Category Archives: Writing

The Psychology of Doing Good

R and J in Field

At this point in history, it seems especially important to contemplate the psychology of doing good things in the world. I could have said this last month; and next month will doubtless be the same. The point is that even in these ostensibly difficult times, people aren’t built to exclusively do harm and be destructive . . . we’re also built to do good and be constructive. If I was into using bad metaphors, I might even say we’re hard-wired to do good.

You might wonder if I’m serious. Absolutely yes.

You might wonder why and how I would decide to write about doing good, when it seems so common right now for everyone to be doing the Dale Carnegie opposite: losing friends and insulting people.

The short answer to this is: Alfred Adler.

Alfred Adler is the short answer to many questions. He was a contemporary of Freud who perpetually saw the glass as half full. When Freud was writing about women having penis envy, Adler was writing about how women just wanted social equality and equal power. When Freud was writing about the death instinct, Adler was writing about the best and most important psychological concept of all time. What was it? Here it is. Get ready.

Gemeinschaftsgefühl

Gemeinschaftsgefühl roughly means social interest or community feeling. Carlson and Englar-Carlson (2017) provided the meaning of this uniquely Adlerian concept.

Gemein is “a community of equals,” shafts means “to create or maintain,” and Gefühl is “social feeling.” Taken together, Gemeinschaftsgefühl means a community of equals creating and maintaining social feelings and interests; that is, people working together as equals to better themselves as individuals and as a community.” (p. 43)

The coolest thing about Gemeinschaftsgefühl is that it’s all natural. We are pulled toward social interest and community feeling. In fact, there’s no other good explanation for why so many people around the world reach out to help their neighbors, friends, family, and strangers—without expecting anything in return.

As my friend and colleague Richard Watts has emphasized, Gemeinschaftsgefühl also makes for a fabulous therapy goal.

Tomorrow (or Thursday), I’ll be posting about Gemeinschaftsgefühl. For today, I just want you all to get to know Alfred Adler a bit better. So here’s a short excerpt about him from our Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories text.

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Alfred Adler (1870-1937) was the second of six children born to a Jewish family outside Vienna. His older brother was brilliant, outgoing, handsome, and also happened to be named Sigmund. In contrast, Alfred was a sickly child. He suffered from rickets, was twice run over in the street, and experienced a spasm of the glottis. When he was 3 years old, his younger brother died in bed next to him (Mosak, 1972). At age 4, he came down with pneumonia. Later Adler recalled the physician telling his father, “Your boy is lost” (Orgler, 1963, p. 16). Another of Adler’s earliest memories has a sickly, dependent theme:

One of my earliest recollections is of sitting on a bench bandaged up on account of rickets, with my healthy, elder brother sitting opposite me. He could run, jump, and move about quite effortlessly, while for me movement of any sort was a strain and an effort. Everyone went to great pains to help me, and my mother and father did all that was in their power to do. At the time of this recollection, I must have been about two years old. (Bottome, 1939, p. 30)

In contrast to Freud’s childhood experience of being his mother’s favorite, Adler was more encouraged by his father. Despite his son’s clumsy, uncoordinated, and sickly condition, Adler’s father Leopold, a Hungarian Jew, firmly believed in his son’s innate worth. When young Alfred was required to repeat a grade at the same middle school Freud had attended 14 years earlier, Leopold was his strongest supporter. Mosak and Maniacci (1999) wrote about Adler’s response to his father’s encouragement:

His mathematics teacher recommended to his father that Adler leave school and apprentice himself as a shoe-maker. Adler’s father objected, and Adler embarked upon bettering his academic skills. Within a relatively short time, he became the best math student in the class. (p. 2)

Adler’s love and aptitude for learning continued to grow; he studied medicine at the University of Vienna. After obtaining his medical degree in ophthalmology in 1895, he met and fell in love with Raissa Timofeyewna Epstein, and married her in 1897. She had the unusual distinction of being an early socialist and feminist.

Historical Context

Freud and Adler met in 1902. According to Mosak and Maniacci (1999), Adler published a strong defense of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, and consequently Freud invited Adler over “on a Wednesday evening” for a discussion of psychological issues. “The Wednesday Night Meetings, as they became known, led to the development of the Psychoanalytic Society” (p. 3).

