Friday, August 11, 2006

"Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind" and "The Wayward Mind"

These are the titles of two books by British psychologist Guy Claxton (see his website) that I think have received less attention than they should. (It seems to me that British and American psychologists group themselves in quite separate worlds.) The first book is a lucid presentation of experimental work that supports Herbert Spenser's dictum "The determined effort causes perversion of thought." Claxton uses the term "undermind" to describe intuitive and integrative processes normally beyond the range of, and can be inhibited by, our focused awareness. Extremes of being indiscriminately intuitive or insisting on lots of high-quality information can block results.

The term 'undermind' hasn't caught on, and the subsequent excellent book "The Wayward Mind" reverts to using the term "unconscious". "The Wayward Mind" is a history of human attempts to explain the unconscious mind, from ancient descriptions of the 'underworld' to the theories of modern neuroscience.

Here are (clipped and truncated) some lines from pp 348-352 of "Wayward Mind" that I like:
"What we call our ‘self’ is an agglomeration of both conscious and unconscious ingredients: cans, needs, dos, oughts, thinks….these constructions hold out an overwhelming temptation: to assume that the “I” is the same in all of them… so that instead of having an intricate web of things that make me Me, I have to create a single imaginary hub around which they all revolve, to which they all refer…the attempt to keep this fiction going, to ‘hold it together’ can become quite tiring and bothersome… If “I” am essentially reasonable, if I imagine that my zones of control – over my own feelings for example – are wider and more robust than they are, then I am going to get in a tangle trying to ‘control myself.’ If I have decided that who I am is clever, attractive, athletic, stable, creating the hub of “I” locks everything together and prevents it moving. It stops Me expanding to include the unconscious, or graciously shrinking to accommodate old age. I can’t enjoy my waywardness, nor see it as an intrinsic part of ME….All the evidence is that a more relaxed attitude toward the bounds of self makes for a richer, easier and more creative life. Perhaps, after all, waywardness in all its forms is in need not so much of explanation, but of a mystified but friendly welcome. We can explain it if we wish, and the brain is beginning to a reasonable job. But the need to explain, when not motivated by the dispassionate curiosity of the scientist, is surely a sign of anxiety: of the desire to tame with words that which is experienced as unsettling.. "

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