Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Mysterious Neurotransmitters

This is a topic in psychology which we can't avoid studying about: Neurotransmitters.  You might study it in the first year or last year of your Bachelors program.  I thought that we probably need more information, especially on what neurotransmitters are and how they work.  To have a more accurate answer to that, I decided to ask a colleague of mine, Dr. V., who is a biochemistry scholar to give us some advice.  If you have any further questions about this topic, you may email me at and I will further your email to her.  Here goes:  

Point I: No Discrimination

The term ‘Neurotransmitter’ maybe intimidating but it is important to explore this stereotype.  In actual fact, ‘Neurotransmitter’ is just a fancy name for a chemical molecule that is synthesised and functions within the proximity of the brain.  It is essentially brain hormone, just like any other hormone in the body.  It does not have any special magical power for being in the most complex organ, the brain.

There are still many unknowns within the world of neurotransmitters, like:
-  How many different neurotransmitters are there?
-  Are all known neurotransmitters fully characterised?
-  How does neurotransmitters work?
-  Why are there so many different neurotransmitters functioning together?

Point II: A Stable Partnership

Neurotransmitters are produced from two main types of cells:  Neurons and Glia cells.  Neurons are commonly known as brain cells (the main players).  However, they cannot function without the help of Glia cells (the supporters).  Glia cells feeds and maintain neurons, from the blood supply which the neurons do not have access to.  The functionality of the brain is dependent upon these brain cells’ stable partnership.

 Point III: The Factory

The brain works as a network of neurons, which is constantly communicating with one and other.  This is how the brain control and regulate our whole biological being.  The communication between neurons is based on chemical and electrical signals.  The chemical signals are provided by the neurotransmitters, produced by the brain cells.

Point IV: The Delivery Service

Neurotransmitters are the ultimate messenger of the brain.  However, this job is not straight forward.  This neuronal network is made up of neurons that are not physically in contact with one another.  So, it is not possible for the neurotransmitters to travel fluidly from cell to cell.  That is why the electrical signal is equally important.  These tiny gaps at the neuronal terminal are known as synapse (Figure 3).  The message overcomes this hurdle in a specific manor:
1.  Neurotransmitters are grouped together inside a membrane to form a vesicle.  This makes a neat and tidy package for delivery (Figure 4).
2.  These vesicles get stacked and wait just before the synapse.  When the electrical signal arrives, it will trigger the release neurotransmitters into the synapse.  (It is OK – don’t panic. This is part of the delivery process).
3.  The released neurotransmitters form the chemical signal in the synapse (Figure 5).  The neurotransmitter will swim across to the surface of the neighbouring neurons, where there are receptors (life buoys) to note their arrival.  [Please note:  under no circumstances are any neurotransmitters permitted to enter neighbouring neurons.  They will be rescued, biochemically, by their own parental neurons.]
4.  The arrival of the chemical signal will in turn trigger the electrical signal.  This will then sprint toward the awaiting packages (neurotransmitter-filled vesicles) and push them off the synaptic cliff (release of neurotransmitter).  Then the cycle will repeat from one neuron to the next, until the message has reached its destination.

Point V: The Cocktail Mixture

There are a large number of different neurotransmitters.  About 50 neurotransmitters have been identified so far.  The most commonly known ones are GABA, Histamine, Acetylcholine, Dopamine, Noradrenalin, Endorphins and Substance P.
It is not clear:
i)  Why the brain needs so many different neurotransmitter?
ii)  How are each neurotransmitter different in function from each other?

Initially, the theory was that a specific neuron was only capable of producing a specific neurotransmitter.  Therefore, the outcome function is very rigid and limited.  One neurotransmitter is for one type of functional output.  This is supported by the vase number of neurotransmitters that has been identified.  However, it is unlikely that neurons are only able to function in ~50 different ways.  Biochemically, this number is far too small for any biological system.
A more feasible theory is that each neuron produces a cocktail of neurotransmitters.  The mix ratio from each neuron is varied, so a different combination of neurons gives a different message for a different function.  Just like if each neurotransmitter is a letter of the alphabet, the different combination of letter can form different words to give different meanings.
All in all, the outcome of the neuronal system (Brain) is dictated by the neurotransmitters.