Adler was his own man with his own ideas before he met Freud. Prior to their meeting he’d published his first book, Healthbook for the Tailor’s Trade (Adler, 1898). In contrast to Freud, much of Adler’s medical practice was with the working poor. Early in his career, he worked extensively with tailors and circus performers.

In February 1911, Adler did the unthinkable (Bankart, 1997). As president of Vienna’s Psychoanalytic Society, he read a highly controversial paper, “The Masculine Protest,” at the group’s monthly meeting. It was at odds with Freudian theory. Adler claimed that women occupied a less privileged social and political position because of social coercion, not physical inferiority.

The Vienna Psychoanalytic Society members’ response to Adler was dramatic. Bankart (1997) described the scene:

After Adler’s address, the members of the society were in an uproar. There were pointed heckling and shouted abuse. Some were even threatening to come to blows. And then, almost majestically, Freud rose from his seat. He surveyed the room with his penetrating eyes. He told them there was no reason to brawl in the streets like uncivilized hooligans. The choice was simple. Either he or Dr. Adler would remain to guide the future of psychoanalysis. The choice was the members’ to make. He trusted them to do the right thing. (p. 130)

The group voted for Freud to lead them. Adler left the building quietly, joined by the Society’s vice president, William Stekel, and five other members. They moved their meeting to a local café and established the Society for Free Psychoanalytic Research. The Society soon changed its name to the Society for Individual Psychology. This group believed that social, familial, and cultural forces are dominant in shaping human behavior. Bankart (1997) summarized their perspective: “Their response to human problems was characteristically ethical and practical—an orientation that stood in dramatic contrast to the biological and theoretical focus of psychoanalysis” (p. 130).

Adler’s break from Freud gives an initial glimpse into his theoretical approach. Adler identified with common people. He was a feminist. These leanings reflect the influences of his upbringing and marriage. They reveal his compassion for the sick, oppressed, and downtrodden. Adler embraced egalitarianism long before it became anything close to popular.

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Stay tuned. Tomorrow I’ll be posting some content on Gemeinschaftsgefühl. I can hardly wait.

Today, I’ll leave you with some of my favorite Adlerian quotations.

“An incalculable amount of tension and useless effort would be spared in this world if we realized that cooperation and love can never be won by force.” (Adler, 1931, p. 132).

When a doctor once said to Adler: “I do not believe you can make this backward child normal,” Dr. Adler replied: “Why do you say that? One could make any normal child backward; one should only have to discourage it enough!” (Bottome, 1936, p. 37)

“All our institutions, our traditional attitudes, our laws, our morals, our customs, give evidence of the fact that they are determined and maintained by privileged males for the glory of male domination.” (Adler, 1927, p. 123)

“[E]ach partner must be more interested in the other than in himself. This is the only basis on which love and marriage can be successful.” (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956, p. 432)

This is a photo of Jon Carlson. He was a devoted Adlerian and a great man. He passed away earlier this year. I, and many others, am indebted to him for the amazing work he did to not let Adler’s ideas fade into the past. Thank you Jon.

John and Jon on M

 

 

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Psychoanalytic and Spiritual Compatibility: A Friday Evening Spiritual Reading

Rainbow 2017As we roll through the revisions in our Theories text, we’re adding a short section in each chapter on spirituality. This seems important partly because spirituality is so meaningful to so many people and partly because counseling and psychotherapy is often viewed as at odds with or contrary to religious beliefs. Of course, this new integration might also be related to Rita’s ongoing blog titled, Short Visits with an Honest God. Check it out at: https://godcomesby.com/

In this sneak peek of the 3rd edition, we briefly (very briefly) discuss Freud, psychoanalytic approaches, and religion/spirituality. Our purpose isn’t to go into greata detail, but to offer students a taste of spiritual integration in counseling and psychotherapy.

As always, if you have any reactions, please feel free to share them using your preferred communication modality.

