How the symbol system developed in childhood influences seeing

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Now we are coming closer to the problem and its solution. First, what prevents a person from seeing things clearly enough to draw them?

The left hemisphere has no patience with this detailed perception and says, in effect, "It's a chair, I tell you. That's enough to know. In fact, don't bother to look at it, because I've got a ready-made symbol for you. Here it is; add a few details if you want, but don't bother me with this looking business."

And where do the symbols come from? From the years of childhood drawing during which every person develops a system of symbols. The symbol system becomes embedded in the memory, and the symbols are ready to be called out, just as you called them out to draw your childhood landscape.

The symbols are also ready to be called out when you draw a face, for example. The efficient left brain says, "Oh yes, eyes. Here's a symbol for eyes, the one you've always used. And a nose? Yes, here's the way to do it." Mouth? Hair? Eyelashes? There's a symbol for each. There are also symbols for chairs, tables, and hands.

To sum up, adult students beginning in art generally do not

"By the time the child can draw more than a scribble, by age three or four years, an already well-formed body of conceptual knowledge formulated in language dominates his memory and controls his graphic work_Drawings are graphic accounts of essentially verbal processes. As an essentially verbal education gains control, the child abandons his graphic efforts and relies almost entirely on words. Language has first spoilt drawing and then swallowed it up completely."

— Written in 1930 by psychologist Karl Buhler

"I must begin, not with hypothesis, but with specific instances, no matter how minute."

— Paul Klee really see what is in front of their eyes—that is, they do not perceive in the special way required for drawing. They take note of what's there, and quickly translate the perception into words and symbols mainly based on the symbol system developed throughout childhood and on what they know about the perceived object.

What is the solution to this dilemma? Psychologist Robert Ornstein suggests that in order to draw, the artist must "mirror" things or perceive them exactly as they are. Thus, you must set aside your usual verbal categorizing and turn your full visual attention to what you are perceiving—to all of its details and how each detail fits into the whole configuration. In short, you must see the way an artist sees.

Fig. 5-19. Albrecht Durer, Study for the Saint Jerome (1521).One of the L-mode functions is to screen out a large proportion of incoming perceptions. This is a necessary process to enable us to focus our thinking and one that works very well for us most of the time. But drawing requires that you look at something for a long time, perceiving lots of details, registering as much information as possible— ideally, everything, as Albrecht Durer tried to do here.

Fig. 5-19. Albrecht Durer, Study for the Saint Jerome (1521).One of the L-mode functions is to screen out a large proportion of incoming perceptions. This is a necessary process to enable us to focus our thinking and one that works very well for us most of the time. But drawing requires that you look at something for a long time, perceiving lots of details, registering as much information as possible— ideally, everything, as Albrecht Durer tried to do here.

Given proper instruction, young children can easily learn to draw. These examples are by third-grade children, age eight.

Noness Symbol

"Art is a form of supremely delicate awareness ... meaning at-oneness, the state of being at one with the object____The picture must all come out of the artist's inside It is the image that lives in the consciousness, alive like a vision, but unknown."

English writer, speaking about his paintings

Again, the key question is how to accomplish that cognitive L->R shift. As I said in Chapter Four, the most efficient way seems to be to present the brain with a task the left brain either can't or won't handle. You have already experienced a few of those tasks: the Vase/Faces drawings and the upside-down drawing. And to some extent, you have already begun to experience and recognize the alternate state of right-hemisphere mode. You are beginning to know that while you are in that slightly different subjective state of mind, you slow down so that you can see more clearly.

As you think back over experiences with drawing since you started this book and over experiences of alternative states of consciousness you may have had in connection with other activities (freeway driving, reading, etc., mentioned in Chapter One), think again about the characteristics of that slightly altered state. It is important that you continue to develop your awareness and recognition of R-mode state.

Lewis Carroll described an analogous shift in Alice's adventures in

Through the Looking Glass:

"Oh, Kitty, how nice it would be if we could only get through into Looking Glass House! I'm sure it's got, oh! such beautiful things in it! Let's pretend there's a way ofget-ting through into it, somehow, Kitty. Let's pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why, it's turning to a mist now, I declare! It'll be easy enough to get through. . . ."

Let's review the characteristics of the R-mode one more time. First, there is a seeming suspension of time. You are not aware of time in the sense of marking time. Second, you pay no attention to spoken words. You may hear the sounds of speech, but you do not decode the sounds into meaningful words. If someone speaks to you, it seems as though it would take a great effort to cross back, think again in words, and answer. Furthermore, whatever you are doing seems immensely interesting. You are attentive and concentrated and feel "at one" with the thing you are concentrating on. You feel energized but calm, active without anxiety. You feel self-confident and capable of doing the task at hand. Your thinking is not in words but in images and, particularly while drawing, your thinking is "locked on" to the object you are perceiving. On leaving R-mode state, you do not feel tired, but refreshed.

Our job now is to bring this state into clearer focus and under greater conscious control, in order to take advantage of the right hemisphere's superior ability to process visual information and to increase your ability to make the cognitive shift to R-mode at will.

"The development of an Observer can allow a person considerable access to observing different identity states, and an outside observer may often clearly infer different identity states, but a person him-selfwho has not developed the Observer function very well may never notice the many transitions from one identity state to another."

Alternate States of Consciousness, 1977

How The Draw The Thought Symbol

Your Symbol System: Meeting Edges and Contours

"To empty one's mind of all thought and refill the void with a spirit greater than oneself is to extend the mind into a realm not accessible by conventional processes of reason."

V V development of the set of symbols that formed your childhood language of drawing. This process paralleled the development of other symbol systems: speech, reading, writing, and arithmetic. Whereas these other symbol systems formed useful foundations for later development of verbal and computational skills, childhood drawing symbols seem to interfere with


Edward Hill

The Language of Drawing, 1966

later stages of art.

Thus, the central problem of teaching realistic drawing to individuals from age ten or so onward is the persistence of memorized, stored drawing symbols when they are no longer appropriate to the task. In a sense, L-mode unfortunately continues to "think" it can draw long after the ability to process spatial, relational information has been lateralized to the right brain. When confronted with a drawing task, the language mode comes rushing in with its verbally linked symbols. Then afterward, ironically, the left brain is all too ready to supply derogatory words of judgment if the drawing looks childlike or naive.

In the last chapter I said that an effective way to "set aside" the dominant left verbal hemisphere and to "bring forward" your nondominant right brain, with its visual, spatial, relational style, is to present your brain with a task that the left brain either can't or won't work at. We have used the Vase/Faces drawings and upside-down drawings to illustrate this process. Now we'll try another, more drastic strategy that will force a stronger cognitive shift and set aside your L-mode more completely.

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