Archive for December, 2016

A tale of two diseases

I have Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). I am also bipolar.

Now which of the above statements shocked/ surprised you more? If I am guessing correctly the latter statement about my being bipolar came across as more of a shock/ surprise/ concern. Now what does that say about your own reactions to mental illness and your own involvement in perpetuating the stigma against mental illness?

Both of the above are chronic diseases to an extent. My OSA (snoring in popular parlance) cannot be treated by surgery, so the only viable option I have is to use a CPAP machine while sleeping to get a good night’s sleep. Bipolar disorder as we all know can only be contained, and I take my medicines regularly to ensure that there are no relapse into either a manic or a depressive episode.

Both, if un-diagnosed and untreated can cause havoc. OSA which was un-diagnosed/ untreated for about a couple of years or so in my case led to excessive daytime drowsiness, less alertness and lowered productively etc; if untreated OSA can cause increased risk of injury to self and others while driving as you may actually get into micro sleeps while driving. Even if not that dramatic, on a daily basis the quality of your sleep and waking life can become very diminished.  The downsides of having a manic or depressive episodes are well known- at least to readers of this blog. However, what may be less well known is that even in the throes of psychotic extremes, the risk to others from violence by bipolar people is very little and if anything they may be subjected to violence than otherwise.

When treated, that is when I use my CPAP machine regularly I have no problems at all due to my OSA either in my work life or in my personal life – I am as refreshed in morning as ever. Rather I believe I might be getting better sleep than the average person. When treated, that is when I regularly use medicine, and take other precautions like having regular sleep cycles etc for my bipolar, I am totally episode free- rather I believe I have an advantage when it comes to managing my energy and mood.

However, given all the above, which disclosure do you think has drastically lowered my chances of employment (if I was seeking employment, which I am thankfully not:-)); which disclosure would have led to discrimination in the workplace or at least got me some amused and funny looks? About which of these are my friends and acquaintances likely to gossip more? Why as a society we are still not that accepting of mental illness and stigmatize those who have it?

Some immediate consequences I can think of:

  1. readers of The Mouse Trap will no longer take my interest in psychology as non-partisan. They will think of me as being interested in psychology only due to my being bipolar (to set the record straight I became interested in psychology in 1996 during my IIT delhi days, while my first episode happened while I worked with Hughes in 2001).  Also when I take a position like association of biploar with creativity, I will be considered biased; however nobody will say that a ‘normal’ person advocating otherwise is biased due to his being ‘normal’.
  2. Some will start to see signs of craziness in my old/ new posts and wonder whether when I was writing them I was in a normal frame of mind or episodic. Its usually my style to try and combine seemingly disparate research ideas and that is especially prone to this analysis.
  3. I will start getting sympathy, but like anyone living with say OSA or diabetes etc I think one should just ignore the fact about my being bipolar and not let it redefine my relationship with you. I am much more than a person with bipolar or OSA, and I prefer it that way.
  4. there will be some embarrassment for my near and dear ones.

Why did I not disclose for so many years?

  1. because I feared discrimination (and funny looks) at the workplace. It might have been imaginary but I was not strong enough to experiment. Now that I am self employed the stakes are much lower and I don’t care.
  2. I myself was grappling with my being bipolar. For initial some years it was hard to accept; later I struggled with accepting medication as necessary ; but now for quite some years I am at peace and thankfully episode free.
  3. As I believe it never affected adversely my performance at work , I did not deemed it necessary to inform my employers etc as I thought ,and still think, its none of their business.

Why did I decide to disclose publicly about this?

  1. I have no delusions (pun intended) that I am Deepika Padukone that my talking about a mental health issue is going to raise awareness drastically; still I want to do my bit to fight stigma and the journey starts with oneself. I had a decent career in software despite my being biploar and being biploar hasn’t stopped me from taking risks and experimenting with a second career; hopefully that can inspire or provide mental support to a person or two.
  2. Some immediate triggers- a mouse trap reader on facebook privately messaged me asking if I only have theoretical knowledge about psychosis etc or if I had some personal experiences too. I think it was a legitimate question that deserves a legitimate answer.
  3. Another immediate trigger- I came across a tweet by https://twitter.com/akhileshlinky about his year end ‘confession’ about being bipolar and I though heck why not ‘come out’ yourself.
  4. but really, it doesn’t matter to me one way or other – the only upside of sharing more publicly is that it can help combat stigma.

