Blog North Awards shortlisted

Blog North Awards shortlisted

Friday, 22 May 2015

The Yossarian Poetry Challenge

Earlier this year, I took part in a discussion for Advertising Week Europe about augmented creativity, debating whether new technologies can enhance creative acts or whether artists should consider them a threat. During the panel, I was introduced to the concept of Yossarian Lives - a new search engine designed to help people make unusual links and associations. Whereas traditional internet search engines produce popular results (showing you what everyone else has said about a topic), Yossarian returns diverse and unexpected results that share loose associations to the search term. The idea is that these results help you think about your topic in new ways and generate new ideas.

But does it work? Could it be useful to someone producing a new piece of music or visual art or writing a new poem? I've decided to find out.

Next week, I'm going to be looking at the connections between search engine technologies and creativity by setting myself a challenge: can a piece of technology help me to write new poems? Can there be some kind of dialogue between a search engine and a piece of creative writing?

Starting on Tuesday, I'll write a new poem every day for four days, based on a search term entered into Yossarian. Each poem will be a response to one of the images that Yossarian gives me from my search. If you would like to be involved, you could suggest some search terms for me to use and I'll select from my favourite suggestions. Or you could even set yourself your own poetic challenge with Yossarian and enter your own search terms into the website, writing a new poem or piece of creative prose in response to the images you get.

All the poems will bes posted here on the blog next week, so watch this space.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

For 'poem' read 'pie'

On Monday, I found myself in a room of strangely geometric red and white chairs, on a lit stage, grappling with interesting questions I'm not sure we'll ever know the answers to - how does metaphor work in the brain? Could a machine ever write the 'perfect' poem? Are computers 'other' or are they part of our extended mind? I was taking part in a fascinating debate on augmented creativity for Advertising Week Europe, chaired by the wonderful Damian Barr (journalist and author of 'Maggie and Me'). I was joined by Juliette Kristensen (Design Historian & Researcher at Goldsmiths and the RCA), Lee Ramsay (Head of Innovation at Initiative UK) and J.Paul Neeley (Co-Founder and CEO of Yossarian Lives).

Yossarian Lives is named after the anti-hero of Joseph Heller's Catch 22, because it is an internet search engine designed to broaden our searches and the connections we make between ideas rather than narrowing them in the way conventional search engines do (the 'catch 22' being that search engines help us access knowledge but also predict limit the parameters of our searches). By contrast, Yossarian Lives is a metaphorical search engine. Its algorithms return results that are disparate, but potentially metaphorically related to the user's query. These results are intended to encourage creative thinking and diversity of thought, divergent rather than convergent approaches.

Could a programme like Yossarian Lives help a poet to produce a new poem? That was one of the questions I was asked to consider on stage on Monday. On the face of it, the prospects might seem encouraging. I've often talked about how my poems come from the convergence of ideas that might at first seem unrelated, one idea or mood or thought colliding with another, a theme that might at first seem unrelated. In my book 'Division Street', I have a poem called 'Common Names' that came from an unusual connection between animal species named after celebrities and a tender moment watching a meteor shower in the Lake District. Could something like Yossarian help to speed up these metaphorical connections?

On Monday, I sounded a note of caution. The important thing for me when I'm writing a new poem is that these strange convergences take time. A lot of time. I often carry an idea round in my head for months before I know what I want to connect it with. I'll have had many 'false starts' during that time, many ideas for novel connections that would produce a poem that was weird (but not necessarily resonant). As Don Paterson has noted, there's a crucial difference between originality and novelty:

"Poems must speak memorably. Don't confuse originality with novelty. For something to be original, it needs to be already partly known to the readers, otherwise they can't tell if it's original, only that it's weird."

But, of course, I'm open to any possibilities Yossarian Lives could offer writers or creative thinkers of any kind. And I'm excited by the ways it might encourage people to think again about familiar concepts.

