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Psychology Strategies for Coping With Stress

Although the holiday  break of Thanksgiving is coming, making the lastsolving_problems-1[1] week of November seem longer than it is once we are dining with our families and thinking about what to snag on Black Friday, the return to Penn State will shatter us back into a reality of struggle as we prep for final exams or add finishing touches to our final papers. According to the modern psychology, stress can come in different forms and bring different impacts. Catastrophes are unexpected and cause massive stress, while hassles are daily annoyances ranging from burning your tongue on a cup of coffee or failing to the perfect knot on our ties. One could further divide stressors to situations where the person has or does not have control, with the uncontrollable stressors being the more strenuous. But one thing these stressors all have in common is change. Maybe it’s your environment or your friend. Even if your life had never changed for 10 years and you become bored of your lifestyle, you still experience a change in attitude.negative_684275f[1]

    So how do we deal with change and the stress it will cause? They’re two ways to first look at a situation before coming up with the plan, which brings us to emotion-coping methods and problem-solving methods. Emotion-coping is to change the way one feels about the stress, therefore assuaging the problem. For example, smiling even when the expression is not genuine, is shown to genuinely reduce stress levels. Problem-based solutions are looking at what steps can one take in order to make the problem go away. People stressed about a paper may break down the problem into smaller hassles and then proceed one step at a time until the paper is completed. Notice how situations can call for different types of stress reduction. Emotion-coping works better with problems that are uncontrollable, while problem solving methods cannot help solve unchangeable problems.

The Mind-Body Problem

neuroscience[1]The problem of what humans should care about, a life purpose if you2007-02-11%20Mind-body-problem[1] wish to call it by that name, is one that is not by any stretch of the definition ‘solved’, and a consensus on what life’s important gifts are seems too far over the horizon. Some take refuge in work, keeping themselves busy until it’s hello darkness my old friend. Religion, family, science, and the goal of just obtaining stuff (greed) are also present in discussions of the ‘right’ way to live.

The concept that I would like to contribute to the conversation is called that of maintaining a content consciousness. Remember that thoughts, emotions, and expressing and receiving expressions are all perturbations of consciousness. The five smells become a meaningless statement when consciousness is lost. The other previously mentioned paths one could take to a meaningful life are also impossible without consciousness. The consolations of religion and the advancements of science don’t mean anything to us if these activities don’t alter consciousness. Would a prayer in church have an effect without the mental tools to analyze music and lyrics? Would the creation of an elevator have an effect on our stress level if the difference between excruciating pain and good health was undetectable? If we want to live happy lives, then we should conduct more research on consciousness and it forms.

The first question to ask if whether consciousness is actually physical. Whether consciousness can be removed by taking apart the human body, or whether consciousness itself is immaterial. This is known as the mind body problem in philosophy. Religious tend to believe the consciousness is immaterial and will float off the brain at death, while neuroscientists tend to believe that consciousness is connected to the brain, and may or may not change after death. But for the brain to be connected to consciousness isn’t the same as being dependent on the brain. Being dependent would mean that without the brain, there is no consciousness. Being connected is to say that the brain is a part of consciousness, which has been shown through various neuroscience experiments

That is unfortunately all we can claim to know about consciousness, as it is a puzzle with pieces still missing. Regardless, I believe we should rally around the experimenters and philosophers who still attempt to solve this problem, as the answer could have serious moral and spiritual implications.

Halloween Costumes

Halloween is a celebration that began in Celtic Ireland during its pagan years. It was believed that on summer’s end, evil spirits would roam amongst the living, and curse the peasants so they wouldn’t survive the winter. To ward off and confuse the evil spirits, the people dressed as to look like them. Therefore, variations of ghouls, the undead, and ghost costumes were the original choices of costumes. The tradition was brought over to America by an influx of Irish citizens who were escaping the potato famine. Overtime, as people believed less in the doctrines of evil spirits, costumes like fireman, fictional characters, and heroes became readily accepted. This is how Halloween has evolved into the celebration we know it as.

I broke the promise of staying to the topic of philosophy and psychology in order to dispute an ad campaign that I saw throughout buildings on the Penn State campus. The ad features a sad child looking at a picture of a costume that depicts a culture. culture4[2]“We are a culture, not a costume, and this is not okay”. Pictures have ranged from condemning suicide bomber costumes, Asian costumes, and others. These ads weren’t the only pushback from a politically correct stance during the Halloween season. Celebrities like Nicki Minaj have come out condemning a hilarious and well created costume of Bill Cosby, saying that our culture is too desensitized.

