What we call ‘art’ is a mishmash of takes on our species’ manic proliferation of image
fabrication. Why the mania? It has to do with the mind games we humans play in
postulating our place in the scheme of things. It begins with the revelation that we are
objects among all the other moving parts. Among the most significant manifestations of
which are the marks we leave behind and the existential connections we infer from them.
Somewhere deep in our psyche and early on in our life history, we understand the rivalry
of our weightless panoramic thoughts and visual omnipotence with our centripetal and
plodding physical presence.
From a fixed vantage, we can choose to see everywhere. In time, we learn the orders
of spatial magnitude we can skip to; from out to the far horizon and untouchable stars
and then in a quarter of second back to the tiniest speck of pollen. So why can't we ‘be’
everywhere too? The unsatisfying resolution of simultaneously seeing all but experiencing
so little initiates an inner dialogue of ‘self-regard,’ the slow tango of high consciousness.
What we make of the inherent frustration is the stuff of our incredible historic record.
The specific narrative of an individual's interaction with his space and time is
determined by the residuals we leave. Every conscious human also figures out that the
minute we regard these configurations, they become a history source with a multiplier
effect. First, they are no longer accidents by virtue of the fact that just knowing we have
left them validates their existence as a free-standing object and something completely
'other' than we are.
We can walk and maneuver, and extract pattern information, from them. We can
return to them; we can alter them. We can invite others to consider and refer to them.
We can eradicate them. But we also link them as a record of our personal progress, which
is an objective reference for our personal existence. They live on their own merits as
stable objects and substantiate the fact that we are objects too. These marks allow us
to attend or focus an individual's unique narrative by virtue of the fact that we can revisit
specific episodes, even if it is not nonchalantly. Thus, they are information caches
depending on how we choose to treat them. We know 'it' is out there, in the air, on its own,
though, we have moved on.
This attitude of objective self-regard is by nature backward-looking and integral to
our signature brain behavior, which is to swing constantly through episodic time-frames.
It has everything to do with our first level of inquiry regarding what the scheme of things
might be by considering, evaluating, and maneuvering this funny object we're stuck with
that has so many dangling and moving parts. After all, we begin life as a mystery to
ourselves, and recognize early that we can be both the puppeteer and the puppet.
What we take from this seeming perplexity is our own potential to arrange the world too.
Mystery is not all that Mysterious.
Incumbent in this theme is the obvious—that mysteries mean something is solvable
and we can figure it out. We can't help but speculate what controls the jurisdiction
beyond our personal (and communal) reach. This is not a placid conundrum, but a
roiling irritant. Ironically, the enormously irritating part erupts from our false sense of
genius. It is a kind of omniscience that derives from our abundant visualization assets.
To date, we have counted over fifty areas in the brain that help manufacture vision.
It is our most informative sensor. Yet it is as deceptively grandiose as it is agitating and
bewildering for its deficits.
'Mystery' is this activity of postulating thus and thus, and then believing to have
figured the rest out even if 'the rest' we ascribe to powers different than our own.
Pretty presumptuous, I'd say. This leaves a fertile and wide swath for doubt, but only
around the edges. Example: we see the distant mountain miles and miles away and think
we know all about distance and height and landscape. Except for the nooks and crannies
that defy our ken, like the bug holes and hawk patterns and clouds forming that we
cannot see. What monitors all this?
Humans have always thrived under mystery. It is doubt that we can't stomach.
'Mystery' allays concerns; 'doubt' causes anxiety. One provides a loamy pretext for our
narrative bent like the invention of Gods. The other slams on the narrative breaks and
leads to pure agitation. One is cognitively rich, the other is emotionally pungent.
This sounds counterintuitive. Why is 'doubt' not a part of mystery. It seems so logical.
And why can't we tame it with fancy explanations?
Well, if you believe the reason for something is 'this' even if you can't specify
what 'this' is, then it automatically implies it isn't 'that.' For example, if you depend on
the reflex of withdrawing your hand near a flame, then you accept that something else
is not manipulating you. You might not understand why or how you can respond so fast,
which is fairly mysterious, but you are comfortable with the regularity of it happening.
Maybe you invent an elaborate explanation about unseen sparks flying out. Whatever
the mystery of why it happens this way, you are satisfied that it does and depend on it.
What might the 'that' be? Well, what if one day you hold your finger to the fire and
burn it? Immediately you decide it was a crazy thing to do and wonder why on earth
you did it. Was it curiosity, a distraction, a perverse challenge? The annoyance reveals
the doubt. It is no longer a mystery.
Mystery is not frustrating, it's settled business: The Gods did it. The dog did it.
