Monday, May 31, 2010

Experiments for the Mind

I feel like I'm cheating when I use my blog simply to “pass along” what was easy enough to find, or even what wasn’t. I feel that a blog, if it isn’t buzz, should at least be original. I’m a slow writer and a perfectionist. Sometimes there is only time to use twitter as “greatest hits” and the blog as show-and-tell. I can’t guarantee that I’ll find my own buzz, but I’ll try to write my own blogs more often.

The Oxford “one-word essay” I blogged about reminds me of a small incident from my own life. High school, psychology class. We were thrilled when our request for a psychology class was granted, as the biology teacher happened to be qualified for psychology.

Once, the teacher gave us a set of short-answer questions about how we felt about certain things, I don’t remember the topics. After this, he put a peculiar essay question on the board. It was something along the lines of “What does a zebra have in common with a corkscrew?”

It was kind of like the Oxford one-word essay, open-ended; to compose a response from scratch with no direction beyond the meandering of our own mind. I had never been so excited by an assignment! At 17 my mind was in a curlicue of energetic imagination, and I wrote in a blitz, unwilling to stop at time’s-up.

antique Victorian corkscrew 
for sale here 

The teacher then gave us a second set of short-answer questions; and then he told us why.



We had been working on our final projects in pairs, to design our own psychology experiments. Today we were unknowingly participating in one of these experiments. The two sets of short-answer questions were theirs. The exciting essay question was theirs. Their point was to compare our first set of short answers with our second set. They weren't even going to read our essays.

Their prediction was that our answers in the second set would sound more negative than in the first set. Because, just before answering the second set, our mood will have just fallen. Why?- because in between the two sets of questions, they gave us what they believed to be an extremely unpleasant task- to write an impossible essay!
found here

I didn't learn their results, but I warned them how to score me. I admit it made me feel a bit superior

Another time, in the middle of psychology class, a classmate came in late. Our teacher became quite angry about this and argued with him, finally ordering him to leave. Then we were asked to write what we thought had just happened.

It was another student experiment. The point was to see how many of us would take what we saw at face value, and how many would see through it. I admitted I was fooled, as was everyone, save for only one student, Jan Ferrari, who happened to be one of my best friends I am happy to say. She wrote that the teacher was behaving out of character and she hadn’t believed it for a minute.

This time I felt inferior. Jan could see outside of a situation (“thinking out of the box” I suppose), where I was docilely walking along inside of the reality given to me, unquestioning. It’s about who follows instructions and who doesn’t. We either march with the program, or we step out and argue, refuse to be a part of it. It’s about comfort zone or courage. Perhaps this is one of the most distinguishing qualities of an interesting mind. (More on that later.) I also think that were this same experiment given to a 21st-century class, no one would be fooled anymore. But that is a topic for another time.

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