Catatonia isn’t the name of a Cunard liner or a Welsh rock band. Catatonia is a kind of lethargic stupor and a sense of “why bother?” In extreme cases a patient may sit or stand for hours in the same position. Even when physically moved or adjusted by someone else, these folks often retain whatever position is given them.
Recent studies with laboratory rats have shown a link between catatonia and the neurotransmitter dopamine. Normal rats, when introduced to a small hurdle, quickly climb over it and get on with their business. Rats injected with dopamine blockers tend to remain on the hurdles for longer and longer periods.
Proper amounts of dopamine facilitate positive motivation — like an addictive drug that may temporarily stimulate action. Dopamine is active in conveying the good feelings that arise during creatively satisfying events — including events of praise, adulation and monetary reward. Some artists find the whole idea of cash flow repugnant, but a cheque in the mail can propel some of us to get on with our business.
Curiously, the opposite reaction can occur. In previous letters, I’ve mentioned the kind of post-partum depression that sometimes takes place when artists have successful shows, give talks, demo in public, or receive acclaim. While dopamine may kick in during and at the immediate end of such an event, the boost provided may quickly diminish and the opposite and negative effect may become permanent. As Sir Isaac Newton noted in his Laws of Motion, every action has its opposite and equal reaction.
How might artists structure their lives for a maximum of dopamine flow? It’s my experience that being creatively excited is an art in itself, often self-generated, and largely a matter of habit. In other words, active and perhaps successful artists are masters of their own dopamine. Catatonia, stupor, lassitude, unproductive dreaming, chronic procrastination and the so-called writer’s block may be best defeated by managed or forced interaction with the work itself. In place of the need for public adulation, peer approval or green feedback, the evolved artist has a philosophical outlook, high levels of focus, and higher than average feelings of creative arousal. A cheque in the mail helps, too.
PS: “If an animal’s dopamine is blocked, it will just sit there. It’s not that these animals can’t move; they’re just not motivated to move. It seems that you need dopamine to engage in the environment.” (Richard Beninger, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario)
Esoterica: When we do something well, meet someone nice, or have any sort of pleasant experience, dopamine is in play. This chemical connection makes it easier and more desirable to repeat similar positive experiences. As people age, the volume of connective dopamine may diminish. “If we are repeatedly exposed to stimuli with dopamine reduced,” says Beringer, “we lose our ability to respond to those particular stimuli.” We all know of older persons whose reaction to life is one of grumpiness and displeasure. Sitting still and watching the world go by is not the artist’s game. We artists need to maintain our lust for life.
by Sharon Knettell, Woonsocket, RI, USA
Catatonia is exactly how you can explain my post Holiday stupor. I am ‘interviewing’ painting models at present. I want to do a nude which makes the task even more difficult. So I post advertisements and wait for the perfect specimen to show up. Most of them never read the requirements. And I wait and wait. I post incessantly on my blog, clean my studio, check my paper stock, insist maybe that this is the time to do a landscape (too cold) try a still-life (they put me to sleep). So I am the perfect image of the female catatonic artist in winter, a heavy lidded, ratty haired, baggy clothed vision of loveliness.
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Carpe diem-Seize the day
by Peter Trent, Hawkesbury, ON, Canada
Your comments come at a most opportune time as I am just now coming off an extended period of lassitude and “couldn’t care less” — in itself, very distressing as I know damn well what is going on but have not, until today, had the energy or desire to do aught about it. Maybe it’s the season, like, why aren’t I hibernating like the bears do (at 0600h I really feel it !) or my age (the 9th decade) or something: whatever the reason, I have to get going as, much as I hate to say it or even (shudder) think it, time is, inexorably, running out! So, thanks for the wake-up and, as the motto goes, “Carpe diem.”
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Managing your breathing
by Cyndie Katz, New Boston, NH, USA
One way to turn off the chat is to concentrate on your breath and to say in your mind, “I am breathing in, I am breathing out.” Try this while you’re looking at anything — your artwork or the landscape — and you will notice that you see more deeply, more objectively. Practice while you’re taking a walk or being driven in the car or waiting in line at the grocery store. You’ll be amazed at what you see.
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Blowing out the cobwebs
by Willa Dee Maltby, Wayne, OH, USA
I’m a new subscriber, a would-be artist and author, and mom and wife of a very creative family. I received some of your quotes this morning in my daily “Quotes of the Day,” and forwarded them to some family members. I’ve had several favorable responses, and one quote especially struck home with me, and with my daughter. It is:
“Pushing yourself to extremes blows out the cobwebs of trusted habit. It shakes up what you know to be reliably safe, and substitutes the miracle of insecurity.” — Robert Genn
My daughter is an actress in the NYC area, and she thought that was exactly what is needed to grow in the art of acting, as well as the other artistic endeavors you mentioned in your letter.
