Browsing the archives for the cognitive psychology tag.
Subscribe via RSS or e-mail      

Lawrence M. Schoen: “Marginally self-aware collections of atoms”


Lawrence M. Schoen is cognitive psychologist and Hugo-nominated writer living in Philadelphia, whom I first met 20 years ago when he taught a class in psycholinguistics at New College in Sarasota, Florida, where I was studying for my BA. His stories have appeared in venues like Analog and Andromeda Spaceways, as well as in translation in a variety of languages around the world. This Codex Blog Tour interview delves into the intersection of writing, cognitive psychology, Schoen’s life, and in a way, everything else that matters in the universe.

You have a pretty fascinating combination of careers: cognitive psychologist, small press publisher, and writer, with a past decade spent as a professor and a serious involvement on the side with the Klingon language (that sultry minx). Does this multiplicity of interests work for you? Is there much synergy among these parts of your life?

I like to keep busy. No, scratch that. I need to keep busy. I’m the poster child for that bit about idle hands. Really though all the things you mention, the cognitive psych, the writing, the publishing, the Klingon, they’re all different facets of the meeting points of creativity and language.

At some level I truly believe that all human endeavor is the same endeavor. All art and science is after the same thing. All dreams and efforts are attempting the same thing. Whether you call it trying to understand the world, or finding purpose, or justify our existence doesn’t matter. It’s all commentary, from a single mind, expressed to a mostly indifferent but occasionally intrigued world. This applies whether we’re talking about paintings on a cave wall, a mathematical proof, the lines in a teenager’s diary, or the cutesy names I give to my dog (who this very morning I was calling “vomit puppy”). I don’t want to get all touchy-feely and say we’re all “star stuff” (though we are), but at the end of the day we are all marginally self-aware collections of atoms with opinions and ideas about other collections of atoms. To not find synergy in the actions and directions of a person’s life would be a great surprise.

At a less heady level (which is probably what you were going for, sorry), yes indeed, the different tangents of my life do indeed influence one another on a regular basis. My training as a research psychologist with a particular fetish for language and memory constantly informs the fiction that I write. The fiction that I write colors what fiction from other authors that I edit and publish, and vice versa. My interest in Klingon is fueled by my expertise in language as a psychological construct, by being a genre author and publisher, by appreciating the combination of timing and technology that put me in the right time and place with the right skill set to lead an international effort to work with a constructed language.

Or more simply, I have a really great life!

A lot of your fiction to date has been about the spacefaring hypnotist The Amazing Conroy. What is it about Conroy that is compelling for you as a writer?

BUFFALITO CONTINGENCY, Schoen's latest book

Like many writers of my generation, I grew up reading Burroughs and Heinlein. I like my fiction to have a happy ending. I like to see everything resolved and tied up with a bow at the end, for the good guy (or girl) to win out over the bad, and for the unjust to be defeated. Conroy does that for me. He’s the little guy who wins, not necessarily because of any great attribute he possesses, but because he’s got a good heart. He’s a decent enough guy, despite being a bit of a rogue.

They hypnosis part means he gets to play with people’s reality. This isn’t just fun, it’s also a great vehicle that I need to remember to take better advantage of. Conroy gets to change what people believe, perhaps only for a few minutes while they’re on stage, perhaps in subtler and longer lasting ways. Of course, we all do that every day, but we’re not usually doing it so overtly or deliberately or as a form of entertainment.

And too, there’s a lot that’s autobiographical in Conroy. He wants to be liked (don’t we all?), and he wants to succeed. He wants to be special. He makes mistakes, but doesn’t always see them. He’s the center of his own world — a point that is played up by my always writing him in the first person — but he’s more often a protagonist than a “hero.” He’s a good guy, trying to be better, but he’s flawed. I think all of these factors make it easier for readers to identify with him.

Have cognitive psychology and linguistics offered you any insights into how to write or why you write? Additionally, do they help with characters, stories, or voice?

I used to wish I was one of those authors who claim they “have” to write. Like I’ll go mad or become self-destructive or commit violence if I don’t have that release. Nyah, sorry, that’s not me. But I am fascinated by people, and always have been. That’s probably what propelled me into psychology way back when, the variety of people and their behaviors, the manifestations of their motivations and the choices they make. I do believe that everyone has a story but that most of them don’t have the means to tell it well.

