“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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