17. Giving feedback without using the hairdryer.

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The characters seemed a little two dimensional and transparent in places.

For a long while, every time I filled the kettle with cold water first thing in the morning I thought I heard someone upstairs scream. I wondered at the time whether this might be an interesting kind of hallucination.

A ‘functional hallucination’ is a false perception that occurs at exactly the same time as a real perception, such as the sound of running water. I had assumed till then it only occurred in old German text books and multiple choice exam questions.

It turned out there was a more mundane explanation. The reduction in water pressure caused by turning on the kitchen tap caused the person having a shower elsewhere in the house to experience a sudden water temperature change, first quickly upwards followed by quickly down. The culprit was and still is a poorly operating thermostatic mechanism in the shower unit.

Although the shower over-reacted in terms of temperature control, I am careful to state that the showering person reacted completely appropriately.

The thermostat is our basic model of a feedback system. It senses the temperature of the water. If the temperature goes too hot or too cold, it responds by cutting or increasing the power to the heating element.

The same sort of negative feedback system occurs in most devices, throughout our bodies, and more generally through social systems.

It requires two prongs – a sensing device, and a device that effects a change.

When we come to try and understand the word ‘dysfunctional,’ that seems to describe certain behaviours or relationships – sometimes even applied to an individual – most often we are looking at a faulty feedback mechanism.

In British culture we have a great deal of trouble knowing how to react to things. For instance, it seems the height of bad manners to criticise someone directly. That would be like sounding a car horn. Instead, we tend to use a low key grumbling approach via third parties – like trip advisor, or writing a rude letter and not sending it.

There are a few exceptions, such as talent shows, and the army. If you want a more challenging annual appraisal, perhaps Alex Ferguson would oblige, using his famous ‘hairdryer method’.

But in general it is very difficult to get honest feedback.

If you write a reference for someone who is absolutely terrible at their job, the custom is to write a glowing reference with the tiniest hint of faint praise, e.g. ‘may lack ultimate commitment’.

One guide to how to behave in a crisis is watching drama. Millions watch soaps like Eastenders on a regular basis. How far do people model their social behaviour on such programs?

Whereas stage actors tend to exaggerate voice and gesture, movie actors have to play it deadpan. TV is somewhere in between, perhaps to do with the size of the actors face relative to real life. If shows get made specially to be viewed on a smartphone, they will probably star Brian Blessed.

Like actors in Greek tragedy, people with Depression tend to ‘catastrophise’ in reaction to events. Odysseus’s mother apparently committed suicide after hearing flimsy evidence that he had died.

In drama, Greek or Soap, no-one ever responds to a crisis by calling a helpline.

British people are more likely to under-react to a crisis. David Beckham found out one of his tattoos had misspelt the word Victoria, written in Sandskrit, as Vichtoria. History records that he was not unduly concerned, merely resolving to stick to Latin for further etchings.

A gentleman with OCD I used to know told me this story. One day he had taken his long suffering ‘good lady’ to the seaside, leaving early to avoid the traffic. Having driven 120 miles to the coast, he was confronted by a completely empty car park with hundreds of spaces. He drove around several times, unable to choose a space and eventually had a panic attack. After recovering, and still not in a parking space, he drove home again.

‘I’ve been a bit silly again’, he finally told me.

I should perhaps have anticipated this kind of eventuality and suggested a simple algorithm for parking. Recently I discovered that elevator systems in large buildings have just such a system for deciding which lifts should go to each floor.

Apparently, according to Mitsubishi Electric, a person becomes irritated immediately he presses the lift button and nothing happens. However, the level of irritation is proportional to the square of the waiting time. From this we can begin to understand how people can develop rage attacks surprisingly quickly.

Remember Christian Bale’s outburst on the set of Terminator? Apparently a technician walked across his sightline during a scene.

I know the feeling, from trying to talk to acutely psychotic patients in the same hospital room where builders are operating pneumatic drills and ripping up the lino with Stanley knives.

There are a number of ways to explain why certain people seem to ‘lose it’, experiencing an acute change in mood and behaviour.

