July 2015

My PhD research takes the idea of a first-person madness narrative and looks at ways to embody this within electroacoustic composition and sound art installation. A first-person madness narrative is any text that in some way describes a person’s lived experience of mental illness or significant emotional/psychological distress. It is an exposition of the interior, isolated space of the mind. The term madness is used loosely, including a wide spectrum of human experience. It is not reserved for the other (as can occur with diagnostic labelling of mental illness), nor exclusively for psychotic experiences (as is sometimes colloquially assumed), but for something of potential within us all. My work draws on these published texts as well as my own lived experiences of profound psychological distress, using sound as a metaphor for experiences of the mind. It considers the limitations of the medical and helping professions in understanding and managing these experiences with an aim to find alternate ways to conceptualise and communicate about these ideas.

The flexile nature of perception and its role in mental illness and distress has become the key focus of the research inquiry—how it is malleable and easily influenced yet so powerful as to determine all actions, emotions and desires. This is investigated through the concept of perceptual collapse, which was drawn from a talk entitled Why we choose suicide by mental health advocate Mark Henick. In this talk Henick describes his depression and multiple suicide attempts, placing them within the framework of perception. He explains how our perception expands and contracts in response to our physical makeup (biology), the state of our mind (psychology) and the environment around us (society) and illustrates how everyone's perception narrows from time to time. He asks us to imagine remaining "stuck there in that dark, narrow place—that’s what it can be like to live with a mental illness." Henick’s term perceptual collapse resonates strongly with my own experiences of depression, anxiety and suicidality.

Early on in the PhD (before discovering the term perceptual collapse) I created two electroacoustic compositions based on first-person madness narratives—A Shut in Place and The Absence of Inclination. A Shut in Place was a collaboration with cellist, Anthea Caddy, which was loosely based on the semi-autobiographical novel I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. This book detailed a teenage girl’s experience of hospitalisation for Schizophrenia where she was successfully treated using a form of psychoanalytic therapy (a radical proposition as Schizophrenia is typically thought to be incurable and responsive only to medication). It was especially effective in revealing the way consensual reality, imagination and psychological experience interweave to create a person’s perception of reality, which became central to the compositional investigation. The Absence of Inclination was a solo work that considered the physical nature of depressive symptoms, drawing on my own experiences as well as a portion of text, velocity vs viscosity, from the madness memoir Girl, Interrupted that detailed the author's 18-month hospitalisation for Borderline Personality Disorder. The compositional approach to creating these works involved forming intuitive connections between the ideas, the sounds used and the compositional structure.

Based on the hypothesis that these intuitive artistic processes are sometimes able to reveal knowledge that may not be in conscious awareness, I later reflected upon these works and recognised that they both represented something of my own experience of perceptual collapse. To better understand this relationship I then performed an analysis of these works by asking what they could reveal about my own experience of perceptual collapse. In doing so I determined five key themes inherent to this experience—temporal expansion, experiential paradox, protective disrupture, emotional weight and perceptual disorientation.

Temporal expansion conceptually grew from a sampling technique that extends a small snippet of recorded sound into a monolithic sound mass of infinite time potential. It correlates with the way my mind can fixate on a distressing event, expanding the experience through time. This mind state involves a layering of experience, a moment existing only in relation to itself, which transforms my perception of lived experience through the growth of negative emotion via superimposition of past, present and imagined reality.

Experiential paradox is central to the experience of perceptual collapse. It refers to two seemingly paradoxical concepts occurring within a single experience. For instance, I can recognise a collapse in my perception through the feeling of (claustrophobic) expansion. As perception narrows in on a restricted amount of emotionally charged information this information grows in detail and significance. Similarly, in sound composition, working with a restricted amount of sonic information causes it to expand and become richer and more detailed. Further paradoxes in my experiences of madness include control without control, healing through destruction, and rational irrationality.

Protective disrupture involves the projection of the expanded (restricted) perception beyond its own limits and out onto the world. The imagined reality feels more real than reality itself, rupturing connections and relationships with both the self and others. It manifests in my sound composition through broken connections and ruptures in compositional schema. It plays with the idea that mental illness and distress exist within the space between the self and the outside world, a protective layer between a person and their (often dangerous) environment. It highlights the isolating nature of perception, how we are each separate beings experiencing the same thing differently, which can fuel conflict and disconnection. It can often result in a crisis of self and thus suicidal ideation.

Emotional weight refers to the heavy emotions that colour experience and place downward stress on the body and mind, weakening the structure of perception. This weight is often experienced physically in the body, which feels as though pushing against an increased gravitational pull. Sounds created from similar physical expressions of force were used as metaphors for this experience. The more challenging the situation, the heavier the emotion becomes. The more emotional weight, the more vulnerable perception is to collapse.

Perceptual disorientation often goes hand in hand with psychological distress. An ambiguous situation lacks key information in which to anchor, disorienting the bearings of perception and breeding anxious uncertainty. With no anchor for experience a stuttered narrative forms. This is a search for meaning in the absence of sense. Without an anchor perception is especially vulnerable to the pull of emotional weight, precipitating collapse.

My research now aims to experiment with ways to further expand and represent these ideas through sound practice, creating a sound-based first-person madness narrative that posits perceptual influences as central to the experience of psychological distress. I am working on the development of a 10.1 channel listening station (for one person) to represent the expansion, contraction and influence of the unseen aspects of perception through shifting acoustic horizons and phantom images.