Tag Archives: psychology

Playing with my labels

Back when I was at university, many moons ago, I minored in psychology. This meant numerous chances to play with psychological tests. Introvert-extrovert, thinking-emotional, masculine-feminine, and so forth. I noticed a thing – that the tests did not quite work for me. A large percentage of the questions I wanted to answer ‘both’. Go to a party or read a book? I could place myself in the middle of any scale, or simultaneously out towards both ends. My second discovery following on from this was that for most measures, nothing existed to name me. Just for gender, where I found and relished the term ‘psychologically androgynous’.

Part of what this indicates is that sliding scales assuming personality traits can be lined up in certain ways are reductive and flawed. I wonder how many people conform to ideas like you can be either a thinking person or a feeling person just because those ready-made identities are there to be conformed to.

One of the things I never got to study in psychology is the question of why we are so keen to label and identify ourselves. Why do we want our thoughts and behaviour defined along an axis? What do we get out of comparing our scores with other people’s? There’s no real application for this stuff, although it clearly forms the basis for all the dodgy ‘what kind of X are you?’ questionnaires in magazines. There’s plenty of research out there to show that who we are and what we do is situation specific anyway. The person we are at work is not the person we are when hanging out with friends.

Who is the real me? Is the persona I choose to adopt any less a manifestation of me than an off the cuff reaction? Surely, any choice I make is who I am. My artifice is as much part of my lived truth as my moments of raw emotional authenticity. I want to go to the party and read the book. When it comes to gender stereotypes, I pack like a man, shop like a man, take a problem solving approach like a man. I look like a woman, in line with current gender fashions. I’ve no inclination to emulate the social models for male appearance, or feminine behaviour patterns. I think about how I feel, I use reason and gut feelings together for problem solving and decision making. I’m not an either/or sort of person, I want to explore all the things available to me.

Not so mindfulness

Over the years I have explored, repeatedly, ideas of mindfulness and being fully present in the moment. It’s a popular strand in meditation. I also have an interest in psychology, and a work life where seeking inspiration and making creative jumps is an essential part of what I do. Here are a few thoughts on how these things collide.

The human mind tunes out for more than it pays conscious attention to. If you sit still in a room, you have sensory information from all your nerve endings. You have visual input – which you can reduce by shutting your eyes. There are sounds. Your own heart and breathing, sounds in the building, sounds from outside. The more fully present and aware you are, the more sound you will notice, but the more invested you are in that, the less you may be able to also process about how the air smells and the exact temperature of your skin.

There’s a practical limit on how many things we can be aware of in one go. In practice, being mindful is a selective process – more or less conscious – about which bits of ‘the moment’ you are paying attention to. This is more viable when you are motionless in a quiet and controlled space, but as soon as you start moving through the world, you will miss more than you notice.

The more I focus my conscious attention on one thing (eg my breathing) the less able I am to notice other things. It’s exactly the same as the famous psychology experiment (you can google for it) where participants asked to count ball passes in a game fail to notice the person dressed as an ape. This is us. This is the human mind. It focuses really well, but at the expense of wider experience. So if we are too focused on one thing, we can miss a lot of what is actually happening ‘in the moment’.

Inspiration does not come with focus. It is not achieved by pushing. Again this is about how our brain functions. The conscious mind is just a bit of what we’ve got, and that’s not the bit doing the ‘Eureka!’ thinking. The experience often called ‘the light-bulb moment’ when everything clicks into place, does not come when we push for it. The light bulb moment is Archimedes in the bath and Newton sat innocently under a tree. It’s also me in my kitchen just pottering about and not thinking very much at all, and suddenly finding that the greater part of a chant and its tune have just happened to me. Bang. No conscious thought, no warning.

I know, because I spend a lot of time working with both the necessity for mental focus, and the need for inspiration, that it’s usually one or the other. Focus is needed to get things done but does not invite creative thinking. I have my best ideas when I’m not trying to push for them, and not dwelling much on anything else, but pondering, imagining, daydreaming, wool gathering. At my best, I am the point where past and future make their exchanges. I am all that might be, rubbing against all that is. I am transforming regret and nostalgia into what we are doing better tomorrow. I am observation, speculation and playfulness fermenting together. Pay too much attention to any one thing, and it all falls apart.

It’s important to work out what you want and need from your life and your meditations. You may need stillness and inner discipline. You may need space for your chaos. You may need to be present but not too focused so that you can notice all the things you did not know to look for. There is no one true way, only what we choose, and whether that does what we want it to do.

Your hidden mind

On Art Share this week (www.art-share.org) we were talking about how we work, and the importance of switching off the more conscious part of the mind in order to better get on with things. Tom definitely draws more comfortably if there’s music on, or I’m playing, or reading to him. It frees up his hands.

