The “Beyond-Selfness” and Neurobiological Substrates of Poetry
The venerable journal Poetry is commemorating its one hundredth year in publication this year, and part of the celebration is a fascinating series of contributions by poets in the “Comments” section of the journal each month. The February, 2012, issue includes a section by poets describing and reflecting on their experience in the process of writing, with a particular focus on the relationship between poetry, spirituality, and prayer. This is certainly not unusual or novel territory, but I was struck by the coherence of the comments by many poets around certain themes. For example, the poet Carolyn Forché states that “the more you’re there writing [poetry], the more you realize you are not writing it . . . This is an experience close to revelation, to the realm of prophetic language” (Poetry, February 2012, p. 462). Similarly, Kazim Ali avers (with regard to writing poetry about spirituality and religion): “If you talk all the time about something, you stop knowing anything about it” (Ibid., p. 436). Further, Jean Valentine makes the connection between poetry, meditative prayer, and dreaming, regarding all of them as healing processes, and “all being out of our hands” (Ibid., p. 438). She maintains further that “the poetry I like best is mostly silence . . . that it seems to have come out of silence, to exist in the midst of silence, and to go toward silence” (Ibid., p. 439). Finally, Eleanor Wilner proposes that “the poet must relinquish a certain kind of control, and attain a kind of self-forgetfulness” (again relating the writing of poetry to the process of prayer) and declares that “the poem is never just about experience, it is an experience” (Ibid., p. 448).
What are all these poets talking about? What kind and quality of experience are they referring to? Why the attribution of the process of writing poetry to realms of cognition that are beyond personal control, beyond self, and more proximal to some form of altered state of consciousness? Actually, I believe that the answer to these questions is fairly simple, in a way: The creative process of poetry – and very likely other fields of creative and artistic endeavor – seems to call upon, or even to require, a shift in consciousness, a move toward “letting go,” a yielding to some aspect of mind that feels “beyond self” or closer to some sense of otherness or greaterness (which some refer to as god).
In a previous post on this site, Jason Wirtz suggests the usefulness of the concepts of plasticity and automaticity, which derive from cognitive theory, in explicating what he refers to as the “Muse phenomenon.” He proposes that this phenomenon, in which “writers feel that they are channeling a source outside of themselves,” can be understood in terms of the combination of plasticity (the brain’s ability to adapt to new information by developing novel neural connections) and automaticity (the tendency of practiced skills to become “procedural,” or not requiring conscious awareness to function). Certainly, this is an interesting point of view, and worthy of further investigation, although I do not believe it goes far enough in addressing the experience described by the poets quoted above. Their experience is beyond just that of “channeling,” and seems to include a strong sense of being beyond themselves, outside themselves, or lacking a relationship to a personal “self” at all when they are in the process of poetic creation.
To my mind, the relevant and fascinating question here, however, is how this state of consciousness or being – and its compelling nature in the creative process – came to develop in the human species, and what evolutionary function it has served (and perhaps still does). We as a species have known about this cognitive shift for millennia, as Wirtz noted in reference to the ancient Greek conceptualization of the Muse, but we have little to say about why it exists. We tend to think of it in terms of a religious perspective, and there is a risk, then, in some circles, that it will be “thrown out with the bathwater”; that is, that we will regard this highly valued and central experience as a vestigial or ancillary epiphenomenon to our development as a species.
To be sure, there has been much written about the creative process, and its nature and quality have been much examined and articulated – from literary, philosophical, and religious perspectives, among others – but its neurobiological and presumed evolutionary bases are much more difficult to access or delineate. Some exciting recent research has been done in this regard using functional MRI (fMRI), with some progress in delineating the areas of the brain that “light up” or shut down under conditions of creative flow. For example, Limb and Braun, in a study of musicians, found that the dorsolateral and lateral orbital areas of the prefrontal cortex are relatively more deactivated during jazz improvisation, while the medial prefrontal cortex is more active. The former areas are associated with self-monitoring, conscious volitional control, and effortful problem-solving (colloquially the seat of the “ego”), while the latter is more associated with stimulus-independent, internally-motivated behavior. In other words, the brain of a musician in improvisation suggests a diminishing of a sense of “self,” and an increase in the allowance of “unfiltered, unconscious, or random thoughts . . . to emerge” (Limb & Braun, p. 4). The authors of this study also note that this pattern of deactivation and activation appears in hypnosis, meditation, day-dreaming, and REM (i.e., dream) sleep.
These are fascinating findings, and certainly with parallels to the (improvisational) process of writing poetry. They are also confirmed phenomenologically in the descriptions of the poetic process quoted above. In fact, in a sense, these findings should not be surprising to those of us who participate in creative endeavors, nor to those who study the process of creative inspiration. Moreover, most can likely hypothesize regarding the evolutionary benefits of the shift in consciousness that apparently accompanies – or is even requisite for – the creative process. However, the core question remains unanswered, perhaps because in an age in which such “epiphenomena” of neurally-based brain function make uncomfortable bed-fellows with “hard science.” To date, then, a full understanding of the meaning of this creative consciousness in the development of the mind, the evolution of our species, is left as just that: a compelling question in need of an answer if all of our experience as humans is to be understood in relation to its functional and adaptive neurobiological substrates.
- James K. Zimmerman
Limb, Charles J. and Allen R. Braun (2008). “Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation.” PLos ONE 3(2): e1679.
Poetry (Feb., 2012). Vol. CXCIX(5). Chicago, IL: The Poetry Foundation.