Showing all posts tagged: psychology

Reading fiction books can make more empathic people of us

16 March 2023

Jeannie Kidera, writing for Big Think:

The capacity for empathy — to first identify and then understand and share in someone else’s feelings — is largely held as a virtue these days. Yet, philosophically speaking, there is a bit of a knowledge problem that makes being naturally empathetic a struggle. Why? As poet John Keats put it, “Nothing ever becomes real until it is experienced.”

So how can someone else’s perspective and emotions ever become real enough for us to develop empathy? Reading fiction may provide an answer. Research suggests that fictional books may effectively be empathy-building tools, offering us the closest we can get to first-hand knowledge of someone else’s experience.

To read a chapter out of someone’s life story is to truly walk a mile in their shoes.


, , ,

The introvert brain is not the same as an extravert brain

13 February 2023

Neuroscientist and author Friederike Fabritius, writing for CNBC:

One Harvard study found that introverts’ brains work differently, and have thicker gray matter compared to extroverts. In people who are strongly extroverted, gray matter was consistently thinner. Introverts also showed more activity in the frontal lobes, where analysis and rational thought take place. Another study that scanned brains of both introverts and extroverts found that, even in a relaxed state, the introverted brain was more active, with increased blood flow.

I never thought of looking at it this way. The thicker their grey matter, the less a person generally talks. The thinner a person’s grey matter, the more they talk, possibly nonstop. Now there’s a topic of dinner table conversation for you.


, ,

What’s wrong with people who don’t eat meat or drink? Nothing

2 January 2023

Despite Australia’s apparent reputation as a nation of big drinkers, forty-six percent of Australians either abstain completely from alcohol, or only consume one drink a month. If the thirteen percent of people who only partake of a tipple two to three times monthly are added, that’s almost sixty percent of the population who barely drink at all.

Yet people who have chosen to give up alcoholic beverages still find themselves under pressure to drink at social gatherings, particularly at this time of the year. This is something I’ve seen in the now ten years since I cut back on alcohol. Today I might have a drink maybe once every two months. While most people appear to be accepting of this choice, I’ve run into a few who aren’t. One or two even seem to feel threatened when the question comes up, but I’m not sure why this should be.

Australia, for instance, is also a nation of coffee drinkers, of which I am one, but I don’t hear of anyone who doesn’t drink coffee, or only has decaffeinated coffee, being put-down. The same goes for people who, say, don’t own a car, or even drive. I think you can even choose to refuse recreational drugs with total social impunity. Why then are some lifestyle choices greeted with virtual indifference, while other cause derision?

I also know people who embrace veganism are sometimes subjected to the same contempt as non-drinkers. Some people choose to eat a non-animal based diet instead of an animal one. So what? What’s in the Australian psyche that results in people who avoid meat or alcohol being derided? It is because those who we perceive to be outliers appear to pose some sort of threat? It is because meat and alcohol are — or were — so ingrained in our way of life, and no one should therefore upset the apparent status quo?

I might be optimistic, overly optimistic maybe, but I think attitudes are changing, albeit slowly. Is it really so hard to live and let live?


, , ,

Ten word creative summaries: a secret sentence, a North Star to write by

22 December 2022

A journalist once told me he could summarise any article he was writing with a sentence of no more than ten words. These ten words, or less, outlined the purpose of the piece he was working on, whether it be five hundred words, or fifty thousand.

If he found himself floundering, or stuck, while writing, he’d refer back to his article outline so as to refocus on the task at hand. He ventured that the ten word outline could be applied to any creative endeavour, be it a painting, a sculpture, whatever. If the basic objective of the project could not be described in ten words or less, something was wrong, he said.

I think he was onto something. Let’s look at an example. If I had been making the 2019 film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, instead of Céline Sciamma, my ten word or less outline for the project might’ve been: “a painter falls in love with her subject.” If I realised, as the supposed filmmaker, that I was losing sight of the story, while trying to tie the myriad other elements of the narrative into a cohesive whole, I could go back to my outline for guidance.

