Brain Pickings

The Art of Timing: Alan Watts on the Perils of Hurrying and the Pleasures of Presence

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“For the perfect accomplishment of any art, you must get this feeling of the eternal present into your bones — for it is the secret of proper timing.”

Among the things that made British philosopher Alan Watts not only the pioneer of Zen teachings in the West but also an enduring sage of the ages was his ability to call out our culture’s chronic tendency to confuse things of substance with their simulacra. Watts had a singular way of dispersing our illusory convictions about such pairings, whether he addressed belief vs. faith or money vs. wealth or productivity vs. presence or ego vs. true self or stimulation vs. wisdom or profit vs. purpose.

In one particularly poignant passage in his altogether soul-expanding 1970 anthology Does It Matter? Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality (public library), Watts considers another such infinitely important duality — the notions of hurrying and timing.

Echoing Seneca’s ideas about busyness and Bertrand Russell’s famous lament“What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?” — Watts considers how we cheat ourselves of the joys of the present moment by grasping after the potential rewards of the future:

Just exactly what is the “good” to which we aspire through doing and eating things that are supposed to be good for us? This question is strictly taboo, for if it were seriously investigated the whole economy and social order would fall apart and have to be reorganized. It would be like the donkey finding out that the carrot dangled before him, to make him run, is hitched by a stick to his own collar. For the good to which we aspire exists only and always in the future. Because we cannot relate to the sensuous and material present we are most happy when good things are expected to happen, not when they are happening. We get such a kick out of looking forward to pleasures and rushing ahead to meet them that we can’t slow down enough to enjoy them when they come. We are therefore a civilization which suffers from chronic disappointment — a formidable swarm of spoiled children smashing their toys.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Mary Oliver’s thoughts on rhythm, Watts speaks to our one saving grace in countering the momentum of this headfirst rush toward disappointment:

There is indeed such a thing as “timing” — the art of mastering rhythm — but timing and hurrying are … mutually exclusive.

Much of our perilous hurrying, Watts argues, comes from the tyranny of the clock — a paradoxical pathology all the more anguishing given how relative and elastic time actually is. Watts writes:

Clock time is merely a method of measurement held in common by all civilized societies, and has the same kind of reality (or unreality) as the imaginary lines of latitude and longitude. The equator is useless for stringing a rolled roast. To judge by the clock, the present moment is nothing but a hairline which, ideally, should have no width at all — except that it would then be invisible. If you are bewitched by the clock you will therefore have no present. “Now” will be no more than the geometrical point at which the future becomes the past. But if you sense and feel the world materially, you will discover that there never is, or was, or will be anything except the present.

Presence, of course, is essential to our ability to experience the “spiritual electricity” of creative flow, something Watts captures unambiguously:

For the perfect accomplishment of any art, you must get this feeling of the eternal present into your bones — for it is the secret of proper timing. No rush. No dawdle. Just the sense of flowing with the course of events in the same way that you dance to music, neither trying to outpace it nor lagging behind. Hurrying and delaying are alike ways of trying to resist the present.

Does It Matter? is a superb read in its entirety. Complement it with Watts on how to live with presence, Sam Harris on cultivating mindful living, and Frank Partnoy on the art of waiting, then revisit Annie Dillard’s ever-timely reminder that how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.

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What There Is Before There Is Anything There: Celebrated Cartoonist Liniers Confronts Childhood Nightmares

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An imaginative graphic novel about the quintessential childhood fear.

Children often wonder about why we dream, as do some dedicated researchers, but the question of why we have nightmares is as perplexing to scientists — some of humanity’s most intelligent grownups — as it is exasperating to kids. Indeed, nightmares, along with its sister fear of the dark, are among childhood’s most anguishing and common experiences, as exasperating to the child experiencing them as to his or her parents in their helplessness of assuaging them.

That’s precisely what award-winning Argentinian cartoonist and New Yorker cover artist Liniers (whose beloved Macanudo series was just released in English for the first time) explores in What There Is Before There Is Anything There: A Scary Story (public library) — a wonderful picture-book that brings dark humor to those familiar nighttime fears while taking them seriously, at once spooky and sweet in its solidarity of acknowledging that they are very much real, even if their objects are not true. One of the great injustices of childhood, after all, is the recurring experience of not being believed by grownups, not being validated in one’s fears and fancies and subjective truths simply because one is a child. Liniers refuses to negate the realness of those childhood fears and instead meets them with equal parts reassurance, imagination, and gentle wit, in a style reminiscent of Edward Gorey yet distinctively his own.

What There Is Before There Is Anything There, a treat in its delightfully spooky yet assuring totality, is translated by Elisa Amado and comes from Canadian independent picture-book publisher Groundwood Books, who also gave us the enormously heartening Migrant, a kind of Alice in Wonderland for the modern immigrant experience. Complement it with a very different take on the same subject in Lemony Snicket’s The Dark, illustrated by Jon Klassen.

