Neurons making love and art

'Dragon Boat Festival,' Fang Zhaoling, 1985

'Dragon Boat Festival,' Fang Zhaoling, 1985

It’s rutting season where I am.

Perfect, as it happens, for the question preoccupying me lately — about what conclusions neuroscience will reach on the neurological basis for the romantic temperament, its joys and vexations. In place of the asthmatic buses and jackhammers punctuating thought on my last working visit to London, I have galumphing deer clattering on the wooden planks hugging the perimeter of this house. This is something like listening to badly trained, drunken clog-dancers who lack any sense of rhythm.

Shhhh,’ I said, raising a cautioning hand at the kitchen table the night before last. I left my seat silently, snapping on outdoor lights as I went, and soon was looking down two sets of long doe ears lined in off-white fur — eighteen inches away and behind a glass door — as their owners tucked lustily into bird seed. That’s right, bird seed — where there’s no shortage of lush gardens for randy ruminants to plunder … — fallen from the bird feeder into a re-potting project.

Next morning, proof that the marauders returned …

In the morning, proof that the marauders returned …

A few days ago, I was about to post Fang Zhaoling’s painting with a line saying ‘Happy Bank Holiday’ – since the scene it depicts looked like fun unbound — until I read its caption. I remembered discussing on someone else’s blog last year the annual Dragon Boat Festival, which commemorates the death of one of the most famous poets in Chinese history. Qu Yuan (332-296 BC) was an aristocrat and great patriot with an ‘air of suffering nobility’ whose despairing love for his country led him to criticise its rulers, endure the ostracisation that followed, and eventually die by suicide. During the festival, the outstandingly practical Chinese try symbolically to ‘fish his corpse out of the water in which he drowned himself’, according to the sinologist Hellmut Wilhelm. A Chinese government site says about his most celebrated work:

Lament on Encountering Sorrow is a romantic lyric poem with a measured realism. The poet utilizes a great deal of exaggeration in portraying characters and describing objects. The assemblage of fairy tales further enhances the poem’s romantic flavour.

It was intended as a political protest. Though the poet who is its hero harnesses jade dragons to his phoenix carriage and is borne away on the wind to battle obstacles to winning the hand of a fairy, goddess or princess, Wilhelm says that the amorous quest is an ‘allegory of sensual union’ whose actual significance is political. In the ancient Chinese tradition, that union ‘was often used … to allude to the relationship between ruler and advisor.’

What interests me about Qu Yuan’s story and his epic poem is that they illustrate the consistency, across cultures, of the link between art and a bonjour tristesse view of life. The mystical psychologist Helen Palmer includes as typical of this perspective an attraction to ‘what’s missing: the distant, unavailable, and hard to get ,’ as well as a ‘sense of abandonment … impatien[ce] with mediocrity and mundane life’ ; a tendency to intensify feeling through ‘loss, fantasy, artistic connection, and dramatic acts’ – and in work, a craving for distinctiveness, for ‘creativity, even genius, an eccentric edge in presentation.’

That isn’t just true of artistic creativity, as conventional thinking has it, but of original thinking in science, too. That point is made in a mention I found only this week of The Age of Wonder by the biographer Richard Holmes:

“Romanticism as a cultural force is generally regarded as hostile to science, its ideal of subjectivity eternally opposed to that of scientific objectivity,” Holmes writes. “But I do not believe this was always the case, or that the terms are so mutually exclusive.[…]”

A biographer of Shelley and Coleridge, Holmes’s particular genius is to parse the similar philosophical concerns of both science and poetry, showing us how the scientists of the era defined the textbook Romantic temperament as much as the poets did.

I want neuroscientists to explain what drearily reductive evolutionary biologists have so far been unable to do, which is tell me why Albert Einstein, Graham Greene, T.S. Eliot, Robert Oppenheimer and Ted Hughes all had enough sturm-und-drang in their relationships to justify thrillingly romantic bio-pics — even though, because they were men, no one would a priori have assumed any interest in being ‘in love with being in love’ in ways assumed to be typical of women. Why is romantic love – the most intense, pleasurable, but also difficult kind of loving – so often part of the picture of high accomplishment in creating what didn’t exist before, when that involves imagination and originality?

