“The Brain — is wider than the Sky --
For — put them side by side --
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside “
How often do you look up? (And no it’s not a trick question a la Shaun of the Dead - that most pressing of conundra: “can dogs look up?”)
Do you spend time casting your eyes towards the heavens, to soak it all up, gain perspective, broaden your horizons?
It’s a simple notion, that to gaze skywards is uplift one’s spirits. Surely it’s no coincidence that some of the greatest works of art, architecture of the Renaissance were concerned with promoting heavenly glory, compelling common Man to crane ‘his’ neck to regard the great cathedral spires, take in the Cistine chapel’s ceiling, as painted by Signor Michaelangelo and Sons.
In the same period of history, astronomy moved forward, with hugely significant progression in thought and importantly perspective as the earth ceased to be regarded as the centre of the universe. That honour shifted to the sun, courtesy of the likes of Nicolas Copernicus, with the proposition that the earth and other celestial bodies of the solar system relegated to supporting roles orbiting the parent star. Galilei Galileo corroborated Copernicus, Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler established precise measurements of the planets and stars and their movements. Perception of Humanity’s place in the scheme of things fundamentally shifted, downgrading our collective ego somewhat, and perhaps instilling some humility into the proceedings!
So a simple act of looking up can conjure up something of that heritage of revived thought, vision, and perspective that might otherwise be lacking as we shuffle through our daily lives hunched and mesmerised by a small rectangular object nestled in our hand, dancing our fingertips over it’s surface as if in a bizarre mockery of Mozart’s efforts to create piano music for the ages.
There is a burgeoning area of research into the psychology of ‘Awe’ which probes our relationship with environments, vistas, aesthetic interactions and the effect on our perceptions, emotions, and general wellbeing (Guan et al., 2018; Yaden et al., 2016). This field asserts how standing at the edge of spectacular natural landscape (or work of art) can overwhelm the viewer’s mind to the extent that the mindset itself must shift, re-organise. This is the principle of ‘accommodation’. Our minds sometimes cannot accommodate scenes or experiences that: a) we have not encountered at such scale before; b) are so complex and rich and for which we have no prior reference. This is perceptually, conceptually and emotionally overwhelming. The only solution is to ‘upgrade’ one’s cognition, re-order one’s mental models, and incorporate new information into the scheme of things. Stretching the mind so to speak.
It is not necessarily practical to roll out of bed and straight onto the edge of the Grand Canyon. And the nearest cathedral may be out of reach (particularly in lockdown times). But the beauty of the imaginative and enterprising mind is that it can appropriate the stimulus in other more accessible ways. By looking up. By taking in the vast dome that is the sky. By casting off the shackles of earthbound (phonebound) attention. By projecting into the stratosphere.
We tend to fluctuate constantly in our attention, between things ‘out there’ which serve a purpose (“where did I put my trousers”) and the stuff that babbles away inside (“what shall I have for dinner”). This constant flux creates a restless mind, one that is driven by impulse, by anxiety, by a hyperactivity that is the cause for stress, uncertainty, lack of productivity. We don’t focus on one thing, less so the aesthetic properties of our environment that can, for a moment, re-invigorate the senses, and stimulate the mind to wider ambitions. It takes a simple effort of will to break out of that reflexive mode for a moment, to look outwards and broaden one’s view. And looking upwards, regarding the sky, trying to take it all in (you won’t be able to), is a valuable exercise, and lesson, in stretching the mind. As you pull back your shoulder, your lungs open, so take a deep breath! Expand your awareness AND your physique at the same time...
Look up! (because unlike dogs, you can!)
Guan, F. Xiang, Y., Chen, O, Wang, Wand Chen, J. (2018). Neural Basis of Dispositional Awe. Front. Behav. Neurosci., (12) 209, 1-7
Yaden, D.B., Iwry, J., Slack, K.J., Eichstaedt, J.C., Zhao, Y., Vaillant, G.E. and Newberg, A.B. (2016). The Overview Effect: Awe and Self-Transcendent Experience in Space Flight. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, 3, (1), 1–11
The science of cognition and perception in context
This is where I elaborate upon brain science relating to cognitive functioning dependent on environmental context.