Spirituality and the Psychoanalytic Approach

Freud was no fan of religion. He often referred to himself as a “Godless Jew.” Gay (1978) wrote that Freud “advertised his unbelief every time he could find, or make, an opportunity” (p. 3). Freud (1918) viewed religious beliefs as irrational, projective, and regressive. In return, most religious people are no fans of Freud. Casey (1938) captured some of the disdain early psychoanalysts held toward religion, “Even in the higher religions with their impressive theological facades there is always . . . a myth, a rule of piety, a cult, which is rationalized but which neither begins nor ends with reason” (p. 445).

Despite this rather poor start, contemporary psychoanalytic theorists and practitioners have made strides in accepting religion and integrating spirituality into psychotherapy. A common psychoanalytic position is that religious and spiritual experiences are meaningful and therefore deserve the same level of analysis and respect as sexuality, family relationships, work, and other life domains (Rizzuto & Shafranske, 2013). This respectful stance toward religious experiences is relatively new and exciting territory for practitioners who want to integrate religion and spirituality into psychoanalytic approaches.

As one example, Rizzuto and Shafranske (2013) wrote that, “God representations always involve a representation of the self in relationship with the sacred” (p. 135). They view client disclosures about religion as opportunities to attain a deeper and more useful understanding of clients. God representations are not only respected, but also explored as multidimensional components of human experience that can exert both positive and negative influence on individual’s lives. They believe, “Religion and spirituality can serve as a foundation for the healthy appreciation of the self and for the resolution of psychic pain and trauma” (p. 142). Clearly, this perspective plays better with religious clients than beginning with an assumption, like Freud, that all religious views and experiences are immature and irrational.

That time when I conducted a scientific research study designed to test the effectiveness of using hypnosis to break down the space-time continuum and transport 18 people to the future so they could fill-out perfect March Madness brackets.

Flower in Bricks

You can probably tell by the title of this post that I’m pretty stoked about scientific research right now.

I typically don’t do much empirical research. That’s why it was a surprise to me and my colleagues that, about six weeks ago, I spontaneously developed a research idea, dropped nearly everything else I was doing, and had amazing fun conducting my first ever March Madness bracket research project.

My research experience included a roller coaster of surprises.

I somehow convinced a professor from the Health and Human Performance department at the University of Montana to collaborate with me on a ridiculous study on a ridiculously short timeline.

My university IRB approved our proposal. Seriously. I submitted a proposal that involved me hypnotizing volunteer participants to transport them into the future to make their March Madness bracket selections. Then they approved it in six days. How cool is that?

I managed to network my way onto ESPN radio (where we called the study ESP on ESPN; thanks Lauren and Arianna) and onto the Billings, MT CBS affiliate (thanks Dan).

And, this is the teaser: with only 36 participants, the results were significant at the p < .001 level.

Damn. Now you know. Scientific research is so cool.

Of course, there’s a back-story. While you’re waiting in anticipation to learn about those p < .001 results, you really need to hear this back-story.

Several years ago, while on a 90-minute car ride back from Trapper Creek Job Corps to Missoula, my counseling interns asked me if I could hypnotize someone and take them back in time so they could recall something that happened to them in a previous life. I thought the question was silly and the answer was simple.

“Absolutely yes.” I said, “Of course I could do that.”

Questions followed.

My answers included a ramble about not really believing in past lives and not really thinking that past life hypnotic regression was ethical. But still, I said, “If someone is hypnotizable, then, I’m sure I could get them into a trance and at least make them think they went back to a previous life and retrieved a few memories. No problem.”

Have you ever noticed that once you start to brag, it’s hard to stop. That’s what happened next, for several years.

Somewhat later in another conversation, I started exaggerating bigly. I decided to extend my imaginary prowess into a fool-proof strategy for generating a perfect March Madness bracket. I said something about, “Brains being amazing and that you can suddenly pay attention to the big toe on your right foot and, at nearly the same time, project yourself not only back into your 7-year-old self, but forward in time into the future. That being the case,” I waxed, “it’s pretty obvious that I could hypnotize people, break down the space-time continuum, and take them to a future where all the March Madness basketball games had been played and therefore, they could just copy down the winners and create a perfect March Madness bracket.”

Through this process, I would turn a one-in-a-trillion possibility into absolute certainty.

I enjoyed bragging about my imaginary scenario for several years. That is, until this year, when, I decided that if I was set on bragging bigly, I should also be willing to put determined it was time to put my science where my mouth is (or something like that). It was time to test my hypnosis-space-time-continuum hypothesis using the scientific method.

