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Posts Tagged ‘psychology

Having Difficulty Writing? Good.

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According to many cognitive scientists, accomplishing a task with little money or resources may be harder, but it also makes us vastly more creative. This article describes some of the products of creative people placed in (sometimes deliberately) difficult situations – the Beatles’ Abbey Road, for example.

Is there something to the “starving artist” stereotype?

Fans of J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter series know that she was on government assistance while writing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, jotting much of the novel down in coffee shops, finishing it up on a manual typewriter. And then there’s this:

You might have thought any tool which enables a writer to get words on to the page would be an advantage. But there may be a cost to such facility. In an interview with the Paris Review Hughes speculated that when a person puts pen to paper, “you meet the terrible resistance of what happened your first year at it, when you couldn’t write at all”. As the brain attempts to force the unsteady hand to do its bidding, the tension between the two results in a more compressed, psychologically denser expression. Remove that resistance and you are more likely to produce a 70-page ramble.

Rowling’s not the only successful writer to have to overcome obstacles – in this video, Stephen King discusses writing longhand; when Carrie was published, King was working as an over-worked, underpaid english teacher in rural Maine. Rowling and King are just two examples of successful authors who started in imperfect conditions. After some rumination on this theory, I can think of several writers whose work has, in my opinion, suffered after they’ve become famous, though this certainly doesn’t apply to everyone.

Thus the question: do you write better when you have obstacles placed in your way (physical, financial, or otherwise?) Would you ever deliberately make things harder on yourself to improve your writing or other work?

Written by Jen Szymanski

November 14, 2012 at 11:01 am

Nightstand Psychology

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My nightstand as it appeared this morning.

“There’s no place for me to put a cup of coffee.”

I opened my eyes to see my husband standing next to the bed, blue spatter mug in hand. I absolutely require caffeine first thing in the morning, so this was a real problem. Glancing over at the nightstand, I could see he was right. My bedside table is in a constant state of disarray. I ended up having my coffee in the kitchen.

My husband and I have a bit of an Felix Ungar/Oscar Madison relationship when it comes to our respective reading habits. He tends to read one book (usually history or other non fiction) straight through, while I have an open book in every room. He chides me for my inability to use a bookmark, harangues me about the state of the spines of my hardbacks. Having read that your stuff can say a lot about your personality,  I wondered what all those books mean to me, and thought I’d give my nightstand library a second look.

I have my constants, the books that never leave my bedside:

The Bible, and an ancient, cracked Book of Common Prayer; Gladys Taber’s Stillmeadow Sampler; a book of Robert Burns’ poetry in dialect.

I have my literary “To Do list,” the books I want to read next:

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Brave Companions.

I volumes of short stories by Stephen King and Alice Munro, for when it’s time for sleep, but I need that little “reading fix” to relax me.

I have the books that evoke childhood memories: My favorite (and recently deceased) aunt’s circa 1940 copy of Alice in Wonderland.

I have my current read, Chocolat.

What does this say about me, this eclectic group of tomes in hard and paperback, old and new, scattered as they are? I’ve thought about it since that first cup of coffee (I’m on my fourth…it’s Friday, no judgement, please,) and I think the answer is: I like to read, nothing more.

What do you think someone would be able to tell about you by just looking at your nightstand or bookshelf?

Written by Jen Szymanski

September 21, 2012 at 9:10 am

Posted in Personal

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Do You Have Cyberchondria?

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Are you feeling kind of “off?” Fatigued, headachy, maybe a little nauseous? What do you do? If you’re like many of us, you hit the internet for an instant answer.  After hours of entering symptoms, and sifting through endless lists of conditions and diseases, you’ve got an answer: you definitely have a brain tumor. Realistically, you probably don’t. But what you might have is a new type of anxiety disorder, called cyberchondria.

WebMD, one of the most popular and “trusted” medical advice sites, draws about 85 million visitors a month. It’s in good company: according to a 2009 poll, 61% of Americans claim to use the web for medical advice. The problem is that, while the services can be helpful, when they’re misused, they create a whole host of new issues. Why are we doing this to ourselves?

“Finances” is certainly a plausible answer. About 17% of Americans are uninsured, and don’t want to cough up the cost (or even in some cases, the copay) for an office visit.  But that doesn’t really explain why we’re so ready to self-diagnose thyroid cancer, when it’s more likely that we have a common sore throat. Or why we end up rushing, panic stricken, to the ER, running up enormous and entirely unnecessary medical bills. There are some good explanations that have their roots not in our bank accounts, but instead are in neuroscience and psychology.  Here are three to consider before you open your browser to see what that thing is on your foot.

