Art, I believe, has a primary neurological cause that precedes culture and that has survival value for individuals, societies and the human species at large.
This cause is primal aesthetic curiosity and its survival value lies in the flexibility and adaptability that comes with repeated entry into (whether via initiation or imitation) the primordial broad awareness that arises when we exercise this curiosity, and from the synchronization of our internal states that arises from shared experience, easing co-operation.
Art is not based primarily or initially in rational thought but rather in what psychoanalyst Michael Robbins calls Primordial Mental Activity (PMA). PMA, theorises Robbins, is a normal mode of mental activity that is qualitatively different to thought. It is concrete and undifferentiated – that is to say, it does not recognise symbol, metaphor, contrast, difference or separation. In PMA there is no division between me and you or self and world. Any perceived thing can be itself and also its opposite, simultaneously. PMA is the oneiric logic of the child and of dreams. It has no truck with linear time or causation. In PMA there is only now, and now, and now. Memories exist as experiences in the moment of being remembered. That which is present is continuous with everything else which is present and everything past; what is guessed or imagined is as solid in PMA as what is seen or touched. Reflection and restraint are a foreign country.
While PMA – being the sum of all the complex neurological activity that occurs without the input of the management and logic circuits in the pre-frontal cortex – goes on in all people throughout life, it is expressed most visibly to the thinking world in childhood, dreams, psychosis, shamanism and art. PMA comprises the mechanics of initially learning implicit knowledge from our carers in infancy. It begins before thought develops in childhood, continues throughout life in complex relations with thought and persists after thought has gone in dementia. Art – stemming from a mute, insistent drive to master a particular somatic affect in PMA, like scratching an aesthetic itch – is therefore not in essence cultural but rather instinctive, its cultural content being supervenient, much as sexual morality is a cultural overlay on the drives for reproduction and bodily pleasure.
This is not to say that art’s cultural load is irrelevant to its effective production – quite the contrary, as we’ll see later – but art begins in a place that experiences culture immediately, as immediate imitation of other people, force of habit and direct stimulus, rather than as a reflective enactment of symbolic narrative.
A human being’s internal experience of the world is not very accurate. We see only a tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum, we hear only a small fraction of the sounds in the air around us, and many of the things that we experience as real – binaural beats and tones, for instance – are internally created artifacts of our perceptual apparatus with no external correlate.
Yet our internal model of the world is like an iceberg, with a great amount of it existing below the surface of consciousness, carrying on without our direct attention. Obvious examples of this include sensations such as pain, temperature, hunger, tiredness and comfort – bodily sensations that can be felt and responded to without conscious thought. Even more complex emotions are also experienced first as somatic affect, before they are named and directed by the management circuits in our frontal lobes: think of the cold feeling in the pit of your stomach before you know you are afraid, or the white-hot flash that precedes an unpremeditated violent act. In his excellent book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman explains how our senses have direct short-cuts to the limbic and paralimbic systems in our brains, bypassing the slower centers of rationality and planning in the frontal and pre-frontal cortex. It’s more complicated than just fight or flight, however.
About 6 weeks after my eldest son was born in 2000, I set out one morning to get a newspaper. Walking up the street in the sleep-deprived haze of a new parent, I suddenly found myself sprinting, heart in my mouth. I remember wondering what was going on in a detached kind of way, almost as if I were a passenger in my own body. As an unmarked police car screeched to a halt and spat out two young plainclothes officers ahead of me I recognised what we were all rushing towards – a small child, alone and motionless on his back on the grassy verge.
One of the cops began first aid and the other got on the radio. There was now nothing for me to do. As fast as the situation had arisen, my part in it had evaporated. I suddenly began to feel extremely tired, as if my blood had become lead. Everything darkened a little, like a lens being stopped down. I sat down on the pavement.
