Change of Perspective

Musings on Writing, Reading, and Life Narratives

Fiction writers and literary critics speak of point of view. Social scientists are more likely to discuss perspective. But both of these terms refer to essentially the same construct: the consciousness behind the perception and narration of experience. Each individual’s point of view is unique, and point of view shapes the stories people tell to themselves and to others about themselves and their relationships with their environment. The same event narrated from two different perspectives will produce two different stories.

A change of perspective can expand our perception and reframe our thinking about our experiences. We can all benefit from an occasional change of perspective.

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Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to all, and thanks for reading!


Friday, December 28, 2007

Book Review: Inventing the Truth

Zinsser, William (ed.). Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir (1987)
Houghton Mifflin Company, 166 pages, $16.95 hardcover
ISBN 0-395-44526-4

This book originated as a series of talks sponsored by the Book-of-the-Month Club, Inc., and presented at The New York Public Library in the winter of 1986. The book contains a memoir and introduction by William Zinsser, along with sections by Russell Baker, Annie Dillard, Alfred Kazin, Toni Morrison, and Lewis Thomas.

In his introductory section, "Writing and Remembering," Zinsser says that for this series of talks
"Memoir" was defined as some portion of a life. Unlike autobiography, which moves in a dutiful line from birth to fame, omitting nothing significant, memoir assumes the life and ignores most of it. The writer of a memoir takes us back to a corner of his or her life that was unusually vivid or intense—childhood, for instance—or that was framed by unique events. By narrowing the lens, the writer achieves a focus that isn't possible in autobiography; memoir is a window into a life. (p. 21)
Other scholars writing about memoir would not agree with Zinsser about the distinction between autobiography and memoir; most use the two terms synonymously. Most, though, would probably agree with some of Zinsser's other generalizations:
  • "…a good memoir is also a work of history, catching a distinctive moment in the life of both a person and a society" (p. 22).
  • "Ego is at the heart of all the reasons why anybody writes a memoir, whether it's a book or a pamphlet or a letter to our children. Memoir is how we validate our lives" (p. 24).
  • "One central point emerged: the writer of a memoir must become the editor of his own life. He must cut and prune an unwieldy story and give it a narrative shape. His duty is to the reader, not himself" (p. 24).
This last point, about narrative shape, emerges most clearly in Russell Baker's section entitled "Life with Mother." Baker says that he finally decided to write the story of his childhood when his mother experienced what he calls a living death: her "mind went out one day as though every circuit in the city had been blown" (p. 40). Being a good journalist, he interviewed all his elderly family members and wrote a long manuscript in which everything was dutifully recorded, annotated and referenced. It was a good piece of journalism but an awful story. When Baker finally realized that the significance hinged on the story of a boy and his mother, he rewrote the entire manuscript. The new version became Growing Up, which is among the best known and most loved of American memoirs.

Annie Dillard also emphasizes the notion of memoir as an account crafted to express an idea, part of a genre she calls literary nonfiction: "…nonfiction accounts may be literary insofar as the parts of their structures cohere internally, insofar as the things are in them for the sake of the work itself, and insofar as the work itself exists in the service of idea" (p. 73).

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

A New Perspective on Trauma : Traumas can lead to spiritual growth:
From the Sun Herald of Biloxi, Mississippi, comes this article about the after-effects of trauma. We often hear about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). "There is, however, a flip side to trauma that mental health professionals only recently have begun to take a closer look at. It is called Post-Traumatic Growth, which is a fancy way of spinning an old cliche; 'That which does not kill you makes you stronger.'"

Richard Tedeschi, one of the first psychologists to use the term post-traumatic growth, identifies five main areas of personal growth after traumatic events that people talk about: "They are spiritual growth, improved sense of self, enhanced relationships, a general appreciation of the value of life and being set on a positive new life course or new life path."

The Sun Herald is also producing the Post-Katrina Mental Health blog.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Medical Mythbusting

Revealed: The seven great medical myths | Health | Reuters:
Read about "seven 'medical myths' exposed in a paper published on Friday in the British Medical Journal, which traditionally carries light-hearted features in its Christmas edition."

How's that for a change of perspective?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Daydream Believer

In the earlier post Driving on Autopilot, I talked about driving somewhere and then not remembering the trip. What were you actually doing while driving that you don't remember?

If you're like most people, you were probably daydreaming. Here's how Wikipedia describes this mental state:
Daydreaming may take the form of... a train of thought, leading the daydreamer away from being aware of his immediate surroundings, and concentrating more and more on these new directions of thought.
In his writings on creativity and the unconscious, Freud likened daydreaming to the imaginative fantasy constructions of children and to the creative state of the poet. Freud believed that people are capable of such flights of daydreaming fantasy throughout their lives. He called unsatisfied wishes the driving force behind these fantasies.

Over the years daydreaming has gotten a bad name. Freud said that daydreams fall into one of two categories: (1) ambitious wishes, serving to exalt the person creating them, or (2) erotic fantasies (a category to which, he said, women are particularly prone). Many people think of daydreaming as a waste of time and a sign of laziness.

But recent research has led to more enlightened views about daydreams. When children daydream about conquering the world or otherwise triumphing over adversity, they are imaginatively trying out various ways of existing and getting along in the world. We adults continue to do the same thing. Haven't we all daydreamed about "This is what I SHOULD have said (or done) when So-and-So insulted me. . . ."? In those instances we're imaginatively rehearsing the alternative behavior so that the next time a similar situation arises, we'll be ready. Daydreams like this also help to dissipate some of the negative emotions (anger, hurt, humiliation) we may be feeling from the incident.