Steve Peters would call it ‘letting the chimp out’, meaning a switch in mind-set, allowing a different set of brain pathways to take over control. Thankfully, Mitsubishi have not included a Chimp Mode in their elevator systems. Though Beko appear to have included a ‘Surrealist Mode’ in their washing machines.

A more neuroscience-based model still, is the possibility of positive feedback, or kindling, where the response actually goes the opposite way from restoring the norm. This is often called a vicious circle.

One theory of panic attacks uses a vicious circle model, where mild signals of distress from around the body are over-read, cause anxiety and thus further physical distress signalling, such as breathlessness, palpitations or chest pain. Finishing with a slightly embarrassing visit to the coronary care unit.

A behaviourist could explain ‘losing it’ in terms of social learning. Previous tantrums or losses of control have been rewarded by parents or others, either in terms of letting the upset person have his way, or by way of reducing ‘messing’ with that person. Having a ‘short fuse’ can be quite useful in certain situations. I once worked for a consultant who was completely benign 99% of the time, but the word about him was, ‘watch out, he goes berserk every now and again’.

One of the triggers seemed to be handing him a post it note with a poorly worded or scribbled message and a phone number. It was not that he had been hypnotised previously and made to react this way, although this is possible, knowing the hospital involved.

It was just that being handed a post it note is a metaphor for being handed a problem, but without the information needed to act on it properly.

I’d like to think that his reputation would have worked to reduce the number of post it notes he got handed, but I never saw any sign of this. Post it notes continued to flow like confetti. Perhaps he should have set fire to them immediately or eaten them.

In the NHS, feedback loops operate comparatively slowly, so it would have taken about 20 years to see the post it notes’ eventual downturn.

Remember the film, ‘Falling Down’? Here, the character, D Fens, is played by Michael Douglas, who is a screen actor and therefore tends to play deadpan. D Fens progressively loses it after a ‘rare morning’, ending up in a spree of violence across LA. The trigger event appears to be a shopkeeper refusing to give change.

An older theory of ‘losing it’ relied on the notion of a repressed or over-controlled person, which I think is what the director had in mind. D Fens had seemingly suppressed his anger by being extremely tidy and organised, never allowing himself to become emotional, and therefore never setting appropriate limits on people.

Here I suppose the systems analogy is the pressure cooker. This has a very primitive feedback loop, so that a massive degree of change from steady state is needed before the feedback occurs, in the form of opening a safety valve.

Here the feedback loop is too coarse to make rapid enough corrections, necessitating an external over-correction, such as being gunned down, albeit reluctantly, by Robert Duvall.

CBT is designed to improve a person’s feedback system: on the cognitive side to make sure the right information is collected; and on the behavioural side to make the appropriate responses.

Luckily the government has given us a new way to make sure we react appropriately.

We’ve been used to making a 999 call, for moments where we identified a very serious crisis. However, the 999 system is abused on a daily basis. One of the problems is that TV never shows anyone calling a helpline appropriately, so we don’t know what constitutes a 999 level emergency.

People have rung 999, for instance, to ask ‘how to dial 111’; because they were not being served in Macdonald’s; to try and obtain a laptop password, and to report the theft of parts of a snowman.

Now, to create a kind of crisis scale, at the milder end, we also have the 111 call.

That gives us the potential, provided British Telecom goes along with this, to fill up the numbers in between, 222, 333, etc, with a sliding scale of catastrophisation.

Let’s put in some examples to test the system.

You are Henry VIII, the most powerful king England ever had.

You have some marital issues, and in particular no male heir to the throne.

I’m thinking 333 would be about right.

Instead of which Henry over-reacts massively, dissolving the monasteries and the catholic church, divorcing his wife and executing some of his best pals.

There is no indication that the younger Henry was overly ‘buttoned up’, casting some doubt on the over-control theory. Although if he really had cerebral syphilis, that might have damaged some of his feedback loops.

Or try this one: Confronted with a pompous email from NHS management you write a reply you misguidedly think is witty, accidentally pressing the Reply to All button, so that every person in the whole NHS gets a copy.

555, agreed?

You eat a yogurt from your fridge mistaking the sell by date 2003 for 2013?

Not even 111, I don’t think. Yogurt never kills.

We are going to need an advisory panel of some kind as arbiters of how to interpret and assign a crisis to a number scale. This would be an efficient resource, especially if we can charge a premium rate for the crisis line. I hope the NHS is working on this.

Failing that I think Mitsubishi could run something up. For indecisive parking, press 111. For misspelt tattoos, press 222. For incorrect change, press 333…

What if the elevator seems awfully slow today? Press 444. Pressing using the fingers is sufficient. It is not necessary to use the axe.

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14. Finding the Chimps in the Armour.

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Nice nails, nice hair, shame about the ears.

A chimpanzee dressed as a removals man takes a tea break with colleagues, only to have the piano they are moving crash downstairs.

The year is 2002, the last year Brooke Bond tea were able to use chimps as actors.

It is estimated that there are over 300 showbiz chimps in the USA. A study recently suggested that using chimps for advertising reduced people’s concern for them as an endangered species.

Perhaps the most famous showbiz chimp is Bubbles, who once belonged to Michael Jackson. Not many people know that Bubbles had a former career in research, from which he was ‘rescued’. Bubbles now lives in Florida. He has still not been told about Michael’s sad demise, so I hope he is not reading this.

It is reported that Bubbles has taken well to Florida, putting on a bit of weight and spending the day listening to music and watching television.

Peoples’ attitudes to anthropomorphism – projecting human attributes onto animals and vice versa – are pretty chaotic.

We no longer have TV shows such as Animal Magic, where a voice – over contrives to turn animal footage into mini – drama.

However, cut to 2012, where Ashleigh and Pudsy, a teenager and dancing dog, perform a slickly choreographed routine to the Flintstones theme, to win ‘Britain’s got talent’.

Simon Cowell remarked: ‘You know me, I love a dancing dog, and Pudsy is one of the best dancing dogs I’ve ever seen. My only criticism is I’d have put Pudsy in a prehistoric outfit as well’. (As well as himself perhaps?)

Nowhere have I read any suggestion that training Pudsy was unkind in any way. Contrast this with the kind of coverage with which circuses have had to contend.

Apparently, in the USA, there have been more than 35 dangerous incidents since 2000, where elephants have bolted from circuses, run amok through streets, crashed into buildings, attacked members of the public, and killed and injured handlers.

Time, surely, to send in Sting and maybe even Bono too, to set them free.

Psychiatrists are quite interested in animal behaviour. ‘Ethology’ features significantly in the membership exam multiple choice questions, being the ones that you throw dice to complete randomly, in the last minute.

Always looking out for similarities between animals and their owners, we expect, for instance, a Bubbles solo album in due course. More usefully, we know to beware entering the houses of people who have a) mental health issues and b) lots of pets.

Although, in such circumstances, most pets know that they should first bite the social worker, then the GP, before biting the psychiatrist. Its just a kind of ethological pecking order.

So, what counts as a day out for most people is a field trip for escaped psychiatrists.

Last week l visited a zoo, Newcastle, and my workplace, and its time to compare and contrast. First the zoo.

Nowhere is anthropomorphism more politically incorrect than the zoo.

One can only admire the dedication of the staff toward the welfare of the animals. The lions had loads of space, the lemurs got The Guardian delivered every morning and the reptiles were pampered, perfumed and stroked by two nice young ladies. Not for a moment did I wonder whether they had painted stripes on the snakes with nail varnish.

So, why was it I got this yearning for an old style zoo, where it was OK to throw currant buns at the elephants and dress the chimps up in tutus and cravats?

That kind of thing just isn’t allowed nowadays.

Surprisingly, London zoo haven’t dressed them like this since 1926. Though as late as 1962 Hints zoo dressed them up as decorators and gardeners and gave them bicycles to run round on.

I am sure if I tried to organise a chimpanzee’s tea party I would be struck off the medical register and censured by the district ethical committee.

It’s just that I get the feeling the animals are missing out on something too.

Chimps seemed to like using tools and being silly with paint. Dolphins seem to like acrobatic leaps out of the sea and splashing people in boats. Parrots seem to like riding a unicycle and squawking ‘Hello Keith’.

