Collectors can feel like their brains are wired differently than other people’s and new science has proven that’s true. Dr. Shirley Mueller, a collector of Chinese export porcelain and a physician, board-certified in neurology and psychiatry, explores this science in her forthcoming book, Inside the Head of a Collector: Neuropsychological Forces at Play. She offered insight into the collector’s brain and her own experience with collecting on the latest episode of the Jewelry Journey podcast. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello everyone, welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, I’m pleased to welcome Dr. Shirley Mueller. She is a professor and internationally known collector and scholar of Chinese export porcelain as well as a physician, board-certified in neurology and psychiatry. She is the author of the eagerly awaited book, slated for publication this month, Inside the Head of a Collector: Neuropsychological Forces at Play. We will be focusing on this topic today. Shirley, welcome to the podcast.
Shirley: Thank you, Sharon. I’m thrilled to be here.
Sharon: So glad to have you. Can you tell us about your background? How did you start collecting Chinese export porcelain and what is that exactly?
Shirley: What is Chinese export porcelain? It is china that is made in China and exported to the west. For example, this was happening early on to Arab markets and then later to the west, starting in the west about the 1500s. The earliest pieces were around 1509. I found these pieces very attractive, and I’d like to tell you how my collection began—
Sharon: Yes, please.
Shirley: It was an apparent accident. Now, why do I say apparent? It was because it wasn’t as random as it seemed, when I picked up a book about Chinese export porcelain and loved it while still working 80 hours a week as a physician. What really was happening, I think, was that my pleasure center was stimulated when I looked at the beautiful Chinese porcelain, and I suspect the reason was that I was remembering a time long ago, when I was a teenager. I’d like to explain that as well. I saw the movie “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness,” with Ingrid Bergman. She was a missionary in China. At that moment, I aspired to be like Bergman’s character, to do good by helping others in China. After medical school, I didn’t get to China. I went to Indianapolis instead, but deep in my heart, I still had that craving to follow that dream that had been dormant in my head for so long. This is why, I believe, I picked up that book about Chinese art. It wasn’t as accidental as it seemed, but rather had to do with memories. This revelation guided me to collect Chinese porcelain, not only for its beauty, but also because of that movie long ago where I wanted to learn about China. I wasn’t going to go to China to do good as a missionary like the Ingrid Berman character, but I could collect Chinese porcelain and learn more about China and its culture.
Sharon: Do you think those forces are at play with all of us who collect, and did that lead you to write this book, Inside the Head of a Collector: The Neuropsychological Forces at Play? What prompted you to write the book?
Shirley: Indeed, I do. I think that most collectors have memories which influence what they collect. It’s not only genetics and it’s not only environmental influences, but also memories from long ago, possibly ones they can’t even identify that lead them into a certain area. For example, sometimes it’s a mentor. It could be a mentor in college or high school or even in grade school, who likes a particular area, and this leads a child or young adult into collecting, let’s say, Japanese art rather than Chinese art.
When I began to realize that memories were important in terms of my own collecting, I wanted to use my background in neuroscience to explore why I was making my own choices when I made collecting decisions. To be honest, some of them didn’t seem too logical. Happily, there have been major advances in our understanding of the brain since the early 1990s, and these advances gave me the tools to explore my questions about my own judgment. What I found is that instead of cold logic, we are driven by our limbic system, also known as the emotional brain. It’s a push and pull between logic on one hand and emotion on the other that dictates our choices, sometimes for the better and other times not. What I wanted to do when I wrote the book was to share this information based on new science with others: collectors, dealers, museum professionals. My goal was to help others understand themselves, just as I had begun to do myself.
Sharon: Let me ask you: Dominic Jellinek, who wrote the forward to your book, says that your collecting seems to operate differently. It seems a lot more rational, from the way he was describing it. Is that the case, and did you evolve into that? Mine is not rational, so I’m just wondering.
Shirley: Remember, I was trained as a scientist, so I think that also makes a difference in how I collect, in a major way. It isn’t haphazard at all. It isn’t necessarily what I love, but it’s what hangs together as a story. Even if one object is not as appealing as another piece, I may want it for what I call completion. For example, my early mission was to collect Chinese export teapots to demonstrate how they evolved over several centuries, a task which hadn’t been addressed earlier, even though the need had been recognized in the writings of others. To do this, I might have chosen a less attractive teapot, which some might call ugly, but if it helped to tell my story, it was right for me.
