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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

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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09 OCTOBER, 2013

Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York

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“I’d entered the city the way one enters any grand love affair: with no exit plan.”

“I was in love with New York,” Joan Didion wrote in her cult-classic essay “Goodbye to All That,” titled after the famous Robert Graves autobiography and found in Slouching Towards Bethlehem — the same indispensable 1967 collection that gave us Didion on self-respect and keeping a notebook; she quickly qualified the statement: “I do not mean ‘love’ in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again.” More than half a century later, 28 of today’s most extraordinary, diverse, uniformly interesting women writers revisit the eternal story of devotion and departure in a new anthology titled after Didion’s iconic essay: Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York (public library), envisioned and edited by Sari Botton, tells tales — funny, poignant, irreverent, deeply human — that ring immutably familiar to anyone who’s ever called Gotham home or dreamt of being able to, yet, like the city itself, always infuse our expectations with subtle surprise. Though the stories differ enormously in both style and substance, one thing unites them: Like Didion’s original meditation, they bespeak a level of intimacy with the city that takes on the language of romance, of sex, of infatuation — a persistent pattern that transforms these personal, autobiographical accounts into stirring universal letters of love, and loss, into paeans of lyrical, conflicted nostalgia for the imperfect lover whom you chose to leave yet whose loss you still secretly grieve.

Illustration by James Gulliver Hancock from ‘All the Buildings in New York.’ Click image for details.

The magnificent Cheryl “Sugar” Strayed — one of the finest hearts, minds, and keyboards of our time, whose Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar is an existential must and was among the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012 — had a rude awakening to NYC. On the warm September afternoon of her twenty-fourth birthday, she saw a man get stabbed in the West Village. He didn’t die, but the shock of it — and the shock of the general bystander-indifference as a waiter assuringly said to her, “I wouldn’t worry about it,” while pouring her another cup of coffee on the sunny sidelines — planted the seed of slow-growing, poisonous worry about the greater It of it. Strayed writes:

I couldn’t keep myself from thinking everything in New York was superior to every other place I’d ever been, which hadn’t been all that many places. I was stunned by New York. Its grand parks and museums. Its cozy cobbled streets and dazzlingly bright thoroughfares. Its alternately efficient and appalling subway system. Its endlessly gorgeous women clad in slim pants and killer shoes and interesting coats.

And yet something happened on my way to falling head over heels in love with the place. Maybe it was the man getting stabbed that no one worried about. Or maybe it was bigger than that. The abruptness, the gruffness, the avoid-eye-contact indifference of the crowded subways and streets felt as foreign to me as Japan or Cameroon, as alien to me as Mars. Even the couple who owned the bodega below our apartment greeted my husband and me each day as if we were complete strangers, which is to say they didn’t greet us at all, no matter how many times we came in to buy toilet paper or soup, cat food or pasta. They merely took our money and returned our change with gestures so automatic and faces so expressionless they might as well have been robots. … This tiny thing … grew to feel like the greatest New York City crime of all, to be denied the universal silent acknowledgment of familiarity, the faintest smile, the hint of a nod.

That realization was the beginning of the end. On a cold February afternoon, Strayed and her husband began packing their New York lives into a double-parked pickup truck. They were done after dark, long after they had anticipated — for living in New York is the art of transmuting a shoebox into a bottomless pit of stuff, only to have it unravel into a black hole of time-space that swallows you whole each time you move shoeboxes — and all that remained was that odd morning-after emptiness of feeling, which Strayed captures with her characteristic blunt elegance:

I’d entered the city the way one enters any grand love affair: with no exit plan. I went willing to live there forever, to become one of the women clad in slim pants and killer shoes and interesting coats. I was ready for the city to sweep me into its arms, but instead it held me at a cool distance. And so I left New York the way one leaves a love affair too: because, much as I loved it, I wasn’t truly in love. I had no compelling reason to stay.

Yoko Ono's hand-drawn contribution to ‘Mapping Manhattan.’ Click image for details.