We designed a pre-test, post-test experimental design with random assignment to three conditions.

Condition 1: Education. Participants would receive about 20 minutes of education on statistics relevant to making March Madness bracket picks. My colleague, Dr. Charles Palmer, showed powerpoint slides and provided insights about the statistical probabilities of 12s beating 5s and 9s beating 8s, and “Blue Blood” conferences.

Condition 2: Progressive Muscle Relaxation. The plan was for Daniel Salois, one of my graduate students and an immensely good sport, to do 20 minutes of progressive muscle relaxation with this group.

Condition 3: Hypnosis. I would use a hypnotic induction, a deepening procedure, and then project participants into the future. Instead of having everyone fill out their brackets while in trance, I decided to use a post-hypnotic suggestion. As soon as they heard me clap twice, they would immediately recall the tournament game outcomes and then fill out their brackets perfectly.

Unfortunately, on short notice we only recruited 36 participants. To give ourselves a chance to obtain statistical significance, we dumped the progressive muscle relaxation condition, and just had the EDUCATION and HYPNOSIS conditions go head to head in a winner-take-all battle.

Both groups followed the same basic protocol. Upon arrival at the College of Education, they were randomly assigned to one of two rooms (Charlie or me). When the got to their room, they signed the informed consent, and immediately filled out a bracket along with a confidence rating. Then they received either the EDUCATION or HYPNOSIS training. After their respective trainings, they filled out a second bracket, along with another confidence rating.

We hypothesized that both groups would report an increase in confidence, but that only the EDUCATION group (but not the HYPNOSIS group) would show a statistically significant improvement in bracket-picking accuracy. We based our hypotheses on the fact that although real education should help, there’s no evidence that anyone can use hypnosis to transport themselves to the future. We viewed the HYPNOSIS condition as essentially equivalent to raising false hopes without providing help that had any substance.

IMHO, the results were stunning.

We were dead on about the EDUCATION group. Those participants significantly increased their confidence; they also improved their bracket scores (we used the online ESPN scoring system where participants can obtain up to a maximum of 320 points for each round; this means participants got 10 points for every correct pick in the first round, with their potential points doubling in every round, and concluding with 320 points if they correctly picked the University of North Carolina to win the tournament).

Then there was the HYPNOSIS group.

HYPNOSIS participants experienced a small but nonsignificant increase in their confidence. . . but they totally tanked their predictions. We had a participant who picked Creighton to win it all. We had one bracket that had Virginia Tech vs. Oklahoma State in the final. We had another person who listed a final score in the championship game of 34-23. When I shared these results to our research class, I said, “The HYPNOSIS participants totally sucked. They did so bad that I think they couldn’t have done any worse if we had hit them all on the head with a 2 x 4 and given them concussions and then had them fill out their brackets.”

So what happened? Why did the HYPNOSIS group perform so badly?

When told of the outcome, one student who had participated offered her explanation, “I believe it. I don’t know what happened, but after the hypnosis, I totally forgot about anything I knew, and just wrote down whatever team names popped into my head.”

My interpretation: Most of the people in the HYPNOSIS group completely abandoned rational and logical thought. They decided that whatever thoughts that happened to come into their minds were true and right.

It’s probably too much of a stretch to link this to politics, but it’s hard not to speculate. It’s possible that candidates from both parties are able, from time to time, to use charisma and bold claims to get their supporters to let go of logic and rational thought, and instead, embrace a fantastical future.

Another faculty member in our department offered an alternative explanation. She recalled the old Yerkes-Dodson law. This “law” in psychology predicts that optimal arousal (or stress) is linked to optimal performance. In contrast, too much arousal or too little arousal impairs performance. She theorized that perhaps the hypnosis participants had become too relaxed; they were so under-aroused that they couldn’t perform.

It seems clear that the hypnosis did something. But what? It wasn’t a helpful trip to the future. Some friends suggested that maybe they went to the wrong year. Others have mocked me for being a bragger who couldn’t really use hypnosis to break down the space-time continuum.

What do you think? Do you have any potential explanations you’d like to offer? I’d love to hear them. And, if you have any ideas of which scientific journal to submit our manuscript to, we’d love to hear that as well.

