Blog North Awards shortlisted

Blog North Awards shortlisted

Monday, 17 November 2014

Investigating psychotic traits in poets: some tentative findings

Photo credit: here
Earlier this year, the Guardian covered new research by Ando et al (2014) into the personality traits of comedians and reported on some of the summarised findings which suggested the qualities required to be a successful comedian might also be linked to 'irrational' thoughts and the ability to connect random ideas:

"Their talent to amuse people lies in having unusual personalities and displaying what researchers say are high levels of psychotic characteristics, according to findings which appear to support the widely held belief of a link between madness and creativity."

I read the coverage of this study with particular interest because I was busy working on a questionnaire with Dr Oliver Mason of UCL aimed at investigating psychotic traits in poets, a questionnaire modelled closely on Ando et al's research.

In our study, we used an online survey based on that of Ando et al with the addition of the Mood Disorder Questionnaire (MDQ: Hirschfeld, 2000) which diagnoses bipolar disorder by self-report if seven or more symptoms are endorsed as occurring at the same time, and as causing ‘moderate-to-severe’ problems.

The O-LIFE and MDQ questionnaires we used were combined with a series of questions designed to ask how long participants had been writing for, where their work had been published (if at all) and which 'styles' of poetry they thought their work had an affinity with - these categories were not mutually-exclusive so people could pick more than one.

Thanks to the 294 poets who took part in the questionnaire, we have just been able to publish the results in the Cambridge Journal of Psychological Medicine and you can read all about our findings here.

Of the range of self-reported types of poetry, over two thirds of our participants (70.4%) endorsed a ‘lyric’ style, over half (58.2%) a ‘narrative’ style, and around a third (31%) an ‘avant garde’ style (again, these were not mutually exclusive categories). In terms of self-reported diagnosed mental illness, two poets reported schizophrenia, 15 reported bipolar disorder (5.1%), 152 reported depression (51.7%) and 80 reported anxiety disorder (27.2%).

We found that, in our sample, poets showed a high level of psychotic personality traits consistent with several other studies of creative groups (Nowakowska et al.2005; Nettle, 2006; Kyaga et al.2011). They did so both on indicators of the positive symptoms of psychosis and on self-reported symptoms of bipolar disorder. In particular, the endorsement of an 'avant-garde' style of poetry was associated with higher scores for Unusual Experiences.

To understand the context of these findings, I'd recommend reading the full article here.

Thank you very much to everyone who took part and gave up their time to complete or share the questionnaire. We hope our survey provides starting points for other discussions and research.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Are you sitting uncomfortably? Poetry & 'difficult topics'

Photo by Charlotte Astrid
In Aldeburgh on Saturday, the wind was doing its best to sweep stray poets off the shingle and out to sea. Walking up to the shadow of Maggi Hambling's scallop shell sculpture, I felt as overawed and exhilarated as I've always felt at a festival I've returned to for years. Only this time I was there to receive the honour of the Fenton Aldeburgh prize for my book 'Division Street'.

I'm not sure I'm up to the challenge of expressing how much that prize meant to me. But I can say that one of the most enjoyable aspects of it was meeting previous winners Dan O'Brien and Olivia McCannon. Together, we recorded a podcast about the prize and our writing projects and the discussion turned to 'difficult subjects' in poetry, the question of why you would try to write about issues that are painful, complicated and near-inexpressible (to you, at least). Olivia put it better than I could when she said her short answer would be "because it matters".

A few hours earlier, I'd been in tears reading Rhiannon Lucy Coslett's candid and thoughtful piece in the Guardian Weekend about eating disorders, body image and 'almost anorexia'. As well as engaging with things that are difficult to admit to and guilt-inducing to talk about, Rhiannon is sensitive to the things that can't be said as well:

"I couldn’t tell you how many times I looked in the mirror...in the hope that the body looking back at me would be somehow different from the reality...I couldn’t tell you how many times I thought about my weight, or my waist measurement, or just about my body generally, which seems to have ceased to be a vessel that carts me around through life and has become, to borrow a phrase, a battleground."

