I’m sure a lot of subway riders are skilled nappers, but this car seemed to be particularly talented. Going over the Brooklyn Bridge on a recent morning, just as the sun was coming up, a row of men in nearly identical black suits held on to the straps with their eyes closed. Their necks were bent at the slightest of angles, like a row of daisies in a breeze, and as the car clanged over the tracks and the sun pierced through the grimy train windows, it finally dawned on me they were all sound asleep. Not even the bumps and the light could stop them from sneaking in 15 more minutes of shut-eye before work.
We take it for granted, but most people have to wake up for work (or school or other morning obligations) long before they want to. Sleeping in is treated as a cherished luxury—it’s somehow become normal that people wake up still exhausted, and anything but is a notable exception.
But rising before the body wants to affects not only morale and energy, but brain function as well.
“The practice of going to sleep and waking up at ‘unnatural’ times could be the most prevalent high-risk behavior in modern society,” writes Till Roenneberg, a professor of chronobiology at the Institute of Medical Psychology at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munch.
In fact, according to Roenneberg’s groundbreaking study in Current Biology, about one-third of people living in first-world countries are required to wake up two hours before their circadian clocks, or “natural waking times,” tell them to, and 69 percent of people have to wake up one hour before their bodies would like them to.
Of course, different people require different amounts of sleep and although there’s no universal rule for how long we should all be sleeping, it’s becoming increasingly clear that working late and waking early can cause serious problems. It’s not just repeated sleep deprivation that does people in, either. Just one restless night can seriously affect us in the morning.
Getting less than five hours of sleep a night makes people dumber and less able to concentrate, and it can make people more susceptible to false memories, according to a new study published in the September issue of Psychological Science. Led by Steven J. Frenda of the University of California, Irvine, the study found that of the 193 people tested, participants who slept for less than five hours a night were significantly more likely to say they had seen a news video when they in fact never had. The sleep-deprived group was also more suggestible. While recounting a personal story, 38 percent of them incorporated false information the researchers had given them, whereas only 28 percent of those who had more than five hours of sleep accepted the researchers’ false information in their story retelling. Frenda and his researchers postulate that not sleeping significantly disturbs our ability to encode information.
They also question the legitimacy of eyewitness testimonies in a court of law since, in this study, a good deal of people—especially those who didn’t get enough sleep—were susceptible to false memories. If someone goes on the stand after a sleepless night, it seems the chances are higher that he may misremember events.
The importance of sleep goes beyond courts and companies though. In the classroom, students who sleep more tend to be better at remembering what they’ve learned in the previous day than those who slept less, according to a 2001 study published in Science, and a 2014 study confirmed that more sleep leads to higher exam scores as well. Students who slept seven hours the night before an exam that tested them on economics, languages, and math, scored an average of 9 percent higher than students who only slept six hours the night before.
Getting less than five or six hours of sleep has also been connected to the inability to learn motor sequences. So before learning to play piano, first focus on getting proper sleep.
But there is the possibility of overriding the mind and body’s desire for sleep. By simply telling themselves they’ve slept well, studiesshow that people can temporarily trick their brains. Of course, continually getting too few hours of shut-eye will eventually cause problems, but telling yourself you got more sleep and that you feel refreshed (even if you don’t) leads to increased cognitive functioning in the morning, as evidenced by self-dupers who scored significantly higher on verbal fluency and neural processing tests.
The sleeping subway riders were also on to something. Even after a terrible night’s sleep, a 10-minute nap can significantly increase short-term alertness and improve problem-solving skills.
As we reached the Chambers Street subway station, the row of suited men and women seemed to instinctively know that they had arrived at their stop. In unison, they began to open their eyes and force themselves awake. Some gave themselves little slaps on their cheeks; others rubbed their eyes and temples. Then, like marionettes on a string, their spines straightened, their gazes turned straight ahead, and they clutched their briefcases and stepped out the door, onto the quay, up the stairs, and out onto the street, already noisy and awake.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
CODY C. DELISTRATY is a writer and historian based in Paris. He has worked for the Council on Foreign Relations, UNESCO, and NBC News.
Lauren Cassani Davis: How does the phrase “excellent sheep” describe the typical student at an elite college today?
William Deresiewicz: The most interesting thing about that phrase is that I didn’t write it myself. It came out of the mouth of a student of mine, and just seemed perfect. They’re “excellent” because they have fulfilled all the requirements for getting into an elite college, but it’s very narrow excellence. These are kids who will perform to the specifications you define, and they will do that without particularly thinking about why they’re doing it. They just know that they will jump the next hoop.Davis: Do you see a connection between this “hoop-jumping” mindset and other trends, like mental-health issues, on college campuses?
Deresiewicz: The mental-health issues, absolutely. People have written books about this—adolescent therapists like Madeline Levine, who wrote The Price of Privilege. These students are made to understand that they have to be perfect, that they have to do everything perfectly, but they haven’t turned to themselves to ask why they’re doing it. It’s almost like a cruel experiment with animals that we’re performing—every time the red light goes on, you have to push the bar. Of course they’re stressed.
