Measuring Your Life

Life is indeed complicated. It is not easy to understand it or even figure it out. No one can have all the answers and if anybody claims to be someone with all the answers, always be wary of such people.

I spend a decent amount of time in figuring out ‘what life is really about’ or ‘how do we measure life’ or ‘what does success mean’. Most of the time I don’t get any answers and when I do, I don’t like them. So I consciously try to bury these questions. This is not just me; it’s a human tendency to kick off the things that are uncomfortable. But then I think about how important it is to understand life because otherwise I will be chasing all the wrong things.

My outlook towards things has been shaped a lot by the works of Professor Yuval Noah Harari. His one of the ideas has made me realise that the most important thing in life is to be able to distinguish between what is ‘real’ and what is ‘a fictional story’. When I look at the things that are ‘objective realities’ such as birds, trees, and mountains, I immediately realise how insignificant my life’s problems are which may have been a product of my own imagination (this idea is again inspired by Prof Harari’s book SAPIENS). For instance, I have been observing birds a lot lately both when I am in my room or when I go outside. There is so much that I have learned about those birds from my mere observations on a daily basis. I get such a level of satisfaction that no gadget or technology can ever compete. I feel I am looking at things that ‘do exist’ in this world. Even when I look at the beautiful sky I sense vastness and everything in life- all the accomplishments, all the possessions seem little (I won’t say worthless because that would be extreme). We do spend a lot of time in our own imagination and hence, suffer. As Seneca would say, “WE SUFFER MORE IN IMAGINATION THAN IN REALITY”. Our brains create parallel realities that are not objective. I can suffer and feel miserable by thinking that I am a total failure because I did not get the job I was hoping to get. However, in reality that may be questionable. How do we understand what ‘failure’ is? Can we see it? Can we touch it? We can solely feel it but we can’t always trust our feelings.

Drawing a fine line between reality and non-reality is not a child’s play. Even philosophers and scientists are having a hard time decoding what ‘reality’ is. So, I am not going to pretend that I have figured it out. I am no expert. But there’s one thing I can say with confidence: the whole search for what is real is worth it.

You must be wondering that the title of this blog is ‘Measuring Your Life’ and I haven’t talked about it as such. Well that’s how you measure life- for me real success in life is about segregating what we usually call ‘mere illusions’ because majority of the time in life we suffer because of our distorted perceptions towards things. There are real stresses in life such as illness, death, unemployment among others. But it’s also true that sometimes we feel unhappy because we take ‘fictional realities’ for ‘real realities’. When we understand the difference we will have the headspace to think about other things that are actually matter (and possibly real) such as the importance of investing time and effort into relationships, loving people, and doing the work that is meaningful.

DISCLAIMER: This blog post is simply an exploration. The author’s objective is to explore ideas and not arrive at a conclusion. So read it with a grain of salt. Happy reading!!

Maintaining your sanity while pursuing ‘Master’s degree’📚🧠

Picture credits: Host Student

A master’s degree can be overwhelming especially for international students like me. Leaving your home country where you’ve been living all your life, adjusting to an education system you are not accustomed to, and coming to a land full of strangers is enough to make you lose your sanity. Sometimes days get so bad that you feel like giving up on everything; literally everything. In those moments all that you wish for is maintaining your sanity. But you don’t know how. Too many commitments start taking a toll on your mental health because you feel like you’re always juggling. Don’t get me wrong. There are good days too. There are days full of positive experiences and they make you realise that things in life aren’t that bad. But when you are surrounded by negative feelings and experiences it’s often hard to figure out how to navigate your life. In this blog, I want to tell you how you can take care of your mental well-being while pursuing master’s degree in university. These are the things that helped me and I hope they might help you too.

(also check out my video below where I talked about my ‘Master’s degree experience at a UK university‘)

1. Get organised

Even though I managed to be topper of my class during undergraduate degree, I struggled because I lacked time management skills. It was like I was always studying but things never seemed to end for me. So the first thing I did before coming to Edinburgh was develop my time management skills and get organised. This was really helpful. Having a system that’s not cumbersome but easy and convenient is the most important thing one can do while in university. This is because university life demands commitments such as exams, essay deadlines, tutorials, extra-curricular, etc. To begin with, you can use a digital calendar like google calendar or even a notebook- whatever works for you. You can even use both of them like me. Make sure you check them everyday so that you are aware of what’s going on in your course.

