How to become human (through art)
Part 2 Perception
The philosopher Merleau-Ponty insisted that creativity begins at level of perception. David Abram concurs: ‘The sensing body is not a programmed machine but an active and open form, continually improvising its relation to things and to the world.’[i] Francisco Varela (immunologist turned neuroscientist) and co-authors, Evan Thompson (philosopher) and Eleanor Rosch (psychologist) argue that the key to understanding perception lies not in how we process information to represent the world, but ‘how the perceiver can guide his actions in his local situation.’[ii] Signals from the world do not generally represent a coded input, but are potentially ambiguous, and highly context-dependent. They note that any, ‘situation is incredibly rich in modalities of scale, senses, cognition and environmental possibilities.’ [iii] They have helped shift cognitive science from computational approaches and cognitivism to autopoiesis being enactive, emergent, and embodied.
An ecological approach appreciates the feedback and interrelationships between culture, biology, behaviour, and biological evolution as exemplified by an anthropologist
What we need, instead, is a quite different way of thinking about organisms and their environments. I call this ‘relational thinking’. It means treating the organism not as a discrete, prespecified entity but as a particular locus of growth and development within a continuous field of relationships. It is a field that unfolds in the life activities of organisms and that is enfolded (through processes of embodiment or enmindment) in their specific morphologies, powers of movement and capacities of awareness and response.
The anthropologist Tim Ingold argues for a rich understanding of human nature (including mind), not a reductive quantifiable one. Investigation of adaptation in human systems must consider the overall ecology of life.
A.R. Luria and Lev Vygotsky were Russian pioneers who argued that biological development and psychological learning are aspects of the one process; developmental stages are grounded in body experience, development occurs depending on the processes and events surrounding it. Bradd Shore uses the term ‘eco-logical’ brain based on the observation that at birth, despite long gestation, the brain weighs only a quarter of its adult weight – the rest develops in interaction with the external environment.[v]
The developmental plasticity of the brain enables language and culture to literally reshape brain circuits.[vi] We now know brain cells can grow (and die) that our brains are constantly changing anatomically has been documented.[vii] Cognitive fluidity emerges at different ontological levels: neuroscience (Susan Greenfield[viii]); the neuro-cognitive (John Skoyles and Dorion Sagan[ix]); cognitive linguistics (George Lakoff and Mark Johnson[x] & Mark Turner and Gilles Fauconnier[xi]); the psychological (Rom Harre & Grant Gillett[xii]); and the anthropological scale (Jarred Diamond[xiii]). Turner views cognitive fluidity in terms of conceptual blending:
Anatomically modern human beings had already evolved perhaps 150 thousand years earlier, but something changed during the Upper Paleolithic Age. Humans acquired the ability to innovate and culture fostered innovation. They acquired a human imagination with its ability to create new concepts and new mental patterns with dramatic results: art, science, religion, culture, refined tool use, and language.
Mark Turner [xiv]
We are innately creative and curious animals, and hence the importance of a generous and enlarged aesthetics.
Jarred Diamond argues in The Third Chimpanzee (1992) that it is not tool use that makes homo sapiens such a unique species in the animal world but the plasticity of the brain. He uses the notion of cognitive fluidity at an anthropological scale looking at history earlier than the Neolithic period. Human performance has ‘two contexts’ which require fluidity, as the psychologists Rom Harre & Grant Gillett argue, ‘In relation to the variety of natural situations (which in themselves, favour a high level of flexibility of response rather than specifiable stereotypy of reactions); and in the light of discursive interaction and judgments of others on one’s performance.’ [xv]
[i] David Abram, p49
[ii] Varela, Thomson and Rosch, 1991, p173. From their autopoeitic position, ‘perception is not simply embedded within and constrained by the surrounding world; it also contributes to the enactment of this surrounding world.’ They were influenced by Merleau Ponty’s emphasis on embodiment The term was first proposed by Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind, London: Hutchinson, 1949. He challenged the Cartesian myth of mind/body separation and introduces the important distinction between ‘knowing how’ and ‘knowing that’.
