Diverting negative energies into positive gains

You’ve heard of Twitter. You’ve heard of trolling. And if you haven’t heard of the latter, you must be of the social media landscape, which may be a good thing for you. Trolling is the process – some may call it art now, unfortunately – of sending someone offensive messages in a bid to get them to respond. Some might liken it to baiting. It was a way of provoking conversation by say something to unsettle someone. I personally call it needling. It is like one of the silly things children used to do, to poke each other with a finger until someone got fed up and reacted. Over the years it has evolved into and art form, of saying something objectionable until someone “flames”. Unfortunately the development of such social terms only conveys how acceptable a practice it has become.

Twitter was a good medium for trolling – some say it still is – because it offered anonymity. And it was instantly responsive to news. Back in the days of the Arab Spring, and the London riots, people were using Twitter to communicate instant messages alongside Blackberry IM. It was almost as if these events opened the eyes of the authorities to the power of social media and how they needed to police it. To this effect, many have social media accounts to “communicate” with the public. Twitter may have had its twitterstorm, and while Facebook and Cambridge Analytica are having their turn in the news, Twitter remains an important feature of the social landscape nonetheless.

The responsiveness of Twitter and its immediacy mean that people can send anonymous messages to others and watch the impact as it unfolds Imagine receiving a message from someone who purports to know you somewhat like “The guy at the next table is watching you”. Immediately you would react to the sense of danger, and then feel a sense of embarrassment if it turns out to be a hoax and that you have been pranked. That’s what one form of trolling is. A cheap, inconveniencing laugh at someone else. And when you’ve been hoaxed, there is the embarrassment too that your hoaxer is in the vinicity observing you. But sometimes others troll (trawl) the Twitter landscape just to be objectionable, to say things to others without being physically around to be accountable for their words.

It’s not nice being trolled. It is akin to be digital bullying. A BBC report investigated some teens who had been trolled. But when they dug deeper, they had a nasty surprise. The ones responsible for the trolling, the cyber-bullies were the teens themselves.

Welcome to digital self-harm.

Why do people leave nasty online messages for themselves. One of those teens said that it was a way of getting attention and sympathy. When we are bullied online, we get some words of sympathy from others and a bit of their time and attention. Julian – not his real name – received the message “Nobody cares what you think. Just deactivate your account. No one likes your posts, and you’re a waste of everyone’s time.” Later it was discovered the digital hate mail originated from himself.

As he says of those who have been trolled, “they were quite popular so their followers would really support them through it and send them nice messages. I didn’t have many followers at the time so I thought sending myself a hate message might be a good way to get attention.”

Another girl, Sophie, sent herself hurtful comments in order to open up a discussion with herself, she said. She said she suffered from anxiety and to bring it out to the open, she penned a 1000-word response to her online hater – herself.

It may be useful, especially if you were concerned about an issue such as, say, one’s sexuality and needed to bring it out to the open. And one can perhaps understand that. But when a trolling comment is used only for the sake of generating attention, it really calls to mind the state of one’s mental health.

What kind of state is the mental health of someone who abuses themselves online to draw attention? Most would say “not good”. To that effect there are attempts to track those who do so. One of these methods involves checking the IP addresses of user accounts, to see if two have the same address – meaning they were sent from the same computer and individual.

What can you do if you are feeling down and need an outlet for your mental frustration? Sometimes it is useful to learn a new skill or do something to deflect your mental situation away briefly. You may find it useful to learn a new skill like learning the piano. And try to channel your frustration into a creative activity, because it will keep you from dwelling on your circumstances and the drive, directed correctly, will propel you to greater heights. The composer Ludwig van Beethoven, by all accounts, had a difficult childhood, but as a Piano Teacher in Crouch End expounds, Beethoven managed to transcend the difficulties faced to become a skilled musician and composer.

Certainly it is better to do something self-fulfilling, rather than self-harming!

