Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

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 of the Craft (public library | IndieBound), 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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14 OCTOBER, 2013

Celebrated Political Theorist Hannah Arendt on How Bureaucracy Fuels Violence

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“The rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.”

“Every man has a right over his own life and war destroys lives that were full of promise,” Freud wrote to Einstein in their little-known correspondence on war and human nature.

In her indispensable 1970 book On Violence (public library), the celebrated German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) considers the evolving role of warfare in the context of the twentieth century. Writing a generation after the Atomic Age and at time when the threat of biological weapons was just beginning to penetrate our collective conscience, her meditation is all the more poignant and timely half a century later, in the age of drones and WMDs and all the political negotiations that surround them.

Arendt writes:

This century has become, as Lenin predicted, a century of wars and revolutions, hence a century of that violence which is currently believed to be their common denominator. There is, however, another factor in the present situation which, though predicted by nobody, is of at least equal importance. The technical development of implements of violence has now reached the point where no political goal could conceivably correspond to their destructive potential or justify their actual use in armed conflict. Hence, warfare — since times immemorial the final merciless arbiter in international disputes — has lost much of its effectiveness and nearly all of its glamor. “The apocalyptic” chess game between the superpowers, that is, between those that move on the highest plane of our civilization, is being played according to the rule: “if either ‘wins’ it is the end of both.” Moreover the game bears no resemblance to whatever war games preceded it. Its “rational” goal is mutual deterrence, not victory.

She adds:

It seems symbolic of this all-pervading unpredictability that those engaged in the perfection of the means of destruction have finally brought about a level of technical development where their aim, namely warfare, is on the point of disappearing altogether.

But one of Arendt’s most prescient points has to do with the burden of bureaucracy as a trigger for social unrest:

The greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.

Bureaucracy in Siberia, from ‘Bureaucratics,’ photographer Jan Banning's portraits of bureaucrats around the world. Click image for full series.

Considering other theorists’ definitions of power as “the instinct of domination” driven by the urge “to command and to be obeyed,” Arendt argues bureaucracy is its greatest aberration:

These definitions coincide with the terms which, since Greek antiquity, have been used to define the forms of government as the rule of man over man—of one or the few in monarchy and oligarchy, of the best or the many in aristocracy and democracy, to which today we ought to add the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy, or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody. Indeed, if we identify tyranny as the government that is not held to give account of itself, rule by Nobody is clearly the most tyrannical of all, since there is no one left who could even be asked to answer for what is being done. It is this state of affairs which is among the most potent causes for the current world-wide rebellious unrest.

On Violence remains a must-read. Complement it with Susan Sontag on the violence of photography, then revisit Freud and Einstein’s letters on violence and human nature.

Portrait of Hannah Arendt (1944) courtesy of the Estate of Fred Stein

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10 OCTOBER, 2013

John Updike on Writing and Death

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“Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?”

“The mystery of being is a permanent mystery, at least given the present state of the human brain,” John Updike told writer Jim Holt in his poignant recent meditation on why the world exists. But Updike had been seriously pondering the question of existence for much longer: A good portion of his altogether fantastic 1996 memoir, Self-Consciousness (public library), is dedicated to the notion of the afterlife — one of the most enduring forms of human escapism from the soul-crushing unease of the mortality paradox — and what it teaches us about the only life we have, the present one:

If we picture the afterlife at all, it is, heretically, as the escape of something impalpable — the essential “I” — from this corruptible flesh, occurring at the moment of death. . . . The thought of this long wait within the tomb afflicts us with claustrophobia and the fear of being lost forever; where is our self during the long interval? … The idea that we sleep for centuries and centuries without a flicker of dream, while our bodies rot and turn to dust and the very stone marking our graves crumbles to nothing, is virtually as terrifying as annihilation. Every attempt to be specific about the afterlife, to conceive of it in even the most general detail, appalls us.

But Updike reminds us that death, rather than an annihilation of the self, is just another manifestation of the fact that our personalities are a series of incremental evolutions and our selves are invariably fluid:

Not only are selves conditional but they die. Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time? It is even possible to dislike our old selves, those disposable ancestors of ours. For instance, my high-school self — skinny, scabby, giggly, gabby, frantic to be noticed, tormented enough to be a tormentor, relentlessly pushing his cartoons and posters and noisy jokes and pseudo-sophisticated poems upon the helpless high school — strikes me now as considerably obnoxious, though I owe him a lot: without his frantic ambition and insecurity I would not be sitting on (as my present home was named by others) Haven Hill.

In that regard, Updike argues, work — especially a writer’s work — serves the same purpose as religion (which, as Mark Twain famously grumbled, is chiefly an anchor of human ego). Writing, he observes, has a built-in rewards mechanism — from the fruits of a strident daily routine to the gratification of awards and honors — that affirms the writer’s existence, assuages his awareness of the mortality paradox, and distracts him, much like religion does, from the nothingness toward which his existence is inevitably headed:

For many men, work is the effective religion, a ritual occupation and inflexible orientation which permits them to imagine that the problem of their personal death has been solved. Unamuno: ‘Work is the only practical consolation for having been born.’ My own chosen career — its dispersal and multiplication of the self through publication, its daily excretion of yet more words, the eventual reifying of those words into books — certainly is a practical consolation, a kind of bicycle which, if I were ever to stop pedaling, would dump me flat on my side. Religion enables us to ignore nothingness and get on with the jobs of life.

Citing an interview with a clergyman who envisioned the afterlife as “this life in review, viewed in a new light,” Updike — who exorcised his fascination with the passage of time in his lesser-known and lovely 1965 children’s book, A Child’s Calendar — finds himself oddly uncomforted by this conception and ponders the irreversible direction of it all with his exquisite eloquence:

Is it not the singularity of life that terrifies us? Is not the decisive difference between comedy and tragedy that tragedy denies us another chance? Shakespeare over and over demonstrates life’s singularity — the irrevocability of our decisions, hasty and even mad though they be. How solemn and huge and deeply pathetic our life does loom in its once-and doneness, how inexorably linear, even though our rotating, revolving planet offers us the cycles of the day and of the year to suggest that existence is intrinsically cyclical, a playful spin, and that there will always be, tomorrow morning or the next, another chance.

Ultimately, however, Updike returns to writing both as his religion and his sacrilege, his “sole remaining vice,” precisely because it alleviates — even if through deliberate delusion — the unbearable weight of that awareness:

Writing … is an addiction, an illusory release, a presumptuous taming of reality, a way of expressing lightly the unbearable. That we age and leave behind this litter of dead, unrecoverable selves is both unbearable and the commonest thing in the world — it happens to everybody. In the morning light one can write breezily, without the slight acceleration of one’s pulse, about what one cannot contemplate in the dark without turning in panic to God. In the dark one truly feels that immense sliding, that turning of the vast earth into darkness and eternal cold, taking with it all the furniture and scenery, and the bright distractions and warm touches, of our lives. Even the barest earthly facts are unbearably heavy, weighted as they are with our personal death. Writing, in making the world light — in codifying, distorting, prettifying, verbalizing it — approaches blasphemy.

Self-Consciousness is an enchanting cabinet of wisdom in its entirety. Complement it with Updike’s contribution to the sublime Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012, then revisit Montaigne on death and the art of living.

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