– e.e. cummings
– Arnold M. Ludwig
For those who feel that despite its truth the preceding paragraph has a Walt Disney-like optimism, let us cut to the chase: e.e. cummings makes a valid point. The frontiers of interaction between artists and other people are often unhappy. The purpose of society is to maintain itself. People go out and work, receive a paycheque and go home to raise a family. Children are brought up to do the same thing. The reward for doing so is approval. Dotted across the broad sea of society are islands of individuals with other aims. These are artists. Artists seek to create art, to question the norms and beliefs of their society and be approved of for that reason as their life’s job. This job does not result in a paycheque, hence it does not maintain society. In response society refuses to approve.
The forgoing may seem a rather simplistic view of artists and society. It does, however, present an equation that all artists understand. In the real life within which they live, all artists have heard from parents, lovers and friends: “Of course you can be an artist, but first you have to have a real job.” “You can’t just think of yourself. You have responsibilities now.” “If you loved me, you wouldn’t do that.” “Who reads poetry anyway?” “Life is passing you by.”
The obvious rejoinder to this analysis is to say, choose another career. And the question has to be asked, what is it in the unusual personality of the artist that prevents that choice being made, that makes the pursuit of art fulfill the usual, externally-derived, enhancers of self esteem: a decent job, a decent family life, living within the grain. In communist, dictatorship, or religious fundamentalist regimes, artists who ask difficult questions often end up dead, or exiled. In western society they are typically ignored. Because the public consumption of art is so low, the artist lives in poverty, torn by the knowledge that he or she cannot afford the normal comforts of life: a house, a decent car, adequate provisions for his or her children – a state of being not human, and it is art, the person’s inner-most nature that is doing it to the artist. The latter part of this section concerns itself with the unusual neurophysiology and biochemistry predisposing artists to be so singleminded, to put up with diminished material lives (Refer to Chapter 2 for the fianancial analysis.) as a trade off for pursuing art. But first, what is the artistic personality? How should we approach and understand it?
The artistic personality is composed of many mutually supportive strands. Most obviously, a person has to have talent, the ability to produce an art. Equally important are perseverance and luck. It takes decades to build the skills necessary to have the technique to perform, and the maturity to say something of importance. These are long years of apprenticeship for most artists, and years without income. Luck, on the other hand, is arbitrary.
The erection of self worth from an edifice of art also makes an artist vulnerable. Most artists are willing to risk everything to improve, to leap off cliffs and experiment with their beliefs. This leads to an unstable situation: a life of great victories and defeats. During periods when the artist is unable to produce art, the result is a rapid downward spiraling of self esteem. These periods, as we all know, are called blocks. Blocks are simply fear. The artist is terrified that he or she will never again produce any art. Time and time again, artists take their own lives during periods of blocks or depression. An obvious example is Hemingway, who blew his brains out when he became convinced he could no longer write.
Along with rapidly changing moods, essential to artists is constant attention to their own perceptions. It is my firm belief that the brains of artists are more sensitive to events than those of others. Accordingly, the everyday banal occurrences that other people take for granted, the artist sees as epiphanies, and staggers along making earth-shattering discoveries. Virginia Woolf’s well-known expression, “the booming buzzing confusion [of life]” expresses this sensitivity.
Artists, whose focus is inward, whose chief aim in life is their own personal journey, have the resources to examine life and the desire to present it to others. This provides a structure for art and a belief that one’s own personal vision is supreme. Needless to say, such people prize their individuality and, accordingly, censorship is anathema; it is perceived as an attack which must be rejected at all costs. Egocentric, solitary and self absorbed, artists do not take kindly to the authority of others, particularly where those ideas impinge on their own actions – freedom is paramount. They are nonconventional, eccentric, agnostic, critical, and proud of it. This iconoclasm leads to difficulties in school, with others and with government, making artists poorly equipped to champion their own causes. They are too busy arguing and protecting their own turf to get it together to get together to speak cogently enough and long enough to establish the kind of support and recognition that art could otherwise enjoy in our society. The necessity for correcting this deficiency will be argued in Chapter 6.
