It might seem unusual that Crossing Border’s next guest, cognitive scientist and experimental psychologist Guy Claxton, seems so at home amongst dancers and artists alike. He appears as part of the first in a series of talks resulting from PAL’s Movement and Meaning Labs which’s aim, in line with that of the previous Crossing Borders talks, is to ponder the questions and artistic potential that surrounds cross-collaboration. However the gap between the ‘logical’ science discipline and the ‘creative’ dance world for me can sometimes seem more like a gigantic chasm rather than a hair-line border with osmotic potential. Claxton believes otherwise, and carries on to completely fuse the two in a mere hour and a half, leaving everyone in the room wide-eyed.
The cavernous space of the Siobhan Davies roof studio suddenly feels more intimate as Claxton begins to speak, his voice confident and inviting. The room bristles with excitement as Gill Clarke warmly introduces this acclaimed writer and author of the innovative success Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind. Claxton’s work to date has centred on his enthusiasm for teaching, which has been heavily influenced by his own Buddhist practice. He speaks about his interest in the link between mind and body, and the intriguing concept of unconscious autonomous intelligence.
Claxton starts to explain the interesting ways your mind seems to work things out for itself while you are completely unaware. Giving meditation as an example, an issue that I’m sure a lot of people come across, he explained that good ideas; those which may not arrive fully if you try and will them to, seemed to come along by themselves whilst he was trying to concentrate on his breathing during meditation.
This is something I certainly came across whilst writing my undergraduate dissertation. I surprised myself by how little time it took for me to grind to a writing halt. For about an hour and half I would write continuously, with little attention paid to editing my work, however after this time it felt as if my brain had taken on a greyish hue, my eyes turned into rectangles and my face felt slanty. At this point I had to leave my seat; sometimes mid sentence – my words would just flap away like trapped birds willing to escape, and I would not return for at least two hours. I’d go for a walk, wash up, do laundry – anything physical. And the interesting thing was that during these times I had my most inspired ideas, where they came from I can’t say, but my mind seemed to store them all up ready for another 1 ½ hour full-pelt laptop marathon. Slow progress one might think, but my productivity during my writing times was increased tenfold.
It is interesting then, as Claxton brings up, how the education system in this county has developed. Children are encouraged to sit at a desk and work for hours at a time, and are taught that comprehension comes before competence. When, in fact learning through doing, through physicality, encourages wider brain usage and capacity. Claxton remarkably explains that the physical and verbal attributes of the brain actually derive from the same root. With this in mind, he asks the audience of mainly dance artists whether speech during movement seems integrated. Clarke notes that they do feel separate, and part of two different mindsets. I can partly agree with this, I find speaking and moving incredibly difficult and somehow incongruous. However using language through writing comes naturally, and as writing can be considered a physical act, I find words come so much easier through this method than if I was to speak and move. I think of myself as fairly articulate with language, but when it comes to verbally expressing myself, I struggle and often sound as if my IQ has dropped by about 50%. So it’s the physical act of writing, the movement, which encourages and develops my cognition. It’s is also the fact that writing allows you to think before you write, and also move around before you commit to paper. It could be said then that language is a tool of expression, and the verbalisation of such requires a different process all together. Claxton also mentions that movement in children is often a lot more mature than their words, and therefore if deprived of movement, children find it harder to understand. Why then is the education system forcing children to understand the concepts of things before they are given a chance to try it out? This also true in my experience as a musician, if playing something by memory, it’s a complete waste of time to try and remember the notes or picture the stave, or even hear the music. It’s the muscle memory I fall back on, the way my body moves around the instrument; which only comes if you try and disregard everything else.
Claxton mentions that the common perception is that we think in consciousness, not so, according to Claxton, in fact we think into consciousness. By slowing down we notice the act of conscious thoughts arising; in the form of ‘glimmerings’ and ‘inklings’. From a phenomenological point of view, we often disregard the act of perception as automatic and immediate, when in fact perception is active and can be directed. It becomes a form of ‘doing’. It is a building up of imagined images that derive from pre-judgements due to a lack of mental capacity and an inability to process countless possibilities and outcomes. This is what some phenomenologists call a frontality of perception. We understand something through our previous engagement with it; it is integrated into our perception which therefore feeds our knowledge.
So, if perception is a form of doing, and movement equals giving your brain some space and time to think on its own, and if this movement equals better, more informed ideas, then why do we force children to focus 100% of the time? I for one am glad to have figured this out early on, before I stick myself behind a desk for the rest of my life.
Right – I need a washing up break.