Friday, June 01, 2007

Psychology 101

A few days back I was sitting in Hotel Sangeeths. I noticed a girl with a weird hairdo behaving oddly. People were sitting in a corner chair and she would walk past it again and again. Someone went to wash their hands and she tried to take their seat. She would not look at anybody and the hotel staff had to tell her to wait.
I was irritated by her behavior and initially thought she was rude. Then I saw her again another day, again trying to take that seat. Slowly I realized she must be suffering from some mental disorder.
Now, when I say this, I do not mean any disrespect. I feel sorry for her and hope people understand her behavior. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or other such mental disorders ruin the lives of a good percentage of a population at any time. Most of them affect young people (15-35). They take away the productive years of a young person.
I had always been interested in psychology as a discipline - ever since I read about Freud and the science of psychoanalysis. I have some information I have accumulated over time and I would like to share it with you. I assure you that I am not a "psycho" myself; and I am also just an amateur.

The Subconscious, Ego and SuperEgo
Freud's theory (refined later) postulates that humans develop a subconscious very early in their lives. We are NOT aware of it in our adult lives. But, our experiences (in childhood and later) filter down, like water through earth and become stored in the subconscious. Our actions, much later in life, get subtly influenced by the subconscious (although we are not aware of that influence).
For example, in your childhood, let us say you have been abused by your father. He beats you up regularly for trivial reasons such as not doing homework or asking for some candy. This filters into your subconscious. Later on, in life, you will likely not able to negotiate with anybody. Let us say you board an autorickshaw and try to negotiate with the driver. Your subconscious will cower at the sight of any adult and prevent you from negotiating a fair price. You also may not be able to negotiate with your boss about your salary.
Now, the suggestion that there IS a subconscious is revolutionary - it is similar to Pasteur's discovery of germs invisible to the eye.
As you grow up, religious and other social rules take over and form another layer in your mind called the Superego. The Superego forces you to obey certain rules and behaves like a parent. In between the Subconscious and the Superego is the Ego - this is your identity (Id). The Ego is the true adult and it is buffeted on either side by the Subconscious and the Superego.
Frued also went on to explain the sexual desires and influence of primal instincts on the human psyche but that is out of scope here.

How to know the subconscious
For a well-adjusted life, there is not much need to explore the subconscious. But, unfortunately, most of us do not get the chance for such a life, thanks to experiences during childhood or adolescence. Psychologists use different methods to tease out the subconscious.
One of them is shown in the movie, "The Sixth Sense". This is the technique of free association. Basically you cannot consciously explore the subconscious. There is a barrier built in the mind - for your own good. Sometimes, that barrier breaks.
In free association, get some pen and paper and start writing randomly without thinking of anything in particular. As you proceed, certain words and sentences may appear - and these offer hints to the trained doctor about your subconscious. Do not try to interpret this yourself. There is no need to do this unless a doctor asks you to.

Another technique described in the classic novel "Flowers for Algernon" is interesting. The patient is asked to lie down and just allow their mind to wander. As it keeps wandering, it reaches a point where the mind goes blank - completely. That blank is the mental wall in your mind. You are standing before the wall and beyond it is the subconscious. Normally at this point, nothing happens - you turn back. But, rarely, the wall breaks down. The subconscious allows a peak within. When that heppens, a flood of thoughts from long back, deep down flow to the top. Sometimes they help you understand the real motivations for your actions.

Directions in Psychology
Psychology originated primarily as a study of the subconscious; and its "cures" were performed through therapy. But mental disorders such as OCD and schizophrenia are treated by administering medicines. The reason is that over the last century these problems have been associated with certain chemicals in the brain. You CANNOT treat OCD or schizophrenia or Somatic disorders merely through therapy or "positive thinking" although they show up as problems in thoughts. For example, somatic disorders cause recurring, uncontrollable thoughts about inflicting pain on oneself. To a normal person, these seem like an issue of the mind than the brain. But more and more such disorders are treated using medicines and only such treatment can cure these disorders. Modern medicine has reduced the side effects from these medicines largely. It is no use trying to cure OCD or somatic disorders by meditating or such "mind control" techniques.

But behavioral therapy for many problems of behavior are still used effectively.
That is, although there are many disorders that are cured by medicine, there are also problems that can be cured by exploring your past and your responses to situations. The determination of which problems need medicine and which do not can ONLY be made by a trained doctor. When the doctor suggests medicine, there is no point in resisting it.

Behavioral Therapy
ALmost everyone in the world can benefit from psychotherapy. Large corporations in the West have inhouse therapists with whom an employee can discuss their personal and work issues at any time.
The former Chief Minister of Tamil nadu, J.Jayalalitha, at one point hired a psychotherapist for members of the legislature. This led to some protests. The fact is this was a very progressive move.
It has become common practice to measure the number of mental health professionals per thousand people in a country.
Seeing a therapist does not:
1. Make you crazy.
2. Make you dependent on them.
The science of behavioral therapy basically says that "errors" in thinking lead to errors in behavior. It does not try to stop you from thinking thoughts. Working with a therapist, you can realize how these errors crept in over time and deal with it by being aware. The purpose of psychotherapy is to make you self-aware.

