Although this blog is mainly about psychology, I have interests in mythology and have earlier reviewed Devdutt Pattanaik‘s ’7 secrets of Shiva’, under the Blogadda’s book review program. So when an opportunity to review Epic Love Stories by Ashok Banker came under the same program, I could not resist myself. While Devdutt Pattanaik reinterprets myths in modern light and draws explicit analogies , Ashok Banker sticks to a retelling of the myth in its original spirit- and how beautifully.
Banker has come out with a set of five such short books in the epic love stories series- based around Mahabharata, and two of them were sent for me to review- they arrived today and as they were comparatively short and intriguing, I ended up the better part of my evening reading them and musing about the themes depicted.
The first book I read was the one story I was already sort-of familiar with- that of Bhishma and Amba (a love story that was never meant to be). It s a simple tale of abduction by Bhishma of three princesses from a swyamwara, so that he can bequeath them to his cousin as his wives. While the elder princess Amba starts by hating her abductor, :on the course of the journey back to Histanpur, seeing the valor and protection offered to them by Bhishma, she falls for him.
One can easily mistake this for one of the earliest depictions of Stockholm syndrome, but then one would miss the point that Bhishma didn’t abuse or harass the princesses , but rather saved their lives, although, in a way he had also abducted them.
If the success of a fiction is judged by its ability to induce in the readers a willful suspension of disbelief, Ashok has succeeded brilliantly. You could almost visualize and rationalize the different sorts of arrows, javelins, canons etc used in the fight between Bhishma and his pursuers. So could you feel the chemistry building up between Bhishma and Amba. Ashok also ends at the right note, leaving Amba forlorn and spurned and headed toward nowhere.
The other book in the series I read was ‘the love triangle that changed destiny’: a story about Devyani, Sharmishta and Yayati. Despite what the appearances looked like, it was not a simple love triangle story. Rather there were multiple stories embedded in it, some providing the context to the story- embedding it in the eternal fight between Asuras and Devas for supremacy- while others subtly highlighting the Varna system- how people can become a Brahmin, despite being a raj-kstriya by birth, or how a Brahmin could elevate others to brahminhood or curse them if need be- how Brahmins and Kstriyas existed, an dsometimes thought them superior than the other- what the different Dharmas of different Varnas were, the slave-hood and the Kings right (nay indeed Dharma) to sleep with the maids, and beyond this all there is an overarching theme of Sanjeevini or Eternal life or at least life that could be lived a thousand years or a life where one’s old age can be exchanged with someone for his youth—all questions that make one ponder that if we got life elongated or became immortal, would we still remain the same animals – driven by same lusts to retain our youth/ or will we be more driven by human concerns- the same Dharma obligation to feel fulfilled in our productive years by doing our duty?
Tough questions that remain lurking in the background, while ostensibly the story is mostly about whether you can trick someone into love or whether it follows naturally and from within.
This was a slightly longer read, but again the narration is fantastic and one keeps turning page after page, especially fro someone like me who had forgotten the original story and was rediscovering the myth.
Overall it was a nice evening spent – musing about the theme of love in the epics, about unwed mothers and sages siring sons, about swayamwaras and apparent choice wielded by women, about the good things in life like keeping Vows and sacrificing for your parents and about the darker side, where maids are treated as proprieties and inter-varna marriages are problematic and where someone could forcibly take someone as his or his cousins wife.
There is such a richness of emotions and wisdom, if one were to revisit the epics and try to appreciate the universals behind such folklore- its to the credit of authors like Banker that they are able to pull people back to such subjects.
This review is a part of the biggest Book Review Program for Indian Bloggers. Participate now to get free books!
I have a post over at Psychology Today about Labeling and its deleterious effects. That did lead to some heated discussions on Facebook, so be sure to add your voice to the discussion by commenting on the post.
The way I have framed the above issues, I’m sure you know by now, which way my sympathies lie. To make it explicit, I do not like labelling children / adult who have slightly differently wired brains, or who are temporarily thrown off-track due to acute stressors and circumstances beyond their control, with mental disease/illness labels – I believe the stigmatisation that accompanies such a labelling does more harm than good. This does not mean labelling per se is bad- we do need to label differences amongst us, both to harness properly the special abilities that such a diverse population presents, and to help them overcome whatever shortcomings they have by providing adequate and tailored societal support to accommodate such differences. Labelling becomes bad and counterproductive when the label is seen as permanent and innate (even a ‘gifted’ label is counterproductive if such giftedness is seen as innate and non-malleable), and has a negative, stigmatising and disability connotation.