Out of curiosity, I typed the word 'poem' into the Yossarian search engine. Amongst other curious images (a button to push, a man holding a newspaper aloft) it came up with a few words made out of pastry. This confirms all my suspicions. A pie is in fact the perfect poem.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

What I don't talk about when I talk about running

Towards the end of last week, I was running along a stippled, windswept beach in St Andrews with Kim Moore before the first readings of the day at StAnza festival. I've been going to StAnza since 2007 and I keep returning for the atmosphere and quality. This year was no exception, with a memorable reading from Alice Notley and Glyn Maxwell on Thursday night and a thought-provoking discussion of motherhood and creativity on Friday.

My mood in St Andrews was heightened by the company of a new book - Matt Haig's Reasons To Stay Alive, an eloquent and bold account of living with depression and anxiety and a reflection on the difficulties of inhabiting a world that thrives on fear.When he was twenty-four Matt nearly killed himself. He was later diagnosed with panic disorder, and eventually recovered. In this book he explores the nature of his mental illness, and discusses depression and anxiety through lists, digressions, memories and conversations with his younger self. To say a book is 'life-affirming' tiptoes close to cliche, but reading Reasons to Stay Alive was exactly that: comforting but startling, all 'calm-down' and 'wake-up' at once.

Throughout the book, Matt dwells on a subject close to my thumping, post-run heart: the value of exercise. The beneficial effects that running can have on mental health are well-documented - as well as enabling the brain to hold on to mood-boosting neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine, running helps you to grow new brain cells in a region linked to the formation of memories. Throughout my life, I've used running to clear my head, banish my anxieties and control my more compulsive tendencies. I was reminded of all these things as I jogged along the coast in St Andrews, glad to be buffeted by the breeze, glad to feel solid in an unfamiliar landscape, not thinking past the next mile (or the next hurdled dog).

Crossing the line after an unexpected marathon win.
But, in a culture where running is also often an intensely measured and logged activity (a heady world of Garmins and Strava, people posting obsessively about their training on social media), I think it's important to acknowledge the pressures of some kinds of running too, the ways that racing yourself and others can be damaging (for some). I've been a runner since I was 13 years old and, in that time, I've competed for my county at a national level, raced everything from sprints to steeplechase on the track, completed 6 marathons and picked up a fair amount of silverware. I've also had periods of time where I've avoided races like the plague, run solely in my own company, set off across the lake district fells just for the thrill of exploring new paths.

If I had to put it simply, I'd say this: running for the hell of it reduces anxiety. Striving to compete as a runner can make some people's anxiety worse (if they aren't careful).

Racing in North Yorks.
I had to leave StAnza early this year - me and my mum drove all night to get back to England in time for me to represent Yorkshire in the World Trials and Inter Counties cross country in Birmingham. By the time I lined up in my blue and white vest, flanked by bodies on either side, I was virus-ridden and sleep-deprived, miles from my best. And I started to be overwhelmed by thoughts I hadn't had in years: I'm not good enough. I'm going to let everyone down. I should have done more mileage. I wish I looked like a real athlete, like all these other women. 

Kinder at Christmas: still my favourite kind of run.
In The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist characterises modern society as a world shaped by the tendencies of the brain's left hemisphere: the tendency to fragment, to compartmentalise, to break things down, to value statistics over metaphor. To me, racing and competing can get a bit like that. But running for joy, for love, for pure sensation remains firmly in the province of McGilchrist's right hemisphere world: it is holistic. It makes you part of a continuum, from the people you run with and the people you greet to the ground under your trainers.

Running gives you purpose, goals, a reason to strive. All those things can be life-saving. But you can always train harder. You can always put more miles in. However fast you go, you could always be faster. The key is knowing when to give yourself a break, when to leave your watch at home for a change and pick your way along White Edge in the early sun, walking when you want to, sprinting when you feel the urge, then standing on a rock and looking back at how far you've come.

I'm going to finish with a poem by my partner (in running, writing and the rest of life) Ben Wilkinson. It touches on things Matt describes so eloquently in his book and describes what it is to strive and wait:

The Catch

For you, the catch wasn't something caught:
not word or contender, attention or fire.
Not the almost-missed train, or the sort
of wave surfers might wait an entire
lifetime for. Not the promise that leaves
the old man adrift for days, his boat
creaking, miles offshore. Nor what cleaves
the heart in two, that left your throat
parched and mute for taking pill
after yellow-green pill, the black-blue
taste the price you paid to kill
the two-parts sadness to one-part anger.
No. The catch was what you could never
let go. It's what you carried, and still do.

