Friday, September 20, 2013

Wagner's Abnormal Mind - Part 4: His Sensitivity

The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanely sensitive. To them… a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death.” Attributed to Pearl Buck

There are many academic concepts about sensitivity—all concurring that some people are born innately more sensitive though from different perspectives—which you can explore here.  And there is much research that those who are highly sensitive—whatever the mechanism—are more apt to be creative. Here is a good article about why this is theorized to be so. 

For this blog, I would like to introduce two of these basic concepts before moving on to their application to Richard Wagner. If you are fully familiar with them, just skip to the part on Wagner himself.

Sensory Processing Sensitivity (Highly Sensitive Person)

In 1997, Elaine Aron, along with her husband Arthur, postulated the existence of “sensory processing sensitivity” (SPS) in this seminal paper. In popular jargon, the same thing is called the “highly sensitive person” (HSP). Both terms were coined by Elaine Aron: one for the scientist and one for the lay person.

Essentially, they reevaluated earlier personality trait research on emotionality and social introversion under a different lens, and argue that underlying what is often perceived as shyness is actually an in-born and effective survival strategy, and it doesn’t necessarily even include “shyness” per se. They argue that there are two general modes of existence: either a more bold strategy without much observation—the “just go for it” type—or a more observant strategy—the “check it out and go if safe” type. The idea is if there are no predators, the bold strategy wins; if there are lots of predators, the observant types win. Underlying this “bold” or “observant” behavior is essentially “responding more or responding less to the environment.” The “observant” actor—while generally being perceived as “shy”—could actually become bolder than the “bold” actor the next time the same circumstances arrived, as he or she was such a keen observer and could behave quite differently with the acquired knowledge.  In a nutshell, the bold are less sensitive to stimuli; the observant are more sensitive.

The theory proposes that SPS is “a genetically determined trait involving a deeper (in the sense of Craik and Lockhart, 1972) cognitive processing of stimuli that is driven by higher emotional reactivity.”1  They have postulated that about 15-20% of people are born with this trait. The people with SPS were found to have a constellation of four general traits that are correlated:
  • Depth of processing
  • Over-aroused (easily compared to others)
  • Emotional reactivity and high empathy
  • Sensitive to subtle stimuli
A potentially good part of being highly sensitive is greater appreciation for and intensity of sensory detail. Essentially, they perceive life in a much more rich way – what would be imperceptibly subtle to the less sensitive is easily evident to the highly sensitive. They tend to have particularly strong appreciation for art and nature. Of course, this could also be a torment in that they can react strongly negative to things as well: too much noise, a coarse piece of clothing, a bad odor—even an ugly color—can affect the highly sensitive person in a drive-them-out-of-their-mind way. 

The biggest downside for the highly sensitive person is the feeling of sensory or emotional overwhelm creating a need to retreat from stimuli. In her book, The Highly Sensitive Person, Aron puts it this way:

What is moderately arousing for most people is highly arousing for HSPs. What is highly arousing for most people causes an HSP to become frazzled indeed, until they reach a shut-down point called “transmarginal inhibition.2

Other strong traits among people who are highly sensitive is enormous empathy—reacting to another person’s or animals pain far more than is normal for the “insensitive”3—and perfectionism. Of the latter, I am not sure why that is strongly correlated with high sensitivity, but here is Elaine Aron’s take of the reason. 

She created a 27-item “Highly Sensitive Person scale” (HSPS) in order to help identify those in the general population who were born with this trait and, therefore, to do research on and create increased scientific grounding for their theory. Here is the self-test. According to Aron, for the people who answer “yes” to 14 or more statements they are “probably highly sensitive.”  The more strongly you agree with a category—and the more categories you strongly agree with—the more you likely are a HSP.

Since their 1997 paper, multiple studies have found—including many neurological studies— that people who score high on the HSP test scale do in fact respond differently than those who do not; their brains do work differently. Thus there has been clear scientific confirmation for their theories. The Aron’s, along with co-author Jadzia Jagiellowicz, summarized the research in this area, from both studies of animals and humans, in this 2010 paper.4 

Aron also reworked the thesis for a general audience, replacing scientific jargon with more easily understood lay language, which can be found here. Her central point is that these traits are in-born, can have both great advantages and also great disadvantages, but are not a pathology and just a natural part of human variation. However, she contends that a negative childhood environment can lead to pathology because the HSP can become easily overwhelmed in the modern world. Without learning ways to effectively cope—and with negative messaging about the person being “too sensitive”—problems can easily develop.

