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The Psychological Relevance of ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’

The motto of Holocaust literature, in its horrifying but electrifyingly necessary recount of the suffering of Jews particularly in concentration camps, is ‘never forget’. Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and psychotherapist, wrote his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ in the spirit of not only remembering the Holocaust but also in moving on, with his philosophical musing and discussion regarding his own form of existential analysis called logotherapy.

Essentially, the purpose of this book is describe and analyse the psychological reactions of the average concentration camp prisoner as well as to elucidate the development of logotherapy stemming from Frankl’s own experiences in such concentration camps where he was separated from and lost his father, mother, brother and wife, having been ‘stripped to naked existence’ (Frankl, 1984 pp.7). These experiences influenced Frankl’s philosophical thoughts which were the foundation upon which logotherapy was developed as a means of therapeutic intervention.

The book is divided into two parts i.e. ‘Experiences in a Concentration Camp’ and ‘Logotherapy in a Nutshell’. In the first part, Frankl narrates various experiences as he was transported from different concentration camps including the daunting Auschwitz to less perilous rest camps. One of Frankl’s major arguments in this part of the book is that the psychological reactions to life in a concentration camp are summarily divided into three distinct phases.

In the period following an inmate’s formal admission to the camp, the characteristic symptom is that of shock in this first phase and under certain circumstances it may even precede the formal admission. The second phase, when a prisoner is entrenched in camp life, is that of apathy or the blunting of one’s emotions which are primarily centred on preserving one’s life. Apathy, notes Frankl, acts as a protective shell for the inmate who was constantly surrounded by an environment characterised by perpetual illness, violence and maltreatment. Finally, the third phase is that of depersonalisation, upon liberation from the death camps, which is described as ‘unreal, unlikely, as in a dream’ (Frankl, 1984, p. 96).

The second part of the book focuses on the concepts and principles of logotherapy.  According to Alport (1984), Dr. Frankl asks patients who have suffered from torment why they do not commit suicide and based on their responses he identifies something worth tying their lives to. For a widow, her life could be tied to her children or for a struggling artist it could be his or her especial talent. Hence the object and challenge of logotherapy is ‘to weave these slender threads of a broken life into a pattern of meaning and responsibility’ (Frankl, 1984 pp.7).

While Man’s Search for Meaning was written in a different historical period with a climate quite different from that of the modern world today, it still remains relevant and can be connecting to various fields including health psychology, clinical psychology and social psychology.

The impact of hope for the future on one’s survival was described in the novel where it was described that a senior warden had a dream that the Second World War would end on March 30th, 1945 and this dream gave him hope that he would be free. Yet, when the date drew closer it became apparent that the war would not end and they would not be liberated. This was a devastating blow to the senior warden’s hope and belief, making him vulnerable to illness and unfortunately he succumbed and passed away on March 31st, 1945. The same ramifications of mental strength and hope can be seen in the fight against cancer. In health psychology studies, it has been found that chemotherapy is only effective in a certain portion of cancer patients since their psychological makeup such as depression and hopelessness affect their fight against the disease. This is how Frankl’s experience is reminiscent of the biopsychosocial model in health psychology where health is determined by not merely biological factors but also psychological factors of an individual.

Frankl also made keen observations regarding prisoner identity. He wrote, “The authorities were interested only in the captives’ numbers. These numbers were often tattooed on their skin, and also had to be sewn to a certain spot on the trousers, jacket, or coat. Any guard who wanted to make a charge against a prisoner just glanced at his number; he never asked for his name.” (Frankl, 1984, p. 19). This observation is relevant to the study of identity transformation among prisoners, applicable to the modern world. In fact, this has been a studied in the famous Stanford Prison Experiment by Philip Zimbardo wherein the jailers would command the prisoners to repeat their respective numbers, drilling it until the number was synonymous to their selves and some prisoners equated their numbers to their identity so quickly that they even began to sign their letters using their numbers as opposed to their names (Alvarez, 2015). This synonymy is not necessarily only in prison set ups but also in large educational institutions such as universities where students are assigned roll numbers for official purposes and on spending significant time identifying themselves through these roll numbers, there may be identity suspension.

Frankl maintains that one can remain true to his or herself and find meaning within their life. However, he contradicts this by writing, “…I saw the plain truth and did what marked the culminating point of the first phase of my psychological reaction: I struck out my whole former life.” (Frankl, 1984, p.27). Can it not be the case that there are dual lives and respective identities at play and that meaning in pre-prison life can be different to post prison meaning? Schmid and Jones (1991) studied prison identity and found that there indeed was a duality of selves i.e the coexistence and conflict between an individual’s ‘true identity’ prior to being admitted into a maximum security facility and the prisoner’s ‘false identity’ within the prison. Hence the stability of meaning is not guaranteed since even the concept of self is not a single stable entity.

Suffice to say, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ is an interesting read for psychology majors because of the plethora of connections that can be made to other theories and phenomena in the field and in understanding how  Viktor Frankl’s harrowing experiences have been transformed into a means of therapy, perhaps his own sublimation of personal trauma for the betterment of society through his existential philosophy.

