Style, Identity, Free Association, and the Brain

by Norman N. Holland

August 27, 2006


Artists and readers demonstrate persistent styles. Previously, I have explained this phenomenon by a general model of humans' functioning. A theme-and-variations identity unique to an individual sets standards for physiological and cultural feedback loops common to many or all biologically normal humans. Identity governing feedbacks would explain how an organism maintains its unchanging inner nature while negotiating a constantly changing world. Recent brain research suggests a brain basis for such an identity in "task-induced deactivation." Some midline regions of the brain become less active when subjects perform tasks. Researchers explain the decrease as the interruption of a central, continually active brain system. To perform tasks, its energy goes to peripheral systems for particular actions. Such a central brain system fits the model of a persistent identity theme. The diversion of energy fits the activation of lower-level feedback loops directed by an identity theme.


From style to identity

     Mozart sounds like Mozart. Hemingway reads like Hemingway. Matisse looks like Matisse. Always. And we can identify them after a few bars or sentences or a mere glance at a picture. Aestheticians speak of their "style," while psychologists might point to personality. For a long time, I have been explaining this persistence of style a by a concept of identity first put forward by psychoanalyst Heinz Lichtenstein (1961, 1977).

     Most psychoanalytic writers, Erikson, for example, use the word "identity" to refer to one’s inner sense of coherence or continuity. This is identity from within, who I feel like. That kind of identity fluctuates from year to year, day to day, and even moment to moment. Most neuroscientists who talk about humans’ extended consciousness (compared to animals’) are addressing this identity sensed from within.

     Lichtenstein was writing about identity as seen from outside, a completely different thing. We are consciously aware of who we think we are, but that may not be at all how we seem when seen from outside. Seeing us from outside, people say things like, "Yes, that's just like him," or "That an odd thing for her to do" or "Good old Norm, always flogging his idea of identity." And it is when seen from outside that Mozart sounds like Mozart, Hemingway reads like Hemingway, and Matisse looks like Matisse.

     Lichtenstein (1977, p. 245) defined this kind of identity as "invariance within change or invariance within a transformation." He used a metaphor from music. One can read identity (or style) in another person just as one hears themes and variations in a symphony. The music is constantly changing, constantly moving toward a new and unexpected sound, yet one can trace persistent and recurring themes. We humans can vary our themes infinitely. We can play variations that are positive and negative, healthy and unhealthy, creative and ritualistic, liberal and conservative, hostile and loving--all the varieties of human life. But, if Lichtenstein is right, an observer, a biographer, say, should be able to trace a sameness, a personal style if you will, within all those changes.

     Lichtenstein formulated such identities in words, as phrases or sentences, which he called "identity themes." He provided a number of examples in his writings from his patients and from the suicidal poet Thomas Chatterton (Lichtenstein 1961; Lichtenstein, 1977, ch. 10). I have added several more examples of identity themes: five subjects of an experiment in reading (Holland, 1975); Robert Frost (Holland, 1989); Ronald Reagan (Holland, 1989); the poet H.D., analyzed by Freud (Holland, 2000; Holland, 2002) ; F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Bernard Shaw, and Little Hans, where one can trace identity from the five-year-old boy Freud treated to the adult director of operas (Holland, 1985).

Identity governs feedbacks

     To make more explicit the role of culture and physiology in the behaviors governed by an identity theme, I evolved a feedback model, following common knowledge from psychology and neuroscience. Feedback pervades scientists' thinking about the physical circuitry of the brain. Feedback also underlies contemporary "constructive" psychologies of perception and cognition. That is, today most psychologists believe that we construe or construct the reality around us (see, for example, Miller, Galanter, and Pribram, 1960). We bring guesses--hypotheses, schemas, narratives--to bear on the electrochemical impulses our senses deliver to our brains. We try out a guess on the world. If our guess succeeds, we feel right. If it fails, we feel uneasy, and we try a different guess (see, for example, Kelly, 1955, or Rumelhart, Smolensky, McClelland, & Hinton, 1986). "What feels right" in momentary living comes from standards which come from an unchanging identity theme. That is why we see what William James called "some common element retained" with respect to the observed "me," the "empirical person" as contrasted with the fluctuating stream of consciousness (James, 1890, pp. I.371-372).

