By Scott Barry Kaufman
"The central, final, inescapable fact is that inspired words create life in us because they are themselves alive," wrote English classical scholar Cecil Maurice Bowra in 1955.
Did he have a point? Is inspiration contagious? Do inspired works of art inspire the audience to create works of their own? There is a long tradition in the humanities that suggests it does. Plato once argued that inspiration is transmitted to the audience through the Muse. Remarkably, however, this has only just been tested scientifically.
- The more writers privately reported that they felt inspired while writing, the more the average reader reported being inspired. This is despite the fact that there was no actual contact between the reader and the writer other than the text itself! As the researchers note, "This finding attests to the power of the written word as a vehicle for sharing the peaks of human experience among individuals separated in time or place."
However, these findings suggest that good writing is more like talking, an expression of one's inner state of being. Perhaps the most helpful way for aspiring writers to view writing is as a natural vehicle for capturing personal insights and expressing them. These insights can be valuable and inspiring to the reader whether or not they are also perceived as original or arising from intense effort. As Tolstoy put it:
People are taught how to write many-paged composition, without having anything they wish to say, on a theme about which they have never thought... This is taught in schools.
I really like the "self-as-author" metaphor that the researchers use: "The author confronts a blank page, unsure what to say, and the self struggles with an unwritten future... Both find their voice when inspired, and the author-self, at last, speaks with authority and authenticity."
Inspirational writing speaks from a deep truth of the person writing it, which is often a deep truth that many of us can resonate with. As a writer, do not view writing as a separate activity, but as an expression of your deepest self and existential experiences.
There are also implications of inspiration contagion for spirituality and sacred texts, academic transmission, and interpersonal communication. We are often inspired by people who say things that we have all wanted to say, but we didn't have the language to express it. Inspiration contagion also may play a role in both the origins and evolution of culture.
Clearly, the artist cannot be separated from the art. I hope to see more research along these lines. I'll leave the last word here to the researchers:
The inspired writer participates in the sweep of history, producing a text that is not just valuable but that enlightens, inspires, and raises the hairs on the arms of future generation of thinkers.
© 2016 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved. This piece was originally published by Scientific American.