Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Biology of Inspiration - Guest Post

Reclaiming the Muse: Biological Processes Underlying the Muse Phenomenon

Oh for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention.
            ~William Shakespeare

A few weeks ago I attended the premiere of a film titled Margin Call. After the showing the audience was privy to a Q&A with writer and director, J.C. Chandor. Chandor commented that it took him several months of writing dialogue for the characters to become recognizable in his mind, several months in order for the characters to take shape and begin to have voices of their own. This took me back several years—twelve years, to be exact—to a Q&A with writer Charles Baxter who had recently published the novel Feast of Love (2000). Baxter shared an anecdote in which he began hearing the characters from his novel speak to him while driving on the freeway, leading him to pull over immediately and write down what they were saying.

The Muse phenomenon is an elusive strategy of invocation wherein writers feel that they are channeling a source outside of themselves, that they are acting as a privileged medium. One of the first to mention the Muse phenomenon is Plato, who relates in the Ion:

The Muse first of all inspires men herself; and from these inspired persons a chain of other persons is suspended, who take the inspiration. For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed. […] For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him: when he has not attained to this state, he is powerless and is unable to utter his oracles.

For Plato, the Muse phenomenon is a physical act of inspiration in which the poet is literally possessed by the Muse. It’s fascinating to me to mark the similarities and differences between this classical view of the Muse and more contemporary views of the Muse as we see in the examples of J.C. Chandor and Charles Baxter. For example, I’m sure that Chandor and Baxter do not think of an actual Muse goddess inhabiting their spirits, and I’m even more certain they have not built any altars to the Muse, yet their experiences are certainly characteristic of channeling voices that exist independent and autonomous to their own thoughts and minds.

I’ve been fascinated with the way writers invent, and for over a decade now and in the past few years I’ve taken this fascination more seriously by interviewing successful writers about their processes of invention. Most recently, this research led me into the fields of evolutionary biology, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience as I continue to act as reconnoiter of insights into the invention process of writers, all the while willfully and necessarily crossing artificial yet artfully crafted and well-guarded disciplinary boundaries. In this essay I want to look more closely at the Muse phenomenon to unpack and understand its contours more completely by viewing some of the biological processes at work—in particular, how two coordinated biological processes, plasticity and automaticity, account for the Muse phenomenon as related by writers and other artists. My aim is to enrich our understanding of this phenomenon which has been an invention strategy of writers since the invention of writing.

Plasticity references the brain’s epigenetic ability to alter its own architecture in response to the cognitive demands and choices made in response to one’s environment—in other words, our brains are continuously changing and adapting throughout our lifetimes in response to experiences so that, for example, your brain’s architecture will be slightly altered as a result of reading this essay. Plasticity is evidence that the brain has created new connections—specifically, an increased number of connections among axons and dendrites—in order to operate at a higher rung on the cognitive ladder.

A neuroscientific study that illustrates plasticity most effectively is a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI ) study of London taxi drivers (Maguire, et al.). This study, conducted on 16 London taxi drivers with experience ranging from 1.5 to 42 years, demonstrated that a part of the hippocampus responsible for spatial awareness was larger in those taxi drivers with more experience. In sum, those drivers with the greatest experience navigating the London roadways actually grew larger brains in the location related to the spatial awareness. Another study illustrating such plasticity of the brain was conducted on dancers. This electroencephalography (EEG) study showed that professional dancers had greater alpha synchronization than those of novice dancers, indicating that their brains actually patterned thought differently as a direct result of dancing experience (Fink, et al.). Similar studies have been conducted on stringed musicians (Kandel, 217) and jazz musicians (Limb).

