Wednesday, 28 February 2007

A hot potato?

A theme is beginning to emerge. Whenever I mention the topic of my essay to people, they frequently respond, "Ooooh no, I don't like Freud." When I ask for reasons, they range from, "his theory is way too far-fetched," to, "He was completely unscientific." On one memorable occasion, a psychology lecturer of my acquaintance decried Freud in terms usually reserved for the more ethically questionable kind of tele-evangelist.

The content of the usual criticism often seems superficially reasonable to me. Much of Freud does sound pretty wacky. And yes, the source from which he derived his theory was small and particular and decidedly abnormal. And there are definitely limitations to his work. But surely these things are the norm rather than the exception for scientific theory? For example, physics offers us wave-particle duality, which I find mind-bogglingly peculiar. How can something be both a wave and a particle? Gerraway. Fact is, only mathematics (a language completely alien to many of us) can give a full account of this phenomenon.

Travelling further down the route of wacky-sounding stuff, Prof Vilyanur Ramachandran is a cognitive neuroscientist whose work has revealed some bizarre and icky phenomena. For example, a patient suffering significant physical disability as a result of (I think) a stroke not only appeared to be unaware of their own disability, but also of their neighbour's impairment! Plus, Prof Ramachandran aims to study those with abnormal cognitive functioning (a necessarily and mercifully small sample, often a single individual) in order to build an understanding of normal cognition. Does this aim sound familiar? It should by now - Freud expressed a similar sentiment.

By the way, Click here if you would like to hear the man himself give the 2003 Reith lectures on the theme The Emerging Mind - you'll need to suspend your disbelief to get the full benefit.

On the topic of limitations, another example from science pops into my head. When I did O level physics - back when they still had O levels and national insurance numbers printed on bits of cardboard - we learned about Rutherford's model of atomic structure. The following year, in A level chemistry, we were informed that this model was already very out of date. Although it had significant limitations, its merits were such that it still helped us advance our understanding concerning the mysteries of the physical world.

When we criticise Freud, I notice a certain tone which also characterises discussions of highly emotive topics like intelligent design and evolutionary psychology. It's also present during discussions of touchy topics such as sexual perversion (a few years ago I saw a play on the subject of bestiality, and this tone was present during the conversations in the theatre bar afterwards). Surely its our responsibility to use the tools at our disposal to test scientific theory to destruction? Yet from certain quarters, and on the subject of Freud, I sense a certain whiff of, "Pshaw, let's not bother." Why? Why, darnit?

I think that Freud makes us queasy. I wonder why this should be, exactly? Am I wrong? I'd really love to know what everone else thinks.

A session with a writing mentor

Yesterday, I had a session with a writing mentor. Maria, a fellow psychology student, was kind enough to see me and give her opinion of my work so far. I took with me two rough pieces of writing, my purging/understanding and my ideas for things to critically assess. I also took with me a grumbling feeling of dissatisfaction about the way things are going with my research.

Although I’m really enjoying my journey into Freud’s life and work and the places this is taking me, I’m beginning to feel that the topic has been so thoroughly discussed that there is little scope for any real, original input from me. In my more pessimistic moments I think that since my essay is inevitably going to be a patchwork of other people’s opinions, I might as well stop flailing around trying to be fresh, save myself some grief and just get stitching. Something in me, though, resists. I don’t like many of the critiques I have found, especially the ones that quibble over the accuracy of various translations of Freud’s work. They seem to be avoiding the issue – sophistry rather than psychology. Also, I have been quite surprised by my findings so far, and this indicates that there is a tiny crack of opportunity through which the Edelweiss of originality might push. I fantasise about a world-weary Freud-averse psychology lecturer reading my essay and saying, ‘Well, fancy that. Perhaps this theory isn’t deader than the Dodo after all!’

So, I went for a mentoring session in the hope of finding an angle. Maria didn’t disappoint. Delightfully, before we even began our session, she declared herself to be a Freud sceptic. This made me happy, for the reasons given above. Next, she took her time reading through my sheets of ideas while I surfed the internet and sipped my coffee. (The writing center at London Met, for those of you who don’t know it, is a delightful, serene, coffee-scented scholastic paradise. There’s chocolate, too.)

Maria’s first comment was interesting. “You say that Freud’s theory is difficult to validate and is unscientific by today’s standards,” she began, “but what did it look like back then? It would be really interesting to have the contrast.” I agree, although it means a significant return to the library. But hey, no pain no gain. Then she pointed out that Freud was more of a Coelacanth than a Dodo. (You may recall the fairly recent flurry of interest in the Coelacanth, the so-called ‘fossil fish’. Held to be long extinct, it was discovered serenely swimming around near South Africa, unevolved and unrepentant.)

So yes, it’s undeniable, even to unbelievers, that Freud is a psychological icon. The reason for this seems ironically to lie in the fact that his theories are resistant to scientific testing – the other side of this coin being that they are difficult to refute definitively. So, my essay might plot Freud’s star from its zenith through its wilderness years and to its recent tentative, gentle ascendancy. With Maria’s help, I have found a possible angle. I can be an artisan needlewoman rather than a sweatshop labourer. And I suspect I may have infected her with a grudging respect for the grand old father of psychoanalysis.