A little thinking about the various theories leads easily to the origins of art. As discussed in the next section, art arose from a matrix of human needs to understand. Magic, ritual and religion have for thousands of years been the ways that humans expressed their need for instinct and control over what they didn’t understand. Intuition is the mental faculty that bridges these needs; it is the mind’s magic. And art has been associated with religion for 15,000 years. It is the unknowable given form.
On the brighter side, one of the most obvious characteristics of artists is their creativity. This has two aspects: a facility of the mind; and, a capacity for Herculean output. Persons of strong, vacillating moods and intense purpose are capable of massive amounts of work – van Gogh turned out hundreds of paintings in his lucid months. Consider Picasso, too; his works number about 20,000 paintings, drawings and collages. We have examples of tremendous output here in Canada: Robin Skelton and George Woodcock both published more than 100 books in their careers.
Creativity is also marked by mental fluency. Creativity arises from rapidity and flexibility of thought combined with ability to join dissimilar ideas or categories of thought, thus forging new and original connections. This, as mentioned, is metaphor, a fundamental characteristic of human thought. A person who looks into a fish pond and says, “Goldfish are the thoughts of clouds.” has produced a metaphor, using the associative powers of the left side of the brain and the factual recall faculties of the right. The myths embodied in our religious parables are other long-standing examples.
Creativity confers obvious benefits upon mankind for the volume and novelty of work produced. In the past two decades serious examination of this trait has been undertaken. There is a growing body of scientific literature regarding the artist, a broad and multidisciplinary literature on creativity, as well as psychiatric perspectives from a number of mental pathology specialties. Biochemical work on enzyme pathways begins to elucidate the microchannels in brain neurons. Current, ground-breaking work in positron emission tomography may well become further refined to include specific studies of artist brains. It is my belief, as expressed in section two of this chapter, that this latter technique will one day demonstrate that the thinking of artists differs in fundamental ways from other human beings. Biographies of major artists provide other clues to the talents of these eccentric people and although anecdotal, give a human perspective to the statistical analysis of science.
Despite what I have said about their social marginalization, from the perspective of society, persons with artistic skills comprise a large and important sector of professions. Indeed, the Dictionary of Holland Occupational Codes (47) aggregates the almost endless array of jobs in western society into four major types. It recognizes artistic endeavours as a fundamental category, along with enterprising, social and investigative types.
Aggregation allows for a more rigorous look at career choices and personal characteristics. When I look at people, I see endless variety in character, and when I read biographies, their personal histories – juicy though they are – seldom allow for making meaningful generalizations. For example, Howard Hughes documented his growing list of paranoias in the latter years of his life (4b); however, focussing on these clouds the fact that for most of his career he was an individual with brilliant skills in the enterprising professions. In the case of artists, the situation is further complicated; the pursuit is one that transcends a profession into a lifestyle
In a huge study, Ludwig (4a) examined, among other things, the impact of broken homes, birth order, mental illness in and death of parents, precocity, nonconformity, career choice, sexual preference, religious beliefs and social marginality on the emotional well-being and accomplishment of eminent people. He found that it is possible to predict with great accuracy lifetime achievement based on family of origin, personality and mental health. An early mark of future success is intellectual curiosity: a love of reading and a willingness to self-educate.
During school years, artistic types are more likely than others to encounter difficulty with teachers and authority. Future artists receive poorer grades and win fewer academic honours. Accordingly, artistic success has little to do with academic success, even though artists are intelligent, quick-minded and display fierce energy; most artists have IQS greater than 120, however, persistence plays such a large role in achievement that there is no relationship between IQ and achievement beyond this point. Furthermore, there is no relationship between achievement, originality or output and eccentricity of thought or dress.
And what about the truly eminent? It turns out that these people are so different from others their identities can be predicted virtually 100% of the time (4c). In youth, a powerful organizing principle takes over and shapes the individual and his environment to mold the person toward eminence and then toward a profession. Those destined for greatness become servants of their own talent and construct their world around it. They view their work as an extension of themselves and resist outside demands that detract from it. Less than 5% of the truly great experience epiphanies or callings. Instead, in my estimation, they recognize their talent as a constituent of personal identity. Although most are independent, self-sufficient and work alone, eminent artists have a great need to associate with others of their kind, people of comparable talent and intellect whose work and opinions they respect – Paris in the 20s, the Algonquin Table, Bloomsbury. They sharpen their wits, try out their ideas, display their works and try to validate their own greatness.
