Sunday, January 24, 2010

Defining art

I've recently finished reading Denis Dutton's book The Art Instinct. While I have no problem with making "high art" restrictive, I do think that we are crippling ourselves as a society with the implied idea that any visual product that is not "high art" is defective or worthless. I see art more in terms of "stimulating art" and "relaxing art". It is my experience that if someone doesn't have enough stability in their life, they are more moved by relaxing images, while someone who need more stimulation in their life, whose life lacks any real challenges, goes for the stimulating images. Both needs are valid and both needs can cause great psychological and physical harm if they are not met in some fashion. If you doubt the need for relaxing art, just look at the statistics on stress-related diseases and disorders. If you doubt the need for stimulation, look at the people who turn to drugs, the extreme risk-takers, and the lines at horror movies.

Here is Dutton's list of the cluster qualities that define "art" (or what I am calling "stimulative art"):

1) Direct Pleasure
2) Skill and virtuosity
3) Style
4) Novelty and creativity
5) Critism (or "illicits a positive or negative judgment")
6) Representation
7) Special focus
8) Expressed individuality
9) Emotional saturation
10) Intellectual challenge
11) Art traditions or institutions
12) Imaginative experience

From an economic point of view, the values usually assigned to high art are justified. In fact, high art, as it currently exists, is probably the greatest example of consumerism there is. Even Dutton recognizes this when he writes, "The created work of art may be more impressive if it is remote from any possible use." According to his theories, art developed in humans as a means to signal that one has more than enough resources to spare for a suitable mate. With that in mind, it's not surprising that some people act like snobs about the stuff - they're trying to place themselves above their competition.

After discussing the evolutionary purposes for art and some of its historic importance, Dutton gives us four primary properties of (stimulative) art:

1) Complexity
2) Serious content
3) Purpose
4) Distance (not done to please others)

You might consider reading Dutton's book to get a better idea of what he means with each of these because not only don't I want to infringe on his copyright, but your interpretation of his explanation may be different than mine - especially since, as humans, we all read our own meanings into things. (Sort of contradictory there, aren't I?)

Before I go on to what I call "relaxation art", I am going to give a nod to Dutton's concept of self-affirming art (my term). This is art that helps a person re-inforce a view of themselves. At its best, it helps people to grow and enables a sense of stability of self. At its worst, which is what Dutton talks about when he talks about destructive kitsch (versus charming kitsch), it creates a shallow view of the self, rooted in appearence more than substance. The first type of self-affirming art is usually created by the person, themselves, as a means of self-exploration and integration. The second is often purchased and mass-made. Though, in my opinion, being mass-made is not enough to make the owner shallow. Some mass-made objects act as a means of social identification of shared values, as in reproduced religious works, or a means of group affiliation, such as sports related imagery. As to whether or not these means of group identification can be considered art if they meet other criteria, well, I have no definite opinion on that. Though I do reserve the right to giggle at someone who uses it as a means to declare their uniqueness.

Now, on to "relaxation art", which is as near as I can figure out a concept not fully conceived of in formal terms in our society. We skirt the edges of it, but because it often refers back to the natural world, we humans tend to neglect it as not being as creative as stimulation art. Here is my criteria for "relaxing art":

1) Evokes a sense of peace and well-being (lowers the blood pressure and encourages deep breathing).
2) Like stimulative art, it was done purposefully.
3) Holds the attention of the eye, without "shock tactics".
4) Like stimulative art, greater skill makes it more effective.

I realize that what I am describing exists in some form in many living rooms and offices, in the form of landscapes, cityscapes, portaits and still-lifes. I maintain that there is a good reason for it, especially in this day and age where people are becoming more and more divorced from traditional stabilizing factors in their lives, like working with nature, social traditions, and such. Some of these things needed to be changed, but that doesn't mean that we can ignore the loss of stability caused by the change. Luckily, there are ways of increasing stability and I believe that introducing more natural elements into urban areas is a necessary one. Relaxing art is an easier way for most folks to do the same. If I ever do become an art therapist, I have every intention of having high-quality relaxing art in my waiting area. I want the stimulation art in a session to come from the client, themselves.

While thinking on this topic, I had a vision of some future expert going, "According to our tests, Mr. Thomas, to achieve optimal emotional satifaction and cognitive functioning, the art around you needs to be 35% relaxing, 45% stimulating, and 10% self-affirming." I laughed at the thought, reminding myself that to some extent, we do this on our own - provided we are allowed to and are not shamed out of it. (I was very pleased that Dutton discussed the social pressure of aesthetic formalism in his book.)

