images by FEE PLUMLEY
One of the best things about being a full-time writer is setting the rules anyway you like. I’m my own boss and I don’t have to worry about co-workers, so in my office there are no fixed hours or dress codes. I could work upside-down in a swing, if I wanted, without fear of occupational health and safety regulations. And so on and so forth. What happens when you take that freedom away? Would I undergo some kind of creative meltdown or would I adapt and find a way to work regardless?
The matter of who could set the rules instead is a critical one. After fifteen years of self-direction, not even my wife (who I respect absolutely) can stop me from working every day. Holidays are for people who don’t love their job. Is there anyone out there with sufficient authority that I would obey them without question?
There’s only one possible answer, and that’s Science. So between the 9th and 16th of February, 2013, I was one of four artists locked in the Central Queensland University’s Sleep Research Centre (part of the Appleton Institute in Adelaide) to study the impact on creativity of disrupted sleep patterns, loss of subjective control, and constant surveillance. Dubbed The Subjects by the Australian Network for Art & Technology (ANAT), the experiment, possibly the first of its kind in the world, put me, Thom Buchanan, Jennifer Mills and Fee Plumley in an environment with no clocks, no windows, and no light or temperatures cues and kept us under constant surveillance ((Except for visits to the bathroom, thank goodness.)). Our sleep, meals, test batteries, and work periods were unpredictable and completely beyond our control. The plan was to turn the tables on our usual creative processes on several fronts at once. We would attempt to produce quality work regardless.
The experiences of my fellow Subjects are recorded on a blog maintained by ANAT , as are mine in their rawest possible form. What follows is a more measured account—written at some clarifying distance—of all that happened to me during that fateful week, when I was told what to do and when to do it, with no option to say ‘no’.
Let me set the scene.
Staying at the Appleton Institute is bit like staying at a hotel, only with prison guards. Our rooms were brand new. We were the first people to occupy them apart from summer scholars being shown the ropes. Each subject had a bedroom containing a desk, two chairs, two small tables, a cupboard, a TV with no antenna or cable access, a non-networked computer, and a bed. During wake-times, a screen closed off the bed so the sight of it wouldn’t make us think of sleep. That seemed ridiculous to me going in, but later I saw the sense of it. When you’re so tired you literally fall asleep sitting upright, the slightest hint of rest is torture.
Our four rooms were connected by a short corridor that provided us with the longest focal distance we would have for a week (about eight metres). There were four bathrooms, one for each of us, and a kitchen/dining/common area. Supposedly, meal times were our only opportunity to mingle, but we did manage to snatch moments of companionship in the hall. Also, because collaborative outcomes were part of the brief, we convinced the scientists in charge of the study that shared time should be permitted. They agreed, but these times were strictly rationed.
Being allowed to spend extra time together wasn’t the only sense in which we weren’t a typical sample group. The usual subject of such a study would be male, mid-twenties, probably a backpacker looking for some easy cash. We ranged from 34 to 45, with an even split of genders. Most subjects spend their time watching DVDs when not undergoing testing. On the whole we worked, or talked, or did other stuff like knitting. We were also much more inquisitive about the reasons behind everything being done to us. We were involved, even in the bits we hated.
Such as the testing. Each battery consisted of tasks designed to measure cognitive effects as disrupted sleep cycles took their toll. They were simple and repetitive: the symbol substitution task, the addition/subtraction task, two Stroop tests, a driving simulator, and so on. I found them irritating but meditative—except for the dreaded psychomotor vigilance task (PVT), which we all hated—in the same way that doing mundane tasks like showering or washing the dishes always seems to shake loose ideas. I kept a notebook close at hand to jot down notes after every task, and worried that holding ideas in working memory might be impeding my performance in the tasks. This worried the scientists, too: how were they supposed to tell the difference between a slow reaction caused by sleep loss or by someone silently repeating a phrase over and over to stop it vanishing back into the void? Luckily most of the tests went for a couple of minutes only. The long ones were maddening.
