Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

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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08 OCTOBER, 2013

Mark Twain on Religion and Our Human Egotism

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“The human race … sits up nine nights in the week to admire its own originality.”

A large part of what made Mark Twain the greatest American satirist was his capacity for cultural nitpicking, from his irreverent advice to little girls to his critique of the press to his snarky commentary on the outrageous requests he received. But one subject to which Twain applied his exquisite satire with absolute seriousness was religion. In Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2: The Complete and Authoritative Edition (public library) — the highly anticipated sequel to the excellent first installment — Twain’s grievances with “God” come fully ablaze.

In April of 1906, Twain — who famously believed that any claim of originality was merely misguided narcissism — offers this humorous lament on religion as a manifestation of human egotism:

The human race … sits up nine nights in the week to admire its own originality. The race has always been able to think well of itself, and it doesn’t like people who throw bricks at its naïve self-appreciation. It is sensitive upon this point. The other day I furnished a sentiment in response to a man’s request — to wit:

“The noblest work of God?” Man.

“Who found it out?” Man.

I thought it was very good, and smart, but the other person didn’t.

‘If your mother tells you to do a thing, it is wrong to reply that you won’t. It is better and more becoming to intimate that you will do as she bids you, and then afterward act quietly in the matter according to the dictates of your best judgment.’

Twain treated all forms of dogmatic authority, from religious to parental, with equal irreverence. Spread from his ‘Advice to Little Girls’ illustrated by Vladimir Rudinsky. Click image for more.

In another meditation, dictated in 1906 and posthumously published in 1963 in the Hudson Review under the title “Reflections on Religion,” then eventually included in the altogether excellent The Bible According to Mark Twain: Irreverent Writings on Eden, Heaven, and the Flood by America’s Master Satirist, Twain revisits the subject of evidence-free idolatry of deistic character:

We deal in a curious and laughable confusion of notions concerning God. We divide Him in two, bring half of Him down to an obscure and infinitesimal corner of the world to confer salvation upon a little colony of Jews — and only Jews, no one else — and leave the other half of Him throned in heaven and looking down and eagerly and anxiously watching for results. We reverently study the history of the earthly half, and deduce from it the conviction that the earthly half has reformed, is equipped with morals and virtues, and in no way resembles the abandoned, malignant half that abides upon the throne. We conceive that the earthly half is just, merciful, charitable, benevolent, forgiving, and full of sympathy for the sufferings of mankind and anxious to remove them.

Apparently we deduce this character not by examining facts, but by diligently declining to search them, measure them, and weigh them. The earthly half requires us to be merciful, and sets us an example by inventing a lake of fire and brimstone in which all of us who fail to recognize and worship Him as God are to be burned through all eternity. And not only we, who are offered these terms, are to be thus burned if we neglect them, but also the earlier billions of human beings are to suffer this awful fate, although they all lived and died without ever having heard of Him or the terms at all. This exhibition of mercifulness may be called gorgeous. We have nothing approaching it among human savages, nor among the wild beasts of the jungle.

‘All gods are better than their reputation,’ inscription dated December 23, 1902 from a first edition of ‘A Double-Barrelled Detective Story’ (Kevin MacDonnell Collection)

An early proponent of the conviction that evidence should outweigh mythology, he continues:

There is no evidence that there is to be a Heaven hereafter. … Heaven exists solely upon hearsay evidence — evidence furnished by unknown persons; persons who did not prove that they had ever been there.

[…]

According to the hearsay evidence the character of every conspicuous god is made up of love, justice, compassion, forgiveness, sorrow for all suffering and desire to extinguish it. Opposed to this beautiful character — built wholly upon valueless hearsay evidence – it is the absolute authentic evidence furnished us every day in the year, and verifiable by our eyes and our other senses, that the real character of these gods is destitute of love, mercy, compassion, justice and other gentle and excellent qualities, and is made up of all imaginable cruelties, persecutions and injustices. The hearsay character rests upon evidence only — exceedingly doubtful evidence. The real character rests upon proof — proof unassailable.

Twain then traces the evolution — or, as it were, devolution — of religion over the course of human history, considering Christianity’s odds for survival:

Do I think the Christian religion is here to stay? Why should I think so? There had been a thousand religions before it was born. They are all dead. There had been millions of gods before ours was invented. Swarms of them are dead and forgotten long ago. Our is by long odds the worst God that the ingenuity of man has begotten from his insane imagination — and shall He and his Christianity be immortal against the great array of probabilities furnished by the theological history of the past? No. I think that Christianity and its God must follow the rule. They must pass on in their turn and make room for another God and a stupider religion. Or perhaps a better [one] than this? No. That is not likely. History shows that in the matter of religions we progress backward and not the other way.

