The psychological concept that may change how you process your emotions

The psychological concept that may change how you process your emotions

What if you were approached outside an insurance office by a cognitive scientist offering you $5 to answer this question: Can a beetle feel love?”

Your answer may depend on a constellation of influences.

You may think of the last time you squashed a beetle and felt bad about it. Or maybe, you think of the invasive beetle that’s infested your backyard. It may be a gut reaction: Of course beetles feel love. Of course they don’t.

Kara Weisman is part of a research team who asked people around the world this question, along with others like: Do ghosts get hungry? Are robots deserving of moral treatment?

When these answers are pooled, Weisman looks for patterns that inform similarities, and differences in our mental lives. A mental life consists of the thoughts, feelings, and intentions we attribute to others, animals, and inanimate objects. It’s a concept we employ to sort social and moral obligations.

In a study released in August in the journal Nature, Weisman and colleagues interviewed adults and children living across the United States, Ghana, Thailand, China, and the South Pacific island country of Vanuatu. The interview subjects overwhelmingly conceptualize a mind-body distinction within the framework of mental life. This is sometimes called “mind-body dualism” and it refers to thinking of cognitive abilities as different from bodily sensations.

But the research team also came across significant differences in the way people across the world categorize socio-emotional capabilities.

These differences, the scientists say, may “lead different groups of people to different conclusions about human nature, about why humans do bad things and how society should react, whether to fear or embrace artificial intelligence, and how to interact with any supernatural beings we believe to exist.”

The differences in cultural ideas also offer opportunities, Weisman tells me.

How the discovery was made — This study was part of Stanford University’s Mind and Spirit Project, an academic collaboration that combines the disciplines of anthropology and experimental psychology.

It was an effort to “think about how people understand their minds and how that affects their spiritual and religious experiences,” Weisman explains.

It’s also an extension of the work Weisman was doing for her dissertation at the time. She’s interested in folk philosophy — how people process, explain, and predict the behavior of others.

“I was kind of steeped in these sorts of classical questions and trying to figure out ways to understand how ordinary people, non-philosophers, think about the deep things,” she says.

While conducting preliminary research in the United States, Weisman realized seemingly simple, and purposefully child-like questions (“do chickens ever feel sad?”) allowed her to probe the heavy topics without having to ask intimidating questions about the relationship between the mind and body.

“We can use those kinds of lightweight, easy-breezy answers to infer these deeper philosophical ideas that I’m interested in,” she says of her method.

This work informed the “bottom-up approach” the team took to the study. When interviewing U.S. adults, the responses were grouped into three categories:

10 Better Ways to Help an Anxious Child Calm Down

10 Better Ways to Help an Anxious Child Calm Down

Ever been at a loss as to how to help your child when he/she is anxious?

For example:

  • A child arrives at a birthday party excited but becomes too worried to walk through the door
  • A child runs out of the doctor’s office as the nurse approaches with a needle/shot
  • A child refuses to get out of the car when he/she doesn’t know anyone at a new camp or activity
  • A child feels nauseous about performing on stage, trying out for an activity, or taking a test
  • A child is terrified that they will be injured by a storm or tornado.

It may seem like nothing you say or do helps.

When kids are anxious, they often experience a fight, flight, or freeze (acute stress) response, which is a physiological reaction in response to something they perceive as scary. The body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated, triggering the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline, which increases heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. After the threat is gone, it takes 20-60 minutes for the body to return to normal levels.

Some kids experience anxiety more than others. About 15-20% of kids are born with a more anxious temperament (the amygdala part of their brains are more reactive to novel stimuli from the start).

Anxious kids may scream, shake, run away, be especially quiet, act silly, hide, cling, have tantrums, or act out to avoid a stressful environment or event.

At times, parents make the mistake of trying to reason with kids or talk them out of their fears (without first addressing the acute physiological factors at play). They may say things like “calm down,” “stop crying,” or “try to be brave now.” Because anxiety can look like defiance or acting out (e.g. running out of the room), parents may even punish anxious kids or give them time-outs.

