Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Bad Brains

As with zombies and their recreational pursuits, ideas about our cognitive sufficiency have been occupying my thoughts lately. Someone asked me what I thought about when writing, and I struggled to characterize the extremely dull evidence of generative activity that I display. Occasional rhythmic rocking of some sort. A wide but minute array of fiddling. Scrutinization of the middle distance. A sort of verbal approximation of sign language. Feeling around the shapes of words without actually wanting to touch them, so as to transfer them to the page much the way one handles radioactive material through a wall with big rubber clown gloves. Needless to say, these comparisons didn’t feel particularly striking.

Others, though, have been pursuing plenty of scientifically transgressive thoughts about creativity out there. Mental illness itself is being rehabilitated, having attained, in some circles, Darwinian sanction:

It's now increasingly being argued that there are survival advantages to others forms of illness, too, because of the links between the traits associated with them and creativity. "It can be difficult for people to reconcile mental illness with the idea that traits may not be disabling. While people accept that there are health benefits to anxiety, they are more wary of schizophrenia and manic depression," says Professor Gordon Claridge, emeritus professor of abnormal psychology at Oxford University, who has edited a special edition of the journal Personality and Individual Differences, looking at the links between mental illness and creativity. "There is now a feeling that these traits have survived because they have some adaptive value. To be mildly manic depressive or mildly schizophrenic brings a flexibility of thought, an openness, and risk-taking behaviour, which does have some adaptive value in creativity. The price paid for having those traits is that some will have mental illness."

In contrast, one researcher is drawing less-than-flattering comparisons between less-than-ideal hemispheric activity and unsuccessful verse:

In a recent study, Albert-Jan. Roskam found that poems of mediocre quality and aphasic transcripts may be indistinguishable, especially for men. His findings raise questions on gender differences in the specialization of the left brain hemisphere in the context of poetry.

To test the hypothesis that poems of mediocre quality and aphasic transcripts cannot be distinguished, Roskam surveyed employees of a Dutch medical center and subscribers of a statistical newsgroup on the internet. Respondents were presented four pairs of poems and aphasic transcripts.

Poems were rated slightly higher than aphasic transcripts. Among men, there were no significant differences between ratings of poems and aphasic speech. Women rated poems slightly but significantly higher than aphasic transcript

I have no idea what the gender differential means. So many variables, so little useful verbiage. Going further afield, other researchers are stripping the already-diminished ego of cognitive credit:

A recent brain scanning experiment by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that jazz musicians in the midst of improvisation - they were playing a specially designed keyboard in a brain scanner - showed dramatically reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex. It was only by "deactivating" this brain area that the musicians were able to spontaneously invent new melodies. The scientists compare this unwound state of mind with that of dreaming during REM sleep, meditation, and other creative pursuits, such as the composition of poetry. But it also resembles the thought process of a young child, albeit one with musical talent. Baudelaire was right: "Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will."

Kind of makes one want to adopt a Hippocratic oath toward o’erweening ideas about the brain. Speaking of o’erweening, I loved this profile of Frederick Seidel in The New York Times. I’ve struggled for years to explain some of my unease/impatience with the aftertaste of privileged disdain and perverse glee that I’ve felt radiating off his poems, and I think that “Laureate of the Louche” kind of sums it all up:

Meanwhile, from other corners of that world, Seidel has earned different and more complicated epithets: “sinister,” “disturbing,” “savage,” “the most frightening American poet ever” and even “the Darth Vader of contemporary poetry.”


“When he mentions East Hampton or the Carlyle or Le Cirque or Ducati,” the former poet laureate Billy Collins told me, “it doesn’t even seem like name-dropping. He does what every exciting poet must do: avoid writing what everyone thinks of as ‘poetry.’ ” Collins’s quotation marks around “poetry” are the keys that begin to unlock Seidel’s art. As Lorin Stein, an editor at Seidel’s publishing house, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and a friend of Seidel’s, explained recently, Seidel’s qualities as a poet are in direct opposition to the poetry of many of his peers. “A lot of ways that people gin themselves up to write poetry nowadays require a setting aside of certain crass realities,” Stein said. “Crass realities of everyday colloquial communication; crass realities of money and power and sex; crass realities of the ‘I’ in its filthier manifestations. A lot of contemporary poetry has manufactured these great machines for avoiding coarseness — the dream of an escape.” That Seidel’s poems embrace the crassness at the heart of modern living makes him sound a good deal more like a novelist in the 19th-century mode — Stendhal and his mirror walking down the street reflecting modern life.

Then again, I’ve never been much for satire, especially satire that carries with it the implicit air that the author is the only one who is qualified (and sophisticated enough) to make the critique. To me, Robert Lowell always seemed to be taking it for granted that the only reason he could criticize the Brahmin was because he was of the Brahmin. I find this strain off-putting in both Lowell and his heirs, with whom I think Seidel belongs, even though he is clearly concerned more with a private good, than a public good.
Finally, in the spirit of psycho- logy/analysis, I’d like to leave you with an excellent little Freud Quiz from The Best American Poetry:

One August day in 1909 Freud fainted in Jung's company because

(1) He was eating lunch with Jung and the schnitzel disagreed with him
(2) He felt a sexual attraction to Jung
(3) Freud had slept with his wife’s younger sister and Jung threatened to blackmail him after hearing him talk about it in his sleep on the trip the two men took to America
(4) They were having an argument about something trivial when Jung revealed himself to be a virulent anti-Semite. “You’re next,” he said with an evil laugh. He kept repeating, Jude Jude Jude.
(5) Freud said the father of monotheism must have hated his own father and Jung gave him a dirty look
(6) Jung said the spring weather made him feel like a young man. From this innocuous remark, Freud knew that Jung was an impostor. “You were never Jung!” Freud cried.