Improv on the right side of the brain

The mind likes synchrony – encountering two things at the same time often prods the brain to look for common themes and meanings [1]. Recently I’ve discovered the wonder of free improv (described here) and finished reading Betty Edwards’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, a book about drawing with a cognitive psychology icing. Not surprisingly, there is a shared thread in both.

From L-mode to R-mode

Betty Edwards is an art teacher and her starting point is a paradox often encountered when teaching people how to draw. If the essence of realistic drawing is just “drawing exactly what you see”, why is learning to draw often so difficult? Everything needed for drawing is “right there before the eyes”, and yet adults without art training, when asked to draw e.g. a self-portrait, often produce childlike, symbolic drawings that bear little resemblance to the image “out there”. Why does “seeing exactly what’s there” seem to be a specialized skill that requires a lot of time to learn? Is there some cognitive mechanism standing in the way, some pattern of perception that needs to be unlearned?

The answer, according to Edwards, is yes. The mind seems to be equipped with two different mode of perception and information processing that the author dubs “L-mode” and “R-mode”. The origin of these names comes from the “left/right hemisphere”, and their nature matches the “pop psychology” notion of what the hemispheres do. “L-mode” is verbal, logical, sequential, analytic; “R-mode” is visual, intuitive, holistic, synthetic. “R-mode” deals with actual reality; “L-mode” replaces it with symbols and abstractions. It’s a fair question whether such a sharp divide really exists, and if yes, whether it has a firm neurophysiological basis. The author makes a pretty convincing case that at least as far as drawing is concerned, the split between two modes seems real, regardless of its underlying mechanism.

The “L-mode” deals with words and abstract knowledge, and it’s quick to categorize, evaluate, know “how things should be”. As soon as it recognizes something as a “chair” or a “face”, it’s happy to forget about the exact features of the object, which are deemed “not interesting, not relevant”. As such, it gets in the way of seeing the object as it really is, with all of its irregularity, lines at weird angles, foreshortening that defies the “L-mode”‘s straight, linear thinking. The perception of the actual object is distorted by preconceptions and symbolic knowledge. To be able to draw, one needs to get rid of them and revert back to the state of “pure seeing”.

A simple exercise neatly demonstrates what’s going on. Many students struggle with copying a picture showing some person’s face. Yet, when asked to copy exactly the same picture, but turned upside down, the results are surprisingly good. Turning the image upside down makes it easier to view it as just a collection of contours and shades with no “meaning”. Faced with such a bunch of lines, the “L-mode” gives up, allowing the mind to enter the “R-mode” and do the drawing without any “L-mode” interference or internal chatter. Many more exercises like this are presented, and in all of them the key is to switch off the part of the mind that thinks logically and filters, that “knows”. Once the “R-mode” is achieved, drawing “exactly what’s in front of the eyes” is within reach.

The author’s theory is backed up by her experience from teaching drawing classes, and apparently learning the “L-to-R mode” trick works exceedingly well, even for students who thought that drawing would be a hopeless task. I picked up drawing a year ago and my own experience more or less agrees with this. I’ve never experienced an abrupt “L-to-R” shift, and I can’t say there was a definite moment when I “learned how to draw exactly what I see”; maybe it came quickly and smoothly so I didn’t notice it. That said, I do see a difference in my mental state when I draw – I hardly “talk to myself” (apart from things like “OK, this line goes like this”), I easily lose the track of time (apparently only the “L-mode” is temporal [2]), I’m sharply focused on the present, on the concrete images before me.

What I like about Edwards’ approach is that she views drawing as more than just a cool technical skill. Instead, learning to draw is really “learning to see” and as such drawing can be considered a form of meditation. By freeing the mind from preconceptions and analytical thinking, we are able to see the beauty and complexity even in small objects and details, things that “L-mode” would consider “not worth our attention”. Drawing offers the kind of refreshing purity of perception that allows the artist to be closer in touch with the world out there, not contaminated by symbols and abstractions.

Improv and drawing

I find it quite amazing that drawing and improvisation seem to be grounded in the same mode of thinking and perceiving. As in drawing, in improv the key step is to switch off the default state of mind – filtering, naming, evaluating – and get close to the (epistemologists pardon my foul language) “raw reality out there”. I’ve written a bit about the “magical” quality of free improv in the previous post; and visual artists of various kind were – at least before the advent of irony – often considered to have “divine” or “magical” powers. How sad that the whole realm of “R-mode” activities (drawing, improv, discovering space via physical action, trance states and dancing, and probably a host of other things) is almost completely banished from education. Probably because, you know, “R-mode” is “inefficient” (optimizing is “L-mode” business) and producing “efficient workers” is kind of what schools are for, right? And let me double check the calendar if it’s still the 1800s…

As a postscript, idle pastime – invent a spiritual system or historiosophy in which all human activity is eventually aimed at escaping the “L-mode” prison and achieving the “Lost Eden of R-mode”. Make this THE quandary that has occupied all genuine artists and thinkers, from Heraclitus to the Beat poets. The Biblical original sin is nothing more than the triumph of left hemisphere over right hemisphere, symbols over reality. Most likely it all started with the invention of agriculture, anyway. Base everything on ill-understood, but fancy sounding bits of neurophysiology, establish an underground sect of improvisers aimed at “liberating the human soul worldwide, one soul at a time” and off we go.

[1] Like in: “I recently watched “The Wire”, read Pynchon’s “Gravity Rainbow”, listened to Metallica’s old bootlegs – and they turned out to be about the same thing.”

[2] Which seems to agree with my introspection while doing meditation, when it seems that “time is generated by thoughts”, and focusing on breathing and the body, on the here and now, makes time dissolve.

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