Little Bookfessions

Source: Google Images

i. In my old house, I didn’t have room for a bookshelf because of all the built-in closet space. One time, a friend came over, saw it and said, “Wow, you must have a lot of clothes.” Another friend who knew me better corrected, “No, half of it’s purely for her books.” What’s in your closet speaks volumes; it’s like compartments of you in physical space. And books may as well be half of me.

ii. I love flipping pages of books. Admittedly, half the time I’m reading, I’ll stop, look at my progress and just flip to my hearts content. That feeling of paper brushing fingertips is incomparable. (And the habit is contagious, just ask some of my friends.)

iii. I’ll never succumb in the argument of paperbacks/hardcovers versus e-books. I know e-books are so much more portable and don’t take up any physical space but isn’t that the point? I want something to take up space in my life, whether it’s in a bookshelf or on a coffee table, I want it there. It’s better than being littered with charger wires.

iv. But in the battle of hardcover versus paperback, I always choose paperback.

v. This summer I’d gone back to my old house to find termites festering in my bookshelf, eating away at the pages and crumbling the spines of my books. My heart broke and I mean that. They weren’t just material possessions. Those books were pieces of me, memories, emotions and gifts from people in my life especially my dad and I felt shattered at the prospect that they could be taken away. Paper perishes. Just like people.

vi. My fondest memory of my dad was going to stores and getting so engrossed in the book sections. I’d show him which ones I liked and never even needed to ask for them. He’d buy it no matter what. He’d never say no to buying me a book. To me, that says everything about his character.

vii. In elementary school in Ottawa, I was that kid who’d get extremely excited about the Scholastic flyers and ordering books off it. I’d count down for the book fairs and don’t even get me started on how awesome the Bibliobus was.

viii. Libraries, to me, are more beautiful than monuments. They’re invaluable and that feeling of walking along the many, many aisles of bookshelves is almost like walking between worlds. They’re right there for you to discover. Plus, they’re so peaceful it’s like time has slowed down or even stopped, in the most wonderful way imaginable.

ix. I really liked the way my teacher in 3rd grade labelled all her books and did the same with mine. One nasty boy in my class ridiculed it.I was quite angry and went into Hermione Granger mode all over him. It’s funny to think about now. ( I was quite the Monica Gellar as a child…I still am now, actually.)

x. In my fourth semester of college I discovered that the most satisfying time to read a new book is during exams. I’d study faster (improperly sometimes) just to settle into bed and read. It really helped take my mind off the tedium of writing those ridiculously long papers.

xi. It doesn’t matter how long my TBR list is, I’ll keep adding to it. It doesn’t matter if I have a lot of unread books sitting at home. I’ll still buy a dozen more.

xii. I enjoy owning books more than borrowing them.

xiii. If my worst enemy gave me a book that I’d love, I’d melt like Olaf in Frozen. Because some books are worth melting for. And I’d have no room left for enmity.

xiv. In rough times, I turn to books. They’re a solace and oh so safe. It’s lovely to be wrapped up in between pages just as you would be in your bed sheets.

xv. The success of finding a new book that doesn’t disappoint is worth celebrating. Usually with another book.

xvi. Re-reading is re-living.

xvii. In the 5th grade, I was in a book club that would read newly published books in the library during recess. It was just as enjoyable as playing outside

xviii. My dad was the one who got me interested in reading and I’ll always have him to thank for the person I am today i.e a bibliophile.

xix. Since I was a child, I always read beyond my age. By the time I was ten, I’d begun reading adult novels. Now that I’m an adult, I so enjoy reading books aimed at younger readers. The grass is always greener on the other side, I suppose.

xx. I don’t mind dog-earing pages and I hate books that have been read and still look brand new. It’s eerie.

5 Tried and Tested Study Hacks

As a past science student and current arts student, I’ve found there are some study hacks that everyone ought to know. I know for a fact that these five work:

1. Take notes using different coloured pens and use different colour highlighters to highlight key terms so that when you’re skimming through the material you know the key terms and info. Why does this help? Color stimulates the brain. When retrieving a mental image of the page, the brain recalls highlighted terms and colored text in particular. You can even recall their position on the page which helps in constructing answers in an exam and stimulates flow of information. If you don’t write notes, then use post-its in your textbook with main points written on them.

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2. Write little outlines for each chapter containing topics, sub topics and key terms as a review for before the exam. If you have lots of formulae, write a master list of all of them on a sheet of paper to have them all in one place. (Also, before answering the questions on an exam, write down all the important formulae on the side so that you don’t forget later on. I recommend this for physics and math papers especially.)

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3. If you’re writing notes and/or studying an uninteresting subject for a long time, play instrumental music in the background to help you focus through it. Don’t listen to rap or pop or anything but instrumental as the voice of the singer can be a distraction.

4. Use food as positive reinforcement in the form of rewards for studying milestones like a chapter, section or entire unit.

5. Use more difficult to read fonts to study material instead of easy to read font because we tend to gloss over the fonts that are easy on the eyes. Difficult to read fonts ensure you concentrate when reading study material.

