Writing in Flow

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I began experiencing flow in my writing when I was in college. However, back then I did not know there was a name for the experience; I just called it “being in the throes of creative criticism.” I continued to have this experience throughout college, my years of graduate study in language and literature, and many years as a freelance writer.

For me, the experience almost always works the same way, whether I am working on an academic paper requiring a lot of research or on a short article for a general audience requiring only an afternoon of background reading. First I do the necessary research and background reading. Then, after I have finished the groundwork, at some point the flow experience sets in, when whole paragraphs of perfect prose begin to compose themselves, unbidden, in my head.

Usually the flow process begins in the early morning, either immediately after I wake up (in fact, sometimes I think flow is what awakens me) or, more often, while I am in the shower. This conforms to the pattern of incubation and illumination commonly associated with the creative process; my brain has been working on the problem while I was asleep. Occasionally the flow process begins late at night, when the hypnagogic stage just before sleep releases my mind from thinking too hard about the writing project. I have learned that, whenever the flow experience begins, I must take advantage of it immediately. A few times when flow arrived late at night I repeated the perfect prose over in my head and assured myself that it would still be there in the morning. It was not, at least not more than a few sentences of it.

The Unconscious Takes Over

The unconscious mind takes the germ of an idea and develops it, but usually this happens only when a writer has tried hard, and logically, to develop it himself. After he has given it up for a few hours, getting nowhere, a great advancement of the plot will pop into his head. I have been waked up in the night sometimes by a plot advancement or a solution of a problem that I had not even been dreaming about.

Patricia Highsmith

Once flow begins, the ideas seem to—well, flow. Individual points occur not in isolation, but in related order that causes the writing to flow smoothly from one idea to the next, with evident continuity. I become completely absorbed in the process, writing paragraphs that later require only minimal editing and only infrequently have to be moved within the paper. My experience resembles Ueland’s (1938; rpt. 1987) caution to writers who have an article or an essay to write not to think ahead too much, not to organize too much in advance, not to draw up a detailed outline beforehand: “Do not worry about the whole. Write what is next, the idea that comes now at the moment. Don’t be afraid. For there will be more coherence and arrangement in your thoughts than you think” (p. 156).

When writing in flow, I become completely focused on the computer screen in front of me and shut out anything occurring around me. When I am in flow I also lose track of time, usually finding, when I am done, that I have been writing for twice as long as I think I have been.

Sometimes I have a writing project nearly finished but still need an interesting introduction, a particular transition, or a snappy conclusion. In these cases I usually have a second flow experience that produces the necessary sentence or paragraph. This flow state usually occurs the morning after I have finished the rest of the writing and lasts only as long as necessary for me to put the finishing touches on the manuscript. Because this happens frequently, I have learned to try to finish a project at least the day before its deadline so that I can polish the manuscript up before submitting it.

Cover: FlowMy experience of being completely absorbed while writing mirrors what Kellogg (1994) says: “Amplifying performance to peak levels requires that an individual fully invest processing time and cognitive effort in the task at hand. All available knowledge must be brought to bear, and the writer achieves this through total absorption in the task” (p. 66). Kellogg says that what he describes as total absorption in the task is the same as what Csikszentmihalyi calls the flow state. In a further similarity to Csikszentmihalyi, Kellogg says that such a state occurs “when task demands and skill levels match” (p. 66). Kellogg identifies as other requirements for flow in writing a positive affect (a feeling of enjoyment), clarity of purpose, high motivation, and a belief that one is in control of the work.

My flow experiences while writing always feel overtly creative. That is, while I am writing I am aware that I am combining ideas in a new, unique, and creative way. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that flow, instead of being simply related to creativity, is creativity, or is the creative process at work.

Like Csikszentmihalyi, Perry (1999) believes that writers can learn to induce flow. For her book, which is based on the research for her doctoral dissertation, Perry interviewed 62 creative writers (mostly poets and fiction writers) to find out if they had ever experienced flow in their writing. She discovered that “those who write regularly have indeed found ways to get themselves into flow. They make a decision, whether experienced as a conscious commitment or not, to enhance the mental state where writing—and flow—can then begin in earnest” (p. 161). Also:

it became clear to me that your own familiar procedures—in particular, their habitual nature rather than any particular order or kind of activities—serve the specific purposes of helping you shrug off mundane reality, move into another mental place, train your subconscious to do the desired work, and even help remove ambivalence from the writing project. (p. 164)

This approach to flow does not work for me. In a general sense, I certainly agree that it is possible to cultivate a more personally engaged attitude toward life such as Csikszentmihalyi (1990, 1997), Richards (2002), and Langer (1989) advocate. In this large sense, then, it is possible to prepare oneself for flow to occur. But I do not believe I can—or should try to—micromanage flow. In the discussion of habitual activities that writers use to help induce flow, Perry mentions one writer who allows herself to play three games—exactly three, no more, no less—of hearts on her computer before she begins to write. For me, rituals like this have nothing to do with flow and cannot induce the flow state. In fact, it is exactly just such ritualized, routine behavior that I have to give up to allow flow to occur.

Yielding to the flow state can be a frightening experience because it requires a willingness to give up control. But, as Rollo May (1975) wrote:

The receptivity of the artist must never be confused with passivity. Receptivity is the artist’s holding him- or herself alive and open to hear what being may speak… . It requires a high degree of attention… . It is a waiting for the birthing process to begin to move in its own organic time. It is necessary that the artist have this sense of timing, that he or she respect these periods of receptivity as part of the mystery of creativity and creation. (pp. 80–81)

Ironically, I can court flow by focusing attention to control the contents of consciousness, but once flow begins I must give up control. When I am writing in flow I know that I am tapping knowledge buried deep within me, knowledge that I do not have access to under ordinary conditions. I do not know exactly how or why this process works, but I am thankful that it does. In the flow state I lose my self to find myself.