In one of the poems in 'Division Street', a poem called 'Thinspiration Shots', I tried to write about some of these things, some of these ideas that often get called 'difficult' or 'unsettling' through an exploration of 'pro-ana' websites. The poem has a hopeful conclusion for its narrator who finds the strength to turn the page, shut down images that are damaging to her ('now, your mirror's not a magnifying glass'). But Rhiannon's article moved me so deeply because it confronts a more troubling reality - the impossibility of escape for those who have obsessive thoughts about body image, even when they might seem healthy or normal or 'better' to other people. She concludes powerfully: "my full-time, unpaid, job is managing my appetite, and in between that I write for the Guardian....I know that when this article is published, I won't focus on the career high of having a feature published in a national magazine. I'll focus on the photographs and how much I hate them."

'Barbie's Dinner IV' by Laura Lewis
I won't try to paraphrase Rhiannon's article because I'd urge everyone to read it for themselves. But one of the things that struck me most powerfully about it was her engagement with the argument that eating disorders are "a middle-class, white woman's problem" and with the term 'wannarexia' (used by anorexics to describe someone who 'seeks out' an eating disorder in an exhibitionist kind of way). She cites a study carried out by King's College earlier this year which found that disordered eating patterns were, in fact, most prevalent amongst ethic minority participants. But those assumptions make many people (men as well as women) afraid to admit to their problems with food, encourage them to disguise them as healthy lifestyle obsessions or 'normalise' them with jokes and comparisons.

A culture where we think about eating disorders and body dysmorphia in those terms - in terms of privilege and affectation - is a culture which refuses to accept responsibility for the fear and anxiety that our society thrives on, the dread and inadequacy that drives us as consumers, as people. It is a lazy way of thinking.

I happen to believe one of the best things poetry can do is to help us find less lazy ways of thinking about difficult things. In my next collection of poems - the book I'm working on here at Leeds - there are a number of pieces that (try to) take a sideways look at body image and fear, often through the lens of climbing. While the protagonist in 'Thinspiration Shots' escaped the mirror-as-magnifying-glass, these poems accept that it's more difficult to get away from the funhouse mirror effect than we might like. Thinking about how female climbers get depicted, one character concludes:
 
...You’re beautiful on edges, in doorways,
on the brink. You can lead beautiful to water

but you can’t let it drink.


Reading Rhiannon's article again, I kept going back to her last lines as she imagines all the girls out there hating the sight of their own bodies in photographs, all the women engaged in comparison between themselves and other women who are probably just as paranoid about how they look:"how long are we going to put up with it?"








Monday, 27 October 2014

Turning Points

I've been a bit quiet on the blog recently and that's because 'Poetry on the Brain' has reached something of a turning point: after three years, I've handed in my PhD on neuroscience and connection-making in contemporary poetry and I've started a new chapter as a Cultural Fellow at The University of Leeds for two years.

Autumn whippet
Autumn's my favourite time for turning to different things, because the season seems to match each new idea. I remember watching a leaf years ago in a park in Cherry Hinton, Cambridge which had got suspended from an invisible thread - presumably a spider's web - and was pivoting and spinning in the air. From a distance, it looked as if it was turning round and round on nothing, suspended forever in mid air, held and not held. That's what October has meant to me ever since.

Even though my PhD is written (and I'm nervously awaiting the viva!), my interest in all things brain-and-mind-related hasn't gone away, of course. And my interest in poetry is as constant as my interest in breathing. So 'Poetry on the Brain' will continue as a blog, but the focus will shift away from neuroscience and psychology and towards poetry and psychogeography, alongside the projects I'll be working on at The University of Leeds.

When I say 'psychogeography' I'm (disingenuously) using a fancy shorthand for my enduring interest in the connections between people and the places they live, or where they think of as 'home'. My first collection 'Division Street' bears witness to my fascination with place, place names and the ways that landscapes make us feel. But Rebecca Solnit sums up how I think about place much better than I ever could, emphasising the reciprocal relationship between people and environments:

“...we often talk about love of place, by which we mean our love for places, but seldom of how the places love us back, of what they give us. They give us continuity, something to return to, and offer a familiarity that allows some portion of our lives to remain connected and coherent. They give us an expansive scale in which our troubles are set into context, in which the largeness of the world is a balm to loss, trouble and ugliness. And distant places give us refuge in territories where our own histories aren’t so deeply entrenched and we can imagine other stories, other selves, or just drink up quiet and respite.”  (from 'The Faraway Nearby')

I'm going to be a Cultural Fellow here at Leeds for two years, working from an office in the School of English and I'm looking forward to finding out what kind of scale and continuity Leeds gives to people who love the city. While I'm here, I'll be working on a second collection of poems (many of them themed around mountaineering and mountaineering women) and a novel set in South Yorkshire as well as encouraging dialogues across University departments and between writers all over Leeds. I'll be setting up a project called 'Leads to Leeds' inspired by and modelled on the brilliant website LikeStarlings which will encourage collaborations between poets across the city and showcase their new work - watch this space for the project website which will be ready soon.

