Revisiting Consciousness and Artistic Inspiration

Whatever concept an artist imagines
Is a reflection of a latent form that lies within
A block of marble; the hand alone,
Guided by the intellect, can give it form.

from Michelangelo’s Sonnet 15

The “reflection of a latent form” Michelangelo characterizes in his poem has inspired debate among artists, aesthetes, and philosophers for thousands of years, with little resolution. A procession of thinkers from Homer on have claimed that the source of the creative impulse originates from somewhere other than the conscious rational mind, and it is up to the artist to channel this mysterious force. In Plato’s Ion, Socrates attributes artistic inspiration to various divinities that induce a form of generative madness. This means that artists can’t take credit for their creations because those creations come from somewhere other than conscious processes. Socrates says to Ion, a professional rhapsode,

For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed. And as the Corybantian revellers when they dance are not in their right mind, so the lyric poets are not in their right mind when they are composing their beautiful strains: but when falling under the power of music and metre they are inspired and possessed; like Bacchic maidens who draw milk and honey from the rivers when they are under the influence of Dionysus but not when they are in their right mind. And the soul of the lyric poet does the same, as they themselves say; for they tell us that they bring songs from honeyed fountains, culling them out of the gardens and dells of the Muses; they, like the bees, winging their way from flower to flower. And this is true. For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him. . . . [T]he poets are only the interpreters of the Gods by whom they are severally possessed.

Now, neuroscience is adding a new wrinkle to the discussion. Various research institutes have amassed abundant evidence proving that unconscious brain activity shapes our decisions well before the conscious mind thinks it does. One simple but revealing experiment at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience Berlin explores the source and timing of decisions. Specifically, a brain scanner studies the relationship between a subject’s unconscious and conscious neurological activity. Holding a button in each hand, the subject randomly decides and then immediately presses one of the two buttons. At the same time, the scanner system records when the brain makes the decision and when the subject decides to physically press the button. On a consistent basis, the brain makes a decision up to six seconds before the subject consciously decides to press the button.

Results like this beg many questions. For instance, to most of us, being conscious means being in control of our actions, but if we’re not making autonomous decisions at the conscious level, then where is our free will? Is consciousness just “the hand alone, / Guided by the intellect” that gives creation shape, as Michelangelo asserts? Some find this prospect disconcerting given that identity as most of us understand it might actually be controlled by an unconscious mass of gray matter that defines and guides our behavior without our conscious consent. As Professor John-Dylan Haynes of the Bernstein Center notes, “[Y]our consciousness is your brain activity and that’s what’s leading your life. It seems that what our experiments reveal is that there’s like a mechanism unfolding, a deterministic mechanism that leads up to your decision at a later point in time, and that was inevitable.”

Beyond rethinking their basic assumptions about cognition, humans must try to determine who or what infuses the brain with consciousness regardless of where researchers first locate it. Granted, maybe all forms of consciousness are nothing more than the ebb and flow of neural activity. Nevertheless, are neurons conscious, and what exactly is making our decisions? The tiny portion of the brain that someone can identify as “me” doesn’t really account for much of what we now know about perception and neural behavior. As Socrates believed, something outside of the brain could well be guiding our thoughts and decisions. Current theoretical frameworks like string theory and its accompanying holographic principle entertain the possibility. Whether we perceive this phenomenon as something miraculous or physically quantifiable shouldn’t diminish our willingness to share open discourse in our quest to better understand it.