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Creativity & Hysteria-Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD

Creativity & Hysteria-Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD


The following blog post is a conversation between myself and my partner, Dr. Bruce Sawhill, Stanford educated theoretical physicist and mathematician. There’s a new video of the first installment of this series on Creativity & Covid19 here.  

Creativity & Hysteria: A Swashbuckling Tale Of Tiny Pirates

These are strange times. A seemingly innocent single strand of RNA encapsulated in a protein shell, turns out to be an undercover psychopath. It’s like a diabolical and sour M & M candy that melts in your lungs, not in your hands.

This marauder is intent upon replicating itself at the cost of its host in its single minded murderous mission.  

Like a pirate swarming aboard a clipper ship in the dead of night, intent on commandeering the ship and crew for its own end- forcing the crew to become pirates themselves. And in the end, scuttling the craft.

Naval Mines-Creativity and Hysteria

Naval Mines


The spike protein of COVID19 is a booby trap much like the naval mines used to render harbors unusable in war time. These explosives are set off by contact with the host, much like the virus thrives on the the host, whether animal or human.

Molecular piracy abounds

The virus is amoral.

It simply wants to survive. Once it reproduces, the fate of the host is of no concern. But it turns out that there’s one problem: it needs a host like a psychopath needs a victim, and so it doesn’t want to kill all of its hosts.

Blood hungry for the kill, it relies upon it’s target, its victim.

It’s akin to a narcissist needing narcissistic supply. Without an audience, it’s nothing. This virus makes use of the cell’s machinery to replicate, reproduce and survive. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has wrought hysteria and this is part of the history that is being made.

History is continually being created, but somehow it is more obvious now. 

Pandemics have scoured the earth before, but none in living memory. Maybe there is a small roomful of people who were alive and personally remember the Spanish Flu of 1918-1920.

Bruce’s father is 100 years old, being born in the middle of the Spanish Flu in 1919. His father told him the following story: Bruce’s grandparents worked and met in 1918 at a military base then known as Fort Lewis, south of Tacoma, Washington.

They married that year, at a time when this was not easy to accomplish due to the Spanish Flu. Mobility was restricted on the base for reasons of military security and quarantines on account of both World War I and the flu. After persistent petitioning to their commanders, they received permission to leave Fort Lewis in order to get married at a church in Fort Smith.

Notably, more American military personnel died of the Spanish flu than from the war. The numbers told the grisly truth: 63,000 soldiers were felled by the pandemic compared to 53,000 who died in combat.

These numbers are very small compared with the wartime losses experienced by other nations, several of which lost millions.

The World Is Disrupted By Amoral Forces

Wars and epidemics both disrupt the world and propel it forward, blinking and disoriented into the bright light of the future, like some underground half-blind creature finding itself suddenly in daylight.

Like soil turned in a garden, new things are thrust into the light and old things fall away in the turbulence and upheaval of the tilling.

Good, bad, and indifferent are all hurled spinning and tumbling into the abyss by gigantic and amoral forces.

An Essential Forgetting

And, in time, the waving green grasses of history grow over exaltation and loss alike, rounding and softening the shapes of what went before, an essential forgetting.

I am reminded of a poem The Battle of Blenheim by Robert Southey 1774-1843. Southey was one of the Lake Poets along with William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He was England’s poet laureate for 30 years. This poem is about a major battle in the war of Spanish succession in 1704.

