Monday Morning Art School: Creativity loves constraints

Two things I learned teaching my workshop last week.

Kamillah Ramos at the Grand Canyon.

I start each class and workshop by handing my students protocols for painting in oils and watercolor. “If you follow these steps,” I tell them, “you will understand how to paint.” These instructions are not unique; they’re how most successful artists work through drawing, composition, and paint application.

Just try it for the length of the class, I tell them. If it doesn’t improve your painting, go back to what you were doing before. But I’m confident that following this traditional approach works. Anyways, most people take painting classes because they recognize that something in their system isn’t working. 

A set of step-by-steps is oddly liberating. Working out the problems in advance leads to looser and more lyrical brushwork.

Student Becca Wilson responded by telling me that there’s a phrase for this: “creativity loves constraints.” Bam.

The idea that limits can lead to extraordinary creative output seems counterintuitive. After all, the creative pursuits (and particularly the visual arts) are often thought to be about feelings and thus limit- and rule-free. In reality, they’re quite the opposite. Every creative pursuit has its own established practice, and painting is no exception.

Constraints set up processes within which problems can be solved. Separating painting into discrete steps—value study, color mixing and then, finally, brushwork—helps cut it down into manageable pieces. Only when you can do the steps automatically will you find your authentic, unique artistic voice.

Kamillah Ramos and I were painting on Mather Point at 5:30 AM yesterday morning. This is a busy time at the Grand Canyon. The weather is good and schools are on spring break. Hundreds of people came by in the 4.5 hours we were painting, and many of them stopped to ask us questions or comment on our work.

“There’s nothing like plein air painting for changing the vibe of a place,” Kamillah said. She’s so right.

Our workshop painted in six separate locations in Sedona, which was also jam-packed with tourists. People might have found our presence irritating, but instead they were interested and enthusiastic. In fact, in decades of painting outside, I’ve had universally-positive reactions from passers-by.

Artists are very much a cultural and economic asset, and that’s worth remembering.

(Sorry this is brief but I’m about to board a red-eye to Portland.)

Wasting time was the best thing I did as a child

Halloween in my youth was mysterious and moody, dangerous and exciting. But adults can take the fun out of anything.

Tête-à-tête, by Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, oil on Russian birch, sold.

I’m from Buffalo. It never gets bitterly cold or oppressively hot there; it just snows a lot. Buffalo-Niagara is a USDA Zone 6 region, more or less the same as the Mason-Dixon Line. It’s kept temperate by the Great Lakes. Today I live very close to the ocean in Maine. We have the same weather pattern—warm in autumn, cold in spring.

Growing up, we made our own Halloween costumes. Our repertory was extremely limited: we were tramps (sorry), ghosts, cowboys, Indians (sorry), or witches. This wasn’t by design but by necessity. Unless one of us had a daft and indulgent mother, we had to scrounge the makings from scraps and hand-me-downs.

The Last of Autumn, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on linen, 11X14.

We started thinking about this in mid-October, when the Northeast is wrapped in the balmy warmth of Indian Summer. “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun,” John Keatscalled it, and nobody ever said it better. Sweater weather is idyllic and it seems like it will last forever.

That was dangerous for Halloween planning. We would get fanciful about what we could pull off. Our grandmother’s old nightgown, a dance leotard; any of them could be called into service. But diaphanous doesn’t work when the temperature drops. When Halloween night actually arrived, we would inevitably be bundled up in winter coats, shivering in a howling wind laden with sharp pellets of snow and dried leaves. With rare exceptions, November 1 is the death knell of warm weather in the Northeast.

Thicket, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on Russian birch, 10X10

This year, I’m not bothering to buy Halloween candy (although my friend Sue suggests stockpiling it ‘just in case’). Although Halloween is a huge deal in the United States, Trick-or-Treating is on its way out. It’s been replaced by Trunk-or-Treat, where kids go around a parking lot getting candy from nice safe adults. COVID-19 will be the nail in the coffin for the older tradition. But it doesn’t matter; adults had already ruined it when they started buying elaborate costumes for their kids. All the fun was in the imagination and the preparation, and now that’s lost.

