Thursday, 7 November 2013

Chapter 3 Visual Grammar - Words - Plastic Facts

Links to Other Chapters in this Series

Chapter 1: A First Lesson in Drawing
Chapter 2:  Introducing the Dynamic Workspace
Chapter 3 : Words - Plastic Facts
Chapter 4 : Humpty Dumpty's Plastic World of Oneness
Chapter 5: Nature's Boundaries of Well being and Selfhood

Chapter 3 - Words - Plastic Facts

Suppose I ask you to picture a bird in your mind and tell me what you see, you might reply "I see a feathered little animal with a beak, two wings and two eyes sitting on a twig "

and then afterwards I might show you this drawing and

you might say "yes just like that"

But how can this be the same animal you just described ?  It has only one eye and one wing.  Perhaps you would then point out that there is no contradiction, it is just that in my drawing you cannot see second eye and second wing because they are hidden, and I would be forced to agree that you are right.  But there are other ways I could draw the bird.   I could un-hide the missing eye and wing.  Is this a more accurate description than the first bird of your mind that I drew for you ?

You might say "No, birds sitting on twigs do not look like that, usually I see them from underneath and their wings are folded by their sides".   But my second picture has more in common with the words you used to described the bird you pictured in your mind.  Perhaps there is a mismatch between how we picture birds sitting on twigs in our minds, and how we describe the same thing using words?   If our minds are stuck in the world of passive drawing technique, then the answer is Yes.  If we embrace active drawing then the answer is surely No.

In this chapter we are going to look at the ambiguity of things.  Looking at birds is a good starting point.  Science has an exact answer to the question about what a bird is.  Science calls the definition of a bird a fact which was worked out through studying the evolution of birds from looking at fossils.  Science has a rigid and cast iron definition about what a bird is, it has a fact.

Evolution of Modern Birds

When we go to school as children we learn about the magnificent discoveries and facts of science.  Amongst many facts we learn are that whilst to the untutored eye dolphins and whales both look like fish they are in fact mammals that breath air and suckle their young with milk.  We are brought up to respect and trust the fruits of Science which has brought us all the extraordinary benefits of modern life, including flying machines like aeroplanes and life giving medicines.

Given all the benefits it is strange how easily we give up our beliefs in the facts of science.  Our rationality is often subverted by emotions and images that well up from the uncontrolled and unknown depths of our subconscious.  I would like to illustrate this duel state of thinking that exists in all our heads using the beautiful poem "I Died for Truth" by an American Poetess who lived in the mid nineteenth century. This is how the text of her poem reads:

I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.

He questioned softly why I failed?
"For beauty," I replied.
"And I for truth - the two are one;
We brethren are," he said.

And so, as kinsmen met a-night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.

Emily Dickinson 1830 – 1886

The image at the heart of the poem is clearly irrational; two corpses, freshly dead, conversing on the nature of truth, their dead lips un-silenced by the fact of death.  They will not stop talking until their lips are smothered and sealed by the growth of moss over their mouths.  This image speaks in an irrational language that even the most hard nosed and rational of scientists cannot escape from understanding, in other words everyone, even professional scientists, have minds that are drawn into believing in images conjured up from Emily Dikinson's mad imagination.  What is going on in our heads?  I have thought about this poem a lot.

Another American, who lived only a few years after Emily, called William James, put his finger on this dualism of the mind.

William James (1842 - 1910)

He wrote
"The most ancient parts of truth . . . also once were plastic. They also were called true for human reasons". ........ "Purely objective truth, truth in whose establishment the function of giving human satisfaction in marrying previous parts of experience with newer parts played no role whatsoever, is nowhere to be found. The reasons why we call things true is the reason why they are true, for 'to be true' means only to perform this marriage-function,"

His ideas about the plasticity of truth are as relevant and extraordinary as Darwin's ideas of evolution, which are again a vision about plasticity and change.  Today William James is regarded as the father of "psychology" and  "consciousness studies", but throughout most of the 20th century his ideas were largely ignored and forgotten.  About last thirty years ago this began to change, and change very rapidly. Consciousness studies and Plasticity are two themes that run through modern biology, and I am about to argue through visual grammar and Art too.

The Executive part of our Brains
A scientist deals in a particular sort of truth which William James called "objective truth".  This is the truth of rational thought, a type of thought processing that is found in the mind of mankind but not in other animals.  Objective thought is the preserve of a part of the brain that has expanded most rapidly in our species but remains small in other animals.  The part of the brain is called the pre-frontal cortex, which is at the front end part of the Neo-cortex which is the thick wrinkled outer layer of the brain which is wrapped around mid brain or limbic system.  The PFC is situated in the forehead just above and behind the eyes.

