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Monday, May 13, 2013

Cycology: the science of propelling one's self through the environment to enhance well-being

Biking in the Loire Valley. France, 1999.
(Back in the days when wearing clothes 3 sizes too big was in!)

I was 18, it was time to pick the training that would lead to my future profession. Mom and dad were willing to pay for tuition (remember it's priced reasonably in Canada) if I was willing to get good grades. Sealed deal, I said.

But what was I gonna study? I had so many interests.

Reflecting on my past I noticed a trend, a passion for human behavior and emotional well-being. As a young kid I was rather shy and reserved, but just like Daniel Goleman mentions in Emotional Intelligence, I had a keen eye for human interaction, and noticed the tiniest details in people's behavior... even if I refrained from engaging actively.

The marshmallow test: another application of Goleman's theory.
Can you handle delayed gratification? 
It has its limitations, but the way 4 year-olds do
can partly predict ulterior success in life!

Around Grade 8, I started borrowing my parent's books on psychology and devoured each and every one of them.

Around grade 9, I came out of my shell and bloomed socially.

Around Grade 10-11, for some unknown reason all kinds of people started confiding in me their deepest - and sometimes darkest - secrets. I found the trust they put in me such an honor, and I polished my listening and secret-keeping skills. I felt good and useful.

I thought that's it, I have to become a psychologist.

My dad, a McGill University graduate and post-graduate (in mathematics), couldn't rave enough about his alma mater. Plus, it was the university closest to home. So I applied. I got in. Psychology at McGill it would be!

(Upon my admission, my parents bought me a t-shirt that had a bicycle on in and played on the pun between cycling and psychology; the title I used for this post, "Cycology: the science of propelling one's self through the environment to enhance well-being" was the quote under it.)

Nova Scotia, 2010.

I was very excited at the idea of studying human behavior in such a great institution. What I had failed to realize was that:

1) It might not be the best idea to do your undergrad in a second language you don't master yet (I'm French, and the extent of my English at that point was that I had briefly dated a guy from Newfoundland.)

2) McGill being associated with the Montreal Neurological Institute, the physiological part of psychology (and the research approach, as opposed to the clinical) would be emphasized.

Those were not bad news per se; I learned fascinating things I had little background about (having done mostly humanities and just 1 or 2 human biology courses), and I greatly improved my English. However, this state of affairs made it impossible for me to get the straight-A average you needed to go on to graduate studies in psych.

Add to that a tendency to focus a little bit too much on my love life (hence a little bit too little on studying), I was doomed! I still finished with an average of B+ or A- (would have to check my report cards), and I survived the unforgiving skimming of students (when we started in year 1 there were 700 of us; by the time we finished there were less than 300 left) but apparently it wasn't good enough! Which is why I changed paths for my masters. But in the meantime I had learned fascinating things, and I have no regrets.

I might not use everything I gained from those years on a daily basis, but I truly enjoy thinking about it. Sometimes I even find myself leafing through the best textbook ever, that cost a fortune but that I referred to so much, and that I have kept to this day:

So, what kind of things did I learn while studying psychology?

I thought it would be fun to put together a little list of the things I had not expected would be in the curriculum!

Here are some examples:

- How to look after rats without displacing the electrode that's sticking out of their head.

- That the rats you've looked after (and somehow became attached to) will soon go on to phase II of the project, i.e., go through the sophisticated machine that can slice brains very, very thin, so that one can study them under the microscope.

Oh no!

- The processes and brain structures involved in sleep... in cats.

Scanned from my beloved textbook.

(I was beginning to wonder if I had not mistakenly landed in vet school or something. And don't get me started on the Learning and Motivation course that mostly focused on... pigeons!!!)

- That participating in research studies in psychology is fun! (Except maybe the one about pain. Ouch.)

