Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Originating


Hybrid Culture


For Christmas my very thoughtful brother gave me a framed photograph of one of my missionary great-grandfathers at the Hiroshima Methodist mission. Both sets of my father’s grandparents as well as his own parents were missionaries in the Far East. For me that meant my grandparents’ house was full of beautiful Japanese art, so my love and affinity for that way of seeing began before I could talk. So it’s probably not surprising that I seized on Taoism the minute I discovered it through the Tao Te Ching. And I’ve continued consulting the I Ching once a week for the last thirty-some years. The emphasis on the meaning of situations not concepts accorded well with the ideas of American pragmatist philosopher, John Dewey, who I was discovering around the same time.

 There’s something about the perspective that I present in this blog that seems to appeal to what I think of as the land-in-between. With a readership of over 60 countries, I find it interesting that a disproportionate number are from the bands of countries between what history has treated as the major cultures. With people coming together from both sides the idea of hybrid vigor occurs on a cultural level. Here’s where people realize first hand how enriching it is to have different ways of seeing available. Creativity is stimulated by the meaningful web of new ideas that can be integrated with a previous perspective. The fusion stimulates growth at a new level. It’s the job of artists to then communicate the broader way of seeing. The larger perspective is fertile ground for new ideas. I had never seen a building projection before when a past student sent me this link to the “Ukrainian Spectacle”. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3KrFanNOmwM

All the imagination in the illusions of part of the building warping or disappearing or crumbling was truly spectacular, but the thing I wasn’t expecting was the helium like feeling in my heart as people cheered spontaneously for certain illusions and the excitement that the pieces created that grew throughout the show. Illusionism has always had the power to capture the popular imagination with the impossible and unexpected.
The illusionistic spell is partly due to how much more visual processing is going on than with the same imagery more simply represented or symbolized. It felt like grand opera and it happened in five minutes. The success of the medium can be seen in building projections since then created by advertising, spending more money but lacking the heart of the one posted in 2010.

 I’ve begun to feel a connection in my heart with people from Ukraine, Latvia, Romania and Bangladesh and the entire Far East as well as many other small countries because though the major powers read in larger numbers, it’s not that much in proportion to the size of the country. Being the product of hybrid culture myself, the essence of my point-of-view is that meaning is most clearly seen in relationship to a particular situation, that what is new and different invigorates. The inclusion of everything that is part of the picture is essential to act in harmony with it. The students from so many different places that come to MICA reinforce my feeling of global citizenship. Each offers expanded perspective and alternative ways of seeing. Preserving and celebrating difference is especially important today as the homogenizing commercial values colonize and suppress traditions with fast food and mindless consumption. Art is the antidote and artists across the world express the cultural hybrid vigor that can transform the way we see.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Two Worlds


Correlating Structures

In Mark Johnson’s book “The Meaning of the Body” he described studies investigating how babies develop meanings from the beginning of lifebased on their physical relationship to the world. When a baby sucks on a nubbed pacifier it can then visually distinguish the nubbed onefrom the smooth. It’s a corresponding pattern of feeling recognizedand extracted from the continuous flood of sensory experience. These patterns are created by interacting with the world, led by the priorities of perception as it explores the surroundings. Tongue, lips and gums feel the variation on the surface of the nubbed pacifier. Passing through limbic structures like the thalamus where senses are combined, the similar mapping with other senses allows the nubbed pacifier to be distinguished from the smooth. The flow of life has rhythms that are first felt and recognized. That this is thefoundation of meaning shows when we use an expression like ‘getting the sense of’ something to refer to its overall meaning. Though the
pattern or structure may turn up in different modalities, the patternstays constant so is instantly translated from one sense to another. Subtle discriminations amidst the ebb and flow of sensory experience
are correlated with other kinds of rhythms and structures that are understood by the feeling they give us.

The unknown world resonates with structures that provide a starting point for understanding, a behavioral stance reflecting our previousphysical relationship with that pattern. In the spectrum of nuanced qualities and characteristics that sensory experience can have, the pinnacle, according to Johnson (and many others who are focused on the science) is the arts, where the essential constant is distilled. The rising excitement in a passage by Beethoven is understood through that feeling of rising excitement. Beethoven’s skill and sensitivity create a highly refined experience so those patterns are emphasized. In the act of listening our own powers of discernment are developed. Human sensory understanding is highly sophisticated and neuroscience is showing that it directs conscious awareness. As Alfred Adler advised at the beginning of the twentieth century, the best education from the
beginning of life is to be surrounded by beautiful things. This develops the guidance provided by our sense of beauty at a deep level and brings out the best in us.

 Twins might have a head start in their knowledge about being because there’s so much more to explore in the womb. Seeds for the process of mirroring by which we understand others would already be sown.  It could well be developing an increase in self- awareness in addition tothe ability to read others’ feelings.

Dedicated to Juliana and Nathan Moyer, born December 11, 2013.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Preview


This is a detail of an eighteen inch figure I've been working on since August.

The Visual Idea


When I talk about art as idea what I’m thinking about is different than verbal idea. Just like the beauty and order of the universe, it can be apprehended without breaking it down into parts. Different people connect to different qualities. The visual idea is the seed from which many ideas can unfold. Revealing particular relationships, it stimulates new ideas, allows loose fragments of thought to organize from that example. The feelings we get from the form in the spectrum between being drawn to or repelled by it signify the kind of relationship we have with it, the inner dynamic it expresses. What you can say about it has many levels. Art is more about the question, the exploration of implications. A visual idea is open-ended, stirs what connects to the structure emphasizing what matters about it.

The bigger role for art in the future has to do with its attention to essences. This is the overlap with the brain sciences. Neurobiologist Semir Zeki writes of how the focus on constants in art helps scientists distinguish the priorities in different regions of the brain’s processing. The focus of a particular artist can stimulate regions of brain cells specialized to particular forms. The goals of the artist aren’t stated in those terms but what they are exploring is what is most important to them in the organization of form, the conscious perception of which is paralleled by the visual brain.