American author Austin Kleon has a similar methodology, though he titles it with a little more pizzazz. He refers to his ten word outline as a secret sentence, and sees it as his “North Star”. Should Kleon need guidance while working on a writing project, he looks to his secret sentence:

Since we both write books, I confessed that with each book I usually have a secret sentence that I write down somewhere but don’t show to anybody. That sentence is sort of my North Star for the project, the thing I can rely on if I get lost. The sentence usually doesn’t mean anything to anyone other than me. And sometimes it’s pretty dumb. (When I was writing Show Your Work! the sentence was: “What if Brian Eno wrote a content strategy book?”)

A sort of star to steer by while writing. I like the sound of that.


, ,

Could AI technologies be the end of writers and bloggers?

5 December 2022

For a long time it was believed the inevitable rise of automation technologies would bring about the end of repetitive and labour intensive jobs. Warehouse workers, drivers, and filing clerks would need to re-skill if they weren’t to be left unemployed.

But as digital and AI technologies evolved, the threat of being usurped by a computer moved up the ranks. An article published in The Economist in January 2014 (I couldn’t find an author credit, surely a machine didn’t write it?), warned that white collar professions such as accountants and doctors were also at risk:

Computers can already detect intruders in a closed-circuit camera picture more reliably than a human can. By comparing reams of financial or biometric data, they can often diagnose fraud or illness more accurately than any number of accountants or doctors.

Creatives meanwhile, writers and artists among them, always felt immune from these technologies. After all, how could a computer possibly produce an artwork, or write a book? Well, thanks to the likes of DALL·E and Jasper, we now know it’s possible. But creative output is not the limit of these technologies. They’re also capable of creative and problem solving… thought.

For instance, an application called Consensus, promises to seek answers, or consensus, to deceptively simple questions such as “is drinking coffee good or bad for my health?”, and potentially save hundreds, maybe more, of research hours. The app, once fully developed will be able to accurately scan multitudes of research papers on a particular topic, and deliver a pithy yet informative, summary in response to the query, says Derek Thompson, writing for The Atlantic:

Consensus is part of a constellation of generative AI start-ups that promise to automate an array of tasks we’ve historically considered for humans only: reading, writing, summarizing, drawing, painting, image editing, audio editing, music writing, video-game designing, blueprinting, and more. Following my conversation with the Consensus founders, I felt thrilled by the technology’s potential, fascinated by the possibility that we could train computers to be extensions of our own mind, and a bit overcome by the scale of the implications.

I expect in time AI technologies will be able to research and write the papers apps like Consensus will scan. But while AI apps can create artworks and perhaps write novels, will they really be any better at being creative? Let’s take blog writing as an example. A lot of people blog, but how popular are all these bloggers? We know some are more widely read than others. Their writing might be seen by hundreds of thousands of people, while other bloggers struggle to attract a handful of readers.

Just because, then, a machine writes something, does that mean the work will automatically have a larger audience? Will they cause every last writer on Earth to throw in the towel, and give up? I’m not so sure. Certainly the AI writers will improve, learn as they go, hone their craft, but will that result in more readers than an article written by a person? Maybe. Maybe not. Human and AI bloggers could be evenly matched. Of course, AI blogging apps will be able to research and write articles a lot faster, and that will be an advantage.

They’ll be able to publish an article on a given topic far more quickly than I can, and that work may rank on the search engines and elsewhere before mine. And that will suit some readers, but not all. And then we come to the human side of the process. Will readers be able to interact with the AI blogging app, as they can with human bloggers, through say email or social media? More crucially though, depending on the topic at hand, will an AI blogging or writing app, have the same authority to write as a person?

Could, for instance, an AI app write about raising a family? This is something most people learn about the hard way, by living through it. How could an AI blogging app possibly claim to be better qualified than a person, through “personal experience”, in this regard? How could the app ever gain the crucial trust to write on some subjects? This I suspect remains to be seen. At their core, AI apps are capable of thinking like people. For better or worse. I dare say, unfortunately, they will find a way.


, , , ,

Gaslighting named Merriam-Webster dictionary word of 2022

3 December 2022

Hopefully by making gaslighting their word of the year of 2022, online dictionary Merriam-Webster increases awareness of the the insidious practice:

Psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.

Merriam-Webster words of the year appear to be selected according to the number of lookups of the word in the previous twelve months. Oligarch, codify, and loamy, were also among those frequently enquired upon. But Loamy is an intriguing inclusion, because surely dirt and soil related matters wouldn’t be of much interest to a great many people. Well, you’d be surprised. Loamy found its spot in the limelight after being featured on word game Wordle earlier this year.



