Sunday, February 22, 2009


The Sense of Beauty

In her book “Neurophilosophy”, Patricia Churchland points out that our idea of five senses leaves out many very particular sensitivities, like our sense of position and awareness of interior states. I would like to suggest that beauty itself is a sense, attuned to proportion, harmony of form, and order. Like the other senses, it is a response to these qualities and not an idea about them.
The sense of beauty offers guidance. Science uses the concept of elegance as indicative of a good theory and many scientists and mathematicians refer to their sense of beauty as leading them to the answers they sought. Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Blink” described the ability to discern significance as an aesthetic sense. The expert knew the statue was fraudulent because she could feel something missing. Her body of knowledge and increased sensitivity to her subject enabled her to quickly see “what’s wrong with this picture.”
Beauty is not an external thing, but part of our deepest understanding. External perceptions of beauty are triggered by what enlivens the inner sense.
We are what we give our attention to and recognize ourselves in our response to what we admire. The concept of projection is true for positives as well as negatives. Just like we recognize our own negative qualities in the world and tend to call out others for faults we also possess, we recognize our best selves in the things we value. In an experiment that asked people in an office to pick the best worker and say why, most people chose the same person but the traits they listed reflected their own best qualities. What we admire activates corresponding patterns in our mind and strengthens them. We get pleasure from the experience because it aids our growth.
When a beautiful work of art offers an insight into a feeling or paradox it can change our way of seeing. It is this power that Dave Hickey emphasizes in his book, “The Invisible Dragon”, writing, “Beauty…provided the image’s single claim to being looked at and to being believed”. Beauty has authority because it gets attention. If it’s more beautiful it keeps attention. Like plants have a tropism toward the sun, we have a tropism toward beauty.
Elaine Scarry, in her book, “On Beauty and Being Just”, writes that beauty “adrenalizes”. It stimulates the mind and draws it into contact with the place where beauty is discovered. She notes that beauty has no precedent. It is not something you can pin down, but is particular, yet you know it when you see it. The mirroring part of your brain brings the beauty inside. When we admire beauty we participate in it. It is the beautiful part of us that understands it. If the quality wasn’t in us we wouldn’t respond, couldn’t recognize it. This is true of human behavior as well as art. Attending a meeting of high school students taking a stand against violence, my admiration for their efforts reinforces the parts of me that know that caring and striving for a more just world connects us and is deeply beautiful. As Michael Samuels writes, in “Healing With the Mind’s Eye”, “Beauty is a force that links.”
Because of this capacity to connect, beauty is spiritually fortifying. I think of spirituality as what connects us to what’s beyond ourselves, criminality as what disconnects us. Being drawn to a work of art is a connection to the artist. The heart says, “yes” to a feeling recognized but perhaps never expressed before. We respond to what aligns with our own inner model.
Art educates our understanding of feeling. When we resonate with something it is because it’s already a part of us. We recognize and admire the qualities that we ourselves possess and strengthen them as we find them externally. Psychiatrist Alfred Adler said “Art may be esteemed the highest training for social life, inculcating into us attitudes of value and thus improving the nature of our responses.” Likewise, philosopher Susanne Langer felt that having beautiful objects around was essential to educating a child’s sense of proportion and quality.
Beauty nourishes our better selves, and because we love what is beautiful, beauty stimulates our ability to love.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Heart/Mind Generator

New Mind

When I wrote the May post, “Mental Organism”, I was visualizing my “Imaging Ideas” class as something like a soliton, an area of multiple, flowing motions organized into one form that maintains its shape. The eye of Jupiter is the best example, all swirling gases, maintaining a spiral form, an open system, always new, as the visible aspect flows through the organizing form. Hurricanes are such distinct dynamic forms that we give them names.
At the constructive end of the soliton spectrum are human groups organized around a purpose. Like currents in a stream pulled into a specific shape by the size and position of stones at the bottom, the beauty of the emerging form reflects the variety of sensibilities in the group. Every class has its own character, and my previous essay reflected on the dissolving of that unique group mind. Now my thoughts are turning on the emergence of a new class as its own mental form, multiple individual currents, pulled together and held in place for the lifetime of the semester by the external structure of the class, sharing different ways of seeing around the themes of the session.
Every new perspective enlarges my own, both in the physical structure of my brain and in my response to future events. Growth stimulates the reward system and the soliton of a class is new at every meeting, as people’s moods and recent interactions reflect the life experience flowing through each personal mind and into our group mind. It shimmers with the variety of lives reflected and propels my mind in new directions. I would never think some of the thoughts I get to think were it not for the stimulus of an unexpected observation from someone else.
Entirely focused on the unfolding dynamics of various situations and the best way to handle them, the I Ching uses visual images from the natural world to reflect the patterns of being. “Progress like a hamster”, not a good outlook, refers to the fear-led accumulations of hoarded stuff we can build like a dead shell around us. Shifting attention to the flow of life, rather than the symbols of life, is endlessly varied and fascinating. The pleasure of being part of the new class soliton is having so much new stimulation concentrated in one form, every individual a cosmos of their own.
Chaos theory observes that the same forms repeat at various scales. Thinking about all the different ways we participate in mental solitons within ourselves and in groups offers a different kind of image to consider our physical selves and particular lives as simply an external condition through which consciousness flows. This image helps me break free of the cultural idea of a person as an “isolated consciousness in a bag of skin” as Alan Watts put it. As a highly complex soliton, participating in other solitons, each situation gives rise to its own kinds of thoughts which require more minds than my own. I am actively connected to multiple unfolding processes, which then ripple on into situations I may never be aware of. A new class is a microcosm of how, through our interconnected thinking and doing, we participate in the growth of the universe.