“We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.”
– Jean Baudrillard
What do you really need to know? We’re bombarded by information, especially online. It’s as though we’re continually handed millions of random pixels but have no way of forming any bigger picture from them – unless…
- we know which pixels are necessary,
- we know which ones to leave out, and
- we put them together in a meaningful way to produce a meaningful vision.
An international team of researchers has developed an extensive report looking at how constant internet usage changes the brain.1 Specifically, they were interested in how immersion in a digital world can produce changes in parts of the brain that deal with our capacity to memorize, extend and maintain attention, and socially interact.
But they also conjecture that this kind of mass onslaught of information may be altering our relationship with information itself. Lead author Dr Joseph Firth said, “Given we now have most of the world’s factual information literally at our fingertips, this appears to have the potential to begin changing the ways in which we store, and even value, facts and knowledge in society, and in the brain.”
Accruing facts does not make for wisdom, any more than gathering millions of random pixels would automatically produce a meaningful image. I suspect that never before have people felt so confused despite – or maybe because of – unceasing avalanches of information.
The parts do not always make the whole
Of course, sage advice has long been dispensed about the dangers of taking something apart without understanding the whole. Idries Shah writes:2
“It will be recalled that there was once a boy who caught a fly and dismembered it. He was left with a head, a body, wings and legs: but he couldn’t find the fly itself anywhere. What he had failed to observe was that when assembled and operating, the parts which he had in his hand were the fly.”
Then of course there is the ancient story of the blind men and the elephant, which has, according to Wikipedia, sparked analogies not just in psychology but even in the field of quantum physics! Each man feels a part of the elephant and believes it to be the whole. But only someone with real ‘sight’ can understand the living, breathing entirety of all these parts as they exist in unity.
We are bombarded by new psychological facts every day, but we need to fit them together into a bigger pattern of what it means to be human if we are to gain any real wisdom from this information.
In this occasional series I offer some recent psychological research findings and, as best I can, add my own take on how they may fit in with what we know about the human condition as a single, whole reality. We are all more than the sum of our parts.
So what have I got for you?
This month’s gems
This time round we’re briefly looking at:
- evidence that people do indeed have a ‘type’ when it comes to relationships,
- research suggesting that psychiatric diagnosis is ‘scientifically meaningless’,
- the harm alcohol causes to people other than the drinker,
- how a short burst of exercise can improve brain function, and
- how a sense of universal ‘oneness’ can produce greater life satisfaction.
So let’s get to it!
Research piece one: In relationships, people do in fact have a ‘type’.
How many times have you heard someone say, “They’re just not my type!”?
Research conducted at the University of Toronto and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found that this is more than just a trope.3 Many of us do search for love with the same type of person over and over – even when we’ve been hurt before.
The study looked at 332 people of various ages over nine years. Yoobin Park, one of the lead researchers, said:
“The effect is more than just a tendency to date someone similar to yourself … Our study was particularly rigorous because we didn’t just rely on one person recalling their various partners’ personalities. We had reports from the partners themselves in real time.”
“If you find you’re having the same issues in relationship after relationship, you may want to think about how gravitating toward the same personality traits in a partner is contributing to the consistency in your problems.”
Sometimes people come out of a bad relationship and vow that they need to date a different type of person in the future. But such resolutions, like ice in the desert, can be gone in a flash. This study suggests that despite the best of intentions, many people will continue to choose similar partners even when it’s not in their interests.
Sometimes during therapy we need to explore relationship choices. People can get hooked on the excitement of unpredictability or, conversely, find security in the familiar. One client told me, “I feel weird when a guy treats me well. Like I just want to run and hide.”
Mind you, we should always be careful whenever we are tempted to label our clients.
Research piece two: Psychiatric diagnosis is ‘scientifically meaningless’.
New research from Liverpool University has discredited the practice of applying psychiatric diagnoses to patients.4 The study analyzed five chapters of the ‘psychiatric bible’ known as the DSM (Diagnostic Statistical Manual) and found that:
- Diagnostic criteria and perspectives vary across psychiatric diagnoses.
- Many diagnoses share significant overlap in symptoms.
- Diagnoses are of little use in determining an individual treatment plan.
