Despised for Your Talent

We’re encouraged to try to become outstanding.  Being outstanding is supposed to be a good thing.  It’s valuable.  It’s a unique quality that enables you to create a life, as an artist, because you provide something that simply isn’t available elsewhere.  However, there is a cost associated with achieving a level of performance that marks you out as plainly different to other people and I don’t mean the struggles and effort it takes to get there.  This is a hazard associated with having become outstanding.

What does it mean to be extraordinary?  Sometimes, it’s being the most competent or the smartest person in the room.  Other times, it’s being the most beautiful, desirable or popular person.  If you happen to be the most productive, the most lovable, the most imaginative, talented, successful, accomplished or the most creative, that can mark you out.  Simply having experienced some measure of good fortune, in your life, can put you into that category, too.  Having obvious physical or intellectual advantages tends to make you extraordinary, as well.

Everybody loves to be loved.  In fact, I would go as far as to say it’s a fundamental human need.  Being loved, appreciated and liked by people around you is necessary for a healthy psyche.  By the same token, we are acutely sensitive to “bad vibes” emanating from other people, especially if they do so, on a sustained basis.  Why might somebody think ill of somebody outstanding?  Why might they want to “do them down”, bring about their downfall or decrease their performance to the point of ordinariness?  Why attack their reputation for excellence and try to bring them into disrepute?  Why are tall poppies mown down with such monotonous regularity?

Think about the most creative, gifted and talented artist you know, or the most beautiful woman you are friends with.  What is their life like?  Are they universally accepted and admired, everywhere they go or are they frequently the target of spite, hatefulness, intimidation, jealousy, pettiness and other forms of direct attack on their psyches?  I think you know the answer.  The most outstanding people often live a life polluted by a constant barrage of assaults on their very being, whether express or implied, simply for being who they are.  Even the most modest of outstanding people attract enemies and detractors for no other reason than they inadvertently cast ordinary people into unfavourable comparisons with them, by doing nothing other than existing and being in their presence.

If an ordinary person is in the presence of somebody obviously extraordinary, they resent the fact that they have been made to look obviously ordinary.  They may have thought of themselves as relatively high fliers, prior to coming into contact with the real thing and now feel a loss of their status and recognition for their own achievements and qualities.  It is often the nearly great that take the fiercest dislike to the actually great.

How does it feel to be on the receiving end of all that ill will and to be aware that people not only despise you for your talents, but want to bring you down, taking away from you whatever small comforts you gain from being outstanding?

People that find themselves in this situation will tell you that they can sense a stream of pure malicious energy directed toward them.  They become aware of whispering campaigns of lies and distortions, aimed at undermining their good standing.  Somehow, they become aware that there is gossip, sleights, smears and slander circulating about them, or they begin to suspect it, because of the small clues that alert them to the likelihood.  Most frequently, they report that they feel as though they are being watched or are under scrutiny, all the time.

If you find yourself in this position, you know that the green eye of somebody with a black heart has cast its gaze upon you and that people wish you ill, not well.  You become vaguely aware of plots and machinations, all in the shadows and supposedly secret, to destroy you, take away whatever status you have earned and cast you into oblivion.  Your jealous detractors will destroy your career and livelihood, if they can find a way.  Rather than improving themselves, they would prefer to dismantle you.  In short, you begin to experience a sort of psychological torment.

This leaves the victim of the psychic attack feeling drained, devoured and consumed.  Their life force feels like it is being sucked right out of their body.  It’s as if their enemies are feeding on their outstanding qualities, hungrily and greedily eating them, until there is nothing left.  More often than not, the person under attack is entirely innocent and has done no harm to their attacker.  They would not wish them any harm, either.  Sometimes, the person under attack has shared their gifts generously, for the common good and been all the more resented for it.  That’s extremely unjust.

Pretty soon, the attack begins to produce physical manifestations in the victim.  They might experience a loss of motivation, sleep disturbances, depression, lethargy, brain fog, loss of concentration, heartbreak, actual bodily pain and eventually physical illnesses.  The feeling of being unwanted, unwelcome, disliked, undermined, slandered, unloved or otherwise resented eventually takes a physical toll.  These vicious, malicious, unwarranted, undeserved, psychic attacks of the jealous on the outstanding can destroy a person.  The subject of the hatred becomes unwell, unproductive and can lose touch with the very creative powers and characteristics that made them outstanding in the first place.

If you are under such a relentless attack, you may become consumed and distracted with the injustice of it all or spend time trying to understand why you are being attacked, when all you wanted to do was share your talents and make good things.  You might get sidetracked trying to understand the rational reasons for the jealousy and spite or on how you might appease your detractors, but there is no rational reason for it or any way to appease them.  Their attacks on you are infantile, irrational, psychotic and meaningless, ultimately.  Sometimes, they attack you just because they can and you’re their most obvious target – nothing more.  Their attacks on your psyche can be sustained, personal and vicious, yet easily and plausibly denied, because they are seldom physical assaults.

The only effective defence against jealous detractors is to remove yourself from the line of fire of the psychic attack, or attack on your psyche.  These psychotic haters aren’t going to stop until you are no longer of relevance to them and fighting back just makes you into a monster too.  That will destroy who you are.  The best thing to do is to remove yourself from the situation and let the small-minded, petty attacker find some other way to comfort themselves for their lack of courage to better themselves and for their rank, fetid mediocrity.

It’s a sad fact that small minded people find it easier to hate than to act with compassion, understanding and kindness.  I don’t know why this should be so.  It seems like an evolutionary aberration.  Unfortunately, it’s the reality that outstanding people must daily confront.  There are an awful lot of very hateful, average people out there and they can’t stand to be in the presence of people that are, in their perception, better than them.

Should the possibility of becoming susceptible to sustained psychic attacks and malicious streams of pure, jealous hatred put you off becoming, or just simply being, outstanding?  I don’t think so.  The application of creative talents and one’s gifts are just too important to give up.  The world badly needs those contributions.  However, it is important, for self preservation reasons, that the outstanding individual is aware of the possibility of attacks, knows their enemies and takes steps to remain out of their line of fire, whenever possible.  Sometimes it comes down to a battle of wills, but that’s a dangerous and psychologically costly war to wage.  It is far better to sidestep the detractors and move on.

If you happen to be somebody outstanding, for one reason or another, wear your talents lightly, be on the alert for jealous detractors and do whatever you can to avoid them.  Default to agility and fleetness of foot and leave the mediocre to stew in their own mediocrity.  You shouldn’t have to endure constant malice for the terrible sin of being who you are.

I wish jealous detractors would spend even half as much effort and energy in becoming outstanding individuals themselves as they do in destroying those that already are.  The world would be better if they did.

 

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Be Nice To Your Band Mates

One thing I have noticed about bands that break up is that it usually has nothing to do with musical differences, though that is the oft-cited reason why a band has met its demise.  The truth of the matter reveals itself when you read interviews with former band members who are asked about possible reunions.

