This epistolary essay was written in 2014 (with some later updates) as a response to Lam Wong’s 21 Elements: Relation, Perception and Meaning painting exhibition of Sept. 2014 in New Westminster. I blogged about the exhibition prior to writing this essay.
In 2014, Lam Wong’s 21 Elements: Relation, Perception and Meaning book was published. That book contains photos of all the paintings in his exhibition. A chapter of 21 Elements, written by Lam, which includes pictures of several of the paintings from his book, are available in this PDF.
Photos of the paintings from 21 Elements are available on Lam’s website.
A version of the essay below appears in the second edition of 21 Elements, published in 2022. That’s a limited edition print.
A version of the essay below, interleaved with photos of the paintings, will appear in Discontinuities: Love, Art, Mind. The letter reflects many of the themes of Discontinuities, including, of course, affective epistolary communication.
- Attentively developing expertise through time
- N-ary relations in art and meta machinery
- Perception: The construction of conjectures
- Rational faith and love in the dark
- Language of cognitive-affective mind
- Perturbance: Loss of control of mental processing of motivators
- Attachment, acceptance, love and happiness
- Universality of affect
- Using visual art to improve ourselves
- Consciousness, the great integrator (or integration)
- To the tune of Kevin Shield’s Goodbye
Meta-painting & Science of the Human Mind: An Epistolary Response to Lam Wong’s 21 Elements
Shadows of shadows passing. It is now 1831, and as always I am absorbed with a delicate thought. It is how poetry has indefinite sensations, to which end music is an essential. Since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception, music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry. Music without the idea is simply music. Without music or an intriguing idea, colour becomes pallor, man becomes carcass, home becomes catacomb, and the dead are but for a moment motionless. Edgar Allan Poe
I had the pleasure of attending, on several occasions, Lam Wong’s 21 Elements: Relation, Perception and Meaning exhibition and of discussing his art with him. As a result, I am moved to share my reflections with you.
As you would expect, I respond to 21 Elements not as an art critic, but as one who is fascinated by the most beautiful of evolution’s creatures: the sentient, autonomous, multipurpose, perceiving, sometimes conscious, virtual machine that emerges from neural processes—the human mind. As you know, I approach these subjects from a broad, interdisciplinary “cognitive” science perspective.
In 21 Elements Lam has posed problems about the human mind. He raises fascinating questions about perception, meaning, memory, imagination and knowledge. He draws our attention to complex (N-ary) relational sources of meaning. I am reminded of Hans Selye, as I am sure you too will recall, using reading “largely as a scaffolding for meditation on research and the planning of experiments”, though I meditated on theoretical problems instead of experimental ones. 21 Elements is, amongst other things, an elevator that takes us to a higher place from which to reflect on consciousness. In this letter, I will explore some ideas about the human mind that 21 Elements aroused in me.
Attentively developing expertise through time
An essential feature of “effectance“, the motivation to develop mastery, relates to one of the main themes of 21 Elements, namely time. When faced with a novel problem, mentally progressive people spend a greater proportion of their time analyzing its requirements than others. Early in the history of cognitive psychology, Max Wertheimer documented this at all levels of expertise, from learning geometry in grade school to Einstein’s development of the theory of relativity. Anton Chekov observed, “An artist observes, selects, guesses, combines and this in itself presupposes a problem: unless he had set himself a problem from the very first there would be nothing to conjecture and nothing to select.” I see this in the engrossed minds depicted in 1964 (in Two Parts), 21 Elements, Time Turns into Space and Audio Program (MOMA). The opposite shines through in the irony of Pop Star. Another temporal aspect of expertise, of course, is time spent in the overall endeavour target activity. Lam Wong clearly invested considerably in both phases of problem specification and problem solving.
N-ary relations in art and meta machinery
One of the most fundamental aspects of the human mind figures in the subtitle of Lam’s exhibition and is so thoroughly suffused throughout its paintings that I need not point to any particular work: Relations. The brain itself is, of course, composed of an astronomical number of unfathomably interconnected (i.e., related) pulsating neurons. These processors continuously observe and respond to each other. The modularity of mind, although widely believed even amongst people who should know better, is a myth—connectivity abounds at every scale at which the brain and mind are examined.
