Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Chapter 5: Nature's Boundaries of Wellbeing and Selfhood

Links to Other Chapters in this Series

Chapter 1: A First Lesson in Drawing
Chapter 2:  Introducing the Dynamic Workspace
Chapter 3 : Words - Plastic Facts
Chapter 4 : Humpty Dumpty's Plastic World of Oneness
Chapter 5: Nature's Boundaries of Well being and Selfhood

Chapter 5 Nature's Boundaries of Wellbeing and Selfhood 

Why line drawings work

Suppose I want to tell a friend what a little porcelain fish looks like.

 I might make a line drawing like this

You will notice that the drawing is made up with just lines without shading, yet somehow it is enough to convey the identity, individual character, shape and form of the complex object, but it fails to tell my friend anything about the colour of the object.  Marks on the  dynamic workspace mimic how the brain works.

There is a simple way to trick our minds into showing us the subconscious mind at work.  All you need to do is hold an object a few inches in front of your right eye, but not in front of my left eye. 

I did this with my porcelain fish, at first my right eye saw the complete fish.

But after one or two seconds big holes appeared and I was looking straight through the object, except where there are strongly contrasting borders of colour and tone.   This is my picture of what my fish looked like after the holes appeared

The mind strategy is to work with the very minimum amount of new sensory data at the same time as not  compromising  our ability to make accurate high value predictions about what the eyes are seeing.  It does this by looking for important borders which are what these stripes of colour follow, the data being collected follow the same arrangement as the lines in my drawing.  Line drawings simulate the code the retina uses when it presents visual information to the subconscious mind, which is pretty damn near my definition of Active Drawing.  You can try this test for yourself by holding a coin in front of one eye and you will  see a big round hole through the centre.  

You will notice that the image that is created in our minds uses coloured lines.  Painters sometimes colour the inner edge of objects, but leave large holes in their centres.  This information is enough to to give the illusion of solid colour.  Here is a sketch by Paul Cezanne using this technique to draw fruit. 

Sketch of fruit by Paul Cezanne

Our subconscious minds are obsessed with borders because they are an energy-saving method of dealing with the raw data of sight.  The physiological mechanism by which the cones of the retina find the borders of objects is already well understood, but we still do not understand how the mind is able to work with the plasticity of shapes and patterns.

Plasticity of shapes

In earlier chapters we looked at the plasticity of a smiley face.  You will remember that it is possible to give personality and identity to a Smiley by changing the shape of the circular outer border.  For instance some of our friends have very round faces and weak chins, whilst others have long faces with pointed chins. Our brains are extremely good at recognising the shapes of things and organising  objects of the outside world into classes of objects. 
All these patterns are morphed using plasticity within the limits of the rules of a Smiley (see chapter 1, NB I cheated on the buttterfly allowing the mouth to has switch to become abdomen.)  Two patterns belong to the class human face, we have no trouble seeing which two are human.  All the others are part of the class "animals"

All these patterns are derived from the smiley pattern

Amongst the animal faces two are of the same class "rabbits", again we have no trouble identifying them, all the others belong to singular categories of animal; there are a cat, a lamb, a puppy and a butterfly (class insect). We have no trouble distinguishing patterns that belong to a common class (humans and rabbits) from patterns that are in a unique class of there own (cat, lamb, butterfly and puppy) or we can divide the group in other ways, maybe between Mammals and insects. This may seem a very simple task for us because we take for granted the miraculous way our subconscious brain handles and categorises patterns.  The pattern recognition abilities of the brain are impossible for a modern computer to replicate, so understanding how the brain organises and manage pattern recognition is one of the unachieved goals of research into artificial intelligence.

Intuitively we like to think that computers and the mind have a lot in common, in fact they have completely different ways of working with data. Neurones can reset themselves a mere 200 times a seconds, which is five million times slower that a transistor in a modern computer which will reset itself more than a billion times a second. The 5 million times faster computers find it difficult to recognise the shapes of letters against a background noise.


For the moment I want to leave this subject of how the brain works, this chapter is about borders, and how they are intimately implicated with our sense of self and spirit. 

