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.

[Return to MetaPerspective]

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Perspectives on Intelligence

Psychologist Carol Dweck has been studying intelligence for a long time. In an article in the current issue of Scientific American Mind (see complete reference at end of post) she discusses what she has discovered about how children's ideas of intelligence influence their performance.

One key discovery is that children's beliefs about intelligence inform their motivation about learning. Children who believe that intelligence is an innate, unchangeable trait often become frustrated and give up when they come up against something such as a math problem that they can't solve. In contrast, children who believe that intelligence is a quality that can develop as they learn approach a difficult math problem as a challenge, an opportunity to look for and try out new potential solutions. Dweck calls these two groups helpless and mastery-oriented learners, respectively.

Helpless learners, who think that intelligence is a fixed trait, believe that they have only a set amount of intelligence. Dweck calls this a fixed mind-set. When helpless learners encounter a problem they can't solve, they become frustrated and give up because they think they just aren't smart enough. Such children see mistakes as the result of a lack of ability, and to them lack of ability is something they can't change. Mistakes undermine their self-confidence, and they therefore avoid challenges, because challenges make mistakes more likely. These children fear that working hard will make them look dumb. Students with a fixed mind-set are more interested in getting good grades than in learning.

Mastery-oriented learners, on the other hand, believe that intelligence is a quality that can be developed through education and hard work. These children think that mistakes result from a lack of effort, not a lack of ability, so their mistakes motivate them to work harder. They see challenges as exciting, as opportunities to learn. Dweck calls this a growth mind-set. Students with this mind-set value learning over grades; in addition, their belief about the effectiveness of effort motivates them to try harder when they receive a poor grade.

Dweck's research has shown that programs designed to teach students they can increase their intelligence through education and effort work for students at all levels, from elementary school through college. To help students develop a growth mind-set rather than a fixed mind-set theory of intelligence, Dweck and colleagues have developed an interactive computer program called Brainology, which she says should be availably in mid-2008. The program teaches students about what the brain does and how they can make it work better.

Fostering a growth mind-set about intelligence will help people function better not only at school, but also at work and in their social relationships, Dweck says. In the work world, people whose growth mind-set has taught them that feedback leads to improvement will be more receptive to constructive criticism and advice than people with a fixed mind-set. In personal relationships, people with a growth mind-set will probably be more willing to acknowledge problems and try to work through them than will fixed mind-set people.

Here are some of the implications of Dwecks's work for raising smart kids:
  • Don't praise your children's intelligence. Instead, compliment them on their effort, determination, and perseverance.
  • Discuss mistakes not as failures, but as challenges or opportunities to learn something new.
  • If children become discouraged or frustrated, encourage them to look for different ways to approach a problem.
  • Teach children about famous people (Dweck suggests Marie Curie and Thomas Edison) who accomplished great things through dedication and great effort.
The point is to help children develop a growth perspective rather than a fixed perspective on intelligence.


Dweck, Carol S. "The Secret to Raising Smart Kids." Scientific American Mind December 2007/January 2008: 36-43.

© 2008 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Perspective on Middle Age

Middle-age is truly depressing, study finds | U.S. | Reuters

A new study analyzing data from 2 million people in 80 countries concludes that depression is most common among men and women in their 40s. Researchers found that a graph of peoples' level of happiness measured against their age fell into a U-shaped curve, with higher levels of happiness at both ends of life and a dip into depression during the middle years.

The research, which will be published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, used data on depression, anxiety levels, and general mental well-being. Researchers found that the general pattern pertains "to men and women, to single and married people, to rich and poor, and to those with and without children."

The researchers offer two possible reasons for the dip into depression in middle age followed by a rise back up to happiness:
  1. at middle age people begin to realize that they will not fulfill many of their earlier aspirations
  2. when people in middle age see their peers begin to die, they begin to value their own remaining years and embrace life once more
Finally, the study ends on a positive note: "if people make it to aged 70 and are still physically fit, they are on average as happy and mentally healthy as a 20-year old."

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Reminiscence & Regret

Psychology - New Year's Resolutions - Regret - Mental Health - New York Times

This New York Times article by Benedict Carey is about the person you could have been (or could have become), what psychologists call lost possible selves.
Over the past decade and a half, psychologists have studied how regrets — large and small, recent and distant — affect people’s mental well-being. They have shown, convincingly though not surprisingly, that ruminating on paths not taken is an emotionally corrosive exercise. The common wisdom about regret — that what hurts the most is not what you did but what you didn’t do — also appears to be true, at least in the long run.

