My first grade teacher, Mrs. Parker, had short, curly white hair and a low, smooth voice. Every day, right after lunch, she would take the large glasses that she always wore on a gold chain around her neck and place them on her nose. She’d pull the chair that usually sat behind her desk onto the faded blue rug that took up the far left corner of the classroom. Then, she would take one of the books from the low wooden shelves along the far wall, sit, and look over at us from above her blue frames. We didn’t need to be told twice. Soon, we would all come tumbling from wherever it was we’d been, to sit on the rug and look up in wide-mouthed expectation (really, our mouths were all wide open; I even have pictures to prove it). It was story time.
Story time was my favorite time of the school day. And I wasn’t the only one. I think Mrs. Parker managed to turn even the rowdiest rabble-rousers among us into sweet, docile model children. No Ritalin required. When she read, you couldn’t hear a peep. Just her steady voice, making its way through the most varied of adventures. I still hear it in my head whenever I think of the books of my early childhood.
My first grade class has long since graduated from high school, college, graduate school, even. But story time has remained my favorite time of the day. Every evening before bed, I read. Fiction, poetry, essays, creative nonfiction—the list is varied and long, but one thing that it never includes, change as it may, is anything scientific or academic. Papers, articles, academic books all have to take a pass. It doesn’t matter how busy I am or how much I need to get through or how high the (albeit virtual) stack of journals to read may be; it’s a rule I’ve never broken.
And that, I think, has served me well. It has provided much-needed inspiration when my brain has otherwise gone dry. It has given me research ideas when I’ve needed them most. It has helped me integrate disparate experimental findings and approaches, explain otherwise elusive connections, see the big picture where none is forthcoming from the researchers themselves, understand experimental pluses and shortcomings that I didn’t necessarily see before. In short, it has helped me maintain the kind of perspective that I feel is essential in any field and any endeavor, psychology not least of all—and the kind of perspective that all too often goes missing when psychologists focus too much on their chosen slice of research and forget the broader questions of human nature that inspired them to study the mind to begin with.
I’m not alone. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis and one of psychology’s all-time greats, understood well the power of literature to inspire the most profound psychological insight. He wrote:
But creative writers are valuable allies and their evidence is to be prized highly, for they are apt to know a whole host of things between heaven and earth of which our philosophy has not yet let us dream. In their knowledge of the mind they are far in advance of us everyday people, for they draw upon sources which we have not yet opened up for science.
Creative writers aren’t constrained by the need to formulate a tight research agenda and ask the exact, researchable question that can best be answered at any given point in time. They aren’t constrained by technology or funding. They aren’t constrained by what’s hot, what’s edgy, what will get you the best publication or set you up on the surest track to that coveted tenure position. The only thing that constrains them is their imagination. And for the best of them, that imagination is boundless.
Freud called their creations sources that haven’t yet opened up for science. I would add to that, sources that will likely never be opened up for science, at least not in their entirety—but sources of tremendous inspiration, that can help put existing psychological research into a broader, more widely applicable context and help set the stage for future exploration and discovery.
And that, in essence, is the theme of Literally Psyched. Here, I propose to use literature and creative inspiration to explore concepts in the psychology of the mind and human thought. To create a place that will blend the world of fiction and non-fiction, that of the literary and the psychological, of artistic inspiration and scientific exploration. To use whatever inspires me—a book, a character, a line, a moment—as a window of insight into the human mind. For who are creative writers but individuals who have dedicated their life and art to observing and chronicling humans as a whole: their interactions, their dreams, their hopes, their disappointments, the full complexity of their internal life? (As a side note: I even found Freud’s quote in a non-psychology context, when reading Richard Panek’s excellent book on Einstein and Freud, The Invisible Century.)
I hope you’ll join me on this journey of interdisciplinary exploration. I hope, too, that you will share your own inspirations with me along the way, both as suggestions of future columns—while I was writing the Lessons from Sherlock Holmes series (a kind of Literally Psyched in miniature, or better yet, a pilot version), I received a number of emails from readers who suggested authors, characters, and works that they thought provided equal insight into the mind; I would love to see more—and as part of a broader conversation on the borders and intersections of the psychological and the artistic.
I’m literally psyched to be starting out on this new endeavor. I hope you will be as well.