Art and the Conscious Mind

What is it to be human? – We are creative, we transform materials, cave painting, clay pots, humans have always made art.

Humans are the only beings who have conscious minds, cats and dogs may feel similar feelings like us however we as humans have a sense of awareness.

Art and the mind- Defines what humans really are.

What is consciousness?

what is it to be thinking? What is the biological basis of consciousness? What does it mean to be conscious and have consensual awareness? This blog post is based on a lecture I had this week in the field module I chosen (Art and the Conscious mind). This blog post will be looking in depth of what the answers could be to these questions.

Art, brain, mind, consciousness- neurologists have been looking at art and how the brain responds to it and how we link the conscious mind and art practice.

The Relationship between the mind and the world


Is this view correct?

cupid-and-psyche-1640Anthony Van Dyck- Cupid and Psyche 1640

This painting is capturing the moment psyche is waking up from cupid bringing her back to life. Psyche means mind and is a symbol of the mind. This piece illustrates what consciousness is, deep sleep, dead, no world for them to see they are oblivious. She will wake up and start feeling emotions, have memories, be conscious and aware. This painting represents the transition to the world from being born to becoming ourselves within the world.

What is the conscious mind for?

We have been the only species with self awareness and consciousness. The heart is automatically controlled by the brain, we are not aware of this happening. We filter out stimuli that are not significant, some people sleep-walk and can function without a conscious mind.

Why do we have a conscious mind?

William James (1890) – The conscious is for to pick out important things and ignore the rest, you filter out what isn’t needed.

Sigmund Freud (1976) – What the conscious mind does is let us become aware of our senses, the difference is that you can reflect on your own sensory experiences, e.g. you can smell that you can smell.

Daniel Dennett (1991) – He argues that we are like robots and that robots could have a consciousness if technology advances. Consciousness could be found in the future in the capacity of a highly complex machine.

Roger Penrose (1989) – He argues on Dennett’s theory, that we are not machines. Things we don’t know about is mechanical, but what goes on in the brain will never be computable.

Nicolas Humphery (1994) – Consciousness has become a quality humans have because we are social, we have evolved in packs, we have become aware of our consciousness through evolution.

John Searle (1992) – We can adapt rapidly as we are aware of our state and what is around us.

Francis Crick and Christof Koch (1998) – we have survival instincts which help us prevent injury for example if a ball is thrown towards you this will disrupt the brain controlling your body out of the way.

David Chalmers (2002) – We are not just zombies. Why do we need this extra capacity, something there is to be like, states of being, the marker of phenomenal consciousness.

Susan Blackmore (1994) – She denies consciousness, that it is a illusion and that there is no difference of consciousness and unconsciousness.

Many other Theories of Consciousness

  • The view that everything is conscious (panpsychism).
  • That there is not really any such thin as consciousness at all (elimativism).
  • That it is so mysterious a phenomenon we will never be in a position to explain it (mysterianism).
  • That there is something distinct from physical processes e.g. the spiritual realm and the material realm, the mind and body (dualism).
  •  That it is entirely derived from physical matter (materialism) or (physicalism).

Back to the painting of Anthony Van Dyck- Cupid and Psyche

The trees- One of the trees is alive and the other is dead. The trees echo what is going on in the foreground. The tree Psyche is touching is dead however if you look closely you can see foliage starting to grow as cupid brings her back to life, life is overtaking death, as one of the trees is taking over the other. Artists of this period would have put symbolic messages within their paintings as people of that time would be looking for symbolism like that within a piece of work.

Before the trees were pointed out they were saw, however our awareness has shifted and we are more conscious. They are but insignificant but they are in the conscious mind.

Consciousness brings the world into being for us- conscious mind creates reality.

Visual Consciousness 

We look at something in the world and are aware where they might be this is direct realism. Like in the diagram at the beginning of this post, the image will form an impression representation within our minds. We sometimes say seeing is believing however what we see really isn’t what is out there.

Visual consciousness- Photons> Lens> Retina> Visual Pathway> Visual Cortex.

The difference is that we are aware of it. When a ball is thrown at you we can dodge it being unaware of it. People will still respond but may not be aware of seeing it. The visual system can work independently.

Nothing we see is actually there 

Nothing in your brain is green. The appearance of green is actually no where, it is a response to a specific frequency of light. Seeing the colours may not have any real form in reality, as they are only a frequency.

Hermann Helmholtz- There is no reality outside our sensory system. However we stuck to not see it any differently. A tree is only within the mind.

hqdefaultConcave Mask Illusion

This is a flat video image of a mask turning 360 degrees. when it gets to the back or hallow end of the mask it suddenly is flipped around. The reason for this is because when we are born we learnt that we see all faces stuck outwards and are orientated in a certain way.Our Brain flips the image of the concave mask to look like it is sticking out because it is telling us what we are looking at isn’t right so it changes it.

What happens when things go wrong? 

Visual agnosia- This condition is when your visual consciousness was once perfect but has lost its capacity to re-organise what they were seeing, However it is very hard for the patient to become adapted to what he was seeing. He would see patterns of lines but he couldn’t recognise an owl drawing although he knew exactly what an owl was. Because his brain was fully developed the tissue damaged couldn’t be fixed so he couldn’t re-learn it however he hadn’t lost his ability to copy and draw but he wouldn’t understand what he was drawing an image of.

Visual agnosia supports the fact that perceptual and recognition processes are separable, because his stored knowledge required for recognition was in tact. Overall we have discovered that to see is not to recognise.

Visual agnosia validates the distinction impact in the labels “early” and “intermediate” vision.

fnhum-05-00084-g009If we didn’t recognise things the world would look the same however in this picture you look at it but once you see what it is it is very difficult to see image the way it once was without seeing the cow, the state of not seeing, the cow is that.