Dani Shapiro, author of the freshly released and wonderful Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life — had a rather different experience:

The city, was what people from New Jersey called it. The city, as if there were no other. If you were a suburban Jewish girl in the late 1970s, aching to burst out of the tepid swamp of your adolescence (synagogue! field hockey! cigarettes!), the magnetic pull of the city from across the water was irresistible. Between you and the city were the smokestacks of Newark, the stench of oil refineries, the soaring Budweiser eagle, its lit-up wings flapping high above the manufacturing plant. That eagle — if you were a certain kind of girl, you wanted to leap on its neon back and be carried away. On weekend trips into the city, you’d watch from the backseat of your parents’ car for the line in the Lincoln Tunnel that divided New Jersey from New York, because you felt dead on one side, and alive on the other.

She moved to the alive side at nineteen, to live with a boyfriend she soon married, only to find herself divorced at twenty. (“How many people can claim that?,” Shapiro asks clearly rhetorically — and, clearly, she’d be surprised.) Now, thirty years later, she has a Dear Me moment as she looks back:

I wish I could reach back through time and shake some sense into that lost little girl. I wish I could tell her to wait, to hold on. That becoming a grown-up is not something that happens overnight, or on paper. That rings and certificates and apartments and meals have nothing to do with it. That everything we do matters. Wait, I want to say — but she is impatient, racing ahead of me.

And though she became a writer — a Writer in the City — Shapiro found herself strangely, subtly, yet palpably unfitted for the kind of life the city required:

I could lecture on metaphor; I could teach graduate students; I could locate and deconstruct the animal imagery in Madame Bovary. But I could not squash a water bug by myself. The practicalities of life eluded me. The city — which I knew with the intimacy of a lover — made it very possible to continue like this, carried along on a stream of light, motion, energy, noise. The city was a bracing wind that never stopped blowing, and I was a lone leaf slapped up against the side of a building, a hydrant, a tree.

Writing now from her small study in scenic Connecticut, two hours north of the city, she reflects on her choice to leave after — and despite — having attained her teenage dream:

My city broke its promise to me, and I to it. I fell out of love, and then I fell back in — with my small town, its winding country roads, and the ladies at the post office who know my name. I did my best to become the airbrushed girl on its billboards, but even airbrushed girls grow up. We soften over time, or maybe harden. One way or another, life will have its way with us.

Photograph by Berenice Abbott from ‘Changing New York,’ 1935–1939. Click image for details.

Roxane Gay, author of the beautiful Ayiti, recalls her first impressions of New York as a child in Queens — its city-street grit, its Broadway glitter, its daily human tragedies and triumphs unfolding on every corner. Above all, however, the city sang its siren song of unlimited diversity and unconditional acceptance to her — a young black girl with an artistic bend — as she became obsessed with attending college there:

If I went to school in New York, surely all my problems would be solved. I would learn how to be chic and glamorous. I would learn how to walk fast and wear all black without looking like I was attending a funeral. In adolescence, I was becoming a different kind of stranger in a strange land. I was a theater geek and troubled and angry and hell-bent on forgetting the worst parts of myself. In New York, I told myself, I would no longer be the only freak in the room because the city was full of freaks.

But despite being admitted into NYU — her most dreamsome fulfillment of idyllic fantasy — her parents had their doubts about the city’s dangers and distractions, so they sent her to a prestigious school a few hours away. And yet Gay continued to fuel the fantasy of New York’s make-or-break magic wand of success — a fantasy especially entertained by aspiring writers:

New York City is the center of the writing world, or so we’re told. New York is where all the action happens because the city is where the most important publishers and agents and writers are. New York is where the fancy book parties happen and where the literati rub elbows and everyone knows (or pretends to know) everything about everyone else’s writing career. At some point, New York stopped being the city of my dreams because it stopped being merely an idea I longed to be a part of. New York was very real and very complicated. New York had become an intimidating giant of a place, but still I worried. If I wasn’t there as a writer, was I a writer anywhere?