My siblings and I knew everyone in our neighborhood, but Halloween was still mysterious and moody, dangerous and exciting. Our mischief ran as far as lobbing a roll of toilet paper over Aunt La’s house, only to see it get stuck in the branches in her front yard. We talked about soaping windows, but none of us ever did it.

Goat shed, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on linen, 9X12.

One of my best memories as a kid was building a fort with my friend Beth. We were quite young; we had nothing more than sticks, grass and moss. We were blissfully absorbed for days. No adult shagged us back out of the woods so they could watch us; no adult offered to help with power tools. Today both Beth and I are ‘makers’. I’m sure that being allowed to waste lots of time in unsupervised play contributed to that.

My friend Marjean recently sent me this story about a man who built a pirate’s cove in his backyard. Whoever it was for, it wasn’t for children—or for the likes of me. Where is the opportunity to imagine? It’s all laid out for the visitor, in much too great detail. Adults—with their overscheduling, planning, helping, and monitoring—can take all the fun out of anything.

Volunteering is a trap for professional women

The hours I’ve wasted being a ‘helper’ represent many, many paintings that will never get finished.

Drying towels, by Carol L. Douglas

I was raised in the second wave of feminism, during the so-called “women’s lib” movement. My mother succeeded in her career while still raising six kids and volunteering. Her secret? “You can have it all” meant, “you can do it all.”

She eventually stopped volunteering at a public health clinic when she learned the doctors (then male) were being paid; the nurses (then all women) were working for free. It took a lot for her to turn her back on people in desperate need. But our society trains women to be helpers and then takes advantage of that.

I have higher hopes for my daughters. Laura, age 31, counseled me against volunteering last summer. I wish I’d listened. She’s a software engineer and she regularly refuses ‘office housekeeping’ tasks at work. She’s not heartless; she’s just picky about what she’s willing to do. She volunteers, but not in her profession.

Little Giant, by Carol L. Douglas

Women don’t volunteer because they are inherently more altruistic. They do so, a recent study suggests, because they’re taught from a young age to offer to help. That long silence waiting for a hand to be raised is just quiet for men; it’s a demand and rebuke to women.

Taking on these tasks blunts women’s careers. While women dutifully serve on committees, men do critical research or paint brilliant paintings. That has far-reaching consequences. I can’t blame anyone but myself for the hours I’ve wasted being a ‘helper,’ but they represent many, many paintings that will never get finished.

A lobster pound at Tenant’s Harbor, by Carol L. Douglas

Meanwhile, I fight a constant battle between work and the artist’s need for rest and solitude. It’s a delicate balance, and few artists ever get it right. Most start off working another job to be able to afford to paint. Most of my professional artist friends are childless, and for good reason.

My friend Jane Bartlettregularly points out when I’m sliding over the ‘too much work’ line. A great friend manages to make these observations while still making you feel good about yourself. If you want to give, be like Jane: give directly to your peers by being supportive, incisive and kind. I wouldn’t be where I am today without friends like her, and I hope I’m paying that forward.

Headlamps, by Carol L. Douglas

“Artists have to be super careful that they’re not enriching everyone else with their work,” a fellow artist remarked about pricing paintings. I think of that every time I buy art supplies. Art supply stores are an $843.1-million-a-year industry, and they didn’t get that way by selling just necessities.

But she was talking about the pernicious practice of asking artists for donations. Every time a non-profit asks you to donate work, you’re paying other people’s salaries. Their staff doesn’t work for nothing, and neither should you. And your donation is not tax-deductible, either.

It’s unlikely that your donation will do anything to advance your career, so donate a painting only if you’d have written them a check anyway. And save your real efforts for promoting your work yourself.

