Thursday, May 14, 2015

Anna Abraham - The Four Walls of an Empiricist - A Response to Ric's Ideas

It is a rare opportunity for someone like me, who uses the scientific method to understand the human imagination, to have a sounding board for my ideas in a truly reflective artist, particularly one who works in a medium that is very close to my own heart – the theatre.  Thank you Ric for abiding by the rules of improv with your “and yes” gesture.  I will only address some of issues you highlighted here, or else this will go on for pages on end.

Although it is true for all art forms, theatre provides an obvious space for exploring what you beautifully termed the "degrees of proportionality between stimulus and cascade" where the distinction between reality and fantasy is patently questionable, especially when considering the immersive and collaborative moment-to-moment experience of blending that occurs between both worlds during a performance. In fact, the mere preparation for a role can lead to a conceptual blurring between the actor/character, and can lead to fundamental shifts in conceptualization that can manifest in positive ways in terms of gaining insight to one’s own self (the example of Dustin Hoffmann in Tootsie: or have a negative impact by resulting in debilitating emotional distress (the example of Daniel Day Lewis and Hamlet:

This would suggest that qualitative distinctions like active-versus-passive are rather arbitrary, and that a continuum-based perspective must be necessarily adopted. Incidentally, this is what bears out in the empirical evidence from my own work in the neuroscience of creative conceptual expansion where I look for commonalities between the active and passive modes.

It is worth noting that such a continuum is also apparent in art forms that don’t inherently feature the temporal dimension. Alison Jackson’s photography (, for instance, provides stellar examples of the dynamic nature of the active/passive continuum. Realism is usually conceived of in a bottom-up manner, such as in the context of computer game programming where so much of the focus is on creating worlds that are as accurate and representative as possible in terms of perceptual features. But Jackson takes a top-down conceptual approach to creating realism. She does this by presenting peephole/voyeuristic/mind’s eye views of scenes using perceptually degraded images of celebrity doppelgangers engaging in the kind of activities that we imagine then to be doing in private. The audience takes the leap into the narrative and unwittingly participates in completing the fake story by believing it at some level.

So why do empiricists make these arbitrary divisions? I suppose that the simple answer is that there is no other way to commence the scientific exploration of difficult constructs. We have to try to systematize and identify the essence of the phenomenon in question. The course of action, in my own case, is to then investigate it using a variety of direct and oblique approaches where the focus is not only on gathering proof for the ideas, but also establishing conditions under which they would be disproved. And the impetus is to go beyond each step by exploring and building on the insights, integrating the many intricacies, and eventually (hopefully) cultivate or evolve a comprehensive and systemic understanding of what is going on.

A central feature of art as the delivery system for fundamental insights or truths is the participatory/collaborative nature of its myriad forms. It works when the expressions of truth resonate with the audience, and there are unlimited manifestations of such expression. The fourth wall, in contrast, is entirely opaque in the case of scientific enquiry. And the task is to arrive at “the truth” in the form of generalizable principles. One is solely dependent on linkages to be formed or altered between the various nodes of one’s own knowledge network to arrive at the crucial insights. The mind’s penchant for detecting conceptual isomorphisms makes this task easier, but at the same time also difficult as the bias to be seduced by easy explanations that resonate as true leads one to slide down the path of least resistance, clinging to ideas that only have manifest or face validity. The history of ideas is littered with so many examples of how scientists get things spectacularly wrong, despite the best intentions.

Speaking of isomorphisms, the dynamics of the theatre actually bears several strange parallels to the workings of the brain. As a narrative plays out, the objective reality/fiction distinction is blurred for the actors and the audience with both engaged, albeit in different ways, in the continual cycle of perceiving and anticipating this illusory world. A similar cycle is echoed in the brain, a supremely complex system, which fundamentally operates in service of receptive-predictive functions across different modes and contexts of experience. One can take this even further. Despite having to continually process information that varies in terms of how disjunctive it can be relative to one’s real world, there is rarely a sense of confusion or existential panic that stems from engaging with fictional worlds. We can be deeply and emotionally immersed in such worlds and leave them unscathed, with our conceptions of reality still intact. This stability in phenomenology corresponds with certain aspects of processing in the brain, which is continually bombarded with information about the outer environment. The stimulation that is received by our senses is perplexingly complex and relentless. Into the brain goes chaos, but out of it comes our ordered view of the world.

Such cycles bring to mind something that Aryeh spoke of during his presentation in Salzburg. About how the space between the real and imaginary world is where creativity exists.

Thanks again Ric for this gratifying and helpful exchange!

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