Lifetime Rates of Any Mental Disorder (4a)
Occupation Rate in Percent Artistic Discipline Rate in Percent
Exploration 27 Architecture 52
Natural Sciences 28 Musical Composing 60
Military 30 Musical Performance 68
Public Office 35 Nonfiction 72
Social Figure 37 Art 73
Companion 44 Theatre 74
Business 49 Fiction 77
Social Activism 49 Poetry 87
Social Sciences 51
While the chart shows quite clearly that there is a connection between mental illness and art, the interrelation is not quite so straight forward. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, for example, experienced recurrent, debilitating depressions and hypomanic spells. But so did much of his family; his father, grandfather, two of his great grandfathers, five of his seven brothers, one of his sons and one of his three grandsons suffered from insanity, melancholia, rage or manic depressive illness (7). This kind of family tree appears over and over again in genealogical studies. And they tell some of the story: that mental pathologies run in families, ie., they are genetic; and that artistic skills are distinct attributes from mental illness.
As long as many artists seem to be mentally healthy, the claim cannot be made that mental illness is necessary for creative achievement. Full stop. It is this simple: you cannot be a great artist and also insane. However, the statistical rates of mental pathology among artists are truly staggering when compared with the rest of society (4a): alcoholism affects 14% of the total population, among writers it is 41%, and 60% among theatrical artists; the rate of drug use in the total population is 6%. In musicians the rate peaks at 36 % (Think of Janis Joplin, Miles Davis, Jim Hendrix and Jim Morrison.); depression and melancholia affects 6% of the overall population compared with 77% for poets, a percentage that is progressive with age; the mania rate, .8% in the general population, reaches a peak in actors at 17% and poets at 13%; schizophrenia which affects 1.5% of the population reaches a peak in poets at 17%. In summary, the Epidemiological Catchment Area Study (48) found that at least 32% of the population suffers one or more mental illness while the rates for artists are astonishingly high: poets: 87%; writers: 77%; actors: 74 %; and, artists: 73%. Artistic professions as a whole are twice as likely to suffer 2 or more syndromes over the course of their lives as those in other professions (4e).
With these statistics in hand, the logical question to ask is how do artists possibly get anything accomplished, afflicted as they are with debilitating mental difficulties? As it turns out, far from being incompatible with artistic achievement, mental pathologies are often integrated by artists within the fabric of their lives, indeed, Edvard Munch expressed a typical view, when he said, “They [his mental troubles] are part of me and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and it would destroy my art. I want to keep those sufferings.” In other words art comprises such a large component of personal structure and self-esteem that artists refuse treatment for serious mental illness for fear of losing art and hence themselves.
Slater’s (49) work on the creative output of the composer Robert Schumann shows quite clearly that mental illness has profound effects on artistic output.
Robert Schumann’s Musical Works and Mental Illnesses
043 093 136
042 092 128
040 091 121
039 086 119
036 085 144 117 035 082 130 113
034 079 129 112 143
033 078 125 111 134
031 076 097 110 133
030 120 075 096 109 148 132
032 029 064 115 074 090 107 147 131
124 021 028 027 054 060 080 081 073 089 105 140 126
004 022 017 018 023 026 052 047 058 065 071 070 088 104 139 129
003 010 011 014 012 016 020 025 038 044 050 056 061 063 068 069 087 103 135 118
007 001 008 002 005 099 009 013 006 015 019 024 037 041 046 055 059 062 066 067 083 100 122 114
1829 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 1856
Suicide Attempt Severe Depression Suicide Attempt Hypomanic Hypomanic Died In Asylum (Self Starvation)
Art as a profession also seems to influence the relationship between mental instability and creativity. Ludvig’s work suggests that professions that rely on reason and whose members function in a social setting where interpersonal relationships are important – civil servants, accountants, military personnel – are less prone to mental difficulties. Those that rely on expression of emotion, personal experience and vivid imagery as sources of inspiration – poets, novelists, actors, entertainers – are more prone to mental difficulties.
