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.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Brains and hearts

Last week I was lucky enough to be on the judging panel for the Sheffield round of 'Poetry by Heart', a competition in which students memorise and perform poems by other writers. The passion, wit and personality all the competitors brought to their task reminded me what a rare and brilliant thing it is to learn a poem by heart - in doing so, the poem becomes a part of you. To learn a poem is to 'own' a work of art and - somehow - make it yours.

Recent neuroaesthetic research by Edward Vessel and his team at New York University’s Center for Brain Imaging suggests that, at a neural level, identifying strongly with a work of art really does change you and affect your sense of self. Vessel's research examines how the brain’s default mode network (DMN) - usually inactive when you are engaged with the outside world -responds to particular works of art that especially move you. Since the DMN is  alsoconnected to introspection and the self, this could mean that the feeling that a work of art is intensely personal (that sense that a poem or song was 'written for you', for example) activates parts of the brain strongly associated with personal identities and, as such, changes our sense of who we are. As Vessel et al put it, this process of access to the DMN "...allows the representation of the artwork to interact with the neural processes related to the self,
affect them, and possibly even be incorporated into them (i.e., into the future, evolving representation of self).”

It's important to stress that Vessel's research was very small scale, using a tiny sample - the research team tested 16 participants with 109 two-dimensional artworks ranging from the 15th to 20th century, sourced from museum collections and looked for patterns in people's personal, aesthetic reactions to the artworks and how the DMN activated accordingly.

Intuitively though, the results of Vessel's research hardly seem surprising. When we read a poem that moves us, we are likely to go back to it, remember it, internalise aspects of its narrative or perceived meaning in ways which might subtly affect our opinions or our outlook on the world.

As for me, the only poem I really know by heart is Robert Frost's haunting 'Fire and Ice'. Ever since I
read and learned it, it's made me think about hatred, desire and the impact of collective emotions in a
different way. The way Frost's poem made me think about the world is something I go back to again and again, even when I'm relating to other works of art - I thought about 'Fire and Ice' recently, for example, when watching Steve McQueen's harrowing film '12 Years a Slave'. In this, learning Frost's poem has changed my heart as much as my brain.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Books that can read your mind

Yesterday I found myself browsing a site called 'Neurofiction', which purports to offer "a new kind of literary experience" in which stories can change themselves in response to a reader's brain activity. According to the site's authors:

"In neurofiction, the story’s effect on the reader’s brain – electrical activity of their neurons – is captured using an electroencephalography headset. Using an algorithm that learns what themes and elements engage each reader, our neurofiction engine turns this data into a unique path through the story. The reader can be guided to one of multiple possible endings or allowed to explore a new region of the story space."

In short, you get given the story that the neurofiction engine thinks you'll enjoy or respond to most and "neurofiction readers become subconscious collaborators in the creation of a new narrative."

In itself, the idea of being a 'subconscious collaborator' is fascinating. A technological development like this seems to take the Extended Mind Hypothesis to its extreme logical conclusion. If elements of our environment (including computers) can be considered part of the mind, then our minds can interact with them to shape our experiences. 

To any writer of fiction, the initial reaction to neurofiction is likely to be one of scepticism, or even fear. Surely one of the great things about literature is the way it can challenge our expectations and open us up to new experiences, rather than giving us what we want in response to perceived preferences. But since we often choose to buy books that we predict we'll like anyway, is this really much worse than the way we often limit our own exposure to literature, picking books we 'know' we'll enjoy?

Some of my favourite pieces of writing do just the opposite, challenging our idea of 'what happens next'. A poem that springs to mind is Don Paterson's 'An Elliptical Stylus', in which, after recreating a scene of family humiliation in a record shop, the narrator bluntly resists  "any attempt to cauterize this fable / with something axiomatic on the nature / of articulacy and inheritance" and finishes by offering to swing for the reader. Often, good poems wrongfoot us, albeit in less violent ways than 'An Elliptical Stylus', making us realise we don't quite know where we are after all. In his essay 'My marmalade passion or remembering Proust's gloves', poet Alan Buckley goes further, suggesting that good poems often traumatise us in some way. 

"Whatever the poem’s register or genre there has to be some quality of disturbance, of the reader being engaged by something at least partly familiar before being startled into a different or heightened awareness. Frost’s dictum of “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader” suggests that a similar process has to have happened during composition; the analyst Wilfred Bion said that if there aren’t at times two frightened people in the consulting room, we will only find out what everyone already knows, and the same applies to the little room of the poem."