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The Psychology of Cryptomnesia: How We Unconsciously Plagiarize Existing Ideas

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The cognitive machinery of inadvertent copying and why it matters more than ever.

“Any experience the writer has ever suffered,” William Faulkner told a university audience in 1958, “is going to influence what he does, and that is not only what he’s read, but the music he’s heard, the pictures he’s seen.” This notion — that “our” ideas are the combinatorial product of all kinds of existing ideas we’ve absorbed in the course of being alive and awake to the world — is something many creators have articulated, perhaps none more succinctly than Paula Scher. This fusion of existing bits into new combinations is a largely unconscious process, and for all its miraculous machinery, one serious downside is that it often obliterates the traces of the original sources we unconsciously fold into our “new” ideas. Helen Keller experienced the repercussions of this phenomenon when she was accused of plagiarism, Henry Miller questioned it when he wrote “And your way, is it really your way?” and Coleridge often tripped over the fine line between unconscious borrowing and deliberate theft.

In 1989, decades before legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks explored why the mind is susceptible to this, psychologists Alan Brown and Dana Murphy coined a term for this phenomenon: cryptomnesia.

In the altogether illuminating 1994 volume The Psychology of Writing (public library) — which also gave us the conditions of the perfect daily routine and ideal creative environment — cognitive psychologist Ronald T. Kellogg defines cryptomnesia as “the belief that a thought is novel when in fact it is a memory” and examines how it arises.

Illustration by John Vernon Lord from 'Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.' Click image for more.

Noting that writers frequently draw upon existing sources in a conscious way — “including verbatim quotations, expansions or summarizations, presentations of alternative points of view that differ from those of the writer, and mimicking the stylistic voice of another” — Kellogg turns to the unconscious mechanisms that drive cryptomnesia:

Much of what a writer knows, particularly discourse and sociocultural knowledge, exists only in tacit form. For example, sentence patterns as well as cultural beliefs are shared by members of the same discourse community and are drawn upon freely by all, without conscious awareness. The same sort of unconscious copying may also occur with specific sentences, facts, and arguments — forms of domain-specific knowledge. When it does, however, the author is subject to the charge of plagiarism… [Cryptomnesia] can lead to inadvertent plagiarism if a writer fails to acknowledge unwittingly an earlier source due to the failure to recognize his or her own thoughts and words as unoriginal.

In other cases, Kellogg notes, “the writer borrows unknowingly from his or her own published work” — the kind of inadvertent autoplagiarism to which today’s overly prolific writers are especially susceptible as they scramble to churn out large volumes of work with great regularity under the tyrannical industrialism of modern publishing, online and off. Indeed, the notion of cryptomnesia, in all of its permutations, seems even more uncomfortable two decades later: The expansion of the web, particularly of the social web, has resulted in far greater connectivity and faster flow of ideas between originator and recipient, followed by ever-speedier absorption of those ideas into the common pool — or what Vannevar Bush so poetically called “the common record” in 1945 — in which all of us are increasingly immersed. Under these conditions, cryptomnesia invariably becomes our collective creative pathology.

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

Kellogg illustrates the cognitive mechanisms of this deeply human phenomenon with empirical evidence:

In a seminal laboratory analogue of cryptomnesia, Brown and Murphy (1989) had groups of four students take turns generating examples of categories (generate). Then each student in the group tried to recall the examples that he or she generated (recall old), under instructions to not name items generated by others. Finally, they generated additional examples (recall new), again with instructions to duplicate neither their own nor others’ earlier responses. On the recall old test, 75% of the participants produced at least one plagiarized item and, on the recall-new test, 70% did so. Self-plagiarized items … were rare in the laboratory task; nearly all items were lifted from other students.

The pattern of results in the three experiments reported by Brown and Murphy indicated that plagiarism occurred more frequently in written tasks than in oral tasks. Having heard material, one is more likely to plagiarize it when writing than when speaking. Whether the reverse pattern occurs after having read material remains to be seen. But based on their results alone, writers may be especially susceptible to borrowing unknowingly ideas they have gained through lectures, discussions, and other forms of aural input… Ideas that are expressed frequently — that are “in the air” — are especially open to borrowing.

As the web increasingly becomes “the air,” one can’t help but wonder — and worry — about how the growing threat of a cryptomnesia epidemic will impact the health of creative culture.

But then again, perhaps this is the fate of creativity and has always been a part of its essential nature — as Pete Seeger put it long before the social web existed and a year before Brown and Murphy’s study, “All of us, we’re links in a chain. And if we do our job right, there will be many, many links to come.”

The Psychology of Writing is, sadly, long out of print but well worth the hunt and is also available on Kindle. Complement it with the relationship between memory and creativity.

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