THE SOUTHEAST ASIAN REGIONAL CONFERENCE ON SCIENTIFIC AND APPLIED PSYCHOLOGY: MUMBAI

 

Blanche Barnes and Mike Knowles

 

General Idea

The Southeast Asian Regional Conference on Scientific and Applied Psychology (SARC) held in Mumbai from 17-20 December 2001 was the most recent Regional Conference of Psychology organised under the joint auspices of the International Association of Applied Psychology (IAAP) and the International Union of Psychological Science (IUPsyS). IAAP and IUPsyS alternate their roles in being primarily responsible for coordinating the organisation of these Conferences which are specifically designed to stimulate the growth of psychology in developing countries whose members may find the cost of registration, travel and accommodation for the larger IAAP and IUPsyS Congresses prohibitively expensive. In addition to IAAP and IUPsyS, the Regional Conferences are also sponsored by the International Association of Cross Cultural Psychology.

 

Specific Idea

 

The Southeast Asian Regional Conference was a pioneering endeavour in the history of Indian Psychology.  It was hosted by the Bombay Psychological Association (BPA) in collaboration with both the Department of Psychology of SNDT Women’s University in Mumbai and the University of Mumbai’s Department of Applied Psychology.  The principal outcome of the Conference was that it allowed the fraternity of Indian psychologists to show-case their work to a much wider audience than normal.  With over 300 delegates, Indian and international, this was a landmark event that projected Indian psychology to the rest of the world.

 

The main theme of the conference was ‘Enhancing Human Potential’ which covered a wide spectrum of the discipline ranging from indigenous issues in psychology to the hi-tech management of human resources in times of globalisation.  Housed under this umbrella were two types of sub-themes. The first included topics relevant to various populations and issues such as women, the geriatric population, neuropsychological issues, issues pertaining to ethnic and cultural diversity, as well as terrorism.  The second sub-theme was oriented mainly towards issues involving cross cultural psychology, indigenisation of psychology, globalisation and human behaviour, health and community psychology, cognitive and neuro-sciences, gender and parity, and social research planning and action. 

 

The violent incidence of September 11 had a major impact upon international participation at the Conference. In spite of this there was encouraging representation from 16 different countries.  It included psychologists from Asia, Africa, Australia and the Middle East as well as some from the United States and Europe, mostly to give invited addresses.  Due to the delicate intricacies involved in the Kashmir issue, terrorism also had local significance.  Thus it was a learning experience for all the conference delegates to participate in the various paper presentations made not only on terrorism but also in the Symposium on ‘Psychology of Non-violence - Implications for Peace’.

 

The Scientific Program

The Scientific Program was structured around a number of plenary sessions, each featuring eminent scholars in their respective fields, supplemented by a number of parallel sessions, symposia, invited addresses and panel discussions.

 

Opening Keynote Addresses

Two keynote addresses set the tone of the Conference.  The first, by Charles Spielberger (USA), titled ‘Stress, Emotion and Health’, drew upon his own basic research into anxiety, stress and anger control as well as collaborative research with Indian academics. The state of anger was depicted as a fundamental psychological state of arousal ranging from mild irritation to intense fury.  Hostility was presented as a complex trait separate from anger involving feelings of cynicism, vindictiveness, viciousness and mean behaviour.  Subsequently the three overlapping states of Anger, Hostility and Aggression were identified as a single (AHA) syndrome.  An AHS scale which measured the intensity and frequency of anger at a particular moment in time was also described.  These measures were shown to be directly related to hypertension and thus a useful predictor of progression towards arteriosclerosis.

 

The second keynote address was delivered by Raymond Fowler (American Psychological Association, USA), on ‘Emerging Areas of Psychological Practice in the U.S.’ which covered the changing needs of psychologists in both the USA as well as other parts of the world. The main theme of the address was that psychologists have to be empowered with prescriptive authority in order to enhance their capacity to provide effective patient management. In addition, the need for change in the curriculum and training of psychologists is also imperative, and this too should work towards statutory recognition. Thus the current need is to examine the psychologist’s role and its desired modification as defined by existing legislation. Similar benchmarking to specify the standards for psychologists could be relevant for most countries.  These observations were the pointer for Indian psychologists who have neither licensing nor statuary recognition as professionals.  On the other hand, with increasing access to emergent technology including fax, email, video conferencing and the internet, modern communication media will offer Indian psychologists increasing opportunities to tap into disseminated knowledge and skill as well as elevate the importance of psychological problems.  At the same time modern technology will enable Indian psychologist to reach out to marginalised populations reducing their feelings of isolation and  making them more accessible to psychological services.