The Morning of November 9, 2016

**This is only a semi-coherent first reaction to the Presidential election. Read if you want. Be aware that I channel a little Albert Ellis at the end.**

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In four hours I’m supposed to teach a three-hour course on advanced theories of counseling and psychotherapy. The topic today is emotion-focused therapy for couples. It’s a good day to focus on emotions. I have more than a couple of them bouncing around inside me.

Maybe that’s why I made my way to a coffee shop at 5am this morning. That’s abnormal. But today is abnormal; the new abnormal.

Back in college a fellow student who was from Nepal explained to me the meaning of the greeting, “Namaste.”

“It means,” he said, “I salute the light within you.”

It’s a sad and painful morning. I’m not sure about the light in me. Instead, mostly I’m certain that yesterday and last night was a cosmic mistake. It feels like sexism, racism, and hate have triumphed over “. . . all men (and women) being created equal.” I feel this, even though I’m a White, heterosexual, Jewish-Christian-Agnostic male. Given my privileged status, it’s hard to comprehend the pain this vote has caused women and minorities.

But I can imagine it.

When I woke up to sounds on the street at 3am, my mind created evil agents of Donald Trump gathering outside my home to take me away. It was the sort of paranoid thought that can come in the night—even to those of us who are well endowed with safety and privilege. It makes me wonder if that what’s it like for my Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, Mexican, and Muslim friends and students?

Late last night I got a text from a wealthy White Christian man who described himself as in tears. “What’s happening to our country?” he asked. And then he wondered what he could tell his children in the morning. He had put them to bed with kisses and the anticipation that they would awaken to the first woman President in the history of the United States.

There’s too much pain and sadness and suffering in the world. But there was too much pain and sadness and suffering in the world last week. And there will be too much next week.

I hold vivid memories of suffering through Reagan’s election, and George H. W. Bush’s election, and George W. Bush’s election. Those were difficult times. In each case I was certain that an evil force on the planet had somehow made it possible for the less honest, less compassionate, and less competent candidate to win.

But this is worse.

Even so, I refuse to believe that the majority of Americans are sexist and racist. I see too much kindness. I hope that Donald Trump is only a temporary phenomenon. I hope his existence will motivate us to swing the pendulum back toward justice, kindness, and empathy.

I’m reminded of the alleged words of Jesus, “Forgive them father, they know not what they do.”

Somewhat irrationally, I still have faith.

I have faith in the possibility that, as Jesus said, many people do not know what they’ve done. I have faith that although Donald Trump won the vote, that most people are not inherently sexist and racist at their core. I have faith that we can reach out to, reason with, and love our enemies, even when they’re our neighbors.

I will also follow the advice that I give people for coping with crisis.

  • Take care of yourself.
  • Look around and do what you can do to take care of others, your family, your friends, and your community.
  • And, don’t do anything stupid.

After I woke up at 3 a.m. and shook off my paranoid thoughts of evil Trump agents outside my door, other words emerged.

“Don’t mourn.”

An old memory was knocking at my door.

“But I want to mourn,” was my response. “I want to mourn. I need to mourn. I want to feel the pain for myself, and for my community of friends and family who have had their hopes crushed.”

“Okay. The voice conceded. “Mourn briefly. Do not linger.”

I recognized that this message wasn’t necessarily mine or God’s. It sounded like Joe Hill, the old union activist. He was saying,

“Don’t mourn. Organize.”

Then I was up. I had my hour of mourning. It was 4am. The sun will rise. I will teach my class.

But more important, I will focus. I will organize. I will, in Freud’s words, “Sublimate my emotions.”

I will whisper “Namaste” to everyone I see. I will salute the light within them.

Even though, right now, it’s so fucking hard to see the light.

 

Professional Writing 101: Dealing with Rejection

This is how it goes.

You read, gather background information, do research, and carefully write a manuscript. You put in so many hours or days or weeks that you lose track of how much time you’ve put in—which is a good thing. You re-read, edit, get feedback, revise, and do your best to produce an excellent manuscript. You upload it a portal where it magically finds its way to a professional journal editor. Then, because you can only submit a manuscript to one journal at a time, you wait.

A month passes.

You keep waiting.