Yet it is partly from studies of lost possible selves that psychologists have come to a more complete understanding of how regret molds personality. These studies, in people recently divorced and those caring for a sick child, among others, suggest that it is possible to entertain idealized versions of oneself without being mocked or shamed. And they suggest that doing so may serve an important psychological purpose.
Researchers have found that, in general, people react to past mistakes or missed opportunities in one of three ways:

  1. Some fixate on the problems and are at increased risk for mood disorders.
  2. Some ignore, and thereby avoid thinking about, the problems.
  3. Some, in a position between the first two, move carefully among their problem memories and try to deal with the most salient ones.

People's age at time of reflection may influence how they view their regrets. Carey reports on a 2003 study that revealed a contrast between young adults' and older adults' reactions to decisions they regret. Among persons who scored high in psychological well-being, young adults "tended to think of regretted decisions as all their own — perhaps because they still had time to change course"; older adults, in contrast, "tended to share blame for their regretted decisions. 'I tried to reach out to him, but the effort wasn’t returned.'”

A change of perspective may also influence the way people react emotionally to unpleasant incidents from the past:
Even the perspective from which people remember slights or mistakes can affect the memories’ emotional impact, new research suggests. A recent Columbia study found that reimagining painful scenes from a third-person point of view, as if seeing oneself in a movie, blunted their emotional sting.
But reflection on lost possible selves is not necessarily all bad. In a recent article (see reference below) psychologists Laura King and Joshua Hicks argue that "the capacity to acknowledge what is regrettable in life emerges from maturity and contributes to maturation itself."

The key to King and Hicks's approach is a view of goal change as a developmental opportunity in adulthood. While setting goals and trying to achieve them is a process that gives us purpose in life, it is also important to be able to realize when it's more appropriate to disengage from a particular goal than to continue to pursue it. The process of evaluating goals and considering whether it's time to let them go is, as King and Hicks say, one of life's "teachable moments." Acknowledging the necessity to change one's life goals necessarily involves creating new goals that take into account one's current situation.

Two additional concepts important in King and Hicks's argument are happiness (a subjective sense of well-being) and complexity (the level of complexity with which one experiences oneself and the world), which they describe as two aspects of maturity. It is the people unable to disengage from currently impossible "possible selves" who are most negatively affected by the bitterness of regret. But while happiness "requires that individuals truly divest themselves of previously sought after goals," the development of complexity "may require an examination of these very goals."

A mature person is one who acknowledges the loss of a possible self but is not consumed by that loss and who maintains a commitment to currently important goals. Regrets "become less regrettable as they are incorporated into the ever-changing life story."


King, L. A., & Hicks, J. A. (2007). Whatever happened to "what might have been"? Regrets, happiness, and maturity. American Psychologist, 62(7), 625-636.

© 2008 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Book Review: The Reader, the Text, the Poem

Rosenblatt, Louise M. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (1978)
Carbondale, Ill., 196 pages, $10.95 hardcover
ISBN 0-8093-0883-5

Rosenblatt is one of the proponents of the reader-response theory of literary criticism, a concept that emerged in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s as a reaction to New Criticism, which treated a literary work as an object that should be considered without reference to the reader’s experience of it. Reader-response criticism emphasizes the reader’s reaction while reading a literary work in what Rosenblatt in the preface of this book calls “the reader’s contribution in the two-way, ‘transactional’ relationship with the text” (p. ix). In reaction to the New Critics, Rosenblatt tells us, “I rejected the notion of the poem-as-object, and the neglect of both author and reader” (p. xii).

In Chapter 1: The Invisible Reader, Rosenblatt says that toward the end of the eighteenth century, the author emerged as a dominant entity in a work of literature. “Even those who seemed to continue the concern for reality admitted ultimately the preeminence of the author […]. Thus the reader was left to play the role of invisible eavesdropper” (p. 2). Further, the “twentieth-century reaction against the obsession with the poet and his emotions” brought “even more unrelenting invisibility” to the reader (p. 3).

Chapter 2: The Poem as Event rejects New Criticism’s contention that a literary work exists on its own, independent of either its author or the reader:
The poem […] must be thought of as an event in time. It is not an object or an ideal entity. It happens during a coming-together, a compenetration, of a reader and a text. The reader brings to the text his past experience and present personality. Under the magnetism of the ordered symbols of the text, he marshals his resources and crystallizes out from the stuff of memory, thought, and feeling a new order, a new experience, which he sees as the poem. This becomes part of the ongoing stream of his life experience, to be reflected on from any angle important to him as a human being. (p. 12)

“The text of a poem or of a novel or a drama is like a musical score” (p. 13), Rosenblatt says. Further, “’The Poem’ seen as an event in the life of a reader, as embodied in a process resulting from the confluence of reader and text, should be central to a systematic theory of literature” (p. 16).