Now, this drive is not exclusive to me. It’s what researcher Katherine Kerry calls economic utility, the set collection. Essentially, collectors initially gather objects that have value to them as individual units, but later, as other parts are added and a group begins to take shape, single pieces are of less interest but valued more for their potential to make a whole. I had teapots from as early as 1640 spanning through 1700, and I had many of each date in between. To me, although a teapot originally might have been purchased because it was interesting, eventually I started purchasing teapots just because they would fit into that span of time and they would tell me how teapots changed over time.
Sharon: Did you set out to create a collection or did you start to buy them one by one? I’m not saying there’s an easy answer, but what is a collection? What’s a collector?
Shirley: A collector is someone who buys more than is necessary to decorate a home. Many people buy objects that fit on the wall in a certain place, so they fit a cabinet in a place, but a collector is someone who buys much more than that because he or she wants to make something into a whole. For example, someone might collect impressionist art and that’s the bailiwick of that person, that specialty. In fact, in my opinion, it’s the best way to collect because then someone can become a specialist in a particular field. There’s always a controversy about who knows the most about art, and often it’s collectors and dealers as well. Sometimes museum curators are really torn apart because a museum curator may be responsible for many different areas and not just able to concentrate on impressionists. So it’s satisfying to know one little area very well rather than become broad, although obviously some people like the latter.
Sharon: That makes a lot of sense. My question with export porcelain is did it stop at a certain time? Do they still create it today? When did it stop?
Shirley: That’s a very good question. Chinese export has been produced consistently throughout the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th and now 21st centuries, but what is being produced today is often inspired by earlier porcelain. Some people, to make money, will sell it as earlier porcelain because it’s worth more than new Chinese porcelain. Fakes in this particular area are a problem, as they are in all areas of art. It has been estimated that at least half of what is sold in the art market is a fake rather than authentic.
Sharon: Wow! Now, your book, which I’m really looking forward to reading, is divided into three parts. You talk about pleasure and pain, enhancing pleasure through understanding ourselves and collector experiences. Can you tell us about each of these parts and why you divided it in this way?
Shirley: I would be happy to, Sharon. Pleasure and pain dominate the first part of my book. For today, I’m going to concentrate on one aspect of pleasure, the thrill of the chase. In this pursuit, occasionally risk is involved. For example, in Haarlem, Holland, while alone in an antique shop with the proprietor, I was offered a chance to see his private collection located in his apartment above his shop. I didn’t know this man, nor did anyone know where I was. Going to his private apartment could have been dangerous. Still, the thought of a special treasure that he might have there propelled me to climb up the spiral staircase to his quarters.
Not everyone would have acted as I did, and I daresay perhaps a little bit of what I did had to do with hoping he had that special treasure, but nevertheless, new science gives insight into my behavior. We now know, due to functional magnetics in gene studies, which measure brain blood flow in real time, that there is a brain area associated with risk-adverse behavior and another related to an appetite for risk. These findings suggest that each human is inherently prone toward one behavior or another, depending on how these two areas balance out. For me that day, I was willing to take a measured risk. I wasn’t risk-adverse, but I feel I wasn’t full party either, because there was a potential benefit for me to take that risk. I’m happy to report that the risk turned out really well and he did have something very special.
Sharon: Yeah, I can understand your having second thoughts about that.
Shirley: Yes, I think I was lucky.
Sharon: And then enhancing pleasure to understanding ourselves.
Shirley: Yes, thank you. This is the most important part of the book and here I discuss the emotional brain, which is situated between the reptilian brain below and the neocortex above. The reptilian brain, the lower brain, controls blood pressure and heart rate. It’s the earliest in evolution. The cortex is the higher brain and latest in terms of evolution. It is where thinking occurs and decisions are made, especially in the frontal area or executive brain. When this happens, urges from the emotional brain down below, along with information from short- and long-term memory and other contributors, filter up to the executive brain and a choice is made. In summary, the neocortex balances emotional demands with cortical input, higher input. This is important, because we used to think that we were logical when we made decisions. Now, we know the emotional brain is contributing importantly. Many times, it may be the most important factor when we make a decision.
