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
'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.|
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.