Saturday, April 30

On being sane in insane places

Psychologists seek to understand behaviour and sometimes to classify behaviour.  However, research into the mentally ill suggests that what we see depends as much on who is doing the looking.

We tend to talk about 'mental illness' as if it there was something objective about it as having a physical ailment such a broken leg. Rosenhan wanted to know whether medical professions recognise insanity as well and as reliably as they would recognise a physical illness.

The first experiment involved 8 observers, termed 'pseudo-patients', who complained of hearing voices in the head in order to try to get admitted to one of 12 actual psychiatric hospitals in different parts of the USA. The pseudo-patient (using a fake identity) would explain that the voices were unclear, but seemed to be saying 'empty', 'hollow', and 'thud'.

All but one were admitted to a psychiatric ward with a diagnosis of schizophrenia.  Immediately upon admission to the psychiatric ward, the pseudo-patient stopped showing any signs of the disorder.

Apart from an initial nervousness about the situation, the pseudo-patients behaved 'normally' once admitted.  They chatted to other patients, followed instructions (apart from taking medicine, which was flushed down the toilet).  They initially took notes secretly, but as it became apparent that nobody cared, they did it more openly.  Much of their behaviour such as note-taking and queuing for the lunch room was treated as signs as their disorder, in examples of what Rosenhan called 'the stickiness of psychiatric labels'.  In other words, once you have a diagnosis of mental illness, ordinary behaviour may be seen as symptoms of your 'disorder'.

When asked by staff how they were feeling, pseudo-patients reported that their symptoms had gone.  Despite their public 'show' of sanity, the pseudo-patients were never detected. They were kept in hospital for an average of 18 days, with the longest stay being 52 days.

Did staff realise that a mistake had been made?

Not at all.  Pseudo-patients were discharged with a diagnosis of schizophrenia 'in remission'.  This means that the patient was thought to still have the disorder, but that the symptoms had temporarily died down.  In contrast, fellow patients and their visitors voiced their suspicions, for example by suggesting that the a patient was actually a journalist, checking up on the hospital.

A follow up study, hospitals were told that pseudo-patients would be checking in with them soon, but in fact none came forward.  In this case, staff mistakenly identified real patients as fakes!

For Rosenhan, all of this showed a worrying inability of psychiatric professionals to distinguish between the sane and the insane.  He asked, 'if sanity and insanity exist, how shall we know them?'  He was concerned that categorization of mental illness is, at best, useless and, at that it was worst, harmful and misleading.

Above all, the study showed the role of labelling.  Once labelled schizophrenic, a pseudo-patient's behaviours tended to be interpreted to fit with this label.   Other explanations of ordinary behaviours such as note-taking were overlooked. Rosenhan's study has been influential in prompting improvements to the diagnostic manual DSM, and better treatment of psychiatric patients.

Beyond Psychology, labelling has an influence in many areas of life - from the job applicant who is dressed as a punk to the 'sulky' teenager to the person in a relationship who is judged by their past mistakes.

Stereotypes and prejudice link to a similar set of processes, with people seeing what they expect to see.

Thursday, April 28

The best age for creativity

A good blog post on Write it Sideways about 'late blooming novelists' made me wonder if there is a peak age for creativity.  The young writers I teach have a lot of interesting ideas and creative energy, but good writing seems to be associated with a bit of wisdom and a lot of graft.  So what is the best age?

Galenson (2006) suggests that the stereotype of an artistic genius - a young, energetic and audacious visionary - only covers half of the story.  While some great creative types may fit into that mould - Mozart, Picasso and T.S. Elliot, for example - others follow a very different pattern.  Some creatives - Paul Cézanne for example - only achieve their greatest work after many years of struggling.

Boy with Skull by Cezanne,
photo by freeparking.
Gladwell (2009) describes the cases of two contemporary American writers - one who succeeds early and another who needs many years of graft.  Not only do they differ in how long they took to achieve success or fame, but they also work in different ways.  Gladwell suggests that the brilliant young things tend to do less research and start with a clearer idea of what they achieve.  The older creative type tend to repeatedly doubt and reject their own work, and see each thing they do as being more about progress than product.  They also tend to do much more research into their subject matter.  Do either of these types sound familiar?

