When I’m painting I like to listen to Radio 4 in the hope that a tiny bit of cleverness will squeeze through my ears and stay. It hasn’t so far but I live in hope.
Today I listened to The Infinite Monkey Cage podcast, I like a bit of popular science and everyone loves Brain Cox explaining stuff. They were discussing the world outside our heads and how we interpret it.
As an artist you pretend you’re good at seeing things, the real details that other people might miss. You give your version of the life you experience around you. And you’ll be glad to know, science backs this up.
Read the rest of this in Brian Cox’s voice if you want, it’ll give it a bit more gravitas.
The world we experience is just a load of information taken in and processed by our brains. We have sight, which is light reflected off objects into our eyes; we have sound, which is an oscillation of air at various frequencies into our ears; then there’s touch, receptors in our bodies reacting to objects in the outside world; smell, chemicals in the air and taste, which is the way our tongues detect chemicals in food.
Without these receptors there would be no outside world for us. The brain takes in all this information and constructs a way for us to understand the big bad world. But this is just the brain’s interpretation; it’s not really what it’s like.
In reality, outside our brains the world is just a swirling mass of particles, energy and mostly empty space. My cup of tea in front of me is not really white with a red chicken on the front. It’s really a churning bunch of atoms held together by electromagnetic forces that just happen to reflect light in a certain way that makes my brain think it’s a white cup with a chicken on the front. If I wasn’t here looking at my mug (what an interesting life I lead) then the mug would still be here, but without an observer it’s not visible.
This reminds me of the old classic: does a falling tree make a sound in the woods if there’s no one there to hear? The answer is: no. If there are no ears to interpret the vibrations of the falling tree as sound, then there will be no sound. If there was no one there to see the tree falling or feel it falling or smell it falling or taste it falling, does it actually exist? Common sense would say yes it does, but there is no way anyone can ever prove it. If you want to know what it’s like to exist without being perceived, just try and tell your kids to get bed before nine.
What we observe as the outside world isn’t really what it’s like. Our brains are doing a great job of creating a map of the outside world which allows us to get through the day. What we think we are seeing is really just our brain’s interpretation of all the information coming in. It is a fully internal experience. This, for example, is how my daughter sees broccoli.
So the whole concept of reality is subjective – which is good for artists. Since we’re all different our senses decode the universe in different ways. The way your eyes work will not be exactly the same as the way mine work, same with all the other senses. Put them all together and everyone will have slightly different experiences.
So if I want to make my apple square and call it creativity, you can’t complain because you really don’t know what I’m experiencing.