Imitation. It sounds so simple at the get-go. Yet our 'imaging impulse,' that which
ignites our production of freestanding designs and the subject of this investigation,
begins with it. The concept of mimicry in any form and by any means drives all of our
behaviors as it does for most other animals. For many scholars, the big question is
how much is built in and how much is advertised or taught. Here is where I demure
because this question is definitely not the subject of this book, and I suggest there
are other and perhaps even bigger non-Darwinian questions at play (One might want
to consider the work of Alfred Russell Wallace, who takes a far more balanced
approach than Darwin did).
As an artist, I am infinitely perplexed and rather amazed by the routines of mimesis.
How is it that a mark made on paper, for example, ever so sloppily or slightly referring
to a shape visualized with eyes open or closed, carries the insignia of that entity?
There must be an intrinsic mapping device that is highly catholic at accepting
categorical configurations. But it does have regulations. Our brains know when that
catholic willingness to make sense of things just throws up its hands in exasperation
and says, ‘No way!
These days, neuro-psychology labs are humming with experiments to test the limits
and formation of these regulations. But artists have always been testing just how
indulgent our brains are. We were the first scientists, perhaps? We fiddle with the
outer regions of recognition paradigms all the time. And we ask for more and more
leniency, knowing all along that there has to be a point of no return, when the collected
elements like lines or dots, what have you, just never convince. This is usually when
you see more words spill forth from the artist or critic in the absence of visual
conviction. Every time I sit down to fabricate an image/object, I am prodding and
poking at those regulations.
However, in primitive societies, where the functional linkage is supreme, this kind of
intellectual mischief is relatively absent. By functional, I do not mean how to make a poi
pounder more effective in its ability to macerate, but rather how efficiently the image
links beliefs with expectations about their world. Human perception is a balancing act of
minimizing surprise, another word for entropy or chaos. Chaos is a huge negative,
which is why all of us and all animals strive to expend the least amount of energy in
We set rules of perception, which is an inner model for the world based on a
combination of beliefs that is reinforced by sensations. Karl Friston describes:
‘…the brain (as) an inference machine that actively predicts and explains
sensations…a probalistic model that can generate predictions against which
sensory samples are tested to update beliefs about their causes’
'Conviction' is the name of the game. This is the power to most swiftly define and
prescribe expectations about the world to channel sensations effectively and apply
them to our preexisting formatting about the environment. Conviction is as relevant in
private carvings as it is for public imagery. By 'private' I mean the kind that are
intended just for the satisfaction of the maker and are often expelled, destroyed,
buried, and abandoned.
This might help explain why so many thematic 'cultural' designs, both private and
public, endure through the ages. If they have been convincing and well-known, why
mess with success?
What we are really asking is how can our physical gestures, which themselves are
really abstract movements, convert cerebral notions into convincing interpretations of
our world? There is much at work here, but one remarkable part is our cognitive
devotion to always making sense of independent gestures or markings by aggregating
them into collections.
One 'thing' is insufficient. Two 'things' ask us to affirm linkages as meaningful. As
intentional. It is a kind of naïve belief that everything we combine together, in other
words, or that we make or discern must be a pointer, a cognitive index finger. And a
pointer that not only asks us to concentrate, but also de rigueur, points backward to its
causes. If we didn't have this mentality for causality with attention, which is taught very
early on, we would be subject to chaos, and I wouldn't be writing this now because
there would never have been a sustainable species to begin with.
Humans simply cannot let things lie unresolved. We just can't. But stubbornness
alone, perhaps even arrogance that we always cobble purposefulness for anything we
do, is insufficient for a complex chain of cognitive operations. 'Meaning' is ex post
facto and comes well after what appears instinctive because those synaptic
operations that result in creativity are so fluid. These are operations that are intended
to capture (i.e., tangibly convert impressions or ideas), the completely non -
substantive stuff of cognition.
Gestures must somehow be harnessed, organized, and guided to convert the
ephemeral neural 'stuff' physically into solid and detached references. In this case,
'art,' but in all other cases, freestanding forms.
I determined that there are classifiable responses that drive our instinct to peg
ideas to forms. Or better still, to bridge an interior motive with an exterior effect. I call
these 'conversion devices.'
Broadly, they are novelty, intention, mirroring and recursion. Although these
appear to be behavioral, even psychological, responses, they are deeply neural
idiosyncrasies that appear innate, albeit abetted by nurturing. Each will be addressed
individually as best as they can because they interface with each other and are
difficult to separate. Extirpate one and it collapses the function of the other.