A band is something that has a unique creative chemistry.  When it’s “on song” (excuse the cliché), the sum is greater than the parts.  Band mates each contribute their best creative outpourings and the resulting melange is a spectacularly popular and successful concoction.  Fans know it and long for it, when it ends.  When a band breaks up, the fans wish that the members could be brought back together, to make those wonderful creative collaborations, just one more time.  Unfortunately, that frequently becomes impossible to achieve and that’s because there is too much bad blood and water under the bridge, too many emotional scars, to permit the former band mates to put all that aside and get down to pouring out their best creative ideas again.

In a typical successful band, the members are riding high.  They can begin to think they each walk on water and have unique talents that are indispensible.  The trouble is they fail to understand that every member of the band has unique talents that are indispensible, too, and that the magic comes from combining those talents, not isolating them in solo projects.  As a consequence of inflated egos and the removal of any inhibitions, constraints or prohibitions to downright rotten behaviour, band members frequently begin to behave like utter arseholes.  They do and say things that no grounded person, with a modicum of humility, would ever contemplate.

In the process, they can and do inflict terrible psychological wounds on their band mates.  Band members either come to loathe the behaviour and lack of ethics or morals of each other, or else they directly steal from each other, whether monetarily or in personal relationships.  The most egregious abuse comes when one member thinks they own the creative output of the band and denigrate, ignore, belittle or minimise the contributions made by the others.  In effect, what happens is that the creative collaboration comes a distant second to pampering their own egos and inflicting terrible injuries and injustices on one another.  Band members become obsessed with themselves and what they are getting out of the deal and unhesitatingly and callously walk all over everybody else, including their former best friends and creative collaborators.  In short, they stop being kind to each other.  They kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, in the process.

Consequently, when the dust has settled, time has passed and each band member has gone on to usually less successful creative projects (or even if they enjoy more success), nostalgia for the old magical combination of talents rears its head.  People begin to hunger for the band as it was, in the original line-up.  Perhaps the band members themselves feel a longing for the good old days, or else feel financial pressures to get back together to attempt to recreate the magic.  They may all still have their creative talents (perhaps better than ever), it may be possible to combine those creative contributions into a magical collaboration, at least on paper, but it will never happen in practice.  Why not?  Because the love is gone.

Love is an important ingredient in creative collaborations.  If each band member has no love for the others, then it is virtually impossible to bring their best creative outpourings to the project and place them for combination with everybody else’s parts.  Great collaborations are always an act of love.  It’s both a love for the beauty of the resultant creation, but also for each other.  If, due to the bad behaviour or addictions of band members in days gone by, the love is lost, it’s almost impossible to rekindle.  A love lost is usually a love lost forever.

What I urge members of a band to remain mindful of, particularly if they are becoming successful, is that the collaboration is precious and that their band mates are precious too.  This unique chemistry may never exist with any other people, ever again.  Being a part of a great band is a special thing that, if you’re lucky, may happen to you just once in your lifetime.  If the collaboration is producing creations that are undoubtedly things of unique beauty, then that whole collaborative process and symbiotic relationship is valuable and very much worth protecting and preserving.  The best way to keep it alive is to be kind to each other and to eschew the excessive bad behaviour which so frequently accompanies being in a successful band.

Just say no.  Say no, because it nurtures and protects the musical collaboration and helps it to thrive.  That’s the valuable part of the band.  Each member might think they individually walk on water, but it’s the collaboration that has the wings and can fly.  Always remember that.  The amazing, magical thing is not the possession of a single band member.  It belongs to all of them and can only continue to exist while fraternal love remains.

They say that being in a band is like being in a marriage.  Well, there are good marriages and bad marriages and the best marriages don’t just happen, they survive because those in the marriage work at them and fight to keep them good and alive.  Bands need to be good marriages too.  Each member can and should make it their number one priority to make the band marriage a good marriage.

The irony is that if the love can be maintained, then the band never finds a need to break up and they can have a long and successful career together, delighting their fans and audiences over generations.  The question of getting back together never arises, because there is never a need to break up.  Meanwhile, the collaborative creations just get better and better.  This is a pretty big payoff for simply refraining from being an arsehole to each other.

Is it really too much to ask?

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Focus, Insight, Creativity and Depression

What’s the use of melancholy and melancholic feelings?  If depression and negative thoughts are so bad, you would have thought that evolution would have selected those prone to it out of the gene pool, by now.  After all, there’s an awful lot of depression about, compared to other mental disorders.  It wouldn’t be a far stretch to suggest that depression is one of the more common psychological afflictions, if not the most common.  What’s depression for?  What purpose does it serve?  Is it a disorder at all?  Should we be so hell-bent on lifting the depressed out of their depressive moods?  If we do, at what cost to the depressed person?

There is little doubt that surviving in a depressive state is costly to the individual.  Their bodies flood with inflammatory cytokines that begin making major and potentially catastrophic changes to their physiology.  One of the side effects of this flood of proteins is that the hippocampus no longer regenerates new neural cells, as well destroying existing ones.  The person that is depressed feels physically bad.  They lose their sense of pleasure in things they previously enjoyed.  They become remote and detached from the people they love.  Their sleep is disrupted.  It’s miserable.  For what conceivable reason would evolution allow organisms, in large numbers, to exist in this state for any period of time?  What’s the evolutionary payoff for all the suffering?

It would seem that if depression makes you a poor mate, because depressed people are very hard to live with, then you would expect to find more depression in the aged, where it matters less for the survival of one’s own genes.  In the main, we don’t.  In fact, we see a lot of depression in the young, whose prospects for mating can be greatly harmed by their depression.  How has evolution not bred this mental state out, by now?  If it were a genetic predisposition, you would have thought that depressives would have failed to find mates, over successive generations, and that eventually the gene for depression would have diluted and disappeared, in the general population.  Clearly, perfectly ordinary genes produce depression.

We might postulate that depression is a side effect of modern Western lifestyles, which we have not evolved to cope with fully.  Like obesity, which is due to the prevalence and ready availability of excess fructose in the modern diet, perhaps depression is just a side effect of the increasing opportunities for despair, in today’s society.  It turns out that just about every culture that has been examined, including pre-modern societies, exhibit symptoms of depression and melancholy.  It’s not a recent phenomenon.  We’ve had depression prevailing in our evolutionary past.  So, what is this mental state for?  There are clearly heavy costs, but are there some evolutionarily significant benefits?

The interesting thing about depression is that depressed people often report persistent rumination.  They go over their thoughts, again and again.  In fact, they go into a state of deep thought, highly focused on solving the problem that is making them feel depressed, to the exclusion of interacting in important human relationships, experiencing pleasure, sleeping, eating and so on.  Hold that thought.  It’s important.

It turns out that every ordinary human brain has a molecule in it that is called 5HT1A and it’s a receptor.  This receptor binds to serotonin, another molecule that ordinary brains have, but which is implicated in depression.  In fact, there are medications that seek to modify serotonin uptake, to treat depression.  In animal models (rats), specimens that don’t have this 5HT1A receptor show fewer depressive symptoms, in response to negative stress.  Consequently, pharmaceutical companies are now working on treatments that target this specific receptor, to “cure” depression.