 

Plenary Session Highlights

Highlights from the plenary sessions have been grouped around six themes: indigenous psychology, psychology and non-violence, treating victims of trauma and abuse, incapacitating diseases, cognitive and neurosciences, and other areas.  Each will be briefly described.

 

Indigenous Psychology: Since the main objective of having a conference in Mumbai was to stimulate the interests and involvement of regional psychologists and behavioural scientists, perhaps the symposium most central to the basic concept of the Conference was that dealing with indigenous psychology and the development of indigenous constructs in psychology. India has a rich cultural heritage in which ancient sages devised various psychological constructs for behavioural and emotional stages as reported in the Vedas and other scriptures, most of which may not be known to many Western psychologists.  Due to colonisation and other influences, a good deal of western psychology has been imported into India to the utter dismay of many local psychologists.  In contrast, some of the behavioural parameters of Indians are beyond the interpretation of Western psychology, as illustrated in this symposium.

 

Pittu Laungani, an Indian by origin but for a long time an U.K. citizen and thus having experiences of both the Eastern and Western patterns of life, tackled this subject in his talk on ‘Cross-cultural psychology: A handmaiden of mainstream Western psychology?’ If effect, it was a critique on the very concept of cross-cultural psychology. He stressed the vast difference between the constructs of Eastern and Western psychology, especially the cultural influence on the growth and development of psychology in any country.  Even the concept of cross-cultural psychology was shaped by Western thought.

 

Anand Paranjpe, again an Indian by origin but now a Canadian citizen, highlighted cultural variations and the need to develop Indian constructs to interpret Indian behavioural patterns. Issues related to Desi (indigenous) and Western approaches to psychology and curative medicine too were discussed. There seems to be little dialogue or systematic comparison between Desi and Western systems. His presentation highlighted the need to differentiate the cultures and identify the blind spots in both traditional Indian and modern scientific perspective about issues such as body and mind, health and pathology, causes and cures, and happiness and suffering.  There should be a careful validation of Western and Indian models on the basis of which it could be possible to combine the unique strengths of Yoga, Ayurveda and Biomedicine (or allopathy) and avoid needless conflicts between East and West.

 

Janak Pandey (Allahabad), addressed the issues of migration from rural to urban cities. Research findings of capital city immigrants to Delhi, Dhaka and Islamabad were discussed.  The contributing variables for migration were motivation, personal satisfaction and social network. Significant proportions of migrants to Delhi, Dhaka and Islamabad attributed their migration to fate and beliefs about the control that God has over their lives. Further reasons given were related to their mental and physical health, their home environments, and the satisfaction they experienced in the city of their migration.

 

Malavika Kapoor (Bangalore and NIHAMS) described views on childcare in ancient India and discussed implication for developmental psychology. She highlighted the traditional child rearing methods based on Ayurveda. Kaumarabhrtya, one of the eight branches of Ayurveda, that deals with the care of children in ancient India.  It dates back 5000 years.  Kashyapa Samhita is the only text which deals exclusively with children.  Even today the paediatricians and naturopaths resort to the ancient methods of child rearing for healthy growth and development.

 

Sath Cooper described the specific problems faced by psychologist in South Africa.  Here, whites (90%) dominate psychology with the majority of them being women (60%).  Prior to 1998 psychometric testing was banned but a much-debated bill passed in that year now permits the use of ‘scientific and valid tests’ for assessment.   Currently there is a move to change the face of psychology in South Africa in terms of colour and what it should be doing for its people.

