Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

2018 Home Office Challenge

My goal with Five on Friday is to raise awareness about mental health by opening conversations that link mental health topics to our everyday lives. Thus was born the 2017 Headlines Challenge. For fun, my friend, Tracy, picked five front page articles from around the world that did not appear to be about mental health and challenged me to make them all about mental health.

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This year she has upped the ante with the 2018 Home Office Challenge. Sitting at her desk, Tracy did a 360 degree spin in her chair, and identified five objects that do not have any immediate or obvious connection to mental health. But wait…!

1. Windows. Contemporary American artist, Spencer Finch, has a body of works intimately linked to the poetry of Emily Dickinson. One piece is a series of seven inkjet photographs at dusk of the view from the desk where Dickinson put pen to paper. The first photo features the bucolic greenery of her New England backyard. As the sunlight fades, the glass increasingly becomes a mirror, with each subsequent image reflecting more fully the interior of Dickinson’s bedroom until the view out the window gives way to the interior. The window is a common metaphor in psychology and mental health. We seek “windows” that will give us a glimpse of worlds that are otherwise not in sight. Finch’s work reminds us that depending on where we shine the light, sometimes the same window will provide access to understanding the world around us and sometimes it will actually help us turn our focus inward and help us gain greater understanding of our most privates selves.

2. Printer. With all our digital access and screen reading, we might wonder if the home printer is going the way of the dinosaur. That would be a mistake if we consider that reading on paper still boasts unique advantages. More than 100 studies have compared screen to print reading, with those from the early 1980s overwhelmingly favoring print. And even with high quality screens and e-readers today, the data continue to indicate certain advantages for print. E-books are convenient, but college students read printed academic material faster, remember more, and when time is limited, comprehension is also better. What may be at play is the role of spatial information in comprehension and memory. When we read printed material, we tend to remember its location in the book (e.g., start of the chapter, upper right-hand corner of the page). We don’t have conscious awareness of this spatial information when we read, but it is stored in our brains and may account for the particular advantages of print. These advantages hold for fiction and pleasure reading as well – suggesting that print reading may be better for the way our brains are wired – at least for now. Studies of our brain also suggest that the technology is actually influencing how our brains work and different parts of our brains are engaged when we read on paper vs. on the screen so this is sure to be an evolving story.

3. Couch. Aah, Herr Dokter Sigmund Freud is happy Tracy picked this office object for today’s Five on Friday. The couch is the ultimate symbol of psychoanalysis, the talk therapy founded by Dr. Freud in early twentieth century Vienna. Why the couch? To promote free association and allow individuals suffering from what he considered “neurotic” conditions, including anxiety and depression, to explore their thoughts without the distraction or interference of sitting face to face with a therapist. Lying on the couch day after day was thought to break through resistance and open that window unto the unconscious. Freud’s pioneering understanding of the brain revolutionized a multitude of ideas about mental health and illness that we take for granted today. He championed the then novel idea that childhood events shape our personalities and influence our adult lives. And we can thank Dr. Freud for constructs – like libido, denial, repression, cathartic, Freudian slip, and neurotic – that have worked their way into our everyday lexicon.

4. Photographs. What’s a home office without some family photos? But why? We know what our family and friends and even ourselves look like, so what do we need photos for? It’s pretty simple. We select photos of times that made us happy and of people we care about. Family photos connect us to our heritage, remind us of our values, and link us emotionally to people who are not with us. For children especially, photos serve to bond them to previous generations and help them understand where they fit in the family tree. For all of us, photos reactivate the feelings we had at a particular moment and give our brains a boost. In fact, when we look at photos of people we love, our brains become active in regions rich with dopamine, the so-called feel-good neurotransmitter.

5. Wrapping paper. The quintessential representation of gift giving, a custom that goes as far back in human history as we have records. Psychologists and cultural anthropologists find that gift giving is a surprisingly complex and important part of human interaction. Societies have many different and unwritten rules about gift giving, but the act of gift giving is used universally to help define relationships and strengthen bonds with family, friends and acquaintances. In addition to cultural differences, we commonly see gender differences whereby men tend to be more price-conscious and practical for gifts they give and receive, while women tend to be more concerned about the emotional significance of gifts. The gender differences start early. By the age of 4 years old, girls will typically be part of the gift selection and wrapping whereas the boys will be more likely to be unaware of the presents they are giving to friends.

Thanks for the challenge, Tracy. Can’t wait to see what you come up with for 2019! 

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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