Being tested gave us an insight into how badly we were being affected by the protocol. I would wake feeling somewhat refreshed and alert, but my performance in each of the tasks left no doubt as to how badly my brain was actually working, particularly towards the end of the week, when we began to feel like the zombies we had joked about at the beginning. My performance inevitably tailed off steeply throughout each ‘day’. Because we had no idea how regularly the batteries were spaced, sometimes it felt like hours passed between them; sometimes we had barely settled down to work when word came to stop.
Only when we emerged from the study did we learn exactly how the week was structured. For the first half of the study we were kept awake for extended periods without any sleep at all, while for the second half we alternated short sleeps with approximately nine-hour days. The latter regime was unbelievably grueling, and made for a very difficult transition back to the real world. I had anticipated something akin to jetlag. Instead, it was like travelling by matter transmitter from one alien planet to another. My body clock couldn’t line up because the number of hours in the days just didn’t match.
Did I mention that there was no access to the internet, or phones, or visitors? And that we were wired up at night so our brainwaves could be monitored? If this all sounds too horrible to be borne, well, it could have been worse: anal thermometers are normally employed in such a study, and thankfully we were spared them. A psychologist was on 24-hour call in case one of us broke down, and our mood was constantly tested as well. Fortunately we had been carefully selected, and had undergone psychological profiling before being accepted into the study. We never pulled the ripcord, not matter how bad things got—and there were definitely bad moments. Halfway through the study we were convinced it was almost over. The dissonance between our convictions and the apparently never-ending week placed us under increasing strain.
Luckily, we had each other. And we had the scientists, who, although it was their job to make us do stuff we didn’t want to, were a good-natured, sympathetic bunch. Maybe there was a bit of Stockholm Syndrome in the mix. Maybe there was a bit of Milgram, too. We Subjects were certainly complicit in our own capture, in the sense that we a) had volunteered and b) could have walked out any time we wanted. The door was right there, unlocked and everything. There were no guards to stop us, no gun emplacements, no explosive collars around our necks. But we didn’t. Once, I did have a near-overwhelming urge at one point to open the door and run for it, but I was stopped by the thought that the tougher it got, the more interesting it would be. Not to mention throwing away all the time and money invested in the project (sleep studies are expensive). Besides, it wasn’t as if I was in any real danger. For all the easy dystopic parallels one could draw if one wanted to be dramatic, it was just a week, just an experiment. At the end of it, I would walk out into the bright light and resume my normal life. And the end was really near this time, surely?
We each approached the three prongs of the experiment—surveillance, sleep and control—in our own ways. For me, the environment of The Subjects wasn’t so different from my usual workspace. By choice, my office is dim and cool. Tracksuit pants are de rigueur. I write all sorts of weird hours, particularly when travelling, and I often work on planes, where time is irrelevant (I’m typing this on a long-haul flight, as it happens). My sense of day is slippery. Similarly, once the rest of the family is at school or work, the idea of other people becomes a distant remove.
The constant-observation thing was new, but the thought of that didn’t bother me. I’m of the opinion that privacy is over-rated, and that, when not abused, observation need not be intrusive or threatening. I was pleased to put this to the test, and relieved to find that, on the whole, I forgot the cameras were there. The only times I remembered was when one of the scientists reminded me not to hang out with my fellow Subjects because we’d been spotted catching a quick confab in the hallway. Also when scratching my arse (but, you know, everyone does that).
In theory, I should’ve felt right at home. The week should have flown by like one long work session, punctuated only by testing and irregular naps.
Of course, it didn’t work out that way, or I wouldn’t be writing about it now. My creativity is profoundly affected by my environment, even when that environment is not changing to any great degree. Just as the temperature in our rooms was kept at a strictly constant 21°C, but I still felt warm or cold at different times because my body isn’t an unchanging instrument, so too is my brain as generator of creative ideas in a constant state of flux. By stripping away the variables of everyday life I was able to reveal some of the workings of creative brain, reaching a greater understanding of how it reacts with what’s around me, positively and negatively.