However, brain research suggests that it’s extremely difficult (if not impossible) for kids to think with logic or control their behavior until they step out of fight/flight/freeze mode.

Here are 10 science-based ways parents can gently help children calm down, regain a sense of safety, and manage their anxiety.

1. Stimulate the Vagus Nerve

Stimulating your child’s vagus nerve (located on both sides of the voice box) can interrupt fight or flight mode and send a signal to his/her brain that “he/she is not under attack”.

Why Do We Procrastinate And How Can We Beat The Urge?

Why Do We Procrastinate And How Can We Beat The Urge?

The problem with procrastination: by replacing important tasks with easy admin, we’re getting a … [+] Ever find yourself eagerly logging your expenses, or clearing the furthest reaches of your inbox while contemplating whether you’ll ever find the will to finish that report, crunch those numbers or fix that problem?

You’re not alone. Procrastination, which often means doing low-value tasks to avoid difficult, more important ones–or else doing things we enjoy rather than things we don’t–is all too common.

One theory is that it’s hyperbolic discounting in action: the tendency to choose smaller rewards now over larger rewards later.

This concept is normally applied to economics (do you want $10 today or $50 in five months’ time), but it applies here too because, by replacing important tasks with easy admin, we’re getting a really bad value exchange in return for a brief burst of satisfaction.

And for entrepreneurs, who ought to be solely focused on the jobs that are important and urgent, it’s a false efficiency. Succumbing to the draw of simple, repetitive tasks can become a serious issue for the health and growth of our businesses. So, how do we get a grip on it?

Gaining self-awareness

First, we must grasp why we procrastinate in the first place. A 2013 study by the University of Sheffield proposes that we are prioritizing the regulation of the mood of the present self over the consequences to the future self (another good reason to never go grocery shopping when you’re hungry).

Knowing this, we can convert a lengthy, difficult job into a series of smaller, more manageable steps that can be performed with speed, giving us the sense of satisfaction we crave.

Greater self-awareness can also help us work out if the jobs on our to-do list should be there at all. While it’s always useful to have a basic level of understanding about areas that lie outside your expertise, tasks you’re putting off may be best left to those who know more.

For example, you’ve identified a pressing problem in your business: your website is doing a poor job of turning visitors to customers, and it needs to be fixed as soon as possible.

This job is both important and urgent, because it’s hurting new business and your bottom line with every day that passes, but it’s also overwhelming if you don’t know what to fix.

So, let’s break it down and work out what the job really entails:

> Do some internet research and teach myself a little about website user behaviour and psychology, so I can be more informed Look at our analytics to see if these reveal anything obvious about my website’s failings Write a short project brief, outlining the problem and what a […]

It’s Not Me. It’s You

Winnie, a beautiful, musical, and timid African Grey who was apprehensive about people but loving once you gain her trust came to us last year from a local non-profit rescue, Parrot Education & Adoption Center, as a foster.  She picked up Mozart’s Queen of the Night after hearing it just twice and improved my coloratura game immensely with her clear resonance and astounding range. Winnie was tech savvy and racked up on my electricity bill by talking to our Alexa devices constantly.

Unfortunately, she was also an anxious creature who plucked constantly—to the point that she has NO tail, and my goal as a PEAC foster was to rehabilitate her for adoption, but I made it a personal goal to re-feather her.   With years of experience rehabilitating feral cats otherwise doomed for euthanasia and a go-to foster for pregnant cats at Helen Woodward Animal Center, I saw this as the next-level challenge in animal behavior science.

Whereas dogs and cats have been domesticated for thousands of years, any pet parrot today is only two generations from their wild, free-flying ancestors.  For survival, they’re designed to communicate with their flock loudly and clearly even through a dense rain forest.  They also chew, bite, scratch to prevent their beaks and nails from growing unsafely long.  Sadly, many of these natural instincts lead to pet parrots’ abandonment.