What had happened inside me was what Goleman calls an “emotional hijacking” – basically my limbic system had kicked in the moment I saw little stripy socks sticking up out of the grass, and pumped me full of adrenaline. Blood had rushed to my legs and I had set off running. Then when the crisis suddenly became somebody else’s to deal with, my paralimbic system had taken over and started hoovering up all the adrenaline, but at that point the blood was all still in my legs – not my brain – so I went down like yesterday’s party balloon. There was more to it than that, though.
There was more complex data being processed in the seemingly unconscious part of my brain than mere physical sensation. Even if it can be reduced to something as simple as a general socialised protectiveness of children, I still needed to have recognised a child, and danger, formulated a response and acted long before my pre-frontal cortex could iron out the details. What has survival value in a crisis is speed of response far more than accuracy of your internal model. It’s more important to dislike the atmosphere in the cave and get the hell out as quickly and quietly as your hobbity legs can carry you than it is to accurately identify your emotion as fear, your fear as having a basis in fact, and that fact as being a mature example of Ursus Horribilis.
PMA deals in fast, confident pattern recognition and immediate action, not in recursive contemplative activities like self-awareness, analysis or criticism. It is synthetic rather than analytic – where there are gaps in the patterns it experiences it will confidently spackle them with guesswork, imagination, memory and patent nonsense. Further, it has no mechanism to discern the difference between external sensory input and internally fabricated spackle; or difference of any kind, in point of fact. It won’t second-guess or fact-check.
Art stems from a powerful somatic affect that overwhelms the senses and so becomes contiguous to everything. In PMA everything that is contiguous is continuous, so this powerful feeling demands engagement, having become the environment and therefore also having become the self, which in the absence of differences and separations is one with the environment. It’s all around you so it’s in you so it is you so you make it be all around you so you are strong. Of course, it’s not quite as simple as all that.
Art affects people strongly so artists are sometimes venerated and lavishly remunerated. This provides a powerful motive for people who may feel none of this drive at all to try and emulate art. Sometimes they do so very effectively. In fact, given that (as poststructuralism taught us) authorial intent can never be discerned, a good fake may act precisely as effectively for many people as an inspired work of spiritual awe.
Take for example two female musicians, both American, both known for beginning their careers in their early teens. One is influential and well respected but in terms of popularity has what is politely called a “cult” following. The other is a household name on the strength of a single recording, having become simultaneously one of the most popular and most hated figures in music overnight. One has proceeded using careful analysis and made what is clearly for many people a perfectly adequate simulacrum of art. The other is helplessly thrown before the tides of her primordial mind. Which is which?
Kristin Hersh was 14 when she started a band, Throwing Muses, in Newport, Rhode Island. She was 16 when she was knocked off her bicycle by a car and suffered a double concussion, after which she began to hear music in her head – insistent, aggressive music that pushed to get out.
In her 2010 partial autobiography Rat Girl (published in the UK and Australia as Paradoxical Undressing) Hersh describes the primordial states that drive her songwriting. Songs, she says, “… don’t commit to linear time – they whiz around all your memories, collecting them into a goofy pile that somehow seems less goofy because it’s set to music. Songs’re weird: they tell the future and they tell the past, but they can’t seem to tell the difference.”
What she is describing is classic PMA. The past and the future are one. Differences are unrecognised.
Hersh was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder and in her book lucidly describes the process of songwriting while in the grip of profound mania. She writes of being violently ambushed by songs insisting that she write them: “Songs no longer tapped me on the shoulder, they slugged me in the jaw. Instead of singing to me, they screamed.” Again, of music; “It’s a hungry ghost, desperate for physicality. I’m not writing songs anymore, they’re writing me.”
She is not, however, describing something unique to sufferers of bipolar disorder. The beginnings of art in a primordial state are common. What her bipolar did was amplify her existing drives to become irresistible imperatives such as an unshakeable need to go swimming for hours every night and to transcribe the songs that her mind was hallucinating as being physically audible patterns extrapolated from ambient noises such as rain.