Long story short, as long as it doesn't completely surround me to the point I can't find some visual relief, or deliberately offensive, I don't have a problem with most people's tastes in art. I usually carry enough internal images in my own mind to make me happy. What really annoys me is people complaining loudly and incessantly about having their delicate art senses abused. What can I say? I'm sorry that the world doesn't revolve around you. To quote Ramana Maharshi: "Wanting to reform the world without discovering one's true self is like trying to cover the world with leather to avoid the pain of walking on stones and thorns. It is much simpler to wear shoes."

Monday, January 18, 2010


It has occured to me with all the "heavy" stuff on this blog, I might want to introduce more of the art stuff, if only as a breather. I'm also considering posting more about the terms of art and design. But for now, I'm going to share with you one of my favorite places - the Wimberley Glassworks.

If you are ever in the Austin or San Antonio areas, you should visit. The glassblowers are currently working Wednesday through Saturday from approximately 10:30 to 12:30 and 1:30 to 4:30. When we went, the demonstration was as entertaining as it was fascinating.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Research on Learning Styles

There have been a major paper on learning styles in the months since I finished my capstone paper. Neurologically, the empirical research is not good for those who ascribe to them. I refer you to the following sources that pretty much shred the idea that learning styles have an actual brain structure foundation:

Springer, S. P. & Deutsch, G. (1998). Left brain, right brain: perspectives from cognitive neuroscience. 5th ed. New York : W. H. Freeman and Company.
Smeets, G., & Merckelbach, H. (1997, November). Panic disorder and right-hemisphere reliance. Anxiety, Stress & Coping, 10(3), 245. Retrieved December 1, 2008, from Academic Search Premier database.
Zalewski, L., Sink, C., & Yachimowicz, D. (1992, January). Using cerebral dominance for education programs. The Journal Of General Psychology, 119(1), 45-57. Retrieved December 2, 2008, from MEDLINE database.

The paper referenced in the article, "Matching Teaching Style to Learning Style May Not Help Students", has caused quite a stir with many educators. However, from what I've read of it (being that I am too poor to go around and subscribing to all these journals to see the full paper), it is quite correct about the lack of solid research and validity on the matter. Based on my own research into the subject, the styles don't really map onto the cognitive functions in a clear and concise manner.

The crux of the matter is that the theory of learning styles does have some usefulness in practical application, just not necessarily to the degree many people want it to have. The main author of the paper is quite right to compare it to the Myer-Briggs stuff - the two theories are very similiar in many ways. They work well in clear cut and dry situations, but most humans are not like that. If you try applying them religiously, you will start having to make exceptions to the point that you have something that resembles the rules for spelling English words.

For me, I see the Myer-Briggs Temperment Indicator (and to some extent learning styles) the same way I see the Lewis Dot]Electron Dot diagrams in chemistry. They can only describe things on the simplest level. Get into more complex personalities (which doesn't mean "unhealthy" ones, many healthy personalities can actually be quite complex and some of the simplest personalities can be very unhealthy) and everything starts falling apart, like working with transition metals. Which makes complete sense to me, because healthy individuals actually change in personality traits over time, due to maturation, mental and emotional stresses, illness/health and other developmental process affecting agents. Some MBTI experts do take this into consideration and adjust for it. It is also possible for chemists using metals to use electron dot diagrams with metals, by keeping a reference of possible electron charges near them. However, there is a great danger on relying on any of these methods for more than a cursory beginning. They only briefly describe the surface situtation. Their premises for the deeper levels have no validity on the scientific level.

It's sort of like knowing that tornados in the middle of the United States usually come from the southwest and go to the northeast. You know that is what normally happens by looking at the destruction afterwards, however, that never stops a tornado from going the opposite direction for a little while, before going back to the normal track. Nor can you really know what path it will travel. And when it comes to personality, learning and cognition, there is no such thing as a straight line between points A and B.

My Capstone Files

The function of hemispheric asymmetry in regards to perceptions, cognition, and emotions.

The intent of this capstone project is to study the hemispheric-specific traits of the brain to identify how these traits affect perception, cognition, and emotion. It is hypothesized that a counselor could theoretically increase rapport with their client by having a greater understanding of how the brain affects the mind. To determine whether this idea has any possible scientific basis, a literary review of professional books and journal articles dealing with brain hemispheres and mental functions was conducted. Research was focused on perception, cognition, emotion, concept of self and ways to identity hemispheric dominance. Personality was also an aspect originally considered, but none of the literature reviewed made any reference to it.