In David Foster Wallace’s first book, “The Broom of the System”, one of the underlying messages was to look for meaning in how something functions. Definitions and ideas can actually confuse and mislead us since words mean different things to different people and context affects relationships. The phrase, “broom of the system” might seem like nonsense at first, but everyone knows what a broom does, so sweeping out the system would suggest clearing away the dust and garbage. The image initiates the idea. Seeing what something does is a clear fact influencing other facts. Actions and results demonstrate meaning in the moment. Reality is not meaningless. Traditional modes for finding meaning have become outdated. We have to let go of the need to pin it down. Meaning points forward.

The meaning we see increases the scope of our understanding. Looking at the whole is the only way to see significant relationships and not definitions of things. Biases related to inner categories skew thinking toward maintaining them. With self-awareness we can see what’s being protected and how that blocks a clearer picture of what’s happening at a particular time. The more we include in our picture the better our understanding will be. Intelligence grows as perspective increases and art increases the range and sensitivity of our perspective.



Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Coping Strategy


Art and Evolution

A recent TV news report celebrated a museum in Arkansas that brought
in underprivileged children to see the collection and talk about it.
The report ended with the comment that their test scores improved in
other subjects after that. Such a small exposure, such a big result.
This is the real news story. Art’s benefit to intelligence is showing
on many fronts. Many of our most evolved brain regions are stimulated
by art. Active areas get more fuel and grow larger and stronger.
Housen and Yenawine’s “Visual Teaching Strategy” has been succeeding
for years, showing that discussion of art improves all academic
performance. One of their techniques to begin a discussion about a
painting is asking kids, “What’s going on here?” This lets their
imagination and creative thinking loose without any fear of right or
wrong. They can generate new ideas and invent stories stimulated by
the mood and structure of the work. Art strikes deep chords of
feeling. The work of neurologist Antonio Damasio has shown that
feeling precedes and directs thinking. What we experience as a feeling
is the result of the bodily adjustments as the image is processed. Art
has always shown what it feels like to be human at a particular time.
The feeling stirs thinking and practice in thinking is more important
than any particular knowledge they might learn. The children are
exposed to how others use language and discover how much is within the
deepened attention to a subject. Art stimulates the mind to create new
meanings. The urge to look deeper is reinforced by reward chemicals so
carries over into all other subjects.

With the twentieth century approach to knowledge being overcome by the
volume of information solutions that look at the whole are essential.
When knowing something better meant closer examination of parts,
localized solutions were the norm, often creating negative side
effects. Looking at over arching patterns and relationships is the
emerging approach. When the existing organization is overloaded it
needs to be reorganized to handle the increased complexity. The new
supporting system starts with the belief system as image, a way of
seeing the world that organizes the rest of thinking. Looking at the
whole includes us all within it. A me first attitude is discordant and
eventually should evolve out as the intellectual scope of more
intelligent generations ascends. The truth is in how things function
together. Having one point of view running the show, based on power
instead of what fits circumstance seems hopelessly archaic in an
interconnected universe where influence grows from what matters to
people, not what has been anointed by empire.

The role of art in the mind’s evolution is multilayered. Just looking
at it stimulates the parts of the brain that make us more sensitive to
what is significant in the whole, attuned to proportions and to what
will balance the system. Talking about art develops creative thinking
and the core of ideas, allows for the freedom to theorize and invent.
Understanding of essential ordering structures boosts intuition and
big picture awareness of the interacting systems.   And today’s
artists can search out constants that help us see what is most
essential in today’s reality and what we haven’t yet envisioned.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Controlling Flaps



In response to a request from my friend Phyllis Plattner, I'm going to start describing my technique and materials. This image started as a watercolor. Duralar was then sewed to the watercolor and the drawing was finished in graphite.

Evolving Minds

Looking at the persistence of illusionistic art throughout history,
regardless of what was fashionable, suggests it had a useful
evolutionary purpose, that it strengthened powers good for survival.
Reward chemicals come into play, a sure sign of evolution’s
encouragement. From elaborate murals in mansions to street art,
illusionistic graffiti and the Chalk Guy (Julian Beever) people like
to wonder at what catches them by surprise. There’s something
satisfying about being fooled. Even when we’re mildly chagrined or
embarrassed about being wrong, evolution adds a dose of pleasure with
discovery of something new. Our interest quickens. Our prefrontal
cortex comes to life. How else could we learn a better theory or new
way to a better result? We count on our inner idea of reality, might
never let go of a theory that worked for us, were it not for the
intrigue and the neurochemicals urging us to investigate. One of the
best feelings we have available is the “Eureka” sense of the new
theory falling into place.

The power of drawing and painting to create a perceptual reality that
contradicts what’s expected somehow feels more true to life, opens
settled terrain up for questioning. We’re always making up theories
based on available information then revising them as new facts arrive.
Protecting a particular mindset keeps new information out. One of the
things that has been pointed out  by people like philosopher Jack
Flynn is that, not only is the information we deal with daily more
extensive than ever before, each generation gets smarter, is capable
of more sophisticated mental reasoning that shows on IQ tests. In his
Ted talk, Flynn points out that not so long ago people couldn’t think
with hypotheticals. If something did not occur, it made no sense to
imagine that it did. This made it hard to see life from another
person’s perspective, to imagine being in another’s place. So moral
responsibility evolves as well. Life includes multiple perspectives
and changing conditions. Like the cubism of Picasso that felt true
because it was not limited by one perspective, looking at art can
extend the scope of perception on many fronts. The contradictions of
M.C. Escher feel like an intellectual truth. An impossible space stirs
the right frontal cortex, stimulating pleasure chemicals designed to
make us investigate, look closer. The brain rewards our recognition of
mistakes. Illusionistic art creates the conditions for both the
mistake and the realization of the mistake.

Researchers have suggested the pleasure we feel at trompe l’oeil
painting and visual illusion is a phenomenon of  humor. Humor, like
magic, is about defying expectations. Often the method of humor
involves a shift of contexts. We start out thinking we’re talking
about one thing that then flips into something else.  It involves
regions primarily in the right frontal lobes that manifest uniquely
human qualities, particularly the ability to step back from our
prevailing mindset. Humor is said to build flexibility in thinking.
The similarity in sense of humor is most often cited as key to
successful relationships.

