Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Availability Cascade

We live in a complicated world that constantly throws complex issues at us. Because it is impossible for one person to be an expert in every field, we have to employ different strategies and tactics to navigate through these issues.

A fascinating way that our brain tries to solve a current issue is the availability cascade. This is a self-reinforcing cycle, where an idea essentially “infects” a group of people, displacing individual thought and opinion and overwhelming critical thinking.

The way this happens was described and modelled by Timur Kuran and Cass Sunstein.

First, a new idea that seems to be a simple and elegant solution or explanation to the current issue starts to gain traction. People easily adopt and embrace this idea because it sounds plausible and because it is easy to process.

Secondly, people who adopt these ideas spread it themselves, making it more available in the social network. Particularly, nowadays we see this in both reported and social media.

Lastly, as the availability increases, more and more people are pulled in and the idea seems more credible, because “everybody” seems to think it. People do less research and have less individual thoughts or opinions about the matter because the group consensus is more appealing or acceptable.

The availability cascade as a platform can be very effective at raising awareness of issues and banding people together to fight a common cause, such as when the AIDS epidemic was starting.
However, it is fraught with issues.

The availability cascade is mediated by a heuristic, which is essentially a mental shortcut. Heuristics are extremely useful in that it reduces our cognitive load and automates many of our decisions. However, because they are based on rule sets, they are not as effective for new, different situations.

We are less likely to think critically when using heuristics, meaning that we are more vulnerable to being manipulated. In this situation, people think “this is widely available information, therefore it must be important” and default to believing it (even if it is just to appear “current” and to fit in).

Because critical thinking is overwhelmed by the availability cascade, it can be extremely dangerous when misinformation spreads this way; or worse, disinformation – where people maliciously spread false information for their own gains.

A classic example is the anti-vaccination movement that spawned from a discredited, falsified article that claimed MMR vaccines increased rates of autism, despite mountains of evidence pointing towards the effectiveness and safety of immunisation. Subsequently, vaccination rates dropped and we now see outbreaks of illnesses such as measles, resulting in countless deaths and injuries that could have easily been prevented.

Information can be just as contagious and dangerous as an actual infection. Knowing about the existence of these cognitive biases and phenomena help protect us from falling victim to them.

Posted in Life & Happiness

Spirals

You see an attractive person.
You think about approaching them to talk with them.
You toy with the idea of asking them out for a coffee.
You worry that they will be offended by your forwardness.
You feel certain that they would never say yes because you are unattractive.
You become sad that you will never find love and will die alone.
As all of these thoughts race through your head, the person walks past you and carries on with their day, oblivious to your internal torment.

This is a classic example of a negative thought spiral. Our brains are experts of association. But unfortunately, they are also experts of worrying. Evolution has trained us to be prepared for all emergencies with a state-of-the-art fight-or-flight system, which unfortunately is more useful for fleeing from lions than the stresses of modern life.

Because of our anxieties and stress, a fleeting, negative intrusive thought can spark a chain of negative thoughts, spiralling infinitely tighter and tighter as we catastrophise and despair.

Fortunately, there are a variety of ways to rescue yourself from a negative thought spiral.

The first is to recognise that you are in a spiral. A person walking down a spiral road may think that they are walking down a straight road, because they cannot see the bigger picture. This is why it is important to be mindful of your mental state. How are you feeling? What is making you feel this way? How are these feelings affecting your thoughts?

Sometimes, the sheer process of recognising a spiral lets you snap out of it. You may notice obvious rational answers to your anxiety. Perhaps your partner is not texting back because they are busy at work, not because they died in a fiery car crash.

Failing this, we can try grounding exercises. This is a classic distraction technique where by focussing and anchoring yourself on the present, you can escape the spiral.
This may range from simple breathing exercises, to more detailed mindfulness exercises such as the five senses meditation.

