Tag: psychology

As the new semester begins, The Lion will be spending some time in Uniquely Human on other people — how we interact with them, how they interact with us, and how those interactions shape our personality. This is the first column in our new series.

Columbia students spend a lot of time in elevators. Imagine – you step into an empty elevator on the top floor of a building. As you descend, one, two, even three people walk into the elevator, an experience so typical you hardly notice. But this time as they enter, something curious happens.

After walking in the elevator, each person faces the back instead of turning around to face the front doors. While one person doing this may go unnoticed, after two or three people perform this strange action you too turn around to face the back.

Although your instinct may be to resist that ending to the story, from its origin on Candid Camera in the 1950s, through multiple scientific studies the result is always the same — the majority of people will adopt the new social norm.

This action of changing your behavior to adapt to those around you is called social referencing, and for decades, its powerful sway over social activities has been confirmed in sociological and psychological studies. That people would adapt their behavior to their social situations is not itself revolutionary, although the extent to which people adopt ‘non-logical’ behaviors to fit in a new social norm can often be humorous.

The truly controversial idea is a much newer one, and comes out of modern neuroscience: not only do you change your external behaviors to adjust to a new social environment, your core personality adjusts to fit with a new social reality.

This brain re-wiring can perhaps paradoxically be best illustrated by when the system goes wrong. Have you ever flinched when you have seen someone get hit in a particularly painful location, or felt warm when you have seen two people hug? Now imagine if instead of experiencing a vague sense of those feelings, you physically felt every sensation you saw in someone else. Every touch is replicated on your arm, with every swallow you see you feel the food slither down your throat, and the pain of another sharply becomes your own.

This condition is called mirror-touch synesthesia, and it is one of the most common synesthesias –  an estimated 1.5% of the population experiences the world this way. While the physical aspects of this disorder are fascinating and deserve their own column, where it really gets interesting is in how synesthetes experience emotional reactions.

In a number of mirror-touch synesthetes, the act of seeing someone respond emotionally causes a mirrored emotional response. Because they can acutely feel the happiness, sadness, anguish of the people around them, it can become incredibly difficult for mirror-touch synesthetes to distinguish their own emotions from the emotions of those around them. They find themselves disappearing into others.

As is common in neuroscience, observing such an extreme example of a system going wrong teaches us about how the system should work under normal circumstances. One possible explanation comes from mirror neurons. Discovered a little over a decade ago in monkeys and recently in humans, mirror neurons are cells located in parts of the brain corresponding to sensation and motor activity.

Unlike other cells nearby, these special mirror neurons fire identically both when they are performing an activity, like processing touch or moving your arm, and when observing someone else do the same task. While the purpose of these neurons is still speculative, there is evidence of their role in subconscious mimicry, empathy, self-awareness, and even theory of mind.

Of course, when a typical human observes other people, they don’t acutely feel those external sensations in the same way. That is because there are other inhibitory neurons ‘downstream’ of the mirror neurons, which stop you from acting on their firing. It’s likely that in mirror-touch synesthetes, that ‘turn off’ signal does not get sent, or the original signal from mirror neurons is so strong that it cannot be turned off.

So while mirror neurons might allow us all to understand each other at low levels of activity, cranking their response up causes people to in some ways become other people. Mirror touch synesthetes brings a normally subconscious process to the surface, and they raise some interesting questions in the process.

If we’re somehow experiencing the actions and emotions of other people within our own minds on a subconscious level, do these ‘outside’ factors become a part of us? Do we correspondingly change parts of our core personalities in response? We will seek to explore these very questions in the next column.

Meet Dr. Shirley Matthews. Dr. Matthews, originally from Westchester County, NY and now a New Jersey resident, is one of the psychologists on Columbia Health’s Counseling and Psychological Services team. She has been with CPS since 2009. Dr. Matthews works as a counseling psychologist with special interest in group therapy, trauma, and self-regulation concerns such as procrastination, exercise, and how and what we eat. She is currently working on developing an intervention to address student issues with sleep.

In my time with Dr. Matthews, I learned about her path to becoming a psychologist and some important life tips that everyone should hear.

What did you major in as an undergraduate?

I double majored in Philosophy and Psychology. I did my thesis on the nuclear family and whether it was a sustainable entity.

What led you to become a psychologist?

I wanted to be a psychologist since I was young. I had never seen a Black psychologist or even heard of one before, but I liked the idea of working with people experiencing difficulties and helping them learn to cope more effectively. My route to becoming a psychologist was certainly circuitous. Let me explain.

My family and other important community members had other plans for me. Since I had won a few science awards, almost everyone, even my family doctor, believed I should become a medical doctor. I seemed to stand out as a smart Black kid and as far as most people seemed to be concerned, what better way to serve the community than to become a medical doctor? Yet I knew it wasn’t something I wanted to do. I really had to fight for my own identity. To be fair, I don’t think they understood what a psychologist did and I don’t think I knew enough to help them understand.

I majored in psychology and philosophy with the intention of following my childhood dream of becoming a psychologist.  But then I got scared; I didn’t even try to apply to graduate school. What I decided to do was make money. I started by working in Banking and Financial Services and then made my way from the financial side to Human Resources in financial institutions.

My employer paid for me to get my Masters in Organizational Psychology here at Teachers College, Columbia.  I realized that I was most happy when I was working with individuals and groups helping folks address problems in living. My corporate experiences led me to pursue my doctorate in counseling psychology, which at the time you could do part time. I held on to my corporate job for most of my doctoral training, but eventually I moved on to pursue my full time clinical internships at Gouverneur and Bellevue hospitals in lower Manhattan. The complexity and diversity of the people and the work there provided me with a new perspective and the tools necessary to help people the way I had always hoped.

What brought you to Columbia Counseling and Psychological Services?