If you’re lucky, you hear back from the journal editor via email within two months. You click on the email with a mix of anticipation and dread. Then, ta-da, you learn your manuscript was REJECTED.

The editor is polite, but pointedly informs you that this particular journal doesn’t recognize the magnificence of your work. To add insult to injury, your rejection is accompanied by critiques from three different reviewers. These reviewers were apparently named by Dr. Seuss: Reviewer 1, Reviewer 2, and Reviewer 3.

Some rejections are worse than others. Maybe it’s because your hopes were too high; or maybe it’s because the journal’s impact factor rating was so low. Getting rejected when the journal has an impact rating of “0” can bring down your self-esteem to a similar level.

And then there are the reviewers.

It’s important to remember that reviewers are busy, fallible, human, and unpaid volunteers. They’re also purportedly experts, although I’ve had experiences that led me to question their expertise. Many appear to have a proverbial axe to grind. Perhaps because they experienced scathing critiques in their professional childhood, they feel the need to pass on the pain. Sometimes they just seem obtuse. I’ve wondered a time or two if maybe a reviewer forgot to actually read the manuscript before offering an off-point “review.”

If you sense bitterness, it might be because over the past several years I’ve experienced an extra-large load of rejections. When the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) rejected my manuscript in less than a week, I was disappointed. But because the NEJM is the most prestigious journal on the planet, I didn’t linger much on the rejection, because rejection was expected. But when a decidedly less-prestigious professional group rejected all my proposals to present at an annual conference, I was deeply hurt, saddened, and angry. Reading the reviewers’ comments didn’t help.

At one point last summer, in a fit of self-pity, I decided to count up my two-year rejection total. I got to 20, had a flash of insight, and stopped. It was like counting cloudy days. My advice: Unless you’re especially serious about depressing yourself, don’t count up your rejections. If you’re into counting, put that energy into counting the sunny days.

One time, back when I was immature and impulsive, I received an insensitive and insulting rejection from a low tier journal. My response: A hasty, nasty, and indignant email lambasting the editor and his single reviewer for their poor decision-making process and outcome. Sending the email was immediately gratifying, but, like many immediately gratifying things, not reflective of good judgment. I never heard back. And now, when I see that editor at conferences, it’s awkward.

More recently, I responded to a rejection from a high-status conference with humility along with a gentle inquiry about re-consideration. Less than 24 hours later they discovered “one more slot” and I was in! It was a paid gig, for an excellent conference, and at a convenient venue. Bingo. Let that be a lesson to me.

Last month I received a different sort of journal rejection. It was an invitation to “Revise and Resubmit.”

Put in romantic terms, revise and resubmit is lukewarm and confusing. The message is, “I kind of like you, and you have potential, but I’m not ready for a commitment.” But if you’ve been casting out and reeling in a raft of rejections, revise and resubmit is a welcome flirtation.

I had submitted a manuscript focusing on suicide risk assessment to a reasonably good journal. It was a good manuscript. In fact, Reviewer 3 recommended publication. But Reviewer 1 spoiled my day by offering 23 substantial and picky suggestions. The editor, who wrote me a long and rather nice email, decided to go with Reviewer 1’s opinion: revise and resubmit.

Given that I’ve been reviewing the suicide risk assessment literature for a couple decades, I assumed I was well-versed in the area. But when I read through Reviewer 1’s suggestions I was surprised, humbled, and eventually pleased. Reviewer 1 had many excellent points.

Looking back and forward, I think this is what I like best about submitting manuscripts to professional journals. Basically, you get a free critique and although some reviewers are duds, others are experts in the field who provide you with a fabulous educational opportunity. There’s always so much more to learn.

The moral of this story and blog post is that the attitude we have toward rejection is far more important than our fragile egos (at least it’s more important than my fragile ego). In response to the revise and resubmit verdict, I’ve graciously accepted the feedback, engaged a co-author to help me, and we have now systematically plowed through the 23 recommendations. The result: Last week we re-submitted a vastly improved manuscript.

Now we wait.

Although I have hope for success, I also realize that Reviewer 1 may have a bit more educational feedback to offer. But this time around, I’m looking forward to it.

