ART & ORGANISM: CANONICAL CONTENT MEETS PERSONAL MEANING
Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Abstract. In this presentation I will share observations and insights about meaningful teaching from my long-running transdisciplinary seminar, “Art & Organism.” Cognitive neuropsychology and phenomenology frame the cultivation of “meaning beyond mere knowledge” and create enduring cross-curricular competencies. These goals are pursued by encouraging the discovery and creation of connections within and between individual class participants (instructor included). I utilize a scaffold of percepts and concepts familiar in art and biology and supplemented by extensive mind-mapping that pursues insights into personal and shared meanings of canonical concepts derived from art and biology. Seminar syllabus at https://neilgreenberg.com/art-organism/
ART & ORGANISM: CANONICAL CONTENT MEETS PERSONAL MEANING WITHIN AND BETWEEN STUDENTS
[in the call for participation in this year’s IACEP conference, special interest was expressed in work that “engages with the multi- and inter-disciplinary insights needed to address current unrest and challenges around the world, including those that concern diversity and social justice.” [My observations of and comments about multi- and inter-disciplinarity emphasize the virtues of that approach in general rather than any specific insights] [Like science and art as disciplines, multidisciplinarity is the way human cognition is organized and expressed[i]] Participation was “highly encouraged from researchers and practitioners in areas including psychology, education, linguistics, communication, technology, policy, and related disciplines.” [I’m none of those—I am a neuroethologist, a biologist examining in particular how brain structures and functions manifest in individuals to enable adaptive responses to their environments. I confess to having been inspired by Reuvan Feuerstein when—in the company of my wife, Kathy—I met him at a conference in Tel Aviv where he had an unexpected enthusiasm for the idea of a review of the principles of “Structural Cognitive Modifiability”([ii]) that may be shared with other species. The paper we planned never materialized as my momentum in neuroscience took me elsewhere, but the principle of grounding cognitive processes of interest in our evolutionary background never abated. … and my successes—modest as they were—as a researcher and educator, were always informed by interdisciplinary methods and interpretation]
THIS PRESENTATION is informed by my 40 years of experience with “ART and ORGANISM,” a transdisciplinary seminar on the biology of art and aesthetic experience.
A&O is informed by EXISENTIAL PHENOMONEOLOGY insofar as we seek to identify and understand bias, and, following Sartre’s, l ’existence précède l ’essence, prioritize the individual’s experience while avoiding idealism: “real people in the real world”
Let me speak first to CONNECTIONS
Connections within and between participants are facilitated by check-in’s—brief accounts of progress in areas of personal concern, and by mind-maps, to be discussed later…
Thus, the mutual relevance of implicit and explicit meaning (sentience and sapience) emerges
[4 ½ min]
In the course of seminar, as participants reveal progressively more interests and needs that extend outside the classroom, specific topics from art and biology can be opportunistically introduced to enlarge the network of connections into new areas. These are connected to the shared scaffold of received scholarly canon in art and biology
In this way connections are discovered between sapience, sentience, and individual experience that confer meaning on otherwise arbitrary facts by finding or strengthening their connections. [As trust develops between the participants in the seminar, the development of meaning is further enhanced by the shared experience, an expression of phenomenological intersubjectivity]
Explicit expression of real or perceived meaning is the tip of an iceberg … I believe that the more deeply one goes, the more likely shared meaning can be found, and when that sense is shared in class we can reexamine older ideas and explore our understanding of new ones as a group.
I believe learning in such an environment is more enduring and potentially transformative. In this way, new content becomes part of our personal fabric, and all subsequent things are seen in its light.
This seminar asks students to dig as deeply as they are comfortable through their own layers of consciousness in search of connections.
But always mindful of the multiple influences on and relationships with other people and their world, whether the world at that moment consists of other people, nature, time, one’s own body, personal or philosophical ideas or whatever. For existential phenomenology, the world is to be lived and described, not explained. (Pollio et al., 1997, pp. 4–5)
[To this I would add some emphasis to relationships within individuals, between thoughts and feelings, beliefs and desires, conscious awareness and intuition, and one’s own body. – for this reason, I believe the FIRST function of art is to inform the artist of his OWN state of mind]
NOW to the CANONICAL content:
Cognitive neuroscience and existential phenomenology inform the theory and practice of this course where I seek to cultivate meaning beyond mere knowledge (“transformative learning”) and create enduring cross-curricular competencies. These goals are pursued by encouraging the discovery and creation of connections within and between individual class participants (instructor included), using a scaffold of canonical (“textbook”) ideas and concepts familiar in art and biology.
