Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

17 OCTOBER, 2013

The Psychology of Getting Unstuck: How to Overcome the “OK Plateau” of Performance & Personal Growth

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“When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend.”

“Any sequence of mental action which has been frequently repeated tends to perpetuate itself,” William James wrote in his influential meditation on habit, ”so that we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do, under like circumstances.” As we’ve seen, one of the most insidious forms of such habitual autopilot — which evolved to help lighten our cognitive load yet is a double-edged sword that can also hurt us — is our mercilessly selective everyday attention, but the phenomenon is particularly perilous when it comes to learning new skills. In a chapter of Maximize Your Potential (public library) — that fantastic guide to making your own luck, the sequel to 99U’s blueprint to mastering the pace of productivity and honing your creative routine — science writer Joshua Foer explores the mechanisms that keep us from improving and the strategies we can use to disarm them. He sketches out the problem:

In the 1960s, psychologists identified three stages that we pass through in the acquisition of new skills. We start in the “cognitive phase,” during which we’re intellectualizing the task, discovering new strategies to perform better, and making lots of mistakes. We’re consciously focusing on what we’re doing. Then we enter the “associative stage,” when we’re making fewer errors, and gradually getting better. Finally, we arrive at the “autonomous stage,” when we turn on autopilot and move the skill to the back of our proverbial mental filing cabinet and stop paying it conscious attention.

And so we get to the so-called “OK Plateau” — the point at which our autopilot of expertise confines us to a sort of comfort zone, where we perform the task in question in efficient enough a way that we cease caring for improvement. We reach this OK Plateau in pursuing just about every goal, from learning to drive to mastering a foreign language to dieting, where after an initial stage of rapid improvement, we find ourselves in that place at once comforting in its good-enoughness and demotivating in its sudden dip in positive reinforcement via palpable betterment.

Color restoration of archival Einstein photograph by Mads Madsen

The challenge, of course, is that we can’t get better on autopilot. Fortunately, psychologists have found a number of strategies to help us overcome this stagnation by overriding our auto-mode — and it turns out the benefits of reflective failure and the art of making mistakes play a key role, something to which J. K. Rowling has attested. Foer writes:

Something experts in all fields tend to do when they’re practicing is to operate outside of their comfort zone and study themselves failing. The best figure skaters in the world spend more of their practice time practicing jumps that they don’t land than lesser figure skaters do. The same is true of musicians. When most musicians sit down to practice, they play the parts of pieces that they’re good at. Of course they do: it’s fun to succeed. But expert musicians tend to focus on the parts that are hard, the parts they haven’t yet mastered. The way to get better at a skill is to force yourself to practice just beyond your limits.

Foer first bumped up against the OK Plateau while working on Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (public library) — the fascinating record of his quest to dramatically improve his memory’s capacity using a combination of ancient wisdom and modern science. After spending several months learning to memorize a deck of playing cards, he rapidly plateaued, but his memory-mentor assured him this was the standard course of improvement. Intrigued, Doer dusted off the work of psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner, the researchers who had discovered those three stages of skill acquisition — cognitive, associative, and autonomous. The autonomous stage in particular was what interested Foer the most:

During the autonomous stage, you lose conscious control over what you’re doing. Most of the time that’s a good thing. Your mind has one less thing to worry about. In fact, the autonomous stage turns out to be one of those handy features that evolution worked out for our benefit. The less you have to focus on the repetitive tasks of everyday life, the more you can concentrate on the stuff that really matters, the stuff that you haven’t seen before. And so, once we’re just good enough at [something], we move it to the back of our mind’s filing cabinet and stop paying it any attention. You can actually see this shift take place in fMRI scans of people learning new skills. As a task becomes automated, the parts of the brain involved in conscious reasoning become less active and other parts of the brain take over. [This is] the “OK Plateau,” the point at which you decide you’re OK with how good you are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving.

Early psychologists, Foer tells us, used to believe the OK Plateau signified the upper limit of one’s innate capacity — in other words, they thought the best we can do is the best we could do. But Florida State University’s Anders Ericsson and his team of performance psychologists, who have studied the phenomenon closely, found that the single most important factor for overcoming the OK Plateau to become truly exceptional at a skill is the same thing that turned young Mozart into a genius and that drives successful authors to their rigorous routines. Foer writes:

What separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, which Ericsson has labeled “deliberate practice.” Having studied the best of the best in many different fields, he has found that top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development. They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the “cognitive stage.”