Chapter 3: Efferent and Aesthetic Reading sets out to define the difference between reading a work of literature and reading another kind of written communication such as a newspaper article or scientific treatise “by showing how the event that produces the reading of a poem differs from other reading-events” (p. 23). Rosenblatt defines the type of reading in which the main purpose is to take away information (e.g., reading a newspaper article, a recipe, a history book) as “efferent” (p. 24). “In aesthetic reading, in contrast, the reader’s primary concern is with what happens during the actual reading event” (p. 24). She acknowledges that sometimes “the same text may be read either efferently or aesthetically” (p. 25). In explaining her theory of the reader’s experience, Rosenblatt refers to Coleridge’s famous statement about poetry: “The reader should be carried forward, not merely or chiefly by the mechanical impulse of curiosity, or by a restless desire to arrive at the final solution; but by the pleasurable activity of mind excited by the attractions of the journey itself” (p. 28; Rosenblatt’s italics).

In Chapter 4: Evoking a Poem Rosenblatt explains that the experience of evoking the poem goes on as the reader gets further into the work. The term poem here refers to the artistic creation that the reader constructs while reading a literary work. (Rosenblatt is not discussing only poetry here, but any artistic work of literature.) The reader, she continues, “is immersed in a creative process that goes on largely below the threshold of awareness” (p. 52). This process “imposes the delicate task of sorting the relevant from the irrelevant in a continuing process of selection, revision, and expansion” (p. 53):
As one decodes the opening lines or sentences and pages of a text, one begins to develop a tentative sense of a framework within which to place what will follow. Underlying this is the assumption that this body of words, set forth in certain patterns and sequences on the page, bears the potentiality for a reasonably unified or integrated, or at the very least coherent, experience. One evolves certain expectations about the diction, the subject, the ideas, the themes, the kind of text, that will be forthcoming. Each sentence, each phrase, each word, will signal certain possibilities and exclude others, thus limiting the arc of expectations. What the reader has elicited from the text up to any point generates a receptivity to certain kinds of ideas, overtones, or attitudes. Perhaps one can think of this as an alerting of certain areas of memory, a stirring-up of certain reservoirs of experience, knowledge, and feeling. As the reading proceeds, attention will be fixed on the reverberations of implications that result from fulfillment or frustration of those expectations. (p. 54)

This process itself is part of the appeal of reading a work of literature:
interest seems to be the name given to the reader’s need to live through to some resolution of the tensions, questions, curiosity or conflicts aroused by the text. This need to resolve, to round out, gives impetus to the organizing activity of the reader. What we call a sense of form also manifests itself in such progression, the arousal of expectations, the movement toward some culmination or completion. (pp. 54-55)

Perhaps this notion of interest explains the appeal of a book like Corelli’s Mandolin, in which not much seems to happen for the first 150 pages or so. “Underlying all this organizing activity […] is the assumption that the text offers the basis for a coherent experience […]. If such a putting-together, such a com-position, does not eventually happen, the cause may be felt to be either a weakness in the text, or a failure on the reader’s part” (p. 55).

One potential objection to the reader-response theory of literary criticism is that it suggests that anyone’s reading of a work is just as valid as any other reading, since the whole point is for a particular person to react to the work. But Rosenblatt explains that some readings are more informed than others and that people can become better readers through practice and experience:
Past literary experiences serve as subliminal guides as to the genre to be anticipated, the details to be attended to, the kinds of organizing patterns to be evolved […]. Traditional subjects, themes, treatments, may provide the guides to organization and the background against which to recognize something new or original in the text […]. Awareness—more or less explicit—of repetitions, echoes, resonances, repercussions, linkages, cumulative effects, contrasts, or surprises is the mnemonic matrix for the structuring of emotion, idea, situation, character, plot—in short, for the evocation of a work of art. (pp. 57-58)

“For the experienced reader, much of this has become automatic, carried on through a continuing flow of responses, syntheses, readjustment, and assimilation. Under such pressure, the irrelevant or confusing referents for the verbal symbols evidently often are ignored or are not permitted to rise into consciousness” (p. 58). Anyone who has seen the movie The Sixth Sense with Bruce Willis knows how this process of ignoring what doesn’t fit works. The reader’s reading process allows “compatible associations into the focus of attention” (p. 60).