The second concept I want to relate—automaticity—is a type of procedural knowledge that we use in order to gain mastery over a skill and push ourselves beyond what we are already capable. A good example of this is playing the piano or typing wherein key location has been internalized, has become automatic, to the extent that one no longer needs to search for the keys in order to play a melody or type out a paragraph. In my interview with notable scholar Mike Rose he spoke to this process of automaticity:

If you think about any learned skill, whether it’s being a     defensive tackle on a football team or a dancer or a race car driver or a surgeon or a skilled plumber, at the beginning stages all of this stuff is so very conscious and filled with concentration and trying to master these various moves and as you become more and more expert it becomes more and more routine and more and more just a part of the way you function so that your cognitive space, if you will, is freed up to do other things.

In my estimation, automaticity is evidence of plasticity. As a learned skill becomes automatic, such automaticity is evidence that the architecture of the brain has transformed to aid the completion of the chosen skill.

What do plasticity and automaticity have to do with the Muse phenomenon? I believe plasticity and automaticity are primary biological processes at work behind the Muse phenomenon and help to explain why writers, and various other artists, feel as though they are channeling something external to themselves. With practice and experience the architecture of the brain adapts to function at a higher level of cognition, internalizing procedural structures so that we may reach higher ground. Writers working with character development, as the opening examples of J.C. Chandor and Charles Baxter illustrate, develop mental representations of these characters to the extent that their brains have actually reached a point where these mental representations can begin to feel as though they have taken on a life of their own. In fact, I would argue that their brains—via the biological processes of plasticity and automaticity—have created independent, autonomous characters in the form of representations that are complete enough to operate and exist within their own framework of drives and desires. An illustration of this would be the way archetypes function within the larger culture. Archetypes are characters who have been developed to such an extent in a given culture that they are easily represented as having their own drives and desires. If I ask you to tell me what the wicked stepmother, prodigal son, or vampire might do in a given situation you would have a pretty good idea as to how to respond.

I believe it is to our great advantage to take the Muse phenomenon from its outdated, alchemical moorings and reinvigorate its heuristic usefulness for contemporary writers and artists. The way to do this is to further our understanding of the Muse phenomenon via an interdisciplinary approach marshalling knowledge and evidence from both the humanities and sciences. Plasticity and automaticity are two examples of biological processes among many potentials that cut across these disciplinary boundaries to help explain and explore the Muse phenomenon.

- Jason Wirtz

Works Cited
Fink, Andreas, Barbara Graif, Aljoscha C. Neubauer. “Brain Correlates Underlying Creative Thinking: EEG Alpha Activity in Professional Vs. Novice Dancers.” Neuroimage, 46, pgs. 854-862. 2009. Print.
Kandel, Eric R. In Search of Memory, The Emergence of a New Scientific Mind. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company. 2006. Print.
Limb, Charles J. and Allen R. Braun. “Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation.” PLos ONE 3(2): e1679. 2008. Print.  
Maguire, Eleanor A., Davig G. Gadian, Ingrid S. Johnsrude, Catriona D. Good, John Ashburner, Richard S. J. Frackowiak, and Christopher D. Frith. “Navigation-Related Structural Change in the Hippocampi of Taxi Drivers.” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, Vol. 97, No. 8. 2000. Print.
Rose, Mike. Personal interview. 14 February 2010.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Do you EvoS?

Submissions to the EvoS Journal
Call for Papers

EvoS Journal: The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium is preparing a special issue on teaching evolutionary theory in the higher education classroom. We especially welcome pedagogical pieces from disciplines not traditionally associated with evolution, such as the humanities, social sciences, and the arts. The online medium of this peer-reviewed journal allows us to post graphics, audio, and video files along with traditional text articles. We are seeking submissions in one of the following formats (particularly curriculum articles):

Curriculum Articles, that include teaching materials for implementing innovative teaching ideas related to evolutionary studies in your own classroom.
Research Reports, that report original research from the classroom, using experimental or non-experimental methods.
Theoretical/Review Contributions, that provide insights into issues tied to evolutionary studies in higher education.

Please submit ideas for articles to Rosemarie Sokol Chang (evostudies@gmail.com). This issue is scheduled for a 2012 publication date, therefore submissions must be received by May 31, 2012 for consideration.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Darwin & Davenport - Guest Post

Guy Davenport on Darwin, Agassiz, Faith and Metamorphosis.