Read the rest at the source; the last point needs elaboration. Just as labeling someone as Gifted may have negative effects, labeling someone as stupid or incapable also has long lasting negative effects. My TOI blog post touches on how Sir John Gurdon faced such a situation and came out victorious.
What are the chances that you would overcome such negative feedback, not be irrevocably scarred by such negativity, but instead show a high degree of resilience and positive attitude and take that as a challenge rather than a setback; and finally become not only a successful scientist, but also receive the highest honour in your field- a Nobel Prize? If that seems too good to be true, take heart. Sir John Gurdon, who received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for 2012 has actually lived that life. However, while most of us may wither into nothingness after getting so much negative early feedback; he took that as a challenge – he got that report framed and put above his desk in the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge (the only piece of accomplishment he ever got framed!) – And decided to prove his teacher wrong.
This brings me to announcing my brand new blog at Times Of India, which would be targeted more towards the layman, and also have a contemporary and Indian touch. My first post, on the occasion of world Mental Health day, questioned the exclusive focus on disease and illness to the detriment of a focus on health and positive aspects.
Consider again the widely available public knowledge that some children, having a particular genetic vulnerability (one form of Serotonin transporter gene), if abused as children, have a greater likelihood of getting depressed when they grow up. How many of us, also know of the recent Orchid and Dandelion hypothesis, whereby the genetic vulnerability is more of a heightened sensitivity to environment, whereby the same vulnerable children, if abused, can become depressed; but if provided a nurturing and supportive environment, can paradoxically be more resilient and resistant to stressors than those not having that gene variant. However, as the discourse on protective and resilient factors is lacking, the spotlight continues to shine on seeing such children as ‘at-risk’, rather than seeing them as resilient, if provided the right early start. These orchid children, requiring exquisite early care, to bloom fully, continue to be seen as liabilities rather than assets to be proud of.
And that finally brings me to my Split Blog Disorder. I think I owe a post listing all my various blogs. If you are reading this you are already aware of The Mouse Trap.
My other psychology themed blog is at Psychology Today, called The Fundamental Four.
I use my The Creativity Post blog The Muses and The Furies to focus exclusively on creativity and intelligence and also their relationship to insanity.
I have started blogging for Times Of India, and Mind Cafe focuses on topics of general interest with a psychological angle.
Apart from this I have a Tumblr blog Flotsam and Jetsam, where i typically post quotes that I find interesting.
The Mouse Trap readers will be glad to know that I have started writing a column over at The Creativity Post, titled ‘The muses and the furies’ where i will talk about creativity and the thin line dividing genius and madness.
My first post focuses on delineating the components of creativity. Here is an excerpt:
I propose that creativity is made of four factors:
1. The first factor is SURPRISE: whether one produces something that continues captivating attention, even though it becomes familiar over time. This may result from rare and remote association of ideas or a recombination process that brings familiar things together in an unfamiliar/unexpected way. This is the ability to think beyond conventional boundaries or categories, loosen up the associations and make remote associations between and within categories. This is also related to flexibility with which you can walk across categories and disciplines. An example might be Mona Lisa by Da Vinci or putting a urinal in an art gallery.
2. The second factor is ORIGINALITY: whether one produces something that is really unique and novel and unheard of before. This is creativity that is not just combinatorial but perhaps associated with transforming and transcending. As pre Pribram novelty is a result of new rearrangements of old ideas. If the first factor is about combination, this may be thought of as permutation or reordering. This is related to originality scores. An example might be cubism by Picasso where the face/familiar objects are rearranged, sort of.
3. The third factor is BEAUTY: whether one produces something that is appealing and aesthetically satisfying. Beauty lies in the eyes of beholder and is related to subjective preferences. Identifying beauty is a fast and frugal process and as per one conception, we find something beautiful, if we can process it easily (that is why average faces are more beautiful- ease of processing). This is related to fluency scores or the ease with which you can ideate. Expressionisms by Monet et al looks beautiful because it’s easy on eyes.
4. The fourth factor is of UTILITY: whether one produces something that is useful. As evident from the alternate uses task the utility of something is ambiguous and context dependent and yet measured objectively and not subjectively. Creativity is the ability to deal with this inherent ambiguity, be comfortable with it and look at things from multiple simultaneous perspectives to find useful contexts in which to use/ apply it. This is the ability to see if the solution actually solves the problem. Also the ability to elaborate an idea and add details to it, so as to make it useful/ relevant. Here, one can focus on one stream of thought/ idea and take it to logical conclusion, adding details and making it complex. The Miniature art of India, that has elaborate details, is an example of this form, and is useful in reconstructing history.
