Thursday, March 04, 2004

This is Your Brain on Creativity

My thanks goes out to Sherri at For Myself and Strangers for mentioning on her site a month or so ago The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain by Alice W. Flaherty. My dear Bookman heard my cry of excitement and gave me the book for Valentine's Day. I tore into it as soon as I could, wanting to know the secrets of my brain. I can't say that any secrets were revealed, but I can say I know more about how brains work. Flaherty is a Neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and also teaches at Harvard Medical School. She wrote this book in an attempt to understand her postpartum depression, her psychotic break and her own hypergraphia. Don't let any of that deter you though. The book is personal without being overly so, scientific but not beyond the average person (it does require you pay attention, however) and even funny: "The limbic system controls the four Fs (fear, food, fighting,, but also more upscale functions such as social bonding, learning and memory, that are important to writing." In writing this book Flaherty discovered that there hasn't been much scientific study of healthy people and their brains and creativity. Most of what we know is a result of studying people with mental illness, epilepsy or other diseases. Then speculation takes place, this is not healthy, therefore healthy must look like this. It is rather dangerous to extrapolate the healthy and normal from the not healthy and unusual. Flaherty is careful, however, and points out problems and difficulties as well as her own bias. The book takes a look at hypergraphia and writer's block, how we write and why we write and where the muse comes from. Flaherty carefully defines hypergraphia as a set of criteria:

  • Hypergraphics write a great deal more than their contemporaries.
  • Hypergraphia comes from a "strong, conscious, internal drive--say, pleasure--rather than from an external influence (People who write a great deal simply because they are paid per word are not hypergraphic)."
  • The writing usually has themes that are meaningful to the author and is often philosophical, religious or autobiographical.
  • The writing need not be any good
There are other nuances she uses to further define hypergraphia, but these are her main criteria. It turns out the temporal lobes, an area of your brain located on both sides of your head and somewhat behind your ears, are important components in hypergraphia and creativity in general. Some of our more creative artists have had temporal lobe epilepsy--Dante, Tennyson, Poe. One of the questions Flaherty tries to answer is why it is that writers are 10-40 times more likely to suffer from mental illnes, especially depression, than the general population. Do you have to be mentally ill in order to be a writer? The answer is no. One study found that the people who tend to be the most productive are not mentally ill but have first tier relatives who are. This of course made me closely scrutinize the mental health of my parents and sister. While, like anyone, I can claim my family is all crazy, I can't actually declare them certifiably mental however tempting it may be. The book moves from examining those who write too much to those who can't write at all. While the brain does look different in people who say they have writer's block, studies have found that more often than not, blocks come from the outside. Two common reasons for block stem "from the fear of failure or from insulating ourselves so well from the desire to succeed that we weaken our motivation to write." From writer's block Flaherty moves on to how we write with a look at language and the brain as well as speech, reading and the physical act of writing. After that we move on to why we write for an examination of emotion, motivation and desire in the brain. The book concludes with a chapter called 'Metaphor, the Inner Voice, and the Muse." Here Flaherty talks about inspiration and where it comes from and how it looks in the brain. She also offers up an explanation on why so many writers claim their writing comes from somewhere other than themselves. There apparently is a strange connection between religious visitations and a visit from the muse. Flaherty's overall conclusion is, as she quotes Thomas Edison, "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." No dim garret, mental illness, drugs or alcohol needed, just an idea and a lot of hard work.