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Doctors of The Soul – Artists and Their Brains


Chapter 5: The Artistic Temperament

Purpose: Understanding the temperament of the artist is taking the first step toward including culture more within our overall economic, educational and social systems. With this information in hand, policy suggestions and strategies have greater chances of success as they culminate from a discussion of the arts as they are.
To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best night and day to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.

– e.e. cummings

…most writers are fully aware of the destabilizing and destructive aspects of their profession and quite willing to choose to pay the costs, even if it means a few brilliant poems and suicide . . . You must go down into the dark, and sometimes nothing – not therapy, not religion – can bring you out the other side.– Maggie HelwigThe carnage around a great creator is not a pretty sight and this destructiveness occurs whether the individual is engaged in a solitary pursuit or ostensibly working for the betterment of humankind.– Howard Gardner

Historically artists, writers, actors and musicians have operated on the social fringe, appreciated by a certain segment of the populace for their creativity and vision, but frowned upon for their lifestyles and deviant values.
– Arnold M. Ludwig

I am reluctant to begin a chapter on the temperament of the artist by discussing the influence of social marginalization. So let me digress briefly to psychiatrists. They will tell you that healthy personal attitudes arise from a few very basic things. Most fundamental is an ability to hear one’s own feelings. These are feelings from one’s heart of hearts. Accepting these as valid leads, among other things, to a sense of self-worth, a sense of personal values and their legitimacy, and a sense of boundaries. These allow people to distinguish the behaviour of themselves from others and how behaviour affects their feelings, their sense of integrity. Coupling this with acceptance of others as they are leads to social interactions with which a person is happy.

For those who feel that despite its truth the preceding paragraph has a Walt Disney-like optimism, let us cut to the chase: e.e. cummings makes a valid point. The frontiers of interaction between artists and other people are often unhappy. The purpose of society is to maintain itself. People go out and work, receive a paycheque and go home to raise a family. Children are brought up to do the same thing. The reward for doing so is approval. Dotted across the broad sea of society are islands of individuals with other aims. These are artists. Artists seek to create art, to question the norms and beliefs of their society and be approved of for that reason as their life’s job. This job does not result in a paycheque, hence it does not maintain society. In response society refuses to approve.

The forgoing may seem a rather simplistic view of artists and society. It does, however, present an equation that all artists understand. In the real life within which they live, all artists have heard from parents, lovers and friends: “Of course you can be an artist, but first you have to have a real job.” “You can’t just think of yourself. You have responsibilities now.” “If you loved me, you wouldn’t do that.” “Who reads poetry anyway?” “Life is passing you by.”

To pursue art is to go against the very society within which the artist lives. Without adequate financial resources, approval, and with a mind focussed on producing art as a career, though it has no real significance for most of the western audience, the artist is in a difficult spot. In speaking to hundreds of artists over the years, the one effect of their career “choice” that has pervaded our conversations is the sense of disenfranchisement, the sense of having been beaten by life and expecting poor treatment, the impotence and anger of low self esteem and most specifically, the effect of chronic poverty: difficult family relations, alcoholism, defeat. And the artist simply fights against this by continuing to produce art, because art is what moves that person in his or her heart of hearts. One begins to see the tragedy in e.e. cummings words: the artist either fights endlessly, for his or her existence depends on it, or succumbs.

The obvious rejoinder to this analysis is to say, choose another career. And the question has to be asked, what is it in the unusual personality of the artist that prevents that choice being made, that makes the pursuit of art fulfill the usual, externally-derived, enhancers of self esteem: a decent job, a decent family life, living within the grain. In communist, dictatorship, or religious fundamentalist regimes, artists who ask difficult questions often end up dead, or exiled. In western society they are typically ignored. Because the public consumption of art is so low, the artist lives in poverty, torn by the knowledge that he or she cannot afford the normal comforts of life: a house, a decent car, adequate provisions for his or her children – a state of being not human, and it is art, the person’s inner-most nature that is doing it to the artist. The latter part of this section concerns itself with the unusual neurophysiology and biochemistry predisposing artists to be so singleminded, to put up with diminished material lives (Refer to Chapter 2 for the fianancial analysis.) as a trade off for pursuing art. But first, what is the artistic personality? How should we approach and understand it?

The artistic personality is composed of many mutually supportive strands. Most obviously, a person has to have talent, the ability to produce an art. Equally important are perseverance and luck. It takes decades to build the skills necessary to have the technique to perform, and the maturity to say something of importance. These are long years of apprenticeship for most artists, and years without income. Luck, on the other hand, is arbitrary.

To live through the wilderness years a couple of traits are vital. First an artist is a person of high inner drive, of inner motivation rather than one who conforms to social expectations, a person of great self discipline and task motivation. The artist is seldom motivated by anything other than his or her own personal vision. This is a deep conviction about the way the world works as seen by the artist and the resulting responsibility to remember it, to record it, to set it down and to let others view the discoveries. Coupled with this is the chief characteristic of the artist: an identification of the artist with the art produced. This mingling of identity with an external product is the key difference between the artist and nonartist, and, in my opinion, the source of much squabbling between society and its artists. The artist says, I am my art, I am insubstantial, if you want to know me, look at my art. This subsuming nature is by no means benign in a society that fosters participation among its members in its activities.

The erection of self worth from an edifice of art also makes an artist vulnerable. Most artists are willing to risk everything to improve, to leap off cliffs and experiment with their beliefs. This leads to an unstable situation: a life of great victories and defeats. During periods when the artist is unable to produce art, the result is a rapid downward spiraling of self esteem. These periods, as we all know, are called blocks. Blocks are simply fear. The artist is terrified that he or she will never again produce any art. Time and time again, artists take their own lives during periods of blocks or depression. An obvious example is Hemingway, who blew his brains out when he became convinced he could no longer write.

Cycling of mood is typical of artists: from periods of grandiosity, an inflated sense of the importance and brilliance of the artist’s own thoughts, when art comes effortlessly, perfectly and in huge amounts to periods of lethargy, failure, inability to work, depression, alcoholism and mental breakdown. As we shall see later, it is this cycling, which at first glance makes the artist appear mercurial, unstable, irritable, moody, brooding and irrational, that is critical to producing art. Borders and brinks in emotional perspective provide an important crucible for the imagination. The manic side produces a gush of work. The depressive side allows for critical reviewing, editing and formatting.

Along with rapidly changing moods, essential to artists is constant attention to their own perceptions. It is my firm belief that the brains of artists are more sensitive to events than those of others. Accordingly, the everyday banal occurrences that other people take for granted, the artist sees as epiphanies, and staggers along making earth-shattering discoveries. Virginia Woolf’s well-known expression, “the booming buzzing confusion [of life]” expresses this sensitivity.

Artists, whose focus is inward, whose chief aim in life is their own personal journey, have the resources to examine life and the desire to present it to others. This provides a structure for art and a belief that one’s own personal vision is supreme. Needless to say, such people prize their individuality and, accordingly, censorship is anathema; it is perceived as an attack which must be rejected at all costs. Egocentric, solitary and self absorbed, artists do not take kindly to the authority of others, particularly where those ideas impinge on their own actions – freedom is paramount. They are nonconventional, eccentric, agnostic, critical, and proud of it. This iconoclasm leads to difficulties in school, with others and with government, making artists poorly equipped to champion their own causes. They are too busy arguing and protecting their own turf to get it together to get together to speak cogently enough and long enough to establish the kind of support and recognition that art could otherwise enjoy in our society. The necessity for correcting this deficiency will be argued in Chapter 6.