I’m very comfortable writing dialogue. I’m usually pretty good about having different characters sound like different people, and I can be impatient or incredulous with authors who can’t do this. Both sides of that stem from a passion for language that goes back at least as far as being twelve and hanging out with people who were trying to teach me articulatory phonetics and elvish in the same afternoon.

So, yes, my background in psychology and language do have an effect on my characters and my stories, and most definitely on my voice. There are a lot of writers in our field with PhD’s and/or who have spent time as professors. Most of them have degrees in the “hard” sciences, disciplines like physics and chemistry and biology. I was trained using the same tools, the same scientific method as they were, but my subject matter has the added kicker of volition and attitude and the other experimental irritants that go along with consciousness. My worldbuilding is less concerned with getting right the mixture of gases that make up a planet’s atmosphere and more about social structures or language quirks or the impact of alien attributes on memory. For example, one requirement that I gave myself for every Conroy work is that someone in the story has some mental phenomenon that we might label as some form or other of “telepathy,” and that they have to be different every time. This allows me to play with the impact of such a device on the psychology of the people and world around it. If I were a biochemist or an astronomer, I don’t think I’d care about it so much.

What’s your biggest challenge at this point in your life? What quest are you on?

About ten years ago I had a philosophical awakening in my life, and turned myself around. I like to say that I greatly reduced my asshole quotient (though there’s still plenty left) and I became a much nicer person. At the heart of this was the realization that I’d spent most of my life unconsciously sabotaging every relationship I’d been in, professional, social, romantic, you name it. Fortunately, included in that realization was the means to stop screwing things up. As I began rebuilding my life, I made a deliberate choice to stop engaging in zero-sum games. No more of the “for me to win, you have to lose” mindset. Since then, I strive to create win-win scenarios, defining the terms for my own success and well being on ensuring that I bring the other person(s) along with me. It has made an amazing difference.

In the summer of 2009 I turned fifty, and I made another major life decision. As I began to move into the beginning of my second half-century, I acknowledged that I’d accomplished pretty much every goal I’d ever set for myself. I’d been married to a wonderful woman. I’d achieved recognition in my academic field. I’d published a novel. Things like that. Which meant that moving forward at fifty, it didn’t have to all be about me! I’m still writing, more so than ever actually, but with less pressure. Instead, I’m looking for more ways to pay it forward. I’m doing more mentoring. I’m trying to take the things I’ve learned along the way and assist colleague and friends, as well as younger and beginning writers, to achieve their aims and write the stories they want to tell. And you know, it’s incredibly gratifying. More surprising still, is that it’s making me a better writer. Talk about your win-win scenarios, all unlooked for.

I’m not sure where it’s all going to go, where it’s going to take me. In February of this year my wife and I hosted a new writing workshop out of our home. Six writers came together for a very long weekend of feedback, critique, and novel blocking. It was brilliant. It was exhausting. It was incredibly satisfying and transformational. And I want to do it again, every year, possibly twice a year. It’s an incredible feeling to connect with other authors in this way, to be part of a community that helps one another to become better, to share in the creative process so freely. I said it above in answer to your first question, and I can’t think of a better way to end here. I have a really great life!

You can find some free examples of Schoen’s work online, including the story “Mars Needs Baby Seals,” posted for International Polar Bear Day at and his reading of “Sweet Potato Pie” for the Balticon podcast:


What in the World Is Cognitive Behavior Therapy?

Guest posts

Today’s guest post is from Kari Wolfe, whose blog Imperfect Clarity passes on everything she’s learning as she works toward building a writing career, interviews fascinating people, parents her daughter in ways she never expected, and forges her own habits of success.

Recently, Luc has been talking about broken ideas, his term for cognitive distortions. This topic falls under the general category of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) which is based on the idea that if you change the way you think, you can change the way you feel.

Imperfect Clarity where her focus is becoming the best writer (and person) she can be by living her life to the fullest 🙂


Mental Obstacles, Emotional Obstacles, and Organizational Obstacles

Strategies and goals

buffaloI’ve been delving recently into how people make life changes in many different spheres, for instance in diet, work habits, organizational habits, relationships … and so I’ve begun listening to an audiobook called Stop Clutter From Stealing Your Life by a man named Mike Nelson. I’m not sure I can recommend it unreservedly (even apart from having not finished it), because some of it sounds a lot like an infomercial, but Nelson really does seem to get to some very meaningful information.

