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Home » Are Your Coping Mechanisms Healthy? – Dr. Andrew Miki (Transcript)

Are Your Coping Mechanisms Healthy? – Dr. Andrew Miki (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of psychologist Dr. Andrew Miki’s talk titled “Are Your Coping Mechanisms Healthy?” at TEDxSurrey 2024 conference.

Listen to the audio version here:


The Connection Between a Pigeon’s Ability to Count and Human Mental Health

What do you think is the connection between a pigeon’s ability to count and human mental health? The answer has to do with learned behaviors. When I was on the path to becoming a clinical psychologist, my career veered in the direction of animal cognition and neuroscience. I found myself teaching pigeons to count using a process called shaping.

You start by giving it some food every time it looks at a touchscreen. This creates connections in its brain that become stronger over time, even as the rules become more complex. So just like teaching a dog to stay, I eventually trained the pigeon to peck at a red square when it saw two flashes of light, and a green square when it saw three. I now had a pigeon that could count.

This process happens gradually, day after day, until that learned behavior becomes a habit. I’ve worked in mental health over 25 years, and I’ve learned that just like the pigeon, our brains reinforce certain habits or coping mechanisms that help us feel better in the moment. I’ve seen thousands of educators, health care workers, and first responders rely on coping mechanisms like procrastination, overusing their smartphones, or working harder through a tough time. This can backfire and train them to become anxious and depressed.

For example, if you scroll endlessly on social media, instead of getting to that task that fills you with anxiety or dread. Or late at night, you get a dopamine hit when you click on the next episode button. Procrastination can feel good at the time, but the next day is going to be a real grind. These coping mechanisms help us feel better in the moment, so it is not crazy that we do them.

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