I’ve been in my studio all week, doing very little in the way of art making. In my vigil of just sitting, I have pondered this question: How is it that a juicy, lush stream of creative expression can dry up and disappear overnight? What is the fragile chemistry of the brain or the body (or both) that is unkiltered by grief and suffering?
Sometimes sorrow can bring on an outpouring of expression. The number of exquisite poems birthed from the fractured shards of a broken heart is not insignificant. At the same time, I know of artists and writers who have gone lights out for years because of a deep loss.
The question feels more rhetorical than answerable. But thinking about it so much has led to research, and the exploration of its rational/scientific manifestation is a kind of palliative distraction.
Here’s an interesting extract I found in the Harvard Gazette. The work of Alice Flaherty, a neurologist at Harvard and the author of The Midnight Disease, is featured in this piece:
The notion of muse as a “divine voice” or an inspiration from some ethereal source intrigues Flaherty. But for her, writing, and not being able to write when you want to, come from interactions between and changes in specific areas of the brain. The muse, in other words, is merely a matter of making the right brain connections.
The limbic system, a ring-shaped cluster of cells deep in the brain, provides the emotion push. Many nerve fibers connect it to the temporal lobes, areas behind the ears that understand words and give rise to ideas. Finally, the frontal lobe, behind your forehead, serves as a critical organizer and editor, penciling out bad phrases and ideas.
“It’s likely that writing and other creative work involve a push-pull interaction between the frontal and temporal lobes,” Flaherty speculates. If the temporal lobe activity holds sway, an aspiring scribe may turn out 600 logorrheic pages. If the temporal lobes are restrained by frontal lobe changes, the result might be pinched and timid.
Most academics regard the study of creativity as what Flaherty calls “intellectually unhygienic…”
In planning are more cerebral tests that would rely on brain scans to show actual differences in brain activity when the muse is rampant and when it hits a wall. If Flaherty’s theory is correct, brain cells in the temporal and frontal lobes should crackle with different patterns of activity.
Another technique that may influence as well as map the paths of creative activity involves passing a magnetic wand over the heads of people. Called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), it has increased creativity when applied to the frontal lobes in preliminary studies at the University of Adelaide in Australia.
“Such testing should give us information, never available before, about what goes on in the brain during creativity, and what doesn’t go on when it’s blocked.” Flaherty notes…
What about people who believe they have something to say but can’t get it out? Traditional remedies like alcohol, or sticking to the task even when nothing is flowing are not going to break the block. “Repeatedly failing at the same attempt is probably a frontal lobe malfunction that makes it hard for someone to give up a faulty strategy,” Flaherty says. “This condition is best treated by taking a break.” John Keats, the English poet, treated his writer’s block by stopping and getting dressed in his best clothes.
I quite like that phrase, “intellectually unhygienic”. But I’ll take my chances.
And as for Keats’ solution, maybe I’ll give the haberdashery cure a try…