Onward!

Monday, 26 February 2007

Nailing jelly to the ceiling

An inconvenient truth about evaluating a theory is that before one starts the evaluation, one must have a fairly clear idea about what said theory comprises (so far my evaluation goes; "Freud kept changing his mind"). With respect to this project, I keep thinking I have a handle on what's been said, but the next minute it has all gone. Has it been repressed, I wonder?! No, no. I'm getting there. The mists are clearing.

There comes a point in every research journey I make when things sort of boil over and I have to put pencil to paper before I can carry on reading. Yesterday, I was explaining this to a friend. "You're gestating," she said, "this is the equivalent of a Braxton Hicks contraction." I wouldn't know, but from where I'm sitting it feels more like motion sickness or gastric 'flu. Vomit and everything feels great. Until next time, that is.

So, today I sat down and attempted to rid myself of all those niggly little half-formed thoughts about Freudian theory. As I wrote I thought that the idea of libido sounds remarkably similar to an acupuncturist's idea of Qi. It's a mysterious energy flowing through the living organism, conferring that essential 'thingness'. Or is it just attention? The child discovers its mouth first, then as its neurons wire up it finds its anus, and then...jackpot! Genitalia!

Libido or attention? Did Freud himself really know? Aaaarrgghhhh...

Friday, 23 February 2007

A question about developmental theory

Questions are beginning to bubble up - a good sign!

Developmental psychology really isn't my forte, so I'd like to toss the following questions out for your consideration.

In the reading I've been doing, I have often encountered the idea that there is no way of subjecting Freud's theory of personality development to scientific testing. I can see this. To perform the appropriate series of experiments it would be necessary to study a control population (eg. one where potty training is a relaxed, timely affair) with populations where the variable under examination is manipulated by the experimenter (eg. early, strict potty training and in a third population a complete failure to potty train). Any ethics committee worth its salt would object to the kind of study where the end result might be an individual suffering from a crippling neurosis.

But it seems to me that it might be possible to find a relatively homogenous culture where potty training is done early and then carry out a longitudinal study on these individuals, measuring their 'anality' at regular intervals over a twenty year period. This could be compared with a culture less concerned with early anal mastery. After all, even though longitudinal studies are an epic undertaking, they have been done. They're a useful tool in the developmental psychologist's goody bag.

Why aren't accusations of untestability levelled at other developmental theories? Is it because they don't claim to be making a strong causal link, whereas Freud did make such a claim?

Am I being hopelessly naive?

What does personality mean to you?

You may already have been following the excellent discussion appended to my blog post ‘On personality’. It concerns our ideas and experiences of personality.

Some psychologists, it seems, are happy to devote themselves to the statistical analysis of pre-defined traits such as neuroticism, extraversion and openness to experience. Some, like Freud (and indeed modern cognitive psychologists), recognise the importance of unconscious experience.

Does the concept of personality have room for the idea of a ‘true nature’? Is it a constant entity, or does it change over time?

And then there’s the question of what personality might be for. Does it help us move away from or cope with unpleasure? Or perhaps it’s an evolutionary adaptation with a more basic survival function. Or even (gasp), like the Grand Canyon, it's just...there.

What do you think? Come on, let rip. Remember: all ideas are good ideas.

Freud & personality notes 2

I went through my last set of notes before doing any more reading and tried to set out the questions in my mind before this study session. Then I looked for reference books that seemed to have answers to them. The questions were:

  1. What exactly are the respective functions of ego, superego and id?
  2. I tried to read the article about repression as a coping style but didn’t really understand repression. So, I need to clarify that.The books keep talking about libido. What is it exactly? I mean, in this context?
  3. Ditto fixation.How literally did Freud mean us to take his structural model?
  4. Did Freud think latency was purely the product of sexually repressive culture? Or is there more to it?

Notes taken from chapters 2&3 of Beneath the Mask –
an introduction to theories of personality
(7th edn, 2003) by
Christopher F Monte and Robert N Sollod. Published by John Wiley & Sons.

Browsing in the ‘personality’ section of the library, I chose this book because it devotes a relatively large amount of space to Freud’s case studies and theory. It’s also dead simple and quite enjoyable to read. For those with time and interest, the authors explain the rationale
behind the development of Freud’s theory and show how it evolved from clinical practice. Usually I do my reading and note-taking in short bursts, but I ended up spending a solid four hours with this book, despite the fact that it has a strange odour. I have a feeling I’ll be going back to it.

Structure of personality (from p110):

(except, from p97) Freud’s final structural model, which did not include the concepts of the unconscious and preconscious. [1923 The ego and the id. In Vol XIX of The Standard Edition. London: Hogarth 1961]

The Id – where drives and instincts reside, ‘a cauldron of fury’, the Id strives to gain immediate satisfaction of its urges (three doughnuts! Now!)

The ego – actually a specialized portion of the id! Its role is to steer a safe course through reality and to maintain satisfactory relations with the world (how about one doughnut followed by a session on the stairmaster? That way your hipsters won’t look gross.) Looking at my first set of notes, I can see that ego supposedly arises during the anal phase, so probably along with parental demand for potty training.