Lastly, remember to be kind to yourself. Do not let the spiral be cruel to you. When the spiral tells you that you are worthless, correct them by telling yourself that you are worth it. Talk to yourself as you would to someone you love dearly. As important it is to have other people to rely on for compassion and love, it is so difficult to escape these spirals if we do not show ourselves compassion and love.

Contrary to what we have discussed, not all spirals are bad. To quote John Green:

“Spirals grow infinitely small the farther you follow them inward, but they also grow infinitely large the farther you follow them out.”

When you are mindful of your thoughts, you will notice the occasional positive thought spirals. For example, you may have a sudden thought that you might want to travel on your own. You might come up with a gift idea for a friend that you think they might appreciate, despite how cheesy it is. Sometimes, these thoughts become seeds that grow out into more elaborate ideas and plans.

These are the kinds of spirals you should listen to, as it is your subconscious prompting you to take action in your pursuit of happiness. As long as it does not harm you or others, you should follow these spirals outwards, as they may lead you to an infinitely wonderful place.

Posted in Life & Happiness

How To Draw A Line

If you need to draw a straight line without the help of a ruler, try the following method. Instead of looking at the tip of your pen, look at the point you are trying to draw a line to and move the pen in one swift motion towards it. You will find that the line is much straighter than when you are consciously focussing on where your pen is.

This is similar to how when you are walking down a staircase, the more you think about the steps you are taking, the more likely you are that you will trip and fall. Your brain is very proficient at automating physical activities, so that you can use “muscle memory” instead of wasting precious mental energy.

This also means that ironically, thinking and worrying about doing something right can result in more failures. Sometimes, it is better to just be aware of the direction you want to head in and go with the flow, rather than overthink, micromanage and ruin things.

Posted in Life & Happiness

Disconnect

One of the greatest types of non-physical pain is the feeling of being disconnected. This may be due to being physically separated from someone, such as when a friend moves overseas or when a loved one passes away, or emotionally distanced, such as when when someone stops talking to you for some reason or a partner acts uninterested in you.

As social animals, we have a strong desire to feel connected to others. In fact, it is one of the greatest sources of happiness for us. Connection gives us a safe space for us to express ourselves and feel accepted for who we are. It gives us room for emotional growth as we not only share our inner thoughts and feelings with another person, but also teaches us empathy as the other person tells us more about themselves. Lastly, it gives us a sense of belonging and feeling wanted and needed. Therefore, becoming disconnected from someone can feel as hurtful as if a part of you has been cut away.

The pain of disconnection can be so powerful that it is a common cause of affairs (particularly emotional affairs) in relationships. As a relationship matures and we grow older, people may prioritise other aspects of their life more, become stressed by work or grapple with their insecurities and anxieties. This may result in people becoming more withdrawn as they sink into themselves, becoming more distanced from their loved ones. If the reason for this is not communicated, the partner may easily think that the cause of disconnection is because they are no longer wanted or loved, and they may look for intimacy and closeness elsewhere.

So how do we remedy the pain of disconnection? The obvious answer is connection.

Firstly, we can restore the connection with the person we have been disconnected from. This may include more frequent calls and video chats with a friend who lives overseas, or communicating honestly with a partner to tell them that we are hurting and to explore why the disconnection happened in the first place. Without communication, we resort to assumptions based on our fears and insecurities, which can cause even more damage.

Secondly, we can seek different kinds of connections (but not having an affair). For example, developing deeper connections with other people such as friends, old and new, or finding people to enjoy a hobby or passion with together. The reason for feeling disconnected may be a temporary stress for the other person not involving you, so giving them space while distracting yourself is not a bad idea.

Lastly, if there is true disconnection because of a falling out where even communication cannot repair it, then we must accept the disconnection as a loss, grieve it, process it and move on. People come and go in life and unfortunately, we must accept that even relationships are impermanent.

The reason why disconnection causes so much suffering is because connection lets us be so much more than just ourselves, creating the magical equation of 1 + 1 = 3.

