Homesickness

Travellers rarely talk about homesickness. You can scroll through thousands of travel blogs featuring beautiful pictures of blue skies, white sands and tropical breakfasts and I doubt there will be any mention of them missing grey rainy days at home. Maybe they don’t? Or maybe it would make their jet-setting lifestyle slightly less desirable? It’s probably difficult to find a company that wants to sponsor a post on homesickness. This isn’t a travel blog so I can openly say that I’ve experienced homesickness throughout my trip.

Risk factors for homesickness

I’ve been travelling with a group of 8 others and it’s interesting to me that, despite all of us having travelled a long distance to be in Asia, either from the US, Canada or the UK, the amount of homesickness each individual has experienced has varied considerably. This is something I’ve noticed in other people that I’ve met travelling too, some have been away from home for years and have no desire to return – it seems the world is divided between those who can’t keep still and those of us who want nothing more than to be in our own beds.

As a DIY psychologist I have my own theories to explain these individual differences but I was keen to find out what the scientific literature had to say about homesickness.

Below is a list of some of the risk factors for homesickness identified in research papers; I’ve added a sub-note on my experience based on my small sample of test subjects a.k.a my travelling companions:

  • Introversion and neuroticism (with extraversion and emotional stability being protective against homesickness)

Us introverts seem to always get a rough time of it in psychological research but I think there is something in this one. I would describe most of the group I’m with as extroverts – a trip that involves travelling with strangers for 3 months is more likely to appeal to extraverts and so this explains the low level of homesickness that most of the group have experienced

  • Low levels of self-directedness

Self-directedness is our ability to adapt to the demands of a situation in order to achieve our personal goals. Obviously I’m incredibly biased here, but I think I have high levels of self-directedness yet still suffered from homesickness so n=1 doesn’t support this research finding.

  • Previous separation experience and little separation experience

A wonderfully contradictory finding – however it tends to be the case that homesickness is highest if the previous separation experience has been traumatic such as foster care. I can certainly see how little experience of separation may increase homesickness as you need to learn coping mechanisms, some of the group’s more seasoned travellers have honed this skill set very well.

  • Strong family cohesion

This is one of the theories I strongly believe in. Those of us who miss home the most complain of missing our families, we get on well with our siblings and our parents. If home isn’t where the heart is, then there’s not as much to miss.

  • Students with authoritative or permissive parents

Parenting can be categorised into 4 types (I’ve put a diagram below describing these). Studies of students leaving home for university or college have found that those with authoritative or permissive parents are more likely to suffer homesickness, whereas children of authoritarian or uninvolved parents were less likely to experience homesickness. I’d probably describe my parents as authoritative.

Parenting-styles-600x430
The 4 categories of parenting style

 

  • High self-disclosers are less likely to suffer homesickness than low disclosers

Again something I’ve really noticed in my small ‘research group’, those who want to share everything about themselves at feeling-circle time have suffered less homesickness. I wouldn’t describe myself as a big sharer, especially around strangers.

Mobile phones

Technology is often praised for connecting people in far-flung places; you can now live in Sydney and celebrate your birthday with your grandma in Ireland via video call. However a study that looked at international students adjusting to study abroad in Thailand, found that mobile phone usage increased feelings of homesickness.

The reason for this finding is that the students were likely to be using their phones to connect with family and friends back home and whilst this can act as a temporary comfort, it tends to increase feelings of homesickness. Also the time invested in maintaining these relationships back home may mean they were less able to establish new relationships in their new location.

I identify with this strongly. It’s part of the deal for my travel program that I always have access to Internet which means I can always be connected to home. Thanks to Apple’s new weekly screen time summary, I am well aware of how much time I spend on my phone and a huge percentage of this is spent on social media speaking to people from home. Reading the study detailed above, showed me that I experience some of the key features of a phone addiction whilst I’ve been out here – my phone is rarely not by my side, I even drunkenly ‘lost’ my phone on a night out and after raising alarm amongst the group, I found it in my pocket!

Cures for homesickness

If we are away from home and struggling with homesickness, what can we do to make ourselves feel better? The general piece of advice seems to be distraction and not contact.

When we’re feeling low and missing home its advised to think about the positives of our new environment such as ‘what’s fun here?’ And to think practically about how we can beat loneliness and boredom. One of the best ways to distract from homesickness is said to be physical exercise – when you’re as lazy as me its frustrating to find that exercise is a bit of a cure-all but I can vouch for this being effective in reducing homesickness.