And then there’s the matter of control . . . .
I divide the way I worked that week into three phases.
One: The Flood
Going into the study was like entering another world, one that looked like the work environment I had left behind but was different on several fundamental levels. Loss of control was a major contributor to my disorientation. Nothing was variable on my terms, such as the desktop environment of my computer. I was surrounded by people I had never met before entering the study, and there was no way to mediate my contact with them. With no clocks, no schedule, no sense of what was coming up next, there was no way to plan ahead. I couldn’t nap, snack, lie on the floor, go for a long walk, talk to my wife, meditate—any of the things I would normally do when I wanted to shake an idea loose from my subconscious.
As a result, in the opening days I didn’t do anything creative at all. I wrote a long, rambling account that later became my first two blog posts, thousands of words describing the environment in much greater detail than I’ve allowed myself here, outlining my feelings, and indulging in a kind of playful paranoia that in retrospect I regard as a kind of pressure release. I wanted to be creative, needed to be creative, but all I had was this formless mania that I sometimes feared bordered on actual paranoia. That one of my musings later turned out to be true (the scientists were indeed surreptitiously broadcasting white noise into our environment) came as something of a relief. I hadn’t gone completely crazy, then.
I knew there was a spanner in the works because I wasn’t dreaming. Dreams are an important part of my creative process. Many of my very best ideas have come while I’m asleep, processing the information sought out or generated the previous day. One of my reasons for joining The Subjects was to see what my brain looked like when I had one of those dreams. That I wasn’t dreaming at all those first few cycles was a sure sign that the inspiration I had been hoping for wasn’t coming. I figured that I was swamped by new things, and I believe now that this was indeed the case. All I could hope was that there would be enough time for my creative brain to settle in to the environment and start working properly.
Two: The Harvest
Eventually, the sense of novelty ebbed, the cycles became almost routine, and I dreamed. It wasn’t a remotely interesting dream--something about mixing gin and tonics at a party (alcohol was banned in the study, along with coffee, cigarettes and chocolate)—but as I lay in the dark, waiting for the lights to come on, an idea did come to me. It wasn’t a complete idea, but it was a seed from which I hoped something substantial would grow.
Let me stress that nothing else had changed. I had no more control over my environment than I had going in. I was still tired, still being told what to do, still monitored 24/7. All I had now was another option to consider my free time. I had snatched back a tiny amount of control over my environment, and I was determined to exercise it. How could I not? That was what I was in for, after all. To write, if I could. And I did, snatching every available free moment between meals, test batteries, and sleep.
I wrote the story over a couple of cycles. Even then I was struck by how closely the story idea tracked my experiences within the study. The story was set in a world I had explored before, but the style was different, less focused on plot, more meandering. Did that reflect the timelessness in my environment? Perhaps. Other themes that crept in included madness, incarceration, loss, grief, and family--all things that had been weighing heavily on my conscious and unconscious minds.
Once I was in my usual mode of operation—writing and editing—my anxieties about the week’s outcomes were significantly eased. I was exhausted, yes, and worried that my time was running out, but apart from that all was going well. I had generated an outcome. On both the artistic and scientific fronts, this counted as success. I was in control again.
Three: The Creative Desert
As the week stretched on and our release kept not happening, I began to consider the possibility of a second story. Or at least an idea I could develop on the outside. But although dreams came most sleep periods, there were no ideas. It was as though everything I had had gone into that one story, leaving nothing left at all.