However, it seems this might not be a good idea.  It turns out that the composition of the functional part of the rat 5HT1A receptor is 99% similar to that of humans.  This suggests that it is such a vital component of the brain’s normal functioning that evolution has sought to preserve it.  Should we be obliterating it?  The ability to turn depression on, as a mental state, would seem to be important, rather than a dysfunction, accident, defect or undesirable feature of brain functioning.  We have evolved the ability to flip the depression bit for some purposeful reason that matters to our survival and ability to propagate our genes, it would seem.

In life, we encounter very difficult to solve, complex problems.  Our approach to solving them is to apply analysis.  Analysis is the best tool we have in our current cognitive toolbox, but it requires slow, focused, uninterrupted, sustained processing.  Disruption interferes with complex, analytical problem solving.  Programmers know this.  When you interrupt somebody that is writing complex software code, it takes them a full fifteen minutes to re-immerse themselves in the problem domain.  In resurfacing from the problem solving zone, the mental model they constructed in their mind is temporarily destroyed due to the distraction and programmers must reload that mental model, from scratch, when they go back to their coding, before they can make forward progress.  The period of time required to rebuild the mental model with sufficient fidelity to carry on with the analysis and problem solving is a full fifteen minutes, on average.  If you continually interrupt a programmer, at quarter hour intervals, he or she will make literally no progress on solving their problem.  All of their time will be spent in re-immersion.

The analysis approach to solving complex social problems is an interesting mode of thinking.  By dwelling and ruminating on a complex problem, breaking it down into smaller sub-components, which can be addressed and processed, one at a time, the individual components are usually much simpler to solve than the whole problem is, so the complex problem becomes more tractable.  It is said to yield to analysis.  As a way of solving difficult things, it’s very productive.

What if depression is needed to help you throw all of your mental resources at analytical problem solving?  What if depression is a painful, expensive adaptation that allows us to confront and solve complex problems, which clearly allow us to survive and propagate, in the face of such problems?  What if saving the whole world and its environment requires that our best, most creative minds endure depressive symptoms, just so that they can shut out the constant and increasing stream of distraction, for long enough to come up with the answers?

The analytical rumination hypothesis proposes that depression is an evolved response to complex problems, whose function is to minimise disruptions and sustain analysis of those problems by giving the root problem prioritised access to thinking and processing resources in the brain.  This is achieved by reducing the desire to engage in distracting activities, through the onset of anhedonia.  Your physiology produces psychomotor changes that reduce exposure to distracting stimuli.  You become withdrawn, socially isolated and disinterested in trivia.  You become physically lethargic, so that you can sit, quietly and ruminate on your complex problem.  Brains are finite and so processing resources are limited.  A mental state that permits sustained focus on analysis of the root problem necessarily reduces the ability to concentrate on other things.

Support for the analytical rumination hypothesis now includes evidence from many levels – genes, neurotransmitters and their receptors, neurophysiology, neuroanatomy, neuroenergetics, pharmacology, cognition, behaviour and efficacy of treatments.  The hypothesis also provides explanations for puzzling findings in the depression literature, challenges the belief that serotonin transmission is low and depression and has implications for treatment.

Brain researchers have found that the capacity for intense focus relies in large part in a part of the brain called the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), which is located a few inches behind the forehead.  This brains structure has been associated with a wide variety of mental talents, like conceptual knowledge and verb conjugation, for example, but it seems to be specifically important for maintaining attention.  The VLPFC is the mechanism by which you achieve and maintain focus.  Experiments show that neurons in the VLPFC must fire continuously to keep us on task, so that we don’t become sidetracked by distractions and irrelevancies.  It has also been show that deficits in the VLPFC have been associated with attention deficit disorder.

Several studies of depressed patients showed an increase in brain activity in the VLPFC.  Neuroscientists in China found a spike in functional connectivity between the lateral prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain in depressed patients, with more severe depressions leading to more prefrontal activity.  In other words, the more depressed the patient, the greater the connectivity of the prefrontal cortex with other parts of the brain and more active the VLPFC.

One explanation for this observation is that the hyperactive VLPFC underlies the process of rumination, allowing people to stay focused on their problem.  This relentless fixation is also thought to explain cognitive deficits in depressed subjects, because they are too busy thinking about their real-life problems to bother with an artificial lab exercise.  When the VLPFC is running at high levels of activity, people can’t be bothered to care about distractions.  Human attention is a scarce resource and the neural effects of depression make sure this limited resource is efficiently allocated to the solution of the complex problem at hand.

Another feature of the human brain is that our working memory is extremely limited, but highly efficient.  Some refer to it as utilised in our “Type 2” mode of thinking.  It’s used when we concentrate.  Reliance of the VLPFC doesn’t just lead us to fixate on our depressing situation; it also leads to a detailed and analytical style of thinking.  Rumination is rooted in working memory.  Working memory is a kind of mental scratchpad that allows us to work with all the information stuck in our consciousness (and perhaps some in our unconscious).  When people use their working memory, whether they are performing long division or contemplating a relationship gone wrong, they tend to think in a more deliberate, methodical fashion, breaking complex problems down into their simpler component parts.

Recapping, then, the VLPFC must fire continuously, so that the body and brain is organised to help people analyse their problems without getting distracted, but this is very energetically demanding for the neurons of the VLPFC.  As with any piece of physical machinery, if you run it at maximum capacity for a prolonged period of time, it can break down under the continued stress.  Studies of depression in rats shows that the 5HT1A receptors is involved in supplying the neurons with the fuel they need to fire, as well as preventing them from breaking down.  These important processes allow depressive rumination to continue, uninterrupted, with minimal neuronal damage or exhaustion.  This might explain why the 5HT1A receptor has been so carefully preserved by evolution.  It plays a very important role in preserving our capacity for prolonged rumination on hard problems.

The problem with Type 2 thinking is that this form of deliberate thought processing is slow, tiresome, exhausting and prone to distraction, if for no other reason than to provide some relief from the pain of thinking like this.  The VLPFC can grow exhausted and give out.  If depression didn’t exist at all, or we didn’t react to stress and trauma with endless ruminations, then we might be less likely to solve our predicaments, which might have dire consequences for us.  Our wisdom is hard won, doesn’t come cheaply and we pay for it with pain and mental exhaustion.

Counter intuitively, sometimes giving our ruminations a rest is the best way to continue with analytical thinking on a particularly complex problem.  Sleeping on it can really provide the necessary respite to revive the old grey cells.  This, of course, is hard to do if you are depressed and fixated on your problem.  You have to find a way to temporarily suspend your depression.  If your VLPFC gets fatigued (and it will), then a bit of deliberate distraction is useful to rest the thinking machinery and let it recuperate.  It’s why a hot bath is sometimes the best place to begin coming at a difficult problem from a new angle.

It’s also why creative people need to sometimes do nothing at all, on purpose, letting the future creation in their imaginations percolate, and why displacement activities may have a genuinely positive role to play in problem solving.  I despair when I see managers of creative people accusing them of goofing off or wasting time, when they seem to be inactive or distracted from the work at hand, as if they should be grinding out solutions to difficult problems, uninterrupted, the entire time, like mechanical machines.  Fatigue of the VLPFC won’t let them and driving it to destruction is not a good answer.  In fact, it leads to burnout.  This VLPFC fatigue might also explain the erratic mood swings and sudden impulsivity of creative and analytical people.  They have to move from rumination to rest and back again somehow.