 

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What Brain Science Says about Becoming a Better Professional Writer

This piece on professional writing is in anticipation of our upcoming John Wiley & Sons sponsored ACA presentation on April 1 in Montreal titled: Writing for Publication: Insights and Strategies

The “Decade of the Brain” started way back in 1990. It’s been over for more than 15 years. So you would think everyone could get over it and move on. But obviously that’s not how things pertaining to the brain work. Too many neuroscientists, journalists, and other people are happily riding along on the brain science bandwagon to just let it go. Most things would be perfectly satisfied with their own decade and the attention that goes with that, but the brain is a selfish organ and obviously interested in hogging all the decades. And so the brain discoveries just keep rolling in and eager journalists keep on writing and talking about the brain, which is why the popularity of neuroscience is now officially off the map. Neuroscience’s reach has far exceeded its grasp, but such is the nature of popular things. Just think about bell-bottoms.

We still know very little about the brain. That’s partly why neuroscience excites people. The excitement is more related to our collective brains collective imagination of what neuroscience might be than neuroscience reality. This has turned neuroscience into a projective test (think of the Rorschach Inkblots). There’s some vague information or structure out there and so everyone takes some of it in, blends it with their unique personality and past experiences, and then projects hypothetical possibilities about brain science onto the blank canvass of reality. Then voila, people start talking about ridiculous things like male brains and female brains and teen brains.

I say all this as a balancing introduction that will help me not sound completely trite and ridiculous when I write,

Coming up next: What brain science says about how you can become a better writer.

Let’s pause and self-reflect here. This statement is both bad writing and bad science. It’s bad writing because I’ve transformed (through grammatical magic) the inanimate field of brain science into an entity that has something to say. It’s bad science because the first rule of becoming a better writer, although supported by neuroscience, is such numbingly basic common sense that it’s inappropriate to gift it the charade of scientific authority.

Put another way, brain science can’t talk; people talk. But if brain science could talk, and you asked it, “What can I do to become a better writer?” it would likely respond with something like:

The first rule to good writing is WRITER’S WRITE. This is what literary and professional writers have said over and over for centuries and you didn’t need me, brain science, to tell you something you already knew. (see also: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2013/09/04/professional-writing-for-us-professionals-who-may-not-quite-be-writers-yet/)

If there’s one thing we know from brain science (and common sense), it’s that practice leads to improvement. Neuroscientists might say it this way, “Your behavior directly influences your brain structure and chemistry; when you repeatedly practice something, you’re actually creating specific neurons and neural pathways to make that something easier.” Common sense (if it could talk) might say, “Repeated practice generally leads to skill development.” Speaking (apparently) on behalf of common sense, the renowned science fiction writer Ray Bradbury wrote:

Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.

The take home message here is simple. If your goal is writing success, then you must make time to write.

There is, of course, a caveat to this general brain-based common sense rule. Yes, practice leads to improvement, but there are always exceptions.

Sometimes, even when you practice with great effort, consistency, and sincerity, you don’t improve much. The good news about this exception is that in the world of writing there are usually fascinating reasons for why diligent writers aren’t improving . . . and I’ll get to that important content at some point in the future. For now, remember this: The first step to becoming a successful professional writer involves taking Bradbury’s advice—which I repeat and elaborate on below:

  • Write every day
  • Read intensely
  • Get feedback
  • Engage in self-editing—produce a 2nd, 3rd, and 4th draft
  • Schedule more time to write
  • Identify your target audience and then learn more about them
  • Deal with multiple distractions
  • Reward yourself
  • Get more feedback so that you can be certain that you’re not rewarding yourself when you should be engaging in more self-reflection and scrutiny
  • Read your 4th draft aloud to yourself, then read it aloud to someone you trust to get even more feedback
  • Find somewhere to submit your precious manuscript
  • Hope for the best, but prepare for rejection
  • When you get your rejection, stay calm and integrate the feedback into your writer-identity
  • Revise your manuscript again, read it aloud again, get feedback again
  • After dealing with your neuroses, improving your manuscript, and gnashing your teeth, find the courage and strength to face your fears and resubmit your precious manuscript to somewhere that will recognize its greatness
  • Hope for the best, but prepare for rejection—again
  • Repetitively do all these things to help your brain structure and chemistry develop itself and you into a better writer who has a better chance of writing success