Closely aligned with an internal focus, a hypersensitivity to fine gradations in emotional state and the pursuit of personal vision is the ever unfolding exploration of intuition as a basis for artistic skill. It is the associational abilities of the left-brained individual that reward creativity, the ease of joining different categories of thought. In poetry, for example, this is metaphor. Intuition is a mental skill little rewarded in the scientific times in which we live where external proof and data are required, however, it helps distinguish great art from the merely good. Most artists ascribe to one of the following theories of creativity, each of which pay homage to the ineffable in the mind: I have a muse; I release the angel from the rock; my work is automatic; I am only a medium for what is already here; and, the most prosaic, I simply do this thing because I can. The result is art that lives. In my own work, I put it this way: I hold this young bird in my hands until it can fly away on its own. Then it is not my work anymore. It is its own gift to the world.

A little thinking about the various theories leads easily to the origins of art. As discussed in the next section, art arose from a matrix of human needs to understand. Magic, ritual and religion have for thousands of years been the ways that humans expressed their need for instinct and control over what they didn’t understand. Intuition is the mental faculty that bridges these needs; it is the mind’s magic. And art has been associated with religion for 15,000 years. It is the unknowable given form.

The last compelling component of the artistic personality is the pleasure state. The artist is simply transported by good art in the genre for which he or she has a native skill. The viewing or performing of that art may well lead to a cascade endorphic release in the brain, in other words, art is a high, an addiction, a capacity to relieve emotional distress. This buttresses the other characteristics and leads the artist to prefer doing art at all costs as it leads to feelings of well being. To put it categorically and from the opposite perspective, Artonin Artaud once said, “No one has ever written, painted, sculpted, modeled, built or invented except literally to get out of hell.” Little wonder that most artists are non-monetary by nature, preferring, as Kafkaesque outsiders, to obsessively produce art in preference to making a living. Little wonder Artonin committed suicide.

On the brighter side, one of the most obvious characteristics of artists is their creativity. This has two aspects: a facility of the mind; and, a capacity for Herculean output. Persons of strong, vacillating moods and intense purpose are capable of massive amounts of work – van Gogh turned out hundreds of paintings in his lucid months. Consider Picasso, too; his works number about 20,000 paintings, drawings and collages. We have examples of tremendous output here in Canada: Robin Skelton and George Woodcock both published more than 100 books in their careers.

Creativity is also marked by mental fluency. Creativity arises from rapidity and flexibility of thought combined with ability to join dissimilar ideas or categories of thought, thus forging new and original connections. This, as mentioned, is metaphor, a fundamental characteristic of human thought. A person who looks into a fish pond and says, “Goldfish are the thoughts of clouds.” has produced a metaphor, using the associative powers of the left side of the brain and the factual recall faculties of the right. The myths embodied in our religious parables are other long-standing examples.

Personal creativity can be indicated by simple tests, for example: an ability to effortlessly produce rhymes for a given word, or carry on conversation in rhymed couplets; skill in making puns; ease in giving synonyms and definitions for given words; or, an ability to conjure many possible, novel solutions for a given problem. Children delve easily into the world of possibility. Ask a child what the world would be like if there were no trees or people had no thumbs. If the child can come up with 10 answers, he or she is exceedingly creative.

Creativity confers obvious benefits upon mankind for the volume and novelty of work produced. In the past two decades serious examination of this trait has been undertaken. There is a growing body of scientific literature regarding the artist, a broad and multidisciplinary literature on creativity, as well as psychiatric perspectives from a number of mental pathology specialties. Biochemical work on enzyme pathways begins to elucidate the microchannels in brain neurons. Current, ground-breaking work in positron emission tomography may well become further refined to include specific studies of artist brains. It is my belief, as expressed in section two of this chapter, that this latter technique will one day demonstrate that the thinking of artists differs in fundamental ways from other human beings. Biographies of major artists provide other clues to the talents of these eccentric people and although anecdotal, give a human perspective to the statistical analysis of science.

Despite what I have said about their social marginalization, from the perspective of society, persons with artistic skills comprise a large and important sector of professions. Indeed, the Dictionary of Holland Occupational Codes (47) aggregates the almost endless array of jobs in western society into four major types. It recognizes artistic endeavours as a fundamental category, along with enterprising, social and investigative types.

The purpose in classifying professions is to provide a tool for scientists engaged in social science research. Artists, as one would expect, cover the range of writers and journalists, composers and musicians, sculptors and painters, actors and dancers. Associated professions include fashion designers, architects, stage management personnel, editors, furniture designers archivists and so on. Enterprising professions practice business and politics: advertising executives, ambassadors, politicians, entrepreneurs, bankers, lawyers, managers, military officers, businessmen and managers. Investigative types concern the sciences: engineers, anthropologists, biologists, economists, geologists, psychiatrists, surgeons, sociologists and so on. The social classification includes jobs from a broad range of social concerns: athletes, evangelists, historians, homemakers, labour leaders, educators, religious leaders and social activists.

Aggregation allows for a more rigorous look at career choices and personal characteristics. When I look at people, I see endless variety in character, and when I read biographies, their personal histories – juicy though they are – seldom allow for making meaningful generalizations. For example, Howard Hughes documented his growing list of paranoias in the latter years of his life (4b); however, focussing on these clouds the fact that for most of his career he was an individual with brilliant skills in the enterprising professions. In the case of artists, the situation is further complicated; the pursuit is one that transcends a profession into a lifestyle

In a huge study, Ludwig (4a) examined, among other things, the impact of broken homes, birth order, mental illness in and death of parents, precocity, nonconformity, career choice, sexual preference, religious beliefs and social marginality on the emotional well-being and accomplishment of eminent people. He found that it is possible to predict with great accuracy lifetime achievement based on family of origin, personality and mental health. An early mark of future success is intellectual curiosity: a love of reading and a willingness to self-educate.

Most artists are born into well-off – but not rich – professional families, ones with financial advantages combined with success-oriented value systems: 66% come from the upper-middle class; 22% from labouring; and, 11% from royalty or aristocratic lineage. Generally speaking, the working class spends most of its time concentrating on the grind of earning a living while the nobility, satisfied with its advantages, lacks the inner need to succeed at anything else. Parents of artists have above average education, demonstrate a greater degree of social non-conformity, and, contrary to what I have observed in life, a positive creative involvement in their child’s choice of career. Health also influences the choice of art as a career. As one would expect, a physical deformity or frailty tends to stream people to become poets, fiction writers and natural scientists, rather than explorers, soldiers, athletes, social figures and musical performers. As children, future artists are more likely to be moody, irascible, emotional, odd or peculiar. As adults they tolerate more eccentric behaviour than those in other fields. Many musicians, composers and poets display precocious innate talent by the early teens; however, long years of training and personal dedication separate the successful from those who ultimately choose other careers.

During school years, artistic types are more likely than others to encounter difficulty with teachers and authority. Future artists receive poorer grades and win fewer academic honours. Accordingly, artistic success has little to do with academic success, even though artists are intelligent, quick-minded and display fierce energy; most artists have IQS greater than 120, however, persistence plays such a large role in achievement that there is no relationship between IQ and achievement beyond this point. Furthermore, there is no relationship between achievement, originality or output and eccentricity of thought or dress.

After leaving school, the years from 20 – 40 are usually the period of greatest achievement in careers – dance for instance – in which precocity, skill and talent are essential. Among artists who serve long apprenticeships, and develop later, poets and fiction writers, who are solitary by nature, seem to find the paternalism of a mentor psychologically unacceptable. During the past century, while women have been poorly represented in all professions due to early family obligations, the participation rate, at 27%, is highest in the arts.