     Our brains compare what we take in with internal standards, which (I claim) express our several identities. If what is coming in matches what the standard says should be coming in, the comparing system is quiescent. If they don’t match, the difference leads to a signal that perturbs the system, presumably in a direction so as to produce satisfaction and quiescence. One can have standards at all kinds of levels, ranging from mere sensory perception to recognizing, say, a Matisse. I conceptualize what the psychologists say this way: a theme-and-variations Identity governs a hierarchy of feedback loops, Higher-level loops provide the standard for lower-level loops and so control them. Identity sets the standard for the highest level which becomes transformed at lower levels to what "feels right" intellectually, culturally, or physiologically.

     It is William T. Powers who has most fully worked out such a model (Powers 1973; Powers 1978). He notes that a feedback loop consists of three things: a standard to be maintained (the temperature in a thermostat; the speed in a cruise control); a comparator to detect the difference between the actual and the standard; an effector to change the actual quantity to match the standard. His basic principle is that behavior controls perception. We act so as not to perceive a difference between actuality and our goals. Higher-level loops provide the standard for lower-level loops and so control them. The system compares sensory input to the appropriate standard. If they match, the system is quiet. If they don't the system acts to make them match.

     In such a feedback model, one can think of humans' sensory perception as a series of filters. The eye admits only the visible spectrum, the ear only the audible range. From this point of view, we can think of sensory perception as a testing of hypotheses. The eye asks, as it were, does this wavelength fall outside my range, the visible spectrum? If falls within my range, I go into further processing. If it does not, I do nothing. Similarly, one can think of physical acts as testing reality. Can I lift this suitcase? If I can, I do. If I can't, I do nothing, having filtered out what is beyond my capacity. And one can think of culture as providing ready-made hypotheses. Is this a red octagonal sign with "Stop" on it? If so, I step on the brake. If not, I don't.

     Powers, aiming for a total model of human psychology, suggests a hierarchy of nine levels of feedback loops, with higher levels enabled by but controlling lower levels. His nine levels run from raw "effort" or "intensity" (qualia) through configurations of sensations to "control of system concepts." He allows for even higher levels that could include identity in Lichtenstein's sense (Powers, 1973; 1978).

     I propose a simpler three-level model for my more modest purpose of explaining consistencies and divergences in people's experiences of literary and other arts. A theme-and-variations identity governs physiological hypotheses (sensory, motor) and two kinds of socially constructed hypotheses. One, which I call "codes," all members of a given culture would agree on, like a stop sign. The other, which I call "canons," represents values held by various groups within a culture, liberals or conservatives, for example, or various schools of psychoanalysis or literary theory. An identity chooses canons that suit, and uses the canons to read codes, and both in turn read the world by means of the sensory and motor feedback loops that biologically normal humans share (Holland 1988, chs. 5-6; Holland, 1992, chs. 5-9). Identity governs the hierarchy by triggering emotions in the organism of feeling right or satisfying or complete as the system tests different hypotheses.

     There are, of course, other models for literary response. The most common says that the text limits response to a certain range, and the individual is free to vary response within that range. The statement purports to explain the mix of similarities and differences in people's responses. But such models have two flaws which seem fatal to me. They do not suggest a psychological or neuropsychological process for how the text imposes itself on a mind, limiting response. And they do not suggest how we can tell when or why the text's control leaves off and the reader's begins.

     By contrast, the identity-governing-feedbacks model explains both similarities and differences in response. The similarities come from applying to the world physiological and cultural hypotheses that we share with other humans. The differences come from these testings being differently applied by each of our different core identities.

From identity to brain

     We can observe and phrase identity themes. Where would they come from except our brains? But how might they be embodied in our brains? Writing in the 1960s and '70s, Lichtenstein hypothesized that such a theme was somehow inscribed in the brain by early mother-infant experiences. The infant learns to be the infant for this mother. He offered as evidence ethological studies: the way animals like the greylag goose are "imprinted" with patterns of reactions to conspecifics, according to Konrad Lorenz (1937; 1971).

     We might hope for more specific and more evidenced answers from today's brain scientists. Literary style, however, has not ranked high on their to-do lists. Concerned with caring for patients, they have focused, not on literary styles and identity observed from outside but from the fluctating identity sensed from within, subject to various mental disorders. This identity we sense is closely akin to consciousness or what Damasio has called "autobiographical memory" (Damasio,1999). Consciousness, "the hard problem," has sometimes been called the brass ring in the merry-go-round of neuroscience, the grand and elusive prize. Identity seen from outside poses an easier problem, precisely because it is observable in a way that consciousness or identity-from-within is not.

     Brain scientists, however, typically do not distinguish between an internally perceived sense of self and an identity observed from outside. If we draw that distinction firmly, though, the new techniques of neuroimaging may--I emphasize may--shed light on the kindred problems of style and identity.

     Two chief imaging techniques for studying psychological processes in the brain are positron emission tomography (PET) scans and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). These techniques yield pictures of brain activity and by taking the pictures under different conditions one can surmise at least the brain's states under those different conditions. Thus, the experimenter takes one picture of a physical quantity thought to indicate brain activity while the subject is resting. The experimenter takes another picture of the same physical quantity while the subject is performing some task, say, thinking of words beginning with "F." Using highly complex electronic, computational, and statistical techniques, the experimenter then subtracts the resting state picture from the active state picture to construct a picture of the changes as a result of the activity. One can at least hypothesize that the differences represent what your brain is doing when you are thinking of words beginning with "F" (Posner & Raichle, 1994).

The "resting state"

     It would certainly be convenient if the resting state were zero, but the brain never sits still. The "resting state" is not resting at all, but as one team puts it, "the typical `resting state' is actually a condition characterized by rich cognitive activity" (McKiernan, Kaufman, Kucera-Thompson & Binder, 2003, p. 394).

     Further, a long series of experiments ran into a somewhat surprising result. Imaging showed that performing a task caused certain areas in the brain to decrease their activity ("task induced deactivation"--TID). Moreoever, these decreases take place during a wide variety of tasks; they are "task-independent." Neuropsychologists have explained this result by positing wholly internal "baseline" processes that tasks directed to the outer world interrupt.

     In a widely cited and replicated study, Jeffrey Binder and his associates were able to show that these internal activities, which they called "conceptual processing," involved the same areas as a semantic retrieval task (Binder, Frost, et al., 1999). (For that task, subjects had to single out names of animals that one finds in the U.S. and that people use, for example, "cow.") This semantic task did not decrease the ongoing internal activity of the "resting state." The team concluded that these continual, ongoing internal processes were themselves verbal in nature like the task. These wholly internal actitivities might be things like inference, deduction, planning, imagery, or internal monologue. Evolution would have selected for such continuing activities because they are adaptive. They confer advantages in survival and reproduction. And they are all associated with knowledge about the world (semantic memory) or with experiences recalled (episodic memory). This idea, that the ongoing "resting state" is verbal and associated with memory, is important, and I will return to the point.

     Further experiments along these lines counted "task-unrelated thoughts" (TUTs) as reported by subjects--"my mind wandered." (TUTs, presumably, would come from wholly internal brain processes.) The experimenters found that there were fewer such wanderings during difficult task conditions than during easier conditions, further confirming an inverse relationship between tasks directed to the outer world and a preoccupation with the inner world (McKiernan, D’Angelo, Kaufman & Binder, 2006). As task demands increase, energy goes from ongoing, internal processes to areas involved in the task (without, however, completely shutting down the internal processes). In effect, the brain seesaws between outer-directed activity and inner-directed activity, funnelling energy from the one to the other. Since I am interpreting these experiments through the hypothesis of an identity-governing-feedbacks model, I understand this result as the brain diverting energy from sustaining core identity toward the feedback loops involved in sensing and acting outside the brain.

