Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

30 JULY, 2013

Susan Sontag on Sex

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“If only I could feel about sex as I do about writing! That I’m the vehicle, the medium, the instrument of some force beyond myself.”

“Despite our best efforts to clean it of its peculiarities, sex will never be either simple or nice in the ways we might like it to be… It refuses to sit neatly on top of love, as it should,” Alain de Botton wrote in his fantastic meditation on how to think more (meaning better) about sex. Indeed, for all its promise of pleasure, sex has invariably been a source of great frustration and anxiety even to some of history’s most brilliant and enlightened minds. Take, for instance, Susan Sontag: From As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964–1980 (public library), which came in as one of 2012’s best books on psychology and philosophy and which is now out in paperback, comes this remarkably, relatably human contemplation of the psychological turmoil of sex, a snippet of which you might recall from Sontag’s illustrated insights on love.

Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, gelatin silver print, 1975

In an entry from November 1, 1961, shortly before her twenty-ninth birthday, Sontag muses:

As a writer, I tolerate error, poor performance, failure. So what if I fail some of the time, if a story or an essay is no good? Sometimes things do go well, the work is good. And that’s enough.

It’s just this attitude I don’t have about sex. I don’t tolerate error, failure—therefore I’m anxious from the start, and therefore I’m more likely to fail. Because I don’t have the confidence that some of the time (without my forcing anything) it will be good.

If only I could feel about sex as I do about writing! That I’m the vehicle, the medium, the instrument of some force beyond myself.

I experience the writing as given to me — sometimes, almost, as dictated. I let it come, try not to interfere with it. I respect it, because it’s me and yet more than me. It’s personal and transpersonal, both.

I would like to feel that way about sex, too. As if “nature” or “life” used me. And I trust that, and let myself be used.

An attitude of surrender to oneself, to life. Prayer. Let it be, whatever it will be. I give myself to it.

Prayer: peace and voluptuousness.

In this, no room for shame and anxiety as to how the little old self rates in the light of some objective standard of performance.

One must be devout about sex. Then, one won’t dare to be anxious. Anxiety will never be revealed for what it is — spiritual meanness, pettiness, small-mindedness.

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh is sublime in its entirety and has previously given us Sontag’s wisdom on writing, boredom, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, her insight on why lists appeal to us, her illustrated wisdom on art, and her bulletpointed bodily self-portrait.

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29 JULY, 2013

What the Psychology of Suicide Prevention Teaches Us About Controlling Our Everyday Worries

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Two surprisingly simple yet effective techniques for ameliorating anxiety.

“We must gain victory, not by assaulting the walls, but by accepting them,” wrote James Gordon Gilkey in his 1934 guide to how not to worry. “Don’t worry about popular opinion … Don’t worry about the past. Don’t worry about the future. … Don’t worry about anybody getting ahead of you,” F. Scott Fitzgerald advised his young daughter. And yet we do worry — we worry about money, we worry about whether our art is good enough, we worry that we’re all alone in the world, we worry about almost everything. For Kierkegaard, anxiety was the hallmark of the creative mind, but for most of us mere mortals, worries are more of a crippling than a crutch.

In Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception (public library) — which also gave us this fascinating explanation of why time slows down when we’re afraid, speeds up as we age, and gets warped when we’re on vacation — BBC’s Claudia Hammond explores the psychology of mitigating our worries:

Ad Kerkhof is a Dutch clinical psychologist who has worked in the field of suicide prevention for 30 years. He has observed that before attempting suicide people often experience a period of extreme rumination about the future. They sometimes reported that these obsessive thoughts had become so overwhelming that they felt death was the only way to escape. Kerkhof has developed techniques which help suicidal people to reduce this rumination and is now applying the same methods to people who worry on a more everyday basis. He has found that people worry about one topic more than any other — the future, often believing that the more hours they spend contemplating it, the more likely they are to find a solution to their problems. But this isn’t the case. His techniques come from cognitive behavioral therapy and may sound remarkably straightforward, but they are all backed up by trials.

'My Wheel of Worry' by Andrew Kuo, depicting his inner worries, arguments, counterarguments, and obsessions in the form of charts and graphs.

Click for details.

