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How To Stay Sane. A Q&A With Philippa Perry
Philippa Perry is a British psychotherapist and writer. She is also the author of How To Stay Sane, a charming new book and a recent edition to The School of Life series, "a new enterprise offering good ideas for everyday life." Although you'll find Perry's book in the self-help section some of what she writes about relates to creativity. She was nice enough to answer a few questions.
Sam: You say that good stress “keeps our brain plastic.” What do you mean, plastic? And is a “plastic brain” a “creative brain”?
Philippa: It used to be thought that you stopped making new neural connections in your youth and from then on your brain was fixed and it was downhill all the way. But in fact as we know from our own experience we can keep on learning and learning means changing our brain on a physical level. Neurogenesis continues throughout life and we have the capacity to establish new neural pathways and strengthen existing ones. Our brains do not have to be fixed, they can be plastic. After a stroke we can re-learn how to talk, because by practicing we can establish different pathways in the brain, circumnavigating the damaged part. But we don’t have to have suffered brain damage to take advantage of the plastic nature of our brains.
Recent evidence from scientific researchers at Yale, Harvard, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology revealed that meditation can allow us to “grow bigger brains.” It is thought meditation can build up new pathways between neurons. Meditators are shown to have thickening in parts of the brain structure that deal with attention, memory and sensory functions. This was found to be more noticeable in older, more practiced meditators than in younger adults which is interesting because this structure usually tends to get thinner as we age. Meditation is focused attention and the more we practise focusing our brains the more connections we build up. In other words if we keep practicing mental skills it is likely we can strengthen neural connections and make new connections.
“Plasticity is an intrinsic property of the human brain and represents evolution's invention to enable the nervous system to escape the restrictions of its own genome and thus adapt to environmental pressures, physiologic changes, and experiences. Dynamic shifts in the strength of preexisting connections across distributed neural networks, changes in task-related cortico-cortical and cortico-subcortical coherence and modifications of the mapping between behavior and neural activity take place in response to changes in afferent input or efferent demand. Such rapid, ongoing changes may be followed by the establishment of new connections through dendritic growth and arborization … Plasticity is the mechanism for development and learning...” Source
As to a ‘creative brain’ I’m not exactly sure what you mean by this, but possibly it means a brain belonging to someone who can come up with new ideas, problem solve and generate new things. This is something that more or less anyone can do and they can become skilled in it, and like any skill gets better with practise. I haven’t extensively researched creativity on its own but my fantasy is that in order to be creative I need to allow space for my unconscious thoughts to filter up through into my conscious ones to allow for an internal dialogue that encourages new ideas to form rather than be dismissed. The more I can do this, the more confident I am in the process.
As you seem interested in creativity I’ll share with you the only work I did specifically on creative process:
In 2008, I ran a 5 day therapy group once for art students and their lecturers in the University of East London in which I used Gestalt experiments so that each participant could become more aware of how they were each creative. I found that there tended to be generally main sorts of creativity. There were those whose ideas sprung from their work as they did it, and those who planned their work out beforehand. We called these, rather clumsily, Organickers and Organisers. Using visualisation techniques to get participants to remember how they played as children we found out that Organisers had tended to set up their games first and Organickers had made them up as they went along. It was useful for the staff because if they themselves were an Organiser and they tried to teach an Organicker that the way to success is to plan, they actually did more harm than good and vice versa. But we did experiment with using the two different ways of approaching invention without saying one was better than the other so they could try the other approach and some of them expanded how they were creative to take on the other way of approaching their work without assigning value judgments to either approach, but just having the different approaches like different tools. And being more aware of how they approached creative work allowed them more choice about how they went about it.
It seems whether we have a tendency towards being flexible or structured affects how we create, how we parent, how we work. The psychoanalyst Professor Joan Raphael-Leff in her book the psychological processes of childbearing identified two types of mothers - regulators and facilitators that also seem to follow this pattern. I was listening to Professor Jared Diamond on the radio recently arguing against scientists setting up a hypothesis before looking at the data to see what emerges from it and I thought, Ah, classic organicker!