Though the increase in intelligence may be natural to each generation
growing up within such complexity, developing the right hemisphere’s
capacity for insight is available to all of us. Seeking out what is
funny and what we love best in art is a joyful route to building
visual intelligence and big picture thinking.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Beyond Critique- The Book


http://store.mica.edu/MerchList.aspx?txtSearch=Beyond+Critique&searchtype=Description&drpsearch2=Description&searchin=All+Merchandise
The image is a detail of a painting by Chrissy Howland. The book was designed by Skye McNeill and includes essays by MICA faculty Nancy Roeder, Ken Krafchek, John Peacock, Dan Dudrow, Margee Morrison, Whitney Sherman, Fletcher Mackey, Jane Elkinton, Dennis Farber, Joe Basile, Maren Hassinger, Mina Cheon and myself.

Beyond Critique


When I started teaching and faced the prospect of having a class discuss their work I wanted to find a way to offer something concrete while not imposing my aesthetic on them. Long an admirer of tennis I used a tennis coach as my model. Vic Braden said that the secret to coaching stars like Tracy Austin was to give them lots of encouragement, and “knowledge of the physical processes involved”. For athletes this means learning the anatomy and mechanics of their movements. For artists, it can mean learning the science of perception to apply to their work. This is something artists have always done, using whatever was discovered about vision to heighten their effectiveness. Instead of prescribing certain standards of what art is the focus shifts to what the individual artist is expressing. To be an athlete requires training, and the amount of training and practice, maximizing individual strengths, figures into how well the athlete does. Commitment and growth are what needs to be fostered for excellence. A coach can reflect back what the player is doing, making them more aware of their movements. When a group talks about the various ways that a work of art affects them without making judgments, it aids the artist’s awareness of the effects of their decisions, the expressive implications of their choices.

The research done by the gestalt psychologists of the forties and fifties studied how the mind organized visual sensation into the stable world we see. Rudolf Arnheim applied what they learned to composition in art and in parallel with philosopher Susanne Langer began to explain what was going on in visual expression, and how art sensitized perception of feeling. Gestalt refers to the sense of the whole, the mode of processing characteristic of the right hemisphere. The researchers used to term “isomorphism” (same shape) for that similarity of structure between brain states and what stimulated them, that the form made in the brain is the same as the form that triggered it. If you look up the word in wikipedia, the first five of the ten definitions have to do with math, then come the biological sociological and cybernetic uses of the word. What artists see as proportions, mathematicians see as ratios. As far as the brain’s concerned, it’s all about the relationship between shapes and how multiple shapes map. Structure creates response. This is why science is discovering the importance of art. Numerous studies are emerging that examine these correlations of form and response. Neurobiologist Semir Zeki sees art as illuminating essential abstractions in the brain. Looking at art triggers a pattern of inner structures that represent the personal experience of that pattern. This underlies what psychologists call “mood congruity”. The brain calls to mind memories that have the same mood as the painting, thus developing its meaning for the viewer.

Discussion serves as a launching point for creative thinking. The artist learns the expressive implications of their choices. The responder learns about their own psychology by how the formal structures trigger bits of their own story. It’s an opportunity to generate new ideas and use the prefrontal cortex, one area of the brain far more developed in humans than other primates. Our brain evolved by rewarding what was good for survival and growth. Humans are meant to use their creative and imaginative powers. At its best, critique is an improvisational collaboration between all involved. Over and over I see students come to class tired or stressed and leave energized and exhilarated. I can’t remember where I first heard the maxim, “Communication is healing” but it’s a phrase that’s popped to mind many times. Talking about art may well be the best way to make use of what brain science is showing us.

(This is an abridged version of my remarks on critique at the NASAD conference in St. Louis and relate to my essay in the upcoming book “Beyond Critique”)

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Entry

 
 
The 3D figure was attached to the thrown bowl before it was fired. It was partially glazed leaving room for the illusionistic painting which began as watercolor. It was then sealed and finished in oils.

Land of the Prefrontal Cortex

The world of information we spend so much time in is not just a
frontier in itself but is creating a new frontier inside our brains.
The pre-frontal cortex is the location in the brain most active when
we’re planning, imagining, analyzing, all the things that are
particularly human. It’s the place we generate ideas, where curiosity
blooms, where we’re using the most evolved part of the brain and
enjoying every minute of it. Peak experiences are always connected to
stretching ourselves, being fully involved in a challenge. And by
using this part of the brain we’re increasing its area. The brain
changes in accordance with how we use it, giving more fuel to the
parts we use the most and less where we don’t. This means as we use
these capacities they develop. New circuits grow; new patterns of
association are created and reinforced.

We enjoy it because the brain is designed to reward good survival
behavior. Developing the skills in the newest part of the brain is
strengthening what builds our efficacy in the world. So many inputs
from the prefrontal cortex go to the primary reward center it would
suggest that this is how we’re meant to grow. Use of investigation,
imagination and self-expression stimulates the nucleus accumbens,
initiating dopamine mechanisms that increase attention and focus. This
is demonstrated by studies of happiness that found the most important
factor was being involved in some sort of self-improvement. It’s why
videogames are so pleasurable. So are learning, building skills,
creating and wondering. For the most part, time on the Internet is
time using and building the prefrontal cortex. Like most other parts
of the brain there’s a left and right. Language and symbolization, the
way we break things down, analyze, sort and examine parts are methods
of the left. It’s the right prefrontal cortex that is a new frontier
to be developed by more and more visual orientation to the
relationship between things and not the tiny parts. Sensitivity to
patterns and overviews are the necessary evolutionary step to develop
harmony in the world. We can only grow wisely by having perspective on
the big picture.

It may be that with so much time in the Land of the Prefrontal Cortex,
people have naturally gravitated to exercise, yoga, tai’chi and sports
to balance the mental life by taking care of the body that supports
it. It might be why I need to work with physical matter now, to make
things out of clay that use more of me than my brain and my hand. It
still feels strange to be to working with a physical object instead of
looking through the portal of a drawing into another world of mind.
Throwing bowls on the wheel permits no other world. Attention must be
centered. In a world of distractions this may be what attracts me
most.