Our lucid insights are more often than not the result of these prolonged ruminations.  We might not be aware that one leads to the other, but it is highly likely that when you suddenly have clear insight into a solution or situation, it is because your mind has been crunching on the issue for some considerable amount of time.  In other words, depression, because it permits fuller use of the available intellectual processing resources of your brain, can lead to insights and these may come sooner, because of the prioritisation of thinking about a specific problem that depression enables.

Is this analytical rumination hypothesis mere idle speculation, though?  Is there any evidence that depression is useful in analysing complex problems?  For one thing, if depressive rumination were harmful, as most clinicians and researchers appear to assume it is, then bouts of depression should be slower to resolve when people are given interventions that encourage rumination, such as having them write about their strongest thoughts and feelings (sometimes known as “blogging”, for example).  Several studies have found the opposite to be true.  Expressive writing appears to promote quicker resolution of depression, because depressed people gain insight into their problems faster, through the process of writing about them.  The more efficiently you can ruminate, with aids to clear thinking and analysis, the faster your depression resolves.  Perhaps this is what fuels and motivates the millions of blog posts that are written each day.  It could be a form of self-help and a way of organising thoughts about complex issues.

I claim that artistic creativity is a species of hard problem solving that, at least in part, yields to the analytical thinking approach which depression enables.  Creativity definitely involves rumination.  Any artist will be aware of this.  It also requires focus and defences against distraction.  Perhaps this is why so-called “depressive disorders” are associated with creative people, especially artists.  What we identify as “the artists’ struggle” and the associated inner angst that accompanies it could simply be the artist’s mind prioritising its processing resources to bring something into the world that is intellectually demanding to create.  Maybe we need, as artists, to devote a lot of our brain power to create things that never existed before.  We might be using depressive states to devote the requisite cognitive processing to the task of making something out of nothing.

In a survey about their mental history conducted by neuroscientists, using thirty writers from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as subjects, it was found that eighty percent of the writers met the formal diagnostic criteria for some form of depression.  In biographical studies of British writers and artists, a similar theme emerged.  Psychiatrists found that successful individuals were eight times as likely to suffer from major depressive illness as people in the general population.  The price of success appears to be bouts of depression, the research suggests.

When it comes to creativity, depression is intertwined with a cognitive style of thinking that makes people more likely to produce successful works of art.  One of the most important qualities, in the creative process, is persistence.  Successful writers, for example, share the quality of getting hit repeatedly, but always getting back up and trying again.  They stick with their work until it’s right.  They’re resilient because they can keep devoting their brain’s processing powers to writing, almost exclusively.  While depression is not exactly a gift of the Muse and can negatively impact the quality of an artist’s life, many forms of creativity benefit greatly from the relentless focus that depression makes possible.

Sadly, using your powers of focused thinking is often inseparable from the suffering that accompanies it.  They say that if you’re at the cutting edge, then you’re going to bleed.  That’s not to be an apologist for the dreadful pain and suffering or to suggest that the price is necessarily worth paying.  It’s just that the two frequently go together and that many artists resign themselves to the linkage.

Another feature of people in depressive states is that they have a tendency to solve social dilemmas better.  Depressed people are always searching for better outcomes than their current situation appears to offer.  Various studies seem to confirm that social dilemmas, which depression helps solve because it enables focused rumination, would seem to have been precisely the kind of problems difficult enough to require analysis and also important enough to drive evolution of such a costly emotion.  If, for example, a woman with young children discovers her husband is having an affair, is her best strategy to ignore it, or force him to choose between here and the other woman, at the risk of being abandoned?  Laboratory experiments indicate that depressed people are better at solving situations like this, through better analysis of the costs and benefits of the different options that they might take.  It’s harsh, but true.

Another feature of depression is a tendency to become overly self-critical, harsh on ourselves and dismissive of our talents and achievements.  When people are stuck in a ruminative spiral, their accomplishments become invisible.  Their mind is fixated and solely interested in what has gone wrong.  While this condition is typically linked to withdrawal and silence (“retreat to the man-cave” being a social observation of the phenomenon), with an unwillingness to communicate, there is some suggestive evidence that states of unhappiness can actually improve our expressive (i.e. artistic) abilities.  Sadness, it has been found, correlates with clearer, more compelling sentence structure.  Negative moods promote a more concrete, accommodative and ultimately more successful communication style.  We become more eloquent and comprehensible.  Because we’re more critical of what we’re writing, we produce more refined, articulate prose.  Our sentences are polished by our angst.  A creative writer appears to be one for whom writing is a complex problem to be solved.  I wager that the same holds for painting and when composing music, too.  The ability to be self-critical, to not hide behind past achievements, keens the edge of our artistic powers.

It needs to be said, because it is an obvious and sinister danger, that “solving depression” through the chemical obliteration of the 5HT1A receptor, as is the goal of several pharmaceutical companies, could be used as tool of mind control, oppression and repression.  Call it “female intellectual mutilation” or FIM, if you want, because females would be the first targeted, due to their higher incidence of depression.  If you, as a dictator or tyrant (benign or otherwise), decided you wanted to quell all dissent, eliminate informed debate about hard problems with complex solutions, maintain the status quo and leave all the thinking to those in charge, then preventing people from accessing their ability to solve complex problems, because they are unable to use depression as a way of marshalling brainpower resources to do so, would be a deadly and effective way to do it.

If you eradicate the 5HT1A receptor, or inhibit its action, you might have a contented, superficially happy population, as if they were all taking Aldous Huxley’s fictional “Soma”, but you would effectively prevent them from participating in meaningful intellectual life.  They couldn’t form opinions that ran counter to prevailing orthodoxies, because they couldn’t focus long enough to think analytically or persistently about anything.  All progress would cease.  Is that a state of mind and existence that sits comfortably with you?  It causes me great disquiet.  I am motivated to ruminate on ways to prevent this all coming to pass.

The corollary, of course, is that under such a system of 5HT1A eradication, only those in charge would be capable of analytical thinking (assuming they wish to retain it) and hence only they would suffer the ill effects of depression.  The burden of being in charge would be the need to suffer uniquely, while others merely nodded and grinned.  It is hard to imagine any lust for power being strong enough to accept power on these terms, with such strings attached.  Of course, if nobody thinks the analytical thoughts, then we all perish.  We could become extinct at the hands of a cure for depression, set adrift on an ocean of trivial distractions.  Imagine that.

We’re already a long way down this path.  In recent decades, psychiatry has come to see rumination as a dangerous (subversive?) mental habit, because it leads people to fixate on their flaws and problems, thus extending their negative moods.  After all, so the thinking goes, there is nothing profound about depressive rumination.  There is just a recursive loop of woe.  That, of course, is to wholly ignore the fruits of depressive ruminations, which are frequently astounding breakthroughs.

