What can art tell us about the mind?

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Amy Cook, a professor at Indiana University, about some interesting new inroads that are being made between psychology and art. Professor Cook exists at the intersection of two fields that have historically been very far apart: theater and cognitive science.

She explained to me that both of these fields are ultimately touching on the same kinds of ideas, albeit from very different directions. While it is quite obvious that cognitive science is concerned with understanding the mind, theater is driven by our knowledge of the human psyche as well. Put the two together, and you have a very powerful combination. In a talk she gave at UC Berkeley, Professor Cook used a cognitive science perspective to look at Henry V, one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays. It turns out that The Bard was actually quite crafty about weaving a story that plays with your mind and deals with some pretty sophisticated mental concepts.

One of the fundamental themes that Dr. Cook sees embodied in Henry V is emergence. The play tells the story of how a small group of men (a “band of brothers”, to use the famous quote) performed feats that were far greater than the simple sum of each member’s contribution to the group. Through the leadership and charisma of King Henry, they manage to defeat the French against all odds. Such events have been written about for hundreds of years, but they were mostly attributed to the superhuman abilities of a select few leaders, known only in lore and tall tales. However, there’s something very real about the ability of a holistic unit of people to synthesize their abilities in an emergent way. One might even argue that such a process is fundamental to the natural world. If the brain is anything, it is a complex system of simple units, producing a chorus of activity and sensation that would be impossible to describe with a picture of only one neuron.

On a more general level, Cook points to the importance of imagination and metaphor in our experience of theater and other forms of imaginative participation. Obviously, we cannot import an entire army onto a stage (nor would we want to watch an actual battle unfold before our eyes), and yet as we watch actors and props, we synthesize a rich representation of a battle in our minds. Taking Cook’s cognitive science approach, we can describe this phenomenon as “mental blending,” the act of allowing two idea spaces in our minds to briefly overlap, and enjoying the often surprising and powerful synthesis that occurs at their intersection. Understanding this process has implications for our ability to capture people’s attention and imagination in other contexts as well. What teacher wouldn’t love to have a set of practices designed to stimulate their students and get their imaginations working?

At the end of the day, there is much ground to cover before we can truly appreciate the cognitive/psychological implications of works of art such as Henry V. Creative works have the benefit of being interpreted in a nearly infinite number of ways, but this can make it difficult to take the rigorous empirical approach that modern psychology demands. I am excited about the things that people like Professor Cook will discover by taking a hybrid approach to art and the mind.

Leave a Reply