Control your dreams (ebook)

Anyone can learn to have lucid dreams, and this ebook tells you how. Lucid dreams are those dreams where you become aware you are dreaming, and can even begin to control the reality of the dream. Adventure, problem-solving and consequence-free indulgence await! And for those interested in the mind, lucid dreams are a great place to explore the nature of their own consciousness. The ebook is written as a sort of travel guide, telling you what you need to take on your journey and what to expect when you start to lucid dream. It finishes off with a quick review of the scientific literature on lucid dreaming and links and references for further reading if you want to continue your exploration of lucid dreaming.

I wrote this with friend, and lucid dreamer, Cat Bardsley. My wife Harriet Cameron provided some beautiful illustrations which you can find throughout the book (and on the cover you can see here). The book is Creative Commons licensed so you can copy it and share it as you will, and even modify and improve (as long as you keep the CC licensing). It’s available on smashwords on a pay-what-you-want-basis (and that includes nothing, so it is yours for free if you’d like).

“Control your dreams” is my second self-published ebook. You can also get “Explore your blindspot” from smashwords (which is completely free, and also CC licensed). The wonderful folk at 40k books published my essay The Narrative Escape last year (and after doing all the formatting and admin associated with these two new ebooks I am more and more in awe of what they did).

Sweet Dreams!

Explore your blind spot (free ebook)

I’ve written an ebook called ‘Explore your blind spot’. It’s about, er, exploring your blind spot! In the best tradition of Mind Hacks I take you from the raw experience to the cutting edge of scientific theory. The blind spot is a simple phenomenon of our visual processing, but one we don’t notice day to day. In the ebook I talk about how it provides a great example of the way consciousness is constructed despite ‘missing’ information. Like the ebook subtitle says, the blind spot gives us an insight into the mind hides its own tracks.

The ebook is available in all major formats here and is creative commons licensed. That means it is free, not just to download but also to share. You can even edit it and pass on modified versions, as long as you keep it CC licensed.

I’ve written this book as an experiment in ebook publishing, and as a test-bed for what I think could be a good format for presenting open-source guides to the myriad interesting phenomena of psychology. If you’ve got feedback let me know.

Link to Explore your blind spot, a free ebook by Tom Stafford

A review of Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature

I’ve written an in-depth review of Steven Pinker’s new book on the decline of violence for the latest Wilson Quarterly

I thought getting a free copy and working on a review would be great fun but was rather taken aback when the 848 page book landed on my doorstep. I shouldn’t have been because there isn’t a wasted page.

I go into the details of some of Pinker’s key arguments in the book, which you can read in more detail in the review, but as you can see from this part, the book is definitely worth reading.

Despite my concerns about how Pinker portrays individual psychology and neuroscience, The Better Angels of Our Nature is so comprehensive that these faults represent only a fraction of the book. Taken as a whole, it is powerful, mind changing, and important. Pinker does not shy away from the gritty detail and is not to be taken lightly—quite literally in fact, as at more than 800 pages his book could easily be used as a weapon if you remained unpersuaded by its arguments. But this avalanche of information serves to demonstrate convincingly and counterintuitively that violence is on the decline.

In many ways, violence is a disease of the emotions. While we should never ignore the victims, it can be managed and curbed so it affects as few people as possible and remains minimally contagious. Many illnesses that once felled multitudes are now largely vanquished through greater knowledge and simple preventive measures; a similar process has made us all less likely to be targets, and perpetrators, of brutality. As Pinker argues, this is an achievement we should take pride in.

You can read the full text of the review by clicking on the link below. Thanks to The Wilson Quarterly for making it available online.
 

Link to review of Pinker’s new book in The Wilson Quarterly.

A case of simulated fragmentation

The New York Times has an excerpt of a book that claims to expose one of the most famous psychiatric cases in popular culture as a fraud.

Based on an analysis of previously locked archives the book suggests that the patient at the centre of the ‘Sybil’ case of ‘multiple personality disorder’ was, in fact, faking and admitted so to her psychiatrist.

The diagnosis, now named dissociative identity disorder, is controversial because the idea that someone can genuinely have several ‘personalities’ inside a single body has not been well verified and diagnoses seemed to boom after the concept became well-known.

This particular case became well known because it was written up as a best-selling 1973 book and was later turned into successful film of the same name.

The book and the film are though to have been key in the shaping the concept of the diagnosis and making it popular during the late 70s and 80s.

However, detective work by author Debbie Nathan has seemed to uncover medical notes that suggest the psychiatrist at the centre of the case, Cornelia Wilbur, may have known that his patient had admitted to faking for some time.