And yet she did became a writer — a great one — even though she left the fairy Gotham godmother for a tiny Midwestern town, where she now teaches, writes, and revels in the unconditional unfanciness and comforting underwhelmingness of it all. After a recent visit to the city to meet with her agent — for though a Real Writer may live anywhere, a Real Writer’s agent invariably lives in New York — she reflects:

New York was a strange land, and I was still a stranger and would always be one. Overall, that visit was fun. The city was good to me and I looked forward to returning and soon. But. There was nothing for me to say goodbye to in New York because I never truly said hello. I became a writer without all the glamorous or anti-glamorous trappings of New York life I thought I needed.

Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York is an exquisite read in its entirety and a wonderful addition to these 10 favorite nonfiction reads on NYC. For an antidote, complement it with some cartographic love letters to the city from those who decided to stay and the mixed experiences of those who came and went.

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09 OCTOBER, 2013

How Mind-Wandering and “Positive Constructive Daydreaming” Boost Our Creativity and Social Skills

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The science of why fantasy and imaginative escapism are essential elements of a satisfying mental life.

Freud asserted that daydreaming is essential to creative writing — something a number of famous creators and theorists intuited in asserting that unconscious processing is essential to how creativity works, from T. S. Eliot’s notion of “idea incubation” to Alexander Graham Bell’s “unconscious cerebration” to Lewis Carroll’s “mental mastication.” In the 1950s, Yale psychologist Jerome L. Singer put these intuitive observations to the empirical test as he embarked upon a groundbreaking series of research into daydreaming. His findings, eventually published in the 1975 bible The Inner World of Daydreaming (public library), laid the foundations of our modern understanding of creativity’s subconscious underbelly. Singer described three core styles of daydreaming: positive constructive daydreaming, a process fairly free of psychological conflict, in which playful, vivid, wishful imagery drives creative thought; guilty-dysphoric daydreaming, driven by a combination of ambitiousness, anguishing fantasies of heroism, failure, and aggression, and obsessive reliving of trauma, a mode particularly correlated with PTSD; and poor attentional control, typical of the anxious, the distractible, and those having difficulties concentrating.

In a recent paper titled “Ode to Positive Constructive Daydreaming” (PDF), published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, writer Rebecca McMillan and NYU cognitive psychologist Scott Kaufman, author of Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, revisit Singer’s work to deliver new insights into how the first style of Singer’s mind-wandering, rather than robbing us of happiness, plays an essential, empowering role in daily life and creativity.

My highlights from Anaïs Nin's diary, illustrated by Lisa Congdon. Click image for details.

One of the most fascinating aspects the authors explore is the seeming paradox of the high costs of daydreaming, which prevents us from wholly inhabiting the present moment, and the astounding frequency with which we engage in it. This is related to the default mode network (DMN), which neuroscientists discovered in the late 1990s and which Singer presaged by decades — a neural network that engages when our brain is at wakeful rest, as in meditation, rather than actively focused on the outside world. The authors explain:

While the costs of mind wandering are apparent and easily quantifiable, the benefits seem less obvious and tangible. They require us to dig a bit deeper.

Singer and colleagues report many of the costs associated with mind wandering, yet the central theme of Singer’s large body of work is the manifestly positive, adaptive role that daydreaming plays in our daily lives. We turn now to the benefits of daydreaming first described by Singer, then bolstered by recent studies exploring the adaptive role of the DMN and mind wandering on cognition.

Right from the start, Singer’s research produced evidence suggesting that daydreaming, imagination, and fantasy are essential elements of a healthy, satisfying mental life. His early research included studies looking at delayed gratification and the interaction of imagination and waiting ability in young children. In another early study presented evidence of correlation between daydreaming frequency, measures of creativity, and storytelling activity. … Singer explored the relationship between daydreaming, personality, divergent thought, creativity, planning, problem solving, associational fluency, curiosity, attention, and distractibility. Singer noted that daydreaming can reinforce and enhance social skills, offer relief from boredom, provide opportunities for rehearsal and constructive planning, and provide an ongoing source of pleasure. In later work, Singer describes those who engage in positive constructive daydreaming as “happy daydreamers” who enjoy fantasy, vivid imagery, the use of daydreaming for future planning, and possess abundant interpersonal curiosity.