The mind is a massively self-referential virtual machine, containing innumerable virtual “monitors”, programmed to detect and respond to contingencies. The retina contains specialized neurons that respond to features of light. The visual system contains edge detectors, motion detectors, shape detectors… all kinds of more or less global monitors that construct our hypothetical models of the world. It is not just the peripheral sensory systems that are busy monitoring. But innumerable mereological constituents of that which we illusorily think of as our “selves” monitor different parts of ourselves. For instance, while reading this you may be reminded of a long lost friend. A mechanism inside of you might notice this active memory and trigger a wish to be with that person. Peripheral sensation is a vanishingly small proportion of all human sensation.
Individuals are, as Marvin Minsky put it, a Society of Mind. One is not one, but many. Humans are the ultimate “meta” machines. Pop Star, indeed the entire 21 Elements, perfectly capture this mind-boggling mental fact. This reminds me of Strauss’ symphonic poem, Also sprach Zarathustra and Eschers.
Perception: The construction of conjectures
Echoes of insightful lectures about perception reverberate in my mind as I contemplate CD318 (Re-Performance). We seem to be congenitally welded to the naive and incoherent view of direct perception, as if our eyes were a camera projecting onto our cortices not a but the interpretation of the world; as if our minds were a window onto the world. Yet on the contrary, mind—like 21 Elements, Variations on an Original Theme for Orchestra, and even this letter—is necessarily tension between obliquity and sense making. Similarly, it is sometimes difficult to escape from the folk view that memory is a storage and replay device. Lest we forget Sir Frederic Bartlett’s routing of Hermann Ebbinghaus’ perseverant theory: Remembering is a reconstructive endeavour..
From the very interface between the external world and the nervous system— Level 0 onwards—our information processing system is engaged in a process of abstraction. Each Level 0 neuron responds only to a fraction of the spectrum of environmental energy to which it is exposed. . This initial information is then grouped (or otherwise processed) by higher information-processing units (“cells”), whose output is itself integrated, and so on… Some of these mechanisms (aim to) detect edge segments, others shape fragments, others, entire shapes, others, motion—a representational process that is never fully integrated let alone complete. These cells and networks, from Level 0 onwards, embody a theory, a universal conjecture, an abstraction, about the external or internal environment. Normally, these low-level theories withstand the tests to which they are put; but sometimes they fail. We learn, from higher-order conjectures (scientific physics), for instance, that the “real” piano before us is mainly empty space.
In discussing CD318 (Re-Performance), Lam Wong says “all paintings are abstract even if they are recording real events.” Abstract, of course, does not mean non-conceptual. And that may partly explain why Rothko tried to dissociate himself from the label ‘abstract art’. Art cannot help but be abstraction because cognition, even in its most particular form, even directly on the retina, is abstraction.
It is now common knowledge that the structure of our (internal) information-processing systems is to a certain extent “plastic”. However, this plasticity is ineluctably limited as Immanuel Kant implicitly anticipated. With the license of responding to art as a projective test, I see the Yin and Yang, of malleability and structure, in 21 Elements. Yin: in viewing Untitled (Homage to Turner), The Door of Perception and Picasso Summer, we may think we are experiencing something so new that the outside world is speaking directly to us. Yang: the faintly painted grid in CD318 (Re-Performance) (Gould), and even in Mother, intimates that the human mind structures sensory input. We hardly notice the silent matrices of Movement III: Apartment and Geneva. However, they are there, and if we were too, we would assume they were “out there”: in the painting, or in the world if the object of these representations were in fact before us.