This is also why they’re sheep, because they have never been given an opportunity to develop their ability to find their own direction. They’re always doing the next thing they’re being told to do. The trouble is that at a certain point, the directives stop. Though maybe not, because even when it comes to choosing a career, there are certain chutes that kids, especially at elite colleges, tend to get funneled towards. And if you’ve always been told what you’re going to do, these options are the easiest in terms of making decisions, though not necessarily easiest in terms of the work involved.
Davis: You’ve observed that Ivy League students have an internal struggle with both “grandiosity and depression.” Can you explain this further?Deresiewicz: Alice Miller wrote about this 30-plus years ago in the classic The Drama of the Gifted Child, but I had to experience it to see it for myself. The grandiosity is that sense of “you’re the greatest, you’re the best, you’re the brightest.” This kind of praise and reinforcement all the time makes students feel they’re the greatest kid in the world. And I would say that this is even worse than when I was a kid. Now there’s a whole culture of parenting around this positive reinforcement.
These kids were always the best of their class, and their teachers were always praising them, inflating their ego. But it’s a false self-esteem. It’s not real self-possession, where you are measuring yourself against your own internal standards and having a sense that you’re working towards something. It’s totally conditional, and constantly has to be pumped up by the next grade, the next A, or gold star. As Miller says, what you’re really learning is that your parents’ love is conditional on this achievement. So when you fail, even a little bit, even if you just get a B on a test, or an A- on a test, the whole thing collapses. It may only collapse temporarily, but it’s a profound collapse—you feel literally worthless.
These are kids who have no ability to measure their own worth in any realistic way—either you are on top of the world, or you are worthless. And that kind of all-or-nothing mentality really pervades the whole system. It’s also why it’s Harvard or the gutter: If you don’t get into Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, it’s a disgrace. If you go to Wesleyan, you can never show your face in public again.
This is not really the only way to succeed, but this crazy definition not only of success, but of how you achieve success, doesn’t even really reflect how actually successful people achieve success. Steve Jobs is an obvious example, because he was obviously very gifted and ambitious but he took a circuitous path, and people who are very successful doing interesting things also often take circuitous paths.
This notion that you’ve got to do X, Y, and Z or else your life is over makes you end up as a high-functioning sheep. You end up being the kind of leader that I talk about in the last section of the book. You get to the top, or you get near the top, but you don’t actually do anything interesting there—you just sort of fulfill your function in the organization. You don’t initiate or create.
Davis: That ties in with your argument that words like “leadership” and “service” have become hollow in the whole college process.Deresiewicz: There’s a list of things that everyone knows you’re supposed to do to get into college: scores, extracurriculars, and then these two other things, “leadership” and “service.” They’ve been completely ritualized, and kids have become cynical about them because they know they just need to demonstrate them. In the case of leadership, which is supposed to be about qualities of character, self-sacrifice, initiative, and vision, it just means getting to the top, and that’s all. If you get a position with some authority you are, by definition, a leader. And service, if anything, is even worse. Service is supposed to be about making the world a better place or helping people who are less fortunate, but because it’s done for the resume, it really just becomes about yourself.
Davis: You argue that society transmits its values through education. How would you summarize the values transmitted through the elite-education system?
Deresiewicz: I would summarize the values by quoting Tony Hayward, the famous CEO of BP. In the middle of this giant environmental disaster he said, “I want to get my life back.” He had been promised certain rewards and now had this horrible experience of actually having to take responsibility for something, and feel bad. So those are the values that the system is transmitting: self-aggrandizement, being in service to yourself, a good life defined exclusively in terms of conventional markers of success (wealth and status), no real commitment to education or learning, to thinking, and no real commitment to making the world a better place. And I think we see that in the last 50 years, the meritocracy has created a world that’s getting better and better for the meritocracy and worse and worse for everyone else.
Davis: What kinds of values do you think education should be passing on?Deresiewicz: Ultimately, colleges have inherited the spiritual mission of churches. As religious beliefs have declined with the rise of science, especially among educated people, people started to turn elsewhere to ask the big questions: What does life mean? What is the world about? People turned to works of art, to literature, music, theater, philosophy, which were in turn brought into college curricula.
That’s what the idea of a humanities education in college is and should be about, but part of that idea has very much declined. It’s not about learning a specific body of information or skills the way other parts of a college education quite properly should be. Studying the humanities is about giving yourself the opportunity to engage in acts of self reflection, seeking answers to the kinds of questions you ask yourself not in a specialized capacity—but in the general capacity of being a human being, as a citizen.
Davis: Some criticize this kind of self-reflection as narcissistic, but you argue that it’s actually “the most practical thing in the world.”
Deresiewicz: I just hate it when people talk about how self reflection is somehow self indulgent—as if the things that students were being invited to do were not, like making themselves rich and powerful. How is that not self-indulgent? But I would say, aside from all the personal, intellectual, spiritual benefits of self-awareness—I can’t believe we even have to argue this—the main point is to know yourself so you know what you want in the world. You can decide, what is the best work for me, what is the best career for me, what are the rewards that I really want. And maybe you’ll end up saying that I do need a certain level of wealth, but you will know it because you will have come to know yourself. And you will be acting on your own initiative instead of having absorbed the messages that have been instilled in you unconsciously.
Davis: Gaining self-knowledge isn’t a simple or predictable process. Are there certain things that can only be learned outside the classroom?
