In case you missed it the first time, here’s my Hothouse article from Nov. 16:
“There is no science without fancy and no art without fact.” –Vladimir Nabokov
The work of art and science mingle and coalesce when artists and scientists, in turn, sort out the stuff of human life. Artists are scientists and scientists, artists, each laboring to unmask the human condition: the what, where, when, and, most importantly, the why and how of it. Artists apply their instruments of discovery—words, visual representations, musical notation, and memory; scientists employ their instruments, too—microscopes and telescopes, image scanners and apparatus all to create a portrait of us.
While this landscape where art and science merge isn’t exactly unexplored territory, I recently read an article at NPR.com entitled “Childhood Maltreatment Can Leave Scars In The Brain”, and the scientific study on which it was based, that brought the intersection more closely into focus for me. The study, published in October, showed why people who are abused as children are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety.
Physical and emotional abuse weakens brain connections that help us distinguish whether a threat is real or imagined. People who’ve been abused are unable to regulate their emotions, particularly fear and whether to fight or flee, as effectively as those who were treated kindly as children. According to researchers, the connection between the parts of the brain (prefrontal cortex) that determine thought and action, the part of the brain (amygdala) that regulates fight or flight response as well as emotion and fear, and the part of the brain (hippocampus) that helps us differentiate truly dangerous situations is often damaged by the abuse. Girls, researchers believe, may be even more sensitive to abuse because both connections—between amygdala and prefrontal cortex and between the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex—are damaged. Researchers say, physically and emotionally abused people have a harder time contextualizing situations, leading to sometimes debilitating anxiety and depression.
What our bodies see and hear, taste and smell, how our bodies are touched—all of our physical senses feed our brains and often direct our perceptions and how we act in the world. How we act upon each other changes us physically. When we brutalize each other, we change the trajectory of the other’s life by physically altering her brain. In the U.S., where we value a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps mentality, we must acknowledge that some people physically cannot pull themselves up because they’ve been too altered, too damaged, by how they’ve been acted upon.
What does this have to do with art?
Science and art meet at the intersection of the how and the why. Before I became fascinated by reading about brain studies that seem to show how the body physically changes based upon mistreatment, I sensed a connection based on the memoirs I was reading and the memoir I’ve been working on about my life with my mother, a woman who was emotionally and physically tormented by her mother. In his memoir, “The End of the World as We Know It: Scenes from a Life,” Robert Goolrick absorbs the astonishing, yet unthinking, cruelty of his alcoholic parents. Through that absorption, his self-loathing manifests in a depression and self-destruction that’s understandable, if only because the brutality of one shocking act perpetrated by his parents is unthinkable. (If you want to know what that act is and the attendant forgiveness that accompanies it, read the book.) After reading Goolrick’s memoir, I began looking at my own mother differently. I no longer asked why she couldn’t pull herself together. The question suddenly seemed futile. I knew why she was the way she was (the abuse she experienced at the hands of her mother), but I wanted to know how the abuse wrecked her. Brain studies of abused children have pointed toward an answer.
At the intersection of art and science, I was finally able to see her. Rather than try to suggest she put on her big-girl panties and “get on with it,” I was finally able to grieve with her, grieve the loss of the little girl she was and the woman she may have been had she not been acted upon so horrifically. I was also able to celebrate the woman she’s become and the children she raised. At the intersection of art and science, I found my mother.