'The Catch' is taken from 'For Real', published by Smith / Doorstop.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Joining the Dots

Photo © Darwin Bell
Now that I've passed my viva and breathed a faint-but-audible sigh of relief, I'm working on some minor corrections to my thesis on what poetry and neuroscience might have to say to each other. Far from this being a tedious slog, the extra books and articles suggested by my examiners have helped me 'join the dots' between some of the ideas I've been writing about here at Poetry on the Brain, so I thought I'd share a couple of them with you.

Joining the Dots Part 1: Creative writing, 'flow' and why it's good to go for a walk

I'm always harping about how I get some of my best ideas for poems when I'm out walking the dog or running across Stanage. I couldn't resist talking about it in a recent interview for The Poetry School. But an article by Dietrich (2004) explains exactly why this might be the case.

A while ago, I wrote about Csikszentmihalyi's concept of 'flow' - a state of complete absorption in a task or activity, something I tend to experience when writing a poem or trying to figure out the moves on a rock climb (incidentally, the other key thing I learnt in my viva was how to pronounce Csikszentmihalyi). Dietrich is interested in flow too and thinks that, although writers may report experiencing this state of 'flow', the brain processes at work differ from those involved with other kinds of creative insight.

Downstream Flow, © GollyGForce
Dietrich believes that the brain has implicit and explicit systems. The former are skill / experience based and the latter are rule-based and can be expressed by verbal communication. Implicit systems, by contrast, are not accessed by conscious awareness. Dietrich suggests states of flow are associated with transient frontal hypofunction in the brain which inhibit these explicit systems, allowing implicit systems to take over.'Flow' recruits different brain systems to creativity because it involves a kind of suspension of some of the explicit functions of the prefrontal cortex (Dietrich has argued elsewhere that the prefrontal cortex is crucial to conscious novel insights that are associated with certain forms of creativity). 

People may heighten this state of 'hypofunction' or inhibition by focussing their attention or by moving their body – since the brain has to make do with a finite set of metabolic resources and processing in the brain is competitive, bodily movement will take away from resources that might otherwise be recruited by explicit systems. 

To oversimplify it greatly, if you go for a walk or run while you're mulling ideas for a poem over in the back of your mind, you 'distract' or 'divert' these explicit systems and let implicit systems come to the fore.

I pit down Dietrich's article straight away and went for a jog.

Joining the Dots Part 2: Creativity, psychopathology and 'shared vulnerability'.

The second thing I was excited to read was Shelley Carson's contribution to Vartanian et al's Neuroscience of Creativity (2013). Carson's piece deals with the 'shared neurocognitive vulnerabilities' between creativity and mental illness and offers a much more nuanced way of looking at some of the familiar questions I've discussed before on the blog.

© Shelley Carson (2013)
After reviewing all the anecdotal and empirical evidence suggesting some kind of link between creativity and "psychopathology, especially mood disorders, schizospectrum disorders, and alcohol-related disorders", Carson examines different theories about what this link might be, dismissing models that suggest causation either way. Instead, she proposes a 'shared vulnerability model': "psychopathology and creativity may share genetic components that are expressed as either pathology or creativity depending on the presence of other moderating factors".

This would explain why highly creative people may be at greater risk of psychopathology but also why not all show such traits and why not all psychosis-prone individuals express unusual creativity. Carson argues this is supported by evidence that shows that both creativity and disorders associated with it are both heritable and polygenetic. As she puts it:

"Factors common to both creativity and psychopathology act to increase access and attention to material normally processed below the level of conscious awareness, while protective cognitive factors allow for executive monitoring and control of such enhanced access."(Carson, 2013: Kindle Location 3910)

One common vulnerability factor is reduced latent inhibition – this is a cognitive filter which screens irrelevant stimuli from conscious awareness and it is common to those who experience pyschosis-proneness but may also assist generation of novel combinations of ideas. Another common factor is novelty-seeking and a third is neural hyperconnectivity (discussed elsewhere on this blog in relation to patternicity). Protective factors may include high IQ, enhanced working memory and cognitive flexibility (the ability to detach attention from one stimulus and refocus it on another, through conscious mental control). 