One may afternoon in 1958, Mason walked into Wilbur’s office carrying a typed letter that ran to four pages. It began with Mason admitting that she was “none of the things I have pretended to be.

“I am not going to tell you there isn’t anything wrong,” the letter continued. “But it is not what I have led you to believe. . . . I do not have any multiple personalities. . . . I do not even have a ‘double.’ . . . I am all of them. I have been essentially lying.”

Before coming to New York, she wrote, she never pretended to have multiple personalities. As for her tales about “fugue” trips to Philadelphia, they were lies, too. Mason knew she had a problem. She “very, very, very much” wanted Wilbur’s help. To identify her real trouble and deal with it honestly, Mason wrote, she and Wilbur needed to stop demonizing her mother. It was true that she had been anxious and overly protective. But the “extreme things” — the rapes with the flashlights and bottles — were as fictional as the soap operas that she and her mother listened to on the radio. Her descriptions of gothic tortures “just sort of rolled out from somewhere, and once I had started and found you were interested, I continued. . . . Under pentothal,” Mason added, “I am much more original.”

 

Link to excerpt of book in the New York Times.

The father of Randle P. McMurphy

An article in the Journal of Medical Humanities has a fascinating look at one of playwright Samuel Beckett’s early novels – an exploration of madness and mental health care that foreshadowed One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest.

Beckett is best known for Waiting for Godot, but his novel Murphy was previously one of the best known literary treatments of mental ill health until Ken Kesey’s famous work.

It turns out that Kesey gives a knowing nod to Beckett’s earlier work through his character Randle McMurphy.

As far as twentieth-century accounts of mental health nursing and psychiatry go, Beckett’s (1937) tale of Murphy has been much over-shadowed by Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest. For better or for worse, Kesey’s nurse Ratchet became the epitome of the 20th century asylum attendant. But it was a notable act of approbation by Kesey to name his main protagonist, Randle P. MacMurphy, with due deference to Beckett; ‘MacMurphy’ literally meaning ‘son of Murphy.’

The comparison between the two novels is interesting, because Kesey drew his inspiration from his time working as a staff member on a psychiatric ward while Beckett drew his inspiration from being a patient.
 

Link to locked article (the humanities are deadly in the wrong hands).

A profession with “no” at its core

I’ve just finished Randy Olson’s “Don’t be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an age of style” (after loving his article in New Scientist, “Top five tips for communicating science “). Olson is a marine biologist turned filmmaker, so knows the world of science from the inside, and from the outside perspective.

This book is 75% solid gold – absolutely essential perspective for scientists who want to communicate outside of their specialism. But it is also 25% misleading and elitistic simplification. At heart, Randy Olson’s message as a populariser ends up pandering to a mistaken belief in scientific exceptionalism – that what scientists do and who scientists are is so beyond the ken of the rest of the population that it cannot be conveyed to them, that we have to use a pound of silly songs and fart jokes to make the public to swallow an ounce of important information. Sorry, Randy, but when you underestimate the public taste you end up demeaning it.

Part of the 75% I loved is Olson’s perspective on the value of acting and improv classes for science communicators. This something close to my heart, after I had my own mind-blowing experience of improv training. An essential – some would say the essential – of improv is to avoid negating your fellow improvisers suggestions. Whatever happens, improvisers are taught to accept and build – using a “yes and” mindset instead of a “no but” one. This lends itself to humour and creativity. Science, on the other hand, tends to downplay “yes and” at the favour of “no but”, lending itself to rigour and certainty, at the risk of cynicism and myopia. Olson puts this particularly well in the following passage:

The entire profession of science has at its core a single word, and that word is “no”. Science is a process not of affirming ideas but of attempting to falsify ideas in the search for truth. This is what a hypothesis is – an idea that can be tested and possibly falsified and rejected.
When you give a scientist a paper, he or she reads it with the assumption that the writer is guilty of being wrong until proven innocent. The writers proves his or her innocence by either presenting data or citing sources. With each statement made in the paper, the scientist reading it says “I’m not sure I believe this.” As the author presents graphs and tables of data and cites sources, the good critical scientist attempts to falsify what is being said.
Eventually, after the scientist has examined the data, looked up the cited sources and found that in fact, despite considerable effort, the hypothesis presented cannot be falsfied – only then does the scientist finally start to relax and a bit and say, “Well, okay, I think I can probably live with this.”
Tough buisness. It really is. As I waded through my first decade of rejection in Hollywood as a filmmaker, people would ask me whether I found the rejection hurtful or depressing. And I would respond, “Are you shitting me? Do you have any idea what it’s like to deal with the rejection of scientists? Hollywood folks reject things on the basis of the idea that ‘it just didn’t grab me,’ and they can’t even articulate the reason for their decision. When scientists reject you they hit you with a stack of data and sources that are the basis for it. That’s the sort of specific, substantive rejection that truly hurts (p128-129)