With those themes in mind, it's the centenary of Dylan Thomas's birth today, so it seems apt to finish with some lines from his poem 'Fern Hill', a poem which meanders artfully and elegantly round themes of place, time and age, a poem that always makes me think of landscape as a strange canvas:

...Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would
take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
     

I'll be sharing details of Leads to Leeds - a website and project framed by the idea of being held 'singing' by place and time - soon.                   

Friday, 12 September 2014

'Kidnapped by the world' - accolades, Alvarez and nothing to do with neuroscience

In a fascinating interview with Clare Luchette, Louise Glück describes the strange period of grief that can follow the completion of a new book. She says writers may feel:

"...vulnerability, and horror, and a kind of grief at the book’s being kidnapped by the world. I have been very happy, very serene, for nearly a year in the knowledge that I had this new work only a few people had seen. I could enjoy by myself its existence, and the pleasure of not having to write for a while, and the sense of having achieved something. A better word than vulnerability, though, would be dread. I feel dread and sorrow at the end of a period of private and, this time, prolonged euphoria."

This week has seen the announcement of the Next Generation promotion, an accolade announced once every ten years, aimed at identifying poets who will make an impression with their work in the next decade. I'm delighted to be featured on the list along with the work of other poets I admire, from Kate Tempest to Kei Miller (I admire the work of everyone I've read on the list, as it goes!) and think the promotion is a great way to raise the profile of contemporary poetry as a whole: there are some fantastic videos by Ian McMillan on the Next Gen website in which he discusses the books, with his unique ability to be genuinely witty and profoundly insightful at the same time. Hearing Ian talk about the collections in the Next Generation promotion and what he loves about them is what a celebration of poetry should sound like. And it seems to be working already - friends of mine who don't normally read poetry or follow the poetry world have heard about the list and they're taking an interest. 

The thing that saddens me slightly each time a prize shortlist or a promotion of this kind is announced is that its always met with negativity from some quarters amid the general celebrations. Not a tidal wave of negativity exactly, more the kind of splash you'd get from a HGV driving through a puddle too fast on a rainy Cumbrian afternoon (no, I'm not bitter about all the times that happened to me when I lived in Grasmere. Not at all). On some level, there seems to be the suspicion that the 'chosen ones' must be a little bit smug, or they've got it easy, or they've become part of some privileged 'other'. 

Anyone who thinks that could do worse than to go back to Louise Glück's description of the sadness that often follows publication. I think that applies to the aftermath of releasing a book too, the publicity and attention that you get (if you're lucky). I don't want to speak for other writers, but I think it's just possible that many of the poets who receive accolades for their work suffer from an acute sense of inadequacy, a feeling of never quite being good enough. They don't feel like they're part of a 'trendy' literary elite, they feel a mixture of gratitude and fear. 

Most of the activities I enjoy doing, I enjoy because I can - briefly - escape myself in the process of doing them. Al Alvarez describes this brilliantly in relation to rock climbing and poker, as this extract from a portrait by Stephen Moss highlights:

'Poker and climbing share another similarity that appeals to Alvarez - both are democratic. "Nobody gives a shit what you do or where you come from as long as you sit down with sufficient money and ante up on time," he says. "It's the same in the climbing world. I used to go more or less every weekend to a place called Harrison's Rocks, and there was an oddjob man, a guy who worked as a gardener, a security guard, a kid doing his O-levels, a tycoon in the software industry, and me. There was complete democracy, and I loved that."'

As a climber, I know exactly what he means. When you're testing yourself on a difficult lead, there's not much room for identity. The same is true of long distance running, my other beloved sport. And the same is definitely true in the process of writing a poem. So I'm proud to be part of the Next Generation and happy to be involved with something that has the potential to widen poetry's readership and draw attention to new work. I'm excited about getting to know writers I don't know well and reading in new places. But I don't feel as if I've somehow 'won' and I never have, after any success. Because in poetry, climbing and running, there's really no such thing. Just yourself and the rock. Yourself and the tarmac. Yourself and the blank page.

