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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

02 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Mozart’s Bag of Memories: How Memory Powers Creative Thought and the Art of Connecting the Seemingly Unrelated

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“In the course of creative endeavors, artists and scientists join fragments of knowledge into a new unity of understanding.”

Literature is the original internet — an endless rabbit hole of discoveries, with each citation, footnote, and allusion essentially a “hyperlink” to another text, another idea. I was recently reminded of this by a passing mention in Ronald Kellogg’s 1994 book on the psychology of writing, which led me to a fantastic 1985 volume titled Notebooks of the Mind: Explorations of Thinking (public library). In this masterwork of insight, psycholinguist Vera John-Steiner cracks open the minds of 100 different creative individuals — writers, artists, composers, choreographers — via original interviews and an analysis of their existing notebooks, journals, letters, and scientific records, shedding light on the central elements and essential patterns of creative thought.

While John-Steiner expanded on seminal work like Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner’s model of creativity and Howard Gardner’s influential theory of multiple intelligences, she pioneered a new framework for understanding creativity based on qualitative research and interdisciplinary perspective. An early champion of an idea now ubiquitous in today’s ever-growing catalog of books on creativity, John-Steiner approached her research with visionary clarity of conviction: “That ‘creativity’ is beyond analysis is a romantic illusion we must now outgrow.”

Illustration from 'Neurocomic,' a graphic novel about how the brain works. Click image for more.

One of the most important and enduring of John-Steiner’s insights on the “invisible tools” that propel a life of creative work and set artists apart from the rest is the concept of memory and how it empowers us to connect seemingly unrelated ideas — one of the defining characteristics of the creative mind and the basis of combinatorial creativity. She writes:

Among the invisible tools of creative individuals is their ability to hold on to the specific texture of their past. Their skill is akin to that of a rural family who lives through the winter on food stored in their root cellar… The creative use of one’s past, however, requires a memory that is both powerful and selective.

Mozart, she notes, called this his “bag of memories” — a mental reservoir of experiences and impressions “accumulated during the childhood years of intense wonder, a source to which many creative people return again and again.” Similarly, Ingmar Bergman wrote that “to make films is also to plunge again by its deepest roots down to the world of childhood.” She cites author Judy Blume, for whom this mental library of memories is especially dependent on sensory impressions:

I remember smells, feelings. I will walk in a house and say, this is B. N.’s home. This is the way his house smelled on a winter morning. All the sensations are there to be brought back.

This highly selective nature of creative memory is a supreme testament to the fact that memory is not a recording device and that, as legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks would put it decades later, “memories are not fixed or frozen, like Proust’s jars of preserves in a larder, but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorized with every act of recollection.” John-Steiner quotes the English poet Stephen Spender, who captured this beautifully:

Memory is not exactly memory. It is more like a prong, upon which a calendar of similar experiences happening throughout the years, collect. A memory once clearly stated ceases to be a memory, it becomes perpetually present, because every time we experience something which recalls it, the clear and lucid original experience imposes its formal beauty on the new experiences. It is thus no longer memory but an experience lived through again and again.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman from 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

But certain domains of creativity, like science or the sort of writing that relies on a heavy use of research and historical facts, demand that the creator’s access to memory be a lot less abstract and a lot more methodical. Indeed, this need explains the odd strategies many famous authors employed in organizing their ideas. John-Steiner points to Darwin’ particularly obsessive organization strategy, possibly one of his techniques for alleviating his chronic anxiety — he “carefully indexed all the books he had read and organized the material into portfolios that he consulted at the beginning of each new project.” Reviewing other examples of similar practices, John-Steiner puts it in no uncertain terms:

A powerful and personally developed structuring of information — an active and selective memory — is as necessary for scientists as it is for poets.

But perhaps the most potent use of memory in the creative mind is the cross-pollination of accumulated ideas and the fusing together of seemingly unrelated concepts into novel configurations — something Stephen Jay Gould, arguably the greatest science essayist of all time, captured when he said that his sole talent is “making connections.” John-Steiner quotes a similar sentiment by the Polish-born mathematician Stan Ulam:

It seems to me that good memory — at least for mathematicians and physicists — forms a large part of their talent. And what we call talent or perhaps genius itself depends to a large extent on the ability to use one’s memory properly to find analogies, past, present and future, which [are] essential to the development of new ideas.

