Studying the Mind

The brain is the most amazing and powerful tool we have; the mind is powerful, but not in the same way as the brain. The distinction between the two is important. The brain is the physical organ in our bodies. It regulates everything; it’s in charge of everything. Some things we are unaware of, like breathing and sleeping. Other things we have to think about, like eating and moving. The study of the brain is neurology.

The mind is messy. The mind is the entire study of psychology. So many things can go wrong (or right if you’re into positive psychology). It’s difficult to study because the mind is not a physical thing. Even when people take the time to study the mind, there are no definitive results. If you actually take the time to read a scientific study of psychology the results are never 100% one way or another. This is why psychology is considered a “soft science.”

When you read an article about some psychological discovery, chances are the author didn’t read the actual entire study, or they misinterpreted it, or they stretched the truth to make it way more interesting. For example, a popular article might be titled, “CURE FOR DEPRESSION FOUND!!!” and go on to describe some pill or method or therapy that cures depression. (I made this up, total exaggeration). If you were to find and read the original scientific study you would most likely find that said pill or method or therapy worked like 60% of the time. You would probably also read that whatever it is isn’t actually a cure for depression, it just alleviates the symptoms. Even then, the article will describe every single aspect of the study and why they got the results they did and it is a LOT more convoluted than that popular article you read!

Popular articles are important because they draw attention to the field of psychology and help people to understand it without having to decipher a scientific study. It’s just important to remember that there is nothing definitive in psychology. We continue to do study after study and people study the same things over and over with different methodologies and mixed results. Eventually, hopefully, whatever is being studied will start to produce similar results and we’ll be launched forward little by little.

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Over Thinking

Ever notice how unhealthy thinking can be? Well, over thinking. One of my favorite quotes is by Ayn Rand, “There are no evil thoughts except one; the refusal to think.” In this case I’m talking about irrational thoughts and over thinking. I love to think. I think about human nature and why people are the way they are and why they do what they do. But sometimes I’m stuck thinking about my life and certain events and I think myself into a dark twisty circle of sadness and anger.

What I want to know is how to let it go. How do you say, “oh well” and really feel that way at the same time? I can say, “oh well” all I want and I won’t feel it. I have thoughts about things and I know for a fact, I shouldn’t feel this way, this shouldn’t matter to me, I’m happy with my life. I can’t stop thinking and over thinking and making myself feel badly for something I have no control over. I want to control my thoughts and feelings. I want them to be rational.

Are feelings ever rational? My rational mind and my feelings don’t add up. I think our lives are controlled by both, but not at the same time. Its one or the other, but you can’t live without either. You need feelings and you need rational thought. Why aren’t they on the same page? I’m thinking myself into a circle again.

Avoidance

As humans, we automatically try to avoid pain and maximize pleasure. It isn’t necessarily conscious. We have automatic reflexes to help us avoid physical pain. When we come in contact with anything sharp or hot we automatically jerk away from it. There is no thought involved, it’s evolutionary.

What about emotional pain? We have defense mechanisms to help us avoid this too; some conscious, some unconscious. We use repression, which is unconscious. We literally forget things that cause us distress or emotional pain, and then we forget the act of forgetting. “The essence of repression lies simply in turning something away, and keeping it at a distance, from the conscious.” –Sigmund Freud. We also use suppression, which is a conscious act. We deliberately stop thinking about things that cause us emotional distress or pain.

The entire purpose of defense mechanisms is to protect ourselves. But to what extent do defense mechanisms actually help? For example, when I think about death, I begin to feel anxiety, so I suppress the thoughts and stop thinking about it. Well, how am I ever going to deal with something that will, inevitably, happen to me? Not thinking about feelings and emotions, and not dealing with the anxiety will make the time of death that much scarier.

Defense mechanisms are mostly automatic responses to pain and distress. I think avoiding defense mechanisms and actually being aware of our feelings and what causes us pain is hugely important. Talking with a friend, family member, therapist, or counselor is exactly how to deal with painful and distressing thoughts.

Avoiding feelings is perfectly natural and almost everyone does it. I, for one, am great at it.

(Funny side note: notice how I used “the” time of death, instead of “my” time of death… see how great at avoidance I am?)

Smiling

Smile! Everyone tells you to do it. If you are sad, in a bad mood, or having a terrible day, you are told to smile. We also smile to cover things up. If you fall on your ass, get nervous, or realize how absurd life can be, we may choose to smile, or laugh it off.

Smiling is totally natural, and as all facial expressions are, it is known across cultures as a sign of happiness or joy. But why, when we are not at all happy, are we told to, or encouraged to smile? It seems so absurd and against nature… why would we smile when all we want to do is scream or cry or fall onto the floor in a full-blown tantrum?!

The answer can be found in a study, the bottom line is, smiling makes people happier. How do we know? Well, there was a study conducted to see if smiling affected how participants rated comics. One group of participants was told to hold a pencil in their lips while reading comics. In this group, the participants appeared to be frowning. The other group of participants was told to hold a pencil in their teeth while reading comics. In this group, the participants appeared to be smiling. At the end of the study, it was found that the participants who were told to hold the pencil in there teeth (smiling) rated the comics as funnier than the group who held the pencil in their lips (frowning)!

This is only one study, and I am sure there are more, but the evidence seems pretty clear. I know that when I am in a terrible mood, and someone tells me to smile, I want to bash their face and run away crying. Maybe you feel this way too. But next time maybe instead of seeing this person as unreasonable and insensitive, you can take their advice, and go smile at a fence, or some inanimate object… see how you feel.

 

The Bystander Effect

One of the most frightening dilemmas I have ever heard of is the bystander effect. This is the fact that, when we are in a large group of people, we are less likely to help in a crisis. The bystander effect is one of those psychology things that goes against what we would think to be true. We would think, and hope, that if we were choking in a public place with lots of people, someone would try to give the Heimlich and/or someone would call 911. In reality, if we are in a large group of people, these responses are way less likely to happen.

There are a couple factors at play here. The first is assuming responsibility… no one does. Everyone assumes that someone else will help, or that someone else has already made the call. The second factor is that, in a large group, people may not register what is happening right in front of them. There may be a lot of people around, but that doesn’t mean they see you. They may glance and keep walking, not thinking to take a closer look, and assess the situation.

A true and horrifying example of the bystander effect:

In New York, a woman was getting back to her apartment at night and was attacked. She was stabbed twice and began to scream for help. She was raped and stabbed to death… this entire attack lasted 30 minutes. This terrible incident happened in a public place, with many people listening and even watching from their windows. Later, residents from the apartment complex were interviewed. Many of the residents said they did not interfere because they thought it was a drunken fight or an argument between lovers. Other residents said that they assumed that someone else would have called the police, so they didn’t bother.

How can we change this? We can try to stay aware of the situations around us, and assess anything that looks suspicious. We should never assume that something has been taken care of, because we don’t know how many other people have also assumed this! It is better for the police to get a hundred calls than to get no calls in a single emergency.

If you are the one needing help, a way to get someone to help you is to single them out. Point at a person and tell them specifically to get help or call the police, this way they cannot assume that someone else will do it. Let’s not let ourselves or others become victims of the bystander effect.