Thursday, February 28, 2013

Looking At Art To Learn About Yourself

“Seeing is the essence of consciousness.” Roger Penrose

Every visual choice is a self-expressive action. Walk into a room and five different people might notice five different things. Perception is always searching for what we need to see. Just like we pick different things from a menu, vision is always scanning and selecting, looking for what it wants, avoiding what it doesn’t. Perception is never passive. It’s always on the hunt for what will satisfy our various needs from the level of organism to the level of thoughts and feelings. And since each brain is constructed by individual experience, the brain is our first creation.

One of the most surprising new discoveries in neuroscience is the way we sort memories.  The assumption that everything can be broken into categories results from the dominance of the brain’s left hemisphere, where words, symbols and classification are the primary tools for understanding. This creates the impression that everything can be labeled and that what something means depends on the definition of the label.  The right hemisphere responds to the gestalt, the entire scene, and represents its significance through feeling. As an instant assessment of overall meaning, the inner adjustment of our response reflects how it feels to be where we are, part of a pattern in a particular type of situation.  So it makes sense that rather than sort memories by category as previously believed, our memories are sorted by what scientists call “mood congruity”. Scenarios and events with the same felt qualities will be called to mind to clarify the meaning of the event. The feeling is indicative of our relationship to that pattern. Memories that match the mood of a circumstance will rise to support the feeling state and underscore its meaning. A work of art is an armature upon which one’s own similarly felt experiences attach. This is why art can be such a great tool for self-awareness. By paying attention to the thoughts that follow a strong reaction to a work whether positive or negative, we can reflect on the underlying feelings and learn about emotional themes in our own psyche. Since feeling is an instant judgment of importance and an urge to act, these correspondences reinforce our sense of the significance of the situation, a quality that grows from our sense of balance and proportion.

Finding the art that moves you offers rich new territory for introspection. Art has always been about feeling. Though there may have been other things at work it’s the feeling that connects. Recognition gives a sense of understanding. A wonderful passage in the “I Ching” says, “Music has the power to ease tension within the heart and to loosen the grip of the obscure emotions.“ Likewise, visual art helps us identify and recognize complex emotional truth.

Since recent brain science has shown that feelings lead thinking, we needs tools to help recognize them. Time spent looking through an art book, in galleries or museums offer opportunities to experience responses that point to personal themes that open the way for greater self-awareness and strengthen the guidance provided by the aesthetic sense.

(This Saturday I’m giving a miniclass on this topic at a SkillShare for Baltimore Mesh.

No comments: