Sunday, October 25, 2009

Living In La-La Land

Sit in reverie and watch the changing color
of the waves that break upon
the idle seashore of the mind.
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—

If all humans daydream, why is it seen in such a negative light? Why is something so easy and natural seen as a waste of time? How can something so universal to the average human be considered pathological?

It appears that daydreaming can have real benefits:

  • It can make us feel active and energetic by relieving boredom.
  • It can be similar to meditation by activating our parasympathetic nervous system.
  • It might help us be more aware of who we are.
  • It may be a key for researchers in understanding consciousness.
  • It can organize our conflicts into meaningful solutions.
  • It helps to enhance social skills and relationships.
  • It appears to be a wellspring for creativity.

I was trying to daydream, but my mind kept wandering.
—Steven Wright—

One of the first psychologists to scientifically study daydreaming is a retired Yale professor. Dr. Jerome Singer surveyed many different groups of people and found that most people’s daydreams are quite ordinary and not at all unusual. Dr. Singer’s book, The Inner World of Daydreaming, discovered that often daydreaming was a way for the brain to map out goals and doubts. Daydreaming as mental rehearsal can actually help you to be more effective in dealing with what is to come in the days ahead.

I remember years ago working with a woman whose husband was an NFL quarterback playing for a team that had surprisingly made it to the Superbowl. The other team was odds on to win the game easily. However, just the opposite happened. The underdog won the Superbowl game much to everyone’s amazement. Much of the credit went to this quarterback who had the best game of his career. He later told me that he had spent about twenty-four hours prior to the game thinking about nothing but throwing perfect passes. His "perfect" passing, which was not one of his strong points, carried his team to victory.

Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my
accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway
from sunrise till noon, rapt in reverie.
—Henry David Thoreau—

The amount of daydreaming varies a lot from person to person. Some people daydream as seldom as 5 times a day while others might daydream over 175 times a day. One finding of researchers is that people who daydream more than the average person tend to remember more content from their dreams at night.

Creative people also tend to daydream more than the average person. Daydreaming is usually a stream of consciousness that randomly moves from topic to topic. This randomness combined with high frequency is one of the determinants of creativity.

Every child knows how to daydream.
But many, perhaps most,
lose the capacity as they grow up.
—Dov Frohman—

It seems that daydreaming happens more often when we are bored or have no need to focus on the task at hand. How does this information apply to the real world? Some psychologists believe that we might be stifling creativity in our children by over programming their time. One study found that children who watch television at least three hours a day are less imaginative than children who watch only one hour a day. Of course, this study does not tell us which is the chicken and which is the egg.

The increasing use of drugs for children decreases daydreaming. For example, children with ADHD who are taking Ritalin are less creative than ADHD children who are not taking Ritalin. On the other hand, people with severe ADHD may daydream so much that they cannot focus on simple but necessary tasks.

"If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician.
I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music.
I see my life in terms of music.
... I get most joy in life out of music."
—Albert Einstein—

What drives the brain to daydream. It seems that daydreaming and night dreaming have something in common. It is a time when the brain assimilates the millions of data bits it continually receives. It must make sense of this chaotic, rambling information and does so during sleep and daydreaming. As with night dreaming, daydreaming helps the brain to solve problems and connect seemingly unconnected pieces of information. This latter function is what creativity is all about — finding the new by connecting pieces of the old. Various studies have shown that highly creative people from Albert Einstein to Walt Disney spent a lot of time daydreaming.

Active daydreaming can help us overcome personal problems. I had a therapy client who came to me because he had become sexually impotent in his marriage. This was before Viagra so we had to find a non-medical solution to his problem. His job was demanding and also involved a lot of daily driving. We found that during these drives, he spent a lot of time daydreaming about this problem and the negative effect it was having on his marriage. Wondering if changing the focus of his daydreaming would work, I asked him if he would like to spend his mental down time daydreaming about seducing and making love to his wife. His answer was not surprising. After doing this assignment not only faithfully but with gusto, he called me back in two weeks and told me he and his wife were having the best sex of their lives.