- The role of trauma is glossed over, despite strong evidence of its causal role in many diagnoses.
The authors concluded that diagnostic labelling represents “a disingenuous categorical system”. Lead author Dr Kate Allsopp said:
“Although diagnostic labels create the illusion of an explanation they are scientifically meaningless and can create stigma and prejudice. I hope these findings will encourage mental health professionals to think beyond diagnoses and consider other explanations of mental distress, such as trauma and other adverse life experiences.”
It’s amazing how once we are labelled we can live up or down to those labels. To label our patients according to a certain set of criteria, discounting the critical role of adverse life events and assuming emotional difficulties are intrinsic, is to tread a dangerous path.
Research has found that we are more likely to stigmatize someone when we believe they have something wrong with their brain chemicals than when we believe they have emotional problems because of an unfortunate past.5 When we label someone with a diagnosis, not only is it (according to this research) meaningless, it may actually make things worse by increasing the stigma they experience.
Alarm bells rang in my mind when, during the compilation of the latest DSM 5, members of the public were invited to write in with their own suggestions for new psychiatric conditions. It seems that many of the labels and diagnostic criteria within the DSM are politically and culturally expedient rather than empirically derived.6
We don’t need ever-increasing labels and categories if they are not scientific. I compiled my own sensible psychology dictionary a while back, and I have absolutely no intention of updating it any time soon.
Trauma can manifest in all kinds of ways, producing depression and mania in different people – or even in the same person at different times. Does it really make sense to consider these to be two disparate diagnoses? Again, we’re back to the blind men and the elephant. When we focus on the symptoms, trying to slot them into neat little categories, we can easily lose sight of the bigger picture.
I think the push to splice reality into ever thinner slices, thereby creating ever more categories, may be a sign of professional insecurity. Of course, there’s also no avoiding the fact that multinational drug companies have a vested interest in pushing for an ever bigger target market.
Diagnosis can be really valuable when it allows us to identify the appropriate treatment. But if diagnosis itself turns into a mania, then we are in trouble.
Now here’s something that may seem blindingly obvious.
Research piece three: Alcohol causes significant harm to people other than the drinker.
Every year, one in five American adults – that’s around 53 million people – is harmed by someone else’s drinking.7 This is the conclusion of new research published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
The authors of the study liken the unfortunate ripple effects of problem drinking to the public health damage caused by secondhand or ‘passive’ smoking. Passive smoking kills around 600,000 people (including 165,000 children) a year worldwide, so this is no small claim.8
Through analysis of national survey data, the authors discovered that some 23% of men and 21% of women had experienced harm due to someone else’s drinking over the previous 12 months.
Men were more likely to report physical aggression and ruined property, while women suffered more from financial and family problems. Other commonly reported types of harm included threats of harassment and driving-related harm.
Timothy Naimi, MD, MPH, of the Boston Medical Center wrote, “The freedom to drink alcohol must be counter-balanced by the freedom from being afflicted by others’ drinking in ways manifested by homicide, alcohol-related sexual assault, car crashes, domestic abuse, lost household wages, and child neglect.”
Absolutely everything we do has ripple effects – not just for us, of course, but for all those around us.
When you are addicted, you are in a relationship, and that relationship is abusive. The drinking, drugs, or whatever poses as a ‘friend’ but steals and squanders. It seems to promise relief, hope, or escape but casts people into the abyss. And all too often, people who care about the addict, or even just cross their path, end up getting pulled down too.
Okay, let’s get a little more positive. This one is especially encouraging if you ever feel a little sluggish in the brain department.
Research piece four: A short burst of exercise improves brain function.
Findings from a study released just last month show that exercise improves brain function in overweight individuals.9 Why study overweight individuals specifically, you might wonder. Well, first a little background.
Over the past decade, a new type of diabetes has been identified. ‘Type-3 diabetes’ is characterized by insulin resistance in the brain.10 This cerebral insulin resistance not only impairs cognition, but correlates with worsening Alzheimer’s disease.11 In fact, it has even been proposed that Alzheimer’s disease is itself a severe form of type-3 diabetes.12
As is the case for type-2 diabetes, obese people are at increased risk of type-3 diabetes and the associated disturbances to cognition.13 The authors of the study in question were interested to find out whether exercise can improve insulin sensitivity in the brains of obese individuals, thereby improving cognition.