And what about the truly eminent? It turns out that these people are so different from others their identities can be predicted virtually 100% of the time (4c). In youth, a powerful organizing principle takes over and shapes the individual and his environment to mold the person toward eminence and then toward a profession. Those destined for greatness become servants of their own talent and construct their world around it. They view their work as an extension of themselves and resist outside demands that detract from it. Less than 5% of the truly great experience epiphanies or callings. Instead, in my estimation, they recognize their talent as a constituent of personal identity. Although most are independent, self-sufficient and work alone, eminent artists have a great need to associate with others of their kind, people of comparable talent and intellect whose work and opinions they respect – Paris in the 20s, the Algonquin Table, Bloomsbury. They sharpen their wits, try out their ideas, display their works and try to validate their own greatness.

Regardless of talent level, one more characteristic clusters with artistic abilities: mental pathology. This association has been apprehended for millennia. Almost 2,500 years ago Plato offered the subsequently often-quoted observation, “The poetry of sane men is beaten all hollow by the poetry of madmen.” His student, Aristotle, intoned a similar view, “All extraordinary men distinguished in philosophy, politics, poetry and the arts are evidently melancholic [read mad].” And the folk-wisdom passed down the ages into our own is that you have to be crazy to be any good. In the last 25 years a lot of good scientists (4a, 7, 8, 11, 12, 13a, b, and c) have looked closely at this myth and found that the evidence is quite clear: artists suffer more mental illnesses than any other group of individuals in society, but they are not insane.

Lifetime Rates of Any Mental Disorder (4a)

Occupation Rate in Percent Artistic Discipline Rate in Percent
Exploration 27 Architecture 52
Natural Sciences 28 Musical Composing 60
Military 30 Musical Performance 68
Public Office 35 Nonfiction 72
Social Figure 37 Art 73
Companion 44 Theatre 74
Business 49 Fiction 77
Social Activism 49 Poetry 87
Social Sciences 51
Sports 53
While the chart shows quite clearly that there is a connection between mental illness and art, the interrelation is not quite so straight forward. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, for example, experienced recurrent, debilitating depressions and hypomanic spells. But so did much of his family; his father, grandfather, two of his great grandfathers, five of his seven brothers, one of his sons and one of his three grandsons suffered from insanity, melancholia, rage or manic depressive illness (7). This kind of family tree appears over and over again in genealogical studies. And they tell some of the story: that mental pathologies run in families, ie., they are genetic; and that artistic skills are distinct attributes from mental illness.

A short list of artists who have suffered psychopathology can get very long indeed: Salvador Dali, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean Paul Sartre, Hart Crane, Truman Capote, Charles Dickens, T.S. Eliot, Ludvig van Beethoven, Peter Tchaikovsky, Dylan Thomas, Boris Pasternak, Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, Vaslav Nijinski, Emily Carr, Agatha Christie, John Cheevers, Marilyn Monroe and Delmore Schwartz (4d). Despite these large numbers, it is not true to state that an artist must be crazy to be any good. The percentages in the chart indicate that many artists – though in the minority – suffer no pathologies at all, therefore the relation is not causative but rather a clustering of personality traits.

As long as many artists seem to be mentally healthy, the claim cannot be made that mental illness is necessary for creative achievement. Full stop. It is this simple: you cannot be a great artist and also insane. However, the statistical rates of mental pathology among artists are truly staggering when compared with the rest of society (4a): alcoholism affects 14% of the total population, among writers it is 41%, and 60% among theatrical artists; the rate of drug use in the total population is 6%. In musicians the rate peaks at 36 % (Think of Janis Joplin, Miles Davis, Jim Hendrix and Jim Morrison.); depression and melancholia affects 6% of the overall population compared with 77% for poets, a percentage that is progressive with age; the mania rate, .8% in the general population, reaches a peak in actors at 17% and poets at 13%; schizophrenia which affects 1.5% of the population reaches a peak in poets at 17%. In summary, the Epidemiological Catchment Area Study (48) found that at least 32% of the population suffers one or more mental illness while the rates for artists are astonishingly high: poets: 87%; writers: 77%; actors: 74 %; and, artists: 73%. Artistic professions as a whole are twice as likely to suffer 2 or more syndromes over the course of their lives as those in other professions (4e).

In a now-famous study, Andreason (11) added corroborating support to the above figures, finding that 80% of writers suffer affective disorders: alcoholism, depression and mild forms of manic depressive disease (cyclothymia). 70% of 20th century American Nobel Prize Laureates for literature were or are alcoholics (3). Artists, in comparison with other professional types, show far greater propensity to suicide, and shortened lifespans (4f). Poets top the list. In addition to the rest of the diseases listed in this paragraph, they display greater drug dependency, psychosis rates (schizophrenia), anxiety disorders, adjustment difficulties and the highest suicide rate in western society – the general population hovers near 1%: poets are the most successful at killing themselves, achieving a staggering death rate of 20%!

With these statistics in hand, the logical question to ask is how do artists possibly get anything accomplished, afflicted as they are with debilitating mental difficulties? As it turns out, far from being incompatible with artistic achievement, mental pathologies are often integrated by artists within the fabric of their lives, indeed, Edvard Munch expressed a typical view, when he said, “They [his mental troubles] are part of me and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and it would destroy my art. I want to keep those sufferings.” In other words art comprises such a large component of personal structure and self-esteem that artists refuse treatment for serious mental illness for fear of losing art and hence themselves.

To start at the beginning, one might ask whether the profession creates the problem or whether the person is odd before starting the career? The answer is that it’s a little of both. It’s clear that mental difficulties are not the punishment for expression of the gift of creativity; the Tennyson family tree makes clear, for instance, that the predisposition for mental disorders is established long before artists launch their careers. It also illustrates that mental disturbances do not give rise to artistic abilities. Studies of affective disorder sufferers (13c) agree. Sufferers of manic depression and schizophrenia do not demonstrate artistic abilities. In fact schizophrenics are so severely afflicted by their disease they can do very little meaningful work of any kind.

Slater’s (49) work on the creative output of the composer Robert Schumann shows quite clearly that mental illness has profound effects on artistic output.

Robert Schumann’s Musical Works and Mental Illnesses

142 138
127 137
077 108
057 106
053 102
051 101
049 098
048 095
045 094
043 093 136
042 092 128
040 091 121
039 086 119
036 085 144 117 035 082 130 113
034 079 129 112 143
033 078 125 111 134
031 076 097 110 133
030 120 075 096 109 148 132
032 029 064 115 074 090 107 147 131
124 021 028 027 054 060 080 081 073 089 105 140 126
004 022 017 018 023 026 052 047 058 065 071 070 088 104 139 129
003 010 011 014 012 016 020 025 038 044 050 056 061 063 068 069 087 103 135 118
007 001 008 002 005 099 009 013 006 015 019 024 037 041 046 055 059 062 066 067 083 100 122 114
1829 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 1856

Suicide Attempt Severe Depression Suicide Attempt Hypomanic Hypomanic Died In Asylum (Self Starvation)

This simple graph illustrates a number of things found in the literature about the relationship between creativity – being an artist – and mental illness: artists are by nature mercurial and experience marked changes in mood; upswings in mood lead to creativity, contrary to the commonly held belief that increased productivity leads to upswings in mood; depressions precede and produce severe downturns in productivity; mental illness leads to blocks rather than blocks leading to depressed creativity, however the two are mutually confounding; mania confers upon the artist – and mankind – a potential for a vast amount of creative output; and, suicide is common in artists, often following peaks of creative output or prolonged periods of inability to perform as an artist. The graph also suggests that Plato and Aristotle were wrong; a person who is incapacitated by mental disturbances cannot produce great art at that time. A little further on, during discussion of manic depressive illness, I will refine this notion.

Art as a profession also seems to influence the relationship between mental instability and creativity. Ludvig’s work suggests that professions that rely on reason and whose members function in a social setting where interpersonal relationships are important – civil servants, accountants, military personnel – are less prone to mental difficulties. Those that rely on expression of emotion, personal experience and vivid imagery as sources of inspiration – poets, novelists, actors, entertainers – are more prone to mental difficulties.