Your Brain Likes Order and Sees Patterns

Imagine how our brains interprets two cherries and a bar sign on a slot machine. It instantly recognizes that we’re close to a win (three cherries.) Even though we haven’t actually hit the jackpot, we still catch a little thrill (“darn, I was so close!”),  as well as a mini natural high (a jolt of the endogenous opiate dopamine.) Both of these encourage us to pull the lever on the one armed bandit again.

This “near miss” phenomenon also happens when we think we’re exhibiting two out of three symptoms for a rare medical condition. Our brain may give up on one disease, but we feel that we’re close – and are inspired to look further, even when there’s nothing there.  Moreover, our brains evolved to discern patterns of all kinds. While this skill can be very handy when you’re roaming the jungle intent upon survival, sometimes we do it so well that we a pattern even when none exists. So, when your brain reads a list of symptoms on a medical site, and finds that you are exhibiting three out of six symptoms for a disease, you tend to conclude that you do have (or will get) the rest, even if they aren’t any more specific than malaise, headache, and the sniffles.

Your Brain is Wired to Love a Good Story 

Another plausible explanation? We like to know “why.” To be more blunt, we like a good story. And if we are perusing WebMD, we probably are not a trained physician, our brains will fill in the details where there are gaps. It doesn’t matter if the specifics aren’t based in reality, or whether they reflect what happened to a friend of a friend.

We Want Control

Finally, we like to be captains of our own fates. A recent UC Davis study found that we still hit the internet for answers, even after we’ve seen our doctors.  There’s nothing scarier for some of us than to put our lives in the hands of another human being, especially one we don’t see very often. It’s easier for us to read bad news on a small backlit screen than to have to face another human who might tell us we are ill, or have to submit to tests. Furthermore, we can get an answer right now and do something about whatever is bothering us, even if it’s the wrong remedy.

Are you guilty of cyberchondria?

Written by Jen Szymanski

September 14, 2012 at 10:07 am

A walk in the woods

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Nature philosopher Henry David Thoreau knew the value of time spent outside.  An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day,” he wrote.  Although this thought has been used to generate enthusiasm for exercise and weight loss, Thoreau meant a walk in a natural setting, not on a treadmill or around a track – or even, apparently, through an urban area.

Over a century later, science has finally caught up with Thoreau.  A study headed by  Stephen Kaplan at  University of Michigan’s Psychology Department, “The Restorative Benefits of Interacting with Nature,” offers some clinical evidence that walking in nature is more than good for the circulatory system and the waistline: it’s good for the mind.

How so?   The brain (specifically the pre-frontal cortex) constantly assesses our surroundings.  It’s a reflex designed to keep us from harm.  The pre-frontal cortex also performs a process called executive function, essentially defined as the brain’s ability to plan our actions based on incoming stimuli.  Is it necessary to run away from that car that just blew its horn?  To duck or turn away from the exhaust from the bus?  Is it okay to just keep going and ignore that dog barking at us from the parked car?  In an urban or electronically “plugged-in” environment, the prefrontal cortex is constantly stimulated, and the brain has to work hard in order to sort out the stimuli.  When we walk in the city, we have to avoid fellow pedestrians, dodge cars, pay attention to traffic signals, and so on; the brain, calling on our memory, also tunes out ambient city noise, buses going by, etc., since they’re (in general) not harmful threats.  Hence, a walk in the city is good for the muscles, and may alleviate stress, but the brain really doesn’t get a break – it’s constantly being bombarded with the sights and sounds of potential danger.

Consider the alternative.  While walk in a natural setting may have interesting sights and sounds such as a soaring eagle or magnificent view, psychological research has suggested that these stimuli are perceived as a whole.  For example, the prefrontal cortex receives a gorgeous sunrise as a stimulus, but it doesn’t require much of an executive decision.  There is no reason to act upon it (except to maybe take a picture.)  The brain doesn’t have to process it any further.  According to this research, a walk in the woods is like a vacation for the mind: it allows the prefrontal cortex to relax a bit, restore itself, and then be able to function better when we do go into a more exciting environment.

It’s interesting to note that giving the pre-frontal cortex a rest may be even more beneficial for children.  As I mentioned in an earlier article, executive function allows for kids to “self-regulate,” essentially to exert self-control and discipline, and to respond appropriately to their surroundings and peers.  When my kids seem to be better behaved after a nice long hike, I used to think it was because I wore them out.  Maybe it’s because I gave their brains a break.

Written by Jen Szymanski

November 19, 2008 at 5:22 pm