Blog North Awards shortlisted

Blog North Awards shortlisted

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.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Are you sitting uncomfortably? Poetry & 'difficult topics'

Photo by Charlotte Astrid
In Aldeburgh on Saturday, the wind was doing its best to sweep stray poets off the shingle and out to sea. Walking up to the shadow of Maggi Hambling's scallop shell sculpture, I felt as overawed and exhilarated as I've always felt at a festival I've returned to for years. Only this time I was there to receive the honour of the Fenton Aldeburgh prize for my book 'Division Street'.

I'm not sure I'm up to the challenge of expressing how much that prize meant to me. But I can say that one of the most enjoyable aspects of it was meeting previous winners Dan O'Brien and Olivia McCannon. Together, we recorded a podcast about the prize and our writing projects and the discussion turned to 'difficult subjects' in poetry, the question of why you would try to write about issues that are painful, complicated and near-inexpressible (to you, at least). Olivia put it better than I could when she said her short answer would be "because it matters".

A few hours earlier, I'd been in tears reading Rhiannon Lucy Coslett's candid and thoughtful piece in the Guardian Weekend about eating disorders, body image and 'almost anorexia'. As well as engaging with things that are difficult to admit to and guilt-inducing to talk about, Rhiannon is sensitive to the things that can't be said as well:

"I couldn’t tell you how many times I looked in the the hope that the body looking back at me would be somehow different from the reality...I couldn’t tell you how many times I thought about my weight, or my waist measurement, or just about my body generally, which seems to have ceased to be a vessel that carts me around through life and has become, to borrow a phrase, a battleground."

In one of the poems in 'Division Street', a poem called 'Thinspiration Shots', I tried to write about some of these things, some of these ideas that often get called 'difficult' or 'unsettling' through an exploration of 'pro-ana' websites. The poem has a hopeful conclusion for its narrator who finds the strength to turn the page, shut down images that are damaging to her ('now, your mirror's not a magnifying glass'). But Rhiannon's article moved me so deeply because it confronts a more troubling reality - the impossibility of escape for those who have obsessive thoughts about body image, even when they might seem healthy or normal or 'better' to other people. She concludes powerfully: "my full-time, unpaid, job is managing my appetite, and in between that I write for the Guardian....I know that when this article is published, I won't focus on the career high of having a feature published in a national magazine. I'll focus on the photographs and how much I hate them."

'Barbie's Dinner IV' by Laura Lewis
I won't try to paraphrase Rhiannon's article because I'd urge everyone to read it for themselves. But one of the things that struck me most powerfully about it was her engagement with the argument that eating disorders are "a middle-class, white woman's problem" and with the term 'wannarexia' (used by anorexics to describe someone who 'seeks out' an eating disorder in an exhibitionist kind of way). She cites a study carried out by King's College earlier this year which found that disordered eating patterns were, in fact, most prevalent amongst ethic minority participants. But those assumptions make many people (men as well as women) afraid to admit to their problems with food, encourage them to disguise them as healthy lifestyle obsessions or 'normalise' them with jokes and comparisons.

A culture where we think about eating disorders and body dysmorphia in those terms - in terms of privilege and affectation - is a culture which refuses to accept responsibility for the fear and anxiety that our society thrives on, the dread and inadequacy that drives us as consumers, as people. It is a lazy way of thinking.

I happen to believe one of the best things poetry can do is to help us find less lazy ways of thinking about difficult things. In my next collection of poems - the book I'm working on here at Leeds - there are a number of pieces that (try to) take a sideways look at body image and fear, often through the lens of climbing. While the protagonist in 'Thinspiration Shots' escaped the mirror-as-magnifying-glass, these poems accept that it's more difficult to get away from the funhouse mirror effect than we might like. Thinking about how female climbers get depicted, one character concludes:
...You’re beautiful on edges, in doorways,
on the brink. You can lead beautiful to water

but you can’t let it drink.

Reading Rhiannon's article again, I kept going back to her last lines as she imagines all the girls out there hating the sight of their own bodies in photographs, all the women engaged in comparison between themselves and other women who are probably just as paranoid about how they look:"how long are we going to put up with it?"

Monday, 27 October 2014

Turning Points

I've been a bit quiet on the blog recently and that's because 'Poetry on the Brain' has reached something of a turning point: after three years, I've handed in my PhD on neuroscience and connection-making in contemporary poetry and I've started a new chapter as a Cultural Fellow at The University of Leeds for two years.

Autumn whippet
Autumn's my favourite time for turning to different things, because the season seems to match each new idea. I remember watching a leaf years ago in a park in Cherry Hinton, Cambridge which had got suspended from an invisible thread - presumably a spider's web - and was pivoting and spinning in the air. From a distance, it looked as if it was turning round and round on nothing, suspended forever in mid air, held and not held. That's what October has meant to me ever since.

Even though my PhD is written (and I'm nervously awaiting the viva!), my interest in all things brain-and-mind-related hasn't gone away, of course. And my interest in poetry is as constant as my interest in breathing. So 'Poetry on the Brain' will continue as a blog, but the focus will shift away from neuroscience and psychology and towards poetry and psychogeography, alongside the projects I'll be working on at The University of Leeds.