This level of sensitivity has been associated with shyness though it is not basic to the trait of sensitivity; Aron estimates that about 70% of highly sensitive people are introverted, but the rest are not. She argues that many of those who are highly sensitive but not introverted also inherited a in-born tendency to sensation seeking, which, as defined by a leading researcher Marvin Zuckerman, is the ‘seeking of varied, novel, complex, and intense sensations and experiences, and the willingness to take physicalsociallegal, and financial risks for the sake of such experience.5 

Aron writes in this Psychology Today article, 

You can inherit the genetic variations that lead both to being highly sensitive and a high sensation seeker, so this may be another way, besides being raised to be social, that you can be both highly sensitive and extraverted, but it may be more accurate in this case to call it highly sensitive and high sensation seeking. This combo, as one person put it, "is like driving with one foot on the gas, the other on the brake."

Aron has also developed a self-test for high sensation seeking that can be found here.

While I haven’t found that she has done any research on the connection between being highly sensitive and cyclothymia or bipolar disorder, the connection to having a tendency to significant mood changes—though not necessarily, of course, to a psychological disorder—is fairly evident and almost inevitable for the highly sensitive.

This article in Psychology Today by Andrea Bartz makes this connection clear:

The HSP's touchy nervous system leads to a touchy temperament. Like the princess sensing the pea below her tower of mattresses, HSPs perceive the slightest sensory or emotional provocation, then respond with a flurry of brain activity that begets an outsize reaction—rumination, tears, histrionics, on one hand, or unbridled enthusiasm on the other. Their personalities may run the gamut from moody to dramatic—all the product of their unique biology.... HSPs inhabit a teeming world of vibrant colors, sharp smells, striking sounds, and powerful tugs at their emotions.  

One man, both highly sensitive and bipolar, wrote this about the connection: “Imagine HSP superimposed with bipolar. In many cases the overlay is so perfect that it is virtually impossible to sort out illness from personality, state from trait.

Ernest Hartman introduced the concept of people with thin-boundaries, which is easily compatible with the concept of the HSP.

As related in the just-quoted Psychology Today article,
In his schema, people with thin mental boundaries do not clearly separate the contents of consciousness, so that a fantasy life of daydreaming may bump right up against everyday reality. It's as if those with thin boundaries have porous shells that allow more of their environment to penetrate and "get" to them—and into their dreams. Hartmann's concept of the thin-boundaried seemed to suggest that there indeed exists a group of people who take in a whole lot more than others.
According to this website,
Hartmann first came to his conception in an interesting way. In the 1980s, he was studying people who have nightmares and noticed that they could also readily recall other vivid or colorful dreams even if they didn’t qualify as nightmares. These people seemed to him especially “sensitive,” “vulnerable,” or “imaginative,” in contrast with other people who came across as more “solid,” “stoic,” or “persevering.” He suspected that there are real brain and body differences between thin and thick boundary people, and he developed a questionnaire to gain more insight.
You can find that questionnaire here. A shorter version here (with quick scoring results).  He has administered it to hundreds of student artist and musicians, the vast majority who tested positive for “thin boundaries” while non-artists were much less likely to do so, supporting the thesis that sensitivity and creatively are linked.  People’s test results ended up on a bell curve; I tended to the “thick-boundary” side of the curve, unsurprisingly to me.

Thin-boundary people let more sensory data in — more from the eyes, the ears, the tongue, the body, the nose. Most “insensitive” people have a strong filter for “irrelevant” sensory information so as to make the world easily navigable; those with HSP and thin-boundaries have much less ability to turn off this stream. The only time I have experienced anything similar is on LSD. To me, it sounds like all these sensitive folks are on a low dose of LSD their entire lives.  I found a little confirmation of this from this blog of a HSP:
HSPs can get relaxed, chatty, and uninhibited without alcohol--and can take blissful mental "trips" without LSD. A few lucky HSPs who were around in the 1960s even avoided those dangerous experiments with drugs, because nothing our friends seemed to experience on drugs seemed much more interesting than what we experienced while meditating
Life is just way more intense for them, in both good and bad ways.

How the above relates Wagner

So, what is this information doing here? Wagner can’t fill in those self-tests, but there can be no doubt that his letters and autobiography scream out the answers. If you have been reading my blog, I hope it is already fairly clear to you that these psychological categories—a highly sensitive, high sensation-seeking person with thin boundaries—describe Wagner to a T, and far better than any DSM pathological category, may I add. I believe this complex of character traits is at the very heart of his personality, explains a tremendous amount about him and creates a more sympathetic understanding of what went wrong—and what went right—with Wagner. If I had more time and space, I could demonstrate point by point how closely he matches all the principal traits of people who are highly sensitive and sensation-seeking and thin-boundaried, but I don’t really have that luxury in my world right now—it would be a book—so I will highlight some of the more important points. I hope by raising this, though, it will give a little more depth and complexity to Wagner’s psychological biography and that the next major biographer of Wagner will take his in-born traits into better account as he or she researches and writes it.