Point VI: Error in the Signal

Neurotransmitters have a heavy role in neurological diseases, but very little is known.  Since the brain is the most complex organ of the body and it governs all other organ systems.  There is no limit to the outcome of any neuronal disorders.  However, it can be categories as anatomical deficit (physical/structural damage of neuron) or chemical deficit (lost of chemical signal).
The neurotransmitter’s function has been associated with physical action, thinking, mood and behaviour.  The most abundant neurotransmitter is Glutamate, which has been linked with autism, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), schizophrenia and depression.  This does not suggest that glutamate is the cause of these psychiatric disorders.  The pathology is likely to be much more complex because some have these disorders have also been linked to other neurotransmitters as well.  Dopamine has been linked to schizophrenia and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD).  Serotonin has been linked to depression.
This overlap of neurotransmitters and diseases strongly suggest that each neurotransmitter must have more than one functions.  The role of these neurotransmitters in psychiatric disorders is unclear.  By studying these diseases, it will give clues to the normal neurotransmitters’ function that is lacking.
The mystery that lies within the different neurotransmitters cocktails are waiting to be discovered.  The master recipes of these cocktails may be the key to tackling psychiatric disorders and possibly be the cure.

Useful links:

Thursday, June 26, 2014

SGPsychStud's Reflections: Experiencing Loss

I apologise that I was absent in my Facebook page, not updating the daily newsfeed, over the last weekend.  Something happened at home which have inspired me to write this post.  It was a great loss especially for me and those close to me.  I often say: "There is always a choice" and "We can always do something about it".  However, this is the first time, since my revelation and acceptance of those principles, that I felt despair and was distraught by the inability to do anything about this loss.  The first two days were very bad for me, as I was emotionally tired and could not think much about any other things at all.

Being a learner of psychology, I experienced a few "selfs" in this short period.  The therapist in me tried to allow myself to experience the emotions that were overwhelming from time to time and counsel myself with my conflicting and hurting self through my own self-talk, while my scientist self tried to analyse the situation with whatever knowledge I have learnt previously from my Grief Counselling module.  Kübler-Ross' five stages of grief, relaxation and coping techniques, my counselling framework and techniques were researched in depth and under scrutiny by my scientist self.

I was truly hurting (and I still am), and I told my spouse that this is truly the most heart-breaking thing that happened to me.  Nothing will be able to come close to it, because this loss is very personal, as if losing a part of myself.  Numbing my feelings is not going to help in any way, and I believe that though I could not do anything about the loss, I could do something about myself.  I decided to be more positive and stronger for my spouse, despite all the pain.  I understand that the memory of the loss will forever be etched in my memory bank, and there is no way I can remove it.  However I can do something about the pain, using it each time to make me even stronger again.  

There was a post on the Slice of Life Facebook page yesterday (25 June 2014), which expressed mostly how I felt and is very good encouragement of how one can recover from a great loss:
"When hit by a major setback in life - like losing a job we love, losing a partner, or losing our life savings, our focus tends to veer towards the negative.  We think we won't survive the crisis, that we have nothing left to live for, that this is certainly the end.  For some people who keep dwelling on this theme, they actually do make the end happen, not because it was inevitable, but because they had resigned themselves to it so completely.  They keep to themselves, keep playing worst-case-scenarios in their head, yield to anxiety attacks, and toy with suicidal thoughts.  Of course it's tough to weather a misfortune, and some doom and gloom is sure to cloud your day. But the problem with staying preoccupied with your loss is that it blinds you to the possibilities.
And the possibilities are always there.  As they say, "when one door closes, another one opens".  Not to mention the doors that were there all the time.  You didn't see them because you weren't looking.  So if you're currently working through some trauma, learn to pay more attention to the possibilities.  The darkness may be threatening, but in the light of dawn, even the most pernicious thorns turn out to be the softest petals.
So when you feel like closing up, force yourself to expand.  Even if you can manage to open up a bit at first.  There is the bad reality, but there are many other realities that are good, waiting to be explored and nourished.  And stop guilt-tripping yourself.  You did all you could, and there are many things that are simply out of your control.  Ultimately, you can only think for yourself.  But as you open up more and more, the possibilities you can choose from grow and multiply. This is where the potential for transforming not only your life, but your world as well, can happen."