 

What I expect from you?

  1. don’t define me exclusively as being biploar.
  2. reflect on your own attitudes about mental illness and try to overcome that implicit bias
  3. resist discrimination and stigma

Lastly, thanks are due to my family and friends who have been prone to this ‘secret’ over the years and who have provided the necessary support and encouragement.

The books that shaped my 2016

‘Love of learning’ in VIA and ‘Learner’ in Gallup, is one of my top strengths, and it typically manifests as either participating in a lot of MOOC‘s or reading a lot of books. I’m trying to move more towards learning by doing, and moving more towards applied concerns, but I guess some reflection on the books I read in 2016 and which left a mark on me are in order.

I read a total of 16 books completely in 2016 as per goodreads, and I had set a challenge of reading at least 25 books in the year, so I did fall short of target.

Not all books I read made a lasting impact and here are the ones that did.

First off, I read Poke, from start to finish, on the very first day of the year and here is my review that I posted on goodreads.

Started the new year in a meta way by reading this book about starting and initiating, and found it such an interesting read that finished it in one setting. A really good book to hone up your ‘Activator’ strength. Motivated to start and ship ( and fail, and succeed) multiple projects this year.

And that set the tone for the year, where I did start multiple times, and fail and fail fast, and maybe ship once or twice too.

 

Next up was Leadership, again a short book finished in a short time with an equally short review:
Leadership: What Every Leader Needs to KnowLeadership: What Every Leader Needs to Know by John C. Maxwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

a good short read about why and how to increase your influence

View all my reviews

 

A book I had looked forward with great anticipation was Peak and I was not disappointed. I have already posted a detailed review of Peak on this blog.
While Peak was focused on how you can use the principles of deliberate practice for achieving excellence, the book Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia, was about the other set of outliers, those who experience abnormal thoughts and perceptions and how we can better appreciate the ‘psychotic’ condition.

Understanding Psychosis and SchizophreniaUnderstanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia by Anne Cooke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A radically different , and much needed approach to understanding the ‘psychotic’ experiences. This books brings a humane as well as a much more science informed (which doesn’t mean a medical model ) approach to the whole topic and is an essential reading for all involved !

View all my reviews

 

One book that made a deep impression on me and that I found very practical and useful was Life coaching.
Life Coaching: A Cognitive-Behavioural ApproachLife Coaching: A Cognitive-Behavioural Approach by Michael Neenan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

a superb book and must read for all coaches; its CBT approach complements the positive psychology focus that I am more steeped in. Draws from practical experience and with coaching sessions examples is easy to relate to! highly recomnended!!

View all my reviews

 

Another book that left a deep mark and was very informative, motivating and useful to the work I do with children was Helping Children Succeed.
Helping Children Succeed: What Works and WhyHelping Children Succeed: What Works and Why by Paul Tough
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An excellent book for all parents, teachers, educators and policy makers …freely available here: http://www.paultough.com/helping/web/ …the online version has many embedded resources like videos etc and makes for a unique reading experience.

The only gripe is that Paul Tough, equates grit/ resilience with non-cognitive skills and makes a case that they cannot be taught in the traditional sense of the word; however many other character strengths like gratitude , forgiveness, kindness can be inculcated by giving daily homework assignments etc.

View all my reviews

 

A book that was OK types, but very useful from a coaching perspective was Triggers.
Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts--Becoming the Person You Want to BeTriggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts–Becoming the Person You Want to Be by Marshall Goldsmith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Marshall Goldsmith is more towards the Coaching for Compliance camp; while I lean towards Coaching with Compassion (as defined by Richard Boyatzis) ; still this is a pretty good read for anyone interested in adult behavioral change.

