Friday Findings

The split brain: A tale of two halves

Since the 1960s, researchers have been scrutinizing a handful of patients who underwent a radical kind of brain surgery. The cohort has been a boon to neuroscience — but soon it will be gone.

We’re used to hearing about the specialization of each of the two halves of the brain: the left hemisphere is in charge of speech and language, while the right governs visual-spatial processing and facial recognition—or, put another way, logic (the left) vs. creativity (the right). Much of the knowledge about how parts of the brain work comes from research involving about a dozen patients who underwent a radical surgical treatment for epilepsy sometimes called split-brain treatment. Here’s a description of the treatment as performed on a patient named Vicki:

In June 1979, in a procedure that lasted nearly 10 hours, doctors created a firebreak to contain Vicki’s seizures by slicing through her corpus callosum, the bundle of neuronal fibres connecting the two sides of her brain. This drastic procedure, called a corpus callosotomy, disconnects the two sides of the neocortex, the home of language, conscious thought and movement control.

“Through studies of this group, neuroscientists now know that the healthy brain can look like two markedly different machines, cabled together and exchanging a torrent of data. But when the primary cable is severed, information — a word, an object, a picture — presented to one hemisphere goes unnoticed in the other.” But further studies over the years have revealed a more complex picture of how the brain works:

The brain isn’t like a computer, with specific sections of hardware charged with specific tasks. It’s more like a network of computers connected by very big, busy broadband cables. The connectivity between active brain regions is turning out to be just as important, if not more so, than the operation of the distinct parts. “With split-brain patients, you can see the impact of disconnecting a huge portion of that network, but without damage to any particular modules,” says Michael Miller, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The severing of the corpus callosum has now been replaced by drug treatments and less drastic surgical procedures. This article recounts the history of the procedure and its contribution to neuroscience.

The Inspiration Paradox: Your Best Creative Time Is Not When You Think

Are you a morning person or an evening person? Morning people, as you would expect, do their most productive work early in the day, while evening people are more productive as the day winds down:

Numerous studies have demonstrated that our best performance on challenging, attention-demanding tasks – like studying in the midst of distraction – occurs at our peak time of day.  When we operate at our optimal time of day, we filter out the distractions in our world and get down to business.

During our peak time we are better at working out analytic problems, which “generally require people to “grind out a solution” by systematically working through the problem utilizing a consistent strategy.”

However, a recent study suggests that innovation and creativity may actually be improved when we are not at our peak. Off-peak time can help when we work on insight problems:

Finding the right answer requires the solver to abandon the original interpretation and seek alternatives.  Insight problems often involve an “Aha!” moment where the answer comes all at once, rather than via a systematic, incremental calculation.


Insight problems involve thinking outside the box.  This is where susceptibility to “distraction” can be of benefit.  At off-peak times we are less focused, and may consider a broader range of information.  This wider scope gives us access to more alternatives and diverse interpretations, thus fostering innovation and insight.


Friday Findings

Storytelling and Narrative in Science

Here’s a much-too-short interview with Lee Gutkind, founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction, the first and largest literary magazine to publish nonfiction exclusively, and Distinguished Writer-in-Residence in the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University.

Gutkind taps into our inherent capacity for story as a means to communicate complex information from fields such as medicine, engineering, technology, and science to policy makers and the public. He calls his approach “true storytelling”:

I am a writer and editor with a passion for true storytelling. To me, science matters, research matters and knowledge matters, whatever the field. I discovered early on that lots of people want to learn — they aren’t adverse to insight and education — but that the people who had the background, experience and knowledge to teach them were too busy talking to one another and did not know how to talk to the rest of the world.

I discovered that I, a writer of what is known as creative nonfiction, could do the research and bridge the gap in my books and lectures through true storytelling. This is not “dumbing down” or writing for eighth graders. It is writing for readers across cultures, age barriers, social and political landscapes.