Stressing out our kids

Art, not drugs, saved me from the horrible trauma of my childhood. So why do we think it’s optional for our kids?
This is my grandson Jake when he was a few months old. He starts kindergarten this year. I really hope he has time to paint and draw in school.
The overall death rate in Britain and America started dropping at the turn of the last century—except for childbirth deaths. They increased, even though women were healthier overall. At odds with every other health marker, rich women were more likely to die in childbirth than poor women. Why?
For most of history, midwives attended laboring women in their homes. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that women began to be attended by doctors and to deliver infants in hospitals or private nursing homes. Since the medical profession had no understanding of sanitation, doctors inadvertently spread puerperal fever from one patient to the next. That’s when they weren’t intervening with forceps, anesthesia, caesarians, and other frequently-fatal procedures. Rich women were more likely to be on the forefront of medical care, so they suffered disproportionately.
The New Puppy, by Carol L. Douglas. Available through Camden Falls Gallery.
I love math. I’m pretty good at it, and I see it as a description of the beautiful unity of the world’s design. I’m all for teaching math and science.
But to make room for math and science, we’ve cut back on art and music. And every time a public school needs to trim its sails, they start with the art department. That disregards the important role art has always played in liberal education, and all the science that tells us that art plays a critical role in developing intellect and character.
Miss Margaret, by Carol L. Douglas. She was a pretty good stress-reducer.
According to Athena Health, the percentage of pediatric patients with an anxiety diagnosis more than doubled from 2013 to this year. The percentage of patients prescribed anti-anxiety drugs over that time increased by a factor of six.
My sister and brother died when I was a child, in two separate, brutal accidents. There were no anti-depressants or anti-anxiety meds back then. Luckily for me, I had art, so here I still am.
A recent study from Drexel University shows that creating art significantly lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Competence and the difficulty of the task had no significant effect on the results, but younger participants had a more consistent positive effect.
White Sands of Iona, by Carol L. Douglas, available.
I’ve written about brain growth in kids from doing art, doodling and executive function, neuroplasticity, and many other subjects. Training in drawing is associated with an increase in brain gray matter and changes in the prefrontal cortex. Making art improves the functional connectivity between cortices. Even passive engagement with art helps brain function.
Can anyone cite similar positive outcomes from their school’s football program?
Someday (I hope), we will classify the educational bureaucrats who dismiss art education with the well-meaning, misguided doctors who killed so many women in childbirth. But until then, we need to keep the pressure on to restore art to its proper place in western education. And parents, by all means, keep your kids drawing.

What do young people want?

Art events are filled with older people. “How do we appeal to younger people?” I was recently asked.
Sam Horowitz demonstrating painting to his peers, many many moons ago.

In my experience, youth are very interested in making art until they finish school, whether that’s at 18 or 22. Then they become consumed with the business of building their lives: paying off their loans, pair-bonding, saving for their first cars and homes. It isn’t until they’re around 40 that the first of them lift their eyes from their task lists long enough to think about making art again.

