Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Resonance Model of Communication, Ontic Experience, and Mirror Neurons

The Resonance Model of Communication, Ontic Experience, and Mirror Neurons

Third in a series

The worst communications model is the one that is used in almost all communications textbooks today. This is the “transportation” model, illustrated by a person’s head on the left, another person’s head on the right, and a double-headed dotted line arrow between them. The explanation is that one person has a concept, that through a medium this concept is carried to another person and deposited there. Noise is usually pictured within the medium, an element that distorts that which is transferred or transported.

This mechanical model is a major contributor to the misunderstanding of the art process, and leads to major failings in our culture as a whole.

In a slim volume published in 1973, Tony Schwartz criticized the transfer model, and suggested a model based on Marshal McLuhan’s “acoustic space”, wherein the person/recipient is within a circular field of center-moving concentric circular waves, moving from the outside in.

It should be obvious that the “transportation” or “transfer” model is just wrong. There is no physical transfer from brain to brain. The physicality is not realistic. Little object-units don’t get checked in at the station and sent to the brain where they are received. The blurriness of the human interface in this model is stunning in its ubuiquity.


I sent the following question to a number of friends:

“In experiencing works of art (and the rest of the world), there are sometimes phenomena that you find that say "I exist". It can strike the viewer/listener/etc. that the phenomenon exists, and that because of that (goin' down that old lonesome Cartesian road...), he (the viewer) also exists.

“Kant referred to the apperceptual, as the being conscious of one's act of perception. But is there a word that refers to the sensed object/event that generates the moment of self-awareness?”

Rabbi Pinchas Giller: “Soloveitchik used to say ‘ontic'...?”

Soloveitchik has a text distinguishing between ontic experience and ontic proof:

The trouble with all rational demonstration of the existence of God, with which the history of philosophy abounds, consists in their being exactly what they were meant to be by those who formulated them: abstract logical demonstrations divorced from the living primal experiences in which these demonstrations are rooted. For instance, the cosmic experience was transformed into a cosmological proof, the ontic experience into an ontological proof, et cetera. Instead of stating that the most elementary existential awareness as a subjective "I exist" and an objective "the world around me exists" awareness is unattainable as long as the ultimate reality of God is not part of this awareness, the theologians engaged in formal postulating and deducing in an experiential vacuum. Because of this, they exposed themselves to Hume's and Kant's biting criticism that logical categories are applicable only within the limits of the human scientific experience.”
(The Lonely Man of Faith, p. 32, note)

To the extent that one accepts that the aesthetic experience I’ve described is a variety of (or analogous to) the ontic experience referred to here by Soloveitchik, one can understand the difficulty of referring to a personal experience that cannot be included in a text that refers to that experience. The artist, moving to experience this for him or her self, works to manipulate the medium to spark that experience. To explain the experience, or to prove that it exists, is not a terrible thing to do. But it is not in itself part of the experience.

From the photographer Robert Polidori:

“Hard to answer your question.
I don't know "a" word.
But one phrase comes to mind.
M. Snow once wrote something to the effect

‘Do You see What I see?’

It's about trying to share perceptions.

Some times when someone is explaining with words something- a concept
or the perceptive result of something,
the listener can sometimes respond...

‘I see...’ "

Snow’s Wittgensteinian language game again separates the experience from a reference to it. That gap between the pointing and the invisible pointed-to.

From the writer Ethan Place:

The only word that comes to mind (that's MY mind, thank you very much) is self-reflexive or self-reflection. This guy, though not discussing art, suggests intellectual intuition:

“At its most basic, intellectual intuition can be described as a subject’s self-referential, performative actualization (N Pepperell would probably say self-reflexive here, but I figured, Why not be different?). It identifies the self with the self’s activity and what this activity produces such that the self, which is to be understood as activity simpliciter, actualizes and becomes aware of what it means to be a self through its own activity. Intellectual intuition, then, designates the self’s immediate, singular awareness of itself as both a producer of meaning as well as the content of what it produces. It encompasses - and unifies - the twofold awareness of the fact that the self simply is the activity of producing meaning, and the content of this activity. Intellectual intuition is, in other words, the union of process and product.”