The art world is also populated with a disproportionate number of emotionally disturbed people – talented or not. The reason for this is that artistic professions lack the capacity to keep unstable persons out. There are after all no formal barriers to aspirants. As artists place more emphasis on artistic output than on personal behaviour, their professions represent an occupational haven for people who wish to wrestle with their demons and try to contain them through expressions of art. Doctors on the other hand have to go to university for years, be sanctioned by the College of Physicians and obtain and retain billing numbers. They need to appear rational.
Many professions exert strong control over an individual’s behaviour, for example, civil servants, and police, by requiring stability, conventionality and accountability. The more a profession is accountable to the public, the more it regulates the behaviour of its members with licensing boards, procedures, educational requirements, performance standards and codes of ethics. Artists focus on the personal and subjective, the world of meaning and significance rather than knowledge and fact. Individual expression is paramount. Artists turn inward for inspiration from their turmoil and transform it into art. In contrast to other professions, there is a timeless quality to beauty and aesthetics. In art, unlike science, works endure and are not necessarily displaced by new schools or research. Fields that tolerate more ambiguity and less structure and proof in their permissible forms of expression tolerate people with mental disturbances more and allow them to capitalize on their highly personal visions.
One of the interesting conclusions of interprofessional comparison research (4a) is that artists and natural scientists resemble one another more in personality traits than they resemble those in other professions. Both groups are concerned with exploration of previously uncovered territory. Both have a forward-looking vision and share the thrill of discovery. And when we remember mankind’s supreme creative events and breakthroughs over the centuries we are often remembering artists and scientists: Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Newton, Einstein. I find this both illuminating and humourous; in the past few centuries our western world has rewarded and recognized the scientific discoveries. Today, artists often conceive of themselves as being in combat with the tidy, logical, too-clean, unerringly correct world of science as the last bastion of the scruffy, populist, humanitarian world. The image of the gentle river folk in Fahrenheit 451, memorizing and repeating their novels in the new-fallen snow, the smoke of their fires drifting up springs immediately to my mind.
The prevalence of the disease in different groups is striking. In the overall population, the rate of manic depression is 1% and 1 – 2% for the lesser condition cyclothymia ( 11) – the important condition for art. Andreason found, however, that over 50% of writers have one of these conditions. Regardless of social grouping, untreated manic depression leads to severe problems for family, friends and colleagues. And the disease is deadly: one in five manic depressives commit suicide.
The connection between mania and creativity is easy to understand. You will recall that creativity depends on mental fluency and ease in conjoining different categories of thought in order to make emotional and intellectual leaps. In its mild initial stages, mania fosters these processes and thus aids the achievement of an artist. If you couple the drive and intensity of an artist with the expansiveness and grandiosity of mania, this leads to massive output. In order for far flung or chaotic thoughts to be transformed into works of art, original and meaningful connections must be made. Here again grandiosity and cosmic sense combine with acute observational powers to make otherwise unimaginable leaps. The sheer force of life, the voltage can be staggering in mania, a condition which impels movement The upswing of mania enhances the boldness of temperament needed for original work at a high energy level. Over 90% of artists report that intense moods are essential in development and execution of their work (1). And Schildkraut (39) has found that creative cognition is more similar to manic flights of ideas than to the loose associations of schizophrenia.
It should also be remembered that unlike the chronic and unrelenting psychosis of schizophrenia, manic depression is cyclical, sometimes over many years. The sufferer is sentient and rational for long stretches and can carry on a family life and fulfill work commitments during these periods. When it arrives, however, the descent into depression can be as harrowing as the ascent into fire. Depression is characterized by apathy, lethargy, hopelessness, sleep disturbances, slowed physical movement and thinking, impaired memory or concentration and loss of pleasure. Hardly surprising, blocks follow. During this phase the depths include self-blame for the sins of excess, inappropriate guilt, thoughts of death and suicide. As Kafka put it, “A non-writing writer is a monster courting disaster.” The illness and the block chase one another in a vicious circle, the depression producing a block and the block adding further to the depression, a condition particularly devastating to the art-obsessed artist. The excesses of these cycling moods have been graphically described by John Berryman (1b) and the resulting ruin suggested by Gardner at the beginning of this chapter.
