Our future as a species will not depend on our ability to process data or material at an increasingly rapid rate so much as it will depend on developing our ability to feel compassion for ourselves and for the entire living world. The exclusively materialist views of our existence, intelligence, technology, and conceptions of the universe maintain – and even worsen – a situation in which the vast majority continues to suffer while a tiny minority prospers.
As the evidence of millennia of human history demonstrates, it may well turn out that it is not our massive forebrain that will save us or give our lives meaning. For without strong feelings of connectedness binding us one to another and to the entire ecosystem which sustains us, we remain forever bound to the dysfunctional pursuit of individual prosperity at the expense of the suffering of others and the destruction of our fragile environment.
It is most fortuitous that recent discoveries in neuroscience are uncovering aspects of the human being which underscore the evolutionary significance of our capacity to experience bonds of empathy. Initially found in macaque monkeys and subsequently confirmed in the human brain, a grouping of cells in the premotor cortex known as “mirror neurons” respond when actions are both taken and perceived. And they can also be observed to fire in corresponding ways during the feeling and perception of emotion.
This living connection between individuals is the neurological bridge upon which interpersonal – and even inter-species – bonds essential to socialization, understanding, and empathy are formed. Because our actions have instantaneous effects that can be felt around the world at the speed of electronic communication, now more than ever in our evolutionary history, developing empathy and compassion for other human beings and for the whole of life is necessary to our continued survival.
To that end, it is fitting to remind ourselves that, as we attend to the material details of living our daily lives, we can accomplish our highest goals and fulfill our destinies by the simple method of listening to ourselves and each other closely enough to hear our heartbeats – by remembering, practicing, and envisioning what it means to be fully human.
Image: “I Feel What You Feel” by Tullio DeSantis, 2011
My quest to understand the connection between the mind and the world arises from the aesthetic impulse, in which the manifold forms of human experience are mediated by means of artistic representation
The rapid advances in modern neuroscience have demonstrably paralleled corresponding advances in brain imaging techniques. Our ability to see finer and finer details of the brain in operation and to draw connections between related structures and locations in the brain have allowed us to begin the complex task of mapping the geography of consciousness in ways that further understanding and yield practical applications. These technological advances offer great potential for aesthetic contemplation and conscious evolution.
The vast majority of sensory processing in the brain is dedicated to vision. Many times more neurons are involved in seeing than in hearing, touch, or the other senses. The visual cortex and the optical pathways constitute the largest brain system. In a very deep way, our consciousness is a process of seeing the world and reflecting upon it. To see a thing is to begin to understand it. The power to imagine is the power to visualize.
By supplementing visual stimuli with auditory, tactile, and other sensory cues, the human sensorium is reproduced in multimedia technology with increasing precision. The promise of virtual reality and total-immersion simulation is the fulfillment of the human desire to create the world anew in our own image. This was the urge that drove the first virtual-reality artists to delve deep into the caves of prehistory and recreate the agony and ecstasy of human experience upon the cavernous walls in rituals that united art, spirituality, and practical knowledge. This is what it means to be human. It is the essential faculty we have projected upon our deities…the creation of the universe is our greatest work of art.
Image 1: “Art and Mind” by Tullio DeSantis, altered ink drawing, 2011
Images 2 and 3: Results returned by a Google Images search for “brain imaging*
As an artist, writer, and educator, I am able to observe the progress of personal and societal creative evolution on a daily basis. I see human minds, often replete with great collections of relatively isolated facts, gain insight, not so much by learning new facts, but more by forging connections between the facts they already know. This process of creating connections between items of information is the natural intelligence of evolution at work.
We become more educated by becoming more aware of the vast networks of interconnection which exist and bind things together. Consciousness improves by the process of self-consciousness and awareness is multiplied by self-awareness.
Learning occurs as a feedback process. We learn by observing the interconnectedness of our inner experience and the outside world. Feedback is both an educational and therapeutic process. Not surprisingly, it is an essential component of cybernetics and artificial intelligence.
A recent study published by researchers at the University of British Columbia demonstrates the positive value of self-awareness by indicating that people can improve their thinking by observing their brainwaves.
Using fMRI technology, participants who observed images of their brain activity during the successful execution of cognitive tasks performed better than those who performed the tasks without the visual feedback.
This basic demonstration of the evolutionary significance of self-awareness reveals the potential of biofeedback and neurofeedback modalities, which are increasingly becoming an important component of educational and theraputic practice. My work with mindfulness technologies includes research, experimentation, art, and writing on biofeedback and neurofeedback. The links below lead to recent ARTology blog entries on these subjects:
Note: This section is in process of being reconstructed from archives.
Me and My Brainwaves – ARTology – 04/02/10
This is My Mind, Part 1 – ARTology – 04/10/2010
Brainwaves and Thoughts for a Better World – ARTology – 08/21/10
Brainwaves, Part 1 – ARTology – 03/08/11
Brainwaves, Part 2: What is Neurofeedback? – ARTology – 03/10/11
Brainwaves, Part 3: Brain Training and Entrainment – 03/18/11
Image 1: “MindWaves 2011” by Tullio DeSantis, altered ink drawing, 2011
Image 2: The rostrolateral prefrontal cortex region of the brain. The brain-training location employed in the UBC study
The prevailing paradigm for what is considered a complete description of reality has changed many times in human history. The deep, even desperate, need for meaning in our lives has impelled us to erect great conceptual superstructures to explain the true nature of the ground beneath our feet, the air that fills our lungs, and the entire celestial panoply from atoms and quarks to gods and galaxies.
The contemporary metaphors we use to map the territory of the ineffable are mathematical and digital. Our scientific world view is like earlier metaphysical paradigms, in that from a relatively small amount of data, we hypothesize an entire cosmology, which is as much a system of belief as it is a description of actual events.
And this is the essence of the entire enterprise, I think. From the moment the clear blue sky entered human eyes and we were moved to describe the terrifying and marvelous experience of being alive in the universe, what we have revealed most truly is the inner landscape of our hearts and minds. And what is reflected in the finely polished mirrors of the great space telescopes is the vastness of our innerness enlivened by countless sparks of creative intelligence.
Image – “The World is a Pattern of Intelligence” By Tullio DeSantis, altered ink drawing, 2011.