What other human tendencies belong in that cluster of neurological functions or tendencies? For instance, science has found that brain circuitry fully supports the old cliché about the close kinship between the emotions of love and hate. Recently, neuroscientists have been working on a fascinating puzzle – trying to work out why cursing seems to act as a natural analgesic:

According to a study published in the current issue of NeuroReport, swearing helps to alleviate pain:

“Swearing has been around for centuries and is an almost universal human linguistic phenomenon,” said Richard Stephens of Keele University in England and one of the authors of the new study. “It taps into emotional brain centers and appears to arise in the right brain, whereas most language production occurs in the left cerebral hemisphere of the brain.”

I was thinking about all that when fragments of David McDade’s lyrics on a CD bought for a different song caught my ear (not in the overcooked rendering of the hyper-pneumatic Dolly Parton) :

Everytime the bluebird sings
My heart takes wings to the sky
With bluebird’s grace I fly
To my place in your eyes
Cause after all, I did all I could
And you did your best, just the same
Nobody won, we both lost, no one’s to blame
But I’ll find my way to you, if I’m only pretending
And we’ll be like bluebirds, live the beautiful lie
We’ll be like bluebirds, live the beautiful lie

… and when those last words seemed strangely familiar, a search engine reminded me that it was Stendhal who said that all art is a beautiful lie, or what you could see as elaboration on the romantic impulse.

What would the opposite of that be? Perhaps excessive realism – like Schopenhauer’s. He meticulously worked out how attaining our desires only leads to new desires and discontentment, and for himself, mostly rejected close human connection — preferring the companionship of a succession of poodles he owned from his student days until his death. I suspect that most of humanity would find his impeccable rationality less compelling than the grand — grandiose — delusions of romanticism. Our reach was surely always intended to exceed our grasp.

How many wouldn’t reject the chance to write impenetrably, as Schopenhauer did, …

The physical form of the principle of sufficient reason is the principle of becoming. The mathematical form of the principle of sufficient reason is the principle of being. The logical form of the principle of sufficient reason is the principle of knowing. The moral form of the principle of sufficient reason is the principle of acting.

… if offered the choice between that and being able to say, as Byron did, that

… dreams in their development have breath,
And tears, and tortures and the touch of joy:
They leave a weight upon our waking thoughts,
They take a weight off from our waking toils,
[…] they become
A portion of ourselves and of our time,
And look like heralds of eternity; …

A world-view like Schopenhauer’s leaves so much less room for believing six impossible things before breakfast – in, for instance, the existence of bird-brained, seed-chomping deer.



Filed under Insight from neuroscience, Poetry, Psychology, Visual art & artists

12 responses to “Neurons making love and art

  1. For anyone who noticed the mistaken transcription — cut-and-pasted in a hurry from another website — I’ve just corrected the lyrics of Beautiful Lie.

    I was listening to the song again, cooking dinner last night, and heard where I’d gone wrong …

  2. Hazlitt

    “I can’t get no satisfaction”..Jagger/Richard

    “If the donkey never eats he wil die,but if he does eat he will stop.How can we get a man to work endlessly for a reward which never comes?…sexual desire since it is an impulse that is both powerful and plastic… the only form of gratification that is not SCARCE.(recreation of the poor).The idea of putting restrictions on sexuality,was a stunning cultural invention,more important than the acquisition of fire.In it man found a source of energy..which enabled him to build his empires on earth.On the negative side,however,men have turned themselves into elegant liveried donkeys,pursuing an inaccessable carrot.A man may have intercourse as often as he wishes and still feel deprived,because his desire has attached itself to someone or something unattainable.The root of sexual dissatisfaction is the capacity of man to generate symbols which can attract and trap portions of his libido.
    By the time an American boy or girl reaches maturity,he or she has so much symbolic baggage attached to the sexual impulse,that the mere mutual stimulation of two human bodies seems almost meaningless.Through the mass media everything sexless has been sexualised:automobiles,cigarettes,detergents clothing.A recent TV commercial shows a lovesick man donning,with many caresses,and to the accompanyment of”I’m in the mood for love”, a pair of shoes…….”
    “Hazlitt!!!.. put the cat out and come to bed.I’m wearing those stilettos,the ones you like me to walk all over you with”.
    Who said romance was dead?