According to conventional psychiatry, which also sees “above-average creativity” as a disorder, people with ruminative tendencies are more likely to become depressed (actually, it’s probably the other way around, confusing cause with effect).  Being depressed is, by their definition, bad, so being prone to rumination is also seen as bad.  These ruminating people are also more likely to be unnerved by stressful events, it is asserted.  That’s bad too.  Self identified ruminators showed significantly more depressive symptoms after experiencing an earthquake than so-called “normal” people, so this is deemed to be very bad.  It doesn’t stop there.  Ruminators exhibit cognitive defects because rumination hijacks the stream of consciousness.  They become exquisitely attentive to their own pain and numerous studies confirm that depressed subjects struggle to think about anything else.  This leads to poor performance on tests for memory and executive function, especially when the task involves lots of information.  Psychiatrists see it as a bad thing to devote your working memory to solving complex, difficult problems relevant to your real life in preference to passing their made-up memory and executive functions tests, which demand the use of that same scarce working memory, with flying colours.  Researchers note that these cognitive deficits disappear when subjects are first distracted from their depression and are thus better able to focus on the exercise.  Of course!  If you want to hijack a person’s analytical problem solving abilities to perform an artificial test of cognitive abilities, then by all means remove their depression.  It’s inconveniently in the way of the researcher’s experiment and career progression, after all.  Such research, besides raising several serious ethical issues, has reinforced the view that rumination is a useless kind of pessimism and a perfect, colossal waste of mental energy.  That was the consensus.

The evolutionary perspective leads to different conclusions.  Under the evolutionary model, the mind is a finely tuned machine, the result of millions of years of selection, which is not prone to pointless programming bugs.  In this model, rumination has a purpose.  It is readily observed that rumination is often a response to a specific psychological blow, like the death of a loved one or the loss of a job.  Although psychiatry, through its diagnostic bible, the DSM ignores such stressors when diagnosing depressive disorder, it is pretty clear that the problems of everyday life play a huge role in causing mental illness.  The DSM, fortunately, makes an exception for grief caused by bereavement as being a causal factor in depressive disorder, as long as the grief doesn’t last longer than their prescribed sixty days, but depressive disorder “just appears”, in the absence of this one specific psychological stressor.

Rumination is self-evidently unpleasant for those that experience it, but it is usually a response to something real.  It’s how we deal with real setbacks.  It would seem to be nonsensical to suggest that the brain would go haywire and collapse into disorder, just when we need clear solutions from it the most.  Evolution wouldn’t work that way.  It would be like animals throwing themselves into the jaws of lions, limply, when under attack by a pride.  Pretty soon, an evolutionary strategy that just gives up in the face of adversity would cause mass extinction.  Yet, this is precisely what the psychiatric profession invites us to believe about depression.  I find it increasingly difficult to trust or believe psychiatrists.  They don’t understand how things get created.

When the whole world is tending toward more and more distractions, eating up more of your day, isn’t it likely that the increasing incidence of depression is simply a natural, adaptive, counterbalancing reaction to this tendency?  The more distracted other people try to make us; the more we resort to depression as a way of creating some focused time for deep and relevant thinking.  If there are vast fortunes spent on entertaining us to death, ensuring that we are compliant consumers who spend their days obsessed by fashion and celebrity gossip, wouldn’t any right thinking population take steps to increase their quota of serious, analytical, problem-solving time to balance this out?  If depression was the route to achieving this focus and insight, via extended rumination, wouldn’t you expect depression to go up, as distraction increases?  That would seem to be the healthiest response, to such a stressor.

It’s true that sometimes people are reluctant to disclose the reason for their depression because it is embarrassing or sensitive.  They find it painful to discuss, so they believe they must stoically soldier on and ignore their pain.  People often have difficulty putting their complex internal struggles into words.  However, depression is very likely nature’s way of telling you that you have complex problems that your mind is intent on solving.  Therapies ought to encourage depressive rumination, rather than trying to stop or sidestep it.  The focus should be on trying to help people solve the problems that trigger their bouts of depression.  When a person is resistant to discussing their depressive ruminations, it is up to the therapist to identify and try to overcome those barriers.

What people are seeking are good answers to their hard problems, not a way of shutting down their thinking and ignoring those problems, leaving them without solution.  The first resort of clinicians, the chemical kosh, does little more than defer solution of those pressing and important problems.  In some cases, the pharmaceutical answer simply makes the real problems worse, because it leads to inattention to solving them, in a timely way.

Considering all the evidence, depression seems less like a disorder, where the brain is operating in a haphazard or malfunctioning way.  Instead, depression seems more like an intricate, highly-organised, evolutionary adaptation that performs a specific function – marshalling your brainpower exclusively to solve pressing problems that confront you, in your life.

For this reason, treating depression with antidepressants is probably highly counterproductive.  A typical patient, when asked by her doctor if her antidepressants were working, replied characteristically.  She said, “Yes, they’re working great.  I feel so much better.  But I’m still married to the same alcoholic son of a bitch.  It’s just now he’s tolerable”.  Is enabling people to tolerate unacceptable situations really the goal of psychiatry?  Should we be treating and eliminating depression, but in so doing allow people to remain victimised, trapped in terrible circumstances and at the mercy of their tormentors?  Is that even ethical?

People tend to be depressed for a reason, even if they are reluctant to access or articulate the deep reason.  Their pain is usually about something.  It’s usually about something real.  While drugs might make them feel better, no effective progress is ever made in resolving the underlying situation that gives rise to the pain and depression, as if it is an irrelevancy.  Consider that people on antidepressants have something like a 76% chance of relapse within a year, when drugs are discontinued.  Patients who are given cognitive talk therapy, who attempt to address and solve their problems, have a relapse rate of around 31%.  Patients treated with medications are about twice as likely to relapse as patients treated with cognitive behavioural therapy.  Why should this be?  The relapse rate suggests that patients on drugs aren’t really solving anything.  The root cause of their depression remains unaddressed.  In fact, the drugs interfere with the solution, so patients are discouraged from dealing with their problems in any meaningful way.  They end up having to stay on the drugs indefinitely, while their real, actual lives remain in disarray.  They just don’t care about it anymore, thanks to the effect of the antidepressants.  The equivalent analogy is that it’s as if the patient presented with an infection, but psychiatry treated only the fever.  The infection might run rampant and even accelerate, while efforts are spent on lowering body temperature.

In recent decades, society has developed a distinct bias against negative moods.  The dismissal of sadness and its synonyms as trivial and dangerous is perhaps best exemplified by the rise of positive psychology, a scientific field devoted to the pursuit of happiness.  A number of positive psychologists, all well meaning I’m sure, have, in recent years, written self-help books that try to teach you to overcome negative feelings and feelings of sadness.  They outline the scientific principles behind lasting fulfilment and getting the life we want and it involves studious avoidance of melancholy and depressive rumination.

However, new research on negative moods suggests that sadness comes with its own set of benefits and that even our most unpleasant feelings and emotions serve important purposes.  For example, it has been repeatedly demonstrated, in experiments, that negative moods lead to better decisions in complex situations.  You make better decisions when you’re sad, compared to when you’re happy.  The reason is rooted in the intertwined nature of mood and cognition.  Apparently, sadness promotes information processing strategies best suited to dealing with more demanding situations.  Test subjects who are melancholy are better at judging the accuracy of rumours and recalling past events.  They’re also much less likely to stereotype strangers.  In other words, melancholy sharpens their mental acuity.  Sadness increases your ability to remember small, seemingly insignificant and incidental details and makes you more aware and attentive.  It’s a form of heightened consciousness, in fact.