Main Paper

The hemispheres take on many hats as they work together, outside of the commonly repeated visuospatial and verbal ones. In regards to perception, the left hemisphere acts as a reporter, keeping an ear out for language patterns and detailed information. It looks for past occurrences and hints to future events. The right hemisphere acts as a sentry, constantly scanning the surroundings and looking for anomalies that may signal a threat to the body. Aware of the present moment, it notes distances and forms. When it comes to cognition, the left hemisphere is a bricklayer, breaking down information into smaller parts and arranging it into analytical series. Where gaps appear, the left will cover them with its own version of mental mortar. The right hemisphere acts as a project manager, on alert for mistakes and incongruities, while calculating the relationships of the elements involved. In memory, the right hemisphere cues the left hemisphere with generalities, so it can retrieve memories and link them in sequential order. Emotionally, the left hemisphere relies on the past to guide it, using the models and scripts it has created. While the right hemisphere focuses more on current physical and emotional sensations.

In regards to helping counselors relate to their clients better, this data won’t necessarily lead to a better therapeutic alliance. However, there are other ideas that counselors can take from this information to help their clients. Dr. Taylor’s recovery from her stroke shows how controlling one’s emotional environment can help their psychological well-being. Another lesson from her experience that has not been mentioned here yet, is the fact that when her left brain began to recover some of its scripts, she made a conscious effort not to let the negative ones reassert themselves. Her gestalt therapist probably deserves some credit for this, but it is obvious that the ability to say, “this is just my brain trying to do its thing,” did her a lot of good. When Dr. Taylor finds herself in a mental loop that is harshly critical, counter-productive, or out of control, she gives herself 90 seconds to let the emotional/physical response dissipate before re-evaluating the situation and acting. (Taylor, 2007) Being able to give some clients this self-knowledge might enable them to work with their mental processes, instead of fighting them in unproductive ways.

There is obviously a need for further study in this area. For instance, it is possible that learning styles may positively impact the therapeutic alliance, but the field needs more valid tests and research. The idea that false memories can be detected needs to be tracked longitudinally to check for the effects of memory fading. In the areas of depression, anxiety, and BDD, researchers are only scratching the surface. It would be very interesting to see if training techniques that help stroke victims would also help people with these disabilities.


Sunday, January 10, 2010

Continuing the vein of "We see what we want to see"

Another good article on the subject => Desire influences visual perception

I love the intro: "WE tend to assume that we see our surroundings as they really are, and that our perception of reality is accurate. In fact, what we perceive is merely a neural representation of the world, the brain's best guess of its environment, based on a very limited amount of available information."

It really is a fascinating article. It would seem that our brains literally make the objects of our desire seem "within our reach" by making them appear closer than the actually are. Or in art phraseology, puts them more in the foreground of our visual field. On one hand, it sounds like a cool "carrot" approach on the brain's part. On the other hand, it also explains why people often give up on a goal when they really are on the verge of achieving it.

Morals and Ethics Test Sites

This website is a collaboration among five social psychologists who study morality and politics. Our goal was to create a site that would be useful and interesting to users, particularly ethics classes and seminars, and that would also allow us to test a variety of theories about moral psychology. One of our main goals is to foster understanding across the political spectrum. Almost everyone cares about morality, and we want to understand --and to help others understand -- the many different ways that people care. - website's "About Us" page

My results for the Moral Foundations Questionnaire based on Haidt's research:
- On the harm avoidance scale, I'm higher than the average Liberal.
- On the fairness scale, I'm closer the to Liberal score than the Conservation one.
- On the loyalty sale, I'm between the two sides.
- On the authority scale, I'm closer to the Conservative one.
- On the purity scale, I'm higher than the average Conservative.

There are many other studies on the site you can participate in, each with the appropriate research disclosure statement at the start of them.

Ethical Personality Test

The concept for the test has been designed by Roger Steare, Visiting Professor of Organizational Ethics at Cass Business School. He is the author of the book “ethicability®” which describes a proven framework for making tough choices in life and work ( - website's "welcome" page

There is also this disclaimer: "The test results and report are for personal education purposes only. They are not designed to be relied on as a methodology for assessing the character of any individual and should not be used as such in any circumstances."

