This tyrant now rules the world: our screens

Key words: screen, device, attention, mind, productivity, entertainment, creativity


A restaurant, a waiting lounge, a family dinner: chances are that most people in front of you will be looking at a screen. Mobile phone, tablet, laptop: they grab our attention and hold it in a vice-like grip. The “Feeds”, and the algorithms that drive them, have taken over our minds and our ability to think independently.

In an article in the blog, Infinite Play, Nat Eliason writes about “The locus of entertainment.” He says that avoiding contact with other people and burying ourselves in our own sources of pleasure is not new. We read books and newspapers while traveling in a train or plane. But, something has changed in a major fashion. The locus of entertainment, according to Eliason, has been slowly wrested from within our own choosing and dropped onto our all-pervasive screens.

Here are the take home messages that I got from this article.

➡️ Backstory: “Screenworld”. We have given up the power to chose for the false luxury of endless choices. Eliason calls this the “screen world.”

➡️ Main idea: “Entertainment muscle atrophy.” Entertainment, until the advent of the Internet, was something we generated. Writing, music, painting, and the performing arts are some common examples.

Today, entertainment has become something that is generated for us. A complex web of data, obtained from our browsing, is mined with powerful tools. Algorithms control the list of choices on offer. Manipulations are made that are well beyond our cognitive capacity. Free will no longer exists.

We surrender totally. As couch potatoes, our “entertainment muscles atrophy.”

🔴 Eliason warns us that it is a very short, slippery road to “depression, addiction, and asociality.”

➡️ Call to action: Take back control.

There is a solution, Eliason adds, but it is not an easy one. You have to become the master of your devices; take charge of creating your own entertainment. You have to use these tools to build up your internally generated sources of entertainment. The apps and software available today are wide-ranging and powerful. We have never had so much power for creativity and innovation.

In a single sentence, Eliason’s recommendation would be: Switch from being a consumer to being a creator.

Read the article.

Pay it forward – be a mentor

Photo credit: Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

The Buddha constantly emphasised that the attainment of enlightenment was not the end of the spiritual journey but merely the beginning of a duty: the unremitting responsibility for providing counselling and solace to those in need of help for their prevailing predicaments (Dukkha).

In a professional context, and in a word: mentorship.

Paying it forward: Traditionally, we look at paying back as the way of acknowledging help and support given to us in times of need. There is a more effective alternative: paying it forward. In gratitude for what was received, we should consider helping others in need. The downstream benefits and multiplier effects are much greater. That’s what mentorship is all about.

“. . . a great mentor can provide a path to finding your own true answers.” Tina Turner quoting Miles Davis, the jazz legend.

Coaching differs significantly from mentoring. It is often short-term, well-structured, and designed to achieve specific, tangible outcomes. A coach is the least personal relationship option.

“Searching for a mentor is similar to searching for a spouse: you two need to share common values, concerns, experiences, communication style, and, of course, have time to invest into meaningful conversations with one another.” — [Anna Szabo, Turn Your Dreams And Wants Into Achievable SMART Goals!

An ideal mentor should be:

  • Accessible: there when needed.
  • Experienced: been there, done that.
  • Well connected: knows someone . . . who knows someone.
  • Tough but empathic: iron hand under a velvet glove.
  • Enthusiastic: yes, you can do it!
  • Charismatic: wow factor.

The scaffolding of good mentorship

  • Recognise what you desire from the relationship. It’s crucial to keep in mind that mentorship is a relationship. Instead of jumping right into business, the most effective mentorships are those in which the mentor and mentee take the time to get to know each other and grasp each other’s viewpoints.
  • Set expectations together from the start. How long do you want the mentoring to continue (but you may always extend it if you both believe it’s beneficial). Define critical objectives for your mentee to attain. Work together to build a general idea of how your meetings should go. Make certain they are focussed on a few essential problems.
  • Take a genuine interest in your mentee as a person. The cornerstone of good mentoring is empathic listening.
  • Develop a sense of trust. Trust takes years to develop, yet it can be shattered in an instant.
  • Don’t make assumptions about the mentee – inquire. Age, gender, colour, physical habitus, and appearance are seldom reliable indicators of what lurks underneath. Find out what makes the mentee tick by talking to them.
  • Share your experiences. It can provide you with a unique perspective on the challenges your mentee may be dealing with. You could have had a similar situation, so now is a wonderful opportunity to share what you went through and how you dealt with it.
  • Look for resources to help your mentee. This is where mentors can make a real difference. You’ll have insider knowledge of the area and access to resources that your mentee wouldn’t be able to obtain on their own. Link them to these resources.
  • Be aware of your limits. When your bandwidth is limited, admit your lack of expertise and recommend other sources or persons.

