Thursday, February 22, 2018
It may have been the taste of cake and tea that prompted Proust’s stream of memories, but for me the trigger is more often an action. I was shaping an old flat sable brush with a sharp knife, and a cloud of memories unfurled from deep in my past. As I pressed the flat side to my worktable and scraped the side, I was back in a friend’s dining room and an intense bearded man was demonstrating how to renew the brush there at the table after dinner. Then the image shifted to the friend who had the dinner party, who was himself the hub of a wheel of memories associated with Maryland Institute, as we called it then.
It was this very specific action that spurred my memory to an extensive network of associations. I often think of the body like a pliable tuning fork that depending on the position resonates with and evokes imagery of the past that is associated with being in that position. Studies have confirmed how hormones are affected by body position and then change our mood. As bodies in motion it makes sense that our habitual ways of moving would reinforce certain attitudes in our minds. And before the studies of hormones and neurotransmitters, there were psychological treatments based on the idea, change the body to change the mind. One of these is the Alexander Technique, which addresses the amount of tension that accumulates in the body over time. The body contracts with anxiety and confusion. The treatment offers corrective motions to help pull the body out of its habitual positions and release that accumulation of tension that drains energy. Moshe Feldenkrais was a judo master who had a similar idea. He thought people were frustrated and unhappy because they’d never learned to use their bodies properly, thought too much energy was lost to wasted movement. His books and methods educate people on how to recognize self-defeating body positions and provide exercises that demonstrate better ones.
New research has shown how exercise is good for the mind as well as the emotions. Chemically there’s the increase in dopamine and BDNF that’s been shown to promote growth of new neurons. In addition, our conceptual structure is built on the foundation of embodiment, the body’s experience of the world. Most of our conceptual understanding and scientific reasoning depends on physical experience of weight, balance and movement. Hundreds of years ago Leonardo da Vinci emphasized that exercise was not just important to health and vitality but to the improvement of mental functioning. Continuing to extend bodily experience is especially important in a time when so much daily activity is done sitting in one place.
The signals of core wisdom begin in the body. How the body adjusts to the spaces around it is basis for understanding visual art. Art develops core wisdom by distilling the experience of the body and strengthening the communicative power of visual language. The adjustment of the body is registered consciously as feeling, which is response to what we assume the circumstance will need from us. Our built-in response to visual form reflects the meaning we attach to that adjustment, the overall assessment of the physical or psychological environment. Looking at art can strengthen understanding of the body’s adjustment to visual form. Using the body strengthens the conceptual foundation itself. Development of our mental and psychological health requires physical participation.
Thursday, January 11, 2018
Recently a friend and past student sent me a drawing that amazed her, and reminded me of how seeing something astonishing, made with skillful illusionistic trickery, has been a source of entertainment throughout history. Several things converge at this particular enjoyment. Neuroscientists Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde wrote a book with Sandra Blakeslee on magic and the brain that includes a section on Trompe l’oeil, art that fools the eye. Like in performance magic, the unexpected and seemingly impossible induces a childlike delight and the desire to share the experience with others.
Basically, when you fool people about reality you get their attention. While everything meets our expectations, we stay inside our heads, but when it deviates from what we expect, it demands notice. The level of focus and concentration is facilitated by the increased dopamine that comes with surprise. The brain encourages attention. The pleasure at being fooled in a non-threatening way is why illusionism has maintained a level of popularity since ancient times when there were actually artists’ competitions to see who could do the most realistic work. Not so unlike sports, mastery is appreciated.
The skill necessary to create illusions is another part of the attraction. Denis Dutton emphasized the innate response to virtuosity. We are attracted to the beauty of something well done. I’ve read that the brain made a big jump in size when we started using tools, and again when we started polishing them. The brain encourages what improves it. The admiration of skill is a feel-good emotion meant to stimulate our own wish to excel.
Fooling the eye is not about personal taste, the physical body reacts to what it deems real, so when I go to sweep the paper off the top of my drawing and discover I’ve drawn it, I can’t help but laugh at fooling myself. Ira Glass, talking about practicing a magic trick, said you’ve got the trick when you fool yourself.
Response to illusion is often laughter. And laughter is demonstrated to be good for us. Studies at the University of Maryland say it’s good for blood vessels and boosts certain antibodies that build the immune system. In an article at the Mayo Clinic website they emphasized the stimulation of organs, intake of oxygen and release of endorphins.
Laughter is known to build flexibility in thinking, loosening the mind by defying expectations. To release the clutch of a particular way of seeing is to open the edges of the mind and let in more perspective. Illusion is a playful reminder of the limits of our perceptions and the wisdom of uncertainty. Understanding that you are often wrong pushes perception deeper and extends self-awareness.
Today’s entertainment extends the possibilities for illusion as 3D movies and virtual reality grow in popularity. The power of computer graphics to envision whatever can be imagined as a whole world may open the mind to new ways of thinking. It’s entertainment that stimulates the mind and opens the possibility of evolving our thinking in a visual spatial way.
Thursday, December 21, 2017
When my friend Jordan sent me this picture, it was a gift of imagery that now lives in my head, laced with interconnections from “Angry Kitten” and the tilt of a certain mood I was feeling at the time.
I appreciated the resonance that connected me and the stone, easily as memorable as a physical gift.
I like sending favorite pictures I’ve discovered, on-line or in magazines, as birthday greetings. Recently I was particularly gratified when my 3-year-old grand-niece Rhian wanted this picture I’d sent of a David Czerny sculpture printed out for her room. It feels good to hit an image that resonates and I feel like I know her better.
From a chuckle or a smile to a nod of understanding, the range of connections offered to another in the form of pictures is endless. It signifies appreciation, one specific individual to another. To hunt through the world of art and nature for the right picture to send someone stretches out to another’s uniqueness, not cluttering the world with more objects while still offering the thought that went into the choosing. Not limited to the world of manufactured things and their sameness a picture can be more complex in its ability to trigger thoughts and ideas that arise from the feeling of the picture. This is the one I send the most because I can’t look at it without smiling, feeling their pleasure.
In a culture that sends so many pictures this could be an antidote to the narcissism spawned by having the self as most easily available subject. To actively look and choose is revelatory in a variety of ways. I’m always on the lookout for images that make me smile and keep them in a folder of favorites to draw on when the occasion turns up. The surprises of illusionistic humor abound in public art so I have a treasure of murals and sculpture that have been documented. The unexpected stimulates dopamine and pulls attention away from the self. I also save pictures that touch me in some way, particularly if they pull me across species boundaries.
It’s never been easier to send pictures and there are sources of amazement and wonder at sites like thisiscolossal.com or any image search on a subject that inspires curiosity. Choosing pictures for your personal library shows you more about who you are inside as you follow your preferences deeper and see what they bring to mind. It’s way to develop visual sensitivity letting the sense of beauty provide guidance.
Finding pictures that show more of what matters is pleasurable enrichment. The more you look, the more you are able to see.