Returning to Judy Blume’s approach to writing, which includes writing manuscript pages and taping them into a notebook for later use while the author’s mind “races head to this or to that,” John-Steiner points out how this technique bespeaks the fact that “the human mind is multi-channeled not only in the way in which we record experience … but also in the way in which writers, poets, and composers think while engaged in a new work”:

While Blume composes her narrative in a focused forward movement on her typewriter, she is also aware of the more diffuse associations that accompany her writing.

She cites her interview with the legendary composer Aaron Copland, who remarked that when this associative process works in an optimal state of flow, “all different musical materials run to their proper places.”

Illustration from 'Neurocomic,' a graphic novel about how the brain works. Click image for more.

This utilization of remembered ideas and their combination into new concepts, John-Steiner argues, can occur both consciously and unconsciously — the latter best evidenced in the unconscious incubation stage present in just about every formal model of the creative process. This is powered by our multiple modes of analyzing and retaining information — sensory, perceptual, semantic, and episodic. She explains:

An experience is processed in multiple ways, as each type of memory “storage” has its own special characteristic. The stories of one’s life are recorded in episodic memory, and these are tagged according to the time and place of their occurrence. More abstract knowledge lacks such coding; instead it is recorded in a more formal structure such as biological taxonomies or other facts, which are organized according to hierarchical concepts.

Each domain of creativity prioritizes a different mode of memory as a primary source of raw material. Citing painter Paul Gauguin’s self-admitted “remarkable memory,” John-Steiner notes the importance of “a precise visual imagination that activates the exceptional abilities of this artist-designer”:

Mental images are an important resource for the working artist’s talent.

Illustration from 'Neurocomic,' a graphic novel about how the brain works. Click image for more.

Noting that memory is a crucial resource in “keeping one’s knowledge current by linking the known to new ideas and insights,” she adds:

In the course of creative endeavors, artists and scientists join fragments of knowledge into a new unity of understanding. This process is demanding; it calls upon all the inner resources of the individual — active memory, openness to experience, creative intensity, and emotional courage. It demands self-knowledge in the use of expansion of one’s talents.

In the remainder of Notebooks of the Mind, John-Steiner explores the many “invisible tools” of creative work, including the role of revision, the interplay of anxiety and ambition, the power of finding the right mentors, and the importance of working from a place of love while remaining open to all your feelings. Complement it with Jerome Bruner on the six essential conditions of creativity and the psychology of optimizing your brain by honing emotional memory.

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01 SEPTEMBER, 2014

The Shortness of Life: Seneca on Busyness and The Art of Living Wide Rather Than Living Long

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“The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today… The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”

“How we spend our days,” Annie Dillard memorably wrote in her soul-stretching meditation on the life of presence, “is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And yet most of us spend our days in what Kierkegaard believed to be our greatest source of unhappiness — a refusal to recognize that “busy is a decision” and that presence is infinitely more rewarding than productivity. I frequently worry that being productive is the surest way to lull ourselves into a trance of passivity and busyness the greatest distraction from living, as we coast through our lives day after day, showing up for our obligations but being absent from our selves, mistaking the doing for the being.

Despite a steadily swelling human life expectancy, these concerns seem more urgent than ever — and yet they are hardly unique to our age. In fact, they go as far back as the record of human experience and endeavor. It is unsurprising, then, that the best treatment of the subject is also among the oldest: Roman philosopher Seneca’s spectacular 2,000-year-old treatise On the Shortness of Life (public library) — a poignant reminder of what we so deeply intuit yet so easily forget and so chronically fail to put into practice.

Seneca writes:

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

Millennia before the now-tired adage that “time is money,” Seneca cautions that we fail to treat time as a valuable resource, even though it is arguably our most precious and least renewable one:

People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.