2. Stay Consistent

Consistency is so important that I can’t say that enough. I am a believer of doing (at least) something each day rather than doing everything all at once. When you put little efforts each day into your studies, you make progress each day. You prevent yourself from becoming super anxious close to essay deadlines or upcoming exams. A lot of students under-estimate how much time things are going to take and put things off for later. Personally, this is not a good approach because it is an invitation to burnout. I am not saying you should never take a day off of studying. Frequent breaks are important and I encourage them. But when you know your essay is due next month, it is better to stay consistent in your level of efforts rather than leaving everything for the last moment.

3. Make time for the things you love

This is something I am trying to learn. I have a tendency to get super focused on my work or studies that I forget to make time for the things that give me pleasure. Like watching a movie or an episode of a comedy show, reading a book, writing, traveling, etc. Always make sure you take some time out each day and do something that you love. It can be anything. Think of it as an investment because university life can be very overwhelming and you need activities on a regular basis in order to rejuvenate your brain.

4. The bigger picture

It’s true that challenges are very discomforting. But what’s also true is that challenges are temporary. University life is indeed stressful but it’s all a part of process. Remember why you are in university, why you are studying in the first place- it’s because you love your subject and you want to do something meaningful with the knowledge you will attain. By reminding yourself of the bigger picture, you gain a refreshing perspective.

5. Make friends

Never under-estimate the importance of making friends in university. This is something I have learned recently. I am an introvert and a shy person so it’s not easy for me to make friends easily. I am also socially anxious which make things even harder. Regardless, it is crucial that you make friends for the sake of your mental wellbeing. Talking to people is a good way to stay sane. You can meet people whichever way suits you. For introverts, meeting in big groups can be a bit too much. What they can do is meet with people in smaller groups- maybe a group of 2-3 people.

6. Ask for help

Everyone struggles in university. But no one should have to go through the challenges alone. Universities now have such strong mental health support for students and staff members. And the services are all free provided by the professionals. It’s always helpful when you share your feelings and emotions with someone. It can be professionals or it can be your closed and loved ones like family members or maybe friends you trust with your problems.

DISCLAIMER: This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are struggling with mental health issues, you must seek professional help immediately.

The Field ‘Switching’ Cost

Picture Credits: Christin Hume- UnSplash

Switching fields is not a big deal these days. It has become relatively common now which is a good thing because people don’t have to stick to the fields they don’t like or enjoy working in.

Just like a coin has two sides, switching fields isn’t always a smooth journey. There are hurdles and it gets quite frustrating sometimes. Why am I saying all this? Do I know of someone who had switched fields in the past? Actually I am talking about me. I am the one who did it. I pursued Economics in my undergrad. After completing my undergraduate degree, I started losing interest in Economics (why this happened is kind of a long story and will write a whole new blog on this in the future). One day I decided I wanted to pursue Psychology and make a career in this field. Right now, this is going well because currently I am pursuing my Master’s degree in Psychology from The University of Edinburgh.

If you had told me 5 years ago that one day I’d be sitting in Edinburgh writing this blog, I would have said a big ‘NO!’ because getting acceptances from universities felt like a dream. What happened in those 5 years is something people don’t know about because we all have a tendency to see only a ‘tip of an iceberg’. Getting an acceptance from The University of Edinburgh didn’t come easy and I could not have done it without the support of my family- my parents and my siblings.

CHALLENGES

1. You’re Behind in Life

This is a very common feeling in people who decide to switch fields or careers. But it can be quite pervasive. You may start feeling like your friends and everyone else around you is moving forward while you’re stuck. Stuck badly. You start feeling as if you’re behind in life; behind everybody. People around you are finishing their degrees while you’re not.

People around you are getting jobs while you’re not.

People around you are getting promoted in their workplaces while you’re not.

Even though these are mere thoughts, they hit you hard. And it becomes an everyday chore to fight against these thoughts.

2. Starting from Scratch

This one is related to the previous challenge I just mentioned. Making a move to start afresh in a field that’s completely new to you can be taxing. This is for the obvious reason: you have to start from the scratch now. It’s like you’re born again and you have to create everything from the beginning. It eventually makes you feel you’re behind in life. You don’t build upon what you had already built in your life so far rather you have to build new things from the surface. I am not saying your previous knowledge or experiences stop mattering. They do matter. But since you’re a novice in a new field you have to be willing to take baby steps and it slows you down in your career which affects you for sure.