View all my reviews

 

I also managed to read Coping a book focused on applying positive psychology principles to how to cope in life. It is an edited collection of articles from leading psychologists and was very useful.
Coping: The Psychology Of What WorksCoping: The Psychology Of What Works by C.R. Snyder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was written when positive psychology had still not come of age; but this book on how to cope has a distinctly positive psychology spin to it. It has chapters on hope, optimism, mastery thinking and benefit finding – all dear to the positive psychology movement. Written by eminent authors in their fields, this easy to read collection of articles around the theme of coping is a good read for those related to the field of mental health/ counseling/ positive psychology.

View all my reviews

 

Another book that like Poke, gave me the confidence to be creative in my endeavors was Creative Confidence. I juts love this book.
Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us AllCreative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All by Tom Kelley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a gem of a book! For anyone who thinks of himself as a not-so-creative person, this book is a must-read (and must-do) to instill the much required confidence to be creative. For someone who already thinks that he has creative streaks, this book will fuel his/her creativity by providing rich tools and thinking grounded in the design thinking philosophy.
Read this book once, or twice, but more important —this is a book to do and try things, so try the suggested activities and tips a hundred times till you gain enough confidence. I wish this book was more widely read and I had chanced on it earlier!

View all my reviews

 

Another book that I partly re-read this year, because I hadn’t finished earlier was A First Rate Madness. This book and the Understanding Psychosis… book shows my fascination with the neurodiverse mind.
A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental IllnessA First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness by S. Nassir Ghaemi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting perspective that mental abnormality and illness may confer some really cool benefits when it comes to leadership. Books like this will hopefully reduce stigma associated with mental illness. A brave effort indeed by Ghaemi to retrospectively diagnose many leaders with mental health and illness and make his case. Not a typical psychology book, but more of psychobiography of prominent leaders. A good read nevertheless.

View all my reviews

 

Regular readers of The Mouse Trap will notice my leaning towards philosophical issues like existentialism for some time. One such book that made me reflect deeply about meaning was Meaning in Life.
Meaning in Life and Why It MattersMeaning in Life and Why It Matters by Susan R. Wolf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A very clear, accessible and important treatise on meaningfulness and its importance in life. Susan Wolf writes very clearly and makes some important contributions; which are followed by equally lucid commentaries by other philosophers and psychologists and then her response that tries to tie everything together.
Wish more philosophy books were as clear and engaging as this was. Gave me new ideas and those are subject for another day/ blog-post!

View all my reviews

 

To make progress towards my 2016 challenge I picked this book which is a comparatively short read, but I wasn’t decided and though I finished this in a couple of days, I just gained a lot of perspective from this book.
The Mind of an ApeThe Mind of an Ape by David Premack
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fascinating insight into the chimpanzee mind. I had read ‘original intelligence’ by David and Ann Premack quite a few years back and had admired the book a lot, so had great expectations from this book, and this book delivered, and how!
If you are fascinated by how experiments are done with animals (in this case chimpanzees) then this book is a must read. It will be especially helpful to those interested in comparative cognition and language abilities.

View all my reviews

 

The last book which I read in 2016 and which has made me ponder a lot is 80,000 hours- its supposed to resolve your mid life crises, but might have triggered one in me—-just kidding!!
80,000 Hours: Find a fulfilling career that does good80,000 Hours: Find a fulfilling career that does good by Benjamin Todd
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

a wonderful guide to choosing the right career, especially relevant to those who want to have a social impact or ‘make a difference’. The advice is research backed, grounded in psychology principles, and while being value laden to an extent, is also very pragmatic.
If only all self-help advice and non-profit functioning was as rigorous as the 80,000 hrs looks to be!

View all my reviews

 

What a way to end the year!! Which books did you read in this year and which made a lasting impression on you?

Memory and Reasoning: Insight from Apes

I have been reading the excellent book ‘The mind of an ape‘ by David and Ann Premack and also enrolled in a MOOC tiled ‘Origins of the human mind’ offered by Dr. Matsuzawa, so apes have been on top of my mind recently.

