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Building "Negative Capability" to Unlock Hidden Potential

Changing how we approach logic and reason is a game-changer.

Key points

  • Though negative capability may seem counterintuitive, sometimes the wisest thing is to allow experience to run its course.
  • Benefits of negative capability may include building reflective function and building inhibitory control.
  • On a global scale, exercising greater ensemble negative capability could help address major world issues.

The poet John Keats, writing to his brothers about the power of art, truth, and beauty,1 experienced whilst walking with friends an epiphany regarding William Shakespeare's genius:

 William Hilton/Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
John Keats.
Source: William Hilton/Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

"[S]everal things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge."

Negative Capability

On first glance, the term “negative capability” seems self-contradictory. “Don’t just do something, stand there” (a phrase we use in crisis management) seems questionable at best. However counterintuitive, as much as quick thinking and action can save the day, sometimes the wisest thing to do is allow experience to run its course, unperturbed by "irritable reaching after fact and reason."

As Reggie Watts, musician, comedian, and entertainer, states in his trippy TED talk "Reggie Watts disorients you in the most entertaining way":

... it is within our self-interest to understand the topography of our lives unto ourselves. The future states that there is no time other than the collapsation of that sensation of the mirror of the memories in which we are living. Common knowledge but important nonetheless.

It requires tremendous restraint to stay with what appears to be high-minded gobbledygook, layers of raw poetic language which refreshingly bend rationality. (The talk is also laugh-out-loud funny.)

Negative Capability and the "Fundamental Rule" of Psychoanalysis

The Fundamental Rule of psychoanalysis, presented by Sigmund Freud in Recommendations to Physicians Practising Psycho-Analysis, is a formal discipline taking years to learn:

"[The analyst or therapist] should withhold all conscious influences from his capacity to attend, and give himself over completely to his 'unconscious memory.’ Or, to put it purely in terms of technique: ‘He should simply listen, and not bother about whether he is keeping anything in mind.’ To put it in a formula: he must turn his own unconscious like a receptive organ towards the transmitting unconscious of the patient."

Freud called it “evenly-suspended attention,” in many ways resembling ancient meditative practices. The complementary patient's task is equally demanding:

"It will be seen that the rule of giving equal notice to everything is the necessary counterpart to the demand made on the patient that he should communicate everything that occurs to him without criticism or selection."2

This is called “free association,” at the core of psychoanalysis.3

Together, free association and evenly-suspended attention form a powerful change catalyst, though the unknown potentials inherent may evoke unformulated distress.

The Many Benefits of Negative Capability

1. Practicing free association in dialogue with another person builds the capacity for thinking, which ideally develops through a healthy parent-child relationship and interactions with others. Through exposure to one’s own inner processes heard out loud and spoken to another human being, we learn a lot about how our own mind works.

The social dimension is critical, as it actives relational parts of the brain which would not be online otherwise, for example in contrast with automatic writing, in which one writes whatever comes out without editing.

2. Negative capability builds reflective function, critical for optimal personal development. Reflective function, also called mentalization, allows us to accurately understand and interpret our own and others’ mental experience. Opening up space for many perspectives, experience becomes mutual, both/and and either/or, and not simply either/or. Fights become conversations, conflicts become constructive, you and me become us.

3. Negative capability helps build "inhibitory control," a mental function crucial for performance in many domains. Good executive function requires the ability to tell ourselves "no," also known as inhibitory control. Negative capability builds this inhibitory muscle, allowing the mind to enter into a state ripe with possibility. Negative capability allows us to simulate reality, a core evolutionary brain function, more fully. By opening up as many future paths to the imagination as we can conceive, prospective decision-making is enabled, a superior alternative to learning the hard way. Healthy self-doubt, a critical aspect of negative capability, helps us leapfrog problem areas.

4. Negative capability, especially within a therapeutic or personal development context, builds the capacity to recognize, appreciate and adaptively experience the full range of emotions—often called "emotion regulation," a cornerstone of self-regulation. Negative capability makes room for subtle experiences which, though important, would not come to a mind pressured, distracted, or otherwise unavailable4. Overcoming alexithymia, difficulty recognizing and discussing emotions with an excessive external focus, helps with personality function and communication. What is less often discussed is that very positive experiences, re-discovery of important parts of oneself, experiences of creativity, joy, desire, compassion, and connection.

5. We are less constrained by reason and logic. Logic is wonderful, and reason is a powerful tool. Yet there are times in life when they are insufficient, aside from the sometimes problematic effect they have on how we view emotions. Sometimes we need to "turn off the targeting computer" and get in touch with deeper experiences which logic may flee from in terror. Negative capability decenters "irritable reaching after fact and reason," empowering us to tap into primal forces.

6. Negative capability is the embodiment of curiosity and creativity. Opening up the mind to many possibilities is the basis of curiosity, though of course intense curiosity may be very driven and circumscribed at times. When logic is less of a priority, the pleasure of meandering curiosity allows the mind to go down less familiar paths. Likewise, creativity has been shown to be increased when we pass over the most common, immediate answers. Negative capability allows us to reflect, with evenly-suspended attention, upon whether ideas which come to us are novel or repetitive.

