I know you are, but what am I?

When did “I’m good at Math.” turn into “I’m a genius. You’re stupid.” 

When did “I think he likes me!” turn into “I’m hot. Everybody wants me.

When did “Oh, my butt looks so cute in these pants.” turn into “You wish you had my body, bitch.

 

Society has done an amazing job of conditioning us to hear confidence as cockiness. Positive “I” statements as narcissistic. It’s frightful that a healthy self concept can be skewed so negatively. But it happens and the lower the self esteem of the other person, the worse it is. 

In the behavioral neuroscience courses I’ve taken, many of us struggled with understanding sensation vs. perception. The take away from all those lectures was that perception isn’t necessarily reality. It may not have anything to do with what actually happened. The example in class was of an experiment where people listened to a piece of classical music and then reported their mood afterward. Same stimulus, but many different perceptions. People reacted to the same piece of music differently – some fell asleep, some were crying tears of joy, some became angry, others sad and so on.

Much like the classical music, the positive “I” statement also goes through that auditory pathway into the sections of our higher brain that gives the statement meaning. The meaning comes from our own experiences and core beliefs. How we perceive the words may have nothing to do with the words themselves or the person they came out of.

There’s a Greek expression my father used to say – He who has fleas feels itchy. Essentially, if someone has something in their mind (fleas), their reaction is going to reflect that (itchy). Itchy is their state of being. So, if you make a statement of self esteem and the person you say it to has a low self concept or suffers from cognitive distortions, their filter is going to assign a negative meaning to it. It will become evidence that they aren’t good enough. They will mind read you and assume you think you’re superior to them. They might even call you names and tell you they want nothing to do with you. Being around you doesn’t make them feel good because they don’t like the mirror you have become for them.  Nothing you do or say is going to change that. In the end, they need to take a hard look at their own reflection instead of flipping it back onto you.

You are absolutely allowed to acknowledge your accomplishments and take pride in your traits. We are all little works in progress. The more support we give each other, the more likely it will inspire growth and self love. I look to people who make positive “I” statements and feel inspired. In my head I hear “I should try that” or “Oh, that makes me want to write again” or “I wonder how I would look with that hair cut.” But I wasn’t always like that…

Between the ages of 19 and 22, I suffered from dysthymia or what is now called Persistent Depressive Disorder. It’s a chronic low grade depression that casts what feels like a shadow over every area in your life. My self esteem was almost non-existent and my thoughts were extremely negative. I walked around with a pervasive sense of hopelessness. I definitely perceived everything and everyone through that filter. I had a close friend who was gorgeous. She had body confidence for days, could talk to just about anyone and got the attention of boys/men wherever we went. Being in her company made me acutely aware of all the things I felt I wasn’t. I would get upset or border on crying many times we would go out. I would tell her things like, “You just want everyone. Let me have someone too.” She would look shocked, tell me I was also beautiful and could have whomever I wanted, but I felt like she was just telling me these things out of pity. I perceived the tone of her voice as patronizing. I would ask her why she was talking to me like I was some kind of loser. She would give me this look of confusion mixed with annoyance, which made me scared she would stop being my friend. I would apologize profusely and then compliment her repeatedly. I perceived her as being annoyed with me all the time. It got to the point that I felt so self-conscious being around her that I decided to stop talking to her. I didn’t return her calls. I didn’t make any effort to reach out to her. I needed to relieve myself from the anxiety and lowness I felt when I was around her. None of this was her fault. She did nothing but be herself; a self that I couldn’t be. My depression and distorted negative thoughts convinced me I had no business being around her. In one of the last voicemails she left me, she was semi crying and asking what happened; how it hurt her to not know what she did to make me disappear. It’s really sad and messed up. As I look back on that period in my life, it makes me see recent experiences with former friends in a different light. It’s easier to forgive when you’ve been in their place. It’s easier to have compassion when you know what level of lowness their words and actions toward you came from.

These experiences helped me see how far I have come from that dark time in my life and taught me to be more compassionate for that suffering when I see it and experience it in others. If I could say anything to that friend now it would be, I’m sorry. I had a lot of issues and you were a good friend to me despite it all. You didn’t deserve to be treated like that. I hope you can forgive me.

And to those former friends who treated me in kind, I forgive you too.

