Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

23 JANUARY, 2014

Much Loved: Portraits of Beloved Childhood Teddies

By:

What a forty-something bear might know about the meaning of life.

Most of us grew up with a beloved stuffed animal, to which we pressed our tiny noses as our tiny hearts swelled with adoration. Mine was Laika, a white bear semi-explicably named after the famed Soviet space dog that became the first animal to orbit Earth. Psychologists call this a “transitional object” — an attachment bridge that helps us separate from our mothers without feeling an overwhelming sense of lonesome insecurity. What’s both perplexing and endearing, however, is that many kids continue to love their “transitional objects” well past the toddler stage, many even into young adulthood, bringing said teddy along to the college dorm room or even setting it in a sacred place in their grown-up bedroom. That’s precisely what Dublin-based photographer Mark Nixon explores with equal parts fascination and tenderness in his project Much Loved (public library) — a moving portrait gallery of people’s beloved bears and the occasional rabbit, monkey, or giraffe, many hugged and kissed down to bare threads to emerge as affection-ravaged amputees and bittersweet survivors of the immortal combat of growing up.

Peter Rabbit

Age: 10

Height: 16 inches

Belongs to: Callum Nixon

(© Mark Nixon courtesy of Abrams Image)

It all began when Nixon witnessed the complete adoration with which his own baby son enveloped his Peter Rabbit, a gift from his 99-year-old grandmother — “the way he squeezed it with delight when he was excited, the way he buried his nose in it while sucking his thumb, and how he just had to sleep with Peter every night.” Inspired by his newfound insight into the emotional world of childhood teddies and fueled by his admiration for legendary photographer Irving Penn’s ability to illuminate the dull and familiar in new and entrancing light, Nixon put out a call for people to bring their own beloved bears and other beings to be photographed for an exhibition at his studio space.

But what had begun as merely a fun creative project soon took Nixon by surprise as a psychological experiment with far more depth and dimension: He had expected mostly children, but the people who showed up were primarily grownups, and they brought with them not only their stuffed animals but also an outpouring of highly emotional memories and stories. Nixon writes:

It was as though they had been keeping a long-held secret and could finally tell someone what their teddies really meant to them. Their strength of feeling took me by surprise. They would tell some usually funny story about their teddy … or would speak emotionally about what it meant to them. So the stories and memories became integral to the photographs, adding significance to them and bringing them to life.

Teddy Moore

Age: 43

Height: 14 inches

Belongs to: Daragh O'Shea

(© Mark Nixon courtesy of Abrams Image)

Daragh’s father was given a pound from his parents for his birthday and he bought Teddy Moore for her. Under his hat and clothes, Teddy Moore is held together with nylons.

Although he looks like he was in a fire, in Daragh’s own words, she kissed the fur off him.

He lives in the locker beside her bed; she doesn’t like him sleeping in the bed in case she smothers him.

What makes the project most compelling, however, is that as we look at these inanimate creatures, we can’t help but peer into the souls of their soulless fabric bodies and imbue them with human feelings, confer upon their manufactured mugs human expressions: How joyful some look, happy to have been loved this hard, and how sad others, confused and devastated by their inevitable replacement with a child, a husband, a dog, or some other token of what Tolkien called “grownupishness.”

Ted

Age: 3.5

Height: 13 inches

Belongs to: Anne Marie Lents

(© Mark Nixon courtesy of Abrams Image)

Ted lost his eye defending me from a terrier at day care. (That’s the short version of the story.) He also keeps all my secrets in the compartment created by his flattened nose.

Joey

Age: 44

Height: 11 inches

Belongs to: Jean Cherwaiko

(© Mark Nixon courtesy of Abrams Image)

Samuel

Age: Unknown

Height: 12 inches

Belongs to: Maria Hurley

(© Mark Nixon courtesy of Abrams Image)

Pedro

Age: 47

Height: 9 inches

Belongs to: Maria Hurley

(© Mark Nixon courtesy of Abrams Image)

Giovanni

Age: 40

Height: 17 inches

Belongs to: Maria Hurley

(© Mark Nixon courtesy of Abrams Image)

I knitted Giovanni (formerly Joe) in primary school when I was about eight years old. When Joe was completed, he had a misshapen head and a too-large nose, and I didn’t like him very much.