Link to page for Randy Olson’s “Don’t be such a scientist”

I wrote about improv for Prospect magazine, here

Book review: Willpower by Baumeister & Tierney

“Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength”, Roy Baumeister & John Tierney, 2011


I’ve just finished this book, and yet I still couldn’t tell you what it was trying to claim. It’s a grab-bag of research on willpower, nearly all of it done by social psychologist Baumeister and colleagues, and including his celebrated experiments on ego-depletion. The ego-depletion experiments appear to show that willpower is a limited resource dependent on blood sugar. Using it to control your impulses diminishes it in the short-term, but can build it up – like a muscle – in the long term. Ultimately, however, this book presents this set of findings with little to offer in terms of coherent insight. The advice given for our daily lives is glib and unhelpful. The reader is told, for example, that to avoid smirking at an idiotic boss in a meeting, we should avoid strenuous mental work beforehand (p27). As if we all have the liberty of avoiding strenuous mental work whenever we want! Being told not to be tired sort of begs the question, in my opinion, and in self-help terms is about as useful as being told to “be clever” or “have great ideas”.

The case studies which pepper the book are brief and unsatisfying, obviously intended to give the ideas the appearances of flavour, rather than add any real depth whatever argument is being made. In general, the writing is adequate to poor, with an over reliance on a set of cheap journalistic tricks to sustain momentum. Journalistic tricks such as the one I use in the next paragraph…

…Annoying isn’t it? The references to events and celebrities who have temporarily floated to the surface of the toilet bowl of American popular culture will make this book date very badly in the next few years (and already meant that this, admittedly sheltered, British reader had to use wikipedia to work out who was being talked about in some chapters). I’m guessing that science journalist Tierney wrote this book, with advice from Baumeister (an impression fostered by the authors’ insistence on talking about themselves in the third person, which is disorienting). Even so, some of the psychological clangers are inexcusable and would shame an undergraduate (for example, squirrels burying nuts for later are dismissed as following “programmed behaviours, not conscious saving plans” (p15). To make this assertion gives the impression that we know both what a squirrel is thinking and what the nature of a conscious saving plan is (we don’t). To arbitrarily dismiss the highly flexible and foresightful behaviour of the squirrel as merely “programmed” prevents you, at one stroke, from understanding properly the role of automatic mental processes in our own future-orientated behaviour). The examples of sexism, on the other hand, are at least so blatant that they can be enjoyed for the full force of their anachronistic misogyny. (p56 tells us “most women cope quite well with PMS at work”, which has a lovely quality of being superficially positive, whilst implying that actually we should expect many women not to be able to cope, especially at work, and even those who do only manage to do it “quite well”.). The references to the literature are patchy, making it frustrating if you want to check the source for some of the authors’ most interesting claims.

Overall this book is a great disappointment. Roy Baumeister is one of the most exciting social psychologists, managing to do experimental work which addresses fundamental issues of what it means to be human. This book, on the other hand, is an example of how sterile experimental psychology can be when faced with the complexities of a core human dilemma, such as that of self-control. Although it is written in a breezy style, it never really grips the attention like the books of Malcolm Gladwell (which it obviously aspires to emulate). Because the treatment of the psychological evidence is superficial, and it never gives a full account of exactly what theoretical position they are trying to argue for or against, the book is scientifically unsatisfying. The other flaws I’ve discussed above make it, overall, an annoying book to read.

If you want a self-help book with an appreciation of the psychology of willpower, read Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done. If you want an entertaining and accessible account of the science of volition read Dan Wegner’s The Illusion of Conscious Will. If you want an account of self-control with a genuine appreciation of the nuances of the human condition try George Ainslie’s Breakdown of Will. This book will satisfy none of these needs.

Full disclosure: I’m reviewing this book because I was asked to by the publisher, who sent me a free copy. I’m glad I didn’t pay for it

UPDATE: So apparently quite means “very” in American English, while it means “fairly” in British English. This changes the sense of the PMS line I quote slightly, perhaps making it less insulting, but I would argue that the whole is still patronising and sexist (as are other lines in the book). Thanks Chris for the tip-off