The Mozart family on tour: Leopold, Wolfgang, and Nannerl. Watercolor by Carmontelle, 1763 (public domain)

And yet, Foer is careful to point out, the mere amount of practice has little to do with improvement — it is, rather, its deliberateness that drives progress. In fact, studies have shown that in areas of expertise as diverse as basketball and chess the number of years one has spent honing the respective skill correlates only weakly with the degree of mastery and level of performance. What Ericsson found, rather, is that the best way to transcend the OK Plateau and reboot the autonomous stage is to cultivate conscious control over the thing we’re practicing and, above all, to actually practice failing:

Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard.

When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. … Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.

Complement Maximize Your Potential and Moonwalking with Einstein, both excellent reads in their entirety, with philosopher Daniel Dennett on how to make mistakes that improve us and some of today’s most celebrated contemporary creators on how to break through your creative block.

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16 OCTOBER, 2013

The Science of Dreams and Why We Have Nightmares

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The psychology of our built-in nocturnal therapy.

“The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind,” Freud argued in his influential treatise The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900. “The earth is heavy and opaque without dreams,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary in 1940. “In the olden days, people believed that our dreams were full of clues about the future,” Alain de Botton told a little kid who wanted to know about dreaming. But what, exactly, are dreams and why do we have them? Modern psychology has given us a fair amount of insight on the creative purpose of daydreaming, but — aside from Rosalind Cartwright’s compelling research on how dreams and REM sleep mediate our negative emotions — the study of dreams has largely stagnated since Freud’s day.

In Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep (public library) — one of the best science books of 2012, exploring what happens while you sleep and how it affects your every waking moment, which also gave us this fascinating read on sleep and the teenage brainDavid K. Randall traces psychologists’ evolving understanding of why we dream.

Freud’s theories — premised on the idea that the symbolism of dreams encoded the dreamer’s subconscious desires and concerns, often of a sexual nature — were systematically challenged and dismissed over the course of the 20th century, but without much of a viable alternative theory. It wasn’t until Calvin Hall, a psychology professor at Case Western Reserve University, set out to record and catalog people’s dreams in the 1950s that glimmers of illumination began piercing the darkness shrouding this psychological mystery. Randall writes of Hall’s empirical findings, which came diametrically opposed to Freud’s theories:

By the time [Hall] died in 1985, Hall had synopses of more than fifty thousand dreams from people of all age groups and nationalities. From this large database, he created a coding system that essentially treated each dream like it was a short story. He recorded, among other things, the dream’s setting, its number of characters and their genders, any dialogue, and whether what happened in the dream was pleasant or frightening. He also noted basics about each dreamer as well, such as age, gender, and where the person lived.

Hall introduced the world of dream interpretation to the world of data. He pored through his dream collection, bringing numbers and statistical rigor into a field that had been split into two extremes. He tested what was the most likely outcome of, say, dreaming about work. Would the dreamer be happy? Angry? And would the story hew close to reality or would the people in the dream act strange and out of character? If there were predictable outcomes, then maybe dreams followed some kind of pattern. Maybe they even mattered.

Hall’s conclusion was the opposite of Freud’s: Far from being full of hidden symbols, most dreams were remarkably straightforward and predictable. Dream plots were consistent enough that, just by knowing the cast of characters in a dream, Hall could forecast what would happen with surprising accuracy. A dream featuring a man whom the dreamer doesn’t know in real life, for instance, almost always entails a plot in which the stranger is aggressive. Adults tend to dream of other people they know, while kids usually dream of animals. About three out of every four characters in a man’s dream will be other men, while women tend to encounter an equal number of males and females. Most dreams take place in the dreamers’ homes or offices and, if they have to go somewhere, they drive cars or walk there. And not surprisingly, college students dream about sex more often than middle-aged adults.

In other words, he found that dreams are far from surreal wonderlands where our imaginations roam wildly — rather, they are explorations of our mundane concerns, recast in a light only slightly removed from reality.