From p104: when the ego recognizes its own weakness (hello? Is the ego sentient, then? confusing) in carrying out its often overwhelming task, anxiety results.

  • Realistic anxiety – the result of fear of the external world
  • Neurotic anxiety – fear of being overwhelmed by the id
  • Moral anxiety – fear of the superego’s disapproval

The superego – ‘the heir of the Oedipal complex’. Arises by the age of five or six (during phallic phase) from renounced Oedipal desires (dad, I can’t have you because you belong to mum by rights). Is the moral or ethical arm of personality, and is the definitive arbiter in matters of ego-id relations.

From p111: “The power of the id expresses the true purpose of the individual organism’s life.” [Freud, 1940, p148 of An outline of psychoanalysis. In Vol XXIII of The Standard Edition. London: Hogarth, 1964.]

Libido (p 57) – the sexual/sensual energy which motivates our passage through the psychosexual stages.

Repression (of libido) from p40. Active amnesia with the purpose of avoiding the intense anxiety caused by the experience of wishes/impulses/thoughts unacceptable to the individual’s
conscious ethical standards. Resistance to recall is cited as evidence for the motivation of this kind of forgetting. Of course, even though they’re out of conscious awareness, these responses continue to exert an influence – the return of the repressed. [Freud 1910 p24 of The psychoanalytic view of psychogenic disturbance of vision. In Vol XII of The Standard Edition. London: Hogarth 1957]

Repression is one of a range of defences (p 67) or psychological mechanisms by which anxiety-provoking material is kept out of awareness. So I guess the anxiety is caused by the superego’s ‘disapproval’ of our id-feelings and the ego aims to intervene to spare us that anxiety.

Fixation (of libido) p60 may occur at any of Freud’s psychosexual stages. One lags behind the normal developmental calendar, stuck in one of the psychosexual stages. Smooth progression through the stages towards maturity involves the timely renunciation of the dominant pleasures associated with each phase, eg. smearing and playing with faeces in the anal
stage. A child may submit to toilet training while still harbouring a libidinal connection with these pleasures, and may therefore exhibit ‘anal’ characteristics in adulthood.

The anal personality in adulthood is characterized by orderliness thriftiness and obstinacy (or perhaps their polar opposites?). Freud hypothesised that a common pattern of experiences occurred during the anal stage of all adults who exhibit exaggerated versions of these traits. NB: he didn’t observe potty training at first hand, but based his theory on the patients’ own accounts, which strikes me as something of a potential flaw.

Hard science bit: (p109) Freud’s anal personality type is apparently supported by factor analysis. Also, apparently is the concept of an orally dependent personality type prone to the use of repression and denial as dominant defence mechanisms. [Fisher, S & Greenberg, RP
(1996) Freud scientifically reappraised: Testing the theories and therapy.
New York: John Wiley and Sons]

Regression (of libido) p60 is a return to an earlier stage’s predominant mode of response, a primitivisation of behaviour in order to avoid anxiety. For example, a child beginning school may resort to the long-abandoned behaviour of thumb-sucking. Fixation and regression are related;
the more intense the libidinal investment at early stages of development, the more susceptible that individual will be to regression. [Freud, S (1916) p. 339-341, Introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. In Vols XV and VI of The Standard Edition. London: Hogarth, 1961 & 1963]

The structural model (p97) Freud saw personality as a composite, with the different processes operating as separate entities, sometimes functioning autonomously, even while interacting. (p112) “Persons are partitioned systems powered by biological energies.” So we can see these partitions as functional categories which were reified to a greater or lesser extent to aid the communication of Freud’s ideas.

Latency (p 57) Freud thought it was biologically determined, but strengthened by the kind of social prohibition which was the norm at the time. [1905, p177-178, Three essays on the theory of sexuality. In Vol VII of The Standard Edition. London: Hogarth, 1953]

Thursday, 22 February 2007

Gathering evidence

When I was first learning how to go about writing academic essays, I felt very confused. There seemed to be a lot of advice to follow. Eventually, my thought processes collapsed under the pressure of confusion. I lay on the floor and watched a woodlouse creep across the boards, its little legs undulating. Then a disembodied voice said, “whenever you make an assertion, you must support it with evidence.” That was enough to get me started. My essay (Leonardo da Vinci as anatomist, in case you were wondering) began to be born.

The WriteNow / AssessmentPlus criteria agree with my friendly discarnate being. ‘Using evidence’ is number two in the list, stating that essays should make,
“…use of externally sourced material, such as research findings, facts, quotations, or other forms of information. Good essays include information from outside sources that backs up the points made in the essay. Better essays explicitly highlight or interpret the evidence to support a more general claim or idea or point being made in the essay.”