Pointing to recent research, McMillan and Kaufman argue that Singer presaged the same four primary adaptive functions of positive constructive daydreaming that modern neuroscience has identified since the discovery of the DMN:

Future planning which is increased by a period of self-reflection and attenuated by an unhappy mood; creativity, especially creative incubation and problem solving; attentional cycling which allows individuals to rotate through different information streams to advance personally meaningful and external goals; and dishabituation which enhances learning by providing short breaks from external tasks, thereby achieving distributed rather than massed practice. All four functions are present in Singer’s work, though his terminology differs.

Lynda Barry watercolor over Freud's essay on creative writing and daydreaming. Click image for details.

The authors debunk yet another paradox in the study of daydreaming — the notion that mind-wandering is often bemoaned as a “mental mishap” or “cognitive failure,” yet it can also be, and often is, an act of volition:

Individuals can choose to disengage from external tasks, decoupling attention, in order to pursue an internal stream of thought that they expect to pay off in some way. The pay off may be immediate, coming in the form of pleasing reverie, insight, or new synthesis of material, or it may be more distant as in rehearsing upcoming scenarios or projecting oneself forward in time to a desired outcome. Projection backward in time to reinterpret past experiences in light of new information is also a possibility. All of these activities, which take place internally, sheltered from the demands of external tasks and perception, offer the possibility of enormous personal reward. These mental activities are, in fact, central to the task of meaning making, of developing and maintaining an understanding of oneself in the world. … Certainly a large share of mind wandering occurs without permission or awareness. But some mind wandering occurs because we actively choose to decouple from external tasks and perceptions and focus instead on an internal stream of thought with full awareness both of the choice being made and the contents of consciousness.

[…]

It seems likely that the ability to engage in volitional daydreaming, i.e., to switch easily back and forth between different streams of consciousness, might be sensitive to practice effects. Choosing to disengage from external tasks, decouple, turn attention inward, and follow an internal stream of thought with full awareness undoubtedly requires skill. The process can break down in a number of places along the way: at the decision point, decoupling, the switch from outer to inner streams of consciousness, or meta-awareness. But the more a person does it, the easier it is likely to become.

They cite Singer himself, who noted this cognitive dance:

Our human condition is such that we are forever in the situation of deciding how much attention to give to self-generated thought and how much to information from the external social or physical environment.

Though McMillan and Kaufman’s conception of mind-wandering does border on romantic idealism at times — there are, after all, some hard numbers on the matter — it does give one pause about the art of pausing and offers a necessary antidote to our cultural cult of extreme goal-oriented productivity:

We mind wander, by choice or accident, because it produces tangible reward when measured against goals and aspirations that are personally meaningful. Having to reread a line of text three times because our attention has drifted away matters very little if that attention shift has allowed us to access a key insight, a precious memory or make sense of a troubling event. Pausing to reflect in the middle of telling a story is inconsequential if that pause allows us to retrieve a distant memory that makes the story more evocative and compelling. Losing a couple of minutes because we drove past our off ramp, is a minor inconvenience if the attention lapse allowed us finally to understand why the boss was so upset by something we said in last week’s meeting. Arriving home from the store without the eggs that necessitated the trip is a mere annoyance when weighed against coming to a decision to ask for a raise, leave a job, or go back to school.

And yet, there’s something to be said for bridging these adaptive benefits of mind-wandering with an active intention to remain awake to the world before us — because, as Annie Dillard poignantly observed, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” and while spending some of those in daydreams might be delicious, the art of living, unlike the art of writing, is more than a guided dream.

The article, which you can read in PDF here, concludes by reminding us just how far ahead of his time Singer was, and how seminal his theories were for modern cognitive science:

Whatever aspect of mind wandering current researchers might wish to pursue, it is likely that Singer considered the question first and made as thorough an investigation as the technology of the day would allow. His research serves as a solid foundation and springboard for all who come after him and share his fascination with positive constructive daydreaming, mind wandering, and the imaginative capabilities of the human mind.

A used copy of Singer’s The Inner World of Daydreaming — sadly, long relegated to the lamentable cemetery of out-of-print gems — is very much worth the hunt. Complement it with this omnibus of cultural icons on what creativity is.

Thanks, Scott Myers

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