Seeking social support from people in your new location seems like an obvious cure to homesickness but the effect is surprisingly weak. It appears to be that seeking social support works by acting as a distraction rather than compensating for those left behind.

Finally, resilience, the ability to get on with things when times get tough has some influence on reducing homesickness. Resilience is a bit of a buzzword in psychology at the moment and there’s a lot of interest in finding ways to increase children’s resilience as it has so many protective factors for mental health in later life.

How do you feel about leaving home? Are you an explorer or are you happiest at home?

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Elephants & Evolution

I’ve been spending far more time with elephants this month than I ever have done before and I’ve very much enjoyed their company.  The elephants I’ve been visiting are rescued from the logging industry,  the circus or from working as riding elephants. As these elephants have spent most of their lives around humans, they are fairly comfortable around them and have a similar temperament to that of a hungry Labrador or a clumsy two year old.

Elephants are interesting creatures from an evolutionary perspective, they are the largest land animals on earth, they are intelligent and they have trunks –  a trait almost unique to elephants (tapir’s have trunks too but they lack the ability to carry out the small movements that elephants can).

An interesting idea raised by Steven Pinker (a cognitive psychologist) was to think about evolution from an elephant’s viewpoint. If an elephant were to carry out research into evolution they would probably put the trunk as the pinnacle of evolution, in the same way humans tend to do with the intelligent brain. If elephants were working for NASA, then SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) would probably be called SETT – (Search for Extra Terrestrial Trunks).

The point that Pinker is making is that there isn’t really a top of the evolutionary tree. Even though the human mind is a unique and very interesting evolutionary adaptation, it is just that, an adaptation and therefore it is a product of the environment our ancestors lived in. This means a lot of the behaviours our brains control can be traced back to something in our ancestors environment, such as the feeling of fear being an adaptation to protect us from predators.

Evolution is a process, it doesn’t have a plan for a species or a master piece in mind, it just constantly adapts to changes in a species’ environment, selecting for traits that support survival – like ducking and diving in a game of dodge ball, where the player represents the entire species and the ball is extinction . Evolution’s work will never be done, which means humans are just another branch on a tree.

Reference

Steven Pinker (2003). How the mind works. Penguin; New Ed edition

 

 

Love

For most of my 23 years I haven’t really done romantic love. For a while I thought that finding a fascination with evolutionary psychology in my teens, rather than with teenage boys, had protected me. Evolutionary psychology takes most of the romance out of relationships and strips it down to a eggs and sperm, which makes the males of the human species seem rather unappealing at times.

Recently, I accidentally found myself a boyfriend (does anyone not find one of those accidentally?) so clearly my hormones and neurotransmitters have out won logic this time round.

Whilst I’ve been on my travels my boyfriend and I have been experiencing the trials of a long distance relationship, such as awkward time differences that result in me drunk texting him during in his lunch break! On one of these drunken ‘lunchtimes’ I suggested he came out to Thailand, much to my surprise he didn’t think that was a terrible idea and last week he flew for 12 hours to spend the week with me. A lot has been said about why love makes us do crazy things, I found Curious Cortex’s explanation of the ‘love drug’ to be very insightful – here it is for you to read:

Drug of Choice: Amour

Looking Good

I’m typing today’s post with new shiny nails. I love looking down and seeing my nails looking pretty as I type it cheers me up and makes me feel like I’ve got my life together.

For those of you who haven’t experienced getting your nail colour changed on all 20 nails (yes toes are included because I’m permanently in flip flops whilst travelling) it can be a very long process. As I’m far too fearful to look at my phone, in case I make a mess and wind-up the lady who is painstakingly painting each nail, I’m left with a lot of thinking time.

A thought that crossed my mind was today was: why do we invest so much time and money in our appearance? And why does looking good make us feel good?

There are some obvious answers to these questions that don’t require a deep dive into Google such as looking good boosts our self-esteem and we’re willing to sacrifice time and money for this feeling. But why or how does looking good increase self-esteem?

The crucial point here is ‘feeling myself’, being seen as attractive by others doesn’t necessarily increase self-esteem, especially if you’re male. But thinking you look good is linked with higher self-esteem – at the end of the day beauty is highly subjective, you might think my nails make me like look a trash-Barbie!