For example, let us say that in your childhood, you were beaten up by a drunk parent regularly. Let us say these beatings had no reason and did not follow any pattern. Over time, the child tries to relate a cause to these beatings. But, there is no real cause. Therefore the child loses the thread between cause and effect; and also starts ascribing a false cause - that he is so bad that he can be beaten without reason.

When grown up, this person may feel insecure and may not have self-worth or an identity. Working with a therapist can make them aware that their father was the original cause and thus restore self-worth.
Restoring and building up an identity is a major job of therapists and the surprising fact is it can be done even after you are an adult.

Childhood and the effects of Parenting
Please note that I have given multiple examples of mistreatment as a child. This does not mean that any minor childhood incident will destroy a child. Different people have different responses. If abuse is consistent, it will have an effect.
This also does not mean that you cannot constrain a child in any way. Being aware of society and its rules is a big part of an identity. Your child's psyche will not suffer just because you denied him/her permission to go play in the sun.
It is the parents' responsibility to make sure a child is well-behaved and that can be done without abusing. Whenever you discipline a child, make sure that he/she understands the causes of censure.

Psychology and Religion
Psychotherapists do recommend meditation sometimes. But the relationship between religion and psychoanalysis is tense.

One of the main ways that religious thought differs from modern psychology is this: All religions emphasize that you should control your thoughts; that you should root out bad thoughts and channel your thoughts.
Psychology says this is impossible to do and an absurd goal to attain. There is no need to feel guilty about your thoughts.
This, of course, is glaring when you come to sex. Suppressing sexual thoughts is unhealthy. Celibacy during adolescence, which many religions advocate, is pointless and can lead to problems in your mind, according to psychiatric theory.
We also have to realize that many people cannot worship or meditate at all because of disorders such as OCD. Their brain prevents them from concentrating. There is no reason to feel guilty about that.
Psychotherapists view a strongly religious childhood or adolescence as not healthy.
Just as religion stepped away from a theory of origin or of a theory of evolution, it should also step away from mind control and a theory of the mind.

When a close relative died a few months back, I experienced a lack of motivation for some time. I was not enthusiastic about work and felt there were deep questions about "Life and Its Purpose" that I was missing. At that point I spoke with a friend of mine. He had a background in psychology and actually had gone through a brief period of depression.
He explained that whenver you get questions about Purpose in Life - do not think you have suddenly become wise. Our mind is wired to ignore such questions for a reason. If you do get such persistent questions, it is more likely you are under depression.
Depression is a word we use commonly to mean we feel blue - but it has a specific meaning in psychology. It is normal to feel depressed when you face a setback or are ill for some period. It is NOT normal if this continues over 2 or 3 months. If it does, you need help. Clinical Depression is a psychological condition that can be treated with mdeicine. You can stop the medicine after a few months usually.
There are a list of symptoms for depressions such as appetite change or not feeling motivated.
I was fine after a month and got back my motivation.

Psychotherapy and Indian Society
As I said earlier, a healthy society recognizes the need for mental health. And proactively provides therapy. For juvenile delinquents and young offenders, a program of building self-awareness and self-worth is key. Research has proved this.
In India there needs to be better awareness of mental health as essential as physical health. Depending on "positive thoughts" to cure is pointless.

Psychotherapy and the Workplace
We often deal with aggressive people at work. We face conflict situations. We may not get promotion at a certain time or may be denied a raise. All of these are unique problems that we face at the workplace. There have been known instances of an employee attempting suicide after having been passed over for a promotion.

The core idea in psychotherapy is to follow natural behavior. It is natural to be upset about a promotion. If you feel very upset, talk to someone in your family or at work.
One of the common cliches is that you should forget about work when you reach home. This is absurd. Your spouse is your best friend and there is nothing wrong in ranting to your husband or wife.
It also helps to have a person at work whom you can confide in. If you have a superior whom you do not like, and you have a colleague who is a friend, feel completely free to discuss the superior with your colleague (provided you trust him/her). It is a very good practice to have a support system at work - a network of friends.
In a corporation it is common for management to expect very high fidelity or loyalty. I have always felt that much of management logic is contrary to human nature. Remember that loyalty should be deserved.
If someone is over aggressive at work, keeping in mind that they could be insecure will help. Make sure you do NOT enable over-agressiveness. Be aware of where you draw a line. For example, there is no need to smile and nod to a superior who uses swear words.

Remember the Tamil movie "Kaadhal Kondein" in which the final line is "everyone has a psycho within them"? Although that movie was good, the final line spoiled it for me - there is nothing called a "psycho" and it is definitely not in everyone. There is a much better treatment in the movie "Analyze This". A ganglord develops psychiatric issues and a therapist successfully treats him.
If you have a relative who has a mental disorder, be aware that they are probably suffering from a problem similar to a wound in the physical body. It is not fair to laugh at them or to insist that they are just "arrogant" and need some smacking (I have actually heard people say this).
Also be aware that visiting a therapist once a month is a good idea in case you have problems in your personal life or professional life. If your boss upsets you and workplace is unbearable or you are not motivated at work - go talk to a therapist. They are your best friends.