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Fear of Failures in our Journey of Studying

Copyright of SGPsychStuff
This is a guest article as first published on 2nd June at Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts:

I have written about 'Fear' previously, and the take-away from that post was that we should not fear new opportunities and experiences, and that we need a thirst for knowledge, curiosity, and a positive mindset so that we could truly benefit from these new opportunities and experiences.

In this post, it looks at another type of fear: the Fear of Failure.  As the Chinese Idiom goes, "失败是成功之母 (Failure is the mother of Success)", hence it has been known since ancient times (or rather the day that a person invented that idiom) that with failure, we beget success.  So it seems like there is no need to fear failure then?
For the rest of this post, I am referring 'failure' / "failing" as not performing to one's best or achieving the maximum scores one can get, rather than academically failing exams, i.e. scoring less than 50%.  

But why is it that most students in Singapore are trying to work towards excellent grades (sometimes "good" is just not good enough)? And some parents are frantically panicking for their children when their children are having exams?

My sister-in-law has also just got her 'A' levels results this year, and is in the current batch of freshmen going into university this year.  My mother-in-law, after hearing that she has been offered a place in university, was delighted that her daughter was able to go to university though this was not the course and university that she wanted at all.
I reflected on this and this was my answer.  It was purely based on a simple formula and assumption that parents of this generation's teenagers (and most probably previous generations as well) have in mind:

Good grades = Having a degree = Good job / career = Good life

This is what we call "polarised (or black and white) thinking", a common cognitive distortion as proposed by Aaron Beck.  In the above formula, this would mean that in order to have a good life, one must have good grades; on the other hand, if you do not have good grades, you will not have a good life.  Either way, it sounds really ridiculous to me.  Though the formula can be commonly found and proven right in some people, it does not mean that this is absolute truth and can be applied to everyone.  This is because at any point of the above formula, it can be proven wrong.  A person can have excellent grades, but may not want or need a degree to reach his/her life goal (thinking of how an engineering degree would do any good for someone who desires to be a chef).  With a degree, it does not guarantee a good career; that comes with sheer hard work in the job, with the degree probably being a good stepping stone towards getting the job at the very most.  A good career does not equate to a good life, as a good life comprises of too many other things, e.g. family, friends, etc.              

But why do we fear failure?  Simply because it hurts.  Students do not want to feel that pain that failing the exams bring them and the pain they get after noticing it to their parents, while parents, in their natural innate of protecting their children, do not want their children to feel that pain.  This is why all students, regardless of academically good or bad unless they have given up on themselves, study so hard and parents do the things they do to help their children in their academic paths of studying.  This could also probably explain this classic phrase:  "This is all for your own good!"

It is actually okay to fail and not achieving your possible potential best.  If given a choice, I would rather not have 100 marks for every test.  Two reasons: a) I will get bored at doing the tests, because I am getting too smart for the test, and b) there is no room for improvement for me and nothing that I can learn or develop further.  This is not good for those 'perfect' students, as this may decrease their motivation for studying, rather than enhance it further.

As mentioned above, with failure, we beget success.  But for one to do that, we must first embrace the failure, and not feel sad or discouraged by it.  Furthermore, we also need to develop a thirst for knowledge ("I want to learn more about this"), curiosity ("Why did I get this grades? What went wrong?"), and a positive mindset ("It's okay. I have done my best. I can try again.") in order to fully benefit from these failures.  This should also be taught to students and children, in order to build their resilience and their natural ability to fight that fear of failure.

Professor X in X-men: Days of Future Past (2014) probably said it best:

It’s not their pain you’re afraid of — it’s yours. And frightening as it can be their pain will make you stronger if you allow yourself to feel it. Embrace it. It will make you more powerful than you ever imagined. It’s the greatest gift we have that can bear pain without breaking, and it’s born from the most human power: Hope. 

