7 hours or 8 hours or 9 hours of sleep. The idea is not to under sleep or over sleep but to sleep for the adequate number of hours that your body needs.

3. Try to avoid caffeine and alcohol later in the day: Alcohol comes under the category of drugs that we call ‘sedatives’ and by the very word sedative we think it will induce sleep. However, that’s not true. Alcohol consumption later in the day affects our REM or Rapid Eye Movement sleep and REM sleep is quite significant when it comes to our emotional and mental health. Caffeine is a stimulant and coffee which contains caffeine is good when we are drinking it during the day but not so good when we are drinking in the afternoon or at night. It takes about 4-6 hours for caffeine to get metabolised in our body which means if we drink coffee at 4 pm then only half of caffeine has been processed through by 10 pm. Half is still there. And that obviously affects our sleep significantly. There are some people who face no problem when they drink coffee later in the day but for majority of the population that’s not the case. So watch out for your body is trying to tell you.

4. Comfortable environment: Our environment matters a lot when it comes to sleep. Make sure your bedroom is comfortable enough. Ideally it should be quite, dark and cool. Temperature of the room shouldn’t be too cold or too hot.

5. Unwind or in simple terms have a sleep ritual: Having a sleep ritual is very important in this world full of distractions. It helps give signals to our brain that our bed time is near and it’s time to prepare for bed. Some people prefer keeping away their phones an hour or two before bed. Some prefer reading or taking a hot bath. Whatever works out for you.

6. Don’t exercise too late: Exercise is very important but exercising too late during the day can be stimulating. Instead  go for a walk or maybe do some light stretching but intensive workouts should be avoided because it will affect your sleep quality.

7. Beds are for sleep not work: Beds should be reserved for sleep because when we do our daily activities in our bed we kind of confuse our brain. It gets confused whether bed is for sleeping or its for work. Make sure you work space is different from your sleeping space. Bed should be a stimulus for sleeping.

 

Disclaimer: This blog is about some general tips for sleep that are science based. If you or your loved ones are having some sleep problems which can’t be fixed by these tips then you should immediately talk to your doctor.

The blog is based on a video I made ‘7 Tips for a Goodnight Sleep- Backed by Science’. Don’t forget to check that out. It would mean a lot if you can like the video and subscribe to the channel ‘A Psyched Mind’. Your support will help ensure that science based information reaches more and more people.

A Psyched Mind

Enjoy your Own Company

Picture credits: medium.com

 

Before I begin, I want to warn you that this blog post is not a motivational one. There are tens of thousands of blogs on the internet to motivate you. I don’t want to give you something that is already available.

Humans are social animals and they crave for social interactions. There is nothing wrong with meeting people because research in psychology supports the importance of relationships in mental well-being. While it’s good to follow what scientific literature says, sometimes we are left alone with our own devices. Learning how to enjoy one’s own company is one of the most daunting tasks one can ever undertake. We want to avoid it as much as possible. However, things can be a bit different for the introverts because after a point of time they simply want to be left alone.

Enjoy your Own Company

We can cultivate our ability to enjoy our own company even if it for the occasions totally uncalled for. All we need is a diary, a pen and an openness to new experiences.

1. A Diary and a Pen- Execution is prioritised over ideas and it makes sense because without implementation ideas are next to nothing. But ideas matter too because without ideas there is nothing to put into action. A single idea has tremendous power to change the course of basic narratives we are accustomed with. And that single idea can take birth when in one’s own company. In such circumstances, a diary and a pen can serve as two best friends. When in solitude, it is likely that we will be bombarded with many thoughts. Thoughts. Thoughts. And some more thoughts. Letting those thoughts simply pass by is not a wise decision (at least that’s what I think). Grab a diary or a piece of paper and a pen and write them down. Pay attention to your thoughts. Read them over and over again. Try to make sense of them. You will find how much you can offer to this world. With time, you will start craving for your company more and more because in the midst of all the chaos you are prioritising yourself, you are prioritising your ideas and that’s a bold move. All you need is a diary and a pen.

