Tuesday, 6 August 2013


Handshake And A Half!

          Any social situation can cause a certain amount of nervous energy in most of us, but none more so than the highly uncertain “first meetings”! In an age when self-presentation is a key priority in interactions, it becomes even more important for us to strike the right first impressions on a stranger. What truly goes into our attempts at making favourable impressions on others?

          There are two main tactics we employ to build a positive social image of ourselves. One is the rather obvious tactic of “self-enhancement” that involves looking our best to constructing positive self-descriptions of ourselves to making use of appropriate “props” such as putting on a cool pair of glasses to appear well-read and so on. Good social skills have been shown to be very good predictors of promotion at the workplace by many research studies. 

          The second tactic we often use is “other-enhancement”. This involves inducing positive moods and states of mind in other people through lively conversations and pleasant interactions, showing genuine interest in others’ ideas and opinions, and even performing small favours for them. People also hope to create a good image by offering flattery, praise and agreeing excessively to the opinions of the other, particularly when they are perceived to be superior to oneself. 

          The chances of this tactic backfiring are quite high when executed without tact, in which case the person gains a highly negative evaluation as opposed to creating a positive impression! This effect was described by Roos Vonk  as the ‘slime effect’. One will do well to avoid such overly ingratiating behaviours being as the term doesn’t really ooze with appeal!

          We have a strong desire to be associated with attitudes that we perceive to be honourable. In many situations we look to further our self-image by expressing such desirable attitudes where appropriate. Understandably we also tend to hide or suppress attitudes that may not show us in the right light, such as our prejudices.

          In any attempt at self-presentation, there is always the risk of failure such as when our efforts backfire or when our performances yield unfavourable outcomes. Imagine talking to a teacher you really admire about the time you lost out in an important tournament. You may attempt to manage the possible embarrassment by explaining them  away as caused by uncontrollable external factors and downplaying the effect of personal factors.

          Impression management can be a little challenging for people who find social situations uncomfortable and distressing. But despair not, as research suggests that cognitive distractions such as activities that the person really enjoys doing and is likely to be successful at can go a long way in reducing their social anxiety and making them appear sociable and extroverted!

          Striking the balance between our desire to appear in a certain way and genuinely having a good time in a social gathering is the trick to not let the pressure get to us! Social psychologists assure us that despite all the challenges and obstacles, the art of self-presentation comes quite naturally to us.


Tuesday, 30 July 2013


Keep The Change!

          An old house that has forever stood at the end of the street has been replaced by a multi-storey apartment complex. Uh oh, unease. The affable elderly gentleman who sold stationery and soda pops at the small shop next to school retires and is replaced by someone else, unease. New neighbours, unease. Friend leaves school, or worse, the country, awful unease. Friend comes back with an accent and new ideas, well that’s tragic!

          Some people really hate change! So much so that just mere contemplation of it can cause apprehension and anxiety. But why?

          Change is a very effective reminder of how we are not in control of everything that happens to us. And that is OK! It is alright to not be able to control everyone and everything around you. It is a free world and no one should be controlled and manipulated to suit the needs of another. The point is, the kind of control that matters is the one you have over yourself and how you make change work for you!

          It is true that a reasonably stable life without too much flux offers security. But when our living conditions change, such as when you have to move because of a parent’s job, a new sibling is about to enter the family or a family member falls sick, they signal the arrival of an important milestone in our lives. It can be quite anxiety provoking but how well we deal with such transitions determine how much stronger and well-adjusted we emerge.

          When the change is self-initiated, like when you choose to shift to a new school, or take up a new extracurricular commitment, one would expect the transition or adaptation to be easy. But that may not always be the case. One would still need to deal with how different the actual situation is to how one had imagined in their mind. There may be a few challenges to overcome and few adjustments to be made to settle in. What makes the transition successful is staying committed to one’s decision and a dedication to have fun and learn more, no matter what!

          In case of change which is externally imposed, the resistance to accommodate is much higher, making successful transition more difficult. Adaptation then, depends on what one makes of this change. If it is seen as an opportunity to break away from the monotony and grow, one’s commitment to acclimatize is higher and one can develop into a free agent whose outlook is evolved and more open to experience than ever before.

          To deal effectively with change, be it situational or relational (like the problems with the “new” old friend!) requires one to be a flexible individual who is willing to transcend the limitations of their preferences and characteristics. “I can’t do this”, “I don’t like this” and many such self-defeating declarations keeps a person from achieving their potential to be more, do more and give more.

