psychology

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All the world as seen through the lens of a crystalline polythene grid of air pockets

“Of course one always has the same theme. Everyone has her theme. She should move around in that theme.”

So claims Austrian author Thomas Bernhard. Similarly, artist Lucian Freud was reported to have said, “Everything is autobiographical, everything is a portrait, even if it’s only a chair.”

One last example, and a memorable one: Willem de Kooning, suffering from dementia at the end of his life, continued to paint in that de Kooning signatory style. Brain dysfunction be damned, his work was coming up from somewhere deeper. Or different.

Be like me. See the world through my eyes. It is an elemental aspect of an artist’s consciousness. And the edge between objective and subjective is often an invisible boundary. Can we ever see it, that line where our own proclivities end?

After all, there is a long list of behavorial biases that can alter our ability to see/understand/perceive/comprehend with clarity. Here’s just a few from Psy-Fi’s much longer list:

Ambiguity Aversion: we don’t mind risk but we hate uncertainty
Babe Ruth Effect: winning big but rarely beats winning often and small
Bias Blind Spot: we agree that everyone else is biased, but not ourselves
Confirmation Bias: we interpret evidence to support our prior beliefs and, if all else fails, we ignore evidence that contradicts it
Familiarity Effect: being familiar with something makes you favour it
Fundamental Attribution Error: we attribute success to our own skill and failure to everyone else’s lack of it
Galatea Effect: some people succeed simply because they think they should
Hindsight Bias: we’re unable to stop ourselves thinking we predicted events, even though we’re woefully bad at predicting the future
Inter-group Bias: we evaluate people within our own group more favorably than those outside of it
Introspection Illusion: we value information gleaned from introspection more than we value our actions
Sharpshooter Effect: beware experts painting targets around bullet holes
Survivorship Bias: this is an error that comes from focusing only on the examples that survive some particular situation
Titanic Effect: if it can’t sink you don’t need lifeboats
Tragedy of the Commons: we overuse common resources because it not in any individual’s interests to conserve them

During the last few months I have been tunneling deeply through a massive project. An intensity of focus has been needed to get it done, but it comes at a cost. During times like these, my ability to parse the world in general becomes impaired.

I’ve been in that place before. When I had my first child, the world outside my home ceased to exist. If you didn’t wear a diaper and weren’t sleeping in the crib in the room next door, you just didn’t get any air time. I am grateful for the remembrance—and reassurance—that normalcy does return. Eventually.

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Every once in a while a book comes along that is so provocative and powerful that it becomes the epicenter of a major change in thinking, both personally and in the world at large. I’m sure you have your list which may or may not overlap with my own, but here are three I have had a relationship with for a lifetime:

The Structures of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, published in 1962. Kuhn was the first to offer to concept of the paradigm shift, a concept that has been completely co-opted in our thinking and language. This was the first book I read that laid out the nonlinear nature of scientific research and the role of consensus in establishing a theory. Reading this book at age 17 launched me into a lifetime fascination with the history of science.

A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander, published in 1977. Written by an architect, this book became a primer for any complex (and often engineering) task including urban design, software engineering, pattern recognition and yes, painting. This one led to a full shelf of brilliant books by Alexander.

Abstraction and Empathy, by Wilhelm Worringer, published in German in 1907. First exposed to this book by my professor Nan Piene while in college, Worringer’s concepts that two poles in art—abstraction (which at that time was primarily non-Western art) and empathy (European realism in the main)—are both in operation in us. Written before Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon or Kandinsky and Malevich explored nonrepresentationalism, this doctoral thesis is deeply prescient and still provocative.

It looks like I have a new title to add to my Hall of Fame list. Daniel Kahneman‘s new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, has that provocative and fundamentally paradigm shifting (thank you Kuhn) power. And what’s more Kahneman has created a vehicle for his ideas that is well written, designed for optimal understanding and irresistibly engaging.

Kahneman (who BTW was the first psychologist to win the Nobel prize for economics) offers a model for clarifying our multitude of mental processes and gives the two primary structures names, System 1 and System 2. System 2 is the conscious, thinking mind, the one that works slowly, using reason and analysis. This is our reasonable and thoughtful identity. System 1 is all that automatic and instantaneous processing, the one that has opinions and reactions that may not be logical at all but are part of our pattern-detecting survivalism. System 1 works with whatever information it has and works fast. The fact is we as humans need and use both systems. It is the misapplication of those tools that is the problem.

Kahneman takes the reader through a series of exercises that demonstrate how quickly System 1 will lead to inaccurate conclusions. He also shows how the slower more thoughtful System 2 just can’t react as quickly in certain life threatening circumstances as that instantaneous, pattern recognizing System 1. And unlike the arrogance and narcissism inflicted on the reader that has turned so many away from Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s otherwise fabulous book, The Black Swan, Kahneman places himself right alongside the rest of us in exposing how the human mind is wired to make faulty calls and misreads. We are all bozos on this bus, or so it seems!