In order to satisfy this criterion, it seems to me that it’s crucial (as others have suggested here) to allow enough time to carry out research and become familiar enough with relevant work. As you have seen, I like to begin with two or three general texts, whose overview helps me to begin an adversarial relationship with the ideas I will be evaluating in my assignment. I use these to understand the key issues and formulate some sort of central thesis for my essay, which tends to be primitive at first and hopefully grows in sophistication as my research progresses. At the moment, for example, it seems that my thesis goes something like, ‘Received wisdom would have me believe that Freud’s theory of personality has been discredited, and indeed it sounds quite wacky. But the more I read, the more alive Freudian theory seems. After all, his work suggested functional structures which he hoped would one day be mapped to the living brain. We probably now have the technology to investigate this – so what is being done?

I am still at the stage of using general texts to orient myself, typing my notes into this blog. But soon I’ll be reading research papers and maybe even tackling some of Freud’s actual writings (he was prolific, so I’ll need to choose carefully). I am also in search of perspectives - other than neurophysiological, sociocultural or methodological - from which to evaluate this theory of personality. So far, so good. And it’s fun!

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Freud & personality notes 1

Notes taken from p.491-497 of Complete Psychology (2004) Edited by Graham Davey published by Hodder & Stoughton

Is personality a conscious or an unconscious phenomenon?

At times our responses surprise and even shock us. This has a ring of truth for me, thinking of a sudden and short lived fear of flying I developed in the late 1990s.

Psychodynamic approach – elements of the personality reside in the unconscious. Especially those parts which give rise to problem behaviour. Traumatic events can be forgotten and can still influence us. (Is it actually possible to prove that something truly forgotten is exerting an influence over our lives now? Might a patient manufacture a false memory to oblige their therapist, in which case nobody would be any the wiser?) So early or late weaning can cause ‘oral’ maladaptive behaviour – aka an oral fixation – such as smoking or excessive drinking. Also, over-dependence on others is allegedly another sign of this.

Psychodynamic theories of personality have emerged as the result of clinical practice.

Freud – called the father of psychoanalysis.

First person to suggest that unconscious activity not only influenced how our personalities manifest, but also their formation.

Unconscious mental processes start in infancy (primary processes) and are characterized by drives and impulses – so I’m guessing something like the infant’s rooting reflex. So they seem quite basic and primitive.

Secondary processes continue into adulthood – when we realize our impulses have to be attenuated to accommodate reality – so if I have that third Krispy Kreme my bum will be too lardy to fit into my jeans. This is ego function I’m guessing.

Freud thought of the mind as being like an iceberg with just the tip in conscious awareness. Seems reasonable – even hard scientists recognize this.

We also have a preconscious, which holds information like our telephone number. We can use attention to call up its contents.

Then the unconscious, two thirds of the iceberg, the Donald Rumsfeld mind – contains instincts and drives, childhood memories and stuff deliberately banned from consciousness (banned how? Superego?). Evidence for this is apparently ‘Freudian slips’ and dreams. Where does lucid dreaming fit into this scenario, though? It feels quite conscious, but is it really?

Line drawing of an iceberg on p. 494. Ego is shown as the conscious portion, above the water. Superego & id appear to constitute the unconscious below the waterline, with the id being the deep unconscious.

Personality is developed in early childhood via the negotiation of a series of psychosexual stages. In these, the focus of sensual pleasure shifts around the body.
Oral – first year after birth – mouth is the center of pleasure
Anal – during 2nd year – ego development. Conflict between child’s enjoying freedom of bowel movement and parental demands for potty training.
Phallic – 3-6 yo – superego development. focus of pleasure on genital region. Oedipal/electra conflict occurs.
Latency – from end of phallic stage to the onset of puberty – ego represses the sexual instinct internally, reinforced externally by adults’ embargo on matters sexual (the latter not always being a feature of life in the 21st century).
Genital - from puberty onwards, supposedly mature sexuality – under the influence of hormones, sexual impulses return and are once again focused on the genitals.

So actually our unique personalities are apparently caused by more or less catastrophic failures to navigate these stages properly. Hmmmm.

Evaluation

Plus:
Freud’s work provided the springboard for modern developmental psychology
Freud offered the first comprehensive personality theory
And his work stimulated the development of personality assessment techniques
He drew attention to the possible influences of the unconscious on the development & manifestation of personality
Myers (2000) offers some empirical support for repression as a coping strategy (find this article and read next)

Minus:
Work is out of date. His observations were the result of sociocultural artefact
Conclusions are based on a very unrepresentative sample
Psychodynamic theories are not open to testing by the scientific method (can this criticism be leveled at neuropsychological theories based on case studies? If not, why not?). It’s hard to conclusively refute or validate Freud’s assertions.Personality can change throughout the entire lifespan (the book asserts that ‘many psychologists’ claim this, but fails to state exactly who, when & where).

Active reading

As a child I used to laugh at my auntie Rose for talking to herself. She was completely unaffected by my mockery, maintaining that talking to oneself yielded the best answers. Later, when I encountered the concept of active reading, I thought of her. It seemed to me that one straightforward way of interrogating academic texts was to have a conversation with myself about the ideas encountered. This is something I really enjoy. Before I approach the reading, I like to focus my thoughts by forming some questions based on what I already know. I play devil’s advocate, trying to pick holes in established arguments and asking myself whether evidence cited in support or against of a particular viewpoint really does its job.