I apologise for the lack of neuroscience in this blog post. I'm about to hand in my PhD after 3 years of work, and I'd like to thank everyone who has followed these daft ramblings on 'Poetry on the Brain' and also thank Picador for recognising the blog in its list of favourite poetry blogs earlier this week.


Friday, 27 June 2014

Scanning the storytellers

The latest in a series of recent, tentative attempts to map the brain activity of creative writers has focused on story production and the difference between 'professional' and 'amateur' writers. Using a custom-built writing desk compatible with fMRI scanners, the German team lead by Dr Martin Lotze asked 28 volunteers to first copy out a piece of writing, then to continue a short story in their own words, making up the piece of writing themselves for about 2 minutes. Dr Lotze found that Some regions of the brain became active only during the creative process, but not while copying. During the creative sessions, some vision-processing regions of volunteers became active, as if they were 'seeing' the scenes they wanted to write.

They compared the results from this group with results obtained from doing the same experiment with writers on a competitive writing programme at the University of Hildesheim. When they were planning their writing, these 'professional' writers activated visual areas of the brain, but during creative writing itself the brains of expert writers showed more activity in regions involved in speech, as if they were narrating their stories with an inner voice rather than seeing them like a kind of film. The 'expert' writers also activated the caudate nucleus when they began their creative pieces, whereas the novices didn't. This is an area of the brain which plays an essential role in the skills that come with practice, including activities like board games. 

Unsurprising that those with more experience of an activity would activate the caudate nucleus more than a group of amateurs when undertaking that activity. To me, the differences between how the two groups tended to generate their stories (visual areas of the brain versus areas involved with speech) is much more interesting. I've blogged before about how I often 'hear' lines for poems in my head when I'm out running or walking and I'm very interested in the different ways people like to write, how a poem first 'arrives' for them.

As ever, Steven Pinker has sounded an important note of caution, pointing out the limitations of a study that compared copying with creating new fiction:

"Dr. Pinker pointed out that the activity that Dr. Lotze saw during creative writing could be common to writing in general — or perhaps to any kind of thinking that requires more focus than copying. A better comparison would have been between writing a fictional story and writing an essay about some factual information.

Even the best-designed scanning experiments might miss signs of creativity, Dr. Pinker warned. The very nature of creativity can make it different from one person to the next, and so it can be hard to see what different writers have in common. Dr. Pinker speculated that Marcel Proust might have activated the taste-perceiving regions of his brain when he recalled the flavor of a cookie. But another writer might rely more on sounds to evoke a time and place.

“Creativity is a perversely difficult thing to study,” he said."

To that I'd also add a note about the groups being studied: should students on a writing programme at University be classified as 'experts' or are they still learning their craft? Would it have been more interesting to have studied published authors?



Monday, 16 June 2014

Grit Artists: emotion and control

I'm in awe of Hazel Findlay, the first woman to climb a British E9. Not just because of the tough, exposed trad routes she dances up, but because of her attitude to risk. Watching her climb 'Once Upon A Time in the South West' in 'Reel Rock 8', you're immediately struck by her confidence and calmness. In the film, she talks about why so few women climb really bold trad routes and expresses her surprise - women may never be as physically strong as men, she says, but there's no reason why they can't be as bold as men. So why aren't they?

I suspect at least part of it is down to socialisation. Hazel Findlay's dad (climber Steve Findlay) took her climbing as a young child. Before she was a teenager, he and his friends had encouraged her to do a first ascent of a new route (a birthday present - they don't come much better than that). Though there are exceptions, a lot of girls aren't encouraged to be particularly bold at a young age. In fact, they're often protected (interestingly, if you type 'why aren't more girls encouraged to be bold?' into Google, one of the first search results you get is 'how to flirt with a pretty girl'). And if you're encouraged to be fearful and aware of risk, your concept of what's possible narrows.

This all took me back to Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi's concept of 'flow'. 'Flow' is a state of complete immersion in an activity, in which emotions are not just contained but channelled. Csikzentmihalyi conducted interviews with 30 rock climbers (tellingly, his sample included 25 men and only 5 women) and tried to find out how the climbers interpreted their involvement with their often dangerous sport. He tried to work out what 'flow' means in the context of climbing and suggested that these states occur when the climber's resources are well-matched to the challenges of the route, so that their actions merge with their awareness, following each other in a fluid sequence. If your resources and skills are too great for the route, you get bored. If the challenge of the route greatly exceeds your resources, you become scared. As one of his interviewees put it: "when things are going poorly, you start thinking about yourself. When things go well, you do things automatically."