 

 

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Instabullies – The Social Evolution of Bullying

I recently saw a news program from the UK about “Dancing Man” that drew attention to cyber-bullying. This man was an overweight, average guy dancing in a club who was photographed and heckled by a group of people (mixed gender) via social media. There is a before picture of him happily dancing and an after photo, where he realized what the group has done and looks ashamed. A group of women in the States caught site of this post and banded together to undo the damage, by hosting a dance party for “Dancing Man.” At the end of the day, the cyber-bullies gave him the opportunity to meet a ton of famous and beautiful women in parties all over the trendiest clubs of Los Angeles; something I doubt they do on a regular basis. The “Dancing Man” is a rare exception to the norm. Most people who are victims of this type of bullying do not have the world come to their rescue. Some may not even be aware that they have been bullied. I’m coining the term “instabullies” as the popular social media site Instagram has become a playground for both insidious and overt bullying. And don’t think for a second that your bullies are just preteens and young adults. The age range creeps well into middle adulthood.

The bullies’ post that body shamed “Dancing Man”

Most of us have an image of what a bully is in mind, either from the media or our own elementary through high school experiences. Outside of getting one’s ass kicked, there are other forms of bullying. Relational aggression is the worst kind of bullying. It’s below the belt, hits you where you are weakest and can have far reaching psychological repercussions. Its hallmark is social manipulation achieved with a number of tactics that include group exclusion, spreading rumors, public embarrassment, breaking confidences, backstabbing and getting others to dislike another person. Popularity (i.e. sociometric status) is a huge determining factor in bullying. Research indicates that relational aggression is more effective for maintaining the popularity status of a group among other groups, as well specific relationship and status dynamics inside a group. Now this seems to apply to the younger, school age population, but bare in mind that group membership and status present themselves at all stages in life. Take, for example, the workplace. Its social organization can mirror high school quite a bit – cliques form of so called popular people who go to happy hours, events and other activities together and only together. The rest of the population either wants to join them, despises them and could care less about their exclusiveness or both despises and wants to join them. It relates back to self esteem – the higher it is, the less sociometric status factors into feelings of one’s worth. Relational aggression is sometimes referred to as the Mean Girls Phenomenon borrowing from the film title that put this form of bullying on the map for millennials. While the mention of Girls may make it seem that it is gender specific, both men and women engage in this form of aggression as we saw with “Dancing Man.” However, it is true that women have a tendency toward the use of relational over physical aggression.

There are many reasons for the above; some obvious and some not. The obvious ones are jealousy, feelings of insecurity and need for control/power. The not so obvious – boredom and social modeling. The former just blows my mind considering how many other activities one could “busy” themselves with over ridiculing others. The latter I have been witness to and fully agree. Just the other day I watched a grown adult take a photo of a morbidly obese woman sitting across from her on the subway and then tell her daughter how she was going to do something funny. Her furious typing indicated to me she was either posting the image with commentary somewhere or sending it via text/chat to her contact(s). That little girl observing this behavior is absolutely likely to copy it if major interventions in school or in her community do not intercede to prevent the cycle from continuing. Recall what I noted earlier about the age range for cyber bullying starting at preteen all the way into middle age – that’s at least two if not three generations all engaging in the same social offense. What does that say about the future of our society?

I often think about how bullying evolved in our human history. When did it become necessary to intimidate and abuse others through physical and psychological means? According to an article on the origins of bullying in Scientific America, it seems to be a universal feature in human society; “…a species-typical human behavior that has little to do with the cultures people live in. Bullying, it seems is part of our normal behavioral repertoire, it is part of the human condition.” (Sherrow) Preliminary research indicates that universal behaviors often have deep evolutionary origins, even stemming from our previous human ancestors – primates. Behavioral studies of animals, including primates, indicate that they engage in bullying. This behavioral pattern was assessed by determining if the behavior was meant to intimidate another. Frequent use of intimidation and aggression to manipulate the behaviors of others and to acquire resources was seen in the female baboon population. In chimps, the author noted that his studies of adolescent males strongly indicated a pattern of bullying as the smaller adolescent chimp attempted to enter the adult male hierarchy. So, essentially we’ve been tearing each other down before we evolved into upright Homo Sapiens, but for a good reason – survival.

Female baboon flipping her lip as a display of aggression…with a little one looking on

The primordial behavior we inherited from our primate cousins has changed dramatically thanks to natural selection. It was modified by our ability to mentalize i.e. our awareness of ourselves and others’ mental states that guide our actions. If you better understand the desires and feelings of others, you have a more effective gateway into manipulating them. Think about any country with a history of coercion and conformity. Bullying is a daily occurrence to maintain social order and control. It’s not the culture that created the bullying. Instead it supports and promotes the use of this behavior pattern. Indeed, bullying can be employed in many different ways and for a variety of outcomes across societies, ages and genders. And with technology making it so much easier to engage in this behavior, bullying could evolve even further into a pastime no different than Candy Crush. Yes, it’s in our DNA; however, it doesn’t have to become our default. A little empathy goes a long way. I’m cautiously optimistic…cautiously.