If it only succeeds in giving us what we want, neurofiction may never give us what we need.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Seeing is Believing

A fantastic recent episode of The Infinite Monkey Cage on Radio 4 dealt with perception and some of its illusions. In doing so, it touched on many of the issues that fascinate me here at 'Poetry on the Brain' and explored them in a witty, entertaining way that's near impossible to paraphrase...

Amongst the highlights was writer Alan Moore's discussion of the relationship between creative writing, neuroscience and consciousness. He argued that writing enables us to project our consciousness onto other humans (through character creation, for example) and that forms of writing have often pre-empted discoveries and theories in neuroscience. For all the latter discipline's current popularity, consciousness remains just as mysterious as it ever has been and we can't even be sure that it is situated inside the body - Moore cites the example of how a blind person's perceptual consciousness lives through their cane

The panellists also discussed how time is often a subjective phenomenon, joking about Einstein's observation that "when a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute and it's longer than any hour."

Psychologist Claudia Hammond spoke about how strong emotions (such as fear) etch memories more powerfully onto the mind, and that one of the chief ways we work out how much time has passed is by how many new memories have been stored in our minds. In response, Brian Cox related an anecdote from a mountaineering friend who said that when he was falling off a mountain he felt as if he had all the time in the world to land. Such reports have a parallel with David Eagleman's recent experiments in which he subjected participants to controlled falls from buildings to measure what effect this had on their perception of time

This reminded me of Andrew Greig's poem 'The Winter Climbing' (found in his collected mountain poems, 'Getting Higher') and how it captures that sense of time extending and contracting in high risk situations. He describes the fluid relationship between him and his climbing partner in terms that transcend mountaineering (' rise / up on me, I rise through you...'):

...You reach the top and exit out;
from way above, your cry comes down.
The rope pulls tight. What shall we call

this new thing we're about?
These days we live in taking
care and chances. Why name it?
My heart is in my mouth as I shout Climbing...

Finally, the panel on The Infinite Monkey Cage moved to a discussion of consciousness as an emergent property of brain activity, imagination as a means of experiencing an activity without engaging in the risk of actually doing it - literature's vital role in this kind of visualisation and empathy seems unquestionable. And Alan Moore namechecked Julian Jaynes and 'The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind...', a firm favourite on this blog.

Essential listening for anyone interested in creativity, consciousness and the illusions of seeing.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Don't think of a white bear

...He is five, six, locked at the center
of the evening's first parlour game:

go and stand in the corner, Lyova, until you stop thinking
of a white bear.
To his left

there is pipe smoke. Behind him
a little laughter from the handkerchiefs.

And in his mind, white fur
like the blizzards of Tula!...

The opening stanzas of Linda Bierds' poem 'White Bears: Tolstoy at Astapovo' dramatises an episode from Tolstoy's childhood in which he was asked to suppress a thought. As well as the inspiration for poetry, thin anecdote forms the heart of Daniel Wegner's psychological study 'White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts' (1994). Wegner is interested in how the desire to suppress a thought can be the cause of an obsession with it, in mental paradoxes and ironic mental processes: things that make us do the opposite of what we wanted.

Wegner conducted an experiment where people were asked not to think about a white bear and told to ring a bell every time they did. On average, people rang the bell more than 6 times over the five
minutes that followed. After they had been asked to suppress the thought, they were then asked to think about it for another five minute period and it was found that the act of suppression then accelerated the frequency with which people thought about the white bear (when compared with a control group who had not spent the previous five minutes suppressing the thought). As Wegner puts it:

"The irony, then, is not only that people found it hard to suppress a thought in the first place, but that the attempt to do this made them especially inclined to become absorbed with the thought later on" (1994:5).

Wegner looks at some of the psychological mechanisms behind this ironic process. Thought suppression comes from the relationship between a given thought and an emotional state of mind. It is a kind of 'metacognition' (thinking about the process of thinking). Metacognition, he suggests, can only really serve to accentuate or suppress thoughts. When we have a metathought, the original thought is there within it too: 

"As long as we continue to hold the metathought in the conscious window, the thought will be there. The thought and metathought do not run in parallel like automatic thoughts, but rather arrive together in their shared moment of serial consciousness" (1994:56)
This obsessiveness is captured by Linda Bierds' deliberately claustrophobic poem:

...I cannot forget it, he whispers. And would not
through the decades that followed -
the white, cumbersome shape,
swelling back, settling, at the rustling close
of an orchard gate, or the close
of a thousand pen-stroked pages...

I've written before on the blog about negative tropes and metaphors, particularly in the work of John Burnside. Might these work in a similar way to the white bear of Wegner's experiments? In deliberately not referring to something, does the poet make it loom large in the reader's mind?

Try not to think about it....