My final advice as a person who have gone through the same realistic path of studying in Singapore: 

"Fail and try all you want in non-examinable trials, but when you only get one try to perform at your best, make sure you do your 100% best.  But even if you fail, try again.  Keep trying till you succeed.  Because the only failure you can get is when you give up." 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Plagiarism and its effects

This has been quite a hot topic for the last few years, as there has been an explosion of information via the internet.  With information being rampant these days, there is a high chance that what you have just typed is something you seen or heard before.  So if this is the case, you may need to check if your work consist of any plagiarism.

For those who do not know about what plagiarism, gives quite a comprehensive and all rounded answer towards what is plagiarism.  Purdue University's Online Writing Lab (OWL) defines plagiarism as "uncredited use (both intentional and unintentional) of somebody else's words or ideas", which I feel is quite an appropriate and easily understood definition of plagiarism.
The APA manual states plagiarism as "the practice of claiming credit for the words, ideas, and concepts of others" (APA, 2009, p. 170).

Plagiarism is a big issue in the academic world, with more and more found of plagiarism every year.  This is not only in psychology and even in other fields such as politics, journalism, arts, music, etc.  iThenticate's Plagiarism blog has a post on the top 5 plagiarism scandals of 2012, which involved journalism, law, and politics.  Losing your job is one thing, and having a black mark on your career is another.

So it is never worth it to just "copy and paste", and if you really have to, make sure you do your citations properly. Purdue University's OWL has some tips and best practices for students to prevent plagiarism.  If you are still unsure on whether your work has some plagiarism in it, I would advice you to run it through some plagiarism checkers before submitting your work. You should be able to find some free plagiarism checkers online.  A lot of schools and institutions use Turnitin, which is one major plagiarism checker used to check students' work.

If you are wondering why I even started on this topic, it was because I found that a certain website plagiarised information from one of my posts without my consent.  Hence I wrote to the author and asked him/her to remove it promptly.  It was settled very quickly with no further issues.

If someone were to ask you to explain "plagiarism" in a layman's term, this is how I would explain it:
Your works and ideas belong to you.  If you were to borrow someone else's things, the least you can do is to be honest and say it don't belong to you and "Thank you" to the original author.  The same should apply when someone borrows something from you.  If someone takes something of yours and say that it is his/hers, how would you feel?  So, let us not do it to others as well.     
You may use the above phrase, but please do not plagiarise and cite or quote it.. Thanks!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

U.S. system of psychological training

Copyright of SGPsychStuff

Firstly, before I start to discuss this post, I would like to thank Dr John Arden, Director of Training at Northern California Kaiser Permanente Medical Centers in America.  Over his short stay in Singapore in April, I managed to have access to him which allowed me to have this discussion about registration and licensing of psychologists in United States.

For the usual Singapore registration system, you will need to have a postgraduate degree, 1000 hours of supervised training, and to be a Full member of SPS, before you can register with Singapore Register of Psychologists (SRP).  This will take around 6 years of training, from the undergraduate level.

According to Dr Arden, in the U.S. system, it takes at least 11 years of training before one can go for the examination for licensure.  After the undergraduate and Master's degree, you will also require a PhD or PsyD.  The main difference between the PhD and PsyD is that the PhD tend to be more research-based, while the PsyD may tend to be more practice-focused.  These programs have to be APA-accredited, and are usually offered in the specialisation of clinical or counselling psychology.  One-year internships would be done within both the Master's and Phd/PsyD programs.  Another year of post-doc internship would then be done after the PhD or PsyD.  These 1-year internships would usually count for 1500 to 2000 hours of supervised practice, with 40 hours of supervised practice per week, inclusive of 4 hours of supervision and 2 hours of seminar or classes.  Only after the post-doc internship, you will be eligible for the EPPP.  For more information about the EPPP, please view here.  Once you pass the EPPP, you can be licensed as a practicing psychology in U.S.

Basically to practice in U.S., I would call these requirements the "3Es": Education, Experience, and Examination.  Once you have gone all these 3 parts and managed to pass all of them, you are then a licensed psychologist in United States.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

SGPsychStud's reflections: Getting a psychological-related career in Singapore

This is purely my own thoughts and views about the type of work and opportunities of getting psychological-related work in Singapore.  This is something I feel that you as students and budding psychologists should have a thought about it as well, as it affects your own career pathways.