A related issue comes up in the study of scientific breakthroughs.  Csikszentmihalyi (1996) states the scientists, rather than having a flash of inspiration as is popularly perceived, typically have an insight of true greatness after many decades of work.  Great scientists and inventors tend to have amassed a lot fo skills and knowledge before the have their bigger insights.  In the arts, children can be intensively schooled (Picasso was the son of an art teacher), but in science, it may be almost impossible to acquire the tools without many years of work.  It would explain the shortage of child prodigies in particle physics!

It is an interesting question whether the likes of Mozart and Picasso are geniuses in their fields, and if so, does the term 'genius' apply to someone who has had to work harder/take longer in order to achieve?

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996).  Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.  New York: HarperCollins.
Galenson, D.W. (2006).  Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Geniuses.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Gladwell, M. (2009).  What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures.  London: Penguin.

Tuesday, April 26

Do we think in words?

Writers, expressing ideas in words.  So how separate are thoughts and the words which express them.  And which comes first?

Do words come first?

The idea that words can shape thoughts is suprisingly contraversial.  Benjamin Whorf was an early linguist who studied different world languages.  He came to the conclusion that the language a person speaks determines the way they see the world - a person's ideas and world-view are a product of their words.

Words by Feuillu
This idea, known as linguistic relativism, implies that speakers of different languages must think differently - a notion that has largely been rejected nowadays; the modern theory of universal grammar states that at a basic level, all world languages are very similar.  The capacity of works of literature to be successfully translated is further evidence that thoughts are not closely linked to a specific language.

Having ideas as we write

If this is true, then do the ideas and feelings expressed in a piece of writing come to mind before the words used to express them?  Virginia Woolf certainly thought so, saying:

"a sight, an emotion creates this wave [a rhythm] in the mind ... then, as [the wave] breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it."

I'm sure most writers can identify with this - holding a thought in mind, while the words take their time to arrive!

Wave by Treehouse1977
Current views

However, both ideas are probably over-simplistic, and perhaps link to the outdated belief that mental processes are controlled by different brain areas.  Although there are brain areas associated with both language and imagination, the brain is densely interconnected, and activity spreads very quickly from one area to another.

Our conscious experiences relate more to the interaction between groups of cells than to the function of any particular area.  The connection between creativity and hallucinations shows the interaction between thought and language areas can be unpredictable and sometimes harmful.  This is an area where further research is needed.

The idea of linguistic relativism has made a comeback, in a weakened form.  George Lakoff (e.g. Lakoff, 1987) has suggested that metaphors we use are interconnected with the way we think.  For example, in English, we talk about time using money metaphors (spending time, etc), and use battle metaphors for debate (winning arguments, advancing a theory etc).

How important is metaphor to the way you use language?  Do you feel that it is just an add-on, or something more fundamental to your understanding and communication?

Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Woolf, V., cited in Dick, S. (ed., 1983).  To the Lighthouse: the original holograph draft, preface.  London: The Hogarth Press.

Sunday, April 24

The importance of character names

Names - so important!  A poor choice can jar with a reader, and make characters less memorable and engaging. A name can also be a poor fit with the story or genre.

Kelvingrove Faces by Spikeyhelen
Putting a reader off

A bad choice of name can put a reader off.  And while it is possible to avoid names completely (and there are good examples in literature), it is a tricky one to pull off, especially for a longer piece.

As a reader, I am put off - perhaps unfairly, but there we go - by stories which have wall-to-wall anglo-saxon names.  I feel that as a poor reflection of modern society, it can detract from the believability of a story.  For the fantasy genre, I am put off as a reader if writers seem to have gone down the route of 'anything bizarre sounding'.  Tolkein's work had a system, and I'd like to see some rationale behind a name - perhaps a fantasy version of the sort of surname-endings that most real languages have.


A name should resonate with a reader, and link well with the character described.  It should be memorable, if not deliberately unconventional, and definitely not an overused choice (unless you specifically want your character to sound bland).

There is no reason that the right name should come to you straight away, any more than any other aspect of writing.  It may be easier to use an initial or description until the right name occurs.

Names such as J.D. Salinger's 'Holden Caulfield' are highly memorable
and can come to represent a type of individual. 
As in real life, it can be hard for a reader to remember a name.  Repetition when a character is first introduced can help a name to stick.  Avoid bringing in too many names at once, and avoid having very similar names (e.g. Jon and Joe) - when reading a text quickly, these are easily confused.