The Well-being of Selfhood

Nature is dumb, breaks all the rules of rationality and objective truth, but ends up designing life forms which are self reproducing, self healing, self aware and able to fly.  We know Nature's success is largely down to the use of plasticity which enables evolution and adaption, which is a most cruel method of development that depends on ruthless competition to benefit the fittest and drive failure to extinction.  The irony is that from the heartless melting pot of plasticity Nature has given us the  most ethereal of gifts; the invention of well being and self.  Nature's benign concept of Self happened right at the birth of life because it is critical for the evolution of all life forms, without knowledge of Self an organism cannot know what is to be preserved and reproduced.  Self is also the necessary first step along the way to creating the most fundamental and most taken for granted of all our senses, a feeling of wellbeing and of our own substance in the world.  As we move forward with visual grammar we will find that understanding drawing cannot be done without understanding Self, and that understanding happens through the maintenance of a constant dialogue between mind and body.

An Aeroplane, like other inventions of science, are a collection of parts fitted together. When one part breaks the pilot tells the engineer who diagnoses the cause and changes the worn out bits.  The machine knows nothing about it.  Our bodies are different because we are a community of 100s of billions cells, each and every one of which has to be kept in good condition or the whole body will die.  This means Nature's machines work on a different paradigm, like and aeroplane each part of the machine has to be maintained and contribute to the smooth running of the whole organism, but the difference is that the whole organism has an equally important contract to look after the well being of each and every cell.  The cells have to tell the body when they are under stress or unwell, and the body has to respond with treatments, supplies of nutrients, energy and stable temperatures.  Our sense of well being and Self-hood is dependent on the maintenance of this balance between the interests of the cell and the interests of the whole body, and to keep this happening there has to be a constant two way dialogue between the cells and the whole body.

Nature has a habit of making borders round its creations.  Even the simplest single celled organisms like bacteria and algae are bagged inside membrane sacks which make a continuous porous border where transactions between what goes on  inside the cell walls and outside world are regulated.  Inside the living structures life preserves itself by providing the optimal conditions for the maintenance and nourishment of the tools of reproduction and selfsufficiency (homoeostasis), at the same time the organism has behaviours that identify and exploit the resources it needs to find and take from outside world. Floating in the cytoplasm of cells are even smaller bagged structures which have their own DNA and their own independent ability to reproduce, these structures are collectively called organelles.  Organelles include mitochondria which are the power stations of bacteria, and plastids which convert sunlight into energy.  So we have bagged structures within bagged structures

It is obvious how using membranes and skins are important to keeping the integrity of the plants and animal together.  I am going to introduce you to an observation that is harder to explain; the virtual world of Visual Grammar operates very similar systems of putting inanimate things, or parts of inanimate things into virtual containers.  The things that are bagged in this way are then thought of as objects.  This is sort of puzzling, what is even more puzzling is the way the mind then gives the inanimate objects it has artificially created names, emotions and spirit.

An example an object that has a name, emotions and spirit is Mount Fuji. This object has become a national symbol of Japan.  The objective truth of science tells us that Mount Fuji is a large lump of lifeless rock and earth, on its surface is a very light sprinkling of vegetation and snow.   The weather at the top of the lump is extreme and on the lower slopes the land is useless for farming  If we ask ourselves where the base of the lump begins or ends we do not really know because there is no real boundary between the ground and the lump.  From a practical point of view Mount Fuji is a useless and dangerous lump of rock that we have to drive around.

This picture describes how we feel about Mount Fuji; serene, majestic, reliable and beautiful.  This fantasy about a living mountain is every bit as extreme as Emily Dikinson's poem about corpses talking to each other about the nature of truth.  So why do we do it?

To create a mental concept of Mount Fuji we must first conceive of the mountain as being an object, this entails separating the lump from the landscape it is part of.  We need to decide where the arbitrary division lies between the part of the rock which is mountain and the part which the land on from which the mountain is growing.  Without making these mental lines Mount Fuji cannot be seen as object in our minds.

Perhaps I can explain this in another way.   If I ask you to think of your "right arm"  you will think of a limb with a hand at the end it it, you will not think of your chest or feet which are also part of your body.
When we think of a hand thoughts of the rest of the arm become out of mind

If I then ask you to think of your "right hand" you immediately put your elbow and the rest of your arm out of your mind, you cannot think about the rest of your arm whilst you are focusing your thoughts on thinking about your hand.  To create your mental picture of your hand  you have mentally cut the hand away from the limb.  To think of Mount Fuji you have to do a similar mental trick of cutting mountain off from the landscape on which it sits.

The details of the separated object become more vivid and detailed

To think of an object we have to separate the item from the rest of the world, the surrounding world become out of mind and the object becomes more vivid and detailed.   But why, after we have made a mental object, do we then give it spirit?  In an earlier chapter I mentioned the way our brains can be divided into two component, the oldest being the limbic area which uses emotions to create behavioural responses, and the newer component being the Pre Frontal Cortex which is a later bolt-on unit that applies rational thought to override the excesses of our emotional responses.