The crucial point here is ‘feeling myself’, being seen as attractive by others doesn’t necessarily increase self-esteem

Evolutionary psychologists have suggested that the link between thinking you look good and self-esteem can be explained by the fact that we think we’re more ‘fanciable’, which I think should be the accepted scientific term for ‘more attractive to the opposite sex’. This theory is called sociometer theory and is based on the idea that self-esteem is an internal meter of how much we are/aren’t valued as a potential partner.

In evolutionary terms, being more attractive goes hand in hand with our value as a partner. This is because attractive traits such as height in men and curvy figures in women, signal our ability to produce healthy offspring and protect them once they are born.

In evolutionary terms, being more attractive goes hand in hand with our value as a partner.

However this certainly isn’t the full story as in one study people’s ratings of their romantic desirability couldn’t fully explain their self-esteem scores. This means the numbers didn’t add up, people’s scores for their attractiveness and their self-esteem were higher than their romantic desirability scores so something else must be involved. Suggestions for this ‘something else’ include non-romantic relationships such as those with friends and colleagues as these are positively influenced by attractiveness.

Interestingly the process of taking care of ourselves also has benefits. Grooming releases oxytocin, a hormone that has a calming effect. We’re not the only members of the animal kingdom to use grooming as a way of making ourselves fell better, repeated grooming has been seen in monkeys and stressed-out rats too. So treat yourself to a pamper sesh, even if you don’t like what you see in the mirror after, you may still feel a benefit.

References

Christopher Bale & John Archer (2013) Self-Perceived Attractiveness, Romantic Desirability and Self-Esteem: A Mating Sociometer Perspective. Evolutionary Psychology, 11:1. DOI:10.1177/147470491301100107

 

 

 

 

 

Motivation

Whilst I’m away travelling, I’m studying courses online as an insight into working as a digital nomad (working online from anywhere around the world) so far it has been a pleasant experience of exploring cities via coffee shops. However, staying motivated to complete voluntary courses isn’t an easy ask when it’s sunny outside and the beach is calling. In fact I started writing this post and then shut my laptop half way through because I didn’t have the motivation to finish it – oh the irony.

Staying motivated to complete voluntary courses isn’t an easy ask when it’s sunny outside and the beach is calling

Obviously I’m not going to let myself get away with this slacking so I started looking for some solutions. Research is now starting to show that dopamine, a neurotransmitter in our brains, is involved in motivation. Various studies have shown this via activation spikes in dopamine neurons (usually in a monkey or rat) which occur before they receive something they know is good, such as juice or a brand of Italian crisps called Fonzies that rats can’t get enough of! This shows that dopamine may be involved in predicting or anticipating events rather than reward – which was previously thought of as the role of dopamine.

One of the most convincing experiments for dopamine in motivation is based on a group of very miserable and unmotivated rats. These rats underwent brain legions that reduced dopamine in their brains by over 99%. These dopamine reduced rats sat in the corner of their cages with no desire to go and seek out the food or water. However when the researchers fed the rats they still showed a hedonic response i.e. a  sort of rat smile, suggesting that although they weren’t motivated to seek food, they still found it rewarding once they received it. It is now thought that another system, the endocannabinoids (named after cannabis as this is where the drug acts) modulates reward and the hedonic response.

I don’t think I’m lacking dopamine as I’m still motivated to go and seek out the good stuff like sunshine and something yummy. I also think a dopamine supplement (if there was a good one available) wouldn’t be particularly helpful here. Fortunately there is a crafty way of hijacking this neural system to your advantage – rewards.

Fortunately there is a crafty way of hijacking this neural system to your advantage – rewards.

There have been a number of studies to show that reward enhances learning, meaning that study first and then sunshine or sweet treat later could be an effective way of motivating myself. Reward has been shown to be particularly effective when the task is dull, in my case that will be studying my statistics module as no matter which way I spin it, statistics isn’t a fun.

So there you have it, my new moto ‘motivate by carrot cake’.

Jet lag

I’m away on my travels for the next 3 months so I‘ve decided to resuscitate my blog from its 2 year slumber. I’ve chosen to resume blogging with the topic of jet lag as this was the first thing I experienced once arriving here in Bali.

Jet lag is a problem caused by having an old brain in a modern world – until recently our brains didn’t need to cope with rapid changes in time zone as in evolutionary terms aeroplanes are a fairly recent invention. What happens when we experience jet lag is that our stubborn circadian rhythm (our daily rhythm of sleep and wake signals) doesn’t update to the time of our new location as quickly as our phone does.