One of the key “bad” traits of high sensitive people is the feeling of overwhelm and frazzled nerves and the resultant need for peace and quiet. This was the story of his life.

Wagner was forever complaining about his nerves and had to frequently stop work for long stretches – weeks or months – to heal. “My nerves are shattered,” he wrote to Franz Liszt in 1850.6 In 1852 to his friend Theodor Uhlig he wrote, “I do not know whether it comes from inside me, or from outside, if I am again unwell. As far as my bodily functions are concerned, I must say that I am tolerably healthy: but – my nerves!”7 Later in the year, again to Uhlig, he wrote, “The time I spend at work never lasts more than 2 hours; through working for 5-6 hours, as I often used to do in the past, I seriously overtaxed my nerves.”8 Two months later, on a mountain trek to calm his nerves, he writes: “I am walking a lot, and am very good on my feet; only my head continues to be a source of dissatisfaction: my cerebral nerves are in an appalling state: overexcitement or lassitude — but no real sense of calm!”9 To his friend Julie Ritter, he further explained his artistic/mind problem: “I had previously completed the poem of the “Walküre” in the space of a month, without any interruption, and I could tell only too well from the results of this exertion how things really stood with me. My cerebral nerves were so badly affected that I found myself (other people can understand none of this) in a desperate state, but this much at least was clear, namely that if I am to produce anything else, it can only be achieved by subjecting my entire nervous system to the most elaborate course of treatment.”10 And subject himself he did—to months of a dietary and water cure. But, alas, he was never really cured as he pointed out “there is only one true remedy – and that is for me to be someone other than I am.”11

And so it went for the rest of his life. In a letter in September of 1882, writing from his last home in Venice several months before his death, he wrote to Angelo Neuman, “I am still suffering from the effects of nervous exhaustion to which I can hope to put an end only by lasting and undisturbed rest. I am doing all I can to make this possible.”12

In terms of his sensory sensitivity, I would like to give you a little portrait of his creative process as an example.  By way of preamble, in this letter to his Franz Liszt he writes about his creative needs:

...if I am obliged once more to plunge into the waves of an artist’s imagination in order to find satisfaction in an imaginary world, I must at least help out my imagination and find means of encouraging my imaginative faculties. I cannot live like a dog, I cannot sleep on straw and drink common gin: mine is an intensely irritable, acute, and hugely voracious, yet uncommonly tender and delicate sensuality which, one way or another, must be flattered if I am to accomplish the cruelly difficult task of creating in my mind a non-existent world.13

Now, he has been greatly mocked for the letter above, but I personally think it is just the truth, and I don’t feel the need to judge him as others seem to do.

So what did he do to help out his “imaginative facilities?” In order to keep himself in the right mood, he wanted to have everything “just so,” a completely controlled environment in time and space. He craved regularity, composing daily in an extended span of time after a meal – generally from mid-morning to mid-afternoon or until nervous exhaustion overcame him. He needed to be surrounded by beauty. Muted lighting was a must; uninterrupted quiet paramount. Wagner’s surroundings had to be visually and aromatically alluring, full of vibrant colors and potent fragrances. His needs for his sanctuary, as for all aspects of his life, were very specific and detailed. To his seamstress, Bertha Goldwag, he wrote multiple letters of incredible detail to produce the ideal lair accompanied by befitting apparel (among his many talents: he designed his own clothes). As a small illustration, in requesting a dark pink “fine heavy satin” fabric sample, he added “do not confuse [it] with the earlier violent pink, which is not what I mean here, but genuine pink, only very dark and fiery.”14 While he composed, he liked to stroke, smell and gaze at the satin for inspiration. Wagner disliked seeing lines and hard surfaces as he composed but wanted everything to flow (presumably like his music). The furniture and the carpet all had to be soft, plush. The lining of his clothing required silk or satin because other material “produced a shudder sensation throughout the body.”15 Goldwag said all his clothes had to be scented in rose fragrance and “lined and wadded, as Wagner was always complaining that he was cold.”16

In this manner, through controlling his environment and massaging his senses, he found inspiration. Given that the writing process often overwhelmed him, fraying his nerves, it could be that what inspired him also overwhelmed him to some degree. It was always a balancing act to produce his music.