To start with an inexpensive observation, it seems to me Nicki Minaj isn’t the best spokesperson to talk about the problems of desensitization. Here’s a link to the music video Anaconda. I’ll let my readers decide which draws most of their attention.Bill-Cosby-Halloween-costume[1]

While Halloween has not also been about satire, the costumes people wear can be a political statement or just plain fun. Take the Bill Cosby costume for example; what was the message of the person who wore the costume? Was it joy over the fact that injustice like rape with the assistance of pharmaceuticals could occur? Or was he calling attention to the injustice? How is this any different than crude satire? If we can safely make fun of the Chris Christie in a baseball jersey, or Demi Lovato when she’s called out on live TV, we should safely be able to satire current events, using words or costumes. Live a little people!

The Psychology of the Brain

Do you enjoy moving your body? What about eating sushi, or choosing what to wear in the morning before school? If so, then you may want to tip your hat to the 1.4 kilograms of porridge sack in your head called the brain. The brain safeguards all these functions for us, keeping us both alive and conscious. The brain does this by dividing up the workload between sections of the brain, which is noticeable through a few tricks of neuroscience. One way to discover how parts of the brain operate is to find patients with parts of their brains missing, and compare those subjects with people that have fully functional brains. For example, people with damaged temporal lobes are deaf, because the auditory cortex which processes neural information received from the ears is in the temporal lobe. Another way of deciphering meaning from parts are scans from machines like EEGs, which place electrical nodes on the eeg%20machine-6[1]scalp of the patient, which detect which parts of the brain fire off neurons, or brain cells. The parts where neurons fire signify which parts are working. An experiment that requires subjects to listen to music found that music stimulates the auditory cortex, cerebrum, cerebellum, and the limbic system. EEG are also currently being tested as lie detector tests, because psychologists theorize that lying and telling the truth stimulate different parts of the brain. So dividing up the brain into parts with specific functions is a way to help both medical, physical, and psychiatric psychologists, and there are a few general ways to separate the brain.

The Left and Right Distinction

The easiest way to separate the brain is by dividing up the brain into two halves; left and right. The lateralization of the brain theory suggests that each side of the brain has tasks that it can do better than the other side of the brain, based on the work of Roger Sperry. Sperry found a way to sever the connection between the hemispheres, and conducted visual and somatic tests and concluded that while our brains work together, and accomplish more when connected, when severed, the hemispheres of the brain tended to outperform each other on certain tasks. The left side of the brain is better at language, logic, critical thinking, etc. The right hemisphere is better at music, colors, facial recognition, and creativity.

The Four LobesLobes_of_the_brain_NL.svg_[1]

For a more precise distinction, consider the four lobes of the brain. The frontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital. The frontal lobe is in the front of our brain and is responsible for critical thinking. The parietal lobe is responsible for somatic senses and sense of body in the universe, and is found behind the frontal lobe. The temporal lobe is on the sides of the brain, and is responsible for hearing. The occipital lobe is in the back of the brain and is responsible for sight.

The Psychology of Addiction

Addicts can be defined as “an enthusiastic devotee of a specified thing or activity.” While this definition leaves room for things we colloquially consider pleasurable but not addicting, (gambling, sex, Thai food) the focus of this blog post will be on the addiction of psychoactive drugs. These are chemical substances that alter thinking, perception, memory, or some

Black and white portrait of a young man covering his face, perhaps in shame or exhaustion. A bottle of pills is spilled in front of him. Has film grain at full size.

Black and white portrait of a young man covering his face, perhaps in shame.

combination of the abilities. When discussing words like addict and drugs, the word defendant usually comes to mind. While you might be able to guess the definition, there is a slight nuance in dependence from the physical to the psychological.