(*Thinking can be one of the flow activities or put simply an optimal experience. Great thinkers in the past used to love ‘thinking’ as it gave them a lot of joy and happiness. Democritus, a Greek philosopher, was one of them. If interested in the concept of optimal experiences and how they can be a source of happiness, I’d recommend Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi*).

2. Openness to new experiences- Sometimes a simple effort to be more open to new experiences in life can initiate enjoying one’s own company. We think we can only see the world in the company of other people. While it is true in many ways, there are moments in life when we are left alone with our own devices (as mentioned before). Should we stop exploring the world ? No. We can take a small step to go against our thoughts that are trying to compel us to stay inside. We can take a small step to become more open to new experiences even if those experiences aren’t shared with anyone but us. Pretty soon you will start seeing a cyclical pattern.

 

(*This article is based on author’s personal experiences and generalisability of ways to enjoy one’s own company isn’t guaranteed. There are many people living in extraordinary circumstances and the content might not be practical. Moreover, everyone is different in their own ways and prefer living their lives as they please. So pick and choose what seems to work for you)*.

Under the Microscope: People with a Psychology degree- What I have found and why I feel enraged?

Picture credits: PNGWing

I have an under-graduate degree in economics. Quite honestly, I don’t remember what I studied and don’t like economics anymore. There are many reasons and I don’t want to bore you right away. So, maybe some other time. Back to where I was, I don’t like economics anymore. Right now I call myself a ‘psychology student’ because I am a psychology student. Over the past 4 years I have been around people who either have a psych background or are striving for what I am striving for. I have made certain observations about these people and they make me feel enraged. I know you’re going to stick it to my face that I have anger issues and must start meditating or even join an anger management class. Trust me, I am not angry in a bad way. I feel enraged but laugh at the same time because I find it funny.

I believe you can have any degree in the world and yet your life will remain the same (obviously, not true for everyone). I am specifically talking about people with degrees in medical science, psychology, physics, chemistry, etc. People with the above mentioned backgrounds should do everything in their power to stop being illogical and unscientific. When I encounter illogical and unscientific ideas I feel sad and my sadness elevates when those ideas come from people who claim themselves to be ‘potential psychologists’ or ‘medical doctors’. Based on what I have been seeing over the past few years, my observations are as follows:

Science is not everyone’s cup of tea

I could not stress upon it enough. Ever since I have started making sense of the things around me I have found that majority of the people with a medical degree, engineering degree, physics and chemistry degree and psychology degree are merely degree holders. Their education in these subjects did not change them at all. Such people call themselves medical doctors, psychologists, physicists, etc. and still their mind has only expanded professionally and not personally. They don’t know how to challenge the narratives they have been exposed with since childhood. Would you believe me if I told you that I have met psychology students who believe exorcism can cure schizophrenia? Would you believe me if I told you that I know people with a modern medicine degree who think homeopathy is not a pseudo-science? Would you also believe me if I told you that I know a lot of people who don’t believe in evolution?

Trust me, science is not everyone’s cup of tea.

Psychology is ‘interesting’ to everyone. Yet not everyone can grasp it intellectually

When I opted psychology for my graduate studies and told people about it (when they asked me) I believe 9 out of 10 people said they like psychology as it’s very ‘interesting’. I am not trying to insult anyone but those people had no idea what psychology as a subject actually means. It’s true that psychology is quite interesting but grasping it intellectually is not an easy job. Pick an academic paper in psychology and start reading it. I am sure you will stop finding it interesting. The subject of psychology is intellectually challenging and if you don’t agree with me then you’re studying the ‘real’ psychology.

You can study ‘abnormal psychology’ and then go around talking superstitious stuff

I remember I was in a psychopathology/abnormal psychology class and the topic of discussion was schizophrenia. One thing led to another and very soon my classmates started talking about their long held superstitious beliefs without even considering for a minute if that was making any sense. Things started becoming more interesting when paranoid schizophrenia was being explained using superstitions and utter nonsense. I am sorry to say this but they didn’t deserve to sit in an abnormal psychology class. Such people don’t deserve to pick up psychology subject at all.

