Tuesday, March 17, 2009

the man with three brains

steve martin may be the man with two brains, but i can go one better: i have three brains.

this curious fact came up in conversation with a writer yesterday about the creative process and where ideas come from. i was talking about a new character in limerance, the novel i'm writing. i have known for some time that a character was needed to fill a role and have been musing for a while about who that character would be. i sat down to write yesterday with no clear idea. it started with a voice calling out to my main character, adam, as he crossed the street, and i realized it was a man. in a few minutes, he was born: a great, fat lawyer with red face and pin-striped suit, and i knew how he fit into the story.

so it seems like magic - these ideas float out of the ether and we writers write them down. in exceptionally intense forms, people call it automatic writing.

i think it's coming from our three brains - or the triune brain, to give it its proper name. humans, like other primates, have three brains glued on top of each other by evolution. the stump brain is generally called the reptilian brain, because we share it with reptiles. it's really, really old. it runs the body - who did you think was telling your heart to pump or your hair to grow? it's the reptilian brain. when the doctor taps your knee and it kicks out, that's your reptilian brain talking. when someone goes boo and you scream, that's the lizard king inside your head shouting.

on top of that is the mammalian brain, which we share with dogs and dolphins and so on. it's also called the limbic system, and it runs the part of our brain we tend to call our heart. it's got feelings, nothing more than feelings... it likes or dislikes things, but doesn't care to provide reasons. it gets hurt, it gets happy, it is a cauldron of emotion.

on top of this is the crowning (literally) glory of the primates: the neomammalian brain. ours is much bigger than chimps and whatnot, and in this case, size does count. the neomammalian, or neocortex, is where rational thought happens, where we know ourselves and can use reason to sort through the information provided by the lower brains. it's also how we speak and do math and so on. it's the part of us that we think of as us, our essential selves.

as you doubtless are already thinking, it dovetails nicely with freud's id, ego and superego, or perhaps even dualism and the idea that we are not entirely physical creatures.

i think this is how the creative process works: the two lower brains are busy thinking their thinks all day long, while the upper brain worries about the recession or whatever, and then presto! when we sit down to write - or paint or sculpt - these thoughts bubble up to our amazed upper brain. as i've been writing the first 30,000 words of limerance, my reptilian and mammalian brains have been creating joe meadows, the fat man who walked into my novel fully formed yesterday.
blog comments powered by Disqus