     To summarize what we know about task-induced deactivation: "TID is not specific to any one sensory modality (i.e., both visual and auditory tasks produce TID); it occurs in response to a wide variety of cognitive tasks; it occurs consistently in specific brain regions; and in some regions, the magnitude of the deactivation is sensitive to the difficulty level (i.e. processing demand) of the task" (McKiernan, Kaufman, Kucera-Thompson & Binder, 2003, p. 405).

     Further, I find it of interest that McGuire and Matsumoto found, "If subjects carry out a cognitive task during scanning, the cognitive and emotional processes that are active during the scan in different subjects are more likely to be similar than if subjects are scanned at rest" (2004, p. 6). This fits the hypothesis that the feedback loops we use to sense and deal with the world are determined by physiology and culture. Many or all human beings are likely to have the same feedback loops for performing sensory, motor, and cognitive tasks, while core identities will differ (see also McKiernan, Kaufman, Kucera-Thompson & Binder, 2003). That is why all these studies involve averaging across many subjects. One cannot identify the brain's "resting state" in one individual--because, I would say, identities differ. To get at the brain activity involved in core identity, you need to average the brain states of many individuals at rest.

     Although there are substantial differences among these various researchers, they agree about certain regions being involved in this process (McKiernan et al. 2003). For the neurophysiologically inclined, I list them and the functions assigned them by Gusnard and Raichle (2001): posterior medial cortices and adjacent precuneus--continuously gathering information about outer and inner worlds; posterior lateral cortices--orienting the organism to salient, novel, animate, or socially relevant parts of the environment; ventral medial prefrontal cortex--continuous integration of emotional and cognitive processes; dorsal medial prefrontal cortex--monitoring or reporting or representing states of the self; attributing mental states to others.

     Also, tasks deactivate these regions more in the left hemisphere than the right. (See Shulman et al., 1997; Binder, et al., 1999; Gusnard & Raichle 2001; Shulman, et al., 1997; Mazoyer, et al., 2001; Greicius, Krasnow, Reiss & Menon, 2003; Fox, et al., 2005; McKiernan, Kaufman, Kucera-Thompson & Binder, 2003; Wicker, Ruby, Royet & Fonlupt, 2003; McKiernan, D’Angelo, Kaufman & Binder, 2006.)

     I'd make two points about this localization. First, obviously, these authors are describing a complex, interacting network in the brain, not little islands carrying on their separate activities. Second, three of the four regions described are "medial" or midline (the fourth being more sensory in nature). Midline structures, in general, are evolutionarily older and "lower" than functions on the side surfaces of the brain (like language functions or sensory synthesis).

     As such, these midline structures fit a review by Northoff et al. (2006) of previous research comparing neural correlates during subjects' processing of stimuli relating to the self with processing of stimuli that did not relate to the self. This group concluded that cortical midline structures mediate "self-referential processing." Because these structures are densely and reciprocally connected to subcortical midline regions, these researchers suggest that a cortical-subcortical midline system underlies human "self." They define self, however, as including the processing of stimuli as self-referential, that is, of importance, quoting John Barresi (2002): "the boundary between self and not-self is one's emotional attitude about an object or thought." In my terms, I think Northoff et al. (2006) are describing something like an unconscious "sense of self" rather than an identity as such. Nevertheless patterns of stimuli processing equal what I can observe in someone else, an identity, a style of being. The cortical-subcortical midline system Northoof et al. (2006) propose could very well generate a persistent identity observed from outside and their system fits the medial regions arrived at by studying task-induced deactivation or self-referential processing..

     My hypothesis (a midline embodiment of a persistent identity observed from outside) fits another line of brain research, the attempt to link various character traits to biology, that is, either to brain regions or to genetic factors. Much of this research uses the Big Five personality traits (Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Openness to Experience). From my point of view, however, this line of research could not shed light on a concept of identity-from-outside for two reasons. One, breaking the individual into five traits loses the whole individual that the identity approach seeks to capture. Two, as Stephen Kosslyn and Robert Plomin (2001) point out, these studies treat individual differences (= individuality) as unwanted statistical noise. Most researchers average them out and discard them.

