Author Archives: tanjina

[Don’t] Choose Your Happiness

Image result for happiness cartoon

People often think about happiness and decision-making as positively intercorrelated. It makes a lot of sense to think that. If we have a choice in a matter, we will probably end up happier. Most people, if not everyone, would prefer to be able to choose something, be able to change their minds, or be able to “control” what they are receiving over having it randomly selected for them or set in stone. Logically, this all makes perfect sense, why would we not want an open door to be able to change our minds about our choices?

However, that may be far from true. A long time ago I watched a Ted Talk that has stuck with me since the day I saw it. This video is The Surprising Science of Happiness by Dan Gilbert. In this talk, he speaks about how our happiness may not be in our own hands, and maybe it shouldn’t be. He explains how we can have synthesized happiness or natural happiness. Dan describes the two as, one: the happiness we get from getting what we wanted, natural happiness. Two: the happiness we create when we do not get what we wanted, synthetic happiness. Happiness is described as a search that we are on the constant look-out for.

Throughout the talk, there are many examples of how some people who ended up on the not-so-good side of a situation somehow still ended up finding happiness. Dan speaks about how humans have a system of unconscious cognitive processes that affects a person’s view of the world. This process allows a person to find happiness in whatever situation they are in. A surprising example of this is shown when they tested happiness on lottery winners and paraplegics, and both ended up having the same level of happiness a couple years down the road. However, when it comes down to the freedom of choice and the ability to change your mind, synthetic happiness is at its worst.

So how is decision making affected and how does it affect happiness?

Dan explains this process through an experiment in which he created a photography course and had students take 12 photos. They were then told to pick their two favorite photos. The two were turned into large canvas prints and then the students had to choose one to keep for themselves and the other to give up. However, these students were split into two groups of subjects with different conditions. One group was told they pick a photo print and keep it forever, no take-backs, returns, or exchanges. While the other group was told they have the ability to change their minds at any time in the next few days with no consequences and have the option to exchange.

The results were then gathered. Both right before the subjects took their picture home and five days after, the students who did not have the ability to exchange their prints, ended up perfectly happy and content with their choice. However, those who were given the ability to choose to return their prints were very unhappy. These subjects were left questioning themselves on their choice and if they made the right choice from the beginning of their decision making up until they no longer had the option to return it anymore.

This talk describes how the cognitive processes that help us view the world and find happiness, work best when we are stuck with our decision. When we, as humans, have something and it is set in stone, we will gradually find happiness in it. When we are given a wide variety and told that we have the ability to change things, we underestimate the amount of happiness we received from the first thing. Humans get flooded with thoughts and doubts about our decisions.

People believe their happiness lies in their ability to choose. This makes sense as natural happiness can be positively affected when we can choose between losing a thousand dollars or traveling the world. But being on a constant search for happiness and overthinking and overanalyzing our choices leads to everything but happiness.

This talk is something that always randomly surfaces in my mind whenever I feel like I chose the “wrong thing” or regret a decision that isn’t really that bad. I have a bad habit of constantly wondering if I made the right choice. Do biology majors have more fun? Would VCU have been more exciting? Should I not have painted my room purple? Sometimes being content is better than constantly wondering if the choice was right, especially when it can’t be changed or the changing process itself is a mystery. The unconscious cognitive “immune system” is here to help us. However, doubting our decision-making is what destroys any source of happiness we find.


Did You Read This? Or Did This Read You?


Image result for psycholinguistics voices cartoon

Too often in the news or on social media platforms we read about biased stories without realizing the bias. “This happened to him.”, “She did that.”, “Subject blank object.”, “Object blank subject.”

The way a sentence is written or spoken has a very strong effect on how the sentence is interpreted and later recalled. A set of words in a specific order can alter the meaning or point behind a sentence compared to a sentence with the same set of words but in a different order. Sentences can be formed in different verb “voices.” Two very important and common voices are active and passive voice. A sentence with active voice is when a subject is preforming an action. A sentence with passive voice is one where the subject is being acted upon by an object. In other words, the subject receives an action.

For example:

Active: The boy kicked the ball. He ate the apple. She slept on the bed.

Passive: The ball was kicked by the boy. The apple was eaten by him. The bed was slept on by her.

An important part of understanding and using language is to know the relationship between syntax and semantics. In other words, the arrangement of a set of words and the meaning of a word or sentence. The different meanings of a sentence could be interpreted through either the meanings dictated by syntactic formation or the syntactic formations created from a certain meaning. So how does a specific word order in a sentence affect what is formed in the memory? How much of a difference does it have on people? How does this affect recall?

To begin, it is assumed that when we interpret a sentence, we take in the overall point and main idea. No matter the subject or the object, it is believed that it should be interpreted the same and small syntactic differences are unimportant. However, that is far from true. “In free recall, people tend to cluster active sentences according to the category of the sentence subject and passive sentences according to the category of the sentence object.” (Andre 1973). This explains how passive voice gives the object of the sentence the main role rather than the subject. In the article, Syntax, Semantics, and Sexual Violence, it is stated how participants can more accurately answer questions about a sentence when the question is asked in the same active or passive voice as the sentence in question. People also tend to misrecall and incorrectly switch the active sentences for passives (or the subjects) when the question asks about the object or vice-versa.