If you travel east your brain will be surprised by your new early sleep time and even though its dark outside, it won’t be kicking off the signals that help you to sleep until much later.

If you travel west you’ll be sleepy much earlier than everyone else in your new location, as your circadian rhythm will be signalling bedtime whilst outside it’s still daylight. However your daytime signals will ping into action much earlier, inadvertently turning you into a morning lark.

How does your circadian rhythm signal sleep?

The key change is a rise in melatonin; this hormone doesn’t directly induce sleep but triggers sleep generation through the body by signalling darkness.

To arrive in Bali, I travelled east. Generally travelling east is more difficult because you have to force yourself to sleep rather than keep yourself awake. Most of us have a few tricks for staying up late but few are armed with tactics to induce sleep early. Closing your eyes extra tight won’t help your brain fall asleep, no matter how much you want it too. This meant my first few nights were a little teary eyed as nothing induces homesickness like being awake in a strange place whilst everyone else is sleeping soundly.

Fortunately after a few days in your new time zone, your suprachiasmatic nucleus (the brain region that controls the circadian rhythm) will catch up with the new time zone. It takes about 1 day to adjust to 1 hour time difference, hardly a rapid process!

Here are the tips I picked up for coping with jet lag:

  • Listening to an audiobook (I am currently listening to Why We Sleep by Mathew Walker as this felt appropriate)
  • An eye mask to catch up on lost sleep in the mornings
  • Getting out and about in daylight as much as possible
  • Avoiding caffeine
  • Exercise in the mornings – yoga has been my workout of choice as it is far too hot in Bali to consider anything else

Of course you have to go back through the adjustment in the opposite direction when you return home, lets just say I’m grateful I don’t have to face that for another 3 months – short holidays to far away places certainly aren’t popular with our old brains.

Thanks for reading, I hope you learnt something or the post induced some shut eye! Sleep well.

 

Off by heart

Ever thought about where the phrase off by heart as in ‘I learnt my notes off by heart’, came from?

No neither had I. 

I was told where it came from in a lecture and I realised it’s actually quite a silly expression so I thought I’d share it with you…

It comes from back in the days of Aristotle when the over-riding theory was that the brain was a fairly dull organ and the heart was the centre of all thought. Therefore people believed your memories were stored in your heart and so if you learnt something well you’d learnt it ‘off by heart’.

Nudge

I’ve been trying to finish this book for a long time, I started reading it a couple of years ago but left it on a plane half-read. I was left wondering what other fantastic plans Thaler and Sunstein had come up with for the economy, healthcare system and environment until I got a second copy.

The book is based on libertarian paternalism a combination of libertarianism (the idea that people should be free to do what they like) and paternalism (the idea that ‘choice architects’ should try to influence behaviour in order to make people’s lives healthier, wealthier and happier). Choice architects are those in a position to influence others’ decisions. The example given in the book is of a person who decides the menus for school cafeterias and so can decide which order the food is presented in, this person could give a helpful nudge to students to make healthier choices by putting healthy foods at eye level.

The other principle discussed at length in the book is the idea of humans as econs – this is the view that humans are like economists and make all decisions rationally. The authors argue that this isn’t the case at all, especially when we have little experience at making a decision e.g. picking a mortgage isn’t something most of us will do many times in our life. The other occasion when humans make bad decisions is when our automatic system which the authors describe as our “Homer Simpson-like system” is in control. This system makes decisions quickly and doesn’t think of the long-term consequences of an action, this system is the one responsible for breaking diets and falling to save enough money.

Thaler and Sunstein look to apply a range of choice architecture methods and psychological theories to a range of the problems that plague us silly humans such as saving enough for retirement, increasing the amount we donate to charity, reducing our carbon foot print and increasing organ donation. I really like the ideas they come up with as they are often very simple, cheap to implement and reveal a lot about the way the human mind works. One of my favourite solutions is the “Save More Tomorrow” scheme. This idea is based on the human tendency to leave things we don’t want to do until another day – I do this constantly with uni work I am forever screwing over “future Kate” who will have to deal with a mountain of work, while “present Kate” gets the afternoon off! On the save more tomorrow scheme employees sign up to a pension scheme at a certain saving rate but opt to have the amount of money they save increase at a later date, usually coinciding with a promotion.

If you are a human who’d like some smart tricks to help deal with your human-ness, I’d thoroughly recommend reading.
 