I’ve taught some young people who’ve never lost the creative urge, but they’re the exception. Part of the difference was relationship. They not only studied with me, they came over to my studio on their free afternoons to work and they spent time in my home, with my family. Those years in high school seemed to cement artmaking into their lives. I suppose one might call that mentorship, although I never gave the process a second thought back then.
Matt Menzies in high school. He’s since gone on to work on Broadway.
I’ve written exhaustively about art’s intellectual benefits and its economic importance. Despite its many conferred advantages, art has very low prestige. One way to combat that is by showing young people that it’s possible to make lives as artists, but this one-on-one teaching is a slow way to change the culture. Do you have any better ideas?
People over 60—as much as they love art—don’t generally need more stuff in their homes, as I wrote yesterday. People under 30, with few exceptions, don’t have the money for fine art… but they will, and soon.
Teressa Ramos continues to paint while in nursing school…
It’s easy to forget about Generation X, but their spending power surpasses that of Millennials and Baby Boomers. They came of age into economic turmoil, and they’re the first product of widespread divorce in America. They value security, authenticity and social consciousness. In decorating terms, that means they want soothing colors in practical materials. They’re willing to spend for beautiful living spaces. “The Gen X midlife crisis is defined more by worrying about a status kitchen than rushing out and buying a Ferrari,” wrote trend forecaster WGSN.
Millennials are the biggest age cohort in our history. This is the generation that will spend $4 on a coffee, but have no savings. Millennials value social responsibility and environmentalism, but the biggest factor in their purchasing decisions is price. They also value authenticity, local sourcing, ethical production, a fun shopping experience, and giving back to society. But they’re not spending their money on their homes; they’re spending it going out and having experiences.
…as does her younger sister Kamillah Ramos. Here she was in high school; she’s now a graduated architect.
Even though 54% of millennials shop online, this generation is more likely to do the research and then head to a “real” store to make the actual purchase. That’s very good news for those of us who promote on Instagram but use bricks-and-mortar galleries to make our sales.
Most importantly, both Gen X and millennials respond to micro-influencers (that’s you and your friends) on social media. They will “share” your posts, if they’re thoughtful and funny.
An important note:I’m teaching on the windjammer American Eagle next week. One of the nicest things about the ocean is that there is no cell-phone signal and no internet. That means no blog from Monday to Thursday. I’ll see you again a week from today!

Ai-Da the robot painter

Is she threatening to artists, or threatening to women?
Ai-Da at a tea party photoshoot for the Telegraph, photo by Nicky Johnston. A real woman would have cleaned the silver before entertaining.
My programmer husband forwarded a story from the Telegraph that was headlined, “Meet Ai-Da: the robot artist giving real painters a run for their money.”
“I don’t think you have anything to worry about just yet,” he told me.
I don’t—but some abstract painters might. “From a basic set of parameters, such as a photograph of some oak trees, or a bee, the robot has rendered abstract ‘shattered light’ paintings warning of the fragility of the environment that would look at home in a top modern gallery,” read Ai-Da’s press release.
One of Ai-Da’s paintings. I predict she sells out.
Ai-Da is programmed to sample the colors in the photograph and then reiterate them on a canvas. Such algorithms are basic in computer science. They can sometimes mimic thought, but they lack the intuitive connections that real thinking requires. It’s wonderful that they’ve given Ai-Da a hand to make images the slow, tedious way, but the final results are no more creative or meaningful than a screen-saver.
She is programmed to do a more than this, but she was just delivered from the factory in April, so we must be patient with Baby Girl. She can sketch with a pencil and uses facial recognition technology to draw human faces. Apparently, her coordinate system is programmed in three dimensions, because she can sculpt, after a fashion. Her art videos are included in the show. She can read aloud. Then, too, so can my phone.
And her sculpted bee, which is substantially less-effectively rendered than a 3D laptop project would be.
She’s much faster than a human painter. There’s no dithering about light levels, values, composition or meaning, so she can knock off a large canvas in about two hours.
Of course, the real artists are the team that programmed her. That, as you may imagine, is extensive: scientists from Oxford, a robotics firm from Cornwall, and engineers from Leeds.
“Thematically the exhibition questions our relationship with technology and the natural world by presenting how [Artificial Intelligence] and new technologies can be simultaneously a progressive, disruptive and destructive force within our society,” droned the blog Director of Finance. That’s a beautiful parody of the artist’s statement, made funnier because the artist herself has no brain.
Ai-Da in her studio. Note the artfully-daubed flowing painter’s smock, along with her immobilized feet, photo by Nicky Johnston.
Ai-Da is having her first solo show at St John’s College, Oxford. If I were in England, I’d probably go, just to see how seamlessly engineers have put the software on my laptop into a large, unwieldy machine.
There’s really no reason for Ai-Da to have a body except to personalize her; she might as well be a hand moving through space, as at the Ford factory. Curator Aidan Meller, who spearheaded the project, conjured up a female minion. Her press photos are set in a studio of campy femininity. But other than her Stepford Wife expression, wig, and long flowing dress, she’s really just a large machine with excessively large hands and feet.
Since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, artists have understood the distinction between machinery and mind. Nobody has yet been able to program an Ai-Da with a Big Idea, the one that gets artists jumping out of bed in the morning and working for a year with no guaranteed return. Nor is there enough money in making paintings to justify building lots of robotic painters. She’s a freak of engineering, and nothing more.
I’m feeling more threatened by the fact that this drone is called a “she”. There’s been a creeping expansion of my personal personal pronoun recently. It’s accompanied by the trappings of what men perceive to be feminine, without any real deep understanding of womanhood. Referring to boats as “she” is as far as I want to see it go in the material world.