Kellogg identifies one requirement for flow in writing as a belief that one is in control of the work. I don’t think I’m contradicting him here because, when I’m writing in flow, I do feel that I’m in control of the work. What I am not in control of, though, is the process of flow. I can court that process but not force or control it. However, once that process begins, I feel powerful and masterly, capable of shaping the material into an effective product.

Over the years I have learned to trust the creative process. For me flow begins when I have taken my mind off the project at hand and have allowed the incubation and illumination process to proceed. Beyond doing the necessary background work, I cannot induce flow. All I can do is be ready to receive it. As Langer (1989) says about mindfulness, “In trying to quantify it, or reduce it to a formula, we risk losing sight of the whole” (p. 203).

Although flow is an alternate state of consciousness, it is not an unnatural one. As Dacey and Lennon (1998) describe it in their discussion of creativity:

Flow is the intrinsic reward for pursuing a challenging goal. Regardless of the activity, if innovators maintain an optimal match between the challenge of the problem and their own skills, they will experience flow. The heart of the creative dialectic is the tension between challenge and skill. (p. 179)

When our skill level matches the challenge, flow will occur. It is up to us to be willing to accept it.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: Basic Books.

Dacey, J. S., & Lennon, K. H,. (1998). Understanding creativity: The interplay of biological, psychological, and social factors. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kellogg, R. T. (1994). The psychology of writing. New York: Oxford University Press.

Langer, E. J. (1989). Mindfulness. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

May, R. (1975). The courage to create. New York: Norton.

Perry, S. K. (1999). Writing in flow: Keys to enhanced creativity. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books.

Richards, R. (2002). Creativity and health. In K. McGovern (Ed.), The nature of consciousness: A survey of contemporary approaches. (Learning Guide, Course No. 3020). San Francisco: Saybrook University.

Ueland, B. (1938; rpt. 1987). If you want to write: A book about art, independence and spirit. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press.

Working on Vertical Writing

Gestation of Ideas: On Vertical Writing and Living

Nick Ripatrazone discusses vertical writing, a concept he learned from writer Andre Dubus’s essay “The Habit of Writing,” which appeared in the anthology On Writing Short Stories, edited by Tom Bailey. Dubus writes that, instead of trying to force stories into being, he gives ideas time to gestate until the story emerges. As the anthology title says, Dubus is referring to his writing of fiction. However, giving the creative process time to work by allowing ideas to gestate also benefits nonfiction writers. Therefore, I’ve been trying to apply what Ripatrazone describes here to my own writing.

Dubus defines vertical writing by contrasting it to horizontal writing. In this passage, Ripatrazone describes the difference:

Horizontal writing is focused on amassing pages and words. When Dubus wrote horizontally, he wrote convinced that fiction was created through aggregation. Vertical writing, in contrast, values depth over breadth. Stories are written when they are ready to be written; they are not forced into existence by planning or excessive drafting. Horizontal writing seeks to move across the page; vertical writing seeks to dig into the page … . Curiously enough, by seeking to undermine the stereotype that writing is the result of inspiration, writers have fallen for the other, no less romantic opposite: that writing is factory work, and daily devotion is rewarded with final drafts. Both approaches are magical thinking. Vertical writing is no less work, but it is better work, work at the right time. It requires patience in the willingness to wait for a story to feel ready to be written, as well as the attention and focus necessary to inhabit the story once gestated.

Replace fiction and story with something like essay, piece, or work, and you have something that applies to nonfiction as well.

In my years of studying English, I learned to write literary criticism that removed any trace of personal interaction with the texts I read. Such academic writing is horizontal writing, and I became quite good at it. I can organize, analyze, and argue logically until the cows come home. But eventually that kind of writing wasn’t enough for me. I decided in my late 50s to go back to school to study psychology, and I ended up focusing on life stories. Life writing, by definition, demands personal involvement. Switching from my ingrained habit of impersonal writing to more personal, intimate writing has been a major challenge for me.

This concept of vertical writing gives me a new way to look at what I’m now working on, writing that values depth over breadth. After so many years of keeping myself at (my own) arm’s length, I’m trying to learn to drill down rather than expand sideways, to go deeper and see what I can learn about my world and myself. I never know what I truly think or believe about something until I’ve written my way through it.

I’m in a different place in my life than Ripatrazone is in his. Because he teaches high school English and has twin daughters just under two years old, he does not have a lot of time to write. He says that focusing on vertical writing has allowed him to use his writing time with more satisfaction than before:

A vertical writing life is no easy life, but it is deeper, more worthwhile. I feel like I have more ownership over what I create. I am no longer concerned with numbers; no more spreadsheets of magazines that I hope to conquer as if publishing was a territorial battle. Writing is the slowest of games, the most methodical of the arts. Its parts are nearly infinite; its wholes cannot be tricked into existence.

His references to numbers and spreadsheets pulled me up short, because I’ve been carefully using Excel to track my output since I began my challenge of writing a blog post every day in 2015. After three months, I had just about convinced myself not to worry so much about the numbers. I will continue to record my numbers (because, after all, we live in the era of Big Data), but I’m not going to fixate on them so much.

I’m going to concentrate more on the writing than on the recording of numbers, because:

Vertical writing is not easy… . It is very possible, very easy, to be owned by our goals. To be owned by our next book. To be owned by the feeling that we are competing with a world that outmatches us. Vertical writing — vertical living — has convinced me otherwise. It has reminded me why I began to write as a child: the joy of discovery, the surprise of creation, the power of imagination. When I used to write horizontally, I filled boxes with chicken-scratched, multiple drafts. I was concerned with speed and number, acceptances and rejections. Now I am concerned with depth and discovery, and the result is that I live with stories in a deeper way.

