Monday, February 27, 2006

The limbic system stands up for its rights

Last night I felt strangely weary and determined on going to bed much earlier than usual (i.e. midnight rather than 3am, sleep is not my happiest topic), and yet it was clear I wouldn't be able to fall asleep at once so I picked up a random non-fiction book someone recently loaned me (I needed to read it so as to give it back, and in general I find non-fiction better bedtime reading than novels as being easier to pick up and put down again rather than reading all at once). It was both the wrong book and the incredibly right one, I read for several hours last night and have just now finished it and am again illicitly and decadently blogging during what should be real work hours (this is part of the point of having a sabbatical, I tell myself guiltily, that one should be able to indulge oneself like this) because it was so wonderfully good and stimulating--everyone who writes or for that matter does any other kind of imaginative work like painting or composing should read it at once!

The book is The Midnight Disease : The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain by Alice W. Flaherty. I remember reading about this when it came out in 2004 and making a mental note that it sounded interesting; it's really remarkably good. It's not a self-help book for writers, it's not a popular science book about writer's block, it's a grippingly interesting and highly stimulating book by an appealingly intellectual and scientific-minded neurologist whose personal experiences radically overturned her understanding of the relationship between reason and the emotions.

She remains the intellectual and science-minded person she was before, in other words (perhaps more than she realizes), but her understanding of her own relationship with language and perception and writing is remarkably enriched by a painful personal history of bereavement and mental illness. In this sense the book is reminiscent of others I have also liked very much, most obviously Kay Redfield Jameson's An Unquiet Mind (and all of KRJ's books are very good reading though sometimes uneven) and The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon (if you haven't read the latter, do get it and read it, it is fascinating and excellent for many reasons and somewhat unexpectedly includes a really stellar chapter on poverty and depression in which Solomon hits on the kind of stuff you more readily associate with writers like Katharine Boo and Adrian LeBlanc).

Flaherty isn't a miraculous sentence-writer, I think this book is rather less well-written at that level than, say, Oliver Sacks's stuff, and the first half of the book has a few too many paragraphs that sound stilted and textbook-like; but she is a clear and interesting and extremely engaging writer who is really visibly thinking with every sentence, and in my opinion these are the best books of all, these ones where the energy and mental stimulation carry you along with the writer through a huge range of important topics. (She does have that slightly annoying sense of humor I associate with Steven Pinker--introducing the throwaway Woody-Allen-type line as an aside at the end of a paragraph, to illustrate a point--but then this is always a blind spot for me, it made me have to stop reading a book I should have loved, Mary Roach's Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers--Roach is a smart and imaginative investigator but her jokes struck me as intolerably whimsical--on the other hand sometimes jokes become so genuinely awful they are funny again, I am thinking in this case of a book I adore that is studded with the most truly awful and groan-worthy jokes, a book I also recommend on topics related to the main ones at hand in this post: V. S. Ramachandran's wonderful Phantoms in the Brain.)

I had a slight superstitious sense that it would be unwise to pick up a book about writer's block when I wasn't obviously blocked myself, but that quickly vanished as I found myself immersed in Flaherty's imaginative world. (Though she perceptively points out that writer's block and hypergraphia are less opposites than symptoms of a more generally disordered relationship with writing, I am obviously--at least 90% of the time, there's always the other 10% when things are considerably more difficult--more afflicted with the too-much of reading and writing than the too-little. This entry is going to be excessively long.) I don't think I can do anything better here than provide some of the passages that most struck me, and encourage you to get hold of a copy and take a look for yourself.

Here's one from early on where I was laughing with the sense of self-recognition (and Flaherty is appealingly self-conscious and humorous even when it's at her own expense, you see the tone here):

[A] sense of vocation doesn't guarantee happiness at work. Nor does it guarantee being good at the job. Perhaps it merely gives its possesor a subtle feeling of megalomania, a sense of being in some manner chosen for a higher goal. Sense of vocation as disease. How is vocation related to workaholism, and is hypergraphia a special case of either? To some extent "workaholism" is a term others use to describe people who prefer to describe themselves as having a vocation. The others are saying that he doesn't enjoy himself as much as he thinks, that he works to relieve anxiety, not for pleasure or a goal. Yet even those with a true vocation never feel only the joy of work without occasionally feeling its terror. When your work is part of who you are, and you feel you are working badly, you become foul to yourself. This is part of the tight link between hypergraphia and writer's block. (57)

And again:

When others' obsessions are not ours, we are sad for them, and we talk of how empty their lives will be if they don't achieve their empty goal: the gymnastics prize, the firm partnership. But there is a monomania in which it is the focus, the sense of transport, that is the real pleasure. The kind of compulsive reading in which you lose yourself, which brings no medals or talk-show appearances, is one example of that. (177)