You can’t draw a straight line, and other falsehoods

“I’m not talented” is the most pernicious lie in the world. Science is slowly disproving it.
Under a milky sky (Hare Bay, Newfoundland), Carol L. Douglas. It’s exactly what today’s sky looks like.

Like Thomas Edison, I firmly believe that “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” I have zero tolerance for the 18th century idea of the Cult of Genius or for Sigmund Freud‘s theories of poetic madness.

These ideas stripped rationality from the creation of art and the art market. They made it inevitable that art and music would be considered non-essential, meaning we could cut them from our schools. They removed the joy of making art from the everyday experiences of ordinary people. Early in our educations, some of us are labeled ‘talented’ and the rest are encouraged to do something else. That’s rigid and it limits everyone, artist and non-artist alike. 
Creativity is the one of the defining characteristics of mankind, after all, and it should flow through everything we do. That’s especially important in our post-industrial society, where making stuff—canning, farming, woodworking, sewing, etc.—is now unnecessary.
Abstraction, by Carol L. Douglas. Drawing takes many forms, and all of them are helpful to the human mind.
Science is slowly returning us to a pre-Enlightenment understanding of art as part of the toolkit of the rational man. Drawing is not just a tool to communicate; it’s a tool to classify and learn.
Sadly, educators seem to be the last ones on board with this idea. Here’s another study which says what I told my kids’ principals in vain: if you want my son to learn, let him doodle it. Don’t just try to cram it into his brain.
The researchers in this recent study figure that drawing gives your brain different ways to engage with new material—imagining it, rendering it, and looking at your visual record. All those steps encode it in your memory. I’d add one more thing—doodling is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.
My late friend and student Gwendolyn Linn attracted a flock of kids eager to learn.
Adults can leave a work environment that discourages doodling. Kids aren’t so lucky.
Many of us were riveted by last week’s story of 40,000-year-old figurative cave drawings found in Borneo. “It now seems that two early cave art provinces arose at a similar time in remote corners of Paleolithic Eurasia: one in Europe, and one in Indonesia at the opposite end of this ice age world,” wrote co-researcher Adam Brumm.
It actually means that scientists have only found these drawings in Europe and Indonesia. Not every cave has conditions to preserve art, of course. But reason tells us that if there’s cave art in two such distant places, it was probably practiced worldwide by paleolithic man.
There’s a connection between these two stories, and it comes from my pal, artist Diane Leifheit.
Adult students getting fresh air and intellectual exercise last summer near Spruce Head. We won’t be so fortunate today; it’s raining.
“When someone says, ‘Oh I can’t draw,’ I say, ‘We have been making art for thousands of years. It is in our DNA. We just have to scratch the surface to find it,’” she said.
Next time you tell me you aren’t talented, remember that. As for drawing straight lines, I carry a straight-edge in my painting kit. Works every time.