Unlike the other moral test above, the results are based on theory and not strict research. That is not to say that there isn't any research on the subject. It is baded on Kolhberg and Gillian's work and the author is more than willing to release a PDF of it if you contact him through the site. (Which I will do soon.) I would like to point out, however, that there are very valid critisms of Kolhberg's and Gilligan's work: the bias towards the researchers' own value systems and the focus on only the ethic of autonomy.

My results:

PRS Type Moral DNA

Judges believe that moral principle, or “virtue” is the most important ethical perspective. They ask “what would be the fair thing to do?” Then they’ll make sure that laws, rules and contracts have been complied with, although they’ll sometimes “interpret” a rule differently to be consistent with their principles. Finally they’ll consider the human dimension and the impact of their decisions on others. Judges are stubborn but good to have around when the going gets tough. About 17% of adults are Judges.

Strengths: Good at solving really challenging dilemmas.
Weaknesses: Could lack empathy with others in making tough decisions. May sometimes bend the rules if they believe a higher principle is at stake.

Other posts on this blog dealing with this subject:

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Hello, my name is _____ and I am a snarky person.

Like many people, I can be very snarky. Snarky to the point that I can get you long testimonials of my cutting "wit" and sarcasm without hardly any effort - assuming these people haven't blocked my email address. There are people who will swear that I am completely incapable of not being snarky and consider me the Devil Incarnate (or at the very least, "the monster who lurks under the bed"). There are other people who will swear that I am the sweetest person on the face of this Earth and completely incapable of hurting a single living being. These people usually know me outside the internet. There is one term that explains both phenomena - observational bias. I am neither extreme. But that's not the topic of this post.

The topic of this post is snark and using it with restraint.

If there is one thing I've learned as I've gotten older is that nothing makes a person more stupid than the overuse of snark. It narrows one's world view by disregarding possibilities. It subverts the brain's ability to comprehend what psychologists call a "theory of mind" or the ability to understand a situation from a view other than your own. My son used to love listening to some very snarky product review shows. While the technical information given on these shows is top rate, the subjective value judgments by the hosts/writers is so appalling ignorant in social and behavioral understanding that I would become nauseous holding back the urge to correct their comments with research. Stupid doesn't begin to cover the comments. Stupidity implies that they lack the mental ability to comprehend possibilities outside their own. No, this is quite beyond that. This is the suspension of the reality that they are not the center of the universe and its only truth. This is self-made idiocy. The kind researchers talk about when they write about IQ being like height to a basketball player. Height can give a basketball player an advantage, but only is he uses it. Research has shown that scoring a high IQ score does not mean that the person will actually use those reasoning skills on a regular basis. A good editorial article for laymen on the subject is: Clever fools: Why a high IQ doesn't mean you're smart.

But snark can be useful. Just like a crowbar. The trick is to recognized when a situation needs it and to apply it with some precision and care. If you're skilled enough with either, you can correct a sticky situation with minimal damage. Unfortunately, most of us are apes when it comes to both and tend to leave gapping holes, without budging the object of resistance.

It's also great for setting boundaries. While I showed some capacity for snark as a young person, I tried to avoid it because it "wasn't nice". Unfortunately, my nice boundaries were too encompassing, due to the fact that the people who drummed it into my head that I always needed to be nice were also the first to exploit my niceness. And as it is with all systems that get stretched beyond reasonable limits, I was forced eventually to compensate as a means of self-preservation. This meant that I had to take that snark crowbar that I kept locked up and learn how to use it. It also meant, with time, I had to also learn how not to use it.

I won't lie to you, it has taken years - and I started late. I've made my fair share of gapping holes. But at least I haven't gotten stuck in them and they're getting smaller with time. I figure in another decade, if my progress continues, I might even be skilled enough to use it effectively with minimal force - and not leave a scratch.

Mirror neurons

The greatest thing I think/feel that comes from mirror neuron research is the scientific proof of empathy as an actual human quality, based in neurological structure, versus the idea that it's just something we try to tell ourselves we can have. The second greatest thing of this research is that it also gives us a better idea why we have empathy and how we benefit from it.

This talk covers all of that AND gives us more to consider, based on the research of the phantom limb phenomenon.

In a way, humans benefit from the ability to have a "hive" mind, based on mirror neurons, and also individuality, based on sensory feedback. This dual modality is the basis of our ability to create complex and highly varied civilizations. With it, we can grasp organization and chaos. The trick is managing both.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Gallagher on Education and Language

Was he a man before his time? Or have we just not been listening to those who talk about the limitations of schools in training the creative mind?

Will we ever listen?