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The dance form of the eyes: what cognitive science can learn from art

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Art perception offers action affordances for the self-generated movement of the eyes, the mind, and the emotions; thus some scenes are ’easy to look at', and evoke different kinds of moods depending on what kind of affordances they present for the eyes, the brain, and the action schemas that further the dynamical self-organizing patterns of activity toward which the organism tends, as reflected in its ongoing emotional life. Art can do this only because perception is active rather than passive, and begins with efferent activity in emotional brain areas (e.g. hypothalamus, amygdala, hippocampus and anterior cingulate) which then motivates afferent processing (parietal imaging activity which finally, after a 1/3-second motivational/selective process is complete, resonates with occipital patterns, resulting in perceptual consciousness). The limbic system ’categories’ that motivate the ’looking-for’ of selective attention are categories of utility, to be understood in terms of emotional affordances and whole-organism affective meanings. Art plays with this looking-for, using it to make us engage in different afforded actions that relate to different limbic (emotional) categories. The drawings of children and of the artistically untutored reveal this structure when we fail to ’draw what we see’, drawing instead what we conceptualize that we ought to be seeing. Art teaches us to get beyond this almost complete dominance of habitual categories, and to see things more freshly -- both in the perceptual and in the emotive sphere. Rather than reinforcing our preconceptions, it forces us to see how they affect our view of reality.

Because neither perceptions nor emotional responses are really passive ’responses’ at all, art does not cause us to feel a certain way. Instead, we ’use’ art for the purpose of symbolizing our emotions. Our most important feelings are not directly ’about’ the perceptual objects that trigger them. The object in conscious attention during the feeling of an emotion is normally not the intentional object of the emotion, i.e., it is not the object in relation to which our actions could serve the purpose of the emotion. Emotions are not even triggered by simple ’stimuli’, but rather by the meaning for us of a stimulus in a total context determined by ongoing and dynamical organismic purposes. Emotions arise from the total life process, which is a dynamical system -- not as an isolated chemical event or a causal result of a simple stimulus. For this reason, emotions call not just for satiation or pleasure, but for explication; this is why art is different from entertainment or pretty decoration. Visual art affords not only a meaningful, self-directed dance of the eyes, but also a meaningful dance of this emotional explicating process.
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Keywords: Art; attention; consciousness; efference; emotion; imagery

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Clark Atlanta University.

Publication date: 01 June 1999

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