Anyone can be a mentor: The image of a mentor is often one of leaders, who have been sharpening their skills for years and are experts at what they do. However, that’s not quite true; you can be a mentor if you are enthusiastic and willing to share your experience with others!

Virtual mentorship

Post-COVID, remote work is now firmly entrenched as an alternative for providing professional services. Many individuals believe that physical closeness is necessary in developmental connections such as mentorship. This is wrong. However, mentorship is characterised more by the results achieved than by the medium by which it is carried out.

  • Plus: Virtual mentoring may be more egalitarian since visible status signals signifying organisational position and physical stature are reduced to a voice and a screen of equal size in video-based talks.
  • Plus: The limitations of shared space and location are also removed with virtual mentoring. Mentor/mentee schedules and locales are more flexible with online choices.
  • Minus: Because the whole spectrum of nonverbal signs and vocal subtlety may be lacking, it may take more work to create trust and rapport in the relationship. Virtual mentoring, like many other online partnerships, may suffer from email overload and screen weariness.

“I knew from my own life experience that when someone shows genuine interest in your learning and development, even if only for ten minutes in a busy day, it matters.” — Michelle Obama, Becoming


 

Want to be more empathic? Try listening with your eyes closed

This is how the Japanese listen to speakers. When someone addresses a group in Japan, the audience will shut their eyes and listen with their heads bowed. They are focusing on the Hara, an energy field that is centred around the navel of the abdomen. This response can be extremely disconcerting to outsiders who are invited to talk and are unaware of the practice.

There is a lesson to be learned from the Japanese about the skill of listening with empathy.

Skills can be hard or soft. Hard skills can be made explicit and overt, taught and passed down hierarchies with relative ease. Apprenticeship remains the major route for acquiring hard skills.

In earlier times, you could thrive on your hard skills alone. You could be rude, gruff and inhospitable, but the world would beat a path to your product. Not so any more.

Soft skills are vital in an age where technology is usurping and executing physical tasks. Soft skills are tacit — much harder to teach and certify. There are varying degrees of difficulty in the quest to acquire them. Indeed, there are some that can’t be taught; empathy may be one such.

Humans are social animals. Except for the occasional hermit, we need contact with our fellow humans on a regular, sustained basis. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes perfect sense: connected groups have a better chance of survival than solo artists. Many people, even though they have strong feelings about wanting to connect with others, have problems with social connection and understanding.

Communication skills head the list of useful social soft skills. This is the age of networks where persons who are most valued and respected — influencers — are those who are deemed to be good with people at all levels, not tied down by rigid hierarchies and social strata.

  • Listening skills are very important tools for being a good communicator. Empathy — the ability to feel another person’s emotions, particularly pain — is the cornerstone of good listening.
  • Humans have an impressive array of tools for expressing and perceiving emotions. Body language and facial expressions are two traditional outward manifestations that can be read by listeners. They can often convey more messages than words.
  • Nevertheless, the spoken word is the cornerstone of communication. The voice is a particularly powerful channel for expressing emotions. In addition to the linguistic and content elements of speech, there are “paralinguistic” vocal cues that may provide effective pointers to underlying feelings which impel the words. These include volume, pitch and cadence.

Empathic accuracy is a skill with which individuals can effectively judge the emotions, thoughts, and feelings of others.

In 2017, Michael Kraus from the Yale University School of Management published a very intriguing piece of research. The study was carried out with 1772 participants. The central prediction tested in these studies was that voice-only communication enhances empathic accuracy relative to communication across senses. In other words, shutting off sight could enhance empathic accuracy.

The data showed that voice-only communication elicited higher rates of empathic accuracy relative to vision-only and multisense communication, both while engaging in interactions and perceiving emotions in recorded interactions of strangers.

  • Voice-only communication is likely to enhance empathic accuracy by increasing focused attention on the linguistic and paralinguistic vocal cues that accompany speech.

It seems as though the advice to listen with your mouth shut needs to be extended to the eyes as well!

Reference: Voice-Only Communication Enhances Empathic Accuracy. Michael W. Kraus, Yale University, School of Management, American Psychologist 2017, Vol. 72, No. 7, 644–654

Personal journals: a cheaper and more effective alternative to psychotherapy

Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, Marie Curie, Nelson Mandela, Thomas Edison, Virginia Woolf, “Che” Guevara, Anne Frank, Leonardo da Vinci: a list of famous people with a diverse range of interests. What did they all have in common? They maintained personal journals through their lifetimes.

Who’s Got the Time to Write Daily?

First, a popular myth has to be dispelled. Journal writing need not be an unremitting, daily effort. The association of journaling with conventional diaries, segmented by days, is, most likely, the reason for this misconception. Daily journaling quickly becomes a chore that is easy to give up.

Instead, only record what you want to remember. Make it an exercise in capturing and archiving thoughts, emotions and ideas coming from within you. Write about interesting people, conversations, meetings, books, lectures, places — anything that captures your attention. Over time, the collection will become a resource that will act as a secure helmsman to steer you through the turbulence of life.

It’s best to keep it as a private record although, we are so much richer for many of them having been published. Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl is the most well known example of the power of a journal. There are many more.

Why Should You Keep a Journal?

Journaling should be a collection of ideas rather than a chronological log of quotidian events. Putting your thoughts down on paper (or as digital bits if you prefer) unburdens your memory, a notoriously fallible storehouse. Journal writing is a powerful productivity and self-improvement tool.

There are numerous benefits to keeping a journal.

  • Problem solving: Writing is a tool for thinking clearly. The effort of transforming what’s in our heads as disjointed notions into words clarifies ideas and concepts. Spending fifteen to thirty minutes in this effort allows you to see the problem in distinct, easily grasped pieces. Organising them and making sense out of the puzzle becomes an easier task.
  • Decision diary: Get into the habit of making entries for the more significant decisions you make in your life. Put down brief statements about the following items:

— The nature of the situation that needs a resolution.

— A list of the possible routes of action.

— The pros and cons of each of them.

— Your choice and why you did so.

— What tradeoffs did you have to make?

— What do you expect from this selection?

As the diary grows, review your entries now and then. You will get a good insight into your decision-making process.

  • Stress reduction: Studies have shown that regular writing reduces stress. Anxiety and depression can be alleviated to remarkable degrees by expressive writing and pouring out deep emotions.
  • Physical ailments: The benefits are not limited to behavioural problems. Many common disorders manifesting with pain and limitation of daily activities can respond to a simple recording of symptoms and feelings. Recognising pain and discomfort as something distinct and reportable goes a long way to augment healing processes within yourself.
  • Gratitude journal: Regardless of how bad things look, there are still so many others which are going right for you. You don’t have to be a Pollyanna;there is much to be grateful for. Write them down in your journal. The effects on your overall wellbeing can be substantial.
  • Self-discipline: Regularity in writing is an act of self-discipline and will power. It builds up resilience in all other aspects of your daily life.

Despite its popularity, there’s ample evidence that undergoing therapy with a trained analyst may be no more beneficial than talking to someone, even a friendly bartender. A well-nurtured personal journal is all you need. The list of winners at the head of this article, and many more, is proof.

How Do I Go About It?

The straight answer: Use whichever method or tool works for you.

It’s best to keep the process as simple and handy as you can: from just a notebook (a Moleskin, if you wish) to drawing, sketching, mind-mapping, visual thinking, photos, voice recording or any of the dozens of digital tools that are available for the purpose.

Apps like Evernote or Bear are fantastic for the ways and means by which you can organise and manipulate your entries. There are apps like Journal One which are specifically designed for the purpose.

The trick is consistency. Stick with whatever gives you the most value for the effort.

How Often Should I Review My Journal?

Once again, there is no hard and fast rule. Whenever you do look back, chose a time when you are calm, rested and still. Although there is a huge temptation to look when times are turbulent, you may not get the most out of your writing at these moments. Nevertheless, let your intuition direct you.

You must let your journal be a guiding lamp in your progress through life. No one can know and understand you better than yourself. It’s not unusual to be taken by surprise at the profound nature of your observations.

Stephen King Says

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching … your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.” ― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft


Dr Arjun Rajagopalan

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Your attention is priceless treasure. Don’t give it away for free.