  3. Thank you, a fascinating post, not least for confirming the point I keep making to net-resistant friends who insist that you can learn nothing of real value on it. How many decades would it have taken for you to confess to this most enlightening stiletto fetish in the off-blog world, I wonder? …………..:)

    Your quotations do support each other perfectly. . . about the negative face of romance. Wondering about possible constructive purposes, I’ve also been thinking of the placebo effect in medicine. It’s no longer a term of derision among the best medical researchers – since it seems that some of our illusions really do have healing powers … The placebo effect is only seen as bad, now, when it’s manipulated by drug companies and other snake oil merchants for their enrichment.

    A new post on a consistently excellent blog supports your view of romance as prone to manipulation by commerce – as in the fashion business:

    … During the 2009 London Fashion Week, which one observer described as having “the sexual charge and fashion energy that has characterized the city since the days of ‘Swinging London’ in the 1960s,” young British fashion designer Graeme Black presented “an Indian fantasy collection” (at left), complete with models in jodhpurs against a backdrop of Indian temples and jungle sounds. At a moment when unemployment in Britain is at a 14-year high, and likely to remain high for the foreseeable future, Black’s post-colonial imagery recalls a time when economic opportunity came with a sense of adventurousness, when individual and national purpose coincided.

    Black’s jodhpurs shouldn’t, and didn’t, raise any eyebrows in London or in the US. After all, nearly every American shopping mall includes a store called the Banana Republic. That colonial imagery still circulates in Anglo-American culture suggests there’s a kind of collective desire at work. Benjamin called expressions of collective desire “wish images” produced by a “dreaming collective.” … [continues here: The Dreaming Collective ]

  4. Hazlitt

    Wordy,do you not think that this dreaming collective is evidence of the durability of national myths and propaganda.
    Do jodhpurs trip wire the collective imagination back to Imperial swagger,world domination and prosperity,set against illegitimate wars,economic meltdown,climate change,social unrest etc….can’t you see the Dreadnoughts cutting a swath through the Atlantic waves,or hear the sound of polo mallets striking wooden balls?Don’t you feel safe..happy??
    Do you own a pair of jodhpurs and a riding whip
    by any chance,Wordy?……what!!..oh just curious…where were we?..oh yes. Tiffin anyone?

  5. === is evidence of the durability of national myths and propaganda.
    Do jodhpurs trip wire the collective imagination back ===

    Spot-on … and I was thinking of that as another kind of romance when I last replied.

    The interesting question for me, @Hazzy, is — which are our _real_ lives? What people see of us on the outside, or the versions locked inside our own heads? Last Sunday’s NYT magazine had a massive cover story set where you are, about the discovery of a Red Book locked in a bank vault until a few weeks ago … in which Carl Jung recorded living through an emotional breakdown and, even as he did, looking at his experience with enough detachment to begin to formulate his most famous theories from it. . . At least, that was my impression of the piece from a single fast read.

    Anyway, one phrase stands out for the man charged by Jung’s descendants with the job of translating the Red Book into English: ‘Value your inner life.’ … suggests the answer to the question I’ve just asked, and is saying exactly what Byron’s lines quoted earlier are.

    … Really sorry for this slow reply … a small crisis here has kept me from the machine for most of the day … particularly as this is the kind of enquiry I am — as you know — always most keen to answer:

    === Don’t you feel safe..happy??
    Do you own a pair of jodhpurs and a riding whip
    by any chance,Wordy? ===

    And my answer is … @Hazzy, can you feel the nip of autumn in the air yet, wherever you are precisely in Ch.? 😉

  6. Hazlitt

    It’s about 24°c.The morning starts off misty and cool,becoming eventually hot and sunny.
    As autumn progresses the mists linger all day………….hmmm……
    What’s this got to do with jodhpurs??…:)

  7. Hazlitt

    Wordy,here is something different from Jung’s “collective unconscious.”

    “What Is Collective Consciousness? Collective consciousness is a mode of awareness that emerges at the first transpersonal stage of consciousness, when our identities expand beyond our egos. A crucial capacity that accompanies this awareness is the ability to intuitively sense and work with the interactions between our and others’ energy fields, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. For example, just as Gene Rodenberry imagined a future where Star Trek’s Spock could “mind meld” with others, more of us are now becoming aware of our capacity not only to intuit each other’s thoughts and emotions, but also to consciously think and create together without communicating through our five senses.

    The Role of Energy Fields. Most of the researchers below postulate that energy fields explain the effects of consciousness. Fields are regions of influence.

    Examples include gravitational, electric and magnetic fields. Although invisible, we have learned how to measure these fields. Some of the research I will now describe, however, indicates that another type of field may be associated with collective consciousness.