Prof Matsuzawa describes an experimental procedure where numerals from 1 to 9 are very briefly displayed on the screen and then masked and the chimpanzee is required to touch the numerals, displayed randomly on the screen briefly, and now invisible as are masked, in ascending order. The chimpanzee is able to perform the task at 80% accuracy, a feat at which if human subjects try they can never succeed (humans perform at 0% accuracy).

We typically pride ourselves as being the epitome of civilization and cognitive abilities, but its humbling to find that there are tasks at which the chimpanzee can excel! This task, in particular, requires immediate memory (sensory/short-term memory) which it seems is better in the chimp.

The different experiments on the chimp also made me think about the underlying structure of memory and reasoning systems. Like humans, it seems chimps too have two different reasoning systems- one tuned to physical world and the other to social/agentic world.

The physical reasoning system is attuned to thinking about causal reasons between psychical objects and events. The question of concern is ‘what caused what?’ . One needs to have a (rudimentary) theory of cause and effect. Some basic understanding of physics is necessary and is instrumental in the development of the capacity of tool use. As a matter of fact too use is one of the ways this physical reasoning system is studied.

The social /agentic reasoning system is attuned to thinking about other con-specifics/ living creatures. It attributes intentions to people and answers ‘who did what to whom?’. One needs to have a (rudimentary) theory of mind to know that others have intentions/ beliefs/ desires etc. A simple paradigm to measure this is whether one understands the visual gaze of a person and can take his/her perspective and know whether the other is able to see something or not.

The physical and social reasoning systems have been show to be different and dissociated in humans and as per one theory are differently accentuated in autistic (more physical reasoning) and schizophrenic (more social reasoning) mind.

Another ability where chimps and humans markedly differ is in their abstract/symbolic representations and linguistic abilities. While chimps can be taught language to a great extent, they don’t develop symbolic language naturally. Language requires abstract and symbolic representation. One can contrast this with the immediate/imaginal representation.

Again, while autistic people have a good immediate/imaginal (thinking/seeing in images instead of words/ symbols) representation system (for e’g’ like in movie ‘rain man’ they can tell the exact number of matchsticks dropped on the floor without counting), their language development is typically hampered , perhaps due to deficits in the abstract/semantic/symbolic representation system.

Thus we see two sets of cognitive functions, and the two sets seem to be slightly at odds with each other: Physical reasoning and concrete/ immediate/imaginal representation; and social reasoning and abstract/semantic/ symbolic representation.

The species  (chimps/humans) who are good at imaginal and physical reasoning system may not be as good at symbolic and the social reasoning system. Similarity within the human family, autistic and schizophrenics may excel at different such functions. While we lost or never gained the ability for highly accurate imaginal system since around 5 MYA when we diverged from chimps and bonobos, we gained the ability for abstract/ symbolic representation. Given the limited real estate that the brain can occupy in any body, its inevitable that as you evolve you lose some and you gain some abilities. Like we lost the ability to use four hands that chimpanzee has.

To summarize, one can associate and link the above to human memory systems. One can conceive of four such memory/reasoning systems:

  1. Visuo-spatial/ short term/ sensory memory: related to immediate memory and imaginal representation.
  2. Procedural memory: related to Physical reasoning/ tool use /physical skills etc and objects representations.
  3. Episodic memory: related to social reasoning and agent representations.
  4. Semantic memory: related to language and symbolism and abstract representations.

Its easy to see how we can apply the same memory/reasoning model to chimps/ other apes without necessarily anthropomorphism. And its equally hard to see and admit that chimps may be better than us at certain cognitive functions and tasks.

The Four Major Goals of Life revisited

I wrote about the four major goals in life on my psychology today blog quite some time back and want to revisit it today in the light of reading Susan Wolf‘s ‘Meaning in life and why it matters’ which is a very accessible and engaging, as well as a short, read.