I need to focus on living with my own writing in a deeper way.

On Writing

Happy National Handwriting Day!

National Handwriting Day

writingThe Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association (WIMA) sponsors National Handwriting Day every January 23, the birthday of John Hancock. Hancock was the first to sign the Declaration of Independence, and he did so with a large, bold signature. In fact, his name has become synonomous with signature in the phrase “put your John Hancock” on this document.

Of course it’s not surprising that manufacturers of writing instruments want you to celebrate this day, but don’t be too jaded about it. After all, what they have to say is true:

Handwriting can add intimacy to a letter and reveal details about the writer’s personality. Throughout history, handwritten documents have sparked love affairs, started wars, established peace, freed slaves, created movements and declared independence.

Write on!

7 ways writing by hand can save your brain

The question of whether writing with a keyboard is the same as writing by hand arose way back with the introduction of the typewriter. But now that technology has become so widespread and almost everyone writes on some sort of machine, it’s a question we see debated often.

Here Dr. Marc Seifer, a graphologist and handwriting expert who wrote The Definitive Book of Handwriting Analysis (2008), explains why writing by hand benefits our brains.

  1. It has a calming effect.
  2. It coordinates the left brain and right brain.
  3. It boosts cognitive skills.
  4. It inspires creativity.
  5. It sharpens aging minds.
  6. It improves memory.
  7. It uses more of your brain.

This article is short, but it contains hyperlinks to related material.

What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades

In this article from June 2014 Maria Konnikova discusses the current educational movement away from teaching handwriting:

psychologists and neuroscientists say it is far too soon to declare handwriting a relic of the past. New evidence suggests that the links between handwriting and broader educational development run deep.

She summarizes research suggesting that learning to write by hand helps children learn to read, to generate ideas, and to retain information. Some scientists think that these benefits extend into adulthood.

Writing Your Way to Happiness

You’ve seen a lot of posts here about the health benefits of writing, particularly writing about personal life experiences. In this article Tara Parker-Pope summarizes the ground-breaking work by Dr. James Pennebaker that demonstrated a link between writing and physical health.

Then she turns to newer research into whether rewriting your life story can improve your life:

The concept is based on the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn’t get it completely right. Some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health.

Results of several studies suggest that people who write down their life story, then rethink and edit those narratives, are able to more honestly assess their own behavior and make changes necessary to write a healthier version.

“When you get to that confrontation of truth with what matters to you, it creates the greatest opportunity for change,” Dr. Jack Groppel, co-founder of the Human Performance Institute, said.


Related Post:


flowCsikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
HarperCollins, 1990
ISBN 0–06–092043–2

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life
Basic Books, 1997
ISBN 0–465–02411–4



finding flowAthletes talk about being “in the zone.” For musicians, it’s being “in the groove.” Even if you’re not an athlete or a musician, you’ve probably shared the experience of being in an alternate state of consciousness in which the outside world falls away and leaves you completely absorbed in the activity you’re focusing on.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced chick-SENT-me-hi) popularized discussion of this human experience as flow. He describes flow as follows:

When goals are clear, feedback relevant, and challenges and skills are in balance, attention becomes ordered and fully invested. Because of the total demand on psychic energy, a person in flow is completely focused. There is no space in consciousness for distracting thoughts, irrelevant feelings. (1997, p. 31)

He identifies clear goals, relevant feedback, and a balance between the demands of the task and a person’s skill level as the three necessary conditions for flow to occur. The balance between the challenge and one’s skill level is important; if the task is too easy, one becomes bored, whereas if the task is too difficult, one becomes anxious and frustrated and finally gives up. But when these three conditions are met, the flow state of absorbed consciousness often occurs.

The key to flow is the complete focus on or absorption in an activity. Csikszentmihalyi says that such focus produces order in consciousness. He explains that information enters consciousness for one of two reasons: (1) because of our intention to focus attention on it, or (2) because of attentional habits based on biological or social instructions. We can choose what to focus our attention on through our intentions:

We may call intentions the force that keeps information in consciousness ordered. Intentions arise in consciousness whenever a person is aware of desiring something or wanting to accomplish something. Intentions are also bits of information, shaped either by biological needs or by internalized social goals. They act as magnetic fields, moving attention toward some objects and away from others, keeping our mind focused on some stimuli in preference to others. (1990, p. 27)

Accordingly, when we intend to focus our attention by concentrating on one activity or task, our consciousness will filter out unrelated stimuli that are potential distractions. This filtering results in the completely focused attention necessary for flow. This is why people in flow lose track of time and don’t notice that it’s time to turn the lights on or cook dinner.

Once flow begins, the “magnetic fields” of our intentions will direct consciousness toward information stored in our brains that might help perform the task we are concentrating on. Ironically, then, we must actively focus attention on a particular area to begin flow, but we must then give up control and allow internal intentions, those “bits of information” stored within us, to direct consciousness in making related associations in order for flow to continue and produce results. When this happens, people often feel that they are not in control of their actions, that some force is working through them.


An important characteristic of flow is that it is pleasurable for the person experiencing it. Csikszentmihalyi argues that, because flow is so enjoyable, people will seek out activities that produce flow. “The key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself” (1990, p. 67), he says. He calls an activity that produces such optimal experiences autotelic; that is, it is an activity that people perform not because of what they will gain or produce by it, but for its own sake, for the sheer pleasure of doing it.