For realism, names should be a likely choice at the time your character was born - and not necessarily a popular name now or at the time of the narrative.

Useful tools

There are several useful tools internet tools.  This article provides an excellent list of automatic character name generation tools, including historical genres.

I sometimes make use of websites which list the meaning of names, such as this one. Some sites list them by nationality, which can also be useful.  I don't necessarily have a specific meaning in mind - but there may be meanings I'd like to avoid!

Sometimes just browsing these sites can be worthwhile.  When you find right name, it can really help with the development of a strong character.

Wednesday, April 20

How personality psychology can help with building fiction characters

There's a lot of good, well-established research on personality which writers could benefit from looking at.

Why?  Well, when creating characters, creative writers are doing something very similar to what a personality psychologist wants to do - create a model of a person's character which will allow accurate predictions of how that character will act in future.  You want to 'know' your characters inside out?  Then why not piggy-back on some of the most useful concepts that psychologists have come up with over the years:

1) Openness to experience

This is one of the 'big five' traits of the five factor model of personality - a model which is widely used in contemporary Psychology research.  Openness, or 'openness to experience' involves being sensitive, imaginative, and intellectually curious.  An open person is willing to try new things, and doesn't dismiss ideas without giving them reasonable consideration.  

In fiction, an open character would be eager to travel to new places and try new foods and activities.  They wouldn't consider their beliefs to be set in stone, but would be willing to discuss and re-examine almost anything.

2) Extraversion v's introversion

Popularised by the research of Jung, these traits lie on either end of a scale.  It is all about how outgoing a person is - is your character a party person, or more of a stay-at-home-with-a-book type?  Or somewhere in the middle?

The differences are quite fundamental, with the brains of introverts and extraverts reacting in different ways (Johnson et al., 1999).  Extraversion can affect the clothes a person wears (Sharma, 1980), and extraverts tend to listen to more upbeat music.  This is a simple but useful consideration when writing about a character.

Extraverts tend to wear more decorative clothes.
Image by Trevor D.
3) Neuroticism

Along with extraversion, neuroticism is one of the three key traits in Hans Eysenck's model of personality, as well as the more recent five factor model.  It relates to how emotionally stable a person is, and how well they deal with daily stressors.

A very similar concept comes up in the self-help classic, 'The Road Less Travelled', in which M. Scott Peck talked about two dysfunctional approaches to problems: blaming yourself too much, or tending to always blame others.  In his view, stability lies in the middle of a scale, with either extreme being problematic.  How do your characters react to difficulties and disagreements?

A person's view of who is to blame will affect
their behaviour in an argument.  Image by Anders V.
4) Psychoticism, or...?

Psychoticism is the third trait of Eysenck's classic theory, and the least well-supported by research.  It was initially intended to describe people who are hostile, aggressive and socially difficult.  More recently, it has been viewed as a lack of two separate traits:

- Agreeableness (v's Machiavellianism)
- Conscientiousness (v's indiscipline)

An agreeable person attempts to cooperate with others and strives for harmony.  These people tend to be optimistic about human nature.  In contrast, someone low in this trait will be usually be selfish and manipulative, and put individual success ahead of group harmony.  Does your character try to help others, or are they basically out for themselves?

A conscientious person is responsible and hard working - this person will probably have a neat desk, too! Research has found that conscientious people tend to have more successful careers (Salgado, 1999). Such a character will find it hard to let go of their aims, and may get very tied up by duty and the need to follow a process through to completion.  Something a writer could also do with :D

Johnson, D. L., Wiebe, J. S., Gold, S. M., Andreasen, N. C. (1999). Cerebral blood flow and personality: A positron emission tomography study. American Journal of Psychiatry, 156, 252–257.
Salgado, J.F. (1997). The five factor model of personality and job performance in the European community. Journal of Applied Psychology, 82(1), 30–43.
Sharma, R. S. (1980). Clothing behaviour, personality, and values: A correlational study. Psychological Studies, 25, 137–142.

Monday, April 18

Evening: time to write?

If like me you feel you work best in the evening (and are downright sluggish in the morning, even after a few strong coffees) then you'd probably describe yourself as an 'evening person'.

