Episode 11 – Dr. James W. Pennebaker

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Dr. James W. Pennebaker is Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, and the Executive Director of Project 2021, aimed at rethinking undergrad education at that university.

I first encountered Dr. Pennebaker’s work when I was working on the SelfAuthoring Suite (www.selfauthoring.com), an online writing program which has helped thousands of college students stay in school and get better grades. He conducted the original work on “expressive writing,” starting in the 1980’s, showing that people’s health and productivity improved when they wrote about traumatic experiences or uncertainty — particularly if they constructed causal accounts or plans. He has also investigated the psychological significance of patterns of word use (particularly about everyone’s favorites, pronouns). We talk about all of this, and much more.

Dr. Pennebaker’s books include:

You can find out more about The SelfAuthoring Suite, which helps people write about the difficulties and uncertainties of the past (Past Authoring), present (Present Authoring) and Future (Future Authoring) at www.selfauthoring.com. NPR did a popular story on the suite: The Writing Assignment that Changes Lives

You can find out more about Dr. Pennebaker’s research, learn more about psychology, and improve your knowledge of yourself at these websites:

  • Justin Deschamps

    Fantastic Talk. I found it quite stimulating as I’ve been studying these things for years.

    RE: Why does the writing program work?

    I suspect it creates a highly abstract model for the world, a kind of meta-model, that allows the individual to optimize their experiences real time. People need a model to understand their world, a Map of Meaning, to draw from your Lexicon Dr. Peterson. And the best example of a meta-model out there (the meta-model of meta models) is a coherent and objectively real spiritual philosophy. In this sense, we could define the fruit of philosophy as the highly abstract framework of context that allows raw experience to be contextualized, and meanings to be derived.

    People without a coherent concept of the divine, or cosmos if that term is more preferable, have no coherent master-meta model and therefore experience more trauma from life events. In a very real sense, their is an a priori cosmic crisis that has never been properly reconciled, and this crisis, if left unresolved, creates an implicit resentment for the world and life in general, at a primordial level as the catalyzing experiences likely took place at birth and shortly thereafter.

    The divine meta-model is, what I could call, the pan-ultimate of meta-models—if you’ve created it properly that is—the model anticipates the unknown explicitly as a feature of growing the evolving soul. For example, if you conceive of your relationship to the universe as follows: “I am a creature of the Creator, who created all things in my personal experience for my personal growth and evolution,” then this creates a positive bias and value assessment for new experiences, as opposed to fearing the unknown implicitly, as those without a coherent understanding of the divine tend to do.

    So there is a lot to unpack here, but in a nutshell, I would say that when someone is doing authoring, either in the past or present, they are making adjustments to the highly abstract model they use to navigate through the world, and their own subjective experience, which is where this model does most of its work. And this model is not bound by time or space, a decidedly metaphysical thing, hence it approaches concepts of divinity at upper levels.

  • Sterling

    Dr Peterson
    I am a Pentecostal Minister/part time beef farmer with a counselling background. I’m married to a family Doctor and have two young children. My interest in counselling came from trying to wade through childhood trauma and i may have come across you through an inadvertent youtube rabbit trail on the subject of therapy. At any rate, you have captured my interest now for a few months and I have listened to a large part of your youtube content. Lets just say your work has added a new level of depth to my work as a preacher and counsellor, and I want to say thank you. I gather you have a low opinion of how (conservative/evangelicals) view religion and the bible, but I just want to say that I really appreciate your work and struggle, even from my unsophisticated pentecostal template of faith.
    On a side note: I was reading Genesis this morning about Noah and something jumped off the page for me.
    It was the part after the flood when Noah got drunk and passed out naked. The youngest son Ham wanted to expose the Shame of Noah (the patriarch), the other sons out of respect for the (patriarch) would not indulge in His shame by voyeurism and covered Noah.
    I just thought it a great picture of the archetypes you speak of. Noah being the ( flawed patriarchal culture) God used to save the human species and the son’s as our reaction to our own patriarchal culture: to revel in it’s shame, or respect it as the vehicle that has brought us through chaos by showing some deference and compassion.
    Anyway just some thoughts.
    God bless you.

  • Anthony Chiozza

    Dr. Peterson my name is Anthony Chiozza. I was a teacher of science and history in the United States before becoming chronically ill five years ago. I have been listening to your content on suffering. Perhaps it was divine intervention that I came across your work before a piece of mine is published on suffering within the next several weeks. I have several articles published in the medical field regarding cancers. These articles were reviewed by board-certified oncologists before they published the content. Thus far that has been the extent of my professional career outside of teaching before becoming ill. The medical site I wrote for was once called lymphoma.about.com, but has since changed its name. If you are ever interested in having a conversation please feel free to contact me at Chiozza@sbcglobal.net Also, there is a film you might consider seeing that addresses the same archetypes you discuss in some of your work. It is called, “Song of the Sea.” It was directed by Tomm Moore. Sorry to be off topic, but I was searching for a way to introduce myself as I reside in Texas.