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.


‘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.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

What's science got to do, got to do with it?

Readers of this blog will know I have a bordering-on-obsessive enthusiasm for Iain McGilchrist's wonderful book 'The Master and His Emissary' and often cite his arguments about how hemispheric lateralisation of the brain links to our society and culture. But even so, I thought Andrew Brown's recent blog for The Guardian was a sensible and measured way of tempering some of McGilchrist's recent comments about the utility of science:

"Can science tell us anything about the soul? A lovely clear answer came from Iain McGilchrist, talking at the RSA this week. "No," he said, and the room filled with laughter, not entirely kindly. He had been responding to a questioner who wanted to know whether the increasing sophistication of brain imaging would not reveal the soul to be an illusion, an unnecessary imprecision."

Brown agrees with McGilchrist's belief that science is only one way of knowing rather than a value-free 'view from nowhere'. 

"I think he was importantly right about the question that wasn't quite asked, and which was hovering
over the audience then as it hovers over any discussion of these matters: can science tell us whether the soul is? Can science decide whether souls exist at all? This is, I think, like asking whether brain imaging can tell us whether love exists. It's just a category mistake. There are things going on in the brain of a lover which would not be there but for love, but to discover that they are concerned with love requires an analysis from the top down, in terms of other thoughts and emotions. You can't know that they mean love without talking to the person whose brain you examine."

However, Brown believes that science has a good deal to tell us about what souls are not. He argues, for example, that the Big Bang Theory gives us reason to suppose that the soul is not immortal since it shows that whilst something can be enduring and perpetual, it cannot go on forever without beginning or end. 

He concludes:

"McGilchrist's big book The Master and his Emissary has been criticised by Raymond Tallis among others for using science wrongly in the service of philosophy: not that the science is wrong, but that it
'Science and philosophy are like
the two sides of an arch.'
is only a backdrop yet is treated as if it were a load-bearing part of the scenery. This seems to be exactly the mistake that he criticises so fiercely in others – the leap from scientific result to metaphysical significance. But science and philosophy are like the two sides of an arch – they can only reinforce each other indirectly. That still doesn't mean that science can say nothing about the soul. If you build an arch with only one side it will tumble into a silly heap."

This seems to me to be exactly the position that McGilchrist has argued for elsewhere and I wonder if his remark at the RSA has been taken somewhat out of context. All the same, it's useful to be reminded that both sides of the 'arch' Brown describes are equally important.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Does My Selfie look Big In This?

The recent splurge of 'no make up selfies' on twitter and facebook has raised over £2 million for Cancer Research, but also led some journalists to question the prevalent values of a society where pictures of women without make up on should seem somehow 'brave' or unusual. Watching the compelling documentary 'Miss Representation' recently, I was struck by a comment from Katie Couric about the anxiety-inducing preoccupation many people have with their body image, but particularly women:

“If women spent a tenth of the time thinking about how to solve the world’s problems as they think about their weight…we could solve them in a matter of months.” - (Katie Couric, Miss Representation)

Anyone who struggles with frequent negative thoughts about their body image will also be acutely aware of the guilt that accompanies these feelings. You might know intellectually that your thoughts aren't rational, but that does nothing to stop their persistence. You feel guilty about having those thoughts (selfish even) when you know there are more important things you could be thinking about, as Couric points out. If you voice your anxieties, you think other people will just assume you're looking for reassurance  or even compliments ("does my bum look big in this?"). The NHS description of Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) notes that often sufferers "are very secretive and reluctant to seek help, because they believe others will see them as vain or self-obsessed." I've written about BDD on this blog before and shared my poem 'Thinspiration Shots' which explores a woman's desire to shrink out of her own body:

...Once, you dreamt of being small enough 
to fit inside your grandma’s jewellery box:
the dancer spinning on her gold left leg,
a mirror doubling her, the tinny music playing

on and on until the lid was shut at last,
and you were locked in with the dark...

My favourite kind of author photo would be this:
out climbing, the rocks and the route as much
of a focus as the body of the person.
If you're prey to these kind of dysmorphic, obsessive thoughts, its even more difficult to put them out of mind when you're surrounded by reminders that your appearance is important, crucial in fact, to how other people perceive you. I'd argue that even the world of poetry isn't free from these cues: writers can't hide behind the wall of the page without their appearance being noted and scrutinised, particularly female writers (and particularly young female writers, perhaps). As an actor, dancer or singer you might be a bit more likely to anticipate this scrutiny, whether you should have to or not. But I've had discussions with other female writers about how often they get comments about the way they look at readings and gigs (often well-meaning: comments on whether you look 'good' or even on whether you look 'slim'). After I sent a publicity photo out for an event once (a picture of me in a woolly hat, wearing no make up), the organiser asked me - in a completely polite and well meaning way - if I wouldn't prefer to use a 'more glamorous' image found online instead. 

In 'The Master and his Emissary', Iain McGilchrist discusses the different ways that the body is represented in the right and left hemisphere. He describes how the hemispheres see the body in separate ways:

"The right responsible for our sense of the body as something we 'live', something that is part of our identity...For the left hemisphere, by contrast, the body is something from which we are relatively detached, a thing in the world like other assemblage of parts."

He talks about conditions like anorexia nervosa as dissociative disorders, connected with an over-reliance on the left hemisphere and on the mode of apprehension associated with it. In these cases, body image, associated with the right parietal lobe, is profoundly distorted and - in some ways - the sense of the self is lost. McGilchrist sees the rise of anorexia in the twentieth century and twenty first century as further evidence that we live in a culture that is dominated by the 'world' of the left hemisphere, it dissociative and fragmenting tendencies: "If a culture starts to mimic aspects of right hemisphere defecit, those individuals who have an underlying propensity to over-reliance on the left hemisphere will be less prompted to redress it." 

