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.
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To stream audio for Rhys Jones’ talk, click on the play arrow below.
Alternatively, to go to a download page, click here.