Saturday, 29 May 2010

697 - Creative Minds And Information Flow

[Original picture cc licensed flickr photo by Franz Patzig:]

Lots of interesting ideas in this news article from the BBC, especially if you lift the focus from the 'artists are a bit bonkers' tenor of the headline ("Creative Minds 'Mimic Schizophrenia'").

First, the established ideas that higher creativity carries a higher risk of mental illness, especially psychosis, and that a family history of mental illness correlates with an increased likelihood of greater creativity. This is nicely summarised, relating it to the Big 5 personality theory, in Geoffrey Miller's book Spent, as a probable result of high values in one's Openness trait. Daniel Nettles also links this trait to an openness to unusual experiences and consequent beliefs.

Second, the possibility that creativity is related to the brain's ability to manage information flow. Research by Associate Professor Frederic Ullen suggests the fewer dopamine receptors there are in the brain's thalamus region, the more information is allowed unfiltered into the brain. In the words of the article, "He believes it is this barrage of uncensored information that ignites the creative spark. This would explain how highly creative people manage to see unusual connections in problem-solving situations that other people miss."

I like the idea that creativity might be related directly to information management, as it makes sense of my professional interest in Librarianship, and my family's, perhaps, in editing and publishing books. As gatekeeper professions, these can suffer from appearing deeply unsexy. Instead, it might be that the very tools you need to manage information flow, are those that can allow you to create the greatest art.

Third, the disconcerting, fractured perspective associated with the rush of information. Again, from the article, here's UK Psychologist Mark Millard:
"Creativity is uncomfortable. It is their dissatisfaction with the present that drives [creative people] on to make changes. Creative people, like those with psychotic illnesses, tend to see the world differently to most. It's like looking at a shattered mirror. They see the world in a fractured way. There is no sense of conventional limitations and you can see this in their work. Take Salvador Dali, for example. He certainly saw the world differently and behaved in a way that some people perceived as very odd."
I've tended to see the discomfort I feel much of the day as a result of a higher than average neurotic personality. On bad days, when I'm off kilter, the dualistic thinking of religious fundamentalism becomes appealing. It's an easy escape from the onslaught, like diving into a bus shelter in a storm, which may keep you dry but gets you no closer to your destination. The flipside of such thinking is a tendency to muddle the discomfort of a walk in the rain with the guilt associated with the rejection of fundamentalist certainties: sinning, as such thinking would have it.

So this research offers an alternative and empowering explanation for an experience I've always thought of as debilitating. Instead it's like the experience I had recently of fighting against a jet of water in a spa pool, which I could tolerate for a while, then had to escape, but returned to again and again, because it was fun. If I can reframe church as a place of harbour, a backwater, then I can think of my moves in, and out of it, back into the maelstrom, as a series of deliberate acts, none of which have primarily a moral dimension. Instead they become the equivalent of eating to fill an empty stomach, or ceasing when replete.

Fourth and finally, the definition of creativity as the 'suspension of disbelief'. Once again, the neural make-up that makes it easier to entertain the counter-intuitive accounts of the various religions - that a man might rise from the dead, that the majority-view of modern science might be wrong, or (always more likely) merely a partial account of reality - is given a sound physiological basis, and one which, painted as a sign of mental weakness too often, is at least as likely to lead to creative benefits to oneself and one's society.

The key, in this interpretation, to avoiding overly sticky fundamenatlist thinking, is to learn to manage one's movement in and out of information flows, and to identify and learn to use tools for getting as much as one can out of information-quiet and information-heavy states.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

699 - Muggles

Back from Brussels via Kings Cross. We race for the train and settle into our seats. Then we notice the large red steam train next to us through the window. "Hogwarts Express", puffing steam, with spatters of soot on its funnel, right alongside.

There is a buzz up and down the carriage, and camera flashes. An air hostess opposite leans over to take a picture for her daughter. A brisk woman wearing the tag 'Locations Manager' and followed by a policeman steps along the aisle, telling people to please put the cameras away and chat normally (rather than gawp out the window).

Our train pulls out and we see, as we leave the steam train behind, the camera crews and detritus of the filmshoot on platform 4. There's an actorish guy reclining in a director's chair (logic'd suggest a director, but he seemed rather too compact, the way actors can go when they are off-camera but still in the zone).

The word is they've been filming the absolute final scene in the Harry Potter series. E wonders if her orange hat will have been in shot. Further up the train, somone announces they've seen Daniel Radcliffe with an owl.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

700 - Haiku! (Bless you.)