In other words, the feeling of disconnection teaches us to value and be grateful for the connections that we have in life and to encourage us to make more effort to maintain and foster those connections.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Confirmation Bias

We hate to be wrong. When our beliefs and ideas and knowledge are challenged, we have a strong tendency to become aggressively defensive, going as far as attacking the other person personally. It is extremely difficult trying to change someone’s opinion, because of this strong bias towards our own thoughts. This is confirmation bias.

The problem with confirmation bias is that it creates a vicious cycle, causing us to become more and more rigid in our thinking. Not only do we refuse to change our position when challenged by someone else, we actively seek out proof that we are right.

When we read or hear news or a fact, our brain has a tendency to automatically colour it according to our own beliefs. If it aligns with our beliefs, then we take it as concrete proof that we are right. If it goes against our views, we work hard to prove that there are flaws in the article, such as claiming that the writer is biased, or blatantly ignoring it, while demanding better evidence.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt eloquently describes this phenomenon into two questions.
When we like the proposition or fact, we ask: “Can I believe this?”. If there is even a single plausible reason, we give ourselves permission to believe it, as it reinforces our views.
However, when we don’t like it, we ask: “Must I believe this?”. Even a single, minor flaw is enough for us to discredit the new information.

This gross bias results in the difficulty of our brain to consider alternative points of view. Furthermore, we now live in the Information Era where abundant information is freely available, meaning that we can easily search up numerous other opinions that align with ours, even if the majority consensus is against us. We choose only to discuss the idea deeply with people who think like us, while fighting tooth and nail against others.

How do we overcome this incredible barrier? Like most cognitive biases, we cannot simply switch it off.

Perhaps the first step is acknowledging that we are very flawed beings that are prone to being wrong.

Then, we can catch ourselves asking “can I” versus “must I”. If we catch ourselves saying “must I believe it?”, then we should become critical of our own thinking and ask ourselves how we would respond if we instead asked the question “can I believe it?”.

At the same time, try to notice when other people are showing confirmation bias. Then, realise that is exactly how ignorant and obtuse you sound when voicing your own confirmation bias.

Finally, remember that it is okay to be wrong. If we never made any mistakes, then we would never grow. How boring would that world be?

Posted in Life & Happiness

The Art Of Doing Nothing

Our brain thrives on stimulation. We constantly look for distractions, pushing ourselves to always be doing something productive or active. With modern technology such as computers and mobile phones, we have even more ways to use our free time to learn, work and communicate with others (not to mention procrastinating).

However, important as it may be to stay productive and to take action, we seem to have forgotten how to do nothing. There is rarely a moment nowadays when we are truly doing nothing. On our commute to work, we catch up on social media or listen to podcasts. In between tasks, we upload photos or send messages to friends to stay connected. When we have finished our work and chores for the day, we will “unwind” with a show or movie. Even on the toilet, we use our phones to constantly engage our mind.

As much as our mind loves to be stimulated, it also needs rest to process the abundance of information it absorbs during the day. Otherwise, stress starts to pile up from the rushed pace of life and it manifests as crankiness and fatigue. We don’t feel truly rested because when we are supposed to rest, we continue to overwork our mind. What we need is to take five, space out and daydream.

Daydreaming is considered by society as a negative thing. When kids daydream in class, they are told off to focus and do their work. When adults daydream in their own time, others criticise them for being “lazy” and “dull”. It is the direct opposite of what society sees as productivity, where something is created through work and action.

But there is much evidence to suggest that daydreaming has real benefits to your physical and mental health. When you are daydreaming, your body lets its guard down, slowing your brainwaves, heart rate and breathing. Your brain uses that time to consolidate learning, solve complex problems and take inventory of your thoughts and feelings.

Because you have detached yourself from surrounding sensory stimuli, the brain has space to explore the inner workings of your mind, such as your creative side, and coming up with original thoughts. This moment of pause lets your body and mind refresh, allowing it to work more efficiently in processing the past, being mindful of the present and planning for the future.

So unless you absolutely have to be somewhere doing something important right now, take five minutes, put your phone or computer away, look out the window and space out for a bit, letting your mind wander to wherever it pleases. Don’t let anything or anyone distract you and don’t care about what others will think of you.

