Thursday, July 31, 2014

Creativity? Madness? Restless Leg Syndrome? There's a Pill For That!

"Gauguin's Chair" - oil on canvas - 1888, Vincent van Gogh
(click on all images to enlarge)

"Development of uncontrollable artistic urges has been documented in medical case studies. One 41-year-old woman with Parkinson's disease who began taking levodopa developed what neurologists called a "devastating addiction to painting." Her home became a gathering place for artists, and she began compulsively buying painting materials. She described the spiral earlier this year in a medical journal: "I started painting from morning till night, and often all through the night until morning. I used countless numbers of brushes at a time. I used knives, forks, sponges … I would gouge open tubes of paint–it was everywhere. But I was still in control at that point. Then, I started painting on the walls, the furniture, even the washing machine. I would paint any surface I came across. I also had my 'expression wall' and I could not stop myself from painting and repainting [it] every night in a trance-like state. My partner could no longer bear it. People close to me realized that I crossed some kind of line into the pathological, and, at their instigation, I was hospitalized. Today, my doctors have succeeded in getting my medication under control, and my creativity has become more tranquil and structured."

"Another proposed mechanism lies in the nucleus accumbens, the part of the brain that moderates a person’s ability to filter out irrelevant stimuli. That is called latent inhibition, and it has been associated with creative achievement. It is reduced in people suffering psychosis but it increases when those people are given antipsychotic medications. Reduced latent inhibition might enhance divergent thinking by widening (or loosening) the associative network, enhancing creative thinking."

"Dopaminergic stimulation is also used in women who have recently given birth and would like to stop lactation, and in people with Restless Leg Syndrome. "I don't think anyone has checked," Inzelberg said, "if people in treatment for Restless Leg Syndrome become creative."

- Excerpts from a July 17, 2014 article: "The Creativity Pill" via The Atlantic

"Starry, starry night
Portraits hung in empty halls
Frameless heads on nameless walls
With eyes that watch the world and can't forget

Like the stranger that you've met
The ragged men in ragged clothes
The silver thorn of bloody rose
Lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow

And now I think I know
What you tried to say to me
How you suffered for your sanity
How you tried to set them free

They would not listen
They're not listening still
Perhaps they never will"

- Excerpt from "Starry, Starry Night", 1972, Don Mclean 


Nothing flies in the face of the Mechanistic world view more than the human need to create. Artists, poets, writers, musicians, dancers, filmmakers - our efforts are the monkey-wrenches gumming up the Machine... and if we really do our jobs, the Machine grinds to a halt... or, maybe just transforms. Or, so we'd like to think, if only on a subliminal level.

But, at the core of Mechanistic science (see quotes at the end of the post), Matter is King, and all the mysteries of the universe will be revealed under a microscope, by an x-ray, an electronic probe, or inside the womb of an atom-smashing machine. Like begets like. For the Mechanist, Matter is essentially dead, but, somehow, and at some point, it became organic; having magically sprung to life like the puppet in the children's story, Pinocchio. In the eyes of a Mechanist, Life, as a creative force unto itself, is a delusion. It and its activity can be explained away by the automatic distribution and interaction of chemicals; chemicals which can, moreover, be recreated in a lab. Scientists have not, yet, found quite the right chemical brew to replace you, but they're working on it. And, if they can't do it, the Tech-mechs, with their delusions of sentient computers, will. Or, so they'd like to think.

And, so, I was more amused than surprised when I stumbled across "The Creativity Pill," an article that's recently been making the rounds in cyber-space. More hype than actual content, it's the sort of "news" one comes to expect; endless spins on the latest Mechanistic victory over the natural world, designed to trivialize what many of us might find meaningful. While neurologists are a little slower at developing a true Mechanistic formula* -  the physiology of the brain being a somewhat tougher nut to crack - Big Pharma will provide the necessary tools; it's the gift that keeps on giving. Hence, levodopa (L-DOPA), which, according to neurologist, Rivka Inzelberg, seems to increase creative output in those afflicted with Parkinson's disease...

"The Night Cafe" - oil on canvas - 1888, Vincent Van Gogh

As it stands, psychologists have already deduced that creative inspiration stems from some variety of mental disorder. After all, "creativity and psychopathology share some common traits." In short, artists, with their compulsive need to create are mad. But, surprisingly, OCD (obsessive-compulsive-disorder) was not found in the study relative to the "Creativity Pill", although psychosis and bipolar disorder certainly remained on the table. But, the underlying point was that, somehow, a simple synthetic drug might be an important ingredient in unlocking the creative code. You might say, a neurologist's pharmaceutical Rosetta Stone. 

The high point of the article was the case study mentioned (& quoted at the beginning of this post), regarding that misfortunate woman with the "devastating addiction to painting." Of course, some of you may recognize her "compulsive" symptoms - painting "all through the night" using "countless brushes" (along with forks and knives), in a "trance-like state" - as being, more or less, mere tools of the trade. Ah, but then things really started spiraling out of control when she defied all societal laws and actually painted her washing machine! This, apparently, was the definitive line - the border of disorder - she woefully crossed, at which point those people "close" to her - aren't they always? - had her institutionalized.**

Really? Painting a washing machine? Pathological? Funny, but, back in the 60's, chemicals were imbibed for just that effect. The quintessential hippie would've looked at that washing machine and said: "Groovy, man; let's do the refrigerator!"

