Last week’s post about the DC Science Café‘s endeavor to foster meaningful discussion between scientists and non-experts explored the challenges in finding a common language between two populations with differing relationships with the same words and phrases. This week’s post, brought to you by Ned Prutzer, builds off this theme by examining the substantial gains that some writers and researchers have found in trying to inhabit these junctures, and extrapolating what the language that heals the false rift between the sciences and arts might look like.
I met Ned at the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House at the University of Maryland. Ned is now a Communications and Media PhD student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where serves as a Seeing Systems Fellow in a pilot fellowship program supported by the INTERSECT initiative. His research focuses on new media and cultural memory in relation to conceptualizations of knowledge, art and resistance.
When I attended a Q&A session featuring renowned poet Arthur Sze, he asked us, as a writing exercise, to generate a list of five of our favorite words. His next step was to conjure up another five-word list – this time, comprised of words associated with a hobby or skill of ours. Once the lists were finalized, he asked us to write a poem containing all of the words we included.
The beauty of the exercise lies in how it engages divergent thinking. It confronts us with the challenge of finding ties between different images and practices. As writers, we accept this challenge constantly. We cherish the capability to make meaning out of the happenstance, to elevate the power of a simple image into a telling artifact, and to create realities from fragments, worlds out of words. This makes creativity an alluring and mysterious process.
To ruminate on creativity and writing successfully, both scientific and artistic perspectives are helpful. I find myself doing this often in my own writing, whether I borrow from the language of coding to discuss world-making in a broad sense, from the language of network science to decipher our relations with others and our surroundings, or from the language of neuroscience to analyze the cerebral action of writing.
I have been especially ruminating on this stance in re-reading Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body. The narrator, whose gender and name are concealed, recounts an affair with a married woman, Louise. Louise is later revealed to have cancer and the narrator leaves her, hoping Louise will return to her husband, a renowned cancer researcher. Following the affair, the narrator enters a reclusive phase studying anatomy to learn about the cancerous body in an unconventional attempt to remain close to Louise. The narrator assumes a clinical language to deconstruct the body and create what s/he describes as a love poem to Louise.
The undertaking critiques the notion that a body can be described solely through the interaction of its components yet incorporates that very mechanical language to create a more accommodating descriptive vocabulary. The narrator deconstructs the human anatomy in order to deconstruct the operations of an abstraction, an ideology – love. Thus, the narrator seizes the poetry of the scientific to achieve a creative mode of representation.
Similarly, two of my favorite books, Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind and Alice W. Flaherty’s The Midnight Disease, show why fusing the scientific with the poetic is productive and aesthetic. Both are eloquent, autobiographical explorations into creativity through psychological case studies. While the former focuses on bipolar disorder, the latter, among other afflictions, investigates hypergraphia, a disorder compelling the afflicted to write compulsively. In these explorations, Jamison and Flaherty borrow from the language of their clinical expertise to analyze creativity.
In dissecting the creative mind, one learns that creativity is in part a complex neural network. Flaherty traces the interaction of such neural regions as the limbic system (the seat of emotion); the temporal lobe (the seat of processing sensory input); the hippocampus (the seat of memories); and the basal ganglia (the seat of motivation). Several neurotransmitters (notably, norepinephrine, dopamine, and endogenous opiates) also provide a sense of motivation and the creative rush with which we are all familiar.
Creativity scholar Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes about this sense of rush, which he refers to as “flow.” As Howard Gardner defines Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of flow in Creating Minds, “[i]n one sense, those ‘in flow’ . . . feel that they have been fully alive, totally realized, and involved in a ‘peak experience.’ Individuals who regularly engage in creative activities often report that they seek such states” (pp. 25-26).
Here is where we return to the realm of abstraction in detailing the anatomy of creativity. Creativity and flow cannot be defined solely as the product of an intricate configuration of stimulated neural regions. There is an undeniable poetry and spirituality involved that requires a more holistic sense of the individual and the social networks in which he or she is embedded. Creativity, after all, is a networked enterprise, whether one is looking at its neurological underpinnings or the environments and social groups through which an artist’s work is fully realized.
Investigating creativity requires a fusion of perspectives that may seem disparate to some, but such fusions can supply powerful hybrid vocabularies encouraging new insights. However, inhabiting these junctions of deeply developed languages and cultures of thought remains precarious. C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures is infamous for playing into a popular misconception surrounding the humanities and sciences in purporting an inherent and impassable chasm between the two. We can and must respond to this false dichotomy, but it will require our most creative and carefully crafted language. It could even begin as a playful exercise with two lists of words; a poet making a small contribution to demystify creativity through a simple intervention and innovation of language, inviting us to re-imagine the scientific.
More of Ned’s writing about the intersection of technology, cultural values, and social networks (on- and off-line) have been published by gnovis, an online academic journal at Georgetown University, available at http://gnovisjournal.org/author/esp34/.