Wagner clearly fits into the thin-boundary schema as he always had a foot into another world, be it his feminine world of composing, his death-fantasy world, his dream world, or the theater world. He was very aware of his thin boundaries and sensitivity. He writes in Mein Leben, “From earliest childhood certain mysterious and uncanny phenomena produced undue effects on me; I remember, whenever I was alone in a room for any length of time and looked fixedly at such inanimate objects as pieces of furniture, [I would] suddenly burst into a loud shriek, because they seemed to come alive.”17  From his music, I always thought that Wagner seemed like he had been an acid-head though that was historically impossible; I now realize it was just his natural state. Read this semi-dreamy passage of his attraction to the theater to get a sense of his life in fantasy along with the development of the allure and his attraction to the feminine:
In connection with this childish terror [nightly nightmares], what attracted me so strongly to the theatre—by which I mean also the stage, the rooms behind the scenes, and the dressing-rooms—was not so much the desire for entertainment and amusement such as that which impels the present-day theatre-goers, but the fascinating pleasure of finding myself in an entirely different atmosphere, in a world that was purely fantastic and often gruesomely attractive. Thus to me a scene, even a wing, representing a bush, or some costume or characteristic part of it, seemed to come from another world, to be in some way as attractive as an apparition, and I felt that contact with it might serve as a lever to lift me from the dull reality of daily routine to that delightful region of spirits. Everything connected with a theatrical performance had for me the charm of mystery, it both bewitched and fascinated me, and while I was trying, with the help of a few playmates, to imitate the performance of Der Freischutz, and to devote myself energetically to reproducing the needful costumes and masks in my grotesque style of painting, the more elegant contents of my sisters' wardrobes, in the beautifying of which I had often seen the family occupied, exercised a subtle charm over my imagination; nay, my heart would beat madly at the very touch of one of their dresses.18
His attraction to the feminine was obviously not just outside of him in terms of desiring relationships with women, but also inside of him, in desiring to wear, touch and be surrounded by those things considered feminine. Clearly, it was part of his sensitivity, his thin-boundary nature.

Most people who write about these needs of his put it down to some sort of fetishism. So maybe people who have fetishes are, in fact, just highly sensitive or thin-boundaried people who would like to live in peace in their own more permeable world where the boundaries are, indeed, much looser. We, the insensitive majority, just don’t understand, and we clearly have a need to label such behavior outside the norm in a insulting way. But insensitives are not writing great works of art such as his; the sensitivities are. Thus, I will take the one who died in a pink silk negligée—bless his little heart, Wagner did—over the typical guy who, say, dies with cotton boxers on. Only the guy that would do such a thing in his day and age could have possibly written Tristan and Isolde, and the world is a better place for it.

I think he looks lovely in pink. (The guy behind him in this cartoon
was thejournalist who revealed his taste for the feminine.)
More on the man in pink next week.

1 Aron, E., Aron A., and Jagiellowicz, J. (2012) Sensory processing sensitivity: A review in the light of the evolution of biological responsivity. Personality and Social Psychology Review16, 262.  My summary of the underlying mechanism of SPS is a paraphrase of what the authors wrote in this paper on page 263 and this post by Elaine Aron.  I used the word “observant” where she used the word “shy.” Since she later argues that this isn’t necessarily an introverted trait, I didn’t want to use the word “shy” as it would be misleading without much more explanation, as she gives in her paper.
2 Aron, The Highly Sensitive Person, page 7
3 I thought it might be nice to turn the tables on the less sensitive and just use the word “insensitive.” Obviously, it is a matter of comparison and they/we are just less sensitive, not without sensitivity. But the majority has tormented the more sensitive for too-long with the you are being too sensitive taunt, so I am just being flip here. Forgive me. 
4 I have the paper if someone wants to read it and doesn’t have access to it through academia. It’s very interesting and well worth reading.
5 Zuckerman, Behavioral Expressions and Biosocial Bases of Sensation Seeking, 28.  If you are interested in more information about sensation seeking, go here.
6 Millington and Spencer, eds., Selected Letters of Richard Wagner, April 21, 1850, 199
7 Ibid, January, 12, 1852, 244-245
8 Ibid, May 31, 1852, 260
9 Ibid, July 15, 1852, 263
10 Ibid, August 7, 1852, 265
11 Ibid, 263
12 Ibid, September 29, 1882, 929
13 Ibid, January 15, 1984, 297
14 Ibid, June 1864, 620; In terms of this general portrait, read the chapter “In the Pink” from Millington’s The Sorcerer of Bayreuth and the chapter “Pathologies from Dreyfus’ Wagner and the Erotic Impulse
15 Spencer ed., Wagner Remembered, 89
16 Ibid, 150
17 Wagner, Mein Leben, 13

18 Ibid, 13-14

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