    Psi or Tele-prehension. Psi is extra-sensory perception or influence, perhaps made possible by the apparent ability of consciousness to operate beyond the constraints of space and time. Examples include telepathy and remote viewing. The existence of psi (or tele-prehension, as Ken Wilber calls it) has been convincingly demonstrated in a large number of scientific studies, carried out by Marilyn Schlitz, Dean Radin and others. For example, in a number of remote-viewing experiments people have described a distant location to which another individual has been sent, with a statistically significant degree of accuracy, well beyond chance levels. As in other psi experiments, pairs who had an emotional bond have obtained the strongest results. These findings suggest that building a sense of connection and trust in groups may allow members to access and understand each other’s perspectives more readily, to “see through each other’s eyes.”

    Biologist Rupert Sheldrake and others have conducted a number of ingenious experiments that show that psi abilities are widespread, even in animals. For example, using synchronized video cameras in dog owners’ homes and workplaces, he has proven that dogs go to the front doors of their homes to wait, as soon as their owners decide to return home from work, even though those times are varied daily. Sheldrake, Radin and others have conducted many other telepathy experiments, showing that people can sense the thoughts and intentions of others across space and time. “

  8. Lovely stuff, thank you … submerged at present but will re-apparate as soon as I can to reply properly.

    Just quickly, now, … this is undeniable …

    === more of us are now becoming aware of our capacity not only to intuit each other’s thoughts and emotions, ===

    … blogging with others across oceans and continents certainly supports such possibilities surprisingly often. ..

    and I’d like to try this myself:

    ===but also to consciously think and create together without communicating through our five senses. ===

  9. The Collective Consciousness theorists … I don’t doubt that these people are onto something tremendously important. . . But I’m always dismayed to see certain names crop up in citations, as in the paper from which you extracted that fascinating passage, since they tend to put me off the argument.

    One of these is Ken Wilber. Don’t know him and our lives and work have never intersected. Yet I feel an instinctive mistrust of him and most other people who bury their ideas not just in contorted and heavily jargon-ridden language, but in jargon they have largely invented themselves. (… very different from hiding messages playfully in texts supposedly addressed to everybody.)

    … Overall, there’s absolutely no doubt that we human beings mostly don’t know how the thing we call the world really works, or about the limits of our capacities.

    For instance … admittedly a long way from ESP, telepathy, etc., … an article I read last weekend mentioned a painter you admire in showing that while most artists near death, like ‘most dying people can barely summon up sufficient energy to read a book, much less write one. .. ‘

    === Manet, who was dying of syphilis, was racked with pain so excruciating that he had to sit in a chair to paint … 16 gem-like studies of bouquets in glass vases. Yet “Vase of White Lilacs and Roses,” … bursts forth from the canvas with a quiet élan that speaks of the prospect of final renewal under the aspect of eternity.. ===

    Earlier, this excellent columnist Terry Teachout says, ‘To create a large-scale work of art under such dire circumstances is almost always beyond the power of even the most determined of artists.’

    … Jodhpurs .. this is a little tricky for us gender-neutrals, since if we say, well, you know, cross-dressing, … people are bound to ask, ‘in what direction?’ … I’m sure you see the problem, @Hazzy. If only answering your question were as easy as you talking about your stiletto … erm, routines.

  10. Hazlitt

    I saw “The Reading” for the first time in the summer and thought it should have been painted in a larger format.The “Balcony” is a favourite which was opposite the “Olympia.”
    Strange thing happened after, as we went to grab a coffee and some chocolate cake in the restuarant.
    The place was heaving and we had to wait in line.
    Impatiently,I wandered over to the huge centre-piece window, which was the reverse side of the original d’Orsay station clock,about six meters high.Turning around slowly,a young women caught my eye behind the coffee counter.She was the living twin of Suzon,the waitress,from the Bar at the Folies-B.It was uncanny and I was frozen to the spot staring at her.”The Folies” is in London.

  11. Would have been keen to know what the girl would have said if you’d pointed out the resemblance: ‘Oh, every art historian I’ve ever met says that. But I think I’m much better-looking’ … followed by a haughty sniff.

    Was once deep in farm country when I met a weaver who looked astonishingly like this Modigliani figure: … … I went to the trouble of looking at the art books in the local library to show her what I meant, as she had never heard of him. Nothing by Amedeo, sadly … and of course there were no good search engines in those days.

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