It seems to be a common trait among people working in creative fields, and psychologists have found an association between late hours and creativity, too.  A good scientist will immediate question cause and effect here - could it not be that creative types tend to choose the stereotypical creative lifestyle, stays up late, drinking, smoking and, well, being creative?  The relationship could even be a self-fulfilling prophecy, with people who see themselves as creative choosing that lifestyle, and therefore getting used to late hours.

So what is the research?  In one study, Giampietro and Cavallera (2006) used a questionnaire to classify people as morning, evening, or 'intermediate' types.  They then tested their creativity.  The results were quite clear - evening people scored best on the tests, all of which involved creating or modifying images, for example creating a picture out of a selection of straight lines.

An obvious flaw with the study is that the self-report could be inaccurate.  People who see themselves as creative might choose to present themselves as evening people, because it fits an image of disordered, bohemian lifestyle.  Perhaps they also choose that lifestyle, getting used to later hours.

However, if the relationship could be explained by creative individuals choosing a more bohemian lifestyle, then you would expect some of the relationship to diminish with age, as at least some people will tend to settle down into more conventional habits.  This wasn't found - the relationship between creativity and preference for evening hours was just as strong in older people.

What makes some people prefer later hours?  I don't think it can't be put down just to choice or lifestyle.  As a parent, it seems that this preference starts early in childhood and is very difficult to influence.  In fact, the systems that orient us through night and day, making us (as a diurnal species) prefer to sleep when it is dark, are under biological control.  It is therefore not surprising that there should be genetic variation.

Kerkhof and Van Dongen (1996) reported that this 'biological clock' can differ by as much as two hours between morning-loving and evening-loving people, and even when life circumstances force us to lead different hours, this preference remains.

Personally, I'm still unsure as to why being an evening person would make you better at creative tasks.  Perhaps society and life experience support doing these sorts of activities in the evening, so if you are not at your best during those hours, you don't build up the creative faculties as well.

If you are a morning person, don't worry - you are in good creative company.  Many writers including Sylvia Plath and Mary Higgins Clark have chosen to get up at the crack of dawn to produce their creative works (Cummings, 2011).

Images in this post: Night desk and 
Vintage clock with perpetual calendar by H is for Home

Alexander, P. (1991). Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath. Da Capo Press.
Cummings, T. (2011). The Productivity Tricks and Daily Habits of Famous People. Retrieved April 17, 2011, from
Giampietro, M. and Cavallera, G.M. (2006). Morning and evening types and creative thinking. Personality and Individual Differences, 42(3), 453-46.
Kerkhof, G.A. and Van Dongen, H.P.A. (1996). Morning-type and evening-type individuals differ in the phase position of their endogenous circadian oscillator. Neuroscience Letters, 218(3), 153-156.

Sunday, April 17

Psychologists v's writers: on understanding the human condition.

"Everywhere I go, I find that a poet has been there before me." - Sigmund Freud

Image: Last Minute Pencil Jar by Magic Madzik

So who really does a better job of understanding human nature: psychologists or writers?

You might expect a psychologist to have a unique insight into human nature, one that would allow them to write great novels if they chose to do so.  Well, one American researcher did just that.  Moreno (2006) not only took the leap into fiction, but directly challenged other writers to do the same.  He says:

"This article invites psychologists to apply their knowledge of human behavior and facility with the written word to the modern novel. Steps for starting are itemized as is other information pertinent to persisting in the face of opposition and resistance."

Noam Shpancer is another Psychologist who is also a novelist - read an interview here by social psychologist Susan Perry, herself also a writer.  Such examples suggest that that a crossover between the fields could be on the increase.  I haven't come across a great number of examples, but it would be unfair to expect it - most psychologists already work a demanding, full-time job.  And it's probably even less likely that a creative writer will suddenly publish a Psychology paper!

Scientific articles - a specialist form of writing

Many psychologists have made greats insights through scientific research - see this classic Psyblog post for some of the most exciting findings about human behaviour in the history of the subject.

Meanwhile, in the interests of determining which group offers the better insights into the human condition, I'd invite nominations for the two squads: Team Psychologist and Team Poet.

Moreno, J.K. (2006). The psychologist as novelist. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 37, 210-214.

Thursday, April 14

Fresh eyes - why?

Writers are often told to put their work away (in a drawer, or similar) after writing the first draft, and return to it with 'fresh eyes'.  In 'On Writing', Steven King suggests that it should be months rather than weeks (King, 2001).