The reticle of the unimaginably meta, Israel, is an ominous warning that this silence is about to be shattered, as Kant’s “dogmatic slumber” was. Space and time are not empirically discovered; they are a priori givens of our minds, with which perception, and indeed all mentation, creates information and experience. But wait! The cloud of smoke in Israel suggests that the first shot has already been fired—the “sound” has just not reached us yet. Or, we who knew this had simply forgotten; forgotten because these facts about perception are too onerous to explicitly keep in mind.
A further blow to our reliance on sensation for knowledge lies in the problem of induction, first documented by David Hume. The problem is that no matter how many instances of a phenomenon we perceive, we cannot from a finite set of observations infer that the pattern will continue to apply; so, we cannot infer universal statements. You might see so many white swans as to lose count of them; but you may not validly leap to the universal conclusion that all swans are white. Bertrand Russell told of chickens who were fed every morning. From this they “inferred” they would always be fed. But one day the farmer’s menu demonstrated the speculative status of their reasoning. Nor can we normally validly infer the cause of events—though we can make educated guesses (‘abductions’). The conjectural nature of knowledge, from perception to the highest theories is captured in I don’t really know, do you.
Scientific and personal knowledge ultimately requires that we give precedence to reason over perception. For while we must pay heed to our perceptions, we must reflect and try to make sense of the sense that they make. As Aristotle said, “we must so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything.” Data can inspire us, and it can lead us to tweak and even reject conjectures. But it mustn’t lead us to abandon our higher cognitive responsibilities.
There is no denying, of course, that we must rely to a large extent on our senses—natural or artificial. Not all theories, beliefs and percepts are equal. The theory of evolution is not just a theory. It has more explanatory power than all its known rivals. Our senses are not structured arbitrarily. These engines of conjecture have evolved and adapted over millions of years. Many lesser perceptual and cognitive mechanisms have been pruned in the process. Still, like the aspiring trapeze artist, we must seek again our equipoise, in our case between perception and more abstract cognition.
Silence- Movement II Laughter 2.04 is apropos. To answer a question posed by this painting, whether visual perception can elicit auditory perception, we must first develop a conjecture. We must then run the experiment—i.e., deliberately manipulate and observe. Cognitive psychologists have devised methods to address such questions. Even if viewers are not conscious that their auditory mindware (the “software” of their brains) has been primed by a visual stimulus, they can discern such priming (if activation there is) by measuring the time it takes these perceivers to classify an auditory stimulus (e.g., as laughter, crying or music). 2.04 seems to acknowledge the need for observation to resolve this issue. Meta relations pervade 21 Elements.
Rational faith and love in the dark
In the dim light of conjectural knowledge, we need faith to navigate our worlds. Of course, I do not mean religious faith. But rational faith in ourselves, each other and the world. Faith is needed to experience the various forms of that most essential state, of love, suggested by Blind Woman at a Photography Show (VPL) 2010 (parental love), Pop Star (self love), Silence- Movement II Laughter 2.04 (fraternal love), and The Lacemaker I & II (romantic love).
You have, I am sure, experienced in other works of art the fusion of love and cognitive faith, portrayed so adeptly in 21 Elements. Which works come to your mind? One that comes to mine is Claude Lamontagne’s masterpiece, The Teacher: A Parable in the Manner of Oscar Wilde, which through phenomenal visual images and text portrayed education as loving rational opposition and opposability.
When asked which, amongst all the great songs he had written, was his favourite, Jacques Brel answered Je Ne Sais Pas (I Don’t Know). And that is another work that comes to my mind.
Je ne sais rien de tout cela (I know nothing of all of that)
Mais je sais que je t’aime encore (But I know that I love you still)
What a mesmerizing song and answer! Sometimes we need a bit of prodding to see the other animal in a Rabbit-Duck. A hint might be, for example, “Brel’s answer is a Necker cube (a Bookend illusion).” Or “Is this exposition, fiction or both?” Faith breaks in a switch, doesn’t it? Au suivant.