We shall lead the discussion through behaviors that reveal just how dynamic these
devices truly are. But the remarkable revelation is that all of them exercise contiguous
neural loci around the premotor cortex and Pars Opercularis, a part of the brain
identified by Korbinian Brodmann as area 44 (Binkofski 2000; Heiser 2003; Vaina
Even more fascinating is that it's an area long ago, and still rather narrowly,
defined as an exclusive driver for verbal language formulation (as opposed to
Clearly it is not. But these loci of which each brain has two, are also significant for
evolution of perspectives, especially the projection of the self as a third-party
observer in the role of the actor (Shipton 2009; Tomasello 1999; Iacobini 2003;
Rizzolatti 1996). This means that 'I' am the first party, observing someone else, the
second party, and then inject my idea of self into that second party and imagine
seeing myself as if it were me instead of them. I am an actor because I am role playing
but also observing myself in that role. It is here where the 'likeness' or mimetic concept
resides in its starkest incarnation.
It sounds awfully convoluted, which it certainly is. But it is a fluid conversion that
humans undertake with the greatest of ease, both automatically and self-consciously.
The most self-conscious industry being those of the creative arts, but also more
mundanely, for all manufactured objects we use that others also have such as
smartphones and fashion trends.
The Pars Opercularis is curious. And we suggest that perspective swapping, which
is the fundamental driver of mimesis, is generated here. It is likely a behavior as
innate and essential to binding us in communities as any basic survival habit could
possibly be. If the neural clusters that instigate this interpolation of oneself as another
object were less robust or absent, communication on any level would be highly
In contrast, it is often said that for autists, this kind of Theory of Mind (ToM) never
reverberates beyond the personal body. For them, the simulation of otherness is
often a sense that parts of their own body and mind are those other foreign, third -
party things. It is a dialogue that rages and enrages within their corporeal walls, a
dialogue that is often characterized as their 'thinking self versus their feeling self'
The most important concept of mimicry is the application of oneself as the unique
uber tool, much like a tensile pen, by which to draft the world as we sense it. In effect,
we don't require other tools or meta tools to extend our sensory and interpretative
reach; all we need is the neural textile of interwoven sensations as they issue
upsweeping unities called ideas or responses that extend through our bodies on
through our orifices, surfaces, limbs, and then outwards to the tip of a little finger or
toe (generally). We can harness these to mechanical extenders like charcoal,
computers, hammers, and selfie sticks, but we are the essential meta tool.
How does a rush of spiking synapses translate into a gross-motor, physical action
that refers directly to the initiating neural impulse? Here's the answer: I don’t know.
Nevertheless, keep reading.
Homo Sapiens by virtue of our name are discerning of many things. We are
‘thing-ists’. We necessarily have border mentalities and not necessarily because our
optical system is prone to this, which it definitely is. One could take the statement
above about border mentalities and run with it in psycho-sociological terms about
nations and wars.
Nevertheless, 'Sapiens' really means knowing 'about' or around or concerning
something by determining where to set the limits and circumscribe 'it.' That is all. The
word 'Sapiens' is an active term, a gerund.
It confers on our species the constant activity of seeking knowledge in every
breathing moment. 'Knowing' is an abstract concept. Highly illusive. Frustrating. And
breathlessly enticing. It has extreme limitations that manifest in the irreconcilable
differences between materials; that one molecular structure, namely ourselves, simply
cannot naturally 'read' or align with the molecular components of a differing one.
Thus, we can only circle or know 'about', around, or regarding something. This is
why for humans about other humans, we require communication systems to try to
figure each other out. Each of us is a different material structure. These constructs
such as verbal language are faulty and irritating, but they are all we have to 'know
about' each other and things. In effect, we employ them to circumscribe a collection of
parts, assets, activities, etc. as unique among so many other moving parts on the
And this is also why humans adore lines.
By the way, a line is a very definite kind of shape. Its dimension being defined
mostly by a width considerably less than its length. That's all. And depending on
where you are standing, the proportions change dramatically. It's a relativity thing. A
portion of a line can be enormous, say, for an ant on a stick or for a human fording
the Grand Canyon, which is a linear gash in the earth.
The mother of all conversion devices
We are the earth-walking octopus. This mimetic attribute is our modus operandi
and directly supports our success on earth. It both inures and lures us to try to read
the nontangible messaging across the larger environmental stage on which we
perform. This means the subtle messaging among the inanimate or all that is defined
superficially as not possessing a beating heart nor the ability to move on its own.
Emphasis on 'try.' We intend this because of the quaint but exasperating habit we
have of doubting our sensory acumen yet believing we have the means, make that the
entitlement, of figuring it all out. Thus, we are all at once modest and arrogant. We are
inconsequential yet almighty.