And at times, creativity may be its own burden. Art requires huge clarity and presence of mind. As Coleridge put it. “There is a reason assignable not only for every word, but for the position of every word.” Couple this with the possibility that individuals with temperaments liable to emotional extremes may be more likely to ‘choose’ artistic careers and the chances of an interaction between a biological vulnerability and psychological stress are increased. The art itself involves severe emotional involvement and arousal of dormant conflicts. Most people use psychological defenses to keep emotional conflicts unconscious so they can go on about their daily affairs without distraction or constant anxiety. Creative activity penetrates these defenses – and does so intentionally – to bring to conscious awareness unresolved feelings and painful recollections which after they are examined may not be easily ignored. Being able to awaken and relive painful emotions allows poets and fiction writers to experience the world with an intensity and passion unavailable to those who avoid tampering with their emotions. Given the compulsive nature of the artist, one can begin to appreciate Helwig’s observation that artists knowingly take great personal risks: the examination is necessary, even though the creative burst – whether pleasurable, therapeutic or obsessive – increases mental disturbances; the high of discovery during sustained, creative work gives way to emotional letdown, followed by agitation or frustration and increasing alcohol or drug use, leading to depression.

On the other hand, creative activity may reduce disturbances. For many people, creative activity seems to serve a psychoanalytic purpose, enabling them to organize their emotional turmoil, to work out personal conflicts or simply to distract themselves from worrisome concerns or their compulsion to drink. Some people feel compelled to engage in these creative pursuits to preserve their mental health. An artists excessive use of alcohol or drugs may become incorporated into the drive toward artistic achievement. Alcohol removes impediments to creativity, for example, blocks, tension and depression. Many drink to get themselves in the mood, to unleash the excess, to lubricate the imagination. In the short run, alcohol heightens creativity; in the long run it kills the person; as artistic output declines with increasing mental instability, suicide too often seems the only option. To put this in personal terms, ask yourself how your mind would have to burn to be a Hemingway, how downing a bottle of gin before noon for decades would affect your mind? How soon would you collapse?

The art world is also populated with a disproportionate number of emotionally disturbed people – talented or not. The reason for this is that artistic professions lack the capacity to keep unstable persons out. There are after all no formal barriers to aspirants. As artists place more emphasis on artistic output than on personal behaviour, their professions represent an occupational haven for people who wish to wrestle with their demons and try to contain them through expressions of art. Doctors on the other hand have to go to university for years, be sanctioned by the College of Physicians and obtain and retain billing numbers. They need to appear rational.

Many professions exert strong control over an individual’s behaviour, for example, civil servants, and police, by requiring stability, conventionality and accountability. The more a profession is accountable to the public, the more it regulates the behaviour of its members with licensing boards, procedures, educational requirements, performance standards and codes of ethics. Artists focus on the personal and subjective, the world of meaning and significance rather than knowledge and fact. Individual expression is paramount. Artists turn inward for inspiration from their turmoil and transform it into art. In contrast to other professions, there is a timeless quality to beauty and aesthetics. In art, unlike science, works endure and are not necessarily displaced by new schools or research. Fields that tolerate more ambiguity and less structure and proof in their permissible forms of expression tolerate people with mental disturbances more and allow them to capitalize on their highly personal visions.

Licensing of artists is not a realistic option in western countries; no one can be prevented from being one. In eastern block countries, which favour collective will over personal freedoms, artists are registered. Control is exerted as they are paid by the state, and of course personal and economic freedoms are state defined. Regardless of country of origin, though, artists prefer ambiguous, free, unsystematized activities, disliking, at the same time, systematic, ordered activities that require organization, documentation, and precision. In my view, this aspect of non-accountability is one that makes the public balk at increasing cultural funding, and will be addressed in subsequent chapters.

One of the interesting conclusions of interprofessional comparison research (4a) is that artists and natural scientists resemble one another more in personality traits than they resemble those in other professions. Both groups are concerned with exploration of previously uncovered territory. Both have a forward-looking vision and share the thrill of discovery. And when we remember mankind’s supreme creative events and breakthroughs over the centuries we are often remembering artists and scientists: Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Newton, Einstein. I find this both illuminating and humourous; in the past few centuries our western world has rewarded and recognized the scientific discoveries. Today, artists often conceive of themselves as being in combat with the tidy, logical, too-clean, unerringly correct world of science as the last bastion of the scruffy, populist, humanitarian world. The image of the gentle river folk in Fahrenheit 451, memorizing and repeating their novels in the new-fallen snow, the smoke of their fires drifting up springs immediately to my mind.

Interestingly enough, one mental disorder is associated with creativity. Richards (13c) has shown that both manic depressives and their unaffected relatives are more likely to be creative than other people. In other words manic depressive disease confers an advantage on all mankind for the avalanche of work it produces. A glance at the Schumann table confirms this. The disease is genetically based and resides on the female, or X chromosome (43). Accordingly it runs in families, for example, the Tennyson clan. In geneticists’ jargon, two copies of a recessive allele are required before a person suffers manic depression. Relatives with only one copy of the allele have no deleterious effects.

The prevalence of the disease in different groups is striking. In the overall population, the rate of manic depression is 1% and 1 – 2% for the lesser condition cyclothymia ( 11) – the important condition for art. Andreason found, however, that over 50% of writers have one of these conditions. Regardless of social grouping, untreated manic depression leads to severe problems for family, friends and colleagues. And the disease is deadly: one in five manic depressives commit suicide.

To put this in human terms, a short list of manic depressive sufferers among the artistic fraternity includes: Sylvia Plath, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Paul Gauguin, Gustav Mahler, Anne Sexton, Edgar Allan Poe, Vincent van Gogh, Herman Hesse, John Berryman, Ezra Pound, Tennessee Williams, Charles Mingus, Mark Rothko, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Schumann, William Blake, George Gordon, Lord Byron, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Randall Jarrell, Theodore Roethke, Georgia Okeefe, William and Henry James, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Cowper, Graham Greene, Percy Byssche Shelley, Oliver Goldsmith, Robert Burns, John Keats, Theodore Gericault [/accent on es], August Strindberg, Eugene O’Neill, Hans Christian Anderson, Charlotte and Emile Bronte [/], Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Lowell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Frost, Thomas Gainsborough, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Nikolai Gogol, Charles lamb, Edvard Munch, Jackson Pollock, Cole Porter, Robert Louis Stevenson and Emile Zola. In fact this disease of the mind is so common that Jamison (1) put together a list of 200 major artists who suffered from it – including Michelangelo!

The connection between mania and creativity is easy to understand. You will recall that creativity depends on mental fluency and ease in conjoining different categories of thought in order to make emotional and intellectual leaps. In its mild initial stages, mania fosters these processes and thus aids the achievement of an artist. If you couple the drive and intensity of an artist with the expansiveness and grandiosity of mania, this leads to massive output. In order for far flung or chaotic thoughts to be transformed into works of art, original and meaningful connections must be made. Here again grandiosity and cosmic sense combine with acute observational powers to make otherwise unimaginable leaps. The sheer force of life, the voltage can be staggering in mania, a condition which impels movement The upswing of mania enhances the boldness of temperament needed for original work at a high energy level. Over 90% of artists report that intense moods are essential in development and execution of their work (1). And Schildkraut (39) has found that creative cognition is more similar to manic flights of ideas than to the loose associations of schizophrenia.