Sharon: Yeah, I can definitely relate to that, especially from a collecting perspective.
Shirley: I’d love to know what you collect.
Sharon: That gets into a bigger subject of what’s collectible.
Shirley: Alright, the last part of the book deals with bargains, museum relationships, artisan investment and collection disbursal. I think the most unique part of the section is how I deal with one’s collection having a presence after death because, after all, a collection is like a child or an arm or a leg to a collector. It’s important. It’s part of us. What I suggest in this last part is a cost-effective way for collections to remain visible after a collector’s death. It’s a virtual museum on the internet. In this way, the collector knows her objects are available to the public and to close relatives and friends. She can share her story, but at the same time, the physical collection can be disbursed according to the collector’s wishes, whether it goes to relatives, a museum or she sells it at auction. Any possibility can be executed because a collection is still intact on the internet.
Sharon: That’s an interesting thought. I hadn’t thought about it. I’m sure a lot of us hadn’t thought about that. You mentioned in some information I was reading that collectors value the authentic over a copy. It doesn’t matter how good the copy is. I would say that’s true, but why is that?
Shirley: That’s very complicated, but it’s essentially like the advertisement “George Washington slept here.” Everyone values this object because it’s associated with history. Basically, it’s often the stories behind an object that make it important to us. In philosophy, this is known as essentialism, when characteristics of an object seem necessary to the very function or being of that object. In collecting, essentialism means we respond to beliefs about objects as well as the object itself. Taken further, people actually feel wronged when they buy art or antiques they think are authentic, but later find out they are not. I would be in that group that feels wronged because it’s happened to me a few times.
Essentialism can be scientifically demonstrated in several ways and one is measuring brain function related to what we are told. When research subjects are placed in a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner and given wine to taste, their brain response depends on the story related to them about the wine. When the subjects are told the wine is expensive, the anterior part of the brain, the orbital frontal cortex, is activated, and this area is known to encode for pleasurable experience during experimental tasks. On the other hand, there was no reaction in this area when the subjects were informed they were drinking cheap wine, even though the wine wasn’t necessarily cheap, but they thought it was cheap.
Sharon: That’s really interesting. Do you remember a time or moment or object when you crossed the line from buying one or two pieces into, “O.K., now I’m collecting,” or “Now I’m a collector”? Do you remember when? I can’t say I do, but I’m wondering if there is a time you look back on and say, “That was the moment,” or “That was the piece I bought that brought me to the other side.”
Shirley: Not a piece, but I think the general idea that collecting is so much fun. Just doing this, selecting and talking with other people and socializing with like-minded individuals and going places to find objects that I liked, I realized it was a joy and a pleasure. That was probably only about five or six years after I started collecting individual objects that my mind was totally taken over by this pleasurable activity.
Sharon: I know you spent time in your book writing about the social aspect, the camaraderie, which is really one of the pleasures of collecting, being with people who don’t think you’re a nut.
Shirley: I don’t think anyone should think we’re nuts. That actually was an idea—about 20 years ago in 1994, an individual wrote a book called, “Collecting: An Unruly Passion.” He was a psychoanalyst. He proposed that collectors were either deprived or depraved in childhood, and I realized that, for me, this was not true. I simply enjoyed it, just as many people enjoy other passions. It’s a wonderful, positive outlet for me, and I don’t feel depravity or deprivation in childhood have anything to do with it for me.
Sharon: No, and I would agree with that for most people. That’s interesting. It’s like some people love horses and some people love sailing, and that’s their thing.
Shirley: Exactly. I just wanted to say one last thing and that is that when we buy an object, it’s not when we actually buy it and take it home that gives us the greatest pleasure. This has been proven again with functional resonance imaging. It’s when we anticipate buying it, when we think about it, when we plan how it’s going to happen, then our brain’s pleasure center really lights up. That’s why collecting will always persist, because we’re always anticipating the next best thing, which is wonderful.
Sharon: That makes a lot of sense and I can relate to that. Shirley, thank you so much for being here and for a fascinating discussion. I’m looking forward to reading your book and learning in more detail. To everybody listening, we’ll have Shirley’s contact information in the show notes at TheJewelryJourney.com as well as a link to order the book.
That wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and you would like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please review us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thank you so much.
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