Manics, writers, and bloggers
Back when I was a young mother in my early thirties, still looking to "find myself" careerwise, I hauled myself down to Boston to the Johnson O'Connor Foundation, which was housed in a beautiful old brownstone on Beacon Avenue. There they gave me a rigorous two-day series of aptitude tests. These tests were like nothing I'd ever taken before; some were so esoteric and
arcane I couldn't figure out what they were testing for.
I'd always been a good student, and I was used to acing tests. But when I was given the results of these, I was told my score profile was rather strange. They felt that this explained the fact that I'd been exploring a lot of different paths but hadn't caught on with any one thing yet. And the career I was most perfectly suited for, according to the folks at Johnson-O'Connor, was--of all things--designing opera houses. I didn't quite know what to do with that information.
Mine was considered a difficult profile because I had quite a number of competing interests and aptitudes above the 90th percentile, and also some extremely low ones below the tenth. I had very few scores in-between. In particular, I scored in the 99th percentile on something they called "ideophoria," which they defined as the generation of ideas at a fast clip. I scored in the 5th percentile or so on something they called "foresight," which they described as the ability to plan, step by step, how to reach a goal. So their description of me was that I could rapidly generate ideas without a clue as to how to implement them, and as fast as I could think of solutions to a problem, I could think of reasons why those solutions wouldn't work.
Unfortunately, I could identify somewhat with this, although I still am not sure whether the tests themselves were all that valid. For example, the test for "ideaphoria" was simply to write fast on an assigned topic, to churn out the verbiage at as speedy a clip as possible. The test for "foresight" was to name as many things as you could possibly see in a certain little indeterminate squiggle. This task utterly bored me; I think I came up with three half-hearted answers and then gave up.
When I first started blogging, many long years hence, it occurred to me that that ideophoria business might have been correct after all, and it may in fact be something all bloggers share.
The other day I thought of it again when I was thumbing through the book Exuberance: the passion for life, by Kay Redfield Jamison. I had come across the following passage, comparing and contrasting the thought processes of manics and writers:
Creative and manic thinking are both distinguished by fluidity and by the capacity to combine ideas in ways that form new and original connections. Thinking in both tends to be divergent in nature, less goal-bound, and more likely to leap about or wander in a variety of directions. Diffuse, diverse, and leapfrogging ideas were first noted thousands of years ago as one of the hallmarks of manic thought. More recently, the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler observed: "The thinking of the manic is flighty. He jumps by by-paths from one subject to another...With this the ideas run along very easily...Because of the more rapid flow of ideas, and especially because of the falling-off of inhibitions, artistic activities are facilitated even though something worthwhile is produced only in very mild cases and when the patient is otherwise talented in this direction."...
Both individuals who are manic and those who are writers, when evaluated with neuropsychological tests, tend to combine ideas or images in a way that "blurs, broadens, or shifts conceptual boundaries," a type of thinking known as conceptual overinclusiveness. They vary in this from normal subjects and from patients with schizophrenia. Researchers at the University of Iowa, for example, have shown that "both writers and manics tend to sort in large groups, change dimensions while in the process of sorting, arbitrarily change starting points, or use vaguely distantly related concepts as categorizing principles." The writers are better able than the manics to maintain control over their patterns of thinking, however, and to use "controlled flights of fancy" rather than the more bizarre sorting systems used by the patients.
The second paragraph put me in mind of bloggers, who are of course writers first and foremost. Odd and unusual associations, a different way of combining ideas and images; yes, these seem to be the hallmark of bloggers. They also have a tendency to be a bit frenetic, mentally speaking. This was evident at the Pajamas Media meetup, and there were quite a few jokes tossed around about having mild touches of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), although no one mentioned mania. And, all in all, I noticed that the bloggers did seem to be a rather exuberant bunch, although there was no dancing on the tables.
A while back, Ann Althouse discussed a related phenomenon when she linked to this article on bloggers' brains by Drs. Fernette and Brock Eide:
Blogging can be a powerful promoter of creative, intuitive, and associational thinking.
To remain popular with readers, blogs must be updated frequently. This constant demand for output promotes a kind of spontaneity and 'raw thinking'--the fleeting associations and the occasional outlandish ideas--seldom found in more formal media. (Fortunately, the permanence and easily searchable nature of archived posts helps maintain some sense of decorum.) Blogging technology itself fosters this kind of spontaneity, since blogging updates can be posted with just a few clicks whenever a new thought or interesting Internet tidbit is found. Blogging is ideally suited to follow the plan for promoting creativity advocated by pioneering molecular biologist Max Delbruck. Delbruck's "Principle of Limited Sloppiness" states we should be sloppy enough so that unexpected things can happen, but not so sloppy that we can't find out that it did. Raw, spontaneous, associational thinking has also been advocated by many creativity experts, including the brilliant mathematician Henri Poincare who recommended writing without much thought at times "to awaken some association of ideas."
Hmmm---writing without much thought. I'm not sure that's the goal; it doesn't sound too desirable, does it? But the sheer volume of output necessary with blogging, the need to post very frequently, does mean that we must write--if not thoughtlessly--then quickly and unhesitatingly. In fact, I think the hallmark of bloggers is the ability to come up with a wide variety of ideas per hour (iph).
My home, my car, my purse, my countertops, my drawers--all are littered with little scraps of paper on which are written sentence fragments, notes for posts I haven't written yet. My guess is that that is true of most bloggers. The generation of ideas is probably relatively easy for them. It's finding the good ones, and fleshing them out with thoughts and well-reasoned argument, as well as doing the research that backs it all up, that's the hard part. But for bloggers, it's satisfying work.