Imagine You’re a Superhero

Can imagining that you’re a superhero make you smarter?  According to British scientists, the answer is, “Yes.”  Yet there are even broader implications for this new study, which was reported over the weekend.

Researchers at the University of Hertfordshire in England conducted an experiment, in which students were asked to take a series of tests designed to improve their mental abilities. Some of the participants were asked to take the tests while wearing Superman t-shirts, while the control group wore regular t-shirts.  Amazingly, when the results came in, those subjects who put the “S” on their chest scored an average of 72%, while the control group scored an average of 64%.  Similarly, the Kryptonian group felt that they were stronger, better-liked by others, and more self-assured, than did those who wore an everyday garment.

Readers may recall another study I shared with you earlier this year from the University of Illinois, about the impact that playing a heroic character in video games can have on real-world behavior.  Gamers who regularly choose to play the superhero in a game were more likely to carry over some of the positive behavior of that character in their daily lives.  Those who typically play a villain on the other hand, had a greater tendency to mistreat others in their offline world.

In these studies, what scientists are really examining is how self-visualization can make a profound impact on someone’s personality. People who regularly imagine themselves to be intelligent, healthy, and successful, are actually training a part of their brain to kick in automatically.  It’s an old adage to say that, “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it,” yet more and more scientific evidence points to the fact that this statement is absolutely true.

The same British researchers in the study referred to above found that depressed women tend to wear the same clothes over and over again, ignoring 90% of their available wardrobe in the process.  By engaging in this kind of behavior, which chances are we’ve all seen or engaged in, at one time or another, the depressed reinforce a (false) perception that they don’t have any control over their own lives.  On the other end of the scale, I’m sure that many of the men reading this blog have a “lucky” tie hanging in the closet, which they wear on special occasions or critical moments.  It gives you a sense of being in control, even though you know it’s just a woven piece of silk, because something about it makes you feel like good things will happen when you wear it.

If you’ve been down in the dumps or are going through a difficult patch, as everyone does, maybe it’s time to start imagining yourself a hero, rather than a zero.  No, self-visualization isn’t going to give you superhuman strength or the ability to fly, but then again that’s not really the point. In order for you to ace your next exam or try to understand the Bauhaus movement, you don’t need to go throw on a special t-shirt, let alone the full spandex-and-cape combo out of the comic books.

What studies like these reinforce however, is the idea that how we present ourselves matters, and can make a big difference in achieving what we set out to accomplish.  The more we encourage ourselves and others to play the hero rather than the villain – or indeed, the victim – the more likely it is that we will see real-life examples of self-sacrifice, defense of the weak, and the pursuit of knowledge popping up everywhere in our culture.  Just imagine, what a truly super society we could have, then.

Superman With Book - Copy


Putting It Mildly

If like me you are a blogger who does not blog for a living, then you know that statistically speaking, you live for feedback and followers, when it comes to your blog posts, rather than for clicks and advertisements.  This particular blog has been online since 2008 and, while my readership is not gigantic, it is certainly regular, and has been steadily increasing as the years go on.  So when WordPress selected my blog post on collecting secondhand books to appear on their “Freshly Pressed” page on Saturday morning, I thought – well that’s nice. I might get a few more readers.

Now, after about 1,200 reads, 130 “likes”, and 50-0dd comments on that one post, and despite having blogged for some time and more recently become involved in podcasting, it still astounds me how powerful new media can be.  It brings a diverse group of people to your message, whatever that message may be, in ways which basic word of mouth among friends can rarely hope to do.  And some of these people who may not normally choose to read a blog like yours might actually want to stick around, and see what you are going to write next.

This creates both an opportunity for the author and a sense of responsibility he must bear to his reader.  For if you are reading these pages, it means you are not reading others, with the time you have available for reading such things.  There is, as economists would say, an opportunity cost in giving up some of your time to consider my thoughts, rather than someone else’s or indeed your own.

More to the point Count Castiglione, the patron of this blog, would have commented that it is not the popularity of a blog in and of itself which necessarily assures us of good content, but rather the continued effort of the writer to try to get better at it.  We can all think of bloggers whom we have read in online publications, and wonder who on earth encouraged them to start writing – let alone paid them to do so.  Yet as Castiglione observes in The Book of the Courtier that “those who are not thus perfectly endowed by nature, with study and toil can in great part polish and amend their natural defects.”

There is nothing whatsoever to be lost in admitting that one has a great deal to learn about something, for this is in fact the way by which we can begin to try to improve ourselves.  If I walk out into a football game having never actually played football, I am probably going to end up carried off on a stretcher, unless I admit that I need coaching and training.  Or if I want to try to cook a paella having never actually made one before, by simply using a recipe book, something is almost certainly not going to come out quite right – the rice will be underdone or the seafood will have been overcooked into pieces of rubber and so on.

WordPress has certainly sent a large number of new readers my way over the past 48 hours, for which I am deeply grateful.  Yet at the same time I admit that I am by no means an author who has perfected his craft.  There is still a great deal to learn, and when you are both writer and editor of your own material, sometimes the results are decidedly uneven.  Thus, while my opinions on certain subjects may remain strong, and at times even be viewed at as outspoken, as a scrivener I remain deeply convinced that while my writing talents have improved, there is still much to improve upon.  Fortunately with feedback and interaction, such improvements are not only possible, but likely.

Detail of “Portrait of a Man Writing” by Jacobus Eeckhout (c. 1840)
Southampton City Art Gallery, England