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Hypergraphia

March 22, 2004

I’m compelled to tell you about the book I’m reading. The author relates how she gave birth to premature twin boys, one of whom lived long enough to squeeze her finger.

After the loss, and suffering a postpartum mood disorder, she experienced hypergraphia, or compulsive writing. She withdrew from her world as the drive to write consumed her waking hours.

Her friends and colleagues counseled that depression was normal after losing children. Eventually, she returned to normal life, or as normal as it gets for a Harvard neurologist.

Then, she gave birth to premature twin girls, who survived and did well. So it was a happy circumstance, and yet again she suffered a postpartum mood disorder with the same symptoms.

She could not help but study it. Thus, we are blessed with a fascinating book called “The midnight disease: the drive to write, writer’s block, and the creative brain,” by Alice W. Flaherty.

Hypergraphia is interesting enough for both its neuropsychological and historical aspects, but the book has much more. It quickly convinces you that the pop-psychological right-brain vs. left-brain explanations of creativity are naive.

You might think that writer’s block would be the polar opposite of hypergraphia, but in most cases it is fundamentally unrelated. One telling difference is shown in the author’s experience. When her hypergraphia ceased, she felt no loss. She simply stopped writing. Writer’s with block, however, are usually in agony.

She discusses the many ways that creativity, addictions, manic-depression, epilepsies, injuries, deficits, and so forth, overlap to reveal how the brain works. Language skills are particularly interesting aspects of brain function, but they have the added advantage of evidence: Troubled writers write about their troubles.

The neuropsychology of painting, music composition, mathematics, or flyfishing, for example, are less accessible.

The book is not dry. After all, human nature is funny, and the author is a good writer. I laughed at the term “politician-speak” often used to describe the speech of people with Wernicke’s aphasia. They have trouble with speech comprehension but not with speech production. Thus, they sound normal if you don’t listen too closely.
She relates a tale told by neurologist Oliver Sacks. He had a ward full of aphasic patients listening to President Reagan on television. They could not fully understand him but they remained particularly sensitive to the tone and inflections, “which they found farcical.”
A patient with a right brain lesion who was also present, and who could not judge tone or emotion, could comprehend the president’s actual words, which she found ridiculous.

Sacks concluded that it took a “fully working brain to be deluded by politicians.” It’s more than just funny; it’s been studied and proven to some extent in the lab. Let it serve as a cautionary tale this election year.

Have you ever felt the desire, if not the compulsion, to write? The obvious place to start is with personal history. And here is a wonderful opportunity for you: Work with an experienced teacher, who knows art and spirit, as well as how to make good coffee, and begin to write your personal history.

Paul Ilecki, currently an owner of The Salida Cafe/Bongo Billy’s, is teaching a two-day workshop presented by CMC (call 395-8419 for info) called “Writing your life story.” The first is this Thursday morning, March 25, at The Salida Cafe/Bongo Billy’s. The second is April 8th.
Paul is unique, but his brain if fully connected. His credentials are impeccable. Make the call.

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