This night I last the
Longitudes round, zero to
Zero, northern lit.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

702 - Hypnosis

Nice definition by Bryan Appleyard in Aliens: Why They Are Here:
Hypnotism is a technique that triggers a mass storytelling project in which all the stories are linked.
This, I am pretty sure, is what must be harnessed if storying (deliberately shaping your life/lives to stories of your choice) is to become a shared artform.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

703 - Exegesis

Philip K Dick, the science fiction writer, underwent an experience of mental intrusion and enlightenment, in an altered state of consciousness induced while taking painkillers, which he proceeded to interrogate over the last eight years of his life. The result, a million pages of journal writing which he titled 'Exegesis', will be edited and published in two volumes next year.

According to Bryan Appleyard, in a subtle book, Aliens: Why They Are Here, Dick came to believe the Roman Empire had never fallen, and found its current expression in rampant materialist capitalism. He also believed that a Vast Active Living Intelligence System (VALIS) orbits the Earth, using symbols such as the Christian fish sign to disinhibit people to whom it wishes to communicate. Appleyard writes:
Dick glimpsed the centrality of the alien in the postwar world. He was himself a stranger in a strange land, a troubled drifter. In his madness he lived in the third realm of aliens and angels. The world was alien to him and he was alien to it. He understood the eternal truth that we don't fit and he saw how modernity had heightened and dramatized our discomfort.
'The fish sign causes you to remember,' he wrote in his exegesis, 'Remember what?... Your celestial origins; this has to do with the DNA because the memory is located in the DNA... You remember your real nature... The Gnostic Gnosis: You are here in this world in a thrown condition, but are not of this world.'
I can identify with Dick the drifter, not least because I can see my own in his experiences in altered states of consciousness. I particularly like Appleyard's suggestion that making sense of his experiences required him to move into a third realm where the supernatural, or extraterrestrial at least, was commonplace. My own experiences precipitated a similar search for explanation, which I tried to find in Evangelical Christianity, and I'm very sure I wasn't the only one there to make such a journey.

I'm less happy with the suggestion that alienation is an eternal truth, in the sense that having realised we are here in a thrown condition, we can do no more about it than pick up the pieces and start walking. My subsequent journey has been about the discovery that if we are all aliens, then we are aliens nurtured by the world we have been born into - that has evolved us to be who we are. We are social aliens with four billion years worth of fine-tuned mutual space-suit around us.

I'd like to suggest that alienation is only half the picture: familial warmth provides the rest. The Gnostic sense of thrownness is there, but so is rootedness: my learning path, hereon in, is about using each to critique and expand my appreciation of the other.

I think this expands Appleyard's third realm to the breadth of the cosmos. That is to say, there is no third realm worth speaking of, the first (physical) and the second (mental) having always fallen away by the time we pause to analyse them. Or to put it another way, we are all of us born into the third realm, where the unknown stands side by side with the known, and as we grow we turn first to the physical and then to the mental (maybe vice versa) to make sense of it all.

I guess we all have to journey the full length of our journey. Quick fixes and permanent stop-offs in realms along the way are not an option. Dick's Exegesis, which I would like to read, will prove no more (or less) than a map of his particular path through life.

Monday, 10 May 2010

704 - 6-1!

First goal at Wembley after 21 seconds, fastest yet. Second year running Whitley lifts the FA Vase.

These boys deserve the freedom of North Tyneside twice (six times?) over, and if the honour doesn't exist yet, it should be created for them...

705 - Can Do

On the seat opposite me, a can of energy drink, empty. Could get stressed, but the branding grabs me. I've been thinking about the nature of humanity, and in cheap coke fashion, this captures the point.

First the name, which seems a bit overblown for a Red Bull substitute. I mean, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was sweat from the brow of Jason Statham. Carbonated. But we are a bit relentless, really. All drives: sex, hunger, status, vigour, nurture. Strangest of all, perhaps, a drive to create.

Creation is what the font says to me. It's a bit gothic, a bit spiky, somewhere between vampire and cyber punk. And it's a bit 'the force that through the green shoot drives the flower' (Dylan Thomas). Like our daily work is somehow driving a lifeforce through the aluminium can itself, causing it to curl out in fish-hook shoots and fractal serifs, a thousand memes lodging in our brains and into those we are hoping to pull.

Finally, completing the design, the logo is stamped against (into?) the anatomical drawing of a head. It's deeply corporeal, quite unsexy, unless you're catching what the drawing is hinting at: that this drink, this relentlessness, goes beyond the surface. It's non-dualistic in the same way that vampires are non-dualistic, because there's a spiritual edge to the relentless cadaverousness: the promise is that this drink, feeding your head-flesh, will directly inspire your thoughts. That's very, very now, psychologically. The curl of the aluminium, the tang of performance-boosting chemicals, joins with your body cybernetically, affording a glimpse of your transhuman future.

