This is an essay by Psychologist Corey Jackson written in response to my Self Portrait; Artist’s Brain exhibition at .M Contemporary. For more on Corey’s inspiring work please head to his website: https://coreyjackson.com.au
inspired by the work of Lada Dedić
Many of us can arrive at a familiar destination with little recollection of actually travelling there. We can navigate from point A to B while paying more attention to an audiobook or daydream than the far more complicated activity of operating a motor vehicle while traversing city traffic. Humans quickly develop automaticity in even complex tasks that reduces the conscious, volitional attention required to perform them.
It makes perfect sense and is a process that has been understood by science for some time. Neural connections are formed as we encounter novel stimuli and are further strengthened as these stimuli are re-encountered and we react in a similar manner as before. Donald Hebb, a pioneer in this field of research coined the phrase “neurons that fire together, wire together.”
As these stimuli are re-encountered, not only will these connections produce the same reaction, but these reactions will require less attention. Even complex tasks are performed with ever decreasing conscious awareness until they are fully automatised. At that time, they can be effectively executed while the attention is entirely elsewhere.
This potentiating of neural connections can explain a great deal of human behaviour. However, there are some important exceptions, some of which have been integral parts of history’s great contemplative traditions.
Take, for example, the single-pointed focus of an experienced meditator. If it is in our evolutionary programming to always react at the mercy of the strongest neural connections, it becomes difficult to explain their sustained attention and ability to resist automatic responses to stimuli. Likewise, a composer, jazz musician and in this case the work of artist Lada Dedić, all place and consciously sustain their attention on familiar objects while creating something new. And they do so even as their evolutionary history and a lifetime of neural connections demanding that they let their actions become automatic and their attention be captured elsewhere.
Computer measured response time and event related potentials are part of an ever-increasing list of ingenious measures revealing the mechanics of automated behaviour, attentional capture and how the brain is implicated in them. However, consciously sustained attention and volitional action is not so easily measured. The amount of conscious attention and volitional action required to create a work of art, music or engineering cannot be measured by examining the work itself.
Nonetheless, it is clear that how we engage in the world is not neurologically predetermined. We can do so deliberately, contemplatively and with personal freedom to exercise choice in how we respond.
Beauty may well be in the eye of the beholder, but whether it is found as an unconscious, automatic response or through sustained, conscious attention is something only we can decide for ourselves.
“For the moment, what we attend to is reality”