An important insight of this area of research is that it is the weaving together of the contrasting experiences, and the transitions between emotions and rhythmic brokenness that are crucial to artistic achievement. Jamison (1) has suggested that the artist may be endowed serendipitously with mental and perceptual facilities. “The artist is closer to the fundamental pulse of life because his or her daily and yearly rhythms are more similar to those of the natural world…the brinks, borders, and edges of nature…twilight and dawn in the course of a day, the equinoctial edges of autumn and spring during the course of a year…may actually be experienced quite differently by those who are artistic or cyclothymic by temperament.” Many artists – van Gogh, for example – reveal a marked seasonal component to output. In my experience, most work better in spring and fall, periods when changes in light and season are upon us. There is a continuum of states and everyone, including artists has fluctuations. This is natural, but in the extreme cases, it is the in between, milder affective states in which great work results. The artist must learn to harness and transform the storms.
Many specific impairments have been found. Some of the problems in the manic depressive brain include: dysfunction in the left temporal (42b) medial (42d) and prefrontal lobes (and subtracting this latter effect results in schizophrenia) (42a), however, activity does not decrease during depression (42c), unlike in simple depression; frontal cortex dopamine receptors have lowered activity (42e); the pineal gland is enlarged and calcified (42f); frontal and parietal white matter is riddled with lesions (42g); and, brain ventricals are larger (This is also true in schizophrenia but not in unipolar depression.) (42h).
In the brain, electrical signals are transmitted among 50 billion neurons connected to one another in 20,000 billion places. An electrical current flashes down an axon to a junction, or synapse, with another cell. Minuscule calcium molecules pass down microchannels in the presynaptic side and help control the release of neurotransmitters as well as aid synaptic efficacy. Neurotransmitters migrate across the gap, stimulate the next nerve and electricity charges down the next cell (35a, b and c). Meanwhile back at the junction, the neurotransmitter is retrieved into storage compartments for the next stimulus. Uptake is inhibited by chemicals called dopamine and serotonin, their purpose being to keep the system from being active too long. In schizophrenia, for example, there are fewer prefrontal dopamine (D1) receptors (33) and thus the brain keeps on firing, leading to erroneous signals and emotional instability. Antidepressant drugs mimic the chemicals and thus “smooth out” the brain. As might be suspected, lithium uptake increases in the manic phase of the cycle (42i).
Despite the contraindications for any particular mood-altering medication, the situation is clear: what occurs in microchannels so small they can be seen only with the most powerful electron microscope, affects the artistic output of an entire individual’s career, a career that if fostered by medicine – lithium in this case – may last half a century or more. One can only speculate what Sylvia Plath may have achieved had she not had her fateful rendezvous with her gas oven. She of course committed suicide before lithium became available in the 1970s. Robert Lowell was more fortunate. “It’s terrible…,” he said, “to think that all I’ve suffered and all the suffering I’ve caused, might have arisen from the lack of a little salt [lithium] in my brain.” Virtually all of the writers and artists mentioned in this chapter had no choice but to suffer: the drugs and therapies hadn’t been invented. Stop for a moment and consider the human cost, the suffering this has caused. Consider the pharmaceutical world in which we reside, our ability to modulate mood to enhance creative energy and productivity for all mankind.
Let me end the first part of this chapter with a Pandora’s box. We live in a brave new world of science; the Human Genome project in California – $3 billion price tag – aims to map out all the genes in the human genome. Cloning experiments have gotten as high on the ladder as sheep. In the next few decades, for the first time in billions of years of evolution, man will be able to directly modify himself to suit his desires. This is the great ethical question of the third millennium: we will have the technology for effortless genetic manipulation. We will use it.