And yet theories continue to differ. Ernest Hartmann, a professor at the Tufts University School of Medicine, studies the content of dreams and how it relates to their function:

Hartmann sees dreams as a form of built-in nocturnal therapy. In dreams, he says, the mind takes what is new or bothersome and blends it into what the brain already knows, making the new information seem less novel or threatening. … Hartmann argues that the life of early man was filled with the kind of traumas — watching friends gored by animals with sharp tusks or fall through holes in the ice and drown, just to give you two possibilities — that few people experience today. Those who were able to regain their emotional balance after living through a traumatic event were more likely to survive over the long run than those who dwelled on the negative.

As evidence of his theory, Hartmann points to the fact that the mind has a tendency to replay scary or harrowing experiences in dreams almost exactly as they happened in real life for several nights after the event. … For some people, however, the brain gets stuck replaying traumas, like a band that only knows one song. When the brain fails to set aside the event in its long-term memory — a move that researchers see as a sign that the emotional system has come to accept what happened and can now put it into perspective — a person may experience recurring nightmares, which is one of the hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Grim as this may sound, however, let’s not forget that dreams also help us do the very opposite — they allow our brains to digest and regulate negative emotions. And, if all else fails, there’s always the option of training yourself to control your dreams.

Dreamland remains a must-read in its entirety. Complement it with the science of internal time.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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14 OCTOBER, 2013

The Art of “Creative Sleep”: Stephen King on Writing and Wakeful Dreaming

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“In both writing and sleeping, we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives.”

“Sleep is the greatest creative aphrodisiac,” a wise woman once said. Indeed, we already know that dreaming regulates our negative emotions and “positive constructive daydreaming” enhances our creativity, while a misaligned sleep cycle is enormously mentally crippling. But can a sleep-like state in waking life, aside from lucid dreaming, actually enrich and empower our creative capacity? According to Stephen King, yes: In On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft (public library), which also gave us his case against adverbs, the celebrated novelist explores the similarity between writing and dreaming. He considers the role of a daily routine — something many famous creators use to center themselves — in inducing a state of self-mesmerism that produces the paradoxical alchemy of disciplining our minds into unleashing their unrestrained creative potential, something King calls “creative sleep”:

Like your bedroom, your writing room should be private, a place where you go to dream. Your schedule — in at about the same time every day, out when your thousand words are on paper or disk — exists in order to habituate yourself, to make yourself ready to dream just as you make yourself ready to sleep by going to bed at roughly the same time each night and following the same ritual as you go.

King likens the creative process to a kind of wakeful dream state. Just like sleep shapes our every waking moment, King argues this dozing of the waking mind shapes our creative capacity by releasing our repressed imagination:

In both writing and sleeping, we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives. And as your mind and body grow accustomed to a certain amount of sleep each night — six hours, seven, maybe the recommended eight — so can you train your waking mind to sleep creatively and work out the vividly imagined waking dreams which are successful works of fiction.

Ultimately, this “creative sleep” is what allows us to cultivate our own worlds while writing — something stymied by the barrage of distractions that fill the spaces of everyday life. King offers some practical tips on warding those off in order to create the kind of still space necessary for wakeful dreaming:

The space can be humble … and it really needs only one thing: A door you are willing to shut. The closed door is your way of telling the world that you mean business. . . .

If possible, there should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with. If there’s a window, draw the curtains or pull down the shades unless it looks out at a blank wall. For any writer, but for the beginning writer in particular, it’s wise to eliminate every possible distraction. If you continue to write, you will begin to filter out these distractions naturally, but at the start it’s best to try and take care of them before you write. … When you write, you want to get rid of the world, don’t you? Of course you do. When you’re writing, you’re creating your own worlds.

King’s advice, of course, should be taken with a grain of salt: As E. B. White poignantly put it, “a writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper” — a sentiment Charles Bukowski echoed in his fantastic poem “air and light and time and space,” titled after all the conditions whose presence or absence he thought irrelevant for the true writer, an excuse rather than a necessity.

Still, On Writing remains an indispensable trove of wisdom on the craft and a fine addition to the collected wisdom of famous writers, including Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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