He adds, “People who receive information in true stories remember more, remember longer and are sometimes more easily persuaded.” Although he has no formal education in any scientific field, Gutkind has trained himself to be an immersion researcher:

I work like an anthropologist, immersing myself in other people’s worlds. This is wonderful work because I become deeply involved so that I can see and appreciate these worlds through other people’s eyes, and I learn to understand how researchers think — what motivates and challenges them, why they laugh and sometimes cry.

As a result:

My work becomes the vital connection between the scientist and engineer and the world they are trying to change — from consumers to legislators and beyond. Helping these groups understand each other will inevitably enhance the scientist’s work and the consumers’ support of science.

Gutkind’s most recent book is the anthology Becoming a Doctor: From Student to Specialist, Doctor-Writers Share Their Experiences (W. W. Norton & Company, 2010). His new book You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction — from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between will be published by Da Capo Lifelong Books later this year.

How I Happened to Write My Memoirs

Lawrence Wittner, Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany, has published seven scholarly works and edited another four works. But in this article he talks about writing his memoir:

As I’m not a famous politician, movie star, or athlete, people might well wonder how I — a mere historian and academic — ended up writing my recently-published autobiography, Working for Peace and Justice: Memoirs of an Activist Intellectual. In fact, sometimes I wonder about it myself.

The roots of the project can probably be found in the fact that, since childhood, I have always enjoyed stories. This fact played out in my career as an historian — historians, after all, like anecdotes — as well as in my development of a range of colorful vignettes about my life, which I used on occasion to regale friends or relatives.

Like Lee Gutkind, discussed above, Wittner recognizes that a basic form of human comunication is storytelling. He decided to supplement his personal stories with stories of other members of his family:

Meanwhile, in the late 1980s, as members of my parents’ generation began to wither and die, it occurred to me that I had very little knowledge of my family’s past and that, if I wanted to learn something about it, I would have to move quickly to interview aging family members and gather documentation from them. As a result, I made some small-scale efforts along these lines.

Finally, about six years ago, spurred on by the advent of grandchildren (thoroughly unfamiliar with almost all events of the past) and my own drift into old age, I decided that the time had come to pull some of this material together into a family history. Consequently, I sat down and began writing about the lives of my great grandparents and their children in Eastern Europe, the migration of family members to the United States, their assimilation and that of their children, my own Brooklyn boyhood and my curiously mixed life as a reputable university faculty member and scholar, and a considerably more controversial political activist.

But a collection of unconnected anecdotes does not a memoir make. As he worked on this material he realized the overall theme he was writing about:

the appropriate role was for Americans — and particularly intellectuals — in a society plagued by war and social injustice. My own life had not only roughly corresponded with the rise of American militarism, battles over racial and gender privilege, and fierce struggles over economic inequality, but had been closely intertwined with the peace movement, the racial justice movement and the labor movement.

He was unsure how to structure the material:

I was not certain what the right mixture was when it came to interweaving personal items (marriage, family and friends) with larger political and social concerns. Some people urged me to leave out most of the personal material and focus, instead, on broader issues. But, as an historian, I felt that this would present a distorted picture of my life. Furthermore, it would lead readers to conclude that activists chose a political life over a personal life, whereas the reality is that they usually had both.

Many writers of memoir struggle with how to find the narrative theme or focus of their lives. The only way to get throught this issue is to work with the collected material. Finally, Wittner says, “in writing the book I just tried to recapture what the texture of my life was like.” And, he adds, “I confess, I had a lot of fun writing this book!”

Why Toni Morrison Isn’t Writing a Memoir—And Why She Should

Writer Toni Morrison has received the Nobel Prize for Literature (1993) and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (1988, for her book Beloved). Recently she spoke at “Oberlin College, not far from her hometown of Lorain, where she was born in 1931 and where her sisters and other relatives still live.” When asked if she had any plans to write a memoir,

she said she’d actually signed a contract for her next book to be a memoir.

“But then I canceled it,” she said. “My publisher asked me to do it, but there’s a point at which your life is not interesting, at least to me. I’d rather write fiction.”