To those who so squander their time, he offers an unambiguous admonition:

You are living as if destined to live for ever; your own frailty never occurs to you; you don’t notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply — though all the while that very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last. You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire… How late it is to begin really to live just when life must end! How stupid to forget our mortality, and put off sensible plans to our fiftieth and sixtieth years, aiming to begin life from a point at which few have arrived!

Nineteen centuries later, Bertrand Russell, another of humanity’s greatest minds, lamented rhetorically, “What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?” But even Seneca, writing in the first century, saw busyness — that dual demon of distraction and preoccupation — as an addiction that stands in the way of mastering the art of living:

No activity can be successfully pursued by an individual who is preoccupied … since the mind when distracted absorbs nothing deeply, but rejects everything which is, so to speak, crammed into it. Living is the least important activity of the preoccupied man; yet there is nothing which is harder to learn… Learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die.

In our habitual compulsion to ensure that the next moment contains what this one lacks, Seneca suggests, we manage to become, as another wise man put it, “accomplished fugitives from ourselves.” Seneca writes:

Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present. But the man who … organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day… Nothing can be taken from this life, and you can only add to it as if giving to a man who is already full and satisfied food which he does not want but can hold. So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long. For suppose you should think that a man had had a long voyage who had been caught in a raging storm as he left harbor, and carried hither and thither and driven round and round in a circle by the rage of opposing winds? He did not have a long voyage, just a long tossing about.

Seneca is particularly skeptical of the double-edged sword of achievement and ambition — something David Foster Wallace would later eloquently censure — which causes us to steep in our cesspool of insecurity, dissatisfaction, and clinging:

It is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; and meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return. New preoccupations take the place of the old, hope excites more hope and ambition more ambition. They do not look for an end to their misery, but simply change the reason for it.

Illustration by Gus Gordon from 'Herman and Rosie.' Click image for more.

This, Seneca cautions, is tenfold more toxic for the soul when one is working for the man, as it were, and toiling away toward goals laid out by another:

Indeed the state of all who are preoccupied is wretched, but the most wretched are those who are toiling not even at their own preoccupations, but must regulate their sleep by another’s, and their walk by another’s pace, and obey orders in those freest of all things, loving and hating. If such people want to know how short their lives are, let them reflect how small a portion is their own.

In one particularly prescient aside, Seneca makes a remark that crystallizes what is really at stake when a person asks, not to mention demands, another’s time — an admonition that applies with poignant precision to the modern malady of incessant meeting requests and the rather violating barrage of People Wanting Things:

All those who call you to themselves draw you away from yourself.

[...]

I am always surprised to see some people demanding the time of others and meeting a most obliging response. Both sides have in view the reason for which the time is asked and neither regards the time itself — as if nothing there is being asked for and nothing given. They are trifling with life’s most precious commodity, being deceived because it is an intangible thing, not open to inspection and therefore reckoned very cheap — in fact, almost without any value.

He suggests that protecting our time is essential self-care, and the opposite a dangerous form of self-neglect:

Nobody works out the value of time: men use it lavishly as if it cost nothing… We have to be more careful in preserving what will cease at an unknown point.

Illustration by Alessandro Sanna from 'The River.' Click image for more.

He captures what a perilous form of self-hypnosis our trance of busyness is:

No one will bring back the years; no one will restore you to yourself. Life will follow the path it began to take, and will neither reverse nor check its course. It will cause no commotion to remind you of its swiftness, but glide on quietly. It will not lengthen itself for a king’s command or a people’s favor. As it started out on its first day, so it will run on, nowhere pausing or turning aside. What will be the outcome? You have been preoccupied while life hastens on. Meanwhile death will arrive, and you have no choice in making yourself available for that.

But even “more idiotic,” to use his unambiguous language, than keeping ourselves busy is indulging the vice of procrastination — not the productivity-related kind, but the existential kind, that limiting longing for certainty and guarantees, which causes us to obsessively plan and chronically put off pursuing our greatest aspirations and living our greatest truths on the pretext that the future will somehow provide a more favorable backdrop:

Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.