The extreme of flexibility is chaos and the extreme of being structured is rigid and staying sane, or indeed using your creativity, is about being aware of these extremes and steering yourself to areas where you work best which usually tend to be more in the middle than at either extreme edge.
So whether you plan or whether you flow in order to be creative probably isn’t the point. The point is to keep practicing to maintain neural pathways and to establish new ones by learning new skills.
Sam: Could you briefly explain the Comfort Zone Exercise? It seems like most people don’t push intellectual, athletic, or social boundaries because they gravitate towards what’s comfortable. How can the Comfort Zone Exercise help? And can we use it to boost creative output?
Philippa: The Comfort Zone Exercise is straightforward. Get a large piece of plain paper and draw a circle in the middle. Inside the circle write examples of activities that you feel completely comfortable doing. Around the edge of the circle write down examples of activities that you can do but that you have to push yourself a little bit to do - those activities that may make you nervous in some way, but not so much as to stop you doing them. In the next band write activities that you like to do but find it difficult to get up the courage to do. Draw another circle around this ring of activities. After that write down those things you are far too scared to try but would like to do. You can create as many circles as you like. The point of the Comfort Zone Exercise is for you to consider what you are comfortable with and what you are not, and then to experiment with expanding your area of comfort.
I think there is probably something evolutionary in that we are drawn to the easiest option. But in our age of convenience, cars, ready meals and off the peg mean that we are in danger of being mentally under stretched. When we had to survive on our wits, gather and kill our food from scratch and be more at the mercy of our environment than we are today, we probably had enough challenge to keep our brains healthy. My theory is if we are not using our brains’ capacity for challenge it feels to me as though it atrophies like an unused muscle. What I’ve found with myself and with clients who use the comfort zone model is that when we expand out in one direction we find, with practise, that it’s easier to expand out in all directions. I think this is because a sense of achievement improves general confidence and self-esteem. The way I’ve drawn it in the book, I hope shows that the idea is that you take small manageable steps.
If someone is depressed they tend to retreat within the inner circle of their comfort zone which in the longer term, may contribute to exacerbating a problem rather than soothing it and if not seeking to expand the comfort zone becomes the norm. The trouble is if we take no new steps to try a new challenge, our comfort zone doesn’t seem just to stay still, but retract. I haven’t drawn on specific scientific evidence for this, and anecdotal experience is not evidence. However, it is merely what I’ve come to believe from my own experience and my work as a psychotherapist.
Sam: You have a section in your book about relating to others where you say that, “solitary confinement is one of the most brutal, most stressful punishments we inflict on our fellow humans. If we are to stay sane, we must not inflict it upon ourselves.” It seems like this is true in the context of creativity, where new research is debunking the idea of the lone genius and emphasizing the important role other people play in the creative process. So I put that question to you: What role do other people play in creativity?
Philippa: I get excited just thinking about that question. Two brains are better than one. You’ve twice the brain capacity and you have two sets of experiences and genes to bring to any challenge. For example, in posing me these questions to think about my theories through the lens of creativity, you are facilitating me to think about things from a new angle for me. I find other people inspiring. If I think about my work as a psychotherapist, being in collaboration, is what it is mainly about. It is about using a relationship to get unstuck. And in order for this to work, there usually needs to be not just the one way impact of the therapist impacting the patient, but a mutual impact.
There are probably times where the creative process is not helped by collaboration. For example, I’d say sometimes an artist’s vision may get blurred when subjected to a committee because an artwork is usually an expression of something unconscious that is better left in the realm of one person’s unconscious if it is to speak to another person’s unconscious. But there may be a stage even in art work where collaboration improves the product. For example I wrote my graphic novel, Couch Fiction, on my own but then collaborated with a designer to make it look better. For the story I needed to be on my own, but for how I presented it, I wanted help.
If you look at the acknowledgement page of any published book, I’ve never see anyone write, ‘I’m thanking no-one, I did this entirely by myself”!
Sam: You mention that learning new subjects builds new connections in the brain and improves our lives. I hear a lot of people say that they want to take a class in X, take up a new hobby and learn something new. Why is it so hard to act on these desires? Do you have any advice for people who seek wisdom and new intellectual endeavors but have trouble making the required effort?
Philippa: Beginning a new habit, or ending an old one can feel like letting go of a rope that swings a mile above the ground. So we feel reluctant to let go, after all, we’ve survived so far doing what we’ve done, why risk it. But if we do risk it, if we do let go of the rope, we find the ground was only one inch below our feet anyway. That mile we felt was there, was only in our heads.
And do I have evidence to substantiate this? Probably many a psychotherapy case study will bear it witness. But it’s a theory and like all theories should be held lightly.
Our emotional map is laid down mainly in relationship with our earliest caregiver in the first couple of years of life. If we think of our brains as a map, those early roads are like grooves, tram tracks, easy to fall into. That paths between these roads/tram tracks get grown over with brambles from being unused so if you change a behaviour - say becoming more reflective and less reactive - or maybe the other way round - but a change in any rate, for the old behaviour you have the deep grooves that are difficult to climb out of and the new behaviour is hard like breaking your way through brambles. But after you have cleared the path and walked along it a few times a path begins to emerge and you may begin to wear a groove in it. And perhaps the old road gets grown over a bit.
I have noticed though the old way never gets grown over enough, because under the wrong sort of stress (panic or dissociation) people tend to slip up and go along the old road before they realise what they’ve done and climb out of it again. A relapse though, doesn’t mean you’ll never walk down the path you prefer. But I think relapses are almost an inevitable part of any course of self-development.
Sam: The final section in your book, before the conclusion, is a titled “What’s the Story?” It’s about rewriting your life’s narrative to generate new meaning and purpose. I’ve spoken to a lot about people who are reluctant to be creative because they are self-described “not creative-types.” The science shows virtually anyone can be creative. How can we change our life’s narrative to get the creative juices flowing?
Philippa: Some of us (all of us?!) have a self-narratives that appear to work against us, for example: “I’m not creative” or “I’m no good”, or “Relationships are for other people.” Such toxic messages become self-fulfilling prophecies. The upside of this is that uncertainty, which many of us find unsettling, is lessened. Its as though we prefer the worse possible outcome rather than be in a state of not knowing. Challenging self-fulfilling negative prophecy takes courage. It means hoping and to hope is to risk disappointment. If you start from a position of I’m a no-hoper, in a paradoxical kind of way you are not risking being vulnerable. But in order to stretch ourselves we do need to experience the vulnerability of not knowing the outcome. When we can become comfortable with this, that’s one less thing in the way of self-fulfillment.
We can decide and aim for a direction and steer the course of our lives, or we can drift and be blown about by a breeze. That breeze can be quite subtle. That’s why I include the genogram exercise* in the back of the book because using that we can discover many habits that we think are our choices but in fact they are merely our inheritance by which I mean we may have unthinkingly adopted our ancestors’ choices and their stories. Some of these stories may still work for us but there is also a likelihood that many will be outdated. Once you are aware of how you respond, how you make relationships, how you tackle challenge and what your core and covert beliefs are you are in a position to make changes if you need to, or make a choice of not changing, knowing that it is a choice rather than an automatic response.
And here is another link to her book.
*A genogram is like a family tree, but you include how your ancestors made and maintained their principle relationships and include some their emotional history. Or indeed it could be used for tracing ancestors’ patterns for problem solving or creativity.
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to light recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
From "mutilated males" to "wandering wombs," dodgy science affects how we view the female body still today.
- The history of medicine and biology often has been embarrassingly wrong when it comes to female anatomy and was surprisingly resistant to progress.
- Aristotle and the ancient Greeks are much to blame for the mistaken notion of women as cold, passive, and little more than a "mutilated man."
- Thanks to this dubious science, and the likes of Sigmund Freud, we live today with a legacy that judges women according to antiquated biology and psychology.
The story of medicine has not been particularly kind to women. Not only was little anatomical or scientific research done on women or on women-specific issues, doctors often treated them differently.
Even today, women are up to ten times more likely to have their symptoms explained away as being psychological or psychosomatic than men. Worryingly, women are 50 percent more likely to be misdiagnosed after a heart attack, and drugs designed for "everyone" are actually much less effective (for pain) or too effective (for sleeping) in women.
