Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Does Neuroscience Prove That You Should Follow Your Bliss?

The Freakonomicis guys, STEPHEN J. DUBNER and STEVEN D. LEVITT wrote an article in 2006 in the NY Times magazine called A Star Is Made. In it, they discussed the research of Anders Ericsson, a 58-year-old psychology professor at Florida State University. Here is a relevant passage:
"Ericsson's research suggests a third cliché as well: when it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love — because if you don't love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good. Most people naturally don't like to do things they aren't "good" at. So they often give up, telling themselves they simply don't possess the talent for math or skiing or the violin. But what they really lack is the desire to be good and to undertake the deliberate practice that would make them better."
See Never Too Late to Learn. It is a book review from Saturday's WSJ. The book reviewed was Guitar Zero by Gary Marcus. Here is the passage:
"Brain scans show that musicians' new neuronal connections vary according to the instrument they play. Violinists have their signature brain changes, brass players theirs. Loving what we do helps to form these new connections, because the same dopamine chemistry that gives us the pleasurable rush of reward consolidates new brain connections."
Of course, mythologist Joseph Campbell said "follow your bliss."

What does it mean to follow your bliss? In general, it means three things:

1. Money and material things are secondary (Campbell, 1988, pp. 148,229). The following is dialogue between Joseph Campbell and Bill Movers from The Power of Myth (1988,p. 148):

C: My general formula is "Follow your bliss." Find where it is, and don't be afraid to follow it.
M: Is it my work or my life?
C: If the work you're doing is the work that you choose to do because you are enjoying it, that's it. But if you think, "Oh, no! I couldn't do that!" that's the dragon locking you in. "No, no, I couldn't be a writer," or "No, no, I couldn't do what So-and-so is doing."
M: In this sense, unlike heroes such as Prometheus or Jesus, we're not going on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves.
C: But in doing that, you save the world (emphasis added).

Elsewhere, Campbell says that the savior is the one who can transcend the pairs of opposites (Briggs & Maher, 1989, p. 45). This means going beyond the duality of individual and group that is stressed in socio-economics (Campbell 1988, p. 229):

C: Each incarnation has a potentiality, and the mission of the life is to live that potentiality. How do you do it? My answer is, "Follow your bliss." There's something inside you that knows when you're in the center, that knows when you're on the beam or off the beam. And if you get off the beam to earn money, you've lost your life. And it you stay in the center and don't get any money, you still have your bliss.

Finally, Leeming sums up the Jungian importance of myths:

The person who lives without myths lives without roots, without links to the collective self which is finally what we are all about. He is literally isolated from reality. The person who lives with a myth gains 'a sense of wider meaning' to his existence and is raised 'beyond mere getting and spending" (Leeming, 1973, p. 321).

2. If you follow your bliss, doors (opportunities) will open up for you where they would not have opened up before. They will also open up for you where they would not have opened up for anyone else (Cousineau, 1990, p. 214). This echoes one of Campbell's favorite writers, Goethe:

Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elemental truth-the ignorance of which skills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, the Providence moves, too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred (Catford & Ray, 1991, p. 5).

3. Following your bliss has to be contrasted with following a system or a social system. A system creates roles for us that are not of our own choosing. This dehumanizes us (Campbell, 1988, p. 143-144). The following is also dialogue between Joseph Campbell and Bill Movers from The Power of Myth (pp. 143-144):

M: Do movies create hero myths? Do you think, for example that a movie like Star Wars fills some of that need for a model of the hero?
C: I've heard youngsters use some of George Lucas' terms-"the Force" and "the dark side.' So it must be hitting somewhere. It's a good sound teaching, I would say.
M: I think that explains in part the success of Star Wars. It wasn't just the production value that made that such an exciting film to watch, it was that it came along at a time when people needed to see in recognizable images the clash between good and evil. They needed to be reminded of idealism, to see a romance based upon selflessness rather than selfishness.
C: The fact that the evil power is not identified with any specific nation on this earth means you've got an abstract power, which represents a principle, not a specific historic situation. The story has to do with an operation of principles not of this nation against that. The monster masks that are put on people in Star Wars represent the real monster force in the modern world. When the mask of Darth Vader is removed, you see an unformed man, one who has not developed as a human individual. What you see is a strange and pitiful sort of undifferentiated face.
M: What is the significance of that?
C: Darth Vader has not developed his own humanity. He's a robot. He's a bureaucrat, living not in terms of himself but in terms of an imposed system. This is the threat to our lives that we all face today. Is the system gong to flatten you out and deny you your humanity, or are you going to be able to make use of the system to the attainment of human purposes? How do you relate to the system so that you am not compulsively serving it? It doesn't help to try to change it to accord with your system of thought. The momentum of history behind it is too great for anything really significant to evolve from that kind of action. The thing to do is to learn to live in your period of history as a human being. That's something else, and it can be done.
M: By doing what?
C: By holding to you own ideals for yourself and, like Luke Skywalker, rejecting the system's impersonal claims upon you.
M: When I took our two sons to see Star Wars, they did the same thing the audience did at that moment when the voice of Ben Kenobi says to Skywalker in the climactic moment of the last fight, "Turn off your computer, turn off your machine and do it yourself, follow your feelings, trust your feelings." And when he did, he achieved success, and the audience broke out into applause.
C: Well, you see, that movie communicates. It is a language that talks to young people, and that's what counts. It asks, Are you going to be a person of heart and humanity-because that's where the life is, from the heart-or are you going to do whatever seems to be required of you by what might be called "intentional power"? When Ben Kenobi says, "May the Force be with you," he's speaking of the power and energy of life, not of programmed political intentions.

In the movie Star Wars, Luke Skywalker turns off his computer (the impersonal system) and relies on the "Force" or his intuition to destroy the Death Star.

Generally speaking, following your bliss unlocks your creative potential because you separate from your community or system. "You can't have creativity unless you leave behind the bounded, the fixed, all the rules" (Campbell, 1988, p. 156). Attaining the joy of being a creative, spiritually fulfilled person is probably the best thing we can do for ourselves.


Briggs, D., & Maher, J.M. (1989). An open life: Joseph Campbell in conversation with Michael Toms. New York: Harper and Row.

Campbell, J. (1988). The power of myth. New York: Doubleday.

Catford, L., & Ray, M. (1991). The path of the everyday hero. Los Angeles: Tarcher.

Cousineau, P. (1990). The hero's journey: Joseph Campbell on his life and work. San Francisco: Harper.

Leeming, D.A. (1973). Mythology: The voyage of the hero. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.

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