Our relationship to objects are like our relationship with words, (or perhaps it should be stated the other way round, but that is a diversion).  All words, especially nouns, are saturated with emotional associations and memories. Sometimes seeing an object will bring associative thoughts of well being, at other times the same object will appear menacing and make us feel fearful.  I have created a visual example to show this process at work.  In this first picture the room is a happy place of tidiness and harmony with flowers on the mantelpiece, there are a cat and a broom that we assume belong to the owner.  Imagine you were a child in this room and you hear someone approaching the door from outside, your heart might leap with delight because the things in the room make you expect the return of a kind and pretty young girl called Cinderella.
Here is an almost identical picture with the same broom, but this time the room has dark and untidy feel with dead bats and dusty old bottles with potions.  The broom triggers us to think of witches and a child left in this room would become frightened and leave the room before the owner returned.

The broom is the same in both pictures, but it  triggers different emotions in different situations.

The relationships we have to Mountains are similar to our relationships with broomsticks.  We know the extreme weather and sudden snow storms at the summit of mountains are very dangerous and volcanoes smoulder and can erupt at any time.  Other days the mountains around our homes beckon us with their serene beauty in the landscape  giving us feelings of peace, safety and well-being.  .

These changeable attitudes and behaviours are not as impractical as they seem.  The complex ever changing emotional relationships we all have with mountains engender behavioural responses that protect us against being foolish with dangerous objects.  Some days our limbic system will read the mood of the mountain as being dangerous, and set our body into behavioural "fear of the mountain" mode.  On these days we will not climb the mountains..  Other days, the limbic system judges the mountain to be no threat, the sight of the mountains will lift our spirits and guide us back to our homes.  Our subconscious selves, particularly the limbic system, read the behaviour of the mountain as if it were a person with moods, and uses this information to guide our decisions.  Reading the "mood" of dangerous inanimate objects is every bit as important to our survival as reading the mood of our living enemies.

Putting Objects on the Dynamic Workspace

It is time to apply my theory of boundaries against how we draw objects.  Throughout modern history people have been drawing objects.  I have chosen this drawing of flowers by Leonardo as an example of a drawing by a master

There is no doubt in my mind that this is the work of a very great artists and active drawer.  It is an image made by an artist who has fused a rational enquiring mind with freedom of line.  It is accurate and complete in what it set out to achieve which was to produce an 3D image of the flowers and leaves with the boundaries of the objects very clearly clarified.  An image like this begs the question "Nothing is missing, it says everything there is to say about the subject. "  My reply is that it says everything Leonardo wanted to say about the subject at that moment in time, which is quite another thing from being everything about a subject.

When we make a drawing of an object on the dynamic workspace we make a statement about our attitude to the object in the world at that precise moment.  Included in the drawings we make are our values and our focus on the object at that time.  Leonardo wanted to know how things worked, he wanted to understand their structure and how they are made.  This drawing is an enquiry into finding the answer to questions his mind was looking for.  The marks create and occupy space on the Dynamic Workspace, the drawing is correctly proportioned and captures the delicacy of the shapes of the leaves and flowers, but it tells us nothing about their colour, their softness or what they might mean emotionally to Leonardo.  This is not the fault of the artist, it is the focus of an artist who was intent on defining a flower in terms of physical reality in space.  Leonardo was living in a time when the rationality of Pre Frontal Cortex thinking was gaining the upper hand over old fashioned plastic truth, and his goal was to define the plants with objective truth.

But focus is always double edged, it involves dropping attention from one thing to apply it to another.  Earlier we saw how when we focus on our hand we drop our attention on the rest of the arm, when we focus attention on smell we drop attention on colour, when we focus on shape we drop attention on size.  This is because sensing is a sequence of thoughts not a momentary action, it is a collection of thoughts that happens over time which turns into a highly unpredictable selective journey across the landscape of our innermost remembered experiences.  Afterwards, through the principles of plasticity of oneness we think the sequence was a single complete thing, but that is not Humpty Dumpty's view of things.  He said words mean what he wants them to mean, he said this for a very good reason, a word can only mean what your mind is focused on at the time you use it, you can never think in totality because your thoughts have no completeness.  It is the same with drawing objects, the drawing will always be about what we want the drawing to be about.  Humpty Dumpty would not have been in awe of Leonardo's genius, he might not even have been able to recognise it.

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