Another important characteristic of flow is that a person’s sense of self-consciousness disappears. As Csikszentmihalyi explains:

loss of self-consciousness does not involve a loss of self, and certainly not a loss of consciousness, but rather, only a loss of consciousness of the self. What slips below the threshold of awareness is the concept of self, the information we use to represent to ourselves who we are… . Loss of self-consciousness can lead to self-transcendence, to a feeling that the boundaries of our being have been pushed forward. (1990, p. 64)

The flow state is different from ordinary waking consciousness: “Self-consciousness disappears, yet one feels stronger than usual. The sense of time is distorted: hours seem to pass by in minutes” (1997, p. 31). In his studies of flow activity Csikszentmihalyi found that it uniformly “provided a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. It pushed the person to higher levels of performance, and led to previously undreamed of states of consciousness” (1990, p. 74). In other words, flow is an alternate state of consciousness that facilitates creativity.

For this reason flow can be an important component of problem solving. People who are self-conscious about appearing silly or ignorant to others won’t volunteer suggestions to attempt to solve the problem at hand. But when flow occurs and self-consciousness falls away, people will try one possible solution after another until they arrive at one that works. This is why allowing individuals to work alone rather than in group brainstorming sessions often produces better results.

In developing the concept of flow Csikszentmihalyi used “a phenomenological model of consciousness based on information theory” (1990, p. 25). He explains that, according to this theory, “to be conscious … simply means that certain specific conscious events (sensations, feelings, thoughts, intentions) are occurring, and that we are able to direct their course” (1990, p. 26); therefore, consciousness is intentionally ordered information, and consciousness corresponds to subjectively experienced reality.

Furthermore, the nervous system is limited in how much information it can process at one time. We can hold only about seven pieces of information in consciousness simultaneously; beyond that limit, a new piece of information can enter consciousness only if one piece already there leaves consciousness. This process causes us to experience conscious events serially, one after another. Through our intentions, Csikszentmihalyi says, we can focus our attention on a particular activity. Such focusing of attention allows consciousness to select relevant bits of information, from the billions of bits stored in memory, that pertain to the activity we are focusing attention on. When this complete focusing of attention occurs, flow sets in. From the biological perspective, then, flow occurs when consciousness begins connecting separate bits of information stored within our brains.

Flow is a pleasurable alternate state of consciousness that individuals may experience when engaged in an activity that offers definite goals and relevant feedback and that provides a challenge commensurate to their ability. People in flow are completely absorbed in the activity at hand. Their perception of time is often distorted, feelings of self-consciousness disappear, and creativity is enhanced. If we believe the stories, Einstein was obviously in flow while working; he would forget to eat the meals left for him on a tray outside his workroom door. Authors who say “The book just wrote itself” are also describing the flow experience, in which they seem to lose control as a force larger than themselves takes over.

© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown

Blessed or Cursed? Child Prodigies Reveal All

Blessed or Cursed? Child Prodigies Reveal All – The Daily Beast.

Over the years, many of those deemed child prodigies have had their integrity questioned—mostly as to whether or not a parent was behind the final product. Still, there have been some pretty amazing kids prove the skeptics wrong.

So, in an attempt to really just make ourselves (and you) feel bad about how little we accomplished by the age of ten, The Daily Beast has rounded up some of this generation’s child art prodigies to find out if they’ve kept up with their fifteen minutes of fame or simply grew out of it.

This article doesn’t even attempt to answer the question its title asks. Nonetheless, it provides an interesting look at some extraordinary children.

Friday Findings

Changing Memories to Treat PTSD

brainA common metaphor for memory is a video recording: We think of our memory as a recording that we simply rewind and play back to look at specific events. But this metaphor is inaccurate because the sensory (such as sight, sound, and touch) components are stored in different areas of the brain than are emotional (such as fear or love) components. Every time we remember a specific event, our brains must reassemble the various parts of it.

Memories of traumatic events can cause post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, a common condition in soldiers returning from war and in people who have experienced other traumatic events like carjacking. PTSD involves flashback memories of traumatic experiences. Symptoms of the condition include insomnia, nightmares, loss of concentration, anxiety, and panic attacks.

If our brains must reassemble the pieces of memory every time we remember an experience, might it not be possible to change how this reassembly occurs? This article reports on research into treating PTSD by altering patients’ memories with either drugs or behavioral therapy:

A paper recently published in the journal Biological Psychiatry … reviews a growing body of scientific literature on memory reconsolidation, a relatively new (and, in humans, still somewhat contentious) concept in which old information is called to mind, modified with the help of drugs or behavioral interventions, and then re-stored with new information incorporated—like a piece of metal that’s been melted down, remolded, and left to harden into a different shape.

But even if altering memories like this is possible, is it ethical?

Slippery philosophical quandaries abound: Does the act of taking a pill to change memory require different ethical considerations than something like psychotherapy or hypnotism? Could it pave the way for more ominous applications? And is the altering of memories a humane way of helping those who suffer, or is it some fundamental violation of what makes humans, well, human?

As one researcher asks:

“If you could edit your own memories, are there any memories you’d want to get rid of? If you have a memory of a painful event, do you lose some part of yourself if you get rid of it? Would that be worth the trade?”

Light can switch bad memories to good

This report in USA Today is a good companion to the article above, although it’s necessary to point out that the research was done on mice: “researchers say they’ve devised a technique to change a lab mouse’s bad memory of a particular place into a good memory, and vice versa.”

This research was possible because of the nature of memory:

Memory “is actually not like a tape recorder or camcorder of the past. It’s a reconstruction of the past every time you recall a memory,” says neuroscientist Steve Ramirez, a co-author of the new study and a graduate student at MIT. The new findings are “a testament to how unreliable certain memories can be, despite our convictions.”