Psychology isn’t limited to helping people get back on track in their lives

When my friends used to ask me what I am doing, I used to say that I am studying psychology and will pursue my career in this field. Immediately many of them used to pose another question and ask me, “Are you going to be a doctor of mad people?” I wanted to explain things to them and to a certain level I did but after some time I stopped. Because nothing could change their fixed ideas. So, I want to make things clear: psychology is much more than clinical psychology. Psychology is like an ocean and there are many sub-fields. It’s embodied in economics, anthropology, political science, business and many more. I would encourage people to do some research first and then ask such questions.

Psychology isn’t telepathy

A lot of people ask psychology students “Tell me what I am thinking right now?” I mean seriously? Psychology students/professionals of the field are not telepaths. If you don’t know your own self in the first place how can you expect another person to do it for you? Psychology is indeed about behaviour and mental processes. The focus group of the subject is none other than humans. But the training is not given to become mind readers. Training is given to study behaviours and mental processes scientifically and not randomly.

Against Empathy. Really?

Picture credits: Coonoor.medium.com

Imagine I am walking down a road to buy some groceries. On the sidewalk I see a homeless man who is begging for money. Some people give him the money while others pass by as if he doesn’t exist. I, on the other hand, trying my best to use my psychology degree to understand my own emotions while looking at a homeless man. Humans feel diverse emotions in their everyday lives. We feel anger, disgust, love, sadness, empathy, jealousy, envy, compassion, etc. We cannot eliminate these emotions altogether. But when they start getting out of our control (especially negative emotions) we should pause for a moment, accept what we are feeling and deal with them with utmost calmness and patience. 

Empathy is one of the emotions that is in spotlight because recent data in experimental psychology clearly says that it is good for our overall well-being. We should be kind and empathetic towards people and if we believe it is hard we can always become one through continuous practice. Empathy is about putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. It’s about feeling what they are feeling. Nothing wrong with that, eh? Well, looks like someone thinks a bit differently. Paul Bloom, a professor of Psychology at Yale University has written a book called “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion”. You can say that this post is inspired by his argumentin the book. Professor Bloom argues that empathy is a poor moral guide. It exhausts and drains us completely. Going back to the scenario I mentioned at the beginning of this post, if I am going to be empathetic towards the homeless man then I will be putting myself in his situation. I’ll be feeling what he is feeling in that moment. I cannot speak for everyone but I am pretty sure I’ll be having a hard time to control myself because seeing someone in a situation where they are unable to meet their basic requirements is not easy. I’ll be drained emotionally, at least for some time. 

What should I do then? Should I just shut off my moral engine and become a misanthrope? No. I am not supposed to perceive the world as ‘me’ v/s ‘them’. Rather, what professor Bloom says is we should practice another emotion and that’s compassion. Compassion is about caring about other people but not necessarily feeling their suffering. So, in the case of an imagined homeless man compassion will allow me to care about him but not feel his suffering to an extent that I myself start suffering. There is a fine line between empathy and compassion but rather an important one. Clinical studies have also been done on empathy and compassion and their findings are quite interesting. Tania Singer, a social neuroscientist at the Max Planck Society in Germany is very well known in the study of empathy and compassion. She and her colleagues conducted a study where some participants were asked to practice empathy meditation and others compassion meditation. Their brain activities were recorded under a fMRI scanner. It was found that empathy was unpleasant and exhausting. On the other hand, compassion was exhilarating and more positive. 

In his book professor Bloom talked about two kinds of empathy: cognitive and emotional. Cognitive empathy is a kind of empathy that allows us to process other people’s motivations, plans, etc. In other words, we are able to understand the mental state of others. So, if one of my good friends lost her job and I am able to understand why she is feeling sad or disappointed then I am probably practising cognitive empathy. However, in case of emotional empathy I will start putting myself in her shoes and start experiencing every little emotion she is feeling. This will not only be debilitating for me but I will also fail to help her out of the situation because I, too, am messed up. Empathy is said to be biased: we tend to be more empathetic towards people who are our loved ones than anonymous strangers. This eventually narrows down the scope of empathy. As Mother Teresa rightly put it, “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” 

A relationship between a client and therapist might make the argument more concrete. If a therapist during a counselling session practices empathy then he or she will be very exhausted. It is because by being empathetic the therapist is feeling everything his or her client is feeling: all the emotions. This is not good as it will cloud therapist’s ability to act rationally and professionally. The whole rationale behind the psychotherapy will remain unfulfilled. 