There was a time, not so long ago, when, if you wanted a book or needed to research a topic, you had to go to a bookshop or library. Watching a movie meant booking tickets at the cinema and clearing your calendar to be there at the right time and date. You couldn’t do anything else at the time. Music came through radio station programmes which you waited for, patiently. At best, you could listen to a few cassettes containing a small mixtape which you made or scrounged off friends.

Fast forward to the present decades. All of this and more is available right in front of you, in an area of a few square inches, anytime, anywhere.

Inundated by this wealth of choices, we want it all, constantly flitting from one activity to another. We are the most distracted humans of all time. The average attention span today is reported in single-digit seconds.

Not to forget, the rabbit hole of social media where you can fritter away hours at a time, ending up feeling depressed, jealous and drowning in low self-esteem. Everyone else seems to be doing fantastic things and enjoying great experiences while your life is a sad story.

Meet Blaise Pascal

Four centuries ago, Blaine Pascal, the French polymath and genius, nailed it when he said:

Four centuries on, nothing has changed. Stillness and silence continues to make us uneasy. We squirm.

The 21st Century Syndrome

In a recent article, the Guardian talked about the “21st-century syndrome” of inattention and distraction. How did we get here? What can we do to get back possession of this vital commodity?

Technology is blithely blamed as the culprit, specifically the internet. It’s true that one of the greatest inventions in history has come with mixed blessings. But technology is only a tool. It’s not inherently good or bad; it’s what we do with it that matters. You can generate electricity or destroy Hiroshima with the same tool.

What’s the buzz?

Taking a nuanced look, it appears that the problem arises from the monkey-mind of our emotions.

We look for activities to divert us from the anxiety of completing tasks at hand. Why are we anxious? We are afraid of failure. So, we postpone and in the process, accumulate even more anxiety.

You can’t tackle this problem, head-on. Trying to abstain from feeling anxiety is guaranteed to make you feel worse.

“Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.” ― Corrie Ten Boom

How Do You Eat this Elephant?

Like the much-quoted solution to eating an elephant, you have to progress in small bits. Split the task into small components, each of which might take a few minutes to complete. Like David Allen recommends in Getting Things Done, you carry out a series of “next actions”.

  • Don’t look at the task as a whole. You will be overwhelmed. Split every activity into a series of small steps.
  • Carry out one step at a time. Suddenly, you will find that the task is done. The cloud will lift. You will experience an amazing lightness of spirit.
  • Savour this sensation and go for more. Like getting your clothes clean, “wash, rinse, repeat”. You will get better and better at it.

Don’t Let Them Take Away Your Treasure While You are Looking Elsewhere

We fail to realise that attention is the currency of the day. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok: they are all stealing your most valuable possession and making enormous amounts of money out of it. Don’t let them.

Take back what is yours.

“Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are.”― José Ortega y Gasset


Dr Arjun Rajagopalan

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Why do I feel so tired all the time? Where has all my energy gone?

“I start the day feeling like a wet washrag. I like what I am doing, but I still dread having to drag myself to work every day. I feel so tired and lacking in energy. It’s reached the stage where my performance at work is being affected.”

Every one of us feels tired now and then; this is normal. It’s a safety mechanism built in to ensure that we don’t wear our bodies out. Feeling chronically tired, day in and day out, is not normal. Energy is more than just a physical issue. Mental, emotional and spiritual factors can impact on our energy levels.

Four Kinds of Energy

Let’s stop for a minute or two and dissect out what “energy” is all about. It’s the sum of 4 elements.

1. Physical energy: This is the element that emanates from our bodies. It is what gives us the capacity to carry out physical tasks. In today’s world, the demand for physical energy is small. Most of us do work at a desk or, at best, minimal amounts of moving around. We no longer need to put in 8 to 10 hours of hard, manual labour at a farm; toil at a construction site or haul loads over large distances. We are well-fed and sheltered from natures inclemencies. It’s only during times of illness that there is any direct diminution of physical energy. We take access to adequate, balanced meals and shelter from common ailments for granted.

2. Cognitive energy: Much, if not all, of the work we do, is carried out through mental efforts. Intellectual activity has replaced physical labour. The critical fuel is cognitive energy. It’s is not always readily available., It can be altered or diminished by outside forces that impinge on our daily activities, over many of which we have no direct control.

3. Emotional energy: It hardly needs saying that our physical and mental processes are frequently affected by emotions. When we feel good — are on a high — we can do things with exceptional physical and cognitive ease, Complex problems can be solved smoothly. Feeling down can convert the most straightforward tasks to Herculean efforts. Emotional energy is even more fickle and unreliable than the previous two.

