Saturday, November 27, 2010

Arts and Crafts, Tibetans and Black Holes

Yesterday, we went to the Newark Museum to see the Stickley "Arts and Crafts" exhibit, the Tibetan  and the planetarium show about Black Holes.  I know, my gentle readers are thinking so what does this all have to do with the brain?  Yoo Hoo, I thought that this blog was about the brain!!!    Newark is one of the armpits of the armpit state, New Jersey.  I know armpits are somehow connected to the brain via the nervous system.  Is that it?


Gustav Stickley, furniture maker and editor of the Craftsman,  was a major figure in the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 1800's.  The Arts and Crafts movement was a reaction against the mass production system of factories.  Stickley was heavily influenced by John Ruskin, the English art critic, who believed that  mass production enslaved workers to machines.  Ruskin advocated a return to what he saw as the superior practices of the medieval craft guilds. A visibly hand-made object had beauty because its irregularities betokened the freedom of the artisan who made it. 

Harris Lebus sideboard. Arts and Crafts Moveme...Image via WikipediaRecently constructed version of the Morris chairImage via WikipediaStickley's aesthetic,  his mastery of form, proportion and color was evident in the furniture he made.  It was "good citizens' furniture," simple, functional, and sturdy, and its decorative effect depended largely on honestly revealed structure  such as the the details of joinery -- tenon-and-key joints, exposed tenons, and visible dowels.  Stickley's magazine,  "The Craftsman",  was initially designed to promote Stickley's business but went on to promulgate the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement.  The magazine's interest in homes and home life logically led to features on gardening, as means of beautifying the home, providing families with food, and offering a productive use of leisure time. It encouraged the revival of handicrafts with inspiring articles coupled with practical, detailed instructions for working in metal, leather, textiles, ceramics and other media. It published detailed plans showing readers how to construct their own Craftsman-style furniture. The Craftsman also played an active part in communicating the larger concerns of the Arts and Crafts movement: it addressed environmental issues, supported the back to the land movement, and advocated the simplification of life. It dealt progressively, for its day, with issues concerning women, native Americans, and minority cultures. 

When I look at a lot of the culture surrounding the learning disabilities communityI see many of the same themes:  an emphasis on home, on growing your own food or subscribing to CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) to escape the factory food offered in supermarkets, slow food instead of fast dood, an emphasis on buying local rather than the contaminated products imported from abroad.  We look at the organization of work and realize how counter post-modern commercialism is to our very nature. A lot of us look at a simplification of life as a necessity brought on by the constraints of dealing with disability.  Many of us are involved in the environmental movement to heal the planet as science points us towards toxins involved in provoking brain dysfunction.  In the disability rights and neurodiversity movement, we are advocating rights just as the Arts and Crafts movement did for women and minorities.  As Art embodies the consciousness of the ideas around us, we can see within modern art, creations inspired by our evolving understanding of brain function and consciousness.

After the Stickley exhibit, we moved on to the Tibetan exhibit.  The Tibetan exhibit is one of the largest collections of Tibetan art in America and contains a Tibetan altar consecrated by the Dalai Lama.  There's also an travelogue by the Cuttings who visited Lhasa in the 1930's that shows traditional Tibetan life.

The main teaching room of the Dalai Lama Tenzi...Image via WikipediaIn his Mind and Life Institute, the Dalai Lama has been very interested in creating a dialogue between Tibetan Buddhism, neuroscience and cosmology (the study of the heavens) and has invited many leading neuroscientists and physicists to participate at his institute.  The Dalai Lama sees that Buddhism and neuroscience have separate but parallel interests in understanding consciousness.   Buddhism and science see the world as following an  evolutionary path of development.  It is understanding the self not as a fixed entity but as a series of relationships.

As Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania has shown that transcendent experiences ( like Buddhist meditation) can actually be identified and measured in the brain (people experience a decrease in activity in the parietal lobe, which orients us in space). The mind seems to have the ability to transcend itself and merge with a larger presence that feels more real.

Neuroscientists and Buddhists monks have been having a series of conversations and research experiments on introspection, attention and visual imagery that have challenged traditional Western scientific theories.  I am parrticularly interested in visual imagery as, like the Buddhist monks, I can hold visual images in my mind for periods of time.   The amount of detail and the length of time I can sustain such imagery  that I can hold in my mind varies from day to day; but I can see in my minds eye various pictures when I choose to focus on them.  The studies of attention are also noteworthy as Buddhist monks claim to hold 17 different thoughts in one particular instant, which is supposed to be scientifically impossible.

After the Tibetan exhibit, we went to the planetarium and saw a show about Black Holes.  In layman's terms,  Black Holes are "region(s) of space that has so much mass concentrated in it that there is no way for a nearby object to escape its gravitational pull."   The study of black holes is intriguing as it points to the heart of understanding our physical universe in matters such as space time,  the validity of string theory, Einstein's theory of relativity, the Big Bank, etc.

Black Holes Have Simple Feeding Habits (NASA, ...Image by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center via Flickr
The Dalai Lama looks at traditional Buddhist teachings of the origin and evolution of the universe as metaphor and not as an absolute description of physical reality.  "At the centre of the Buddhist cosmology there is the idea of the existence of multiple cosmic systems, infinitely more than the grains of sand of the River Ganges, according to some texts, and also the notion that these are in the constant process of formation and destruction. This means that the universe has no absolute beginning. The questions this idea poses for science are fundamental. Was there a single big bang or were there many? Is there a single universe or are there many, or even an infinite number of these? Is the universe finite or infinite as the Buddhists state? Will our universe continue to expand indefinitely or will it decelerate, will it even stop and everything end in a grand implosion? Does our universe form part of a cosmos in an eternal state of reproduction? The scientists debate these questions intensely. From the Buddhist point of view, an additional problem arises. Even admitting that there was only one grand cosmic explosion, we can ask if this was the origin of the entire universe or only the commencement of our cosmic system in particular. The fundamental question, therefore, whether the big bang, which, according to modern cosmologists, marks the commencement of our current cosmic system, was the beginning of everything."

What is happening with these conversations between Buddhism, neuroscience and cosmology is a redefinition of man:  what the nature of his self is, what his place is within nature, and what his place is in the universe.  During the Industrial Revolution, we had these conversations and the Arts and Crafts movement of Stickley was one manifestation of how the changing science and philosophy of the day lead to new movements in art and politics.  During our current post-modern revolution, as we change our understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe, we too shall re-create ourselves and our world.

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