Can We Really Know What Goes On in Our Brains? #arts


Lars Ickenroth left a long and thoughtful comment after my last video, and I’ll share it here, along with my response below:

“Probably the most important topic and video on painting. Question to Mr. Gurney: does language-based thinking versus visual thinking play a role in your processes? For me these are two identifiable modes when working: automatic (energetic) and analytic (rational). A lot of my process starts with this enthusiasm supported by a semi-automatic engine that has been cultivated over the years. But when there’s resistance – either from the mind not being focused or concrete visual problems that need solving – then I turn to asking active questions. 

“I recognize very much this idea of ‘visual information overload’, and that’s where active questions can help: it’s like the difference between eating the whole pie at once (anaconda-style), or cutting it into smaller slices through asking questions. And there are definitely neurological parallels, especially when looking at research on ‘saccades’ (eye movements) an the way they are steered by our thinking processes. Most of those actually correspond with they way we make marks with a brush or pencil, up to the point where both the eyes and brush marks start wandering at a certain point of effort. Exploring the inner world (painting from the subconscious, imagination and memory) is a whole other bag of tricks… 

“That being said: I love the automatic mode where it’s all flowing, and even though ‘rational mode’ often gets better quality results, it also feels kind of less mystical/warm and more cold. I’ve been painting for about 15 years now, and drawing since I was 3/4 (35 now). And the past five years I’ve spent a lot of time doing mural projects. Especially when painting at 130ft, time, resource and energy-management become serious aspects. But I can heartily recommend it: replacing the classic brush with a roller and stick on a huge wall. 

“Coming back to the process aspect, there is one thing I do struggle with a lot: when does the process end? This is why life-painting and working on walls is such a good challenge: the time constraints are often very much set. But when creating autonomous work in the studio, it is often less ‘rational’ and more ‘intuitive’, which feels indulgent and great, but always leads to an open ended process that is much less satisfying. Perhaps because without asking questions the mind can’t really decide when ‘enough is enough’?”

My answer:
Lars, you’ve raised some powerful ideas, and I’m just trying to imagine what it would be like to be high up on scaffolding with a paint roller figuring out a painting. But you’re absolutely right: there’s a verbal part of my brain that mostly shuts off when I’m painting, and when I sketch next to my wife Jeanette, an hour can go by without a word. While I’m in the moment on location, my thought process often feels scrambled, like the undifferentiated bits of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly during metamorphosis. The voiceover that you hear on my videos is an attempt to rationalize and verbalize the process. But inevitably I hit a philosophical wall: How accurately can I or anyone really know what really goes on inside my mind? Acccording to David Dennett in his famous Ted talk, the idea that we can accurately understand our own conscious processes is largely an illusion.