We are reflections of our culture and vice versa, a strange and vicious circle. The 'selfie' holds a camera up to our society. And we don't always like what's in the frame. 

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Oh the brain, brain has secrets

Reading a National Geographic article on technologies aimed at mapping the 'grid' networks of the brain this week, I was struck by the rather poetic language used by reporter Carl Zimmer to describe his experience of being placed under a brain scanner:

"I breathed smoothly and transported myself to places in my memory, at one point recalling how I had once walked my nine-year-old daughter to school through piles of blizzard snow....As I lay there, I reflected on the fact that all of these thoughts and emotions were the creation of the three-pound loaf of flesh that was under scrutiny: my fear, carried by electrical impulses converging in an almond-shaped chunk of tissue in my brain called the amygdala, and the calming response to it, marshaled in regions of my frontal cortex. My memory of my walk with my daughter was coordinated by a seahorse-shaped fold of neurons called the hippocampus, which reactivated a vast web of links throughout my brain that had first fired when I had clambered over the snowbanks and formed those memories."

Aside from its vivid account of the blizzard walk, Zimmer's prose is full of metaphors: the 'almond' of the amygdala, the 'seahorse' of the hippocampus, the 'loaf' of the brain itself. To understand the experience of a scientific procedure, we often turn to language and, in a sense, to poetry.

Even calling the article 'Secrets of the Brain' reflects a fundamental paradox: the more we understand about the workings of that 'loaf of flesh', the more mysteries we seem to unlock and the more wondrous the whole process of discovery seems to become. Or, as Emily Dickinson put is so succinctly: 'The Brain - is wider than the Sky'.

You can read the rest of Dickinson's poem here and share in her incredulity.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

The Muse Factor: women, inspiration and temporal lobes

At a reading last year in Sheffield with the excellent Sean O'Brien, he introduced his poem 'Jeudi Prochain' with a flippant comment about how he's always wondered what female poets do for a Muse, since The Muses are traditionally female (or words in jest to that effect). Sitting in the audience, I was more be-mused (sorry!) than anything, because I've always thought the notion of a Muse is something that became separated from its origins in Greek mythology long ago. The Muses might originally have been the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne and Robert Graves might have glorified The White Goddess, but for a long, long time 'muse' has been a catch all term for the varied, private kinds of inspiration that writers find and for the experience that many creative artists have of 'being visited' by something. For me, that 'muse' has always been genderless, more a shadow than a real shape.

In the essays collected in 'Wallflowers', Michael Donaghy posits an internal explanation for the phenomenon of the Muse:

"Many of us...have experienced the peculiar sensation that the best image or line simply 'came to us' as if delivered by an unseen presence as a reward for taking the time to work hard on a poem. It comes from our own unconscious, of course. The feeling of 'otherness' is explained by the fact that our self-perception is firmly rooted in our waking consciousness."

He points towards a neuroscientific account of these experiences in a paper by Persinger and
Makarec, 'The Feeling of a Presence and Verbal Meaningfulness in Context of Temporal Lobe Function...' From a study of 868 psychology undergraduates (a sample which I would argue is, admittedly, likely to be unrepresentative and perhaps prone to response bias) they found strong connections between a preference for creative writing, the capacity to discern profound meaning in written material and the experience of feeling a presence. They dubbed this shared source of variance 'Muse Factor'. There is a link between the perception of extreme semantic meaningfulness (the kind of state a writer may get into when in the business of composing a poem, for example) and the sense of a presence being there: "people who have emphasised writing and the pursuit of the understanding of the self through verbal, ruminative processing, have been particularly prone to the feeling of a presence."

The experience of feeling a presence is something shared by people with temporal lobe epilepsy during periods when burst firing is taking place in the temporal lobes. Persinger and Makarec suggest that periods of intense meaningfulness are a likely correlate of enhanced burst firing in the left hippocampul-amygdaloid complex and temporal lobe in the brain. Furthermore, they suggest it's likely that there is a continuum of temporal lobe sensitivity in populations with the extreme end of this continuum dominated by people who have temporal lobe epilepsy but also by highly creative individuals. When rapid burst firing is taking place in this area of the brain, the person experiencing this has access to non-verbal representations which link to the right hemisphere equivalent of a 'sense of self''. The intrusive quality of the experience is enough for it to be attributed to something outside of the self. As Persinger and Makarec explain:

"The necessary limbic activity would be encouraged by poetry...because of....strong semantic affect and the novel and unusual combinations of words; the latter are known to evoke the type of large electrical potentials within the human hippocampal formation and amygdala."

Any fans of Julian Jaynes' 'The Bicameral Mind' (a book often quoted on this blog) will spot the link between this research and his exploration of how right temporal lobe activity used to be attributed to the 'gods' and his suggestion that bicameral characteristics partially emerge again during times when consciousness is significantly altered (such as when someone is writing a poem).

A whippet's favourite Muse is a pork pie.
In an interesting subversion of the concept of the Female Muse, Persinger and Makarec actually found that women were slightly more likely to experience the 'Muse Fcator' than men. The gender difference was attributed to a stronger propensity to experienec verbal meaningfulness by women relative to men.

So, in short, it's fair to say The Muse not a woman who visits creative men. Even worse for those who seek to romanticise, it seems "the Muse factor, which has been evoked metaphorically in many cultures to explain creativity and literary insight, is not unique to professional poets, writers or artists." Poets don't have a unique Muse, but they do have an exaggerated experience of it.