Before becoming the president of The United States of America, Barack Obama gave a speech and an excerpt of his speech is:

to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us—the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. . . . When you think like this—when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers—it becomes harder not to act, harder not to help.

Mr Obama was right when he appealed to everyone to be empathetic towards people who are distant strangers. Empathy does play a crucial role: when we are empathetic we tend to help people more. I highly doubt if that is a bad thing. But if that same empathy starts to back fire we need to keep aside our empathy and be more compassionate. 

Can we use ‘disgust’ to combat COVID-19?

Picture credits: The Brink

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV-2) which causes COVID-19 has completely changed the course of our lives. We are already experiencing the social and economic implications. What’s notable is that such implications are going to unfold more in the coming years. Evolutionary scientists are paying attention to many evolutionary insights that can help us better understand the pandemic and how it can be tackled. One such evolutionary insight is the use of ‘disgust’ emotion. 

Surprised? Confused? I mean what could possibly a single emotion called disgust help us craft solutions to the problems related to the pandemic. I believe it can. Evolutionary psychologists believe it can.

In recent years a great deal of psychological research has been conducted to study the emotion called disgust. Psychologists have found that disgust influences our social, political and moral judgements. People who are easily disgusted have different opinions in social, political and moral domains than people who are not so easily disgusted in their everyday lives. Evolutionary scientists propose that disgust is a ‘social protective system’ and tells a lot about how it continued to be a part of our evolutionary past. Disgust is a part of:

  1. Food psychology
  2. Sexual psychology 
  3. Physical contact psychology

When it comes to food psychology, the emotion protects us from ingesting food items that are rotten and full of toxins & pathogens. It had been helping our ancestors and it is helping us as well. When it comes to sexual psychology, disgust helps us to not get involved sexually with people (e.g. family members). Finally being a part of physical contact psychology, disgust makes sure we do not get in physical contact with surfaces displaying unknown bodily fluids, microbial infestation and people having some sort of visible infection.

When disgusting things are visible to the naked eye it is quite easy to stay away from them. For an example, if some food item is rotten and yet it is resting in our refrigerator we will immediately get rid of it because of the bad appearance and foul smell. However, that is not the case during the pandemic. A virus is not visible to a naked eye. And approximately 80% of the population stay asymptomatic while transmitting the virus at the same time. So when our closed relatives, friends and colleagues look perfectly well (even though they might be infected) we believe they are all well because a disgusting pathogen like SARS-CoV-2 is beyond our visibility. 

Psychologists believe we can use disgust to tackle the situation. But how? By showing images of people who are sick due to COVID-19 or images of the pathogen sitting on surfaces. This might trigger our ancient disgust system and people might start practicing physical distancing and and they might start wearing masks. It may sound unethical because it can be traumatic for some people. So it should be done with proper care. 

(This blog is inspired by one of the arguments presented in a paper titled “The pandemic exposes human nature: 10 evolutionary insights”).

Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

Picture credits: studygrowknowblog.com

Conspiracy theories are not a modern invention. They have been a part of human civilization for a very long time. There are conspiracy theories that revolve around 9/11, moon landing, Adolf Hitler, Nazism, etc. Some conspiracy theories assert that Hitler did not commit suicide but escaped and lived in secrecy until his death (god knows what year). Even Antisemitism is believed to be based upon a conspiracy theory: a cabal of financiers (Jews) were secretly plotting to dominate the whole world and destroy the Aryan race. It was only a matter of time that Hitler found out about it and took the necessary steps.

When the whole world is suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic conspiracy theories don’t seem to go anywhere. The most popular conspiracy theory during the pandemic is related to Bill Gates who is a Microsoft co-founder and a philanthropist. He had been accused of unleashing the virus so that he could make money while making a vaccine for it and then implant microchips into people to keep constant surveillance. The believers believed because how come he knew about a virus and not a war killing millions of people in the year 2015- five years prior to the pandemic.

Conspiracy theories might seem interesting but why such theories float among us all is a much more interesting question. Before jumping on to why we are so susceptible to misinformation it is critical to understand that there is a distinction between fiction and lies. Lies and fiction both play a role in conspiracy theories. Yuval Noah Harari who is one of my favorite thinkers believes there is a difference between lies and fiction. He believes lies are often spread intentionally to deceive people while fictional stories spread not with a malicious intent. They are passed on having best interests in our hearts. Fictions are actually needed so that we as a human race co-operate with one another. Take religion, for instance. Religion has no objective reality. It is only a fictional story. It is required so that we all live in unity. So, when people are spreading conspiracy theories they may not be lying about them. If they are passing them on it is important that they believe in them first. In the end they do believe.

Professor Harari believes human beings majorly are not very good when it comes to understanding complicated things like a virus. Making the efforts to understand the genetic code of a virus and how it replicates when it enters inside a living host seems quite daunting and difficult. So people prefer explanations that are easier to understand. Hence they believe in ridiculous theories. It is easier to understand that billionaires have started the pandemic than all the statistics and logical explanations scientists have been trying to put forth.

Human beings seek certainty. We are always questioning things happening around us and we eventually search for their answers. But when things get a little bit more uncertain we become very uncomfortable. As already mentioned that humans prefer easier explanations so, we go out & start finding comfort and conspiracy theories do just that.

Another reason why people fall prey to conspiracy theories is that human beings want security and a sense of control in their lives. When that security gets threatened and our comfort zone starts getting disrupted we turn to ideas that give back our lost sense of control and security. For instance if I don’t want my social life to come at halt during the pandemic and I want to keep socializing with people then false ideas generating ridiculous theories like ‘there is no such thing like COVID-19, it is a hoax’ will be taken seriously. It is because it’ telling me that I still have control over the things. And my security is still intact.

These are some of the reasons that shed light on why we have a tendency to believe in conspiracy theories. Can we do something about it? Maybe we can. Professor Harari believes this is high time we put our good faith in science. Instead of taking in information from unreliable sources with no knowledge of viruses, pandemics, public health, etc. we need to shift to reliable sources offering scientific explanations. Do not believe what a self-proclaimed scientist is telling you!! Furthermore, scientists should convey information not merely using statistics and some very complicated graphs. Rather in form of stories. Humans love stories and when something is passed on in form of nicely constructed stories they believe in them.

Conspiracy theories have a potential to cause a lot of damage. Imagine how many Jews had to die during the World War 2 due to one person’s delusions and misinformation. It is important to understand that we must not dismiss conspiracy theories entirely. While it is ridiculous that Bill Gates started the pandemic to implant chips into people it is critical to ponder upon the issue of global surveillance that central authority figures are already performing.

The worst virus you could possibly get infected with

Picture credits: thespiritscience.net

Let me start by asking a very simple question: “What do you think is a virus?”

Let me help you a bit. A virus is an ‘infective’ agent that is ‘too small’ to be seen by light microscopy and multiplies only within living cells of a host.

Coronavirus disease is caused by one of the types of coronaviruses. So, yes it is a virus. What I have been seeing lately is that people are not only getting infected with corona-virus but also a virus of illogical beliefs and unscientific ideas. It is infectious, no doubt. It passes from one person to another and then throughout communities. It is so small that you cannot look at a person and say he/she is suffering from this virus. Their qualifications and living standards might trick you into believing that they are sane people when actually they are very dumb.