The only way we can do all this is by developing hyper-sensitivity to 'effects' and
inventing equivalencies for them; that 'this is like that.' With the term 'like' being the
mother of all converting devices since it expresses in one tiny idea that every sensory
input converges with others, suppressing and altering perception so that the notion of
'certainty' is always a negotiable target.
Let's take it a step further. Vision converts sound inputs just as touch converts
vision, etc. In each case, it sharpens our focus beyond the original input. When we
hear something in the background, it remains ambient if we do not turn our vision into
a sound-seeking device to identify the direction from which it came. Close your eyes if
you don't believe me. Now eco-locate. Have someone move about and make noise.
Your eyeballs cannot suppress their mission to swivel in their socket and locate the
'Touch' further converts the impact of vision too. What you see in the distance
cannot be touched. When you finally do touch it, the story has changed. It happens all
Take that blueish, greenish triangle in the distance that I decide should be labeled
'mountain.' Up close, it is a confusing, sweaty, exhausting enigma of trudging through
brush and slipping around rocks. The hodgepodge of the new full-body inputting
necessarily alters the picture. A child cannot learn to visualize about depth perception
and texture unless he extends himself and touches the world.
We know this so deeply and immediately that we make adjustments for our
perception issues with standardized equivalency precepts. Some would call this
symbolism, but if you did call it that, all animals are highly symbolic too. A dog hears
the music of someone's gate and 'knows' it is the embodiment of its master. It converts
distant sounds into tight cognitive formats that function as expectations of imagery
and emotional rewards.
Or consider the honeybee. A bee 'waggle dances' in the air, and by so doing,
sketches an ephemeral map that converts the experience of flying time and direction
to good flowers and homes, which then somehow lingers as an entity in the brains of
conspecifics. In this latter case, the bee is 'publishing' the media as an abstract fact.
They see a map.
Though we humans are really, really good at this same game, it begins with fits
and starts and remains mildly troublesome even as we grow wiser. When it comes to
isolating those 'equivalencies' by capturing them in a stable, freestanding form, it
requires remarkable physical and cognitive conversions or transfers. Not the obvious
intangible onto tangible like looking at a sunset that is a two-dimensional spread of
reflective light quanta and then fixing it in paint or graphite shading, but the motivation
for even attempting to do so in the first place—in other words, the ‘impulse.’
For most of us, the 'likeness' concept drives our determinations to even invent
equivalencies in the first place. On what could a communication system be constructed
or any living thing were recognition of mutual identity absent? For example, if we first
must agree that the moon looks like a face, we must first take for granted that you
and I are similar and think the same way. And this has to be well-founded long before
it occurs to us to symbolize anything. One wonders if language in any form could exist
without this dynamic recursive context—the belief that ‘I am (like) you.’
Why do I call this the basic ironclad recursion? Because it is the single operating
principle of consciousness, a simple yet perfect sentence that reverberates
throughout our communicative and active lives. It is the framing clause for all creative
passages such as a thought sentence or any media construction, in fact for all human
operations. And it immediately branches out to become 'I am (like) that.'
This is the ever-rumbling, inner dialogue between perspectives; to consider 'that
thing over there' in terms of 'me, over here.' In the extreme, it can torment. The term
for this self-dialogue, ‘soliloquia,’ was coined by Saint Augustine around 386 A.D. (see
'Soliloquies' 1910). It was for him then, as it is for us now, a percussive, deterministic,
omnipresent, and cognitive structure apart from which conscious humans cannot seem
to operate (as suggested above, autism is a putative case in which the intellectual
understanding might be there, but the technically unassisted and coordinated ability to
express it is not; see Baron-Cohen 1995, Sacks 1995, Grandin 2013, and Giovanelli
That notion of a soliloquy, in which some version of the 'self' addresses another
form of the self, is predicated on the active functioning and belief in a fully unified
sentience where the commingling of intellect, emotion, and bodily feelings is
summarized as a unity.
This seems counterintuitive since there seems to be a necessary split of
But that's the point. You can't split an apple that isn't whole first.
The Fronto Insular and Anterior Insular and Anterior Cingulate Cortices are
significant for this kind of perspective locomotion. Paradoxically, autists have a higher
ratio of a specific kind of bipolar neuron called Von Economo Neurons or VENs to
pyramidal cells - a remarkably symmetrical neuron recently identified as essential to
this kind of gymnastics. In some studies, this was found in young children to be an
increase of over 50%. An overgrowth to be sure in an area (FI- fronto insular cortex)
known for the integration of self-ism in terms of emotions, intuitions and social
In the autist brains, the cell somata (the stomach or really the body of the cell) and
dendrites (the branches that receive the synaptic impulses) are atypical. The nucleus
of the neuron tends to be swollen and the dendrites are longer and present like
corkscrews. The common assessment of this difference suggests a heightened
interoception or a heightened awareness of the body’s behaviors and needs to the
extent that an autist’s concern or awareness of other’s physical behaviors and
therefore social signals are distracted and subjugated.
