The Artwork of Michael Divine

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The Biology of Self-Censorship

March 11th, 2008

Nude Descending a Staircase - Marcel DuchampA study was done recently regarding the part of the brain that controls self-censorship and jazz musicians.. The gist of the article:

“A pair of Johns Hopkins and government scientists have discovered that when jazz musicians improvise, their brains turn off areas linked to self-censoring and inhibition, and turn on those that let self-expression flow.

“The joint research, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, and musician volunteers from the Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute, sheds light on the creative improvisation that artists and non-artists use in everyday life, the investigators say.

“It appears, they conclude, that jazz musicians create their unique improvised riffs by turning off inhibition and turning up creativity.”

This is an interesting finding and something to consider. I enjoy learning about the actual nuts and bolts manifestations of things (or lack thereof as is the case sometimes such as when some long held belief or old wives tale is disproved… but that is another story…). Self-censorship while not intrinsically a bad thing can be a devastating creative block. We can see this lack of it’s ability to function properly in people deemed  "mentally handicapped" such as those with Tourette’s Syndrome. For those who feel their self-censoring lobe is functioning properly, sure it may keeps you from blurting out that potentially tear-jearking comment to that one girl at a party but it may also be just the thing that keeps you from approaching the other girl whom you’ve been keeping your eye out for all night.

For those of us whose minds function relatively properly, self-censorship can prove as much of a handicap as for those for whom it doesn’t function at all. Much of our childhood is spent having the self-censorship mechanism reinforced. It is what keeps us from blurting out the answer in the middle of the third grade class instead of raising our hands. It is what holds us back from telling the fat girl the obvious. It is what makes us reconsider ourselves and our abilities the next time we draw a cow, a tree and a field after we’ve been told that our last attempt looked nothing like a cow, a tree or a field, even though we felt it to be a true masterpiece. That last part is the important part. With all the teaching of how to self-censor ourselves, we rarely receive any teaching in how to be spontaneous. Occasionally, we get lucky or the stars are aligned or who knows what…. something turns us on and tunes us into that spontaneously creative part of our being.

After I read that article I thought about all the music I love and one band in particular who will always have a place close to my heart, no matter how weird, loopy, jammy or whatever you want to call them. I thought about all those Phish shows I went to between the ages of 18 and 22 and about the spontaneity, the stop on a dime and switch directions, the weird vocal jams that came from nowhere, the crazy improvisations, and those transmission-like moments when dancing, music, crowd, everything was in perfect unison and it was simply the vast, vast ocean getting down with itself. Those times taught me a lot about freedom of expression. It wasn’t just the music, although that had a lot to do with it. It was about the spontaneous expression of my spirit and deep explorations of just how this whole apparatus that is my mind and body can move as one and be completely free and uninhibited in doing so.

As we start to chart that uncharted territory of our minds, we find new ways of thinking, some healthy, some not so much. We encounter identities along those paths, old shells and new ones, forgotten about habits and deep seated fears. But once a path is walked a few times, it becomes part of the general known lay of the land, especially if the first few times we walked there, it was intensely pleasurable. And if it wasn’t so pleasurable then we either seal the door and place a guard at the gate, or we go back, determined to see what is on the other side. We must look to constantly chart new territory if we are to continue to live in spontaneity and it is through the shutting off of the self-censoring mind that we can do this. In doing so we can use those tools of spontanaeity, as well as new ones that come across our paths, to help to foster this.

I still listen to Phish but also all sorts of other music and what I love most about some of the music I have is it’s spontaneous gestures of unbridled impulsive creativity- a kind of coming out of left field but at EXACTLY THE RIGHT MOMENT and EXACTLY THE RIGHT NOTE. This sense of spontaneous expression comes through in many of the arts and many of pieces of literature and movies, etc.

Some people may not be so into this expressive quality however. If we enjoy our safety and aren’t looking to explore new territory then we love the cookie cutter movies, whether they be action or romance, where we know, can almost predict, exactly what will happen. Some people have decided they don’t want to go any further and they have little self-censorship guards at all the nearest exits, just in case some part of their mind tries to make a break for it. (I promise not to devolve into some sort of Government/Censorship rant here although the ground is so fertile….)

On the other hand- some people are in a constant rebellion against those guards- constantly trying to woo them over to the other side, where we can all work together, all of these wonderful tools of our minds working in harmony rather than at odds with each other. Look at poetry: many of the poems I love the most have a kind of off the cuff feel. A poet writes what is on his/her mind and heart. They can only feel this if they allow the mind to simply BE AS IT IS, without any self-conscious voice governing it.

Consider this: by the time we are in our late twenties, we have heard a vast majority of the word combinations that exist. Many of the sentences I have already used are merely restructurings of sentences I have spoken or thought of in the past, whether I am conscious of this fact or not. Thus, when we see certain words or word combinations, we almost intuitively expect other words to follow. Yet, when we read some poetry, although it may roll over the tongue like the sweetest of crème brulees, it surprises our minds and it’s sounds, unexpected word combinations, tones, and nuances, lead us to a more heightened state and perhaps an unexpected conclusion. A good book, a movie, a beautiful work of art, they all do this to some extent or another and yet almost every artist engages in some form of self-censorship.

It may seem that the jazz musician or the expressionist painter has the most freedom in their expressions but, as I said, once a territory of the mind has been charted, it is easy to go back. Once a combination of notes has been played, once, twice, a dozen times, it is not as spontaneous to the mind that is coordinating them as the audience ear that may be listening. So even then, what may seem to us to be free expression can still end up being rehearsed – a pantomime of the original inspiration. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

I love Radiohead. Seriously love their music. But it is very rehearsed and that is who they are. They polish and sculpt their sounds, allowing for nuance and spark to appear, but always being aware of how it fits into the larger whole and using the vehicle which is Radiohead to bring them to places they have not yet charted. This is the value of self-censorship. If we are looking to manifest some grand vision we need to be aware that nuances and inspirations we haven’t yet considered will arrive while our vision comes into being. By allowing for inspired spontaneity while at the same time holding the original intention in mind, we will run the risk of creating a true work of art.

The Artwork of Michael Divine

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