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

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How Cotard’s and other phenomena throw light on the self

indexCan the Cotard’s syndrome tell us something about the self? A person suffering from Cotard’s syndrome is likely to claim that he/ she is dead- can such a delusional experience make us appreciate what self is what it isn’t – and more importantly how the sense of self can go awry in some phenomena?

Anil Ananthaswamy, in his exquisitely written book ‘ The Man Who Wasn’t There‘ beautifully illustrates how Cotard’s and other such weird and not so weird phenomena can shed light on the true nature of self (provided the self exists and there is something it is like to have a self- more about this later).

The book is beautifully written, weaving narratives of actual patients suffering from various disorders, with cutting edge research in the field and at all times tying it back to the nature of the self.

Although the eight chapters talk about eight different phenomena- ranging from Cotard’s to deperosnalisation to Autism to schizophrenia to out-of-body experiences and ecstatic epilepsy to BIID ( or having a desire to amputate ones limbs) and Alzheimer’s – there doesn’t seem any discontinuity- nor does it seem as if disparate phenomena are being talked about. With self being the focus, each of these is used to approach the self from a different angle.

I am reminded of the parable of  blind men and the elephant – whereby each blind men could only grasp one part of the elephant. Self is such an elephant in the room. The various chapters do advance our understanding of the self and fortunately, this time, the sum is greater than the sum of the parts, and we are indeed able to get a  sense of the elephant/self!

It would be naive to assume that Anil would have solved the problem of self where great philosophers or scientists of past and present have failed to do so- but he does gives tantalizing glimpses of what the answer might me and at least brings us up to speed with what is being thought of in the philosophical / scientific circles.

The power of the book comes from its very approachable and readable writings style and the humane treatment of its subjects.  Whether its the isolation felt by a BID sufferer who has no means of getting his limb amputated legally or the strangeness felt by those suffering from deperosnailsation, Anil makes the stories vivid- loud and clear in one’s mind;s eyes.

The book is also chock full of interesting facts- some of which I was already familiar with, but got an opportunity to brush up on the latest happenings in the filed, others were new to me – for example I hadn’t realized that people with Cotard’s are typically depressed or that people remember more about their life from between 10 and 30 years (the reminiscence bump) and many such nuggets.

The book is immensely readable and holds your attention from chapter to chapter.  I was almost felling bad about having finished it as I wanted more of the treats to continue.  In a week in which we lost Oliver Sacks, it takes some solace to discover that there are others who are keeping the tradition alive.

Both the erudition , humanity and narration of Anil is superb. While reading the book, I thought he was himself a prominent neuroscientist- its only post reading it I realized he is a science journalist and has also written  a best seller in physics. Surprising how brilliant people are able to make their mark in whatever field they chose to focus on. Quiet coincidentally I had also reviewed ‘Subliminal’ by Leonord Mlodinow- who is also a physicist but has written a good book rooted in psychology.

My advice to readers of this blog- if you loved Sacks, if you loved VS Ramachandran,  or even if you didn’t or haven’t heard about them, do give this book a read- you are going to love the easy style- yet a lot of substance. I, for one , am eagerly looking forward to Anil’s next read.

Dancing with your baby

We all understand intuitively the necessity of better bonding with the new-born baby and research has shed light on the importance of early child-caregiver interactions for the formation of what is called ‘secure attachment‘  in the baby. We also know the importance of the first few critical years of development and why all the sensory and motor modalities of the infant needs to be  adequately stimulated for proper and timely achievement of developmental milestones.

What we don’t typically appreciate is that dancing with your newborn baby may be just such an exercise which involves all the senses of the baby while also providing adequate motor workout for both the baby and the caregiver.

Come Sue Doherty on the scene, and with her thoroughly researched and elaborately written book ‘Dancing with your Baby: For bonding and better health for both of you’ she makes a persuasive case for kinergetcis or taking time out to dance holding your baby using different postures and carriages.

She recommends this dance or workout at least three times a week in either 30 minutes chunk or 2-3 bursts of 10 minutes each. The books is aptly illustrated and comes packed with detailed instructions and do and don’t of each pose or workout.  Along with the basic dance or workout there are Tai-chi and yoga based warm-up and stretching illustrations too.

The book is peppered with quotes and cutting edge research findings by psychologists and neuroscientists and vouch for Sue’s erudition and thorough ground work.

It would make for a  good gift for those expecting or who are already parents of new-born babies. The basic idea is to safely use the baby as a weight for the workout of the caregiver, but at all times focusing primarily on the need and enjoyment of the baby. There are dedicated chapters on the importance of sound, touch , movement, special needs children etc and while some chapters are heavy on the scientific aspect of why its important to dance with your baby , the latter part of the book is more focused on how to dance with your baby and makes for a comparatively easier read.

One downside I noted was that sometimes excessive quotations from experts gets in the way of flow of the book and this could have easily been rectified with some smart editing. But overall I enjoyed reading this book by my twitter friend Sue Doherty (@storiesmatter)

If you are expecting a baby or a parent of a newborn, go buy this book and start dancing with a light step and a song in your heart! No better experience than to be a parent of a new-born!! and no better way to celebrate it than by dancing with him/ her!!!

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.

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