Another aspect of PMA to be found in the pages of Rat Girl/Paradoxical Undressing is how the mind in PMA is entirely concrete. She describes having a conversation with an incredulous Gil Norton where she explained to him that the lyrics to her songs were not in fact clever and abstruse metaphors but plain descriptions of events, arranged by her primordial mind in bizarre juxtapositions. I have to admit that the song Fish from the 4AD compilation Lonely Is An Eyesore (one of my favourite records of the early 1990s) seemed to me like a sequence of obscure metaphors:
I have a fish nailed to a cross on my apartment wall
It sings to me with glassy eyes and quotes from Kafka
Hersh is actually describing a painting that she called Fish Jesus on a wall in an apartment squat she frequented in Newport, during a period when her hallucinations were frequent and distressing. Her imagery is surreal and onieric but entirely concrete. In interview she has said:
“So many of my songs are literally true. People give them the benefit of the doubt as being poetry. It’s like, ‘That’s not a metaphor, that’s what happened to me.’” [Laughter]
“So you mean there was an actual fish nailed to your wall? “Sorry. What could that possibly mean but that there’s a fish nailed to my wall? That’s a metaphor for what?”
While PMA has access to all the same memories as thought, it processes them differently to thought, without experiencing differences or separations, the absence of which makes metaphor impossible because metaphor involves using one thing as symbol for another. If things are not separate, symbolism becomes redundant because one thing literally is another. In the magical reasoning of PMA, as Robbins points out, handing your therapist a chunk of plumbing pipe quite literally builds a “pipeline” for communication.
PMA was so essential to Hersh’s writing that when transcribing her hallucinated songs was slow and she tried to rationally construct bridging sections, she found that she failed badly:
“If I try to jump into the song and write it myself, sorta hurry it along, my lyrics’ll stick out like ugly relatives. You can tell it’s me talking because suddenly the song isn’t beautiful anymore – it just makes sense. Or worse, it’s clever.”
“The real song waits patiently for me to shut up and then picks up where it left off: time-tripping, speaking in math, bodies and dreams, landscapes, passed notes, pages from this diary, conversations, memories, newspapers, and unmailed letters that crawled back out of the garbage – sometimes sweet, sometimes angry, sometimes funny, but always twisted up and painted in extravagantly ugly Technicolor: well-rehearsed Tourette’s.”
Hersh’s primordial creative process is reflected in her musical constructions as much as in her lyrics. Weird chords, rollercoaster changes in time signature and unconventional melodies abound. The intensity of her delivery reflects the intensity of the drive for the songs to exorcise themselves, and, as Tim Morton somehow got away with saying, “Exorcise is good for you.” Hersh felt relieved when she had unburdened herself of a song, and considered that the songs, as art, were beneficial to her audience as well, despite being “evil.”
“I know that music is as close to religion as I’ll ever get. It’s a spiritually and biologically sound endeavor. It’s healthy.
“Some music is healthy anyway. I know a lot of bands who’re candy. Or beer. Fun and bad for you in a way that makes you feel good. For a minute. My band is… spinach, I guess. We’re ragged and bitter. But I swear to god, we’re good for you.”
Rebecca Black’s single Friday is candy, pure and simple. Black was 13 when she and her mother engaged Patrice Wilson and Clarence Jey at Ark Music Factory to write and produce a single and associated music video for her to sing and star in. Black was interested not in writing music so much as in having a singing career, following in a tradition of pop starlets that is epitomised by Kylie Minogue and Britney Spears, and Wilson had started Ark to cater to people exactly like her.
Black’s mother paid Ark $4,000 to write and produce the song and video with Black retaining the copyright. That’s not a trivial sum of money to spend on a child. They were not playing around. They intended to succeed commercially. Neither Black nor her mother, however, nor even (it appears) Ark themselves, anticipated the extent of the song’s success.