The social signal of music

If you look around you, on your daily travel to work, or perhaps just as you are moving through society, you will notice that many people are plugged in to their headphones, listening to music, trying to pass the time. And how headphones have evolved. They used to be merely a tiny pair of plugs to stuff into your ears, now they have become large ear mufflers that purport to cancel out exterior noise, and many of them are bluetooth enabled, meaning you are no longer limited by the length of a wire and can be unencumbered by its messiness.

Of course, this has meant that the music industry has taken advantage of it. Now that many people are listening to music, thousands and thousands of hours are devoted each week to producing music for listeners to devour. This has of course given rise to the number of people producing and recording their own music, and the number of apps and other music technology software for that kind of purpose. But what does the increasing popularity of music really tell us?

It doesn’t really tell us that music is increasingly popular on its own merit. That is to say, that the music nowadays is of good quality. What it does tell us, unfortunately, is that society is fragmenting socially.

You might be thinking that is a crazy thing to say, but if you examine what situations you see the use of headphones in use, it may shed some light on this viewpoint.

People use headphones to shut off one of their senses to the world. This means that on public transport for example, if they are hogging a seat that has been prioritised for a person that needs it more, for example, an elderly person or a pregnant lady, they may avert their gaze and pretend they have been so immersed in their music that they did not notice the need. One of the unwritten social contracts is to give up your seat for someone – a young child, a pregnant mother or an elderly person – who may need it, but using headphones means that one can break out and default on this without hearing the reprimand of the others.

The above is only an example. But what it highlights is that we use headphones not so much to enjoy music, but as a barrier to the social world around us. If you travel on a bus, and a group of youths are making a ruckus, no one dares to even utter a word for fear of retribution, being involved in a discussion with those out to get attention via argument, or lack of bother. The solution? Headphones. Pretend you never heard. Shut out one of your senses to the world.

It is a shame really because music was meant to be enjoyed, but now it is a shield to the world. Actually, not a shield, but a lance to say keep away. As a Crouch End piano teacher tells us, it could offer us such positive experiences. But it is somewhat disheartening that we use music to divide rather than to bind us. And it is not just merely the use of headphones. A noisy car blaring out noisy music, or a person playing loud music on public transport, is equally guilty of trying to impose some sort of social control on the people around that they do not like or want. We should try to use music more positively instead of as a divisive tool.

Disconnect for a better quality of life

We live in a world that is more technologically advanced than our grandparents’ generation. For some, the gulf between generations is even closer. Those of us who have parents in their late forties and fifties will almost certainly find that their version of the twenties is much more different than ours. The difference can almost solely be put down to the impact that technology has had on our world.

When computers were rolled out en masse, and the influence of technology was making its way into daily life, we were told that they would simplify life. Computers would do the drudge work that humans used to do, giving us more free time to explore leisure pursuits. At least, that was how it was sold to us.

 

Has that happened? Not really. The average citizen found himself needing to be more computer literate. As the society became more dependent on things like emails, mobile phones, and computers, human beings found themselves needing to know how to work such devices and all their functions. Remember the days when all you had was a simple choice of a digital or traditional film camera? Nowadays the choices have exploded exponentially. Of course, unless you are a purist, you would say having digiital cameras isn’t a bad thing. It isn’t. But making the transition to using them as part of daily life has only increased the mental burden of information we hold in our heads, and that is making us actually less productive. And that arguably is one of the problems with technology. It has resulted in an explosion of information – the information overload that overtaxes our mental processes and leaves us mentally fatigued and less able to focus on important issues.

Social media is another area – touted to enhance links between people from your past, now the need to catch up with the latest social gossip, to promote yourself, to be on track with it all, to be in … all that has a bearing on one’s mind and mental health. It is no wonder that some people report being depressed after scrolling through social media sites like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Has technology enhanced our lives? It has made it easier for companies to push work that used to be done by employees onto users. For example, if Wikipedia existed in the 1980s, it would have had big offices and employees to research and type out the information on its databases. Now it encourages collaborative work – in short, it makes uses do it for them.

The problem is that information is endless and cannot be fully captured, and runs perpendicularly to our innate need to grasp everything. We want to box it all, yet it cannot be boxed. The human civilization generates terrabytes of data every year, and trying to keep on top of it all will leave us tired and fatigued and restless and depressed, an ever-insatiable need.

