“It’s not me – it’s you” – a problem of perspective

Have you ever heard someone describing an ongoing problem they’ve been having with a friend or colleague and thought to yourself, “The problem is you, not them!”

Why is it that if a man’s own behaviour is the major cause of his own problem he can rarely see that it so – while it may be painfully obvious to others?

The problem lies with perspective. We all look at the world through our particular unique filters that make up our perspective of our world. Different people usually have slightly different biases: One woman assumes everyone she meets is trustworthy; one man believes that children don’t like him. There are also a number of biases that are nearly universal: for example, the confirmation bias which involves favouring information that supports our existing beliefs (e.g., choosing to read more articles by climate change skeptics than proponents because you are skeptical of climate change and, what’s more, being highly critical of proponent’s arguments but accepting skeptic’s arguments without cross-checking their supporting data).

These biases and the narrowness of our perspective make us vulnerable to errors of judgment – including the failure to realise when we are the source of our own problems.
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Learning to be anxious: the conditioning of fear

Cartoon scary ghost

In one of Psychology’s dark moments, an 8 month old baby was taught to have a phobia of harmless furry things.

These unethical experiments, conducted in the 1920s by psychologist John Watson, were seen as evidence of how fear of harmless things can be learned through a process called classical conditioning. A careful observer will note numerous problems in the above video with how Watson conducted his research. However, better-controlled studies have since confirmed that fear, or anxiety, can indeed be learned through clasical conditioning.

What is classical conditioning?

Classical conditioning is a process by which we learn to associate an automatic response (such as fear, hunger, sleepiness) with a particular cue (a sound, object, sensation) because that cue has repeatedly been experienced to coincide with something that already caused that response. In the little Albert experiment, poor Albert was repeatedly distressed by a loud sound, causing fear, at the same time as he was exposed to a white rat. With time the rat (or more probably Watson himself) became a trigger of fear.

This is one way that we can learn to fear a thing – by its coincicidence with something scary. If I happen to be watching The Wiggles on tv at the moment a car crashes into my lounge room wall it is possible I might experience trepidation when I next hear a Wiggles song.
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Intrusive thoughts: the uninvited visitors

There are two key facets of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are thoughts, images or urges that repeatedly and uncontrollably intrude, unwelcome, into a person’s mind. They are a source of distress, often because the content is unpleasant, theatening or believed to be socially unacceptable. A passion for cars, or cooking, would not be classed as an obsession – even if you talk about it so much it annoys your friends: Obsessions are the last thing you would want to be thinking about; interests are the first things you want to think about.
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Life on the Line – what is Borderline Personality Disorder?

What is it like to have Borderline Personality Disorder?

Just a few hours ago, Charlene had felt like she was on top of the world. She had been out shopping with her best friend, Jenny, and they were both having a great time. Charlene made quite a few purchases. She’d spent more than she intended but they were such great value, she couldn’t resist. Plus, she recently got a new job, which pays well, so she’d felt confident that she would be able to manage the expense.

Then everything changed. While leaving the shopping centre Charlene suggested to Jenny that they should meet up again next weekend. Jenny hesitated, then said she already had other plans. Charlene felt immediately disappointed. As she was driving home afterwards she found herself unable to stop thinking about Jenny’s response. The more she thought about it, the more certain she began to feel that Jenny had just been making an excuse, and really didn’t want to spend time with Charlene again. Charlene felt growing feelings of having been rejected, and a growing certainty that Jenny wanted to distance herself from Charlene and end their friendship.

Feelings of being rejected and abandoned by Jenny were quickly followed by feelings of intense anger. How could Jenny treat her this way? Why did Jenny hate her – after everything Charlene had done for her? Soon all of the past disputes and misunderstandings that had ever happened in their friendship were filling Charlene’s mind. With every passing minute Charlene felt increasingly furious at Jenny and a growing hatred for her. How could she have been so blind to think Jenny was a friend after all the times she had hurt her? Charlene hated Jenny. There was no way she would ever speak to her again.