When someone manages to get close to this state of 'flow' in their climbing, they feel as if they have transcended their own ego, Csikzentmihalyi suggests. Climbing focuses attention, gives unambiguous and immediate feedback (as anyone who has ever fallen off at the crux of a route will know!) and, crucially, gives the climber feelings of control. It validates the competence and the very existence of the climber. As Csikzentmihalyi puts it:

"In contrast to normative everyday life, the action of rock climbing is narrow, simplified and internally coherent... The physical and mental requirements for staying on the rock act as a screen for everyday life."

As such, danger is not an end in itself of a preoccupation, but rather something that is utilized as part of the 'gestalt' experience of climbing.

As someone who values the feeling of control climbing can afford in those moments of 'flow', I'm interested in how climbers can achieve mastery over their emotions in a way that's often more difficult to achieve in 'everyday' life. And I'm interested in the parallels with writing. It never ceases to amaze me how I'm capable of controlling my fear on a poorly protected slab or a technical arete, just as I'm capable of squeezing a painful memory or strong feeling into the loose straightjacket of a sonnet. I can do both these things with a calmness and ease I completely lack in the rest of life. Perhaps that's what makes both these activities so absorbing, so compulsive. Writing can generate a state of 'flow' just as climbing can and the writer also harnesses danger and risk, albeit danger of a more psychological kind.

George Mallory suggested that mountaineers are 'artists' because they cultivate emotion for its own sake. Perhaps his statement could be qualified: it isn't emotion for its own sake exactly, but emotion in the service of one's activity - or, indeed. art. The emotion and the activity become inextricably linked.

I'll finish by sharing a poem of my own (first published in Alpinist magazine and also featured in 'Rock Paper Fire', an anthology of writing from the wonderful Banff Mountain and Wilderness Writing Programme) about climbing, inspired by a single word in the climber Alison Hargreaves' diary. I think I had in mind something of the escape that climbing can sometimes provide from the confusions of the rest of our lives, the joy of simplicity.

Prayer

‘HAPPY’ – entry in Alison’s diary, early 1979 after Scottish winter climbing

Give us good days.
Days unspectacular but adequate:
the weather neither calm nor wild,
your coat zipped nearly to the top,

a silver thermos cooling in your bag,
the sky at Bamford reddening, as if
embarrassed by its own strange reach
and day-old, pipe-smoke clouds.
Above the Hope cement works,
crows wheel arcs of undramatic flight
and when you touch the rock
your fingers hold.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Michael Roberts and Precise Description

Because I'm working on a second collection of poems mostly about mountaineering, my editor recently sent me the selected poems of Michael Roberts, edited by Frederick Grubb. Roberts was a polymath - scientist, teacher, poet and mountaineer - and T.S. Eliot described him as a man with an 'aptitude for wisdom', adding that 'the recognition of wisdom is often more delayed than the recognition of genius.' Throughout his life, Roberts saw mountains as places in which he could be not merely happy but alive, places which gave him the freedom to think about other social issues as well as the freedom to be creative.

Roberts was also a prolific essayist and, as well as his poems, I've found myself drawn to his comments on the relationship between imagination and reason, outlined in 'The Modern Mind' (1937), where his outlines his view of language as something 'spherical', something which we must look at from  different points, and argues that the 'poetic' use of words is not a contradiction of the 'scientific' use, but rather an extension of scope.

In his preface to 'Elizabethan Prose' (1933), Roberts explores the relationship between poetry and science with particular subtlety:

"The poet is constantly at war with the scientist: his sensibility perceives similarities where the instruments of the scientist (always visual and tactile) detected difference, he perceives differences where the scientist recorded similarities, and language in the course of the struggle becomes more and more complex; the scientist uses words with sharper and sharper definition, the poet uses them with more and more complex associations, and together they make it possible to give a more precise description of experience."

Whilst his 'two cultures' view of science and the creative arts might seem a bit dated today, the message that poetry and science can combine (in harmony or in tension) to give a 'more precise description of experience' is elegantly expressed and seems a fitting way to describe one aspect of the dialogue between, for example, neuroscience and poetry.