In response to Morrison’s announcement, Thembi Ford takes issue with this decision:

While you’ve got to respect Toni Morrison for choosing to do the kind of writing she wants to do, her story in her own well-crafted words would be amazing. There are so many black women in history whose first person stories would surely be fascinating; how excited would you be if historians discovered memoirs written by Harriet Tubman, Betty Shabazz or Dorothy Dandridge (and I mean real memoirs, not the sterilized, ghost-written PR efforts that too many stars offer these days)? Toni Morrison has earned the right to keep the details of her life to herself, but she joins the long list of black women whose lives will only be understood through documents, memories, and other second and third person accounts of their greatness.

And here’s a bit of advice to writers from Morrison’s talk at Oberlin: “People say to write about what you know,” she said. “I’m here to tell you, no one wants to read that, ’cause you don’t know anything. So write about something you don’t know. And don’t be scared, ever.”


Friday Findings

Can We Change Our Life by Changing Our Story?

“This is the dramatic question that I am exploring in my next book, Change Your Story, Change Your Life, which I am currently writing,” says Jen Grisanti.

What made me want to examine this idea of changing our life by changing our story? I am a story/career consultant and I have analyzed stories for 20 years now — including 12 years as a studio executive. I have probably seen a protagonist change in over 5,000 stories at this point in my career. I see that in stories (in film, television, novels, etc.) we can create and manipulate the idea of change. We have the control to do it because we can write whatever outcome illustrates the idea of change.

So, if we can do it in the stories we write and the stories we tell, why can’t we also do it in our own life stories? . . . What if we could learn to be the heroes in our own stories and move through our obstacles knowing that, in time, the growth will move us into a greater awareness?

What Grisanti is talking about here is narrative therapy, and there’s a whole body of scientific material about it.

But don’t let the word therapy scare you. This kind of personal change doesn’t require an advanced degree or a special therapist. In addition to the body of scientific literature, there are also a lot of books about this process written for a general reader. Here are two that I have found particularly helpful:

  • Michael White and David Epston, Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends (Norton, 1990)
  • Daniel Taylor, Tell Me a Story: The Life-Shaping Power of Our Stories (Bog Walk Press, 2001)

In fact, the discovery of Taylor’s book was what sent me back to graduate school a few years ago for a doctorate in psychology with an emphasis on narrative identity theory and life stories.

So I look forward to the future publication of Grisanti’s book. Perhaps it will be a good addition to this list.

How to Write a ‘Lives’ Essay

Also on the subject of life stories comes this from the New York Times Magazine:

The “Lives” essay has been running in our magazine nearly every week since 1996. For those who don’t know, it is a place for true personal stories, running about 800 words long, and in the print edition, it’s the last bit of editorial content, right inside the back cover. Though we do solicit professional writers, it is open to anyone with a good tale to tell, and we try as best we can to keep up with the steady torrent of submissions. At the risk of making our jobs utterly impossible, I want to encourage even more writers to take the plunge — because the more stories we get, the higher the quality of what ends up on the page. In doing this, it is not our intention to set people up for failure. The truth is, while getting published is a wonderful achievement, the process of writing a story is itself a rewarding experience. You won’t be sorry for having tried.

This blog entry offers several suggestions for writing one’s own life, even for someone who is not intending to submit a life story for publication. In addition to the writing advice, this piece links to an index of the “Lives” essays, which offer good examples of how to craft an effective life story.

Why Interacting with a Woman Can Leave Men “Cognitively Impaired”

Movies and television shows are full of scenes where a man tries unsuccessfully to interact with a pretty woman. In many cases, the potential suitor ends up acting foolishly despite his best attempts to impress. It seems like his brain isn’t working quite properly and according to new findings, it may not be.

Scientific American reports on a couple of new studies undertaken to explore further “the cognitive impairment that men experience before and after interacting with women” suggested by earlier investigations:

A 2009 study demonstrated that after a short interaction with an attractive woman, men experienced a decline in mental performance. A more recent study suggests that this cognitive impairment takes hold even when men simply anticipate interacting with a woman who they know very little about.