Reverie is not a mind vacuum.
It is rather the gift of an hour
which knows the plenitude of the soul.
—Gaston Bachelard—

It appears that there is a place in the brain called the "executive network." This area of the brain acts like a switchboard by combining the activity of different brain structures. This network is more sophisticated in adults than in children because it is not fully formed and operational until the early to mid-twenties. Neuropsychologist Dr. Karen Spangenberg Postal claims that we now know enough about this area of the brain so that parents can actually learn how to increase their children’s academic performance.

You can also use daydreaming to help yourself. Since you may already daydream, on average, about one-third of your waking day, why not use it to your advantage? The first step is to reinterpret the value of daydreaming. Instead of seeing it as a sign of laziness or time-wasting, view it as a way to enhance the quality of your life. Once you have given yourself permission to daydream, you no longer have to feel guilty for doing so. After this, you can anticipate and look forward to times of daydreaming. Some people actually schedule daydreaming times – these times can be as short as a few minutes to as long as you want. One final word. Let yourself get lost in your daydreams so that you are the passenger, not the driver. Some research has found that people who are not aware of the daydreaming content can be more creative than people who actively monitor their daydreams.

Thought is the labor of the intellect,
reverie is its pleasure.
—Victor Hugo—

Happy dreaming.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Have a New Husband by Friday

The title of this book is enough to make any woman (and a few men) grab this book off the shelf and start browsing. Psychologist Kevin Leman has written thirty-two previous books for improving relationships between parents and children and husbands and wives. This latest book’s title follows his book for Moms called Have a New Kid by Friday. The subtitle of this book review tells you that you can "change his attitude, behavior & communication in 5 days."

The information in this book is not new but is presented in an engaging, down-home way as if he were in your living room chatting with you over a cup of coffee. The basis of his advice is what we all know to be the extraordinary differences between men and women. He begins by admitting straight up that men and women are different "species." This information is based on not only his decades of clinical work but the enormous research about brain differences between men and women.

His opening salvo will grab most wives immediately. Your husband can’t find the mustard in the refrigerator even when you tell him where it is. Eventually you "sweep" into the kitchen, open the refrigerator and quickly find the mustard. Dr. Leman then asks the rhetorical question, "Why is it that women always win at the lost and found game anyway?"

Every expert on marriage has emphasized that the secret to a successful marriage is communication. In the early days of marital psychology it was assumed that if a man could listen and talk like a woman everything would be just fine. The problem with earlier pronouncements on what makes a marriage tick is that these solutions were presented as obvious self-truths. Eventually, psychology used its scientific skills to study the matter. The pioneering work of psychologist John Gottman in Washington discovered that the key to better relationships is mutual respect. This seems self-evident but the irony is that communication between men and women can get in the way of respect.

Showing your husband respect is basically the core of Dr. Leman’s book, namely that respect trumps communication. That doesn’t mean communication is not important, it certainly is vital to a dynamic and healthy relationship. It’s just that women and men have such drastically different communication styles. Women need to share what they are feeling and are masters at minute details. When men are the recipient of this communication style, our eyes glaze over in about two minutes. When men begin to tune out, women feel they are not respected but then often turn around and respond in ways that are not respectful to their mates.

Men only want the facts and necessary information so that we can figure out things for ourselves. It’s not that we are aversive to details because we are not. Our details make women’s eyes glaze over. A man can get a woman antsy and looking at the clock in a few minutes as we recite the details of a baseball batter’s statistics or the details of an exotic sports car.

Because the communication of feelings is so important women need many friends to do this with. This seems perfectly natural to women. Consequently, they do not understand why we have fewer friends than they do. My wife is continually puzzled that I have "so few close male friends." For many of us men, our friendships are on a different plane.

Men don’t need to talk to each other every day — or even every week or month. We know our buddies are there for us if we need them and don’t need to constantly validate this fact. We men can have many acquaintances but few if any really close buddies. Dr. Leman echoes the experience of many men when he says, "As a guy, I call myself fortunate to have one really good friend..."

We enjoy activities with our male friends which may or may not include talking. We may talk about our troubles but in a way that is different from the "trouble talk" of women. I’m currently getting hassled by my insurance company about getting a fair reimbursement rate for the claim on my totaled car. When I "share" this with my male friends, the only emotion that presents itself is anger. We guys are good at talking about anger, but not so good at talking about disappointment, hurt, and vulnerability.

