Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Three Types Of Responses

In his book Praise of Escaping (“Éloge de la fuite”), physician Henri Laborit suggests the following. When a person faces an ordeal, they face three options. The first is to fight against the ordeal, the second is to do nothing and third is to flee from it.

Firstly, fighting against a challenge is a very natural behaviour. These people are not hurt by the ordeal because they turn the attack into a retaliation. But this attitude has a problem. Continuous attacks and retaliations result in a vicious cycle. An aggressive person ultimately will be stopped by someone who is stronger than them.

The second option involves not doing anything in the sense that you act as if you hadn’t been attacked by pushing down the resentment. This is the most widely accepted attitude in modern society. Scholars call this behavioural inhibition. People with this attitude have the want to punch their opponent in the face, but swallow their anger as they recognise the risk of being retaliated against and entering a vicious cycle. And so, the punch that did not land on the opponent hits themselves instead. This may even show as medical conditions such as stomach ulcers, aches, or other psychosomatic symptoms.

The third way of escaping can be done through different ways.
Chemical escape: Alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, stimulants, relaxants, sleeping pills. All of these can soften or erase the pain from external attacks. By using these substances to forget everything and knocking oneself out, the ordeal will pass. However, because this kind of escape weakens your sense of reality, people who use this method lose their ability to live in the real world.
Geographical escape: Moving from one place to another endlessly. Some people shift their problems by changing jobs, friends, lovers and the places they live in. It doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, but they feel a little better and gain energy from changing the environment they are in.
Creative escape: Transforming your anger and pain into film, music, writing, painting, sculpting etc. Some people take the things they cannot dare say in the real world and have characters in an imaginary world say it instead. By doing this, they feel a sense of catharsis. People who like to watch characters in movies and books take revenge against those who have wronged them also fit into this category.

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(from The Encyclopaedia of Relative and Absolute Knowledge by Bernard Werber)

Posted in Life & Happiness

Life Review

They say that when you face your mortality, your entire life flashes before your eyes like a sped-up autobiographical film. This tends to happen in situation where a person feels they are in danger of imminent death, such as moments before a car crash. Reports say that the event typically lasts anywhere between less than a second to few seconds, and what they perceive as major life events flash before their eyes, usually in chronological order. However, reports are very subjective and variable.

This phenomenon sounds very clichéd, but it has been widely reported throughout time and space. Over 8 million people in the United States of America stated that they experienced this “life review” in a near-death experience, with countless records in historical texts, reaching far back as at least 1795 in a letter by Rear-Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort. It is fascinating to see that there is even a set name or phrase for this phenomenon deeply ingrained in various languages, such as English, German, French, Dutch, Russian, Persian, Arabian and Korean, suggesting that the phenomenon is widespread and common.

There is no strong evidence for why this phenomenon occurs, but there is one theory that is persuading. The brain is always subconsciously referring to past experiences and knowledge to apply to the present to help solve a problem. It has been suggested that when you are at the brink of death, the brain frantically searches through everything in an attempt to save you from demise. This is a rather messy process as the brain does not routinely encounter such near-death experiences and does not have much information to refer to immediately. In this process, it brings up every memory that you thought you had forgotten, which you see as a montage flashing before your eyes. For example, a man who was attacked by a great white shark reported that out of nowhere, he recalled his son watching a documentary on sharks and remembered that putting your hands down a shark’s gills will incapacitate it. Thanks to this, he survived.

The brain does indeed have an amazing ability to alter your speed of thought and delay time perception when you are in danger, or the so-called “fight-or-flight” mode. There is much anecdotal evidence of firefighters instinctively knowing that a building will collapse very soon, or emergency physicians making complex clinical decisions in the blink of an eye by drawing from a well of past experiences.

Calvin and Hobbes

Posted in Science & Nature

Four Fs

Biologists state that the driving force behind evolution can simply be summarised as four forces: fight, flight, feed and mate (“fuck”). These are known as the Four Fs. Evolution is described as the process by which species adapt to an environment through modifications in the genomes of successive generations. The Four Fs describe the adaptations most commonly seen in evolution; that is, the four things that species evolve in order to better adapt and survive their environment. For example, carnivores developed sharp teeth and claws to hunt better and herbivores developed faster legs to flee from their predators better. Nature is a vicious battleground where different species compete with each other for survival, and the Four Fs are the most powerful weapons of survival.

As much as we’d like to think that we are higher-order, civilised beings, human beings are still driven by the basic four forces that drive every other species in the world. Obviously, our bodies are well-adapted to these forces, such as our fight-or-flight drive activating in the face of danger to let us fight harder or run faster through adrenaline. Anyone can see that nature has done her job well by bestowing us the gift of satiety and orgasm to promote our feeding and mating. But what is interesting that the Four Fs go beyond our “natural evolution” to affect the evolution of our civilisation.