Past a certain point however, mania takes over and productive work is not possible. The elevation and expansiveness, the high energy and activity level, the greatly reduced need for sleep, the fast intrusive thinking and moving from topic to topic and the inflated sense of self esteem lead at its full blown level to mental explosion. The sufferer moves from a state of transcendent euphoria to irritable, paranoid raging, pitbull conviction about the correctness and importance of his or her ideas and, finally, fractured vision. The disease affects other parts of the individual’s life resulting in poor judgement, chaotic relationships, impulsive business ventures, reckless driving, intense impatience, impulsive sexual relations, and, in extreme cases, delusions and hallucinations. In other words the artist needs to pay attention to his or her mood and seize the opportunity to work when mania is in a controllable phase.

It should also be remembered that unlike the chronic and unrelenting psychosis of schizophrenia, manic depression is cyclical, sometimes over many years. The sufferer is sentient and rational for long stretches and can carry on a family life and fulfill work commitments during these periods. When it arrives, however, the descent into depression can be as harrowing as the ascent into fire. Depression is characterized by apathy, lethargy, hopelessness, sleep disturbances, slowed physical movement and thinking, impaired memory or concentration and loss of pleasure. Hardly surprising, blocks follow. During this phase the depths include self-blame for the sins of excess, inappropriate guilt, thoughts of death and suicide. As Kafka put it, “A non-writing writer is a monster courting disaster.” The illness and the block chase one another in a vicious circle, the depression producing a block and the block adding further to the depression, a condition particularly devastating to the art-obsessed artist. The excesses of these cycling moods have been graphically described by John Berryman (1b) and the resulting ruin suggested by Gardner at the beginning of this chapter.

The depressive phase, far from being devoid of possibilities for art, is an important mental condition for productive work; the frenetic pace of mania produces a gush of only partially realized material; it needs a steady hand to shape and knead it into well-structured comprehensible art. In its milder forms, depression forces this slower pace. It puts into perspective the thoughts and observations generated during more frenzied moments. It prunes, sculpts, ruminates, ponders, subdues and focusses thought. It allows structuring of the more expansive patterns woven during hypomania. The tendency to gaze inward is deeply embedded in both the depressive and artistic views. The self-searching, brooding, calmer states needed to recall earlier and more painful times allow a measured tapping into deeper emotional pools as well as more controlled access to the back rooms of the unconscious mind. Again it is critical for the artist to recognize the milder depressive moods conducive to reformulation and work steadily before deeper destabilizing thought structures take hold.

An important insight of this area of research is that it is the weaving together of the contrasting experiences, and the transitions between emotions and rhythmic brokenness that are crucial to artistic achievement. Jamison (1) has suggested that the artist may be endowed serendipitously with mental and perceptual facilities. “The artist is closer to the fundamental pulse of life because his or her daily and yearly rhythms are more similar to those of the natural world…the brinks, borders, and edges of nature…twilight and dawn in the course of a day, the equinoctial edges of autumn and spring during the course of a year…may actually be experienced quite differently by those who are artistic or cyclothymic by temperament.” Many artists – van Gogh, for example – reveal a marked seasonal component to output. In my experience, most work better in spring and fall, periods when changes in light and season are upon us. There is a continuum of states and everyone, including artists has fluctuations. This is natural, but in the extreme cases, it is the in between, milder affective states in which great work results. The artist must learn to harness and transform the storms.

Manic depressive illness has received an explosion of attention in the biological sciences in the past few decades. Much has been learned. In responding to the world, information flows from the visual and auditory reception cortex to areas in the left temporal lobe for comprehension and then onto frontal areas for speech production (32). Encoding memory takes place in the left frontal region while retrieval of stored episodic memory takes place on the right (21). The limbic system does autobiographical and semantic work (19, 22). Manic depression causes right hemispheric (or non-dominant) impairment. This type of impairment is associated with problems in perception, spatial relations, integration of holistic figures and complex non verbal tasks, slowing in rate of central information processing, long term memory, semantic reasoning, memory retrieval and speed of cognition (1a).

Many specific impairments have been found. Some of the problems in the manic depressive brain include: dysfunction in the left temporal (42b) medial (42d) and prefrontal lobes (and subtracting this latter effect results in schizophrenia) (42a), however, activity does not decrease during depression (42c), unlike in simple depression; frontal cortex dopamine receptors have lowered activity (42e); the pineal gland is enlarged and calcified (42f); frontal and parietal white matter is riddled with lesions (42g); and, brain ventricals are larger (This is also true in schizophrenia but not in unipolar depression.) (42h).

Help for sufferers has come from a very small chemical: lithium, a simple metal found in the same column of the periodic table as sodium – as in salt – and potassium, a metal associated with nerves and muscles. Lithium, commonly taken as carbolith or lithane, dampens both the highs and the lows of the disease, leading to the suggestion that its effects do not lie in the primary nerve cells but on the cells to which their stimulation is passed. Lithium has a number of effects on second messenger systems. It has a direct dampening effect on signal transmission, mobilizes calcium, blocks an enzyme with the impressive sounding name of inositol monophosphatase (29) and may affect the energy system involved, the so-called ATPase pump (41). These effects in essence calm down the cells so they are not hyper-responsive to stimulation.

In the brain, electrical signals are transmitted among 50 billion neurons connected to one another in 20,000 billion places. An electrical current flashes down an axon to a junction, or synapse, with another cell. Minuscule calcium molecules pass down microchannels in the presynaptic side and help control the release of neurotransmitters as well as aid synaptic efficacy. Neurotransmitters migrate across the gap, stimulate the next nerve and electricity charges down the next cell (35a, b and c). Meanwhile back at the junction, the neurotransmitter is retrieved into storage compartments for the next stimulus. Uptake is inhibited by chemicals called dopamine and serotonin, their purpose being to keep the system from being active too long. In schizophrenia, for example, there are fewer prefrontal dopamine (D1) receptors (33) and thus the brain keeps on firing, leading to erroneous signals and emotional instability. Antidepressant drugs mimic the chemicals and thus “smooth out” the brain. As might be suspected, lithium uptake increases in the manic phase of the cycle (42i).

Lithium is not, however, a panacea. Of those taking the drug, 57% report increased or stable (20%) productivity, 23% report decreased productivity and 17% stop taking it due to adverse effects (40). The problem is that lithium has side effects. It can eliminate the high of mania, decrease sexuality, cause cognitive slowing, memory impairment and concentration problems. How difficult it must be for vital restive people who prize their achievements to live a flat, colourless existence. Lithium leads to indifference and passivity, even in normal people. Little wonder that when creativity plummets, even though the disease can lead to horrendous interpersonal problems, many artists refuse to take the pills. Unfortunately, left untreated, manic depression gets worse. Brain changes become irreversible, and all too frequently, the sufferer, after causing pain to himself and those around him, ends up in an asylum, and perhaps, as noted, the victim of suicide.

Despite the contraindications for any particular mood-altering medication, the situation is clear: what occurs in microchannels so small they can be seen only with the most powerful electron microscope, affects the artistic output of an entire individual’s career, a career that if fostered by medicine – lithium in this case – may last half a century or more. One can only speculate what Sylvia Plath may have achieved had she not had her fateful rendezvous with her gas oven. She of course committed suicide before lithium became available in the 1970s. Robert Lowell was more fortunate. “It’s terrible…,” he said, “to think that all I’ve suffered and all the suffering I’ve caused, might have arisen from the lack of a little salt [lithium] in my brain.” Virtually all of the writers and artists mentioned in this chapter had no choice but to suffer: the drugs and therapies hadn’t been invented. Stop for a moment and consider the human cost, the suffering this has caused. Consider the pharmaceutical world in which we reside, our ability to modulate mood to enhance creative energy and productivity for all mankind.

Let me end the first part of this chapter with a Pandora’s box. We live in a brave new world of science; the Human Genome project in California – $3 billion price tag – aims to map out all the genes in the human genome. Cloning experiments have gotten as high on the ladder as sheep. In the next few decades, for the first time in billions of years of evolution, man will be able to directly modify himself to suit his desires. This is the great ethical question of the third millennium: we will have the technology for effortless genetic manipulation. We will use it.