This experiment demonstrates where mice store memories in their brains, but be sure to read what the preceding article says about extrapolating animal results to humans. And don’t forget the ethical implications:

There are potential ethical issues with changing a patient’s memories as a form of medical treatment, says Karen Rommelfanger, director of Emory University’s Neuroethics Program. For example, would a memory change have side effects, perhaps on a patient’s identity and interactions with others? But as long as the ethical issues are discussed early, Rommelfanger thinks it’s worth pursuing these results, especially for their possible application to those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

11 scientific studies that will restore your faith in humanity

Here’s the weekly does of good news:

The world is not always fair. The bad are not always punished and the good do not always prevail.

But there are plenty of reasons, scientifically tested, to have hope and be positive about the future.

Secrets of the Creative Brain

A leading neuroscientist who has spent decades studying creativity shares her research on where genius comes from, whether it is dependent on high IQ—and why it is so often accompanied by mental illness.

Nancy C. Andreasen began her career as an English professor interested in the high incidence of mental illness in highly creative people, particularly writers. After publishing a book about poet John Donne, she decided she wanted a career that might save people’s lives. She enrolled in medical school and began working with patients who had schizophrenia and other mood disorders. “I was drawn to psychiatry because at its core is the most interesting and complex organ in the human body: the brain”:

I have spent much of my career focusing on the neuroscience of mental illness, but in recent decades I’ve also focused on what we might call the science of genius, trying to discern what combination of elements tends to produce particularly creative brains. What, in short, is the essence of creativity? Over the course of my life, I’ve kept coming back to two more-specific questions: What differences in nature and nurture can explain why some people suffer from mental illness and some do not? And why are so many of the world’s most creative minds among the most afflicted? My latest study, for which I’ve been scanning the brains of some of today’s most illustrious scientists, mathematicians, artists, and writers, has come closer to answering this second question than any other research to date.

In this article Andreasen presents the history of the study of intelligence and creativity, and discusses the results and significance of her own work.

Stanford Prison Experiment

One of the most infamous behavioral experiments was the 1971 prison experiment by Philip Zimbardo. This is one of the experiments that lead to the codification of informed consent that must be obtained by research participants and ethical guidelines that govern research design. I did not know until just recently that this experiment has its own web site.

I’ll let Philip Zimbardo himself describe the experiment for you:

Welcome to the Stanford Prison Experiment web site, which features an extensive slide show and information about this classic psychology experiment, including parallels with the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. What happens when you put good people in an evil place? Does humanity win over evil, or does evil triumph? These are some of the questions we posed in this dramatic simulation of prison life conducted in the summer of 1971 at Stanford University.

How we went about testing these questions and what we found may astound you. Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended prematurely after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress. Please join me on a slide tour describing this experiment and uncovering what it tells us about the nature of human nature.

Fake memoirs: Academic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre

Fake memoirs should not simply be dismissed and pulped by their publishers, according to an academic who argues that they can be great works of fiction.

The merits of the writing itself are often overlooked in the outrage and lawsuits that can follow the exposure of a supposed work of non-fiction or of an author who invents a bogus life story. So says Professor Sue Vice, author of the forthcoming book Textual Deceptions: False Memoirs and Literary Hoaxes in the Contemporary Era.

If you are interested in the writing and reading of memoir, you’ve heard about the fate of fake memoirs. Once a memoir has been found to be in any way embellished and therefore not strictly a factual account of the writer’s experience, the author is vilified and the book is denounced and often removed from bookstore shelves.

Here’s how Professor Sue Vice explains her position:

“Readers might feel angry or betrayed when they discover the truth [that a particular memoir is not completely factual]. But I wonder if very strict boundaries between different literary genres are partly to blame. If memoirs include even a small amount of fictional or reconstructed material, they may be judged as wholly worthless, even though they may have value in literary or psychological terms that exceeds their truth value.”

I even agree with her statement that stories that include some “amount of fictional or reconstructed material” may “have value in literary or psychological terms that exceeds their truth value.”

But let there be no misunderstanding: the difference between writing a memoir and writing a fictional account is more than “changing genres.” Of course all fiction in autobiographical in the most basic sense that it presents the author’s view of the world. But when authors call their book a memoir, they are using a word that readers will understand to mean something like “a truthful account of the writer’s personal experience.” Describing a book as a memoir is a tacit agreement with readers that you haven’t made any of this stuff up. When a so-called memoir is exposed as a not totally accurate narration of the writer’s actual experience, readers—and consumers who have purchased the book under false pretenses—have a right to feel cheated and betrayed.

I’m not saying that a fictionalized account can’t have literary or psychological value. I’m just saying that if your story is fictionalized, you should call it a novel, not a memoir.

Friday Findings

Lev Grossman: My depression helped inspire the Magicians trilogy

Cover: The Magician's LandNovelist Lev Grossman recently published The Magician’s Land, the final installment of The Magicians trilogy, which uses aspects of fantasy to portray aspects of everyday life.

In this excerpt from an interview with Salon’s Laura Miller, Grossman discusses magic as a metaphor for depression:

Including magic in a story always invites people to think of it as a metaphor for something. I remember after I read “The Magicians” I thought that Brakebills was like the Ivy League, this sought-after, elusive place that once you get out of it you hit a post-graduation slump into decadence and indecision about what you should do with these powers bestowed on you. What are some of the things other readers think it stands for?