Soon after being uploaded to YouTube, Michael J. Nelson, a comedian with a Twitter following, called it “the worst video ever made.” This remark and the link went viral, causing a lot of people who would otherwise never have noticed Friday to listen to it and more importantly to evaluate it with the broad, strong attention that we pay when assessing art, rather than the cursory, passing attention we pay to, say, advertising.
Friday received 167 million views on YouTube before it was taken down due to a copyright disagreement between Black’s family and Wilson, with an 87% dislike rating. That’s still 21,710,000 viewers who claimed to “like” it, and it rose to 33 on the Billboard 100 chart – nearly as far as the high water mark of Throwing Muses at 26. The Billboard chart registers sales, so it is only counting the people who actually paid money for it. For all the ill will there were clearly a lot of people for whom Friday was actually pleasurable. A&R man and TV personality – every bit as awful as that sounds – Simon Cowell praised Black, saying “Whether you like her or not, she’s the most talked-about artist in America right now. Nobody over the age of 18 should understand her or like her. So she should just do it her way.”
In designing a song to appeal to a 13-year-old, Ark made safe, careful choices. The mechanics of business cannot rely on the vagaries of inspiration and taste so formulas are necessary. Constructing a simulacrum of art with enough similarities to known and loved works to appeal to an audience entirely concerned with safe wish fulfillment but enough differences to avoid the postmodern era’s proliferating intellectual property law bear traps is not easy: just ask anyone who has tried to write to the Mills and Boon template.
Ark chose a well-known chord progression that was popularised by doo-wop artists in the 1950s and is widely referred to as the “50s progression” or the “Stand By Me changes”. The I vi IV V progression has been used in its unaltered form by dozens of artists over the last 60 years including Ben E. King (Stand By Me), Gene Chandler (Duke of Earl) and Justin Bieber (Baby) and in altered forms like I-vi-iv-V by many more such as Frankie and Johnnie (Sleep Walk).
The connection to Bieber, himself a very safe, conservative and commercially successful contemporary teen singer, cannot have gone unnoticed by the Ark team. Friday was written with care and precision to appeal to exactly the same market as Bieber: well-off, somewhat sheltered teenage girls like Black. Indeed, Bieber has reportedly sung Friday in concert and there are rumoured plans of Bieber and Black working together in the future.
I can imagine the spirits of indie kids everywhere breaking when they discover that the awful Black and the terrible Justin Bieber have used the exact same song structure as, say, Radiohead (No Surprises) and Modest Mouse (Sleepwalking), but my point here is not about narratives of Kantian authenticity at all.
Kristin Hersh could not help herself, she had to write her songs. Those songs, odd and spiky as they are, stand a chance of expanding the aesthetic horizons of anyone who listens to them, thus adding to the scope of human resilience. Their very oddness however makes them somewhat confronting to people who are perhaps less neurologically flexible than her audience. On the other end of the scale, the fact that she uses song structure and traditional instruments at all may be seen as a bit naff by the world’s “kvlt” ultra-elitists.
Cultural change is a term for the emergent patterns made by distributions of personal change. The human brain, covered in mirror neurons as it is, likes to imitate others; cultural change is therefore slow, as the conformist pressure of incumbent norms will tend to guide most people into cooperatively adopting popular taste. Change does occur however. In the 1950s, when the chord structure of Black’s hit was popularised, a child with a similar demographic profile to Black would likely have had no truck with degenerate rubbish like doo-wop, much less dangerous stuff like rock and roll.
There is obvious survival value in mental and emotional flexibility and the ability to continue to operate when circumstances become confusing. There is also obvious survival value in the tendency of humans to align our internal states, allowing cooperation and preventing (for instance) the sort of screw-up that besets baboons trying to cooperatively hunt, where they will tend to suddenly turn on one another and lose the prey.