In this spirit, I have extracted some points from my earlier freewrite, and noted down my immediate responses. I’ll try and use my reading to answer the questions raised, and to formulate new ones. And of course, feel free to chip in with others. Here are my thoughts so far:

Freud thought that our personality was largely determined by what was going on in our unconscious. Did Freud really say this? Do I think it’s true or false, and to what extent?

Ego, id and superego. What does each of these supposedly do? Is there anything else to Freud’s model of personality? Can modern techniques such as functional neuroimaging give any support or rebuttal?

Dream. Yes, dreams are cited as evidence for a dynamic unconscious. What did Freud say was the role of dreams? Is this reasonable?

A lot of what he said was based on the study of very dysfunctional people living in an uptight society at quite a weird time in history. This contributes more power to the critics of Freud who call his theory unscientific. Is it a valid criticism?

we stretch the biological model to fart. Ho hum. Nice Freudian slip there. Of course it should say, ‘too far’. I’m not sure what I’m really saying here. Perhaps it’s something about the anatomical feel of Freud’s model here. It feels to me like morbid anatomy and not a living, healthy system. Maybe I want to know if other ways of seeing this, eg. artificial intelligence, can give us any insights.


So, to the library.

In praise of freewriting

I’ve been freewriting for quite a long time without knowing that freewriting is what it’s called. In fact, for a long time all of my writing was freewriting, unpolished and grasshopperish. Later, I began to see that there was quite a difference between the work of writers I esteemed and my rather more spontaneous outpourings. It appeared that the process of writing required two different levels of engagement: generativity and refinement. Here, we’re at the generativity stage, so I feel I have carte blanche to blether away as I see fit. At this point, every idea is a good idea.

Freewriting can either have a focus or none at all. It has only one real requirement, which is to keep writing without pause for a predetermined period of time. It’s a bit like being in the ocean, watching your thoughts form and then trying to set them down as they gather momentum then pass and break. In my experience the early morning, just after waking, is the best time for a bit of a freewrite. I did the one on the Wiki late at night, which was different but also had that familiar feeling of ebb and flow.

There are obvious and subtle benefits to this practice, I find. Really good ideas can come out of it, pegs on which to hang further research and thinking. But also, if you ever sit down to work and find yourself distracted by a background mutter of thinking and judgement (“oh, psychology is so difficult, why didn’t I listen to my careers teacher and become a dog groomer instead, there’s a funny smell in this library…” etc), freewriting can act as purgative to cleanse the mind and limber it up for study. If you’ve not tried it before, have a go. You’ll be both amazed at your creativity and amused by the daftness of what emerges, and surprised by how calm and energized you feel afterwards.

Just as a footnote, I’d like to add that when I began training as a writing mentor I learned that the term freewriting was coined by the eminent writing teacher Peter Elbow. He too recognizes that to create a piece of writing it’s necessary to go through two contrasting phases. For me, reading Elbow prompted a big existential exhalation. If you’re interested in the experience of writing, you’ll probably enjoy his books.

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Putting off the inevitable (or trying to)

Here and on our Wiki, the issue of procrastination has been mentioned a couple of times. This is definitely something I’ve experienced as a writer, although not in relation to this project. The quality and strength of our collaboration has really motivated me here. That’s a lesson we should probably take to heart.

Usually I am a very accomplished procrastinator. I often experience resistance to writing, and sometimes it’s very strong. Hoping to help, a friend once bought me a book on motivation written by a well-known psychologist. You’ve guessed it – I never got around to reading it. Mindful that this is a live issue for me, I won’t presume to offer any advice, but I would like to open the topic up for discussion by floating a few of my ideas.

I suppose there are two approaches we might take. The first is to use sheer willpower, tackling our resistance head on. There’s something to recommend this, although I do remember reading about experimental studies which suggest that willpower will only take the best of us so far. In terms of grit, I recognize that I’m probably lower down the continuum than nearer the top, so I generally favour a strategy which involves treating myself rather like a toddler with limited internal resources. In short, I bribe myself.

Each day, I decide what I want to do and what my reward will be. The reward should be in proportion to the task accomplished and administered soon after its completion. For example, today I wanted to finish editing a short story I am working on. This took me about an hour and a half, after which I sat down with a cup of coffee and two tracks by Gotan Project (yes, I know that’s technically two rewards, but I can make a coffee last for a very long time if I don’t have an additional regulating mechanism). Then, on to the next thing. It works for me.

A friend of mine, who responds well to routine, sits down to work at exactly the same time each day. In the spirit of the sports shoe advertisement, he doesn’t ever think about what he’s going to be doing, he just does it.

What do you do?

On personality

Some time ago, my study buddies and I were discussing the diverse nature of psychology as a discipline. Before beginning formal study, many of us had a preconception of psychology as particularly concerning the study of the individual psyche. Despite our course having the quality of an exciting odyssey taking us from the depths of the unconscious through to the crisp peaks of statistical analysis, many of us still thought of ‘real’ psychology as that which focused on us as individual beings. Perhaps this is because each of us cherishes our personal foibles. Bearing this in mind, we may feel less comfortable with approaches which seem to undermine this.