Rather a long time ago, I minored in psychology at university, and one of the things I ran into was the idea of the pre-conscious mind, which does quite a lot of the work. It’s this bit that will pop up the answer to a missing name three hours after the relevant conversation. Somewhere beneath the surface, you were working on that all along. This is just labels, as far as I know there are no actual brain structures to go with them.
Rather a lot of our thinking happens at a level we aren’t aware of. All the technical stuff around running the body. Anything we know well. These days I tend to say I play the violin by sense of smell, because I have no conscious idea of what I’m doing any more. It just happens. Hours and hours of work have resulted in the violin being so much a part of my body that I do it the same way I breathe. And as with breathing, if I have to think about it, things get complicated. This, I gather, is true of people who are good at pretty much anything, and if you make a person deconstruct what they’re doing to explain it, their ability to do it actually reduces for a while.

Last night my brain woke me in the early hours of the morning because it had processed a large quantity of raw data and it wanted me to look over the findings and make some decisions about how to act. Why that seemed so important that I had to do it at 3am, I have no idea, but I did the thinking, went back to sleep and woke up feeling like I’d made some good choices.

So what is going on at the back end of my mind, in the bits I can’t see? I think the answer is habit and training. My mind can run unconsciously round any loop I have built and maintained. That’s true of the violin playing, and it is also true of anxiety. I have a capacity to learn and analyse unconsciously, but only because I’ve put so much time into learning and analysis. Tom draws amazing art when he’s not thinking about it too much, but only because he’s spent decades thinking about it a great deal.

It can look a bit like magic. We might be tempted to see the hand of deity in the mix, or some other supernatural agent, and to miss out the important detail that we built the space in which this happens. We made the tools, fine-tuned the hardware, wrote the software, if you like.

I only have myself to blame for what my mind gets up to in the middle of the night.

The flip side of that is knowing that I can deliberately reconstruct my thinking, with time, establishing better habits of thought, and putting my energy into the right things. I don’t believe that we make our own realities, but we absolutely do make the brains that perceive and engage with whatever else is out there, and we have a startling amount of power to change that, albeit slowly.

Druidry and magic

There isn’t a great tradition of spell working in Druidry. Much of the magic is about inner transformation and the natural consequence of ritual and communion with nature. Magic is a process that happens to us as much as something we might instigate. Mostly. There’s the magic of captivating and inspiring people – a big part of the business of being a Bard. There’s the magic of experiencing the world in a profound and awe inspiring way. We request the presence and blessings of spirits, or deities sometimes, but we don’t command or demand.

Part, if not all of the reason this is so, is philosophical. If you go through life trying to disappear all the bumps and challenges, where is your scope for heroic virtue and learning? You can’t be heroic if everything is easy! The Celts had a heroic culture, they celebrated the characters who faced up to challenges. We are here to learn, and to live, and much of life is challenging, awkward and less than perfectly comfortable. In learning to love what is imperfect and being open to not getting our own way, we learn how to do a better job of being people.

I know I don’t really know what’s for the best. Sometimes what I thought would be really good doesn’t happen, and it opens the door to something I would never have dared to imagine. Being open to what comes from outside, rather than trying to control every aspect of our lives, can often take us further and give us more. Most of the time I would never even consider trying to magic an outcome that I really wanted, in case it caused me to miss something that would have turned out better.
I’m interested in the ‘magic’ of positive thinking and inner calm, as day to day issues. There’s often a fine line between magic and psychology (as Terry Pratchett fans will know, Headology rules.) While I don’t believe we entirely create our experiences, we have a lot of room for manoeuvre in how we choose to interpret and understand. Additionally, what we bring to a situation will heavily inform what we get out of it.

The other reason to leave magic alone is that it’s a messy and unruly thing (assuming you believe in it, and I admit that I do.) The more complex a situation, the more variables, people involved, possible outcomes, the harder it is to work out what would need to change in order to give you what you want. Ethically speaking, seeking the outcome without considering the consequences is totally off limits, for me. Magic is generally understood to require focus and precision, so the woollier and more confusing the situation, the less scope you have to begin with.

Now and then though, life throws up a situation where the issues are pretty simple, and there’s only one tolerable outcome. I would imagine that finding you have cancer would create one of those. Most of the time life does not hand over such clear cut win-lose scenarios, but when it does, perhaps that is the time to dust off the wand and start composing the demands you need to make of the universe.

My mother always said that magic is what you do when you can’t do anything else. It’s also what you do when you absolutely cannot afford to have anything else happen. If nothing else, there’s a bit of Headology here, holding the belief that you can win gives you a better shot at winning than falling into a pit of despair does.