Deresiewicz: There are certainly limits to formal institutional education. As you say, gaining self-knowledge is going to happen when it’s going to happen. But it’s certainly not going to happen if kids don’t have the tools to do it. So that’s the first thing that an education can do—help kids develop the means of reflection, and then, maybe it’ll happen the next year, or the next summer. A book you read in 12th grade or as a sophomore in college might suddenly click five years later. So yes, it happens throughout your life. But you’ve got to start, and I think you’ve got to start when you’re young. Developmentally, adolescence and the early 20s are precisely the time to ask these questions because you are engaged in making the transition from childhood certainty to adult conviction.
Aside from the classes themselves, the fact that we’ve created a system where kids are constantly busy, and have no time for solitude or reflection, is going to take its toll. We need to create a situation where kids feel like they don’t have to be “on” all the time. Given the chance, adolescents tend to engage in very intense conversation, and a lot of life learning happens laterally, happens peer to peer. But if they’re constantly busy, there’s literally no time. It’s crazy. We’ve taken adolescence away from adolescents. School must not take away your opportunities to self-reflect on your own.
When I taught humanities classes, I never talked about self-reflection, and I never invited students to talk about their feelings or their backgrounds or their experiences. I would sometimes do it with students one on one, if they wanted to, but it’s an indirect process. The books are designed to make you think about your life. You can just talk about Achilles, or Elizabeth Bennett, it doesn’t matter if you leave the personal stuff out of the conversation. The books do the work of getting the soul in motion.
One good thing that they do at Lawrence University is have a course where freshmen can read great books and at the same time think about what an education is for. You don’t have to talk too personally there, but at least you’re still preparing yourself to understand your college education in an appropriate way.
Davis: What was your own college experience like?
Deresiewicz: I got to college in ’81, so the system was nowhere near as hysterical as it is now. But it was still basically the same system. My dad was an immigrant, a college professor, a scientist, and he had very specific expectations. I decided on my major—science—literally before classes even started, and it wasn’t a good decision. I love science but I never gave myself a chance to discover other things, and by the middle of college I realized that I should have been an English major because that’s what I really loved. I drifted for two or three years after college until I reached a cinematic moment in my life when I realized I needed to go and study English, whatever it takes, because I wouldn’t be happy until I did. So finally, four years after college, I went back and started a Ph.D. program.
I’ve continued to struggle with the psychological stuff—the cycle of grandiosity and depression, the constant comparisons. Once it gets implanted, you will always struggle with it, and you just get better, hopefully, at dealing with it. But the take home message is that everyone has to liberate themselves from this system. Education should be an act of liberation. We need to make a better system but ultimately everybody has to claim their freedom for themselves.
Bullying is linked to mental health problems in later years, new research finds.
However, these tend to fade over the years, showing the remarkable resilience of many children.
The study followed 11,108 twins who were followed until they were 16-years-old.
Dr Jean-Baptiste Pingault, one of the study’s authors, said:
“Previous studies have shown that bullied children are more likely to suffer mental health issues, but give little evidence of a causal link, as pre-existing vulnerabilities can make children both more likely to be bullied and experience worse mental health outcomes.
We used a robust study design to identify causation.”
Bullying was linked to later conduct problems, depression, anxiety and other psychological problems.
However, five years later, most of these issues had faded away.
Dr Pingault said:
“While our findings show that being bullied leads to detrimental mental health outcomes, they also offer a message of hope by highlighting the potential for resilience.
Bullying certainly causes suffering, but the impact on mental health decreases over time, so children are able to recover in the medium term.
The detrimental effects of bullying show that more needs to be done to help children who are bullied.
In addition to interventions aimed at stopping bullying from happening, we should also support children who have been bullied by supporting resilience processes on their path to recovery.
Our findings highlight the importance of continuous support to mental health care for children and adolescents.”
Dr Sophie Dix, Director of Research at MQ: Transforming Mental Health said:
“This important research is further strong evidence of the need to take the mental health impacts of bullying seriously.
We hope this study provides fresh impetus to make sure young people at risk — and those currently being bullied — get effective help as soon as possible.
More than one in five UK young people say they’ve recently been bullied.
And now this unprecedented study gives the strongest evidence to date that bullying can directly cause many common mental health conditions — and have a serious effect on mental health in the long-term.
But the good news is that it shows that people can and do get better — demonstrating the importance of resilience.
Now we need to understand why this is and develop new ways, through research, to intervene and change lives.”
When was the last time you just cried your eyes out? A month ago? A week ago? Maybe you’re drying your eyes from your last good cry as you read this. It’s okay to feel vulnerable after you shed a few tears, but you have nothing to apologize for.
In fact, crying is not only a perfectly healthy thing to do, but it’s also a sign of strength and resilience. Here are four reasons why you should feel empowered, not pathetic, after crying.
You Know How to Relieve Stress
A 1983 study from the American Psychological Association showed that most people feel more relieved after crying that was due to stress from interpersonal relationships and anxious or sad thoughts. (1)
Crying is one of the best ways to channel and filter out the thoughts and events that cause us worry or grief. Bottling up your emotions by holding back the tears can lead to long-term psychological damage that we’ll discuss later on.