Consider the consequences. In many areas of the world today, human children are aborted simply on the grounds that they are little girls. What then for serious diseases like diabetes, spina bifida and manic depression? The latter has a broad range of expression, is easily treated and confers advantages on society for the huge amount of creative work that gets done. But who would not have a pregnancy terminated if told their child was manic depressive? In a world where such decisions were routine, every artist listed in this chapter would not exist. No Tolstoy. No Michelangelo. Think about the blunting and reducing of man’s potential. The ethical questions arising out of our technical wizardry need to be answered now – for all of us.
17,000 years ago an artist stood in a cave in southern France. In the wavering light of a grease lamp, he picked cinders from a shallow dish and put his fingers into his mouth. His teeth chewed and crushed the remnants – usually charcoal, sometimes ochre – into a slurry of saliva and black. Putting his hand against the rock, the artist spat a fine spray from his mouth. T-t-t repeated his tongue in the cool riverine morning, outlining his outstretched hand. This signature recorded the beginning of a hunting and tribal art that flourished among the cave-riddled riverbanks of early homo sapiens. The artist painted buffalo and woolly mammoth, reindeer and horses. Using only breath, the artist projected himself onto the cave and became the animal, transforming humanity into something else: myth, symbolism, metaphor – fundamental constituents of human thought.
This artistic awakening was not restricted to the finishing schools of Europe. Half the world away, in the arid limestone plains of Australia deep in the flint caves, art, the basic urge of mankind for expression, to tell stories, had begun to be recorded five thousand years earlier. One quarter of a mile from sunlight, deep in the earth down black passageways barely wide enough for a human body, our ancestors, fragile lamps their only protection against engulfing dark found caverns of soft chalky limestone. Everywhere on these walls as high as a human can reach, frond patterns much like those of weeds found along rivers half way across the world were scraped with fingernails. Thus the history of man’s art on earth is over 20,000 years old. To put this in perspective, Columbus discovered the New World five hundred years ago, and we have inhabited many of our large metropolitan cities for only two centuries.
The relation of religion and art continued well into the Renaissance. Dante, for example, wrote the Divine Comedy in the early 1300s, perhaps the most well-structured explanation of heaven and hell that has ever been conceived. Michelangelo’s creation of Adam by a languishing god still excites the mind with the electric spark between the divine finger tips. At the time, the paradigm for understanding human personality and physiology was a categorization of the chief fluids of the body, the four humours: blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy.
Along with the decline of religion, a separation of art from religion began. Prior to this separation, artists comprised an artisan class of guildsmen. Along with this gradual separation came new theories about the workings of the mind. Freud created an entirely new approach to the understanding of human personality by his demonstration of the existence and force of the unconscious. He posited the id the ego and superego – not to mention libido! – as the internal determinants of mankind’s personality, and championed the relevance of dreams. His most celebrated work, The Interpretation of Dreams, appeared in 1900, and his work led to psychoanalysis as a therapy for trauma. Such commonly used words as regression, transference and complex owe their existence to the work of Freud.
I have just cavalierly squished together two millennia of thought in an arbitrary fashion and offer my apologies. The point is that man’s view of his world and himself has moved from exterior, God derived, to interior, mankind derived. Along the way, the sloughing of religion, of myth, of ritual, of art has done us much harm; it is a refusal to accept, largely by ignoring it, a large, important, necessary part of who we are. We also forget that contemporary art has existed much on its own only for the last couple of hundred years. Prior to this it was an integral part of society. In western society’s technical advancement, much has been achieved: we have gone to the moon, brought in health care, built municipal infrastructure, established the rule of law and so on. I am not the first person to note that art and religion has its roots in our spiritual side, that the west is perhaps hyper-rational, in its infancy, where, to use John Ralston Saul’s phrase, the ‘dictatorship of reason’ prevails. It is time to begin reclaiming our rich heritage: ourselves.
Now, what is the connection between science and art? Two of mankind’s unique abilities are our ability to think in images and (as we are not telepathic) our ability to communicate our thoughts in a set of symbols – this, of course, is commonly called language. The mind works in symbols, makes associations among the components and types of memory, adds images and emotions and, to repeat the point, communicates these in a further set of representational symbols; the stories we tell are myths made from our interaction with the given and our internal ways of transforming it for public reception. To put it philosophically, because we cannot know all things at all times, our thoughts are limited and our stories are myths. As it turns out, our minds, are not even organized to accurately report what we have experienced. Images, memories and emotions are combined at the time they are thought and the stories we tell to one another about ourselves bear significance because of their emotional content and the embroidery with which they were embellished over the decades (19).