Language of cognitive-affective mind
Language is indeed a barrier to understanding mental processes. The name “cognitive science” itself can divert researchers and students into arid territories away from the hot, fertile, moist, mushy, affective jungles of mind, while the term designating its core metaphor, “Artificial Intelligence”, points in an equally misleading direction given that AI, at its best, is actually an exploration of the space of possible minds—for how else can we understand reality than through reference to possibility? English’s incredibly rich affective lexicon—mood, emotion, attitude, motivation and their various species—confounds researchers and folk alike.
Let us not, however, long for aphasia; for language is no less necessary to creating meaning than perception. Natural languages have evolved over millennia to make countless potent distinctions. To understand matters of mind we must investigate the geography and topography of psychological meaning. Thus, Keith Oatley and I independently recommended that clinical psychology students, indeed anyone passionate about the mind, mine high-caliber psychological fiction. (Easier to say than find the time to do for knowledge workers who must also process voluminous amounts of mind-stretching non-fiction.)
Accordingly, “cognitive science”, broadly defined, addresses all aspects of mind—affect and executive processes included. As Karl Popper remarked “There are no subject matters; no branches of learning—or, rather, of inquiry: there are only problems, and the urge to solve them.” What matters is rigour and being critically disposed to consider all relevant data.
The affective lexicon is the most difficult linguistic corpus to explicitly master. It varies considerably between languages. The English word, ’emotion’, has many different meanings. Yet it seems to me that most people who write about mental matters at best pay lip service to this fact. Each claims the right to use the word as he understands it. Consequently, reams of professional and informal psychological literature are muddled. Most students, like their professors, assume there must be such a discrete thing as emotion. Tibetan is better off than English (and French) in that it apparently doesn’t have such a word.
Several moves are required to overcome these linguistic barriers. With conceptual analysis we may create helpful taxonomies. The great British cognitive scientist, Aaron Sloman told of a road over these obstacles, “For a full account of [affective] episodes and dispositions we require a theory about how mental states are generated and controlled and how they lead to action—a theory about the mechanisms of mind.” As you will recall, Sloman and I distinguished three different types of emotion: Primary, secondary and tertiary emotions. I proposed the label ‘perturbance’ to refer to tertiary ’emotions’.
Perturbance: Loss of control of mental processing of motivators
In his artist statement, Lam Wong sums up his interest in the mind and alludes to some of its essential features.
What interests me most are things* that I don’t understand nor have control of. It is important for me trying to understand the process of how we all perceive and construct the reality. This is my subject and that is why I paint. […]
*Things – time, space, memory, perception, reality, phenomenon, relationship, meaning, lust, art, human consciousness…
The human mind is the most sophisticated control system it (vaguely) knows. Yet even executive and affective mechanisms have limited knowledge and control over the society of mind. Open your eyes, and you cannot help but see the world. Awake and you will hear. Abstain from drinking fluids, and you will be thirsty.
If through introspection you could educe the inner mechanisms that parse and comprehend this sentence or Artist’s mother with yellow hat, then you might nearly merit a Nobel prize in Cognitive Science—If there were such a thing! But that is beyond the bounds of phenomenology, conceptual analysis and even empirical research. Cognitive scientists must employ AI techniques of reverse engineering.
Yet lacking detailed self-knowledge and control does not normally cause problems. Even being unable to silence the Goldberg Variations while trying to sleep is a rather benign annoyance. One can normally distance oneself, change the environment or wait it out.
Romantic love is a quintessential perturbance. Lose the object of your limerence, and you will experience a consequent perturbance. Heartbroken, you will be distracted by insistent memories of your time with “him or her”, questions about “his or her” current life, motives to ensure “he or she” is well, and longings to be loved by “him or her” again. More generally, in perturbance your mind repeatedly activates insistent motivators—in a manner that Kevin Shields captures in City Girls. Motivators are affective mental content—wishes, wants, yearnings, desires, motives, goals or repulsions. Insistence is the propensity of motivators to disrupt and maintain your attention, whether or not you attempt to focus on something else. Perturbance is an intimate loss of executive self-control, a state that has fascinated me since 1990 and has recently become again a target of my R&D. I think it also falls within the realm of control issues alluded to by Lam Wong.