          Rolling with change can be very freeing and liberating as one doesn’t need to feel like a victim of the situations they are in but instead take charge of how they can ride this change with  dignity and purpose. Stagnation is after all, not for the life-affirming human spirit!


Thursday, 6 June 2013


Success In The Big Picture

In other astonishing news today, it has been learned that the word ‘school’ derives from the Greek word schole which can be translated to mean, hold your breath, leisure! Given today’s scenario where school education is inextricably linked to a fifteen year chase of ‘success’, this piece of trivia sure boggles the mind.

The ancient Greeks, bless them, meant school to mean a leisurely time set aside to learn the nature of our universe and of human life, not for cracking competitive exams but quite simply, for the sake of knowledge and enlightenment. An activity was taken up in leisure purely for the love of it. This belief that pursuing knowledge could liberate the mind and spirit was strongly held in ancient India too. A key aspect of education, then, was to support a student’s spiritual growth alongside intellectual exercises and social awareness.

In order to stay relevant to the socio-political context we live in, education has been subjected to repeated alterations in terms of subject matter as well as modes of transmitting information. But what has been largely left behind in the times of yore is the wide-eyed wonderment with which to look at the vast universe around us. There is now a significant distance between the individual and what he studies.

Children, in their most natural state are curious. They explore their environment in any way that their current development allows, be it through investigative touching or unceremonious yanking, on all fours or on tottering twos. If you have ever witnessed the unrestrained mirth of a toddler after “figuring out” how something works, you know that their reward lies in the joy of discovery.

To imagine we were like this once upon a time when today, mastering a lab experiment holds only as much enticement as an A+ is disheartening. Maybe the hunger to learn diminished when one realised whatever one learns is only as good as the grades and applause it fetches. Appreciation and acknowledgement from one’s family and peers are very important in that they offer us a warm and supportive environment for us to apply ourselves better. To hold an inadequate definition of success as meaning top grades and a high remuneration at the workplace is very narrow-minded, not to mention fraught with potential causes of mental distress and fatigue.

Success may mean material accomplishments to some, effective relationships to some and joyful involvement in activities or fields of intellectual/emotional value for others. A rich businessman and a passionate stay-at-home mother are both successful in their own rights. What makes them successful is giving themselves wholeheartedly to their duties and treating failures as unavoidable yet valuable opportunities to learn from, without lowering their expectations or standards of performance.

There is nothing wrong in looking for money and fame in one’s life. It is, however, important to realise that these are inevitable “by-products” that will happen to you anyway if you remain committed, competent and confident. Einstein put it best when he said, "We have to do the best we can. This is our scared human responsibility." How is that for some good "old school" wisdom?


Thursday, 9 May 2013


Social Networking, NOT Working!

     Deepa came home after a long hard day of tuitions and tests and threw herself across the bed, thoroughly exhausted. As sleep crept over her, she wondered, in the last moment of heavy-lidded consciousness, if her latest profile picture had received a new comment. Her sleep drew back  a little. Had she edited her picture just right so that the lighting and colouring flattered her features perfectly? Sleep struggled to take over but Deepa’s anxiety managed to keep it at bay. What if Sneha, Arjun, Karthik and Chitra had posted “funny” comments really designed to just annoy her and make her feel silly about herself? Sleep gave up trying to bring her under its calming oblivion as she forced herself out of bed to take a “quick look” at her profile.

     How about you? Do you check and recheck your response to others’ online posts so that you appear at your humorous best? Have you convinced yourself that the number of “likes” you get on a post is a direct estimate of your value as a person?

     Our primal need to belong to a certain social group in which we feel loved, appreciated and approved of, is beginning to manifest in quite an interesting way through our contemporary obsession with social networking. To be connected with friends and family on an informal platform where all our quirks are celebrated and accepted whereas at the dining table they would be frowned upon, can be very liberating. One is also encouraged to take a moment to understand what they are feeling at a particular time and what opinions they hold on a particular issue so that they may be updated as statuses or tweets. 

     This ability of these platforms to stimulate reflection and thought is a wonderful thing. They promote dialogues between people from different disciplines and backgrounds, thereby providing everyone with an opportunity to expand their sphere of experience and knowledge. Right? Well, maybe not if our understanding of social networking is limited to its potential to generate a flawless image of ourselves that completely disowns our imperfections and shortcomings. 

     Such a “construction” of ourselves and our lives takes an inordinate amount of time to craft and maintain! Sources estimate school-going students spend 7 hours a day on an average on these sites. That is just a criminal waste, considering there are actual people to meet and make eye contact with, real footballs to be kicked, real saplings to be planted, real rooms to be tidied up instead of virtual villas, not to mention an actual person to improve and nurture (thy honourable self), rather than a virtual avatar!

