A Poet’s Brain: “It’s Alive!”

Today’s post comes from Sasha A. Palmer (aka Happy). Sasha is a regular around these parts, and she writes for a living and pleasure. She shares quick writing links every Thursday at www.sashaapalmer.com and blogs at www.thehappyamateur.com.

Sasha A. Palmer

Sasha A. Palmer

This is actually a 2-part post. Look for the second part at the end of the week.


For that fine madness still he did retain
Which rightly should possess a poet’s brain
–Michael Drayton

Next time people ask you: What do you do? – try telling them you’re a poet. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a rendition of: “Excuse me darling, what is it exactly that you do do?” That’s rare. Stunned silence is what you normally get. No wonder.

You’re a poet = something’s wrong with you.

The relationship between madness and creative imagination is ancient. Its nature – still a mystery. Is it about “cause and effect”? Does a mental disorder lead to creativity? Or is it the other way around? In other words, “which came first, the chicken or the egg?”


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There is a correlation. This much is clear. According to a study by Professor Kay Redfield Jamison, major British and Irish poets (between 1600 and 1800) were 20 times more likely to have a mood disorder, be put into an asylum or commit suicide than the general folk.

Lord Byron’s one of the notable “patients” in Jamison’s “Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.” Here’s what George Gordon had to say for himself and his fellow poets: “We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.”

Contemporary poets

It’s the 21st century, and nothing has changed. Poets are as affected as ever. Writing like there’s no tomorrow, participating in Poem-A-Day challenges, doing all sorts of crazy things. Why? Professor Fredrik Ullen caught a glimpse of the answer among the squiggles of the brain.

Remember “Finding Nemo”? Imagine the thalamus as the ocean of information. The cortex as Nemo, the clownfish. And the dopamine (D2) receptors as the tentacles of the anemone, protecting the cortex-clownfish from the informational overflow.

D2 receptors act as a barrier, a filter, making sure that not all of the information from the thalamus ends up in the cortex.

According to Professor Ullen, highly creative people–and people with schizophrenia–have a lower than expected density of D2 receptors. Apparently their cortexes are flooded with unfiltered signals.

“Creative people, like those with psychotic illness, tend to see the world differently to most,” said UK psychologist and member of the British Psychological Society Mark Millard, “It’s like looking at a shattered mirror. They see the world in a fractured way.”

A fine madness

They zoom in on details. They spot connections others miss. They’re capable of “suspension of disbelief”–a phrase coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his “Biographia Literaria”– “suspension of disbelief…which constitutes poetic faith.” Everything is possible.

Sounds alluring, doesn’t it?

Be careful. The relationship between psychosis and creativity is a difficult topic. As Jemison–bipolar herself–notes, it concerns “devastating illnesses that you don’t want to romanticize.” You want to address them, no question about it.

However, there’s something to be said for that “fine madness” Michael Drayton wrote about. Maybe Edgar Allan Poe’s hint at madness as “the loftiest intelligence” seems like a stretch. Maybe Emily Dickinson’s “Much Madness is divinest Sense” is a bit too much.

Yet, a little bit of madness, “fine madness”, a touch of it – might be just what the doctor ordered. To keep your poet’s–“Abby something…Abby Normal”–brain going.

Happy and healthy poeming, everyone.


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10 thoughts on “A Poet’s Brain: “It’s Alive!”

  1. Anthony94

    Reminds me of a quote posted in front of my work space: “One does not use poetry for its major purposes, as a means to organize oneself and the world, until one’s world somehow gets out of hand. ….Richard Wilbur. Thanks for bring this to us!

  2. PressOn

    (apologies to Kern and Fields, and A Fine Romance)

    A fine madness, so exciting;
    a fine madness, poets writing.

    We are just like
    a legion, impassioned writers
    who fill up voids with
    lines birthed in fine all-nighters.

    A fine madness, when words nestle;
    a fine madness, when words wrestle.

    Poets hasten to write
    words of joy and sadness;
    it’s a kind of gladness;
    surely a fine madness.


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