Brain Pickings

Why “Psychological Androgyny” Is Essential for Creativity

By:

“Creative individuals are more likely to have not only the strengths of their own gender but those of the other one, too.”

Despite the immense canon of research on creativity — including its four stages, the cognitive science of the ideal creative routine, the role of memory, and the relationship between creativity and mental illness — very little has focused on one of life’s few givens that equally few of us can escape: gender and the genderedness of the mind.

In Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention (public library) — one of the most important, insightful, and influential books on creativity ever written — pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi examines a curious, under-appreciated yet crucial aspect of the creative mindset: a predisposition to psychological androgyny.

In all cultures, men are brought up to be “masculine” and to disregard and repress those aspects of their temperament that the culture regards as “feminine,” whereas women are expected to do the opposite. Creative individuals to a certain extent escape this rigid gender role stereotyping. When tests of masculinity/femininity are given to young people, over and over one finds that creative and talented girls are more dominant and tough than other girls, and creative boys are more sensitive and less aggressive than their male peers.

Illustration by Yang Liu from 'Man Meets Woman,' a pictogram critique of gender stereotypes. Click image for details.

Csikszentmihalyi points out that this psychological tendency toward androgyny shouldn’t be confused with homosexuality — it deals not with sexual constitution but with a set of psychoemotional capacities:

Psychological androgyny is a much wider concept, referring to a person’s ability to be at the same time aggressive and nurturant, sensitive and rigid, dominant and submissive, regardless of gender. A psychologically androgynous person in effect doubles his or her repertoire of responses and can interact with the world in terms of a much richer and varied spectrum of opportunities. It is not surprising that creative individuals are more likely to have not only the strengths of their own gender but those of the other one, too.

Citing his team’s extensive interviews with 91 individuals who scored high on creativity in various fields — including pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin, legendary sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, philosopher and marginalia champion Mortimer Adler, universe-disturber Madeleine L’Engle, social science titan John Gardner, poet extraordinaire Denise Levertov, and MacArthur genius Stephen Jay Gould — Csikszentmihalyi writes:

It was obvious that the women artists and scientists tended to be much more assertive, self-confident, and openly aggressive than women are generally brought up to be in our society. Perhaps the most noticeable evidence for the “femininity” of the men in the sample was their great preoccupation with their family and their sensitivity to subtle aspects of the environment that other men are inclined to dismiss as unimportant. But despite having these traits that are not usual to their gender, they retained the usual gender-specific traits as well.

Illustration from the 1970 satirical book 'I’m Glad I’m a Boy! I’m Glad I’m a Girl!' Click image for more.

Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention is a revelatory read in its entirety, featuring insights on the ideal conditions for the creative process, the key characteristics of the innovative mindset, how aging influences creativity, and invaluable advice to the young from Csikszentmihalyi’s roster of 91 creative luminaries. Complement this particular excerpt with Ursula K. Le Guin on being a man — arguably the most brilliant meditation on gender ever written, by one of the most exuberantly creative minds of our time.

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.

What Book Changed Your Perception of Reality?

By:

An animated phone call about the love and life of literature.

“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her gorgeous reflection on why we read and write. The books most real to us fundamentally alter our relationship with reality — but they do so in ways less tangible than objects and less audible than music. They make us grow in spurts less visible than a plant’s. To communicate these private potentialities to one another is a herculean task, but an immensely rewarding one — a deeply human way of making ourselves less invisible to each other.

In collaboration with my friends at Call Me Ishmael — an unusual and absolutely wonderful celebration of bookishness via anonymous voicemails from readers about the books they love, transcribed on a real typewriter — I recently issued an “all-call challenge” inviting folks to share books that changed their perception of reality (with the caveat that all great books change our understanding of the world, but perception, in the psychological sense, is best defined as “the organization, identification, and interpretation of sensory information in order to represent and understand the environment”). Along the way, I answer Ishmael’s questions about my own favorite books, as well as the general method and madness behind Brain Pickings:

The books I mention on the call: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit, and The Oldest Living Things in the World by Rachel Sussman. Solnit’s gorgeous sentence, which Ishmael reads in closing, comes from this enchanting piece.

In the spirit of the challenge, I called Ishmael with my own answer — On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (public library) by cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz. I’ve previously written about what makes the book so mind-stretching. For a deeper dive, give my conversation with Horowitz a listen.

You can reach Ishmael at 774.325.0503 if you live within the United States, or Skype in if elsewhere, and leave a voicemail about a book that changed your perception of the world — after all, what greater gift is there than to welcome one another into our private worlds?

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.

Anaïs Nin on Inner Conflict, the Connectedness of All Things, and What Maturity Really Means

By:

“Any experience carried out deeply to its ultimate leads you beyond yourself into a larger relation to the experience of others.”

“We are all one question,” Mary Ruefle wrote in her sublime essay on why we read, “and the best answer seems to be love — a connection between things.” And yet, so often, we forget — we disconnect.

Decades before Parker Palmer’s beautiful meditation on the elusive art of wholeness, modernity’s most prolific and perceptive diarist, Anaïs Nin, contemplated with great elegance and insight the self-inflicted violence of our internal conflicts. From The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939–1944  public library) — which gave us Nin on real love, Paris vs. New York, the secret of successful mass movements, and her pioneering venture in self-publishing — comes a gorgeous entry from October of 1943, in which Nin considers how we deny ourselves such vitalizing integration and what we can do to attain it.

She writes:

When we are in conflict we tend to make such sharp oppositions between ideas and attitudes and get caught and entangled in what seems to be a hopeless choice, but when the neurotic ambivalence is resolved one tends to move beyond sharp differences, sharply defined boundaries and begins to see the interaction between everything, the relation between everything.

Three decades before Susan Sontag admonished that buying into polarities imprisons us, Nin contemplates how we can bridge our anguishing inner divides by embracing the interconnectedness of all things — the true mark of maturity:

I opposed subjective to objective, imagination to realism. I thought that having gone so deeply into my own feelings and dramas I could never again reach objectivity and knowledge of others. But now I know that any experience carried out deeply to its ultimate leads you beyond yourself into a larger relation to the experience of others. If you intensify and complete your subjective emotions, visions, you see their relation to others’ emotions. It is not a question of choosing between them, one at the cost of another, but a matter of completion, of inclusion, an encompassing, unifying, and integrating which makes maturity.

The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3 remains an endlessly revisitable trove of wisdom on the creative life and the human journey. Complement it with Nin on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, why emotional excess is essential to creativity, and the elusive nature of joy.

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.