So the automatic thinking that occasionally allows us to drive on autopilot isn't always bad. Sometimes it can even serve a positive, healthy function.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Reuters: Photos of the Year 2007

Check out this slideshow of 110 featured photos of the year. I bet there are several that will change your perspective on life at least a little.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Memories, Attention, and Intention

Cognitive Daily: Memories, attention, and intention

Dave Munger has written about perception over at Cognitive Daily (a cognitive psychology blog). He touches on some of the same areas I've been talking about here lately, though in a much more scientific way. His entry includes a video demonstration (QuickTime required) of what happens when we max out our brain's multitasking ability (similar to my experience of lifting weights while balancing on the BOSU).


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Perception Deception

I have to thank my personal trainer, Patti, for this insight. Patti is always looking for new exercises (which she thinks are FUN) involving balance and core stability. She's a big fan of the BOSU, which looks like this:BOSU is an acronym for "both sides utilized," which means that you can turn this thing upside down, put the soft round blue part on the floor, then try to balance standing on the flat surface.

Yesterday I was doing a pretty good job of balancing on the inverted BOSU. This feat requires a lot of concentration and focus as the brain keeps sending messages to the legs, ankles, and feet, all of which keep wiggling to keep you upright. Then Patti put a free weight in each of my hands and told me to do bicep curls. After I had done two sets of 10 bicep curls, I handed the weights back to her and jumped off the BOSU.

"I bet it hardly felt like you were doing bicep curls," Patti said.

WHOA! She was right. My brain was working so hard on maintaining my balance that it didn't have time to focus on what my arms were doing. (Actually, it's probably more accurate to say that, when I started lifting the weights, my brain also had to take that movement into account and work even harder at keeping me from falling off the BOSU.) At any rate, my brain wasn't concerned with registering the heaviness of the weights because it just had too much else on its mind.

Do you remember the picture that could be either a vase or two faces in profile from an earlier post? Once you could recognize both ways to see the image, you could still only see one image or the other at any given moment. Even though our brains are amazingly quick and slick calculating apparatuses, they are limited in the amount of input they can process at once.

My experience of doing bicep curls on the BOSU is another example of this. When too many different stimuli are bombarding us all at once, our brain will pick out the most important ones and selectively ignore the rest. Since balance is crucial to a creature that walks upright, my brain put most of its effort there and paid little mind to those 8-pound weights in my hands. Those same weights would have felt a lot heavier if I had been simply standing on the floor while doing those bicep curls.

Thanks for this informative observation, Patti. (And no, this doesn't mean that we should increase my weights.)

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Improve the Mind by Reading the Classics

Improve the Mind by Reading the Classics

"By reading the classics to improve your mind you can give yourself an advantage." This entry from a motivational blog gives examples of 10 ways that reading the classics can help you succeed.


Monday, December 10, 2007

Quotation of the Day

book coverAbout interpersonal relationships:

"the paradoxical aspect of my experience is that the more I am simply willing to be myself, in all this complexity of life and the more I am willing to understand and accept the realities in myself and in the other person, the more change seems to be stirred up. It is a very paradoxical thing--that to the degree that each one of us is willing to be himself, then he finds not only himself changing; but he finds that other people to whom he relates are also changing. At least this is a very vivid part of my experience, and one of the deepest things I think I have learned in my personal and professional life."

Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person (p. 22)

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Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Driving on Autopilot

Have you ever driven somewhere and, when you got to your destination, had no memory of the trip? It's not that you weren't paying attention. You were. And if something out-of-the-ordinary had happened, you would have been right on top of it. But as long as everything went along in an ordinary, routine manner, you were able to drive on autopilot.

In the earlier post We See What We Expect to See, I talked about schemata (which is the plural of schema), the patterns we unconsciously apply to things we perceive in order to organize and make sense out of them. The more often we apply a particular schema, the more deeply ingrained and readily accessible it becomes. Someone who is just learning to drive or is unfamiliar with the area would not have the experience I described above. Only someone who has been driving the same route for a long time will slip into autopilot.

Such automatic thinking can be harmless, sometimes even enjoyable, but it can also be dangerous. It can prevent us from learning new things, meeting new people, and finding new ways to solve old problems. A very obvious example of automatic thinking is stereotyping people on the basis of their religion, their ethnicity, or their appearance. But automatic thinking can also happen in more subtle ways that we are often not even aware of.

I used to have a friend whom I originally met in a situation where she was the instructor and I was a student. We became friends and interacted in lots of other situations, but she was never able to shake off the instructor-student schema. In her mind, she was always the instructor and I was always the student. This meant that she could never accept that I knew anything that she didn't already know, even in areas in which I had a lot of training and experience and she had none. She was never able either to adjust her schema of me as student or to apply a different schema that was more appropriate for our changed circumstances. This inflexibility of thinking strained our relationship and contributed (although it was only one of several contributing factors) to the dissolution of our friendship. Because of her rigid, automatic thinking, she lost many opportunities to learn new things. She also lost a friend.

How can we avoid becoming mired in the ruts of automatic thinking? By seeking a change of perspective. If the situation warrants, try literally looking at something from a different angle. Or try to imagine an event from someone else's point of view. Or, better yet, ask other people for their perspectives on an issue. Look for ways of approaching a problem that are as different as possible from your usual approach. Don't always grab on to the first idea or interpretation that comes to mind.

And, at least occasionally, explore a different route on your daily commute.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown

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