Dr. Leman reminds us that "Our brains are different, our body chemicals are different, our emotions are different, and we see life from completely different angles." He briefly reviews the research showing us how female and male brains operate so differently. The one that comes up often in the book is how well women can multitask and on well men can stay focused on the job in front of them. Both of these abilities have their assets and deficits but when they appear in a relationship, they can make a relationship volatile in a flash.

In a way, men are simpleminded so we tend to like to have a "job." We understand a job and we know how to focus on it. We don’t need to talk about it or if we do it is goal oriented about the job at hand. When men are complemented on doing something outstanding, our common reaction is that we "were only doing our job."

One of the most dangerous marital myths, says Dr. Leman, came out of the women’s movement when it insisted that men need to be more like women. Many women in the latter half of the twentieth century insisted that apart from out physical makeup, men and women are basically alike. As we now know the vast amount of evidence simply does not support this idea. Yet, Dr. Leman is an equal opportunity finger pointer by reminding men that if they had truly been doing their job correctly this crusade of emotional equality may never have had to take place.

So, if we are that different how can we ever live together harmoniously? Women are masters at relationships while men are as "dumb as mud." Consequently, females need to train us men in how to make a marriage work. Does this mean the author puts all the blame and responsibility for a healthy relationship on women? Not at all. He says this idea that women are the leaders and trainers is based on the notion that each person in a working group should be put in charge of those duties at which they excel.

This seems like a recipe for failure. After all, if men are so clueless when it comes to female relationships how can they change if these deficits are hard-wired? Dr. Leman cleverly tells women it is only a two-step process: (1) find out how men’s brains work and (2) use this knowledge to get them to perform new tricks. To begin this process, every women needs to know four simple pieces of information:
  1. He wants to be a good husband.
  2. He wants to please you.
  3. But he doesn’t know how to do that.
  4. He needs your help.
Later in the book, the author acknowledges that some men do not fit this template. Men who are abusive or men who have severe emotional problems may not be capable of changing. The question then becomes what to do. Not surprisingly, this issue is taken up later on in the book.

The foundation for having a new husband in the blink of an eye is to know and understand what your husband really wants from you. Often we men don’t even know this, so how can we be expected to tell you what we don't know? We don’t have to because the book spells it out in detail. In case you are wondering if I would share this explosive information with you, here it is.
  • Men need to be respected
  • Men need to be needed
  • Men need to be fulfilled.
The rest of the book walks you through each of these concepts by giving many examples of how to use these three principles. A man’s need for respect exists at all levels of society. When I have worked occasionally with teens and young men who have been in trouble with the law, they will often say trouble begins when someone does or says something to make them feel disrespected.

So how do you respect your mate? You do this by accepting a man’s limitations and emphasizing his strengths. We are not good at trying to figure out the important things you are saying to us because you give us too much detail. We need the facts, the headlines. We also get confused when you tell us your troubles because we want to fix it. If you have a problem, our brain immediately goes into fix-it mode so we stop listening. As a woman, you can sense this instantly, so you may try harder to give us more information thereby overloading our brain that is now focused on fixing your problem.

Our strength is we really want to love you but the only way we know how to show this is by doing things for you. Our competitive nature screws this up by thinking that bigger is better. We don’t get it that leaving you a short love note after we head off to work can be more important than blowing several hundred dollars on a dinner at an expensive restaurant.

I cannot do justice to how all of this plays out in the book. You need to get it, read it, study it and use it. None of the skills in the book are beyond the abilities of any women. Women are powerful (as compared to men) in a relationship but they often don’t know how best to use this power.

From personal experience, I can tell women that if you use the suggestions in this book, you will have your man more willing to meet your needs. Because of our emotional blindness, we may not even know we have changed. We will probably think you have made a dramatic turnaround yourself when all you have done is tweak a few knobs and twiddled a few dials in our very simple brain.

What might your result be from following the advice from this book? Perhaps this was best summed in a novel written in 1859. The famous novelist, Mary Anne Evans (better known as George Eliot), wrote a romantic novel called Adam Bede. In Book Six, Chapter 54, Adam and Dina pledge their love for each and seal it with a kiss. George Eliot then comments on the event with a familiar quote that has been used at countless weddings. "What greater thing is there for two human souls, than to feel that they are joined for life — to strengthen each other in all labor, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to minister to each other in all pain, to be one with each other in silent unspeakable memories at the moment of the last parting?"