The most interesting thing Nelson, formerly a terrible clutterer himself, has brought to my attention so far is the difference between attacking the problem of clutter organizationally versus attacking it emotionally. As he describes it, clutterers will learn new organizational techniques and yet make no progress with their clutter because they’re running into emotional obstacles that have to be dealt with first. If a person is too afraid to tackle their clutter problem, it doesn’t really matter how many great techniques they have for cleaning out their closets.

So it can be useful, when we look at things that we’re not doing but want to be doing, to figure out whether our obstacles are emotional ones (like being afraid of what will happen if we start the task, or ashamed that we haven’t done it already), mental (like telling ourselves we’re doomed to failure without even trying), organizational (like not knowing where the time will come from to get the job done), or some mixture.

This is not to say that there aren’t external obstacles too, like not having the resources needed or having others who oppose us, but in terms of self-motivation, generally speaking all obstacles wind up being emotional, mental, or organizational.

And in an important sense, all three kinds of self-motivation obstacles are really mental obstacles, in that they can be tackled using cognitive approaches–that is, by changing our thinking. But that’s a topic for another time. For today, it’s worth just asking ourselves: what’s really standing in my way? To get past this obstacle, do I need support from a friend? Help working out fear or anger or guilt? More confidence? A better way to think about things? Time? Better planning? Once we know what kinds of obstacles we face, we can understand better how to overcome them.

Photo by code poet

No Comments

When we don’t like the things we want and don’t want the things we like

Habits, States of mind

We tend to think of “wanting” and “liking” as being closely related: if we want something, then we will necessarily like it when we get it, and if we like something, then we will feel moved to action–or so the thinking goes.

People have been known to do some interesting things using this assumption, for instance working very hard to get somewhere in life, and then not liking where they are when they get there, or bingeing on a particular food and not enjoying a single bite.


gremlins: the real root of the problem?

So what’s going on here? Are we not enjoying things because we aren’t paying attention? Is it ennui? Are gremlins somehow involved?

The root of this matter is that liking and wanting are separate systems in the brain. Under normal, healthy circumstances, they’re pretty closely related: there’s a good chance that getting something we want will give us feelings of pleasure. But there are situations where they’re actually at odds with each other: the more we want something, the less pleasure it will give us when we get it. This is true of drug addiction, but also true of many other habitual behaviors, like overeating, compulsive shopping, and video game obsession.

The logical thing to assume (you would think) would be that people who overeat enjoy food more than people who don’t, and that’s why they overeat; or that people who max out their credit cards with unnecessary purchases enjoy getting a new pair of shoes a lot more than people who stay within their budgets. Yet when someone does something to excess, it often doesn’t look like they’re enjoying it more–it just looks like they’re more compelled–they want it more, but they don’t like it more.

And in fact, much of the brain chemistry of doing things to excess is the same whether we’re talking about watching too much TV or eating too many doughnuts or drinking too much coffee or shooting heroin: the more we overdo something, the less our brain reacts to dopamine release when we have that thing. Dopamine is a brain chemical that tends to make us feel calm and satisfied, and its normal purpose is to remind us to do things like eat and procreate, because if dopamine levels are low (as when we don’t do things we’ve evolved to want to do), we feel agitated. Doing too much of something makes our brain less receptive to dopamine, which means we require more of that thing to feel comfortable and happy. To someone who doesn’t drink much alcohol, one beer can be very satisfying–but to an alcoholic, one beer is barely noticeable.

There are at least two other reasons that we might want something we don’t like. First, there’s habit: if we do something very regularly, regardless of whether it makes us happy or not, our brains have reinforced the neurons devoted to that activity, and we will feel strongly inclined to keep doing it even if it doesn’t provide us any enjoyment or benefit.

And second, there are the broken ideas I’ve written about here before (more formally called “cognitive distortions”). These are things we tell ourselves that contain some kind of basic flaw. For instance, deciding that someone is a jerk and shouldn’t act toward us as they do can make us act unkindly toward that person, which can contribute to an increasingly aggravating relationship.

And what about not wanting things we do like? This is the effect of broken ideas again. For instance, we might have a task in front of us that seems very difficult,and think “There’s no way I can ever finish that, and it would be painful and awful to try”–when in fact, just getting started on the task can begin to relieve stress, and enough determination can get the entire task done, which can then deliver great benefits. Take for example cleaning out a room in the house that has long served as a “junk room.” Avoiding the junk room can be a continuing source of low-level stress, while getting it cleaned out can be very rewarding (especially after turning it into that home knitting studio we’ve been dreaming of having). Yet do we say to ourselves “Wow, I’m really excited to get that junk room cleaned out”? Not usually.


the junk room: shouldn't this be the kind of thing we can't wait to tackle?

