Style, Identity, Free Association, and the Brain

By Holland, Norman N. | PSYART, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Style, Identity, Free Association, and the Brain


Holland, Norman N., PSYART


Artists and readers demonstrate persistent styles. Previously, I have explained this phenomenon by a general model of humans' functioning. A theme-and-variations identity unique to an individual sets standards for physiological and cultural feedback loops common to many or all biologically normal humans. Identity governing feedbacks would explain how an organism maintains its unchanging inner nature while negotiating a constantly changing world. Recent brain research suggests a brain basis for such an identity in "task-induced deactivation." Some midline regions of the brain become less active when subjects perform tasks. Researchers explain the decrease as the interruption of a central, continually active brain system. To perform tasks, its energy goes to peripheral systems for particular actions. Such a central brain system fits the model of a persistent identity theme. The diversion of energy fits the activation of lower-level feedback loops directed by an identity theme.

keywords: Identity, style, character, task-induced deactivation, default mode, resting state, Lichtenstein

url: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2006_holland01.shtml

From style to identity

Mozart sounds like Mozart. Hemingway reads like Hemingway. Matisse looks like Matisse. Always. And we can identify them after a few bars or sentences or a mere glance at a picture. Aestheticians speak of their "style," while psychologists might point to personality. For a long time, I have been explaining this persistence of style a by a concept of identity first put forward by psychoanalyst Heinz Lichtenstein (1961, 1977).

Most psychoanalytic writers, Erikson, for example, use the word "identity" to refer to one's inner sense of coherence or continuity. This is identity from within, who I feel like. That kind of identity fluctuates from year to year, day to day, and even moment to moment. Most neuroscientists who talk about humans' extended consciousness (compared to animals') are addressing this identity sensed from within.

Lichtenstein was writing about identity as seen from outside, a completely different thing. We are consciously aware of who we think we are, but that may not be at all how we seem when seen from outside. Seeing us from outside, people say things like, "Yes, that's just like him," or "That an odd thing for her to do" or "Good old Norm, always flogging his idea of identity." And it is when seen from outside that Mozart sounds like Mozart, Hemingway reads like Hemingway, and Matisse looks like Matisse.

Lichtenstein (1977, p. 245) defined this kind of identity as "invariance within change or invariance within a transformation." He used a metaphor from music. One can read identity (or style) in another person just as one hears themes and variations in a symphony. The music is constantly changing, constantly moving toward a new and unexpected sound, yet one can trace persistent and recurring themes. We humans can vary our themes infinitely. We can play variations that are positive and negative, healthy and unhealthy, creative and ritualistic, liberal and conservative, hostile and loving-all the varieties of human life. But, if Lichtenstein is right, an observer, a biographer, say, should be able to trace a sameness, a personal style if you will, within all those changes.

Lichtenstein formulated such identities in words, as phrases or sentences, which he called "identity themes." He provided a number of examples in his writings from his patients and from the suicidal poet Thomas Chatterton (Lichtenstein 1961; Lichtenstein, 1977, ch. 10). I have added several more examples of identity themes: five subjects of an experiment in reading (Holland, 1975); Robert Frost (Holland, 1989); Ronald Reagan (Holland, 1989); the poet H.D., analyzed by Freud (Holland, 2000; Holland, 2002) ; F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Bernard Shaw, and Little Hans, where one can trace identity from the five-year-old boy Freud treated to the adult director of operas (Holland, 1985).

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