Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Inspiration, Dreams, and Why Social Psychology is Awesome

After finishing up my time on a non-profit board, my plan was to fill that extra time with things I enjoyed - including writing. Unfortunately, as is often the case with "extra" time, it quickly gets filled with tasks. So I resolve, once again, to try to spend more time writing, including writing on this blog.

Many writers have clashed on the issue of inspiration - whether one should write only when "inspired" to do so, or whether one should write regularly as a practice, whether you feel like doing so or not. Ray Bradbury, one of my favorite authors, had a lot of advice for aspiring writers, much of which involved writing often, regardless of "inspiration." Isaac Asimov also wrote every day, and was very prolific as a result.

I know I should apply this logic to myself and basically make myself write regularly. But as I was pondering this issue of inspiration, I started thinking about when and where I get some of my best ideas. For me - and this is especially true of fiction ideas - I tend to be most creative at night, especially after I've woken up from a strange and inspiring dream. I'd say dreams are the source of some of my best ideas. (P.S., I've blogged before about head songs that I think come from dreams, in part.)

I started doing a little research into this and found a whole literature on dreams and creativity. For instance, dreams inspired Paul McCartney's "Yesterday" and Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein." Because of sleep's role in memory consolidation, it makes sense that sleep can have a positive impact on certain aspects of creativity, such as insight.

REM (dream) sleep specifically is associated with increased abstract reasoning as well as increasing the strength of normally weak associations in the brain (see here). What that means is, two different things that your waking brain might not even see a connection between could become associated rather easily in a dream. Our brain does this kind of linking (neural networking) naturally, and it's a great way to learn new things - by connecting new knowledge you need to memorize to something you already know. Just as you can connect any actor to Kevin Bacon, you can connect any concept in your brain to another. Some connections are more direct than others.

Apparently one thing your brain does during REM sleep is play six degrees of "showing up to work without your pants." Or some such.

Of course, Freud and other psychoanalytic theorists would state that these strange juxtapositions are simply your subconscious trying to work out any conflicts you're having in your life. In fact, pretty much everything goes back to this idea of the subconscious, at least for psychoanalysts.

According to these theories, within your mind are three forces vying for control: the id, which operates on the pleasure principle (i.e., that feels good, keep doing it; that feels bad, stop doing it); the superego, which operates on morality (i.e., that feels good, stop doing it; that feels bad, keep doing it); and the ego, the conscious self who is just trying to pick the right feel goods to keep doing or stop doing and the right feel bads to keep doing or stop doing.

In case you would prefer a visual representation of the id, ego, and superego (respectively); Homer's id is clearly winning
When you dream, according to these theories, there are two types of content: manifest content, which is the literal subject of the dream (e.g., showing up to work without your pants), and latent content, which is the underlying meaning of the dream (e.g., you have issues with your mother, or maybe you like exhibitionism - I don't know, I'm a social psychologist!).

Of course, the interesting thing about all this theory is that social psychologists have come up with a variety of hypotheses and theories that explain many aspects of psychoanalytic theory. Putting some kind of idea in your head below your awareness that influences behavior? Priming. Attitudes that you swear you do not hold but that guide decisions, such as whether to trust someone of a certain group? Implicit attitudes. And of course, underlying meaning in your life and nonconscious sources of influence based on past experiences, temperament, and so on? Self and identity.

See also media effects, mob mentality, and ingroup/outgroup effects, just to name a few forces that influence you without you even realizing it. (Note: social psychologists prefer the term 'nonconscious,' rather than the psychoanalyst-laden term 'subconscious.')

Why do we need these little snippets of theory and hypothesis if Freud's and other psychoanalysts' theories can sum much of this up, in a neat, Oedipus-complex-themed package? After all, parsimony is an important aspect of science - the simplest explanation tends to be the best one, in the absence of evidence to support one over the other.

But that's the thing - the various social psychological theories outlined above have just that: evidence. Specifically empirical evidence, which is pretty important for science, something I've also blogged about before. In fact, psychoanalytic theories lack the basic ingredients that make them at all scientific: the ability to test these concepts (we call this 'testability') and, if they are false, demonstrate that (we call this 'falsifiability'). If there really are subconscious forces operating in your brain, trying to give you glimpses of what's really bothering you (latent content) but hiding behind symbolism (manifest content), how would we even begin to test this? After all, they're subconscious. But for social psychological theories, such as priming, we may know what evidence we would observe if priming happened and what we would observe if it isn't happening.

One of the key differences is whether the hypothesis/theory is nomothetic (describes a general pattern) or idiographic (describes a specific pattern, usually within a particular person). There are ways to test idiographic hypotheses, but it is more difficult than if you can generate a hypothesis that should apply to a group of people receiving the same intervention. You would just test to see if the group of people responded the way you expected.

These various social psychological theories lack a couple of things - 1) there isn't a unified theory that sums all this up in a neat little package and 2) other than the various findings outlined above in regard to sleep/dreams, there isn't really a good hypothesis/theory for the purpose of dreams. What you read above is descriptive with regard to sleep and dreams, but not predictive; that is, we haven't identified some key cause that would allow us to understand why we dream what we do and perhaps predict what people will dream, based on knowledge of the important variables. We don't even know what those variables are.

As I mentioned in my previous post linked above, scientific findings are tentative, pending better evidence and methodology. We may not completely understand dreams now, but perhaps will be able to in the future, as we expand on technology for studying the living, working brain.

For the time being, though, I'll be happy to take whatever inspiration my dreaming brain sends my way. But please, no more going back to high school dreams.

Dreamily yours,

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