For good evolutionary reasons, the human brain has evolved to prevent “executive processes” (Aristotle’s “volition”) to be able to suppress its internal motive generators. The latter mechanisms are designed to generate affective states in response to dangers and opportunities that may be helpful for our survival and procreation, causing us to view them as such (rather than apathetically).
Alas, asynchronous motive generators are heuristic mechanisms, designed by evolution to respond quickly—before it is too late, often without deliberation. They are particularly likely to trigger falsely in the modern world, it being so different from our distant ancestors’ conditions. So, we crave foods that poison us. A man pines for the woman who left him; he is driven to wonder why she said he was her soul mate (his Demian‘s Frau Eva, or Mother) — as if she knew. Like the young man in The Pat, we are intimidated by people who can’t—at least not without our complicity, without us “fusing” with our motive generators—control us. Still, some measure of mental emancipation is possible.
Attachment, acceptance, love and happiness
I have come to terms with a lot of things, because, when all’s said and done, there’s really very little one can do about a lot of things.
Psychology has established the importance of early attachment between child and primary caregiver, typically the mother, for lifelong well-being and psychosocial adjustment. A child whose needs are sufficiently and consistently met by a calm, caring, responsive, attuned and effective parent stands a good chance of learning to effectively regulate his own mental states.
One of the major challenges an individual faces in development is not only to become independent from his primary caregiver, and other people, but to achieve sufficient detachment from his own affective states. Without such detachment, he is likely to become a slave to his very own passions. That can lead to addiction, obsession, and various other sources of suffering of which perturbance is the central feature. More generally attachment and detachment are two of the most fundamental relations transpiring through mental life.
So, it is not surprising that attachment relations and individuation are illustrated throughout 21 Elements. Ignoring Mark Rothko depicts a child affirming his individuality in a more nuanced manner than his younger self in Adrien e. He quickly walks by the work of an artist his father admires. But he is not completely independent: his head is turned towards the piece he does not yet comprehend or appreciate. Meanwhile, there stands a woman in The Distance who flouts Wong’s gnomic Art is for Intimate Moments. West Coast is most germane to this theme. We have what appear to be two Buddhist monks and a female couple. The former are sitting at a distance from each other, but fully present to one and other. The latter are closer physically but, for whatever reason, are detached from each other and the environment. I’d like you to tell me what’s with the red and black here? (Is it just by vice of my obsessions that I am reminded of Brel’s “le rouge et le noir“? An affective hallucination?) The Hunter (an art dealer), The Pat, Pop Star and even Geneva suggest awry internal and interpersonal relations.
How can peace be achieved in the complex society of more-or-less autonomous mechanisms of one’s mind? It is increasingly recognized in professional and popular mental health literature that equanimity requires accepting that executive processes often can no more control the insistence of inner motivators than we can directly control others. One’s mind will generate unhelpful thoughts, images, wishes, wants and other affective content. In mortal and romantic grief, for instance, one will futilely review, wonder, fantasize, plan, predict and evaluate. One may even persist in trying to decide that which has already been concluded. Other tertiary emotions similarly divert us. The art is to become disposed to recognize one’s mental wanderings, to give unpleasant feelings their due by connecting with rather than trying to escape from them, and to gently redirect oneself towards productive, valued pursuits. Thus, secular Buddhism is seeping into clinical psychology.
Having lost a person to whom one is attached, one can have a long drawn battle with the resulting insistent and painful mental content that is so poignantly illustrated in Mother. Or if one has through regular meditative practice, as displayed in Barrier, developed equanimity, one can ride these mental waves with minimal suffering. The emphasis on Silence and the blank canvas in the Poignancy of Poetry, to me, represent mental quiescence.
Nevertheless, happiness, in Aristotle’s sense of the term eudaimonia, requires that we persistently, almost compulsively, strive to surpass ourselves. This in turn calls for a humble self-critical attitude. You know we see this in experts like Lam. Interweaving loving acceptance and self-criticism, striving and meditation, silence and music, is not a paradox but an art—one that Teaism may sustain. This is a self-regulatory aspect of Lamontagne’s essay on teaching, referenced above.