Does that imply that depression makes us any smarter?  Researchers have found that when you are faced with a difficult problem, such as a maths problem, feeling depressed is often a useful response that may help you analyse and solve it.  There is evidence that people who get more depressed, while grappling with complex problems they are working on in an intelligence test, tend to score higher on the test.  Also, non-depressed students showed an increase in “depressed affect” after taking the test.  In other words, the mere presence of a challenging problem to engage with induced a kind of attentive trance, which led to feelings of sadness.  It seems that it doesn’t matter if we’re working on a mathematical conundrum or working through a broken heart.  In either case, the anatomy of focus is inseparable from the anatomy of melancholy.  This suggests that what we call “depressive disorder” is, in fact, an extreme form of an ordinary thought process and part of the dismal machinery that draws us toward solving our problems, like a magnet to metal.

Does despondency help us solve anything?  Apparently so.  Having a depressed affect makes people think better.  Our everyday challenge is to accept the misery, to embrace the tonic of our despair.  If we can stand the struggle, the results are available to us.  Saying that depression has a purpose or that sadness makes us smarter says nothing about its sheer awfulness.  It would be nice if we were able to focus and think analytically without so much misery and disruption.  A fever, after all, might have benefits, but it’s still a very unpleasant experience and one we don’t like to repeat.  This is the evolutionary paradox: even if our pain is useful, the urge to escape from the pain remains the most powerful instinct of all.  Who is to blame us?

That said, if we let clinicians and pharmaceutical companies railroad us into “cures” for depression, it might be a terrible loss.  It’s possible that the loss of depression would mean the loss of concentrated, focused, analytical, problem-solving powers, which would make us all vulnerable to being annihilated by complex problems we had lost the ability to solve.  The tsunami of distractions that are increasingly a feature of modern life and the over-zealous, almost compulsive need to stay positive at all times, or else, may make us evolutionary sitting ducks, when confronted by complex disasters.  We won’t be able to summon the brain power necessary to avoid being creamed.

We might also lose all access to innovation, progress and artistic creativity, if we eradicate depression.  Our brains would forego insights into deep truths, replacing them instead with a fog of trivial, immediate, instant-gratification, feel-good pleasures, thereby losing our sense of purpose and meaning in life in the process, like some kind of industrially farmed animals.  Maybe the eradication of depression carries too high a price to pay, for our species, its survival and its propagation.

It’s a problem worth ruminating on, isn’t it?

References

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/28/magazine/28depression-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/depressions-evolutionary/

 

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Too Creative

Have you ever felt that you were just too darned creative?  No, I didn’t think so.  People who are creative always feel a wish to be even more creative than they are, or to have extra energy to accomplish all the creative projects and ideas that they are capable of dreaming up.  No artist I know has ever looked at a finished art work and seriously proclaimed, “It’s no good.  I’m just too creative.”

It would, therefore, come as somewhat of a shock to most artists to learn that, in some circles, “above-average creativity” is being touted as symptomatic of a mental disorder.  Who is making this definition, arbitrarily, out of thin air?  Creative people?  Hardly.  It’s coming from the mouths of greedy, resentful, sullen dullards, who are looking for new ways to profit from psychiatric diagnoses, treatments and medications, and who also feel a need to oppress those in society that are capable of remaking it and renewing it, in ways they are simply not capable of doing.  It’s an abuse of power, nothing less.

If we were to classify average creativity as the desired norm, then we would truly be doomed, as a species.  The average person is too afraid, too ashamed, too inhibited and too fearful of expressing their creativity to the full, even if they innately have it (and everybody does – I’ve never seen a child who is lousy at crayons).  For reasons of pure social control and hierarchy, creativity is systematically bludgeoned out of people, throughout their lives, until they become conformist, manipulable, malleable, docile, tractable, foot-soldiers for those that run everything, by dint of their accumulated wealth.  As if that wealth is the measure of a man.  Sometimes, it’s indicative only of their powers of manipulation and deceit, it has to be said.  The average amount of creativity, in the population, then, is held at artificially low levels, for highly suspect ideological reasons.

If we want to improve the world (and anybody with the ability to observe objectively will know the necessity of doing so with urgency), then more creativity is what we need.  More, not less.  Above-average creativity is a positive benefit for mankind.  OK, the creative work may be all-encompassing and absorbing, leading to the artist making tradeoffs and sacrifices, but that hardly makes it into a mental disorder.  If anything, complacently sitting around, proclaiming that excess creativity is a bad thing, while the world goes to hell at the hands of the greediest and least empathetic members of our species, is the real mental disorder.  Maybe it’s Stockholm syndrome.

I think that we, as artists, always struggle to find ways to be more creative and to find more stamina for our creative work and that’s how things ought to be.  I wouldn’t ask a car mechanic why my liver is not functioning correctly.  Why should I ask psychiatrists if my artistic, creative existence is “normal”?  It’s not their field.  They have no expertise in it.  It’s not related to what they do (which is to sell treatments, when all is said and done).  Why should their opinion on the matter of creativity count for anything?  I might as well ask a household pet.

If anybody, ever, for any reason, dares to suggest that your above-average creativity is anything other than a supreme ability and wonderful gift, laugh long and hard at them, in their faces.  Call them out as the emperors that have no clothes.  If they even hint at the idea that working out how to make, instead of destroy, and how to change, instead of preserving the state of sclerosis we find ourselves in, hurtling us toward oblivion at an increasing rate, is in some way a defect, a deficiency, a sign of illness, or a weakness, stand up to them and reveal them for what they are – self-interested, greedy, complacent, compliant liars.  Do not, under any circumstances, take their stupid utterances seriously.

Above-average creativity is not a disorder; it’s a highly desirable and precious personality trait, shared by those who have historically rescued us all from the abyss of violence and ignorance, time and again.  Without it, we’re all sunk – psychiatrists included.  Always remember that.

 

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Vignettes from the Future

This is an unusual struggle, as artistic struggles go.  I’ve heard it said (and they’re probably right) that everybody who succeeds at what they choose to do has a very clear sense of their victory, long before it happens.  They are able to clearly visualise the moment of achievement and all the steps that lead up to it.  In effect, their actual quest is just a matter of stepping through a sequence of moments they have already imagined, in their mind’s eye.  Their success, through the power of their imagination, is already somewhat pre-rehearsed.  You need to be able to see vignettes from your future, better life, to be able to reach it, so the theory goes.

The commonly accepted wisdom, then, is that if you wish to succeed, as an artist (or anything else), you need to be able to clearly visualise that moment of success and the steps that lead toward it.  You need to feel yourself in that future moment, experiencing the joy of having accomplished what you set out to do.  In short, you need to be able to viscerally feel, in your guts, being that success, long before you are actually successful.  The sensation needs to feel very real.  In so doing, it is thought that you clear a path to that success, because you pre-determine how you will achieve that success and you will be motivated by the feelings you actually experience, when you imagine that future success in your mind.  They’re good feelings that you wish to cement, by actually achieving what you are imagining you have already achieved.

