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Sandeep Gautam is a psychology and cognitive neuroscience enthusiast, whose basic grounding is in computer science.

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Depressive symptoms

On the Threshold of Eternity

On the Threshold of Eternity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was reading ‘Depression’ by Aaron T Beck, who was instrumental in pioneering the treatment of depression with the cognitive behavioral approach, and was surprised to find that Beck had classified depressive symptoms in four buckets which correspond to the ABCD system.

For example, like the Affect, Behavior, Cognition and Drive (motivation) ABCD model, he parses depressive symptoms as either emotional manifestations,  cognitive manifestations, motivational manifestations and vegetative and physical manifestations. A complete list of symptoms is given below:

Emotional Manifestations

  • Dejected mood
    Negative feelings toward self
    Reduction in gratification
    Loss of emotional attachments
    Crying spells
    Loss of mirth response

Cognitive Manifestations

  • Low self-evaluation
    Negative expectations
    Self-blame and self-criticism
    Distortion of body image

Motivational Manifestations

  • Paralysis of the will
    Avoidance, escapist, and withdrawal wishes
    Suicidal wishes
    Increased dependency

Vegetative and Physical Manifestations

While the world has moved beyond these models to the DSM V (although DSM IV-TR ) is still widely used) and its good to be up to speed regarding the latest diagnostics criteria for depression, this historical classification of symptoms to me proves once more the power of the ABCD conceptualization.


Personality decomposed!

Today I read a paper by De Young about Cybernetic Big 5 theory of personality and that led me to think hard about my own conceptualization of personality.  The below is an effort to elucidate the CB5T as well as to enhance and point out the commonalities with my own conception.


To begin with, there are two broad personalty meta-traits: called stability and plasticity. Like all personality traits these are on a continuum and someone low in stability I like to call as labile; while someone low on plasticity I like to call as rigid.

Lets first look at plasticity. It is made up of the big 5 traits of Extraversion also conceptualized as behavioral plasticity and Openness/intellect conceptualized as cognitive plasticity. Its important to note here that plasticity has nothing to do with neuro-plasticity; this is more behavioral and cognitive flexibility or plasticity and is related to a tendency to explore either behaviorally one’s environment or cognitively one’s conceptual space to maximize learning.  Thus while plasticity pole is a learning and exploration pole, the rigidity pole is performance or exploitation pole.  In normal course of life one would need to both learn new stuff and leverage that to perform well using existing knowledge. Plasticity-rigidity, imho,  is the tradeoff and tension between too much learning and too much performance focus. This aspect of personality is purely in cognitive -behavioral domain and can be easily modeled/ replicated by machines. This is the philosophical zombie.

Why we need the second meta trait of stability- labile is somewhat of a mystery to many people. This is the part of person that feels, has motives and understands and acts as if others too are conscious entities like him/her. This is the ghost in the machine. Stability is comprised of Big 5 underlying traits of Neuroticism also conceptualized as low emotional stability , Conscientiousness conceptualized as motivational stability and Agreeableness conceptualized as social stability. Stability here refers to the fact that one can exercise control over ones reactions to the environment. While labile, the polar extreme of stability, is characterized by reactivity to environment/ stimuli, giving in to impulses and is more toward the facet ‘Experience’ of consciousness; stability on the other hand is all about effort-full regulation of impulses, willpower and control and related to ‘Agency’ part of consciousness.

That is about the two meta traits.

Now, lets come to the big 5 and 2 aspects of each of the big 5 as per De Young.

First up is Extraverison. Its there because rewards are present in the world and it codes for reward sensitivity. As long as rewards are there in the world and the organism acts to receive rewards, there would be individual differences in how much the behavior is performed for the same reward. Thus though operant conditioning will guarantee that behaviors get coupled with reward contingencies in the environment, the degree of coupling will be a matter of individual taste. There are two aspects of Extraversion: assertiveness and enthusiasm. Assertiveness is related to wanting a reward and enthusiasm to liking a reward and this echoes earlier work by Berridge et al. I also think of them as Work (wanting something  and willing to expand energy) and Play (liking something and enjoying it) aspects of extraversion. These neurobiologically are related to the BAS  (behavior approach system)  and pleasure system (PS ) about which I have blogged elsewhere,