Pile of Papers 

Does anyone know why this works? (assuming it does - surely all those millions of writers can't be wrong!)

I expect it is partly due to reading becoming more automatic with exposure, causing mistakes to be missed.  As mentioned in a previous post, the mind likes to take shortcuts.  An obvious shortcut is to read what you remember, rather than going to the trouble of looking at the words and letters on the page!

Another aspect is that when reading, the eyes do not actually take a text in one word at a time, letter by letter.  The saccades - quick eye movements - that a reader makes leads to some words being perceived in more detail than other.  This tends to be the 'content' words which contain the meaning of the sentence - verbs, nouns etc - rather than 'function' words such as pronouns (e.g. 'of' in the example below).

Eye movements across 2 lines of text

It can be clearly see why typos are going to be easy to miss, especially in function words such as one of my common mistakes - 'the' instead of 'they'.

But more important that proof reading, a writer needs to look at the ideas of a text, the meaning, the pace and the emotion.  All of these can be looked at anew.  I don't know of any research in this area, but I'd like to hear about it.  My own experience is that a lot of the raw, personal nature of a piece of writing goes with the passage of time, and it is much more like looking at someone else's work - something that you can look at and respond to objectively.

King, S. (2001).  On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.  New English Library.

Tuesday, April 12

Carl Rogers - Humanistic psychologist

The influential psychologist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Carl Rogers is probably best known for his humanistic theory of how people can 'self-actualise' and become a complete, fulfilled human being given the right choices and conditions.  This should in turn lead to better mental health and creativity.

Rogers believed that the human mind can only grow 
healthily in good conditions, rather like a plan
Like a plant sprouting from seed, any human has great potential, Rogers believed - but a potential that may never be achieved.  Fulfilling potential depends greatly on whether out minds experience healthy conditions.  But we also, uniquely among life forms, have the power to make choices about our destiny.

So what should we be striving towards?  In his book 'On Becoming a Person', he lists the characteristics of a 'fully functioning person', which include:
  • A growing openness to experience – they move away from defensiveness and other strategies to prevent troubling things from entering consciousness.
  • An increasingly existential lifestyle – living each moment fully.  This results in excitement, daring, adaptability, tolerance.
  • Increased trust in their own judgment and their ability to choose behaviour that is appropriate for each moment - relying less on social norms.
  • Freedom of choice, being able to make a wider range of choices more fluently.  They believe that they play a role in determining their own behaviour and so feel responsible for their own behaviour.
  • Creativity – they will feel more free to be creative. They will also be more creative in the way they adapt to their own circumstances without feeling a need to conform.
  • Reliability and constructiveness – they can be trusted to act constructively. An individual who is open to all their needs will be able to maintain a balance between them.

Rogers states that the process of growing as a person is not for the faint-hearted: "It involves the stretching and growing of becoming more and more of one's potentialities.  It involves the courage to be.  It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life."

His influence is enormous in the world of psychotherapy, but he is not particularly well-known in the wider world (compared to Freud, who is considered to have a similar level of influence on Psychology.  Apart from generally improving as a person, what does Rogers have to say to writers and artists?    Here are three picks:

  • A warning to creative writing tutors: "The very essence of the creative is its novelty, and hence we have no standard by which to judge it."
  • Something which links in to my earlier post about perception: "In a person who is open to experience each stimulus is freely relayed through the nervous system, without being distorted by any process of defensiveness."
  • And one that will make a lot of sense to developing writers: "The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change."

Rogers, C. (1961). On Becoming a Person: A Therapist's View of Psychotherapy. London: Constable.

Saturday, April 9

Hallucinations and verbal fluency - the same brain processes?

An interesting study in the context of my previous post on creativity and mental illness. Creative writers are very quick at making links and spotting interesting combination of words, and this research study suggests that verbal creativity and hallucinations may involve the same brain systems.

It is known that there is a relationship between schizotypy - people showing some of the same symptoms of schizophrenia - and creativity.  Tsakanikos and Claridge (2005) found that among college students, some signs of schizotypy such as hallucinations showed a correlation with increased levels of verbal fluency. Verbal fluency is tested by seeing how many words of a given category people can say in a limited time, e.g. how many words beginning with 'n'.