Interacting with our technology is getting more visual all the time.
Our brains are evolving to match our tools. But cultivating
mindfulness is important to being more conscious of what’s directing
our attention

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Matter


The ocean is never the same. Raging and crashing one day, smooth and lapping the next, it’s seductive in its hypnotic motion. So to what degree should the material of the ocean be thought of as defining the ocean? When we say a feeling is oceanic we’re not talking about water. Charting the behavior of matter is such a small part of what we experience as the ocean. All of the senses are involved; the scent changes with the direction of the wind, toes wriggle in the sand as more sand swishes up around your ankles with every wave. Meaning shoots out in every direction. Every sense has the capacity to stimulate memories, reinforce the feeling of being using the other times that conspire in the moment. And there’s so much our senses don’t take in. We can’t see the radiation or hear the communication of whales. Much is outside our spectrum of sensitivity.

Einstein said matter is condensed energy. Where we are is the place where the field of mind has condensed into physicality, and on this plane reality is described as the interactions of matter. We as physical beings interact with other aspects of matter but we should remember how much in the way of energy fields and unfolding patterns is not in our awareness, yet like gravity may be influencing us profoundly.

In art, though films may come the closest to creating more multidimensional experience they still require time. Music evokes the emotional world with enormous range and power, but also requires time. Images have the capacity to fill attention with the relationships that show meaning in a moment of insight. With more and more claims on time, the immediacy of art is there to clarify relationships and change the way we see things. Like icons of ancient times, they offer a window to something bigger and more encompassing, a moment of recognition. When the image is contained in an object, the meaning is layered over what already adheres to that object. Whatever the form of art, it is never the object, image, artifact or story as much as the “Aha moment” illuminating universal human consciousness that matters. The choices made when looking at art reinforce and develop that connection and reflect qualities about who we are that can’t be expressed in material terms.

Maybe our attraction to material things is because they represent what material existence is. The extraordinary variety, beauty, order and uncertainty are the gifts of physical creation. We participate in creation with what we do and what we cultivate in ourselves. The self we express throughout life is in the choices we make about things that matter.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Definition


Finding Direction


Wherever there’s a well-worn path, there are the two lines made by the outer edges, lines that seem to converge as the path stretches away into the distance. This creates a wedge shape, like an arrow pointing in the direction we’re going. Since it’s “well-worn” the path implies regularity, the routine of living and the comings and goings of one or more people. Once there’s a path, others will use it. The more people using the path the wider it gets, evolving into today’s multilane highways. The more lines in the wedge the stronger the directional force as many wedges push our attention the same way. There’s a visual urgency when so many lines come together in one place and the speed of the perceived motion strengthens. You could say that the increasing pace of the times shows in the proliferation of parallel lines. Multistory buildings repeat the same lines with every story. The growth of cities is marked by more multistory buildings, rising higher and higher which creates another vector of directional power pulling the gaze skyward. As the number of lines increases so does the directional force. Maybe one of the reasons we seek out nature when we go on vacation is to be free of the relentless force of a world with so many lines pushing our attention around.

Any wedge shapes points. The life force of the species shows in this visual representation of direction. One visual signal of civilization would surely be lines. They signify the presence of intelligence. When people look at the photographs of the moon and the place where it looks like a pyramid, it’s the straight lines meeting in a wedge that demand explanation. This is why many use this as proof of a prior civilization.

When we use metaphors of direction it often refers to values and goals, like when a friend is going the same way in life or another takes a different path.  Life choices are tied to the direction we feel we’re going and are often referred to as the various turns and routes taken. Comparative mythology scholar Joseph Campbell called the archetype of “the path” as life journey the oldest of all the central images found across cultures. It reflected the idea of the inner life visible in the outer movements. When we speak of direction metaphorically we’re referring to ambitions. “Having a direction” refers to the idea of a purpose, or as the “I Ching” puts it, “having someplace to go.”. Lines are a sign of purpose. Being “aimless” means wandering without meaning. Where there is motivation the various elements in a situation become organized by the direction it’s headed. The need for a goal, even if a small one, is something for life’s energy to organize around. Inspiration is often a matter of being spurred to personal goals by the example of another that carries us in the same direction. In visual imagery when all lines converge in the same place there’s a sense of momentum coming from within, concentration on a single point. The whole picture plane is aligned with the focus of the viewer. The first person quality creates a feeling of inner directedness. When there are contradictory wedges pointing different ways there’s a sense of being pulled in many directions by external forces.

Choosing a direction is about taking an interest. It doesn’t really matter what it is as long as it heads into new territory. The horizon is always out of reach so the challenges and lessons are endless. Creating art can be like John Cheever’s description of writing as like driving in the night only seeing as far as the headlights reach. But that’s enough.



Sunday, August 11, 2013

Unexpected



This was a total surprise. My experiments with clay are leading me in an unknown direction.

Touch

Throwing pots on a wheel is a craft of touch. Learning it is an
exercise in beginner’s mind. No knowledge, no skills and no
sensitivity to the medium. Watching a woman who had been doing it many
years, barely touching the edges as she narrowed the top on a delicate
vase got me to thinking about the different levels of knowing that
came with different pressure of the hands and fingers. If you look at
a map of how much of the sensory cortex is devoted to what parts of
the body, the fingers and thumb have disproportionately large shares.
As my teacher Bianka said, I’m still “lunging at the clay”. Developing
touch that learns and responds more carefully requires practice. Every
new skill could be thought of as developing a touch for a particular
thing. And everything we get in touch with adds a type of awareness
that has practical applications that also extend the metaphors
available in verbal expression.

Images for touch in art suggest the depth of its importance for human
well-being. The most famous touch is probably the Sistine Chapel image
of Adam being given life when touched by God. It’s a common metaphor
for sharing a transformative energy. The image of touch as a healing
influence is widespread, whether in religions, energy healers or
simply one individual touching another. As I watch people in my
neighborhood carting newborns around in baby carriers I remember the
pediatrician that lived upstairs who carried her baby in her arms or
on her hip all the time when the baby was tiny. She clearly was aware
of all the research on the importance of physical closeness, not just
for a baby’s sense of safety but because touch itself is so important.
Massaging babies improves their digestion and absorption of nutrients,
but the more significant finding about touch is its role in long-term
bonding. Touch stimulates production of oxytocin, a key ingredient in
bonding for all mammals. Many of us grew up in societal groups that
were not conditioned to touch and are thus uncomfortable with it.
Given the research on how it affects not just health, but
intelligence, it’s a difficulty we should learn to overcome.