The big ones that I get are definitely writing, which is completely fair. A useful skeleton key whenever you’re reading fantasy is if you’re wondering how the author feels about literature and writing, watch how they describe magic. But the other ones are addiction — Julia’s experience of magic has a lot to do with drug addiction and drug culture. But most of all, people identify magic as being about depression and the struggle to recover from it. If there’s a demographic I reliably do well with, it’s people who have dealt with depression. I hear from them about it a lot. I find that very gratifying because I was struggling with depression when I wrote “The Magicians.” Much less so now. But at the time I was really in the grip and looking for a way to write about it.

But the magic itself doesn’t represent depression surely? Depression seems so disempowering.

When you’re depressed, when you’re in bed and feel like you can’t get out, you can’t imagine doing work or accomplishing anything or anybody loving you. So when you look around you and you see these things happening to other people, they look like magic to you. They look that exotic, that strange, that impossible. And when you begin to crawl out of the pit and reengage with the world, it seems very magical. It felt as though getting out of bed yesterday was impossible, but now you’re doing it. Just by returning to daily life, you’re a magician.

Lauren Bacall on writing: The most complete experience I’ve ever had

Lauren Bacall, who died recently at age 89, wrote three memoirs: By Myself (1978), Now (1994), and By Myself and Then Some (2005).

After the publication of By Myself, she returned to Los Angeles for a book signing and was stunned when the line line of people snaked around the block.

“Writing a book is the most complete experience I’ve ever had,” she told The [Los Angeles] Times. Bacall spent three years writing “By Myself” in longhand on yellow legal pads. “I’m happily stunned with the results and astonished by the reaction.”

A Memoir Is Not a Status Update

One piece of advice writers often hear is not to talk too much about the project they’re working on. It’s not that someone else might steal their ideas (although this could be more crucial for nonfiction than fiction writers), but rather that talking through their ideas may substitute for writing through them, with the result that the piece never gets written.

Here Dani Shapiro, author of five novels and three memoirs, addresses this issue:

And ten years later, would I have been compelled to write a memoir about that time in my life? Or would I have felt that I’d already told the story by posting it as my status update?

Quoting poet Adrienne Rich, Shapiro explains how pressure builds in a writer to the point of explosion, and reaching that explosive point is the trigger for writing:

Literary memoir is born of this explosion. It is born of the powerful need to craft a story out of the chaos of one’s own history. One of literary memoir’s greatest satisfactions—both for writer and reader—is the slow, deliberate making of a story, of making sense, out of randomness and pain.

This is how memoir is written:

In order to write a memoir, I’ve sat still inside the swirling vortex of my own complicated history like a piece of old driftwood, battered by the sea. I’ve waited—sometimes patiently, sometimes in despair—for the story under pressure of concealment to reveal itself to me. I’ve been doing this work long enough to know that our feelings—that vast range of fear, joy, grief, sorrow, rage, you name it—are incoherent in the immediacy of the moment. It is only with distance that we are able to turn our powers of observation on ourselves, thus fashioning stories in which we are characters.

The 20-Year Old Who Dated Her Dad—And Then Wrote A Book About It

At the very peak of memoir-mania, Kathryn Harrison released The Kiss, a detailed account of her incestuous relationship with her father. As James Wolcott recounts below, her relationship was not one of “childhood exploitation, but a consensual act between two adults.” Harrison was twenty years old when the affair began, and yes, she was fully aware he was her father.

As one would expect, the book triggered an outpouring of responses from the literary community, mostly regarding the question of why Harrison would make public the details of such a taboo relationship. The memoir proved divisive among critics, with writers like Wolcott deriding Harrison’s decision to publish such spilled guts as “opportunism [which] oozes from every pore of The Kiss and its launch.” Meanwhile, The New York Times called it “beautifully written” and “a powerful piece of writing.” Now, seventeen years later, it’s worth reading Wolcott’s scathing critique and asking the same question he does: Is the publication of such intensely personal information necessary for catharsis, or simply irresponsible?

I admit that a visceral reaction has kept me from reading Harrison’s The Kiss, similar to the reaction that has kept me from reading Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs because of the cannibalism.

In this piece, which originally appeared in The New Republic on March 31, 1997, James Wolcott criticizes Harrison’s book for another reason:

Since the 1970s, the deluge of pop-psych bestsellers, celebrity confessionals and tabloid talk shows has made Freud’s intellectual heavy-lifting seem as antiquated as washing by hand. Even our deepest, darkest secrets seem shallow now—easy pickings. Our once-hidden shames have become publicity hounds. It’s as if our psyches are no longer labyrinths or flooded basements, but well-lit TV studios where we swivel in the guest chair, awaiting our cue.

Thanks to memoir, Wolcott wrote, we are approaching “saturation agony overload.” Further, he speculates on Harrison’s reason for publishing the book:

“Literary fiction” has become a dread phrase in publishing, and the sales of Harrison’s novels have only been so-so; but a juicy memoir is where the money is. It is certainly true that opportunism oozes from every pore of The Kiss and its launch.

But these are only excerpts from Wolcott’s piece. Read the whole thing for an interesting take on the nature of secrets and the reasons for writing about—and publishing—them.

Friday Findings

Can Creativity Be Learned?

There are many theories of creativity, most of which suppose that creative flowering requires much practice of technique and cultivation of talent. In this article in The Atlantic Cody C. Delistraty writes:

With these widely accepted theories of creativity in mind, it is rather jarring to see two brand [new ?] studies, both of which suggest that creativity is closely linked with inherent neurological and personality traits rather than methodology or practice. The implication is that creativity can be learned, but only to a certain extent. To truly be an artistic great, the makeup of your brain is more important than the number of hours spent in your atelier.

Read to find out how openness to new experiences, willingness to experiment, and neural processing speed may contribute to creativity.