Central to the idea of each of us being unique and special is the concept of personality. It’s almost a universal truth that each of us has a distinct and different personality. We occasionally even say that some people have more of it than others. Used in this lay fashion, the idea of personality seems to make a lot of sense. Clearly, some of us are quiet, some of us loud, some humourous, some brave and so on. It seems to me that the idea of ‘character’ is quite similar to that of personality, as in, “Oooh, that Amy Winehouse is a real character.” When I was at school, the term character also had a particular overtone. It tended to mean something like moral fibre, the ability to withstand difficult circumstances. All fine so far. But what do scientifically trained psychologists mean by personality?

Well, as I recall, the 21st century scientific notion of personality is not so different from the lay one. It is more differentiated, in that personality is thought of as being composed of separate traits (how many there are depends on which theorist one consults). These traits are held to be relatively stable over time and in different situations. They can also be measured using a range of specialized statistical techniques. So, while it isn’t really possible in this model for one individual to have more personality than another, it is possible for them to score less or more on the measurement of one particular aspect of their personality than the next person. To illustrate this approach, many of us have become familiar by osmosis with the late Prof Hans Eysenck’s personality scale. He conceptualized personality as consisting of a blend of characteristics along three axes: introverson-extraversion, neuroticism-stability, and psychoticism.

Freud did not view personality in this way. His work was unscientific in that it was based on case studies rather than the objective evaluation of large numbers of individuals. However, my suspicion (also wholly unscientific) is that as a neurologist, Freud did pave the way for a scientific understanding of personality. But we’ll find out more over the next couple of weeks.

I don’t feel that I can stop here without mentioning social psychology. Interestingly, social psychologists tend to attribute behaviour to circumstance rather than any inherent qualities of personality. Although there is plenty of experimental evidence to support this, I still find the notion unsettling. Are we really grasses bending in the wind of circumstance? Is stability of personality an illusion perpetuated by our unwillingness to place ourselves in a wide range of situations? Wiser people than I struggle to answer these questions. At least one bright aspect of the social psychology approach for me is that it emphasizes our common humanity.

Monday, 19 February 2007

A change of tack

Much to my distress, I recently learned that the essay title I have been addressing was one set as an upcoming assignment by another UK educational establishment. I was even more distressed to realize that this was a rather surreal case of my having been briefly exposed to their material and then, when I was researching a suitable assignment to use here, having it pop up in my thoughts as my own creation.

My intention in starting this experiment was to help fellow academic writers rather than to make life more difficult for them, so I have decided to make a complete change of topic. Since I haven’t so much as glanced at or discussed material relating to the new topic for over a year – other than to carry out a brief online search of the relevant terms – I’m satisfied that this new question, ‘Evaluate Freud’s theory of personality’ is my original creation. Of course, it’s original within the parameters of being a fairly generic instruction and a subject widely studied, but I hope at least that it won’t pose an ethical problem for any of the visitors to these sites or their students/tutors.

The new topic clearly has much in common with the old one. It demands much the same approach from the student, and for me has the additional bonus of being even more baffling. Studying personality has been surprising and confusing for me, and many of the related topics are complex and contentious. So it seems like a good area for us to tackle together.

I of course apologise to everyone who has been directly inconvenienced, and also to those of you with a special interest in cognitive psychology. I hope you will continue to visit and contribute, motivated by an interest in the writing process if not by a love of the subject discussed. I’ll begin work on the new title tonight, and of course my rather chastening experience provides an opportunity for you to share your thoughts on the whole issue of originality (already touched upon by Alina, one of our fellow collaborators – see our exchange on the Wiki’s front page).

Naturally, I’ve been thinking a lot about originality. Exactly what actions can be said to violate another’s intellectual property? How can we safeguard against unintentional plagiarism, perpetrated when we have no awareness that we’ve learned rather than originated something? Indeed, given the nature of the problem, is this kind of prevention possible at all? I believe that these are burning questions for everybody who writes, since we emphatically desire to produce fresh, original work. I look forward to hearing what you have to say.

Finally, another change of tack for us will be the way in which I use the facilitating technology. It has been pointed out to me that most of the contributions received have been to the blog rather than the Wiki. It was therefore suggested that I publish my notes, thoughts and reflections on the blog, saving the Wiki for coherent pieces of writing. I think this is a great idea, and will hopefully enable more of you to add your ideas and responses with the minimum of fuss.

Saturday, 17 February 2007

The benefits of doing nothing

Admittedly, it's really quite boring for any audience a writer might have, but sometimes, for many and varied reasons, it becomes necessary to disengage briefly from a project and just leave it alone. Regular visitors may have noticed that this is what I'm doing right now. Don't worry, I'll be back again next week.

Please note, though, that doing nothing is only an option for those who have made an early start. I know well (oh, so well) that it is tempting for students to procrastinate until the night before a deadline and then panic. At best, writing under those conditions is uncomfortable. Sometimes we suspect that the lecture or seminar dealing with the topic of our assignment will clear the mists sufficiently for work to begin, so we wait until then. In my experience, this is usually a misguided assumption. We lose valuable thinking and research time while we wait for someone else to come along and solve our problems, and that isn't what university is all about. Of course seminars and lectures are helpful, but there's no getting away from the fact that they are most helpful to those who have also done their own active reading. Especially after the first year of undergraduate study.