Transdisciplinarity emerges naturally as an individual student’s needs to identify the overlapping cognitive functions of art and science are first described and then explored: the “art of science” and “the science of art.”
ART is first defined in terms of acts of communication utilizing its unique modes of expression…. MORE-OR-LESS engaging every means of sensing the world that we possess.
WORKS of ART can be viewed as ARTIFACTS of cognitive processes that prioritize perceptual, intuitive, and expressive skills. Examples from paleolithic to modern art are considered as such artifacts representing behavioral processes involved in productive art (“creation”) and receptive art (“appreciation”)
There is not much (if anything) that cannot (in the right circumstances) be seen as art.
BIOLOGY is presented in terms of “DEEP ethology,” the manner in which development, ecology, evolution, and physiology converge on specific behavioral acts or patterns of behavior.
IN PARALLEL with the CANONICAL SCAFFOLD (=commonly shared ideas in BIOLOGY and ART), individual participants are urged to explore (and share if they are comfortable), their interests, intentions, and experiences (especially as catalyzed by seminar experience) by means of MIND-MAPS
This is complemented by diaries, discussion, verbal check-ins, and especially the frequent construction of individual mind-maps.
In Mind-maps, participants create of strings of freely-associated words in a diagramed stream of consciousness that leads beneath traditional shared class-room consciousness into uniquely personal meanings.
The small (<18) seminar setting creates a safe environment to enable expression of often intimate personal ideas with spontaneity and authenticity. In this way, it becomes possible to CONNECT familiar canonical ideas to personal ideas, significantly enlarging both and creating additional and more enduring meaning.
Mind-maps created spontaneously have the virtue of authenticity, revealing much about what is unique and what is shared amongst participants—and what they can learn from each other—most significantly, expanding the meaning of specific ideas. The observations of unexpected meaningful connections in other participants is a powerful way of more fully understanding one’s context.
AS awareness of the intimacy of the intertwining art-and-science and cause-and-effect, grows, the existence of a continuum or spectrum of intensity also becomes apparent.
My first critical job is done.
In accord with the view that Art and Science as disciplines reflect “…nothing but the expression of the necessary mode of working of the human mind,” “… a refinement of everyday thinking.” (TH Huxley and A. Einstein)…
…AND … as cognitive neuroscience of expressive and receptive art reveal them to be necessary parts of each other’s functioning rather than alternative (and sometimes competing) perspectives … [THEN]
… A new and I think enriched view of canonical content emerges as a living reality and not merely interesting, sometimes arbitrary phenomena that might be applied if and when an appropriate occasion is encountered.
ENVISION A GIANT MOBILE of thousands of balanced elements at a point of repose…and then a puff of air causing perturbation that ripples through the entire sculpture.
Within you, right here, right now, constellations of multiple cognitive functions overlap, selectively communicating information. Significantly, these constellations themselves exist at multiple levels of complexity—with different rules of engagement as information moves through the layers (each with its own mode of intercommunication) to its final expression as a hopefully adaptive behavioral pattern –coping with stressors from the most mild (presentation of novel stimuli) through traumatic.
Exemplary details of canonical content that may be explored typically include…
- Consciousness. The neurophysiology of states of consciousness—sleep—dreams-hallucinations—perception as a controlled hallucination… and so on.
- Bias. From neurophysiological congenital limits and the acquired developmental tuning of cells in sensory detectors and pathways, necessitates incomplete sampling of available stimuli; The bias of cells resonates with bias at other levels of organization, such as culture
- Perception. And what shared perceptions reveal (“Art is a fragment of nature seen through a temperament.”—Zola 1866). The transduction of external stimuli into internal percepts and their participation in concepts—and states of mind. And our ability to infer those states—from our observations of an infant’s budding theory of mind, through our wonder at what paleolithic artists were thinking.
