Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

01 APRIL, 2013

Was Shakespeare Shakespeare? 11 Rules for Critical Thinking


To be or not to be certain — an exercise in the art and science of doubt.

It’s been argued that Shakespeare changed everything. Yet even if this is true, it’s true of the literature we consider Shakespeare’s legacy — which, it turns out, might not be Shakespeare’s after all. So holds the Authorship Question — the age-old debate about whether or not a single man we refer to as Shakespeare authored the legendary sonnets and plays. Currently, there are three contenders for the authorship throne: “Startford” (the man from the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, or Traditional Shakespeare), “Oxford” (Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford), or “Ignatus” (an unnamed and unidentified third person).

In AKA Shakespeare: A Scientific Approach to the Authorship Question (public library), Stanford astrophysicist Peter Surrock, who lists as his credentials “a love of literature and a fondness for attempting to solve problems … coupled with a conviction that scientific thinking need not be restricted to scientific problems,” presents a DIY kit for assessing the Authorship Question, applying scientific principles to the four-centuries-old dispute. Surrock writes:

Why another book about the Shakespeare Authorship Question? Because the identity of the author we know as “Shakespeare” remains an open question. Most scholars of English literature maintain that he was a gentleman of that or similar name who was born and died in the small town of Stratford-upon-Avon in the County of Warwickshire in England. However, there are a growing number of independent scholars who dispute that contention. The scholastic community has not persuaded the independent scholars to see the error of their ways. But neither have the independent scholars persuaded the orthodox scholars to see the error of their ways. The Authorship Problem therefore remains unresolved.

Unusual in both form and format, the book is written as a dialogue between four characters of various skills and perspectives — a Shakespeare-Is-Shakespeare believer, a fierce skeptic, and two participants of neutral disposition who are there to shepherd the scientific process. What emerges is part choose-your-own-adventure novel, part Baloney Detection Kit, tickling your critical thinking and guiding you through various pieces of information as you make up your own mind about The Bard’s identity.

The the toolkit — being a product of science — does involve some number-crunching, a tool on the book’s companion site affectionately named Prospero will analyze your judgments of the evidence and produce a result in favor of Stratford or Oxford or Ignotus.

But perhaps best of all is the checklist of credos that underpin the analytical tool. Dubbed Prospero’s Precepts, these eleven rules culled from some of history’s greatest minds can serve as a general-purpose guideline for critical thinking in all matters of doubt:

  1. All beliefs in whatever realm are theories at some level. (Stephen Schneider)
  2. Do not condemn the judgment of another because it differs from your own. You may both be wrong. (Dandemis)
  3. Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. (Francis Bacon)
  4. Never fall in love with your hypothesis. (Peter Medawar)
  5. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts. (Arthur Conan Doyle)
  6. A theory should not attempt to explain all the facts, because some of the facts are wrong. (Francis Crick)
  7. The thing that doesn’t fit is the thing that is most interesting. (Richard Feynman)
  8. To kill an error is as good a service as, and sometimes even better than, the establishing of a new truth or fact. (Charles Darwin)
  9. It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. (Mark Twain)
  10. Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong. (Thomas Jefferson)
  11. All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed, second, it is violently opposed, and third, it is accepted as self-evident. (Arthur Schopenhauer)

Itching to solve the age-old mystery for yourself? Grab a copy of AKA Shakespeare and head over to Prospero to calculate your final degrees of belief, which Surrock and his research team will add to those of others before publishing a summary of the crowd-sourced results.

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01 APRIL, 2013

How Abraham Maslow and His Humanistic Psychology Shaped the Modern Self


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


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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