The research on the advantages to gentle touching goes on and on. When
a drug research lab was feeding rabbits a high cholesterol diet so
cholesterol drugs could be tested, they couldn’t understand why the
cholesterol of the rabbits in the middle cages didn’t go up. They were
eating the exact same food as the others. A surveillance camera
provided the answer. The technician on night duty would take out the
rabbits in the middle cages and pet and play with them. Being touched
affected their cholesterol. The effects of stress on cholesterol were
shown in studies that measured higher cholesterol in accountants at
tax time and students at exam time.  Since cholesterol is a component
of neural function for the manufacture of new connections, working
through the stress to a successful conclusion may make proper use of
it, while not dealing with it may allow the cholesterol into the
bloodstream. Massage when under stress could reduce the negative
health effects via its beneficial effect on metabolism.

The fact that so many positive effects accompany touch underscores the
importance of human contact. We need to feel part of a larger whole.
It doesn’t have to be physical. We’ve all experienced being touched by
a gesture of kindness, a look of understanding, the attention of
another when we need it most. The concept of being touched, by a
painting or through empathy for another, conveys a feeling in our
depths stirred to activity by the connection.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Material Torus


Threshold for Insight

Recently while driving a familiar route in rural Delaware an
unexpected clump of bright colors caught my eye. I’d seen the same
warehouse, one side covered with its spaghetti of complicated and
incomprehensible silver pipes, many times before. Now all the pipes
had been painted in five different crayon box colors. And the order in
the chaos was made clear in a glance. The symmetry of their
arrangement had never been visible before. Their different roles were
now distinguished by color that showed how they supported the function
of the central pipes. The order was always there but needed more
visual information to actually show. I’m sure this is enormously
helpful in maintaining the building’s functioning and avoiding
mistakes. Making the role of the parts more conspicuous communicates
what is significant within the overall system. It focuses attention on
the role of each element in the general purpose, and simplifies what
would otherwise seem complicated. People in many different fields are
beginning to see the value of visuals that show more relationships in
the information given. A site called EnvisionFinancial.com looks at
corporate budgets in a novel way using 3d graphics that make the
meaning of the numbers clear. The implications of “thinning capital”
can be more vividly seen. As more people see the usefulness of more
comprehensive visual ordering of information, the next level of
visualization might, like the colored pipes, take the incomprehensible
to a threshold for insight.

Finding the next meaningful level of visual information can promote
insight for others. The explanatory power of visual organization can
simplify what might seem daunting to unravel without it. The design of
data depends on the needs of the system, the goals and processes
involved. It can focus attention on the complete path of an individual
circuit, or identify all the different type elements in a system at a
glance. The goal of the system, whether the organization of
departments in a workplace or arranging notes for a paper, provides
direction and guides how the work can be diagrammed. It’s an untapped
visual skill that could help us see where partial solutions are
actually creating problems, a skill for integrating multiple
variables. Many use bubble charts for brainstorming, connecting the
free flow of ideas. This might be enriched not just by color coding
but also distinguishing between foreground elements with more
immediate significance and secondary elements seen smaller in the
background. When I asked my students to diagram their personal solar
system with the self as the sun and other people as planets, the only
guidance I gave was to put people you see the most the closest and
show importance by increasing the size. Nobody had any trouble. They
knew immediately who was big and who was close and all the subtle
variations in between. And by putting it together in one image, it
showed them something about their social realm. As soon as you decide
how and what to visualize, the understanding of the visual hemisphere
comes pouring out.

Look up Dave McCandless and Edward Tufte for great examples of how
visuals can illuminate information. Think about what widening the
sphere of information might look like, or where bridges might be
constructed between different pockets of information. A whole
hemisphere of the brain is there to be developed.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Thinking on the Lawn


Happy Endings

It was another memorable Wimbledon with most of the big names going
down fast and the one everyone wanted to win triumphing. But let me
back up. This year’s Wimbledon was the happy ending to stories that
have been building over time. I’ve been watching Marion Bartoli for
years. Unusual in so many respects, from her father’s original
coaching techniques to the intensity and grace of her game, she has
always been someone I couldn’t help but root for in a sport where I
mostly want whoever deserves it to win. And in fact, she deserves it
over the long term. With Bartoli it’s been more like cheering for the
whole story, the victory after the determined development over many
years. Seeing her win Wimbledon this year made my heart sing. It felt
personal. It turns out she’s very smart and that probably had to do
with the concentration I’d admired in her play. She’s testimony to
what intelligence brings to a game like tennis, providing the ability
to understand and use the other players’ shots and expectations for
your own advantage. Martina Navratilova was a smart player,
demonstrated a level of knowing what’s happening on the court that
prevailed over bigger stronger opponents. She also was often quoted as
saying she got where she was because she worked the hardest. This
brings me back to Bartoli and her steady mastery of her craft. A
phrase I often use in class comes to mind, “visible commitment”. When
someone has honed their skills in sports or art, it shows in the
control and precision flexible enough to address the moment. As I’ve
said many times, tennis embodies visual intelligence. Players have
mapped the court in a brain that treats the racket as an extension of
the body. It’s a constantly changing field of thought requiring
astonishing athleticism. The level of physical endurance required in
an even match was powerfully felt in the four plus hours it took
Djokovich to beat Del Potro. It brought the image of gladiators to
mind, a fight to the death for the amusement of the powerful. The TV
camera takes you into the faces of the players at the tensest moments
of their careers, a rare and illuminating privilege.
Seeing unknown players have their bright moments against the stars was
a pleasure throughout the two weeks of the tournament, but the Big
Story was of Andy Murray’s long awaited approach to Wimbledon champion
which had its fairy tale ending when he won the men’s final, becoming
the first man from Britain in seventy some years to win. The unfolding
generations of the tennis story interweave. Murray reached this height
with the help of his new coach Ivan Lendl, a past champion. Bartoli
was inspired by another past champion, Monica Seles, whose own amazing
ascent was cut short when a fan of another player stabbed her during a
match. She survived but her career was never the same. So many stories
intertwine in tennis regularly, but this year, embodying generations,
was special.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Individuation


