art: solitary and social

I am reading Richard Ellman’s 1948 biography of WB Yeats. I have read smaller pieces before but this is more comprehensive and details his life events in relation to his literary output. Good stuff. I was struck by JB Yeats, Willie’s father, and the cogency of his philosophizing about art. JB made a go of it as a portrait painter. His paintings were well received but his family was continually poor because he completed so few commissions as he fussed over perfection. Yeats and siblings spent much time in Sligo with his mother’s family, the Pollexfens, who were well-to-do. JB gave his son much advice and direction, most of which was later spurned, while mostly educating him himself at home. It is telling that Willie did not attend Trinity College as his father planned because he seems not to have been able to pass the entrance exams.

JB thought about art and psychology a good deal and imparted that to Willie along with his disbelief in religious objects, e.g., gods. Ellman quotes JB as saying, “Art is the social action of a solitary man.” And this resonated with my biological view of art. I work here from two perspectives of artistry, one involving everyone who makes art incidentally as they live life where art is ancillary to any role and the other where the life is of an artist, where the role is to make art. I have written before of Ellen Dissanayake’s notion that the origin of art is “making special”, i.e., we make an object beautiful less from a symbolic aesthetic and more from giving that object our own special flavor (see post 5/16/16).  Art here is perhaps more decorative but it is also an expression of an individual self’s vision or inspiration. Art is an accompaniment to the person fulfilling his or her roles, so we have a person acting socially but giving it a personal touch, e.g., a worker decorating his or her tool, beautifying the home, or even painting a mural on a wall.

This is distinct from a person’s role as an artist, i.e., someone making art for art’s sake, as it were, professionally, or at least as central to their intent and not incidental as in ‘making special.’ The role of an artist is somewhat exotic in its seeming lack of utility. Art here is not made in fulfillment of a social role yet it still contributes to society. It is more the expression of an individual’s inspiration to render their experience aesthetically (thereby using the tools of art according to their aesthetic purpose) and so share a complex understanding of life with others. The role of artist is isolated from utilitarian life yet the aesthetic production participates fully in the cultural life of the group. Art here is a social action of a very circumscribed scope from a solitary perspective because it is so intimately involved with one self and that self’s aesthetic, i.e., symbolic expression of a presentational sort and not discursive, following Langer (as always; try posts 2/17/16 & 9/13/16 for example).


Given my construct of a soma with a brain and its MEMBRAIN (see posts 5/17/15, 8/11/15 & 4/17/17), we can see the self develop through three stages. At the level of the soma, the self develops through a sense of agency. Somas do things to sustain themselves, including reproduce to continue their genetic line. With the development of the brain the self develops through its retention of experience, i.e., the soma’s autobiography (this rises to a new level with the hippocampus; search for many posts like 5/27/16, 9/8/14, 12/24/15, 5/31/16 & more). With the development of the MEMBRANE (posts 11/14/14, 4/7/14 & 1/8/15) the self becomes socially defined in divers ways: through the empathic understanding of one’s own subjective domain and the objective mystery of the other’s subjective domain, the intimate roles of family, the familiar roles of cooperation, and the social mores regulating transactions with those known only through commerce and joint projects. Within each MEMBRAIN some activity is personal, i.e., self-involved, and some impersonal, i.e., defined solely by the roles characterizing the interaction or about abstract information. We mark this difference when we talk about wisdom vs. knowledge. We learn differently about death when a loved one passes from learning about numbers or metabolic processes; the former is self-involved, the latter not so much. An artist, by sharing a personal, subjective, and individually constructed symbolic work, acts socially in an intimate manner outside of any of the usual roles and relations. To paraphrase JB Yeats, an artist is a solitary person acting in a most social and intimate manner by sharing the symbolic rendition of a self’s deep experience. That is a special role indeed and not far afield from a spiritual realm.

The heirs of Wolfgang Kohler


Wolfgang Kohler

This is Wolfgang Kohler who had a remarkable and distinguished scientific career in Germany and then America where he went to elude Nazi authorities. He was one of the founders of Gestalt psychology and coined the phrase, “The whole is different from the sum of its parts.” He understood the methodological and theoretical limits of introspection and behaviorism, and he studied chimpanzees for awhile early in his career. Thank you, Wikipedia. I refreshed my memory there because his name came up in two very different books.

I have finished re-reading Edelson and Tononi’s How Matter Becomes Imagination, and Kohler is mentioned at the very end. They discuss the necessity of incorporating values and emotions into our theories and experimentation for neuroscience if we are to understand consciousness. They conclude by citing the title of Kohler’s 1938 book, The Place of Value in a World of Fact. Their stance, especially Edelson’s, that the brain is not a computer is noteworthy in this regard. Their analysis focuses on language as a necessary condition for what they call ‘secondary consciousness’. Their ‘primary consciousness’ is what I would call sentience, and while they acknowledge that our minds are embodied in social animals, their analysis slights this facet by neglecting empathy and kinesic communication to focus on linguistic symbolization.

Now contrast their approach with that of Frans der Waals who focuses on empathy and social relations and shows a high level of consciousness amongst the simians at least. I am now deep into his newest book, Are We Smart Enough to Understand How Smart Animals Are?, and he mentions Kohler many times because Kohler advocated getting to know the species by observing and working with them based upon their natural, ecologically driven behaviors. Der Waals says at one point that a human giving human tests to children and chimpanzees in order to compare their intelligence, saying they had treated them the same, is like throwing a cat and a fish in a pool and saying they had treated them the same. Kohler was early on, say 1913, a proponent of species specific talents requiring sensitivity for studying their particular intelligences. One of the great pleasures of reading this book is der Waals’ incredible knowledge of different animals’ different behaviors and what these indicate about their cognitions.


