Janet L. Factor was born in the soot-showered industrial city of Barberton, Ohio, where as a girl she kept her head down and counted toads, turtles and snakes in the grass. She graduated magna cum laude from Hiram College, Phi Beta Kappa, having devoured a degree in biology, imbibed a minor in history, and nibbled on delectable side dishes of art and literature.
Janet has expanded on that liberal arts tradition by studying and teaching dance, martial arts, and yoga. A devotee of Jacob Bronowski, Janet was convinced by him of the deep connection between art and science. At home she pursues the art of garden design while creating backyard wildlife habitat, and has recently acquired the courage to play at painting.
After nineteen years in the Finger Lakes paradise of upstate New York, Janet now resides in the prairie home of Abraham Lincoln, Springfield, Illinois, where in 2006 her first act was to found Springfield Area Freethinkers as a haven from the heavy red fog of faith that permeates the region. Here she began writing, first for Free Inquiry and then Secular Humanist Bulletin, where she is a contributing editor and for five years has authored the column “Heart & Mind,” which seeks to reconcile the demands of reason and emotion to construct a wise approach to life.
This is a four part series by Janet L. Factor that was originally published via the Secular Humanist Bulletin.
I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had
no words for. ~Georgia O’Keeffe
Artistic growth is, more than it is anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness. The
stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, knows how difficult it is.
Which do you think a mother songbird would prefer to incubate: her own dear little gray-blue, delicately dappled egg, or a black-polka-dotted, right blue plaster monstrosity so large she has to constantly struggle against slipping off it? If you chose the real egg, you were mistaken.
This is what biologists call a superstimulus. To the bird, bluish, spotted, ovoid, and in the nest means egg, and the more so the better, so she sits on the dummy in preference to her own egg. Before you laugh at her birdbrain, consider that every woman who picks up a tube of red lipstick is counting on people being no different. We, too, have an innate set of stimuli that evoke complex evolved responses, and we can be fooled by the enticement of exaggerated versions.
Every creature, after all, must react to what its senses tell it about this world, and evolution inevitably finds the most important inputs and installs programs to run when triggered by them. But so far as is known, only we humans have learned to recognize what our own sensory triggers are, and to use that knowledge to manipulate the environment, ourselves, and each other.
In fact, we have an entire class of people who are devoted to this pursuit. We call them artists. The qualities that give meaning to art and the symbols it contains are largely the ones evolution has chosen for us. Find this hard to believe? Consider whether you could convince anyone that pale blue was an appropriate choice to convey passion, or a boulder a reasonable representation of weakness. We evolved to know the world through our senses. All abstract thought is ultimately metaphor; even the most purely intellectual endeavors are grounded in the stuff of art. Understanding it can help us to improve our thinking.
It is the business of art to know the reasons of the heart. An artwork is designed to appeal to the senses so as to create an emotional effect. Without feeling you have only exposition. But to reliably evoke emotions in a deliberate way, one must know how they work. The history of the arts is a history of the increased understanding of human perception and its intrinsic biases. To be a great painter entails more than knowing how to handle a brush; you also have to know how people see.
Real art is not about merely sating the senses, nor simply communicating information: it is about sharing experience. And while, as David Hume pointed out, experience always begins in the senses, it does not end there. Both reason and emotion are fed by this stream. The information that comes to us by way of the body must pass through their filters—and be changed thereby—before it can become what we consciously comprehend. And in that process, we too are changed.
There is probably not a single reader of this column who could not recall a book, a movie, a poem, a painting, that struck her so powerfully that it changed how she saw the world, and so changed her life. Art speaks to the encounter of self with other: of the place and moment where, for an instant, barriers fall, and minds and worlds embrace.
Science has some basic understanding of how this empathy occurs. We all have in our brains mirror neurons, special nerve cells that fire not only when we produce an action but also when we see another person do that same thing. They are what give us the sense, when watching a performance, that we become the performer on whom we are focused; we are actually sharing that portion of their experience. Mirror neurons are the reason that Isadora Duncan could raise an arm and make her audience weep.
Their effect is not limited to the visual arts. A recent study has shown that mirror neurons respond when we hear music; which ones, and which actions they represent, is determined by the rhythm far more than the melody. Here, perhaps, we have a glimpse at the origins of dance. Those tunes that make it impossible to sit still are crafted by composers who know how to make our mirror neurons fire at
maximum intensity. Louis Prima comes to mind as one who knows, literally, how to move us.
The simultaneous activation of innate response systems and mirror neurons makes art immensely powerful. Scientists have watched the brains of people listening to music and looking at paintings, and found that beautiful passages and images both turn on the dopamine system in the brain, producing a rush of pleasure. In fact, viewing a beautiful painting produces a response like that of gazing at the face of someone you love! Think of that. What deep understanding of the human mind is needed to make a flat piece of colored canvas provoke feeling
as reliably as a living, breathing, beloved person?
That is an intellectual triumph. Artists use this knowledge to shape creations that convey significant feeling by means of their sensory content, and so communicate their experience of life to other members of society. These syntheses of reason and emotion can sway the minds of multitudes. But they can also teach us about ourselves. We can analyze art even as artists analyze us. A serious art fan
studies art appreciation, and learns, as critics learn, to understand exactly what an artist did to make her feel a certain way. Doing so reveals previously unglimpsed facets of her nature. No magic will be lost: the feeling still exists, because understanding of the technique is conscious, but the technique operates on the unconscious levels of the brain.
There is no knowledge that does not come to us by way of the body, and artists know that way; for millennia they have diligently mapped it. We can use their knowledge to better our own understanding of what it means to be human, and to help all of us live to the full extent of our human natures.