Human cultures are emergent phenomena like the schooling of fish or the flocking of birds. While the individuals out front might be operating on different parameters than those behind and so might be thought of as “leaders”, such hierarchical conceits are not really relevant to what is occurring. While the (usually obscure) individuals out the front of the school who hear music in atonal, arrhythmic noise and see beauty in mud may be breaking genuinely new ground, going where no human mind has gone before, for them to have any cultural relevance others must respond their work and interpret it in more accessible ways. In this way, “fake” art is effective in drawing the main body of culture along in the wake of the shamanic visionaries/spastic loons out on the fringe. The instinctive wildlings at the front of the school benefit from a society that feeds and tolerates them even if it mostly doesn’t understand them, and woe betide them if they get too far out in front.
It is not, of course, totally black and white like that – the instinctive artists are to an extent guided by societal norms, looking over their shoulders to the school and sticking within cooee of consensus reality.
Within that bulk there are other forces at work, parasites that benefit from the school without contributing and whose actions can divert the course of all. Aleister Crowley described his Thelema as being “The method of science with the aim of religion.” In a similar vein, advertising is the method of art with the aim of armed robbery, and this will be the focus of the next essay.
All arts are art
I love being an artist. It’s the only profession where you can get paid for being mentally ill. – James Lee Burke
I truly hated theory at art school. In technical education, theory was taught as an orthodox narrative to be learned by rote. At university it was taught as a trope of Continental critical theory with a zeal that established said theory as a kind of alternate orthodoxy despite the obvious contradictions implicit in this. Neither of these approaches are much use if what you have is an intense drive to create and no idea why this might be or how to husband it; or worse, whether (given the global ecological and social crisis we are experiencing) making art is even something worth doing – are we just rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic?
In this context it’s my intention to establish a form of art theory that’s both factually supportable and of practical use to as many working artists as possible. In practical terms this will involve discussing why the process of making art involves the sort of “magical” or “illogical” or “childish” mental processes that in the rest of life in Western societies are at best derided and at worst censured, sometimes lethally. Why do we do it to ourselves? How, exactly, do we go about making art professionally without going batshit crazy? To find out I’ll need to address some difficult questions. For starters, what exactly is art anyway?
This initial point is where most arts writing gets beached on the controversies that have bedeviled it over the centuries and the purported “mystery” of the human creative impulse. I do not accept that the traditional impasse over what can acceptably called “art” is actually any kind of aporia at all. What if refusal to admit such-and-such a person or their work to the canon is nothing but the fatuous laziness of the over-privileged? What if deferring to the “mystery” is a cop-out, a pusillanimous failure to engage with the intimidating complexity of human behaviour?
Let’s just ditch all the traditional hangups about qualified persons and admissible techniques out of hand. If we take the broadest possible view, if we allow that anything anyone has ever referred to in any culture as being art is in fact art, then we are beginning with a vast range of physical and mental techniques in a loose analogical relationship to one another. What do they all have in common?
Art, if the above is what we mean by art, is any process of human environmental intervention used specifically and primarily to sensorially induce altered internal states in other people. Stories, songs, dances and cave paintings; Keats, Ginsberg and the whining, cliché-ridden gothic doggerel of a brain-melted junkie; Xhosa ritual masks and Turkish rugs; Rembrandt and Tracey Emin; Indigenous Australian bark paintings and the Buddhas of Bamiyan; superhero comic books, shitty pop songs, the inane piddlings of a community hall watercolour society and the territorial piddlings of the graffitists despoiling the walls outside; the muddle of texta squiggles my kids have stuck on the fridge; pulp fiction, Pulp Fiction and Joyce’s Ulysses; Star Trek; Hamlet; Verdi and Merzbow; ballet, figure skating and pole dancing; Duchamp’s urinal, Reinhardt’s solid black canvases and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. All these things and more have a shared origin: not communication but induction, even coercion, an inchoate push from the spirit of one into the spirits of many.