It was a summer evening,
    Old Kaspar’s work was done,
And he before his cottage door
    Was sitting in the sun,
And by him sported on the green
    His little grandchild Wilhelmine.
She saw her brother Peterkin
    Roll something large and round,
Which he beside the rivulet
    In playing there had found;
He came to ask what he had found,
    That was so large, and smooth, and round.
Old Kaspar took it from the boy,
    Who stood expectant by;
And then the old man shook his head,
    And, with a natural sigh,
“‘Tis some poor fellow’s skull,” said he,
    “Who fell in the great victory.
“I find them in the garden,
    For there’s many here about;
And often when I go to plough,
    The ploughshare turns them out!
For many thousand men,” said he,
    “Were slain in that great victory.”
“Now tell us what ’twas all about,”
    Young Peterkin, he cries;
And little Wilhelmine looks up
    With wonder-waiting eyes;
“Now tell us all about the war,
    And what they fought each other for.”
“It was the English,” Kaspar cried,
    “Who put the French to rout;
But what they fought each other for,
    I could not well make out;
But everybody said,” quoth he,
    “That ’twas a famous victory.
“My father lived at Blenheim then,
    Yon little stream hard by;
They burnt his dwelling to the ground,
    And he was forced to fly;
So with his wife and child he fled,
    Nor had he where to rest his head.
“With fire and sword the country round
    Was wasted far and wide,
And many a childing mother then,
    And new-born baby died;
But things like that, you know, must be
    At every famous victory.
“They say it was a shocking sight
    After the field was won;
For many thousand bodies here
    Lay rotting in the sun;
But things like that, you know, must be
    After a famous victory.
“Great praise the Duke of Marlbro’ won,
    And our good Prince Eugene.”
“Why, ’twas a very wicked thing!”
    Said little Wilhelmine.
“Nay… nay… my little girl,” quoth he,
    “It was a famous victory.
“And everybody praised the Duke
    Who this great fight did win.”
“But what good came of it at last?”
    Quoth little Peterkin.
“Why that I cannot tell,” said he,
    “But ’twas a famous victory.”


But even things bigger and closer than a battlefield from the 1700s are already well on their way to being forgotten.

With a century of remove, very few people until the last few weeks knew much about the Spanish Flu or could have even placed it in history. 

Yet it’s estimated that up to 100 million people died which was over 5% of the world’s population at the time. Even the low-end estimate of 17 million dead is far more than the 11 million soldiers who died in combat in the Great War (World War I). Nonetheless, we remember World War I with a few books and photographs but the history of the Spanish Flu epidemic is already dim.

Now, we face our own epidemic. Whether this novel virus will ravage the world in numbers comparable to the Spanish Flu is still unknown. Although it’s unlikely to be as devastating as the epidemic of 1918, only time will tell the story of how it unfolds.

Physicians are exploring various treatments including plasma transfusions from the blood of recovered patients, antivirals, antimalarial medications and other options. Some sort of effective defense will likely come to the fore.

War Changes The Architecture Of The World

Yet even with the Spanish Flu, the world blundered and flapped into the 1920s, an era of exuberant expansion and high living. The mass hysteria of war was replaced by the collective exuberance of a raucous and unstable peace, eventually anesthetized by the stock market crash of 1029 resulting in the Great Depression.

Historians sometimes say that World War I changed the architecture of the world more than World War II, even though many more nations were involved in World War II, the destruction was far greater and the technologies more deadly in World War I.

This is mainly because of changes in social order- the overthrow of monarchies by populist movements, the upending of social hierarchies, the power of industry and its attendant armies of workers over the old world of czars and princes and kings.

It is as if the culture was propelled into the air by the explosion of war and disease and social change, and flew so high and so far that, when it came down, it landed somewhere entirely different. Like leaping up in the bird-chirping insect-buzzing summer and coming down in the sparkling cold and silent drifted snow. Shocking and disorienting.

The Ancient Notion Of Hysteria, The Evolution Of Ideas & The Symptoms Of COVID19

The word ‘hysteria’ is rooted in the Ancient Greek ‘hystera’, or uterus. The Greek physician Hippocrates thought that the uterus traveled through a woman’s body over the course of a lifetime like some sort of malicious independent agent, ultimately suffocating her and inducing disease.

The ancient use of the term was associated with fever and an inability to breathe-“hysterical suffocation”, uncannily similar to COVID-19 symptoms. The malignant uterus standing in for one’s body turning against oneself, like an immune system gone rogue.

And this is what we’re seeing.

You can have a defense so powerful against molecular pirates that it sinks the ship.