     Everyone has self-doubts, including the circle of friends whose approval we seek so much. The identity you have for yourself is such an intimate part of your growth. To invite others’ opinions and judgments in shaping your self-concept is unfair and harmful. To contribute to a trend of “watching” what others do with their lives and to exploit the anonymity that internet affords us to sling harmful comments at others robs the growing generation of integrity and personal accountability.

     Try to look beyond the superficial and you may be able to experience the joy of genuine human connectedness that goes beyond mere popularity.


Friday, 26 April 2013


Scaling Morality

     Toddler Shiva was forbidden from biting his brother as his mother said it hurts him very much. Well, thought Shiva, why else would I bite him if I didn’t want it to hurt?! So his mother tried another tactic. She would emit a shrill, frightening shout when he attempted an assault on his brother. If this doesn’t succeed in stopping him, his mother’s palm would meet his backside in a loud thwack. This did the trick.

     The fear of punishment and threats of an all seeing God who will poke our eyes if we did anything wrong was the first ever moral code of conduct we learned. Our morality then was something external to ourselves and not an integral part of how we lived our lives. This is described by Lawrence Kohlberg as the first level of moral development.

     The second stage is when we begin to understand there is no absolute right and wrong. We have the freedom to act in ways that meet our interests. Ria might fight for her friend’s cycle as they had decided to ride it in turns and her friend doesn’t want to share. A smaller child might reason that since the cycle is her friend’s, Ria shouldn’t fight for it but an older child recognises that it is not quite so simple as the friend is not being fair.

     The third stage is when we want to live up to the expectations of those whom we respect such as the elders in the family and figures of authority like our teachers. Our moral reasoning now goes beyond fear of punishment to holding good intentions and operating out of concern and empathy for others. This may be why we celebrate the idea of modern day Robin Hoods who act in questionable ways for the larger good of the poor and underprivileged. 

     If you believe staunchly that no matter what, one shouldn’t step over the law for the good of society as a whole, you are in the fourth stage. Staying on the good side of the law isn’t to avoid punishment but to preserve social harmony. The idea here is, if everyone starts to live by his own rules then the society will be ruled by chaos.

     In stage five, our morality expands to respect individual values and rights of people in the society and this can lead to revision of laws that are unfair to certain sections of society. For example, legal Acts were amended declaring that daughters should also benefit from parent’s property and not just the sons.

     It is important to not just understand which stage we are at but to aspire to the next level too. As your social circle expands, you will come across a variety of people who have their own ideas of morality and many times this will differ greatly from yours. The most important responsibility as a citizen of this world is that we don’t exclude or condemn a particular person or group because of their moral codes. A non-judgmental and inclusive mindset driven towards justice and equality for all is the true sign of moral growth.



A Severe Case of Hilaria*!

     On what is easily the most colourful day of the year, some respected members of the society, discerning adults, serious students preparing for final exams and curious little children alike, had their nose plastered against their computer screens trying to “smell” a wet dog, vampires, a new car, and of course the indispensable olfactory delight, roses! This foolish enchantment with what technology can possibly achieve was fuelled ingeniously by the pranksters at Google who released their Google Nose gag to celebrate April 1. Once upon a humorous time in New York, a practical joke aficionado of the name Hugh Troy used an old-fashioned umbrella shaped like a rhino’s foot to create imprints in snow, causing the students, faculty and management of Cornell University to believe there was indeed a rhino in the campus!

     Honking a horn every time your mother opens her mouth, sticking insulting signs on an unsuspecting (or a fully suspecting) friend’s back, punching holes in a sibling’s water bottle  are just some of the countless other imaginative pranks that have been fundamentally designed to celebrate our childlike love for play.
Play has the very important purpose of dispelling tension. Practical jokes allow us to get in touch with our inane whims, which were indulged so much more when we were younger. In their ability to provoke spontaneous laughter, hoaxes and pranks (that are not dangerous or frightening) lower blood pressure and help one cope healthily with the demands of everyday life.

     Many of you may have stopped playing routinely when you reached middle school. Students in older classes may still play competitive sports but it is adults who seem to have completely forgotten the simple pleasures of playing! It is an art that seems to be lost in the transition of a child into an adolescent and finally an adult. Play is crucial for improving one’s creativity and problem solving skills. 

     Play (preferably without serious competition) brings people closer as inhibitions are lowered causing one to become more open to the individuality and uniqueness of another person.  The communicative value of play is an important reason why companies invest so much time and resources in team building exercises which are essentially games and group tasks designed upon the carefree principles of play.