The Mindfulness Game

Since various nervous habits have been edging up throughout the school
year I vowed to play what I’ve come to think of as “The Mindfulness
Game” again this summer. As I wrote about in ”Making A Game of
Self-Improvement”
(http://seeingmeaning.blogspot.com/2011/06/making-game-of-self-improvement.html
), this had been the most effective technique I’d ever tried,
successfully eliminating them by the end of the summer. Just as Jane
McGonigal wrote in “Reality is Broken, How Games    “ playing my daily
life as a game made me pay closer attention to everything I did. When
I spilled some cranberry juice while pouring it in a glass, I lost
three points for a minor careless mistake. But it’s amusing to look at
it this way with pleasure we always get when we pay attention.
Conscious attention develops my prefrontal cortex and strengthens my
capacity to direct attention. The pleasure is the dopamine, the reward
demonstrating what evolution encourages. It’s a way of increasing
involvement in life, and as happiness experts say, involvement is
central to joy in being.
In my own game I’ve revised my point list, adjusting all the behaviors
I want to encourage and breaking them into more specific actions.
Every time I smile at someone I get a point. A friendly exchange with
someone in person is three. I lose a point for every instance of any
of my nervous behaviors. The same for each bit of excess. Anger,
irritation and impatience lose points according to how long and how
severe.

Mindfulness makes life exciting. Once you notice what you’re doing,
you direct attention and focus on actual experience. When you’re fully
in life, it’s natural to do everything the very best you can, to feel
the edges of capability being stretched. Whether it’s paying attention
to someone’s story in a waiting room, or pursuing personally chosen
work, full involvement gives back in new knowledge and good brain
chemistry. The brain grows with all lived experience. If we’re not
paying attention, it just slides by unnoticed. Most of the advice in
the I Ching revolves around cultivating character, that the quality of
a person grows from the parts that get attention. “The Mindfulness
Game” is a way to use the mindfulness natural to games to gain more
control over attention in daily life. Even better, it’s a way to
define what you care about, what you want to encourage and what should
be penalized. Making a point list is a revelation. When a friend
wondered why I didn’t give points for doing email, I didn’t realize at
the time that email itself was the arena for many ways to earn points
or lose them, a small or large nice act is often by email. The
business communications I tend to avoid have high point values.
This summer I’ve been graphing my daily scores to see if there are any
patterns I could learn from and to see how I’m doing over all. Though
it offers a smile’s worth of pleasure when I do well, the enjoyment is
in the playing and giving the ordinary a dose of game consciousness.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Winner



In tennis a "winner" is a shot the opponent can't hit. It's an action, not a person. Enjoy lots of them in the French Open finals this weekend. Serena Williams has been magnificent and plays last year's champion, Maria Sharapova. Rafael Nadal plays David Ferrer on Sunday. Both are at 9AM.

Sports Perspective

The idea of perspective is both literal as how things look from where
we stand, and a key metaphor for representing point-of-view. Every
different perspective enlarges our own and as we gain a broader
outlook we can see, not just from another’s point-of-view, but how all
the parts of the picture function together, the value of each entwined
with the whole. We each stand in a particular place in time and space
and understand better than anyone else what it’s like within that
group of relationships. It’s an understanding of a set of patterns
that can be recognized in different circumstances.  Our view will
match some circumstances and not others. Warring views are a waste of
energy that would be better spent matching and integrating so that the
multiple views and relationships between them become the broader
perspective of big picture thinking. This is why the hierarchical
models that dominate so much of life have done so much harm. It’s
often more about power, what view takes charge, and not about what
would be best for a circumstance. It’s where competition interferes
with perspective.

In sports, competition is what can bring out the best in an athlete.
Every member of a team has their own role and attendant perspective.
Each trusts the other players to be guided by theirs. Players make
their own decisions in the realm in which they’ve trained. Even in
opposition there is the straightforward acknowledgment of the other’s
goal. There’s respect for the worthy opponent. Watching the first
round tennis in the French Open, Venus Williams against Urzsula
Radwanska demonstrated in dramatic fashion the paramount advantage of
competition. Each can push the other to heights not achievable in
isolation. By the end Venus had figured out exactly what was beyond
reach and put it there consistently, yet Urzsula was able to come back
with outstanding shots of her own leaving me cheering and smiling. I
wanted them both to win. Flush with all the endorphins and dopamine I
realized that competition goes off the rails when its focus is solely
on winning and not on the opportunity to achieve new heights, discover
capabilities never before glimpsed and be in life to the fullest.
Though Venus lost, my respect for her was the highest it’s been since
her time as an early champion, her play was so precise and beautiful
to watch. With an opponent ready to capitalize on any failure of
concentration, the long rallies for a single point permit no lapses,
requiring the focus of a yogi. Watching kept me in the moment too,
staying with the point sharpened my own power of attention.

This is quite different from a culture led by dominant opinions that
ignore or exploit large groups of people as though it’s the right of a
particular perspective, distorting the picture everyone has to live
with. Where once there was an art to debate that enabled more about an
issue to come out and inform the whole, now it’s become a battle of
obfuscation, denunciation and rigidity that doesn’t come close to
including the true range of ideas on a subject. When research says
small schools work better, why the increasing trend to consolidating
and industrializing schools. Obviously there are motives that aren’t
about teaching. When research says fitness programs do more for
overall scores than sports, why are school physical education programs
still focused on sports which often put too much emphasis on winning
not excellence. Horror stories of coaches who are abusive to players
have little to do with excellence. It’s been a long time since I heard
someone say, “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, it’s how you play
the game.” Reflecting the days when playing sports was about building
character, the goal to win just a means to personal excellence. She
might have lost, but for me the meaning of that match was Venus
Williams and what it means to be a champion.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Song


Hybrid Vigor- Diversity in the Age of the Brain

I heard a radio story recently about the increase in biracial marriage
and found it gave me hope for our evolutionary possibilities as a
species. Biology has recognized for years the value of a more diverse
gene pool. Agriculture made a point of crossing different types to get
the best of each. Breaking down artificial boundaries between people
makes better use of the human genetic heritage without technological
intervention. The latter actually reduces the viability of the species
by selecting genetic traits based on a single group’s values. Just
like a uniform crop can be wiped out by a single disease, homogenizing
any species makes it more vulnerable. Nature moves toward greater
diversification. A broader gene pool offers new potential. In the
realm of ideas, a broader meme pool allows us to think more
comprehensively, avoiding the blocks to wisdom that come from
protecting rigid mindsets. Making multiple perspectives available
better shows the complexities of an issue and is the only way a true
resolution can be seen.