Hammond makes appreciative note of the fact that Kerkhof “does not make grand claims for his methods.” Rather, he offers the open disclaimer that his techniques won’t forever banish any and all worrying — but they do offer a promising way to cut down the time we spend worrying. Hammond offers a practical exercise based on the technique:

If you find yourself awake in the middle of night worrying, with thoughts whirling round repeatedly in your head, he has several strategies you can try. This is where imagery comes in useful again. Imagine there’s a box under your bed. This is your worry box. As soon as you spot thoughts that are worries, imagine taking those individual worries, putting them into the box and closing the lid. They are then to remain in the box under the bed until you decide to get them out again. If the worries recur, remind yourself that they are in the box and won’t be attended to until later on. An alternative is to choose a colour and then picture a cloud of that color. Put your worries into the cloud and let it swirl backwards and forwards above your head. Then watch it slowly float up and away, taking the worrying thoughts with it.

For those apt to dismiss this as Pollyanna psycho-blabber, Hammond points out that there is strong empirical evidence supporting Kerkhof’s theories and offers another of his techniques for those who find themselves too skeptical to try the abstract imagery exercise:

Set aside a time for worrying. Your worries relate to real and practical problems in your life, so you cannot rid yourself of them altogether, but you can learn to control when you think about them. Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously commanded his brother not to think of a white bear, and we know from the experiment on thought suppression which followed that, given that instruction, you can think of nothing but a white bear. … Likewise, telling people not to think of their worries isn’t going to work. Instead Kerkhof recommends the opposite. Set aside 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the evening to do nothing but worry about the future. Sit at a table, make a list of all your problems and then think about them. But as soon as the time is up you must stop worrying, and whenever those worries come back into your head remind yourself that you can’t contemplate them again until your next worry time. You have given yourself permission to postpone your worrying until the time of your choice. Remarkably, it can work. It puts you in control.

Time Warped is fantastic in its entirety. Pair it with Philippa Perry’s indispensable How to Stay Sane.

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26 JULY, 2013

Iconic Psychiatrist Carl Jung on Human Personality in Rare BBC Interview

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“Man cannot stand a meaningless life.”

Legendary Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung (July 26, 1875–June 6, 1961), along with his frenemy Freud, is considered the founding father of modern analytical psychology. He coined the concepts of collective consciousness and introverted vs. extroverted personality, providing the foundation for the popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Though famously accused of having lost his soul, Jung had a much more heartening view of human nature than Freud and memorably wrote that “the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” On October 22 of 1959, BBC’s Face to Face — an unusual series of pointed, almost interrogative interviews seeking to “unmask public figures” — aired a segment on Jung, included in the 1977 anthology C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters (public library). Eighty-four at the time and still working, he talks to New Statesman editor John Freeman about education, religion, consciousness, human nature, and his temperamental differences with Freud, which sparked his study of personality types. Transcript highlights below.

Echoing Anaïs Nin’s meditation on the fluid self from a decade earlier, Jung confirms that fixed personality is a myth:

Psychological type is nothing static — it changes in the course of life.

He advocates for psychology as the most potent tool for understanding human nature and thus saving humanity from itself:

We need more understanding of human nature, because the only danger that exists is man himself — he is the great danger, and we are pitifully unaware of it. We know nothing of man — far too little.

But perhaps most timeless and timely of all is the interview’s concluding question, the answer to which arrives at the same conclusion that Viktor Frankl famously did:

FREEMAN: As the world becomes more technically efficient, it seems increasingly necessary for people to behave communally and collectively, now do you think it’s possible that the highest development of man may be to submerge his own individuality in a kind of collective consciousness?

JUNG: That’s hardly possible. I think there will be a reaction — a reaction will set in against this communal dissociation. You know, man doesn’t stand forever, his nullification. Once, there will be a reaction, and I see it setting in, you know, when I think of my patients, they all seek their own existence and to assure their existence against that complete atomization into nothingness or into meaninglessness. Man cannot stand a meaningless life.

This interview, writes editor R. F. C. Hull in C.G. Jung Speaking, “undoubtedly brought Jung to more people than any other piece of journalism and any of Jung’s own writings.” Complement it with Jung’s fantastic catalog of the unconscious, The Book of Symbols, and his timelessly captivating Memories, Dreams, Reflection.

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