Before moving on I should say that I realize Bradbury was advising fiction writers and fiction writers fall within the literary writing domain. This is an important distinction. If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably busy juggling numerous professional activities. These activities might include a combination of teaching, research, service, attending classes, clinical practice, supervision, and more. Traditionally, writers with literary ambitions only juggle their daily writing and reading with a job delivering pizza or waiting tables. It’s likely that you have a more rigorous and full professional life. This is one good reason why your immediate goal shouldn’t be to publish your first novel or personal memoir. You probably don’t have time for those more ambitious goals; most human services professionals who write novels and memoirs do so during sabbatical or after retirement. For now, our goal for you and your goal for yourself should be to begin taking small steps toward becoming a professional writer. The best-selling novel will have to wait.

John hanging out with Robert Wubbolding

With Wubbolding

Neuroscience New Year’s Resolutions for 2016

In case you forgot or never knew, 1990 to 2000 was championed as the decade of the brain. You would think one decade would be enough, but judging by how much of a darling neuroscience is in the media, it looks like the brain will be hogging the whole 21st century too. And so in celebration of our perpetually “New Brain Science,” I’m offering six neuroscience-based New Year’s resolutions for 2016

1. For years, the Dali Lama has been advising everyone to develop a “Loving Kindness” meditation practice. Even if his advice doesn’t change the world, having a consistent loving kindness meditation practice can change your brain. Mindfulness meditation strengthens a region in the brain called the insular cortex, an area broadly linked to self-control and good judgment. This makes 2016 a good time to start meditating. We could all use a little more self-control and good judgment.

2. You should sit down for this one. Or stand up. And then sit down again. This is because scientific research supports brain-body connections. Exercise facilitates everything from sleep to sex. If you want a sharper brain for 2016, then stand-up and get walking or stretching or running or lifting or dancing your way to clearer thinking.

3. Last year might have been the year of the gut. There’s been plenty of talk about the “gut” being our second brain. Of course, this isn’t about growing your gut or striving for a dad-bod. It’s all about digestive health. The best way to get your second brain to support your mental health is to feed it whole, fresh foods, probiotics, and fermented foods (like kombucha, sauerkraut, and kimchee), while avoiding the evils of eating highly processed white sugar/white flour.

4. Exercise is great and good sex may be better, but loving and gentle touch is the bomb. Make 2016 the year—not only for consensual hugs and kisses—but also for shoulder and neck and foot massages. You can even put brushing each other’s hair on your “this-just-might-improve-my-mental-health” to-do list.

5. In 2015 sleep research was hot. It’s more obvious than ever that sleep deprivation is generally bad for your brain; it contributes to clinical depression, suicide, accidents, and illness. Finding a way to sleep well in 2016 means turning off your screens at least 30 minutes before bedtime, cutting out the caffeine after 2pm, and establishing a steady personal and family sleep routine. Sleep is the new black.

6. For those of us in the helping professions, the biggest neuroscience news is all about what psychotherapists call empathic listening. Turns out, listening in an effort to understand others grows the brain in ways similar to mindfulness meditation. That means the more you practice listening with empathy, the more you’ll grow that all-important insular cortex . . . and the more you grow your insular cortex, the less likely you are to engage in violent behaviors that threaten the planet. So if you want a more peaceful planet, put empathic listening on your New Year’s resolution list.

There’s one big principle that underlies all of the new brain science: Whatever behaviors you rehearse, practice, or repeat, are likely to strengthen your skills and grow your brain in those particular regions. What this means is that if your goal is to be a couch potato for 2016, you should spend lots of time couch potatoing so you can develop mad skills in that area, with a neurological net to match. On the other hand, if you want a healthy brain and body and awesome friendships and romance in your life, you should engage in the activities listed above—especially the mindfulness meditation and empathic listening—and you’ll grow a brain and skills that just might bring health, love, and peace in 2016.

Note: I submitted this awesome resolution list to a couple newspapers just before the New Year, but only got rejections. And so I decided to submit it to myself and, voila!, it got published right here on my very own blog (smiley face). Please share and pass it on so that all the newspaper editors who keep rejecting my work start feeling the deep regret they deserve.

Outstanding in Field