Charles Dickens, Demons, and Personal Science

In a review of biographies of Charles Dickens I found this:

In 1849 he showed a short account of his early years to his close friend John Forster, revealing a story he never told his own family: the shame-inducing months he spent, while his father was in a debtor’s prison, as a 12-year-old “laboring hind” in a factory that bottled shoe-blacking.

Suddenly I understood why he wrote Oliver Twist and why it is so good. Budding writers are told write what you know. They should be told write what you feel bad about.

The work of James Pennebaker has shown the benefits  of even small amounts of self-disclosure. No doubt this is why all sorts of psychotherapy, supposedly based on enormously different theories, help roughly the same amount: All involve self-disclosure. I see this effect as something built into us by evolution  to increase self-disclosure. Talking about bad experiences helps your listeners avoid what happened to you. To motivate such disclosures, evolution has built into us something that causes us to feel better after we talk this way.

Scientists are not told study what you know and they are especially not told study what you feel bad about. Scientists are mostly men, of course, and that sort of thing makes men uncomfortable. My personal science, however, suggests the correctness of this idea.

5 Responses to “Charles Dickens, Demons, and Personal Science”

  1. gwern Says:

    > Budding writers are told write what you know. They should be told write what you feel bad about.

    Charles Dickens was made famous and financially successful by his humorous light fiction _Sketches by Boz_ and _The Pickwick Papers_.

  2. Peggy Says:

    Self-disclosure works better when there is someone on the other end listening. i think this effect partly explains some of the successes seen by alternative medicine practitioners: they take much more time to listen than is the norm in conventional medicine these days.

    Also, those who listen may learn surprising and unexpected things that may prove useful in treating others. I gather that your doctor didn’t learn anything about treating acne from you, but he could have and should have.

  3. John Smith Says:

    The Amway mantra is: Just tell your own story!

    I am often criticized (not prosecuted) for practicing medicine without a license, as I occasionally ‘give out advice.’ This is illegal in most Western Cultures, but isn’t usually prosecuted unless money changes hands.

    But to avoid the criticism, my intention is to simply tell my own story, and or give my personal opinions. Telling my own story is possibly more healing for me than it is for my listeners. However, even the listeners may remember that story in years to come and benefit from some little part of it. AND its all so legal to tell your own story and no one knows it better than the individual who lived it!

    Nonetheless, when I meet someone whose only conversation is crying about their misfortunes I consider them addicted and tend to avoid that person.

    Good post, Seth. If we want to get some good science, we have to become scientist ourselves, aye? (and you don’t need a piece of parchment to be a good scientist!)

  4. LemmusLemmus Says:

    Why would a trait be selected for on the basis of its helping others? Kin selection? Group selection? Tit for tat?

  5. Seth Roberts Says:

    “Why would a trait be selected for on the basis of its helping others?”

    When you help others in many cases you help yourself. For example, when you live with 10 other people you have 10 other brains working to solve your common problems, of which there are no doubt many. By helping those 10 other people, you are helping solve your problems.