Five hundred new fairytales discovered in Germany

What delightful news!

A whole new world of magic animals, brave young princes and evil witches has come to light with the discovery of 500 new fairytales, which were locked away in an archive in Regensburg, Germany for over 150 years. The tales are part of a collection of myths, legends and fairytales, gathered by the local historian Franz Xaver von Schönwerth (1810–1886) in the Bavarian region of Oberpfalz at about the same time as the Grimm brothers were collecting the fairytales that have since charmed adults and children around the world.

Von Schönwerth spent decades collecting these stories by “asking country folk, labourers and servants about local habits, traditions, customs and history, and putting down on paper what had only been passed on by word of mouth.”

These tales aren’t just for children: “Their main purpose was to help young adults on their path to adulthood, showing them that dangers and challenges can be overcome through virtue, prudence and courage.” Fairytales and other stories (e.g., fables and legends) are often a method for obliquely passing on a given culture’s values, beliefs, and directives.

You can read one of these fairytales, The Turnip Princess, through a link at the top of this article.


Friday Findings

What You Need to Succeed—and How to Find Out If You Have It

Whether you succeed at work may depend on many factors—intelligence, empathy, self-control, talent and persistence, to name a few. But one determinant may outweigh many of these: how you perceive those around you. New research suggests that your own ability to get things done—not to mention your success in non-work relationships—is highly correlated with how you see others.

Ingrid Wickelgren, an editor at Scientific American Mind, describes the concept of psychological capital, a key component of achievement, which is:

a mixture of efficacy (self-confidence), resilience (you believe you can bounce back from setbacks), hope (you believe you can achieve your goals) and optimism (you expect good things to happen in the future). As a concept, psychological capital reflects our capacity to overcome obstacles and push ourselves to pursue our ambitions. Not surprisingly, scoring high on this measure is linked to markers of success: being promoted, winning awards, popularity with peers, stability of marriage and even longevity.

Since psychological capital, with its correlation to achievement, is a key factor in success at work, employers would be interested in measuring the psychological capital of job applicants. But how do you measure such an amorphous concept? Since how people see themselves is related to how they see others, you could just ask people about their self-view. But, especially when applying for a job, who wouldn’t sing their own praises? No, a more indirect approach is necessary.

Peter Harms, a psychologist and management scholar at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and University of Nebraska management scholar Fred Luthans have devised such an indirect approach to evaluate an individual’s psychological capital by asking people how they view others:

they asked subjects to conjure up imaginary people, on whom they could impose their own schema and mindsets. The result is a world they have completely made up. . . .

In the test, people create stories in their head about their imaginary someone in response to a positive, negative and neutral prompt. These are: the person has a new job (positive); the person makes a mistake at work (negative); the person talks to their supervisor (neutral). Then the participants answer questions, on a 7-point scale, about the made-up character. Is he feeling confident and self-assured in his ability? Does she believe she can bounce back from setbacks? Does he believe he can accomplish his goal? Does she expect good things to happen in the future? The answers, which target the four components of psychological capital, range from -3, which means the opposite is true of the character, to +3, which indicates the statement is very true of this made-up individual.

The investigators were encouraged by the results:

Harms and Luthans compared the answers, which they collected from 278 adults who worked in a variety of professions, to measures of job satisfaction, “citizenship” deeds such as helping coworkers, ability to complete tasks, and tendency to engage in deviant work behaviors like cheating on time sheets. They found that a high positive score on this new implicit test was significantly correlated with high grades on job satisfaction, citizenship and task performance as well as a lower mark on counterproductive work behaviors. In fact, the imaginary-person test worked better than the traditional self-report measure of psychological capital.

Wickelgren writes that this approach to measuring psychological capital may have implications for other aspects of living as well:

In general, knowing how positively you see people and situations could be used for self-improvement. A counselor could inform you that the way you see the world is not healthy and provide exercises to improve your outlook. So keep in mind that you may, in fact, be the author of your own misery.

In a roundabout way, then, this approach is another example of how changing one’s story can change one’s life.