Not only can COVID19 attack from the outside as described earlier, but it can also cause your body to mount a robust assault from the inside- from your immune system.

The paradox being that your body’s attempt to save you can actually kill you. If a robust immune response is activated, this can lead to a cytokine storm, causing massive inflammation that overwhelms your body and leads to your demise. This was a major cause of death in the Spanish Flu.

Even though Greek medicine lacked some key understanding of female anatomy, they got one thing right: A connection between hysteria and disease.

Later, in the 1800s, hysteria was viewed colloquially as a psychological disorder of ungovernable emotions in women. French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot used hypnosis to treat women suffering from it.

Later, Sigmund Freud, who had studied with Charcot, observed patients diagnosed with the ailment as well as witnessing Charcot’s treatment methods.

Freud’s work with colleague Josef Breuer on the case of a young woman with symptoms of hysteria, Anna O., led to the development of psychoanalytic therapy where talking about her problems, “the talking cure”, led to relief.

In 1980, hysteria was no longer considered a diagnosable condition and was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

But back to the topic at the forefront of the world stage…





A new disease hurls us into the unknown

Even if disruption on the scale of a major war is unlikely, just the fact that we *don’t know* is disturbing enough to create panic.  

It’s like a kind of Russian roulette- the overwhelming probability is that you could be fine, but there is also a small chance that you will die, and our minds create a kind of excluded middle that downplays in-between scenarios as we fixate on the two extremes.

This is a recipe for hysteria. It is more contagious than any virus.

Note the panic buying and hoarding behavior across the world. There is hoarding of N95 masks, hand sanitizer, nitrile gloves, gowns, goggles, face shields and other medical supplies vital to the safety of doctors, nurses and those on the front lines saving the lives of those with ill from the COVID19 virus.

Understanding why we fixate on the extremes when we encounter a life-threatening unknown is important to understanding and confronting fear.

Hysteresis & The Contagion Of Hysteria

There is a concept from physics called hysteresis, and it provides insight into the rampant contagion of hysteria.

Hysteresis is a modern word used by physicists, originally coined to describe magnetic phenomena. It does not have the same origins as hysteria, even though it sounds like it should. It means “lagging behind.”

But lagging behind is exactly what our frontal cortex does relative to our primitive reptilian brains when confronted with a dangerous unknown.

Hysteresis is a concept of physics that describes systems that are path dependent.

What does path dependence mean? A conversation best started with a negative example.

Imagine a light on a dimmer switch. If you move the dimmer halfway from ‘Off to fully ‘On’, the light has a certain brightness.

If you then move the switch to full and back to half, you get the same brightness as before.

Whatever you did with the switch in the past doesn’t affect how bright the light is, only the current position of the switch matters.

The system has no memory, no path dependence, and therefore no hysteresis.

What kinds of systems are path dependent?

We’ve all had experiences with magnets before. How are magnets made? A chunk of iron is placed inside of an electromagnet (a device that uses electricity to make a magnetic field, like the solenoid that starts your car) and the electromagnet is turned on. Then it is turned off.

But the formerly inert and unmagnetized iron is now magnetized and it stays that way! It lags behind the influence that created it. 

This property allows you to adhere items like children’s drawings and family photos to your refrigerator door without using any electricity. Unlike the light in the first example, the magnet did not return to its prior state when the outside influence (the electromagnet) is returned to its earlier state.

In a sense, the iron has memory of what happened to it. Things with memory are path dependent.

It’s possible to make the chunk of iron unmagnetized again, but it requires a kind of overshooting, applying a magnetic field in the opposite direction to overwhelm the “remembered” magnetic field.

It’s almost as if some sort of debt was incurred that now has to be paid back with interest to get back to the zero starting point- a kind of atomic usury.

Systems with thresholds are path dependent

A diving board will flex an amount that is related to the weight of the person on it. That is, until several people try to get on it at once and it cracks. Then, it won’t return to where it was, even after all the people get off.

It has experienced a structural change that is irreversible.