When we cry, we are releasing negative tension that builds up from our day to day lives, allowing us to feel comforted and recharged so that we can pick ourselves back up afterward. Emotional tears also contain hormones that escape our body that could improve our mood after crying. (2)
Professor Roger Baker from Bournemouth University said that crying is the transformation of distress into something tangible, and the process itself reduces the feeling of trauma (source). So, when people encourage you to “just let it out,” now you know why.
It Shows You Don’t Care about What Others Think
The feeling of vulnerability and feebleness when we cry usually results from when other people are around. You feel the cracks in your voice; you feel the tears well up and the blood rush to your face, but you try your hardest to suppress these responses until it all comes bursting out. (3)
Society conditions us from an early age to believe that displaying negative emotions in front of other people is something that should be avoided at all costs. But human nature shows that we are all intelligent and sensitive creatures, and we can’t constantly keep up our emotional guard.
A 1964 study found that people respond less negatively and more compassionately to people who are crying. The study looked at the self-reported emotional response of people when they are in the presence of a crying person. (4)
Although the study found that crying made most people feel uncomfortable, crying in front of others shows that you place your feelings above the social expectations of those around you. That is a feat many of us can only wish to achieve.
You Aren’t Afraid of Your Feelings
Human beings cry for all sorts of reasons; hormonal imbalances, anger, loss, loneliness, stress, and low blood sugar are just some of the many reasons we weep. Sometimes it’s something that seems trivial like a sad movie or a nostalgic song, and often times we don’t even know the root cause of why we’re crying.
The important part of it is that you are acknowledging your emotions and confronting them head on. Not facing negative feelings can risk leading you down a dark path; alcoholism, depression, anxiety disorder, drug abuse or any kind of unhealthy compulsive behavior can stem from a refusal to face one’s emotions.
Feelings of guilt, fear of punishment or judgment, and self-doubt in all forms are some of the hindrances that cause people to choke back tears and disassociate. But allowing yourself to let go of that self-doubt for the sake of your own mental health is a sign of courage and control.
Crying Makes You a Better Friend
We talked earlier about “letting down your emotional guard.” This does more than send people a message that you’re strong; it shows your friends and family that you are honest and open when faced with adversity.
If you’re in a situation where you are with a friend, and both of you received some upsetting news, taking the first step in crying will allow other people to feel comfortable expressing their own emotions. Those who accept sadness when it stares them in the face allow others to do the same.
This does amazing things for your character and the strength of your relationships. Breaking down these walls that so often separate us from our fellow human beings can lead to more cohesive and meaningful friendships.
Crying makes you learn about who your true friends are, as well. Those who avoid you or bring you down when you already feel your most vulnerable are probably people you should consider removing from your life.
Crying and Mental Illness
If you find that you cry or have the urge to cry on a nearly constantly recurring basis, you should look into talking to a counselor or therapist. Chronic episodes of crying can be signs of depression and anxiety which can arise from a myriad of circumstances.
These conditions affect millions of people across the globe and can lead to self-harm or even suicide if they aren’t addressed. Click on links for anxiety and depression if you want to learn about how these conditions can affect your physical health.
Here are three online starting points if you think may be suffering from a mental illness:
Crying is one of the healthiest mechanisms we employ to cope with our emotions. It elevates our mood in the long term, relieves stress, builds character and fortifies relationships. So, the next time you feel the dreaded waterworks approaching, don’t repress the feeling. Let those tears help you to grow socially, mentally and spiritually.
Figuring out how to pedal a bike and memorizing the rules of chess require two different types of learning, and now for the first time, researchers have been able to distinguish each type of learning by the brain-wave patterns it produces.
These distinct neural signatures could guide scientists as they study the underlying neurobiology of how we both learn motor skills and work through complex cognitive tasks, says Earl K. Miller, the Picower Professor of Neuroscience at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and senior author of a paper describing the findings in the Oct. 11 edition of Neuron.
When neurons fire, they produce electrical signals that combine to form brain waves that oscillate at different frequencies. “Our ultimate goal is to help people with learning and memory deficits,” notes Miller. “We might find a way to stimulate the human brain or optimize training techniques to mitigate those deficits.”
The neural signatures could help identify changes in learning strategies that occur in diseases such as Alzheimer’s, with an eye to diagnosing these diseases earlier or enhancing certain types of learning to help patients cope with the disorder, says Roman F. Loonis, a graduate student in the Miller Lab and first author of the paper. Picower Institute research scientist Scott L. Brincat and former MIT postdoc Evan G. Antzoulatos, now at the University of California at Davis, are co-authors.
Explicit versus implicit learning
Scientists used to think all learning was the same, Miller explains, until they learned about patients such as the famous Henry Molaison or “H.M.,” who developed severe amnesia in 1953 after having part of his brain removed in an operation to control his epileptic seizures. Molaison couldn’t remember eating breakfast a few minutes after the meal, but he was able to learn and retain motor skills that he learned, such as tracing objects like a five-pointed star in a mirror.
“H.M. and other amnesiacs got better at these skills over time, even though they had no memory of doing these things before,” Miller says.
The divide revealed that the brain engages in two types of learning and memory — explicit and implicit.
Explicit learning “is learning that you have conscious awareness of, when you think about what you’re learning and you can articulate what you’ve learned, like memorizing a long passage in a book or learning the steps of a complex game like chess,” Miller explains.