Given these insights, that wanting and liking are not always in step with each other, what do we do about it? The simple answer is that we’re happier when we 1) question our wants and 2) remind ourselves of what actually makes us happy.  If an incident with a coworker makes you want to march into that person’s office and deliver a scathing review of their personal failings, it can be useful to think about whether you’ll really be happy doing that, or might ultimately be happier if you decide to calmly explaining what you didn’t like about the incident (maybe after a suitable cooling-off period). If you’re staring at a menu and feel inexorably drawn toward the buttered onion rings with fat sauce, it may be worth thinking about whether the minute or two that you are really enjoying those onion rings (after the first few bites, our enjoyment of food sometimes drops considerably) is going to be worth the over-full, sleepy feeling you’ll get soon after you eat them and the quarter pound heavier you’ll be as a result. Putting things in this kind of perspective can make doing things you’ll actually like much easier, bringing wanting and liking more in line.

Gremlin illustration by ibtrav
Junk room photo by Steve Jenkins

No Comments

How to get a song out of your head (and other seemingly impossible mental feats)

States of mind

At first, I was just going to write a short post about how to get a song out of your head, even though I knew it wasn’t really on topic for this site, because I thought it might be useful. As it turns out, though, it is on-topic. But first, the advice.


Recently I’ve had trouble with songs sticking in my head, most recently and horrifically “I’ve Never Been to Me” (from watching the beginning of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert–is that really you, Elrond???). Fortunately, by experimenting I found two ways I can successfully banish them. The first way is to listen to a very different kind of music for maybe half an hour or so. The second, which for me works even better, is to improvise a song in “la la la” fashion, taking care not to sing predictably. That might be more useful for musicians than for other people, but I suspect it’s worth trying regardless of your musical background.

If neither of those work for you, there are some very good additional suggestions at and .

But what does getting a song out of your head have to do with self-motivation? Only this: it makes the point that we have much more control over our mental environment than we might at first believe. Over the past fifteen years or so, I’ve gradually come to realize how much more is possible for an individual human being to do than we generally recognize. Le Ton Beau de Marot, a huge, strange book in English about the translation of a single Medieval French poem, demonstrated to me how much more could be done with language than I suspected; learning about Non-Violent Communication and Formal Consensus demonstrated to me how very much more often people with different points of view can find a peaceful accommodation than we generally believe; and my self-motivation research has demonstrated to me how much influence we can have over our own moods, perspectives, and habits than I would have imagined–everything from feeling happier by fake-smiling (try it: our brains are wired such that it actually works) to idea repair, to changing our attitudes with our body language (which is well-described in The Definitive Book of Body Language).

I’m trying not to be too Panglossian or inspirational, but there is a meaningful fact here: it appears most people are unaware of how much power they can bring to bear in influencing their own moods, ideas, and habits. It may be worthwhile to sometimes ask ourselves what kinds of assumptions we’re making about our own minds, and whether some of those assumptions would be better off banished to the limbo where I sent “I’ve Never Been to Me.”

Photo by Cayusa

No Comments

Broken ideas and idea repair

Handling negative emotions, States of mind

As a rule, our culture tends to think of emotions as things that well up inside us in a way that’s more or less completely outside our control. We can avoid emotional situations, this point of view goes, or we can suppress them, but they are what we are, and thinking doesn’t enter into it.

mimeI’d like to demonstrate some very useful ways this is completely wrong. I’ll do it using, of course, a mime.

Let’s say our mime–for convenience, we can call him Raoul–is on his way to the park to do a little street performance on a sunny May afternoon. For his performance today, Raoul has purchased three dozen imaginary eggs, which he plans to juggle, balance on his nose, perform magic tricks with, etc. He is carrying the imaginary eggs in mime fashion when he slips on an imaginary banana peel on the sidewalk and crashes to the concrete, right on top of his eggs. Now Raoul is a mess, covered with imaginary egg. All of his eggs are ruined, so there go his performance plans for the day, and to top it off, the people in his otherwise fair city are so rude and thoughtless that they leave imaginary banana peels lying all over the place. Oh, and to make it worse, since it was an imaginary banana peel, clearly it was another mime who did it!