Maybe the problem is in the phrase ‘seem to like’. Critics might say the animals are trained to act this way by behavioural methods, such as rewarding a desired behaviour with a Malteser or a small fish. Not to say punishing an unwanted behaviour with devastating sarcasm.

Could it be that Pudsy’s seemingly ecstatic enthusiasm is simply a series of learned behaviours, conditioned and chained together during lengthy and gruelling training sessions, each new move heavily reinforced by food pellets? How closely does Pudsy’s behaviour resemble the naturalistic behaviour of dogs in their ‘normal’ habitat?

Possibly animals no more like to ‘go showbiz’ than your washing machine likes to spin at 1400rpm all day.

Pudsy is not an elephant, so is unlikely to pull off a break-out one day, or be rescued by Sting.

Its been said that dogs grow to resemble their owners, but chimps are the animals humans most resemble in terms of appearance and genetic code.

Chimps, like jazz, went their own way 4 million years ago, the split apparently caused by ‘creative differences’.

Chimps were being discussed at the Royal College of Psychiatrists Addiction Specialists conference in Newcastle last week. Though Escaped Psychiatrist is not an addiction specialist, he managed to infiltrate by not shaving for a few days beforehand.

Steve Peters was the big name speaker. His work in elite sport has generated a lot of interest, and his book, The Chimp Paradox, has become a bestseller.

Steve is a psychiatrist rather than a psychologist, yet has eclipsed sports psychologists with his recent high profile successes in cycling, snooker, several other sports and now football.

That’s gratifying for a psychiatrist – we secretly think we would be brilliant at any other career we tried, from hosting a chat show (like Anthony Clare) to chancellor of the exchequer. (Seriously, how hard can it be?)

In person, Steve is charismatic yet self effacing. He has been working on the Chimp model for many years and gradually refined it. Clearly he has incorporated it into his own thinking, resulting in well deserved fame and acknowledgement.

I think Steve has come up with the right model at just the right time, like the iPhone in 2007. The CBT bubble is bursting to some extent and people are hungry for a model with more practical bite.

The name Steve Peters is exactly right for a sports coaching guru. If you were to write a novel about a successful footballer or boxer you would probably call him Steve Peters.

Secondly, he looks fit and healthy, as though he belongs in the world of sport, which is unusual for a psychiatrist.

Most importantly, his ‘chimp’ model of the mind provides a useful metaphor to help understand aspects of human behaviour.

There is a certain amount of overlap with other models, such as Eric Berne’s Parent / Adult / Child system , the ‘seven kinds of smart’ from Emotional Intelligence and even Freud’s concept of the Id. In response to a question, Peters explained that the Chimp went way beyond what Freud would have expected of the Id, in terms of perceptiveness, calculation and dominance.

He also contrasted his model with the Type 1 / Type 2 scheme established by cognitive psychologists, in particular his construction of the part of the mind he calls ‘the computer’, which is paramount in sports performance .

Since Escaped Psychiatrist is mainly concerned with Depression, I am thinking about what this model could bring to the battle.

My first thoughts are that Depression is often associated with poor decision-making.

Whether this is cause, effect or co-incidence varies, but there is certainly a large group of depressed people who have suffered from internal sabotage.

Much of this self destructive behaviour is associated with poor impulse control- behaviours such as overeating, substance misuse, poor anger control and a failure to delay gratification.

A lot of the young people we work with seem to have made a series of terrible decisions, leading to the conclusion that sometimes, ‘misery is the wages of sin’. OK, for sin read ‘dysfunctional behaviour’.

This morning the Today program reported that deliberate self – poisoning in young people had increased by 40% over the last decade.  It looks as though the new generation are struggling with their inner chimps more than ever.

Though I struggled with a significant proportion of Peters’ book, particularly the notion of the psychological universe, made up of planets and moons, there are lots of useful behavioural strategies dotted around the chapters. Peters thinks that children ‘get’ the chimp model quite easily, which means it might suit schools and children’s services.

I guess my concern here is that there is a group of chimps somewhere discussing this, probably  wearing tutus and cravats, drinking tea out of china cups, concluding that what is wrong with chimps nowadays is that they just can’t keep their human side under control.