 

John Adair (Canada) strongly advocated the development of indigenous psychology in South Asia and the need to raise its visibility.  Indigenous psychology should be culturally appropriate and should contribute to the national development and understanding of the human and social problems unique to that country.  Supporting the late Durganand Sinha’s view of cross-cultural psychology, a rich future awaits Indian psychology.  He identified the steps constituting the indigenous process, namely, importation, implantation, indigenisation and auto-theorisation.  Indian research so far has replicated western research with only passing reference to indigenous culture.  Indian psychology should focus upon not only the processes of individuation and collectivism but also the behaviour patterns largely dependent on multiple interactive factors such as self, family, place, time and person.

 

Peter Smith (UK), too, spoke on ‘ The Culture of Psychology and Psychology of Culture’ and the various dimensions that are necessary to differentiate various cultures.  He pointed out the fallacies and pitfalls of indigenous research today which indulged largely in the application of Western concepts, predominantly North American, in studying indigenous behaviour.  He emphasised that the role of indigenous research was to identify behaviour prominent in certain cultures and brining it to the attention of researchers.  This would expand the paradigms of psychology and also reaffirm its universality, identifying and initiating new areas of research between nations and cultures.

 

Psychology and Non-violence: This symposium on the ‘Psychology of Non-violence: Implication for Peace’, was sponsored by the Gandhian Studies Centre, Department of Applied Psychology, Mumbai University.  V.K. Kool (USA) pointed out that India was the original land of Buddhism and has a rich tradition of non-violence which was adopted effectively by Mahatma Gandhi to achieve Indian independence.  He expressed the need to define violence and develop a model of non-violence.  Non-violence would imply resistance to tyranny and injustice other than physical force and a desire to build a community of caring by the reconciliation of adversaries.  A non-violent person was defined as one low on aggression and power but high on moral concerns, and a factorial analysis of tests of non-violence showed significant loadings on self -control, anti-punitiveness, forbearance, equity in justice, self-defence, constructive reforms, and good affective control.  In another paper Lalita Chandra (India) reported that important predictors of non-violent behaviour were factors like commitment, control and challenge, so that when individuals are committed to their goals and take responsibility even in adverse circumstances, they generally tend to have an optimistic view and show little hostile feelings.  Following on from this Manisha Sen (Mumbai) spoke of the need to develop proactive intervention strategies if non-violence is to be effectively curbed.  A further perspective was presented in a paper by Charles Day (UK) on ‘Preserving peace, freedom, and justice in the midst of tragedy’ which emphasised the humanitarian and spiritual traditions that inculcate values of love, compassion and forgiveness.

 

Treating Victims of Trauma and Abuse: India witnessed a recent mega tragedy on 26 January 2001 in the form of an earthquake in the Bachahau District of Gujarat where all the buildings were razed to the ground.  This caused widespread physical disability and mental trauma as well as the loss of many lives.  In this regard the current Conference was fortunate to have representatives of the Humanitarian Assistance Program (HAP) from the USA who conducted a plenary session on the treatment of trauma victims.  Previously they had organised a six day pre-conference workshop on Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) with nearly 45 psychologists received training in this technique.  At the Conference HAP trainer Roger Solomon (USA) gave a keynote address on EMDR as a method for treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  This model focuses upon the blocked processing which prevents the individual dealing adequately with the traumatic experience thus causing the condition of PTSD.  EMDR organises the memory selected for processing, catalyses the information processing system, maintains it in a dynamic state, and facilitates the processing of the information surrounding the event.  Empirical evidence supporting the efficacy of EMDR as a therapy was presented.  For example, four controlled studies of the effectiveness of EMDR on single trauma cases with PTSD demonstrated that after 90 minute sessions 84 to 100 per cent of cases no longer manifested PTSD symptoms during post-test sessions.  A word of caution, however, was given that many more studies should be replicated on EMDR to establish further confidence levels of its efficacy.  The significance of eye movements or other bilateral stimulation as advocated in EMDR is controversial and there is not sufficient research data as yet to know whether or not the theoretical model of EMDR is valid.

 

This paper was followed by a panel discussion in which Indian psychologist Sushma Mehrotra and her group who worked with the trauma victims of the earthquake narrated their experiences of helping the victims out of PTSD by EMDR.  In addition, a group of Bangladeshi psychologists led by Quazi Mahmudur Rahman also made a presentation on the use of EMDR in handling problems in children due to punishment and abuse.