As part of a reflection on disordered relationships with reading among different populations:

Whether compulsive reading in normals is related to hyperlexia in autism is not clear. Most likely it is a combination of innate predisposition and learning and, occasionally, the desire to escape into a different world. One writer tells of seeing a four-year-old boy who tried to climb inside a large picture book. He opened it to his favorite page, spread it open on the floor, and stepped in. When nothing happened, he cried in bewilderment. Some of us spend our lives trying to climb inside books, often rather successfully. It is a passion that can extend from nearly the cradle to the grave. The poet Leigh Hunt said he "wanted to be caught dead while holding a book." He was. (175)

On writing and gender (or more generally the way that personal experience may or may not feed into more obviously impersonal forms of scientific writing):

Why was I writing a female-style book full of unsolicited personal confessions about how emotions and childbirth and PMS and choosing daycare centers . . . had changed my writing? Why couldn't I have written a purely objective scientific treatise, or chosen a less female topic--fly fishing, perhaps? Of course, it's possible for women to write like men; my own first book was clipped and distant. Yet I have the disturbing feeling that something has been turning me from a writer into a woman writer. Is it the hormones in the pregnancies? The activity of raising young children? Part of me wishes that whatever is doing it would stop. But part wonders why scientists are uspposed to hide the reasons why they care about their reseaech. And why fly flishing is considered of general interest, anyway. (133)

(Elsewhere, though, she admits that the dry neurology textbook is itself a record of three joyful years as a neurology resident; and this rings true for me, that the pleasure of a particular project may not always be evident in the form it takes.)

And after a set of reflections on reason and the emotions that covers ground from Paul Ekman and Darwin on the emotions to William James, Antonio Damasio and Martha Nussbaum on emotions and decision-making:

Decreasing the exaggerated opposition between "rational" and "emotional" writing might make scientists write differently. An economist who cloaks his deeply felt personal beliefs in dry technical prose might be at once more honest and rhetorically more effective if he let some of his passion show through. Would the reverse cross-pollination help writing in the humanities? It might not benefit lyric poetry, with its explicit concern for "true for me" rather than "true." But in other genres, even the most devoted disciple of someone like Lacan (and I admit to a secret fondness for him) must sometimes wish for a thread of logical argument in his writing. (195)

And the passage from which I drew the title for this post:

Before my postpartum break I saw the unnaturalness of scientific thought as beautiful, a way to escape the limitations of the messy brain not only by the discoveries that the brain generates, but through the way the very activity changes the brain's shape, like a dancer going en point. Now that my limbic system stands up for its rights more, I suppose the same image still applies, but part of me draws the opposite conclusion. Who would want to do that to her poor feet? (227)

The deliberate bloodlessness of scientific writing now seems less a necessary imperfection in the search for objectivity than a crime against humanity. (235)

And in conclusion, the book's credo:

The scientist in me worries that my happiness is nothing more than a symptom of bipolar disease, hypergraphia from a postpartum disorder. The rest of me thinks that artificially splitting off the scientist in me from the writer in me is actually a kind of cultural bipolar disorder, one that too many of us have. The scientist asks how I can call my writing vocation and not addiction. I no longer see why I should have to make that distinction. I am addicted to breathing in the same way. I write because when I don't, it is suffocating. I write because something much larger than myself comes into me that suffuses the page, the world, with meaning. Although I constantly fear that what I am writing teeters at the edge of being false, this force that drives me cannot be anything but real, or nothing will ever be real for me again. (266)


  1. This book sounds fascinating. I've read several of the Oliver Sacks books, and am interested in finding out as much as I can about how the brain works, and how it affects us and our functioning in the world. My family has a lot of little neurological peculiarities, in particular, that I would like to understand better.

    I'm a painter, not a writer, but I think there are strong parallels between various kinds of creative endeavors. A blank canvas is much the same as a blank page. Thanks for the heads up.

  2. You have, I believe, misunderstood Alice Flaherty's work. Your own fascination with writing is just that--a fascination with writing, not an indication of a brain disorder. You seem to be one of those people who has become addicted to writing in the way others become addicted, say, to alcohol, and then write about your addiction as if it were somehow laudable. The true hypergraphic, of which I may be one, has no choice. We did not learn to write. We did not develop it as an interesting vocation and then become addicted to it. Somewhere in the Temporal Lobe is buried a compulsion (can you also develop the terrifying need to wash your hands obsessively and then call it laudable?) that will not let us NOT write. Read Flaherty again and leave your ego out of it.