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If you were asked to close your eyes and picture your mind to yourself, what would it look like? Like a theatre, a factory, a machine?

Psychiatrist, lecturer and artist Rhys Bevan Jones offered the audience at last night’s Cardiff Philosophy Cafe a survey of the history of representations of the mind – taking in medieval science, 19th-century medicine, contemporary neuroscience and popular culture (including films ranging from The Testament of Dr Mabuse to Me, Myself and Irene) – ending with his own investigations, conducted with patients, friends and family members, and students, of the forms people use to depict the structures and workings of their own minds.  Along the way, Rhys detailed a number of examples of how representations of the mind have sought to find somatic clues in the appearance, demeanour and behaviour of individuals to the invisible, “inner” dimension of their mental lives.  From phrenology to physiognomy, and from constitutional psychology to personality typologies like the Myers-Briggs schema, the outer has been mapped and analyzed as the key to understanding the inner.

Metaphors – whether verbal or imagistic in nature – provide another way of accessing the structure of the mind, as in the image of the “palace of the mind” employed within medieval Christian theology, the depiction of the difference between short- and long-term memory with the aid of an image of a conveyor belt, or the use in science and in popular culture alike of hosts of homunculi (Latin for “little men”) to populate maps of the  brain with busy miniature agents, responsible for mental processes.

Rhys described how the impulse to map the mind, and to employ a variety of images and other aesthetic resources in doing so, is central to human self-awareness, and can play a key role in helping people dealing with mental health issues to work them through. Complex  representations of structures and buildings of various kinds, superimposed layers, tubes and tunnels all featured – together with the ever-present homunculi – in drawings created by patients. Making a sometimes deeply difficult journey from the inner to the outer through the use of aesthetic tools could enable patients, in some cases, to re-establish contact with the world.

Continuing on this theme of how externalisation – the process of casting internal experience into objective form – can assist with both creating a deeper, and practically rooted, understanding of the mind, the biostatistician and artist Julia Thomas went on to explore the contribution explorations of creativity can make to dealing with mental illness. The talking cure developed initially by Breuer and Freud can be problematic, she suggested, because of its confessional nature, its focus on intimate detail, and its reliance on verbal expression. Other approaches might be more productive, given that a difficult balance has to be struck between the need for self-disclosure and self-discovery on the one hand, and autonomy and control on the other. Recognizing that the talking cure involves the collaborative construction of a narrative or narratives means that people dealing with mental health issues and health professionals can  explore more widely aesthetic forms and what they can do to assist working through, and recovery.

Contrary to the conceptions of enlightenment popular in philosophy – in which dispelling darkness with light is a matter of achieving conceptual clarity, replacing irrational or confused mental noise with rationality  – Julia proposed that an aesthetic exploration of creativity  can show how the awakening of emotional responses can clarify someone’s relationship with themselves. She suggested that there is an ambivalence within creative artistic work, consisting of an exchange between experiences of losing oneself and of finding oneself, which marks it out as capable of making a special contribution. She presented several examples of her own work, including an audio piece, and two code-generated artworks which dealt with the vulnerability and fragility of the passage from darkness to new understanding.

Taken together, Rhys and Julia’s talks explored how styles of thought and “languages” other than those typically used by scientists and/or philosophers can transform individuals’ understanding of themselves, in ways which may have therapeutic benefit. Given that the Greek ethos, the root of our “ethics”, means “form of life”, it could be argued that by enabling individuals to transform how they live, the exploration of such different styles of thought represents, at bottom, a different way of “doing ethics”.

To stream audio for Julia Thomas’ talk, click on the play arrow below.

Alternatively, you can go to a download page by clicking here.

To stream audio for Rhys Jones’ talk, click on the play arrow below.

Alternatively, to go to a download page, click here.

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5 thoughts on “Art, the Mind and Mental Illness”

  1. What impressed itself on me tonight was that the foot was bigger than the shoe – points were put by the audience, and questions asked, that often fell outside the remit of the talk. Normally, if anyone pushes a point or proposal tiresomely or insistently it can be me, but tonight I was not alone. Again, the speakers had a tough, challenging time of it. I always think they are little suprised by the savvy of the audience and the depth of feeling.

    Thus it seemed that there were two proposals tonight – one official, one not so official. The official talk showed us, in pictures and sound, different views of Art, the Mind, and mental illness. The other, not so official, was about the authority and relevance of psychiatry or psychology: “is mental illness a myth”, one lady asked, twice. Tonight, this question, and similar, were a foot too big, I thought.