Global Negative Capability

Over time, you get something like your own “operator’s manual,” which highlights the subject nature of one’s own individual differences while leaving room for objective understanding of how the mind and brain functions to be incorporated into one’s personal narrative. Being present in the company of another, a listener who cares, is accepting or loving, is a critical piece of development. We don't always get that growing up, and if we haven't developed that inner good relationship, where we listen to ourselves, we may end up "self-silencing", and suffering as a result.

Negative capability may be considered not only an individual trait. Groups of people, cultures, and societies may also cultivate and possess this quality. Usually, we need a problem, an acute danger such as a pandemic, to force us to outside of the box.

If the world could slow down and reflect, exercising greater ensemble negative capability, perhaps we could handle thorny problems like climate change, scarce resource allocation and resource development, disease prevention and management, inequity, and a slew of other evolutionary sticking points more effectively.

Einstein famously asked Freud whether there was a way to free humankind from the threat of war. Freud’s comprehensive response begins with the following passage, resonant with negative capability:

"Conflicts of interest between man and man are resolved, in principle, by recourse to violence. It is the same in the animal kingdom, from which man cannot claim exclusion; nevertheless men are also prone to conflicts of opinion, touching, on occasion, the loftiest peaks of abstract thought, which seem to call for settlement by quite another method. This refinement is, however, a late development."

References

1. [ . . . ] In Poetry I have a few Axioms, and you will see how far I am from their Centre. 1st I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity—it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance—2nd Its touches of Beauty should never be half way therby making the reader breathless instead of content: the rise, the progress, the setting of imagery should like the Sun come natural natural too him—shine over him and set soberly although in magnificence leaving him in the Luxury of twilight—but it is easier to think what Poetry should be than to write it—and this leads me on to another axiom. That if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.

John Keats. On Axioms and the Surprise of Poetry: Letter to John Taylor, 27 February 1818]

Hampstead 27 Feb. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69384/selections-from-keatss-…

2. What is achieved in this manner will be sufficient for all requirements during the treatment. Those elements of the material which already form a connected context will be at the doctor's conscious disposal; the rest, as yet unconnected and in chaotic disorder, seems at first to be submerged, but rises readily into recollection as soon as the patient brings up something new to which it can be

related and by which it can be continued.

The undeserved compliment of having ‘a remarkably good memory’ which the patient pays one when one reproduces some detail after a year and a day can then be accepted with a smile, whereas a conscious determination to recollect the point would probably have resulted in failure.

3. Typically, psychoanalytic training requires trainees to "undergo" personal psychoanalysis, thereby practicing both free association and evenly-suspended attention.

Many consider it a developmental accomplishment to become completely open to one’s own experiences. We observe the processes of our own minds, and all the feelings and barriers (“resistance”) which arise when we are explicitly instructed to say everything as it occurs without self-censorship.

This simple, “fundamental rule” is a relational recipe for unlocking the psyche and achieving self-awareness, unfettered by the many socially-prescribed and developmentally-acquired inhibitions which, while often useful and necessary, also fetter the imagination and constrain one from untapped potentials. This is not about inaction however, but about well-time, considered action... sometimes immediate, often longer-contemplated.

4. Free association, in a sense, was designed to help people access “repressed” memories, which are traumatic or otherwise inconsistent with one’s sense of self. Focusing on traumatic experience, often within the framework of trauma-focused therapy, can alleviate posttraumatic symptoms through desensitization.

Full text of letter discussing Negative Capability

To George and Tom Keats, 21 or 27 December 1817

Hampstead Sunday

22 December 1818

My dear Brothers

I must crave your pardon for not having written ere this [ . . . ] [T]he excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty & Truth—Examine King Lear & you will find this exemplified throughout; but in this picture we have unpleasantness without any momentous depth of speculation excited, in which to bury its repulsiveness—The picture is larger than Christ rejected—I dined with Haydon the sunday after you left, & had a very pleasant day, I dined too (for I have been out too much lately) with Horace Smith & met his two brothers with Hill & Kingston & one Du Bois, they only served to convince me, how superior humour is to wit in respect to enjoyment—These men say things which make one start, without making one feel, they are all alike; their manners are alike; they all know fashionables; they have a mannerism in their very eating & drinking, in their mere handling a Decanter—They talked of Kean & his low company—Would I were with that company instead of yours said I to myself! I know such like acquaintance will never do for me & yet I am going to Reynolds, on wednesday—Brown & Dilke walked with me & back from the Christmas pantomime. I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

The Letters of John Keats, ed. by H E Rollins, 2 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958), i, pp. 193–4.

Freud, S. (1912). Recommendations to Physicians Practising Psycho-Analysis. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XII (1911-1913): The Case of Schreber, Papers on Technique and Other Works, 109-120

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