The solution? Disconnect. It would do you a (real) world of good. And if that is too drastic, trying limiting the amount of screen time you have.

Where dementia treatment meets your NEETS

A recent study has suggested that just ten minutes of social interaction is enough to mitigate the loss of quality of life in dementia sufferers.

A survey among care homes in south London, north London and Buckinghamshire found that dementia sufferers who had chats with care workers for a prolonged period of time – the average amount of interaction is estimated to be as little as two minutes a day in comparison – faired better when it came to measuring reduction in neuropsychotic symptoms and agitation. The chats were about areas of interest such as family, or the social interaction was extended to activity like sport.

Dementia sufferers in care home were divided into two groups – the first received conventional treatment while the second group received an hour of personal interaction over the week. Those in the second group demonstrated the benefits more prominently.

The difficulty with social interaction in many care homes is that the activities are limited to ones such as bingo, where people are together, but not really interacting, or that the interaction is on a one-to-many level, leaving many sufferers actually disengaged or bored, and more withdrawn in many respects. Interaction – if it can be called that – is very passive, and measured more by presence rather than participation. For example. sitting together in a bingo hall and doing “mental” activities such as bingo, or sitting with others to watch the soaps, occasionally piping up to say “What’s gawin on?” is unlikely to do much for one’s mental faculties.

Dr Doug Brown, director of research at the Alzheimer’s Society, said: “This study shows that training to provide this type of individualised care, activities and social interactions can have a significant impact on the wellbeing of people living with dementia in care homes.

“It also shows that this kind of effective care can reduce costs, which the stretched social care system desperately needs.”

The problem is that while this interaction may be perceived as cost-saving, because it relies less on medication, having paid carers on minimum wage, paid “conversers” is actually more expensive. But it is a method that seems to work.

The unfortunate state of the healthcare is not that it is based on what works, but what is the cheapest. The base line is not the quality of care, but because it would exceed a threshold that the NHS cannot afford, the cost takes priority.

Perhaps what would be an effective method would be for NEETS – young persons not in education, employment or training to do such work. It would give dementia sufferers someone to talk to, and the NEETS could actually learn something from observing life experience, and it would keep government happy because their unemployment figures would go down. And with recent mental health studies suggesting that only 1 in 5 young people have someone to talk to when they are down, would it not be conceivable that at least getting young people who may be on the verge of being depressed due to lack of employment to talk with someone else, for a bit of wage, might actually be an intangible way of reducing their likelihood of depression?

Getting the young unemployed to be befrienders in care homes – is that worth a thought?

Is there any truth about the benefits of Classical music?

Is there any truth to the commonly accepted notion that listening to classical music improves mental capacity? Somehow it has been accepted in modern society that classical musicians have larger frontal cortices, better mental reasoning powers and perhaps intelligence quotients. Over the last two decades or so this idea has fuelled a rise in the number of pregnant mothers listening to classical music – whether or not they like it – and parents enrolling their children into music classes. The music of Mozart, in particular, has enjoyed a resurgence as its classical form is deemed to be more logical and organised, compared to music of other periods, assisting in triggering patterns of organisation in the brain amongst its listeners.

How did this idea about Classical music come about? In the 1990s scientists conducted a series of experiments where one group of students were played one of Mozart’s piano sonatas before a spatial reasoning test, while another group sat in silence. The group that was played the music beforehand performed better on that task than the control group. The effect on the control group was temporary and only lasted fifteen minutes, meaning that after the fifteen minute mark the disparities between the results were minimal and statistically the same. The results of the group found also that while music primed the individual particularly for mathematical tasks, after an hour of listening to Classical music, the effect on the brain was lost.

That piece of research was pounced on by the media and other individuals and seemingly perpetuated to promote the listening of Classical music. One governor of the state of Georgia even decreed that newborn babies be given a copy of a CD of Mozart’s works upon leaving the hospital. The Mozart Effect, to give it its common name, was written about in newspapers and magazines, and this began the spur of Mozart-related sales of music as well as the trend of mothers playing such music to their children in and out of the womb.