Read the full text here.
While we are talking about creativity, I recently engaged with Sam McNerney in a debate about whether a focus on small c creativity detracts from addressing the really important questions of Genius. Again an excerpt follows:
While I agree with Sam, whole-heartedly, that big C creativity merits a concerted focus, I also believe that small c is the way we will inch closer to the enigma of genius. It’s true that myths about creativity — that it is easy, natural for some, mostly cognitive in nature — should be dispelled in favor of a more rounded account of genius that takes grit, positivity, endurance, effort and curiosity into account. It is equally true that we can only reveal the essence of the creative process — that it involves recombination to produce surprise element, or transformations to produce novelty element, that great works of art/creativity are selected for by arbitrary aesthetic preferences as well as utilitarian concerns — by focusing closely on the small, everyday c creativity and the processes underlying them.
Lest I be misunderstood, my objection to Sam is on two counts: one, that the perpetuating myth of anguished art and tormented genius is as counterproductive as any other myth. Most creators/ innovators are likely to have positive frames of mind that treat failures as learning opportunities; I’m not saying they don’t struggle or work hard, but they don’t, necessarily, see the struggle as painful, but rather see it as challenging and enriching.
Second, a focus on small c creativity is as necessary as a focus on Big C creativity — as that approach is more likely to yield early fruits and help in identification of mechanisms.
Read the full argument here.
Another debate in which I recently engaged was with Douglas Fields (his ‘The other Brain’ was earlier reviewed on the mouse trap) – in which I argued that academic success was multi-factorial and good grades and test scores are not an either/or proposition . Excerpt follows:
Thus I would suggest that all academic success, however they are measured, are dependent on four factors: innate ability or intelligence, self-control and hard work, grit and motivational resilience and finally, a positive, incremental mindset. While some academic outcomes, like achievement test results (e.g., SATs) may depend disproportionately on innate ability and mindset (test results and transfer of learning), other outcomes—like grades—may depend more on personality factors like self-control and grit/motivation.
Read the full text here.
Infants’ and children’s personality structure is studied by studying their ‘temperaments’. To me, personality structure enfolds over time and there are some traits that are more genetic and heritable in nature while the remaining are more self-chosen and under self-control. The former may be named more temperamental in nature, while the latter may be named more character strengths like.
A model of personality that subsumes but artificially divdes the personality traits into temperaments and character traits is the Cloninger‘s TCI based model of personality. Although popular and theory based, it at times lacks empirical support.
Infant and child psychologists, study personality under the rubric of temperament, as it is assumed that much of the child’s personality is due to genetics and developmental influences are not yet strong/influential enough.
So what are the popular models of childhood temperaments? A synthesis is provided by Zuckerman in his influential book “Psychobiology of personality”. He discusses the models of many influential child theorists and comes to the final list of 6 temperaments that are most relevant/common across schema.
These are (in a developmentally unfolding order (as per me)) :
- Negative emotionality – gets upset and cries easily, is easily frightened and/or has a quick temper, and is not easygoing
- Approach (sensation seeking) – Approach towards cues of reward or novelty with positive affect
- Activity (energy/vigor)- always on the go from the time of waking, cannot sit still for long, fidgets at meals and similar occasions, prefers active games to quiet ones
- Persistence (perseverance) – The length of time a particular activity is pursued and the continuation in an activity in spite of attempts at interference
- Anger/frustration – Frustration/ anger in response to goal-blocking
- Sociability – likes to be with others, makes friends easily, prefers to play with others rather than alone, is not shy.
- Impulsivity (spontaneity)- difficulty in learning self-control and resistance to temptation, gets bored easily, goes from toy to toy quickly.
- Sensitivity (sentimentality) – The intensity of stimulation in any sensory modality that is necessary to evoke a response
To boot, the first four temperaments are a dynamics between the polarities of approach(pleasure) - withdrawal (pain) vis-a-vis the polarity of arousal (active) and inhibition (passive).
Similarly, the last four temperaments can be conceived of as the dynamics between self/other and being broadly or narrowly focused and engaged.
To elaborate, the first group of temperaments can be associated with avoidance motivation and the last group with approach motivation. In the former, a sensitivity to feel threatening stimuli painfully leads to negative emotionality or Fear; while when derives pleasure from the same one feels Thrill/excitement/surprise and has sensation seeking or approach temperament. Similarly, a sensitivity to approach the desirable stimuli actively by showing Activity or passively by showing interest (from a distance) leads to the other two dimensions.
