|Kylie's plastic brain, PFC in green|
Today's guest is author Kylie Ladd. Kylie is the author of two novels, After The Fall and Last Summer, and two works of non-fiction. She has also been published in Griffith Review, Good Weekend, Etchings and O magazine, amongst others, and holds a PhD in neuropsychology. Her third novel is currently being read by her publisher.
Writer’s tools are all very well, but how many of them are reliable and always at hand? Pens leak or run out. Notebooks get lost. Laptops blow up, become infected or suddenly shut down the only time (I swear to God) you’ve written two thousand words without backing up along the way.
I still use all these things, of course, but over the dozen or so years of my writing life I’ve found that I’ve come to depend far more on another tool. It’s grey and squishy and completely custom made. It’s always on, and recharges automatically when I’m asleep. It’s my prefrontal cortex.*
The prefrontal cortex is the bit of the brain immediately behind your forehead, right - as the name suggests - at the front of the organ, lying ahead of the motor areas. I first became acquainted with it at the age of 21, when I took a neuroanatomy course as part of my Masters degree in psychology. One minute my classmates and I were loitering in the hallway of the medical building, wondering why we’d all been instructed to bring a waterproof smock, and the next we were being ushered into a lab to find a brain in a bucket on each of our desks. The prefrontal cortex was the first area we dissected. “Look at this!” our instructor exclaimed as he hauled his own bucket-bound brain onto a chopping board, made a few incisions and lifted up something that resembled a dripping, quivering mound of paté. “It doesn’t seem like much, does it? But that’s you. That’s who you are.”
He was right. As I was later to learn, damage to the prefrontal cortex (an unfortunately all-too common sequelae of car accidents) almost always results in personality change, with the afflicted individual becoming impatient, irritable, impulsive, facile... “not himself”, as I’ve heard so many families report. The area is responsible for judgement, insight and reason, the so-called higher-level or executive functions that distinguish us from animals. Even more importantly for a writer, it’s the prefrontal cortex that allows us to think abstractly, to consider and integrate different points of view, to evaluate whether what we’ve produced is any good or not.
But that’s not just why I’m so dependent on mine. The other vital - and fascinating - aspect of the prefrontal cortex is what happens when its influence is moderated, or, like a volume knob, turned down. In the words of neuroscientist Earl Miller, the prefrontal cortex can be compared to “the conductor of an orchestra waving [his] baton and directing the players.” If the conductor wanders off, the result can be a mess - and schizophrenia has indeed been linked with structural damage and/or decreased neurotransmitter levels in the prefrontal cortex. But it can also give the orchestra the opportunity to come up with some whole new tunes of its own.
Three mornings ago I went for a run. I’d spent the previous day struggling with the plotting of a new novel...there was a particular theme I wanted to work in, but I couldn’t for the life of me think how. After an afternoon of deliberation, I’d given up in disgust and gone to cook dinner. Fourteen hours later, as I plodded along, simultaneously listening to a podcast and enjoying the sight of mist rising off the early-morning Yarra, the plot resolution suddenly came to me. It was nothing to do with the mist or the podcast; it had arrived, fully-formed, when the thinking parts of my brain were turned down.
Scientists have in fact found that creativity is enhanced during vigorous - but monotonous - exercise, such as running on a treadmill. This may be due to the brain selectively directing limited neural resources to the motor and sensory cortices, and away from other areas. The result, researchers argue, is a state of “transient hypofrontality” or defocused attention, where the inhibitory control of the prefrontal cortex is reduced (though not ablated) and new ideas and associations can flourish.
A similar state can be achieved via hypnosis, drugs, meditation and falling asleep or day dreaming. The epic poem Kubla Khan supposedly came to Coleridge in an opium-induced doze; Kekule was woolgathering on a London bus when he suddenly realised he had hit upon the chemical structure of carbon. In her wonderful book Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott visualises the unconscious, which a number of studies have linked with the prefrontal cortex, as “a Dr Seuss creature in the cellar, arranging and stitching things together. When this being is ready to hand things up to you, to give you a paragraph or a sudden move one character makes that will change the whole course of your novel, you will be entrusted with it.”
Sometimes, though, the Dr Seuss creature gets in early. In my third novel I called one of the leads Ben. No real reason; I just liked the name. Ben is the son of deeply devout Catholic parents who have used IVF to conceive him - a procedure forbidden by their church. Justifying the decision, Ben’s mother Mary turns to scripture and the lament of Rachel, wife of Jacob, who is also infertile: Give me children, or I die. I remembered that line from my church-schooled youth, but as I wrote Mary’s scene, which occurs in a flashback midway through the book, I found myself wondering what had happened to Rachel. Taking a break, I hunted out a bible, flicked to Genesis - and broke out in goosebumps. Rachel had eventually conceived in old age, bearing a son named Benjamin.
I can’t believe that that was coincidence. Decades ago, I knew my bible stories. I am convinced that as soon as I started thinking about my third novel, about religion and the ache of empty arms, that my prefrontal cortex diligently began sewing the pieces together. Months later, when the work was half-completed and my attention defocused, it quietly showed me what it had done, much as it had presented me with that plotting answer as I stopped and watched mist rise from a river. Try getting your laptop to do that.
*A few lines in this post are taken from Kylie's earlier essay in the Griffith Review, 'The Unexpected Idea'.