Book Review: Strong Imagination

Before I begin, I want to share that the reason that I have time to type a book review is that my mixing board is not broken at all. You may recall that I mentioned earlier that my synth got battered in shipping. This caused some of the jacks to get bent so they weren’t making good contact, which is easily fixable. So all is well.

Last spring, when I was whining about being on a really long waiting list to see a shrink, my friend Vivian gave me a book called Strong Imagination: Madness, Creativity and Human Nature by David Nettle, which explores a link between insanity and creativity, just as the name implies. Nettle makes a convincing case regarding the nature and cause of madness. To briefly summarize: madness of all forms has both a genetic and an environmental component. In cases where of identical twins, when one becomes schizophrenic, the other has a 50% of becoming so also. This is a much higher risk than the general population, but still only half. Factors that can push people over the edge include divorce, death of a family member, social isolation (say, from moving far away) and basically everything else in my life that’s happened to me since 2002. I really like this part of the book because it makes me feel like I’m super together for not being more crazy.
Ok, since going mad is a huge problem, why do these genes persist in the population? Well, that twin who doesn’t go mad is likely to do very well in life. People who have increased risk for insanity tend to excel, especially in creative persuits. He then broke down mental illness by profession. Poets are just nuts. Alas, for poets. Next in line are musicians, especially composers. And it goes through all the creative fields and then into more practical ones.
The author sees two primary classes of mental illness. One is schizophrenia, and the other is a polar disorder. What he means by polar disorder is people whose emotions tend to run out of balance. So he’s grouping depressives and bipolar people together and argues how they’re related on a neurotransmitter level. He claims that depressives also have periods of peaks, but they don’t get as out of control as people who are bipolar. While schizoid personality types are good for creative thinking, the periods of peaks (short of mania) for people with polar disorders tend to be good for getting work done. He specifically mentions composers here. Especially in the old days of ensemble writing, before MIDI realizations, composers would have to write things and then wait months or years to hear it. A sane person doesn’t go into work that’s so thankless and so short of rewards. Most people need positive stimuli more often to keep working on something.
He never mentions anxiety disorder, aside from in his list of mental illness by profession, but from other reading, I know it’s strongly linked to depression and the same drugs are used to treat it. I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced the highs of creative energy that he described. I do know that I tend to be overly pleased with myself. I always thought of this as some sort of personality flaw, but I guess it’s essential to my line of work. Also, the way I approach composition is more praise-seeking than the old way. What better way to get positive feedback than through commissions? I get a vote of confidence when people ask for one and then (so far) specific praise for the output that I deliver. And while I hate performing, I do it anyway because I like the attention. I’ve written pieces of music performed by others and then sat in the audience and listened. Fewer people come up to talk to me afterwards. And, most importantly, this does not get me chicks like performing does. But more on that last part in a bit.
So Nettle makes a convincing case that the genes associated with certain types of mental illness are also correlated with creative output, which explains why they persist in the population despite their huge liability. Appreciation of creative endeavors is a human universal. In every society that has ever existed, poetry and music have been considered important. Anthropologists have never found a group of people without music and without poetry. Even in societies where survival is difficult and everyone works at acquiring food (ie, no specialization of labor), poetry and music are valued. And people who are good at poetry or music get high prestige. Even if they have a bad time of it for a while, people will donate food. Creative output is essentially human, much more so than using tools or the other ways we’ve sought to set ourselves apart form other animals.
Nettle then goes on to ask a much deeper question: why do humans value creativity? Here, he turns to evolutionary theory. Male peacocks have crazy tails. You’ve seen them. It requires a huge number of extra resources to keep those tails looking good. A male with an especially nice looking tail has to be able to get a lot more food. One with a scraggly looking tail is not faring as well nutritionally. And that’s why, the theory goes, peahens (aka, the female of the species) find the tail so sexy. this male is really good at feeding himself and staying healthy. She thinks, if I breed with him, there’s a good chance my offspring will be healthy and able to feed themselves too. Therefore, the tail is sexy because it’s a drag on the bird. It’s inefficiency is what makes it such a great indicator of success. And it shows off values that are important to the survival needs of peacocks.
Humans don’t have much in the way of plumage, but we do have really big brains compared to other animals. And big brains are very important to us as a species. So somebody who is creative not only has a really big brain, but they have excess to waste on poetry and music or other creative output. Somebody who can tell a good story is thus not only smart enough to survive, but they’ve got brains to spare. I’m not explaining this as well as Nettle did, and, indeed, it’s a little slippery and weird, inherently. Animals find excess to be sexy, specifically excess that’s tied to some essential part of their species. So for humans, this is thinking power. It’s important to remember that this is statistical. You might find your pulse increase for accountants (yes, I know, it’s a stereotype – Charles Ives invented the actuary table), but statistically, creative output is one of the things that people consider when looking for a mate.
