42. Staying hermetically sealed outside Primark.

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Recently a golf pro asked me whether I did any sports psychology. The only advice I could think of was the idea of treating every shot as a ‘hermetically sealed unit’.

‘Oh, you mean, the bubble’, came the reply. I nodded. Someone had obviously thought of my idea first –  Professor Woods, I expect.

On reflection though, I like the phrase ‘hermetically sealed’ better. Imagine being able to extract a single item of behaviour from its context. Imagine taking the item into the lab for a while, looking at it carefully, brainstorming the possibilities. And finally taking the shot, just exactly as you have practiced a thousand times.

Breaking down analogue behaviours into single digits is an attractive way of avoiding the effects of anxiety, or other emotions – like sadness and humiliation – found so frequently on golf courses.

The idea of living in the moment is not new, even though the mindfulness brigade have latched on to it. Sure enough, a brief excursion into google reveals a huge literature on ‘The Power of Now’. Forget about the past, forget about the future.

It’s a 6 foot putt breaking left to right on a downhill slope. Take that putt like Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa’s eyes. Give it everything. Make it perfect.

Golf is of course a flawed analogy for life in general, although for some people, golf is life in general. Golf lends itself to a model where a sequence of discrete events, strokes, make up a sum total. The scoring system is numerical and precise. Even better, there is a handicapping system to compensate the less fortunate. It’s the only game with its own system of social security. It’s like getting a GCSE upgrade on the strength of a Doncaster Postcode.

The same system cannot be applied to more complex behaviours where the scoring system is fuzzy and subjective, for instance, telling a joke, or interacting with someone selling the Big Issue outside Primark. Do we make eye contact? Do we say anything? Do we stop? Do we even buy the paper? What do the NICE guidelines say?

Luckily there is a simple tool to help us live in the moment, one that we have all used. I am referring to the Multiple Choice Questionnaire, or MCQ. If we could think of our day as a series of MCQs, then we could really start to focus on the Now.

MCQs have become the stalwart system for exams. They have several advantages, such as subjecting themselves easily to statistical analysis, but the main advantage is that they can be marked by a machine rather than a teacher after pub closing time.

MCQs are best at testing factual knowledge, but they have been developed to test logical reasoning and other skills. Like crosswords, MCQs have their little quirks and habits that students get to know. For instance if it says ‘Never’ or ‘Always’ then the answer is False. Though some events do occur 100% of the time, such as the sun rising in the East, or England losing penalty shootouts, such events do not trouble the world of exams.

There are other quirks. Some questions have one option that is plainly silly. It’s unclear whether these are designed to reveal a stratum of candidates who are also plainly silly, or because the examiners have been a bit lazy creating proper options:

Q) A 20 yr old female is nervous of being focus of attention in public, so she avoids parties & canteens. Develops palpitations, anxiety, tremors during social engagements. Diagnosis is

One answer only.

    a) Panic disorder

    b) Social Phobia

    c)Anxiety disorder with Panic attacks

    d) Measles

The silly option is usually the last one, supporting the lazy examiner hypothesis.

Instead of the silly option, some examiners prefer a twist of surrealism:

Q)  A 22 yr old male is arrested for sexual harassment of a girl & is found to have tachycardia, dilated pupils, hypertension, sweating, increased psychomotor activity, elated mood , pressure of speech & inflamed nasal mucosa. Diagnosis is

One answer only.

    a) Bipolar disorder type II

    b) Manic phase

    c) Cocaine intoxication

    d) Rock ‘n’ Roll

 

The art of turning our day into an MCQ test, may reveal, sadly, that there are surprisingly few choices we get to make. The biggest one is probably between Macchiato and Flat White. In daily life, the silly and surreal options – trying a fish foot spa or keeping a pet iguana – outnumber the sensible decisions. Such is the ‘choice architecture’ in the modern world. The main trick, like thought – catching in CBT, is to identify a decision point when one occurs. Realise there’s a choice to be made and hit it with an MCQ.

But what about the Big Issue itself? How are people behaving outside Primark? Here are some specimen answers I got from the web:

  • The woman who sells it in our village is a thief. She has been in court more  times than i have had hot dinners. The last time she took her child /  buggy into Peacocks and stole tonnes of clothes, using the buggy

 

  • I give them some money, but I don’t take the magazine. I used to give money to one seller quite regularly, and he was a nice guy but he was really  troubled. I haven’t seen him for a few months so I think his situation  finally got the better of him

 

  • So      what makes you think he’s not genuine? Because he’s a tw*t? tw*ts are  homeless too. In fact, IME, the proportion of tw*ts amongst the homeless is far higher than the general population

 

  • I buy the magazine. It sometimes has some interesting articles and interviews, but that’s not what I buy it for.

 

  • ‘To avoid buying it, i once told a ‘Big Issue’ seller that i got it delivered. The next time i passed him, he punched me’

 

It looks as though the silly and surreal options are both included, but which one is which? Try and stay hermetically sealed while you decide.

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