Which is what I've been reflecting on: the way that imagination, a tool, is also a sense, like sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell, proprioception. Our vision, for instance, gives us the impression of three dimensions, but as Steven Pinker indicated in How The Mind Works, it's a bit of trickery: all we see are surfaces, and experience gives us the information to be able to round them into full and solid objects. By filling out what is insensible by other means, our imagination supplies vital information: it is the sense that senses the insensible. Because it is working with what is not directly there, it has to create - answers, perspectives, images. It reaches out of itself, to what is otherwise known, what can be supplied from sources, such as people, and sews it into new possibilities, creating technologies, art forms, cosmologies.

What is true for the rest of biology must also be true for the imagination. Just as sight has been honed by evolution, so too must image-making. And just as evolution suggests that sight contributes to our forward capacities for survival and reproduction, answering the 'where do we go from here?' questions as well as the 'where have we come from?' kind, so that we know that sight of a steep drop will induce vertigo, and a buxom or buff torso, sexual stimulation, so, we should expect, is imagination similarly directed.

In short, whatever we are able to imagine has evolutionary value, and should be treasured as such.

Something more. Imagination, reliant on shared information, has an intricate relationship with the objects we create - far closer, arguably, than the other senses with which we perceive those objects. It is imagination that puts the objects out there, or appreciates them when proferred by others. It is not, perhaps, too much of a stretch to suggest that culture, which is the combined results of human imagination, is itself a part of the imaginative sense - a collective tongue extended to taste the fall of future snows.

The minute we begin to think of our creations as a part of ourselves - and this implies a closer than conventional relationship with the tools we make, I'd argue, and a more open-ended, organic one - we are acknowledging ourselves to have evolved already into cybernetic beings. Perhaps the essence of humanity is our relentless pursuit of creative participation in the wider ecosystem. Perhaps we cannot understand fully our relationship with our ecosystem unless we appreciate that we are half-hardwired into it, and actively involved in increasing its and our diversity.

Monday, 3 May 2010

706 - Analysing Dreams

A line of thought developed in conversation with E last night. It must have worked because I slept smiling and woke at 2.30am with an idea for a great new card game. Calling it Aseco, and played it this morning with E, who offered great spousal support: "I hate to admit it, but this is really quite good!"

I'll post the rules and a sketch later in the week - lots happening to do with board games, etc, which it'll be fun to let you know about.

In the meantime, line of thought:

1 Our life, linearly through time, proceeds from sleep to waking to sleep to waking, so on and so on.

2. Therefore, one source of information for a particular night's dreaming is the events of the day preceding it.

3. And one outcome of a night's dreaming is information expressed in the way we live the following day.

4. People for whom, in given circumstances, this process occurs more beneficially are more likely to survive and pass their genes on.

5. Therefore, because we are here, we are likely, unless circumstances change, to find processes 1 to 3 beneficial to us.

6. Elaborating on the processes, information from one period of waking is likely, during the subsequent period of dreaming, to be well-integrated with previous experiences of waking and sleeping.

7. Similarly, information from this subsequent dream period is likely to inform not only the following day, but days and nights (waking and dreaming periods) beyond.

8. All this will tend towards a positive outcome, given reasonably constant physical (health, environmental etc) parameters.

9. Not only will a smooth process of waking and sleeping, with little or no conscious analysis of preceding and subsequent states, tend towards a beneficial outcome, but also disruptions to that process, such as a sudden wakening, and hence memory of dreaming, or induced slip into an altered state of consciousness.

10. Waking strategies to deal with disrupted sleep states will inform the waking and sleeping processes following their implementation, as these will be a part of the greater body of wake-time information to be processed.

11. Similarly, sleeping strategies to deal with disrupted waking states will inform future life experience.

12. Given that all this tends to the beneficial, one is free to approach dream analysis any way one wants, tried and tested or experimental (or indeed to ignore the process of analysis entirely), confident that subsequent cycles of sleeping and waking will allow one to refine and/or expand that technique, in the same way that any other process of learning evolves.

13. If non-linear time is also allowed, and/or multidimensionality of other kinds, as a source of information for dream or waking states, this too, from the perspective of linear time (and perhaps from all perspectives), can only be seen as an evolving process, and as such, beneficial, or at worst, neutral.

14. In the same manner as dream analysis whilst awake, analysis of waking experience whilst asleep will tend towards the beneficial (at worst neutral), over subsequent cycles, and can therefore begin at any point, and in any way.

15. I am writing this because as of today I wish to recommit myself, and redouble my efforts at, dream and waking analysis.