Reclaiming the Muse: Biological Processes Underlying the Muse Phenomenon
Oh for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention.
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
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.
Plato. Ion. http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/ion.html
Rose, Mike. Personal interview. 14 February 2010.