“Spirit” of course is a dirty word these days, implying as it does belief in free-floating incorporeal personalities such as the disembodied souls of the dead. This is not what I intend by it. In fact, far from a higher or heavenly aspect I mean that aware-but-not-self-aware part of the mind which is close to what is often described as an animal state: somatic, sensory and desirous of simultaneous feedback from as much of what philosopher Timothy Morton calls “the mesh” – the interconnected everything of which we are part – as possible.
As Morton points out in The Ecological Thought, the idea of a separation between self and environment breaks down under scrutiny, as do the very ideas of “self” and “environment”. All systems of matter and energy, living and nonliving (however you decide to draw that distinction) exert pressure on one another to a greater or lesser extent. The survival and subsequent expression of a particular genotype occurs out of a chaotic process that defies any single linear narrative of causality. It is therefore problematic to talk about evolutionary “strategies” being “successful” (as I did in the previous entry, naughty me) because the necessary teleology to call such a random pattern a “strategy” is simply unavailable. It’s not even a tactic.
It’s not as if God or Grandpa Sasquatch sat down and planned it all out one afternoon in the Pleistocene and lo! here we are; more just that given all the random things that happened, we somehow managed to carry on not dying. To describe something that we did during this period (like art, for example) as being therefore necessary to our survival, no matter how much time we spent doing it while also not dying, is a bridge too far. As art has been with us some 75,000 years now, it would be fair to say it has at least thus far been mostly harmless. This, however, gets us nowhere in terms of understanding how we came to be doing it, why we keep it up or what effects it might be having.
Let us, then, be bold, and suggest that art has a root cause or series or network of causes and that we might be able to point to at least some of them; let us also suggest that art may have had some effects over the 75,000 years that we are known have been making it and that we may be able to see some of them. All knowledge may well boil down to scale-specific heuristics but rules of thumb do have their uses. If I were to bang my head on the table here (I have frequently felt like doing so during this writing process) it will hurt, despite both the table and I being made of atoms that are mostly space. Let us look then for some useable heuristics that might allow us to foster and guide our creative praxis in this ailing world or else choose a more useful career.
Art is not communication
Art is not thoughtful, symbolic communication whose primary purpose is the exchange of information. I mean, ask yourself why you make art, or why you seek to experience it. You aren’t just looking for specific information or trying only to accurately broadcast it. As communication, art’s a blunderbuss not a scalpel. Art is a modality in which people work rather than a tool for any individual purpose.
As Marshall McLuhan famously taught, the medium is the message. What he meant by this is that any given technology has side- and knock-on effects that dwarf any informational content that might be delivered using said technology. Any technology may be considered a medium, any medium can be deployed in art, and art need not contain a specific informational payload. McLuhan himself specifically pointed this out with reference to Picasso’s paintings, stating that the paintings themselves were the entirety of their own message.
As Roland Barthes wrote, “Art is without noise,” meaning that it is all signal, that every aspect of a work is important to the experience of the work, requiring of us a broad but intense focus. This signal, however, is inductive rather than symbolic. It happens to you like an alarm rather than being presented to you for decoding like a telegram. By appealing to a range of senses, it seeks to cut through the abstract level of communication directly to somatic affect.
Bear in mind here that that the main mechanism of the senses is the brain; art’s initial address may enter the skull through only one sense, as in poetry for instance, but more senses are engaged in the experience once it is internalised. Various studies have shown how speech centers in the brain light up when we read dialogue, how visual centers light up when we imagine colours, how auditory centers engage when we think of music and so forth.
Art may well employ direct communication and often does, but it’s not necessary for it do so. Art directs you to believe rather than to merely know; to experience rather than to simply consider.
Art involves the conferral of sensory abilities. It addresses both the artist and the audience, making no distinction between them. It insists, like a toddler, “This! This!” and won’t shut up until you play along and have the experience. This is why bad art makes us cringe – like a nasty taste, it must be internalised before it can be assessed. Like the gates of Troy you’ve opened yourself to the experience; then suddenly the art erupts inside you! It’s all in there with the pointy bits and the chopping! You’re suddenly full of blood, fire and screaming! How mortifying!