Physical dependence is the body’s need of the drug in order to function at a normal level. People with physical addiction might be tired during the day, forget to eat, or may attempt to use other drugs in order to sooth symptoms. Psychological addiction is the addict’s belief that the drug is needed because it produces positive effects like euphoria or a sense of meaning. This belief is not always true, because sometimes the psychological addiction can be a trick of the mind. All drugs can psychological dependent, but some drugs lack the physically addicting qualities. While physical addiction has immediate and detrimental consequences, one of the downsides of psychological addiction is that psychological dependencies can last a lifetime.drugs[1]

The chances of physical and psychological addiction can depend on two things; the type of  neurotransmitters the substances uses and the type of substance. Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that are released as neurons communicate with each other. Drugs can mimic or inhibit these receptors, messing with the natural production of them. Dopamine is an example of a neurotransmitter that has a ‘reward pathway system’ in the brain, and often leads to dependence. Substances that mimic dopamine are nicotine and cocaine. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that can inhibit or excite your nervous system, but lacks a reward pathway. This may explain why substances like LSD or magic mushrooms, which control serotonin receptors, have virtually no physical addiction.

    Three general types of drugs are stimulants, depressants, and hallucinogens. Stimulants like cocaine and caffeine excite the nervous system (you may have heard the street term “uppers”), depressants like tranquilizers and alcohol slow down the nervous system, and hallucinogens like PCP and LSD create false sensory images, stemming from the 5 senses.

The Psychology Behind Blink

The central theme in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink is called thin-slicing, the snap judgments we make. Thin-slicing judgments occur in our adaptive unconscious, which contains mental tricks that operate without our awareness of them. This shouldn’t be confused with Freud’s views of unconscious, which was where thoughts about primary instincts that, if surfaced, would cause mass panic. So the adaptive unconscious is our second method of decision making (the first being conscious processing) and operates on a extremely limited time scale. The book is titled Blink because thin-slicing lasts 2 seconds long at most.blink[1]

Thin-slicing probably evolved in order to make quick decisions when humans were in a period of history were knowledge was scarce. As this is the case, thin-slicing only occurs in instinctual matter. You cannot use thin-slicing for decided where to go on your next family vacation. Considering destinations, pricing, attractions, and other reasons for vacationing require conscious processing. The adaptive unconscious is not interested in these dilemmas. Consider meeting someone for the first time. Your first impression will be influenced by your adaptive unconscious, because you don’t have enough data of the person in order to decide whether or not you will make nice. So it comes to a snap judgment for you.

Although judgments are rendered quickly, this is not to say that the judgments cannot be trusted. Blink’s example of thin-slicing was to show students a picture of a teacher and ask for their first impression, the video itself being two seconds long, just enough for the adaptive unconscious. Then the researchers asked for reviews of the same teacher to kids who had been in the class for the entire semester. The results were considered to be quite correlated, and a deeper analysis of the study can be found here.

Another example of snap-judgments was the experiment done by the University of Iowa. They created a gambling game with two decks of red cards and two decks a blue cards. Each card awards a sum of money or costs a sum, with the goal being to reached a fixed amount. Choosing one card at a time from any deck, the player’s task was to figure out through trial and error that the only way to win was to pick cards from the blue deck. The red deck, unbeknownst to the participants, was filled with either great gains or devastating losses. Given the results of the experiment, there’s evidence to conclude that our adaptive unconscious reached the answer to the game a full 70 cards before our conscious processing figures it out. A excerpt of the passages detailing the experiment can be found here.Malcolm-Gladwell[1]

Gladwell makes clear that  unconscious processing cannot replace conscious processing, as thinking and rationality are our best tools against situations that harbor complexity. Gladwell posits this is not true across the board. “And what do we tell our children? Haste makes waste. Look before you leap. Stop and think. Don’t judge a book by it’s cover… The first task of Blink is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.” Whether or not thin-slicing and rationality can be called inferior or superior to each other doesn’t bare much weight on the existence of either system. The nuance is one worth learning, and the book was a pleasure to read.