I see many people not wearing masks. I see people not following social distancing. And I also know many people who are travelling as if there never was any COVID-19 pandemic. Do I feel angry at them? Of course I do. I get very frustrated. But more than frustration I feel sorry for them. I feel sorry because they are suffering from such a deadly virus of stupid beliefs and they do not even know about it. What’s even more saddening is that so many of them are qualified, smart and good people. But the pandemic has brought about their true colors. The stoics were wise enough to know how such a kind of virus is so deadly and lethal. Marcus Aurelius, a famous stoic around 2,000 years ago said very aptly during the Antonine Plague, “An infected mind is a far more dangerous pestilence than any plague. One only threatens your life; the other destroys your character.” I do not mean to sound judgemental and rude but I am getting a very fine idea about people’s characters these days.

Research has shown that wearing masks actually reduces the spread of virus to a greater extent. Yet people do not do it. Why is it that people do not want to wear masks? Why are they so hesitant and arrogant enough to put their and other people’s lives in danger by not wearing masks? As it turns out there are many reasons to it.

People do not like it whenever they are told what to do. It is simply a human psychology. So, when they are asked to wear face masks they start believing their freedom has been snatched away from them and so they act out and do the opposite. “People value their freedoms. They may become distressed or indignant or morally outraged when people are trying to encroach on their freedoms.” said Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist at University British Columbia and an author of a book “The Psychology of Pandemics”.

Everyone is exposed to different kind of information and the kind of information they have always been exposed to determine their ability to perceive anything. In this case, everyone’s risk perception towards COVID-19 varies a lot. And it decides if people are going to wear masks or not. Also, a direct experience with the virus will also shape your ability to wear a mask. People who had/have contracted the virus and suffered because of it will be much more careful than the ones who didn’t get an infection.

It is also common among people to believe that wearing masks make them look weak in front of others. So to compensate for that people do not wear masks at all. They do not want others to think of them as ‘scared beings’.

It is not easy to change human psychology especially during these uncertain and difficult times. A belief about anything cannot be changed in a moment. So, if people are infected with close-mindedness, they are impervious to reason and scientific evidences then the job becomes really hard.

We still need to try. As I said, the job is not easy but we have to try. We should and we must. Telling people blatantly to wear masks might not be the best way to make them wear one. Julia Marcus, an epidemiologist and professor at Harvard wrote an article on males who wouldn’t wear masks with a marked lack of shaming. After that many men got in touch with her and opened their minds to listen to her views. We can try changing people’s beliefs about things if we show some empathy towards them. Also, there is a need to make things less confusing- leaders, famous and successful people should set up good examples. If these people are not going to wear masks themselves and follow social distancing then it will definitely get very confusing for others to figure out what should be done.

Humans inclination towards ‘novelty’

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There is a very popular saying that, most probably, we are all aware of. It is” Old is Gold.” I couldn’t agree more with these words. There is some beauty in what is antique and old. But as it turns out that we, as humans, don’t necessarily follow it. Actually, our brains don’t let us.

Does it ever happens with you that you have a phone that is capable of doing every work of yours yet you still crave for that new one whose advertisement you just saw? Or does it happens with you that you are reading a book and are bored of it too soon that you are already thinking of picking up a new one? Do you also keep checking your emails every 5 or 10 minutes even though you know there won’t be another email for the next half an hour or so? Human beings have always been attracted towards ‘what is new’ or ‘novel’. New things make us feel so good that we are always seeking them.

Now the question comes why does it happen? What’s the story behind it?

Novelty and The Human Brain

It is not entirely right blaming people when it comes to their tendency of checking phones quite frequently or buying new gadgets from time to time. Somewhere our brains are at fault. Human brain works in such a way that it ignores what is old and focuses the attention towards what’s new. From the evolutionary point of view it is quite plausible because our ancestors needed to pay more attention towards the ‘new dangers’ to survive and not towards what is already known or familiar.

Research especially in the field of neuroscience has shown that whenever we are exposed to new things (new hair color, new people, new shoes, new watch, new house, etc.) or novelty our meso-limbic dopamine system gets activated. When the dopamine system is activated a neurotransmitter called dopamine gets send across different brain regions. This gives us pleasure but at the same time our brain starts telling us to seek more of novelty. This is the reason why new stuff makes us feel good for the time being. This is the reason why a notification on social media makes us feel good. This is the reason why we are always refreshing our emails. Every new thing causes dopamine to get released and that pleasure is what we are after.