Consider the consequences. In many areas of the world today, human children are aborted simply on the grounds that they are little girls. What then for serious diseases like diabetes, spina bifida and manic depression? The latter has a broad range of expression, is easily treated and confers advantages on society for the huge amount of creative work that gets done. But who would not have a pregnancy terminated if told their child was manic depressive? In a world where such decisions were routine, every artist listed in this chapter would not exist. No Tolstoy. No Michelangelo. Think about the blunting and reducing of man’s potential. The ethical questions arising out of our technical wizardry need to be answered now – for all of us.

Art and Science: Opening a New Door on the Nature of Humanity

17,000 years ago an artist stood in a cave in southern France. In the wavering light of a grease lamp, he picked cinders from a shallow dish and put his fingers into his mouth. His teeth chewed and crushed the remnants – usually charcoal, sometimes ochre – into a slurry of saliva and black. Putting his hand against the rock, the artist spat a fine spray from his mouth. T-t-t repeated his tongue in the cool riverine morning, outlining his outstretched hand. This signature recorded the beginning of a hunting and tribal art that flourished among the cave-riddled riverbanks of early homo sapiens. The artist painted buffalo and woolly mammoth, reindeer and horses. Using only breath, the artist projected himself onto the cave and became the animal, transforming humanity into something else: myth, symbolism, metaphor – fundamental constituents of human thought.

This artistic awakening was not restricted to the finishing schools of Europe. Half the world away, in the arid limestone plains of Australia deep in the flint caves, art, the basic urge of mankind for expression, to tell stories, had begun to be recorded five thousand years earlier. One quarter of a mile from sunlight, deep in the earth down black passageways barely wide enough for a human body, our ancestors, fragile lamps their only protection against engulfing dark found caverns of soft chalky limestone. Everywhere on these walls as high as a human can reach, frond patterns much like those of weeds found along rivers half way across the world were scraped with fingernails. Thus the history of man’s art on earth is over 20,000 years old. To put this in perspective, Columbus discovered the New World five hundred years ago, and we have inhabited many of our large metropolitan cities for only two centuries.

I imagine the thoughts of these artists were much as they are today: representing the world, making it symbolic, recording the images of everyday life and our brief passage through it, telling of our origins. From the very beginning, art has been connected to religion, ritual, and myth: we desire protection against gods and evil, assurance of bountiful crops, an explanation of our presence in the universe. This connection has been carried forward over the millennia. In Plato’s time, for instance, human characteristics were thought to be derived from the gods, of which the eastern Mediterranean countries had dozens. When the Judeo-Christian religion began its rise of ascendency some 2,500 years ago, a single god was posited. From this God, and his son, flowed as in a kind of dictum or model, the attributes that good and moral humans ought to display. From this religion, as is common in many religions around the world, came moral order, laws, an explanation of the universe, the promise of life after death. Artists were employed to paint religious paintings, play the music of the church and to recite the tales of religious stories.

The relation of religion and art continued well into the Renaissance. Dante, for example, wrote the Divine Comedy in the early 1300s, perhaps the most well-structured explanation of heaven and hell that has ever been conceived. Michelangelo’s creation of Adam by a languishing god still excites the mind with the electric spark between the divine finger tips. At the time, the paradigm for understanding human personality and physiology was a categorization of the chief fluids of the body, the four humours: blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy.

Skipping ahead to the 1700s, the time of Voltaire was a time of change in society. Preceding this, had been a long feudal period that gave way to nation states, and the rule of law. We forget that the Magna Charta – just a stepping stone along the way – was signed only 700 years ago. King Henry the VIII’s establishment of the Anglican church began a slow process that saw Protestantism supplant the Roman Catholic church as the predominant religion over the centuries. Along came Voltaire to emphasize reason, rational thinking and champion the rights of the individual. It is probably no coincidence that the first novel, Amadis de Gaule was written in 1508 and that prior to the 1700s the prevailing literary tradition for the entire length of western history – something that would strike us as odd today – was poetry: Virgil, Homer, all those gory war and honour stories recited from memory around the fire. Then the printing press was invented. The education system began to change in France, dominated by the Jesuits. Our historical perspective has to include the fact that the American War of Independence and the French Revolution happened only two centuries ago. The growth of nation states led to the rule of law (as opposed to divine rule) and separation of church and state, with the eventual decline, in the west, of religion.

Then of course there is the rise of science. Science further hastened the pushing of religion from its central position in society, largely, I suspect because its theories gave the impression of being less clouded in myth. And, of course, science paved the way for an endless series of seductive technical advancements: electricity, internal combustion, refrigeration, laser beams. Fundamental changes in our conception of the universe were initiated by Copernicus and Galileo in their studies of heavenly bodies, and these, of course, were strongly but unsuccessfully resisted by religion. By the time Newton came along and wrote his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687 (which established such things as mass, gravitational attraction and basic celestial physics), our thinking had already made a number of leaps in basic cosmology away from accepted religious myths ordaining our central place in the universe. Darwin’s theory of evolution further weakened religious claims to divine creation. By the time we hit the twentieth century, Linus Pauling’s quantum mechanics had done much to change our concept of the stability of our world; both it and ourselves were composed of tiny bits and empty space. And, of course, that wasn’t the last paradigm in physics of the century in which we find ourselves. Einstein showed that time itself was dependent on gravity. Stephen Hawking has recently noted that in the search for the origins of the universe the question of what came before the big bang may itself prove nonsensical because time may well be an attribute of matter; as he put it, “It may be like asking what comes after the North Pole.”

Along with the decline of religion, a separation of art from religion began. Prior to this separation, artists comprised an artisan class of guildsmen. Along with this gradual separation came new theories about the workings of the mind. Freud created an entirely new approach to the understanding of human personality by his demonstration of the existence and force of the unconscious. He posited the id the ego and superego – not to mention libido! – as the internal determinants of mankind’s personality, and championed the relevance of dreams. His most celebrated work, The Interpretation of Dreams, appeared in 1900, and his work led to psychoanalysis as a therapy for trauma. Such commonly used words as regression, transference and complex owe their existence to the work of Freud.

A disciple of Freud, Jung established the archetype, collective unconscious and broadened Freud’s work, interpreting mental disturbances as an attempt to find personal and spiritual wholeness. (Interestingly enough, this quest is not unlike many non-western religions.) Between the two our current understanding of psychology as based on the internal workings of man’s brain versus divine origin has arisen. Sartre contributed the decidedly earthbound edict that moral order among men depends on individuals making difficult and conscious decisions to act in ‘good faith’. Many readers will recognize the flavour of this tenet in the psychotherapy phrase, ‘taking responsibility for one’s own emotions’.

I have just cavalierly squished together two millennia of thought in an arbitrary fashion and offer my apologies. The point is that man’s view of his world and himself has moved from exterior, God derived, to interior, mankind derived. Along the way, the sloughing of religion, of myth, of ritual, of art has done us much harm; it is a refusal to accept, largely by ignoring it, a large, important, necessary part of who we are. We also forget that contemporary art has existed much on its own only for the last couple of hundred years. Prior to this it was an integral part of society. In western society’s technical advancement, much has been achieved: we have gone to the moon, brought in health care, built municipal infrastructure, established the rule of law and so on. I am not the first person to note that art and religion has its roots in our spiritual side, that the west is perhaps hyper-rational, in its infancy, where, to use John Ralston Saul’s phrase, the ‘dictatorship of reason’ prevails. It is time to begin reclaiming our rich heritage: ourselves.