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Rabbit In the Hat

With the exception of people within the magic community, most individuals are unaware of the role magic has planned in the history of the human race. When ancient peoples were confronted with the magic worker they took for granted the explanations about how the event took place. Almost universally, the explanation depended on paranormal or supernatural forces.

Two of the favorite demonstrations by magicians in the Middle Ages included (1) throwing a rope into the air and have it completely suspended by "nothing" and (2) dismembering an animal and then "raising the animal from the dead" by putting all the limbs and parts back together. A Chinese magician in the 14th century went a step further and combined these two effects by having a boy climb a length of leather strap that was apparently hung from the sky until the boy vanished. When the magician called for the boy to return at once, he refused. Angry, the magician climbed the leather strap and vanished. Spectators soon saw the boy’s body parts fall to the ground. The magician came back down and reassembled the parts. When he was finished, he kicked the body and "the boy stood up, complete and erect." All of this was observed and reported publically by an eye-witness.

Magicians have probably existed since the dawn of time. A story called "Bel and the Dragon" was written sometime in the second century B.C. The Persian king, Cyrus the Great, had a buddy named Daniel — who is the same Daniel from the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament. It seems Cyrus (whose god was Bel) was trying to convince Daniel (whose god was the Jewish god) that Bel actually came to the Persian temple at night and ate food left by the faithful. To prove his point he took Daniel to the temple holy chamber, showed him the room, left the food and proceeded to completely seal off the room so nobody could enter in the evening. Being of a more skeptical nature, Daniel, unbeknownst to the king had sprinkled a fine powder on the floor around the food. The next morning when Cyrus and Daniel entered the room, Cyrus said, "Aha! See? All the food is gone. Case closed." Then Daniel softly piped up (after all he was addressing the king) saying, "But, your majesty, look at those footprints on the floor. Let’s follow them from the food and see where they lead." Sure enough, they lead to a cleverly concealed door. When Cyrus had his men force the door open they looked in upon a group of priests feeding their faces with the god’s food. Cyrus was so angry, he killed the priests and tore down the entire temple.

We could go on and on about people through the ages fooling their fellow citizens through trickery. Now, you can imagine that if you could kill and resuscitate a person or make people think a god had eaten an offering, you would have enormous status and power. We have an immense amount of documentation about religious leaders such as priests and shamans using simple trickery — magic tricks — to get people to believe in their supernatural powers. Given the proper circumstances most of us are gullible. Prior to the Scientific Age, it was common knowledge that magicians could only perform their amazing feats through the help of devils and supernatural forces. Because of this belief those who performed these "miracle" were either venerated or feared. The latter group sometimes ended up dead.

Magicians have always used a two-part system for their magic: the Effect and the Method. Audiences only see the Effect and if the magician is really good, they will never know the Method. The test for all magicians, ancient and modern, is to separate the Effect from the Method so convincingly that nobody can figure out the Method. Although there are many ways to do this, one of the most common methods is called misdirection, both mentally and physically.

Experienced magicians also know that the belief system of the audience may determine whether the Method must be simple or complex. For example, modern magicians find it much easier to do the same trick as a pseudo-psychic than as a professional magician. They work much harder to fool their colleagues.

Neuro-scientists have found networks in the brain that are specifically adapted to provide humans with magical explanations for events they cannot explain. For example, a recent experiment was done with intelligent, college-educated people who thought their use of a voodoo doll had caused a study partner to have a headache. They did not know that the study partner faked the headache, so they assumed that something about the voodoo was actually affecting another person.

Magicians have always been a closed, secret society who passed on their secrets from generation to generation. The magician's oath has always insisted that anyone outside the magic fraternity was not to be let in on the secrets. For example, a club in Los Angeles called the Magic Circle is a confidential and exclusive club for magicians to gather. Outsiders may only enter through the sponsorship of a magician member. The society has a Latin motto: Indocilis Privata Loqui. I suppose it could be loosely translated, "keep your mouth shut."

