Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Where does It come from?

I marvel at a gift my daughter has and that I, alas, do not: composing. She took up piano a little over a year ago. I heard her playing something so evocative after only two lessons that I poked my head out of the kitchen, where I was doing something completely ordinary like chopping vegetables, and asked her, "What's that you're playing?" The music reminded me a little bit of a procession for kings in a fairy tale or a bible story. Like something out of Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors, which we had recently seen and try to see every Christmas season.

"Oh, I'm just composing."

Composing! Wow, she was making that music up? How do people do that? Where does that music come from?

"It's wonderful, sweetie. Reminds me of Amahl."

"Yeah, actually, I'm calling it A Royal Appearance." That was her first composition. She was 8.

More recently she has composed a piece called At the Arcade, which sounds just like someone playing pinball or video games, and another called (at my suggestion), Stirring the Brew, a playfully spooky piece that sounds just like, guess what, someone stirring brew in a cauldron. She's also working on a musical, and the parts she has sung for me so far have blown me away.

Where does creativity come from?

One could spin an endless web of theories. In ancient Greece there were the nine Muses. Today the fashion is to attribute most things that involve human cognition to the function of little molecular messengers, the neurontransmitters. Some might add genes, spirit guides, environmental factors, God, faith, early childhood education, exposure to music, good nutrition, or any number of influences to explain people's gifts, and logically a combination of any of these factors might certainly contribute to human creativity. But it's like trying to explain how it is we hear certain combinations of sounds and call them "music," or why certain strains of music elicit tears or fears or longings. Ask my daughter where her music comes from, and she'll say, "It's been with me for months," or "I hear it in my head."

"Intuition" is similar. The day before my oral boards, at my husband's suggestion, I booked myself a massage. What better way to de-stress, right? There's a funny story about the whole spa experience that day that would take a whole other post to relate, but for purposes of what I'm thinking about right now, let me skip to the part where the massage therapist, seemingly out of nowhere, placed a hand right in the middle of a muscle in my lower back that couldn't have been more in need of a little un-kinking. I was shocked at the sure-fire accuracy of the maneuver and asked, "Wow, how did you know that?"

The laconic, Italian-accented reply: "Experience."

And I've said the same thing. At one of the hospitals my anesthesia group serves, we teach EMTs and paramedic students about intubation. When they really can't see the vocal cords or can't place the breathing tube in the trachea, I quickly step in and complete the procedure, and often I'm asked, "How did you know how to adjust that so you could get it in?" The answer truly is experience. I always tell the paramedic students it took me HUNDREDS of airways (as in, intubating 3-4 times a day for 2-3 months) to feel really comfortable with the "straightforward" ones, and hundreds more to feel I had the ability to tackle a challenging one.

Once in the ICU during my residency the surgeon in charge watched me do one of those God-help-me intubations, and while I was doing it he asked, "Can you see anything?" The answer was no, but I asked him to hand me the tube anyway. It went in. "Lucky," he said. Maybe, but the more I learn and the more experience I have, the luckier I seem to be. Yet never "lucky" to feel smug about intubating people. If I've learned anything in my line of work, it's respect for the airway!

Just last week at one of the other hospitals we serve, the E.R. doc had a really tough time with the airway, had tried for a while to secure it, but then sent someone to the O.R. to ask me to come and take a look (another long story that would take a separate post to relate). I looked. It was tough. Darn tough. I could easily have missed. But something told me to bend the tube a certain way, and wiggle the laryngoscope just so, and thankfully the tube went in. But no amount of success, at least for me, will make these "scary" airways less caution-worthy. Difficult airways just can't be taken lightly, ever. My heart still quickens a little every time, and I still say a split-second mental prayer over them to help focus my efforts.

But this is all stuff that involves training, learned skills, and practice. Granted, creative acts take work and practice too, but with those, there's that inexplicable element, the mysterious "place" that works of art (and life) come from. How did Ralph Vaughan Williams come up with his Concerto for Oboe and Strings? How did Harper Lee's vision of Calpurnia or Jem come to life so vividly on the page?

Sure, neurotransmitters are important. I've seen and heard of enough anecdotes about people "losing" their creativity when they take certain neurotransmitter-altering drugs. One writer I read recently also describes the opposite - a medication that seemed to give her hypergraphia, a need to write often and copiously (and no, despite what the entries in this blog might suggest, I am not taking the aforementioned medication, unless it's at all similar to any compounds found in chocolate!). So yes, the brain matters. (And just as an aside, I think people should be less critical of the use of some of the medications I've alluded to here. You wouldn't tell diabetics to just "get over" their pancreas problem if they need medication. If people with neurotransmitter issues need medication as well, and have the guidance of experts to help select those medications, they should take the meds they need, and/or practice yoga to boost their levels of GABA, etc.) Clearly, neurotransmitters are powerful agents for human ability, behavior, emotion, health. etc. But are they the whole story?

When I think of my children's faces, my daughter's pieces, places I love, stories I want to write, I have a hard time imagining how those thoughts could simply be stored and recalled, repeatedly, by neurons and their neurotransmitters. I think there's more to thought than we think.


Had my 5th oboe lesson today. Lots of fun. We laughed over how "I hate half holes!" Went over C, F, & G major scales as planned, and a couple of others, E flat and A major. I have my work cut out for me but I'm excited to get into some "real" music-work. Started to work on dynamics too for the first time - and again, that feeling of "where did that come from" arose when I hit a note more piano by accident after trying several times.

Kyoko asked, "What did you do just then?"

"I don't know, I don't know! What did I do? I have no idea why that worked!"

But just like intubation, playing repeatedly gives you an idea, maybe one that you can't verbalize readily, but it's certainly there. A "gut feeling" about how to move your muscles to produce an effect. I hope as I practice and play more, I'll have more of that inexplicable "instinct" about what adjustments to make. Dance was like this too. After a while, with lots of training, lots of practice, lots of work, I needed less thought to do what I wanted to do. Less thought, more...what? Very mysterious, all this brain / spirit / creativity stuff.


Elaine Fine said...

What a beautiful blog post!

T. said...

Thank you, and thanks for visiting!

Lee said...

I agree with Elaine, and it's her link that sent me here, but I'll be coming back. The mind/brain/creativity stuff is fascinating, and in fact I've been doing a lot of (very basic) reading about it for the novel I'm currently writing.

T. said...

Lee, thanks for visiting - I'm looking forward to checking out your novels online!