We would expect Raoul to get upset in one way or another. He could sit there, covered with smashed eggs, weeping, or he could fling the gooey, imaginary cartons around in fury, shouting silent curse words. And we probably wouldn’t blame him for this, because through someone else’s carelessness, he’s a mess and his day is ruined.

Now, it’s true that immediately when this happens, Raoul’s brain will start making associations, and brain chemicals will start influencing his behavior–notably adrenaline in response to the unexpected fall and the problems that it has suddenly caused. That helps set the stage, but at the same time Raoul’s brain is likely to be generating what are called “automatic thoughts”: emotionally laden and potentially misleading judgments about what has happened. They might include things like:

“I’m screwed! I needed those eggs for this performance, and if I don’t perform I won’t have enough money to pay the rent tomorrow, and then I’ll probably get kicked out of my apartment!”

“What kind of sick #$!(@ leaves imaginary banana peels lying around all over the sidewalk?”

“This is a disaster!”

These kinds of automatic thoughts are also called “cognitive distortions,” because they are a kind of thinking that encourages belief in things that aren’t true. I’ll use a different term for them, though: “broken ideas.” A broken idea is anything you think up that misleads you. But what’s misleading about the above? Isn’t Raoul just silently telling it like it is?

In all honesty, he isn’t. Raoul’s broken ideas are broken only subtly, but they’ll lead him down a path he doesn’t want to take. For instance, his predictions about being evicted are very likely wrong, even if he isn’t able to come up with every penny of the rent money on time, and the fact that he’s trying to predict the future rather than just evaluate his options is a major red flag. We can’t predict the future in most cases, so basing our actions on assumptions about what will happen tends to lead to badly-chosen actions. Anyway, even in the worst case scenario he can always show how he’s trapped in a box and unable to leave the apartment. This is one of the powers mimes have.

He’s also telling himself he needs the eggs for the performance, when in fact he probably just wants the eggs for the performance, and can either buy more eggs or do a different routine.

And he’s also labeling the banana peel leaver as a (please pardon me for repeating this bad language) “sick #$!(@,” which dehumanizes the person and could lead some real interpersonal problems (like being hit over the head repeatedly with an imaginary stick) if Raoul decides the perpetrator must have been a particular someone he knows and acts toward that person as though they were purposely going around and leaving imaginary banana peels for people to slip on.


So what’s wrong with these ideas is that they’re inaccurate, and more to the point, they tend to lead Raoul in the direction of making bad choices, like going to drown his sorrows in imaginary beer, or marching off to throttle a colleague who is a known banana afficianado. What would make Raoul happiest at the moment would be to somehow find a way to free himself of his anxiety and frustration at the incident, get him to think through what he’ll need to do to go ahead with his performance, and as soon as possible to get him to the park to charm half the passersby and infuriate the other half with his mimetic ways. This way his day could very rapidly get back on track, and no other trouble would need to come of the banana peel fiasco.

How does Raoul do this? We’ll tackle this in much better detail in other posts, but the basic steps are:

1. Relax, step back from the situation, and breathe
2. Use idea repair
3. Get on with your life

Idea repair, which takes some practice to learn but can be wonderfully effective once you have the basics down, is the process of reworking broken ideas to reflect the truth of the situation. For instance, “What kind of sick #$!(@ leaves imaginary banana peels lying around all over the sidewalk?” could be repaired to something like “As much as I wish they didn’t, sometimes people will leave imaginary banana peels on the sidewalk, so I’ll be better off if I’m on the lookout for them.”

Similarly, “This is a disaster!” could be repaired to “This is inconvenient and embarrassing, but if I take the right steps, I can get my day back on track.”

You might be amazed how much stress and distraction idea repair can sometimes clear away. I certainly have been ever since I first learned about the technique a decade or so ago.

Of course there’s much more that could be said on the subject, but that brief summation will have to do for now. I’ll leave you with this final comment from Raoul:


Huh. Well, that’s what I get for trying to quote a mime.

Mime photo by thecnote; banana peel photo by Black Glenn.

Postscript: As you may have noticed, I’m experimenting with a lighter writing style for posts. Up until now I’ve been making efforts to write seriously because I’m dealing with serious subjects, but I’ve come to think that a little humor might do more good than harm. I’d appreciate any comments you might have on this style of post.

LATER NOTE: I followed this article up in October with How to Detect Broken Ideas and How to Repair a Broken Idea, Step by Step.