In the 16th century the first magic book was written. Since then, there have been thousands of books written revealing some of the deep secrets employed by magic workers. Even today, anyone can walk into a magic shop and buy any book on magic. You can buy dozens of magic books on the Internet.

Yet, many people today still believe that any procedure they cannot explain must have a supernatural explanation. Religious healers use trickery to get people to think they are working miracles through the power of their god. Even highly intelligent people can be deceived about this. Many years ago, the prankster, Uri Geller, performed his paranormal feats to an audience of scientists at the Stanford Research Institute. He completely convinced all but one of the scientists that he had paranormal powers. The lone wolf was a psychologist and magician who was able to help unmask Mr. Geller’s tricks.

Today, professional magicians seldom claim supernatural powers and openly admit their trickery. Even though they fool people, the audience knows it’s a trick. But, what would happen if the magician convincingly told the audience he or she was performing these feats through the power of a supernatural entity? Several magicians have done this in the last century in order to educate people to the power of suggestion. After presenting themselves as having paranormal abilities and showing people miraculous feats, they then blow their cover and explain they are merely magicians. One such performer told me personally that after he made his presentation and confession, one audience member complained that they didn’t believe him. They suggested the magician was really paranormal and either didn’t want to admit or it or just wasn’t aware of his paranormal abilities. Amazing!

Another example of highly intelligent people being fooled by magicians are scholars who study ancient history and try to explain the role of miracle workers in various cultures. For example, one of the greatest New Testament scholars living today is Professor of New Testament in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. Professor John Meier has written the definitive book on the historical Jesus. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus is a massive four-volume work that is seen by his peers as an "extraordinary achievement." In this remarkable work, he must deal with the miracles of Jesus and, as any good scholar would do, he attempts to define a miracle. His definition has three parts, the second of which states that a miracle is "an event that finds no reasonable explanation in human abilities or in other known forces that operate in our world of time and space."

The problem with this definition of a miracle is the fact that only professional magicians are capable of deciding if a miracle "had no reasonable explanation." Unfortunately, nobody every bothers to ask them. It does no good to check with other competent scholars who are not magicians. For example, sociologists study groups of people and their behavior. When they see a shaman, for example, perform a "miracle" they tend to take the experience at face value. This position is understandable because magicians are trained to perform the "impossible."

Problems arise when scholars do not take into account the complexities of the human brain. As was mentioned above, most people are by nature gullible given the right conditions. Humans also have the tendency to ascribe paranormal or supernatural explanations for events they find inconceivable. Our fallible memories also give the advantage to magicians. People who watch stunning magic tricks usually remember exactly what the magician wants them to.

Magicians have a skill they call "patter." As they talk to you during the trick they plant information into your mind that gets you to see and remember things that never happened.

Magicians love to hear people describe what they think they saw as they watched a magician perform. Once this eye-witness declaration is made to others, the phenomena of the urban legend kicks in. Researchers who study urban legends have shown that information received from a source that is perceived as reliable is usually accepted unconditionally. So if a friend tells you that a magician made a card rise from the table into thin air and the friend confirmed no strings were attached to the card, you would be inclined to accept this explanation — even though this is highly likely not what actually took place.

Magical thinking is all around us. Athletes who don’t change their socks before a game believe this behavior helps them play better. Gamblers are notorious for devising little rituals to help them beat the odds. Science has even shown that petitionary prayer only produces results no better than chance. Yet, religious people swear that their prayers for others really work.

Psychologists continually study how our brains deceive us into distorting and manipulating reality. People who are born with a natural knack for magic (similar to having a knack for music, sports, or writing) have been responsible for producing miraculous events for thousands of years. These folks have been intuitive enough about human nature to take advantage of brain deficits a long time before science can explain them.

Knowing that magicians have always had the ability to fool even the most intelligent people must keep us humble in declaring that we have all the facts about incredulous events regardless of what we call them: magic, impossible, or miracle. Any experience of this kind is never fully understandable without the knowledge of the professional magician. That knowledge is securely locked within the fraternity of magicians. The only way anyone can penetrate this inner circle is to take the time and make the effort to become a certified magician. All other attempts to understand anomalous experiences is based on incomplete understanding.