In the article, Syntax, Semantics, and Sexual Violence, verb voices were experimented on in a more serious form. Participants were given both active and passive voice examples on crime — violence, battery, abuse, and assault (particularly sexual crime) — and their recall of the writings were recorded. Overall, the participants had a negative attitude towards the victims when it was written in a passive voice.  The article even states, “Change in verb voice does more than change the topic; it changes the actual content. It is as if attenuating modifiers were inserted: ‘A woman was sort of assaulted.’**; ‘She somewhat violated him.’**” This piece of the article shows the value of what a verb voice can do to a sentence. One sentence could be written the exact same way but with a slight change from active to passive, it is almost as drastic as physically adding words to reduce the significance of a sentence. 

When looked at from a broad viewpoint, active and passive voices come off as insignificant. However, it does actually have a pretty big effect on our unconscious mind and what points we remember. These voices could be used in many ways, whether that is to bias a thought process, attenuate situations, or even to leave a certain impression behind passive and active voices do a lot of the comprehension for us. The things we run into on media outlets could have a very big effect on our thought process and try to minimize an issue. Whether it is something political trying to sounds less appalling or a crime to sound less severe.

Could this be used to benefit us? Certainly. Just by understanding how passive and active voices work and breaking sentences down a bit more than just the big picture message, we can learn to see the writing from different viewpoints. Is this the answer to why summarizing can help us remember and later recall things? Quite possibly! Learning, reading, or hearing about something in one voice helps us understand things in a singular way. When it is asked about through a different voice context, our brains may not know which way to go. However, when we have the ability to be able to change a sentence from active or passive, or change a subject to an object, or vice-versa, we will be able to recall it in any context.

I find the aspect of passive and active voices very interesting because not only is it helpful with comprehension and recall, but it is seen in day-to-day things such as different types of articles, social media posts, or even what we hear on the news. Crimes are lessened by the wording. Victims are seen as the issue. Important people aren’t held accountable due to biased sentence structures in the news. And even people change their minds without realization because of the things they hear or read. This is a pretty amazing yet discreet way to control people’s opinions. The way something as small as syntactic formations work is quite remarkable. 

**Quotes edited for sensitivity



Andre, T. (1973). Clustering in the free recall of sentences. Psychological Reports, 32, 971-974.


Déjà Vu Who?

Have you ever been in a conversation with somebody and halfway through you feel like you have been in this exact conversation with this exact person before? How about being at an event and doing something and suddenly it feels like you have been in the same place and done the same things before. This strange form of familiarity is described as “Déjà Vu.” Déjà Vu comes from the French meaning of “already seen.” In other words, people experience something they feel like they have already experienced in an unidentifiable past. This feeling tends to last just seconds before it seems to leave the memory completely. In terms of psychology, it can be explained a bit more by saying the memory system seems to have a sensation of having previously lived a certain event, be in a specific place, complete an act, or even meet or see a person.

A journal on Déjà vu states how 60% – 80% of people experience this phenomenon in their lifetime. Although it may sound like it, this sensation is not the same thing as false memory or nostalgia. People go throughout their lives experiencing events that they are guaranteed to experience again and again in the future. Déjà vu is not necessarily a memory formed from an event someone has done in the past and are simply remembering it again. It is more like viewing the present as a past. The process of recalling a previous event and remembering it when it occurs again, incorrectly recalling a situation that has not happened, or falsely remembering details of a past situation is not déjà vu. However, the aspect of feeling a very strong connection and overwhelming familiarity to a not-so-familiar — or even a not-so-important — event is what often presents déjà vu.

An article by the Cleveland Clinic writes about how common this phenomenon is. Fatigue and stress can increase the rate of déjà vu and it is often seen in younger people. It is also seen in people with some forms of dementia, as well as, diagnosed schizophrenics. Some people who report getting déjà vu at a much higher rate than others are often temporal lobe epileptic patients. To begin, the type of epilepsy that seems to cause more déjà vu than normal to occur is one that affects the hippocampus. The hippocampus in the brain is responsible for memory, particularly long-term memory, and spatial processing.

The article uses temporal lobe epilepsy to explain déjà vu by stating how a seizure in this part of the brain sends out two electric currents to the hippocampus. Doing so, the hippocampus activates both the past long-term memories it has stored, as well as, the present experience that is occurring. The activation of both at once causes an overlap of processing, which leads to, as stated in the article, “remembering the present.” 

So how does this relate to all the other people without epilepsy who also get déjà vu? Trying to do experiments or studies on regular people with this phenomenon is very difficult. Since déjà vu is such a quick memory of an unknown “past,” it is very hard to get correct data. Asking if someone has had déjà vu recently is often not enough. However, seeing the relationship of TLE patients and their constant occurrences, as well as the research of how stress and fatigue makes it more likely to occur, it could be looked at as a small glitch in the circuits of our non-epileptic brains. Information from a present surrounding or situation can transfer straight into stored long-term memory causing it to seem like it has already occurred and belongs in a past memory.

Déjà vu is a very interesting phenomenon. There have been many times where I am having a conversation with someone and there is a sudden wave of familiarity and sensation of having lived this present moment in an undefined past. The brain’s ability to take the present and come up its own past memory of an event, place, conversation, etc. — almost like an illusion — and then to duplicate it and broadcast it to our thought process, even for mere seconds, while bringing an overwhelming sense of familiarity shows how much work our memory systems can do without specific activation from a stimuli. How strange is this idea of taking a present situation and forming a past memory with it?