In regard to the tendency to stick to others like ourselves, I often
hear that it is just the way we are. Accepting the instinct is
accepting a boundary. I ‘m reminded of a famous experiment called the
Visual Cliff that demonstrated an inherited response. Originally
created by Eleanor Gibson with her own baby using a checkered
tablecloth over a table hanging to the floor, she then put a piece of
clear firm plastic over the empty space between the baby and herself
and called to him, discovering that he wouldn’t cross. This experiment
was repeated many times with painted checkerboard patterns and babies
of many different species, using food as an enticement. None would
cross the cliff. One of the researchers actually painted a trompe
l’oeil version on the nursery floor when they were expecting. Sure
enough, even though it was just paint and the baby could feel solid
floor the baby would not crawl across what appeared to be a cliff.
Adults walk across without fear, clearly illustrating the power of
learning for transcending instinctive response. It shows us that we
can overcome instinct with knowledge, an idea with far reaching
implications. This is the message of books like The Evolving Self, by
Mihalyi Czsentmihali and Beyond Conflict, by Peter Breggin. We have
certain survival instincts built in that can be transcended. As we
develop awareness in relation to automatic patterns we can change
them, freeing ourselves from unconscious responses, and giving
ourselves more choices in our actions. Freeing ourselves of genetic,
biological and life story conditioning is a task necessary for
anyone’s growth and emotional liberation.
Protective patterns limit the range of experience because they block
us from the new. They begin with instinctive vigilance toward the
unknown that can be recognized and stepped over, thus strengthening
the pre-frontal cortex, which directs conscious attention. Instead of
fortifying low-level brainstem reflex, we can choose to cultivate the
most evolved part of the brain and gain power over conscious
attention. The reward system reinforces pleasure in what’s new because
that’s what learning needs. As Gregory Bateson so succinctly put it,
“Information is the difference the makes a difference.” Only if it
something we don’t expect alters or adds to our understanding does
information count. Cultivating a taste for difference will help us
over superficial boundaries to the universal humanity that could grow
and evolve with the intermingling of ideas and groups that will enrich
the species. The premise that any one particular way of seeing and
being is right for everyone can finally wither and the strengths of
the many can intermingle to the benefit of all.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Stretch


Un-Classification- The Circle of Humanity


Recently a CNN news bite at the bottom of the screen said “Republicans say the bombing (Boston) came from the Muslim community” suggesting “they” need more scrutiny. Millions of people that live normal day-to-day lives side by side with everybody else are grouped for suspicion because of two deranged individuals. This seems like such a primitive fear response. Perhaps it is the left hemisphere verbal analytical classification that we use for so much conditions people to stick with their own groups, to limit ideas to what’s already believed and see only what supports their existing worldview. Perhaps it’s the conditioning in right or wrong answers that designates different as having to be wrong. Either reflects a highly limiting mindset. a rigid skin that needs to be shed. The human reward system is designed to encourage behavior that extends our boundaries, that embraces novelty. We wouldn’t get that extra dopamine from what’s new if it wasn’t good for us. Our brains are designed to reward what we should do more of, which includes stimulating curiosity about what’s unknown to us. This interest in the new is the action of learning rewarding us with endorphins to encourage continued growth. The cycle of seeing the new, becoming interested, then learning, is the action of the brain’s development, of feeling alive in the world while finding out what is possible.

The desire to tame the dangers of the world with labels and laws creates more separation between people. It creates an attitude of suspicion and mistrust that makes it hard to fully invest ourselves in participating, cooperating and appreciating. When you look at pictures of the earth from space there are no divisions, no national boundaries or political/religious states. We are a single species on a single world and its time to grow out of species adolescence and its cliquishness into a mature humanity, not so easily threatened by the unfamiliar, not so sure of our own right answers. The beauty of thinking in images and looking at them is that images are fluid, the whole seen at once, everything in relationship, rich with action and function and qualities that categories leave out. Thinking too much in categories misses the fullness. Ultimately we can’t even see the depth in ourselves, hidden beneath all the classifications, boxes we check on the forms.

Peter Breggin, a psychiatrist who speaks out against the practice of drugging people into the acceptable categories, wrote in his book “Beyond Conflict”, “Wisdom grows with the size of the group with which you identify.” The right hemisphere of the brain sees the whole, the more perspective that’s included the more accurate the whole. More time with imagery and less with words might help us break out of the shell of fear created by the cultural obsession with enemies and “Bad guys”, as adolescent a terminology as I can imagine that stirs the very few dangerously unstable among millions of peaceful people to dramatic acts of violence that can be more fuel for the media fires. The act of classification obscures the individual and substitutes the existing association with the categories contaminated by whatever media permeates the day. It blinds the classifier not only to people who could teach us something but also to personal dimensions not acknowledged by their own category. We are all the human species embedded in the world of living things. Some use their category to claim more than their share or the absolute right of their ideas for all. Brain science shows how thin those claims are. Each life strategy grew from what it had to experience. It involved knowledge and skills for a particular way of coping. What the authorities say may not fit the circumstance. From the beginning of life, for better or worse, we learn by example. Self-improvement is emulating who we admire, not what somebody says.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Production of a Free Workforce


This is the left side panel of a three panel painting to be auctioned for the benefit of CASA of Baltimore this Sunday, April 28, 2013 from 3-6pm at Area 405, 405 East Oliver Street in the
Station North Arts District.