Many people are familiar with the colloquial saying to describe threshold behavior in a system: “The straw that broke the camel’s back”. Once that unfortunate metaphorical camel has been injured, removing the straw will not allow the camel to get back up again.

This is hysteresis in action. We exceeded a threshold, and the camel’s back remembers it and everything is different now.

You can’t unring a bell. 

It’s like stretching elastic to the point of no return. 

Human lives and other complex systems are rife with hysteresis—history matters to them. “You can’t step in the same river twice” because the interaction of a person with a complex environment changes both.

History repeats itself, but only sort of.  It is more spiral than circular, threatening to repeat but always with new wrinkles. But it is not a smooth spiral, sometimes there are bumps and lurches.

I assert that hysteria is associated with hysteresis. 

Hysteresis means you don’t come back to the same place after you set out on an existential round trip- you might cross a threshold and not be able to return, like rowing out into a swift river and not being able to row back.

Where do you end up?

Since that question brings up the the possibly of a threatening unknown, one’s reptilian brain wants to be like a good reptile and stay stuck in the soft comfortable mud. The reptilian brain is good at fast judgment with minimal data, and it is pessimistic to boot- it can generate worst case scenarios at lightning speed.

If a lot of people encounter a threatening situation at once, it is perfect conditions for mass hysteria.

Many people are asking themselves where they are going to end up right now as a novel virus ravages the world, so the process of hysteresis is being made visible for all to see.

Hysteresis is happening all the time, but usually not so obviously and publicly.

What do hysteria and hysteresis have to do with creativity?

It took a long time to get to this question, and we’re definitely not returning to where we started from.

Creativity involves stepping out of your comfort zone into the adjacent possible. This action has an open-ended possibility of changing both you and your environment, so that you can’t return to who, what, why or where you were before.

In a word, hysteresis. 

It’s scary because taking this path both threatens and promises irrevocable change. The reptilian brain rears its scaly head.

Retreat is attractive.

The frontal cortex needs to speak up in its deep, mellifluous and considered voice urging you to breathe, keep calm and carry on.

Will you take the first step?


With gratitude from my studio to yours,



P.S. If you enjoy this blog and are fascinated by creativity, you’ll love my two books in The Artist’s Journey® series. Get your copy and get started creating!

Confront Your Fears-The Artist's Journey Creativity Reflection Journal

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The Artist's Journey: Creativity Reflection Journal- From best selling author, Stanford trained psychiatrist and founder of The Artist's Journey Nancy Hillis, MD. #BIGcreativity. Scroll through to discover more.

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And my first book, The Artist’s Journey: Bold Strokes To Spark Creativity, a best seller and named One Of The Best Creativity Books Of All Time by BookAuthority

The Artist's Journey ©2018 by Nancy Hillis, M.D. | “Art mirrors our inner state in ways that are meaningful and mysterious. Creativity is central to feeling alive.”— Nancy Hillis, M.D. HAVE YOU ALWAYS DREAMED OF BEING AN ARTIST? WHY PUT OFF FOLLOWING YOUR DREAMS? Are you ready to set out on a journey of self-discovery? To develop strength, clarity, and skill as an artist? The time to create your art is NOW. Whether you dream of loosening up and exploring creativity, expressing yourself, healing and becoming whole, experimenting with paints, colors, and techniques, or surprising yourself with your art, The Artist’s Journey is your step-by-step guide to bold self-expression. THE ARTIST’S JOURNEY teaches you how one mindset shift will transform your experience of creating art one secret studio practice will ignite your creativity two technical game changers will take your art to the next level one concept will help you create your deepest, most personal art Dr. Nancy Hillis is a Stanford-trained existential psychiatrist, abstract artist, and founder of The Artist’s Journey workshops. In The Artist’s Journey, Dr. Hillis expertly guides you to experiment with mark making, color, and brush strokes, to explore ways of igniting inspiration—and finally, to express you in your paintings #theartistsjourney #artistsjourney #creativity #mindset #selfhelp #nancyhillis #nancyhillisstudio

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