But it is a bit more complex than ‘selfishness’ per se. They begin with an acute
awareness of the apple split and have to work extremely hard to reconstitute it.
Spinning and flapping arms is their kinetic way to literally pull themselves together,
even compressing themselves in a 'squeeze' machine as Temple Grandin likes to do.
Behaviorists and anthropologists have long suggested that this dialoguing back
and forth in real-time activity defines the modus operandi of the human species. That
is, that it is outwardly and socially predicated on someone's assumption that their
actions be answered back by someone or something else. Sanity expects this
reverberation, which is why solitary confinement dooms those who are unable to
construct a facsimile for dialoguing.
Stepping that up a notch, the suggestion has been and continues to be borne out
in most anthropology and material archaeology tracts (White 2006; Pryor 2008;
Turner 2008; Goodall) - that exchanging valued resources is a unique bridge between
like respondents. It creates 'high solidarity' among conspecifics, with one of the most
significant results being positive emotions. And positive emotions, it has been recently
discovered, tend to keep long-term memory readily available in the hippocampus
rather than shipping it off for archiving in the neocortex.
As early as 1924, Marcel Mauss took this 'exchange' idea a step further or rather a
few steps backward. He noted that it might not be the object transferred that is
significant but the reciprocity itself that ignites the flow of positive emotions and binds
the giver with the receiver.
…and increases the individual's commitment to others regardless of what is
actually being exchanged…there appears to be a built-in proclivity for
reciprocity among humans…. (Turner 2008:93)
Reciprocity and recursion are almost identical concepts. I'm trying not to be extreme
here, but I hasten to say they are more than just almost identical concepts. Think
about it. In language, recursion is often defined as a parenthetical elaboration of the
main clause. It's like a biological clade, an offspring of the same ancestor. A recursion
reciprocates the initial concept by restating it in some other way.
Adding a nose to a face is the same kind of thing. We 'get' the face part without the
nose when there is just a circle containing two paired dots for eyes. We just add the
nose to echo the main point—the face idea that depends far more on the eyes and
mouth as the principal players in human communication. In any case, we are
reciprocating facial assets. We don't really have to, but feel that to avoid confusion or
to accelerate understanding, it certainly helps. Thus, we are also running back,
recurrere, on the idea of face when we add another level of description.
Recursion is also implicit in the notion of dialogue, even self-dialogue, as in that
wonderful word 'soliloquy.' A conversation with oneself.
For many days I had been debating within myself many and diverse things,
seeking constantly, and with anxiety, to find out my real self, my best good,
and the evil to be avoided, when suddenly one - I know not, but eagerly strive \
to know, whether it were myself or another, within me or without—said to me.
(Book One, The Soliloquies of Saint Augustine, oll.libertyfund.org/titles/1153)
Philosophers can probably count on two hands the number of possible 'selves'
implied in this work. Ironically, for me, the most obvious is the fact that he wrote it
down. For whom?
This action alone is a splitting or acknowledging of more than one self. The writer
and the reader. It means he published it. Publishing is a formalized separation of
oneself as shedding some form of a freestanding version of a person. It is a facsimile
of that same person expressed by language that is stabilized on parchment. But it also
reciprocates or runs back (recurrit) to the author as to who they are, what they
consider themselves as being, and how they think. The list could go on and on.
It also attests to their underlying motivation. All writing is a reverberation or
recursion, a long back and forth of parenthetical actions and descriptions. And this is
despite having 'one thought'—as an editor on the New York Daily News once told me
when I interned there, ‘Just one thought,’ he admonished and smiled.
Why is publishing so significant? Because by doing it, Saint Augustine, in this case,
captures the many parts of his 'present self' in other media. He gifts it back to himself.
He also predicates 'my real self' based on the similitude of others who might
encounter the writing, including his future 'self' when he rereads it. It is a similitude
that is a parenthetical description of the main clause - 'me.'
Think about it further. You do not offer a gift unless you assume what the receiver
might feel. You temporarily invent yourself as this person. When it comes to verbal
communication, you do not even open your mouth to speak unless you assume
someone wants to hear you (hopefully). Quite naturally, the only basis for this
assumption being yourself and how you imagine you would feel as recipient.