In a nice moment of circularity, Carson cites Dietrich’s observation that creative individuals may have the ability to modulate neurotransmitter systems in the brain to give them temporary cognitive disinhibition, taking us back to 'flow' and moments of insight.

And if all that felt less like 'joining the dots' and more like 'creating more random dots' to you, read this excellent dot-themed poem by Billy Collins instead.


Monday, 5 January 2015

A gift for the heart

After two blissful weeks of running over the Kinder plateau in snow, seeing friends and reading books, January is back with its flinty stare and barely-dressed lettuce leaves. We all know it's the worst possible time of year to give up anything, but we all make battered offerings to the god of self-improvement anyway. This year, instead of quitting something for 2015, Poetry by Heart is encouraging us to take on a new challenge and learn a poem by heart or read a new poem every month throughout the year.

In the words of its founders, Poetry by Heart is a national competition designed to encourage school and college pupils to memorise poetry, "not in an arm-waving, props-supported thespian extravaganza, but as the outward and audible manifestation of an inwardly-understood and enjoyed poem." Their 'poetry promise' initiative coincides with a renewed interest in the benefits of committing verse to memory: the Poetry and Memory project was set up in 2014 by the University of Cambridge as an interdisciplinary attempt to investigate experiences of poetry learning, and examine the relationships between memorisation, recitation and understanding.

When I was writing my PhD thesis on poetry and neuroscience, I got very interested in Michael Donaghy's discussion in The Shape of the Dance of the role of poetry in memorisation. He noted the similarities between the ancient mnemonic technique of creating a 'memory palace' and the discrete stanzas of a poem - 'stanza' coming from the Italian for 'room'. Donaghy, of course, used to perfrom his own poems from memory - you can hear some recordings of him on the Poetry Archive.

Kinder in the Christmas snow. Photo by Ben Wilkinson.
Of course, I've joined the what-was-that-line-again club and made a poetry promise for 2015. Since I spent so much of the Christmas break plodding up to Burbage North in my yaktraks, I thought I'd try and memorise Richard Wilbur's haunting 'First Snow in Alsace' for January. I love Wilbur's work and his image of snow coming down 'like moths / burned on the moon' is so striking I can see it with my eyes closed. And 'ten first-snows back in thought' is a singularly elegant, succinct way of describing memory. Better get on with remembering all the words in between...

If you'd like to make a 'poetry promise' too (and it doesn't have to be a feat of memorisation: you could just pledge to read a new poem each month, for example) get in touch with @PoetryByHeart on twitter for more information.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Smack on the borderline

The cover of 'Smith...'
'There are two kinds of people in the world. / Roughly' states Michael Donaghy's neat little poem 'Meridian', a poem of two equal halves. It goes on to joke: 'there are the kind who say / 'There are two kinds of people in the world' / And then there's those who don't.'

'Meridian' is just one of the poems Don Paterson discusses in the excellent Smith: A Reader's Guide to the Poetry of Michael Donaghy and his summary of it in terms of paradox and border-dwelling struck a chord with me as I nervously prepare for my PhD viva at the end of this week, my one real chance to discuss the arguments I've put forward in my thesis on connection-making in poetry and neuroscience.

Paterson treats 'Meridian' as an example of 'Donaghy's Paradox', a parable of 'division, dividers, and the divided mind', itself divided neatly down the middle. It's a poem which expresses some of the complex ideas about brain asymmetry outlined in Iain McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary, but does so in form you can carry round with you, tucked away somewhere in your own teeming skull. The first stanza sets up an opposition between certainty and an awareness of paradox, between ideas of knowing and not knowing: oppositions familiar to any reader of McGilchrist. 