Sometimes, the universe seems to conspire to make things work out after all. I don’t generally believe that the universe is an inherently benevolent place that has our best interests at heart, but I think sometimes it might be persuaded to act that way. And when you get to that sort of point, there’s little to lose in trying.


I’ve long been fascinated with the science of dreaming, the psychology of it, and the more mystical takes as well. There are interesting overlaps between the three. Generally my own dreaming is the basis from which I explore this, although I had a long stretch when my dream life was so barren and limited that I had little to work with. If I’d been honest with myself, I would have been quicker to recognise the barren dream phase as indicative that much was wrong in my life.

I’ve never been keen to accept the idea of dream interpretation guides, where one thing can be safely interpreted as meaning another. We’re all unique, and we all use our own symbolic language. That said, the idea of self as house has been with me for some time.

When I was a child, the house I dreamed about was a beautiful cottage where a couple of warm and welcoming old people lived. By my teens, the house had become a threatening place, full of rooms I didn’t dare go into. In my twenties, the house was derelict, and usually had squatters in it, more often than not I would have the same nightmare of being chased through my house until I eventually jumped out of a window in desperation to escape. What I needed to do in my waking life, was jump and escape.

After that, the house dreams changed. I stopped having reoccurring nightmares about needing to run away from usually unspecified threats.

Some of my house dreams at the moment are explicitly about house hunting. In a more pragmatic way, that has to do with the knowledge that I’ll be moving again in less than a year, there is actual house hunting in my future, and a new life to build around that. It’s also about the ongoing process of redefining me, reimagining me. I’m very much a work in progress, and have been for several years now. I have a feeling the next geographical change will go alongside some dramatic lifestyle changes, and no doubt changes to my sense of self. And so at night, I am looking for a new house.

I had a classic old-style house nightmare last night though – big house, and not one that I owned. I never did have proper ownership of the nightmare houses, but I think that went with not feeling like I had proper ownership of myself, really. For the first time, the fear source, the thing hunting me wasn’t vague. I knew exactly what I was running away from. In the dream, they were animals that had been kept in captivity and escaped, and went mad for human flesh. Actually, I blame Jonathan Green’s fiction entirely for this, with his escaping dinosaurs and marauding monsters.

There’s a lot of practical difference between a nameless dread, and a troublesome thing you can point at. So much horror depends upon the uncanny and unknowable nature of the threat. That which we do not understand is always more scary. That’s why the first Alien film remains so powerful. What we don’t see, and have to imagine has far more power to scare us, than the known.

Sometimes the answer to a nameless dread, is to name it. Even if you don’t know what it is, naming confines it, makes it more manageable. Apparently somewhere deep in the murky layers of my unconscious mind, I have given a name to the nameless fears. Right now they look like familiar things gone predatory – I’m sure we could do some entertaining Freudian-style analysis there. A known fear can be fought, faced and conquered.

One day, I’m going to find that cottage again, or somewhere a lot like it. If I can’t dream it, I shall make it, in the waking world, out of my own actions and intent. A safe place that feels like me. A place where the nameless dreads do not get any kind of space.

The mystery of brains

Most of the time, parenting isn’t excessively difficult. Children progress in coherent, predictable ways from one day to the next as skills evolve, understanding grows, bodies adapt and so forth. Every so often there’s a sudden leap, and the impossible becomes easy, the unthinkable becomes the thought. These are always startling and tend to come without any kind of warning.

A lot of it has to do with how the human brain develops when we’re young. My grasp of the technicals isn’t superb but the gist is that the brain has physical structures, and the way in which paths are formed between brain cells shapes how we are able to think. Child development psychology flags up that there are some things young children just aren’t capable of thinking about. Then the brain changes, and *ping* you’re on a new level. It can be startling to watch. Some of the manifestations are simple – going from sky as blue line across the top of a picture to a sense of how objects exist in relation to each other is one of those transitions, but not a challenging one.

Sudden shifts in the way a child is capable of thinking are also very exciting times. As adults we tend to get this less, our brain growth has mostly settled. Perhaps more importantly, we don’t seek it. When allowed to develop naturally, children are voracious in their quest for information. They want to know everything about everything. How we support and teach them inform whether than continues or not. A child who hears ‘because I said so’ and ‘because it just is’ will learn not to bother to ask. The child for whom learning is turned into a miserable chore won’t stay inspired to learn, that natural hunger squashed. And of course children whose hunger for input is fed by television and computer games, who get a steady diet of empty noise and meaningless drivel by way of content, cannot develop much. I recognise that there is educational content out there, but when the aim is to pacify the child and make them easy to look after, the effect is…. Pacification.

