Wednesday, 18 April 2012

A fine madness: poetry, the right hemisphere and mood disorders

Re-reading August Kleinzahler's great poem 'Green Sees Things In Waves' recently, I was reminded of poetry's mind-altering capacities, or at least its capacity to capture altered states of mind. The poem starts off with Green's strange perceptions

Green first thing each day sees waves -
the chair, armoire, overhead fixtures, you name it,
waves - which, you might say, things really are...

...and then we're off on a rollercoaster LSD trip, which takes in parallel worlds of the-party-in-the-same-room, hallucinated cats and next door's vibrating plumbing. Green just 'can't find the knob to turn off the show'.

We're all familiar with the Byronic notion that poets themselves are 'mad, bad and dangerous to know'. Kay Redfield Jamison's thoughtfully-written book 'Touched With Fire' reviews some of the research connecting the activity of writing poetry with, amongst other things, suicide, manic depression, affective disorder and hospitalisation to discover whether there really is such a thing as 'fine madness' or whether such associations are part stereotype.

As a social psychology student several years ago, I did my undergraduate dissertation on social representations of poets and poetry. The term 'social representation' comes from the French social psychologist Serge Moscovici and refers to the stock of ideas, values and beliefs a particular social group holds about something. Moscovici studied the reception of psychoanalysis in France and how it came to be represented in society. In my research, I was interested in how we collectively 'see' poets as a group, whether the stereotype of the 'mad creative genius' frames people's perceptions of what being a poet involves. To cut a long story short, it does, and there's been a large amount of literature devoted to the idea. In fact, my study suggested it was poets themselves that sometimes held these ideas most strongly.

So is this a self-fulfilling prophecy, or is the relationship a real one? Kay Redfield Jamison, who has written eloquently about her own experiences of manic episodes, posits a 'compelling association' between some aspects of bipolar disorder and some aspects of verbal creativity. In particular, she believes that the states of hyper-association which accompany a manic episode are characterised by rapidity and flexibility of thought and a capacity for forming original connections which are also pronounced in creative thought. Importantly, Redfield Jamison tempers her assertion by being very clear that people who suffer from manic episodes are not in those states most of the time and that by no means all writers experience these kind of episodes.

In his book 'The Soul in the Brain: the Cerebral Basis of Language, Art and Belief', Michael Trimble takes Redfield Jamison's argument one step further and tries to suggest a neurological basis for this connection.To Trimble, the clue lies in the functional asymmetry of the brain. To summarise his argument too briefly, poetry is the language of the right hemisphere. Associations between manic depression and poetry reveal just this biological association, since bipolar disorder is associated with right hemisphere activity. Thus "poetry and mood instability are linked through common associations to the functions of the right hemisphere." This is why early attempts to explore a possible link between poetry and schizophrenia revealed little correlation: schizophrenia is associated with reduced activity of the right hemisphere.

Trimble's argument is much more subtle and interesting than this summary implies, and I really recommend 'The Soul in the Brain...'. Over several chapters, he painstakingly demonstrates the link between poetry and music (via the right hemisphere's capacity for prosody and rhythm) and connects this right hemispheric bias to the evolution of language and music from a common ancester (an idea I've written about elsewhere in relation to the work of Stephen Mithen). Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is Trimble's attempt to show how our tendencies towards music and poetry are also connected to religion and myth-making, an idea that I can't possibly do justice to here. In short, Trimble says that the thread that unites music, poetry and religion is the neurobiology of the right hemisphere and its strong connections to the limbic system (a specialised role maintained sometime in the brain's evolutionary history). Reading 'The Soul in the Brain...' it's easy to see how some of these ideas must have inspired Iain McGilchrist's work 'The Master and his Emissary'.

The correlation between mental illness and poetry is a huge, contentious topic, one which writers themselves often have very strongly-held personal beliefs about. This post isn't intended as any kind of decisive or exhaustive commentary, or even as a thorough overview (it couldn't hope to be ins so few words), but more as an attempt to present ideas that connect this much-debated topic to the idea of functional asymmetry of the brain and suggest another way of looking at it. I'm sure there'll be many different future perspectives. For now, I'll end with the wise words of none other than Emily Dickinson and her poem 'Much Madness is divinest Sense.'

Much Madness is divinest Sense —
To a discerning Eye —
Much Sense — the starkest Madness —
’Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail —
Assent — and you are sane —
Demur — you’re straightway dangerous —
And handled with a Chain —


  1. Well, I have often thought that madness associated with poets is brought on by people around them rejecting or exploiting or disparaging their creativity. Maybe it is a case of the oppositional forces in the right hemisphere. HYPER right hemi activity = poetry, while HYPO right brain activity = schizoid behaviors. Oh who can say? I know that my brain feels "buzzing" sensations when I am writing and "in the zone" and for hours after that. Is my limbic/right hemi wire vibrating? Oh I hope so.

  2. Nice to arrive at the Dickinson at the end here.

  3. I wrote my book of fairy tales in verse on the back of a bout of depression. The whole book was written in a few weeks. I was not manic in any other way though. An interesting article this. I remain very sceptical of neuropsychology. My mentor Ronnie Laing thought it was mad to be normal. Neuropsychology tries to normalize, and in that it makes us less than we are

  4. Very interesting post. I am a poet myself so what you say sounds right. You can read some of my present work here: and the translations of some of my poems here: Thanks! PD: I lived in Sheffield some years ago and taught Spanish at the Sheffild Uni.