Professor of Psychology
University of California, Berkeley
"If You Depict a Bird, Give It Space to Fly":
Eastern Psychologies, the Arts, and Self-Knowledge
An evolutionary perspective on imaginative art forms may tell us about the origins and usefulness of play, simulation, cooperation, bonding, empathy, competition, planning, narrative, fantasy, imagination, metaphor, morality, symbols, neurology, cognition, representation, meta-representation and all the other tools deemed necessary for human development, survival, and reproduction. It does not tell us about the art of art forms. When we are deeply struck (for example, when the terrible climax of a tragedy is known and felt as incomprehensibly, timelessly perfect), we seem to have a glimpse of something else -- something other than a survival mode of being. In fact, of something other than the way our mind usually functions, or the way we think it functions.
The problem is this: our present cognitive sciences (and language and folk psychology) give a particular analytic picture of the human mind and body. But that picture is roundly contradicted by another coexisting set of human intimations and intuitions. These alternative intuitions are most fully developed in the meditative and contemplative traditions of the world. Such traditions have evolved systems for talking about those intuitions and methods for teaching people how to know and live them. Within our scientific traditions, we have developed methods for constructing theories and performing experiments which are dependent on the analytic worldview. Between the two is a no man's land. In it live and flourish the arts.
I will argue that the special province of the arts is to show people themselves in a mirror which reflects their ordinary self image in the light of that deeper and broader understanding. Three domains will be explored:
1) Humans as a part of nature. Perhaps it is because humans already have the ability to directly know themselves as an interdependently arising part of the energies of nature that they would think to elaborate this into systems such as Darwinism. Among the meditation traditions, it is Taoism that focuses most on the human/nature connection. The closest expression of this in the cognitive sciences is the ecological psychology of J. J. Gibson, with its offshoot the ecological self, as elaborated by Neisser and others. However, when this is expressed in an art, such as Chinese landscape painting or Van Gogh or the writing style of Hemingway, it has the power to awaken in us an intuitive knowing of a different quality with different implications than does its scientific expression.
2) Humans as a part of humanity. It is the way in which we know this that is at issue. In psychology, the intersubjective self (see Ellen Dissanayake's paper) comes closest to the intuition of human interdependence. Confucianism expresses a vision of human inter-relations which has been highly influential in Asia (and which our cross-cultural research is presently prone to mistake as psychological collectivism). As cognitive psychology points out, the intersubjective self becomes temporally and conceptually extended through the remembered, narrated, and conceptual selves. Thus narrative is the art form most readily expressive and transformative of such human complexity.
3) Humans as a part of inexpressible, unthinkable openness and "sacredness". That is the gist of it all. (It may sound somber but humor is as good as haiku for flashing openness.) You'd think this domain would be the special province of religion, but in fact the world's religions have been mostly otherwise engaged -- for good sociological and psychological reasons. All the meditation traditions have had a great deal to say about this, maybe too much. Our cognitive sciences have had nothing at all to say about it, which may be too little. The problem is that, by its very nature, whenever you turn to face into or to actively pursue this ground of the mind, what you see is something else. But the arts can do a great job of getting through to us because they can slip it to us sideways so to speak. The twist is: so can life.
Einstein said that problems can
never be solved with the same mind that created them. Maybe psychology
needs the arts.
Eleanor Rosch is a professor in the Psychology Department at the University of California, Berkeley. Her work has been in the psychology of concepts and categories and in Eastern psychologies. Books include Cognition and categorization (Erlbaum, 1978) and The embodied mind: Cognitive science and human experience (with Varela & Thompson, MIT, 1991). Recent papers most relevant to this presentation are: "The environment of minds: Towards a noetic and hedonic ecology" (in Friedman & Carterette, eds., Cognitive Ecology. Academic Press, 1996) and "Transformation of the wolf man" (in J. Pickering, ed., The authority of experience: Essays on Buddhism and psychology. Curzon, 1997).