Which side, if any, should we be on?
Photo by Geee Kay
Ultimately, the narrator of Donaghy's poem wants to find a place in this dichotomy, and that place is 'smack on the borderline, / Where the road ends with towers and searchlights.' In this, 'Meridian' brings to mind a different poem which I discuss in my thesis: Paul Muldoon's 'The Boundary Commission', where a wall of rain divides a village like glass and the figure at the heart of the poem is left wondering 'which side, if any, he should be on'. I'm very interested in the way that Muldoon's poems often invite us to be in more than one place at the same time, the way he refuses to let us read his metaphors one way. I think many of his poems find an interesting parallel in McGilchrist's notion of 'The Divided Brain'. But until reading Paterson's commentaries in Smith, I hadn't thought of Donaghy as a poet of dualities. 'Meridian' is a very interesting poem to compare with 'The Boundary Commission' and both imply the difficulty of being certain about anything.

An article by Arthur Krystal published last week in The Chronicle of Higher Education implies that neuroscience is having a pervasive influence on the humanities at the moment because we now value particular kinds of scientific certainty over big philosophical theories. Krystal argues that the death of theories like Marxism and psychoanalysis in the humanities combined with the questions about language and thought processes raised by postmodernism has paved the way for a neuroscience invasion: 'we have shifted our focus from the meaning of ideas to the means by which they're produced.' Big philosophical questions have taken a backseat to questions about the biases embedded in neural circuitry. The 'neurohumanities' are taking the place of literary theory.

I'd like to think that it doesn't have to be a case of replacement and imposition. In my thesis I've tried to argue that poetry has as much to say to neuroscience as neuroscience has to say to poetry. I've suggested that poets and neuroscientists are often interested in (and, indeed, flummoxed by) the same key questions about consciousness and what it means to be human. I'd like to hope that - in some small way - I've written a text that invites people to inhabit two places at once. As Donaghy implies, the borderline may be the only sensible place to end up, even if it is contested and uncertain territory.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Investigating psychotic traits in poets: some tentative findings

Photo credit: here
Earlier this year, the Guardian covered new research by Ando et al (2014) into the personality traits of comedians and reported on some of the summarised findings which suggested the qualities required to be a successful comedian might also be linked to 'irrational' thoughts and the ability to connect random ideas:

"Their talent to amuse people lies in having unusual personalities and displaying what researchers say are high levels of psychotic characteristics, according to findings which appear to support the widely held belief of a link between madness and creativity."

I read the coverage of this study with particular interest because I was busy working on a questionnaire with Dr Oliver Mason of UCL aimed at investigating psychotic traits in poets, a questionnaire modelled closely on Ando et al's research.

In our study, we used an online survey based on that of Ando et al with the addition of the Mood Disorder Questionnaire (MDQ: Hirschfeld, 2000) which diagnoses bipolar disorder by self-report if seven or more symptoms are endorsed as occurring at the same time, and as causing ‘moderate-to-severe’ problems.

The O-LIFE and MDQ questionnaires we used were combined with a series of questions designed to ask how long participants had been writing for, where their work had been published (if at all) and which 'styles' of poetry they thought their work had an affinity with - these categories were not mutually-exclusive so people could pick more than one.

Thanks to the 294 poets who took part in the questionnaire, we have just been able to publish the results in the Cambridge Journal of Psychological Medicine and you can read all about our findings here.

Of the range of self-reported types of poetry, over two thirds of our participants (70.4%) endorsed a ‘lyric’ style, over half (58.2%) a ‘narrative’ style, and around a third (31%) an ‘avant garde’ style (again, these were not mutually exclusive categories). In terms of self-reported diagnosed mental illness, two poets reported schizophrenia, 15 reported bipolar disorder (5.1%), 152 reported depression (51.7%) and 80 reported anxiety disorder (27.2%).

We found that, in our sample, poets showed a high level of psychotic personality traits consistent with several other studies of creative groups (Nowakowska et al.2005; Nettle, 2006; Kyaga et al.2011). They did so both on indicators of the positive symptoms of psychosis and on self-reported symptoms of bipolar disorder. In particular, the endorsement of an 'avant-garde' style of poetry was associated with higher scores for Unusual Experiences.

To understand the context of these findings, I'd recommend reading the full article here.

Thank you very much to everyone who took part and gave up their time to complete or share the questionnaire. We hope our survey provides starting points for other discussions and research.