     Kosslyn has persuasively argued the contrary: that one can learn more by by studying individual differences within general characteristics of the population than by either approach alone. For example, he suggests that we can best understand individual differences in forming mental imagery as a set of underlying processes common to all people but which vary for any one individual. (This also fits an identity-governing-feedback model.) One gets at the individual differences, says Kosslyn, through test-retest stability--that is, persistence, again characteristic of identity. In his model for research, one line of experiments establishes general mechanisms, the physiological or cultural testings in the model I am suggesting. The other establishes persistent individual variations on those processes, and that variation would be the influence of an identity directing them (Kosslyn & Plomin, 2001; Kosslyn et al., 2002).


     As I read this neuropsychological literature on the "resting state," I see a picture of brain activity quite consistent with the identity-governing-feedbacks model. Ongoing internal verbal and memory processes like planning, imaging, or inferring are verbal expressions in the brain of a core identity. These "resting state" activities are, one, verbal in nature and, two, have to do with memory. A hundred years of psychoanalysis have demonstrated how free associations tap into that constant, unconscious verbal and memory processing and how one can read in the associations the persistent, repeated themes that define that individual's identity.

     That identity, which differs from person to person, governs physiological and cultural feedback loops that differ less from person to person than the core processes. When engaged in sensing or coping with the world, the feedback loops need energy and draw it away from the core identity. When the brain returns to a "resting state," only the identity is active.

     To be sure, I am fitting these experiments to a theme-and-variations identity observed from outside. The experimenters themselves do not clearly distinguish that sort of identity from a sense of identity or, simply, consciousness. But it seems to me entirely possible that the two coincide in the regions or connectivity that establish this continuing internal processing.

     In other words, brain experiments, in particular those bearing on "task-induced deactivation," seem to me consistent with an identity-governing-feedbacks model of the human being. Mere consistency, of course, proves nothing. It does, however, enable us to form hypotheses. And the fact remains that more than one line of brain research produces results that fit, one, a theme-and variations identity that, two, differs from "sense of self" by being observed from outside and that, three, allows us to model the relation between common and individual patterns of behavior. Should this research continue to fit the model of a theme-and-variations identity governing feedbacks, we can hope for a truly biological understanding of our human styles of creating and responding to the arts.  



Barresi, J. (2002, April). From the thought is the thinker to "the voice is the speaker": William James and the dialogical self. Theory & Psychology, 12(2), 237-250. (Special issue: The dialogical self.)

Binder, J. R., Frost, J. A., Hammeke, T. A., Bellgowan, P. S., Rao, S. M., & Cox, R. W. (1999, Janurary). Conceptual processing during the conscious resting state: A functional MRI study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 11(1), 80-93.

Damasio, A. R. (1999). The feeling of what happens: Body and emotion in the making of consciousness. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Fox, M. D., Snyder, A. Z., Vincent, J. L., Corbetta, M., Van Essen, D. C., & Raichle, M. E. (2005, July 5). The human brain is intrinsically organized into dynamic, anticorrelated functional networks. Proceedingsof the National Academy of Sciences, 102(27), 9673-9678.

Greicius, M. D., Krasnow, B., Reiss, A. L., & Menon, V. (2003, January 7). Functional connectivity in the resting brain: A network analysis of the default mode hypothesis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 100(1), 253-258.

Gusnard, D. A., & Raichle, M. E. (2001). Searching for a baseline: Functional imaging and the resting human brain. Nature Reviews: Neuroscience, 2, 685-694.

Holland, N. N. (1975). 5 readers reading. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Holland, N. N. (1985). The I. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. (Available at

Holland, N. N. (1988). The brain of Robert Frost. New York and London: Routledge.

Holland, N. N. (1989). The L-Shaped mind of Ronald Reagan: A psychoanalytic study. Psychohistory Review, 17(2), 183-214.