Rosenblatt further addresses this potential objection to reader-response criticism in Chapter 5: The Text: Openness and Constraint. Here she is concerned with “the wide range of referential and affective responses that might be activated, and the fact that the reader must manage these responses, must select from them” (p. 75). Remembering that the reading process is a “two-way, ‘transactional’ relationship,” she insists that a reader’s response to the text must be grounded in the text itself: “when we turn from the broader environment of the reading act to the text itself, we need to recognize that a very important aspect of a text is the cues it provides as to what stance the reader should adopt” (p. 81).
The importance of the text is not denied by recognition of its openness. The text is the author’s means of directing the attention of the reader […]. The reader, concentrating his attention on the world he [the author] has evoked, feels himself freed for the time from his own preoccupations and limitations. Aware that the blueprint of this experience is the author’s text, the reader feels himself in communication with another mind, another world. (p. 86)

Finally, one becomes a better reader through practice and experience: “As with all texts, the reader must bring more than a literal understanding of the individual words. He must bring a whole body of cultural assumptions, practical knowledge, awareness of literary conventions, readinesses to think and feel. These provide the basis for weaving a meaningful structure around the clues offered by the verbal symbols” (p. 88).

Rosenblatt continues this argument in Chapter 6: The Quest for “The Poem Itself,” where she emphasizes that she does not “claim that anything any reader makes of the text is acceptable. Two prime criteria of validity as I understand it are the reader’s interpretation not be contradicted by any element of the text, and that nothing be projected for which there is no verbal basis” (p. 115). The New Critics, she argues, sought
to rescue the poem as a work of art from earlier confusions with the poem either as a biographical document or as a document in intellectual and social history. A mark of twentieth-century criticism thus became depreciation of such approaches to literature and development of the technique of “close reading” of the work as an autonomous entity […]. The reaction against romantic impressionism fostered the ideal of an impersonal or objective criticism. Impressionist critics were charged with forgetting “the poem itself” as they pursued the adventures of their souls among masterpieces. (p. 102)

In the final chapter, Chapter 7: Interpretation, Evaluation, Criticism, Rosenblatt addresses what she sees as a division that has resulted from too great an emphasis on New Criticism:
Recent critical and literary theory is replete with references to “the informed reader,” “the competent reader,” “the ideal reader.” All suggest a certain distinction from, if not downright condescension toward, the ordinary reader. This reflects the elitist view of literature and criticism that in recent decades has tended to dominate academic and literary circles. (p. 138)

Let us look at the reality of the literary enterprise, of “literature” as a certain kind of activity of human beings in our culture. Instead of a contrast or break between the ordinary reader and the knowledgeable critic, we need to stress the basic affinity of all readers of literary works of art. The general reader needs to honor his own relationship with the text. (p. 140)

She wishes to break down elitism based upon the supposed quality of one’s reading preferences: “Despite the differences between the readings of great or technically complex works and the readings of popular ‘trashy’ works, they share some common attributes: the aesthetic stance, the living-through, under guidance of the text, of feelings, ideas, actions, conflicts, and resolutions beyond the scope of the reader’s own world” (p. 143).

The literary critic is, after all, just another reader.
Like other readers, critics may reveal the text’s potentialities for responses different—perhaps more sensitive and more complex—from our own. The critic may have developed a fuller and more articulate awareness of the literary, ethical, social, or philosophic concepts that he brings to the literary transaction, and may thus provide us with a basis for uncovering the assumptions underlying our own responses. In this way, critics may function not as stultifying models to be echoed but as teachers, stimulating us to grow in our own capacities to participate creatively and self-critically in literary transactions. […] we must at least hope for an increasingly independent body of readers, who take the critic not as model but as a fellow reader, with whom to agree or disagree, or whose angle of vision may in some instances seem remote from their own. (pp. 148-149)

Finally, Rosenblatt wants to put the joy back into reading: “it is hard at times, in reading twentieth-century analyses of the themes and symbols and technical strategies of a work, to discover whether the critic had even a glimmering of personal pleasure in the literary transaction, or a sense of personal significance” (p. 158).

The concept of transactional analysis of literature has profound implications for the educational system, Rosenblatt says:
a primary concern throughout would be the development of the individual’s capacity to adopt and to maintain the aesthetic stance, to live fully and personally in the literary transaction. From this could flow growth in all the kinds of resources needed for transactions with increasingly demanding and increasingly rewarding texts. And from this would flow, also, a humanistic concern for the relation of the individual literary event to the continuing life of the reader in all its facets—aesthetic, moral, economic, or social. (p. 161)