Next up is Neuroticism. Its because there are punishments and threats in the world and it codes sensitivity to the same. As long as threats are there in the world, the organism will respond by defensive behavior that can be either active escape or passive avoidance. There are tow aspects of Neuroticism: Volatility or active FFFS (fight, freeze, flight response) response and  Withdrawal or BIS (behavioral inhibition system) like responses. On the flip side you have a calm person (flip of volatile) and a confident person (flip of withdrawn) . Volatility is active in nature while withdrawal is passive in nature. This can also be thought of as the Avoid system, but is made of FFFS and BIS as I have blogged elsewhere.

Consider Agreeableness next. It is a response to a problem posed by con-specifics and significant others. Here the self-other dynamic plays. On one hand you curb selfish impulses to co-operate ad share with con-specifics, on the other hand the attachment system makes you automatically care and be compassionate about your kins and near and dear ones. The two aspects of  Agreeableness are accordingly politeness (curbing impulses to be pro social) and compassion (genuinely caring about others) . This is colloquially the attach system , also made popular by Rick Hanson, but I am sure will be decomposed in two systems on closer analysis.

Next come openness/ intellect: It is a response to the problem of uncertainty. We are never sure what is out there and thus need to continuously update our representation of the world. One can do that using a broad lens and by abstracting or one can use a concrete lens and be narrowly focused .  One can take things in parallel or consider inputs serially and in a logical fashion.  Correspondingly, there are two aspects of this : Openness to experience that is broadly construed and intellect which is more narrowly construed.  But at the end of the day this system is about attending to the world and about cognitive exploration and can be called an Attend system.


Lastly comes Conscientiousness. Here the challenge is unpredictability- of self – and thus the need to regulate oneself. This could be done by either inculcating habits and routines or by exercising willpower and top down control. Accordingly the two aspects are industriousness (characterized by delaying gratification and forgetful control) and orderliness ( following rules, routines etc). This is the domain of self regulation and motivation.

I am so excited by this new model- it does seem to sum up many things beautifully and gels beautifully with my ABCDS (now a S or  social factor to be added to affective, behavioral, cognitive and motivational domain ) model and also with the polarities of Millon .  Do let me know what you think about this model of personality?

Emotions – redefined!

English: Managing emotions - Identifying feelings

English: Managing emotions – Identifying feelings (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a proponent of the eight basic emotions theory of emotions where the eight basic emotions are fear, courage/interest,  sadness, happiness, disgust, surprise/awe and anger and love. Its apparent that they are also paired in opposites as in fear and courage/ interest are opposite emotions in one sense of the word.

Today I want to elaborate on the idea that these emotions come about in opposite pairs and differ just so slightly from each other in terms of the cognitive/motivational  appraisal.

Consider fear. Fear is typically thought of as arising from danger while interest/ courage may be thought of as either being in a safe environment (in a safe haven and thus curious and willing to explore) or persisting in a dangerous situation despite threat.

A more  useful way to think about both fear and courage/interest is to see them as reactions to challenges. A challenge that is dangerous or appraised so, can be construed as a threat and lead to fearful behavior; on the other hand a challenge that is seen as an opportunity , say to prove oneself, can lead to courage/ interest.

The same is true for sadness. Sadness is typically construed as a reaction to loss. However it could be more generically seen as a reaction to any big change- change is typically upsetting and when construed as a door closing it may lead to feelings of sadness; however its also a fact of life that for something new to start something older has to give way- thus when one door closes, another door opens. The person who faced with a  similar big and stressful change, say becoming a parent, may focus on negatives and see it as a close of a dyadic relationship with spouse , loss of freedom etc, and see parenting as burden may get into post-partum depression; while another who welcomes the stress of parenting may actually feel joyous at the arrival of the baby  as a new way of life is opening up.

The right way to think about disgust and surprise/ awe is also on same lines.  While both reveal facets of ourselves or world that were not known to us before, in case of disgust the revelation is construed as  pointing towards ugliness in the world / ourselves ( the beast within) while in surprise/awe the same sudden realization/ revelation is about the beauty within/ outside. One has to remember that at times an Ugly cocoon is pre-requiste for the emergence of a beautiful butterfly and the moment when the long night of the soul is ending is also the time when the gliders of dawn start appearing. Again, by changing our appraisal we can find solace in disgusting situations and make something uplifting out of them.