How did this happen? How did this inanimate thing sneak past your clever, cynical defenses to become part of you? Why did you agree to open yourself like that? To address these questions we will have to take a rather cold look at who, and more to the point what, “you” actually are. The skin of humanity lies rather thinner over the upright ape than might be immediately apparent in a gallery with a glass of chardonnay in one hand and a little cube of cheese in the other.
“Everything in ruins, always and already, ever since we
got the trick of opposable thumbs.” That’s how the
ape put it, back again, for another round of stout and
wasabi pine nuts, the hairy hipster Jesus freak.
Michael Brennan, The ape’s second chance, from Autoethnographic (Giramondo, 2012)
My name is Kay Orchison. I’m an artist.
Art, I think, is a singularly successful evolutionary strategy. Whether you’re talking about stories, songs, cave paintings, or excitingly chunky kitchen appliances, the human habit of altering one another’s environments in order to induce (rather than directly communicate) complex mindstates has been with us for 50,000 years now – as long as we have been behaviourally modern humans.
I think that art enhances our adaptability by letting us rehearse unfamiliar ideas and feelings outside of a life-or-death context, but more importantly, by letting us repeatedly practice the act of this rehearsal. Art, unlike direct communication, works by means of induction; like a magnet inducing an electrical current in a closed circuit. Sculpture, film, poetry, music, dance, painting, literature and architecture, even designing hallucination-causing rugs and aerodynamic lemon squeezers, all these are environmental alterations made by people to induce altered states in other people. The more altered states we experience in relative safety and the greater their variety, the more likely we are to survive unforeseen circumstances in the future and pass on our genes.
I think that this process occurs by virtue of neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is the term scientists use for the ability that the human brain has to re-organise its own structure on the fly, influencing every aspect of our minds and our bodies even down to altering our very genes.
My interest in neuroplasticity, however, predates my current ideas by nearly 30 years.
In 1983, when I was 11 years old, I suffered an infection inside my skull that partially crushed my brain. While my brain injury was not caused by a stroke, in all other respects I am what psychiatrist and author Norman Doidge calls a “midnight resurrection” – that is to say, I was diagnosed with serious right frontal lobe damage which ought to have rendered me significantly mentally impaired and unable to be at all creative, and yet here I am: a visual artist, a musician, occasionally even a filmmaker and a writer. According to traditional locationist neurology the right frontal lobe is the seat of creative cognition and mine is badly damaged. So what happened? If, as decades of neurology textbooks claimed, the brain cannot regenerate itself or repurpose its parts, then how am I able to do what I do?
The infection on my brain – a subdural empyema – was not detected by the primitive CAT scans of the time and so for weeks I was shuffled in agony from doctor to doctor with most of them telling my calm, lucid and persistent mother that she was “hysterical” and that I was either suffering a psychosomatic illness or more probably just malingering. Then I went into a coma.
That I survived at all was down to the bravery and skill of a then-young surgeon at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children, Michael Besser, who reckoned that the standard treatment (a course of antibiotics) would see me suffer further brain damage and possibly death, and decided to operate. In two operations he extracted 37 ml of pus from my head. That’s a fair bit of extra fluid for a child’s skull to contain and the pressure had, along with swelling from the infection, pushed my entire brain over – “significant midline shift” is what the surgical report said, indicating that the division between my brain’s hemispheres had noticeably moved from where it ought to be.
When I awoke I was paralysed on the left side of my body. I could see five of everything and it was spinning. Weak movement returned to my left side and my vision stabilised but I remained very confused as to where, and even sometimes who, I was. I was unable to tell the difference between dreams and reality and there were big holes in my memory. After a week or so of hallucinations, disorientation and distress, exacerbated by the difficulty of getting any sleep in the Commercial Travelers Ward of the hospital – an open ward where there was almost always a child crying – I had a stroke of luck.
