Art and the Mind || Brain, Mind, and the Art Curriculum

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  • National Art Education Association

    Brain, Mind, and the Art CurriculumAuthor(s): Ronald N. MacGregorSource: Art Education, Vol. 36, No. 2, Art and the Mind (Mar., 1983), pp. 84-86Published by: National Art Education AssociationStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3192670 .Accessed: 15/06/2014 10:18

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  • Brain, Mind, and the Art mCrrcuu

    Ronald N. MacGregor

    T he 17th century philosopher William Molyneux once con- fronted his friend John Locke

    with a question. "Suppose," he said, "a man blind from birth were to have his sight suddenly restored. Suppose further that the first things on which he gazed were a sphere and a cube. Would he be able to recognize them by sight alone?"

    This apparently innocuous question turns out to be quite complex. Molyneux and Locke agreed that the man would likely not be able to name the objects be- cause his experience of how they had af- fected his touch had not been paralleled by like experience in how they had af- fected his sight. Accepting without ques- tion the efficient functioning of the man's vision from the moment when sight was regained, they had much more difficulty in deciding whether he would know what it was he was seeing.

    Morgan (1977) has shown that after three centuries of argument, Molyneux's question is still a live issue. A substan- tial body of brain research, including brain mapping, investigation into neural composition, processing, and cell archi- tecture has not brought its resolution ap- preciably closer. The simple reason is that while physiology provides informa- tion on systems, philosophy controls ac- cess to ways of thinking and attitudes of mind. Information and conviction are by no means interchangeable parts of human consciousness. Morgan is able to draw upon research to suggest that, given the same information through two separate healthy channels, an organism will perceive it identically, since the route by which the message enters the brain makes no difference. But the other, and trickier, part of Molyneux's question remains problematic. How are we to know the role experience might play in the individual's disposition toward, and reflection upon that information?

    This paper explores some of the rela- tionships and the differences between

    mind and brain as these terms have been described by philosophy and physiology respectively. It argues for a particular notion of how mind works, rejecting simplistic physiologically-based models as inadequate, and looking to interpre- tive strategies rather than to biological- ly-related growth stages to account for, and to form the basis for art learning.

    According to Popper (Popper and Ec- cles, 1977) a tradition of mind-body dualism existed even among early humans, and was apparent in the prac- tice among Neanderthals of burying flowers with their dead. Popper devel- ops a tripartite model of reality in which are included World One, the world of physical entities; World Two, the world of mental states; and World Three, the products of mind. Conceding that mind is an activity of brain, he questions that mental activities are merely part of physical activities. Evidence of their dis- tinctiveness is grounded in the notion of self. The brain processes sensations, but sensation is no proof of self. Self is realized only through the development of theories about being, and requires an ability to symbolize for which there is no counterpart in the physical world.

    Mechanistic models of mind, latter day variants of a clockwork prototype, are clearly inadequate since they allow for no more than the reproduction of se- quences of pre-programmed events. Craik's (1943) proposition that neural processes symbolize the world by model- ling activities and situations, so allow- ing for the prediction of events, is closer to what Popper has in mind. Brain and mind are similar in that each exists in a state of partial revelation. The respec- tive difference between them lies be- tween sensory systems that transmit in formation and mental processes that modify and interpret events.

    To the extent that art deals with ob- jects and their relationships in the form of models symbolizing events, art is an expression of mind working. The ca- pacity for art making is a function of brain mechanisms; the content of art is a function of interpretation, of cultural and social notions (both of them men- tal constructs) of what is conceivable.

    The most durable model of mind used to justify particular exercises in art has been provided by Gestalt theory (Arn- heim, 1954; Hubbard, 1967; McFee, 1961; Rowland, 1976). Yet increase in knowledge about brain functioning has brought no physiological evidence to support belief in the existence of gestalt- en. The appeal of the Gestalt position is to some extent attributable to the in- adequacy of atomistic or hierarchical models to account for the speed with which sense data are processed to pro- duce almost instantaneous complex re- sponses. But there is no empirical evidence of the presence of those elec- trocortical fields in the human brain that immediately assume, in an insomorphic pattern, the identity or gestalt of a pre- sented figure. It is merely convenient to believe that it is so.

    To use their own terminology, pro- ponents of Gestalt models may have er- red in coming to premature closure about the evidence they had on hand,

    Art Education March 1983

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  • assuming a whole on the basis of what were only the more visible parts of a much larger substratum of conceptual material. Investing those parts with the properties of law, to create a law of sim- ilarity, a law of proximity, and the like, have compounded the initial error. Their formulation has also done a dis- service to healthy questioning, for they carry an implicit invitation to uncritical acceptance of a given.

    None of the laws of Gestalt theory is a given; each is debatable. Similarity has cultural and developmental dimensions that cause it to take on different defini- tions in various settings. Small children often understand similarity to be the product of choosing one dimension from an array of possibilities. Their single mindedness differs from the con- duct of most adults, for whom similari- ty connotes the weighing of several fac- tors in the array, and in making a final judgment on best fit (MacGregor, 1975). Grouping by proximity is affected by the addition of other dimensions, such as size or brightness disparity (Kaufman, 1974). As for continuity, the so-called law being fulfilled in selecting recurring elements from an array is the behaviour of any active organism synthesizing data into tidy assemblages for future use and easy access. It is not something that mind is ineluctably compelled to do, for certain forms of continuity, if not taught, are not recognized; it is some- thing that mind chooses to pursue. Elements of similarity, proximity, and continuity are present in varying degrees in any naturally occurring visual display. The human mind makes sense of them by comparing the patterns that their interactions generate with mental con- structs created from past experience, and determines whether further action is called for. Each new experience of the same data could generate a different kind of response; it might be argued that one of the attributes of the artist is a continuing ability to find novel re- sponses within familiar data.

