Monday, August 30, 2010

Building the Picture


As I start to think about this year’s classes one of my chief excitements is meeting new students and learning more about the students I’ve had before. Working with students is an endless process of discovery, each a new source of knowledge. I often say that every person is a library, with different subjects in different areas housing the knowledge from personal experience. There’s a physical movement area, one person plays tennis, and another can’t get off the couch. Tastes and experiences in food vary widely. One might have been in and out of the hospital with serious medical problems. Another may research world affairs and agonize over injustice. Educational background tuned certain priorities. The personal mental life has a path all its own. The trail of choices each person makes in the cyber-realm, through phones, game consoles and computers, reflect what a person cares about and craft a highly individuated point-of-view and network of connections. And then there is a philosophy about being I can sense in a student’s art, that may have an intellectual or emotional history and cultural background that reveals a way of responding to the world. This perspective is the truth from a particular place in larger being.
Understanding that everyone’s perspective can add to our own, and that “gaining perspective” is always considered a good (even when it hurts) offers a way to have constructive discussions with people of widely differing views, appreciating what each has to offer our common understanding.
The competition to have the right idea is a construct of linear verbal thinking. Visual thinking can be cooperative because its hallmark is perspective. Building perspective is a goal that increases wisdom. In a wonderful talk by Dave McCandless on “The Beauty of Data Visualization” ( he points out how well designed charts of information can reveal importance and meaning far better and quicker than other methods of presentation. It’s an idea that’s time has come. The word “infographics” is starting to pop up in general conversation. We’re grateful when someone combs through mountains of data and designs it in an understandable form on a single page like McCandless did with health supplements. Amounts can be shown as size and instantly compared. Understanding is led by our sense of proportion, similarity and difference. Huge advances in the understanding of world problems could begin with visualizations of information about the most complex issues. Our visual skills are there to be tapped. Multiple maps within our brains record our personal history so we instinctively understand the one-to-one correspondence in terms of location. We can be shown what something means and point others’ attention to what we think needs it. We’re on the threshold of a visual revolution that will provide the necessary tools to navigate an increasingly complex world.
And in my personal world I’m looking forward to a new landscape of ideas created by the different views of a range of new students and what each has to offer our common understanding.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Suggesting Volumes


Anyone who doesn’t think of themselves as imaginative has only to look at the content of their minds when they worry. A big component of worrying is visualizing bad outcomes, from minor elements out of order to large-scale disaster. Worst-case scenarios are part of planning, whether intentional or of the self-doubt variety. On the positive end we daydream, and try out pleasant situations and invent new relationships. Clearly both are creativity at work. This capacity to project ourselves into the future and invent scenarios that develop the events that are currently unfolding is a triumph of evolution. A person who worries about the worst that can happen doesn’t think of it as creative, but the combination of future awareness and multiple possibilities is pure imagination. A certain amount of worry is an important aspect of planning. We need to visualize complex tasks and prepare for what’s needed. When we worry too much, we’re using our highest human powers to torment ourselves. I’ve read that excessive worrying is connected to superstition, reflecting an underlying belief that to think obsessively about a situation in advance can somehow deflect the adverse outcome. Though superstition is considered a thoughtform left behind in the course of mental evolution, its patterns persist under new names. We express our fears in mental images. My sister-in-law said she envisioned the worst so that whatever happened if it wasn’t the worst would seem good, and if it was then she’d be prepared. This is just one way we are always tempering, treating and modifying our emotions with images in our mind. Many modes of therapy have been developed that utilize this capacity, focusing on producing positive and healing images. What we see in our mind’s eye can have as powerful affect on the body as actual experience.
Imaging information aids intellectual understanding as well. I recently heard a woman on the radio who made her living fishing in the Gulf of Mexico call into a show about testing fish for oil contamination. She asked if they would publish where they’ve tested on maps, putting it “in layman’s terms”. Looking at a map one can see in an instant which areas have been declared safe. The endless stream of numbers that had been published so far did not make the overall situation clear. Since knowledge is mapped by location in our minds, seeing is understanding. I’ve heard visual thinking referred to as common sense. It’s the day-to-day life intermingling of the images in our head with the images in our surroundings. Plotting a new route to work when the regular road is blocked, sensing when an argument between friends is about to get out of hand and shifting their attention to other things. We can retrace our steps to find something we’ve lost because we have the space of our lives envisioned within us. Our ability to hold many relationships in our mind at once depends on locating them together in images.
We aren’t able to evolve this powerful capacity because, not happening in words, it goes unnoticed. A student said to me with assurance, “All conscious thought is in words.” But these mental images are conscious and affecting. We understand the meaning a situation has for us through the images we produce in relation to it.
The dominance of verbal language is diminishing as our connection to the cyber realm of information becomes more visual. Linear menus shift to sitemaps because a sitemap shows the relationship between the options – and seeing is faster than linear processing. Looking at art should be part of visual literacy. Since so much of the instant assessment we make with our eyes has to do with the feeling of things – what’s harmonic or off-kilter- attention to art will sensitize us to deeper levels and larger archetypes than we get from commercial media. Every one of us has a powerful imagination we’re using all the time. Cultivating it is a crucial part of developing minds that can cope with the future.