“Implicit learning is the opposite. You might call it motor skill learning or muscle memory, the kind of learning that you don’t have conscious access to, like learning to ride a bike or to juggle,” he adds. “By doing it you get better and better at it, but you can’t really articulate what you’re learning.”
Many tasks, like learning to play a new piece of music, require both kinds of learning, he notes.
Brain waves from earlier studies
When the MIT researchers studied the behavior of animals learning different tasks, they found signs that different tasks might require either explicit or implicit learning. In tasks that required comparing and matching two things, for instance, the animals appeared to use both correct and incorrect answers to improve their next matches, indicating an explicit form of learning. But in a task where the animals learned to move their gaze one direction or another in response to different visual patterns, they only improved their performance in response to correct answers, suggesting implicit learning.
What’s more, the researchers found, these different types of behavior are accompanied by different patterns of brain waves.
During explicit learning tasks, there was an increase in alpha2-beta brain waves (oscillating at 10-30 hertz) following a correct choice, and an increase delta-theta waves (3-7 hertz) after an incorrect choice. The alpha2-beta waves increased with learning during explicit tasks, then decreased as learning progressed. The researchers also saw signs of a neural spike in activity that occurs in response to behavioral errors, called event-related negativity, only in the tasks that were thought to require explicit learning.
The increase in alpha-2-beta brain waves during explicit learning “could reflect the building of a model of the task,” Miller explains. “And then after the animal learns the task, the alpha-beta rhythms then drop off, because the model is already built.”
By contrast, delta-theta rhythms only increased with correct answers during an implicit learning task, and they decreased during learning. Miller says this pattern could reflect neural “rewiring” that encodes the motor skill during learning.
The divide revealed that the brain engages in two types of learning and memory — explicit and implicit. NeuroscienceNews.com image is adapted from the MIT news release.
“This showed us that there are different mechanisms at play during explicit versus implicit learning,” he notes.
Future Boost to Learning
Loonis says the brain wave signatures might be especially useful in shaping how we teach or train a person as they learn a specific task. “If we can detect the kind of learning that’s going on, then we may be able to enhance or provide better feedback for that individual,” he says. “For instance, if they are using implicit learning more, that means they’re more likely relying on positive feedback, and we could modify their learning to take advantage of that.”
The neural signatures could also help detect disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease at an earlier stage, Loonis says. “In Alzheimer’s, a kind of explicit fact learning disappears with dementia, and there can be a reversion to a different kind of implicit learning,” he explains. “Because the one learning system is down, you have to rely on another one.”
Earlier studies have shown that certain parts of the brain such as the hippocampus are more closely related to explicit learning, while areas such as the basal ganglia are more involved in implicit learning. But Miller says that the brain wave study indicates “a lot of overlap in these two systems. They share a lot of the same neural networks.”
ABOUT THIS NEUROSCIENCE RESEARCH AMITCLE
Funding: The research was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the Picower Institute Innovation Fund.
Source: Becky Ham – MIT Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is adapted from the MIT news release. Original Research: The study will appear in Neuron.
The universe can be a funny place sometimes. I’ve been doing a lot of research about a form of mental abuse that a lot of us are not only susceptible to, but actually deal with every single day. It is one of those things that we don’t even realize is happening to us, we just see the results: self-doubt, diminished self-esteem, and reduced self-worth.
The World Has A Way Of Beating Even The Best Of Us Down From Time To Time But This Specific Form Of Manipulation Is One That Can Be Identified And Removed From Our Day-To-Day Existence.
Planted Seeds Of Doubt
Back in 1938, there was a play called “Gas Light” that was later adapted into a movie in 1944. In the story, a husband works diligently to convince his wife and their acquaintances that she is insane by making very small and subtle changes to their environment. When the wife would point out the changes, the husband convinced her that she was wrong about the changes and that she was crazy. Slowly but surely, the wife starts to give in to the self-doubtcreated by those subtle changes, namely a gas lamp that the husband keeps dimming, hence the term “gaslighting“.
Our Perception Is Our Reality
In the play, the key was the husband’s ability to alter the wife’s perception of reality. She saw the lamp as being dimmer and the husband assures her that it is not. He made he doubt her perception, and therefore her reality. It is a form of mental abuse that people too often don’t even realize what is happening to them. For the perpetrator, the ability to control the victim’s own perceptions of themselves and the things around them allows them to control the victim themselves. In reality, it happens every single day. It’s all around us. How many advertisements do you see that claim that using their product will somehow enhance your life? That’s a mild form of gaslighting. You are made to think that some aspect of you or your life is incomplete. You are made to DOUBT yourself. Further, you are made to think that whatever product is being peddled is the solution to what is supposedly lacking in your life.
Gaslighting In Our Lives
The specific situation that inspired this article involved one of the most beautiful and amazing women I have ever known dealing with a break up from a man that never deserved to be with her in the first place. I explained to her that there are people in our lives who will try to break us down to be on their level.
So, What Is The Answer To Gaslighting?
Maintaining Your Own Reality Through Your Own Perceptions.