The most important question we need to ask is whether there is any truth in such research, and whether it can be corroborated.

We know that some forms of music has a soothing, calming effect on individuals. Playing the music to the students may have calmed that so they were not nervous, allowing them to perform better on the task. However, relaxation need not take them the form of Classical music. Any activity that promotes calm before a task – reading a light magazine, playing computer games, talking with a friend – can also hence be said to have the same effect as the classical music that was played.

What if the students in the group had read a joke book or comic beforehand, been less worried about the test and scored better? It might have prompted a deluge of articles claiming “Reading Archie (or The Beano – insert your own title here) improves your IQ”.

Or if the students had been offered a protein drink beforehand, it would not be inconceivable that someone would latch to that piece of research and declare that “Protein Drinks not just good for your body, but for your brain too”.

Mozart’s music has been said to embody the elements of classical music as we know it. Organised formal structures, chords and harmonies through related keys, use of contrasting tunes, contrasts in volume all feature in his music. But the music of other composers have such features too. Imagine if the composer Josef Haydn had been the lucky beneficiary of the experiment and his music had been played instead. The sales of his music catalogue would have hit the roof!

Subsequent scientists all found that listening to music of any form caused improvements, and the genre of music – whether rock or Classical – was irrelevant. But studies today still quote Mozart.

Is it ethical that the media promotes unsubstantiated research by reporting without closer scrutiny? As we have seen in previous blogs posts, the media reports on things without necessarily scrutinising the evidence, and entrusts so-called experts to corroborate the evidence, while it fills column inches and air time with modal auxiliary verbs? Huh? In simple terms, it means that if there is a sniff of a link between A and B, the media reports that “A could cause B”. Never mind whether it does or not, there is always the disclaimer of the word “could”.

In this instance, students performed better on a spatial reasoning task after listening to Mozart; hence the headline “Mozart could improve mental powers”. Diluted over several recounts, you could get “According to XXX newspaper, Mozart improves brain power” before arriving at “Mozart improves brain power”. Unfortunately, this is when the headline is then pounced on by anyone who would stand to profit from espousing this theme.

Who would profit from this? The Classical music world – performers, writers, musicians – can use this “research” to entice people into taking up lessons and buying CDs and magazines. If you read any music teacher’s website you may find them espousing the benefits of learning music; it is rare if you find one that advises it is a lot of effort.

The media will profit from such “research” because it means there is an untapped well of news to report and bleed dry in the quest for filling column inches and air time. News exclusives will be brought out, and so-called experts will also profit for appearing on the news and programmes, either monetarily or in the form of public exposure.

One must question the ethics of incorrect reporting. Unfortunately unsubstantiated research leads to more diluted misreporting, which can then form the basis of new research – research that uses these claims as the groundwork for investigation.

It is scary to think that all the medical research that has been done into effect of music and health could be biased because of the so-called effect of classical music. Could musical activities such as learning the piano help reduce Parkinson’s disease? Could listening to the music of Beethoven reduce the incidence of higher cases of Alzheimer’s disease? Could it all be wrong – have we all been sent down the wrong tunnel by an avalance of hype reporting?

It may be fair to say the human impulse is to buy first and consider later, because we are prone to regret. If we have missed an opportunity to improve the lives and abilities of our children, then we will be kicking ourselves silly forever with guilt.

So if you are still not convinced either way about whether classical music – either in the listening or the practice – really does have any effect, you could at least mitigate your guilt by exposing your child to piano music, for example that has predictable patterns in the left hand. Sometimes, listening to structurally-organised music such as from the Baroque may be useful, but it is also good to listen to Romantic music because the greater range of expression arguably develops a child that has more emotionally subtlety and intelligence.

You may find that ultimately, any truth in the research about Classical music and its mental benefits is not due to the blind passive listening, sitting there while the music goes on around your children. It is in the child’s inner drive to mentally organise the sounds that are heard, the trying and attempts to organise background sounds that really triggers the mental activity in the brain. It is more the practised ability in the inner mind to organise musical sounds that causes better performance in related mental tasks.