Birds are often recognized for their remarkable cognitive ability.  Einstein, the most researched parrot to date, demonstrated his species’ contextual understanding of language when he wasn’t taught the vocabulary “banana” but requested a “long, yellow fruit” from his caretaker, creatively using the vocabularies he was taught in completely different context and combination.   This level of intelligence demands to be utilized, so when parrots are locked up in a cage all day, unstimulated, with nothing to do, they WILL find something to do.  They will pluck their own feathers, pick their skin, and scream for attention.  In behavior therapy terms, those are just maladaptive behaviors, undesirable coping skills that need to be replaced with positive ones just like tantrums and bullying in children.

Change is hard, and change is slow.  In the first of our 12-Step Make It Happen series, I discussed the power of consistency. In the context of feather plucking in parrots, animal behaviorists recommend out-of-cage human interaction time, proper amount of sun and sleep and foraging activities so parrots must keep their minds and bodies active and work for their food.

Correct and Consistent Implementation Leads to Success

When I cared for a newborn litter of 5 kittens who were just learning to use the litter box, there was a lot of cleaning.  But it was nothing compared to the proper caregiving of parrots, and Winnie covered my house with thrown out food, droppings, feathers and skin flakes that she’s picked.

But I continued offering different enrichment and foraging activities to replace her feather plucking and was the proudest foster bird mom when a ruby red feather sprang up on her tail.    Winnie was successfully adopted during the early days of COVID quarantine through PEAC, and I was very proud to have been a part of the process.  Winnie has and will continue to bring her new family love and beautiful music.

Why isn’t it working?

Towards Christmas last year, another foster bird came to us.  It’s been three decades since I’ve had

 smaller birds, and I fell in love with Zorro the moment I saw him.  He looked like a stuffed doll with a white sweater and stepped up to cuddle with me the first time we met.  Zorro wanted to cuddle and be on people 24/7.  He also wanted to eat human table food (very unhealthy or even deadly for parrots), and was used to getting his way–Zorro obstinately screeched at a high pitch whenever he didn’t.  Does this sound like a child throwing a public tantrum when his parents refuse to buy a bag of candy for breakfast?

Despite his size, he was very aggressive and territorial towards our family parrot, and to my shock, he started feather plucking.  Zorro slowly untangled his fluffy white sweater feather by feather.  Did I cause or somehow instigate the feather plucking? Did I not love him enough?  I did all the right things.  How could this be happening?  Does this make me a bad foster parent?

Parents often have similar trains of thoughts about their children. Did my parenting cause my son’s ADHD?  Is my daughter under-performing in school just to spite me?  Or as parents, we attack each other rather than focus on what should be our goal—raising children to be the best versions of themselves.

I started fostering rescued animals because I love them.  Their love is so simple and unconditional. They didn’t choose to be purchased as pets and live in captivity with us. So, if my focus remains on the goal of getting animals adopted, then I need to consistently do what works to help them.   For Zorro, I needed to observe how he’s feeling through his behaviors, and explore all possibilities of what might be prompting him to pluck.  Sometimes the answer is as simple as not getting enough sleep.  Other times, the determining factors are less within our control, like hormones, puberty.

Behaviors are often the guidebook to children’s true feelings.  For example, they may be nervous about going to a new school because they haven’t been taught how to initiate and maintain conversations comfortably with new people, so they cry and feign illness to avoid going to that new school.  Parents can play the curious detective to find out the root causes of their children’s behaviors, empower them by building in areas where skills are deficit, and in the process, build stronger and closer relationships with their kids.   I hope the parallels drawn to my parrot fostering experience help highlight some common fallacies.

As you now see, we’ve returned to our “12-Step Make It Happen” theme.  Below is a bullet point summary of the steps discussed so far.

  1. Consistency – Disciplined practice
  2. Self-Awareness – Honest observation without judgement
  3. Exploration – Reflect, Troubleshoot

Other Reading:

Parrot Education & Adoption Center (PEAC) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, volunteer organization dedicated to educating current and potential bird owners on the proper care of companion parrots.   They have interesting and practical classes that teach people on parrot behavior and how to make engaging toys and activities for companion parrots.   Click here to view the birds available for adoption.

