The idea that art makes you smarter is not new. Winston Churchill wrote an essay about painting that inspired George W. Bush to take it up. In his essay Churchill notes that besides being enjoyable, art develops the “highest properties of mind”. Our sense of proportion and balance underlies reasoning in many areas. His primary subject matter, landscape, is probably best allied with structures of reasoning since it begins with finding a correspondence between the scene and the inner feelings seeking expression. This reinforces the relationship between emotion and visual structure, image and psyche. A panorama of choices surrounds every point in a location and that first choice is the initial creative act of the painting. Choosing what view to paint clarifies what’s important to the individual perceiver. It reinforces visual wisdom and the brain areas that inform it.
We understand meaning in the space around us from our earliest experience of moving in our surroundings. The distance between here and there is a primary visual concept that starts with crawling across the floor, feeling gravity when we fall and all of the early experiences of moving in space that later provide the foundation for mature reasoning. As adults we might describe differences in points-of-view in terms of the distance between them. Seeing something as inside or outside is the structure for our sense of categories. A painting of a landscape is the experience of a point-of-view that contains a feeling about what’s being seen. It includes the sense of here and there, the press of congestion or expanse of space. The feeling represents the meaning of the whole and guides conscious nonverbal observations. Developing receptive attention to scenes and situations as wholes strengthens understanding of the big picture and how the structure of one situation relates to the structure of another. The larger the frame, the more comprehensive the understanding.
The findings of modern neuroscience show that the parts of the brain we use the most grow the biggest. It’s the essence of building skills and knowledge. Looking at art educates the part of the mind attuned to the gestalt, building sensitivity to expressive structure. The relationship of feeling to thinking is now better understood; the feeling of the whole directing the analytical rational thought. Insight is led by structure.
Today taking pictures is not just keeping a record, it’s a means of communication. Being more mindful of the act would weave an artistic attitude through day-to-day life. It could start with zooming in. A recent study reported on NPR showed that most picture taking interfered with how much about a subject was taken in and remembered. But it had one qualifying circumstance. When the subjects were asked to zoom in as they took the picture they remembered more. Zooming in requires looking longer and making a choice about what is most important. This is the first step in artful attention. Once something is singled out as significant then expression moves beyond the general. Something of particular interest has been uncovered which often stimulates more interest. Curiosity leads to purposeful attention, to investigating a particular aspect of the world of information. Discovering an area of fascination opens the realm of peak experience whenever it’s wanted, an individual portal to the larger world. Cultivating visual attunement is one way to think like an artist.