Are these differences real or imagined? And what can the history of female medicine teach us about where we are today?
A mutilated male
Aristotle is rightly considered one of the greatest minds of all time and is recognized as the founding father of many disciplines, including biology. He was one of the most rigorous and comprehensive scientists and field researchers the world had known. He categorized a large number of species based on a wide range of traits, such as movement, longevity, and sensory capacity. His views on women, then, stemmed from what he thought of as good, proper study. The problem is that he got pretty much all of it wrong.
According to Aristotle, during pregnancy, it was the man who, alone, contributed the all-important "form" of a fetus (that is, its defining nature and personality), whereas the woman provided only the matter (that is, the environment and sustenance to grow the fetus, which was provided by the menstrual blood).
From this, Aristotle extrapolated all sorts of dubious conclusions. He ventured that the man was superior, active, and dominant, and the woman inferior, passive, and submissive. As such, the woman's role was to nurture children, run a household, and be silent and obedient — political and cultural manifestations of dodgy biology. If women did not provide a child's form and nature, how important could they really be?
Given this passivity, Aristotle argued that the woman must be associated with other passive things, like being cold and slow. The man, being dynamic and energetic, must be hot and fast. From this, Aristotle concluded that any defects or problems in childbirth can only be due to the sluggishness of the female womb. Even the positive biological aspects of being female, such as greater longevity, were put down to this cold rigidity — a lack of metabolism and spirit. Most notorious of all, since Aristotle believed that female children were themselves the result of an incomplete and underdeveloped gestation, women were simply "mutilated males" whose mothers' cold wombs had overpowered the warm, vital, male sperm.
Aristotle can still be counted as a great mind, but when it came to women, his ideas have not aged well in just how far they negatively influenced what came after. Given that his works were seen as the authority well into the 16th century, he left quite the pernicious legacy.
A wandering womb
But, how much can we really blame Aristotle? Without the aid of modern scientific equipment, physicians and biologists were left to guess about female anatomy. Unfortunately, the damage was done, and Aristotle's ideas of a troublesome uterus became so mainstream that they led to one of the more bizarre ideas in medical history: the wandering womb.
The "wandering womb" is the idea that the womb is actually some kind of roaming parasite in the body, possibly even a separate organism. According to this theory, after a woman menstruates, her womb becomes hot and dry and so becomes extra mobile. It is transformed into a voracious hunter. The womb will dart from organ to organ, seeking to steal its moisture and other vital fluids. This parasitic behavior caused all sorts of (female only) illnesses.
If a woman had asthma, the womb was leeching the lungs. Stomach aches, it was in the gut. And if it attacked the heart (which the ancients thought was the source of our thoughts), then it would cause all manner of mental health issues. In fact, the Greek word for womb is "hystera," and so when we call someone (often a woman) hysterical, we are saying that their womb is causing mischief.
The "solutions" or "remedies" for a wandering womb were as strange as the theory. Since the womb was supposed to be attracted to sweet smells, placing flowers or perfumes around the vagina would "lure" it down. On the flip side, if you smoked noxious substances or ate disgusting foods, it would "repel" the womb away. By using all manner of smells, you could make the womb move wherever you wanted.
The oddest "remedy" — and most male-centric of all — is that, since the wandering womb was said to be caused by heat and dryness, a good solution would be male semen, which was thought of as cooling and wet. And so, the ancient and highly inaccurate myth was born that sex could cure a woman of her "hysteria."
A lingering problem
We live today with the legacy of this kind of thinking. Freud was much taken with the idea of "hysteria," and although he did accept that men could be subject to it as well, he believed it was overwhelmingly a female problem caused by female biology. The woman, for Freud, is mostly defined by her "sexual function." What Freud calls "normal femininity" (the preferred and best outcome) is defined by passivity. A woman's ideal development is one which moves from being active and "phallic" to passive and vaginal.