Jo-hari, your whole self-image

Many times, we often hear that when people are fighting with each other, one of them will yell “You don’t understand me at all!”. This may be happening between couples, parents and children, and siblings. In short, this is very common! But here comes the problem. Sometimes we don’t even know ourselves well enough, and it is of course more difficult to ask another person to understand ourselves!

I remember that in a psychology course, the professor asked us to write ten introductions about our personalities. I was always writing diaries and doing self-awareness, so I could quickly write ten characteristics of myself. For example, I like to sing, one of my best friends is a cat, and the thing I fear most is not able to fall asleep after watching a ghost movie, etc. Some are things that everyone who knows me knows, and some are my secrets. But my classmate who sit next to me had difficulty coming up with the ten facts about herself. She could only think of what leisure activities she liked to do. After I share my thoughts with her, she could start to think about what to write eventually.

In short, frequent self-awareness and having dialogues with yourself can help you understand yourself better. Interacting with others and talking with them often, and reflecting on the feedback others give you, can also help you understand yourself better. This is not just my own experience; scholars also have this theory!

Two British psychologists came up with the concept of the Jo-hari window. They believe that people have aspects that they know well about themselves and secrets that are not known to others; there are also things that oneself may not know but others who are not involved understand well. And of course there are unknowns that you don’t know, and others don’t. It can be divided into four aspects, including open self, blind self, hidden self, and unknown self.

  1. Open self: it refers to the things that you and everyone around you know, like Information such as where you work, how many people in your family, your name, etc. Or your own opinions, ideas, experiences, and other things that you can share with others generously are also in this category.
  2. Blind self: something that you don’t notice, but others know. It’s like the mantras that you don’t realize but blurt out, or the facial expressions or reactions you’re used to making and you are even not aware of them. For example, I often say “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!”. But I didn’t know that I had this habit until I was told by a friend once.
  3. Hidden self: It refers to the secrets that you have not let others know. Like, you may have a crush on someone, or you may have broken the law before.
  4. Unknown self: Things that other people and oneself don’t know. For example, the long-forgotten experience that happened in childhood, or the negative experience that was suppressed after oneself being greatly traumatized. The latter is also caused by the repression of Freudians’self-defense mechanism, which shields traumas from consciousness and prevents oneself from being aware of it. The individual must use professional skills such as psychotherapy, so that the individual can turn the things in the subconscious into things that the conscious can perceive, and also allow him/her to control himself/herself according to his/her own consciousness, instead of being dominated deeply affected by things that one doesn’t know well.

No matter what, these four aspects constitute a person’s complete self. The ideal situation is that the blind self and the unknown self should be smaller, and the open self should be larger. Because it means that this person knows himself/herself well. He/she can reflect on his/her own image and behavior through feedback from friends and others, as well as the process of self-growth through counseling, which makes parts of the blind self and the unknown self gradually, shift to the area of ​​open self, and he/she understand himself/herself better. The expansion of the open self means that he/she can easily self-disclose himself/herself to others and express thoughts and feelings, which will boost the individual’s mental health and consolidate his/her interpersonal relationships.

So, this is why we encourage you to write. Only by talking with yourself, you can improve your understanding of yourself. As your open self increases, it will be easier for you to get closer to each other. Otherwise, if you hold a more closed and defensive attitude towards others, your hidden self will also take up your open self, other people will feel that you are indifferent, and it reduces the possibility that you can have further communication and interaction with others.

What old story about yourself are you still believing? Here’s how to find it and change it

Raúl Soria

Raúl Soria

Many of us hold deeply ingrained beliefs about ourselves that are simply not true. You can start to free yourself from them by editing your narrative, says psychiatrist John Sharp.

There are many things in our lives that we have little control over — the news, the weather, the traffic, the soup of the day at our local café. But among the things that we can control, there’s a big one: our story.

This narrative is not the one that contains the objective facts of our lives; instead, it’s “the story you’ve been telling yourself about who you are and how everything always plays out,” says psychiatrist and Harvard Medical School professor John Sharp.