Here’s the problem I have with all of that.  I find it incredibly difficult to bring to mind a clear vision of what success feels like.  When success has been frustratingly illusive, for a long period of time, it goes against all experience and learning to imagine some other outcome – namely a future in which you really have overcome all odds and made it to the goal you wanted to reach.  I’ll be honest.  I find it hard to imagine myself as that person for whom it all suddenly went right.  I can’t feel myself enjoying the fruits of that imagined success without feeling slightly dishonest with myself, a little unrealistic and a little foolish for entertaining such a notion.  The notion seems, at face value, to be somewhat fraudulent.  I realise that this failure to clearly imagine a state of future achievement is an obstacle to attaining that position, in real life, but what to do about it?

To some extent, you have to turn your previous failures and humiliations into valuable, success-causing lessons.  That can be hard to do.  It can be very difficult to see the worth in having endured years of frustration for little apparent gain.  Yes, you can say it was character building and you learnt a lot, but there is also a sense in which you ask yourself how many times you needed to learn that same lesson, over and over again.  Even having realised that there was more to life than you were experiencing, at the time, you still had to endure many more years of being thwarted in your goals, than you would have cared to.  That was just the way it panned out.

I think you just have to keep at the visualisation thing, until it begins to feel real and to crystallise into a vision of the future that you can believe in and buy into, whole heartedly, instead of with doubt and suspicion.  If you are going to have paying customers, as an artist, you need to be able to imagine who they are, under what circumstances they find you and ask to buy your work and how it is that they will transact with you.  That can’t remain an obscure detail that you avoid thinking about entirely.  Part of the dream is how the reality might actually be.  Whatever story you wind up telling yourself about your future self and your goals, it has to be plausible, especially to yourself, when you have a tendency to think most scenarios of future success feel hokey, concocted and unlikely.

You need some optimism, some self-confidence and self-belief and some vision of a future in which artists are able to succeed.  Even that last point can be hard, when there have been centuries in which artists were incredibly unlikely to succeed, by any objective measure or assessment of things.  You have to identify and believe in your own unique, special way of being an artist and further, that this difference will be noticed, appreciated and decisive, in your quest for success.  You have to know, in a very deep, inner sense, that you have exactly what it takes.

I don’t know if there are specific techniques or exercises for imagining these vignettes from the future, in which you are a big hit, or in which you are enjoying ultimate success, for all the years of toil.  Perhaps it’s no different to purposeful daydreaming.  Writing stuff down and creating visualisation boards can probably help.  Like a mood board, creating a single place where images and associations with that desired future success are placed, in a highly visible way, can help, I suppose.  Acting as if you have already succeeded probably plays an important role as well.  If you can walk the walk, then perhaps you can be who you imagine yourself to be, but in actual reality, rather than virtual reality.  You need to be able to see and feel that success through your own eyes, but also be able to see how your success will look from other people’s perspectives.

It’s possible that doing all of these things will help your visualised future gel into a cohesive and believable story that motivates you to work, realistically, toward that imagined future.  The danger, though, is that you simply set yourself up for more years of frustration, through seeing a goal clearly that you are never capable of actually reaching.  Choose your success goal wisely.

I find this interesting.  All the best things in my life more or less just occurred, with no previous expectation of success or of those things happening to me.  Yes, they were vague, ideal ambitions, but I could never actually imagine myself as a husband and father.  I just sort of became one.  Hopefully I became a reasonable example of both.  I had no burning ambition to travel, yet I have travelled quite a lot, through work and on family holidays.  I had no imaginings of ever doing so.  I wanted to have my own high tech company and by some miracle, I had one, for a while.  What I couldn’t see, though, was how to make it survive unexpected adversity, beyond one’s individual control and that is what unexpectedly took that dream back away from me, the first time around.  The idea of imagining a future I want and then bringing it to fruition doesn’t come easily to me.  Not at all.  In fact, most of the best things in my life came upon me, by delightful surprise, not through visualising them first.

For the moment, the future remains an obscure and seemingly contradictory story, in my mind, that doesn’t appear to make any real sense.  This is my struggle.  It may be a struggle common to many people, in a similar situation.  All I can do, day by day, is grope my way toward a better future, inch by inch, with no absolutely lucid view of where I am going, how I will get there and what it will be like when I reach that destination.  This might be the more realistic truth for most people.  Their imagined future is only fragmentary, obscured, seemingly nonsensical and not at all clearly defined.  Perhaps remaining open to the surprises in life is equally valuable and valid.

For all the literature on neuro-linguistic programming and visualisation, I’m both convinced that there is something to it and that other people have success with it, but I find it incredibly difficult to apply to my own life and situation.  Maybe it is just that hard to do.  Nobody ever suggested that success was going to be easy.  That probably applies for imagined success as much as it does to actual success.

I wonder if other people struggle as much with imagining their ideal future and then attaining it.  Perhaps those that don’t already reached their success goal long ago, because of their superior ability to clearly visualise it.  In the mean time, all I can do is keep reaching for something I can’t quite make tangible.  It’s a tantalising prospect – quite literally.

 

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Watching and Learning

One of the best things I ever learned was that if you want to know how to do something, ask if you can watch and learn from somebody that already knows how to do it.  There is a lot to be said for the apprenticeship and mentor approach.  Sometimes, simply being able to observe what the master pays attention to and seeing how a work comes together, in stages, can give you vital information for your own work, which is hard to get in any other way.  It falls into the category of “never push a door marked ‘Pull’”.  Sometimes, the path of least resistance, when learning something new, is simply to watch and learn.

I have the good fortune to be able to jam, on guitar, with a fine man, who encouraged me and taught me how to paint and draw.  We jam in his art studio.  The fantastic thing about that is that I frequently see portrait commissions, on his easel, over a period of weeks.  Each successive week, I can see what has been added, modified or changed, in the painting.  The interesting thing, to me, is that where I would declare the painting “done”, he instead carries on for a week or more, refining and adding details.  His portraits are always a superb representation of the subject.  They are representational and photo-realistic, but still painterly, in that some details are painted impressionistically, there is a lot of artistic license with the colours and shows, and the portraits are almost always flattering and sympathetic, painted with a genuine empathy for the person in the portrait.

For my part, I like to bring new ideas and approaches to the jam session, on my guitar.  I am certain that over the three years that we have been jamming together, we’ve both learnt from each other.  I know that his raw, rhythmic approach has inspired me to concentrate on that aspect of my playing and that, by the same token, some of my more fluid lines and flights of melodic fancy are appearing in his playing style.  It’s a great interchange of ideas.

When I learnt to construct guitars, my mentor was a guitar builder and repairer of many years experience, who had been the go-to guy for guitar repairs in my home town.  He worked for the major music retail stores and had worked on many interesting and challenging projects.  He was not only generous with his time and knowledge, but infinitely patient with my many questions, with critiquing my earliest attempts and happy to put me back on the right road, when I had strayed.

I also have a father that made high quality furniture, in his younger days and he had a friend, now sadly departed, who made high quality, bespoke furniture, commercially.  Being allowed to walk around the workshops of my father and his dear friend, observing their tools, how they were used and how they were sharpened and adjusted, looking at partly finished pieces and seeing how they were taken from raw materials and turned into finished items, are memories that I treasure.  I can still close my eyes and imagine the smells and sensations of walking ankle deep in wood shavings from the hand jack planes, used to true up edges.  I recall vividly the smells of Douglas fir, Teak, Pine and many other timbers.

