Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

01 APRIL, 2013

How Abraham Maslow and His Humanistic Psychology Shaped the Modern Self

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What 1960s counterculture had to do with the timeless quest for self-actualization.

Legendary American psychologist Abraham Maslow, born on April 1, 1908, is best-known for creating the famous Maslow hierarchy of needs and endures as the founding father of humanistic psychology — the movement to focus on people’s capacity for goodness and transcendence, rather treating them as a pathological “bag of symptoms,” which blossomed into the Human Potential Movement and eventually gave rise to positive psychology. “The new age which is already upon us is essentially the product of the turning inward to the self,” he famously observed, echoing Anaïs Nin’s insistence on focusing on individual psychology and presaging Martha Nussbaum’s championing of inner life.

In Encountering America: Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self (public library), cultural historian Jessica Grogan weaves a dramatic narrative tracing the origins of humanistic psychology in the 1950s and its blossoming in the counterculture of the 1960s, intertwined with the sexual revolution and the psychedelics underground. Grogan introduces the project:

In telling this particular story, my purpose is to make people that seriously a movement that’s been largely dismissed from the academic circles in which it arose and that’s been gratuitously associated with the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s. I also hope to remind people of a truth to which humanistic psychology was keenly attuned — that individuals in all their messy complexity should remain at the heart of psychological study and practice.

The narrative, of which Maslow is the central hero, revolves around three central arguments about the value of humanistic psychology: its emphasis on the innate human capacity for growth; its bold defense of the complexity and subjectivity of the soul; its return to William James and the roots of American psychology, humanizing a discipline that had strayed too far off into scientific reductionism; is championing of crystalline awareness as the root of fulfillment; and its wide resonance in fields as diverse as civil rights, executive management, and philosophy.

She writes:

Abraham Maslow … once asked himself in his journal how he would define the [humanistic psychology] movement in one sentence. … It is, he wrote, ‘a move away from knowledge of things and lifeless objects as basis for all philosophy, economics, science, politics, etc. (because this has failed to help with the basic human problem) toward a centering upon human needs & fulfillment & aspirations as the fundamental basis from which to derive all social institutions, philosophy, ethics, etc. I might use also for more sophisticated & hep people that it is a resacralizing of science, society, the person, etc.’

In this engrossing short film based on the book, produced by Grogan’s husband, Daniel Oppenheimer, she takes us on a journey into Maslow’s extraordinary mind and lasting legacy:

Maslow thought that we should be striving for self-actualization. That could differ for everybody, but it was this process-oriented thing, where we’re always trying to improve, we’re trying to become less guarded, less defensive, more appreciative of beauty, more in the moment, more aware, more perceptive. Feeling more, experiencing more.

Encountering America goes on to explore how Maslow and his humanistic psychology shaped the course of everything from education reform to the understanding of consciousness to the women’s liberation movement.

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29 MARCH, 2013

The Art of Observation and How to Master the Crucial Difference Between Observation and Intuition

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Why genius lies in the selection of what is worth observing.

“In the field of observation,” legendary disease prevention pioneer Louis Pasteur famously proclaimed in 1854, “chance favors only the prepared mind.” “Knowledge comes from noticing resemblances and recurrences in the events that happen around us,” neuroscience godfather Wilfred Trotter asserted. That keen observation is what transmutes information into knowledge is indisputable — look no further than Sherlock Holmes and his exquisite mindfulness for a proof — but how, exactly, does one cultivate that critical faculty?

From The Art of Scientific Investigation (public library; public domain) by Cambridge University animal pathology professor W. I. B. Beveridge — the same fantastic 1957 compendium that explored the role of the intuition and imagination in science and how serendipity and “chance opportunism” fuel discovery — comes a timeless meditation on the art of observation, which he insists “is not passively watching but is an active mental process,” and the importance of distinguishing it from what we call intuition.

Though a number of celebrated minds favored intuition over rationality, and even Beveridge himself extolled the merits of the intuitive in science, he sides with modern-day admonitions about our tendency to mislabel other cognitive processes as “intuition” and advises:

It is important to realize that observation is much more than merely seeing something; it also involves a mental process. In all observations there are two elements : (a) the sense-perceptual element (usually visual) and (b) the mental, which, as we have seen, may be partly conscious and partly unconscious. Where the sense-perceptual element is relatively unimportant, it is often difficult to distinguish between an observation and an ordinary intuition. For example, this sort of thing is usually referred to as an observation: “I have noticed that I get hay fever whenever I go near horses.” The hay fever and the horses are perfectly obvious, it is the connection between the two that may require astuteness to notice at first, and this is a mental process not distinguishable from an intuition. Sometimes it is possible to draw a line between the noticing and the intuition, e.g. Aristotle commented that on observing that the bright side of the moon is always toward the sun, it may suddenly occur to the observer that the explanation is that the moon shines by the light of the sun.