     The modality of “play therapy” is particularly designed to establish an unthreatening environment to children who have experienced trauma, suffer from psychological issues such as depression, anxiety or have learning difficulties. Play offers a medium of communication that a child is comfortable with while at the same time, encouraging the child to learn social, academic and  emotional skills in an exploratory, undemanding setting.

     Lay aside the cynicism and celebrate April Fool’s week with gusto. Play has a lot more to offer than simple fun. You will be the better for indulging your inner clown!

*Hilaria is Latin for hilarious.


Déjà vu: Paranormal or Neurological?

     “Oh! Look the new cafe is finally open! I love how cosy and quaint it looks!” “Oh! Look the new cafe is finally open! I love how cosy and quaint it looks!” Pia was walking along the market with her mother, remarking casually on the new cafe which had opened up as an odd feeling swept over her that she had been in this exact situation before, commenting on this very cafe which had not even been in existence until a week ago! This eerie feeling of having experienced a situation before when, in fact, we know for certain we haven’t is termed “déjà vu” which is French for “already seen”. Some of us may even feel like we have “felt” something previously called déjà senti; or having had already visited a place called déjà visite.

     Deja vu is a familiar sensation that most of us have experienced and it can be somewhat unsettling due to its strange premonitory quality. 

     Parapsychologists attribute this phenomenon to clairvoyance and even to previous experiences in a past life repeating themselves. Since such a claim cannot be proved, disproved or otherwise investigated, we turn to research in neuropsychology to understand the nature and cause of déjà vu.

     Neurological causes are typically complex and varied given the complexity of the brain, only a fraction of which has rendered itself to scientific knowledge. Early investigations in to déjà vu centred around people with brain pathology as their reports of déjà vu were striking and frequent. For instance, in 1896, a prominent neurologist F.L. Arnaud described the déjà vu experience of a 34 year old man who was recovering from cerebral malaria. He claimed to recognise certain newspaper articles and seemed to “recognise” almost every situation.  

     A series of research spanning decades suggests that déjà vu is caused by misfiring of neurons in the part of the brain which is  responsible for recognising familiar stimuli. This particular system in the brain is responsible for judging if we have come across a certain situation before or not. In people suffering from epilepsy originating in their temporal lobe (which is on either sides of the brain), this recognition system falsely gives an impression of familiarity with a new situation, giving rise to a sense of déjà vu.

     In people who do not suffer from epilepsy or any other pathology of the brain, the brain areas responsible for retrieval of memory, i.e. accessing old memories to aid in the current situation, can lead to a sense of already having been there before. These brain areas have been identified by Spatt (2002) as being the prefrontal cortex (the front region of the frontal cortex) and hippocampus (a structure present in the limbic system of our brain crucial for memory processes).

     Deja vu is one of the glitches in our memory system which makes us ponder as to what makes our memories feel real or surreal as the case may be as the case may be. Oh well!


Evolved Distrust

     “Us-Them”, “Insiders-Outsiders”. This human tendency to look in boundary-establishing binaries is a natural and untaught mechanism that has developed evolutionarily. As most of us know, humans have always lived in tribes for safety, security and to procure valuable resources for survival. Any given tribe was always wary of strangers from other tribes as they were threats who could possibly pass on terrible diseases, otherwise hurt and harm individuals and children or even compete for life-sustaining resources. In a sense, it paid off to think of outsiders as “bad” or “dangerous” for the protection of one’s own tribe. This ancient distrust of individuals who didn’t belong to our group manifests itself in many varied and complex ways today.

     An inevitable outcome of ignorance is that we assume certain things about these “outsiders” and use these assumptions or stereotypes to understand their behaviour. For example, “Women are emotional”, “Men are insensitive”, “Math teachers are strict” are all stereotypes and not universal truths, yes even the last one! Stereotypes mostly tend to characterize the subjects as possessing undesirable qualities or lacking in virtue, talent or even morality, when compared to the in-group. This is the beginning of all sorts of trouble and it has a name too- prejudice.

     Psychologists describe prejudice as a baseless (i.e. without backed by evidence), usually negative attitude towards members of a certain group. At a thought-level, either conscious or unconscious, all of us hold preconceived notions about people, groups or ideas foreign to our own but many of us, when we come in actual contact with different groups, act on our prejudices at which point it is called discrimination. Discriminating means denying respect, opportunities and resources to others on the basis of  race, religion, language or even talent and ability. It is a misguided act and causes great damage to those on the receiving end as it damages their self-esteem and effectively alienates them from the larger society. To snatch away a sense of belonging and purpose from someone just based on inadequate understanding and intolerance to difference is a terribly irresponsible thing to do.

