ART AND ORGANISM
“Cognition refers to the mechanisms by which animals acquire, process, store, and act on information from the environment. These include perception, learning, memory, and decision making” (Shettlesworth 1998:5)
This definition is so broad that some scholars think it advisable to limit its meaning to specific aspects of knowledge manipulation (e.g., McFarland 1991 cited by Shettlesworth 1998). But I am not sure if the definition is broad enough, since it is not only information from the environment that an organism acts upon –at least not at several of the levels of organization with which we are concerned. [note: reasoning and thinking at multiple levels of organization is a source of great mischief, and an issue because of the confusion caused by reasoning involving multiple levels simultaneously. Thinking about the connections of (for example) cause and consequence are so vastly below (or above) human competence for reason that they cannot be discussed except in metaphysical terms. This is part of the sometimes bitter conflict between the real versus the ideal: sentiments that emerge when people are at or near the end of their competence]
While the cognitive processes of the nervous system are responsible for thoughts and actions, they inform and are informed by the body—they are embodied. Further, the body itself exists in a multidimensional matrix—an environment in which it is embedded and with which it interacts. It can be said that these parts and wholes—minds, bodies, environments, and all their constituent elements–exist in dynamic relationship with each other. They are all in constant flux with respect to each other and any one of them can be exquisitely sensitive to small changes in another such that thoughts and actions can be profoundly altered, often in existentially relevant ways. At the level of physiology, this is termed homeostasis, a dynamic balance which is critically responsible for the survival of the organism. Throughout development, parts of this system change as a result of inner (genetic, developmental) influences and outer (environmental) influences. As Levins and Lewontin put it, “one thing cannot exist without the other … one acquires its properties from its relation to the other [and] … the properties of both evolve as a consequence of their interpenetration” (1985:3). The different relationships that characterize the individual involve varying levels of intimacy and fluidity of interaction. For example, the artist, by disposition and training (that is, congenital and acquired characteristics) is more-or-less connected to their medium. As the potter and poet Mary C. Richards put it,
I learn through my hands and my eyes and my skin what I could never learn through my brain. I develop a sense of life, of the world of earth, air, fire, and water — and wood, to add the fifth element according to Oriental alchemy — which could be developed in no other way. And if it is life I am fostering, I must maintain a kind of dialogue with the clay, listening, serving, interpreting as well as mastering. The union of our wills, like a marriage, it is a beautiful act, the act of centering and turning a pot on the potter’s wheel… (1989:74)[ii]
[i] Sara J. Shettlesworth (1998)
“… the idea that the mind is not only connected to the body but that the body influences the mind, is one of the more counter-intuitive ideas in cognitive science. In sharp contrast is dualism, a theory of mind famously put forth by Rene Descartes in the 17th century when he claimed that “there is a great difference between mind and body, inasmuch as body is by nature always divisible, and the mind is entirely indivisible… the mind or soul of man is entirely different from the body.” In the proceeding centuries, the notion of the disembodied mind flourished. From it, western thought developed two basic ideas: reason is disembodied because the mind is disembodied and reason is transcendent and universal. However, as George Lakoff and Rafeal Nez explain:
Cognitive science calls this entire philosophical worldview into serious question on empirical grounds… [the mind] arises from the nature of our brains, bodies, and bodily experiences. This is not just the innocuous and obvious claim that we need a body to reason; rather, it is the striking claim that the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment… Thus, to understand reason we must understand the details of our visual system, our motor system, and the general mechanism of neural binding.
What exactly does this mean? It means that our cognition isn’t confined to our cortices. That is, our cognition is influenced, perhaps determined by, our experiences in the physical world.” (McNerny 2011)
DEEP COGNITION: of course, features of cognition are diverse and distributed. They have evolved over the generations conforming to broad outlines and develop within each individual in conformance with the social and physical environments into which the individual is born and matures. In moment-to-moment functioning, the coordination of cognitive traits can be more-or-less reconfigured more-or-less physiological stress.
STRESS. In research on social dominance I observed the subordinates have higher levels of specific stress hormones and changed susceptibilities to surges in other hormones associated with stress. Thinking about the known influences of these hormones on function of specific parts of the brain I inventoried the diversity of stress hormone effects on cognitive functions: see Table 1 at “Ethological Causes and Consequences of the Stress Response” (Greenberg et al. 2002).
A recent article on stress and cognition that will underscore and extend my own findings is at an editorial on STRESS and COGNITION
THEORY of MIND
Knowing one’s own mind sometimes seems like the tip of an iceberg –those mental processes accessible to reflection (“metacognition”), but inferring the mind of others is understandable daunting– yet our development enables this by means of a “theory of mind.”
It allows us to ask, how we can understand what an artifact could communicate to us. We assume that somehow the minds of artists are embodied in their artifacts. We can ask “what were they thinking?” This might help us infer, “what were they trying to say?” if indeed they were making intentional efforts to communicate. (What we perceive as art might be unintentional on the part of its creator.) And further, considering the ancient minds that created Paleolithic art, this can inform our understanding of the evolution of cognitive competencies (A&O notes on Theory of Mind)
 Sara J. Shettlesworth (1998) Cognition, Evolution, and Behavior. New York: Oxford University Press.
 Samuel McNerney A Brief Guide to Embodied Cognition: Why You Are Not Your Brain. Scientific American Blog November 4, 2011. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/a-brief-guide-to-embodied-cognition-why-you-are-not-your-brain/