- Stress, mild as in the energizing of ordinary learning, increasing through peak experiences and “flow,” and finally dysfunctional excesses can energize or paralyze motivation (“stress-response curve.”)
- Reality-testing, and the establishment of more-or-less confidence in the validity of beliefs—also known as “truth” when confidence is very high—are connected in the brain and partly lateralized.
- Creativity. The authenticity of mind-maps and their shared and unique elements which depends on pre-conscious functions of the mind. (“…the permeability of the partition separating the conscious and the unconscious”—CG Jung, 1916)
- Experience—based on perceptions as received by a dynamic nervous system—in itself, it is highly transitory and known after a few seconds as more-or-less memory, the neural substrate of which overlaps considerably with that of imagination (essential to accommodate possible consequences of actions, from cell to organism).
- Expression—from serendipity (Je ne cherche pas; je trouve Picasso) through scholarly research (Leonardo on peripheral vision)
Because of connectedness, Everything means something and is connected to everything else (“The universe is a continuous web. Touch it at any point and the whole web quivers.”–Stanley Kunitz 2005) …. A view science shares with many spiritual disciplines… (“all truths dwell in all things,” wrote Walt Whitman; E)
… but the depths from which ideas and their expression emerges from one individual and to which it penetrates into another, determines its quality and possible participation in an enduring learning experience. The meetings of minds are complemented by heart to heart dialogue.
Clearly, in light of these and related phenomena, interdisciplinarity and connectedness are more than research strategies and pretty platitudes, they are part of our fiber and, if we give them their due, cannot do other than inform aa richer appreciation for the adaptive functions of diversity and social justice, appealed for by the organizers of this year’s meeting.
Reiterating Huxley and Einstein … this is the natural working of the human mind … and we frustrate those workings at our great peril.
This approach honors the critical insights of Claude Merleau-Ponty, Reuven Feuerstein, and Niko Tinbergen
[i] “The method of scientific investigation is nothing but the expression of the necessary mode of working of the human mind.” (TH Huxley 1863.”Our Knowledge of the Causes of the Phenomena of Organic Nature”); recalls, “Science is a refinement of everyday thinking.” (Albert Einstein, PhysLINK.com Quotation, Week of April 5, 1999.)
[ii] Background: The theory of Structural Cognitive Modifiability and Mediated Learning Experience of Reuven Feuerstein states that individuals with brain impairment, because of congenital or acquired origin, may substantially and structurally improve their cognitive functioning, by a systematic intervention based on a specific, criteria-based type of interaction (“mediated learning”). (Lebeer J. (2016) Significance of the Feuerstein approach in neurocognitive rehabilitation. NeuroRehabilitation. 2016 Jun 18;39(1):19-35. doi: 10.3233/NRE-161335. PMID: 27341359. (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27341359/ ) [I think I was able to persuade Reuvan that it would be fruitful to consider “brain impairment” as a point on a continuum that included “normalcy.”]
[iii] “The Bayesian response to this epistemological-methodological dilemma is to introduce the notion of degrees of belief that an investigator has for a hypothesis, relative to others. Then, as new information emerges, one reevaluates the likelihood of that information being compatible with each original possibility. In this respect, the Bayesians solve the Quine/Duhem paradox by rejecting the claim that: in order to show that a hypothesis is mistaken, it is necessary to isolate that hypothesis from its set of auxiliary hypotheses. Instead, they assert that: it can be determined whether the set of auxiliary hypotheses should be rejected based on the degree to which those auxiliary hypotheses are believed to be true.” From CREATIVE THOUGHT, EMOTION, AND IMAGINATION January 30, 2019. A post by John F. DeCarlo. (2019) https://junkyardofthemind.com/blog/2019/1/28/creative-thought-emotion-and-imagination (downloaded Thursday, September 26, 2019)
[i] Neil Greenberg, Professor Emeritus, University of Tennessee, Knoxville. BA 1963 (Drew University); PhD in zoology and psychology 1973 (Rutgers University). Post-doctoral training in ethology and neurophysiology (National Institutes of Health). In 1978, joined Faculty of Zoology, with adjunct appointments in psychology and medicine. Highly active in departmental and campus-wide interdisciplinary undertakings; 1994 elected Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science. Research and publications in ethology, neurology, endocrinology, cognitive education. https://neilgreenberg.com/