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.


Sridhar said...

I agree with you one one count - that mental disorder is like a wound. But I doubt the ability of psychiatrists on treating this. I believe normal, sympathetic and caring humans around the patient is more important than an advice from a shrink.

There was this book called 'Phantoms in the brain' that describes the physiological aspects of some mental disorders. After reading the book and observing a few people, I come to realize that all abnormal behaviors are in a way physiological problems.

I see anger, lust, fear, empathy and enlightenment as physiological happenings. Religion, reasonably disciplined lifestyle and meditation in a way help in maintaining a balance of thoughts and feelings. Over work, lack of sleep, abnormal food habits and hostile environment disturb this balance.

Your observation on religion w.r.t celibacy surprises me. Did you consider the Hindu, other Indian religions and the modern Gurus before making a statement that religion advocates celibacy? Currently, spirituality is probably a step ahead in treating mental abnormalities, but am sure science can catch up. Current Medical science, as I see it is more of statistics than pure science of understanding the complexity of the body (and mind) - environment relationship.

I find quoting scientists to support our knowledge and wisdom a bit ... ironic, especially when it comes to psychology. I heard Freud managed an assisted suicide and obviously not after enlightenment.

Ramiah Ariya said...

Thanks for the comments.
Psychiatrists have remarkable success in treating mental disorders. That is proven - a disease like OCD can only be managed by psychiatrists. When OCD peaks, you lose even the ability to concentrate. Caring humans around you does not help.
You mention anger, lust, fear as physiological - but none of these are bad in themsleves. Righteous anger or fear for your children are good things, right? My explanation here is for disorders - not for something as normal as anger or fear.
I did not say religion advocates celibacy. My exact line was Celibacy during adolescence. Hindus, ofcourse, prescribe celibacy during adolescence (in the rules for Brahmachraya). You also mention other Indian religions - Buddhist and Jain monks are not allowed to marry. So, my statement is accurate.
You are right in saying Freud managed assisted suicide - but he was a cancer victim who had to endure 30 operations to prevent the malignant cancer in his mouth. Maybe he should just have sat and prayed for God to help him. I don't know. This is, of course, why psychotherapy is a science - the life and death of its founders do not detract from its own powerful ideas. Frued's life and work have saved millions from a life cowering under their fellow men and an invisible God.

Sridhar said...

I wasn't aware on the success of Psychiatrists in treating mental disorders. Are all mental disorders including OCDs treated with just counseling or do the treatments include drugs?

As far as lust, anger and fear - being different from OCD, I do not see much of a difference except in the magnitude of the problem.

Celibacy in adolescence is something that can be argued forever. The Indian custom has been to have the boys marry at around 12 years of age, until the early 1900s. And celibacy is prescribed for only for monks who stay away from the rest of the society and not for common men and women. If there were cases of OCDs before 1900s, I hope they were not because of celibacy during adolescence.

I have come across a few OCD patients. I do not know or discount their childhood traumas, but there seems to be a physiological pattern that makes them vulnerable in abusive situations. Malnutrition and physical abuse by relations, aggravates the problem.

My view was, for most patients, the environment that they were exposed to, created or worsened the problem. So, to reverse it, you obviously need love and care. Schizophrenia patients had a higher rate of recovery in societies where the family structures are in tact to support the patients. So, I would consider the intangible love as one key requirement for treating mental disorders.

Arvind said...

Nice post.

My 2 cents :-)

Psychology, as a discipline, has now has moved farther and farther away from Freud... Starting with
the criticism about the egocentirc/ethnocentric nature of his theories.. seeing things from the perspective of the culture he was born into.. wherein sex was strictly taboo at that time... Also, he was very atached to his mother.. which again formed the base for his theory about oedipal complex.

Jung extended his ideas about the unconsious into 'collective unconsious' and 'archetypes'...

Archetypes are not biological things like freud's instincts but they are spiritual demands.

So in this case, freud's oedipus theory became the mother archetype symbolized by the primordial
mother earth.