Finally, anger and love are very social emotions. While anger is typically thought as a reaction to frustration, at a more fundamental level, one can think of anger/ aggression as one way of dealing with conspecifics- in a world of limited resources when the person we are dealing with is ‘not mine’ but ‘other’, then my natural tendency is to get angry in case of conflict and fight for the limited resources; however in a similar situation of conspecifics with limited resources and a conflict if any, if I think of the conspecific as my own – say my child- then my natural reaction is to guard his/ her interests and this is mediated by feelings of love.  The same external situation, different appraisals/ value systems and different emotions!!


Thus, we have seen that by changing our underlying value and habitual appraisal systems we can move from a predominance of negative emotions is out life to a predominance of positive emotions in our life, while the external circumstances still remain the same.

Love and Work

Love and work are two cornerstones of adult human life. The capacity to love and work adequately was considered by Freud as important for our well-being.

Adult romantic or love relationships are grounded in childhood attachment patterns. As per the famous and well researched and validated attachment theory, childhood attachment figures and the quality of our attachment with the primary caregiver, serve as templates for future adult relationships.

Attachment theory posits that there are at-least three different kinds of attachment patterns- secure attachment (when parental care-giving is consistent and available) , insecure anxious attachment and insecure avoidant attachment. While there is bound to be some effects due to child’s temperament, the attachment pattern is mostly supposed to be governed by parental care-giving style.

Although the primary ‘attachment figure’ or care-giver can be any parent, its typically the mother. The father is typically the disciplinarian or primary ‘authority figure’.

That brings me to work. While love is connection and intimacy, work is a constraint and usually a necessity.

One of the important skills to succeed in adult work life is to be comfortable with legitimate authority and also having the skills and confidence to wield authority when in a position to do so.

It is my thesis, that adult workplace adjustment, as operationalized by acceptance and flourishing in one’s place in the hierarchical work system, draws upon childhood patterns of relating to the primary ‘authority figure’ or role-model.

It has been generally found that there are three typical parenting styles: authoritative parenting (where discipline is based on logic and mutually agreed/ humane rules etc), authoritarian parenting (where discipline is done based on the power of the parent and no logical reason per se) and permissive parenting (where disciplining is lacking).

When can hypothesize that this can lead to different forms of model of what an authority figure or role model is: for the child whose primary authority figure is authoritative , authority is acceptable and ennobling; for the child with primary authority figure authoritarian, authority is to be defied or used to subjugate others; for the child with primary authority figure as permissive, any form of authority, even one drawing from ones self esteem is problematic and to be avoided.

It is instructive to take a pause here and see the parallels with caring. While caring consistently for the child, leads to secure attachment and better love relationships later on, not caring or caring inconsistently leads to poorer outcomes in love relationships.

Similarly, pushing a child gently and consistently, leads to the child developing a healthy self-confidence/ self-esteem , while pushing a child too much based on pure ego and power (sort of like bullying by a parent) or not pushing at all may lead to poorer and compromised self -esteem and later on lead to relationship problems in the workplace , where one may suffer from superiority/ inferiority complexes and ‘power and competence’ related issues.

A look at the mediating mechanisms is also instructive.

Good caring or secure attachment leads to a presence of an attachment figure or safe haven where one can do curious exploration and find that people are in general trustworthy and loveable.

Good pushing or comfort-with-authority leads to a presence of a role model or guide with whom one can exploit a niche and find one’s own niche and be comfortable with one’ sown and others legitimate authorities and competences.

Of course while the literature on attachment is burgeoning and its relationship to adult romantic relationship is well established, there needs to be more research on parenting styles and its effect on self-confidence etc and how that impacts later real world work relationships especially those hierarchical in nature like with boss and subordinates.