     So what can be done about our prejudices if they are, as proved by countless research, an evolutionary trait and an automatic mechanism? Surely we can be excused for it! No. When we are equipped with a superior cognitive apparatus that is amazingly malleable, flexible and has a tremendous capability for self-awareness, the option available to us it to simply acknowledge our prejudices and self-correct them by developing empathy towards others. A simple assumption of ourselves as being in their shoes and living their lives can help the most dogmatic of individuals to expand their minds to newer possibilities and appreciate differences in others.


Sour Grapes All Over Again!

     So! Here we are, reading the newspaper post 21st December, 2012! The earth still sturdy beneath our feet, the breeze still unperturbed and cool on our face, and all the exams of the future steadily approaching us with crushing inevitability, no doomsday to the rescue! The 2012 phenomenon as the doomsday theory is being referred to has caused substantial panic among many throughout the globe. Numerous online discussion forums, blogs and videos on survival tips in case of cataclysmic earthquakes or hurricanes, hundreds of assurance-seeking questions addressed to scientist and space researchers over the last year are all testament to just how shaken many people were. But what is particularly interesting about this mass panic is many of us have been brought to consider hard facts as evidence that the world is not going to end! But once some of us come to believe in a tiny worm of an idea, it is a matter of time before it germinates to a stubbornly held belief that resists all evidence to the contrary.

     The bunch of us who have always scoffed at the idea of the world ending may now be smirking. But what of those who truly and completely believed so? The contradiction between what they thought and what has come to be will cause what psychologist Leon Festinger called cognitive dissonance. All people are motivated to solve this dissonance and maintain consistency in their thoughts and beliefs to enjoy inner equilibrium. In one of his books, Festinger had written about the case of a group of people in a cult who believed that the world would end after  a catastrophic flood on 21st December, 1954. The founding member of the cult claimed to have received the prophecy from a fictional planet. The prophecy continued to say that only true believers will be rescued by a flying saucer. The members who staunchly believed this left their jobs, families and possessions to leave on the saucer. The said flood did not come to be. Some of the members were so distraught that they started crying. To reduce the terribly disturbing dissonance between their belief and the thought that they were wrong about the flood, the group made  a statement to the media that this disaster was averted owing to the faithfulness of the members!

     The attempt at reducing dissonance can make us resort to maladaptive thoughts and actions such as when we know smoking is injurious and yet, contrary to this knowledge we still smoke. Many smokers resolve this by altering their attitudes about smoking instead of just quitting! Calling the grapes sour is not the best practice most times. It is important to rightly choose which attitude is best altered for resolution of dissonance.  


Knock on Wood so the Going Gets Good!

     Cause and effect. Even as you hear it, it feels like one has hit upon an infallible formula to demystify the world. Cause and effect makes one believe that everything is caused by something, and everything has a predictable consequence(s). What a comforting feeling it is to know that we can account for any phenomenon, however confusing or inexplicable it may seem at first! There is an understandable cause and effect relationship between sitting in a hot and humid classroom and low levels of concentration; between poor eating habits and low immunity and between excessive internet use for entertainment and a hopping mad parent!

     Just when we think we have figured it all out, a black cat crosses your path on your way to school and somewhere over your head, a pigeon decides to relieve itself. Just as you are making faces at God above, the real culprit, the black cat comes to mind. There, we have a cause and effect explanation, albeit a skewed one, which psychologists call “magical thinking” but we are satisfied as we have hit upon a reason for why something happened.

     We like having a fairly certain idea of what is going to happen in our future. But sometimes things such as loss or failure happen outside of our control and there is really no plausible explanation as to why it happened to us! When we have done everything in our power to succeed in something, we leave the eventual unfurling of outcomes to some higher power, such as when we take our “lucky” pen out to an exam, wear a “lucky” charm bracelet, put our right foot forward, etc.

     Now, most of us know that there is no direct causal relationship between any luck charm and winning a game of tennis. But what keeps the faith alive, then? The effect that superstitious beliefs have on actual outcomes are mediated through our mind. The belief that if you have faith in A, then B will happen offers a lot of hope and a great level of perceived control in us. Imagine as you go through a typical school day, your right eye twitches and the promise of good luck through the day lingers like a glowing candle in your mind, boosting your spirits which allows for better  performance and better interactions with peers through the day!