Images, myth, and symbols are the basic stuff of art. That is why I started this part of the chapter with a description of the artist 15,000 years ago. While our conception of how our minds work has changed over the eons, the internal basics – the images, the workings of memory, the colouring of thoughts with emotion – have not. Why is this so? It is because our brains, plastic and shapable as they are to evolutionary forces, work in much the same way as they have for tens of thousands of years.
The human brain – 3.5 pounds of lecithin, 50 billion cells with as many as 10,000 connections between each cell – is composed of three main parts: the cerebral cortex, the cerebellum and the basal ganglia. The cerebrum is an 1/8″ thick pancake of cells that sits on top of the old reptilian brain and is responsible for conscious thinking. It has evolved so quickly in the past 100,000 years it has outpaced the ability of our skulls to expand in order to accommodate its growing size. The cerebellum is the old brain, inherited from reptiles. It is responsible for movement and primary responses such as the fight or flight response to danger. The basal part of the brain mediates reflexes. This is a simplistic division as we shall see; PET scans and MRI techniques have revealed an organ of incredible complexity and specificity.
Let me digress for a paragraph. I have a degree in biochemistry and zoology, yet the older I grow, the more I realize that logic and science and being philosophically correct are not really important. Nor are they ends worthy of personal pursuit. They are simply points of view. And the points of view that matter in this world are those with humanity, compassion and acceptance. Though I am not religious, I am sustained, as odd as it may sound, by the knowledge that it is irrelevant there be truth in our beliefs. For instance, one of the established determinants of living a long life (46), ie., more than 100 years, is a strong, enduring religious faith. This is a function of the way our brains work. We have the ability to believe in a creator and the myths with which we surround that story because our brains are structured to allow it. Whether there is a god or not, or whether a specific religion is true matters little; it is the sustaining value of our beliefs that helps foster a long and happy life. Some readers may know the story of Karl Jung, who had a deep and respectful friendship with a Hopi Indian chief. The tribe’s collective self-esteem rested on the belief that by getting up in the dark and praying each morning, it was their duty and good fortune to make the sun rise into the sky for the benefit of all mankind. Artists serve a similar function.
Regarding personality, it is my view that four or five traits should show up as distinct brain patterns. These are: the identity of the artist with his or her art, ie., I am my art, and, closely aligned with identity, the singleminded obsessiveness with which art is pursued; the ability to make free associations, that is the creativity to be flexible and to join dissimilar categories of thought effortlessly; the cycling of mood, particularly the mercurial aspects of the creative mind and also seasonal variations associated with changing light and day length in spring and fall; the interior focus of the artist, the brooding over memories and the tendency to depressive illnesses, and the hand in hand abuse, or self-medication with alcohol; and, unusually high levels of activity in the pleasures centres of the brain when presented with art of the genre within which the artist works, ie., art functions as a drug or addiction (hence the obsessive desire for performing it). For humankind, unlocking the door to these and other aspects of creativity may well help shape a new concept of what it means to be human.
Regarding artistic skills, artists will have heightened activity in parts of the brain associated with certain perceptual, memory, emotional and motor skills. Not surprisingly, this activity will correspond to the genre in which the artist works. Superimposed on this will be a general predisposition to left-hemispheric thinking. The left hemisphere is concerned with inferences and associative thinking, associations being a key part of creative processes, as is a heightened or expansive emotional sense. As already discussed, manic depression is centred in the right hemisphere with added impairments in the left.