When I say 'psychogeography' I'm (disingenuously) using a fancy shorthand for my enduring interest in the connections between people and the places they live, or where they think of as 'home'. My first collection 'Division Street' bears witness to my fascination with place, place names and the ways that landscapes make us feel. But Rebecca Solnit sums up how I think about place much better than I ever could, emphasising the reciprocal relationship between people and environments:

“...we often talk about love of place, by which we mean our love for places, but seldom of how the places love us back, of what they give us. They give us continuity, something to return to, and offer a familiarity that allows some portion of our lives to remain connected and coherent. They give us an expansive scale in which our troubles are set into context, in which the largeness of the world is a balm to loss, trouble and ugliness. And distant places give us refuge in territories where our own histories aren’t so deeply entrenched and we can imagine other stories, other selves, or just drink up quiet and respite.”  (from 'The Faraway Nearby')

I'm going to be a Cultural Fellow here at Leeds for two years, working from an office in the School of English and I'm looking forward to finding out what kind of scale and continuity Leeds gives to people who love the city. While I'm here, I'll be working on a second collection of poems (many of them themed around mountaineering and mountaineering women) and a novel set in South Yorkshire as well as encouraging dialogues across University departments and between writers all over Leeds. I'll be setting up a project called 'Leads to Leeds' inspired by and modelled on the brilliant website LikeStarlings which will encourage collaborations between poets across the city and showcase their new work - watch this space for the project website which will be ready soon.

With those themes in mind, it's the centenary of Dylan Thomas's birth today, so it seems apt to finish with some lines from his poem 'Fern Hill', a poem which meanders artfully and elegantly round themes of place, time and age, a poem that always makes me think of landscape as a strange canvas:

...Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would
take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

I'll be sharing details of Leads to Leeds - a website and project framed by the idea of being held 'singing' by place and time - soon.                   

Friday, 12 September 2014

'Kidnapped by the world' - accolades, Alvarez and nothing to do with neuroscience

In a fascinating interview with Clare Luchette, Louise Glück describes the strange period of grief that can follow the completion of a new book. She says writers may feel:

"...vulnerability, and horror, and a kind of grief at the book’s being kidnapped by the world. I have been very happy, very serene, for nearly a year in the knowledge that I had this new work only a few people had seen. I could enjoy by myself its existence, and the pleasure of not having to write for a while, and the sense of having achieved something. A better word than vulnerability, though, would be dread. I feel dread and sorrow at the end of a period of private and, this time, prolonged euphoria."

This week has seen the announcement of the Next Generation promotion, an accolade announced once every ten years, aimed at identifying poets who will make an impression with their work in the next decade. I'm delighted to be featured on the list along with the work of other poets I admire, from Kate Tempest to Kei Miller (I admire the work of everyone I've read on the list, as it goes!) and think the promotion is a great way to raise the profile of contemporary poetry as a whole: there are some fantastic videos by Ian McMillan on the Next Gen website in which he discusses the books, with his unique ability to be genuinely witty and profoundly insightful at the same time. Hearing Ian talk about the collections in the Next Generation promotion and what he loves about them is what a celebration of poetry should sound like. And it seems to be working already - friends of mine who don't normally read poetry or follow the poetry world have heard about the list and they're taking an interest. 

The thing that saddens me slightly each time a prize shortlist or a promotion of this kind is announced is that its always met with negativity from some quarters amid the general celebrations. Not a tidal wave of negativity exactly, more the kind of splash you'd get from a HGV driving through a puddle too fast on a rainy Cumbrian afternoon (no, I'm not bitter about all the times that happened to me when I lived in Grasmere. Not at all). On some level, there seems to be the suspicion that the 'chosen ones' must be a little bit smug, or they've got it easy, or they've become part of some privileged 'other'. 

Anyone who thinks that could do worse than to go back to Louise Glück's description of the sadness that often follows publication. I think that applies to the aftermath of releasing a book too, the publicity and attention that you get (if you're lucky). I don't want to speak for other writers, but I think it's just possible that many of the poets who receive accolades for their work suffer from an acute sense of inadequacy, a feeling of never quite being good enough. They don't feel like they're part of a 'trendy' literary elite, they feel a mixture of gratitude and fear. 

Most of the activities I enjoy doing, I enjoy because I can - briefly - escape myself in the process of doing them. Al Alvarez describes this brilliantly in relation to rock climbing and poker, as this extract from a portrait by Stephen Moss highlights:

'Poker and climbing share another similarity that appeals to Alvarez - both are democratic. "Nobody gives a shit what you do or where you come from as long as you sit down with sufficient money and ante up on time," he says. "It's the same in the climbing world. I used to go more or less every weekend to a place called Harrison's Rocks, and there was an oddjob man, a guy who worked as a gardener, a security guard, a kid doing his O-levels, a tycoon in the software industry, and me. There was complete democracy, and I loved that."'

As a climber, I know exactly what he means. When you're testing yourself on a difficult lead, there's not much room for identity. The same is true of long distance running, my other beloved sport. And the same is definitely true in the process of writing a poem. So I'm proud to be part of the Next Generation and happy to be involved with something that has the potential to widen poetry's readership and draw attention to new work. I'm excited about getting to know writers I don't know well and reading in new places. But I don't feel as if I've somehow 'won' and I never have, after any success. Because in poetry, climbing and running, there's really no such thing. Just yourself and the rock. Yourself and the tarmac. Yourself and the blank page.

I apologise for the lack of neuroscience in this blog post. I'm about to hand in my PhD after 3 years of work, and I'd like to thank everyone who has followed these daft ramblings on 'Poetry on the Brain' and also thank Picador for recognising the blog in its list of favourite poetry blogs earlier this week.