Consider this: what is the purpose of war? Since the dawn of time, mankind has spent a considerable amount of resources figuring how to most efficiently kill another group of people, or live in fear that other people will kill us. If we study the behaviour of chimpanzees (one of the few species other than us that wage warfare), we can see that their motivation is for food and sex (i.e. mating partners). This also applies to mankind and it is not a story of ancient times. It is well-known that raping and pillaging runs rampant during wars. Less than 800 years ago, a man named Genghis Khan was so successful in waging war that DNA evidence suggests that 0.5% of the world population are descended from him. Even in the present, countries wage war to secure natural resources to ensure that their people can eat, as the health of the economy directly correlates with the ability of people to put food on their plates. Almost every war essentially boils down to a fight for food.

Then what about sex? Like it or not, sex has been a tremendously influential force in history. From Cleopatra’s seduction of Caesar preventing Rome’s invasion of Egypt, to Henry VIII turning against the Catholic Church to marry Anne Boleyn, sex has been a timeless motivator for humanity. Although the consequences would not be as dramatic as those described, a significant proportion of our actions are also based on our primal desire to reproduce.

Of course, this is not always the truth and human beings are capable of acting on less wild motivators such as happiness and altruism. However, the next time you make a decision or see a conflict on the news, question this: how much of an impact did food and sex have to motivate that?

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Emotion

Unless you are a psychopath, as a human being you are bound to feel emotions. Love, happiness, anger, sadness… there are many emotions that range from simple to complex. Emotions are an interesting system as they allow us to respond rapidly to a situation without thinking, while alerting other members of our society to what is happening to us. Essentially, emotions help us in survival and social interactions. 

According to Professor Paul Ekman, emotions are universal from culture to culture, with facial expressions being almost identical from tribal cultures to modern ones. He found that there are six major emotions: anger, fear, disgust, sadness, surprise and happiness. He also pioneered the field of micro-expressions, which studies the flickering change in our facial expressions whenever we feel a certain emotion. As emotions usually occur before the conscious mind thinks, we are often unaware of the expressions we make.

Another psychologist, Dr. Paul Gilbert, divided emotions into three affect systems. They are as follows:

  • Threat/protection system: associated with the fight-or-flight response, activates in response to danger. It causes anger and fear and is related to catecholamines (e.g. adrenaline) and cortisol (stress hormone).
  • Want/desire system: associated with hunting and rewarding behaviour, helps us perform actions that aids survival such as obtaining food and mates. It is related to the emotion of excitement, which is caused by the neurotransmitter dopamine (part of the reward system).
  • Contentment system: associated with met needs and social connection, especially when we feel safe and relaxed. It produces feelings of happiness and peace, linked to the hormone oxytocin (released with human touch, especially during kissing).

Dr. Gilbert also posited that as societies have evolved over time, our affect systems have been altered. For example, despite the lack of natural predators around, urban dwellers are often in a state of high anxiety. This causes a sustained stress response, leading to negative health outcomes. Furthermore, the agitation and the paranoia caused by constant fear leads to crimes such as murder and war. Our want/desire system has also been heightened as we find pleasure in gaining material wealth. This has led to aggressive capitalism, exploiting other people and the environment for selfish gain.

On the other hand, the contentment system has shrunk. People feel less content despite being in a generally healthier and richer world than 100 years ago. The reason being, our brain has evolved to help us survive, not to keep us happy. 

One must learn how to adapt to these changes by finding a way to relieve tension and stress, while finding inner peace and happiness. Whether it be through sports, music, humour or simply talking to another person, finding your own way to deal with anxiety is the best road to being happy and content.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Lie Detection

In developmental psychology, a child’s ability to successfully lie is considered a milestone achievement. This goes to show how lying is one of the characteristic behaviours of human beings. Even a three-year old knows that by lying, they can avoid punishment and gain much more.

There are many signs of deception. Becoming an expert in observing these signs and knowing what they mean can grant the ability to see through lies. The following is a description of some of the changes – both non-verbal and verbal – that people exhibit when lying. Note that these signs are not always definitive and should be used as a reference only. One must carefully deduce whether the signs are there because the person is lying, or whether it is a simple physiological process with no meaning. Here is a simplified list of the signs that will be discussed:

  • faster blinking, avoiding/too much eye contact, dilated pupils, looking up and right
  • sweaty face and palms, fast pulse and blood pressure, flushed face
  • dry mouth/lips, constant licking or pursing lips, swallowing loudly and often
  • looking away or down, tics and twitches in face (eyes, cheeks, mouth)
  • placing hand near mouth (rubbing nose/chin, scratching face etc.)
  • touching neck, pulling at collar, rubbing forearms or hands
  • shoulder shrug, crossed arms/legs, fidgeting, hiding of hands
  • holding hands or clenched fists, unusual movements
  • tucking feet below seat, tapping of feet
  • short, general descriptions (or overly detailed), inconsistencies in detail
  • talking faster and at a higher pitch, emphasising the “truth”

Non-verbal signs are essentially body language – a mean of subconscious communication through which the person signals to another person about their emotions and thoughts. These can be behavioural (avoiding eye contact), physiological (faster heart rate) or cognitive (exaggerating that they are “truthful”). As non-verbal communication makes up 90% of a conversation, it is extremely useful to know what signs to look for and know what they mean. Let us start with the face.