The Science of Side Projects: How Creative Hobbies Improve Our Performance at Everything

This is not a scientific study but an observation that meshes with many theories of creativity. Kevan Lee declares, “At any given time, I have a side project running.” This side project is something other than the main project he’s working on at the time. “Spending your time in this way can make you happier, healthier, and more productive,” he says.

If you’ve ever experienced a “Eureka!” moment when the answer or solution to some problem you’d been considering before hits you while you’re doing something else, you know what Lee is talking about. He looks at psychological research that suggests three characteristics of side projects:

  1. They don’t have to provide you with a living. You can still eat if they fail.
  2. They don’t have a deadline. And as there is no time pressure, you don’t revert to your usual formula. You try new things. You experiment. You take risks.
  3. This is a Labor of Love. You provide the ‘Labor’. And you provide the ‘Love’. So when you spend time on it, it is because you really want to. That keeps you coming back and pushing it on.

Lee suggests some side projects or creative hobbies you might cultivate and offers suggestions on how to keep a side project or hobby active while pursuing the work that pays your bills.

Seeing the Glass as Half Full: Taking a New Look at Cognition and Aging

From a cognitive perspective, aging is typically associated with decline. As we age, it may get harder to remember names and dates, and it may take us longer to come up with the right answer to a question.
But the news isn’t all bad when it comes to cognitive aging, according to a set of three articles in the July 2014 issue of Perspectives in Psychological Science.
Plumbing the depths of the available scientific literature, the authors of the three articles show how several factors — including motivation and crystallized knowledge — can play important roles in supporting and maintaining cognitive function in the decades past middle age.

And here’s particularly good news: One of these studies suggests that, contrary to common belief, older adults are not more susceptible than younger people to consumer fraud because of cognitive decline.

The Truman Show Delusion, and how culture determines ‘crazy’

In the 1998 movie The Truman Show, Truman Burbank, played by Jim Carrey, developed the feeling that the world revolved around him.

In this article Susannah Cahalan, author of Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, the story of a her neurological disorder, looks at a new book:

The Truman Show Delusion, first described in 2006, written up in academic journals in 2012, and now the subject of a fascinating new book called “Suspicious Minds” by NYU psychiatrist Joel Gold and his brother Ian Gold, a professor philosophy and psychology at McGill University, reveals how intimately culture interacts with madness and mental health.

Among the book’s findings is the observation that “The content and type of our delusions are … culturally specific.”

“ Reading “Suspicious Minds” offers lessons to anyone interested in the complexity of the mental health field’s future,” Cahalan concludes.

Friday Findings

Phineas Gage, Neuroscience’s Most Famous Patient

Cover: Dueling NeurosurgeonsSam Kean, author of the recently published The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, lays out the facts about the brain injury of Phineas Gage:

On Sept. 13, 1848, at around 4:30 p.m., the time of day when the mind might start wandering, a railroad foreman named Phineas Gage filled a drill hole with gunpowder and turned his head to check on his men. It was the last normal moment of his life.

Other victims in the annals of medicine are almost always referred to by initials or pseudonyms. Not Gage: His is the most famous name in neuroscience. How ironic, then, that we know so little else about the man—and that much of what we think we know, especially about his life unraveling after his accident, is probably bunk.

Here’s how Kean explains the continuing fascination with the case of Phineas Gage:

Most of us first encountered Gage in a neuroscience or psychology course, and the lesson of his story was both straightforward and stark: The frontal lobes house our highest faculties; they’re the essence of our humanity, the physical incarnation of our highest cognitive powers. So when Gage’s frontal lobes got pulped, he transformed from a clean-cut, virtuous foreman into a dirty, scary, sociopathic drifter. Simple as that. This story has had a huge influence on the scientific and popular understanding of the brain. Most uncomfortably, it implies that whenever people suffer grave damage to the frontal lobes—as soldiers might, or victims of strokes or Alzheimer’s disease—something essentially human can vanish.

Recent historical work, however, suggests that much of the canonical Gage story is hogwash, a mélange of scientific prejudice, artistic license, and outright fabrication. In truth each generation seems to remake Gage in its own image, and we know very few hard facts about his post-accident life and behavior. Some scientists now even argue that, far from turning toward the dark side, Gage recovered after his accident and resumed something like a normal life—a possibility that, if true, could transform our understanding of the brain’s ability to heal itself.

Despite Gage’s fame, Kean notes, very little is actually known about how the injury changed Gage. Malcolm Macmillan, a psychologist and historian now with the University of Melbourne, has spent the last 40 years researching the facts surrounding the accident and the body of legend that has grown up around it.

People butcher history all the time, of course, for various reasons. But something distinct seems to have happened with Gage. Macmillan calls it “scientific license.” “When you look at the stories told about Phineas,” he says, “you get the impression that [scientists] are indulging in something like poetic license—to make the story more vivid, to make it fit in with their preconceptions.” Science historian Douglas Allchin has noted the power of preconceptions as well: “While the stories [in science] are all about history—events that happened,” Allchin writes, “they sometimes drift into stories of what ‘should’ have happened.”

In addition to the story of Phineas Gage, this piece contains several illustrations of the man and the rod that went through his brain, along with pictures of Gage’s skull and modern visualizations of his brain damage.

‘What could be more interesting than how the mind works?’

 The brain is Steven Pinker’s playground. A cognitive scientist and experimental psychologist, Pinker is fascinated by language, behavior, and the development of human nature. His work has ranged from a detailed analysis of how the mind works to a best-seller about the decline in violence from biblical times to today.

Harvard University offers an interview with one of its most famous teachers about his life as a researcher and college professor.