Seneca reframes this with an apt metaphor:

You must match time’s swiftness with your speed in using it, and you must drink quickly as though from a rapid stream that will not always flow… Just as travelers are beguiled by conversation or reading or some profound meditation, and find they have arrived at their destination before they knew they were approaching it; so it is with this unceasing and extremely fast-moving journey of life, which waking or sleeping we make at the same pace — the preoccupied become aware of it only when it is over.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his own occupation, Seneca points to the study of philosophy as the only worthwhile occupation of the mind and spirit — an invaluable teacher that helps us learn how to inhabit our own selves fully in this “brief and transient spell” of existence and expands our short lives sideways, so that we may live wide rather than long. He writes:

Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive. For they not only keep a good watch over their own lifetimes, but they annex every age to theirs. All the years that have passed before them are added to their own. Unless we are very ungrateful, all those distinguished founders of holy creeds were born for us and prepared for us a way of life. By the toil of others we are led into the presence of things which have been brought from darkness into light.

[...]

From them you can take whatever you wish: it will not be their fault if you do not take your fill from them. What happiness, what a fine old age awaits the man who has made himself a client of these! He will have friends whose advice he can ask on the most important or the most trivial matters, whom he can consult daily about himself, who will tell him the truth without insulting him and praise him without flattery, who will offer him a pattern on which to model himself.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince. Click image for more.

Perhaps most poignantly, however, Seneca suggests that philosophy offers a kind of spiritual reparenting to those of us who didn’t win the lottery of existence and didn’t benefit from the kind of nurturing, sound, fully present parenting that is so essential to the cultivation of inner wholeness:

We are in the habit of saying that it was not in our power to choose the parents who were allotted to us, that they were given to us by chance. But we can choose whose children we would like to be. There are households of the noblest intellects: choose the one into which you wish to be adopted, and you will inherit not only their name but their property too. Nor will this property need to be guarded meanly or grudgingly: the more it is shared out, the greater it will become. These will offer you a path to immortality and raise you to a point from which no one is cast down. This is the only way to prolong mortality — even to convert it to immortality.

On the Shortness of Life is a sublime read in its pithy totality. Complement it with some Montaigne’s timeless lessons on the art of living and Alan Watts on how to live with presence.

Thanks, Liz

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28 AUGUST, 2014

Darwin’s Battle with Anxiety

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A posthumous diagnosis of the paralyzing mental malady that afflicted one of humanity’s greatest minds.

Charles Darwin was undoubtedly among the most significant thinkers humanity has ever produced. But he was also a man of peculiar mental habits, from his stringent daily routine to his despairingly despondent moods to his obsessive list of the pros and cons of marriage. Those, it turns out, may have been simply Darwin’s best adaptation strategy for controlling a malady that dominated his life, the same one that afflicted Vincent van Gogh — a chronic anxiety, which rendered him among the legions of great minds evidencing the relationship between creativity and mental illness.

In My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind (public library) — his sweeping mental health memoir, exploring our culture of anxiety and its costsThe Atlantic editor Scott Stossel examines Darwin’s prolific diaries and letters, proposing that the reason the great scientist spent a good third of his waking hours on the Beagle in bed or sick, as well as the cause of his lifelong laundry list of medical symptoms, was his struggle with anxiety.

Stossel writes:

Observers going back to Aristotle have noted that nervous dyspepsia and intellectual accomplishment often go hand in hand. Sigmund Freud’s trip to the United States in 1909, which introduced psychoanalysis to this country, was marred (as he would later frequently complain) by his nervous stomach and bouts of diarrhea. Many of the letters between William and Henry James, first-class neurotics both, consist mainly of the exchange of various remedies for their stomach trouble.

But for debilitating nervous stomach complaints, nothing compares to that which afflicted poor Charles Darwin, who spent decades of his life prostrated by his upset stomach.

That affliction of afflictions, Stossel argues, was Darwin’s overpowering anxiety — something that might explain why his influential studies of human emotion were of such intense interest to him. Stossel points to a “Diary of Health” that the scientist kept for six years between the ages of 40 and 46 at the urging of his physician. He filled dozens of pages with complaints like “chronic fatigue, severe stomach pain and flatulence, frequent vomiting, dizziness (‘swimming head,’ as Darwin described it), trembling, insomnia, rashes, eczema, boils, heart palpitations and pain, and melancholy.”