For the practical applications of observation, Beveridge turns to French physiologist Claude Bernard’s model, pointing out the connection-making necessary for creativity:

Claude Bernard distinguished two types of observation: (a) spontaneous or passive observations which are unexpected; and (b) induced or active observations which are deliberately sought, usually on account of an hypothesis. … Effective spontaneous observation involves firstly noticing some object or event. The thing noticed will only become significant if the mind of the observer either consciously or unconsciously relates it to some relevant knowledge or past experience, or if in pondering on it subsequently he arrives at some hypothesis. In the last section attention was called to the fact that the mind is particularly sensitive to changes or differences. This is of use in scientific observation, but what is more important and more difficult is to observe (in this instance mainly a mental process) resemblances or correlations between things that on the surface appeared quite unrelated.

Echoing Jean Jacques Rousseau’s timeless words that “real wisdom is not the knowledge of everything, but the knowledge of which things in life are necessary, which are less necessary, and which are completely unnecessary to know” and Noam Chomsky’s similar assertion centuries later, Beveridge cautions:

One cannot observe everything closely, therefore one must discriminate and try to select the significant. When practicing a branch of science, the ‘trained’ observer deliberately looks for specific things which his training has taught him are significant, but in research he often has to rely on his own discrimination, guided only by his general scientific knowledge, judgment and perhaps an hypothesis which he entertains.

He cites Alan Gregg, the then-director of Medical Sciences for the Rockefeller Foundation:

Most of the knowledge and much of the genius of the research worker lie behind his selection of what is worth observing. It is a crucial choice, often determining the success or failure of months of work, often differentiating the brilliant discoverer from the … plodder.

Observation, like all virtuous habits worth acquiring, can be cultivated with deliberate practice — a skill that Beveridge argues, as E. O. Wilson advised young scientists and social scientists have corroborated, is superior to mindlessly stored knowledge:

Powers of observation can be developed by cultivating the habit of watching things with an active, enquiring mind. It is no exaggeration to say that well developed habits of observation are more important in research than large accumulations of academic learning.

Ultimately, Beveridge argues that the art of observation depends on developing the capacity for pattern-recognition, which in turn relies on a broad pool of networked knowledge that allows you to spot the piece that doesn’t fit:

In carrying out any observation you look deliberately for each characteristic you know may be there, for any unusual feature, and especially for any suggestive associations or relationships among the things you see, or between them and what you know. … Most of the relationships observed are due to chance and have no significance, but occasionally one will lead to a fruitful idea.

[…]

Training in observation follows the same principles as training in any activity. At first one must do things consciously and laboriously, but with practice the activities gradually become automatic and unconscious and a habit is established. Effective scientific observation also requires a good background, for only by being familiar with the usual can we notice something as being unusual or unexplained.

It seems, then, that Steven Johnson was right in augmenting Pasteur’s famous words to “chance favors the connected mind.”

Despite its title, The Art of Scientific Investigation is a priceless treasure trove of insight on creativity in all domains — highly recommended. This article was illustrated with gender-gap-defying public domain images of women in science courtesy of the ever-wonderful Flickr Commons archive.

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28 MARCH, 2013

Afterwords: Moving Letters of Condolence on Virginia Woolf’s Death

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T.S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell, E.M. Foster, Elizabeth Bowen, H.G. Wells, and others grapple with the ineffable.

On March 28, 1941, shortly after the gruesome onset of WWII, Virginia Woolf filled the pockets of her overcoat with rocks, treaded into the River Ouse behind the house in East Sussex where she lived with her husband Leonard, and drowned herself. She had succumbed to a relapse of the all-consuming depression she had narrowly escaped in her youth. Once news of her death broke, an outpour of condolence letters captured the enormous collective grief, mourning at once the deeply personal emptiness left behind by a remarkable woman and a loyal friend, and the severe cultural loss of a brilliant mind and a transcendent artist. The most moving of these letters are collected in Afterwords: Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf (public library), edited by University of Sussex researcher Sybil Oldfield — a rousing monument to Woolf’s legacy as an author, humanist, and tireless exponent of the inner light of being.

Oldfield poignantly observes:

Virginia Woolf’s fundamental gift to women was to give us the courage and happiness to think our own thoughts.

One of the letters contained P. H. Wallis’s stirring obituary for Woolf:

In her person, the character of her intellect and irradiating property of her imagination, there was revealed the spiritual antithesis of all that is connoted in the phrase ‘Hitlerism.’ More than any other writer of her generation she grew to be regarded as the apostle of culture, of a learning humanized by the breath of life [and] of a quality of living the more radiant because of its quickening by things of the spirit.