Other artists will show highly-developed brain activity in still other areas of the brain. A visual artist, for example, has a highly developed visual and colour sense and therefore can be expected to have highly developed occipital lobes, as well as lower parts of the temporal lobes. For spatial abilities, the visual artist draws on the right hemisphere. Actors more than other artists should show high activity in the amygdala. This is because they must dredge up from their own memories the range of emotions that have to be displayed to render full, round, believable characters. For scripts, actors must have almost photographic memories to instantaneously pick up words and coupled with the amygdala’s help, their emotional impact. Musicians require fine manual dexterity for technique and incandescent emotional abilities for musical interpretation. Scans of motor cortex and cerebellum areas would reveal high activity and fine discrimination. And, indeed, studies have already shown that musicians possess dexterity and a sense for perfect pitch and melody (44).
Structure and Function of the Human Brain:
Diagram of Human Brain
(To be drawn)
Labels must include:
Brain stem: Basal forebrain – supplies hippocampus with acetylcholine for memory functions.
Figure 1: Recent psychoneurobiological studies have revealed that the human brain, with its 100,000,000,000 cells, has a complexity of function and organization that far exceeds what has been previously thought.
Let me summarize briefly. Because of their heightened abilities for symbolism, metaphor, myth, spiritualism, visual imagery, creativity, and pleasure, their disposition to emotional peaks and valleys, mental illness and intense reaction to the borders and shades of grey in daily life and above all, the ability to transform these experiences into a public art, the study of artists – some of the more creative and unusual members among us – should tell us fundamenal things about being human. Artists ask bold, sometimes uncomfortable questions about humanity, reality, society, time, aging, and politics; we should study and celebrate them for doing so. I recommend the establishment of an art research chair in Toronto to initiate such research, particularly via positron emission tomography and magnetic resonance imaging. This marriage of science and art would help us all.
I and others (9) have made the suggestion that western society is too rational. This empiricism and logic has slowly taken the field over the past 500 years. At the same time, the west has suffered an erosion of left-brained thinking, something that we, marooned in the present, find difficult to understand – we lack fundamental aspects of humanity. Perhaps it is time to reclaim our lost side, the side of ritual, religion and spirit, the lost religious side. I am immediately reminded of Shiite men walking around their obelisk in the desert heat, hitting themselves with chains until blood streams down their faces; I think of the artist at the dawn of homo sapiens shivering on a riverbank in southern France, sticking fingers in his mouth; of incense swinging in shafts of light, the golden robes of the Roman Catholic church. The mind is not simply logical, we have suppressed a great deal of ourselves for long enough. Let us reclaim ourselves, what it means to be human. Let us heal.
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1b. Ibid, p40.
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4a. Ludwig, A., The Price of Greatness – Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy, The Guilford press, New York, 1995. Although Ludwig’s fascinating study is far ranging and systematic scientific research into the lives of the great, it has shortcomings. Among them, that the study is limited to the West, hence it does not include people such as Josef Stalin, Mahatma Gandhi, or Mao Tse Tung. Furthermore, the study is uncomfortably based on American sources; 54% of the sample were Americans, an astonishingly high percentage. Based on this, Canadians would be expected, on a population basis, to have been about 5% of the entire sample; they were .5%. In addition, the source for names was the New York Times book review column and the relative greatness of persons included in the study was confirmed by inches of biographical detail in American encyclopaedias. Accordingly, an American bias to the findings ought to be expected.
4b. Ibid, p128-129.
4c. Ibid. Ludvig determined that when the following elements occur together greatness is predicted with almost complete certainty: a special talent or gift (training is still required, but the person is usually highly motivated); the right kind of parents (usually upper middle class, who recognize the child’s talent, and a creative unstable mother); a contrariness (confrontational, trailblazer, antiauthoritarian); a loner; physical vulnerability (this creates strength, thoughts of imminent death spur activity); a personal seal (distinctive style, defines era); a drive for supremacy (a will to be the best, ultra-confidence in abilities, a grand vision); and, psychological unease (restlessness, impatience, drive). By keeping individuals on edge or in a state of psychological unease, mental disturbances (that are not incapacitating) serve as a source of creative tension. The tension is resolved during work. Those who are not troubled this way generate their own unease. What leads to great achievement is not the existence of unease, but the ability of these people to use it to their advantage, either as a spur to productivity or in the service of their art.
4e. Ibid. See Figure 7.9, p 151.
4f. Ibid. Comparison of survival probability tables, p 291-294.
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