In 1865 — six years after the completion of The Origin of Species — a distraught 56-year-old Darwin wrote a letter to another physician, John Chapman, outlining the multitude of symptoms that had bedeviled him for decades:

For 25 years extreme spasmodic daily & nightly flatulence: occasional vomiting, on two occasions prolonged during months. Vomiting preceded by shivering, hysterical crying[,] dying sensations or half-faint. & copious very palid urine. Now vomiting & every passage of flatulence preceded by ringing of ears, treading on air & vision …. Nervousness when E leaves me.

“E” refers to his wife Emma, who loved Darwin dearly and who mothered his ten children — a context in which his “nervousness” does suggest anxiety’s characteristic tendency to wring worries out of unlikely scenarios, not to mention being direct evidence of the very term “separation anxiety.”

Illustration from The Smithsonian's 'Darwin: A Graphic Biography.' Click image for more.

Stossel chronicles Darwin’s descent:

Darwin was frustrated that dozens of physicians, beginning with his own father, had failed to cure him. By the time he wrote to Dr. Chapman, Darwin had spent most of the past three decades — during which time he’d struggled heroically to write On the Origin of Species housebound by general invalidism. Based on his diaries and letters, it’s fair to say he spent a full third of his daytime hours since the age of twenty-eight either vomiting or lying in bed.

Chapman had treated many prominent Victorian intellectuals who were “knocked up” with anxiety at one time or another; he specialized in, as he put it, those high-strung neurotics “whose minds are highly cultivated and developed, and often complicated, modified, and dominated by subtle psychical conflicts, whose intensity and bearing on the physical malady it is difficult to comprehend.” He prescribed the application of ice to the spinal cord for almost all diseases of nervous origin.

Chapman came out to Darwin’s country estate in late May 1865, and Darwin spent several hours each day over the next several months encased in ice; he composed crucial sections of The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication with ice bags packed around his spine.

The treatment didn’t work. The “incessant vomiting” continued. So while Darwin and his family enjoyed Chapman’s company (“We liked Dr. Chapman so very much we were quite sorry the ice failed for his sake as well as ours” Darwin’s wife wrote), by July they had abandoned the treatment and sent the doctor back to London.

Chapman was not the first doctor to fail to cure Darwin, and he would not be the last. To read Darwin’s diaries and correspondence is to marvel at the more or less constant debilitation he endured after he returned from the famous voyage of the Beagle in 1836. The medical debate about what, exactly, was wrong with Darwin has raged for 150 years. The list proposed during his life and after his death is long: amoebic infection, appendicitis, duodenal ulcer, peptic ulcer, migraines, chronic cholecystitis, “smouldering hepatitis,” malaria, catarrhal dyspepsia, arsenic poisoning, porphyria, narcolepsy, “diabetogenic hyper-insulism,” gout, “suppressed gout,” chronic brucellosis (endemic to Argentina, which the Beagle had visited), Chagas’ disease (possibly contracted from a bug bite in Argentina), allergic reactions to the pigeons he worked with, complications from the protracted seasickness he experienced on the Beagle, and ‘refractive anomaly of the eyes.’ I’ve just read an article, “Darwin’s Illness Revealed,” published in a British academic journal in 2005, that attributes Darwin’s ailments to lactose intolerance.

Various competing hypotheses attempted to diagnose Darwin, both during his lifetime and after. But Stossel argues that “a careful reading of Darwin’s life suggests that the precipitating factor in every one of his most acute attacks of illness was anxiety.” His greatest rebuttal to other medical theories is a seemingly simple, positively profound piece of evidence:

When Darwin would stop working and go walking or riding in the Scottish Highlands or North Wales, his health would be restored.

(Of course, one need not suffer from debilitating anxiety in order to reap the physical and mental benefits of walking, arguably one of the simplest yet most rewarding forms of psychic restoration and a powerful catalyst for creativity.)

My Age of Anxiety is a fascinating read in its totality. Complement it with a timeless antidote to anxiety from Alan Watts, then revisit Darwin’s brighter side with his beautiful reflections on family, work, and happiness.

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