Twenty-two sedentary obese adults underwent an eight-week exercise regime of cycling and walking. Brain functions, as well as mood and metabolism, were measured before and after the exercise intervention, and an insulin nasal spray was used to evaluate insulin sensitivity in the brain.
Although the exercise period produced only marginal weight loss, insulin sensitivity improved and metabolically important brain functions normalized – all within only 8 weeks. The exercise increased regional blood flow in areas of the brain important for reward processes and motor control.
Exercise is good for all of us in all ways (at the right intensity, that is!).
Exercise has been found to be a particularly powerful antidepressant for mild to moderate depression14 and may even help prevent it.15 A study in May 2019 advocated the prescription of exercise as an intervention method for inpatients at psychiatric facilities.16 Exercise appears to be useful in combating all sorts of emotional problems.17
Now that we know exercise can help improve brain function in the chronically obese, I can’t help but wonder whether perhaps the right kind of exercise, done in the right way, can help us all develop more brain power. Studies in rats have shown that neurogenesis, the production of new brain cells, occurs during intense exercise (such as running on a treadmill three times a week).18 These new brain cells are built particularly in the hippocampus, which is vital for learning and memory.
From an evolutionary point of view, I guess our ‘viability’ depended on us moving fast enough and often enough to get food and not become food. Therefore, nature rewarded movement – not just through good feelings and stronger bodies, but through increased brain power too.
Nature is genuinely awesome. And so is this:
Research piece five: A sense of ‘oneness’ confers greater life satisfaction.
A new study from the University of Mannheim suggests that people who believe in ‘oneness’ – “the notion of being at one with a divine principle, life, the world, other persons, or even activities” – are more satisfied with life than those who don’t.19 This result seems to hold good over time and across people of all ages and backgrounds.
Almost 75,000 participants were asked to respond to statements relating to a sense of oneness, including aspects such as empathy, social connectivity, and a feeling of unity with nature. These statements included, for example, “I believe that everything in the world is based on a common principle” and “Everything in the world is interdependent and influenced by each other.”
Author Laura Marie Edinger-Schons, PhD found a significant correlation between an ongoing sense of connectedness and overall life satisfaction. Scores on the ‘oneness scale’ tended to be consistent over time and were independent of religion, though overall atheists scored lowest and Moslems scored highest. A sense of oneness was a better predictor of life satisfaction than any religious affiliation or belief.
It doesn’t surprise me to learn that, as a general attitude to life, an ongoing sense of oneness – a sense that everything in reality is connected and intertwined – seems to confer great benefits.
If you have read Iain McGilchrist’s wonderful book The Master And his Emissary,20 you’ll know that the left hemisphere of the brain is more attuned to dicing and slicing reality. It tends to have us focusing on the smaller picture. It grabs, takes, and moulds. On the other hand (or, rather, hemisphere!), the right side is more likely to see the bigger picture – to connect us to multiple and wider interconnecting contexts.
When we see reality as being made of parts, machine-like, then we kind of “know the cost of everything but the value of nothing.” McGilchrist suggests that we are increasingly living in a disconnected, left-hemisphere-dominant world in which reality is broken down into numbers, components, and parts. While this may help us triumph technologically, it can also suck the meaning out of life.
I recall research that connected a frequent sense of awe with ongoing wellbeing and happiness.21 Being awed by nature, for example, has us reaching out beyond ourselves to a vastness that is both more than us and in us. Narrow self-interest, at the other end of the spectrum, has us connecting less and shrinking our focus more, until other people become almost abstract.
Perhaps humanity needs to rebalance the hemispheres as it were, and see and feel wider realities so that life can feel more meaningful for more people again.
As the renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne said:
“The beautiful souls are they that are universal, open, and ready for all things.”The beautiful souls are they that are universal, open, and ready for all things - Michel de MontaigneClick To Tweet
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- Shah, I. (1977). Special Illumination: The Sufi Use of Humour. Octagon Press, London, UK.
- McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.
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