In his column in the NYT, David Brooks relates a story about the rock star Sting’s appearance at the recent TED conference in Vancouver. Sting didn’t wow the audience with some great futuristic insight or innovation. Instead,
“…the rock star Sting got onstage and gave a presentation that had a different feel. He talked about his rise to stardom and then about a period in middle age when he was unable to write any new songs. The muse abandoned him, he said—for days, then weeks, then months, then years.
But then, he went back and started thinking about his childhood in the north of England. He’d lived on a street that led down to a shipyard where some of the world’s largest ocean-going vessels were built.
Most of us have an urge, maybe more as we age, to circle back to the past and touch the places and things of childhood. When Sting did this, his creativity was reborn. Songs exploded from his head.”
Brooks makes the point that the future is an integral part of the past, and vice versa. But he didn’t ask the crucial question: Why did Sting lose his creativity when he became a star, and why did he regain it when he went back to northern England? General aphorisms like “what’s past is prologue” do not explain anything.
Sting was at his highest phase of creativity when he lived in Newcastle upon Tyne and was part of the famous band The Police in the 70’s and 80’s. His songs reflected his immediate surroundings and experiences in Newcastle; the shipyard, the workingmen of the shipyards, the pubs, the despair of the layoffs in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, the rage of the dispossessed. But then, he became an international star, basking in the glow of fame and success, and away from the grime of northern England. And with time, his fountain of new songs dwindled and eventually went dry. What happened?
Participants are asked to hold their hand up to the wrist in painfully cold water until they are invited to remove it and are offered a warm towel. The subjects in the experiment used their free hand to control arrows on a keyboard to provide a continuous record of the pain they were enduring, a direct communication from their “experiencing self”. Each participant endured two cold-hand episodes: the first was for 60 seconds of cold water immersion; the second was for 60 seconds of cold water immersion and then the experimenter, unseen by the participants, where a valve of warm water was opened to raise the temperature by 1ºC, just enough for most subjects to detect a slight decrease in the intensity of pain. The trials were separated by seven minutes. Seven minutes after the second trial, the participants were given a choice about a third trial. They were told that one of their experiences would be repeated exactly, and they were free to choose either one.
This, and numerous other experiments, led to astonishing conclusions:
- Peak-end rule. We remember an experience by the average of the level of pain reported at the worst moment of the experience and at its end.
- Duration neglect. The duration of the procedure had no effect whatsoever on the ratings of total pain.
Is it surprising then that most of the participants chose to repeat the 90-second immersion (which ended with a slightly less painful cold immersion) over the 60 seconds painful immersion? Virtually identical results were obtained with painful injections, chemotherapy, and experiences recorded while watching a movie and recalling the movie days later. Our memories are not an integral of the event; they are compressed into an average of peak experience and its end. Just like digital memory, our brain has to compress experiences so as to be able to store a lifetime-worth of them.
So what does all this have to do with Sting’s muse? He wrote his songs while he was experiencing, in real time. He got his inspiration listening to the laid off shipyard worker; he recorded his rage when he saw the grimy coal miner; he cried when he saw the sickly children of the “working class” of England. Compressing all those painful experiences into an average of “peak and end” hardly makes for great inspiration. What the “remembering self” was missing was the desolate landscape of the northern midlands, the smells of pub food and greasy spoon restaurants, and the texture and sound of life. These sensations and memories could only be regained by going back to his roots. And this is where he found his muse, patiently waiting for him all the while.