A smart person thought up the mental improvement products

The trail of human evolution is littered with gadgetry that have outlived their usefulness. We can add devices such as the fax machine, walkman, mini-disc and tape recorder to the list of machines which seemed clever at the time but have now before obsolete. Those of us of a certain age will remember newer additions such as the PocketPC, a palm sized screen which was used with a stylus that tapped out letters on screen, and the HP Jornada, a slightly bigger tablet sized keyboard and phone. And who could forget the Nintendo Brain Training programmes for the DS and Fitness Programmes for the Wii?

Launched in 2005, Nintendo’s Brain Training programmes claimed to increase mental functioning. Nintendo’s premise was that the concentration required in solving a variety of puzzles, involving language, mathematical and reasoning, increased blood flow to the frontal cortex of the brain, which at least maintained brain functioning or helped improve it. After all, since the brain is a muscle, exercising it by bombarding it with mental exercises would keep it active and healthy, right?

It is the idea of keeping the brain active that leads many to attempt their daily crossword or Sudoku. The latter in particular has seen an surge in interest over the past decade and is now a feature in newspaper back pages and magazines. There are even publications exclusively filled with Sudoku puzzles, and even more complex versions where each traditional puzzle forms a square in a bigger and complex three by three grid. If you thought doing a Sudoku puzzle was hard, imagine having to work on it in relation to eight others. It would be absolutely mind-boggling!

Is there any truth about the positive enhancements to the human life that these objects or activities bring? Nintendo’s claims about the Brain Training programmes were doubted by leading neuroscientists, who doubted the tenuous links between the increased blood flow to the brain and the vaguely described positive effects to life. It is akin to making a blanket statement saying chess grand masters or academics are the happiest people around. Unfortunately it is yet another case of a company creating a product and then engineering the science around it.

Manufacturers of beauty products do it all the time. Whether it is skin care or facial products being flogged, you will find an aspirational theme within the first five seconds of the advertisement (“Look beautiful! Stay young!”) which is then followed by a pseudo-scientific claim, preferably involving percentages (sounds more authoritative) and a small sample size (easier to corroborate, or disclaim, depending on the need).

“Live young forever. XX skin lotion is carefully formulated to retain your natural moisture, so you look and feel twenty years younger. 86% of 173 women noticed a change in skin density after using it for three months.”

There you have it. The secret of beauty product advertising.

Unfortunately, if there was any display of mental acuity, it was by the marketing team of Nintendo. In pitching a product to adults, using the retention and improvement of mental agility as a plus point, they not only convinced adults to buy what was essentially a toy, but to buy one for their children as well. The DS alone has since sold over 90 million units worldwide, and when you take into account the cost of games and all that, you will have to concede that someone at Nintendo had the smarts to produce a tidy little earner.

(For those who were more concerned with retaining their physical functioning, the Nintendo Wii Fit programmes performed that function and filled in the gap in that market.)

The improvement of mental functioning is always a good basis for marketing any product. You can find a whole plethora of products huddling behind it. Multi vitamins, activity puzzles, recreational activities involving multi-tasking – all supposedly give the brain a workout, but more importantly, tap into the fears of missing out or the loss of mental function in the human psyche, that makes people buy not out of potential gain, but fear of lost opportunity and potential regret.

The loss of mental function can lead to Alzheimer’s disease, for which there is currently no cure. With 30 million people worldwide suffering from it, this presents an endless river of opportunity for people researching the disease, as well as people developing products to improve mental function in the hope that it can stave off the disease. Like the Nintendo Brain Training developers realised, it is not so much about whether these scientific products work that makes people buy them – the evidence that is produced is biased and not independent – but it is the fear of missing out and retrospective guilt that compels people to make the purchase. Buy first, examine the evidence later, is the apparent dogma.

Unfortunately we are at the stage of modern society where it is not just the product that needs scrutiny, but whether the scrutiny itself needs scrutiny for evidence of bias, either in the form of financial ties or expected research outcomes.