The take-home message from this post: get an early start, at least in thinking. It's much more comfortable, gives you a fair chance of sorting out any difficulties you might encounter, grants you extra editing time, and, don't forget, lets you do nothing for a while if you need to.

Wednesday, 14 February 2007

Praise and blame, those two impostors

Happy valentine’s day! As I sit here awaiting delivery of my dozen red roses (not a big ask as they’re only six quid from Tesco, hint hint) I feel it would be topical to touch upon matters of the heart. More specifically, the emotional aspects of getting feedback from our readership.

I do a lot of non-academic writing. Some of it is private writing, but much of it is intended for a wider audience. Although I’ve been writing for a long time, it is only recently that I have managed to use feedback really constructively.

Part of the block in my feedback loop has been to do with the difficulty of the writing process. Yes, writing is pretty difficult, even for those who are much garlanded. It’s not something that one can ever nail definitively. For a long time, I recently realized, I was unconsciously wedded to the idea that my readers should somehow recognize this and praise me for it. Of course, unless my reader happened to be a close friend or my mum, this usually didn’t happen. I was quite adept at dismissing critical feedback by thinking things like, “Oh, this person obviously doesn’t at all get where I’m coming from. I’m going to show it to somebody more simpatico.” When in fact it’s my job as a writer to place my readers in a position whereby it’s crystal clear where I’m coming from. And a reader is of course only interested in the quality of their reading experience.

It seems to me now that previously I wasn’t able to utilize my readers’ experience to improve things because I was too attached to the notion of praise and averse to the sting of criticism. But it gradually became clear to me that by ignoring my readers’ responses, I had become a pointless onanist among writers.

Now when I write, I try not to fall in love with any particular part of my output (I notice that self-indulgence in a writer is never a pretty spectacle). Nor do I seek to give credence to any pejorative feelings which may arise. I just sit there, scribbling, and allow those emotions to wither, ignored. Writing for me is no longer about seeking emotional peaks and avoiding troughs, but about the need to communicate what’s important. If someone criticizes me, I try to respect their experience and use their wisdom. My writing doesn’t come any more easily as a result of this change in perspective, but its quality has improved a lot.

As a final note, I have found university tutors to be generally benign and helpful readers whose feedback is easy to use.

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Critically evaluate...

It’s difficult for me to truly critically evaluate scholarly ideas. Feedback from my tutors tells me that I sometimes achieve this quite well, and at other times less so. It’s rather hit-and-miss.

This could well be due to some aspect of my personality, or it could be because I have a human psyche. Lack of critical faculty seems to be the default human condition, which I find quite touching. What makes me suspect this? I did a psychological experiment a while ago using the Wason selection test. It was a replication of a fascinating study which demonstrated that the majority of people seek to test a rule by confirmation rather than the correct approach of attempting to disconfirm it. So it seems that for many of us, the art of critique must be consciously acquired.

This is important for us as essay writers, because, you’ve guessed it, evidence of critical engagement is one of the criteria by which our work is assessed. The Assessment Plus/Write Now criteria formally state that students should be:

“Determining the value, significance, strengths and/or weaknesses of something (e.g., research findings, theory, methodological approach, policy, another’s argument or interpretation). Good essays contain evaluative assertions or descriptive points about the strengths and weaknesses of elements referred to in the essay. Better essays contain systematic, reasoned explanations for the evaluative points being made”.

So, to rise in our tutors’ esteem, we should not only say how good a particular idea is, but exactly why we find it to be so. This suggests to me that I really need to get down and dirty with the material.

Actually I do have a me-specific issue with this, related to my being rather over-impressed by authority. My erstwhile boss once told me that the word gullible had been deleted from the dictionary and I believed him. Having been told this, you will appreciate the extent to which criticising a published concept doesn’t come naturally to me. So I try hard to think up alternative models and sharp critiques ahead of encountering the ones in the textbooks. At best it provides me with some material I can adapt for use in my essay, and at worst it wakes me up to the need to question everything I read. I always write out my ideas and alternatives as a letter to myself. It hits the spot and allows me some level of critical involvement before I am totally lost in admiration for Philip Zimbardo or whoever. There is also the fringe benefit of enabling me to satisfy my craving for originality. Parroting received wisdoms just isn't nourishing.

Having touched upon the idea of a critically engaged dialogue, I was wondering which of you out there (students and teachers) finds specimen essays to be useful. Like the assessors, I’d be especially interested in the reasons for your position.

Erratum - assessment criteria

In my post on question analysis, I attributed authorship of the assessment criteria I am using to London Metropolitan University. This is incorrect, and I'd like to let you all know that in fact they belong to Assessment Plus / Write Now.

Sorry to have unintentionally misled.

Monday, 12 February 2007

Question analysis

"To forget one's purpose is the commonest form of stupidity".

Good old Nietzsche; blunt as ever.