'Mana' archetype represents Phallus, but unlike Freud, it symbolizes spiritual power. Jung
extended it further to Anima, Synchronicity etc.. which had lotsa spiritual overtones to it. He even wrote detailed articles about Ramana Maharishi('the whitest of the white spots') et all.

Then came Erik eriksson, who gave social overtones to Freud's theories... elobarating (rather
negating) freud's "psychosexual" stages (oral/anal/phallic/latent) into 8 "psychosocial" stages and telling that repression during the childhood alone might not be the cause for neurosis at a later stage.

By this time, there were many significant voices which proposed alternative/varied versions of
freud's. Viktor Frankl being the most significant, whom i really admire/respect.

As a young jewish budding psychologist from Vienna, he was unfortunately caught during the period of holocaust and was sent to Dachau & Austzwisch. Somehow, he managed to survive the horrors of the concentration camp and later, penned down his experiences into one beautiful beautiful little book called 'Man's search for Meaning', which formed the crux of his theories called

He argues that, humans are much more than the gigantic clash between the forces of id & superego, biology & society..much more than succumbing to the instincts & drives.

Logotheraphy postulates a will to meaning. 'Meaning is something to discover rather than to
invent.It has a reality of its own, independent of our minds." , he says.

He understands humans as beings who always have this urge to sense out some meaning out of their
everyday existence. And it is precisely this lack of meaning( or rather, their inability to
discover meaning) which takes form & structure in some form of neurosis (aggression,depression,
OCD, addiction, suicidal tendencies, existential angst, vacuum et all).

"Everything can be taken from a man but ...the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's
attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.A man who becomes conscious
of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the "why" for his existence,
and will be able to bear almost any 'how'! "
Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

From Frankl to Eric Fromm to Carl Rogers to Piaget..psychology moved & wandered in various
directions.. It is now at a stage wherein, deriving from the insights of all these magnificient
theorists, it is trying to sum it up into one all inclusive, transpersonal 'Integral
psychology'- a term coined by Ken Wilber. Wilber tries to accomodate insights derived across
disciplines & theories.. ranging from Heraclitus to Plato to Descartes... from Kant to Hegel to
Marx to Focault to Habermas. From Galileo to Kepler to Newton to Heisenberg to Einstein.. From William James to Freud to Jung to Frakl. From Buddha to
Adi Shankara to Ramanar... into one all embracing, profoundly beautiful theory.

Arvind said...

>>>'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).'>>>

hmm.. correct me if i am wrong.. actually ID is Instincual Drives and not Identity, as popularly misunderstood. ID is somewhat synonymous with the unconscious (and not with Ego) which is the storehouse of repressed emotions, animal insticts etc. Staunch Freudians refute the usage of subconscious to mean unconscious, since they feel there are differences between the two.

So, it is ID(biology,unconscious),
Superego(society) & Ego(Self, Identity).

vishesh said...

/*Psychology says this is impossible to do and an absurd goal to attain. There is no need to feel guilty about your thoughts.*/

many people confuse meditation for mind controlling,it is actually letting your thoughts go,sometimes it also involves a kind of weird is letting your self go......

i know what you are talking about...what is life?this is a question i ask myself everytime i become depressed and i come out of it....the human mind has this ability to be trained,it is left to us to see what we want to do...there are many people who are driving people crazy(in the cliched sense),they tell you that everything wrong? i ask how can anything be wrong?

you haven't written about peer pressure and ragging...sometimes when stuff go over board you are driven to end your life....even more you give up living,just hoping you wake up dead.....what is required is that people try to understand each other....i know how much it hurts...if you complain about ragging and adults compare your life style with poorer children's then you feel even more miserable....i have been through a very very lean period in my life,when everyone jointly passed a no relation motion with me in was as horrible as it could get...friend less and your parents are ill....what really helped me was the responsibility of being a elder bro....whatever problems i faced all i wanted to do was to be there when my sister may face the same problem.
Now that i know about it,i seriously see people and try to understand their you said it is mostly because of insecurity....i have written a little about my experience in my latest post....