Meanwhile, or, no doubt, yesterday, a maniacal group of machete-wielding malcontents have run into a village and slaughtered all of its people. Now, there's the sort of madness where medication might have some truly beneficial use. The ravages of war? I say, send in the neurologists with their arsenal of pills! Testosterone-blocker, anyone? That might do the trick...

"Starry Night Over the Rhone" - oil on canvas - 1888, Vincent van Gogh

Alas, no. It all comes down to women and washing machines, and all the societal BS so implied; but, rest assured, I won't be going there. Instead, let's turn to the evidence of "madness" presented by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), the infamous Dutch painter (and Patron Saint, for sure) cited in the "Pill" article as one who's genius was marred by "psychotic spells." Interestingly, van Gogh would've agreed. Judging by his letters, he felt quite at home living in a mad-house. It was in a sense, his safe haven. And, he wasn't the lone artist in the institution at Saint-Rémy. Apparently, mental institutions were an alternative to the then-popular artist's salon.*** In a letter to his brother, Theo, van Gogh reflects:

"Previously, I was repelled by these individuals, and I found it distressing to have to reflect that so many in our trade, Troyon, Marchal, Méryon, Jundt, M. Maris, Monticelli and a whole lot more finished up like that. It was quite impossible for me to picture them in that condition.

Well, now I can think of all that without fear, that is to say, I find it is no more dreadful than if those people had died of something else, consumption or syphilis, for example. I see these artists being reinvested with their old serenity, and don't you think it's quite something to meet these old colleagues of ours again? That, joking apart, is what I am profoundly thankful for."

So, presumably, creativity at this time was a veritable plague, felling those - who could afford it - like flies. Having oneself committed to an institution may well have been a sign of prestige... or, at least, a socially-acceptable last resort. But, who could imagine that those crazy canvases churned out by mad little Vincent would eventually be sold for many, many millions of francs on the auction block? Certainly not Vincent. He was just trying to survive as an artist, and the mad-house seemed as accommodating a place as any, if not a preferable one in comparison to the outside world.

That he fatally shot himself at the age of 37? Well, he may have been trying to silence the voices in his head. He may also have been trying to preserve that shred of personal integrity which held more value for him than his institutionalized life. But, then again, was his suicide the actual true-life scenario? Two art historians think not. Their investigations seem to indicate that Vincent's death was homicide. So much for that romantic notion. (Is nothing sacred? Yes and no, Virginia; first define the word "nothing".)

So, what do we deduce from this? Can we accept a neurologist's and/or psychologist's equation, ie., art = madness?

For the sake of argument, let us turn to all those ancient handprints which remain, and will remain on cave walls, until that Creatura we all know (and some of us love), the Earth, shuffles off its mortal coil. Are we to assume our ancient ancestors were equally as mad? If so, then it should follow, that evolution, in part, is dependent on creative "madness", and it's a trait humans should encourage as opposed to tame, or eliminate altogether. This is certainly acknowledged in the business sector; and, if capitalism isn't the yardstick we should live by, then, gee-whiz-by-golly, what is? So, we won't be even slightly surprised when CEOs start dosing their employees' watering holes with levodopa.

"Starry Night" - oil on canvas - 1889, Vincent Van Gogh

In the last analysis, an artist is only so mad - in the eyes of society - relative to the size of his or her portfolio. Perhaps toiling in poverty is a sign of "madness", not so much in that one chooses to be creative, as much as one fails to lucratively "produce."  The "disorder" of failed accomplishment immediately identifies one as a faulty cog in society's mechanism; one fractured block in the Mechanistic high pyramid... the one with the War Machine somewhere near its base, capitalism at its core, and Artificial Intelligence, presumably, at the apex.

But, rest assured, somewhere there's a pill for that, at least as effective as the one for restless legs. Call it the Success Pill... and then get me a prescription.

* Re: This quote from in an articled entitled "Mysterianism lite"...

"The subtitle of his new book is "How the human brain defies replication, medication, and explanation"; its thesis is that the achievements of neuroscience (along with psychology, psychiatry and other related areas) are being oversold, that the supposed practical benefits have been exaggerated, and that the field is now confronting an 'explanatory gap' that may never be bridged. Unlike particle physicists or molecular biologists, says Horgan, neuroscientists "...have yet to achieve their reductionist epiphany. Instead of finding a great unifying insight, they just keep uncovering more and more complexity. Neuroscience's progress is really a kind of anti-progress. As researchers learn more about the brain, it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine how all the disparate data can be organized into a cohesive, coherent whole."