For the late Guy Davenport—author, essayist, one of the translator-editors of The Sayings of Jesus/The Logia of Yeshua[1]Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution “was born in some sense prematurely.” By this he means that geology had not yet “given Darwin the time needed,”[2] nor had Mendel’s work yet been rediscovered. This was only one of a number of comments he made about Darwin’s work, some of which may be of interest to readers here.

In one of Davenport’s early stories “The Dawn in Erewhon” a young Dutch philosopher, Adriaan van Hovendaal, comments that “Man has a history rather than a nature. . . . He has to be taught. Otherwise his nature is the same as an animal’s.”[3]  This is one of the reasons Davenport doesn’t embrace received Darwinism; it has nothing to say to what is most important, most human, about man, that which sets him above simpler animals.

Writing of the immediate post-World War I years, when artists began embracing the archaic, Davenports points out that,

We had a new vision that death and life were a complementary pattern. Darwin and Wallace had demonstrated this, but in ways that were more disturbing than enlightening, and Darwin’s vision seemed destitute of a moral life.[4]

Elsewhere, Davenport contrasted Darwin to the 19th century Swiss-American naturalist Louis Agassiz, a contemporary of Darwin and Thoreau—he and Thoreau discussed the mating habits of turtles at Emerson’s dinner table. But when Agassiz read The Origin of Species not long after it appeared he didn’t agree with Darwin’s theories. In his essay “Louis Agassiz,” Davenport writes,

Hindsight instructs us to wonder why Agassiz could not see the truth of Evolution. But hindsight also reminds us that Agassiz consistently located intelligence in or behind nature . . . rather than live with the miserable confusions of nineteenth-century mechanism. Darwin’s superimposition of Progress upon the process of Evolution taxes pure empiricism more than Agassiz’s finding an intelligent plan or even a divinity in nature. If Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection has the merit of doing away with a single act of creation, it nevertheless leads to the embarrassment of introducing both purpose in nature and cognition in the evolutionist as dei ex machina.[5]
Agassiz felt that Creation had come about by way of the Divine Intellect, which didn’t mean that he denied change, but that he sought to find “premeditation prior to the act of creation. . . .” “The more we look into his work,” Davenport writes, “the more we realize that, in a sense, he did see the truth of Evolution.”

[Agassiz] had Darwin’s facts before him and saw with different eyes the pattern they made. . . . . For Agassiz, evolution meant the growth of the embryo in the egg. . . . This was the classic sense of the word until the Darwinians applied it to the entire organic world. Where [Darwinian] science now sees a linear development in time, Agassiz saw a lateral spread of design, somehow modified over long undulations of the eons.[6]
That is, Agassiz’s interest in form lay along a different axis. So, in the end, for Davenport, Agassiz is only “a poet,” with a mind of intense brightness, while Darwin is the distiller of an epoch-altering theory.

Does all of the above indicate that Davenport preferred Agassiz to Darwin? No, because Agassiz looked for a detached Divine Intelligence, was unwilling to let Nature be responsible for itself. Davenport for his part looked for the actions of Nature’s own intelligence. In this, Darwin was much closer to Davenport, both of them interested in form, neither conventionally religious. Davenport acknowledges his respect for Darwin’s achievement by naming him, with Ovid and Picasso, one of his “Three Students of Metamorphosis.” Agassiz and Darwin are, in Davenport’s mind, descendents of Ovid, “and fairly soon we may find both [Agassiz and Darwin] on the shelf with Ovid, splendors of imagination,”[7] but Davenport doesn’t place Agassiz among the exceptional three, the most deserving students.

