Mind Over Matter

Neurology-based advice for a lockdown lingerer and a doubtful dater

Dear Dr Ash,

I know lockdown’s been grim for lots of people, but I secretly loved it. I enjoyed working from home, not having to commute, avoiding my boss and not dealing with the grumpiness and petty jealousies of colleagues. I liked Zoom meetings in trackie bottoms and being able to garden in my lunch break. Now my company has said it wants everyone back in the office by November and I am filled with dread. I’ve already been into the office twice and I wanted to cry. I like my work, but I now feel allergic to my workplace. How can I cope with re-entry?

Best wishes
Lockdown-lover in Market Harborough

Dear Lockdown-lover,

The delights of being slovenly are not to be underestimated. As I write this, the morning sun deepens the colour of a coffee stain on my moth-eaten jumper and I can glimpse my big toe through worn wool slippers. The demands of the social world are, for a brief and glorious moment, held at bay.

An awareness of the clamour of others is not new to the pandemic, of course. In his 1944 play, Huis Clos, the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote that “L’Enfer, c’est les autres.” By this he meant not that the mere presence of other people was intolerable, but that the presence of others forced us to create an artificial and often uncomfortable social self. That we must come to know who we are through this social self, Sartre thought, is a kind of self-imposed hell. And if self-imposed hell weren’t enough to put you off, interactions with others are pretty demanding on the brain too. Research into the neuroscience of social cognition demonstrates that the basic functions that we require to communicate – generating a theory of mind, reading and interpreting emotional cues, deploying expressive language, what many call emotional labour – are some of the most demanding tasks the brain can perform. That’s why, despite all the advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, empathetic communication remains utterly beyond the limits of technology. Admittedly, it sounds like it may also be utterly beyond the limits of some of your colleagues.

But if there is one upside, it’s that it is a universal human problem. Your colleagues will also be struggling with re-entry into the office environment. Beneath all the polite niceties and grumbled curses there are people struggling to find themselves and define their relationships with each other. We are all in the same boat, and we are all desperate to jump out and swim for shore. Once you realise that, you may be able to find a sense of compassion for your colleagues and, ultimately, a sense of community. Or try wearing the trackie bottoms under your work clothes.

Best wishes
Dr Ash

Dear Dr. Ash,

I’ve been single for a couple of years, and a few months ago I started dating a new man I really like. He’s attractive, funny and interesting, and I rarely meet people whose company I enjoy so much. But part of his charm is his very sarcastic sense of humour. Although it was great at first, it now feels like a barrier to getting to know him better. I can never get him to speak seriously and sincerely.

I’ve been reading about attachment theory and I know that I have an “anxious attachment” style when I like someone. I feel I need to know where I stand with this new man, but he’s told me he doesn’t believe in labels and I don’t know how to get him to open up. How can I find out how he views our relationship? (not that it has that label of course!)

Communicative in Cambridgeshire

Dear Communicative,

Dating is immensely difficult. Even if it hadn’t become an amorphous and ill-defined fog of expectation and implication, there would be the technological minefields created by Tinder, Facebook status updates, sexting and ghosting. It makes Romeo and Juliet’s double-fake-suicide-sleeping-potion-in-a-tomb plan seem pretty straightforward in comparison.

In that setting, your interest in the psychology of attachment is understandable. Learning about diagnostic categories feels like it can bring order to the chaos of human experience. But for clinicians the purpose of diagnosis is to guide treatment, not to create insight. As a doctor I know that every time I diagnose a patient, I’m lumping a diverse group of people together into a common category. And when I do that, I know that I’m losing some insight into their individual differences. The trade-off is only worthwhile if it leads to better outcomes.

So while labels may be useful in a clinical setting, on a personal level it’s the specifics that count. Your partner is already communicating volumes about his feelings, but he’s doing that through his behaviour and tone as much as through his choice of words. In the same way that we can know how a dog feels by observing its body posture, we can understand how people feel when we watch how they act. If you’re both laughing and enjoying each other’s company, that’s already the start of good communication. If you notice that he’s keeping his distance and you’re feeling anxious, that’s worth taking seriously even without a label.

But if you observe his behaviour and conclude he’s holding back, don’t be too quick to judge. You feel intimacy comes from sincere and loving communication; perhaps your partner feels that intimacy has to be in place before that communication can happen. If you really do enjoy being with this fellow, it’s worth being patient. My advice is to avoid labels but pay attention to the details.

Best wishes,
Dr. Ash.


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