I’ll tell you now, the same thing I told her:
You see, my friend, there are people in this world who will look at a unicorn and think to themselves, “woah, that is a unicorn, which is something I will never be.” They will try to convince you, the unicorn, that you are just an average horse like them with a weird growth on your head that you should probably get checked out by some kind of medical professional that deals with head growths. They will try to steal your magic and make you as dull and ordinary as the plain, old horses that they are. Because they need you to be a plain, old horse like they are, just to bring you down to their level…
As we’ve established: you are not just a plain, old horse. You are not a fast race horse. You aren’t even one of those fancy British horses that those chicks in those hot pant/knee-high boot getups use to jump over stuff…
You Are A Unicorn. Despite What Anyone Else Says. You Are One In 7.4 Billion, And That Is A Beautiful Thing.
When Steve first came to my consulting room, it was hard to square the shambling figure slumped low in the chair opposite with the young dynamo who, so he told me, had only recently been putting in 90-hour weeks at an investment bank. Clad in baggy sportswear that had not graced the inside of a washing machine for a while, he listlessly tugged his matted hair, while I tried, without much success, to picture him gliding imperiously down the corridors of some glassy corporate palace.
Steve had grown up as an only child in an affluent suburb. He recalls his parents, now divorced, channelling the frustrations of their loveless, quarrelsome marriage into the ferocious cultivation of their son. The straight-A grades, baseball-team captaincy and Ivy League scholarship he eventually won had, he felt, been destined pretty much from the moment he was born. “It wasn’t so much like I was doing all this great stuff, more like I was slotting into the role they’d already scripted for me.” It seemed as though he’d lived the entirety of his childhood and adolescence on autopilot, so busy living out the life expected of him that he never questioned whether he actually wanted it.
Summoned by the bank from an elite graduate finance programme in Paris, he plunged straight into its turbocharged working culture. For the next two years, he worked on the acquisition of companies with the same breezy mastery he’d once brought to the acquisition of his academic and sporting achievements. Then he realised he was spending a lot of time sunk in strange reveries at his workstation, yearning to go home and sleep. When the phone or the call of his name woke him from his trance, he would be gripped by a terrible panic. “One time this guy asked me if I was OK, like he was really weirded out. So I looked down and my shirt was drenched in sweat.”
One day a few weeks later, when his 5.30am alarm went off, instead of leaping out of bed he switched it off and lay there, staring at the wall, certain only that he wouldn’t be going to work. After six hours of drifting between dreamless sleep and blank wakefulness, he pulled on a tracksuit and set off for the local Tesco Metro, piling his basket with ready meals and doughnuts, the diet that fuelled his box-set binges.
Three months later, he was transformed into the inertial heap now slouched before me. He did nothing; he saw no one. The concerned inquiries of colleagues quickly tailed off. He was intrigued to find the termination of his employment didn’t bother him. He spoke to his parents in Chicago only as often as was needed to throw them off the scent. They knew the hours he’d been working, so didn’t expect to hear from him all that much, and he never told them anything important anyway.
Can anyone say they’ve never felt some small intimation of Steve’s urge to shut down? I certainly have, sitting glassy-eyed on the sofa at the end of a long working day. My listlessness is tugged by the awareness, somewhere at the edge of my consciousness, of an expanding to-do list, and of unread messages and missed calls vibrating unforgivingly a few feet away. But my sullen inertia plateaus when I drop my eyes to the floor and see a glass or a newspaper that needs picking up. The object in question seems suddenly to radiate a repulsive force that prevents me from so much as extending my forearm. My mind and body scream in protest against its outrageous demand that I bend and retrieve it. Why, I plead silently, should I have to do this? Why should I have to do anything ever again?
We commonly use the term “burnout” to describe the state of exhaustion suffered by the likes of Steve. It occurs when we find ourselves taken over by this internal protest against all the demands assailing us from within and without, when the momentary resistance to picking up a glass becomes an ongoing state of mind.
Burnout didn’t become a recognised diagnosis until 1974, when the German-American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger applied the term to the increasing number of cases he encountered of “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress”. The relationship to stress and anxiety is crucial, for it distinguishes burnout from simple exhaustion. Run a marathon, paint your living room, catalogue your collection of tea caddies, and the tiredness you experience will be infused with a deep satisfaction and faintly haloed in smugness – feelings that confirm you’ve discharged your duty to the world for at least the remainder of the day.The exhaustion experienced in burnout combines an intense yearning for this state of completion with the tormenting sense that it cannot be attained, that there is always some demand or anxiety or distraction which can’t be silenced. In his 1960 novel “A Burnt-Out Case” (the title may have helped bring the term into general circulation), Graham Greene parallels the mental and spiritual burnout of Querry, the protagonist, with the “burnt-out cases” of leprosy he witnesses in the Congo. Querry believes he’s “come to the end of desire”, his emotions amputated like the limbs of the lepers he encounters, and the rest of his life will be endured in a state of weary indifference.
But Querry’s predicament is that, as long as he’s alive, he can’t reach a state of impassivity; there will always be something or someone to disturb him. I frequently hear the same yearning expressed in my consulting room – the wish for the world to disappear, for a cessation of any feelings, whether positive or negative, that intrude on the patient’s peace, alongside the painful awareness that the world’s demands are waiting on the way out.
You feel burnout when you’ve exhausted all your internal resources, yet cannot free yourself of the nervous compulsion to go on regardless. Life becomes something that won’t stop bothering you. Among its most frequent and oppressive symptoms is chronic indecision, as though all the possibilities and choices life confronts you with cancel each other out, leaving only an irritable stasis.