When I worked for a major synthesiser manufacturer, there were always world-famous musicians coming through the factory, visiting the demo studio and noodling about.  You can learn quite a lot just by watching how they address their music-making tools, their instinctual way of writing a line and how they shape their sounds to suit their ears.  Their unique attitude to music making is also often immediately noticeable.  These memories stay with you for a very long time.

I think one of the most efficient and effective of the myriad modes of learning is to be able to take notes from a master, watching what they do and noticing where they apply their focus and attention.  If you ever have the opportunity of spending quality time with somebody that is skilled and proficient in their art, grasp it with both hands.  Even if you have no intention of applying what you learn to the same field of artistic endeavour, the approach crosses over into other forms of art making.  You would be surprised what observing a good portrait photographer can tell you about composing and lighting a good oil painting, for example.

We are so lucky to live in the YouTube age, where people generously show how they do what they do, on home-made videos, which you can watch and replay at your leisure, from the comparative remoteness of your browser.  There is so much really important information for artists in these user-generated videos, that it defies the imagination.  Unfortunately, it is relatively poorly archived and catalogued, because the meta-data that might make these techniques easier to find and access is simply never tagged to the videos, when they are posted.  Nobody invented the equivalent of a Dewey Decimal System for the visual content of the videos that are posted.  Finding a video that explains a specific, useful technique to you, that you want to learn, is still a matter of serendipitous discovery.

There is amazing information to be gleaned all around you.  People are unexpected experts at something, usually.  It’s an honour and a privilege to be able to watch and learn from them.  I hope you get the chance to do so.  I also hope that you are generous with your skills, time and knowledge when passing it on.  It’s how our culture propagates.

 

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Have You Noticed?

So many human interactions are enhanced by paying attention.  Indeed, the opposite is also true.  A human interaction can be rendered utterly worthless, bereft of content and destroyed forever, if you don’t pay attention.

I’m increasingly of the opinion that what humans need most, to thrive, are high quality relationships with other human beings.  We’re almost hard wired to seek them out.  No matter how much of anything else we accumulate, it’s always a high quality relationship that we ultimately seek.  No rich man, on his death bed, called for his favourite debit card to be brought to him, to handle, fondle, caress and hold, in his dying moments.  Those accumulations of material gains are a proxy and keep alive some vain hope that somebody, somewhere, will be impressed enough with “all that stuff” to give their undivided attention.  It’s the love that they really want.  It’s the obsessive accumulation of stuff that guarantees they never get it.

I think there is something deeply healing in a high quality human relationship, too.  That connection, I am pretty sure, changes the makeup of your stress hormones and triggers different factors in your body to rebuild, recreate and reconstruct any damage that might have been inflicted on your body, at a cellular level.  Hugs have power.  Understanding can be all it takes to begin to recover.

Older GPs and physicians knew that, when a patient presented with symptoms, some of the most important communication and healing took place when the doctor paid full attention to the patient, listened sincerely and gently touched the affected area, in an act of human solidarity and genuine concern for what might be ailing the patient.  That engagement, alone, began the recovery.

In a modern consultation, it’s all a little more remote.  Sometimes the doctor won’t lay hands on the affected area at all.  Sometimes they won’t even look at, let alone touch your ailing body.  No sympathy or empathy is communicated.

Also, whereas once upon a time, the doctor would make notes about your consultation after your visit, today, the computer is open and notes are typed directly into a database, during your short consultation.  The consultation reduces, at least in large part, to you and your doctor staring into a database application screen, trying to decide what to say about your condition in as few words as possible and spotting the spelling mistakes and typos of the doctor doing the typing.  Suddenly, the focus of attention, during the consultation, is not the patient, who needs treatment and help; it’s the database whose needs take primacy.

At the end of the all too brief session, the doctor presses “print” and a prescription rolls out of the laser printer.  You’ve had all the care, attention, sympathy and understanding of a battery hen, at just one more stage of the production line process between your existence on earth and your demise.

That’s perhaps a little harsh, as doctors have extreme time pressures on them and can’t help but suffer some level of compassion fatigue, but when the physician spends as much time with their face in a screen, or looking at dials, as they do actually listening to you describing, sometimes inadequately, what you’re experiencing, it can make the visit feel quite depersonalised and mechanical.  You aren’t as likely to wax lyrically about your symptoms.  In fact, it encourages you to just shut up about them.  Nobody’s listening anyway, so why talk?  Many important diagnostic symptoms must undoubtedly remain unarticulated, because of this self-censorship.

With all the emphasis on early diagnosis being the key to successful treatment of so many very serious and life-threatening conditions, you would think there would be more attention paid to not shutting down what the patient is saying about what they are feeling, at the very earliest stages.  It must be of the utmost importance to keep the patient talking, but doctors dissuade you from telling the full story about everything you are experiencing.  They want you to focus on one ailment and set of symptoms at a time.  You are forced to triage.  How often do you leave the doctor’s office feeling you didn’t really say everything you thought was important to say?  Sometimes, it is the connections between seemingly unrelated conditions that point to the common, more serious, root cause, but that is so often missed, when the doctor wants to type a three line summary into a database.

I think this is true of almost every human interaction I can think of.  Taking the time to pay attention, to genuinely listen and to respond in a human way, is becoming a rare occurrence.  You can observe this for yourself.  People interact in distracted, impatient and superficial ways.  They have their own concerns and gadgets to get back to, their own agendas to pursue and their own self-interests to defend, in a dog-eat-dog society, so there isn’t any time or inclination remaining to suspend all of that activity and to take on board somebody else’s concerns, life story, issues, etcetera.  We never extend the helping hand or soothing hug.  We’re too busy.  It just detracts from our screen time.  Heaven forbid, the affliction might be contagious and where would you be then?

It doesn’t surprise me that loneliness is on the increase.  We have machines designed to train people to cut the people around them out of their consciousnesses entirely, to render directly addressed questions to mere background noise that can be tuned out, to place the entire real world into our peripheral vision, to partition our attention and parcel it out in very small rations and to ignore anything that doesn’t further our own self-interests.  The irony is that developing high quality, mutual, deep and loving human relationships is in our ultimate self-interests.

There is a direct and linear correlation between how much a person claims to love their gadgets and how little genuine attention they pay to other people – especially people beyond their immediate family circle.  This same self-identified group struggles to pay enough attention to the ones they love most, so strangers barely get a look in.  It is through this inattention to the plight of others that we can come to believe that it is possible to actually live on the minimum wage, for example.

It’s not just their relationships that suffer, either.  If they communicate, via any art form, be it painting, writing, music or any other medium, their lack of skills in connecting with people at a deep level betrays itself in superficial, un-affective art, which conveys no emotion or meaning and which an audience cannot connect with on any emotional level, because there is nothing there to connect with.  They sterilise and render impotent their own artistic outpourings.  How tragic it is to be shouting loudly, while saying absolutely nothing.  How even more tragic it is if you say something of importance, but there is nobody prepared to listen.

I wonder if you’ve noticed.

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