Many years later when I was in medical school, I took pity on him and performed some cosmetic surgery, giving him a new nose and a better head. My mum made him some new clothes (as he had been attacked by a moth.)

To celebrate his new look, I have him his new name, Giovanni. He is best friends with Pedro.

Teddy Tingley

Age: 45

Height: 5 inches

Belongs to: Nicky Griffin

(© Mark Nixon courtesy of Abrams Image)

Teddy Tingley belonged to my oldest brother, who gave him to me the day I was born.

I remember when I was three years old and we were heading off on holiday by train. I had just settled down in the carriage with my brothers for the journey and as the train started moving, I glanced out the window to see, to my horror, Teddy sitting on a bundle of my comics left on the station platform. Thanks to my mum roaring like a madwoman out the window, “The teddy! The teddy! I just want the teddy!” some kind person picked up Teddy and ran with him as the train picked up speed, reaching up to the window just in time for Mum to grab him. She then had to sit down and face the other passengers for the rest of the journey…

George

Age: 44

Height: 17 inches

Belongs to: Audrey McDonnell

(© Mark Nixon courtesy of Abrams Image)

Among the private stories are also little-known fragments of popular culture, like the story of the bear U2′s Bono and his wife Ali inherited.

Greg’s Bear

Age: Unknown

Height: 4 inches

Belongs to: Bono and Ali Hewson

(© Mark Nixon courtesy of Abrams Image)

Ali Hewson writes:

This little bear is a memory of one of the most incredible men in my life. Greg Carroll became a great friend to me and Bono in the early 1980s. In 1986 he died at the age of twenty-six in a motor accident in Dublin, and he left a giant hole in our lives. Greg was a Maori, and at his tanti, the traditional Maori funeral rite, a mate of his handed us this one-eared teddy bear. It was Greg’s, and it has been with us ever since… a fragment of Greg’s reality, gone but never forgotten.

U2′s “One Tree Hill” was written for Greg and all the great men and women whose river reaches the sea too quickly. Greg’s teddy smiles when his good ear hears it played.

Much Loved is impossibly endearing in its entirety.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

22 JANUARY, 2014

Debunking the Myth of the 10,000-Hours Rule: What It Actually Takes to Reach Genius-Level Excellence

By:

How top-down attention, feedback loops, and daydreaming play into the science of success.

The question of what it takes to excel — to reach genius-level acumen at a chosen endeavor — has occupied psychologists for decades and philosophers for centuries. Groundbreaking research has pointed to “grit” as a better predictor of success than IQ, while psychologists have admonished against the dangers of slipping into autopilot in the quest for skill improvement. In recent years, one of the most persistent pop-psychology claims has been the myth of the “10,000-hour rule” — the idea that this is the amount of time one must invest in practice in order to reach meaningful success in any field. But in Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence (public library), celebrated psychologist and journalist Daniel Goleman, best-known for his influential 1995 book Emotional Intelligence, debunks the 10,000-hour mythology to reveal the more complex truth beneath the popular rule of thumb:

The “10,000-hour rule” — that this level of practice holds the secret to great success in any field — has become sacrosanct gospel, echoed on websites and recited as litany in high-performance workshops. The problem: it’s only half true. If you are a duffer at golf, say, and make the same mistakes every time you try a certain swing or putt, 10,000 hours of practicing that error will not improve your game. You’ll still be a duffer, albeit an older one.

No less an expert than Anders Ericsson, the Florida State University psychologist whose research on expertise spawned the 10,000-hour rule of thumb, told me, “You don’t get benefits from mechanical repetition, but by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal.”

“You have to tweak the system by pushing,” he adds, “allowing for more errors at first as you increase your limits.”

