What Is Consciousness?
In order to be able to answer the question of whether productive obsessing is something to shun or to value, it would be good to know what consciousness is—not only in a biochemical sense but also in a way that does justice to our felt experience of individuality and instrumentality. To venture into that territory would lead us into debates about determinism and free will, daunting infinite regression arguments about ever-smaller little men (or women) sitting on the shoulders of other little men (or women), etc. There are endless competing conceptualizations of consciousness filling books too heavy to lift. All these competing conceptualizations permit us to say the following: no one knows what consciousness is. So how can we rule out the possible value of productive obsessing?
Consider one model of consciousness. Susan Greenfield, in her excellent Journey to the Centers of the Mind, argues for a “neuronal gestalt” theory of consciousness. In her model, what distinguishes one thought from another thought are the number of neurons that gather together to accomplish the work of thinking and how long that “neuronal cloud” lasts. One thought is larger and lasts longer than another thought by virtue of the twin facts that more neurons have gathered to do that work and that those gathered neurons do not disperse quickly.
In his review of Greenfield’s book, Anthony Campbell explains: “Greenfield provides detailed arguments in support of the view that the cortex of the brain contains groups of neurons that come together in dynamic cooperatives. These are not fixed structures but rather temporary associations that last for varying lengths of time. In a felicitous phrase, she compares them to ‘clouds in the brain,’ coming or going as thoughts and associations move through the mind. Experimental evidence exists which suggests that these fluctuating associations of neurons really do exist.”
Doesn’t this model suggest some fascinating possibilities with respect to obsession? What if a productive obsession is a large neuronal gestalt of long duration—a big idea that lasts a long time—and an unproductive obsession is a small neuronal gestalt with a long duration—a small, pesky idea that lasts a long time? If this were true, it would mean that the lengthy duration of a thought was not the problem, only the thought’s “smallness.” Our goal would be to create large neuronal gestalts of long duration: that would be our objective.
Maybe the following is truer: that a productive obsession is a large neuronal gestalt of long duration arising from “fortunate reasons” and an unproductive obsession is a large neuronal gestalt of long duration arising from “unfortunate reasons.” That is, obsessing may simply be the formation of large neuronal gestalts of long duration: sometimes neurons gather in the service of the person and sometimes they gather to do some disservice. In this view, not all large neuronal gestalts of long duration would be wanted; the only ones that would be wanted are those that arise “for good reasons.” If this were true, to strive to dismantle every neuronal gestalt of long duration would amount to throwing the baby out with the bath water. Rather, we would want to pick and choose among them.
The idea of “large neuronal gestalts of long duration” also suggests an answer to a charge that might be leveled against productive obsessions: that what I am talking about is only “metaphoric obsession,” that it is only a definitional ploy to elevate mere passion, interest or enthusiasm to some semantically charged, enriched level and not a true and dramatic brain event.
Lennard Davis articulates this complaint is his book Obsession: “It may be objected that what I’ve just highlighted isn’t obsession in a psychiatric sense, but more properly concerns, an interest, preoccupation, a fixation, or perhaps just a hobby. Indeed, in recent lectures I have given to psychotherapists, psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts, several objected that I was using the term ‘obsession’ in a loose way … [one] found himself very irritated with me, saying that I was confusing a cultural activity with a brain-induced, life-and-death issue, and that he himself had a patient with OCD who might die in a few weeks. How could I equate a [fascination with] perfume with this kind of real suffering?”
This complaint is related to a complaint about abuse of clinical language, such that everyone who grows antsy has adult attention deficit disorder, everyone made blue by the appearance of a cloud has clinical depression, and everyone with a drawer of rolled socks has OCD. To tie these two complaints together, “productive obsession” could be charged with being an example of both clinical creep and linguistic manipulation. It is neither. It is a phrase that captures the essence of dramatic brain-based events. It is not a mere product of language; it is not a clinical term with which to start a bandwagon. Productive obsessions are precious human phenomena that allow for masterworks, great ideas, and the application of brain potential to everyday matters. Don’t you agree?
To learn more about the ideas presented in this blog post, please see two of Dr. Maisel’s titles, Redesign Your Mind: The Breakthrough Program for Real Cognitive Change and Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions