Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Mental Repose, Evolving Creativity and the Literary Dynamism of Group Exchange

We write: laboring with furrowed brow over the formulations of phrase, the long tangled weave of plot and the requisite tightening of narrative resolution; it is a work in which all physical and cerebral effort are directed to task - the muscular discomfort of hunched keyboard-time, breath held and released as the plot waxes and wanes or as characters cooperate or otherwise, the spiraling pressure that begins behind the eyes, the weariness of time spent with minimal word expenditure of dubious satisfaction; the cascading neural network sparks, lights and fades as synaptic connections are crossed and the electrochemical stimulus patterns and reiterates thought and intent. It is a hard-focused endeavor, and as of late I have been pondering the necessity of the literary respite.

Restful repose of the mental kind is not only critical for the phrase-crafter, but has (according to University of California physical anthropologist Katerina Semendeferi) played a significant role in the prehistoric evolution of the innovative mind. In a recent article of Scientific American she delineates clear correlations between increased brain size and complexity (particularly in the prefrontal cortex which appears to orchestrate thought and action to accomplish goals)  and spurred levels of creativity. Scanned studies of ancient hominid braincases and the examination of our nearest living evolutionary relatives (chimpanzees and bonobos) depict a selective disposition, generally speaking, for larger brain size - with our australopithecine kin (Australopithecus afarensis dating to approximately 3 million years ago) possessing a cranial capacity of approximately 450 cubic centimeters to Homo sapiens' 1330 cubic centimeters. This relatively spacious expanse of convoluted gray matter comprised wider inter-neural gaps that enabled a proliferation of axons and dendrites - in other words a more complicated connective framework.

However, it is contemporary psychological studies that cast intriguing insight into the manner in which bigger, more complicated brains spur creativity. Cognitive scientist Liane Gabora of the University of British Columbia has conducted studies of creative individuals to find that they are exemplary daydreamers; when confronting an issue they initally allow their minds to wander, facilitating a languid free-association in which one thought or memory spontaneously conjures up another. This process encourages analogies and gives rise to thoughts that approach the subject from disparate perspectives; until upon settling on a vague idea of resolution (perhaps plot development for the modern writer and the most efficient mechanism of stripping meat from the bone for Australopithecus afarensis) they then switch to a more analytic mode of thought, focusing particularly on the most relevant properties.

Neither Australopithecus afarensis, nor the literary-inclined Homo sapiens could afford to linger in the free-associative state in which one nebulous thought triggered the meandering arrival of another (our chopper-wielding ancestor susceptible to attack and starvation, the latter similarly vulnerable to the ceaselessly blank page on which nothing was ever inscribed). Productivity is dependent upon our default neural state: the analytic mode. A critical feature of the innovative brain was the ability to rapidly switch from one mode to the other by subtle alterations of dopamine concentration and other neurotransmitters. Enjoying a remarkable surfeit of neurons is not enough: mental repose and the free-association that accompanies it are critical for breaking free of the cognitive rut.

Another fascinating feature of the creative human brain consists of the cultural ratcheting process in which creative insights and technological innovations arising from the insights of previous generations are passed on; a cumulative acquisition of understood things. For the writer: literary concepts are built upon, refined, and re-examined; indubitably we learn and hone our craft from the narrative examples of what went before. Chaucer inspired Shakespeare, who in turn continued to influence the writings of numerous others subsequently. There are, of course, a countless array of literary greats in the narrative pantheon, all of whom combine innovative threads of their own in subtle company with those of their forebears. Harold Bloom coined the phrase "anxiety of influence" to describe the effect on modern writers of our literary precursors (the canonical giants I am assuming); whether we admire, deride or are intimidated by them we indubitably read them. Fragments, turns of phrase, luminescent depictions of character, particular world perspectives and methods of transcribing it, infiltrate our own writing mind and however unconsciously influence the turn of our own pen.

The nourishment of our creative brain, however, does not depend solely on cultural ratcheting and the cumulative accomplishments of our predecessors - it is also a matter of social interaction (yes, we must intermittently emerge from our literary cave blinking in the unaccustomed glare of the social spotlight). To elaborate upon this theme for a writer predisposed to solitary scribblings, I turn to behavioral primatologist Lewis Dean's experimental puzzle box that comprised three sequential and incrementally difficult levels. This puzzle was presented to a group of capucin monkeys, chimpanzees, and nursery school children. Of the nonhuman primates one of 55 reached level 3 after 30 experimental hours, whereas 15 of the 35 children had completed the hardest level after two and a half hours. The vital distinction between the two groups consisted in the collaborative nature of the human endeavor; the children, in the process of tackling the challenge, talked amongst themselves, offered mutual encouragement, and shared successful techniques.

Archaeological evidence of innovation is similarly demonstrable within larger groups, or clustered settlements that engaged in frequent interaction. In fact scientists now believe that this final cognitive push for cultural ratcheting was born of demographics - the larger the hunter and gathering band the greater the likelihood that one member will generate an idea that could advance a technology. When population density reaches a certain point we see a correlating spike in evidence of creativity: the emergence of complex technological recipes for lightweight stone blades for projectile weapons; cooking silcrete to a specific temperature to improve its flaking qualities; glues comprised of plant gum utilized to adhere point to shaft, and woven bedding manufactured from leaves of the Crypotocarya woodii tree renowned for its natural insecticides effective against disease-borne mosquitoes. Innovations borne of one or few and rapidly disseminated to an appreciative collective.

In a modern age of jostling, teeming, bustling proximity, where writers seek a self-imposed solitude to work on their pain-staking craft it is an intriguing exercise to ponder on the elements that have been prehistorically integral to innovation promotion. Ironically the very attributes which have been definitively associated with writers (that is writing itself coupled with isolation) can also be better honored in the breach than the observance insofar as the innovative brain is concerned: not writing, relaxing the frenetic burst of neural storms, indulging in a languid array of thought-streams, a leisurely succession of languishing musings that enable free-associative idea-connections. And intermittently eschewing literary aloofness for social exchanges that actively spur human creativity; albeit prudently and selectively chosen networks that support, nourish and stimulate the intellectual self. And of course reiterating the critical imperative to read widely and voraciously, to examine and dwell long upon the masters that comprise our literary heritage - for thence will the process of cultural ratcheting benefit our own particular works - as ours may be of interest to those to come. These are things we know: rest, converse, and read - but their palpable benefit to creatives (writers and otherwise) has, with this recent delving into the prehistoric stirrings of innovative accomplishment, acquired a new and most palpable imperative - a strategy acquired and honed over millions of years, and one which may prove useful indeed to us over the course of our brief and flickering lifetime.


  1. My dear, dear PJ,

    It is with great delight that I write this response to your humble musing this episode. The "Australopithecus afarensis" with his "Crypotocarya woodii" is the equivalent of our modern day PJ behind the trusted keyboard, although the latter has been blessed with a generous amount more of grey matter, showing us that language is reason and vice versa in both the creative and analytical processes.

    Perhaps it is not only self-imposed solitude that lends itself to your chosen craft, but the need to be centered and reflective as most analytical minds do: "mental repose and the free-association that accompanies it are critical for breaking free of the cognitive rut."

    It is an immense privilege to be counted as a member of the Literary Endeavor, one who interacts within your social group and shares the opportunity to respond to these highly stimulating and incredibly creative musings, PJ.

    1. Thank you indeed dearest Shari, for your visit and your most generous commentary - it is with the greatest delight that I discover that these musing thoughts are also of interest to you. Thank you for your staunch support of my writing craft - I am forever obliged to you!

  2. I never fail to be spurred on by these writings, and other prompts like it. Great job PJ. I enjoyed browsing this piece, and it gave me a great idea for a love story; believe it or not. It will be epoch as well as ancient, if you all could handle it. It will come across amusing to the reader, but I highly doubt the characters will find their lives so laughable.

    Note I am leaving you all a bit of brain game for your amusement and relaxation. Try a few of these one liners yourself. I found them a lot of fun , and they gave my brain that rest it needed from my other more strenuous task in writing. See practice below. ALL IN FUN, give your brain a break; it's better than Crosswords.

    Sometimes we think we have it bad, but there is always someone going through a worse time than we are. It’s easy to think woe is me, when something smacks us between the eyes. We never saw it coming. But for as bad as it might be, there is usually someone who is going through a more difficult time than we are. So before you throw in the towel, thinking it could never get any worse, remember these stories, that did get worse.

    WHAT COULD BE WORSE than an Icy Glare..........a Fatal Stare!

    WHAT COULD BE WORSE than a Thumbs Down......................a Nose Rubbed In It!

    WHAT COULD BE WORSE than a Last Goodbye.......................if No one Ever Said Hello

    WHAT COULD BE WORSE than a Clerk That Can’t Add........a Witch That Can’t Spell!

    WHAT COULD BE WORSE than a Candle That’s Put Out........a Life That’s Been Snuffed Out!

    WHAT COULD BE WORSE than a Fish Floating Belly Up........Noticing a Large Hole In Our Boat?

    WHAT COULD BE WORSE than a Season Without Change.....a Duck Without A Bill!

    WHAT COULD BE WORSE than a Morgue Full Of Bodies.......a Body Found With No Head!

    WHAT COULD BE WORSE than a Toilet With No Seat............a Faulty Parachute And We Are Falling 500 Feet!

    Mindless, I know, but fun nonetheless!
    Cheers, Don (Must be on the wacky weed today! :-}

    1. Thank you dear Don for your wonderful comment and entertaining 'What could be worse' selection - thoroughly enjoyed indeed!

  3. Exquisitely worded as always PJ - and fascinating insight into the evolving creative brain - thoroughly enjoyed, thank you!

  4. Thank you dear Sarah for your kind visit and much appreciated comment!