Brain areas involved in language
The most common type of hallucination that schizophrenic individuals experience is hearing imaginary voices.  Why does this happen?  The research suggests that overactivity in verbal regions of the brain could be responsible.  Brain cells 'fire' (send out an electrical impulse) when they receive a certain amount of stimulation. It could be that schizotype individuals and people who are creative share a key trait: their brains need less stimulation for the verbal areas to fire, leading to both verbal fluency and, sometimes, hallucinations.

As well as being interesting from a creative writing point of view, this kind of research aims to delve into the causes of schizophrenia, which is a major disorder that leads to the hospitalisation of hundreds of thousands of individuals. In evolutionary terms, it doesn't seem to make any sense for genes for schizophrenia to be passed on, as it is not a survival avantage. This can be explained if the same genes, perhaps in a slightly different combination, can give us very advantageous traits such as a powerful and responsive grasp of language.

Tsakanikos, E.  and Claridge, G. (2005). More words, less words: Verbal fluency as a function of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ schizotypy.  Personality and Individual Differences, 39(4), 705-713.

Friday, April 8

Eyewitnesses: how accurately do people recall events?

As a writer you rely, directly or indirectly, on recollection of events.  For many years, psychologists have been studied how well (or badly) people can remember experiences that they witness.  

In particular, the question of whether an eyewitness can give an accurate report in a courtroom has been studied.  In Europe at the start of the 20th century there was even a journal devoted to the issue.  One of the best known contributors was Hugo Münsterberg, a German Psychologist who recounts an experiment conducted by a colleague, in which one student apparently shot another in a lecture theatre.  In fact the incident was staged, and the witnesses were given a memory test afterwards.  The smallest number of mistakes stood at 26%, and the largest was 80%.

Münsterberg's work was devoted to the many applications of Psychology to everyday life, including business, education, medicine and law.  In his 1908 book 'On the Witness Stand' he begins by listing numerous errors in his own recollection of a burglary.  His report to the police turned out to be wrong in many respects, and he found it hard to know why:

"How did all those mistakes occur? I have no right to excuse myself on the plea of a bad memory. During the last eighteen years I have delivered about three thousand university lectures. For those three thousand coherent addresses I had not once a single written or printed line or any notes whatever on the platform; and yet there has never been a moment when I have had to stop for a name or for the connection of the thought..."

Münsterberg, who moved from Germany to the USA at the invitation of William James, eminent psychologist and brother of novelist Henry James, believed that the errors originate in the fast and inaccurate associations we make as we perceive the event: "The sources of error begin, of course, before the recollection sets in. The observation itself may be defective and illusory; wrong associations... may make it imperfect."  This puts me in mind of Blink - Gladwell's (2005) book on the fast, largely unconscious parts of processing which are highly adaptive - often quicker and better than conscious thought, but which sometimes, due to stress or stereotypes, can get things very wrong!

Much better known nowadays is the work of American psychologist Elizabeth Loftus.  Loftus has shown that misremembering of eyewitness accounts is commonplace, and as well as our stereotypes, it can also be influence by information received after the event - for example, police questioning.  Amazingly, the work of Loftus and colleagues has even shown that completely fictional 'memories' can be created by repeated questioning (Ceci et al, 1994).

All of which show that what we remember, or what other people who we interview remember, might be a lot less reliable than we like to think.

Ceci, S.J., Loftus, E.J., Leichman, M.D. and Bruck, M. (1994). The possible role of source misattribution in the creation of false beliefs among preschoolers. International Journal of Clinical & Experimental Hypnosis, 42, 304-320.
Gladwell, M. (2005).  Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.  New York: Little, Brown.
Münsterberg, H. (1908).  On the Witness Stand:  Essays on Psychology and Crime.  New York: Doubleday.

Thursday, April 7

Seeing things differently - are our minds making it up?

One piece of advice I really appreciated from my first creative writing textbook was to try to see events from a new perspective:

"Writing is a process of becoming aware, of opening the senses to ways of grasping the world, ways that may previously have been blocked. Often we take the world around us for granted, we are so immersed in habit." (Neale, 2006: 44).  

The point of this is to try to see more, and see different things.  Without doing so, you will absorb a lot less material for your writing.  Which is surprising in a way - doesn't perception of the world a fairly straightforward representation of what is out there?  Well, no. Psychologists have known for a long time that what we see depends a lot on our expectations.  A timeless example of this is the power of illusions.  In the image below, do you see a rabbit's head or a duck's?