3. Closed Doors 

It’s such a bad feeling when you’re curious about something and you aren’t given an opportunity to utilise your abilities. Personally, I had limited options for my further education because of non psychology background. I just wanted ‘a single’ opportunity let alone ‘too many’. But there weren’t many (almost next to nothing). It literally felt like all the doors were getting closed.

4. Mental Well-being is Suffered

Mental wellbeing is suffered when you’re surrounded by hurdles. This happened with me and I am sure it happens to people who are in the situation I was in a few years ago. Your brain starts playing tricks with you because it doesn’t want you to focus on the solutions. Why? It’s too overwhelming for it. So it makes you think about the trivial stuff like you’re not good enough and you don’t deserve what you’re striving for. In those moments, a strong social support is very crucial. This is life saving. As mentioned earlier, I was fortunate enough to have full support of my family and that helped me persevere.

 

But I don’t want to make you all gloomy because there’s always more than one side to everything. If switching field from Economics to Psychology had challenges, there are good things too that (eventually) happened. At least now I am doing and studying something that I love and enjoy. I have nothing against Economics. It’s a really interesting subject. But it wasn’t for me. I feel more satisfied and happier working with psychology. I know well enough that switching careers isn’t pragmatic for everyone and because of that I am grateful for the support I had from my family.

 

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

An Introvert’s Brain

Picture credits: Personality Junkie

 

You are my best friend.
Together, we go to far away galaxies.
I see beyond my eyes can ever permit,
I feel the whole universe in me.
But sometimes you are not so loyal.
You make me go through misery.
You take me places I don’t want to go,
In the name of ‘Infinite Possibilities’.

-Sumbul

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.

Routine is saving me from having a mental health crisis

Picture credits: The Spruce

When we hear the word ‘routine’ we almost always have an immediate response:

“Routine? That sounds so boring.”

A year ago, I would have agreed with those ‘five words’. But today I won’t. Well, I have my reasons and the most important one is that routine saved me from having a mental health crisis. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is something we have never experienced before. Things are definitely going to get better and normal very soon (they already are). We must not forget all the lessons this pandemic has taught/teaching us because it’s something we might face again in the future if we don’t correct our mistakes now. Overall, it can be said that our lives have changed forever. So many people have lost their lives. So many people contracted the virus and suffered (so many still are because remember the pandemic isn’t over yet). So many people are going through mental illnesses including clinical depression, anxiety disorders, etc. In such unprecedented times it is quite okay to feel mentally exhausting. During the pandemic, researchers at the University of Glasgow conducted a study to examine the effects of COVID-19 pandemic in the mental well-being of people living in the UK. The study was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. What was found is that the suicidal thoughts increased from 8% to 10% and it was the highest among young adults (18-29 years). Researchers agreed that the percentage increase might look like a small number but it is a concern because it happened during a short period of time. 

During times like these it is more important than ever to have a routine. It’s not a guarantee that everything is going to be perfectly okay but it does help a lot when there is so much uncertainty around us. Routine gives us something to look forward to everyday and it does give a structure to our days. 

YOUR DAYS ARE STRUCTURED:

As mentioned above, routines help give structure to our days. When we know we have to wake up, eat food, do our most important tasks at a particular time in a day we are guiding our days and not the other way around. There is an agenda and we look forward to completing those agendas when we have a routine. There is more focus and our brains don’t wander much because it knows well enough all that it is supposed to concentrate on. Decide what time you will wake up and stick to it. Decide what time you will go to bed and stick to it. Have a set time for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Structure your days. Have some daily routines because your brain will thank you for that.

LOWER STRESS AND ANXIETY LEVELS:

When days are not planned it becomes natural to get caught on everything that comes our way. This results in more stress and anxiety levels. However, by having a routine we learn what to focus on and at what time. We start training ourselves to focus on what’s right in front of us and let the insignificant things stay what they are. We feel more in control. We feel less stressed and don’t get anxious so easily. Routines act like an anchor of predictability. Dr Steve Orma, a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Clinical Psychologist works with patients suffering from anxiety, insomnia and stress. He says, “Routine helps with stress. Create a set schedule for doing chores, work tasks, meetings, exercise, paying bills, and all the usual things you need to do. Put these into your schedule. Once this becomes your normal routine, it’s easier to accomplish everything, because it becomes habit.” Remember, what gets scheduled gets done. 