And he adds, “If you want to change your life, it needs a re-edit.”

The problem with this story is that too often, it’s not accurate — writer Marilynne Robinson calls it “a mean little myth.”

Sharp, the author of The Insight Cure: Change Your Story, Transform Your Life, explains, “Some emotionally difficult scenes are way over-included — just think of all the things you can’t let go of — and other scenes are deleted, such as times when things did go well. The worst part about the false truth … is that it becomes our self-fulfilling prophecy, the basis of what we expect from ourselves in the future.”

To begin revising your narrative, Sharp recommends doing the following:

1. Identify where your narrative diverges from reality.

For Sharp, his parents divorced when he was young, and he says, “the false truth that I held to so dearly was that just … as I couldn’t be effective in keeping my parents together, I probably couldn’t be effective at much of anything else, and this left me feeling very insecure.”

Since you’ve long accepted your false story as the official account, it may not be super-obvious to you. If you’re not sure what it is, try filling in these blanks, says Sharp:
“If I break a promise to myself, I feel ___________.”
“When someone ignores me, I feel _____________.”
“When my partner or best friend and I have a big fight, I feel _____________.”

Why these prompts? Our inaccurate narrative tends to be one that we default to when we’re faced with difficulty or disappointment.

Another way to help you identify your old story is to listen to your self-talk and notice when it includes statements that begin with “I always ______,” “I’m always ______,” or “I never ______.”

After you find your ingrained story, think back to your childhood and try to look for the experiences that helped feed it. And if you end up identifying multiple false stories, choose the one that’s had the most impact on your life. Sharp says, “While I know there are many stories and many possible revisions for all of us, I truly believe that there’s one underlying story that you deserve to identify and rework first.”

2. Question your beliefs.

Let’s say your deep belief is no matter what you do, it’s not enough; perhaps your parents were rarely satisfied with your achievements, even when they were stellar, and fixated on your next report card, exam or accomplishment. So, ask yourself: While that might have been the case when you were younger, is it really true now that what you do is never enough?

“When you view it from an adult perspective, you can see that it’s not fair or just to ourselves,” says Sharp.

Your story doesn’t have to have been caused by your parents, but it’s typically the result of a relationship we had when we were young. Explains Sharp, “It happens at a time before we know the difference between a healthy and and unhealthy reaction to something that really scares us, so we hold on to the wrong conclusion.”

3. Don’t beat yourself up.

It’s normal to feel a bit discouraged when you realize how long you’ve been telling yourself a false narrative. But know you’re far from alone — many of us walk around with these stories, says Sharp. “We need to be compassionate with ourselves about how this came into being.” Most people come up with them for what he calls “understandable reasons” — the need to maintain a sense of control and the tendency for kids to take specific circumstances and generalize broadly.

4. Introduce positives into your narrative.

Think about all your strengths and talents, and appreciate them. While the situations that led to the false story have made you into who you are today, they’ve probably affected you in positive ways as well. Maybe they’ve made you more resourceful, more responsible, more empathic, or more ambitious. These positives, whether they’re big or small, deserve a place in your story, too.

5. Leave behind the old story.

“Cut away what no longer serves you,” says Sharp. “Identify and gather up all the many exceptions … and accept that it’s safe now to move on. You no longer have to hold on to that false security.”

One of Sharp’s patients was a woman who avoided all challenges and adversity. Upon reflecting about her past, she realized “she suffered from the false truth that when she fell, she couldn’t pick herself up,” says Sharp. “Now she knows she can, and her future looks entirely different and better.”

Sharp is a fervent believer in the power of editing one’s story. “If I hadn’t cut away from my ‘mean little myth,’ then I’m confident now that I wouldn’t be here with you today,” he says in his TEDx talk. “In my 20 years of clinical practice, I’ve seen this kind of transformation over and over again.”


Mary Halton is Assistant Ideas Editor at TED, and a science journalist based in the Pacific Northwest.

This post was originally published on TED Ideas. It’s part of the “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from someone in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.