“How Art Reveals the Limits of Neuroscience” by Alva Noë is a fascinating read that asks us to step beyond the idea that we are our brains. It is stimulating me to reflect on some things I’ve been trying to articulate about knowledge sharing and the transformation knowledge into new ideas, application, etc. It relates to some conversations on how we share knowledge across research projects, between journalists who care about their communities, and people who are trying to improve the world.
In observing how our experience of art changes when someone else shares their experience of the work, Noë writes:
This shift — from not seeing to seeing, from seeing to seeing differently, from not getting it to getting it — is actually very common. We live and learn, look and ask, bring what’s around us into focus continuously. At least part of what makes art different, or special, is that it yields the opportunity not only to “get” something, perhaps something new, but also to catch ourselves in the very act. In this way, art illuminates us to ourselves.
Interestingly, when I started to read it, I was not actually looking at art itself. The experience Noë writes about resonated deeply to my experiences of seeing people take in an idea and transform it into something they can use, apply, and “own” in the very productive sense. Own it in terms of being able to to use it meaningfully. Imagine a way of reducing open defecation, or changing water use habits. Imagine being able to take the building blocks of an idea and transform it into a locally useful solution. She frames it as the “world as the playing field for our activity,” and thus the interplay with it.
“This is not to deny that the world acts on us, triggering events in the nervous system. Of course it does! But the thing is, we act right back. Every movement of the eye, head, and body changes the character of our sensory coupling to the world around us. Objects are not triggers for internal events in the nervous system; they are opportunities or affordances for our continuing transactions with them. The world shows up, in experience, not like a diagram in a brain chart but as the playing field for our activity. Not the brain’s activity. Our activity. Not activity inside our head. But activity in the world around us.”