Photo of friend vandalised with words 'I hate her!'

Right on the heels of hatred began feelings of self-loathing. Why did Charlene’s friends always end up hurting her like this? She concluded that it was because she is a vile, detestable person. Nobody could possibly care for someone so obviously defective.
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Rewire your brain: neuroplasticity FTW!

Magnetic resonance imaging capture of a human brain
ABC Radio National’s Health Report recently did a fascinating program on neuroplasticity: Brain plasticity / Measuring brain plasticity (for those who don’t want to listen to the audio there is also a link there to the transcript of the program). I highly recommend this program which outlines some exciting new implications of research into the workings of the human brain.

Our brains are not like computers, which have a fixed hardware onto which you load software and that stores information by re-arranging some ones and zeros electrically. For one thing, the transfer of information in our brains uses a highly complicated combination of electrical and chemical signalling. More significantly, though, as we form new memories and learn new skills our brains actually change structurally. Neuroplasticity is the ability your brain has to change structure – to “rewire itself” in response to experience. Continue reading

What is the difference between a psychologist and a counsellor?

Continuing my series on what psychologists are I would like to explain the differences between a psychologist and a counsellor.

A counsellor is someone who assists a person to develop understanding of themselves, their circumstances or their problems and facilitates setting goals and making changes. There are no specific training or registration requirements for a person to be a counsellor. However, most counsellors will have completed some training, and many maintain voluntary registration as an endorsement of their skills.

I have previously tried to distill the definition of a psychologist in the simplest possible terms: a psychologist applies scientific research to understanding and shaping human behaviour. Many psychologists provide counselling – but not all. Psychologists may work in research, recruitment, teaching, assessment and a range of other areas that may not involve providing counselling services.
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Dangers of diagnosis

An article recently published in the New York Times, Drowned in a Stream of Prescriptions, raises some important points on which Mental Health professionals and clients alike should reflect. In the field of Mental Health, diagnosis is notoriously difficult. Studies indicate that if a group of psychiatrists or psychologists are given the same information about a client’s presentation the rate of consensus on diagnosis is quite low. In many cases this isn’t a big problem: differences in diagnosis can often have relatively small implications for treatment. In other cases, however, the consequences can be catastrophic: The Coroner’s Court of New South Wales concluded that the suicide of channel 10 news reader Charmaine Dragun may have been prevented if she had been diagnosed and correctly treated for Bipolar Affective Disorder Type II instead of depression. Confirming the challenges of diagnosis, in my own reading of the inquiry on her case (admittedly with less information available to me than was to the inquiry) I find it difficult to imagine I would have made a Bipolar diagnosis, and still wonder if the underlying risks were due to another condition not considered by the inquiry.

Accurate diagnosis is difficult enough when professionals are basing decisions on accurate information. However, the above New York Times article tells the story of a promising young student, Richard Fee, who was able to mislead treating professionals into making a diagnosis of ADHD in order to maintain access to stimulant medications prescribed for its treatment. He was using these medications to help him study. His misuse of the drugs led to psychosis and, finally, suicide.
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Remember to Exercise … and Don’t Forget!

Exercise is good for you. I think we’ve all heard that often enough. But some new research adds yet another factor to the many benefits offered by exercise.

Researchers at the University of Nottingham Medical School have found a mechanism by which healthy physical activity might protect against alzheimer’s disease (Corticotropin-Releasing Factor Receptor 1 Activation During Exposure to Novelty Stress Protects Against Alzheimer’s Disease-Like Cognitive Decline in AβPP/PS1 Mice). It has been known from past research that physical and mental activity may reduce the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s Disease. However, why these are beneficial is still being investigated. In their recently published paper, authors Scullion, Hewitt & Pardon note an apparent paradox (emphasis mine):

Susceptibility to stress is a risk factor for AD but positive lifestyle factors effective in delaying AD progression in mouse models (e.g., exercise, environmental enrichment) improve stress resistance despite inducing a number of markers of chronic stress

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