My genes made me do it. Uncharacteristic behavior, as mentioned above, becomes the
doubt around the edges, the realm of 'that.' It defies your belief that you can even have
explanations and makes us feel victimized.
All religious philosophies, no matter how diverse, build in an innervating 'that' quotient,
the most familiar being the dissembler, the trickster, and the diabolic. This is the built-in
provocateur that we understand is reliably random and unpredictable. Although it can
become contained in a negative theory of sorts as Flip Wilson used to say, ‘The devil
made me do it,’ the fact is that it is a pretext that feasts on our worries.
The conceptual role these play, is essential to our general thinking. We express in
macro-metaphorical terms our micro-neurological need to respond to high 'alert.'
One could then postulate that our need to be on high alert is functional; it pertains to
our fight-or-flight emotional secretions, which should have ebbed by now because you'd
think we'd have learned to trust in our innovative designs to regulate the environment.
In which case, our two little, ancient amygdalae, the engines that drive these anxieties,
should by now have diminished. But evolution is far more lethargic than you would think
or hope. We don't seem to be as reactive as Darwin's finches, with beaks that grow or
diminish in size and shape in one or two generations, depending on which island they
inhabit of the Galapagos and the idiosyncratic food resources and climate.
For example, the emergence of our so-called brilliant inventions like masonry
construction, pottery, weaponry, and 'groupthink' to help regulate our lives is still quite
recent, given the lifespan of our species. We had been strolling around a good
long time—maybe as much as hundreds of thousands of years—before hitting on some
of these. And when we finally did, maybe fifty thousand to thirty thousand years ago,
we certainly went through enough generational selections for the fittest in our species.
You'd think that with such inventions to reduce anxiety and control environments, the
amygdalae would have long ago begun to wither. Why they haven't, if they haven't,
which seems to be the case, should be perplexing. We have enough skulls to make the
comparison for general size and form.
I suggest that their role is different but still essential today. In large part, the
amygdalae are responsible for the churn of 'mystery' thinking today, which is ever more
various, urgent, fractious, and frankly shrill-hysterical. All of which suggests that we
require neurological pretexts as an artificial frisson and excuse specifically for the
purpose of channeling this seemingly useless apprehensive energy.
In other words, anxiety is the mother of invention. One might think that we have
discovered enough, what more can we do beyond smartphones, rockets, and nuclear
medicine? Apparently, much more. As long as fear and aggression are anxiety's children,
the risk-taking, neuro adventurers will just never look a good solution in the face and
call it a done deal.
Now we must be careful. Activism, politics, and wars seem to be part of that fabricated
vehicle, that 'mystery' function for which we believe we have the wherewithal to craft a
framework of explanations. Yes, war is an explanation. These aggressions don't have
to be hide bound and specific, but they must reduce surprise with predictability. And
predictability easily gets transformed into labels behind which we hide, hold placards,
socialize, argue, decimate, and destroy. To say 'I am a this' is to sign onto a concept
that is an intended, all-purpose key to navigating life and taming the vagaries of the
Unfortunately, it just doesn't work. We still remain on high alert around the edges.
Ironically, it's because of how we need to metabolize energy efficiently. We do this
by being hyper-responsive to anomalous breaks in normal patterns. Although one
could say that any fool knows that the reason it is so blatant is because our brains our
wired for dismissing ho-hum normal as a baseline to spotlight anything that is not.
Ironically, that which is 'mysterious' is our assumption of a well-established
predictable pattern. It's the positive response to an agitating negative that cleaves our
boredom and begs for reframing the contexts of our lives.
It's a negative because it suggests that complacency is sitting on a wobbly foundation.
Well, we don't really need to know all about 'why.' We just need to get cozy with the
framework we constructed to contain it. Jeremy E. Guinn summarizes this conservation
of energy dynamism nicely.
A habituated animal retains its instinctual ability to respond to threats without
continually reacting to benign activities. (Guinn 2013)
Today we have the amygdalae to thank for those dark and irritating 'misgivings'
that infest the intellectual areas around the edges that threaten our solutions.
Were we so certain of the labels that define our choices and lifestyles, we wouldn't
yell so loudly. We can see this in the pitched clash of ideologies themselves—emphasis
on 'clash.' These ideological clashes come from exactly the same neural place as those
nasty nocturnal creatures of the jungles that threaten our comfy campfire routines.
Be it religious, political, social, creative—you name it.
A poisonous snake in the grass is a malevolent equivalent to your neighbor's political
party affiliations. One solution must necessarily be threatened by the mere existence
of others. Psychologically, we need these manufactured anxieties and hostilities in lieu
of a dearth of what had once been our natural fear and apprehension of environmental
assaults. The hungry amygdalae demand this. And we deliver.
Our cognitive health owes a great deal to our addiction to feeling irked.