I say “people.” Nettle says “women.” Going back to peacocks – they don’t mate for life. A male can go after as many peahens as will have him. His investment in the next generation is very small, so he doesn’t have to be picky. People, though, invest quite a bit more in the next generation. Most people in the world practice monogamy. (Even in societies that allow polygamy, most people in it have only one mate.) I read several years ago a theory that early humans tended to mate for about two years if they didn’t have a kid. after that, they tend to move on. this was valuable behavior as they seemed to be infertile with each other. If they had a kid, they would tend to stay together until the kid was 7 years old. At that point, a kid doesn’t require as many resources. Giving birth is a much higher investment on the part of a woman than men’s part in conception, but 7 years of monogamy means that they’re both very strongly invested in the child. So the mother invests more resources, but not that much more.
Think of that movie March of the Penguins. the males and females look pretty much alike. The males didn’t have any special plumage. But both parents had a nearly equal part in taking care of the kid. Both of them had to be extremely strong to reproduce and both of them had to be completely dedicated to their one offspring. A female could only lay one egg and a male could only keep one egg warm. therefore, their contribution was more or less equal. So when they were searching for mates, they’re both looking for somebody strong and healthy. Any plumage that the males developed would be equally important on the females. they both need to be able to march out, find food, march back, feed the kid, etc.
But, alas, Nettle is trapped in the male plumage theory. As dubious proof of the essenitaly male nature of creativity, he has a graph of gallery shows for male and female painters in the first half of the 20th century. I wish this was a joke, but it’s actually in the book and he appears to be serious about it. He does acknowledge the role of sexism, but brushes it aside. However, he would have been hard pressed to find a graph more influenced by sexism. For an example, Frieda Kahlo, who was awesome and had an incredible amount of output, didn’t get a solo show until near the end of her life. She was an international celebrity before anybody even thought to give her a solo show. Her work now is considered iconic and is extremely popular, but the sale price of her painting is still much lower than other male artists with less fame and popular appeal, and she’s on display in fewer museums than one would expect. She is not at all an isolated case, but rather just one of the most blatant. If Nettle had looked up a graph for white vs African American shows, he would have found similar data. Having established creativity as a human universal, it would be stupid and incorrect to argue racial difference based on such a graph. But here he does it with sex differences.
Ok, fine, there are sex differences in other species and there are some sex differences in humans too. But humans have nearly equal fertility investments in child rearing, so sex differences should be much less. Furthermore, peahens don’t have fancy tails. If it were the case that creativity was an essentially male persuit, there would be no genetic advantage in giving women the dangerous personality types associated with creativity. They would get none of the reward and bear none of the burden. Indeed, since personality types and creativity are so closely associated, the rate of male vs female insanity should indicate the rate of creative potential. And it’s very near the same. (Women are more likely than men to have a polar disorder.)
Quick, name a female sex symbol! Madonna! What does she do? She sings! How many female sex symbols are creative? Singers, dancers, actors! It should be completely obvious that male heterosexuals are as captivated by creative talent as straight women. (And queer folks having kids value this also.) Only blinding levels of sexism could obscure this.
I’m really tired of folks trying to say that composing is inherently, biologically male. The arts are human. Any attempt to assign them to gender is misguided and silly – or it would be silly if it weren’t so dangerous. And the lengths that women go to in order to create, fighting systems specifically put in place to keep them out, should emphasize the universality of creativity. Given the obstacles preventing women from getting gallery shows in the first half of the 20th century, the fact that there are any at all seems to imply a possibility that women have more creative capacity than men. I don’t think this is the case. I think the higher rate of depression in women is environmental, caused by things like barriers to creative recognition. I think the struggles past women have gone through to get their work out in the world is testament to the human spirit.
So, all in all, Nettle makes a pretty good argument, despite being a sexist ass who needs to revise some of the last chapters. He also gives advice to folks to try to stay sane. A personality type at risk to insanity can be helpful, but actual insanity is not. People who tend to succeed are organized and hard working (alas for me). Hard work is a greater part of creative success than other factors. So don’t feel bad about your mental illness. Work hard, get help if and when you need it. Poets are sexy.

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Charles Céleste Hutchins

Supercolliding since 2003

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Strong Imagination”

  1. I’m a poet AND a composer! Why am I not also psychotic? What women creatives go through to get their work heard/seen/tasted/touched ought to drive us insane long before the creative process does, and yet I’m still hanging in there. I don’t know how that works.

    Thanks for the long and thoughtful book review. 🙂

  2. Heh. Well, maybe if you had an identical twin, she would be crazy?

    The people who are successful at being creative are the people who don’t go insane. They tend to have insane family members. So their genetic personality type carries a higher risk, but environmental factors control whether they actually go over the brink or not.

    A lot of insanity is also temporary, so maybe you’ve been crazy but didn’t notice at the time? 😉

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