4. Spiritual energy: Human beings are uniquely endowed with consciousness. We can observe ourselves from a detached perspective and look for elements that the rest of creation can’t: beauty, truth, morality and, most of all, an ineffable entity called “purpose” — an energy source that can render all our actions deeply inspiring or tragically meaningless. Spiritual energy fuels these activities. It is the most intangible, yet the most crucial of the four energies.

Filling the Personal Energy Tank

All four elements have to be nurtured if the human-machine is to perform at peak efficiency. There is no quick fix, however. Many little things have to be done right, now and forever. Here’s the prescription.

1. Physical energy

Food is an essential aspect of physical energy. The problem, for most of us, at present, is one of excess. At no other point in human history has there been so many choices, mostly unhealthy. We are falling prey to the downside of overeating. Michael Pollan, the internationally renowned food writer, gives the best advice regarding nutritional sense:

Eat food, mostly plants, in small quantities Michael Pollan

By “food”, Pollan is referring to meals and snacks that are as close to the natural state as possible: minimally processed, freshly cooked, without too many additives and garnishing. Practically speaking, Pollan advises us not to eat anything that our grandmothers would not recognise or acknowledge as food. The critical portion of the sentence lies in the third component: small quantities. We eat way too much.

Dietary plans, regimens and fads bombard us. It is safe to say that most, if not all, are not supported by scientific evidence. Common sense, that rare commodity, prevails.

Exercise and activity: We overeat and compound the problem by exercising too little. As our needs for physical activity have rapidly declined, we are now paying the price for a sedentary lifestyle: a physical energy shortage of profound dimension. Once again, advice on this matter is everywhere but can be summarised as: “Good quality exercise, (anywhere, anyhow) for 150 minutes or more a week.”

We sit too much. Devices like standing desks are trendy, but there is no concrete evidence in support of their effectiveness. If your job involves prolonged sitting, take breaks every hour or so for a few minutes, to walk around or do some chair-bound stretches and exercises. Use the stairs, not the elevator. Refrain from driving short distances, walk instead. Sitting is the new smoking

Say “No!” to:

  • Tobacco in any form.
  • Uppers, downers and all in between. (Coffee, up to 2 -3 cups a day is OK. )
  • Sugary drinks.
  • Alcohol in large quantities, regularly. There is a robust, recent study that indicates that all alcohol is bad. The jury is still out on this (and I hope, will return a “not guilty” verdict).

2. Cognitive energy

Mental activity is dependent on cognitive energy. Mental blocks are common occurrences. Without exception, the answer seems to lie in moving away from the task at hand for a short spell. A short walk amidst Nature, listening to music or reading an inspiring book can work wonders.

  • Exercise is often the magic wand which breaks the spell. A brisk walk, a short run, a session at the gym: whatever suits you.
  • Quite often sleeping over a problem can be the solution. As you rest, your subconscious mind goes to work, and the answer might spring up when you wake up.

3. Emotional energy

Our emotions are seldom under our control. Both physical and cognitive energy can be sapped to a great extent by strong emotions like anxiety, anger and fear. Feelings cannot be tamed by confrontation; they may worsen when we try. The breath is, under most circumstances, an activity that is under our control. Breathing exercises can be simple, effective methods of controlling powerful, negative emotions and restoring a sense of calm.

4. Spiritual energy

Spiritual energy is elusive. The best way to harness it is the practice of mindfulness — living in the present moment. Here are some suggestions.

Welcome everything. Push away nothing, even stuff you dislike.

Not everything that can be faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed that is not faced.” — James Baldwin

  • Cultivate a “don’t-know-mind”. Approach every situation with no bias: with curiosity, wonder, awe and surprise. In the words of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi: Be child-like, not childish. Stay open to possibilities.
  • Don’t wait until the end. Don’t be overcome by regret at kind words left unspoken until there is no time left. Tell your loved ones about how you feel.

It’s not an easy road to walk, but the rewards are immense. Our lives are short and can be meaningfully lived only when we reach and tap the energy source that drives the engine of our selves.