As an aside, I came to this broad analogy between childhood caring and childhood pushing and there different adult outcomes via the well known social psychology effcet whereby we judge a person/ his or her face etc on two dimensions intuitively: trust/warmth (aligned to capacity for deep love-like bonds) and dominance/competence (aligned to capacity to deliver and execute) . One can see the sam analogy in whether the help we can get form the person is emotional in nature (love like ) or instrumental in nature (work like). Thus for every con-specific we meet, what we are most interested in,  while relating to him / her is- what are his/ her capacities to Love and to Work!!


Many Paths, Many Ends

Aum symbol in red

Aum symbol in red (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Human beings are driven by many different goals throughout their life and though the goals of one individual would be different from other, the major goals of life can be classified as striving towards finding happiness, success, integrity and meaning in life. I have blogged elsewhere about how the latest research in positive psychology is explicating these four different legitimate aims via which one may lead a good or flourishing life. Also, a rider is in place here- its not as if one needs to, or is indeed, driven by one major goal to the exclusion of others, but a normal human life involves balancing and trading off one major goal with the other, depending on the need of the hour, the stage of ones life and one’s proclivities.

While psychology of motives and major goals has taken so many years to identify and contrast these goals, the seers and mystics of ages gone by, had been equally eloquent and discerning while coming up with the list of what should be legitimate aims of life- Hinduism defines four Purusharthas- Kama, Artha , Dharma and Moksha. I see a close parallel between Kama or being driven by passions or striving towards pleasure and happiness; between Artha or being driven by materialistic pursuits and towards success and achievement; between Dharma or striving towards living an ethical life and towards integrity and finally between Moksha or striving towards finding meaning and purpose in life (remember existence precedes essence).

To me the association looks too good to be true; but there is no reason to doubt that seers of yonder times may have been able to grasp these subtleties based on their acute mediation on human nature in the jungles.

Similarly, much of psychology is the study of ABCD- i.e Affect, Behavior, Cognition and Desire/ Dynamics. The ABCD model of psychology that I subscribe to tries to carve all human psychological phenomenon using the ABCD prism- identifying the underlying emotional components (Affect) , the behavioral components (Behavior) , the cognitive components (Cognition) and the motivational components (Desire/dynamics) . A (psychological) human himself may be thought of made up of emotions and feelings (affects), actions and reactions (behaviors), thoughts and beliefs (cognitions) and motives and drives (desires) – for some individual emotions may be in driver seat and for some other individual thoughts or intellect may be in the driver seat.

You can probably guess where I am going from here. Just like there are four major goals of life (the four purusharthas) ; so too there are four major ways or paths to achieve the ultimate aim of life (reunion with God) – the four Yogas – The Bhakti Yoga, the Karma Yoga, the Jnana Yoga and the Raja (ashtang) Yoga. To me these four pathways are again very psychologically based- Bhakti Yoga being useful to those who are predominantly emotional in nature; Karma Yoga for those who are more action oriented; Jnana Yoga for those more intellectual or cognitive in their outlook and Raja Yoga for those wanting to purify their motives/ habits using mediation etc.

Again just like a focus on either success or happiness or meaning or integrity may not be fruitful, so too for ‘normal’ humans a predominance with the Bhakti marg or the jnana marga or the Karm Marga or the Raja yoga marg may not be entirely healthy or salutogenic. We need to walk the path of all the margs simultaneously and depending in the need of the hour, or our stage of life be conversant and adept in all of these- be a good bhakt, a good karmayogi, a jnanai and a Raja Yogi.

While the later branches of Hinduism have overemphasized the importance of Moksha to the exclusion of other purusharthas, IMHO, a more balanced pursuit of all major goals of life and a more flexible adoption of the all the four major ways would go a long towards making the life flourishing and beautiful for all!

While to many of you the equating of psychological goals with spiritual goals may appear confusing, suffice to say that thee has started accumulating evidence at the level or neural circuits and brain areas about the dissociation between say happiness and meaning dimension for a good life or between economic (success) and moral (integrity) domains in general. Similarly there is enough evidence that the ABCD model of psychology is a good prism through which to see and study psychology. The fact that ABCD model/ findings from neuroscience/ psychology corroborate ancient insights is surprising but also reassuring in way. It was anecdotally known that Hinduism is so resilient because of its profound psychological basis- new finding are just confirming some of that.

Here is to whatever major goal and path you align your life with!!

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