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Golagai 2, from a recent painting series exploring orbs and fluidity

I arrived in Maine 10 days ago thinking a lot about two particular ideas culled from the book This Will Make You Smarter, a compilation of short but provocative answers to the Edge Question 2011: “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”

The first was the answer to that question from Daniel Kahneman (and author of the book I read with fervor last summer, Thinking, Fast and Slow). The “focusing allusion” is that proclivity we all have to distort our read of the world because of a predisposed belief, idea or fixation. In his short essay Kahneman does his inimitable dismantling of common wisdom (for example: “When you think of rich and poor people, your thoughts are inevitably focused on circumstances in which income is important. But happiness depends on other factors more than it depends on income.”) My interest in Kahneman’s focusing allusion is how it operates on a more personal. I shift my view of things constantly based on the last book I read, the last painting I loved, the last compelling analysis of the political landscape. I’m aware that I am susceptible but it happens anyway.

The second idea is from Charles Seife, author of Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception. Seife’s essay is about the concept of randomness. From his essay:

Our very brains revolt at the idea of randomness. We have evolved as a species to become exquisite pattern-finders…Our minds automatically try to place data in a framework that allows us to make sense of our observations and use them to understand events and predict them.

Randomness is so difficult to grasp because it works against our pattern-finding instincts. It tells us that sometimes there is no pattern to be found. As a result, randomness is fundamental limit to our intuition; it says that there are processes that we can’t predict fully. It’s a concept that we have a hard time accepting even though it is an essential part of the way the cosmos works. Without an understanding of randomness, we are stuck in a perfectly predictable universe that simply doesn’t exist outside of our own heads.

Provocative ideas, both. But neither deterred my eyes from seeing the orbs and spheres I have been exploring in my studio everywhere in the landscape of Small Point. Whether micro and macro, they just kept appearing. And delighting me over and over again.

Martin Scorsese once advised a young filmmaker that “your job is to make your audience care about your obsessions.” What a great directive! So with that in mind, I invite you to take a look at one of mine.

Every once in a while a book comes along that is so provocative and powerful that it becomes the epicenter of a major change in thinking, both personally and in the world at large. I’m sure you have your list which may or may not overlap with my own, but here are three I have had a relationship with for a lifetime:

The Structures of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, published in 1962. Kuhn was the first to offer to concept of the paradigm shift, a concept that has been completely co-opted in our thinking and language. This was the first book I read that laid out the nonlinear nature of scientific research and the role of consensus in establishing a theory. Reading this book at age 17 launched me into a lifetime fascination with the history of science.

A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander, published in 1977. Written by an architect, this book became a primer for any complex (and often engineering) task including urban design, software engineering, pattern recognition and yes, painting. This one led to a full shelf of brilliant books by Alexander.

Abstraction and Empathy, by Wilhelm Worringer, published in German in 1907. First exposed to this book by my professor Nan Piene while in college, Worringer’s concepts that two poles in art—abstraction (which at that time was primarily non-Western art) and empathy (European realism in the main)—are both in operation in us. Written before Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon or Kandinsky and Malevich explored nonrepresentationalism, this doctoral thesis is deeply prescient and still provocative.

It looks like I have a new title to add to my Hall of Fame list. Daniel Kahneman‘s new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, has that provocative and fundamentally paradigm shifting (thank you Kuhn) power. And what’s more Kahneman has created a vehicle for his ideas that is well written, designed for optimal understanding and irresistibly engaging.

Kahneman (who BTW was the first psychologist to win the Nobel prize for economics) offers a model for clarifying our multitude of mental processes and gives the two primary structures names, System 1 and System 2. System 2 is the conscious, thinking mind, the one that works slowly, using reason and analysis. This is our reasonable and thoughtful identity. System 1 is all that automatic and instantaneous processing, the one that has opinions and reactions that may not be logical at all but are part of our pattern-detecting survivalism. System 1 works with whatever information it has and works fast. The fact is we as humans need and use both systems. It is the misapplication of those tools that is the problem.

Kahneman takes the reader through a series of exercises that demonstrate how quickly System 1 will lead to inaccurate conclusions. He also shows how the slower more thoughtful System 2 just can’t react as quickly in certain life threatening circumstances as that instantaneous, pattern recognizing System 1. And unlike the arrogance and narcissism inflicted on the reader that has turned so many away from Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s otherwise fabulous book, The Black Swan, Kahneman places himself right alongside the rest of us in exposing how the human mind is wired to make faulty calls and misreads. We are all bozos on this bus, or so it seems!

I am only about half way through the book so there is still more juicy bits coming. But here’s why I am writing about this book prematurely: I am longing to have an in depth discussion with my art making, poetry-writing pals about how creativity calls on both System 1 and System 2. Since reading this book I have tried to observe my decision making in the studio, to track the play of these two impulses. I have a sense that being more observant of those flips and switches could lead to new ways of working, new ways of seeing my work as it unfolds. So yes I would love to explore that territory with Maureen, Nancy, Pam, Marcia, Altoon, Andrew, Thalassa, Alaleh, Lorrie, Luke, Walter, Holly, David, or you.

More on this for sure.