Creativity, art and science

 by Gustav Nilsonne, MD, PhD

The 14th session of the OuUnPo art festival on the theme the “fugue" has been concluded. A fugue in psychiatry is a state of dissociation, often with amnesia. A series of performances and events have investigated the fugue from different perspectives. Interaction between art and science has been an important theme. As an observer with a background in science, I have had the opportunity to reflect on the artworks and discussions during the session.

What is it like to have a psychotic episode? One early change, it seems, is that some sensory stimuli begin to take on new meaning. Sounds and smells that are usually quite trivial begin to acquire greater importance. This can be confusing and scary. Elaborate delusions can follow as patients try to make sense of their experience. For instance, in order to explain unusual smells, patients may decide that someone must be pumping gas into their living space.

Some art works open a window into what it might be like to experience “aberrant salience”, as this phenomenon is known. At Bonniers Konsthall, Natasha Rosling played an audio work, mostly with amplified sounds from within the body or from everyday ambience. Her piece was a reminder of the range of experience that stands open to us if we choose to be mindful of our sensory experiences, as well as a hint at what it may be like to have some sensations surprisingly heightened. A more immersive experience was offered by Jennifer Kanary Nikoleva in a satellite event at Karolinska Instiutet. She has built a psychosis simulator, with virtual reality goggles and earphones. Interacting with a person in the simulation is not unlike talking to a psychotic patient.

All of us can have delusions. Psychiatrist and researcher Predrag Petrovic gave a lecture in which he described delusion-proneness as a character trait that varies between people. It is not like, for instance, Huntington’s disease, which you either have or have not. Instead, everyone is prone to delusions in varying degrees. Higher delusion proneness may have benefits. This has been shown e.g. by Simon Kyaga, who demonstrated that family members to patients diagnosed with schizophrenia are more likely to have creative jobs.

Delusions, illusions, and hallucinations are part of everyday life and can be a source of delight. Pictures where the motif changes depending on what is perceived to be figure and background are a simple and commonplace example. The same thing can happen in music. As demonstrated by Lazlo Harmat and Anna Buchenhorst, who gave a talk and piano recital at the Italian Cultural Institute, Bach’s fugues have a constantly intertwined set of voices that alternate between figure and background, largely dependent on the listener’s perspective. Perhaps this constantly changing perspective is part of the reason why Bach’s fugues can give us such a deep experience.

This OuUnPo session has served to remind us that sensory experience is quite variable for everyone, throughout everyday life, if we allow ourselves to take note of what we perceive. Art and science share a common goal in exploring models of reality. When model exploration has consequences for human interaction, art can help shape our societies. Art is always political, it was said at Bonniers Konsthall. Maybe this session will have helped to de-stigmatize the psychotic experience by blurring the line between what is “normal” and what is not.

I thank Stephen Whitmarsh, Eléna Nemkova, Susanne Ewerlöf, and all other participants and contributors for a most memorable experience.

More images here.