Novelty and learning

While it is true that our tendency to seek novelty make us lives a little disruptive, it is not wrong to acknowledge that, nevertheless, novelty has many benefits especially in learning. Earlier it was believed that dopamine is merely a ‘reward chemical’ or ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter. However, recent studies have shown that it is also related to our motivation to seek rewards. These result in brain reacting to novelty by releasing dopamine which further motivates us to explore more of that stuff.

Due to the influence of novelty, plasticity of the hippocampus (which is primarily associated with memory) gets increased while the brain is involved in exploring new things or stimuli in the environment. This causes new neural pathways to get formed, thereby increasing the chances of learning new concepts and ideas. Novelty has also been shown to improve our memory. That is why it is always a good idea to change our environment from time to time while we are working or studying. Working or studying at the same place all the time impedes our progress and by changing the location we improve our performance as brain responds differently (and in a good way in this case) in new settings.

Managing the inclination towards novelty

When novelty isn’t for our benefit it becomes very important that we take control of ourselves and our actions. Whenever we are distracted by new stuff like media notifications, devices and many other things we should be mindful of their usage. We should put a hold for some time and let those cravings and urges pass away. It is quite understandable that it is not easy in any way but with constant practice we can surely get better.

Control your bad habits using “The Mind-bus technique”

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Do you like chocolates so much that it’s next to impossible for you not to have a small bite? Do you wish to eat those delicious butter cookies resting at a safe spot in your kitchen? Above all, do you know well enough that such food items have empty calories and yet you eat them to ruin your whole well-planned diet? If you’re like most people I am sure it happens with you. In spite of being aware of the repercussions of consuming refined sugar, you often fall prey to such strong cravings. But need not worry. Thanks to research psychologists who are dedicating a big part of their lives into discovering techniques so that you learn how to act upon your noble intentions.

The Experiment

In the British Journal of Health Psychology a research was published in the year 2013 that gives hope to people who are looking for breaking their bad eating habits. Researchers Kim Jenkins from Swansea University and Katy Tapper from City University London recruited participants for the study. Participants included people who were actually looking to break their bad habit of consuming chocolates. The participants were then divided into 3 groups:

  1. Cognitive “defusion” group: 45 participants
  2. Acceptance group: 45 participants
  3. Control group: 45 participants

In case of first group i.e. cognitive “defusion” group, 45 participants out of 135 were taught that ‘they were not their thoughts’. This is what’s referred to as cognitive “defusion”. The participants were made to imagine that they were actually the driver of a bus and all the disturbing & difficult thoughts were passengers. For the next 5 days the participants were given a bag full of chocolates. They were asked to carry with them the bag at all times and whenever they felt cravings they should practice the ‘mind bus technique’. In case of second group i.e. acceptance group, a technique called ‘urge surfing’ was introduced. In the following technique participants were instructed to accept all the uncomfortable thoughts they were having regarding eating chocolates and not control them. In case of last and third group i.e. control group, participants were instructed to control their thoughts and practice any relaxation technique to overcome the cravings. The participants of the study were asked to keep a diary to record all the chocolate consumption.

In the study it was concluded that the first group ate lesser chocolate compared to the other two groups. In other words, participants who followed the ‘mind-bus’ technique ate lesser chocolate during the period of 5 days when compared with the participants who were asked to control and acknowledge their urges.

Mind-bus technique beyond the chocolate consumption

It is important to note that the mind-bus technique is not limited to controlling chocolate urges or cravings of any bad food for that matter. We can apply it to any situation that involves negative thoughts. So, you can always apply the technique by following these steps:

  1. Think for a while a negative situation you want to resolve.
  2. Write down 3-5 negative thoughts involving that particular situation.
  3. Close your eyes and imagine you being a driver of a bus and all the negative/disturbing thoughts as passengers.
  4. Assign each of the negative thoughts a different voice, a different personality.
  5. Imagine you telling each of those thoughts things like, “Thank you for your kind suggestion. But I am the driver of this bus and this bus is under my control.”
  6. Visualize that you are letting those thoughts get off the bus one by one at different bus stops.