Ovid studied men turning into animals; Darwin animals into men. Between these two brilliantly imaginative perceptions the subject of metamorphosis stands as one of the most lyric of natural facts.[8]

Darwin, Davenport observed approvingly, placed the forms of nature “in a time-order, and invited scientists to find the serpent halfway in metamorphosis toward being a pterodactyl, the pterodactyl becoming bird. . . . The Origin of Species was a misnomer. Darwin’s Metamorphosis would have been better. . . .”[9]

- W. C. Bamberger

[1] The Sayings of Jesus/The Logia of Yeshua, Guy Davenport and Benjamin Urrutia (Washington, D. C.: Counterpoint, 1996).
[2] Guy Davenport. The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature & Art (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1996), 168.
[3]  ____. In Tatlin! (N.Y.: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974), 149.
[4]  ____. The Geography of the Imagination (San Francisco: North Point, 1981), 27.
[5]  Ibid., 241-243.
[6]  Ibid., 243.
[7]  Ibid., 246.
[8]  Ibid., 245.
[9]  Ibid., 245-246.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Arts & Sciences

The University of Missouri-St. Louis will host the Consilience Conference:
  • Evolution in Biology
  • The Human Sciences
  • The Humanities
Keynote Speaker, E.O. Wilson

April 26-28, 2012. Conference Materials HERE

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Latest ASEBL

January 2012 ASEBL Journal available at the St. Francis College website, here. Read in PDF or ISSUU format.


This Issue Features Articles on Women

in England and India

▬ ▬
† Rachel Tudor on “The Ethics and Ethos of Eighteenth-Century British Literature,” page 2.

† Jemma Hinkly on “Early Feminism in Eighteenth Century British Literature,” page 8.

† Archana Parashar on “A Harmonious blend of Tradition and Modernity in Rama Mehta’s Inside the Haveli,” page 13.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

More on God & Science - Guest Post

According to The New York Times article introducing Alvin Plantinga’s new book [Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism], Plantinga states that belief in God is a basic belief that does not need to be proven, just as the existence of God cannot be disproven.  He points out that many naturalists marshal science to support their stance as atheists, but it is the atheists who have misinterpreted Darwin in assuming that his theory of evolution by natural selection excludes the existence of intelligent design.

Plantinga’s opponents emphasize that natural selection is a random, unguided process.  However, this random process, whether guided or not, has a purpose: the evolution of the individual species.  Natural selection is a purpose-driven system, which begs the question: is there a reason behind the purpose?  The article quotes Plantinga as saying “I think there is such a thing as ‘sensus divinitatis’ and in some people it doesn’t work properly.”  This innate sense of the divine—is it real or is it a vestige of the earlier evolutionary needs of our ancestors, a need which has outlived its purpose?  One only has to look at the suggestions of ritualism found at Neanderthal burial sites dating some 60,000 to 80,000 years ago to see that the sense of the divine has been at work in our hominid history since earliest times.  As rational beings, we have a need to make sense of the world, to give it order.  This consciousness of the divine, and the spiritual and religious traditions that spring from it, provides us with a means of doing so, and also gives us a code of ethics and morality by which to live in society (although, interestingly, the definitions of “right” and “wrong” differ from culture to culture.)  Similar to the ways in which our bodies have evolved and adapted to changing environmental conditions, is the sense of the divine something which has evolved within us as a necessary survival mechanism to help us cope in a complex social world?   If not, if instead this sense is an evolutionary vestige, like the human appendix and coccyx, why then does the need for belief in the spiritual world remain so strong in cultures across the globe, surviving with such tenacity that wars are fought over these beliefs?  Is it simply a matter of cultural inheritance, the passage of traditions down through generations dating back to our early hominid ancestors, or is it indeed an inherent part of our nature, planted into us while we’re still in the womb?

And what about Darwin himself?  After years of studying the natural world, was the man who consolidated the theory of evolution an atheist?  In an 1879 correspondence, Darwin writes, “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist. . . .  I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.— I think that generally . . . an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.”  (Letter to John Fordyce, May 7, 1879.  Source: Darwin Correspondence Project Cambridge University, UK)

So it would seem that Darwin would side more with the views of Plantinga than with Plantinga’s opponents.  Regardless, his theories continue to generate discussion about questions that may never be answered, but which provide a forum for another human trait—the penchant for theoretical debate.

- Lisa Sita