YOU ARE MORE CREATIVE AND PRODUCTIVE:

Every creative genius had a secret: a daily routine. I know this wasn’t a secret you were expecting but it’s the truth. Routines helped these geniuses bring out their creativity and be productive. Below image is the daily routine of Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States. 

Picture credits: The Focus Course

It’s quite true that Ben Franklin did not follow his routine 100% every day. It’s not possible. There is so much that comes up unexpectedly because of which sticking to a routine every single day becomes rather impossible. Nevertheless, he was a very productive person because he followed his daily routines as much as he could. Routines help us stay on top of our game just like it helped people like Beethoven and Freud. We are less distracted and start prioritising things in our lives. And people who know what to prioritize can be nothing but creative and productive. 

BETTER MENTAL HEALTH:

Having a good mental health is so important right now. Nothing is of any significance if there is mental turbulence all the time. When the world has become isolated and we have somewhat lost chances to meet our loved ones in person it is natural to feel mentally unstable from time to time. This is where routine comes in to rescue us. If there is anything I am 100% certain of it’s the fact that without having a routine almost every single day I would have lost my demeanour. Routine kept me in check. It made me realise that I could control some of the things in my day. This eventually helped me having a relatively better mental health. 

Don’t be very hard on yourself when it comes to building a routine. It takes time. Forming habits take time. Some days you are going to be very productive while the other days it will hard for you to keep up with your routine. And that’s okay. Life happens. Try again the other day. Just because you have stumbled once doesn’t mean you have to stop trying. Prioritise your mental well-being. There is so much that depends on it. 

Losing loved ones over different political opinions? You’re not alone

Picture credits: University of Louisville Department of Communication

Do you have a friend with whom you don’t feel like talking anymore just because he/she has a different opinion on the policies of your country’s President/Prime Minister? Do you often feel frustrated or angry because after so many years you’re getting to know his/her ‘actual’ political opinions? Do you feel sad that now your friendship is on the verge of becoming a void relationship? 

Trust me, you’re not alone. 

The modern world we are living in is constantly changing. Friendships are formed based on many factors: how long have you known someone, how common your interests are, etc. There is another parameter that has been added up in recent decades: politics. Yes, politics is also deciding if you are going to hang out with someone for a long time period. You are more likely to befriend with someone whose political opinion on a variety of political issues matches with yours than with someone who thinks in a completely opposite direction. I am not talking something that is purely fictional. I can speak for it because over the past year I have had many personal experiences where I didn’t feel like talking to some of my good friends because ‘I got to know the real them’. 

Surprised? I don’t think you should be surprised. A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre has shown that the political divide is the new normal of the modern world. It’s a reality of the 21st century. Jocelyn Kiley, who is an associate director of research at the Pew Research Centre said that the political divide is on the rise and it hasn’t been so prevalent at any point in modern history. According to Pew, nearly 80% of the Americans say that they have “a few” or “no friends” on the other side. In other words, people supporting the Democrats say they have no friends or few friends who support the Republicans. And the vice versa. The worst part is that the percentage is very high- 80%!!! There is hostility too towards each other. People are letting go off their friendships that are as long as 30 years old. Blocking each other on different social media platforms has become quite common these days. An episode done on the “All Things Considered” podcast by NPR reported a story of a man named Davis who is 42 years old. Davis is a consultant in the US. He is black. During the protests in the country against police brutality, Davis got a reality check of one of his close friends. When his friend tried downplaying police brutality he said he couldn’t take it. He told his friend, “If this is your attitude, we can’t be cool anymore. I don’t respect you now. I don’t. Because people are really dying.” A story of Shama Davis from Los Angeles is another example. Having a disagreement with his friend Shama said, “Dude, I am done. Lose my number.” He unfriended the person he has been friends with for almost 25 years. 

A survey conducted by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) showed that 8 out of 10 Republicans believe Democrats are socialists while Democratic party believes Republicans are racists. It’s like both are pointing at each other. 