 

MORE INFORMATION:

US Department of Health & Human Services:

http://www.stopbullying.gov/what-is-bullying/definition/

Sources:

Bullying and social identity: The effects of group norms and distinctiveness threat on attitudes towards bullying. British Journal of Developmental Psychology (2004)

Sherrow, Hogan “The Origins of Bullying” Scientific America December 15, 2011

 

 

My Plastic Brain

My intellectual crush….Professor Eagleman, I am all ears!!

Your brain’s fitness is largely overlooked. Most of us focus on cardiovascular exercise for a healthy heart and strength training for a healthy musculoskeletal system. The mass of nerve tissue in your skull also needs its own training regimen. The “use it or lose it” adage is often quoted, but it wasn’t until I did some focused reading on the living organ that is our brain that I truly understood how this works (or doesn’t). The brain is comprised of precious real estate maps that correspond to regions of the body, as well as various cognitive activities. Should that particular region of the body become useless or an activity cease, the real estate doesn’t die off, but gets replaced by another area altogether. And in cases where are a part of the brain dies or is damaged, other parts are recruited to compensate for that loss. No corner of the working brain is squandered. Here’s an example:

A man working a job site accidentally saws through his hand, severing the nerve that feeds his pinky and ring fingers. After recovering from the initial trauma, he begins doing physical therapy to strengthen his hand and get the rest of his fingers to work without the 4th and 5th fingers. If we cut open his brain and mapped out the region that represents those two useless fingers with little lights, you would see a pretty amazing thing happen. Every time he recruits his other fingers and working parts of his affected hand, the region representing the two appendages that no longer receive commands from the brain will light up. How is this possible? In a remarkable feat of engineering, the silenced region of the brain is over grown by the working areas around it. They take over and grow stronger, thus maximizing their neurological property.

This is just one demonstration of the brain’s adaptability. Calling one’s brain “plastic” means that with the right exercises and activities, we can train our minds to circumvent any issue, like say a stroke, allowing us to recover lost function by recruiting other regions’ maps to take over those activities. Here’s another example:

Acclaimed American nueroscientist, Paul Bach-y-Rita, was a pioneer in the field of nueroplasticity. Early in his career he created a system of vibrating plates that were attached to a blind individual’s back. The plates would vibrate in connection to a forward facing camera that “observed” objects in what would be one’s visual field. The patterns of vibration were different depending on the object, but what ended up occurring was the ability for the blind person to “see” the world surrounding him. His skin sensors sensing the vibrations were sending the information to his visual cortex. One sense, touch, compensating for the other sense that did not function.

Further along in his career, he created a device that helped people whose vestibular systems (i.e. what helps us maintain balance and spatial awareness) were damaged. These people literally couldn’t stand upright; their world was in perpetual motion, like being on a rocky boat. The device attached sensors onto the patients’ tongues, which is a region saturated with sensory receptors, that interpreted forward, back and side to side movement. Accelerometers attached to them and linked to a computer would give the “position” in space of the patients and allow them to stay balanced. After using the device initially, a patient would experience the residual affects for many hours, despite still having a damaged vestibular system. Used for several weeks and many patients were completely cured. This just shows how the brain is able to reorganize itself and adapt to new information from an unlikely source.

Perhaps the best example from Bach-y-Rita’s career was his father’s massive stroke. After his father passed away years later, an autopsy indicated a large part of his brain stem had died, which would have left him unable to do most basic functions. However,  through neuroplastic exercises that Bach-y-Rita and his brother gave to their father, he was not only able to recover the basic functions, but more complex ones as well, which allowed him to return to teaching. His brain reorganized itself on very large scale.

After reading so much about nueroplasticity, I can’t help but think about my grandmother and how her brain was eaten away by a combination of stroke, Alzheimer’s and Aphasia; the latter two being a one two punch of memory loss, dementia and the inability to speak. I wonder if nueroplastic exercises done early after the stroke that started the ball rolling would have helped her brain remap itself enough to prevent many of the symptoms of the other two neurological diseases to manifest. There is some fascinating research out there that makes a brilliant case for this.

I guess the “use it or lose it” adage should be changed to just “USE IT!!!!” Crack open some of the below books if you are as intrigued as I am and get started this new year.

Recommended Reading List:

http://www.normandoidge.com/normandoidge.com/ABOUT_THE_BOOK.html

http://www.amazon.com/Incognito-The-Secret-Lives-Brain/dp/0307389928

http://www.amazon.com/Sum-Forty-Afterlives-David-Eagleman/dp/0307389936/ref=la_B001JRX0OQ_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1387720746&sr=1-2