 

Eastern and Western psychotherapies always have been pitted against each other pointing to the advantages and relevance of each to elevate human problems.  In this context Danny Wedding (USA) presented a bi-partisan paper on ‘Integration of Buddhist Thought and Practice into Psychotherapy’.  Buddhism and psychotherapy have many parallels such as looking within oneself and introspection.  Drawing upon both, this integrative approach utilises meditation, prayer, reflection, listening to dharma lectures, all of which are aimed at making the person a changed and evolved individual in which meditation has become part and parcel of their life.  In similar vein Charles Day also emphasised the beneficial aspects of meditation.  As was pointed out, Budda described in detail various causes of suffering and techniques to alleviate personal problems, and advocated meditation for the purpose of minimising suffering and maximising happiness, a goal shared by all health professionals.

 

Rajendra Chokani (Mumbai) spoke on Vipasana meditation - an insight-oriented therapy. This too, is based on Buddhist philosophy.  Vipasana focuses on purifying the mind or, in other words, deconditioning the mind and getting more happiness out of life.  Meditation is a ‘practice of self liberation’ which could be developed in all cultures.  Meditation is an effective technique in inducing various physiological and psychological changes like reducing heat rate, breathing rate, blood pressure and stress, as well as increasing skin resistance.  Vipasana acts as a chain-reaction process involving self-observation, self-knowledge, self-transformation and self-realisation.

 

Laughter and humour too have a place in the field of alternative therapies.  Parul Tank (Mumbai) presented her views on beneficial aspects of humour for physical well being, subjective well being and quality of life.  Laughter makes life lighter and gives feelings of relaxation and being unburdened.  Sheetal Agarwal (Mumbai) related humour to psychoneuroimmunology in so far as humour and laughter have an eustress effect on the immune system.  Another reported finding was that humour facilitates appraisal process and hence influences self-perception of stress in a beneficial way.

 

Various issues of yoga were addressed by Arun Bal (Mumbai Yoga Institute).  Yoga is an ancient system of life style practiced in India to achieve mental peace, tranquillity and equanimity.  It prevents diseases and protects health.  Yoga is facilitated by various asanas which help people to meditate and be aware of their body functioning. 

 

Aroma therapy is another popular alternate therapies practiced in India and was the subject of a paper presented by Minoo Ratan (Mumbai).  Aroma therapy focuses on the therapeutic effects of natural, essential oils with their bio-chemicals providing relief of psychosomatic disorders.  Anxiety, depression, insomnia, migraine, nervous cough are all symptoms that are related to a lowered state of the immune system which can be alleviated to a large degree through the use of appropriate blends of natural essential oils. Since they are oviferous liquid components of the aromatic plants they are extremely volatile in nature and enter the body principally through the olfactory system and the skin. These oils affect the central nervous system in many ways to produce effects such as relaxation and rejuvenation.

 

Premila Vyas  (USA) addressed the issue of ‘Conflict of Culture’ among senior citizens in a diversified ethnic group in the USA.  Her paper concerned the enigma that although social security ensures economic support, senior citizens whose origins lie outside Houston find it difficult to spend their time fruitfully.  The elderly feel alienated since they were used to different type of social support as existed in India where there is a feeling of ‘we” or ‘us’ and not ‘me or ‘mine’.  One option was for them to stay with their grand children which enhances feelings of connectivity and boosts their sense of well being.  She also suggested three additional ways in which senior citizens of other nationality should possibly cope with this problem: learn effective communication skills for interaction with others; acquire independence in mobility so that they are not dependant on their children; learn simple skills that keep them meaningfully occupied.

 

Incapacitating Diseases: Another important aspect of the conference was the emphasis given to the highly prevalent diseases that simultaneously incapacitate the individual and inflict them with deteriorated quality of life.  Dilip Panniker, spoke on ‘Coping with Alzheimers: a Family Perspective’, and in another session Shridhar Archik and Purvesh Parekh presented a paper on ‘Coping with Osteoporosis and Cancer’.  These sessions were sponsored by NOVARTIS Pharma Ltd. who organise programs to create public awareness of manifestations of debilitating disease so that the latter can be detected more quickly than at present by the Indian public.