Too many of us are hung up on what we don’t have, can’t have, or won’t ever have. We spend too much energy being down, when we could use that same energy – if not less of it – doing, or at least trying to do, some of the things we really want to do.” ― Terry McMillan , Disappearing Acts


Dr Arjun Rajagopalan

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Placebo power: it shouldn’t work but it does

“There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.” — Soren Kierkegaard

Patient’s daughter:“I agree with your opinion, doctor, that my father has no real problem. He is a bit of a hypochondriac who won’t accept that he is in good shape for his age. Can’t you just give him some sort of a dummy pill to keep him quiet?”

Doctor: “You want me to give him a placebo?”

PD: “What’s that?”

Dr: “A ‘sugar’ pill, so to speak. A tablet that contains no formulation: something totally innocuous, but makes the patient feel that he is taking some medicine.”

PD: “Yes, something like that.”

Dr:“I am not comfortable with prescribing placebos. I feel it is unethical.”

What’s the Harm?

PD:“Why? What’s the harm? You are not hurting him. You may even be helping him.”

Dr: “On the surface, yes, but, I am not being truthful. And that bothers me. I can’t knowingly give someone a sham treatment. The Hippocratic Oath binds us to sharing the whole truth with our patients.”

Do They Work?

PD:” I respect that, doctor, but tell me, do placebos work?”

Dr: “Quite often, and more effectively than we would like to admit. For a long time, we have known that a large number of conditions will respond to any treatment that looks like one: a placebo effect. For an equally long time, we tended to dismiss this important event as being too quirky and unpredictable to be of any use.

Still, the placebo effect is so persistent that it is a requirement that all new drugs that are being evaluated be first compared against a placebo and be shown to be demonstrably better. In many conditions, a placebo can cure the majority of patients. So, the new drug must be better than the placebo to be stamped as valid.

In recent years, there has been a lot of scientific research on the placebo effect. We are finding out that it is definitely there and cannot be brushed away.”

Are Weight-loss Diets Merely Placebos?

There are dozens of weight-loss diets being pushed: Atkins, Mediterranean, Paleo, Keto, Volumetric, Weight Watchers — each one claims to be the best. Each one describes a unique and hitherto unknown principle behind it. The market is, pardon the pun, huge. Books (many on Best-Seller lists), videos, memberships — there’s an industry based on diets.

Curiously, there is only one feature in common between all of them.

  • For the first few weeks or months after starting on the diet, weight loss is consistent.
  • The trend then plateaus and starts rising. At around 2 years, the vast majority of dieters are back where they started.
  • Many overshoot and go above the weight they began at. They get frustrated and shift to another diet. This “yo-yo dieting” is known to be harmful.

This diversity of regimens and unanimity in results, raises the question: “Can all diets be mere placebos?”

Likewise, there are many common conditions, often with no permanent cure, where specific interventions seem to work. Once again, the placebo effect at work.

What If the Patient Knows it’s a Placebo?

PD:“What happens then, if a patient finds out or knows that he has been given a placebo?”

Dr:“Another surprise here. The placebo still works!”

PD:“You’re telling me that the doctor knows he is giving a dummy and the patient also knows that, yet, there is a benefit? The lie, works?”

Dr: “Some years ago, there was a study published in the very respected medical journal, PLoS One, that seemed to show exactly that. The authors of this paper report their experience with the use of placebos in a condition known as the irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This common problem can be difficult to treat. A wide range of options are available, none of them guaranteed to work. Patients in this study were randomly assigned to undergo no treatment at all (controls) or to receive a placebo. The important aspect of this study was that patients were clearly informed that the pills had no active compound. Despite knowing that they were taking dummies, 59 percent of the group reported improvement of their symptoms as opposed to 35 percent in the controls; nearly twice as many showed a benefit. The reported improvement rate is almost equal to that seen with the most powerful IBS medications!”


PD:“Doesn’t this shake the foundations of pharmacology and therapeutics? You are telling me that significant benefits can be seen even with fakes. Science depends on demonstrable cause and effect, but you are saying that there can be an effect in the absence of cause. Worse still, that spurious drugs may work.”

Dr: “Not an absence of cause, merely a misunderstanding of what might be the cause.”

Dr: “There is a famous truism: “A doctor cannot just treat, he must be seen to be treating.” Meaning that he must go through the motions of a medical transaction, the most iconic part of which is the writing out of a prescription. The bedside manner may be more of a treatment than we realise. A professional look, a calm demeanour, sympathetic and clear conversation: all this may be what is affecting the cure rather than the pill or injection. We never teach any of this in medical school.”