E.X.A.M.S

A week of exams had me left deflated through out, with a severe lack of motivation to study when all I really wanted to do was read A Clash of Kings and watch Game of Thrones. Yet I suppose Tyrion Lannister’s words never seemed better fit for life than now:

 “A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.”

By far one of my favourite quotes from a book, it has led me to think of exams in a different albeit greatly dramatized perspective, more or less to make it seem worthwhile as I question their necessity…


 

E.X.A.M.S

There are battles and wars fought with swords and gunfire, skilled in bodily strength but there are trials and tribulations to test the mind as well. They are now, in modern times, called examinations.

It is known how wars are not won in a single day but by fighting many battles and triumphing. Examinations, it can be said, are a war of their own in which our plethora of subjects ranging from arithmetic to psychology serves as battles.

Just as swords are sharpened on stone, so too is a mind with the aid of books. Knowledge is a powerful and complex weapon, you see. It can win wars just as well, perhaps better, than a spear through an enemy’s eye.

Armed to conquer mathematics we wield swords of logarithms and formulae of circumference and integration. Against, literary theory we load our crossbows and let it slip arrows showering terms of ‘binary opposition’, ‘polymorphously perverse children’ and ‘ostranenie’  like fire upon a battle field. Wearing armour doused and oiled in ‘electric potential’, ‘escape velocity’ and ‘restitution coefficient’, we shield ourselves against physics. With these abstract weapons and shields, we go off to defeat exam after exam, slaying biology, french and chemistry alike… or perhaps they slay us.

In the end, we come out as victors or the overthrown. I hope the victors do not aggrandize their conquests nor that the overthrown diminish their capabilities.

Why?

Because they are inevitably meant to fight more wars, years to comes, term after term with the coming and going of pleasant summers and foul winters.

It is my solemn hope that we do not lose track of what we are truly (or perhaps somewhat falsely) fighting for.

Our future. Our fate.

1313140

numbers

I am 3 visits to the emergency room

1 set of wisdom teeth grown

39 times painted nails and toes

And a single bump upon my nose

2 broken bones and 1 bee sting

3 cities, 2 countries and continents

3 shy of 60 poems written

And 4 years of feeling smitten

832 weeks/192 months of schooling

And nearly 7300 days of dreaming

652 books or so I’ve read

Fast asleep with 4 pillows on a double bed

3 first class semesters at college

5 shots of vodka overboard

With 43 paper cuts since 1995

All reminders of being alive

I’m so much more than skin and bone

There’s infinite numbers

Multiply, divide, subtract or borrow

I add  up to 1313140

What A Semester of Developmental Psychology Can Do For You

When I started my second year of college this year, I knew I’d be studying developmental psychology but what I didn’t know was how a whole semester with the subject would be like a lifetime. Just imagine…learning about an entire life span in four or so months!

Though it isn’t my favourite, developmental psychology was certainly interesting in the beginning. Learning about prenatal development was more biological than psychological but the most interesting part of the subject. It also lends to a a great appreciation and wonder about pregnancy and our mothers who spend nine months taking better care of themselves than they ever will in their entire lives.

Caring for a child certainly sounds like a task even if you are reading about it in a psychology textbook, especially when it comes to teaching language skills and reading. If you thought it was all about reading a book aloud, it’s not that simple. Children who develop better language skills, be it in reading, writing or conversation compared to other children has been attributed to how parents can meet the child’s level of understanding and present appropriate challenges to engage them with. Also, children who have developed pre-reading skills before entering kindergarten become better readers. So I really appreciate my mom and dad in this case for having taught me phonetics at an early age and thus encouraging me to read early as well. To this day, that passion for reading and anything linguistic has carried through. Just imagine how parental influences in these crucial years can mold you into the person you become ten or twenty years down the line. It’s fascinating.

The picture below shows twelve pictures of the same baby with his favourite stuffed animal, each one month apart. You can literally see the growth of a newborn across the span of a year. It’s remarkable just how quickly a child develops, the fastest growth in terms of physical and psycho-motor development throughout the life span, in fact.

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While the first half of the subject is extremely interesting, I find that it wanes in that aspect when it reaches middle to late adulthood, finally discussing death itself, coming full circle in a matter of 700 or so pages. A sort of dread for getting old mars the study of retirement, old age accommodations and concepts like empty nest and bereavement. So I would have to say it starts off with a bang but ultimately fizzles out towards the end, just as humans do in life.

Blink

In college we did a quick-write in class today, writing for several minutes based on a word prompt i.e the word blink.

So here’s the unpolished quick-write:

Blink. It takes a second to be elsewhere, anywhere and everywhere, all at once, yet nowhere soon enough. The mind works in ways we cannot fathom, though we certainly try to understand. I close my eyes and see galaxies I’ll never know, speckled with stars like a semi-chaotic  splatter of an almighty paintbrush. Then I blink and see another scene before my eyes, that of a living room in disarray beyond the island that is my couch with socks scattered on the floor and pencils skittered between them, perhaps my unconscious homage to those galaxies represented on my floor. Indeed, there lie connections between reality and imagination. Just blink and you shall see them.