Lay your weary head to rest and refresh yourself. You deserve a break.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Proust Effect

In his novel In Search of Lost Time, French writer Marcel Proust explored the power of smell in invoking memories. He tells a story of how he would have tea-soaked madeleine to trigger memories from his childhood. Proust called these memories involuntary memories, because it is not recalled on purpose, but automatically triggered by a sensory stimulus such as smell.

Our brain processes memory in a strange, abstract way. Because it doesn’t record memories like a photograph or video, memories become unreliable the older they are. We have very limited memories of our childhood, unless they are paired with specific emotions or memorable events.

Smell triggers involuntary memories because the part of the brain that senses smell, the olfactory bulb, lies right next to the hippocampus and amygdala. These sections of the brain handle memory and emotion respectively, so there is a theory that we form memories linked to different smells, especially if it is an emotional one. There is also some research to suggest a phenomenon called reminiscence bump, where we have a tendency to recall more triggered memories from adolescence and early adulthood. This may be because these are the years when we form our self-identity.

This may be why smells of certain dishes or baking may act as powerful mediums to recall treasured childhood memories, such as the love we received from our parents. Even as adults, we all have specific dishes that we crave to comfort us when we are feeling stressed or lonely. More often than not, these dishes will have a story behind them, whether you remember it consciously or not. When we smell the dish being prepared, we become drowned in nostalgia. The emotions of happiness, safety and love linked to these memories distract us from the pains of life for just long enough that we can have the strength to make it through another day.

Proust talked about a tea-soaked madeleine being his key to his memories. What food is the proverbial madeleine to you?

What food triggers your nostalgia?

Posted in Life & Happiness

Exoskeleton

If you look at a crustacean, such as a crab or lobster, you will notice that they have a very tough exoskeleton. Unlike us, they have their skeleton on the outside to act as armour to protect their weak, soft insides. This allows for great protection against injuries and when battling.

But if they are contained in a rigid shell, how do these animals grow? The answer is that they moult. As they grow, crustaceans will periodically shed their armour, so that the growing inner tissues can create a larger exoskeleton to hold their body in. This is a critical period as the animal is most vulnerable, as the new exoskeleton is still soft and does not offer much protection.

Even though human bodies contain skeletons on the inside, we could consider our hearts as having an exoskeleton. Like all animals, we want to avoid pain – both physical and emotional. So as we grow up, we put up resilient walls to try to protect our weak psyche and ego, to prevent being hurt by others. But a heart with a rigid, hard shell cannot grow. Only when we lower our guard, climb out of our shells and allow ourselves to be vulnerable can we grow and mature.

Life is full of suffering and hardship. We all have our scars and traumas, but at the end of the day, we survived. If we decide to shut ourselves in to avoid connection and refuse to open up to others, we may protect ourselves from some pain. But these are the moments – when we feel like all is lost, when we feel so weak and helpless, when we are anguishing – that we are growing as a person.

Don’t be afraid of feeling weak and vulnerable – it is a necessary step for your heart to grow.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Voodoo Death

We inherently fear death. Much of what we do biologically is struggling against death. We eat and drink to sustain ourselves. We feel pain to avoid things that may eventually kill us. Even moments before our death, our brain will flash our life before our eyes to grasp at any past experiences that may help us survive.

Because of this, we are also inherently neurotic. Some fear flying in a plane because they can imagine the plane crashing and burning, even knowing that flying is safer than a car ride. Childhood traumas where we thought we might die cause long-lasting damage to how we behave and think as an adult.

The most interesting example of how the fear of death can affect us is the phenomenon of voodoo death.

American physiologist Walter Cannon published a paper in 1942 studying cases of “voodoo death” – where healthy people (usually from tribal societies) suddenly passed away after being cursed. Voodoo death starts when a person is cursed or condemned to die by a medical person, such as a witch doctor or shaman. The victim and those around them must believe that the curse will actuall kill them (due to the culture or tradition). The victim’s family may even prepare a funeral. The victim loses all hope that they can survive the curse. They then die, even though their body shows no signs of physical ailment.