Before we go about discarding current textbooks of therapeutics, it is worth pointing out that most of these studies are carried out in conditions that have no demonstrable cause — as yet — and often show a natural remission. It would be unwise to extend this finding beyond certain limits. For instance, treatment of conditions like HIV/ AIDS, where we know that drug treatment is effective and failure to take the right medicines can lead to dangerous consequences.

From being dismissed as an unreliable quirk of the human mind, the placebo effect is now the object of serious scientific study. There is something here, something more profound than physical reality — mind over matter.

Exciting times ahead, so stay tuned to the placebo channel.


Dr Arjun Rajagopalan

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Yes, there’s an upside to anger. Learn how to put it to work for you.

Like ice cream, anger comes in many flavours: annoyance, resentment, genuine anger, rage and wrath. As the grade goes up, your awareness of the state drops proportionately. When you rage, you are out of control and beside yourself. You want to destroy things at hand.

Anger always gets a bad press. It’s seen as a dark emotional state, best avoided or kept under control. But, it is a tool evolution has built into us for survival. A lot of humankind’s achievements would not have been possible if there was no impetus from an event that provoked anger. Think about Gandhi in the train in South Africa, Martin Luther King and his sense of outrage at the treatment of African Americans. There are very many examples.

The key, though is in being able to recognise anger and work with it, if not immediately, at least while reflecting on the episode. Ask yourself questions. Probe till it hurts. Go into dark spaces. 

“Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” ― Aristotle

Here’s a list of benefits from anger.

Anger can Motivate Change

We could be working for a particular benefit. Obstacles in the path can make us angry. Harvest this energy as fuel for pushing harder towards the goal.

Anger Invokes Optimism

Funnily, studies show that angry people are, in a way, similar to happy people. They tend to be optimistic about outcomes. The feel that the energy derived from anger can be channelled towards reaching their goal.

Anger can Heal Relationships

People in close relationships tend to suppress or hide anger; this is not good. The other party may be unaware of the problem and continue to do nothing towards mending the situation. Expressing anger can be an effective way of communicating what’s in your mind. Healing of wounded relationships can be a pleasant outcome of outbursts of feeling.

Anger Highlights Injustice

When we reflect on the cause of anger, it is not unusual to see an act of injustice at the root. There are any number of examples in civil society where inequality evokes a sense of indignation and gives us the energy to take action in the direction of correcting this state. The “colour revolutions” of the Middle East were provoked by deep-seated anger at the injustice prevailing in those countries.

Anger is a Useful Negotiating Tool

Exhibiting anger sends signals to the opposite party in a negotiation that you have strong sentiments about some issues. They can sense that you will not budge and may agree to a settlement that respects this position.

Anger can Give Deep Insights into Ourselves

If one has the emotional intelligence to reflect on the episode, we may be able to see aspects of ourselves that we didn’t sense. Reflection can lead to change in our behaviour and improvement of wellbeing.


Dealing with Furious, Raging People

Anger can cross the threshold where people are aware of themselves. Rage is an animal instinct. The emotional state may escalate from shouting and swearing to throwing things and breaking handy articles. Dealing with fury requires an understanding of the mind of the person.

“Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.” ― Anne Carson (Translator), Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides

We could learn some tricks from hostage negotiators who are specifically trained to defuse explosive situations.

1. Accept everything — don’t interrupt

Let the person vent. Allow emotions to pour out without interruption.

Don’t stop them during the flow.

2. Abandon logic and reasoning

Raging people are functioning from primitive centres of the brain. Don’t expect them to be capable of rational thinking. Don’t interrupt them with your comments, questions or recommendations.

3. Refrain from judging and labelling

Passing judgement on their actions will heighten rage. “You should have done this…”; “You shouldn’t have said that …”: won’t work. They will not accept criticism in this highly charged emotional state. It will only serve to worsen rage.

4. Show that you are with them

  • Body language is crucial. Lean forward and let them know you are on their side, receptive to their emotions. Don’t lean back, away from them.
  • Nod and affirm as they are speaking. Show agreement with their emotions.
  • Every now and then, repeat and confirm what they are saying.

5. Let them make an action plan

When a reasonable degree of calm is restored, now draw them into saying what they feel should be the way forward. Let them list the steps. Gently nudge them in positive directions. Establish the feeling that the ideas are coming from them, not you.

“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” ― Mark Twain

 

Dr Arjun Rajagopalan

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