 

 Dilip Pannikar addressed the issue of alzheimer’s nationally where there are around 2.4 to 3.5m.  people afflicted with this condition in the different States of India.  The impact of alzheimer’s was discussed in terms of physical disability, behavioural disturbances, emotional upheavals, financial burden and medico-legal implications.  The remedies to these problems were said to lie in a holistic treatment and management program involving early diagnosis, education, family involvement and the development of networks of support.  Finally, since alzheimer’s is an incurable illness, there is a need to have legislation to protect the interests of both patient and family, as well as provide easy access to health care.

 

Speaking on ‘Coping with Osteoporosis’, Shridhar Archik narrated the Indian scenario of this disease and emphasised the vulnerability of women to it as well as the role of diet in preventing its onset.  The session included a detailed account of osteoporosis’ physiological and psychological concomitants.  Another major disease in India is cancer and tobacco is its main cause.  Purvesh Parikh addressed the psycho-social issues of cancer and pointed to various support groups available in the country to help such patients and their families.  The special significance and role of the family in coping with cancer was also highlighted.

 

Cognitive and Neurosciences: Cognitive sciences and neurosciences in recent times have surfaced significantly in India.  Among other things this is evidenced in the establishment of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) at Bangalore.  In this symposium  C.R. Mukundan spoke on the neuropsychology of thinking.  Although the concepts that individuals acquire are directly derived from personal experiences, many become abstract and symbolic.  Concepts formed are likely to have a wide representation in the brain because of its multidimensionality.  Experiences of thinking also take place in a nonverbal mode.  Whereas concepts are often visual entities without any specific form, speaking is like a verbal adaptor card in the brain which has the capacity automatically to convert every input into verbal output.  Skill in doing this is acquired through practice.  He further elaborated the significance of Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas for the thinking process which takes place through encoding, decoding and actual verbalisation.  Yet another incidental event that takes place within the brain while one talks to oneself is that the listening post monitors the same dialogue. This is possible because of the dense interconnection present and the common semantic system shared by the listening and talking systems.  He pointed to various pathological aspects of thinking such as delusions and hallucinations and their relationship to brain behaviour.  In this context Shobini Rao from NIMHANS gave another presentation which described a rehabilitation program for brain pathology patients.  It involves systematic cognitive training and retraining to acquire skills that a patient is weak in, thus raising their level of competence and improving their quality of life.  She illustrated many activities that are being used to rehabilitate and train patients.

 

Other Areas: A symposium on ‘Counselling in the Learning Disabled’ was conducted to throw light on the existing status of neglected children.  A group of school psychologists and counsellors participated in this symposium.  The High Court of India, as specified in the Act of 1995, directed that dyslexic children should be integrated into the main stream of education.  Various issues of dyslexics and their problems were highlighted by Durda Parikh.  In addition, the topic of emotional adjustment in pre-adolescents was addressed by Anuradha Sovani, the need for parental counselling was highlighted by Neelakshi Lavakare, and the need for educational and career counselling for these children was stressed by Gautam Gawli.

 

Gender and parity was another major topic that received a lot of attention.  Blanche Barnes (Mumbai) described her experiences and research on ‘Women and Mental Health : A Gender Perspective’.  This paper identified various stressors faced by women at different times as well as the repercussions of these stressors on their mental health and sense of well-being. The paper highlighted the gender identity and the sexist bias faced by women in diagnosis and treatment, and the need for women to have access to a wide range of resources, medical, economical, social and educational.  Multiple roles and burnout syndrome in women, life-span developmental stressors, unique occupational stress and adjustment, sexual harassment at the work place, female child labor, impact of stress and trauma in manifestations of physical and psychological symptoms, and many such others were also discussed.  The paper concluded with a suggested plan of action to integrate women into the mainstream of society by making them self-reliant and productive individuals of society.

                                                                                                                                 

Another paper addressing women’s issues was given by Abdolmajid Eskandari (Iran) on ‘Women in Distress and Confessional Poetry’.  This paper traced the modes of confessions in the poems of two poets with different background from two different countries.  It illustrated the impact of era, environment, marriage, personal problems and other influential factors upon the inner emotions of women, and the way poetry served to ventilate their feelings.   It showed that poetry effectively dramatises the stereotyping of women in this era.  These poets inhabit a world that is beyond personality wherein they transform what is particular, unique, and very often pathological in their own lives into something that is universal and existential in their poetry.