- How to draw brains. On the first day of the course entitled Human Brain, our professor quickly outlined a brain on the board and asked us to do the same on paper. Then he had us draw another one. And another one. And another one. Sagittal, coronal, transverse. He said "You better get used to drawing brains fast, 'cause we'll be drawing a LOT of them". And draw brains we did! Over and over again. Sometimes we would focus on the pretty arrangement and respective names of sulci and gyri. Gradually we got deeper and deeper into the mysteries of that wondrous organ (and better and better at drawing all bits and pieces from all possible angles - was it an art class or a psychology class, I sometimes wonder).

The only drawing we never did was a phrenology-based one, which disappointed me as it would have been fun (according to phrenology, specific areas of the brain are related to specific functions such as benevolence, veneration and wit, but as another prof told us, "sorry folks, it's not that simple!")

Apparently, all that drawing still wasn't enough and our Human Brain prof also had us buy the Human Brain Coloring Book and fill it as homework.

Hours of fun!!!

I should have been warned there would be so much drawing and coloring involved, me, the non-crafty girl with no talent whatsoever for visual arts! Good thing when came the test, we were not evaluated on our artistic abilities, but rather on our ability to name all the parts and explain what they were there for, and how they worked. That, I could do. Had they studied my fine motor skills closely, however, I would have failed abysmally!

In another class (namely, Human Perception), we got to draw innumerable eyes and optic nerves and of course the visual cortex associated with it (there was just no escaping it!), but it still did not deter me: I opted for Advanced Visual Perception for one of my electives the next year (and loved it - learned useful things too! e.g. when stargazing, to see a star that's not too bright it's better to look slightly away!)

The one class I did not enjoy so much was entitled Neurochemical Basis of Behavior. I blame the absence of textbook (we had to rely on hermetic handouts that might as well have been written in Chinese) and a professor who unfortunately was not present when didactic and pedagogy were distributed! Fortunately I had my Biopsychology textbook at hand, and started from there. We also had an awesome Teaching Assistant who made everything so much clearer, partly by having us do presentations (best way to learn is to teach!) I still remember mine; it was about the schizophrenia theories (dopamine hypothesis, glutamate hypothesis, etc.)

Something else we had to learn in that class were the generic names of psychiatric meds (e.g. Prozac = fluoxetine, Ativan = lorazepam, etc.), and a bunch of other non psychiatric ones for good measure... which I highly doubted would ever serve me in life, until I became sick while travelling overseas.

Ah! Croatia... 2002.

You see, in Europe the brand names of drugs are often different; for example they will call our Tylenol Efferalgan or Doliprane, and use the generic name paracetamol instead of acetaminophen (the presentation often is different too; for those pain meds it usually comes in a tablet you dissolve in a tall glass of water! And I won't get into suppositories... traumatic memories of my childhood in Africa would surely emerge!!!) 

Another particularity in Europe is that most of the time you cannot buy over the counter meds without first talking with the pharmacist - basically everything other than sunscreen is behind the counter. You will be very glad you can preserve your dignity by asking for loperamide instead of saying "I've got juice coming out of all my orifices, what can you do for me?"

In any case, that painfully acquired knowledge does come in handy now that 50% of my translation work is of pharmacological nature. Today, for example, I was working on liraglutide (while munching on a handful of Jelly Beans... for I love paradox).

I thought I could indulge in a little game and try and remember my favorite concepts of the good ol' days. I scribbled them down as they came, and here they are in alphabetical order:

  • Amnesia and the case of H.M.
  • Best predictor of future behavior is past behavior
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Cognitive dissonance
  • Correlation does not equal causation
  • Diffusion of responsibility (bystander effect)
  • DSM-IV
  • Frontal lobe disorder
  • Impostor syndrome
  • Mere-exposure effect
  • Mesolimbic pathway
  • Milgram experiment
  • Neurotransmitter reuptake inhibition
  • Occam's Razor (lex parsimoniae)
  • Psychopathy
  • Recapitulation (ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny)
  • Social construction of gender
  • Split-brain (when the corpus callosum is severed)
  • Theories of pain
  • Toxicology and addiction

Have you heard of any of those? Would you like an presentation on any of them? (I'm very lazy though... can you Google them? Thanks!)