For example, the Australian Aborigines are known to have practised “boning”, where a witch doctor would point a vexed bone at an enemy, causing the victim to immediately convulse and die. A Nairobi woman passed away within 24 hours of finding out that the fruit she ate was sacred and she committed a great sin. A Maori man, who was told he should never eat wild game meat, died a day after finding out that he had accidentally eaten wild game meat – even though he had eaten in 2 years ago.

Voodoo death is not only limited to pre-modern societies. In the 1990’s, there was a documented case where a patient was diagnosed with terminal metastatic oesophageal cancer. After saying his goodbyes to his family as were his last wishes, he swiftly passed away. On autopsy, they discovered that the cancer had not actually spread that much and was not the cause of death.

There are many theories as to what may cause voodoo death. The traditional thought was that intense fear and stress stimulates the release of catecholamines such as adrenaline, inducing a massive fight-or-flight response, as seen in broken heart syndrome. The surge of adrenaline causes the heart to beat too fast and too strongly, until it gives out and causes cardiac arrest.

However, more recent studies showed that animals that die from stress exhibit signs of the opposite happening – that is, the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for the common type of fainting spells called vasovagal syncope) is overactive. Because the parasympathetic nervous system has the opposite effect to the sympathetic (fight-or-flight), it can cause the heart to slow to the point of stopping.

This parasympathetic overactivity may be triggered by a sense of absolute hopelessness, essentially causing the body to “give up” on life. On a related note, the hopeless victim will likely not be eating or drinking much while under extreme emotional duress, so dehydration and catatonia may play a role as well.

Voodoo death is an excellent example of how much power the mind has over the body. Ironically, the fear of death itself can cause death.

Posted in Life & Happiness

Awkward

When do we feel awkward? We feel awkward when we don’t know how to act in a certain social situation. For example, some people find it awkward interacting with new people at a party, while others find it awkward to be in the same room as an ex-partner. This is because we cannot predict how the other person will react to how we act, what we say and who we are. Almost everyone is socially awkward to some degree, because we are social animals who fear rejection from the group.

But like anything in life, we can overcome awkwardness. Let us look at two different situations we feel awkward in and how we might remedy this.

With strangers, we feel awkward because we do not know them well enough to predict their perception of and reaction to us. It is hard to tell if our joke would offend them in some way, or if they would judge us for a certain personality quirk. We worry that they will scoff or laugh at us, and that we will be social outcasts.

The solution is simple: don’t care. Don’t care about how a stranger judges you, when they barely know the intricate blend of life experience, personality traits, thoughts and feelings that make up who you are. The only opinion you should care about is what you think of yourself (and maybe of one or two people you trust most in the world to know you best). When you lose your sense of shame and take pride in who you are, you will feel more confident and less awkward.

What about someone you know well, but with whom you have gone through an awkward situation, such as a break-up or a fight? The awkwardness here stems from the fact that you do not know how that situation has changed your relationship. You no longer know if the same rules of engagement apply as before. Is it okay to hug them? Is it okay to talk about the past? What do they think of us now? All of these neurotic questions make us anxious, and to avoid them, we avoid the person altogether. But because the other person feels just as awkward, the relationship wilts away until it cannot be repaired.

Here, the solution is simple, but takes a lot of work: communication. It is impossible to know what the other person is thinking and vice versa. To clear up the awkwardness, we need to talk about our feelings and clear up misunderstandings. This does not necessarily have to be through a face-to-face talk with words. We can show this through our actions, by showing our willingness to rebuild the connection and that we still care about the other person. If either person did not care about the other person at all, then there is no awkwardness because there is a clear answer. Awkwardness is a sign that both sides wants to fix this situation, but they don’t know how.

Awkwardness is a form of anxiety that stems from our concerns of what others think of us. Remember: it’s not awkward unless we let it be awkward.