     This feeling of hope and peace feeds further superstitious entanglements and that’s when things get dicey!  If you must always wear your right shoes before your left,  the odd day that you forget this routine may disrupt your peace and thereby make you perceive the happenings of the day to be more awful than they really were! You feel everything could have been better, all because of one personal routine! We need to be wary of when our beliefs begin to take control over our reason and become compulsive. The minute our beliefs start causing us anxiety, we are going to have to take a step back and reassess their utility.

     Superstitious routines and beliefs are useful only insofar as they keep up our good humour, but then again, how many other alternative sources of good humour do we have other than a twitchy eye? 


Chink in the Mirror

     Quickly jot down the words that jump to your mind when you hear the following words:


     An increasing number of school children are beginning to relate to food and eating in shockingly negative ways. To many children and young adults, food is not so much a factor that affects their health than something that affects their physical appearance, and consequently, their social desirability. Enough has been written and read about all the negative messages that media propagates with regard to body image (which essentially refers to the ways in which we think and feel about our body and appearance). Pictures of pencil thin women and perfectly muscular men used in magazines have been widely condemned as being unrealistic as most men and women who eat healthily cannot attain such low body weight and perfectly chiselled body parts. Movies that celebrate women who are beautiful by virtue of their waists that are thin as "noodles" and dramatic hour-glass figures while banishing plump and over-weight characters to the sidelines or in comic roles send a pretty clear message as to what our society considers attractive and what not. 

     This mass obsession with being lean has infiltrated our classrooms and a large group of parents and lunch boxes are pretty unhappy. Aromatic ghee dosas and cheese sandwiches are thrown right into the dustbins and dry toasts and skimmed milk are the preferred meal for school-going children as young as 10. This unrealistic fear of being fat is terribly misplaced and the blame doesn’t lie with just the children. Parents need to be careful while communicating their criticisms over their children's eating behaviours. Making fun of a large appetite, of excessive snacking and of body weight can prove very harmful to their kids' self esteem and body image. A joint learning exercise where parents and children explore healthy eating habits and re-establish a positive relationship with food in a mutually supportive manner will go a long way in establishing a conducive home environment where myths and misunderstandings about food can be challenged. 

     Families need to understand the place physical appearance has on the members' levels of self esteem. What is considered attractive by one's family may not be what one's peer group considers attractive! So who are we trying to please at the cost of our health and self-confidence?  Parents need to take care not to complain of their own weight and appearance. Healthy play and exercise should be encouraged and taken up as a family routine: bonding this way hugely enhances relationships as well as health.

     A poor body image renders the person vulnerable to depression and anxiety. The vulnerable individual has a distorted perception of his/her own appearance which then leads to poor eating habits, making the individual look under-fed, further fuelling his/her dissatisfaction with own appearance. This vicious cycle needs to be broken by embracing your body as an able machine which requires sufficient fuel to function and be productive. To tie your appearance to how much you value yourself is a sure way to damage your social and physical self-esteem.

     Do remember this: if you are being bullied because of your weight or appearance by others, the dissatisfaction and low self esteem that you experience is NOT because of your weight. It is , in fact, a response to being bullied. Take a stand, be proud of who you are and get started on a healthier lifestyle for the sake of your physical and psychological health. We are, after all, a lot more than the sum total of two pairs of limbs, torso and a head of shiny hair!


Yeah, Right!

     What we say is not always what we mean. We like to play with words and confuse others just as much as we like to be heard and understood! The process of communication typically comprises spoken language, body language, gestures, facial expressions, tone, pitch and volume of voice. We have the capacity to creatively alter any number of these factors in communication in order to change the very meaning of the same set of words! It’s not always that words carry their apparent meanings. This is particularly true in cases where we employ sarcasm. The statement: “Oh! What a big surprise!”, when said in a high pitch of voice and accompanying facial expressions and gestures is a straightforward expression of surprise, but if said with a flat and dry tone with a roll of the eyes, becomes a sarcastic expression of the predictability or mundaneness of the event. Sarcasm also includes exaggerating information to a point where it is meant as mockery. Saying “You are too early for tomorrow’s class” at a tardy person, “Is there a famine in your town?” at an overweight person, or “Man, do you light up a room!” at a gloomy person, etc., are all exaggerated accounts that mock the state of the other.