A Good Dog Can Bring Happiness to Your Life

A Good Dog Can Bring Happiness to Your Life (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Susan Wolf claims that there are two usual suspects when it comes to explaining our major striving and actions. The reason why we do something may be to enhance our self-interest (the egoistic principle) or the reasons may lie in ethical and moral considerations (the altruistic principle). In the former case we are driven by an overarching goal of maximizing happiness (for ourselves) and in the latter case we are driven by moral principles that are impartial and do not lace any special emphasis on our own interests. For example, if we are utilitarian in our ethics, we may be driven by the moral imperative of maximizing happiness(utility) of maximum people/ entities.

Thus, happiness and morality are two important goals/ value systems and the corresponding reliance on self-interest or impartial moral imperatives, respectively, makes us decide on our course of action. However, she also claims that this picture is far from complete. Not all our reasons are reasons of self-interest or morality, but some are reasons of love.

To illustrate by way of an example, consider the fact that I may care for my wife when she is sick. Now, this act is neither purely due to self-interest nor can it be considered purely a moral act- there may be better ways of acting morally- maybe some other sick man deserves my help more. But I care for her out of love. And caring for her provides and adds meaning to my life.

Thus, Susan introduces a third phenomena in the mix – meaningfulness. When people act out of reasons of love they make their life meaningful. Now as per Susan this acting out of reasons of love could be love directed towards a person or towards an activity. Thus I may be passionate about psychology or blogging and may devote my life to such an activity and as that activity provides me fulfillment and also adds value to the world, it is meaningful. Her definition of meaningfulness is where subjective attraction meet objective value- you find something or some person worthy of your love (attractive) and are drawn towards it such that you engage in such a way as to make a positive contribution/ difference.

Meaning as per Susan is due to reasons of love -either for a person or an activity -she doesn’t distinguish between the two, and in my opinion causes some confusion. IMHO, its important to make a distinction between acting out of love for a person and acting out of love of an activity. Also she mentions two conceptualization of meaning- one driven by feelings of fulfillment and the other by getting involved in something bigger than oneself.

How does all this relate to the four major goals I have talked about previously? To recap, the goals are:

  1. Happiness (maximizing pleasure and ‘self’ focus)
  2. Morality/Integrity (living morally and ‘group’/community focus)
  3. Meaning (living authentically and ‘other’/ family focus)
  4. Success (making an impact and ‘task’/ work focus)

Susan has already delineated how happiness and morality are the two primary reasons for our actions, and she introduced meaning as the third major one; however, imho meaning (living authentically in accordance with ones values )  needs to be differentiated from living successfully or making an impact in the world. Meaning is intimately tied to others- our lives can never be meaningful out of context- they are meaningful only in relation to others appraisal of them as such and also our appraisal of them as such. Meaning is inter-subjective. It lies in between.  If happiness can be deemed more or less subjective (only you can know if you are truly happy) and success as more or less objective (there can be objective criteria on which to measure the success of a life) , meaning is more about a common inter-subjective appraisal (whether both parties found the interaction meaningful). I caring for my wife is meaningful both to me and to my wife and its power lies in that inter-subjectivity. Morality on the other hand can be said to be neither objective nor subjective but transcending all.

Thus, while happiness can only be known from a first person perspective, and success judged accurately only from third person perspective, perhaps meaning can be formulated best from a second person perspective – that of the other!

Interestingly, while happiness is more about living in the present, and success more about what you have already achieved in the past, Meaning in my view is directed towards the future- if I am engrossed in meaningful  relationship or project, I am looking forward to how the relationship or the project grows. For example, to sensitize my clients to the importance of meaningfulness, I ask them to think about their epithet or what they would like to be written on their tombstone-   this exercise inevitably makes them reflect on what is actually meaningful to pursue (relationships) and what can be ignored or de-emphasized (workaholism) .

in summary, we are driven by four types of reasons or motivations – reasons of self-interest, reasons of morality/altruism, reasons of love for individuals and reasons of engrossment in activities/ projects. Thus the four major goals of life worth striving for Happiness, Morality, Meaning and Success!

PS: you may also like my Times of India blog post about differentiating happiness from meaning.

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