America’s Major Magazines Still Aren’t Publishing Stories By Women

Vida, an organization devoted to examination and discussion of the roles women play in literature, has released its latest survey of the articles and reviews published by women in major magazines in 2011, and the results aren’t encouraging.

On AlterNet Alyssa Rosenberg comments on this survey, which analyzed work published by the following magazines:

  • The Atlantic
  • Boston Review
  • Harper’s
  • London Review of Books
  • The New Republic
  • New York Review of Books
  • New Yorker
  • New York Times Book Review
  • The Nation

“Granta’s the only publication that’s close to parity—in fact, it published slightly more pieces by women than by men, 34 to 30.”

Here’s Rosenberg’s response to the situation:

the only answer here is not that these publications can’t find women. It’s that they don’t really care if they do or not. These numbers, and the annual discussion of them, seem to have succeeded in making a lot of female journalists and readers angry and frustrated, but they don’t appear to have made editors feel ashamed, much less called to action. And I’m not quite sure what it would take to persuade them to shake off their lethargy and acceptance of the status quo, which really means accepting sexism. Do we really have to educate editors that women can bring new perspectives on major stories, and not just to stories about living as a single woman or going through a divorce?

NPR reports on research into a new approach for treating some forms of mental illness:

If you haven’t noticed, gardens are popping up in some unconventional places – from prison yards to retirement and veteran homes to programs for troubled youth.

Most are handy sources of fresh and local food, but increasingly they’re also an extension of therapy for people with mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD; depression; and anxiety.

It’s called horticultural therapy. And some doctors, psychologists and occupational therapists are now at work to test whether building, planting, and harvesting a garden can be a therapeutic process in its own right.

Early studies of horticultural therapy suggest that planting and caring for a garden can have a positive impact on homeless people, ex-convicts on probation, and hospital patients.

Read the article for details of how gardening is helping troubled teens in a program in Hawaii.

Better Sleep in the Golden Years?

It’s not unusual to see an older person snoozing after a big meal or while watching television. Common wisdom asserts that older people have trouble sleeping at night and therefore nap a lot. But:

a huge survey published today in the journal Sleepfinds that elderly people are more satisfied with their sleep habits than people in any other age group.

The data was gleaned from a large survey, called the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, in which researchers called random people in the United States who were 18 years or older and asked them about their sleeping patterns, as well as more general questions about about race, income, education, mood and general health. The new sleep study included responses from more than 155,000 participants. . . .

The most surprising result concerned the elderly. When the data were adjusted to account for sickness and depressed moods, it showed that the best sleep reports come from men and women over age 80.

Although this study did not examine the cause-and-effect relationship between sleep pattern and sleep satisfaction, the article offers this possible explanation: “As people get older, they tend to lower their standards of what it means to be healthy. So it could be that these seniors simply have a rosier opinion of their sleep patterns than other, more objective measures suggest.”


Friday Findings: Political Narratives

Narrative Watch: Why political candidates claim ‘dirt poor’ origins

We all create a sense of self-identity that we project to others through the stories we tell about ourselves. But we have not just one identity, but several possible identites that we modify somewhat to fit the audience we’re addressing at a particular time and in a particular place.

This kind of modification doesn’t necessarily make us hypocrites or liars. We focus on creating the particular identity that is appropriate for a particular audience. So we commonly talk about ourselves a bit differently at work than we do with our friends, for example. Most of us have a core sense of identity that remains the same even when we may weave variations on that identity for a particular purpose. And we choose those variations from the rich supply of possible narrative plot lines that our culture makes available to us.

In this article Roy Peter Clark discusses the identity narratives available to politicians in the U. S., particularly the log cabin myth and the “westering myth,”  and how to choose the narrative that makes them most appealing to voters:

Mitt Romney wants to be a character in a story, one that makes him the son and grandson of carpenters, not the privileged investment banker who left the working poor in the dust.

