All posts by Julian Richards


From hotel window, Houmt Souk, Tunisia, September 1987

I’ve already posted this picture and said I took it on my first ever morning outside Europe. And that now it makes me think about what’s wrong with the idea of “exotic”. This morning I remember that I had in my hotel room a slim volume of E. E. Cummings (thanks, Stephen). I liked the drawing of him on the cover and perhaps thought it would be quite good to look like that. I loved the poems.

I don’t remember seeing myself as some romantic Traveller, and I don’t think I even tried to write poetry on that holiday, only long postcards. But was there somewhere in the back of my mind a model of some Patrick Leigh Fermor-style young man that I was trying to emulate? Not that I’ve ever read him, but these memes infect you via unseen vectors. Maybe that’s how Jung’s collective unconscious works.

I also remember that on that holiday I also saw through the exotic: in a souk in Tunis, I remember thinking that this was as close as I could get, probably, to how I’d imagine a scene from the Arabian Nights, but it wasn’t magical, it was shabby, and I didn’t want to linger.

Continue reading Disillusion

Sunt lacrimae rerum

Liverpool One still trumps any parody I could make of it. This time, it was the ice rink on that high, artificial grassy hill. Behind security barriers, under a light, cold rain, happy shoppers skated round an Audi on a plinth. At least I found £1.22 in wet change in the grass.

My visit to the Liverpool Biennial began with the bafflement I’ve come to expect from encounters with a certain strand of contemporary art. It ended with a less predictable and explicable unhappiness. Continue reading Sunt lacrimae rerum

Copying myself

The conversation turned to how creativity is affected by different modes of consciousness. BPS Fellow and panellist Chris Frith (UCL and University of Aarhus) said that it’s in their nonconscious processes that more creative people differ from the less creative. We’re prone to copy our past actions and to copy the behaviours of others, he said, but creative people are less constrained by primes and expectations.

There’s evidence that this freer form of nonconscious thought often manifests in people with schizophrenia and with autism – for example, they’re less susceptible to visual illusions such as the ‘hollow mask effect’, which are driven by visual expectations. There are claims that drugs can help induce this unconstrained mode of thought, and recent studies have also linked creative benefits to grogginess and mild intoxication for the same reason. In the same vein, Allan Snyder (University of Sydney) claims to have improved people’s creativity by using TMS to ‘knock-out’ their frontal lobes. Frith stressed that conscious processes are also required to communicate original ideas to others – what he called ‘effective creativity’. ‘The truly creative person is changing the consciousness of us all,’ he said. (The Psychologist, June 2012)


Most people are other people. Their thoughts are some one else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation. (De Profundis, 1897)

"I scared myself with paint"

Eighty-five participants were allocated to one of five conditions prior to looking at the art work. Some of them watched a 14-second scary video clip; others watched a 14-second happy video clip; some did 30 jumping jack exercises (designed to induce high physiological arousal); some did 15 jumping jacks (low arousal); whilst the remainder acted as controls and simply looked at the art without any preceding activity or intervention. The participants were questioned later and the different conditions had the desired effect – for example, the scary film left the participants in that condition feeling scared, and the happy film left others feeling equally happy.

The art work was four paintings by the Russian abstract artist El Lissitsky, each made up of simple geometric shapes and lines. Each painting was shown for thirty seconds and participants rated their experience of the art in terms of how inspiring it was, stimulating, dull, exciting, moving, boring, uninteresting, rousing/stirring, imposing, and forgetful. These factors were intended to tap into Edmund Burke’s conception of the sublime: “that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended … so entirely filled with its object.”

The main result is that participants who’d watched the scary video clip tended to rate the art as more sublime than did participants in all the other conditions. By contrast, ratings given by participants in the other conditions didn’t differ from each other. This suggests fear plays a special role in the sublime experience of art. Arousal may have played a lesser part – across conditions, participants’ arousal scores correlated with their sublime ratings of the art.

BPS Research Digest