Recently, elegant techniques have been developed in the neurosciences that show great promise for helping us understand the internal workings of the mind. These techniques are: positron emission tomography (PET); nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI or MRI); electroencephalography (what we are all familiar with as EEG); and, magnetoencephalography (MEG) (32). These techniques measure the micro-usage of oxygen and sugar as well as the passage of electrical current in the brains of live conscious human beings. Therefore they can be used to determine very specific things about how we think. For example, if you were asked to form the image of an elephant, these techniques, usually PET and MRI, can actually pinpoint inside your head where the brain is working to draw up that image. These techniques can be used to study the most creative among us, a personality characteristic which artists, as we have seen, possess in abundance. In due course, perhaps we can come to appreciate the side we have repressed in the west’s rush to industrialization, to incorporate it more within our way of living. The celebration of the artist for the special role he or she plays in society may not be far behind.

Now, what is the connection between science and art? Two of mankind’s unique abilities are our ability to think in images and (as we are not telepathic) our ability to communicate our thoughts in a set of symbols – this, of course, is commonly called language. The mind works in symbols, makes associations among the components and types of memory, adds images and emotions and, to repeat the point, communicates these in a further set of representational symbols; the stories we tell are myths made from our interaction with the given and our internal ways of transforming it for public reception. To put it philosophically, because we cannot know all things at all times, our thoughts are limited and our stories are myths. As it turns out, our minds, are not even organized to accurately report what we have experienced. Images, memories and emotions are combined at the time they are thought and the stories we tell to one another about ourselves bear significance because of their emotional content and the embroidery with which they were embellished over the decades (19).

Images, myth, and symbols are the basic stuff of art. That is why I started this part of the chapter with a description of the artist 15,000 years ago. While our conception of how our minds work has changed over the eons, the internal basics – the images, the workings of memory, the colouring of thoughts with emotion – have not. Why is this so? It is because our brains, plastic and shapable as they are to evolutionary forces, work in much the same way as they have for tens of thousands of years.

Today we stand on the brink of a brave new world – truly a new paradigm – in our understanding of the human mind. Literally hundreds of thousands of PET scans have been performed in the past couple of decades. The picture they present is fascinating. And, as Canadians, we should take great pride in this work. Some of the best, cutting-edge research in the world is performed in Canada: in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Hamilton, Sudbury, Vancouver and other centres.(31)

The human brain – 3.5 pounds of lecithin, 50 billion cells with as many as 10,000 connections between each cell – is composed of three main parts: the cerebral cortex, the cerebellum and the basal ganglia. The cerebrum is an 1/8″ thick pancake of cells that sits on top of the old reptilian brain and is responsible for conscious thinking. It has evolved so quickly in the past 100,000 years it has outpaced the ability of our skulls to expand in order to accommodate its growing size. The cerebellum is the old brain, inherited from reptiles. It is responsible for movement and primary responses such as the fight or flight response to danger. The basal part of the brain mediates reflexes. This is a simplistic division as we shall see; PET scans and MRI techniques have revealed an organ of incredible complexity and specificity.

At present, little work has been done on the specific abilities of artists. One Internet database that I investigated listed 54,000 PET studies (45). Only two concerned artistic endeavour (36, 44). It is my belief that much can be learned by subjecting artists to PET analysis. Compared with those in other professions, artists consistently rate high in terms of creativity (4). Accordingly, singling out artists for study will result in a great increase of knowledge regarding the creative abilities of all human beings. It will have a secondary benefit as well: solid scientific proof about the artistic, religious, “humane” gifts that we in western society have increasingly ignored – at our peril – for the past five hundred years. The purpose is to address directly the issue of what it means to be human and then see whether we pass the test. If we have been denying an important part of who we are, that part hasn’t gone away, it is simply collectively repressed, and as a repression, leads to the need for pathological mechanisms that allowed us to refuse to accept ourselves as we are. And, of course, there is another obvious outcome: we are lesser humans than we could be.

Let me digress for a paragraph. I have a degree in biochemistry and zoology, yet the older I grow, the more I realize that logic and science and being philosophically correct are not really important. Nor are they ends worthy of personal pursuit. They are simply points of view. And the points of view that matter in this world are those with humanity, compassion and acceptance. Though I am not religious, I am sustained, as odd as it may sound, by the knowledge that it is irrelevant there be truth in our beliefs. For instance, one of the established determinants of living a long life (46), ie., more than 100 years, is a strong, enduring religious faith. This is a function of the way our brains work. We have the ability to believe in a creator and the myths with which we surround that story because our brains are structured to allow it. Whether there is a god or not, or whether a specific religion is true matters little; it is the sustaining value of our beliefs that helps foster a long and happy life. Some readers may know the story of Karl Jung, who had a deep and respectful friendship with a Hopi Indian chief. The tribe’s collective self-esteem rested on the belief that by getting up in the dark and praying each morning, it was their duty and good fortune to make the sun rise into the sky for the benefit of all mankind. Artists serve a similar function.

Returning to the scientifically measurable, artists have two sets of qualities that suggest fertile areas for research: unique personality traits and artistic skills. PET and MRI studies should be able to demonstrate the unusual abilities that this special group of humans possesses and thus shed light on some of humanity’s most fundamental abilities, as well as the personalities of individuals strong in the arts.

Regarding personality, it is my view that four or five traits should show up as distinct brain patterns. These are: the identity of the artist with his or her art, ie., I am my art, and, closely aligned with identity, the singleminded obsessiveness with which art is pursued; the ability to make free associations, that is the creativity to be flexible and to join dissimilar categories of thought effortlessly; the cycling of mood, particularly the mercurial aspects of the creative mind and also seasonal variations associated with changing light and day length in spring and fall; the interior focus of the artist, the brooding over memories and the tendency to depressive illnesses, and the hand in hand abuse, or self-medication with alcohol; and, unusually high levels of activity in the pleasures centres of the brain when presented with art of the genre within which the artist works, ie., art functions as a drug or addiction (hence the obsessive desire for performing it). For humankind, unlocking the door to these and other aspects of creativity may well help shape a new concept of what it means to be human.

Regarding artistic skills, artists will have heightened activity in parts of the brain associated with certain perceptual, memory, emotional and motor skills. Not surprisingly, this activity will correspond to the genre in which the artist works. Superimposed on this will be a general predisposition to left-hemispheric thinking. The left hemisphere is concerned with inferences and associative thinking, associations being a key part of creative processes, as is a heightened or expansive emotional sense. As already discussed, manic depression is centred in the right hemisphere with added impairments in the left.

It goes without saying that artists are highly sensitive, emotional people who make fine discriminations in the information brought to them by the senses. They couple this with information from explicit memories and the associated feelings these bring. This is the realm of the amygdala and special mention should be made of it. The amygdala is a key switching centre in the brain and is the structure that mediates the emotional content of memories. Among its many duties is processing explicit associated memories from the hippocampus. The amygdala has access to relatively primitive sensory information from early processing stations, for example, the flight or fight response. It also has access to more refined information from later processing stages. For this reason it can evaluate a current situation in light of previous experience. Therefore it can evaluate the significance of an event and the appropriate response and also drive the system to produce more accurate explicit memory for events it determines to be significant emotionally. It also helps to regulate the release of stress-related hormones (epinephrine, glucocorticoids) that underlie the memory-enhancing effects of emotional arousal (19). Perhaps in the artist the amygdala signals the release of stress-related hormones more easily and therefore he or she has more intense memories on which to call during the creation of art.

