Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Midnight Disease

by Alice W. Flaherty

Can't stop blogging? Wondering why you're unavoidably spilling your guts for the world to read? Can't seem to control the urge? Well, I was listening to NPR in 2004 when they did an interview with Flaherty to discussed her book on hypergraphia and it was so compelling I ordered it that same day.

Hypergraphia (and if you're up on your Greek roots you could guess this) is the overwhelming desire to write. Ms. Flaherty is a neurologist at Massachutes General Hospital, teaches at Harvard, and in addition to being a writer and a mother of twins, suffered from hypergraphia following pregnancy. While the interview focused primarily on her exploration of hypergraphia, only the first part of the book sticks with that subject. Reading the chapter titles gives you a feel:

1. Hypergraphia: The Incurable Disease of Writing
2. Literary Creativity and Drive
3. Writer's Block As A State of Mind
4. Writer's Block As Brain State
5. How We Write: The Cortex
6. Why We Write: The Limbic System
7. Metaphor, the Inner Voice, and the Muse

Her unique position as a scientist, doctor, woman and writer makes for a analytic, yet emotional discussion. She examines feelings, mental states, and biological reasons for why we writers do what we do and how the human communication system works or doesn't work.

Having felt guilt and irritation when not writing and a sense of urgency when I am, I found Flaherty's information enlightening and empowering. Is that why I do it this way? Is this why I can't do it that way? Is that why I feel this way in that circumstance? It was a window into my own brain and personality that I found fascinating and exciting--truly one of those experiences that changes my paradigm.

In addition to the startling information about writing and the brain, perhaps the chapter that expanded me the most was the last on the "inner muse." Flaherty examines the birthplace of inspiration and enlightenment as a brain state, as a zone within the brain that is linked not only to artistic creativity but also religious experience.

That the breath of inspiration and divine revelation are inextricably linked within our brains and that perhaps those experiences that I'd always thought to be triggered by outside forces are originating inside my own head in my own limbic system was thought provoking and far-reaching. Is this how I get ideas? Is this how my religious experiences have originated? All fascinating suppositions.

Although some readers might panic at the idea of God's inspiration being reduced to a set of dendrite and axons inside their heads I didn't find it disruptive to my own faith anymore than is the theory of evolution. I quote from page 257:

"The existence of a God module [in our brains] would not disprove the existence of God, just as the existence of the visual cortex does not disprove the existence of visual objects."

Anyone who believes we are created by God could not suggest that He isn't capable of using the capabilities of our own brains for divine purposes and any explanation of how the greater universe works I find beneficial. By positing theories to explain some of my own inner workings to me, giving me reasons for why I may act or think the way I do, and making a case for the divine within each of us, this has to be one of the most influential books I've read.

I have read reviews complaining that The Midnight Disease is overly technical and difficult to absorb. This IS neuroscience people, it's going to be harder than your average episode of Blue's Clues, but with illustrations, anecdotes, cultural references and personal experience throughout it isn't beyond comprehension. And a mind-stretching experience is worth a bit of intellectual weight lifting.


Annie said...

Yippe! I get to be the first to thank you for the review of this book. If my library doesn't have a copy of it, it soon will because I shall request one! (They spoil me shamelessly.) Thanks a million. Now I may learn what makes me a writing-fool? I'm ready! And what a wonderful writer YOU are to be posting like this on your vacation!!!

Julie said...

I can't wait to find a copy myself. I'm very intrigued by the creativity / divinity connection.

You gotta love NPR!

owlhaven said...

I definitely have this illness!

(she says while writing compulsively late at night)

Mary, mom to many

PS-- Thanks for stopping by!

Damselfly said...

Congratulations for using the words "dendrite" and "axon" in your post! Thanks for the book referral.