Those who were born blind but got their sight back, Would they be able to see? There would be so much information you wouldn’t be able to see as they were born blind the only recognition sense they could understand would be touch to identify objects and the world around.

If sight was recovered within the teenage years the brain would be able to adapt as the brain isn’t fully developed to adulthood yet.

Seeing is something we learn to do and it is a major way and one of the main senses we use to negotiate our way through the world day by day. Babies when born have a lot of learning to do about controlling their sight and understanding it this is a major phase in a persons live of development.

Non Western Philosophical perception 

“Nirvikalpa”- Intermediate perception, formless, visual stuff, undifferentiated

“Savikalpa” – Determinate perception, being able to identify different objects.

Visual Indeterminacy- occurs when an object or scene you can see, but you don’t know what it is.

Paradox 1Robert Pepperwell – He was talking about how to bring this about through images. Through painting and drawing his intention was to make a formless, unidentifiable piece of art but also has a lot of context and a lot if information is given to the viewers brain however our brains can not identify or know what it is. He presented these pictures in the same style as paintings in churches and galleries so since we seen images like this before we instantly believe we will be able to recognise what is going on. What happens is the way vision works without knowing you are looking at. we are so good at looking and recognising things that looks humanistic, we begin to see things that aren’t really there. He wanted to provide ideas that could be there because without enough connotations it will be seen as noise and we wouldn’t give the image as much attention.

Scientific Studies of visual indeterminacy

Robert Pepperwell got together with some neurologists to further understand the process the brain goes through when we are seeing an image but we cannot recognise it. They give the viewer images of Robert Pepperwell’s paintings to look at, along side images of classical art that had superficial similarities to his work. People doing this study were convinced they were seeing things in the painting, they were seeing what wasn’t there. This study concluded the effortless process of seeing. When we get visual information we will divide it up into stuff we instantly recognise, we will chop up the information into meaningful chunks, there is nothing there but you convince yourself there is something there.

Perception of Intermediate art 

We will look at a picture differently when asked different questions. We cut it up into chunks. Most of the image we are asked to look at, most of the image is never looked at at all. We think we are looking at the whole image, only we are looking at a specific area depending on the question.

(In my previous post on Visual Indeterminacy I tackle the ideas other artist had with visual indeterminacy)

Perception and Distinctions

Do objects have boundaries? – where is the boundary of an object?

Is it the edge or corner of the object? William James said that all our senses come together to create a consciousness, a differentiation, and an awareness of the world made up of different distinct things.

Henri Bergson- First the mind does separates objects for our benefit i.e. an apple tree and the apple for eating.

Can you imagine nothing ? – (pre-conscious moment)

To have a mind there has to be something there to begin with.

How to induce nothingness.- The person is made to listen white noise and with half a ping pong ball on each eye they are not allowed to close their eyes. This creates a “ganzfelt” state, and a non-sensory experience however you can’t do it long as it is dangerous towards your mental health. The white noise being played has no information within it and no frequencies so if you listen to it for so long the brain will not register it and you will hear silence, no edges or divisions.

George Spenser Brown- Laws of form, before you see separation, distinction. He used a white page to represent nothingness however when a circle is drawn on it it creates something. Enigmatic, zen like, not between the circle and the paper but with us and the paper.

Francisco Valera- Form from nothingness. When we realise we are not the world we are separate from the world around us and from each other.

A good artist who has shown this idea within his work is Anthony Gormley. His installation on the beach at Merseyside is a way of us understanding our observation of observing that the human is separate from the world.


To summarise:

  • The world we perceive is essentially formless and objectless.
  • We impose boundaries, separations on that indeterminate flux and pick out objects and forms meaningful to us.
  • This does not mean however those objects and forms are there in any permanent or absolute sense independently of our perceiving them .
  • The most primordial objective determine from this perceptual flux is our own being, our sense of self from which direction.

Quantum Physics is the most accurate, precise and successful scientific theory ever developed.

The Newtonian Universe– Confident they knew how the universe works. Like a clockwork device in function and how physical reality works accurately.

Thinking that the atom was the smallest, it was split, the material smaller than atoms was called the subatomic level. Scientists had to come up of a different way of describing the quantum universe as the matter within it behaves in a completely different way.

There isn’t any matter or reality at the subatomic level. Physically there is nothing there, all there is is nothing.

Heisenburg- Subatomic level, nothing factual there observing makes them there, all we can do is make assumptions.

Hydrogen wave function- Probability density plots

Hydrogen_Density_PlotsThis provides evidence that one atom can be in a lot of states at once. All we can do is measure it. The only way it looked like a specific form is because we saw it.

Schroedinger’s Cat2000px-Schrodingers_cat.svg

This theory Illustrates how crazy quantum physics is as you can calculate the probability that trigger will be on or off, this won’t tell you if the cat is dead or alive. The cat is dead and alive at the same time, the cat would be dead and alive at the same. It is you that makes it that state. At the quantum world you cant think dead or alive, superposition, as two conditions are happening at the same time beyond the capacity of what the human brain can do.

Heisenburg’s indeterminacy principle

“A principle in quantum mechanics holding that greater accuracy of measurement for one observable quantity entails less accuracy of measurement for another conjugate quantity”.

When looking at a photon it has stopped, working out a photon you have to hit it with another particle, you can deflect it making the thing you are trying to measure changed.

Rosenblum and Kuttner- Reality we believe is only generated by our act of observation.

To summarise:

  • We see what we need to know.
  • Formless- Changes to form, can work independently, the brain makes sense of the indeterminate piece of art.
  • Reality is composed of separate objects, the fact that we can do this is how consciousness can be formed, measuring collapses its state.
  • Consciousness brings the world into being for us.

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