     In a fight, it is not uncommon for people to say, “Yes, I am wrong! I am always wrong and I am oh-so-sorry!” If we really meant this, we would need to look for excuses to fight! But since no one is in a hurry to turn into a saint, we twist our faces and adopt a harsh accusatory tone at the other person to imply the opposite! In this manner, sarcasm is used a tool to express frustration and aggression. This can be potentially cathartic (tension-releasing) but when sarcasm is used like this to boost one’s own self-esteem by putting others down, it can be very damaging and eventually destroy a relationship if it becomes habitual. Destructive sarcasm needs to be assertively confronted as it can hurt the confidence of the person in the receiving end. In close friends circles, sarcasm can feed many a laughs if based on mutual respect and trust. Sarcasm directed towards the self can be a healthy way of making light of one’s shortcomings but if done too extensively, it can damage self-esteem even more.

     Sarcasm is one of the most ambiguous ways in which people communicate with each other. If you have ever met a person who seems to be actually teasing people through his apparent compliments to them, you know what this means! Are you rethinking some of the compliments that came your way, yet? 


The Funny Work-Out

     Why is laughter the best medicine? Why do we attempt humour as a way to distract our minds from distress every day? A new field called Psychoneuroimmunology, which is a multi-disciplinary area of study that uses the principles of psychology, neuroscience and immunology has explored the causes, function and brain areas responsible for laughter. Doesn’t sound like much of a laughing matter now, does it!

     It appears that heart-felt laughter, which is usually elicited at something funny, releases endorphins into our blood-stream, making us experience a general feeling of well-being. These endorphins also act as analgesic and hence reduce our perception of pain! 

     In an interesting study by Dr. Dunbar and colleagues at Oxford University, two groups of people were first tested on their pain threshold, that is, an indication of how much pain they can normally withstand. These two groups were then shown either comical videos, or serious, fact-filled documentaries. The group of people who watched the funny videos were observed to laugh from their bellies, (which the researchers say is equal to physical exercise since it leads to muscle exertion, increased blood pressure and heart rate!) thereby releasing endorphins into their bloodstream. As a result, their pain threshold increased, i.e., they could withstand more pain! But the second group of people who watched serious documentaries felt as much pain as they did before. In the same study, it was also noticed that people laughed more readily and intensely when in a group and their pain threshold increased even more in a group viewing of the videos than individual viewing.

     There is a type of laughter which occurs in polite social company, when we laugh to accompany someone else out of courtesy or to pleasant information which may not particularly be funny. Such kind of laughter does not elicit the kind of repeated, exerted exhalations of breath that belly laughs involve, and hence do not qualify as “exercise”. Nonetheless, any kind of laughter acts as a great emotional coping mechanism as it reduces the level of stress hormones in the body and promotes relaxation. The positive state of mind that follows offers us more creative problem solving abilities.



     Social psychologists have termed humans “cognitive misers”, essentially pin-pointing to the fact that we take into consideration a very small amount of all the information that is available to us while making a decision, be it our assessment of a new friend in class, what group to take in high school or which of two parties to attend, among other tougher life decisions. Here are some of the cognitive short-cuts that we tend to take in decision-making which do help in making efficient decisions many times but  still often fall prey to biases and errors.

     Consider a situation in which you hear about tragic road traffic accidents on and off. Such disturbing information is high on vividness, not a very usual occurrence and is quite emotionally charged, thereby having a strong impact on our memory. When it comes to deciding whether you want to go on a cross country road trip or even buy your own vehicle one day you may falter and decide otherwise based on the availability of only negative examples of driving in your mind. Such a type of decision-making short-cut is termed availability heuristic (heuristic=short-cut).

     Assuming you have a new neighbour who looks intelligent, is very social, has headphones on most of the time and has wild, hair in a “I store my creativity in my unkempt curls” kind of way , what would you evaluate his occupation to be given a choice between Band Musician and Medicine? You may lean more towards the first option, given his characteristics which are more representative of that occupation but if you had to consider the actual proportion of medical students to students of music, the chances of him being the latter is more! The success of this heuristic thus largely lies on how well we can balance representativeness and probability in answering a question.

     Going with popular preferences (e.g in music and technology) is another short-cut to deciding. Some situations do not afford us the luxury of deliberating logically and in such instances we go by our gut feeling. If our emotions at the moment, in response to the situation is positive, we assume the risks are low and the gains are high, which is a very helpful, energy-conserving heuristic but it may lead us into harm in some unusual situations such as when students decide to smoke just because it is “cool” or it is what your friends do and we just assume cancer will not affect us, just the guy standing next to us!

     A very important and relevant type of cognitive miserliness is stereotyping, which is when we attribute certain qualities to people belonging to a certain group. Beliefs about a particular race or religion, if strong enough, affect the way in which we assess any person belonging to that group, without paying any attention to the individual characteristic of that person. It is very important to be mindful of using this heuristic in social interactions so as to keep from behaving in a prejudiced and discriminatory manner.