Mental time travel makes time travellers of us all

12 November 2022

Do you often recall events from your past? Things that happened days ago, or decades earlier? Do you frequently visualise your future? This could involve thinking about where you’ll be living in five years, or where you might be working in twenty years time.

It’s a phenomenon known as mental time travel, and if your mind wanders back and forth through time, you wouldn’t be the only one. While mental time travel may seem like a waste of time, mere daydreaming, there can be an upside. For instance, if enough people had a positive outlook on the future, the future may well become the place we hope it will be.



Bad news sells but negative lyrics also sell songs

24 October 2022

In a study published in 2019 by Cambridge University Press, researchers found the lyrics of pop songs have become increasingly negative in the last thirty years. They reached this conclusion after analysing the emotional content of more than 160,000 songs released between 1965 and 2015.

One major trend in popular music, as well as other cultural products such as literary fiction, is an increase over time in negatively valenced emotional content, and a decrease in positively valenced emotional content.


, ,

A guide to your spooky season Michael Myers-Briggs Type

17 October 2022
Arms wrapped around trees trunks, spooky, photo by Simon Wijers

Image courtesy of Simon Wijers.

Hot off the desk of writer, actor, and comedian Simon Henriques. Understanding your Michael Myers-Briggs Type is never more important than during spooky season:

It’s important to keep in mind that no Michael Myers-Briggs Type is the “correct” one — every style of silent, masked stabbing spree is equally valid. Instead, use your type as a jumping-off point to honestly reflect on your strengths and weaknesses, as well as just your personal preferences for how you enjoy to ruthlessly murder.


, , ,

Ideas to help introverts and extroverts work together

14 September 2022

Philip Coggan, writing for the Economist’s Bartleby column, with workplace strategies helping introverts and extraverts to more effectively work together, despite their personality differences.

Then there’s this:

The study also found that the children of professionals were more likely to be extrovert. It could simply be that children who grow up in more prosperous homes are less likely to face the kind of stressful events that undermine self-confidence. People with higher self-confidence may apply for more prestigious jobs and may be more likely to believe that their efforts will be rewarded; those with a negative self-image may feel it is not worth trying too hard.

Maybe I’m reading this paragraph in the wrong context, but the suggestion seems to be introverts see themselves negatively, and aren’t so confident. That’s not my understanding of introversion.


, ,

Introverts prefer foods that are not so spicy says Kurzgesagt

9 September 2022

Regardless of the subject matter the Kurzgesagt videos are never dull. Their latest takes on the question of why people are lonely, and offers some constructive solutions. One initiative are the newly launched Kurzgesagt Meetups… where likeminded Kurzgesagt followers across the world, who are aged eighteen or over, can arrange gatherings locally.

Extraversion and introversion also features in the discussion, where I learnt introverts are generally not fans of spicy food. I’d not thought about that before. You learn something new everyday.


, , ,

The midlife crisis as a creative transformative experience

8 September 2022

Andrew Jamieson, writing for WePresent, on the upsides of the sometimes debilitating midlife crisis experience. Shortly after turning fifty, Jamieson reports not moving from his bed for almost ten weeks, as all manner of uncertainties and anxieties weighed on him. Despite the melancholy some people might feel at reaching such a milestone, a midlife crisis can lead to a creative resurgence. I’m pleased something positive came of the ordeal.

In reading the accounts of these notable individuals and how they battled through their midlife crises, I began to realize that these harrowing feelings were perhaps not just some arbitrary misery, but rather a transformative experience. They seemed to turn ordinary individuals into exceptional men and women who achieved not only significant outward success, but also a striking level of inner serenity when facing the later challenges of their lives. Perhaps these anxieties and depression that I was so overwhelmed by could become a portal into some new phase of life.



Before cars arrived there was no such thing as jay walking

11 August 2022

Streets and roadways used to be the purview of people on foot, not motor vehicles, writes Clive Thompson. Jaywalking — whereby a pedestrian can be penalised for not crossing a street at the correct location — he tells us, is a misdemeanour created by the car industry.

If you travelled in time back to a big American city in, say, 1905 — just before the boom in car ownership — you’d see roadways utterly teeming with people. Vendors would stand in the street, selling food or goods. Couples would stroll along, and everywhere would be groups of children racing around, playing games. If a pedestrian were heading to a destination across town, they’d cross a street wherever and whenever they felt like it.