Columbia is a very unique place, in part because of its location in Harlem, at the top of Manhattan. I was once told that we are the most diverse of the Ivy League. And I love the fact that I have the opportunity to work with smart students from all walks of life and from nations and places I will likely never have the opportunity to visit except through their eyes. Meeting a student where they are and helping them figure out how to be their best selves and to achieve their goals is pretty exciting. It can be difficult at times though.

Like the students I support, I am not immune to the suffering around me caused by racism, sexism, oppression, and the like. But with age can come experience and faith. I believe every day provides me an opportunity to know more and do more good. Sometimes I am strong and steadfast, and other days less so, but I believe we can make a difference. The people who know me well know how hard I try. It is an ongoing challenge. I hold on to my faith in our ability to create a better future through compassion and community building.

That brings me to another reason I like working at Columbia. I have found that when given the opportunity, and a little encouragement, students are very supportive of one another. I am no longer surprised when someone in group (one of the CPS therapy groups) is finally willing to say, “I need help,” and how other students are quick to support them. Often students are reluctant to ask for help, but they should know that help is available in a myriad of forms.

What do you focus on within Counseling and Psychological Services?

I am the CPS Groups Coordinator. I help by being an anchor and cheerleader of sorts. I wholeheartedly believe that group therapy is a powerful, so I work to encourage my colleagues to run groups and to encourage students to participate in groups. I also act as a liaison and consultant to the Advising Deans at CC/SEAS and Athletics.

What advice would you give to current students uncertain about what they want to do after college?

Approach yourself with a sense of radical self-acceptance and compassion. If you are feeling pushed in a certain direction by your family or community, first try to understand why. Don’t just disregard them; try and step back and think about it. Before you say no, recognize why you’re saying no. Remember life takes courage, always has always will. Ask a lot of questions about yourself. Make sure your goals are based on your own true values. Most importantly, develop a community of support. Seek people who see you and are willing to believe in you. And come to CPS — because we want to help.

Know a student, staff, or faculty member that we should interview next? Let us know by sending a note to submissions@columbialion.com

To help clarify some of the rumors around Columbia’s Counseling and Psychological Services, The Lion sat down with Dr. Richard Eichler, the office’s Executive Director to settle some of these myths once and for all.

Is there a question that you think we missed? Let us know in the comments below or by emailing team@columbialion.com

Fact or Myth: There is a 6 or 10 session maximum for students seeking CPS appointments.

Myth. There is no limit on sessions at CPS.

 The academic year goes by relatively fast. To that end, our approach is short-term oriented; we want to help students identify solutions as quickly as possible so they can make the most of the academic and social opportunities on campus. There are some students who require specialized services of one kind or another or need a longer or more intensive approach. In some of those cases, students are referred to an off-campus resource. Most students, however, do get all their counseling right here at CPS; students are also welcome to return to the service later in the course of their time at Columbia if they encounter a new issue they would like to talk over.

Fact or Myth: Students are required to have a phone call with a CPS clinician before an appointment.

Fact. This is a process we developed in conjunction with student feedback several years ago and is a practice consistently used at peer institutions.

 We want to connect students to a clinician as soon as possible. In order to do that, we need to understand where a student is struggling and how we can help. Part of this initial call is also to identify who on the CPS team might be the most appropriate match. Sometimes the call helps us provide immediate suggestions for care or helps to connect a student with other useful campus resources. And of course, when students are in significant distress, we make arrangements to have them seen right away.

Fact or Myth: Students can visit a CPS drop-in location without making the compulsory first call and talk to a counselor right away?

Fact. You do not need to make an appointment for a drop-in consultation. There are 5 locations in the residence halls, and an office at the Intercultural Resource Center (IRC). Just go; it’s as simple as that.

 Fact or Myth: There are no resources offered to students during the summer months.

Myth. CPS is open 12 months a year. There are abbreviated summer hours (9 a.m. – 5 p.m.—we stay open until 7 p.m the rest of the year) and drop-in locations close when the residence halls are not in use, but the main office offers the same services year-round.

Fact or Myth: Students should not get involved if they feel concerned about the well-being of one of their peers.

Myth. Columbia is a community and one whose members care deeply for each other. If a student is concerned for a friend, talk to us. Call, email, come to the office. How we will help may vary depending on the situation, but the first step is to ask for support.

Fact of Myth: CPS does not have enough staff and it can be hard to set up appointments with a preferred counselor.

Myth. For the last couple of years, there was some truth to this statement. This year, CPS is adding 5 psychologists and 1 psychiatrist to our staff. I believe this will help alleviate the wait time, add to our offering of groups and workshops, and further contribute to the breadth of our already diverse team of counselors.

Fact of Myth: All CPS are licensed and receive continuous training.

Fact—with one exception. All permanent staff are licensed. New staff take part in an intensive orientation and have one-to-one supervision for a period of time. There is always a need to learn, so we also provide ongoing training for the entire CPS staff, no matter how experienced, including new developments in the field, trends and research, and topics of special relevance to college campuses and the student experience.

 Each year we also accept five postdoctoral fellows from a competitive pool of applicants. Our fellows have completed all the requirements for a doctorate in psychology, including intensive clinical internships and other practicum experiences. In New York State, before being granted licensure, psychologists need to work under supervision for one more year in a setting such as ours; our fellows spend a year with us fulfilling this requirement. In return, we are able to bring on board a talented and diverse group of clinicians, many of whom ultimately join our permanent staff or become important referral resources for our students.

 Fact or Myth. Students can submit questions, comments, and concerns about CPS and its services.

Fact. We take every student comment to heart. We work closely with individual students and groups to assess our services and identify areas to focus or improve.

 Contact me with any questions, concerns, or ideas. You can also use the non-confidential feedback form on the Columbia Health website.