    But then tonights talk was revelatory in that it showed how much people needed to unload issues, gathered over the years it seemed, from encounters with the psychiatric profession. These washed over the main topic at times.

    It suprised me that the two speakers quietly concurred toward a client-centred view (had they learnt from previous audience encounters?) – that people can take whatever resources are at hand, psychiatric, art, or otherwise, to help them; and indeed some in the audience said that the images of the mind on view tonight, and creative expression, were helpful to them. But then this seemingly conciliatory approach by the professionals wouldn’t necessarily threaten the over-arching authority of the psychiatric model. For such non-psychiatric resources as art were always presented in the psychiatric framework of “cure”, “therapy” and “mental illness”, concepts which are the life-blood of the medical/clinical model.

    This is why I had some reservations over the idea of “images of the mind” – such images are too often modelled on the mind as a physical object and such a casting was always going to support the clinical model, a model that some others also objected to.

    Julia Thomas said something, in passing it seemed, that was intriguing. She said (to the effect) that her clients do not talk about their creative work so much in terms of psychopathology but in terms of the work itself. But how does one talk psychopathologically about one’s art? There is a logical, conceptual schism, it seems between regarding experiences as chaotic, destructive illnesses and yet being able to legitimately talk about them, or portray them in art or other imagery. These images are organized and are not redolent of the chaos which we would expect to find at the heart of illness. How does one talk about or explain something which by definition, is simply chaos – the physically broken, the break itself?

    This has always been psychiatry’s key problem. How can a creative expression, or an immediate experience, be an illness? An illness is secondary interpretation, not a primary event. The experience is primary, it’s interpretation is not. This was the schism between Julia and Rhy’s roles: for Julia I would imagine that a creative, first hand experience is primary, independent of diagnosis, it is itself; it is neither true nor false, sane nor mad. But for Rhys, it was true or not true, same or mad – if he sticks to his guns. Just what, then, is the connection, if any, between art/ experience and psychology/psychopathology?

    That is why I suggested that the purpose of a psychiatrist in bringing us images of the mind was to promote the psychiatric venture by making associations between psychiatry and art or creativity. But can such a promotion even begin? We would have to assume with Rhys Jones, wrongly, that an association between art and psychiatry is a relationship.

    For there is no possible way in which Julia Thomas’ client-artists could express what was by definition experientially inaccesible – the break at the heart of psychosis. Yet it seemed necessary for her to at least suggest a possibility of expressing psychosis for the sake of the psychiatric venture.

    I then mused on the strength of the psychiatric profession, it’s politicisation and its inertia to new ideas. After all, big-paying jobs, academic prestige and, we are told, the health of the nation are at stake.

    I put my big, not so relevant question (bigger than my usual questions) tonight to Rhys Jones, a question I’ve had in my head for ten years or more. Where does psychiatry get its ethics? What is the source of its reluctance to legitimise certain experiences and pathologise others? I have suspected that with the merger of the Christian faith with psychiatry in academia (there are connections here) that the sciences were always in debt to the ethics of Christianity, and that these ethics were decidely against behavioural expressions that seemed to shock or fall outside the realms of decency and faith, even for secularists and atheists. So it was that Freud’s patients had to lie, decently, on their couch. I gave an example to show that thrashing around, experiences of death and rebirth, and visionary encounters with archetypes were not dangerously sensual, indecent, hallucinations, and therefore in psychiatry’s views – pathological. Surprisingly, Rhys Jones concurred that some “therapies” were exploring similar themes; but explored in the best possible taste – under the legitimising umbrella of madness? I quietly asked myself.

    1. It was my first Philosophy Cafe; I’m not sure I would go to another. I thought the presentations were interesting and I was looking forward to an interesting discussion afterwards that would deepen/broaden/contradict even, what Julia and Rhys had introduced in their very limited time (difficult to speak about such a huge subject given only 15 minutes). I must say I was shocked in the small group session by the narrow mindeness of people who seemed bent on criticising the speakers (on a personal level too) without offering any opinions that seemed grounded in intellect or empathy. I felt they had come with their minds made up before Rhys or Julia opened their mouths. I felt dismayed about this and ended up walking away from my group when they started rudely pontificating on how much Julia and Rhys earned and were getting paid for doing this: I imagine they did this talk for no fee, merely for the intellectual sharing. I never got the feeling that they were there to inform or stand as authority; I felt they were present to share interests, ideas, open up debate. It was refeshing to see that a psychiatrist who asks that his ‘clients to use art also immerses himself in that medium which gives him inside view. I’d prefer a psychiatrist who works from the centre rather than one who assumes authority from the side. Ok so some people might not have ‘got’ his work or maybe they disliked it, but the manner in which people denigrated effort astounded me. John Jones says of speakers:
      ‘ I always think they are little suprised by the savvy of the audience and the depth of feeling’ I find this quite patronising. I imagine Julia and Rhys were surprised if anything by the rudeness of some members of the audience. Thank goodness there were people there who raised questions and made assertions that were meaningful.
      Also, John Jones refers to Julia’s clients. But she made it clear she is an artist, not an art therapist.
      I think you should hold a philosophy cafe on the nature of power and group dynamics.
      Thank you Julia and Rhys for being passionate about your work; it was evident to me that creating art and helping people gain control over their lives seemed like more than a profession to you both.