Living in an Imaginary World

For most of us, daydreaming is a virtual world where we can rehearse the future, explore fearful scenarios or imagine new adventures without risk. It can help us devise creative solutions to problems or prompt us, while immersed in one task, with reminders of other important goals.

For others, however, the draw of an alternative reality borders on addiction, choking off other aspects of everyday life, including relationships and work. Starring as idealized versions of themselves—as royalty, raconteurs and saviors in a complex, ever changing cast of characters—addictive daydreamers may feel enhanced confidence and validation. Their fantasies may be followed by feelings of dread and shame, and they may compare the habit to a drug or describe an experience akin to drowning in honey.

We all daydream, but for some people daydreaming becomes obsessive. Read how studying such people is helping scientists discover how daydreaming is “essential to generating our sense of self, suggesting that daydreaming plays a crucial role in who we are and how we integrate the outside world into our inner lives.”

The Irrationality of Irrationality: The Paradox of Popular Psychology

Storytelling has become a major topic lately, with its own Twitter hashtag and books such as Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal examining why storytelling so appeals to our brains.

But Samuel McNerney, writing for Scientific American Blogs, argues that storytelling has its limitations and is one factor contributing to the persistence of some pop psychology beliefs:

This is one of the reasons we humans love narratives; they summarize the important information in a form that’s familiar and easy to digest. It’s much easier to understand events in the world as instances of good versus evil, or any one of the seven story types. As Daniel Kahneman explains, “[we] build the best possible story form the information available… and if it is a good story, [we] believe it.” The implication here is that it’s how good the story is, not necessarily its accuracy, that’s important.

But narratives are also irrational because they sacrifice the whole story for one side of a story that conforms to one’s worldview. Relying on them often leads to inaccuracies and stereotypes. This is what the participants in Brenner’s study highlight; people who take in narratives are often blinded to the whole story – rarely do we ask: “What more would I need to know before I can have a more informed and complete opinion?”

He encourages us to live life with a generous dose of critical thinking:

Ultimately, we need to remember what philosophers get right. Listen and read carefully; logically analyze arguments; try to avoid jumping to conclusions; don’t rely on stories too much. The Greek playwright Euripides was right: Question everything, learn something, answer nothing.


Friday Findings

Memoir as Legacy: The Power of Remembering

MemoryLinda Joy Myers, Ph. D., is a therapist and founder of the National Association of Memoir Writers. Here she explains how writing memoir creates a family legacy:

Memoir and family story-telling is about creating a legacy and a heritage, showing where you came from so you can know better where you are going — and even how you want to change that legacy. Every time I hear stories about someone’s family history, I’m inspired about the work memoirists do to create a historical record of how life is being lived now. In a short time, your today becomes your yesterday. What are you preserving for your family?

Read here her advice for creating a family memoir. She emphasizes writing both light and dark stories, and also addresses the issue of truth and secrets.

10 Tips for Writing a Memoir That Sells

If you’re writing a memoir with an eye toward publication, Damian Barr, author of Maggie & Me: Coming Out and Coming of Age in 1980s Scotland, explains how to use tools of fiction writing to produce a book people will want to read.

Barr offers 10 pieces of advice. I think these three are the most basic:

  • You Are Just A Character In Your Own Story
  • In the Particular We find the Universal
  • Find Your Voice

Don MacKay: A pioneer at the intersection of language and memory

Whether we’re writing about our memories or simply remembering them, the key to those memories is language. Don MacKay, professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, has spent much of his life researching the links between language and memory:

 I’ve always looked at language from a psychological point of view, as very central to human cognition and memory. It’s built into our genes. We think in terms of language. Language dominates everything. Language can influence how we remember things—but that’s a whole field in itself.

In this interview MacKay discusses different kinds of memory and his work with one of medicine’s most famous patients:

In 1957 a man named Henry Molaison, who became one of psychology’s most famous patients, had his hippocampus removed in an attempt to control his life-threatening seizures. After the surgery, he was unable to form new memories without years or even decades of effort. Many at the time believed the damage was limited to his “episodic memory,” or memories of events. But research by Don MacKay, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, demonstrated that his imagination, language production and language memory were also decimated—at a time when most psychologists did not consider language a type of memory.

Beyond the Damaged Brain

human brainWriter Sam Kean says that focusing on the deficits of patients, like Henry Molaison, with damaged brains overlooks one crucial fact: “However glaring their deficits are, their brains still work like ours to a large extent.”

But, Kean reports, while working on his forthcoming book The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: And Other True Stories of Trauma, Madness, Affliction, and Recovery That Reveal the Surprising History of the Human Brain, he discovered an antidote to this tendency: stories.

When we read the full stories of people’s lives, fictional or non-, we have to put ourselves into the minds of the characters, even if those minds are damaged. Only then can we see that they want the same things, and endure the same disappointments, as the rest of us. They feel the same joys, and suffer the same bewilderment that life got away from them. Like an optical illusion, we can flip our focus. Tales about bizarre deficits become tales of resiliency and courage.

Steve Jobs Defied Convention, and Perhaps the Law

Steve Jobs is the American icon of design creativity and innovation. This article looks at how Jobs pushed at legal boundaries:

Mr. Jobs’s conduct is a reminder that the difference between genius and potentially criminal behavior can be a fine line. Mr. Jobs “always believed that the rules that applied to ordinary people didn’t apply to him,” Walter Isaacson, author of the best-selling biography “Steve Jobs,” told me this week. “That was Steve’s genius but also his oddness. He believed he could bend the laws of physics and distort reality. That allowed him to do some amazing things, but also led him to push the envelope.”

Perhaps this is yet another demonstration that creativity often involves challenging the status quo.