Universality of affect
Once you were dismayed at my seeking to understand “emotion.” Would experiencing emotion not be more than enough? For one, it seemed to me that if I did not better understand passion it would have too much power over me. And that is the path to suffering, as many who have loved impossibly have discovered. Furthermore, I find it equally enjoyable, and more sustainable, to try to understand affect, even though (and perhaps especially because) it too is an impossible quest. I’m now also trying to develop ways to prevent and alleviate emotional suffering for the many.
I have come to realize that I cannot understand passion without considering art, which is why I am studying 21 Elements and writing you this letter. Artists almost universally seem to refer to their art in affective terms, N’est ce pas? At the heart of affect and thus sentience is value, a universal, multifaceted concept.
Claude Lamontagne drew my attention last October to a haunting excerpt from Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus that illuminates affect:
What?! What is this? Tell me, Signore! What is this pain? What is this need in the sound? Forever unfulfillable, yet fulfilling him who hears it, utterly. Is it Your need? Can it be Yours?
Lamontagne sees Schaffer as implicitly attributing to “God”
absolutely universal Need, the need for nothing in particular, just pure, universal, absolute Need: a Universal emotion, the perfect essence of Need, emotionally ‘induced’ from the infinite variety of particular needs!
Is there such a state, say, in you or me? Art here is but the handle of an intuition pump with which we may pose questions about affect, like Einstein did about physics.
Using visual art to improve ourselves
The concept of meta-effectiveness, the skills and dispositions to use knowledge to become more effective, also applies to visual art. As one can shallowly process the best visual art, one can also surf the highest caliber expository knowledge, remaining unchanged. (Some creationists have read the Selfish Gene; some unravelled lovers had read the The Sorrows of Young Werther or Anna Kerinina.) Or one might delve them; extract knowledge gems from them; and leverage them for lofty ends: to solve problems, build new knowledge, or transform oneself. With visual art, however, more work is required to produce the knowledge from which one may develop mindware.
Consciousness, the great integrator (or integration)
Funny you and I never talked directly about consciousness… Still, I assume you would agree with Merlin Donald, author of A Mind So Rare, that “There is a coherence, an interconnectedness, about conscious experiences that makes them very different from unconscious ones, where ideas and images can coexist in a pell-mell, disorganized manner and no drive for continuity tries to impose order.” Consciousness, according to Murray Shanahan involves communication amongst many brain regions across the connectome, i.e., major information pathways in our brain. He calls this the “communication through coherence” hypothesis. As a person seeks to complete herself with a partner or in another manner, so does the mind seek to complete its grasp of a situation by producing a coherent interpretation.
This central feature of consciousness, a “super-synesthesia”, resonates with the opening quotation of Edgar Allan Poe and 21 Elements. In the three paintings of Silence and CD-318 (Reperformance) tacit sounds are nearly audible. In 1964 – The Poignancy of Poetry & The Poignancy of Music we are presented with a pointer to the entire exhibition. There is a blank slate awaiting completion. 21 Elements thereby attains not only Rothko’s objective “to raise painting to the level of poignancy of music and poetry”, but also art to the level of consciousness.
To the tune of Kevin Shield’s Goodbye
Well, Dear Friend, those were some of the ways in which 21 Elements reverberated in me. Of few of my beliefs I am sure. But I know that the exhibition reminded me of you. How could Picasso Summer not affect me this way?
I wish to thank Lam Wong for the opportunity to experience his art and reflect on these themes. Thanks also to Dr. Al Sather and Joy Silver for discussing Lam’s exhibition with me. I am grateful to Prof. Claude Lamontagne for feedback on this essay. I’d also like to thank Dr. Lisa N. Eisen for introducing me to and helping me understand acceptance and commitment therapy, on which this essay is partly based.
2014-12-20. I have made several revisions to this document since its first publication on 28 Oct 2014.