The ‘Why’ of Boredom

     Try this: When you are feeing alert and energetic, turn off all sources of noise, such as the windows that bring external noise, turn off the TV, lie down on your couch, close your eyes by wrapping a thick piece of cloth around your head for good measure, tying your hands very close to your body so your ability to explore the surrounding textures and surfaces is completely curtailed. Notice how long you can lie like this and what feeling this gives rise to. Yawn, right?

     A group of people who volunteered to be participants in an experimental study by researchers Bexton and colleagues(1954) would beg to differ from your opinion! They agreed to be kept in an isolated cubicle and were paid a handsome amount per day for staying in this cubicle without doing, seeing, hearing, or touching anything! They were only allowed to be rid of these encumbrances while eating or using the toilet. 

     The participants seemed highly motivated to stay this way for about four to eight hours but all of them dropped out of the  study in 3 or 4 days after exhibiting extreme restlessness and acute boredom. 

     Being kept from doing something of interest or importance quickly gets us in a state of boredom. On the other hand, being made to do something that we do not want to engage in at the moment leads to boredom as well. There is an increasing number of psychologists today who identify boredom to be an emotion. It can be thought to be an unpleasant emotion characterized by lack of interest and difficulty in concentrating on current activities.

     Any activity with which we are unable to engage actively with attention and focus is promptly judged boring or monotonous. You may have noticed how people who generally lack attention tend to get bored very easily. As ones attention keeps sliding superficially over a number of stimuli, meaningful association with the topic or subject becomes very difficult and hence it turns boring.

     As we learn and grow, it gets harder for us to be entertained or interested by things! Can you play all day with a spoon with as much involvement and excitement as a toddler? When something doesn’t align with our level of intellectual capability, it leads to boredom!

     We as humans seek meaning in everything we do. We take up our curricular and extra-curricular activities with a certain sense of purpose and ambition. We take up jobs and many friendships and relationships, all in the quest to find a place for ourselves in the world. When one recognizes that whatever they are engaged with currently doesn’t satisfy their will to meaning sufficiently, they appear bored with life! 

     Interestingly, recent studies have identified that boredom is, in fact, a good thing! It pushes many of us to pursue meaningful, prosocial endeavours aimed at making a difference in the lives of others.


Petting the Cushion and Fluffing the dog!

     So, there are many of us who are hugely proud of our ability to do several things at the same time. Maybe your mother can rattle off a train-long, multi-syllable mantra which twists and turns dramatically as she prepares breakfast for everyone and supervises the maid! A pilot has to monitor air traffic information, radio signals as well as the actual piloting! A surgeon needs to pay attention to the status of the patient, execute critical procedures and manage his surgical team, all at once! 
     Well, all these are instances usually thought to be acts of multi-tasking, i.e., performing different tasks that demand attention in a given time period. The assumption that we can split our attention so super-humanly and emerge as effective performers makes us feel confident. On the flip side, it is an inaccurate assumption because research in the field now reveals that humans are not capable of simultaneously engaging in different tasks but can shift attention from one task to another so quickly that it appears to be happening all at the same time!

     In an interesting study by Daniel Weissman at the University of Michigan, a research participant had to perform two tasks while his brain images on an MRI scan was photographed. Two numbers were displayed on a screen and the participant was told to decide which digit was larger than the other if the numbers were in red. If the numbers were in green, the participant had to decide which one had a larger font size! This test employed a simple enough task but the MRI showed that when the participant had to switch from the red to the green numbers, his brain went on to pause mode as he had to gather different sets of instructions in order to perform well! So if we had to switch our attention from one task to another rapidly, our brain gets fatigued, thereby making multitasking on different tasks of higher difficulty, impossible!

     Many times you may have tried to complete an essay while singing your favourite song and failed to do either one of these correctly. That is because writing employs the same part of your brain which is responsible for vocally using words! Both these tasks fight for the same brain area and confusion results. Hence multi-tasking of similar activities is very difficult. However, if you had to run while listening to music and sing along, it is possible as the motor behaviour employs a different brain region from the singing behaviour.

     Dividing our attention among multiple bits of information makes sub-optimal levels of attention available to each task making learning ineffective and retrieval and recall unsuccessful!

     Although multi-tasking is useful for completing a number of menial jobs, and those with which we are very familiar and practiced at, it proves ineffective and fatiguing when applied to learning important facts and concepts.