[iii] See Edelman and Tononi, 1994. See also in Gerald Edelman, 1987. Abner Shimony, ‘One source of richness is the simultaneous involvement of several sense. Another is the array of ‘higher order variables of stimulus’’, such as spatial and temporal gradients, which are capable of conveying decisive information. Finally, in ordinary situations there are usually opportunities for exploration, by motion of the organism as a whole or by movements of the eyes, hands, and head, for the purpose of bringing small cues into prominence and achieving new perspectives.’ Abner Shimony, ‘Is Observation Theory-Laden? A Problem in Naturalistic Epistemology’ in R.G. Colodny, Ed. Logic, Laws, and Life, Pittsburgh UP, 1977, p196.
[iv] Tim Ingold, ‘From Complementarity to Obviation: On Dissolving the Boundaries Between Social and Biological Anthropology, Archaeology and Psychology’, Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 123, 1988, p43.
[v] Bradd Shore, Culture in Mind: Cognition, Culture and the Problem of Meaning, OUP, 1996.
[vi] Gerald Edelman explains, ‘Creation of language required the evolution of cortical areas (Broca and Wernicke) to finely coordinate ‘acoustic, motor, and conceptual areas of the brain by re-entrant connections …[which] coordinate the production and categorization of speech’; and another layering of categorisation over conceptualisation that provides ‘the more sophisticated sensorimotor ordering that is the basis of true syntax.’ Gerald Edelman, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of Mind, New York, Basic, 1993, p127.
[vii] E.R. Kandel & R.D. Hawkins, ‘The biological basis of learning and individuality’, Scientific American, 267, 1992, p60. Luria had argued the regulatory structure of language grows into the human brain – particularly the prefrontal cortex based largely just on EEG and lesion data, so there is nothing especially modern about the idea. A. Luria, The Working Brain, trans. B. Haigh, Penguin, 1973.
[viii] Susan Greenfield characterises humans the most flexible of all animal species citing the cortex as somehow related to liberating the individual from fixed, predetermined patterns of behaviour. ‘The more extensive the cortex, the more an individual will be able to react in a specific, unpredictable fashion . . [and] be able to think for itself.’ Susan Greenfield, The Human Brain: A Guided Tour, Basic Books, 1977.
[ix] John Skoyles and Dorion Sagan argue human intelligence derives partly from phylogenetic mutation but more importantly, from ontogenetic neural plasticity and enculturation. John R. Skoyles and Dorion Sagan, The Evolution of Human Intelligence, McGraw-Hill, 2002
[x] This concept of ‘cognitive fluidity’ links evolutionary psychology to cognitive linguistics, being functionally equivalent to the contemporary theory of metaphor, introduced by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in, Metaphors We Live By, U of Chicago P, 1980. (Note: conceptual metaphors are distinguished from linguistic metaphors, the former is a cognitive mapping between two different domains; a linguistic metaphor expresses such mapping through language.)
[xi] Mark Turner and Gilles Fauconnier, ’Conceptual Integration Networks’, Cognitive Science 22:2, 1998, p133-87. See also Fauconnier’s, Mental Spaces: Aspects of Meaning Construction in Natural Language, MIT, 1985. They talk of conceptual blending for the construction of meaning during thought and action.
[xii] Rom Harre & Grant Gillett argue human performance has ‘two contexts’ which require fluidity, as, ‘In relation to the variety of natural situations (which in themselves, favour a high level of flexibility of response rather than specifiable stereotypy of reactions); and in the light of discursive interaction and judgments of others on one’s performance. Rom Harre & Grant Gillett, The Discursive Mind, Sage Publications, 1994, p65.
[xiii] Jarred Diamond argues that it is not tool use that makes Homo sapiens such a unique species in the animal world but the plasticity of the brain. He uses the notion of cognitive fluidity at an anthropological scale looking at history earlier than the Neolithic period. The Third Chimpanzee (1992)
[xiv] Mark Turner, ‘The Cognitive Study of Art, Language, and Literature’, Poetics Today Vol 23:1, 2002, p16.
[xv] Rom Harre & Grant Gillett, The Discursive Mind, Sage Publications, 1994, p65. Rom Harré champions ‘discursive psychology’, a sociological slant, which views human life as a collective activity, in which individuals work with others to fulfil their intentions and achieve their projects according to local rules and norms. The notion that sensation, action, and memory become the powers of an ordered human mind by the acquisition of first person skills of all sorts, especially, linguistic and practical competencies. This ties in with the thought of Merleau-Ponty and Vygotsky. See also John Shotter, Selfhood and social accountability Oxford: Blackwell, 1984.