Prison


In the panorama of life going on around us we notice what helps us see ourselves, search out what’s relevant to where we’re going and affirm our sense of the beautiful and ugly. The choices we make regarding where we look are a window on deeper motives and can expand self-awareness. We may or may not get the point. On a psychological level, the thing the eye is scanning for is something that will clarify things about the self that need to be seen. Marcel Proust and Willa Cather are just two of the many writers long before modern psychology to have pointed out the human tendency to criticize our own faults in others. It’s not just on a personal level. It’s easily seen at every level of human interaction. This came to mind today listening to a man on the radio demonizing North Korea for its extensive prison system. Since the US is known world wide for the growing private prison system housing a higher percentage of the population than any other country, his statement was an excellent example of projection regarding our own national pathology. There are lots of things he might have criticized North Korea for but the one he chose was the one he recognized from the inside. And since he didn’t get the point, what could be changed doesn’t. He talks about extensive prisons as a problem to be solved, not thinking to turn that energy to the problem in his own sphere. Our society is too punitive. Rather than celebrate positive qualities we limit behavior with the threat of punishment. We’ve become more focused on obedience than justice. Anthropologist Jean Liedhoff observed that the Yequana people of Venezuela had no word for “disobedience”. They looked at children as children and didn’t get into a power struggle making them into little adults. The children don’t hurt others because adults don’t. 

If kids are bullying others there’s a good chance they are being bullied at home, whether or not the parents realize it. They’re just imitating the behavior of the adults they see like their parents did before them. Teasing shades into ridicule then into humiliation, which is institutionalized by the prison system where brutality is common, a national symbol of the mandate to obey enough laws to make everyone a lawbreaker. And everyone is immersed in a culture where ridicule is entertainment. Too much damage has been done by dominant cultures forcing their worldview on people with entirely different life experience. It happens at every level of society. It’s time for us to transcend our national ego and learn from all that’s good in the world. The hyperconcern for safety only cultivates fear and distrust of others, a population of isolated individuals cowering in their houses with only their screens for safety. We should start to notice and question the coercive systems that disrespect the variety of individuals by labeling and diagnosing from childhood, when a world of talents could flourish in each one.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Overload


Assembling Reality


“Reality is a construction with which we actively participate.”
                                         Ilya Prigogine, Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1977

Much of what we see as we move through the world is already in our heads. The degree to which what we see when we look around is built up and constructed over time is amazing. Hold up an index finger and keep your focus on it, then slowly bring the other index finger in toward it until it’s equally clear. It’s shocking to realize that so little of the visual field is in focus at any one time. The clear picture we think we see is an illusion, is not the same clear picture another person sees. It is the result of the eyes scanning and accumulating details that supply the background for what hits the retina at any given moment. This is one example of the efficiency of the brain, which only needs the general feel of the surroundings to know where to focus. It also makes our picture of reality very personal, a creation of our own mind based on the information our needs select. The central illusion in all human perception is that personal reality is the Reality.

Everything we see is represented in the brain and informs what we look for and what we expect. Though there is correspondence between our image and reality, it is never complete or without inaccuracies. Yet we trust and rely on it.  From the beginning of life we construct this picture of the world based on our own experience and use that inner image as the basis for comparison to new stimulus as it arrives. A representation of the territory is necessary to remember where we’ve been and what happened there, an inner map that enables us to find our way to what we need and be alert to signs of trouble. This internal image supports our image of the scene in the present with what we’ve already seen. The sense of recognition comes from the new matching similar situations in the past.  It’s like the pattern resonates with a similar chord in the patterns of our own experience. When a pattern unfolds over time we can anticipate what’s coming and be better prepared for it.

The demands of movement require an understanding of where we are in relation to what we need. Imagery of locations is part of most memories. Brains evolved and grew larger as more experience needed to be represented. The folds seen in pictures of the brain are always different because every life is different. The varied personal experience of each of us creates the brain, develops some parts more than others depending on what we use the most. Awareness of these differences liberates us all from absolutes seeing how the variety of contexts changes the equation. Guided by what best fits a given situation, harmony is achieved without coercion.. The better we understand our inner model the more we can learn from the rich variety of other worldviews and break down barriers to our own expansion.
Looking at art is one tool for self-awareness. When we respond to art the chord that runs beneath the surface signals deep concordance with individual emotional themes. It offers a glimpse of the personal substructure so crucial to how we understand the world. Then we may recognize them when they turn up in our relations with others.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Giving Way


Belief and Vision


The stories that represent cultural worldviews create expectations that guide the mind’s perception of surroundings. Vision filters for what matches the inner model of reality constructed of personal experience and cultural/educational background. What doesn’t fit the model is often not seen at all. A persistent story told by science creates an image of the universe and everything in it as a machine that can be explained by its parts. That image first began its necessary breakdown when Michael Faraday envisioned the presence of magnetic fields and immaterial forces rose in scientific consciousness. Yet the machine model still directs the reality many people see.

The standards of so much of the modern world are based on hierarchical and mechanical models that fail to see deeper patterns. In the quest for more and more production and accumulation what’s seen as valuable is what will further those narrow goals. The earth is seen as a source of raw material to be exploited. The worldview of native cultures sees the earth as sacred, as all nature deserving respect, and is similar to Chinese Taoism in the emphasis on awareness and harmony with continual flow. The mechanical model makes laws that support the needs of the machine and private ownership though Lao Tzu pointed out that “as laws increase so do the number of rascals.” The enormous apparatus of modern media keeps attention on consumption and the illusion that having things is the source of satisfaction because it serves the purpose of materialist society. Not only is this not a sustainable attitude, it distracts from the satisfactions of being and centers attention outside the self. It promotes a competitive attitude toward others instead of connection through multiple networks in the larger system that supports us as part of the world body. Recognizing this imagery’s effect on what we see and shifting the underlying model is the only way to rescue the planet from the collapsing machine model and re-integrate all the talents and capabilities now relegated to the piles of parts that don’t fit.

Our inner picture of the world affects what we see. The accuracy of what we perceive is strongly influenced by what we already think about it. We may not see at all, what we can’t believe is there. The things we’ve heard in the past are part of the formation of this inner view, stories from the culture in which we’re raised create a bed of imagery we combine into new thoughts. What’s inconsistent with what we understand to be true of reality either is missed altogether or is perceived as a mistake of some kind.  It’s hard to make change when the underlying model still leaves so much out. Like Faraday we need to see the patterns of underlying influence, see how things link in systems within the organism that is ourselves and the larger organism of humanity. We could learn from ancient goddess cultures focusing on connectedness. Gaia has no hierarchy. The consciousness of the earth, like the body, moves toward balance.