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky from Mark Twain's 'Advice to Little Girls.' Click image for details.

The secret to continued improvement, it turns out, isn’t the amount of time invested but the quality of that time. It sounds simple and obvious enough, and yet so much of both our formal education and the informal ways in which we go about pursuing success in skill-based fields is built around the premise of sheer time investment. Instead, the factor Ericsson and other psychologists have identified as the main predictor of success is deliberate practice — persistent training to which you give your full concentration rather than just your time, often guided by a skilled expert, coach, or mentor. It’s a qualitative difference in how you pay attention, not a quantitative measure of clocking in the hours. Goleman writes:

Hours and hours of practice are necessary for great performance, but not sufficient. How experts in any domain pay attention while practicing makes a crucial difference. For instance, in his much-cited study of violinists — the one that showed the top tier had practiced more than 10,000 hours — Ericsson found the experts did so with full concentration on improving a particular aspect of their performance that a master teacher identified.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Ruth Krauss's 'Open House for Butterflies.' Click image for details.

Goleman identifies a second necessary element: a feedback loop that allows you to spot errors as they occur and correct them, much like ballet dancers use mirrors during practice. He writes:

Ideally that feedback comes from someone with an expert eye and so every world-class sports champion has a coach. If you practice without such feedback, you don’t get to the top ranks.

The feedback matters and the concentration does, too — not just the hours.

Additionally, the optimal kind of attention requires top-down focus. While daydreaming may have its creative benefits, in the context of deliberate practice it only dilutes the efficiency of the process. Goleman writes:

Daydreaming defeats practice; those of us who browse TV while working out will never reach the top ranks. Paying full attention seems to boost the mind’s processing speed, strengthen synaptic connections, and expand or create neural networks for what we are practicing.

At least at first. But as you master how to execute the new routine, repeated practice transfers control of that skill from the top-down system for intentional focus to bottom-up circuits that eventually make its execution effortless. At that point you don’t need to think about it — you can do the routine well enough on automatic.

Illustration from 'Little Boy Brown' by André François. Click image for details.

But this is where the amateurs and the experts diverge — too much automation, and you hit the “OK plateau,” ceasing to grow and stalling at proficiency level. If you’re going for genius, you need to continually shift away from autopilot and back into active, corrective attention:

Amateurs are content at some point to let their efforts become bottom-up operations. After about fifty hours of training — whether in skiing or driving — people get to that “good-enough” performance level, where they can go through the motions more or less effortlessly. They no longer feel the need for concentrated practice, but are content to coast on what they’ve learned. No matter how much more they practice in this bottom-up mode, their improvement will be negligible.

The experts, in contrast, keep paying attention top-down, intentionally counteracting the brain’s urge to automatize routines. They concentrate actively on those moves they have yet to perfect, on correcting what’s not working in their game, and on refining their mental models of how to play the game, or focusing on the particulars of feedback from a seasoned coach. Those at the top never stop learning: if at any point they start coasting and stop such smart practice, too much of their game becomes bottom-up and their skills plateau.

Illustration from 'The Shrinking of Treehorn' by Edward Gorey. Click image for details.

But even with the question of quality resolved, there’s still that of quantity: Just how much “deliberate practice” is enough? Focused attention, like willpower, is like a muscle and gets fatigued with exertion:

Ericsson finds world-class champions — whether weight-lifters, pianists, or a dog-sled team — tend to limit arduous practice to about four hours a day. Rest and restoring physical and mental energy get built into the training regimen. They seek to push themselves and their bodies to the max, but not so much that their focus gets diminished in the practice session. Optimal practice maintains optimal concentration.

In the rest of Focus, Goleman goes on to explore how concepts like attention-chunking, emotional empathy, and system blindness influence the pursuit of excellence. Complement it with how grit predicts achievement and the science of the “winner effect.”

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

20 JANUARY, 2014

The Creative Cleft: Joyce Carol Oates on the Divided Self and the “Diamagnetic” Relationship Between Person and Persona

By:

“No one wants to believe this obvious truth: The ‘artist’ can inhabit any individual, for the individual is irrelevant to ‘art.’”

“I am more interested in human beings than in writing … more interested in living than in writing,” Anaïs Nin wrote when graciously declining being profiled in Harper’s Bazaar in 1946, an act of resistance against the tendency of such cultural reportage to flatten out a creative person into a static, one-dimensional self rather than a vibrant human being full of conflicting dualities. In fact, we now know, thanks to modern psychology, that the notion of unchanging personality is a myth, just as we know that the left brain vs. right brain divide is scientifically misleading and the cultural polarities we subscribe to are psychologically toxic. But perhaps one of the greatest divides that we humans, woven of inner contradictions as we are, have to grapple with is that between person and persona, our private and public self, the inner world and its outer expression — and hardly any species of human is more chronically bedeviled by this drudging duality than the writer.

In Who’s Writing This?: Notations on the Authorial I with Self-Portraits (public library) — the same superb Borges-inspired 1995 volume that gave us famous authors’ hand-drawn self-portraits and the story of Edward Gorey’s pseudonyms — comes a remarkable meditation on the subject from Joyce Carol Oates, in a short essay titled “‘JCO’ and I” and prefaced by her own collaged self-portrait.

'JCO'

Oates begins:

It is a fact that, to that other, nothing ever happens. I, a mortal woman, move through my life with the excited interest of a swimmer in uncharted waters — my predilections are few, but intense — while she, the other, is a mere shadow, a blur, a figure glimpsed in the corner of the eye. Rumors of “JCO” come to me thirdhand and usually unrecognizable, arguing, absurdly, for her historical existence. But while writing exists, writers do not — as all writers know.

Noting that she always beholds photographs of her likeness with “faint bewilderment,” Oates urges the reader not to be deceived about the difference between the likeness and the self, and adds a poignant meditation on the odd cultural tendency to turn a living writer’s persona into taxidermy while the arrow of time carries the person along the trajectory of human life:

“JCO” is not a person, nor even a personality, but a process that has resulted in a sequence of texts. Some of the texts are retained in my (our) memory, but some have bleached out like pages of print left too long in the sun. … I continue to age year by year, if not hour by hour, while “JCO” the other, remains no fixed age — in spiritual essence, perhaps, forever poised between the fever of idealism and the chill of cynicism, a precocious eighteen years old. Yet, can a process be said to have an age? an impulse, a strategy, an obsessive tracery, like planetary orbits to which planets, “real” planets, must conform?

Oates considers the notion of art as something external to the individual, something that inhabits him or her rather at random, and adds to history’s most beautiful definitions of art:

No one wants to believe this obvious truth: The “artist” can inhabit any individual, for the individual is irrelevant to “art.” (And what is “art” — a firestorm rushing through Time, arising from no visible source and conforming to no principles of logic or causality.) “JCO” occasionally mines, and distorts, my personal history; but only because the history is so close at hand, and then only when some idiosyncrasy about it suits her design, or some curious element of the symbolic. If you, a friend of mine, should appear in her work, have no fear — you won’t recognize yourself, any more than I would recognize you.

It would be misleading to describe our relationship as hostile in any emotional sense, for she, being bodiless, having no existence, has no emotions: We are more helpfully defined as diamagnetic, the one repulsing the other as magnetic poles repulse each other, so that “JCO” eclipses me, or, and this is less frequent, I eclipse “JCO,” depending upon the strength of my will.

Oates returns to the central divide between the likeness and the self:

And so my life continues through the decades…not connected in the slightest with that conspicuous other with whom, by accident, I share a name and likeness. The fact seems self-evident that I was but the door through which she entered — “it” entered — but any door would have done as well. Does it matter which entrance you use to enter a walled garden? Once you’re inside, and have closed the door?

For once, not she but I am writing these pages. Or so I believe.

Who’s Writing This? is excellent in its entirety. See more authors’ meditations on the subject here.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.