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Daniel Nettle


Strong Imagination

Category: Science | Published: 2001 | Review Added: 09-02-2020

Rating: 3 - Worth reading

Behavioural scientist Daniel Nettle begins this book with a quotation from Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream":

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.

The idea that madness and creativity are connected is an ancient one, and in Strong Imagination Nettle investigates the connection in the light of modern scientific and anthropological evidence. He starts with the supposition that for insanity to have persisted down the millennia, the genes that cause it must confer some evolutionary advantage, even if in its full flowering it typically ruins the lives of its subjects.

Psychosis - the technical term for insanity - is recognised in two forms: affective psychosis and schizophrenia. Affective psychosis is a disorder of the emotions, and can be subdivided into two types: unipolar and bipolar. Unipolar affective psychosis is severe, lasting depression that skews its subjects' view of themselves and of the world: they are overwhelmed by feelings of guilt, inadequacy and futility. Bipolar affective psychosis is the cyclical alternation of depression and elation. In elated, or manic, phases, those subject to this disorder act with reckless over-confidence, taking poorly judged risks and hatching grandiose plans that cannot come to fruition.

Schizophrenia is a disorder of cognition: its subjects' view of reality is skewed not by emotion, but by thought. Schizophrenics are prey to the caprices of their own imaginations, to the extent of failing to distinguish between what is imaginary and what is real. They typically weave bizarre (yet sometimes complex and self-consistent) explanations for phenomena, for their own behaviour, and for the behaviour of others, that to onlookers are entirely uncorroborated. Often they believe that their thoughts are controlled by other beings or agencies. Schizophrenics generally lack focus and willpower. Many of them are subject to hallucinations, for example in the form of voices experienced as real sensory phenomena.

The earlier chapters of the book examine the science behind mental imbalance. In the two decades since it was published, neurobiology has made huge leaps forward, and there is no doubt much that could now be added to this material. Still, it is fairly general in its thrust, and makes for interesting reading that one trusts is still largely valid. The operation of the brain is largely controlled by chemicals called neurotransmitters, which affect whether or not electrical impulses cross the synapses between brain cells. A family of neurotramsmitters called the monoamines plays a crucial role in stable mental functioning. The monoamines were the first neurotransmitters to be discovered, and include serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. The brain being such a complex organ, none of the monoamines can be said to perform a single simple function, and indeed the workings of neurotransmitters remain to some extent a mystery. Nevertheless, broadly speaking, dopamine appears to enhance our sense of well-being in response to particular stimuli or behaviours, while serotonin fulfils a regulatory function, moderating the operation of the other neurotramsmitters and tending us towards a state of objectivity and calmness - or numbness, depending on how you view it. In the healthy mind, the neurotransmitters ensure that a balance is struck between imaginative, creative thinking that helps us solve problems and understand the world around us, and the filtering out of thoughts and impulses that distract us from focussed and co-ordinated behaviour.

In creative people, the balance between imagination and stability is, to a greater or lesser extent, skewed towards the former. It is, then, no surprise that so many artists, writers and composers down the centuries have struggled, either intermittently or chronically, with psychological problems. Nettle presents, as a case study, the composer Robert Schumann. Schumann was a classic manic-depressive who experienced surges of elation during which music poured out of him, interspersed with periods of low mood that were artistically unproductive. His mood swings became more and more extreme, ultimately affecting his cognitive functions and taking him over the line from affective disorder to schizophrenia. He spent the last years of his life in an insane asylum.

Thus Nettle moves on from the hard science of mental disorder to a consideration of the artistic temperament, as exemplified by Schumann. Artists represent, on one axis, the culmination of human mental powers. Is that why the gene pool "tolerates" the madness that would appear, in evolutionary terms, to be linked to creativity? Of course most artists do not go insane; but many have been, as it were, on the insanity spectrum, and a disproportionate number of them had relatives who suffered from either affective psychosis or schizophrenia.

So if there is a process of evolutionary selection that has kept some of us mad through history, how does it operate? Nettle posits that the creative artist, by parading his exceptional gifts with beautiful effects that make others feel good - particularly, by implication, those of the opposite sex - attracts mates and thus propagates his interesting but wayward genes. It's an extreme elaboration, Nettle hypothesises, of the development of the peacock's tail. Art, like the peacock's tail, is practically useless, but it raises the onlooker's spirits, and precisely because it is useless convinces the opposite sex that its producer has power to spare.

This is where, to my mind, Nettle loses his way somewhat. You will gather that he regards artistic creation as essentially a male preserve. At one point, he presents a graph comparing the output of female artists unfavourably with that of male ones. He neglects that for most of history, it was frowned on for women to be creative at all; when they were, the obstacles to fame that they faced in a male-dominated world were often insurmountable. Ironically, a case in point is Robert Schumann's own wife Clara, a talented composer who agreed to suppress her own ambitions for the sake of her husband's. This fact goes unmentioned, and while it doesn't touch on the subject of madness directly, it does undermine Nettle's later suggestion that creativity is all about showing off to the girls. "Intelligence and creativity are [...] key criteria of human mate choice," he claims, but one need only walk down a high street on a Saturday night, or switch on the television, to see evidence to the contrary.

Successful creative artists often possess a magnetism that is sexually alluring, but the operative word, I suggest, is "successful". At the risk of generalising, women find successful men attractive, but the means by which men become successful is secondary. Art makes everyone feel good, regardless of gender, and therefore those of its practitioners who are talented and - importantly - ambitious acquire high status in most human societies. The status is what attracts mates, and it is by this means that artistic talent - and its dark cousin, madness - is kept in the gene pool.

If that train of thought has anything in it, it raises the question of why human beings are so inspired by art in the first place. It seems to me a more subtle question than Nettle allows, and raises the debate about the nature of the artistic temperament to a more refined, perhaps even a metaphyscial, level. Philosophy and metaphysics are outside the scope of Nettle's field of study, and while he covers much interesting ground within that field, I finished this book feeling that there was a piece of the puzzle missing. Is "strong imagination" simply one evolutionary advantageous trait among many, as Nettle concludes, or is there something in inspiration - as experienced not just by the artist, but also by the artist's audience - that goes beyond evolutionary psychology?

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