Der Waals highlights another early scientist, Jakob von Uexkull, and his concept of the Umwelt, i.e., “the perceptual world in which an organism exists and acts as subject” (from Wikipedia). The umwelt is the beginning of signifying functions for the organism. In vertebrates the sensorium or ambient of its ecological niche is different from their umwelt which is transformed by the values placed upon or interpreted from the sensorium. Important, yes? Our umwelts differ from that of chimpanzees or bonobos not in our consciousness of others but in the prominence of our conspecific relations (this from der Waals). Mammalian umwelts differ from those of non-mammals by the prominence of social relations in general.

This is one motivation for my concept of the MEMBRAIN, that part of the brain that processes social communication. Within each MEMBRAIN a self gazes upon an umwelt filled with social objects, procedures and autobiographical memory along with information from the sensorium. With the advent of symbolic capacities the umwelt depends less upon ambient information and more upon information generated within through symbolic control. The common factor in all of this is conspecific relationships.

These two books are both excellent and quite different from each other because the science behind them is quite different. Edelson (now deceased) and Tononi, who have probably forgotten more neuroscience than I will ever know, examine brain functioning from a high theoretical perspective from where they can see neural systems energize, organize, and flow as conscious processes arise to facilitate adaptive mentation. They are quite positivistic in orientation and exemplary in their understanding of the limits such an approach meets. For example, they say that art results from consciousness but that studying the brain does not contribute much to our aesthetic understanding; they say that such contemplations yield only “trivial” contributions. Amen (and someday I might discuss this in terms of a book, Biopoetics).

Der Waals, on the other hand, studies animal behavior through observation of the species in a more natural ecological setting and through experimental designs based upon our current understanding of the animal’s umwelt. In his discussion of animal research we see the power of life as it is manifested in mental control of adaptive processes and the biological roots of our humanity. Travel on.

Intimacy and MEMBRAIN 2.0: ripening and bruising

I have been thinking more about the MEMBRAIN with its intimate functioning and its risk of disruption (think recent news reports of sexual assaults on campus). Imagine a head of cauliflower, how it develops up from the stem, expands through the addition of increasingly differentiated flowerets, and then ripens as a model of the brain. The growth follows two gradients, first from the inside out and of course, bottom to top.


Looking at the ‘brain’ from the bottom we can see how its growth spreads and expands through differentiated tissues. Our brains start with a neural tube from which all the nerve and glial cells emerge and then travel to their assigned place; the tube ends up being the ventricles wherein cerebral-spinal fluid is made to bathe the cells in nutrients. At the head of the tube the midbrain and cerebrum form with all their lobes and wrinkles.


Imagine further that different vertical structures operate with different neurotransmitters, so that some of the ‘florets’ are one color and some another, some fire up quickly in passing and some slow and sustained, and then further that ‘floret’ tops communicate with each other through long fibers front and back (green bands), left and right (commissures). Get the picture? (Yes, we see).


As stated in the last post, intimacy involves very open MEMBRAIN functions, much is let in and out, not much is kept in or out. This permeability is managed through the arousal (and then the attentional) system that initiates from a central structure and goes up into the cerebrum. That is the red circle at top. Indeed, when you watch an fMRI you can see the intensity of arousal rising up through the middle and then spreading out as the lateral systems begin to process front and back, left and right.


We start our intimate journey at the outset with our parents when our brains are beginning to ripen, i.e., mature. When we attach and bond with them we are using and developing lower and central structures and because the right side matures earlier than the left, we are also using our right hemisphere more. The mother-child communication is done with the right side of the brain.


These experiences are important for oh so many reasons, particularly because this helps us develop our control of emotional arousal and thus MEMBRAIN permeability. Wow! And later, as the left hemisphere comes into its own, the child learns to attend to fine motor tasks while ensconced in a safe, nurturant and guiding relationship.

Father child

Now some early events can bruise the ripening fruit and affect its subsequent development, subtly affecting its capacity for intimacy. Should the mother become unavailable through emotional difficulties, illness, substance abuse, physical absence (think military deployment), or death, this loss can affect how the brain ripens. Likewise, trauma, especially family violence and sexual abuse, bruises the brain and this bruise can be seen in the deficient development of emotional control and the subsequent compromise of intimacy. And this is important because we start by developing our intimacy capacity as we travel on to develop our intellectual abilities.

Consider two features of children with attachment disorders and/or an early history of family based trauma. The first is that they want constantly and this want is rarely satisfied. The parent (figure) can give and give but the child does not take it in really; their MEMBRAIN is impervious to affection and its manifestations. You give them a hug and they want more or something else or you hugged another child so . . . or you give them shrimp and they want steak or . . .you get the idea. This emotional coldness extends to their own lack of empathic consideration for others. The second is that they do not operate with sequential reasoning very well and this includes responsibility for their own actions. Parents can watch the child’s misbehavior directly and then grow exasperated when the child denies its actions. When working with them therapists (and parents) have to back up a step and teach them to think in story board form like a comic strip, e.g., this follows from this and that follows from that. Their intellectual grasp of these matters was compromised when the MEMBRAIN was bruised early on.

The violation of intimacy by males sexually assaulting females is related to this and I will say more later about that, but I am also getting an itch to talk about other topics. So long for now.