Maybe the solution, and to return roads to people on foot, is to lay down light rail or tram tracks on the streets. I was in the centre of Sydney recently where a number of once busy traffic thoroughfares are now light rail routes through the city.

Aside from trams trundling along the way every few minutes, pedestrians largely have free rein. The light rail lines have quite transformed parts of Sydney’s CBD in the last few years.


, ,

The people we spend time with changes throughout our life

8 August 2022

A breakdown of the time we spend with the people in our lives: parents, siblings, friends, partners, colleagues… and ourselves, put together by Our World in Data. The findings are based on surveys conducted between 2009 and 2019 in the United States.

  • As you age you tend to spend more time alone. This does not necessarily mean you’d be lonely though
  • Once you leave home the time spent with parents and siblings plummets
  • Once settled in a career, time spent with friends also decreases
  • In fact the only person you spent more time with, excluding children if you have any, is your partner


, , ,

Absurd instances of the trolley problem by Neal Agarwal

8 July 2022

Most people have heard of the trolley problem. In short, you’re standing beside a rail line, near a railroad switch. A train is coming along the track, but there are five people tied to the track, in its path. You have the option to pull the switch lever, sending the train along a side line.

But another person is tied and bound to the side line. What should you do? Stand there, do nothing, and allow the train run over the five people? Or send the locomotive down the side line, where one person will be killed? Presumably there is not time to free any of the people, so you are left with the difficult choice. Do five people perish, or one?

This format of the trolley problem was created by Philippa Foot, a British philosopher, in 1967, while Judith Thomson, a philosopher at MIT, devised the quandary’s name. American creative coder and developer Neal Agarwal, meanwhile, has thought of a few more, absurd, trolley problem instances.



Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi: an introvert on steroids?

27 May 2022
Detail, Imaginary Prisons, by Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Detail from Imaginary Prisons, by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Warning, spoilers follow. Return to this article once you’ve finished reading the book.

Imagine you live in a sprawling multi-storied house. The lower levels are flooded by an ocean, while the upper floors are shrouded in mist and clouds. The seemingly endless labyrinth like hallways are adorned with classical style marble statues, and for whatever reason, sea birds have taken to nesting among some of these figures. But it’s not really a house you’re in, it’s more like a complex with the dimensions of a city, and one none too small at that.

This is the world, Piranesi, the titular character in the second novel of British author Susanna Clarke (published by Bloomsbury Publishing, August 2021), finds himself in. Piranesi knows little about how the house came to be, or when he arrived there, although he has vague recollections of living elsewhere before. Come to that, Piranesi knows hardly anything about himself. He’s perhaps aged in his mid-thirties, and if pressed, couldn’t even be sure his name was Piranesi.

Despite these peculiar circumstances, Piranesi otherwise seems content, and goes about his day to day life as if nothing were amiss. But how would you feel were it you in Piranesi’s place? Wouldn’t you wonder how you ended up in this predicament, and whether there was a way leave, and return to the real world? Wouldn’t you miss family and friends, and wonder if they felt the same way? Wouldn’t you crave the company of others at least some of the time?

But Piranesi doesn’t appear to be the least bit perturbed. Why though? Does he have some sort of problem? Does he loathe all people, and is thankful for the sanctuary the house offers, a place devoid of humans? Or is he perhaps an introvert, who’s found his happy place? Yet Piranesi isn’t completely alone in the house. Once or twice a week, he goes to a certain area of the complex, where he briefly meets a middle-aged man, whom Piranesi refers to as The Other.

If Piranesi knows little about himself, he knows even less about The Other. He has no idea who this gentleman really is — although he believes him to be some sort of academic — nor does he know where The Other resides in the house. The Other meanwhile frequently questions Piranesi, and even sets him tasks, some relatively arduous. One such request required Piranesi to walk to a distant point in the house, on a journey lasting two days return.

To make a comparison, and better understand the scale of the house, I looked up the walking time and distance from Sydney’s CBD to the western suburb of Penrith on Google, and was advised the trek is approximately fifty-six kilometres in length, and the non-stop walk would take almost twelve hours.