This theory of reading, she implies, will give literature back to the people: “The academic critical culture persists in ignoring, or at least laments, the mass and ‘middlebrow’ literary institutions in our society. The transactional formulation offers a theoretical bridge between the two literary cultures that now exist side by side” (p. 160). Indeed,
Perhaps we should consider the text as an even more general medium of communication among readers. As we exchange experiences, we point to those elements of the text that best illustrate or support our interpretations. We may help one another to attend to words, phrases, images, scenes, that we have overlooked or slighted. We may be led to reread the text and revise our own interpretation. Sometimes we may be strengthened in our own sense of having “done justice to” the text, without denying its potentialities for other interpretations. Sometimes the give-and-take may lead to a general increase in insight and even to a consensus. (p. 146)

And it is this final point that makes the reader-response theory of literary criticism so appealing right now. For what is Rosenblatt describing in this passage but a book group? And, even before Oprah jumped on the bandwagon, book groups were among the hottest crazes across America.

© 2000 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A change of perspective about literature?

NPR : Best-Selling Book Shows 'Halo' Game's Wide Appeal:

This raises the issue of what, exactly, we consider to be literature:
The action-adventure book Contact Harvest is on the USA Today and New York Times best-seller lists. Author Joseph Staten had never written a novel but was uniquely qualified to write this one.

Contact Harvest is the most recent book in a series of adaptations of the video game Halo, for which Staten has been writing for years.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

’Diaries’ author helps teens put private thoughts to paper -

’Diaries’ author helps Hub teens put private thoughts to paper -

We've already missed the event, but the thought is still commendable. Writer Meg Cabot, author of The Princess Diaries, held, by phone, a journal-writing workshop for teenagers this afternoon at the Boston Public Library. Cabot says that much of the basic material in her books came from her own journals. She also warns teenagers to beware how much sensitive personal information they put in a blog or other online journal. She also stresses the necessity of using proper grammar and writing etiquette when posting online:
“People do judge, especially with e-mailing and when you post on message boards. If you want your post to be read or taken seriously, you have to spell and write correctly,” she said.


Tuesday, January 1, 2008

One Heck of a Sentence

Becoming Cary Grant:
In 1931, Archie Leach—onetime latchkey kid (when he was nine he came home from school one day to find his mother missing; his two-timing, alcoholic father had secretly committed her, despite her apparent sanity, to the Country Home for Mental Defectives; she would be lost to Grant until he was thirty-one) and erstwhile vaudevillian (from fourteen to twenty-three he’d performed as an acrobat, juggler, stilt walker, and mime; his experience in acrobatic troupes honed his phenomenal physical grace and exquisite comic timing, and inculcated in him his universally praised generosity and team-spiritedness as a performer)—interrupted his well-paying if unremarkable Broadway career to try Hollywood.
Surely I'm not the only one who finds this sentence impossible to read. What prompts someone--a writer for The Atlantic Monthly, no less--to lay down a sentence like this? Parenthetical elements are used to set off ideas that are interesting but not quite necessary for the point at hand. Here the writer ( Benjamin Schwarz) is trying to squeeze into a couple of parenthetical asides information that warrants its own paragraph of introductory development. Or, if this information doesn't warrant its own paragraph of development, then please, Mr. Schwarz, leave it out.

The former English teacher in me still believes that a reader should never have to read a sentence twice to follow its point. To follow this sentence, after we've come to the end we have to go back and reread it leaving out the whole section between the dashes. Perhaps Schwarz was constrained by a maximum word count (although, since it's The Atlantic, I doubt that). But if he wants to include this side material, there are much better ways to do it, all of which involve constructing a few more sentences. Sure, it's easier to write in this kind of free association way--and I have to give him credit, I'll admit, for knowing how to punctuate it correctly--but easier is not always better. I'll take clear meaning over flashy style every time.

© 2008 by Mary Daniels Brown


Changing Your Mind

The World Question Center 2008

Over at Edge, publisher John Brockman posed this big question to some of the world's biggest scholars, scientists, movers, and shakers:

When thinking changes your mind, that's philosophy.
When God changes your mind, that's faith.
When facts change your mind, that's science.


Science is based on evidence. What happens when the data change? How have scientific findings or arguments changed your mind?"

You might want to bookmark this site, because there are pages and pages of answers here, way more than anyone could possibly read through in one sitting. And each of the ones I read made me stop and think about its implications.

I especially liked what Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner says about how his ideas about his "paragon," Jean Piaget, have changed:
Any serious scientist or scholar will change his or her mind; put differently, we will come to agree with those with whom we used to disagree, and vice versa. We differ in whether we are open or secretive about such "changes of mind": and in whether we choose to attack, ignore, or continue to celebrate those with whose views we are no longer in agreement.
There's a lot here about changing one's perspective. And that's a good thing.

What have you changed your mind about, and why?

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