Three days after the suicide, Virginia’s one-time lover and lifelong friend Vita Sackville-West — one of the seven people to whom Leonard had broken the news before the Times and BBC announcements — captures the ineffable grief of the loss in a letter to Leonard:

The loveliest mind and spirit I ever knew, immortal both to the world and us who loved her. … This is not a hard letter to write as you will know something of what I feel and words are unnecessary. For you I feel a really overwhelming sorrow, and for myself a loss which can never diminish.

A week later, on April 7, Vita replied to a distraught letter by Dame Ethel Smyth, one of the other seven whom Leonard had alerted to the tragedy:

Darling Ethel I wish I could say something comforting. All I can feel is that it is better for her to be dead than mad, and I do thank God that she has not been found. The river is tidal so she has probably been carried out to sea. She loved the sea.

But rather than being swept out to the ocean, Woolf’s body, like her spirit had throughout her life, defied the mainstream and was found three weeks later entangled in branches under the river bank. On April 20, upon hearing the news, Vita sent the following stirring letter to artist Vanessa Bell, Woolf’s sister:

My dear Vanessa,

I am so horrified by the news that Virginia has been found that I scarcely know whether to write to you or not. I had gathered from Leonard some time ago that the search had been given up, and was so thankful, partly because it felt that there was something fitting in the idea of her being carried out to the sea, (a small comfort in the midst of all this tragedy,) and partly because it would spare you and Leonard so much. I really do not know what to say, except that I am haunted by the imagining of what you may both have had to go through. I won’t write to Leonard, such blundering words as I write to you; but if you think you can do so, perhaps you will tell him sometime that I wrote.

A number of the condolence letters came from some of the era’s literary greats. T. S. Eliot wrote Leonard on April 4, 1941:

Dear Leonard

I only learned the news yesterday afternoon when I was in London, having had no previous intimation. For myself and others it is the end of a world. I merely feel quite numb at the moment, and can’t think about this or anything else, but I want you to know that you are as constantly in my mind as in anyone’s.

Affectionately,
Tom

On April 3, E. M. Forster wrote:

Dear Leonard,

I have just seen The Times, feel a bit trembly and unable to think of anyone but myself. I will write again to you. As I daresay you know she had invited me to come and I had suggested doing so later in this month. I am just going to Cambridge; dear Leonard, it will seem empty and strange. I can’t write any more now, only send my deepest love and sadness. Leslie Humphrey came over that very day and we talked a great deal about Virginia, he will be desolated like so many of all generations.

On April 4, poet Edith Sitwell reached out to Leonard and shared in the mourning:

No words can express our feelings at this dreadful heartrending thing. We are absolutely overcome. … It cannot help you in the least to know how many people must be feeling a desperate sense of loss. I know that we do, here, — but that does not help you in the least. Nothing can.

Perhaps the day will come when we shall think, ‘At least she was spared seeing people sink lower and lower, and all the new desecrations and shames;’ but at the moment that doesn’t help at all.

When I think of that noble and high spirit and mind!

There isn’t anything one can say, and one must not intrude on your sorrow. But all my life I shall remember the feeling of light, and of happiness, that she gave one. As a person, as well as in her art. Everything seemed worth while, important, and beautiful.

On April 10, H. G. Wells wrote Leonard:

I’ve been wanting to write to you these days about this distressful break in your life and finding it difficult to say what I had to say. you see I know you and your work very well. I have an immense respect for it. … I am concerned before anything else that you should carry on. Virginia I met only twice. Then she was invariably charming and delightful. But I knew she had these moods and phases that at once deepen and enslave affection. She must leave you extraordinarily void. I understand about that sort of thing but I cannot write about that sort of thing. But I do care for you and your work and I want to tell you that.

On April 8, Elizabeth Bowen, one of the last friends to see Woolf before the depression consumed her and among the seven personally informed of the suicide, replied to a letter from Leonard:

You said not to answer your letter, and above all I don’t want to trouble you with words now. And it is no time to speak of my own feeling. As far as I am concerned, a great deal of the meaning seems to have gone out of this world. She illuminated everything, and one referred the most trivial things to her in one’s thoughts. To have been allowed to know her and love her is a great thing.

But perhaps most heartbreaking of all is a note from an anonymous refugee reader who had intended to write Woolf a letter of appreciation, but instead lamented all too late:

Artists must know that they are understood and that there are ‘Common Readers’ in the background.

Woolf’s own last words, penned in her famous diary on January 4, 1929, are at once tragic and serene, reminiscent of Henry Miller’s contention that “all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis.” Woolf writes:

Now is life very solid or very shifting? I am haunted by the two contradictions. This has gone on forever; goes down to the bottom of the world — this moment I stand on. Also it is transitory, flying, diaphanous. I shall pass like a cloud on the waves. Perhaps it may be that though we change, one flying after another, so quick, so quick, yet we are somehow successive and continuous we human beings, and show the light through. But what is the light?

Complement Afterwords with Patti Smith’s moving tribute to Woolf.

Image via National Portrait Gallery

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