Of course the question of exactly what sort of place Piranesi finds himself in came up repeatedly as I read the novel, particularly as he never encountered anyone else — at least not at first — in the sprawling complex. While plenty of Clarke’s readers (myself included) have ideas as to the nature of the house, and what it really is, I found myself wondering how Piranesi could remain oblivious to his acute isolation, and not miss the company of other people.

After all, surely not even the most extreme of introverts would continuously crave the deep solitude of the apparently empty house. But there were indications Piranesi was lonely. He regarded the sea birds nesting in the statues in some of the hallways as friends, and would often have conversations — albeit one-sided — with them. But when it becomes obvious another person is lurking, out of sight, in the house, Piranesi is keen to find out who they are.

In trying to understand Piranesi’s apparently people averse personality, I would describe him as an introvert. But no ordinary — if there is such a thing — introvert. To live alone for years in a vast complex, spending perhaps an hour at most, once a week, with one other person could not be anyone’s ideal. While it can argued something else is going on, that he is unaware of, Piranesi’s outright acceptance of his plight remains compelling. Piranesi is certainly an introvert, but he’s more, he’s an introvert on steroids.


, , , ,

The benefits of having a dual identity are real

22 April 2022

Thinking of yourself as another person, in the same sort of way Bruce Wayne thinks of himself as the Batman, may be surprisingly empowering. You don’t need to imagine you’re a superhero though, even assigning yourself a pseudonym may be sufficient.

Although the embodiment of a fictional persona may seem like a gimmick for pop stars, new research suggests there may be some real psychological benefits to the strategy. Adopting an alter ego is an extreme form of ‘self-distancing’, which involves taking a step back from our immediate feelings to allow us to view a situation more dispassionately.

“Self-distancing gives us a little bit of extra space to think rationally about the situation,” says Rachel White, assistant professor of psychology at Hamilton College in New York State. It allows us to rein in undesirable feelings like anxiety, increases our perseverance on challenging tasks, and boosts our self-control.


Lockdown, an introvert’s paradise, now sadly missed

28 March 2022

Almost two-thirds of readers surveyed by London based magazine The Face reported missing pandemic imposed lockdowns, with many reporting “significant improvements in day-to-day-life.”

You might be surprised to learn that an overwhelming majority of respondents reported that, yeah, actually, they did miss lockdown life – 66.9 per cent of them, to be exact. For all the sadness and boredom born out of the pandemic, many of you experienced significant improvements in day-to-day-life.

As an introvert who enjoyed lockdowns, I couldn’t go passed this thought:

“[Lockdown] was an introvert’s paradise. I miss it immensely,” says 23-year-old Sarah, who also described the most challenging thing about the pandemic was “it ending”.


, ,

The National Pleasure Audit

4 February 2022

The National Pleasure Audit is presently open to Australians aged eighteen and over. Conducted by Dr Desirée Kozlowski, a researcher at Southern Cross University, the audit aims to find out what brings joy — by whatever means — to people. Participation is anonymous, so anything goes, though you can submit an email address if you wish to be sent the results of the audit.


The difference between introversion and social anxiety

17 December 2021

Kylie Maddox Pidgeon is a Sydney based psychologist, who is also an introvert. The world needs more psychologists who are introverts, because there are some psychologists who are extraverts but appear to have little real-world understanding of introverts. To put it mildly. One once told me I needed to be more outgoing, because I seemed to be too reserved. Thanks for that.

Kylie is a psychologist, academic and introvert. I met Kylie playing netball in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales and I wouldn’t have guessed she was an introvert. She loves socialising and sparks with energy during conversation, but she says if she overdoes it, she feels drained and can experience headaches.

My favourite analogy when explaining introversion is to suggest introverts have a constantly playing media device in their minds. There’s times we’re able to turn down the volume, say for the first hour or two of a social gathering, but as time passes the volume from our in-built media device begin increasing, as the ceaseless thoughts cascading through our minds begin competing for attention. At some point we need to get away, to somewhere quiet, to make sense of this almost subconscious brainstorming.

But instead of being recognised as an introvert, our sometimes reserved demeanour can be mistaken for social anxiety. Although something else entirely, there is a link between introversion and social anxiety, but as Maddox Pidgeon points out, there is a key difference. Social anxiety occurs when a person is worried about what others will think of them. That’s generally not the case for introverts. If they’ve had enough of being at a party and want to leave, they won’t be concerned at what anyone thinks.


, ,