Similar dynamic exists for e.g. for anger/frustration and sociability - when one is governed by social concerns and is focused on others (con-specifics) , at times of conflicts/stress one may fight/show aggression or utilize the strategy of tend/befriend. The inclination towards former results in aggressive/conduct disorder/anti-social temperaments; while a propensity for latter results in agreeable/sociable temperaments.
Similarly, one can hypothesize that when one is self-focused and in pursuit of solitary activities, one either is very internally driven, impulsive and spontaneous; or one is more externally sensitive to context and is still socially conformant.
Finally, here are the mappings between childhood temperaments and adult personality traits as per me:
- -ve emotionality: Neuroticism
- Sensation seeking/approach: Extraversion
- Activity : Extraversion
- Persistence: Conscientiousness
- Anger/frustration: Non-conformity
- Sociability: Agreeableness
- Implusivity: Extraversion
- Sensitivity: Neurotincism
A new study by Ruthsatz and Urbach is doing the rounds nowadays. That study has nothing to do with Autism or ADHD per se. The study focuses on child prodigies and finds that they have high levels of intelligence, enhanced working memory and that they pay attention to details.
What the study also found was high level of autistic relatives and high scores on Autism spectrum for the prodigies. The relation between autism and prodigiousness was mediated by the endo-phenotype ‘paying attention to detail’ and none of the other symptoms of ASD seemed to play a role.
Many savants also are high on ASD and have exception working as well as long term memory. There too they pay excessive attention to details and are fascinated by speical interests.
On the other hand there is gathering literature that suggests that the ADHD kid is basically on the creative side of the spectrum – restless, trying multiple strategies, having diffused and peripheral attention, and to an extent novelty and sensation seeking.
Also, if one thinks about that for a minute, autism and ADHD seem to be opposed on a number of dimensions. The three basic features of ADHD are 1) inattentiveness and distractibility vs too much focus and fascination for an object shown by Autistic kid 2) impulsiveness vs restricted and repetitive motions and interests of the autistic kid and finally 3) hyperactivity vs restrained interactions and communications of the autistic kid.
There is also some data from fly models that suggest that autism and ADHD are opposites in a sense.
I may even go ahead and stick my neck and say that while autism is primarily characterized by emotion of Interest/ fascination/ attention ; ADHD is characterized by emotion of Wonder/Awe/surprise.
One theory of autism suggests that the social and communicative difficulties arise as the child hides in a cocoon to prevent over-stimulation and sensory overload; a theory of ADHS says that the child is under-stimulated and needs stimulants like Ritalin to achieve baseline of activation and sensory stimulus.
Another popular theory of autism posits that it arises primarily due to ‘weak central coherence’, or inability to see the context/ gestalt/ ‘the big picture’. The ADHD kid on the other hand is hypothesized to use a lot of peripheral attention and daydreams missing what is being centrally taught in the classroom.
And that brings me to the root of the differences in my opinion; while the Autism spectrum is characterized by a local processing style, the ADHD-psychotic spectrum is characterized by a global processing style.
Some clarifications are due here. I believe ADHD to fall on the psychotic spectrum and have been proposing the autism and psychosis as opposites on a continuum model for close to eternity.
Also, when I say global/local processing styles I dont restrict the application to perception alone, but extend it to include cognitive style too.
There is a lot of work that has been done on global/ local processing styles with respect to perception, using Navon letter tasks and it is fairly established that normally people lean towards the global processing style.
Forrester et al extend this to cover there GLOMOSYS system that posits two basic types of perceptual/cognitive style- global and local.
It is instructive to pause and note here that psychosis is associated with a global processing style while autism with attention to details.
It is also instructive to pause and note that similar to autism-psychosis continuum , it seems Intelligence and creativity are also in a sense opposed to each other. Also while creativity is associated with broad cognitive style that is divergent; intelligence is conceived of as narrow and focused application of abilities.
That brings me to my final analogy: while autistic kids may have pockets of intelligence and savantism and may be driving the evolution of intelligence; it is the ADHD kids who are more likely to be creative and are driving the evolution of creativity.
The romantic notion that psychosis is the price for creativity may not be untrue.
Joanne Ruthsatz, & Jourdan B. Urbach (2012). Child prodigy: A novel cognitive profile places elevated general intelligence,
exceptional working memory and attention to detail at the root
of prodigiousness Intelligence DOI: 10.1016/j.intell.2012.06.002
Jens F¨orster, & Laura Dannenberg (2010). GLOMOsys: A Systems Account of Global Versus Local Processing Psychological Inquiry, DOI: 10.1080/1047840X.2010.487849