For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he...
The author of this proverb probably didn't know anything modern science has discovered or theorized about how the human brain functions, but he didn't seem to need modern science to draw the same conclusion.
Over the years, I've learned four specific discoveries or theories about how the brain functions and they've got me thinking about consequences...
Years ago on some sciency show, I heard the narrator explain that listening to different kinds of music actually causes new (and different) structures to form in the brain. By listening to one particular type of music, the brain adapts itself to that type and learns to "like" it. A sufficiently different type of music will sound unpleasant because the brain isn't structured to enjoy that type of music.
An eon or so later, I listened to someone (probably on PBS) explain brain "plasticity" and how the brain is building new structures all the time to store and adapt to our experiences. This notion seems to support that bit about music.
Another thing I've heard several times (though I can't remember where) is that the brain cannot distinguish between something experienced and something vividly imagined. My own experience seems to support this as there are images as good as photographs in my head of places I've only imagined (either on my own or while reading a novel). These images seem as real and detailed as photographs I've seen and places I've been. Sometimes they're so real I get confused about whether I've seen the movie (even when there is no movie of that book).
The final thing I learned was from a documentary about a young woman suffering from severe depression. She had tried pretty much every treatment known to man, including shock therapy. The fascinating part was that researchers had discovered that there is a portion of the brain which shrinks in people with severe depression, and goes on shrinking as the depression goes unchecked. I can't remember whether the shrinking only stopped once the depression was successfully treated or whether it reversed (and that portion of the brain began to grow), but the implications are the same either way: our brains undergo physical changes in reaction to what we think, feel, experience.
And knowing that got me to seriously thinking about us creative types. In high school, I read an article discussing the question of why creative types seemed to suffer more from depression than others. The paper I wrote in response theorized that maybe we only seemed depressed because we were off in some other reality where our imaginations were dealing with, at least some of the time, depressing events.
Now I suppose some of the strictly visual arts (like painting, sculpture, photography) don't have to present the same problem, nor some of the arts where you can get away with exploring nothing but beauty, like poetry and music. But with literature (and film), if you have no conflict, you have no story. This means that those of us who create stories, create conflict. We dig deep into our own dark sides, looking for traits to give the bad guys. We poke around in our experience to find unpleasantries to make the conflict seem real. We try hard to find a unique spin to some nightmare that's only desirable in fiction. We deal with characters who are in despair, who are depressed, who are downright evil. Some of the best stories are the ones where the hero struggles through the worst trials. Never mind that we might bring it all to a glorious, triumphant, happy ending - the bulk of the story is all about conflict, because if it's not, it's never going to make it onto a shelf or a screen near you.
And all that begs the question: What in the world are we doing to ourselves?! Are we creatively mapping all that conflict into minds that can't tell it's only fiction? Even non-creators have read or seen a story that had them crying, or frightened, or anxious, or some other negative emotion (if you haven't, go get some fiction!). Now imagine what it was like for the person who created all that turmoil! Are there bits of author and actor brains shrinking because we spend too long "in character"? Do our brains not realize it's all pretend, all for fun? Are we training our brains to be constantly in some kind of pain?
And then there's the withdrawal. I'm reasonably certain that every creative type in the world misses the fictional world they just finished creating, even with its conflicts. The real world often seems tedious, boring, even depressing by comparison (probably because real conflicts are never so easily solved as fictional ones). It makes me wonder if we wouldn't be better off leaving the fiction to someone else. Of course, I've never met a truly creative type who was capable of ignoring their creative urges. Maybe creativity is really a mental illness, which is why we seem depressed, or slightly insane...
If you were hoping for an answer, I can't give one. I spend a lot more time lately wondering about the consequences of being creative. But whatever they are, I'd still rather hang out in a fictional universe than the real one. So the next time you see me and think I look depressed, you may be right, or maybe it's just one of my characters who's depressed. Of course, if you think I look slightly insane, I probably am.