Work Experience

Over my Christmas holiday I did some work experience at a mental health clinic. If you’ve ever done any work experience you’ll know the days can be quite slow – no one really wants to make you do anything probably because they aren’t paying you or they don’t want you to mess with their filing system so if nobody wants a cup of tea you’re in for a quiet day. So in order to pass the time I started to carry out a little thought experiment – what if we treated physical health the same as mental health? Here’s what I came up with:

  • If physical health was treated the same as mental health you would go into hospital with pain in your arm and no one would x-ray it, take a tissue sample or put you in an MRI scanner. There are still no reliable biological markers for mental illnesses, there are some potentials such as low serotonin for depression but even if this turns out to be a bio-marker there is no way of x-raying for low serotonin yet
  • If physical health was treated the same as mental health then the pain in your arm may be diagnosed as a brake but the pain is actually being caused by a rash. The diagnostic categories for a lot of mental illnesses are a minefield you need to have had certain symptoms for a set amount of time and you need the right number of symptoms to get the diagnosis. Secondly what we now label as ‘depression’ may not even be a real thing but actual a combination of sub-types
  • If physical health was treated the same as mental health then no one would know what the cause of your arm pain was -is mental health caused by our biology, stress, family, poor living conditions, the season your born in? Or a combination of it all?
  • If physical health was treated the same as mental health then your painful arm would be put in a cast, you’d be given drugs to take and a cream and scheduled for physiotherapy. When people are diagnosed with a mental illness there isn’t really a game plan for treatment so all sorts of methods are tried until hopefully something works. Drugs are often the first option and this is combined with some sort of therapy be it CBT, talking therapy or psychotherapy. Some people are encouraged to start exercising more or take up yoga. While I was on work experience I heard one psychiatrist suggest his patient got a dog (he wanted to prescribe the dog over lithium). This isn’t to say a multi-pronged approach is a bad thing, people tend to do much better when they have therapy as well as drugs rather than separately and there’s now a demand for a more holistic approach to be applied to physical health
  • If physical health was treated the same as mental health then said arm would be taken out of its cast way before it was healed. If a person struggles with their mental health it’s often a problem they will have to learn to deal with throughout their lifetime and may reoccur during difficult times if they don’t have the right help. This means vulnerable people need support with their mental health for long periods and a 12 session CBT course is unlikely to fix it. The duration of treatment was a particular problem at the clinic I was doing work experience at as it was a private clinic so patients had to self-fund or use their insurance. This meant that once the money ran out, the treatment stopped,regardless of the patient’s health
  • If physical health was treated the same as mental health then people around you may be telling you to try harder to heal your own arm or to think more positively about their arm in order to fix it – but of course we know this doesn’t have to be the case

Please comment with anymore thoughts you have for the experiment..

Being Mortal

As a society we now believe so strongly in the power of medicine that we continue to select medical care even  when this ‘care’ starts to do more harm than good. Atul Gawande talks about how we’ve medicalised end of life and how this affects patients and their families’ last days together. Rather than having difficult conversations about final wishes, hospice care and what people want out of life – families, doctors and patients themselves opt for more futile painful medical care.

Gawande is very honest about his own experiences of  offering surgery to terminally ill  patients; he tells stories of seeing patients he knows are terminally ill but feeling  unable to tell them that they’ve only got months to live. He also discusses how he’s trying to change the way he advises patients who he knows won’t be around for much longer.- instead of offering these pateints all the available surgeries, he works with the patient to find out what they want out of life, how much disability they feel they can cope with and together find a way for them to get the most out of what time they have left.

The whole book alongside his story of his father’s diagnosis with a spine tumour and how Atul copes with this. He talks about visiting multiple surgeons and the confusion he experiences when being told about all the available cancer treatments (despite him and both his parents having medical backgrounds), his fathers’ decision to post-pone treatment and his fathers’ experience of hospice care.

Atul also discusses old people’s homes and some of the changes that are occurring in the sector to try and make them more suited to the people living in them and not just a place to put the elderly so they don’t fill up hospital beds. One of my favourites stories is the introduction of several animals into an old people’s home (cats, dogs, farm animals and a bird in each residents room!), a completely chaotic and disorganised study, it turned out to be highly effective and massively improved the mental wellbeing of the residents.

Atul’s book is revealing, educational and thought provoking if you know anyone elderly or ever intend on being elderly yourself I suggest you read it!