Looking back on it, I think that’s exactly the way it was. The environment of the study was strictly and carefully limited, as it needed to be to generate useful scientific data. We subjects had each other, and we had the five or so people we saw regularly, plus perhaps the same number again who also helped out. The only inputs from the outside consisted of one reporter who came to interview us, one photographer, and one distant peal of fireworks, which confirmed that it was at least night-time outside, even if we couldn’t tell with any confidence what night. We were all so desperate for input that we began to listen for the creaking of the ceiling and walls in response to atmospheric changes outside. I imagined footsteps outside my room while I was asleep. I swear to this day that I heard birds or mice in the walls, although that simply wasn’t possible. We all experienced visual hallucinations, mainly while testing.
Without rain, the well eventually runs dry. Without variability or new input, there can be no creativity. Hallucinations and fantasies were, I think, our brains filling in the gaps where everyday stimulus normally fitted--but there’s no way to bootstrap genuine creativity out of that kind of loop. Not in a week, anyway. I certainly didn’t manage it. So, although I desperately wanted to be doing something other than blogging and going over and over the same story, I couldn’t. I felt like the HAL9000 computer at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey as Dave Bowman is shutting its mind down. My creativity module was gone. As a writer of new fiction, I was functionally dead. And with no way to take control over the environment, that was the way I stayed.
But that didn’t stop me from being a writer in other ways. I had the final pages of my novel Twinmaker to edit, which I steadily ploughed through over the course of the week. My editors following the blog on the outside world were a little concerned about the quality of the work, given I was so frank about how crazy and braindead I was feeling, but thus far there have been no complaints. My editing module survived this serious hack, unlike so many others that didn’t.
So control had a real impact on my work—not directly, but in the sense that, lacking power over the world around me, I couldn’t manipulate the environment into kickstarting my creative brain into coming up with something new. I was at the mercy of the protocol, and in the end that shut me down. The experience taught me that control is not something to take for granted—in the sense that it’s empowering to realise that I can tweak the variables around me in many different ways, when I’m blocked or muddled or just feeling lazy, all in the service of producing more or better work.
In a very real way, this loss of control was also quite liberating. I didn’t have to think about what to do or when to do it, because other people were responsible for making those decisions for me. That left plenty of time to at least think about what I could do. Yes, I had less time than I would have liked to actually do anything, and no, I didn’t much like being bossed around. But once I became used to the idea, all I had to do was make sure I worked when the opportunities arose, when I had something to work on, and I was very productive. Counting the short story and the blog, I wrote over twenty-two thousand words that week, and I edited another eighty thousand. That’s not to be sneezed at, and to be remembered next time I’m stuck on a plane or forced to snatch a few words between other tasks.
Lastly, the lack of control was stimulating in a collaborative sense. The project hopes to produce joint outcomes over time, and you could argue that we have already completed one of them, one that arose directly from this issue. It’s a work that can’t be repeated, and it had an audience of just a dozen or so: the scientists. But it was a deeply meaningful one for all of us involved.
Feeling trapped within the confines of a scientific study, we arty types decided to conduct a revolution against the protocol itself by choosing one particular round and changing the rules of engagement. We still performed the tests, but we multiplied instead of added, say, or we created our own symbols in the substitution task, or we manipulated the times on our PVT so that, if graphed, they would form an elegant sine wave. We bucked the system in a way that was internally consistent and creative, but stood outside the parameters of the larger experiment.
The results of that test battery had to be scrapped, of course. And it took some time to repair a sense of broken trust between us and the scientists, who felt that we had deliberately corrupted the data. But that black line running through this one particular day is data in its own right. We proved, if nothing else, that artists will always try to find a way to break free of any controlled environment, even if we won’t necessarily go so far as to rush down the hall, burst through the door, and leap headlong into the light.
Images by fellow Subject, FEE PLUMLEY.
SEAN WILLIAMS is an award-winning, #1 New York Times-bestselling author of over thirty-five novels, eighty short stories, and the odd odd poem. He lives in Adelaide with his family. On Twitter, he's @adelaidesean, his website is seanwilliams.com and he's also on Facebook.