The research is not a panacea to controlling all our bad habits or negative life situations. Definitely, there are many flaws in the research (for an instance, participants selected for the study were already motivated and firm to let go off their consumption of chocolates so intrinsic motivation could have played a role. Therefore, it is not plausible to say that mind-bus technique was solely responsible for cutting down chocolate consumption of the participants). Nevertheless, we can try to become driver of the bus!!

Writing Gratitude Diary for 30 days as a challenge

Picture credits: Bustle

Gratitude and well-being

‘Gratitude’ has become a very common word these days. I see everybody writing or talking about it. In a way it makes me feel good because gratitude has many benefits and seeing people taking it seriously gives me a relief that they will be all right. However, it becomes bothersome when people merely talk about it but never act upon it. Probably it is because they don’t understand it well enough– they think they do but actually they don’t. I just hope I am wrong.

I can speak for myself when it comes to not fully understanding what gratitude is all about. Thankfully life found numerous ways to make me wise. Martin Seligman, a leading psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania is a pioneer in the field of positive psychology. Before the emergence of positive psychology, psychology was all about mental illnesses, flaws and shortcomings in people’s personalities. And Professor Seligman changed it. He wanted to promote the idea that we all have strengths within us and to live a happy, satisfied life filled with meaning it is very important that we focus on our strengths and not just weaknesses.

There are many studies on gratitude & well-being. One of the interesting ones is when researchers asked respondents or participants to do one of the three exercises. One group of participants was asked to write down 5 things they were grateful for each week for around 10 weeks. The other group was asked to write things that were negative and they weren’t grateful for (for 10 weeks). The last of the three groups was made to write about neutral events (neither positive nor negative) taking place in their lives for 10 weeks. It was found at the end of 10 weeks that people who took out some time to write gratitude diary continuously recorded being 25% happier than the ones who didn’t.

Sounds interesting, right? Well, it would be better if you also take out some time every day to just reflect upon the things that made you happy and write them down.

Gratitude diary and me

My experience with writing a gratitude diary consecutively for 30 days was a different experience altogether.

  1. Honestly, I dreaded writing gratitude diary. But my commitment surpassed it.

The challenge I undertook to write 3 things I was grateful for during my day wasn’t easy. It was because I didn’t feel writing it at all. Sometimes I was feeling very sleepy that I just wanted to sleep on it. Sometimes my hands couldn’t manage to write properly and I just wanted to write a single word and get done with it. I literally dreaded it. In spite of all the laziness I did it. And I am glad that I did because I was committed to it. When I decided to undertake the challenge I was very much sure that I would not be able to it. But I proved myself wrong. My unwillingness to write few good words that made my day felt short in front of my commitment to stay stick to a 30 day challenge.

2. I was seeking pearls within an ocean of sorrows, sadness and disappointments.

There were days when I was sitting on my chair thinking very hard about 3 good things that I was grateful for. All I could think of was negative chain of events, boredom, frustration, helplessness, etc. Such moments made me realize that happiness isn’t always readily available. Many times we have to take some extra efforts to find or create it. Our days get so bad that all we think of is negativity. And that is okay. But not always. A single cup of coffee or tea with your loved ones or even all by yourself is enough to bring a smile on your face. Like I said, you can find pearls deep within an ocean of sorrows, sadness and disappointments; if you try hard enough.

Even though writing gratitude diary some days didn’t feel very appealing and I felt very lazy, I know very well (through empirical studies as mentioned above) that it is very crucial. I am not saying that by writing down 3 or 5 things that made you happy before going to bed is going to make you the happiest person on this earth. Trust me, that’s not what I am suggesting. There is no causation but co-relation. What I am saying is that human brain responds to gratitude and by practicing it regularly we can teach ourselves to be more optimistic and thus at least a little bit happier than before.