Nowadays, Freud and Aristotle's legacy lies in just how easily women are defined by their sexuality. Given that men and women, both, are equally dependent on their biology, it is curious how much more often women are reduced to theirs. The idea that women are more emotional or slaves to their hormones than men is still a depressingly familiar trope. It is an idea that goes back to the Greeks.
If we think biology is important to who we are (as it most certainly is), we ought to make sure that the biology is as good and accurate as it can be.
People tend to reflexively assume that fun events – like vacations – will go by really quickly.
For many people, summer vacation can't come soon enough – especially for the half of Americans who canceled their summer plans last year due to the pandemic.
But when a vacation approaches, do you ever get the feeling that it's almost over before it starts?
If so, you're not alone.
In some recent studies Gabriela Tonietto, Sam Maglio, Eric VanEpps and I conducted, we found that about half of the people we surveyed indicated that their upcoming weekend trip felt like it would end as soon as it started.
This feeling can have a ripple effect. It can change the way trips are planned – you might, for example, be less likely to schedule extra activities. At the same time, you might be more likely to splurge on an expensive dinner because you want to make the best of the little time you think you have.
Where does this tendency come from? And can it be avoided?
Not all events are created equal
When people look forward to something, they usually want it to happen as soon as possible and last as long as possible.
We first explored the effect of this attitude in the context of Thanksgiving.
We chose Thanksgiving because almost everyone in the U.S. celebrates it, but not everyone looks forward to it. Some people love the annual family get-together. Others – whether it's the stress of cooking, the tedium of cleaning or the anxiety of dealing with family drama – dread it.
So on the Monday before Thanksgiving in 2019, we surveyed 510 people online and asked them to tell us whether they were looking forward to the holiday. Then we asked them how far away it seemed, and how long they felt it would last. We had them move a 100-point slider – 0 meaning very short and 100 meaning very long – to a location that reflected their feelings.
As we suspected, the more participants looked forward to their Thanksgiving festivities, the farther away it seemed and shorter it felt. Ironically, longing for something seems to shrink its duration in the mind's eye.
Winding the mind's clock
Most people believe the idiom “time flies when you're having fun," and research has, indeed, shown that when time seems to pass by quickly, people assume the task must have been engaging and enjoyable.
We reasoned that people might be over-applying their assumption about the relationship between time and fun when judging the duration of events yet to happen.
As a result, people tend to reflexively assume that fun events – like vacations – will go by really quickly. Meanwhile, pining for something can make the time leading up to the event seem to drag. The combination of its beginning pushed farther away in their minds – with its end pulled closer – resulted in our participants' anticipating that something they looked forward would feel as if it had almost no duration at all.
In another study, we asked participants to imagine going on a weekend trip that they either expected to be fun or terrible. We then asked them how far away the start and end of this trip felt like using a similar 0 to 100 scale. 46% of participants evaluated the positive weekend as feeling like it had no duration at all: They marked the beginning and the end of the vacation virtually at the same location when using the slider scale.
Thinking in hours and days
Our goal was to show how these two judgments of an event – the fact that it simultaneously seems farther away and is assumed to last for less time – can nearly eliminate the event's duration in the mind's eye.
We reasoned that if we didn't explicitly highlight these two separate pieces – and instead directly asked them about the duration of the event – a smaller portion of people would indicate virtually no duration for something they looked forward to.
We tested this theory in another study, in which we told participants that they would watch two five-minute-long videos back-to-back. We described the second video as either humorous or boring, and then asked them how long they thought each video would feel like it lasted.
We found that the participants predicted that the funny video would still feel shorter and was farther away than the boring one. But we also found that participants believed it would last a bit longer than the responses we received in the earlier studies.
This finding gives us a way to overcome this biased perception: focus on the actual duration. Because in this study, participants directly reported how long the funny video would last – and not the perceived distance of its beginning and its end – they were far less likely to assume it would be over just as it started.
While it sounds trivial and obvious, we often rely on our subjective feelings – not objective measures of time – when deciding how long a period of time will feel and how to best use it.
So when looking forward to much-anticipated events like vacations, it's important to remind yourself just how many days it will last.
You'll get more out of the experience – and, hopefully, put yourself in a better position to take advantage of the time you do have.