Psychological Schools: Old Schools

Psychoanalysis

In this photo released by the Sigmund Freud Museum in Vienna former Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud is pictured in his working room in 1938. Austria and the world will be celebrating Sigmund Freud's 150th birthday on Saturday May 6, 2006. (AP Photo/Sigmund Freud Museum)

In this photo released by the Sigmund Freud Museum in Vienna former Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud is pictured in his working room in 1938. Austria and the world will be celebrating Sigmund Freud’s 150th birthday on Saturday May 6, 2006. (AP Photo/Sigmund Freud Museum)

Psychoanalysis was first coined by Viennese psychologist Sigmund Freud, who started his career diagnosing and treating neurological disorders. To help understand the disorders, he posited that most problems in conscious took place in a different part of the brain, called the unconscious. The broad definition of the unconscious is the repressed thoughts and memories we have that, if surfaced, would cause us depression, anxiety and psychosis. For example, our dreams, Freud said, were the “royal road to our unconscious”. This would be an attempt to explain the blatant confusing or “sexual” nature of dreams. He said our conscious goals or intentions had psychological underpinnings in the unconscious, as our true intent of life are our primary reinforces; food, water, sex, and shelter. If we were too obvious about our true intentions, society might collapse, and therefore we need to repress these thoughts. Psychoanalysis has lacked strong scientific evidence, and is no longer prescribed as an actual practice. However, Freud’s theories have been modified in a way that sex and the unconscious plays less of a role. A few modifiers have been  Anna Freud and Carl Jung.

Gestalt Psychology

Gestalt comes from the German word ‘shape’, and is referred to studying psychology using the “big picture”. The famous quote from gestalt psychology is “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” For example, consider a cell phone. If I were to take apart a cell phone, I would no longer have a cell  phone. I would just have a combination of single gears and buttons. Only by viewing the human as a whole collection of physical characteristics, memories, and bran states would we be able to figure out more about brain state. While gestalt is no longer used, the school has had an impact on cognitive psychology, which deals with memories in relations to physical parts of the brain.

Functionalism

Functionalism has roots in physical behavior, but differs from behaviorists in that they don’t study any kinds of behavior. Functionalism’s main focus is to see our organisms behave in order to survive. Functionalism would study the claws on predatory birds, why ants are pitifully weak creatures, yet manage to survive longer than humans, etc. This school of psychology is n longer referred to as functionalism, but has been a huge foundation for evolutionary psychology, based of the work of Charles Darwin. Some current evolutionary psychologists are Richard Dawkins and the late Stephen J. Gould. richard_dawkins2-620x412

Psychology on the Origins of Religion

Before I begin to discuss the possible origins of religion, I feel it best to start with a few remarks, as to assure people of what I am trying to accomplish in this blog post. The first would be to underline a word in the previous sentence: possible. These are only theories and should be treated as such. Needless to say, these theories don’t have the same weight under them as something like the ‘theory’ of gravity, but are nonetheless interesting to ponder. The second disclaimer is to assure readers that this post is not an overt attack on religious people. I am no friend to religious ideology, and my views are obvious to those who know me. Still, to attack religion unprovoked doesn’t sit well with me, as I try to only show my contempt for ideas when pushed into a corner. Paul Bloom claims that studying why people are religious is axiomatically seen as a threat to those who are religious, and I hope those who see this post aren’t subject to the same misunderstanding. The fact of the existence of a deity, and how we’ve come to belief specific religious doctrines is in some sense a non sequitur. With that said, I’d like to grace across these possibilities with the theories of the father of psychoanalysis, a capitalist theorist, and the founder of Skeptic Magazine.

Sigmund Freudfreud

The father of the field of Psychoanalysis, this Viennese psychology posited that religion is a byproduct of our evolutionary instinct to fear death. He acknowledged the inescapable correlation between our species fear of death and our religious doctrines that include a concept of an afterlife. Since no man can escape death, we’ve come to belief that death itself is an illusion, which can be seen as consoling. Hence beliefs about an afterlife. I realize that not all religions suspect an afterlife, but enough do so in order to make the point valid.

 

Karl MarxMarx_Karl-Marx

When discussing Karl Marx’s Views on religion many will be incredibly lazy in digging up what he said in his critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, and only supplement his view in a single sentence. ”Religion is the opium of the people.” The words are his own, but put in context, it’s clear he viewed religion as our way of acknowledging the inequities of the world, and additionally our protest against them. “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the spirit of a spiritless situation.. it is the opium of the people.” So he compared it to medicine that humans needed in order to be happy.