In my opinion, there are only three categories of psychological-related work in Singapore:  (a) Counselling / Psychotherapy / Consultation / similar types where it is one-to-one or one-to-group type of consultation,  (b) Research, and (c) Teaching / Lecturing.  For most students, they are studying to get into jobs that involve (a) Counselling / Psychotherapy / Consultation, and/or (b) Research.

For those interesting in (a) Counselling / Psychotherapy / Consultation types of work, it has already been discussed previously that you will need to get a postgraduate degree and it takes you at least 5 to 6 years of training to become a psychologist, regardless of the country you are in.
And for those considering to do (b) Research work, you will also need a postgraduate degree (more commonly a PhD) to become a full-fledged researcher doing research as a full-time job.
Lastly for those interested in (c) Teaching / Lecturing psychology, you will need at least a Masters (or PhD) degree; though it is not uncommon to see lecturers with only undergraduate degrees and teaching the diploma courses.  According to the Private Education Act 2009 Part VI Regulation 26 Paragraph 3, you need to have at least 5 years of working experience in the related field, or "qualifications in that field which are at least a level higher than the level of the course" if not equipped with 5 years of experience.
Though having the goals and aspirations to get into these careers, this may not be the case in reality.

My Advice:
1)  If you plan to get into psychological-related work, do know which category or categories of work (your work might be a mixture of two categories) you would like to do and/or good at.  Focus and invest your time and energy whenever possible.
2)  Opportunities beget experience, which in turn beget opportunities.  Although work opportunities may be hard to come by and most people would grab whatever that comes by, do think carefully of whether or not you want that job.  From my experience, from taking up a job, this may lead to other future jobs in the same category, which may be good if you plan to have a career in that category.  However, if you are not considering a career in that category, this might be limiting your career in certain ways.
3)  Without the required academic qualifications, most often than not, you may be stuck in a certain level at work; however no matter the situations, you should still work hard!! These work experiences will prepare you for the next stages of your career.   

To conclude, in order to plan your psychological career pathway, you should know and choose your choice of job category well, and invest your effort in getting a related job, and work hard at it!!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Pathway for Singapore Psychology Education

Copyright of SGPsychStuff

In Life, sometimes we take the most direct path, sometimes we take a longer route.  It's okay, no matter which way we take.  The most important thing is that we have a destination.

The most common route for Singaporean students is shown on the left, which is a direct route (after secondary education) to the post-secondary education (Junior University/Polytechnics), followed by moving up to a local university education.  Thousands of students go through this similar system every year.  This is also very common for psychology students.

Getting to post-secondary education ('A' levels / diploma) after secondary education is quite straightforward (some advice);  you pretty much only have three choices - doing your 'A' levels, doing a diploma in the local polytechnics, or in a PEI.  However it is the situation after the first post-secondary education that is not so straightforward.

The usual pathway after post-secondary education ('A' levels / diploma) would be to proceed on to do a degree, either in a local university or overseas university.  However, there are also situations where:
(a) Students choose to do a Psychology diploma in the local polytechnics or PEIs, after their 'A' levels.
(b) Students choose to do a Psychology diploma, because they did a previous non-Psychology diploma.
Students who did their diplomas in the PEIs would usually tend to stick with the same PEI to do their degrees.  You might want to consider these factors and advice when considering and comparing the PEIs.

All these different post-secondary education, 'A' levels or diploma (polytechnic or PEI), should enable you to get to a Bachelors degree (overall comparison), either in a local university (local comparison) or overseas degree provided by a PEI. However, you must still work very hard in your studies to enable you to get into the next level.  Studying in a Psychology program can be really tough and difficult, and a lot of people may have difficulties moving up from Bachelors to Honours to Masters.  

Most students who have done their Honours degree do hope to do a postgraduate degree.  There are some available in Singapore.  However, you need to be very dedicated and passionate in Psychology for your studies as well as work, as this passions will decide whether or not you will stay in the psychological field.

Note: In the above pathway, this academic journey might be disrupted for work at any point; however, one can always come back to continue their psychological education in the next level.  But do practice good time management if you plan to work and study at the same time.    

Good luck in your psychological journey!!!