I am only about half way through the book so there is still more juicy bits coming. But here’s why I am writing about this book prematurely: I am longing to have an in depth discussion with my art making, poetry-writing pals about how creativity calls on both System 1 and System 2. Since reading this book I have tried to observe my decision making in the studio, to track the play of these two impulses. I have a sense that being more observant of those flips and switches could lead to new ways of working, new ways of seeing my work as it unfolds. So yes I would love to explore that territory with Maureen, Nancy, Pam, Marcia, Altoon, Andrew, Thalassa, Alaleh, Lorrie, Luke, Walter, Holly, David, or you.

More on this for sure.

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My recent reading of Montaigne has increased my interest in how simple, straightforward “how to live” advice is made available. In our era we rely on data to validate our claims, so contemporary advice takes on a different hue. I was struck by this when I came across The Ψ Project blog and a list of findings from studies during the year that yielded insights both useful and interesting. (These were originally assembled by David DiSalvo at Psychology Today.)

Here’s a sample from that list for 2010 which reads a bit like the 16th century guidance provided by Montaigne referenced in two earlier posts, here and here:

We spend almost half of our time awake lost in day-dreams…. And it doesn’t make us happy.

We’re happier when we’re busy, but are wired to be lazy.

The rich have no need to develop empathy. The poor do.

Forgive yourself for procrastinating, and the procrastination will stop.

Note: You can read DiSalvo’s list for 2009 here. A few samples:

If you have to choose between buying something or spending the money on a memorable experience, go with the experience.

Turns out, saying you’re sorry really is important—and not just to you

If you’re preparing for a specific challenge, make sure you prep for that challenge and not just ones like it.

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Rubin Museum of Art chief curator, Martin Brauen, left, and Felix Walder, great-grandson to Carl Jung, inspect Carl Jung’s “The Red Book” (Photo: Rubin Museum)

The Rubin Museum exhibit (and accompanying lecture series) that features The Red Book by Carl Jung has been on my mind since I first saw the show a few months ago. (I have referred to it previously here and here.) What is this oversized Bible-like tome that Jung used to record his personal journey over a number of years? I have never seen anything like it, particularly from someone whose primary contribution to the culture of ideas and concepts is as strong as Jung’s. On the content itself, I am not in a position to respond and evaluate as expertly as many Jungian therapists have done. But the meticulous calligraphy and polychrome illustrations (which he refers to as “mandalas”) are striking and reveal Jung’s strong visual orientation. Can it be approached as an art object? No, not for me. It feels like an intimate diary—more of an artifact—of one soul’s journey into the deep space of the subconscious. It is curious, peculiar, intense, and a bit haunting.

That’s the reason I have continued to follow the reviews and discussions around this event. I’ve included a few salient reviews, some laudatory and some very critical. It’s everyman’s call.

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Do the decades between the completion and publication of “The Red Book” render it less potent or interesting? Not at all. As Shamdasani observes, “in a critical sense, ‘Liber Novus’ does not require supplemental interpretation, for it contains its own interpretation,” and so it is at last possible to begin a study of Jung with the work he held above all the rest. “The Red Book” not only reminds us of the importance of introspection, but also offers a guide to separating the self from the spirit of a time that would have astonished and offended Jung with its endless trivial distractions, its blogs and tweets and chiming cellphones. The creation of one of modern history’s true visionaries, “The Red Book” is a singular work, outside of categorization. As an inquiry into what it means to be human, it transcends the history of psychoanalysis and underscores Jung’s place among revolutionary thinkers like Marx, Orwell and, of course, Freud. The dedication — the love — with which it was assembled makes “The Red Book” as beautiful and otherworldly as a medieval book of hours.

Kathryn Harrison
New York Times

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But what is particularly strange about this book is not its pretense or pomposity but its talismanic power. It was stashed away in a cabinet for decades by the family, then jealously withheld from scholarly view because of its supposedly revealing nature. Since being brought into the open, partly through the efforts of the historian and Jung scholar Sonu Shamdasani (who is also curator of this exhibition), it has become a sensation.

Edward Rothstein
New York Times

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Jung, shaman of the collective mind games that are supposed to give healing significance to the average person’s deepysleepy land, was one of the inventors of modern intellectual celebrity and its egomaniacal constructs. The Red Book is nothing more than a projection of his giant vanity and, observing the book in the flesh, so to speak, one cannot help but view it more as a manufactured testament than the spontaneous recording of Jung’s nervous breakdowns that it is purported to be.

Charlie Finch
Artnet

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Was he going mad? After World War I broke out in 1914, Jung decided with relief that his disturbed imagination had actually been sensing the coming conflict. He also concluded that he had entered what we would now call a midlife crisis, a period in which he was being compelled to re-examine his life and explore his deepest self. To do this, he recorded some of his dreams and visions in what were later called his “Black Books” (which have been available for some while). But he also began a remarkable visionary text, illustrated with his own bizarre paintings: “The Red Book” or “Liber Novus.” This he composed during a state of “active imagination” — that is, of reverie or waking dream. As he said, he wanted to see what would happen when he “switched off consciousness.”

Michael Dirda
Washington Post

For those of you who are not near New York, the show is coming to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles (from April to June) and then to the Library of Congress in Washington.

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