This observation is especially apposite to the task of essay writing. It is almost too obvious to state that our primary purpose when we write an assignment is to address the title. Unsurprisingly, 'addressing the question' tops the list of London Met’s core assessment criteria for essays, more specifically, 'the relevance of the content of the essay to the question or title set'. I quote,

"Good essays select relevant material (knowledge, concepts, interpretation, theoretical models, others’ perspectives). Better essays make it clear throughout how the material is relevant to the question".

Yet in the time I’ve been working as a writing mentor, a large proportion of students have brought me essays which either tangentially address the question or which answer a completely different (usually unstated) one. I’ve done it myself, too. Often.

Since I know that meandering from the true path is a strong tendency of mine, I take decisive steps to nip it in the bud at an early stage. What you see on this page of the Wiki is the first strike in a two-pronged attack. I find that writing down this kind of very simplistic, na├»ve analysis of the question helps me hover my attention over the appropriate areas while I do my research (I picture my attention as a small helicopter, one with a transparent bubble cockpit). This is very helpful when the chaotic process of generating ideas is at its zenith. Even in the most extreme mess, I never lose sight of what it is I’m supposed to be doing.


What I wonder is whether this sort of wandering off the point is common when students are routinely required to generate their own assignment title. Here in the UK, the same title is usually set for all students on a particular course. There is something a bit contrived about this, I feel, and it does seem to be an idea which guarantees a greater than necessary level of pain and boredom for students and markers. So, a question: in North America, where I understand it is the norm for students to develop their own assignment titles, is failing to address the question a significant problem?

Sunday, 11 February 2007

Cognitive psychology

Since many of you are, I expect, more interested in writing than in cognitive psychology, I thought I’d try and say a little something here to explain what the discipline entails. I’ve been thinking about how best to represent it, and it is quite tricky to pin down. This difficulty adds a little frisson, I find, and turns a straightforward task into an irresistible challenge! I’m sure that the account which follows will have all kinds of holes in it, so as ever this is your chance to step up to the plate and fill in the gaps.

In a nutshell, cognitive psychology is the scientific study of the normal mind engaged in everyday experience. Cognitive psychologists are interested in universal phenomena like visual perception, object recognition, attention, expertise, decision making, how we experience time, language, and – germane to our evolving essay – memory. Certain professional sub-groups, though, (for example cognitive neuropsychologists) are more usually concerned with examining abnormalities in these processes.

What exactly do I mean when I say that cognitive psychologists make a scientific study of the mind? The descriptor scientific denotes a particular approach, one facet of which is the preference for selecting one process for study in isolation from the others. So although attention, memory, perception etc are simultaneously operating in all of us, the cognitive psychologist will focus on their preferred system to the exclusion of the others. The scientific nature of the discipline also manifests in the investigative tools of the trade, namely controlled experimentation (on non-human animals as well as people), imaging studies, physiological measurement, and using computers to simulate cognition. These computer models can then be tested against ‘real-world’ cognition.

Speaking generally, scientists aim to make observations which can then be used to predict the behaviour of systems and their components. They also often aim to use these rules to influence systems. This last point has a slightly sinister ring to it, which is the reason for the existence of ethical codes, especially in psychology. But that’s a whole other topic.

My first brush with cognitive psychology was unnerving but compelling in a scab-picking sort of way. I never imagined there was so much stuff happening in me and, more outrageously, without my conscious knowledge! I had previously enjoyed thinking of myself as a fairly self-aware person, but it seemed that this concept could no longer stand. The portion of cognition I was aware of appeared to be the tip of a huge, sinister iceberg. Things weren’t as they seemed. After a while, I stopped panicking and started getting curious. I began to wonder what it is that makes us like this. By and large, I’m still wondering. And since much of cognition is safely buried away from conscious access, there’s an awful lot to wonder about.

Saturday, 10 February 2007

First thoughts

Here I am, spoiling the virgin blankness of this blog with my first post. Appropriately enough, I thought I'd share a few reflections on getting going.

Beginning a project has always been a big deal for me. I know this is also true for other writers. I invariably experience a mixture of difficult feelings when faced with a blank page or a new notebook, a mixture in which anxiety usually features strongly. At various times in the past I have been completely paralysed by this potent emotional cocktail. When this happens, I know that it's useless to push myself. I usually like to go away and do something physical (fast walking is good, as is kneading bread dough). If time is short and deadlines loom, though, I take a tip from Nobel laureate Janet Frame, who, when faced with seemingly intractable writers' block, resorted to typing "the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog" again and again. Since I usually write my early drafts in longhand, I just make any kind of mark on the paper. Gradually, I begin to write a few sentences. Sooner or later I realise that I am no longer very anxious, and can focus my attention on the task in hand. I have successfully broken the menacing spell of the blank page and I'm ready to start for real. Incidentally, Ms Frame claims that she spent whole days churning out typing exercises before she managed to actually start writing meaningful prose, which is rather reassuring to we of lesser talent.

In case you're wondering, this is what I'm trying to achieve by blethering on here. Some kind of start. I have a theory that successful writers are people who combine an awareness of quality with a very high tolerance for imperfection. They know more or less what they want to achieve, but don't go off in a mighty strop if it can't be done at once or with absolute perfection. Like a WW2 prisoner of war engaged in an escape attempt, they make a start and just keep tunnelling.