More specifically, artists with skills for a particular art form will show heightened brain activity in areas that bear responsibility for those functions. Dancers, for instance, whose art emphasizes precise bodily movement and spatial coordination, would be expected to display well-developed motor cortex, cerebellum and parietal areas. Writers depend heavily on memories of past events, and broad understanding of human character. Along with these building blocks, writers possess an unusually high ability to put these experiences into words. Poets depend on intense imagery, the joining of different categories of thought for producing original and startling metaphors, as well a fluid sense of personification, ie., giving human characteristics to animal or inanimate objects. The linguistic areas that writers utilize heavily centre in the left hemisphere. A small fingernail of cells in the frontal lobes is know as Broca’s area, and is devoted to language. Wernicke’s area in the left temporal lobe is concerned with the sound of words. It may surprise the reader to know that the brain is so precise in cordoning off small areas of the cortex for precise purposes, that nouns and verbs are recalled from different nuclei (25).

Other artists will show highly-developed brain activity in still other areas of the brain. A visual artist, for example, has a highly developed visual and colour sense and therefore can be expected to have highly developed occipital lobes, as well as lower parts of the temporal lobes. For spatial abilities, the visual artist draws on the right hemisphere. Actors more than other artists should show high activity in the amygdala. This is because they must dredge up from their own memories the range of emotions that have to be displayed to render full, round, believable characters. For scripts, actors must have almost photographic memories to instantaneously pick up words and coupled with the amygdala’s help, their emotional impact. Musicians require fine manual dexterity for technique and incandescent emotional abilities for musical interpretation. Scans of motor cortex and cerebellum areas would reveal high activity and fine discrimination. And, indeed, studies have already shown that musicians possess dexterity and a sense for perfect pitch and melody (44).

Structure and Function of the Human Brain:

Diagram of Human Brain

(To be drawn)

Labels must include:
Cortex: Left hemisphere – inferences, associations, encoding memory.Language and verbal abilities. Subject to distortion. Broca’s nuclei.
Right hemisphere – spatial,episodic and strategic memory retrieval. Nonverbal abilities. Less embellished veridical memories.
Frontal lobes – memory, conscious thought. Area of depression.
Parietal lobes – spatial
Medial lobes – consolidating memories, explicit memory
Temporal lobes – consolidating memories, visual memories, Wernicke’s area in left. Explicit memory. Inferior gyrus responds to shape of objects. Fusiform gyrus recognizes faces.
Occipital lobes – visual memories
Motor cortex. Auditory, visual, oral, areas.
Cerebellum: Cerebellum – motor performance and learning motor skills,
Hippocampus – active during novel events, associative retrieval, consolidation during sleep, explicit memory,
Mammillary bodies – switching information between hippocampus and medial temporal lobes. Assembles infor from all over the brain.
Fornix – hippocampal output pathway,
Entorhinal and adjacent cortices – funnel inputs of sights, sounds and smells to hippocampus, amygdyla and their targets.
Diencephalon – works with medial and temporal lobes, explicit memory
Thalamus – switchboard between frontal and posterior cortex, explicit memory.
Amygdyla – emotional memories,

Brain stem: Basal forebrain – supplies hippocampus with acetylcholine for memory functions.
Basal ganglia – reflexes, sequencing of physical movements.

Figure 1: Recent psychoneurobiological studies have revealed that the human brain, with its 100,000,000,000 cells, has a complexity of function and organization that far exceeds what has been previously thought.

Let me summarize briefly. Because of their heightened abilities for symbolism, metaphor, myth, spiritualism, visual imagery, creativity, and pleasure, their disposition to emotional peaks and valleys, mental illness and intense reaction to the borders and shades of grey in daily life and above all, the ability to transform these experiences into a public art, the study of artists – some of the more creative and unusual members among us – should tell us fundamenal things about being human. Artists ask bold, sometimes uncomfortable questions about humanity, reality, society, time, aging, and politics; we should study and celebrate them for doing so. I recommend the establishment of an art research chair in Toronto to initiate such research, particularly via positron emission tomography and magnetic resonance imaging. This marriage of science and art would help us all.

I and others (9) have made the suggestion that western society is too rational. This empiricism and logic has slowly taken the field over the past 500 years. At the same time, the west has suffered an erosion of left-brained thinking, something that we, marooned in the present, find difficult to understand – we lack fundamental aspects of humanity. Perhaps it is time to reclaim our lost side, the side of ritual, religion and spirit, the lost religious side. I am immediately reminded of Shiite men walking around their obelisk in the desert heat, hitting themselves with chains until blood streams down their faces; I think of the artist at the dawn of homo sapiens shivering on a riverbank in southern France, sticking fingers in his mouth; of incense swinging in shafts of light, the golden robes of the Roman Catholic church. The mind is not simply logical, we have suppressed a great deal of ourselves for long enough. Let us reclaim ourselves, what it means to be human. Let us heal.

Chapter 5: Temperament of the Artist Bibliography

1a. Jamison, K., Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, Free Press Paperbacks, New York, 1993.

1b. Ibid, p40.

2. Hershman and Loeb, Key To Genius.

3. Goodwin, The Thirsty Muse – Alcohol and the Writer.

4a. Ludwig, A., The Price of Greatness – Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy, The Guilford press, New York, 1995. Although Ludwig’s fascinating study is far ranging and systematic scientific research into the lives of the great, it has shortcomings. Among them, that the study is limited to the West, hence it does not include people such as Josef Stalin, Mahatma Gandhi, or Mao Tse Tung. Furthermore, the study is uncomfortably based on American sources; 54% of the sample were Americans, an astonishingly high percentage. Based on this, Canadians would be expected, on a population basis, to have been about 5% of the entire sample; they were .5%. In addition, the source for names was the New York Times book review column and the relative greatness of persons included in the study was confirmed by inches of biographical detail in American encyclopaedias. Accordingly, an American bias to the findings ought to be expected.

4b. Ibid, p128-129.

4c. Ibid. Ludvig determined that when the following elements occur together greatness is predicted with almost complete certainty: a special talent or gift (training is still required, but the person is usually highly motivated); the right kind of parents (usually upper middle class, who recognize the child’s talent, and a creative unstable mother); a contrariness (confrontational, trailblazer, antiauthoritarian); a loner; physical vulnerability (this creates strength, thoughts of imminent death spur activity); a personal seal (distinctive style, defines era); a drive for supremacy (a will to be the best, ultra-confidence in abilities, a grand vision); and, psychological unease (restlessness, impatience, drive). By keeping individuals on edge or in a state of psychological unease, mental disturbances (that are not incapacitating) serve as a source of creative tension. The tension is resolved during work. Those who are not troubled this way generate their own unease. What leads to great achievement is not the existence of unease, but the ability of these people to use it to their advantage, either as a spur to productivity or in the service of their art.

4d. Ibid. See Ludvig, p 130, for a description of Delmore Schwartz, a former editor of the Parisian Review and the most widely anthologized poet of his time. “In his 30s, he had his most serious and persistent episode of depression. He had trouble teaching classes, gradually became more disheveled and untidy, avoided people, felt gloomy and despondent, and became suspicious of everyone. (This cluster of behaviours was coded as depression.) But as inevitably happened after a depressive period, Schwartz’s mood began to rise until it evolved into a full-blown manic episode. During these times he was talkative, emotionally volatile, hyperactive, sleepless, grandiose, tactless, socially inappropriate, and sometimes frankly delusional. Once, for instance, the police arrived to find him standing naked in the middle of the room with a lamp in his hand. (This cluster of behaviors was coded as mania.) For years, he also had been consuming massive amounts of alcohol and had great difficulty controlling his drinking. (This, along with other evidence of excessive drinking, was coded as an alcohol-related problem.) He had become dependent on barbiturates and amphetamines as well. His Dexedrine intake, which increased when he was depressed or countering the effects of sleeping pills, got to the point where he was swallowing them like candy, taking as many as 20 pills a day. (This cluster of behaviors was coded as a drug-related problem.) This naturally aggravated his mania and worsened his violent rages and suspiciousness.”

4e. Ibid. See Figure 7.9, p 151.

4f. Ibid. Comparison of survival probability tables, p 291-294.

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