Monday, October 22, 2018

Quiet Dangers

Science and Aesthetic Experience

A recent article in the Crimson described a new class in being offered by Harvard Medical School in Neuroaesthetics. Teaching it is Nancy Imhoff, a specialist in the science of happiness, subject of her Ted talk. This connection underscores the fact that we get pleasure from the arts. Art makes us happy. Scientists map locations of mental activity to see what areas are activated at the same time and learn something about why that is. Where the activity is located connects to what is known about those regions. In this case, the circuitry associated with seeing something outside ourselves and the circuitry of thinking inwardly about ourselves two systems that usually operate separately, are both active at once. We’re either observing or thinking about what’s being observed or we’re thinking about something else going on with us. Looking at art got both systems triggers them both together. Art takes us into the experienced emotions of another person, through the viewer’s personal experiences of that feeling, and this is both a connection to the artist, and increased self-awareness in reflecting on what came to mind.

The originator of the field of Neuroaesthetics, Semir Zeki, found a place in the frontal lobe, the medial orbital frontal cortex, that always lights up with the experience of beauty. This is the area associated with value and sensitivity to what matters to us, reinforcing those qualities.  Alfred Adler was one psychiatrist that recommended having beautiful things artfully crafted around the home to increase sensitivity to value. Susanne Langer was a philosopher who felt the arts were the only proper mirror of the inner life. Her insights over fifty years ago are validated by recent brain science.

“You will never have a complete theory of aesthetics unless you take account of the organ through which you have the aesthetic experience,” Zeki said.
Referring to what the viewer experiences emphasizes the connection made between artist and self when two normally separate processes operate together. Far from robbing the arts of its mystery, the science behind the aesthetic experience is a powerful argument for re-emphasizing the arts in education. Insight demands response to wholes and arts is the way to educate the untapped potential of visual intelligence, the perceptual understanding of the whole picture. The idea that art creates pleasure signals its usefulness to human survival at a time when academic institutions are devaluing it. The brain rewards what is good for us. Self-awareness and attunement to harmony within the whole build important levels of our mind.

Beauty stimulates what is best in us adding circuitry in the frontal cortex, our most evolved area. The understructure made by the patterns of universal experience are represented by feelings, summarizing overall response. They are the glue that holds ideas together. Understanding the science aids understanding regarding why art has lasted throughout human history.

There is a unifying quality to art that information can’t reach as it itemizes things known. With art we feel together, the artist’s expression of emotion transmitting to the viewer’s experience of that emotion giving that shiver recognizing that underneath it all we are one not many.

Sunday, September 9, 2018


Art Connects

When I first began studying perception forty years ago, it was primarily with the purpose of seeing what useful information the science of perception had to offer a visual artist. The gestalt psychologists of the mid-twentieth century had developed a body of research that showed how visual elements were sorted and assembled and how the underlying assumption of gravity affected our sense of what we were seeing. Since art is processed by the same circuits and priorities as the real world, everything I read was relevant and the research was growing fast. I was hooked. The specifics of the eye/brain pathways were fascinating and complex and led to a better sense of how the stimulus that hit the retina became what we saw. When I understood how certain changes were processed unconsciously I could create stronger illusions of space and volume. Drawing convincing spatial effects and then contradicting them with equally convincing spatial effects enabled me to stir some doubts about the limits of our theories about reality.

The structure of our lived experience becomes the armature for future knowledge. This gives a deep spatial component to how our knowledge is organized in our mind/brain. We learn by forming new circuits and solidifying others while what we never return to gets pruned away. Re-imagining the new information in relation to other information creates multiple routes and better access to our accumulated experience. The correspondence of one pattern to another (isomorphism) in entirely different systems underlies our ability to understand new experience and is the basis for analogy and metaphor and our use of overt visual representations like maps and diagrams.

Art helps us become aware of how much we can see and learn from what’s different. The underlying structure is universal, built on human movement in the external world, balancing, climbing, avoiding, reaching, grasping, all physical actions used regularly as metaphors. Art shows the inner feeling so connects from within, so we see what’s different as a just another manifestation of something we understand. The universal patterns in the unfamiliar show how similar we are at deep levels as beings that move in space.

Whenever we talk about art, we experience resonance with deep patterns of being. The way that each individual experiences those patterns is stirred, and the dynamics within personal memories may be clarified by the image that provoked them. As a class discusses their work, I try to pull out the whole range of ideas the image suggests so we can better understand what’s implied by different visual relationships. A wide spectrum of associations demonstrates the variety of ways that the same patterns can be experienced. We can see how the range of views fits into a larger picture and be less likely to get caught in the confines of a right/wrong conversation. Looking and talking about art nourishes our understanding of wholes. It develops our sensitivity to significant pattern and our intuition about what matters. As a fringe benefit of training a new generation of illusionists I see the rich variety in individual worldviews that is often suppressed by the wind of prevailing theory, repeated endlessly. Having more wide-ranging images of deeper realities may set us free to think what we really think while feeling more connected at the core. It may be what we need to take an evolutionary step.

Friday, July 27, 2018

New Window


It’s been a week in the new place and I’m still turning to the wrong side to get toilet paper, reaching the wrong way for my teacup, and sent a beaten egg in a glass measuring cup crashing on my tile floor, knocking it over because it wasn’t supposed to be there. I unpack something and put it away but with no familiar places, can’t remember which of the unknown drawers and cabinets it’s now hiding.

The behavioral patterns built in one location don’t match the new one. The first few days are disorienting when what should feel normal doesn’t. The whole process of moving to a new home is much more complicated than I expected.
Just like the moving out of a place is a discovery of how much stuff you have, moving into a place is a discovery of how you want to live. The choices in how things are organized create the routes for future behavior. Before I can start working I have to find an arrangement of things that facilitates what I want to do.
Changing a home base has many levels. The level I kept hidden in a black box was emotional, my sorrow at leaving a place I’d loved, the regular and familiar providing stability for the unknown and risky decisions of art.
I was reminded of that level by a former student and TA, Destiny Belgrave. After moving from her close college community, she then went back to Brooklyn and had to move again from the home neighborhood culture she loved. She pointed out that how draining it was depended on the level of attachment. This insight opened my black box and I saw the emotional strain kept at bay by the physical. Our peregrinations are peopled and alive, whereas in the new place, connections haven’t been made, proximities are all different and the only word for the feeling is loss.  The irritations of moving are partly a cover for the sadness at what’s past.

One way I hung on to part of myself was to set up a work area, one corner at a time. My first corner, the one I’m facing now. has a big window to my left with a sizable chunk of sky to watch the crazy rain come and go. With everything unfamiliar, it made more sense to draw what was out the window, to get to know the place and take it into myself.
The corner wasn’t mine until I put art on the walls to claim it. The first thing on my studio wall was a beautiful collage drawing by Dan Dudrow that always makes me think, is philosophical in its reference to sky and sends my thoughts in new directions every time I look at it. Then on the other wall of that corner my favorite of my newer drawings, “Causality”, a visual idea that reminds me of the limitations of thought. The choice of pictures creates a visual climate crucial to future ideas. Every picture is a place in itself, offers another world to inhabit and the thoughts it generates. Now that this room is starting to feel like my studio, my mind can get back in action.

Having given so much thought to how locations shape thoughts, how the visual qualities influence the metaphors we use, I wonder how the implications in the new space around me will shift the expression of my ideas. The clouds feel closer to me here so analogies to atmosphere and uncertainty will thrive and hopefully remind me that change is the unfolding of forward.