A young registrar whose name I never did catch brusquely and callously delivered a damning prognosis to my parents in front of me. He told them I would likely never walk again, would be seriously mentally disabled and that whatever creative aptitude I had shown in the past was gone for good. I thank him for being such an unutterable prat because in that moment I experienced the tsunami of rage and determination that was to carry me through my improbable recovery.
I spent every waking minute – and there were an awful lot of those – concentrating on controlling my left hand, performing simple movements over and over. Within weeks I was using my hand again and I began drawing cartoons. I forced myself to use my left hand for drawing a lot of the time just to prove that I could. Within a couple of months I was walking almost normally. When I left the hospital to go home, Dr Besser remarked to my father, “That’s my success rate there, walking out that door.” He had taken a great risk operating on me and I remain grateful to him.
The rehabilitation therapists that I saw were surprised at a child so willing not only to perform the prescribed exercises precisely and ceaselessly but also to continue to practice them at home. What neither they nor I knew at the time was that my habits fulfilled the main criteria for neuroplastic change – intense focus, massed practice and strong persistence. I was rewiring my brain.
My experience seemed inexplicable until 2010 when Norman Doidge wrote The Brain That Changes Itself and described neuroplasticity to a general audience for the first time.
He says the fundamental principle of neuroplasticity has been described thus: neurons that fire together, wire together; and neurons that fire apart, wire apart. Repeated association of stimuli creates and strengthens associations between mindstates. Consider the way that an ex-lover’s perfume wafting through a crowd can change your emotional state, or how certain songs will be forever emblematic of certain times in your life – these are examples of your brain having changed during periods of receptivity and having retained those new pathways.
Art, by requiring of us a strong but wide sensory focus, directs both creator and receiver into a state of mindfulness. In Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life, author John B. Arden describes such mindfulness as a prerequisite for neuroplastic change, assisting both with creating new neuronal bonds and with weakening old ones. Art also facilitates the creation of new neuronal bonds by associating previously disparate sensory experiences (melting clocks, for instance; burning giraffes; half a cow in a bloody big fish tank) but the individual experiences of these associations are less important than the cumulative effect of the common receptive state that all art requires of us.
Richard Leaky in Origins Reconsidered relates that although humans have been biologically distinct for 1.8 million years, we have only been behaviourally modern for around 50,000 and that our behavioural modernity coincides with the appearance of earliest known examples of art. The 1994 discovery by Klaus Schmidt of the 11,000 year old Gobekli Tepe temple site in Turkey reinforces the view that art was a driver of social development, preceding agriculture and civilisation.
One indication that ancient temple sites were intended to induce a state of religious awe or ecstasy can be found in the field of study known as archaeoacoustics.
While Gobekli Tepe itself has not been examined in this way, many studies of prehistoric megalithic structures have revealed that despite widely differing sizes they are often found to resonate at frequencies on or very close to 110 hz, a note which today we refer to as A2. Dr Ian Cook of UCLA published a pilot study in 2008 indicating that exposure to sound at 110 hz has a direct neurological effect, suppressing activity in the left-side prefrontal cortex and activating the right, shutting down faculties of language and logic and activating those of mood, empathy and social behaviour.
110 hz is, to me, is symbolic for the whole process of art over the centuries: we have been deliberately softening our formidable rationality in order to broaden our internal experience and improve our sociability, our adaptability and hence our resilience. We have done this by working directly with the plastic nature of the brain, using the same mechanisms that have allowed me to recover from a severe brain injury.
The more art we experience, the more time we spend in a mindful, receptive state and the more adaptable we become not only as individuals but as societies; not only as societies but as a species.
Please continue to join me here every week in my investigation of the workings of human creativity through my own praxis and through the history and prehistory of art.
Next: Art is not communication
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