The topic is so interesting that even academicians could not refrain themselves from exploring more deeply. A study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships has dived into the political divisions among people. The study is authored by Elina Buliga and Cara MacInnis from the University of Calgary, Canada. Participants were recruited for the study. Out of the total number of participants 142 identified themselves as Liberals while 70 identified themselves as Conservatives. The researchers found that the participants were more inclined towards friends/strangers who shared the same political beliefs than those with different political opinions. Long and established relationships didn’t seem to matter in front of difference of opinion in the political matters. The study does have some shortcomings like not every individual jeopardises his/her relationship with closed ones for the sake of politics. Nevertheless, it points out an interesting and important finding on the political divisions in the modern world. 

What needs to be done now?

Tania Israel, a professor in the counselling, clinical and school psychology department at the University of California, Santa Barbara believes it is not wise to ruin our good old friendships over politics. She says that we must take the first step and talk to people in person. Which is completely right. We should not let social media come in between because that’s not a real world and opinions on social media platforms don’t matter much. It’s time that we become not only tolerant but also acceptable of other people. Talk to your loved ones. Listen what they have to say. Say what you have to say. Talk. Talk and talk. Just not about politics.  

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. 

Are we born ‘creationists’?

Picture credits: Pinterest.com

It seems to have become an established truth that science and religion can never merge or go hand in hand. They both are incompatible with each other. The former proves that we are a product of evolution while the latter fails to make sense of evolution and puts faith in the ‘Intelligent design’. Now the argument of this blog isn’t about which one is right and which one is wrong. That’s a completely different story for another day. The argument is regarding our biases towards creationism because studies in developmental psychology are showing how children tend to believe in the blind watchmaker. 

Pascal Boyer, a French American Cognitive Anthropologist and Evolutionary Psychologist gave a theory called ‘Hypertrophy of social cognition’ which simply puts the fact that we have a natural willingness to see purpose, design, intention even when it is not there at all. Stewart Guthrie who is a Professor Emeritus at Fordham University, wrote a book “Faces in the Clouds” (1993) in which he explained how humans are always looking for some signs. So if we see a cloud or a tree or a bird or a leaf we try hard to perceive it as something even when it is nothing but a mere leaf or a tree. He further said that we look for intention even when it’s not there. Two prominent social psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel conducted an important experiment in 1944 to explore the experience of animacy. They made a movie using geometric figures including circle, triangles, squares. The movie was made in a way as if storytelling was going on. It was found that the participants started attributing figures to people in which every figure was either a hero or a villain or a bully or a victim. It was done instinctively. 

Developmental psychologists believe cognitive biases might be playing their role and help explain why intelligent design is so popular among people even in children. These biases are:

  1. Psychological Essentialism 
  2. Teleological explanations

Psychological essentialism is a belief that a basic, internal quality of a species will never change throughout life. When three year old children were asked if a Labrador undergoing a surgery will still look like a Labrador and not Rottwieler, they agreed. This showed that the pre-schoolers  have a basic understanding of an individual identity even when appearances change. In a way, psychological essentialism is a useful tool because it helps us categorize and get all sorts of other information for free. However, the fact that internal qualities in species do not change contradicts with the theory of evolution . Natural selection in evolution is a process which says that species constantly change and adapt so that they have better traits to survive in the environment than others. Maybe psychological essentialism is why people find it hard to digest evolution theory. 

Teleological explanations is another cognitive bias we have that underpins the importance of intelligent design among us. As already discussed in previous paragraphs that humans have a bad eye for randomness and believe everything has a purpose, this is what makes us not prioritise the theory of evolution. When children are asked why some mountains look like mushroom or why some rocks are very sharp and pointy they tell it’s because animals do not sit on them. Thus indicating a purpose or an intention. Rather the real explanation is that it is so because of processes like wind erosion taking place for thousands of years. It looks like creationism lies deeply in us. 

But Charles Darwin changed everything. His theory explained complex structure in living organisms without seeking help of a creator or an intelligent design. It’s very unfortunate that still many people do not believe in evolution. A lot of intellectuals belonging to the field of science do not believe in evolution. They rather believe the earth is only 10,000 years old. 

An important question remains: can we tackle these biases among people (even among children) so that there is more room for natural selection? Probably. Scientists need to understand that understanding evolution is not a piece of cake. It is not everyone’s cup of tea. People might study it at schools and colleges for the sake of passing the exams. But that doesn’t guarantee any firm belief in it. So, in the simplest possible ways, without getting too technical evolution should be taught to children. The illustrations should be filled with pictures and colours to make it all look very appealing and interesting. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that we are born creationists.