Mental improvement is an area that product developers – whether the products be vitamins, books or applications – will continually target because human beings will always seek to improve mental prowess, both in themselves and their children, in the hope that somewhere down the line it offers an advantage, or prevents the mental degeneration associated with the aging process. And the compelling reason to buy lies somewhere in the meeting points of being seduced by the aspirational ideals the product offers, the fear of missing out, and the assumption that the underlying evidence is empirical. The greatest mental sharpness has been displayed by the one who has understood the sales psychology of mental health improvement products and used it to his or her advantage.

Set aside time and space for your own mental health

Work places huge demands on modern living. It goes without saying that over generations work demands have increased. For example, generations ago the concept of a traditional job for most people was a five-day working working week. The song “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton more or less captured the essence of work at the time. (Unfortunately, it is still fairly often played, to the point that people in non-Western societies assume we still only work eight hour days, five times a week, and spend our free time sunning ourselves on the beach.) Nowadays people have to work longer hours, and travel further for work. The total time spent each day traveling and working each day could easily amount to twelve hours, and it is not like the commute is down time – we still have to catch up on emails, admin, and type away busily on the laptop. We could easily spend sixty hours doing work-related things.

And the weekends? Forget the weekends. These days there is no distinction between a weekday and a weekend. Work has steadily grown its talons and where an hourly-rated individual used to get 1.5 or two times the normal rate for working on a weekend, these days it is the same. Employers realise that in an economy with job shortages, they can get away with offering less rates but will not be short of takers.

The problem with all this is that we don’t really have much of a choice when it comes to establishing our work boundaries or exercise or rights when we realise we are being pushed beyond our work boundaries. We’re made to feel that in these times, we are lucky to hold down a job, and if we complain about the increasing demands of it, and how higher managers try to force more work on us without increasing our pay, we might get told to take a hike and end up in a more difficult situation of having no job, commitments to uphold and having to start out again. There are lots of people trapped in jobs where they have to take on more and more as the years go by, and have every ounce of work and free hour extracted from them for little pay. This places increasing mental demands on the individual not just in having to cope with work demands, but the possibility of being made redundant if he or she shows weakness by having to admit an inability to cope any more. It is a no win situation.

Is it a surprising statistic that mental health illness is on the rise? Hardly.

Nowadays people are working more to live and living to work more.

What can you do to preserve some semblance of mental health?

The first thing you can do for yourself is to establish boundaries within the home. Establish a space where work does not intrude. A good idea is often the bedroom, or even have a rule that you will not work on the bed. If you end up working on your laptop in the bed, it will not do you any good – keep at least a certain physical space for yourself.

Also try to set aside a time each day for yourself if possible. It is possibly unrealistic to say an hour each day in the modern life climate, but something like twenty minutes to half an hour would be a good idea. Use this time to wind down in your personal space doing something you enjoy, that is different from work. You may think you cannot really afford that time, but it is important to disassociate yourself from work for the sake of your long-term longevity. Think of it as enforced rest. If it works better for you, take your enforced in the middle part of the working day. You don’t necessarily have to be doing something, use it to rest or catch a power nap.

Every now again, such as on a weekend, do something different from work. Do a yoga class, learn an instrument like the piano, or play a game of tennis. The possibilities for leisure are endless. But don’t bring your work approach to your leisure. Don’t start charting your tennis serve percentage, or do anything that makes your leisure activity appear like work in a different form. The only thing you must do with a businesslike approach is to meet this leisure appointment so that your life does not revolve around a continuous stretch of work.

We can moan about it but the nature of work will never revert back to how it was in the past. Those of us who long for the good old days will only make our own lives miserable with wishful thinking. Those of us who insist on working five-day weeks will find it is insufficient to maintain modern living in the twenty-first century. We will all end up working longer and harder in the current economic climate, and even if times improve, employers will be unlikely to go back to pre-existing forms of remuneration if workers have already been accustomed and conditioned to work at a certain level, because it is more cost effective to hire fewer employees who do more work than have the same work done by more employees. Employees have to recognise that adapting to increasing work loads are a working life skill, and that taking steps to negate increasing pressures will also be an essential part to maintaining our own mental health and well-being.