Holland, N. N. (1992). The critical I. New York: Columbia University Press.

Holland, N. N. (2000). Poems in persons: A psychology of the literary process [Rev. ed.]. Christchurch, N.Z.: Cybereditions. (Accessed May 31. 2001) (

Holland, N. N. (2002). H.D.’s analysis with Freud. PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychology of the Arts. ( Accessed June 10, 2002)

James, W. (1950). The principles of psychology. [2 vols.] New York: Dover Publications.

Kelly, G. A. (1963). A theory of personality: The psychology of personal constructs. New York: Norton. (Original work published 1955)

Kosslyn, S. M., Cacioppo, J. T., Davidson, R. J., Hugdahl, K., Lovallo, W. R., Spiegel, D., et al. (2002, May). Bridging psychology and biology: The analysis of individuals in groups. American Psychologist, 57(5), 341-351.

Kosslyn, S. M., & Plomin, R. (2001). Towards a neurocognitive genetics: Goals and issues. In D. Dougherty, S. L. Rauch & J. E. Rosenbaum (Eds.), Psychiatric neuroimaging strategies: Contemporary strategies (pp. 383-402). Washington: American Psychiatric Press.

Lichtenstein, H. (1961). Identity and sexuality: A study of their interrelationship in man. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 9, 179-260.

Lichtenstein, H. (1977). The dilemma of human identity. New York: Jason Aronson.

Lorenz, K. (1937). The nature of instinct. New York: International Universities Press.

Lorenz, K. (1971). Studies in animal and human behaviour (R. Martin, Trans.) (Vol. 2). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Mazoyer, B., Mellet, E., Bricogne, S., Edard, O., Houde, O., Crivello, F., et al. (2001). Cortical networks for working memory and executive functions sustain the conscious resting state in man. Brain Research Bulleltin, 54(3), 287-298.

McGuire, P. K., & Matsumoto, K. (2004, February). Functional neuroimaging in mental disorders. World Psychiatr, 3(1), 6-11.

McKiernan, K. A., D’Angelo, B. R., Kaufman, J. N., & Binder, J. (2006, February 15). Interrrupting the "stream of consciousness":an fMRI investigation. NeuroImage, 29(4), 1185-1191.

McKiernan, K. A., Kaufman, J. N., Kucera-Thompson, J., & Binder, J. (2003, April 1). A parametric manipulation of factors affecting task-induced deactivation in functional neuroimaging. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 15(3), 394-408.

Miller, G. A., Galanter, E., & Pribram, K. H. (1960). Plans and the structure of behavior. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Northoff, G., Heinzel, A., de Greck, M., Bermpohl, F., Dobrowolny, H., & Panksepp, J. (2006). Self-referential processing in our brain-- a meta-analysis of imaging studies on the self. NeuroImage, I have only corrected proofs..

Posner, M. I., & Raichle, M. E. (1994). Images of mind. New York: Scientific American Library.

Powers, W. T. (1973). Behavior: The control of perception. Chicago: Aldine.

Powers, W. T. (1978). Quantitative analysis of purposive systems: Some spadework at the foundations of scientific psychology. Psychological Review, 85, 417-435.

Rumelhart, D. E., Smolensky, P., McClelland J. L., & Hinton, G. E. (1986). Schemata and sequential thought processes in PDP models. In Parallel distributed processing: Explorations in the microstructure of cognition [Vol. 2: Psychological and biological models] (pp. 7-57). Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Shulman, G. L., Corbetta, M., Buckner, R. L., Miezin, F. M., Raichle, M. E., & Petersen, S. E. (1997, September). Decreases in cerebral cortex(Common blood flow changes across visual tasks: Part II). Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 9(5), 648-663.

Wicker, B., Ruby, P., Royet, J.-P., & Fonlupt, P. (2003). A relation between rest and the self in the brain? Brain Research Reviews, 43, 224-230.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Norman N. Holland "Style, Identity, Free Association, and the Brain". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: August 21, 2006, Published: August 27, 2006. Copyright © 2006 Norman N. Holland