The Duck-Rabbit Illusion
Illusions clearly show that the percept - the impression we form - depends at least as much on what we hold in our minds as on what is out there in the world.

This leads to the conclusion that when we see and hear the world, the mind is taking a lot of shortcuts, leading us to see things imperfectly (see my previous post on how this may affect eyewitness memory in legal cases).  One explanation from cognitive psychology is that the mind wants to save processing power, so it takes the easy route - assuming that things tend to stay the same.  A good example of this that many of you will have tried during biology classes at school is the 'blind spot test': cover your right eye, then look at the cross below.  Out of the corner of your eye, you will be able to see the black patch with a dot.  At a certain distance from the screen, the dot disappears.

The Blind Spot Test
So what can this tell artists about perception?  It suggests, as stated in the quote above, that the brain is constantly filling in the blanks, and unless you take action to look at things non-habitually, you will very easy fall into stale habits of perception.  Sit in your usual seat, take your usual place in a lecture theatre, listen to your usual music, and it becomes very easy for the mind to take shortcuts.  Often, it may be taking in very little at all.

Can perception be changed?  I have a simple example from my own experience over the past few months of how it can.  Starting from an interest in illusions and ambiguous images, I began to look for images which a face, of some sort or other, can be seen.  The following example shows - it is possible to see a face in the clouds - if you look for it:

Over the Cloudy Sea - image by by Jah~
My experiences is that if you take the trouble to look, there are faces everywhere (yes, it sounds a bit freaky - don't go too far with this!)  Just one example, I believe, that you see things habitually if you choose to, but it's also possible to see things differently - to choose to break habits of perception.

Neale, D. (2006).  Writing what you know.  In L. Anderson (ed.), Creative Writing: A Workbook With Readings.  Milton Keynes/Abingdon: The Open University in association with Routledge.

Wednesday, April 6

Creativity: as simple as moving your eyes?

As discussed on this blog, boosting the activity of the right hemisphere of the brain can help to kickstart the creative process, and help avoid an over-analytical approach to writing.

In most individuals, the left side of the brain contains the areas responsible for language, while the right side of the brain is better at spatial activities.  The right hemisphere has its own separate consciousness, but is less dominant (Springer and Deutsch, 1989).

It is sometimes suggested that our creativity is 'in' the right hemisphere, but this is an oversimplification - any creative activity benefits from healthy interaction between two sides.  Shobe et al. (2009) have found evidence that boosting the level of interaction between left and right actually made people better at creativity-related tasks.  They used the test of imagining alternative uses for everyday objects (e.g. a brick).  When participants did a simple task to boost communication between brain hemispheres - switching their eyes from side to side for 30 seconds - they showed a greater improvement at the task than a control group (who stared straight ahead).

Another curious aspect to the Shobe et al research was that the eye movement task was only benefitted people with a strong handedness preference.  For example, people who (like me) are right-handed but use their left hand for certain tasks seem to already have a higher level of intercommunication between their brain hemispheres - something to think about before you bring lateral eye movements into your daily writing routine!

Image by obo-bobolin.

Shobe, E.R., Ross, N.M., and Fleck, J.I. (2009). Influence of handedness and bilateral eye movements on creativity. Brain and cognition, 71(3), 204-14.
Springer, S.P. and Deutsch, G. (1989).  Left Brain, Right Brain (3rd ed.)  New York: Freeman and Co.

Tuesday, April 5

Creativity and mental illness - what's the link?

In Psychology, the confirmation bias is where people favour and are more likely to remember information which links in to their prior assumptions.  So while it's easy to think of examples of creative people who have had mental health problems - Van Gogh, Byron, Proust, Poe - it's hard to be sure that these examples aren't better known just because they fit the stereotype.

The Ravine, 1889, Van Gogh
Looking at Wikipedia's list of people with depression, there certainly seems to be a preponderance of artists, musicians, writers and actors.  However, this may reflect the kind of people who would tend to have entries in the first place.

The picture is further complicated by the fact that besides what are thought of as creative industries, creativity as a general trait can be of great benefit to politicians, business leaders and so on.  To make a comparison, Post (1994) selected around 50 individuals (all men!) from several fields - poets, novelists, politics, science etc - who had made a clearly world-class contribution to their field.  He found that while nearly all were ambitious, hard-working and sociable, only the artists and writers showed signs of abnormal personalities.  Three-quarters of artists but also half of the other group showed signs of mood disorders, though not to an extreme extent, but enough to make them clearly different from the general population.

