Black Swan, Creativity, and Artistic Expression at the Edge of Madness

Black Swan explores that fine line between psychosis and artistic expression

Posted Jan 03, 2011

Dance is one of the purest forms of artistic creative expression, involving a fusion of rhythm, flexibility, agility, coordination, grace, social communication, and embodiment [1, 2].

"a prerequisite for some types of dancing, in both sacred and more modern 'profane' versions as either an artistic performer or a participant, is the ability to enter into such a higher state of awareness [1]."

Dancers may be particularly prone to altered mental states. Rachael Bachner-Melman [1] and her colleagues found that a group of dancers who trained for at least 10 hours per week scored higher on a self-report test of absorption compared to a group of athletes and a group of nonathletes/nondancers. Their scale of absorption measures the "ability to attend intensely and imaginatively to stimuli" and has been linked in prior research to spirituality and altered states of consciousness. Dancers also scored higher on a self-report scale of "Reward Dependence" which measures a need for social contact and an openness to communications with others. Those scoring higher in reward dependence also tend to be tender-hearted, loving, warm, sensitive, dedicated, dependent, sociable, and are sensitive to social cues [6].

Looking across their entire sample, they found a significant relation between AVPR1a and their measure of need for social contact. Prior research has shown links between AVPR1a and autism- a disorder that involves impairments in social communication- suggesting that variations of this gene are tied to social communication [12, 13]. There is even evidence for an evolutionary basis to this gene: vasopressin plays a role in social and courtship behavior universally in humans as well as other mammals and vertebrates [14, 15, 16, 17]. Therefore, AVPR1a may contribute to dancing through its social communication aspects, and these aspects may have its origins in our most distance ancestors. As the researchers note,

"the association between AVPR1a and dancing may be reflecting the importance of social relations and communication in the dance form and that both dance and its associated gene, AVPR1a, contribute to molding social interactions from the molecular level to the dance floor."

"may provide part of the 'hard wiring' that talented and devoted individuals need to perform in an art form that combines a unique combination of both musical and physical skills."

To top it off, the researchers found that the combination of both of these polymorphic variants was significantly overrepresented in the dancers.

Of course, it doesn't make sense to speak of "dancing genes". Still, higher representation of these variants in dancers suggests that these genes are part of the complex phenotype that is associated with dancing brilliance. The researchers give this summary:

"the association between AVPR1a and SLC6A4 reflects the social communication, courtship, and spiritual facets of the dancing phenotype rather than other aspects of this complex phenotype, such as sensorimotor integration."

The Creative Mind, Flow, and Proneness to Psychosis

It is well known that people with schizophrenia have a combination of reduced latent inhibition (diffuse attention) and reduced executive functioning (inability to control attention). In other words, those with the most deabilitating forms of schizophrenia have a massive influx of sensations, emotions, and fantasies without the ability to inhibit or sort them out (see Schizophrenia Thought: Madness or Potential for Genius?). A key inhibiting mechanism of executive functioning is working memory. Those with lower working memory have difficulty blocking out or inhibiting distracting information, either from the environment or their own heads [19].

When most people awake, the working memory brain network once again becomes activated, and the default brain network recedes into the background. In most people, the working memory network and the default network 'anticorrelate' with each other, meaning that when one network is activated, the other is deactivated [21]. This allows people to distinguish between fantasy and 'reality' (the external world),

That's most people. Creative folks and those with schizophrenia tend to have an overactive default network (see Are People with Schizophrenia Living a Dream?). Creative people (but not those with schizophrenia) also appear to have the ability to activate both brain networks at the same time. A recent study investigated the functional brain characteristics of participants while they engaged in a working memory task [22]. None of the subjects had a history of neurological or psychiatric illness and all had intact working memory abilities. Participants were asked to display their creativity in a number of ways: generating unique ways of using typical objects, imagining desirable functions in ordinary objects, and imagining the consequences of 'unimaginable things' happening. The creativity test they used has been linked in prior studies to Openness to Experience, and frequency of visual hypnagogic experiences (e.g., lucid dreaming, hallucinations). In prior research, the frequency of visual hypnagogic experiences has been associated with vividness of mental imagery and neuroticism [23].

"Such an inability to suppress seemingly unnecessary cognitive activity may actually help creative subjects in associating two ideas represented in different networks."

Interestingly, prior research has shown a similar inability to deactivate the default network among those with schizophrenia, their relatives (who are more likely to have schizotypy), and participants with lower levels of working memory [25, 26]. The key to creativity, then, seems to be the ability to fully immerse oneself in the internal stream of consciousness while also having the ability to snap back to reality. Research does show that a combination of reduced latent inhibition and high IQ (which is highly related to working memory) is related to creative achievement across a number of different domains [27, also see Schizophrenia Thought: Madness or Potential for Genius?).

Therefore, the working memory brain network can offer a protective function for those who are psychosis prone. Those who lose grip on reality and become paranoid and delusional have let the floodgates (i.e., executive functions) down so to speak, letting too much of their default network control their attention.

Black Swan, Creativity, and Artistic Expression on the Edge of Madness

Lamberti is right. Nina Sayers does experience many risk factors, including the intense pressure of competition, a controlling mother, a fellow dancer who appears to be after her, and a flirtatious, aggresive director who encourages her to embrace her dark side and lose her self-control. Add that in with a bit of ecstasy, and you have the recipe for psychosis. As Nina drifts further and further away from reality, she is dipping deeper and deeper into her default network, unable to differentiate her self representations from actual others, and reality from fantasy. She has become fragmented, losing touch with her protective mental functions.

It is just this paradox that the movie explores. Of course, being a Hollywood movie, Black Swan takes everything to the extreme. In the real world, most dancers aren't mad. Their creative brilliance involves their ability to draw us all into their trance state but they are capable of snapping out of it. Also, the ballet director is rather extreme in his directions. I'm sure the movie doesn't portray the ballet world in an accurate light. Also, it's very rare in the real world to find anyone with such a high number of disorders (obsessive compulsive, bulimia nervosa, schizophrenia) and environmental triggers all in one place and with one person.

But the movie's brilliance does not lie in its portrayal of reality. Where the movie shines is in highlighiting the fragility and vulnerability of the artist, and that fine line between creativity and psychosis. By taking us on an exhilarating and terrifying tour of the edge of madness, we all catch a glimpse of that delicate, sensitive place where self-expression, artistry, and imagination are projected to the world.

© 2011 Scott Barry Kaufman 

Note: Happy New Year everyone! May 2011 bring you all much creativity and only a reasonable amount of madness.


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