Alexei,, Process and Product — Or the Self-Reflexivity of Fichte’s Intellectual Intuition

Alexei’s process is a production of self-referential meaning. This reminds me of the sudden bloom of a feedback loop that occurs when you point a video camera into a monitor attached to it…at first, the image shifts a bit, then suddenly the camera sees itself seeing itself seeing itself and a rushing kalidescope pours through the video image. By spatially manipulating the camera, one obtains not only this exhilarating sudden flowing, but a continual variety of colors and patterns as the feedback continues. Big hit back in the ‘70s.

Neither Ethan Place nor Alexei are making the claim that this intuition is the aesthetic experience. It may be, or it may be a special case variation of it. The activity described does seem isomorphic with the aesthetic experience, although the perception that the self is both producer of content and the content may not be a requisite take-away.

Both media maven Dan Restuccio and Video Producer John Mabey suggested the Japanese word “Mu”. I Googled the word and found a reference that said it was derived from the Chinese word for “nothing”. This sent me digging into my wallet to find a disintegrating paper scrap on which my Chinese professor, in college, drew for me the Chinese hieroglyph for “nothingness”, or in Mandarin “wu”. This is not the “wu” character for the number “5”, but one that is similar to a purely negative adjective (with a radical character that refers to fire or burning)…hence “nothingness”. My understanding of the Japanese word is that it is the answer to the koan:

“A monk asked Joshu, “Does a dog have the Buddha nature?” Joshu retorted, “Mu!”

As the phrase is in Maine “You can’t get there from here”.

John went on to suggest the word “empathy”. For me, this hit home. It not only worked for the aesthetic experience, but also for the “resonance” model of communication described by Schwartz.

The next answer I received was from Peter Matussek, the aesthetics scholar presently living in Siegen, Germany. I quote from his response here at length:

“Dear Robert,
please excuse me for being late as usual.
Your question points directly into what I also do claim as being the essence of art: creating self-awareness - in German: Selbstaufmerksamkeit. I think I mentioned this also in my writings on memory theaters.
There is a poem of Rainer Maria Rilke that expresses very clearly what you describe:

Archaischer Torso Apollos

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,
sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.

Sonst stünde dieser Stein entstellt und kurz
unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz
und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle;

und bräche nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.

The poem describes a torso and the process of the substitution of the parts that are not visible (esp. the head and the eyes) by the imagination of the recipient.

In the last two lines the direction of looking is immediately turned around: "there is not a single part / that does not see you. You have got to change your life."

Kant may be a good reference insofar as he describes the perception of the perception of beauty as going along with the perception of an inner balance between mind and emotion (Verstand und Gefühl).

But even more I see a ground of explanation in the new theories that explain "empathy" not conventionally, as a vague psychic intuition, but as a coordination af gestures. If you have read about mirror neurons you get an idea of what I mean. This new founding suits to older theories of art history, for example Aby Warburg's "Pathosformeln" , i.e. gestures in pieces of art that "live on" through the history of mankind, because they meet collective memories of the body (Warburg had some contact with C.G. Jung, but more important is his contact with Richard Semon who coined the term "ekphoria": the process of recollection by feeling a similar bodily "energy". The famous neuroscientist Danile Schacter has recently written a book on Semon as a "neglected pioneer".)”

Mirror neurons are a class of cells discovered in 1990 in the laboratory of Giacomo Rizzolatti, a neuroscientist at the University of Parma, Italy. Dr. Rizzalatti observed the cells firing in macaque monkeys both when they perform an action, and when they see another monkey perform that same action.

In his findings, published in 1996, Dr. Rizzalatti writes “Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking."

U.S.C.’s. Michael A. Arbib, Ph.D., writes

"For communication to succeed, both the individual sending a message and the individual receiving it must recognize the significance of the sender's signal. Mirror neurons are thus the missing link in the evolution of language. They provide a mechanism for the sharing of meaning."

While still using the “sender” and “receiver” language from the transport model of communication, Dr. Arbib provides an understandable mechanism for how one comprehends a message. Supporting the “resonance” model, the individual, through empathy, engages his or her own corresponding internal model. This model does not just work for visual sensing, but extends to words, sounds, sensations and metaphor (V.S. Ramachandran, Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego).

The existence of mirror neurons, and the continued study of how they work, allows for a model of communication that, rather than relegating concepts of empathy, synaesthesia, metaphor and the aesthetic experience to the outer edges of normal communication, place them squarely at its essence.

The case for art education can now be more clearly formed, from within this new model for communication.

Can you see what I mean?

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