An even stronger finding, supported by Nettle (2005), was that artists are more likely to suffer from schizotypy - a condition related to schizophrenia, but with much milder symptoms.  This relates to an ongoing debate over whether mental illnesses occur in an all-or-nothing way (the way we either have a physical ailment, like a broken leg, or we don't) or if they are better viewed as lying along a continuum, from a little to a lot.  (Curiously, in the context of my previous post, schizotypy has also been linked to dominance of the brain's right hemisphere).

Mental illness can be totally debilitating, so how is it possible that people with unusual psychological symptoms go on to become some of our most productive artists, writers and political leaders?  Nettle (2005) found that while "artistic creatives and psychiatric patients share a tendency to unusual ideas and experiences," they have a better ability than psychiatric patients to control and integrate these experiences.

Fyodor Dostoevsky
Fay Weldon says that ‘there have to be two personalities in every writer’: the one who produces the first drafts, has to be ‘creative, impetuous, wilful, emotional, sloppy,’ while the one who works on and edits drafts has to be ‘argumentative, self-righteous, cautious, rational, effective’ (quoted in Singleton and Luckhurst, 2000: 305). This is a long way from having a 'split personality' or being bipolar in the clinical sense, but hints that being totally stable is not an advantage.  This might not be true of every job - Nettle (2005) found that in comparison to artists, mathematicians had low levels of schizotypy.

It may be that there are many tasks in life where there would be a a benefit to going through two separate phases, one energetic and idea-focused, and another cautious and focusing on review and consolidation, but research suggests that the pattern has a natural fit with creative occupations.  Educational expert Sir Ken Robinson links every aspect of human cultural development back to creativity.  Could the very nature of creativity be an adaption of the species which has allowed us to progress, but at the risk of mental illness?

Nettle, D. (2005). Schizotypy and mental health amongst poets, visual artists, and mathematicians. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 876–890.
Post, F. (1994).  Creativity and psychopathology: A study of 291 world-famous men.  The British Journal of Psychiatry, 165, 22-34.
Singleton, J. and Luckhurst, M. (2000).  The Creative Writing Handbook.  Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave.

Sunday, April 3

How to Tackle the Limits of Human Memory

I've been working on an autobiographical piece of writing lately, and of course, the limits of memory are a key barrier.  The piece is based on some of my experiences at age six, and an intriguing task I tried to help trigger the memory - many thanks to my OU course tutor for this one - was to draw a map of my childhood home.  As soon as I started sketching out the rooms, furniture etc, memories started flooding back.

This is what psychologists call using a cue to trigger a memory.  When memory is described, there tends to be a lot of emphasis on how memories are stored - where in the brain?  How much can be held?  How long for?  However, without successful retrieval, encoding and storage count for very little.
The problem is that retrieval of information from a busy, cluttered memory is not always easy.  The context in which we encode things can play a role in how easy it is to remember them, with items being harder to retrieve or recognize in an unfamiliar setting (most people have experienced this with faces, e.g. seeing a neighbour when abroad on holiday).  Similarly, even when we really should know a word or name, and we know that we know it, sometimes it doesn't quite come, at least not straight away.  The concept of something being on the 'tip of your tongue' goes across cultures and has been around for hundreds of years.

It is relatively easy to invoke the tip of the tongue (TOT) phenomenon - giving a person a list of 10 definitions of rare words will usually bring about the experience at least once.  Brown & McNeill (1966) researched the phenomenon, stating that a participant "would appear to be in mild torment, something like on the brink of a sneeze, and if he found the word his relief was considerable".  The researchers also found that giving a cue such as the first letter of a word was often enough to 'trigger' the memory.  TOT is thought to occur roughly twice a week in most adults (Schacter, 2001) - though perhaps more for writers!

I was relatively lucky in retrieving my childhood memories - I moved house at age six, so I can be sure that memories dredged up using the house map technique as a cue are uncontaminated by later experiences.  Still, I think that it could probably be put to use in other contexts too - a friend's house, a school classroom etc.

Brown, R., & McNeill, D. (1966). The "tip-of-the-tongue" phenomenon. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 5, 325-337.
Schacter, D. L. (2001). The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.