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Sunday, 6 November 2016

WHAT? ART CAN HELP ME LIVE HAPPIER AND LONGER? A CHOICE BETWEEN LOWER AND HIGHER MIND, CORTISOL AND SEROTONIN.



Higher consciousness or higher mind, according to my reading as a non-scientist, refers to active neural activities that take place within the higher part of our brain called neo-cortex or the higher brain.  They give us the universal and inspiring feeling of empathy, universal love, oneness, connectedness, wholeness and selfless-ness or egoless. Higher consciousness is commonly referred to as levitation or creative life force in several spiritual traditions – chi, reiki, prana, semangat. This range of experiences is traditionally achieved through relaxed contemplation, mindfulness, meditation, fasting, chanting, prayer and for some, pilgrimage. Art in this case, can be taken as a channel that may spark neural pathways towards a higher state of consciousness full with pro-active take on today and future prospect, possibility, promise, potential, change and transformation, in short – of getting high.  

What is the lower consciousness or lower mind? Neuroscientists would refer to this part of human brain as the reptilian mind. It senses danger and immediate physical threat. It gives a warning of an impending danger or catastrophe, to decide whether to fight or flight. It seeks immediate self-serving gratifications through materialist rewards to feed a selfish and separated sense of self or ego. It strikes back at competitions and perceived threats. It seeks to blame, defeat, control, dominate and manipulate whoever taken as the ‘threatening others’. It sees the world in a very narrow, separated and selfish way. The working of the reptilian mind is commonly referred to as the ‘beast within’ or earthly gravitational pull in several spiritual traditions. Despite its practical use in our day-to-day survival, it can be destructive if left unchecked on both personal and societal levels. Our  contemporary living condition can be a fertile field for the lower mind to unveil its many faces.


On a daily basis, we respond to the impacts of the lower reptilian mind. Our responses are mostly imbued with the air of fear, anger and despair, or in some, hopelessness. Instead of getting high, we are forced to ‘get real’, to confront, deal and struggle with the depressing realities of the lower mind habitat and living condition. We are alarmingly overwhelmed by the lower state of consciousness that are driving our contemporary reality, depress and perhaps stressful. We are experiencing the stressful impacts of living a life under the sway of lower animalistic reptilian mind.

Responding to the impacts of lower mind with likewise lower consciousness does not bring any substantial transformation. Nonetheless, it may yield a range of attitudes and actions such as pessimism, sarcasm, parody, satire and mockery – that for some can be taken as a form of coping mechanism, if not artistic strategy for a number of visual artists with personal inclination towards social and political issues. In fact, since the early 1990s, these strategies have been deployed by several young artists in Malaysia then.(Hasnul J Saidon: 2008) 

Some artworks even descend us into the stressful destructive abyss of the lower mind. Notwithstanding their role as 'alarms', too many stress-induced works can increase the level of cortisol (toxic stress hormone) in our body, that according to some studies, can kill us slowly. Cortisol is also labeled as the public health enemy number one. It interferes with learning and memory, lowers our immune function and bone density, increases weight gain, cholesterol, blood pressure and heart disease. Elevated stress level increases risk for depression, mental illness and lower life expectancy.  The myth of suffering artists with emotional baggage and pain-body (plus short lifespan) has become a tired cliche.  

After more than 20 years, perhaps it is about time for these strategies to be reproached. Visual artists should start to re-question their roles and positioning within the larger context of higher consciousness or higher mind for positive change and transformation in this beloved country.  Instead of merely blaming, labeling, pointing fingers, voicing concerns, sounding alarms, relaying warnings, lamenting on issues, focusing too much on problems, or even sometimes riding and capitalizing on them for personal fame and gain, visual artists should explore fresh new ways to pro-actively contribute to their immediate surrounding and society.  The harsh realities of the lower mind should be taken as challenges that can elevate us collectively towards higher consciousness or higher mind.
   
Thankfully, such tendency has been explored by several young visual artists and collectives in Malaysia. They have explored new ways of engaging and contributing to the society through communal, educational and transformational takes on art. In doing so, they have reached beyond the gallery walls into accessible public spaces, including the streets. 

Mirror Neurons  are neurons that fire both when a person acts and when the person observes the same action performed by another. This brings us back to a very basic concept in human evolution which involves modeling. When you observe a profound piece of art you are potentially firing the same neurons as the artist did when they created it thus making new neural pathways and stimulating a state of inspiration. This sense of being drawn into a painting is called “embodied cognition”.(Jacob Devaney: 2015)   


Positive transformation promotes higher consciousness driven by empathy, inclusiveness, universal love, oneness, connectedness and wholeness.  Therefore, the lower mind’s drive to compete, must always be balanced by the higher mind’s drive to connect and unite. Empathy, compassion, love, sincerity, honesty, joy and beautiful imagination should be regained as traits of visual artists. Notwithstanding the myth of suffering artists with pain-body baggage, positive take on today and future prospect, possibility, promise, potential, change and transformation must be reclaimed and maintained by our visual artists, especially the young and less jaded ones.  

“With so much talk about the evidence of the positive effects of yoga and meditation, you might be surprised at what scientific research also says about how art affects the brain. Long before modern neuroscience, artists were creating works to inspire people and today complex brain imaging scans can show us just how art changes the physiology of our brains. Contemplation, observing, and taking in beauty all stimulate pleasure centers within the brain while increasing blood flow by up to 10% in the medial orbitofrontal cortex. This can lead to an elevated state of consciousness, well-being, and better emotional health.”

“The blood flow increased for a beautiful painting just as it increases when you look at somebody you love. It tells us art induces a feel good sensation direct to the brain.
(Professor Semir Zeki, chair in neuroaesthetics at University College London 
in Jacob Devaney:2015)

We need more people (including those in the creative fields such as visual artists) who can see beyond the lower mind 'realities' and elevate us to a higher mind's experience. The higher mind, especially love, compassion, sincerity, honesty and gratitude, as expressed in myriads of creative forms, increase the level of serotonin (a healthy hormone) that can make us happy and strengthen our immune system. We live longer.

Stay awesome and happy as much as possible.

Hasnul J Saidon



This essay is based on another essay entitled "Report From The Head of Judges, Penang Art Open 2015" published by the Penang State Art Gallery. 

References

   Hasnul J Saidon (2008) “Under-deconstruction : Contemporary art in Malaysia after 1990” in Timeline,National Art Gallery of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur. 

  Jacob Devaney, “How Art Changes Consciousness”, October 14, 2015. Accessed on December 1, 2015 at http://upliftconnect.com/art-changes-consciousness/

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