From what I can tell by observing my son, and what I remember of the process myself, the sudden brain leaps don’t really register. You forget that you couldn’t think that way before, the new way becomes natural so quickly and there’s not much incentive to question it. Sometimes, you don’t notice how much your own capacity to think has changed. As adults, we’re both less likely to change, and more likely to notice it. Revolution between the ears is a very big deal once you’re physically mature. It is possible, though.

How we think, and the structures we have physically in our brains, develops over time and with use. The person who devotes a lot of time to music does, I gather, have a visibly different brain structure to someone who doesn’t. What we do with our brains shapes what we are able to do, informs what comes easily, determines where we might go next. Anyone who dedicates themselves to a spiritual path, or a path of personal growth, is very precisely working to keep their brain developing.

There are a great many people out there I could wish a mental revolution upon. I wish they could change with the sudden explosion of insight that hits my child every now and then. There are so many people who seem to have stopped thinking, questioning, wondering and growing far too early, settling into the comfort of their own narrow world view and filtering out everything that doesn’t fit. Far too many of them have also taken up careers in politics. But in adults, Road to Damascus moments are few and far between. Grand epiphanies don’t turn up unsought, eureka moments will not come to the person who wasn’t looking for an answer in the first place.

Brains are such fabulous, mysterious, exciting things. I just wish people would notice that more, celebrate the wonder that is us a bit more, think a bit more…

Facebook Feminism

By the time I discovered feminism, the call to sisterhood and the demand that traditional, female roles and work be taken seriously, had weakened. Growing up in the 1980s, I saw a world in which ‘feminism’ seemed to be about being more like men than the men were. Equal rights meant out to work, with padded shoulders, ruthlessly pushing forward. To my child self, feminism looked too much like Margaret Thatcher, and I wanted none of it. I also encountered plenty of the man-bashing variety, and I didn’t fancy that much either. Years later, at college, I encountered theories of social feminism, of accepting and respecting female roles and history, and all that. I also saw it was a theory, not a practice.

But I was at college in that distant time before Facebook.

Women on Facebook talk about their work, their men, their kids, parents, dogs, dreams and efforts. They post photos of cakes that went well, and cakes that didn’t. Images of things created, rooms decorated, frocks worn. All the traditional things that women have always done, now recorded by digital camera and timeline, and shared, with love. I have one amazing friend called Sharon who is actively reclaiming femininity through the medium of Facebook, and it’s lovely to watch. She’s not the only one, but she’s the most self conscious. It’s femininity on her terms, not anyone else’s. Then, whoever shares, other women and the odd bloke, pile in with observations, congratulations, and friendly noises.

In western culture we equate femininity with emotion, and emotion with irrationality. To show your feelings, to weep, rant, or whoop for joy, is to be emotionally immature. There are some other women who will haul you over the coals for that, even more readily then the men. These would be the women who have donned the suits and attitudes of a still very masculine workplace, and who want to get as far from traditional femininity as they can.

On Facebook, something else is happening. Yesterday, a woman posted ‘I just want to cry all the time. This can’t be normal adult behaviour’ (Or something like that.) Within minutes, other women were there, saying no, I have days like this too. I weep over this as well. Don’t beat yourself up. The anxieties of parenthood, the tears of menstruation, the grief and frustration of the world all sneak out in those few lines of status update. And in the unreal space that is Facebook, we do what many of us would not dare to do in a public, physical space. We say ‘me too.’ We share, and acknowledge and take seriously experiences and emotions that are fundamental to being female.

It’s terrible when you think it’s just you. All the shiny looking women on TV are never spotty, screaming with pre-menstrual tension, covered in baby vomit and holding a cake that failed. All the magazine celebrities shed elegant, solitary tears over betrayals. They don’t howl until their faces are red and snot drips from their noses. At least, not where we can see them.

I have met a lot of men along the way who believe that women are incomprehensible, irrational, unpredictable, unreliable. We’ve all heard the argument that our hormonal cycles make us crazy. I know from doing psychology, that as a culture we view calm rationality (allegedly male traits) as healthy adult behaviour and emotionality as being both female, and neurotic. That’s a hard world to live in, and a bloody unfair one. Rather than fight for the value of emotion, for the power and blessing of being able to express, so many of us have gone along with the pressure to be like men. And you know, I’m not even sure all the biological men are really ‘like men’. I think they’re even more squeezed and restricted by this insane understanding of what being human should mean.

I’m a fine example though. Up until I went through an emotional breakdown last year, I found it almost impossible to cry in front of anyone.

It isn’t easy, to go online and say ‘bad day.’ Just to manage ‘black dog’ or ‘bit gloomy’ is a hard confession to make. But when you do it, and others pile in and remind you that you aren’t alone, aren’t a freak, or incompetent, that’s worth so much. I am very grateful for Facebook. Now all we have to do is figure out how to get that little bit of revolution offline and into the real world.