Category Archives: Insight from neuroscience

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

Do (real) writers lack a marketing gene?

Scott Adams on 'hidden persuaders'

Scott Adams on 'hidden persuaders'

O comrades, dear comrades, thank you for keeping this meeting-place alive in my absence – with special thanks to gentle @Suzan Abrams for her encouragement, and for the reappearance of two of you I’d given up for lost, @Captain Ned and @Hazlitt, with wonderfully thoughtful posts that set my head skipping.

I found those comments on my way to saying this: . . . that I’d bet anything on a hunch that only a smidgen of a fraction of a minority of you know who it was who said, ‘The more underdeveloped the country, the more overdeveloped the women,’ — and that ‘Being Ambassador to India is the nearest thing yet devised to a male chastity belt. But one can still gaze wistfully.’

That’s because members of our group share a love of language used well, and have far too much sense to look to an economist for proof of any such talent. But John Kenneth Galbraith — who served as the US ambassador in Delhi under Kennedy in the 1960s — was that rare economist who refused to take the secret vow I long ago guessed as the price of admission to the profession: to churn out only the flattest, most mind-bendingly dull and jargon-infested prose.

What reminded me of his existence was a scrap of paper that fell out of an old clippings file of mine last week. It said:

Artists who would once have sought patrons, writers who would once have sought readers, managers who were once primarily concerned with the production of goods and services, are now dedicated to shaping market response.

J.K.Galbraith in The Economics of Innocent Fraud

I marvelled, as I re-read that sentence, at how consistently a capacity for any form of high aesthetic accomplishment seems to go with contempt for the unbridled pursuit of mammon, and for setting this chase as the highest goal.

An economist, you might suppose, would be among those least likely to disagree with the ‘Marketing über alles’ creed of the MBA degree-holders who have rudely shoved literature-lovers out of the corridors of power in corporate publishing. But Galbraith, a fierce critic of corporate gigantism and capitalist excess, was an economist with the soul of an artist. Time rightly praised his Indian diary, when it was published in 1969, for its ‘first-rate prose’ – though when I was at university, it was for his complex, playfully verbose and quirky sentences on economics that I could have kissed his feet in gratitude.

The cartoonist and deadly critic of managerial obtuseness, Scott Adams, is someone else I’d put in Galbraith’s class: another illustration of how enslavement to mercantilist calculation — known as marketing — and true artistry appear to be mutually exclusive. Never mind if his talent has made him a kazillionaire. It’s clear from his work that that’s a lucky side-effect of his dedication to relentless mockery of corporate serfdom.

But why are artists so consistently disgusted with manipulation? Well, you might say, the work of ‘hidden persuaders’ – as Vance Packard labelled the media-manipulators known as advertisers – obviously conflicts with the highest aim implicit in all great art, which is revelation. Or, as the crotchety old – ‘famous but reclusive’ — painter in the 1991 Jacques Rivette film, La Belle Noiseuse, puts it, ‘We want the truth in painting. It’s cruel.’

With that question rattling around upstairs, I wondered about the possibility that neuroscience might supply the answer some day. That led to wondering whether true vocations will be found to correlate with particular brain structures, in the future – and, looking backwards, whether there might have been at least partially genetic components to occupational caste specialisations in very old civilisations like India’s and China’s. I jotted down on the back of an envelope, ‘Would caste divisions by profession map to brain structure – above the level of outcastes, who were simply people who happened to be powerless, therefore bullied?’ Then I looked at the note and scoffed, ‘What tripe!’

But in a break in the mindless and exhausting physical chores that have kept me from this site lately, there came a jaw-dropping coincidence. I stumbled on a headline from last Tuesday’s New York Times: ‘Single Gene Shapes the Toil of Ants’ Fighter and Forager Castes‘, which said in part’:

The new study is important because it shows how ants have developed a new use for the PKG gene, that of shaping the characteristic behavior of their different castes, said Gene Robinson, an expert on insect behavior at the University of Illinois. In fruit flies, a DNA difference in the gene changes behavior, but in ants it is a difference in the gene’s activity that makes the soldier caste fight and the foraging caste forage.

Now, no one should get too excited by that, since – far from being mutually exclusive — the ants’ caste specialisations are flexible . . .

because the foragers can recruit the soldiers to food gathering duties when they need extra help. When presented with a live meal worm, within a few minutes the foraging ants can induce the soldiers to help them cut the worm up and take it home.

Then, of course, not even the experts know the extent to which ant behaviour is useful as a guide to human beings. The article mentions medical research that has been inspired by findings in the ant kingdom, but that only amounts to legitimised speculation.

So all we’ve got is a train of woolgathering that some might find as interesting as I do and others will dismiss as undiluted bunk. Still, I’d be fascinated to learn what genetics and neuroscience could have to tell us about the biological differences between Ray Kroc, who made MacDonald’s the mega-monster it is, and the magnificent Jean Cocteau, who wrote:

Listen carefully to first criticisms of your work. Note just what it is about your work that the critics don’t like – then cultivate it. That’s the part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.


Filed under Book publishing, Insight from neuroscience, Psychology