The PFC is sometimes called "the executive brain" because it has physical connections to almost all other areas of the brain and is active in decision making by our self aware conscious selves.  It is the voice that scrutinises and harnesses the excesses of the subconscious and overrules the hasty inclinations of our emotional selves.  It is also the last part of the brain to reach maturity which eventually happens in our early adult life, which is why teenagers are often fearless and wreckless when compared to fully mature adults. 
Without our enlarged Pre-frontal cortex our human minds would never have developed the rational thought and science that distinguishes our species from other mammals, but it is worth remembering that it is relatively small part of our brains.  Other areas of our brains are very similar in size and proportion to the the corresponding parts in the brains of other advanced mammals.  Our rationality, which is seated in the PFC, is seated outside the animal-like core of our brains where most of our emotional make up, thinking and instantaneous decision making takes place  This means that rationality is not at the centre of operations, it is an evolutionary after thought bolted on top of the brain core where our natural impulses and desires are generated. 

The Limbic System
The core of the brain runs on emotion and intuition which mostly originates in an areas of the brain which is called the limbic system.  The limbic system in humans is not proportionally bigger than the limbic system of other mammals.  It provides the fast thinking, quick response decision making part of our minds, and is the bit that stimulates instant gut and emotional reactions to events we experience in the outside world.   

The dualism about truth has its origins in the balance between these two structures of our brains that work in harmony and balance with each other, what I am saying is that the way our minds work reflects the physical properties and workings of our brain structures. 

Objective Truth
We have a habit of being excessively proud of our rationality, and speaking disparagingly of our emotional selves.  We say such things as "I don't know why I did that, my emotions got the better of me"We have developed a natural tendency to believe that everything nature can do we can do better.   For instance we can fly to the moon - nature cannot do that.  We can make medicines that prolong our lives and eradicate diseases like polio and smallpox which are aberrations of how we think nature should be.  Our rationality makes us so superior to dumb animals (nature's inferior creations) whose stupid ways are so easy for us to outwit.  From such thoughts it is natural to view Objective truth as much better than irrational plastic truth.  Just half a century ago this was the way we all thought, not any more.

In recent years, as the ideas of William James have come back into vogue, and our pride in our rationality has taken a bit of a knock.  Suddenly we understand that rational decision making is always built on top of the fast working emotional and intuitive thought processes of the limbic system.  We find our computers may be faster thinkers, but they lack the plastic ways of nature that invented homoeostasis, self reproduction, self repair, self fuelling and self consciousness.  Whilst we can fly to the moon, we also notice little birds the size of sparrows migrate across the world's surface covering many times that distance in their little lifetimes.

Objective truth is slow, pain-taking and very limited in it's achievements when compared with the plastic wonders of nature.

Plasticity in Art 
According to science the bee hummingbird is the smallest bird in the world, it is as small as a bee, but it is really a bird.   This chapter started with how we define birds using science

The Bee hummingbird weighs 1.8 grams

I will end the chapter with how we define birds using the plasticity of the mind.  At first my definition might look like a superfluous observation, but if you are still thinking that way you are still working with thought processes that are stuck in old assumptions about rationality that dominated our ideas in the twentieth century, beliefs in the superiority of modernity (as in the term modern art).  Science, like our prefrontal cortex, brings benefits and advantage to our species, but it is not at the core of our consciousness.  It is a bolt on.  If we are to grapple with Art, it's meaning and how to make it work effectively, we have first to grapple with non science plastic definitions of truth which at first sight seem to us to be irrational and inferior.  We have to catch up with Emily Dickinson and William James who both observed truth has duality and plasticity at its core

The grammar of sight is a multi modal, multi tasking multi time thing that starts and develops in the emotionally driven core of our minds, not in the PFC.  Active drawing works because it recognises and accepts this duality, on the other end of the scale passive drawing, like concepts that embrace oxymoronic terms like modern art, are stuck in a world where the PFC is thought of as a superior method of thinking that is free and disconnected from our core operational centre - the limbic system.

Back to Birds
Recently I have been looking at the works of medieval monks that worked in an age before science took over our mental landscape.  I came across an idea.  I do not know if this idea is grounded in objective fact, perhaps someone made it up and it has got repeated so often on the internet that it has gained believers.  

The idea is that in medieval times they thought that "Bees are the smallest of Birds".  This is a wonderful way to illustrate the plasticity of words, and how our scientific definitions are so easily subverted by ideas that come from somewhere deep and unknown, way down there in the core of our subconscious minds.

Bees are the Smallest of Birds

Words are plastic.  This is true both for linguistic and visual grammar.  In the next chapter we will investigate where this idea takes us.

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