brainEMO: Stress connects, technology isolates?

brainEMO is a fresh BRAINetwork venture centered on emotional well-being and mental health. This is the third entry in the series, where features will take multiple forms and approaches. 

Our previous entries touched on stress and emotional neglect in society, issues that are intricately linked. Society is more stressed than ever, despite better education, income, medical advancements, amenities, nutrition and machines that simplify labour. Logically, this should leave us with more time, more freedom, more control. So why does the opposite appear to be true?

Stress is almost always viewed in a bad light. Most research highlight cortisol (the “stress hormone”) and its detrimental effects. There is less attention on oxytocin (the “love/bonding hormone”), which is also released during stress. Besides inhibiting the stress response, oxytocin stimulates us to seek support and connection (e.g. misery loves company), which further reduces stress through confiding, sharing and thus creating a social support system. After all, how many of us have bonded over grief (e.g. MH370), heartbreak or work stress? Under normal circumstances, we are less likely to do so at the risk of appearing weak, incompetent or dependent. Perhaps the solution lies not in eliminating, but rather effectively managing stress. Stress can be positive (eustress), like preparing for a promotion or a wedding – to a certain extent, it can depend on how one views it. Well-adjusted individuals do not necessarily have less stress, they could be just better at reframing and dealing with it, often buoyed by a strong social network of family and friends.

This leads to how technology (in some ways) have become a convenient surrogate for relationships and connection. While social media has revolutionized and made communication more accessible globally, it has also blurred traditional boundaries. Its instantaneous, 24/7 availability and global nature is highly compatible with our busy lifestyles. We are able to control how we appear in our profiles, when and how we interact a lot more  – a world where highly polished, edited and perfect images reign supreme. Indeed, most millennials are more comfortable interacting via social media. This can be an issue when social media replaces (rather than supplements) real life interactions, which is becoming more common. Many are guilty of being glued to our phones during communal meals, meetings or daily commutes – thus, tuning out when we are supposed to be bonding. Friendships, dating or breaking up over text is quicker and easier, relieving us from dealing with its emotional trappings. Is it any wonder then that we gradually become more emotionally stunted or socially awkward over time?

Is it ironic that stress promotes bonding while technology inhibits it, contrary to their typically accepted roles? Not really. By and large, it boils down to if we control it, or if it controls us. Learn more by listening to these inspiring TEDtalks by sociologist and psychologist Sherry Turkle (Connected, but alone?) and health psychologist Kelly McGonigal (How to make stress your friend), then decide for yourself.

brainEMO: Smart pills

brainEMO is a fresh BRAINetwork venture centered on emotional well-being and mental health. This is the second entry in the series, where features will take multiple forms and approaches. 

Since 1992, April has been declared the National Stress Awareness month in the United States. Indeed, stress is one of the leading causes of diseases and mortality worldwide, be it at home, work or school settings. Much emphasis has been given on educating the public on the effects of stress on health, as well as effective coping or stress management skills. These include reappraising mindsets, effective time management, having a good work-life balance, tackling things in manageable chunks, learning to say no, getting enough sleep, nutrition and exercise, unwinding with music, meditation or yoga and maintaining a strong social support system of friends and family. But what if a solution came in the form of a pill?

Ensuring optimal work or school performance, often in overextended and fatigued conditions, are common sources of stress in modern society. This situation has encouraged the practice of ingesting pharmacological cognitive enhancers like Modafinil (originally used to increase arousal in patients with sleep disorders) in healthy individuals to boost attention and alertness, be it for work (e.g. performing surgery) or study (e.g. cramming for an exam). While controversial, this topic is by no means new and many have weighed in on the issue. Opinions however, remain divided. For example, proponents feel these pharmacological cognitive enhancers are no different from traditional aids like coffee or tutoring, and we should adjust our mindsets. Opponents opine that it encourages undesirable habits, which leads to an unhealthy lifestyle and mentality.

Read one of our researcher’s take on the topic here. Please note that it is the author’s personal view and may not necessarily represent the views of BRAINetwork.

brainEMO: The emotional barrier

brainEMO is a fresh BRAINetwork venture centered on emotional well-being and mental health. This is the first entry in the series, where features will take multiple forms and approaches. 