The eyes are considered the window to the soul. This is because the eyes give off so many clues about what the person is thinking, usually subconsciously. A key sign to look for is the frequency of blinking. If the person is blinking much more than usual, it suggests that they are nervous (causing their eyes to dry out faster). Another famous example is eye contact – people avoid eye contact when lying as they are subconsciously “ashamed” of being immoral. However, they may consciously compensate this and make too much eye contact, another sign they are hiding something. Looking up and to the right has been associated with the brain imagining something, as opposed to down and left which is related to recalling true memories. Lastly, the pupils may dilate from the excitement and nervousness.

When a person lies, they tend to be nervous, stressed and excited. This activates the sympathetic nervous system, colloquially known as the fight or flight mode (rapid blinking is related to this). This causes other signs such as sweating, dry mouth, fast heartbeat and blood pressure. Therefore, a liar may be seen licking or pursing their lips to moisten them. Frequent, loud swallowing is also a clear sign of dry mouth. The face may be slightly flushed as well.

As stated above, the person is also subconsciously ashamed of their lying. This causes the person to face away from the person or look down (think of a child who is lying – their innocence makes signs of deception flare up like Christmas lights). Many people place their hand near their mouth (e.g. rubbing their nose or chin, touching their lips), as if the brain is telling the hands to stop the lie from coming out. They also tend to rub their neck or adjust their collar as touching the neck comforts people. Note that scratching the nose is another sign of lying but not the same as rubbing the nose. Scratching is to relieve the itchiness caused by the raised blood pressure irritating the soft tissue of the nose (Pinocchio effect).

Obviously the facial expression would change also, expressing nervousness and mild stress. This may be concealed with a fake smile (when the “eyes don’t smile”) or anger. It is well-known that people exhibit microexpressions – a flicker of emotion expressed in the face – that only shows for a fraction of a second. Although it is hard to spot, it is a direct display of their true emotion. Fascinatingly, the right face tends to react more as it is controlled by the left brain – responsible for the logical and complex thinking required in telling a lie. This may show as a tic or twitch in the eyes, cheek or mouth.

Moving down the body, a classic sign of deception is the shoulder shrug. Shrugging the shoulders is a message they are “unsure” if what they said is true and is seen (subtly) in many cases of lies. The arms may be crossed (a closed position), which shows they are being defensive (a sign of guilt or discomfort). Similarly, the person may be leaning away from the other person.

The hands are just as important as the face when it comes to lie detection. As mentioned before liars tend to touch various parts of their face and neck while telling a lie. Women tend to rub their hands together or their forearm instead of the neck to comfort themselves. Fidgeting is also very important to notice as this is a comforting act too and exaggerating movements are seen also (reinforcing the “validity” of their lie). Usually, people are aware of this fact and attempt to hide their hands in their pockets, behind their back or behind a bag. They may hold the hands together to prevent fidgeting, or tightly clench their fists. Basically, look for unnecessary (or lack thereof) movements as this almost certainly indicates that something is abnormal.
Similarly, the person may cross their legs (defensive), tuck their feet below the seat (distancing from the other person) or tap their feet (nervousness and excitement).

To finish off, here are some verbal cues for deception. People have a tendency to give short replies when lying. They also talk at a faster pace and higher pitch. These are all due to the subconscious want for the conversation to be over as soon as possible (often accompanied by an awkward or angry attempt at changing the topic). On a similar note, they are more hesitant and less fluent in talking, adding many “umm”s and “uhh”s as they try conjure a lie. Words such as “somebody” “somewhere” “everywhere” that encompass a non-specific or broad target are used to try dilute the details of the lie.

Conversely, the more experienced liar tries to make their lie believable by adding excessive detail to their story. For example, asking a specific detail (that they normally wouldn’t notice) would prompt an answer as opposed to an “I don’t remember”. It is also useful to ask the same question again and check for any inconsistencies.
Lastly, if the more the person affirms that they are telling the truth (e.g. “honestly”, “believe me”, “swear to god”), the more likely they are lying.

This list is not exhaustive and there are many tiny details that can be used to help you decide whether someone is trying to deceive you or not. Again, as the signs are not definitive (e.g. they may be thirsty or just nervous talking to you) it should be considered within the context along with other information. However, it is still an extremely useful tool for finding the truth as everybody lies.