(More than a century later, legendary atheist Richard Dawkins would come to echo this sentiment in his newly published biography, writing: “I learned from my mother that Christianity was one of many religions and they contradicted each other. They couldn’t all be right, so why believe the one in which, by sheer accident of birth, I happened to be brought up?”)

Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2 is an indispensable trove of insight into one of modern history’s greatest minds. Complement it with the story of how Twain masterminded the middlebrow magazine, his little-known poetry, and the heart-warming fan mail he received over the course of his colorful career.

Thanks, Andrew

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03 OCTOBER, 2013

The Psychology of Pets as an Extension of Human Fashion: Virginia Woolf’s Nephew on Why Dogs Came to Outshine Cats

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“Dogs are the fashion because we can fashion them to our will.”

Given my soft spot for dogs (and the occasional cat), I was intrigued by a passage from On Human Finery (public library) — that fascinating 1947 meditation on sartorial morality and conspicuous consumption by Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf’s nephew and teenage collaborator — which contrasts the cultural roles of cats and dogs in human society. Bell, an acclaimed author and historian in his own right, and his aunt’s official biographer, presents an anthropological theory of why the dog has emerged as humanity’s pet of choice, “man’s best friend,” over all other domestic animals.

His assertion, served through the lens of the psychology of fashion, appears at first an offputting affront to animal consciousness, reducing our canine companions and their genius to mere objects. But Bell’s arguments actually reveal more about the complexity of being human, driven by an endless osmosis of generosity and solipsism, and speaks to our immutable impulse to will life’s chaos into order. He writes:

The comparison between the cat and the dog is highly instructive. The cat is the most polite of the domestic animals. Its life in the home is almost a kind of symbiosis. It is very clean in its habits; on the whole it pays its way and is frequently of more service than disservice to its owner.

The dog on the other hand has not shown the cat’s adaptation to the life of cities; he belongs to the kennel, but is seldom found there when used as an ornament.

A cat of questionable politeness, from the wonderful 'Lost Cat' by Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for more.

Bell quotes the legendary economist and sociologist Thomas Veblen, who asserted that the dog makes up for his unclean habits by having “a service attitude towards his master, and a readiness to inflict damage and discomfort on all else.” In fact, Bell argues, this attitude of servility is the very reason for the dog’s long history as fashionable decoration:

The enormous esteem in which dogs are held and their almost universal employment as ornaments is no doubt in a large measure due to this servile attitude; also perhaps they are psychological substitutes for children (a large section of the pet-loving public … consists of women in the higher income groups).

1967 New Yorker cover by Peter Arno from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

Bell, however, argues there are three main reasons that render dogs “modish above all other creatures”:

  1. Their connection with the futile pursuits of the chase
  2. Their sequacity which makes them in effect a part of the costume
  3. The extreme malleability of the species when subjected to selective breeding

A dog who has clearly not read Bell nor identifies as a mere ‘object’

Bell deems the third factor dogs’ greatest merit, indulging our urge to project ourselves onto the world and bend it to our will — an urge which lends itself to especial extremes when it comes to pets:

Dogs are the fashion because we can fashion them to our will. Dogs, much more than cats, can be made objects of conspicuous leisure; they can be rendered completely incapable of fending for themselves and made demonstrable objects of continual expense and care (whoever saw a cat wearing a little coat in the cold weather?) The highly-bred dog can have its whole frame twisted and distorted into shapes of the most astonishing kind. An uninstructed observer would suppose that the owners and vendors of these crippled and unhealthy animals must of necessity be exceedingly cruel. Such accusations would, however, be unjust; the torturers are genuinely devoted to their victims.

2010 New Yorker cover by Ana Juan from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

Bell concludes the chapter by circling back to the original lens through which he examines our attitudes towards pets — that of fashion’s morality, which he examined earlier in the book — and argues it is motive that exempts the extreme grooming of pets from the sort of moral condemnation with which we view animal testing and other experimental lab atrocities:

Fashion … has a morality of its own; and the cruelty involved in the deformation of unoffending animals, like that involved in blood sports, is redeemed by the economic futility of the motive; that involved in scientific experiments is felt to be odious because of its unpardonable utility.

Though long out-of-print, On Human Finery remains a treasure trove of timeless insight and is very much worth the used-book hunt or trip to the library. For a different cultural lens on the mesmerism of pets, pair this treat with The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs (one of the the best art books of 2012) and T. S. Eliot’s classic vintage verses about cats, illustrated by Edward Gorey.

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