Modern society is paradoxical – sophisticated technology ensure we are more connected than before, yet many feel lonelier and more isolated than ever. Mood and mental disorders increasingly affect an alarming rate of teenagers and adults, leading to tragic outcomes like the Columbine, Virginia Tech and Aurora shootings in the United States. The underlying factor often points to emotion neglect. Growing up, particularly in an Asian society, scant attention is paid to learning how to express and resolve emotions. When emotion is of focus, it tends to be associated with immaturity, weakness and frivolity. Is it any wonder then that many are at a loss, confused and struggle with their emotions, preferring to avoid or suppress them? Compounded with negative societal connotations, this lack of awareness only serves to perpetuate the emotional stigma, resulting in higher levels of emotional and mental breakdowns.

Fortunately, the tide is turning. The World Health Organization has launched the Mental Health Action Plan in 2013 to 2020, and World Mental Health Day is celebrated on October 10th annually, highlighting a specific theme or disorder each year. Other independent initiatives like the annual United Nation’s International Day of Happiness (celebrated every March 20th) exemplify projects providing alternative, indirect approaches and resolutions. What they all have in common is spreading awareness, providing resources and focusing on prevention. This enables individuals to educate themselves, be aware of options and gain some control – factors that many mental health sufferers feel they lack.

Watch this space for our upcoming entries. In the meantime, if you have any specific topics that you would like us to focus on, feel free to send us your feedback and suggestions!

Tri-lingual Learning: Bahasa Jahai, Bahasa Malaysia and English

BRAINetwork and the Orang Asli of Kampung Chuweh have been working together over the past few weeks to create a 1 to 10 counting chart. A counting chart, a simple and basic enough idea, but with a difference. One that acknowledges and includes the village’s native tongue, the Jahai language. The counting chart is a tri-lingual chart, created using with pictures taken from the small village of Kampung Chuweh which is located along Lake Banding in the Belum-Temenggor Forest Complex.

The chart is unique, as many of the learning materials that we observed in the various forms of educational centres for Orang Asli are developed in English or Bahasa Malaysia. Given that the Jahai tribe only number just over 1000 people is most likely the reason for this but there are also other tribes which number in the 20 and 30,000’s, which don’t have learning materials in their own language.

The making of the chart coincides with the United Nation’s International Mother Language Day 2015, which falls on the 21st of February 2015. The theme of this year’s International Mother Language Day is “Inclusive Education through and with Language – Language Matters”, which is fitting with BRAINetwork’s belief in the need to incorporate Orang Asli’s indigenous languages in to their education.

Bahasa Jahai, left, Bahasa Malaysia, centre, English, right.

It’s predicted that between 50-90% of the 6,500 languages currently spoken across the world today will die out over the next hundred years. This should provide a real impetus for the government and those working with the Orang Asli to help document and preserve the language of Malaysia’s indigenous people and with it, their culture.

When we were creating our chart, we worked primarily with Gomba Bin Adik of Chuweh, though others in the village contributed as they discussed the correct spelling for each part of the chart. Discussion and much debate ensued as the villagers had never actually seen their language in written form before and so each spelling was scrutinized.

To create the chart we used the standard alphabet, applying the Bahasa Malaysia pronunciation, for e.g. “c” in Bahasa Malaysia sounds like “ch” in English and so ‘c’ in the Jahai language is also phonetically “ch” in English, in our interpretation of the Jahai language. Some of the spellings could be argued to be incorrect but we used what the native speakers believed to be their best interpretation/understanding of the spelling.for blog 3

While we were creating the material, we contacted a Swedish linguist by the name of Niclas Burenhult, currently an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Lund University, who previously performed research on the Jahai language. Niclas informed us that “Orang Asli languages are a challenge for the ordinary alphabet, since they maintain far more meaningful distinctions in their sound systems than both English and Malay do”. Essentially meaning that the modern English alphabet is too simplistic to fully detail the complex range of sounds entailed in Orang Asli languages. However, Niclas also recommend that we accommodate the “preferred practical orthography of native speakers” and so we did by using the standard alphabet, which was the only one the tribe knew and understood.Buluh

Nelson Mandela famously said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart“, and that rang true in our case. The more we attempted to learn the village’s language, the more they grew to us, and also the more they laughed at us and our attempted pronunciation.

We hope that this material can be disseminated and used in any pre-schools and schools with Jahai people. BRAINetwork also hope to build on this by developing materials for other Orang Asli tribes, such as the Temiar people in RPS Air Banun.

Thank you to the people of Chuweh who happily helped put this piece together and also to Ching Ching Chang for her assistance and input. Feel free to contact Gerard Dunleavy on if you would like a copy of the chart.