    The questing attitude of mind and its capacity to operate in ways not mechanistically determined may be ob- served in attempts to resolve visual illu- sions. Recognition that an illusion is pre- sent is in itself evidence of the semi- independent working of brain and mind: what we see runs contrary to what we know to be the case.

    Aside from illusions that are optical- ly induced, there remains a sizeable

    number of situations, represented by the Mueller Lyer and Hering figures, the Ponzo and Poggendorff illusions, where incongruity is cognitively recognized. Knowing that the effect is illusory fails to affect its strength next time it is pre- sented, but its impact is reduced through repeated exposures at one sitting. The latter circumstance is probably the result of invoking constancy, the mind at- tempting to neutralize or come to terms with the situation by reducing its ex- treme paradoxical features (Gregory, 1974).

    Optical illusions may be destroyed by adding to them or subtracting from them. Left intact, however, they remain intractable to final judgment. Hypoth- eses are always more or less tentative, and in the case of illusion figures, the mind is never able to come to the kind of conclusion that will finally put the matter to rest, one way or the other.

    The hypothesis-forming nature of mind is even more evident in instances where subjective contours are generated. Suppose one draws three incomplete circles, each looking like a pizza with one slice missing. When these partial circles are arranged with respect to each other so that the pie slice shapes form the points of an incomplete triangle, the tendency is to see the triangle as a com- plete figure. There is even a tendency to see the area within the illusory contour as having a different light value from the

    * he brain pro- cesses sensations, but sensation is no proof of self. Self is realized only through the development of theories about be- ing, and requires an ability to symbolize for which there is no counterpart in the physical world."

    area outside it (Kanisza, 1976). The stimulus provides just enough informa- tion for the mind to infer a hypothesis; the mind fills in the blank with a logical- ly acceptable solution. It is more then a passive tendency to closure; it is an ac- tive move to resolve ambiguity.

    Bruner (1967), Olson (1970), and numbers of their students (Bialystok, 1980; Goodnow, 1977) have been syste- matically observing modes of conduct among children that are consistent with this notion of mind. The record of human growth as they have described it is one of developing more adequate hy- potheses to account for current situa- tions and to cope with problems as these arise. It follows that the aim of art education as it affects the growth of children would be to give them oppor- tunities to develop and refine their own hypotheses, expressed through art forms or in language appropriate to the art act or work. Because direct and vicarious experience alike provide the stuff from which conjecture grows, the teacher has a pivotal role to play in that develop- ment, both in presenting information and in promoting exploration.

    Children display no uniform develop- ment of mind. They have elaborate ex- planations for certain events and almost nothing to say on others. The kind of comfort that a teacher might have de- rived from believing that children pass through a finite number of stages, each catered to by a limited number of ap- propriate activities, is not to be had. It is some consolation to know that age- stage models offer little evidence that teacher intervention is a necessary con- dition in promoting growth. Children tend to go through rather similar stages whether teachers are present or not.

    Teachers play an active role, by con- trast, in helping individuals develop strategies, and in the course of doing so, they inevitably come to know those areas in which each child is more or less confident. To catalogue logic systems begins to make sense when these are tied to events and can be discussed with their authors. Levi Strauss (1967) provides a number of examples of how categoriza- tion of logic systems may be attempted, while at the same time describing some of the difficulties of constructing a priori categories. The work of Piaget (1952; 1976) as well as that of art edu- cators like the Wilsons (1982), Pariser (1979), and Golomb (1974) are indica- tive of how narrative material con-

    Art Education March 1983 85

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  • tributed by the children themselves can shape conceptions of child growth.

    Whenever a problem is given in a classroom, some students may proceed to its solution using information ac- quired previously from outside sources, in the form of subroutines as suggested by Wilson and Wilson (1977). Others may capitalize on information provided by one or more of their colleagues who, in this instance at least, are thought to know the most efficacious way to solve the problem, and are therefore to be emulated. Still others may incorporate the problem within a logical framework that for the time being preoccupies them or appears to explain things for them. The course of the lesson is problematic but not totally lacking in prescription, since each of the strategies just described represents a choice influenced by previ- ous interactions with the teacher and with other class members, as well as by one's own ideas of what fits. Skill devel- opment remains an important part of the program, though tending to be avail- able on demand rather than presented as an end in itself. The focus in each lesson lies in saying: Here is a situation. How would you work your way through it? The focus of evaluation lies in say- ing: What kind of evidence does the work present that the learner is devel- oping a social consciousness while re- taining a sense of individuality - that is, evidence of mind operating construc- tively?

    Offsetting ambiguity about what chil- dren might know is the knowledge that certain functional aspects of brain simp- ly take care of themselves. Apart from binocularity, an aptitude that children seem to master prior to two years (Bar- low, 1975), the neural processes associated with vision develop natural- ly. The ability to see sharply, for exam- ple, wil...