Anxieties about burnout seem to be everywhere these days. A quick glance through the papers yields stories of young children burnt out by exams, teenagers by the never-ending cacophony of social media, women by the competing demands of work and motherhood, couples by a lack of time for each other and their family life.
But while it may seem to be a problem rooted in our cultural circumstances, burnout has a history stretching back many centuries. The condition of melancholic world-weariness was recognised across the ancient world – it is the voice that speaks out in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes (“All is vanity! What does a man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?”), and diagnosed by the earliest Western medical authorities Hippocrates and Galen. It appears in medieval theology as acedia, a listless indifference to worldly life brought about by spiritual exhaustion. During the Renaissance, a period of relentless change, Albrecht Dürer’s 1514 engraving “Melancholia I” was the most celebrated of many images depicting man despondent at the transience of life.
But it was not until the second half of the 19th century that writers began to link this condition to the specific stresses of modern life. In 1879, the American neurologist George Beard published “Neurasthenia: (nervous exhaustion) with remarks on treatment”, identifying neurasthenia as an illness endemic to the pace and strain of modern industrial life. The fin-de-siècle neurasthenic, in whom exhaustion and innervation converge, uncannily anticipates the burnout of today. They have in common an overloaded and overstimulated nervous system. A culture of chronic overwork is prevalent within many professions, from banking and law to media and advertising, health, education and other public services. A 2012 study by the University of Southern California found that every one of the 24 entry-level bankers it followed developed a stress-related illness (such as insomnia, alcoholism or an eating disorder) within a decade on the job. A much larger 2014 survey by eFinancialCareers of 9,000 financial workers in cities across the globe (including Hong Kong, London, New York and Frankfurt), showed bankers typically working between 80 and 120 hours a week, the majority feeling at least “partially” burnt out, with somewhere between 10% and 20% (depending on the country) describing themselves as “totally” burnt out.
A young banker who sees me in the early morning, the only available slot in her working day, often leaves a message at 3am to let me know she won’t make it as she’s only just leaving the office – a predicament especially bitter because her psychoanalytic session is the one hour in the day in which she can switch off her phone and find some respite from her job. Increasing numbers of my patients say they value a session simply because it provides a rare chance for a moment of stillness freed from the obligation to talk.
A walk in the country or a week on the beach should, theoretically, provide a similar sense of relief. But such attempts at recuperation are too often foiled by the nagging sense of being, as one patient put it, “stalked” by the job. A tormenting dilemma arises: keep your phone in your pocket and be flooded by work-related emails and texts; or switch it off and be beset by unshakeable anxiety over missing vital business. Even those who succeed in losing the albatross of work often quickly fall prey to the virus they’ve spent the previous weeks fending off.
Burnout increases as work insinuates itself more and more into every corner of life – if a spare hour can be snatched to read a novel, walk the dog or eat with one’s family, it quickly becomes contaminated by stray thoughts of looming deadlines. Even during sleep, flickering images of spreadsheets and snatches of management speak invade the mind, while slumbering fingers hover over the duvet, tapping away at a phantom keyboard.
Some companies have sought to alleviate the strain by offering sessions in mindfulness. But the problem with scheduling meditation as part of that working day is that it becomes yet another task at which you can succeed or fail. Those who can’t clear out their mind need to try harder – and the very exercises intended to ease anxiety can end up exacerbating it. Schemes cooked up by management theorists since the 1970s to alleviate the tedium and tension of the office through what might be called the David Brent effect – the chummy, backslapping banter, the paintballing away-days, the breakout rooms in bouncy castles – have simply blurred the lines between work and leisure, and so ended up screwing the physical and mental confines of the workplace even tighter.
But it is not just our jobs that overwork our minds. Electronic communication and social media have come to dominate our daily lives, in a transformation that is unprecedented and whose consequences we can therefore only guess at. My consulting room hums daily with the tense expectation induced by unanswered texts and ignored status updates. Our relationships seem to require a perpetual drip-feed of electronic reassurances, and our very sense of self is defined increasingly by an unending wait for the verdicts of an innumerable and invisible crowd of virtual judges.
And, while we wait for reactions to the messages we send out, we are bombarded by alerts on our phones and tablets, dogged by apps that measure and share our personal data, and subjected to an inundation of demands to like, retweet, upload, subscribe or buy. The burnt-out case of today belongs to a culture without an off switch.
In previous generations, depression was likely to result from internal conflicts between what we want to do and what authority figures – parents, teachers, institutions – wish to prevent us from doing. But in our high-performance society, it’s feelings of inadequacy, not conflict, that bring on depression. The pressure to be the best workers, lovers, parents and consumers possible leaves us vulnerable to feeling empty and exhausted when we fail to live up to these ideals. In “The Weariness of the Self” (1998), an influential study of modern depression, the French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg argues that in the liberated society which emerged during the 1960s, guilt and obedience play less of a role in the formation of the self than the drive to achieve. The slogan of the “attainment society” is “I can” rather than “I must”.