Learning to see

Art class expands your capacity for creative thinking. No wonder we’ve cut it from school.
Sometimes it rains, by Carol L. Douglas. Available through Ocean Park Association.
“That’s not grey,” I inevitably find myself saying on the first overcast day of a new class. “It’s a dull, desaturated blue-grey.”
The new student will stare at the subject, shrug and say, “If you say so, but I don’t see it.” And then, somewhere along the way, he’ll suddenly ‘get’ it and begin to see all the colors there are in a leaden sky.
He didn’t suddenly grow different cone cells in his eyeballs. Neuroplasticity is wonderful, but it doesn’t go that far. Rather, by practicing seeing, he exercised and developed the neural network he already had.
Sea Fog, by Carol L. Douglas. Living in the northeast, you develop a fine sensitivity to grey.
The idea that doing art makes you more artistic is hardly revolutionary. In other fields, we call that ‘learning’. Art is encoded in the genes the same way math is. That means that some of us will have a tendency toward art or math, but all of us benefit from studying both disciplines.
A 2014 study monitored brain growth in art students. It observed changes in prefrontal white matter that corresponded to an increase in “their ability to think divergently, model systems and processes, and use imagery,” the researchers wrote. In a matter of a few months, “prefrontal white matter reorganizes as (art students) become more able to think creatively.”
“Maybe there are gene variants that give individuals a proclivity toward art (e.g. make them more open to new ideas or more prone to make connections or see patterns), but that is a long way from saying they were born an artist and that those without such gene variants are doomed to being uncreative,” the researchers concluded. “It also propagates the strange myth of the artist as a special class of human. I hope our study will help to debunk the notion that there are ‘artists’ and ‘the rest of us.’”
Inlet, by Carol L. Douglas. Seldom are grey skies actually devoid of color.
My mother began a slow descent into Parkinson’s Disease about a decade ago. She was deaf and suffered from tinnitus. Trying to find a solution, I stumbled across Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself. It talks about redundancy in brain wiring. Our auditory processing runs on parallel channels to other mental processes. What happens in one circuit affects the others. Deafness might do more than just socially isolate us. It may contribute to the failure of our brains in extreme old age.
Inlet, (watercolor) by Carol L. Douglas. There are a million ways to depict the grey skies of late autumn.
Visual art and music are important for the young, in that they help develop creative, flexible brains. That’s why it’s so disturbing that both have been so significantly cut in schools.  You’d almost think society doesn’t want kids thinking independently.
But art is also important for older people, because it helps support those creative, flexible brains. I have a Facebook friend who regularly paints with her great-grandson, age five.  He’s developed into a fine young artist, and she’s working in her studio when he’s visiting. 
“He is learning to focus and think on his own more,” she told me. “He is now telling me specifically what he wants to paint. That’s a far cry from pushing colors around. And his Dad tells me he colors a lot at home. He is really developing—on his own—this interest in creating with colors.
“I think it’s helping him to slow down,” she added.
More of us should follow her lead.

Approaching the finish line

Joined together under a single cell-phone plan, they are now (almost) man and wife.

The artist’s great conceit is that he or she can make anything. Today I’m going to make bouquets out of heirloom roses and thistles. I kind of wish the bridal party was carrying helium balloons instead.
Some time this afternoon, I’m supposed to close down my workroom, freshen up my makeup, and appear at the wedding rehearsal as if I’ve been doing nothing more than hanging out at a spa all day. Plein air artists do this every time we have an event opening. One moment, we’re madly framing on the back decks of our cars. Then the final bell tolls. We’re done, for better or worse. We find a public restroom, wash as well as we can, and slip into our nice clothes. Then we go into the sale gallery and look at our paintings and think of all the things we wish we’d done differently.
I once did an event with Laurie Lefebvre where, under her beautiful clinging party dress, she was spattered with brilliant paint that wouldn’t wash off. Laurie is statuesque and beautiful, so she carried it off. I usually have paint rubbed into my eye sockets, so I often look like I’m coming off a nine-day drunk.
Some of the other flowers in my order didn’t travel as well.
When my first daughter was married, I missed her rehearsal and dinner entirely. The crystal and flatware at the venue were not cleaned to my standards. There were more than 200 guests at that wedding, so washing the dishes and resetting the tables was no small feat. Still, it had to be done—or so I thought at the time.
I’ve smartened up since then. I’ve resolved to take Philippians 4:5-7 as if it were a pointed comment directed right at me. I asked another daughter yesterday (not the bride) whether I was overreacting about browning on the flowers. She assured me I wasn’t, so I’m waiting now for a replacement delivery. My chef friends tell me your results are only as good as the ingredients you use. It’s certainly true of painting.
The designer put boning in this bodice for a reason. A tailor removed it. I replaced it. Hopefully, when the owner shows up today, the dress will fit her.
I’m not faulting the online vendor. The flowers were packed on the wrong truck and carted around Niagara Falls by mistake. So far, the company is responsive. Still, I’m starting to feel the pressure of delays against a fixed deadline.
Daughter number two is furloughed this week, waiting for the Federal government to renew her contract. I’m terrifically proud of this kid for many things, but one of them is that she and her husband are careful money managers. They’re not knocked off their pins by this setback, and it’s given us a chance to spend time together.
At one point yesterday, she was deboning a chicken while I was boning the bodice of a dress. My youngest found the language so offensive he went out for a walk.
The bride found my tasteful fascinator too funereal, so I fun-fettied it.
Meanwhile, the bride and groom met up with Sandy Quang at a restaurant near Rochester, where she handed over the critical documents needed for a marriage license in New York. They then went to the closest town clerk and got the business done. Future genealogists will be stumped looking for that license, since Henrietta, NY plays no part in either of their histories.
They then proceeded to a T-Mobile store to buy a cell phone plan. That, in modern parlance, is probably the true joining together of man and wife.