      1. I have been going to Philosophy Café now for 3 years and have missed only 2 sessions. I have never actually written on the blog before but this week I feel really strongly that something needs to be said. I very much enjoyed the presentations by the speakers, but later came away feeling disappointed and, to be honest, uncomfortable with the way the evening had developed and, in particular, had ended.

        Clare, you quite rightly assumed that no money is taken for any aspect of Philosophy cafe. The whole event is run by people who want to share and develop their ideas and interests. I feel that as an audience we owe them the respect to do our best to listen and to use the content of the presentations as a basis for our discussions.

        Over the years there have been some wonderful and challenging discussions. Not always easy, but usually respectful of each others’ opinions and in good spirit. This weeks’ café seemed to take on a different tone. It seemed to me that some people brought their own pre-existing agendas regarding mental health issues and the associated professionals and directed them straight at the speakers. It also seemed to me that to a large extent the content of the presentations themselves was overlooked and little consideration was given to the actual work of the artists. That, in itself was, in my opinion, a wasted opportunity and a real shame.

        I am frustrated at myself for not speaking out. I guess it all took me rather by surprise and that’s why I am taking the opportunity to make my first entry on the blog.

        Clare, I really hope you do come back to Philosophy café. I think we would benefit from your presence. I really like your idea on holding a café on the nature of power and group dynamics. I’m quite sure our group could generate some healthy debate on that topic!

  2. In reference to the last blogg, I was sad to read Clare say that she probably wouldn’t come to the cafe again. The sessions are usually very good but the problem with Tuesday’s session is that it wasn’t actually philosophy at all but a very vague and general discussion on how we see the mind and mental illness.

    Philosophy should start from a point of not assuming anything and someone in the audience was right to point out (albeit a bit belligerently) that we hadn’t even defined ‘mental illness’. In fact this would have been a much better discussion i.e. ‘What is mental illness?’. But this wasn’t the speakers’ faults – neither of whom were philosophers but a Psychologist and an Artist.

    It was never made clear how these illustrations of the mind actually helped anyone – but it clearly did help in some way which is a great thing for those involved, but again nothing to do with philosophy and led to a discussion which quickly veered off course whereby no philosophical analysis was possible.

    I hope this one week won’t put you off in future.

  3. There was a schism in the presentation format that might have contributed to a perception, like Claire’s, of rudeness – the talks were often, though not entirely, presented in an educational format, but conducted in a chamber of debate.

    So Claire would be right in wanting to examine the different styles of vocal gatherings. I have to add that tonight was different to other nights in intensity of feeling (not fractious), in two years of philosophy cafe.

    BUT – a debating chamber is not like an educational classroom. In a debating chamber (especially a “philosophical” one) it’s quite permissable and productive, even entertaining, to employ a confrontational style, where abruptly expressed one-liners can draw attention to fundamental issues that may have been casually put to one side, or ignored by society for years. This might be considered boorishness, stupidity or rudeness in an educational format.

    This may have been the case tonight. I think it was. I think the the topics were presented under the auspices of the MRC – Medical Research Council. Unfortunately, the psychiatric framework in which the topics were presented ITSELF became a topic, whether it was a willing one or not. So be it, is what I say. If it’s been building up for years, as it seemed to have, then we can’t ignore it. Maybe someone from the MRC should have been here too, but then I don’t know if there is a figurehead of the psychiatric profession, like a Pope or Prime Minister.

    Following a suggestion, I spoke to Julia thomas just after the talk finished and said how many of us were happy with the work she did and sorry that it may have been overlooked to a large degree in the debate that followed. But I don’t think that anything said this night was rude, just deeply felt. It fell within the bounds of acceptable discourse for a debating chamber. If it was an educational chamber, then, it would be different. But it wasn’t in the first instance an educational format, so I never felt uncomfortable with what emerged as a force for change for all parties, speakers included. They must come again.

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