A more prohibitive society, which tells us we can’t have everything, sets limits on our sense of self. Choose to be a bus conductor and you can’t be a concert pianist; a full-time parent will never be chairman of the board. In our attainment society, we are constantly told that we can be, do and have anyone or anything we want. But, as anyone who’s tried to decide between 22 nearly identical brands of yoghurt in an American organic hypermarket can confirm, limitless choice debilitates far more than it liberates.
The depressive burnout, Ehrenberg suggests, feels incapable of making meaningful choices. This, as we discovered in the course of analysis, is Steve’s predicament. In his emotionally chilly childhood home, the only attention he received from his parents was their rigorous monitoring of his schoolwork and extra-curricular activities. In his own mind, he was worth caring about only because of his achievements. So while he accrued awards and knowledge and skills, he never learned to be curious about who he might be or what he might want in life. Having unthinkingly acquiesced in his parents’ prescription of what was best for him, he simply didn’t know how to deal with, or even make sense of, the sudden, unexpected feeling that the life he was living wasn’t the one for him.
Steve presents an intriguing paradox: what appears from the outside to have been a life driven by the active pursuit of goals feels to him to be oddly inert, a lifeless slotting-in, as he puts it, to a script he didn’t write. “Genuine force of habit”, suggested the great philosophical misanthrope Arthur Schopenhauer in 1851, might appear to be an expression of our innate character, but “really derives from the inertia which wants to spare the intellect the will, the labour, difficulty and sometimes the danger involved in making a fresh choice.” Schopenhauer has a point. Steve is coming to understand that his life followed the shape it did not from the blooming of his deepest desires but because he never bothered to question what he had been told.
“You know”, he said to me one day, “it’s not like I want to be this pathetic loser. I want to get up tomorrow, get back in the gym, find a new job, see people again. But it’s like even as I say I’m gonna do all this, some voice in me says, ‘no I’m not, no way am I doing that.’ And then I can’t work out if I feel depressed or relieved, and the confusion sends me crazy.”
I suggested to him that he was in this position because he had realised that he had almost no hand in choosing his life. His own desire was like a chronically neglected muscle; perhaps our job was to nurture it for the first time, to train it for the task of making basic life choices.
The same predicament arose in a different, perhaps subtler way in Susan, a successful music producer who first came to see me in the thick of an overwhelming depressive episode. She had come from Berlin to London six months previously to take up a new and prestigious job, the latest move in an impressive career that had seen her work in glamorous locations across the world.
She had grown up in a prosperous and loving family in a green English suburb. Unlike Steve, her parents had been – and continued to be – supportive of the unexpected professional and personal path their daughter had carved for herself. But they resembled Steve’s parents in one respect: the unvarying message, communicated through the course of her childhood, that she had the potential to be and do anything. The emotional and financial investment they made in her musical and academic activities showed their willingness to back up their enthusiasm with actions. While Susan appeared to follow her own chosen path, there came a point where her parent’s unstinting support and encouragement made it difficult to identify where their wishes stopped and hers began.
For all their differences, Steve’s and Susan’s parents were alike in protecting the child from awareness of the limits imposed by both themselves and the world. Susan would complain that the present, the life she was living moment to moment, felt unreal to her. Only the future really mattered, for that was where her ideal life resided. “If I just wait a little longer”, she would remark in a tone of wry despondency, “there’ll be this magically transformative event and everything will come right.”
This belief, she had come to realise, had taken a suffocating hold on her life: “the longer I live in wait for this magical event, the more I’m not living this life, which is sad, given it’s the only one I’ve got.” Forever anticipating the arrival of the day that would change her life for ever, Susan had come to view her current existence with a certain contempt, a travesty of the perfect one she might have. Her house, her job, the man she was seeing – all of these were thin shadows of the ideal she was pursuing. But the problem with an ideal is that nothing in reality can ever be remotely comparable to it; it tantalises with a future that can never be attained.
Feeling exhausted and emptied by this chase, she would retreat into two contradictory impulses: the first was a compulsion to work, asking the hydra-headed beast of the office to eat up all her time and mental energy. But alongside this, frequently accompanied by chronic insomnia, was a yearning for the opposite. She would fantasise in our sessions about going home and sleeping, waking only for stretches of blissfully catatonic inactivity over uninterrupted, featureless weeks. Occasionally she managed to steal the odd day to veg out, only for a rising panic to jolt her back into work. In frenzied activity and depressive inertia, she found a double strategy for escaping the inadequacies of the present.
Susan’s depressive exhaustion arose from the disparity between the enormous effort she dedicated to contemplating her future and the much smaller one she devoted to discovering and realising her desires in the present. In this regard, she is the uncanny mirror image of Steve: Susan was frozen by the suspicion there was always something else to choose; Steve was shackled by the incapacity to choose at all.
Psychoanalysis is often criticised for being expensive, demanding and overlong, so it might seem surprising that Susan and Steve chose it over more time-limited, evidence-based and results-oriented behavioural therapies. But results-oriented efficiency may have been precisely the malaise they were trying to escape. Burnout is not simply a symptom of working too hard. It is also the body and mind crying out for an essential human need: a space free from the incessant demands and expectations of the world. In the consulting room, there are no targets to be hit, no achievements to be crossed off. The amelioration of burnout begins in finding your own pool of tranquillity where you can cool off.
In this article, the clinical cases have been disguised, and the names changed, to protect confidentiality.