Mnemosyne: A Love Affair with Memory
The recent death of Philip Seymour Hoffman brings admirers to their knees, and gives reason to reflect on his magic. Hoffman was possibly the greatest actor of our generation. Each time I’ve viewed one of his performances, I came away with a clearer vision of life. His creativity was never in question, and the mastery of his craft was always on display. Now, we are left with his work to examine, enjoy, and yes, even taste the power and sweetness of its nectar.
Mr. Hoffman, tell me your secrets, from where does your magic come? Creativity and technique determine one’s artistry. Of the two, creativity can seem elusive, leaving us to lurch for fire flies in the dark black night. Other times, creativity seems to swallow us whole; oh, such a glorious feeling, as if we are falling in love. Where did Hoffman find his magic? Were they random thoughts, these bits of creativity, ideas that blossomed at will; possibly rare like a whip-poor-will’s call at morning’s first light? Or were they biological, originating from a handful of neurons located in his brain? Was his creativity there for the taking or did it sometimes appear in private moments or in the black of night when the soul longs to be fed. And who can deny that Philip Seymour Hoffman was a hungry man.
Viewed from above, the human brain appears as the two halves of a walnut — two similar, convoluted, rounded halves connected in the center by a thick nerve cable composed of millions of fibers that cross-connect the two halves, which are called the left and the right hemispheres. The left half of the brain controls the right side of the body, the right hemisphere controls the left It could be said that we have two brains in one, each able to operate independently or together as one.
Charles J. Limb, twenty-first-century hearing specialist and surgeon at John Hopkins Medical Center, performs cochlear implants in patients to restore hearing and enable the deaf to appreciate music. It was Limb’s profound interest in jazz that led him to explore where creativity originates in the human brain. He longed to know how jazz saxophonist John Coltrane created such strong and striking streams of improvisation. Secretly, Limb might have imagined himself, saxophone in hand, playing phrases that packed the beauty and power of Coltrane. Maybe he was in a jazz club where couples huddled around a table for two; others came in groups just to hear some jazz; maybe a down-and-out man sat at the bar, drinking shots as the sultry sounds carried him away; and then there were the lesser musicians who came to examine the intricacies of each melodic line that erupted from the golden horn that night.
Limb and National Institutes of Health neurologist Allen R. Braun developed a method for studying the brains of highly skilled jazz musicians. Musicians performed on a nonmagnetic keyboard that stretched out in a functional magnetic resonance imaging(MRI) machine that took pictures of their brains. Limb and Braun then compared the neural activity during improvisation with what happened when playing a memorized piece. The differences were stunning.
Creativity is a whole brain activity, engaging all aspects of your brain. During improvisation, the prefrontal cortex of the brain undergoes an interesting shift in activity, in which a broad area called the lateral prefrontal region shuts down. These areas are involved in conscious self-monitoring, self-inhibition, and evaluation of the rightness and wrongness of the actions you’re about to implement; all are impediments to creativity. In the meantime, another area of the prefrontal cortex, the medial presorted, turns on This is the nest of creativity that’s involved in self-expression and autobiographical narrative.
Kay Redfield Jamison, author of “Touched With Fire: Manic-Depression Illness and the Artistic Temperament,” writes about the connection between mental illness and the artistic mind. While some might doubt whether a serious mental illness has creative advantages, Jamison makes a strong case through the study of numerous artist — poets, musicians, writers, painters — who suffered from depression. Ancient Greeks believed in the link between creativity and madness. The Renaissance thinkers held a slightly different view. They believed that total madness prevented the artist from using his abilities, but that the sane melancholic could find a path for artistic achievement. By the eighteenth century, balance and rational thought trumped the previously held beliefs that inspiration and emotions were the primary entrance to genius. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reflected a moderation of earlier views due in part to the influence of academic psychology and psychiatry. Extreme madness lacked the sustained discipline and balance needed to reach great heights. Still, melancholy associated with mental illness, combined with one’s talents, could produce extraordinary works.
As writers, we must find the gems of creativity that reside somewhere in the grayness of our brain, and then we must mine them. Philip Seymour Hoffman did. Our of desperation, perhaps, or just plain curiosity, artists sometimes turn to drugs to find that special place that legend describes; a place without emotional boundaries where we seemingly float as if we experience ecstasy. No inhibitions, no restrictions. But we all know of the problems with prolonged drug use. We might die. Or we might exceed the “recommend” dosage and simply lose control of the mechanics needed to perform.
Is there another way to reach our creativity? I believe there is; better or worst, you must decide. But I promise, you won’t die. Watch a young child’s reaction to music. They dance around, bend and twist, laugh and giggle, and soak up the magic in the air. They are creative. Now fast forward to a later time when the aging process brings the restrictions, inhibitions, stiffness, and a concern for what others might say about our behavior. Find the child within.
My path to creativity was not predetermined. It came from my struggles as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I was in a bad state of mind and turned to a therapist who literally saved my life. Through her help, meditation, and self exploration, I began what I later believed to be a spiritual path. My life changed, not instantaneously, but slow and steady. I learned to feel, to trust, and ultimately, to love; accompanied by an openness to see the previously unseen, and an ability to be nonjudgemental. I found the “sweet part of the bat,” where I hit home runs whenever I choose. Creativity is there for the taking. Ask and you shall receive.
Now, the second part of the equation, technique, is simple but difficult. The better command of our medium, the more success in communicating our creativity. That’s why we write everyday, practice our instruments, and continually paint colors on our canvas. It”s such a marvelous rush when it all comes together; maybe a sentence or two, a phrase, chapter, or a longer work. Take what you get and savor the taste. Remember the process and how it felt. Next time will be easier.
I’m certain that Philip Seymour Hoffman has other secrets to share. Please feel free to comment.
Some of this was taken from my latest book, “Mnemosyne: A Love Affair with Memory.” In my defense, several pages, even a book, is needed to discuss such an important subject. But in a blog, we do what we can.