Michael Shermeruntitled

Mr. Shemer sees religion as a social invention, with a keen interest in keeping people behaving morally. Take the crime of murder for example. Imagine yourself in the Indus River Valley, one of homo sapiens first real civilizations. Now imagine yourself as a government official, tasked with keeping order in a chaotic world. You are deprived of the technologies of DNA testing, fingerprinting, or any other criminal justice technique which will only be discovered in future civilizations. So solving murder on your own might be challenging. What can you do, besides educate people on religion? Tell them that there’s an all-powerful being, that watches everything you do and knows your thought. AND his views happen to line up with whatever political regime is in place. AND that if you do follow the orders of this deity to the letter, you will be rewarded handsomely. Law breakers, of course, will be sent to an eternity of punishment. What keeps people in line more than a Big Brother? It seems that Eric Blair owes ancient civilizations some royalty checks.

Limits of Empathy

What sounds more appropriate if one wishes to express solidarity or comfort; “I empathize with you”, or “I sympathize with you” ? I would rather hear sympathize myself, and according to a conversation between Sam Harris and Paul Bloom, one should be aware of those who use the former, as empathy has what Bloom termed as ‘moral limits’

The distinction may be easier to see once we define our terms properly. Sympathy can be described as feelings of pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune, while empathy is merely comprehending the emotions and mental state someone is in. If we make the assumption that feeling pity on someone else’s behalf requires an understanding of their situation, it follows that sympathy is a special form of empathy. Simply put, all sympathy has a empathetic basis, but empathy is not confined to feelings of compassion.

Bullying

Bloom asks us to consider the case of the generic high school bully. The reason bullies are good at what they do is precisely because they can accurately comprehend how their actions will affect their victims. They use empathy as a way of prediction, where their intuitions are used in a negative way. Another example of toxic empathy is that of a psychopath. If I were to ask an audience if psychopaths had empathy, they might be tempted to deny that psychopaths could possess such mental capacity. But to execute deception, one needs empathy. Knowing which mental states produce more gullibility than others, and knowing how to identify when those states arise, requires an understanding of mental states and emotions. To manipulate, one needs empathy. Again, certain mental states may create a psyche that is more submissive, and identifying these states requires a comprehension of the victim. For an example that is telling yet entertaining, re-watch The Dark Knight, playing close to how the Joker makes sinister use of empathy.

ledger-as-the-joker

I think a reminder of the word ‘moral limits’ would be useful to repeat in my conclusion, because empathy is moral neutral, rather than morally evil or kind. Consider by analogy, the science of warfare. War provides incentives for innovation of technology. Computers, for example, were originally an invention for the military. But the science of war also provided us with ICBMs and agent orange. The ethics of the science were determined by the circumstance, and by what kind of software was running in the brains of the scientists.

The Psychology and Philosophy of Morality

moral crocodile-ploverPsychology

The psychology of morality can be viewed in terms of an evolutionary perspective. Evolution has conditioned us to behave morally, because it has a few beneficial products worth putting on the table. First, it aids in our survival. Over 98% of all species that have ever been on this planet have gone extinct, and I attribute some of our success as a species to our ability to form tribes, work in groups, to love one another,  and to act morally. Another positive aspect is that being moral increases our own happiness. The website Digital Journal ponders over a study that claims having no friends has similar effects to smoking 15 cigarettes daily. I would consider moral behavior towards people as an essential component of friendship. One can also look at morality from a utilitarian perspective, which is to say “you scratch my back, I scratch yours.” This is observable in other species besides homo sapiens. Egyptian plovers have been known to fly into the mouths of crocodiles in order to eat the food stuck in between the reptile’s teeth. Instead of eating the bird, the crocodile allows the bird to eat, as he gets his teeth cleaned in the process. So morality can be a means to an end, but heartwarming no less.

Philosophy

The best philosopher I know on the subject of morality is the author Sam Harris. In Sam’s book, The Moral Landscape, he attempts to describe how morality relates to changes in conscious creatures. He uses the example of a universe only constituting rocks. Since rocks are not conscious, there cannot be anything known as a moral decision. If rocks cannot feel joy or pain, there is no basis for morality. So conscious life is needed for morality. But who’s to say which conscious creatures deserves the more attention than others? Harris argues that the complexity of the creature is the answer. The more intricate a creature is in terms of a brain and nervous system, the more pain or happiness it can feel. The larger the delta between the best possible scenario and the worst possible misery, the more careful it should be treated. This would explain why we kill flies without hesitation but are more distressed about killing mammals.