Immersed in the now
by Janet Summers-Tembeli, Samos, Greece
The down after the high! That can’t get going again, don’t feel like doing anything, down the tubes, under the weather, hide under the covers, down in the dumps, it’s all over blues that follow a big event, exhibition, completion of a fine work, or even post holiday excitement. Yes, even positive things bring stress with them; it’s hard to maintain a balance.
Richard Pousette-Dart, with whom I studied, said, “When the slump hits, prepare, organize, clean up and get ready…” so that when the next wave of creativity hits, you are ready to ride it!
Personally, I go out, commune with nature, travel if possible, change gears, explore something different, get lost in a seashell or read a book that allows me to mind travel. What I don’t do is worry about when or what I’ll paint next. I love to snorkel and this summer I had a revelation about why I love it so much — because, when I’m snorkeling, I am completely immersed in the moment. If we can maintain being immersed in the now, only this moment, no matter what we are doing, it somehow allows the creative mind to take a deep breath or two, and when the creative surge does come, I feel refreshed, mentally invigorated and the work flows, my soul sings.
The dopamine meter
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
The problem with dopamine is that just like anything else that our body produces, there is only so much dopamine it can create. If you use it up too rapidly, there is no more to go around for a while until the production catches up. So the good news is that your body has a mechanism to make its self productive. The bad news is that splurging it means heading into a drought period. Many big artists have been prolific and created masterpieces in this agony and ecstasy mode — pumping up and draining their dopamine and then barely enduring (or not) the down time.
We are not all made the same. Some people work best in a serene mode while others prefer a rollercoaster. It must have something to do with dopamine tolerance. For example, I don’t handle euphoric situations well. I can’t paint all day and all night despite the flooding ideas. After 4-5 hours in the studio the energy and inspiration are still churning, but I start feeling nauseous and have to take a break. Too much dopamine for my metabolism, perhaps? It would be interesting to have a dopamine-meter and run an experiment over, say a year and determine our personal dopamine profile. I bet those meters would sell like hotcakes.
Taking positive steps
by Betty Lantana, Tampa Bay, FL, USA
As someone who is struggling with what I believe is low-grade depression (mainly because I can’t seem to get a good start toward returning to making art) I recognized myself. But I think I am having some success this week. I resolved to neglect housework (which never goes away, anyway) and just-do-it. I have immersed myself in returning to a once-loved medium — pastel — by reviewing educational and inspirational resources I have to refresh and renew the excitement I once had for it.
In addition, I am resolved to discipline myself to be more consistent in getting regular exercise through my walking program. I have, sadly, become lax in following a schedule. Something which always elevates my spirits and gives me time to think and plan. I have some excellent DVDs that inspire me to try new, different approaches to the medium and have designed a list of small practice exercises to try each one out. All this without aiming for a finished piece to expose to my inner critic. I keep telling myself this is “just for fun” and it works. My waste basket is getting full of the grubby stuff but I do have some successes propped up on the wall that lift my spirits.
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A difficult situation
Please don’t publish my name as I am under care and entitlements and don’t want to dislodge what is going on at the present time. I am down about everything, my weight, my sales, my work, my constant relentless poverty, the general hopelessness of my situation. I can only concentrate for about an hour a day (it may be the medication) but I can see the beauty in your idea of letting the work pull me out of the mud. This is so hard, but I do appreciate being a member of the Brotherhood and Sisterhood. That one thought and the idea that there are others suffering gives me the feeling that what I need to do is to quietly and efficiently show more character.
by Julie Eliason, Royal Oak, MI, USA
Do you have any letters on perfectionism? Is your book indexed by subjects? I’m giving a lesson on the creative block of perfectionism. I would like to be able to offer some solutions. Do you have some suggestions?
(RG note) Thanks, Julie. The Letters (often referred to as the “Fat Book”) has an index of 82 pages that took two editors two months to compile.
acrylic painting 18 x 24 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Peter Fischoeder of Boston MS, USA, who wrote, “I don’t think that Cunard ever owned a liner called Catatonia; the one close to that name was the Caronia, which my wife and I sailed on her last voyage under Cunard colors from Southampton to New York before she was sold to new owners (Yugoslav at the time, I believe).”
And also Elle Fagan of Vernon Rockville, CT, USA, who wrote, “A check in the mail really works.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Catatonia…