One topic that has become useful was the rules of interpersonal relationships and attraction. How fascinating it was to learn about those! But of course once you're in the action, theoretical knowledge often flies out the window, and you're left to your own devices!

In the end, even if I did not become a psychologist, I did get to use my "helping relationship" and compassion skills, and in more than one setting:

1) As a swimming instructor with aquaphobic adults, whose nails would dig into my skin as soon as I remotely evoked the possibility of letting go of the floatie.

2) As a volunteer, then research assistant, with Alzheimer patients and their families, most of whom came to me in a rather vulnerable state. They had questions the geriatrician had failed to answer in simple terms, and concerns such as "my husband panics at the sight of wild animals on TV", "my wife is convinced she will fall through the dark entrance carpet" and "every time she uses the bathroom my mother spreads her excrements on the wall". The patients themselves were often unaware of their losses but nonetheless visibly anxious when I administered neuropsy testing to determine if they could participate in our research project or not. What a lesson in respect and compassion it taught me... and what a window on the fragility of life!

Les joueurs d'échecs, by Honoré Daumier

What memories do you have of your years in college (or any other form of professional training)? Anything that stands out? Anything you don't use at all? Anything you use all the time?


  1. Hi Julie! Cognitive dissonance has been a topic on my blog. The eternal question seems to be--why do we do those things that seemingly go against what we want most? I personally would argue, that for some reason, we actually want the seemingly bad choice more, but we sometimes just don't understand why.

    :-) Marion

    1. The need to reduce cognitive dissonance too often gets in the way of making intelligent decisions, for sure!

      Problem is, most of the time we aren't aware of the whole thought process.

      If you want to give the link to your post on that topic, please don't hesitate Marion! :-)

  2. Oh college! I remember when i was in college I would stress out so much about doing well in all of my classes, even Humanities (and Musical Humanities) and Ancient Africa... And guess what, I don't use ANY OF IT! I guess the only knowledge from college that I use is journalism, which is good considering that's what I majored in and that's what I am doing with me life! Ah ha ha! It's always nice to say that I have a degree though, even if 1/2 of my college experience is completely forgotten!

    1. I think no matter what we recall (or not) and use (or not), college definitely changes the person we are!

      In my case college was also a - very expensive - way to improve my written English... but guess what? I make a living out of it (translation). Totally worth it!

      And I think the scientific curriculum balanced me out in the end.

      An unexpected gain: when I met the father of my kids, the number one reason he fell for me (according to him - I personally think it was my hotness! LOL) was that I actually understood what he was talking about when he talked about the research he was doing for his PhD (in a medical lab).

      Journalism is something I would have loved I think! Lucky! :-)

  3. coloring and drawing, I feel like that explains why people don't always get what they think from a psychologist :0 )

    Love how you came to it and found the path that works for you. I knew I wanted to be a writer from a young age, so journalism school felt like a no brainer...after school I was too scared to not make enough money so I became a consultant. Turns out those were not wasted years, but great lessons for me as I am writing now.

    1. That's interesting, Amanda! I've always wanted to be a writer, but felt the pressure to choose "a serious career" instead.

      It's nice to read about your story too! :-)

      P.-S.: about psychologists... some universities have an approach/a curriculum that's better fitted to a clinical career. My training being more of a neuroscience one, I certainly didn't feel it had prepared me to become a clinical psy at all!

  4. That's a wonderful discourse on your personal voyage, Julie!

    I have a cruiser bike, "Desperado," not so different than yours that I've had some wonderful adventures on! It was no surprise to me that the Wright brothers were originally in the bicycle business!


    My university was all about animal psych to. It wasn't until I learned psychiatry that I began to appreciate the clinical aspects of psychology!

    1. Yes, that's an interesting fact about the Wright brothers!

      My bike has taken me to a lot of places and on a lot of adventures! :-)

      I have yet to take it to Europe though. The one on the pic was borrowed. :-)

      Animal psych is unavoidable as all the experiments are done on them! Poor little things!