Class warfare is in our culture, from the very beginning. For politicians, the image of wealth and privilege is a burden. Look how hard it was for John Kerry to project himself as a working man, especially after he married into the Heinz fortune.

But, as Clark’s Kerry example illustrates, for every narrative there exists the possibility of a counter-narrative:

All counter-attacks on political narrative must be watched closely, because they reveal as much about the teller as they do about the tale. In his own narrative, President Obama claims a tradition of aspiration that he traces back to Lincoln and Dr. King. He wants you to know him as the son of a poor, hard-working single mother, a man who has overcome his strange name and darker skin to ascend to the highest office in the land.

We are all too familiar with the counter-narrative.That Obama is foreign, alien, aloof, arrogant, superior, a product of the Ivy League, an admirer of European socialism, maybe even a secret Muslim who may not even have been born in this country, an heir not of Abraham Lincoln but of the rabble rousing community organizer Saul Alinsky. He is just not one of us. Or so the story goes.

There will be a lot of narratives and counter-narratives thrown about as this U. S. election year heats up. Be sure to watch for it—and recognize it for what it is and what it represents.

Moving Into the Greater Good of Your Story

In an article that dovetails nicely with the one above, Jen Grisanti offers advice to people writing about their lives:

You can make your story more universal by looking at the goal and the stakes in story from an external, internal and philosophical viewpoint. In story as in life, as time passes, we evolve from our successes and our losses. We take the time to process our pain and move forward. When you experience and write your story through the lens of the ego, the spirit and the philosophical, you add depth and connection for your audience.

All life stories are unique in the particular experiences they present, but all life stories are also universal in the general truths that they encompass. Pain is pain, and joy is joy, no matter what the details may be.

How does this relate to political narratives? Look closely at the self-representative stories candidates tell about themselves. What hardships do they say they have faced? And, more important, what have they learned from those hardships? What values do they now hold as a result of their life experiences? Do their stories sound honest? Do they frame their stories with details or generalities?

Or, in Grisanti’s terms, look for evidence that politicians have moved into the philosophical part of their story, the part that demonstrates where they’ve been and how their past has made them who they are today.

That’s write… for cinema

Meet Robert McKee, who has for over 25 years taught the principles of story telling through his Story Seminar to more than 50,000 screenwriters, novelists, playwrights, TV writers, actors and filmmakers.

This article describes McKee’s first offering of his screenwriting class in India. McKee emphasizes the importance of story:

Story is a metaphor for life: The reason why many films don’t work, according to McKee, is that often writers don’t believe in what they are writing. “There is no Avant-Garde any more. There is only Retro Garde. Filmmakers are imitating the auteurs of the past and recycling tired works of the past. I am sick and tired of movies about movies. What we want to see is movies about life… about characters that express the nuances of life.”

Write the truth: “As story tellers we are in the epiphany business.” For a story to have an impact it has to go beyond the idea, and into the realm of emotions. Drawing a line at using cinema for “social change”, McKee exhorts writers: “Don’t be didactic — don’t write about poverty. Write about poor people. When you dramatise their lives and let life and characters be your inspiration, you will express the ‘idea’ dynamically and without preaching.” Writers, he says, have no responsibility to cheer people up or uplift them. “They have only one responsibility — to tell the truth.” Truth, as distinguished from mere facts. Writers who don’t believe in what they write are just propagating lies, half-truths and distortions that destroy society. “Story is not a dramatised lecture but a meaningful insight into life.”

Spectacle as substitute to story doesn’t work: Worldwide, the emphasis on spectacle is a result of a de-emphasis on story.

Although McKee teaches screenwriting, his emphasis on story translates to all types of writing, both fiction and nonfiction. Life is story. Story is life. That’s why all good writing is so moving and so enlightening.

An Indiana love story, written by hand

 A new book draws on hundreds of original 19th-century letters to chart the evolution of a Petersburg couple’s passionate love affair

One of those heart-warming stories from someone who found a box of old letters in the attic and realized how those letters “shine light on topics such as economics, medicine, politics, education, Victorian sexual mores and the role of women in post-Civil War America.”