On the other hand, it may be for this reason, that the neurological field may represent one area in which some forms a Vitalism can remain on the table. See this Frontiers in Neuroscience article, published earlier this year: "A call for an open, informed study of all aspects of consciousness." Excerpt:

"Research on parapsychological phenomena (psi) is being carried out in various accredited universities and research centers throughout the world by academics in different disciplines trained in the scientific method (e.g., circa 80 Ph.D.s have been awarded in psi-related topics in the UK in recent years). This research has continued for over a century despite the taboo against investigating the topic, almost complete lack of funding, and professional and personal attacks. The Parapsychological Association has been an affiliate of the AAAS since 1969, and more than 20 Nobel prizewinners and many other eminent scientists have supported the study of psi or even conducted research themselves."

Also from Frontiers of Neuroscience, this just found: "Transformative art: art as means for long-term neurocognitive change." 

** Apparently, after fine-tuning her "medications", the artist's monstrous creativity was tamed into something more "tranquil and structured."  I presume the woman is now crocheting toaster covers.

*** And, you might ask, where have all the artist's salons gone? Underground? Or, under the auspices of group-therapy sessions?


On Mechanistic Science:

"With a large number of cosmologists the essential feature of Mechanism is the attempt to reduce all the qualities and activities of bodies to quantitative realities, i. e. to mass and motion. But a further modification soon followed. Living bodies, as is well known, present at first sight certain characteristic properties which have no counterpart in lifeless matter. Mechanism aims to go beyond these appearances. It seeks to explain all "vital" phenomena as physical and chemical facts; whether or not these facts are in turn reducible to mass and motion becomes a secondary question, although Mechanists are generally inclined to favour such reduction."

- From the Wiki article on the philosophy of Mechanism.

"The mechanistic world view is based on several key premises. First, scientific knowledge can achieve absolute and final certainty. Second, in the material world and in any system, the dynamic of the whole can be understood from the property of the parts. Third, the world is a dualistic world in which mind is superior to body, human beings are superior to nature, the rational is superior to the non-rational, male is superior to female and objectivity is superior to subjectivity. Fourth, the common good is enhanced when the potential and material wealth of the individual is maximized."

- From Theoretical Framework by Patricia Marlette Black, 2007

"As the unifying model for science and society, the machine has permeated and reconstructed human consciousness so totally that today we scarcely question its validity. Nature, society, and the human body are composed of interchangeable atomized parts that can be repaired or replaced from outside. The "technological fix" mends an ecological malfunction, new human beings replace the old to maintain the smooth functioning of industry and bureaucracy, and interventionist medicine exchanges a fresh heart for a worn-out, diseased one.

The removal of animistic, organic assumptions about the cosmos constituted the death of nature--the most far-reaching effect of the scientific revolution. Because nature was now viewed as a system of dead, inert particles moved by external rather than inherent forces, the mechanical framework itself could legitimate the manipulation of nature. Moreover, as a conceptual framework, the mechanical order had associated with it a framework of values based on power, fully compatible with the directions taken by commercial capitalism."

- From "Radical Ecology: The Search for a Livable World" - 1992, Carolyn Merchant.


On Vincent van Gogh:

"The van Gogh we usually think of, that painter of the most audacious, crazy, passionate, frenzied, unleashed bursts of brushwork, may be more evident in his daylight paintings," says MoMA's curator for the show, Joachim Pissarro, great-grandson of the French Impressionist Camille Pissarro. "But in paintings such as the Arles café at night, his touch is more restrained and you really see his intelligence at work. Despite all the mental anguish and depression he experienced, van Gogh never ceased to enjoy an astonishingly clear self-awareness and consciousness of what he was doing."

"Gauguin, who had come to Arles to paint with him, fled to Paris, and van Gogh, after his neighbors petitioned the police, was locked up in a hospital. From then on, the fits recurred unpredictably, and he spent most of the last two years of his life in asylums, first in Arles and then in Saint-Rémy, painting what he could see through the bars of his window or from the surrounding gardens and fields. "Life passes like this," he wrote to Theo from Saint-Rémy in September 1889, "time does not return, but I am dead set on my work, for just this very reason, that I know the opportunities of working do not return. Especially in my case, in which a more violent attack may forever destroy my power to paint."

"He lived at night," says Pissarro. "He didn't sleep until three or four in the morning.* He wrote, read, drank, went to see friends, spent entire nights in cafés ...or meditated over the very rich associations that he saw in the night. It was during the night hours that his experiments with imagination and memory went the farthest."

- Three quotes from a 2008 article: Van Gogh's Night Visions by Paul Trachtman, via
Smithsonian Magazine

* And, for all of my fellow night-owls out there, here's another recently found (flawed) scientific study... happily this one is an ego-booster: "Evolutionary Psychologist: Staying Up Late is a Sign of Superior Intelligence."


  1. Fascinating...and I find it so apt that you have focused on van Gogh as a illustration for your post. He undoubtedly suffered from an unbridled...and perhaps, uncontrollable, creativity that urged him on beyond the point of reason. And to think, he reportedly sold only one painting during his lifetime....

    Superb post. thank you.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Bob; it gets lonely at the bottom... ;-)

      I think Vincent van Gogh should be a Patron Saint for all creatives. He possessed an unrelenting creative genius that was truly - and eerily - death-defying. Can't touch that.