Suffering from a loose wig?

No problem, you’re just a creative.
Creation, by Carol L. Douglas
Intelligence is a complex subject. I doubt we’re measuring it correctly, let alone that we understand how it forms. Still, I love reading studies on the subject. For example, this one said that people in cold states have higher IQs. It may not be true, but it seems like a good justification for freezing so much of the year.
Researchers recently went looking for a correlation between cortical thickness and intelligence. That makes sense, right? A V-8 engine is more powerful than my four-cylinder Prius, after all. Therefore, the more grey matter we have, the smarter we ought to be. Except that brain mass doesn’t really correlate very well with intelligence, something scientists have known for a long time.
This is your brain in the cold.
In a recent neuroimaging study by US and Canadian scientists, participants were given questionnaires that assessed their intellect and openness. ‘Openness’ is an even more amorphous quality than intelligence, defined by researchers as “engagement with fantasy, perception, and aesthetics.”
Researchers then correlated the results of those tests with MRI images measuring the thickness of the cerebral cortex. This part of your brain is responsible for memory and cognitive control.
But the bigger-is-better model failed once again to deliver. There was no relationship at all between cortical thickness and intelligence. There was a negative relationship between cortical thickness and ‘openness’. In other words, the less cortical thickness, the more likely you are to make creative associations.
Untitled, by Carol L. Douglas. There might be a face in there. I might have a loose wig.
Since the cortex plays a role in memory and structuring thought, the researchers thought it made sense that reduced thickness would be associated with openness. “It’s almost like a reduced filter mechanism that, in some cases, can be beneficial,” said researcher Oshin Vartanian.
This all just supports the old canard that creatives are eccentric. The fancy name for that is cognitive disinhibition, and it means that we artists have less control over our thoughts than ‘normal’ people, whatever they are.
Scientists—those poor unfortunate linear thinkers—posit that creatives suffer from schizotypal personality, a mild form of being nuts.
You are more than the contents of your brain case, kiddo, by Carol L. Douglas.
“In my research at Harvard, done in part with my colleague Cynthia A. Meyersburg, I have found that study participants who score high in a measure of creative achievement in the arts are more likely to endorse magical thinking — such as belief in telepathic communication, dreams that portend the future, and memories of past lives. These participants are also more likely to attest to unusual perceptual experiences, such as having frequent déjà vu and hearing voices whispering in the wind,” wrote Shelley Carson.
Sound like any successful artist you know? Me neither, and I know a lot of successful artists. This kind of ‘analysis’ is in itself the worst kind of magical thinking. Since science’s chief claim is rationality, that’s kind of funny.
The human animal is more than the sum of his or her parts. That’s worth remembering.