 

Highlights of the Pre-conference Workshops

 

Workshop on ‘Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)’: The EMDR psychotherapeutic model proposed by Shapiro hypothesises that dysfunctional behaviour is a result of traumatic memories stored in the nervous system.  These experiences are insufficiently processed information stored at the time of disturbing event and their memories are represented in the form of disturbing images, cognition and affect.  The EMDR procedure includes induced movements of client’s eyes while the client is guided through an account of trauma or body sensation.  This form of therapy allows clients to process material that they cannot even begin to discuss.  Most importantly, it can markedly lessen or eliminate excessive distress surrounding a traumatic issue quickly and with lasting effect.

 

Workshop on ‘Stress in the Workplace: Conquer Stress Before it Conquers You!’: This was a one-day workshop for business executives, management consultants, chief executives and captains of industry, and was led by Pittu Laungani and Charles Spielberger.

 

Workshop on ‘Strategic Intervention Model - Visual Imagery Strategies’: This workshop dealt with learning strategies curriculum designed to help students cope effectively with the increasing academic demands of higher classes.  The aim was to make the student deal effectively with the curriculum demands and generalise these newly acquired skills to the classroom, the home, and employment settings.  The ultimate goal was to enable the student to learn skills and content and thus be able to perform independently in all settings.  The workshop was led by Laitha Ramanujan.

 

Workshop on ‘Quantitative Methods in Social Sciences’: This workshop was organised to help researchers find answers to some of the difficulties faced by them while undertaking research in social sciences.  The workshop gave an overview of each step involved in the process of research from identification of the problem, formulation of hypothesis, sample selection, choice of appropriate measures and tools, research designs, methods of data collection and tabulation, use of appropriate statistical techniques, and report writing.  The workshop especially benefited those doing research at masters or doctoral level, faculty planning to undertake minor or major research projects, and others undertaking research work in their particular area of interest.  The workshop employed user friendly and interactive approach and was led by A.K.Sen.

 

Workshop on ‘Presentation of Psychopathology in U.S. Films’: This workshop dealt with the issue of how public attitudes to psychopathology were influenced by media such as film and television.  For example, Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of a man with autism in the film Rain Man had the positive effect of educating millions of Americans about this condition, while Gus van Sant's recent remake of Psycho had the negative effect of perpetuating the myth that mental illness is closely linked with violence.  As these examples illustrate, movies have the capacity to shape public perceptions not only of mental illness and people with mental illness but also the professionals who threat these disorders.   Likewise, public attitudes about alcoholism, drug addiction and developmental disabilities are all influenced by the portrayal of these conditions on television and in contemporary cinema.  This influence can be positive or negative. In this context the workshop reviewed the cinematic representation of each of the major categories of psychopathology included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association.  Brief film clips were used to illustrate both accurate and inaccurate presentations of mental illness in movies, and the workshop highlighted the ways in which films perpetuate the stigma associated with mental illness and addictions. The workshop was led by Danny Wedding.

 

Conclusion

For many Indian psychologists, if not all, the SARC provided an ideal exposure to the wider field of psychology since participation in international conferences is uncommon due to financial constraints.  The Conference also saw a large number of non-resident Indian psychologists for whom participating in an international Conference in their country of origin brought back nostalgic memories. 

At a global level the Conference achieved, perhaps unwittingly, the important implicit objective of demonstrating the gulf that exists between two bodies of psychological knowledge.  One is that which to a large degree is universal and knows no boundaries in terms of its dominant theories and models.  The other is the understanding of this knowledge in its cultural context and the way the generic models can be applied or modified to suit local conditions and circumstances.  For those who had the privilege of attending Mumbai the Conference went a long way down the path of building rapprochement between these two potentially opposing viewpoints.

 

Thus, the SARC was not only an enriching learning experience, which is the ultimate objective of every scientific conference, but also a cultural experience as well.  This was evidenced by the over-flowing of letters received from delegates complimenting the Conference Organisers on their superb organisation of the Conference and praising the Indian hospitality that was showered upon them.