Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Feeling the Way - Heather Dyer

“I think, therefore I am,” said Descartes.

In response, Milan Kundera writes: "I feel, therefore I am, is a truth much more universally valid, and it applies to everything that's alive." But Kundera is quoted less frequently. Why? I suspect it’s because we live in a culture that values thinking over feeling - and this inhibits our creativity.

As we get older we learn to control and suppress our inner feelings. It's necessary that we don’t take our feelings out on those around us – but if we continue to deny our inner experiences, we become desensitized to them. This damages our creativity because creativity relies as much on feelings as it does on intellect.

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The education expert Ken Robinson, in his book Out of Our Minds says that "the persistence of this apparent dichotomy between reason and emotions presents real problems for education and for the general development of creative abilities." If we want to continue to grow and to be creative, we need to stay open and responsive to what we feel.

Being responsive is hard work. "In workshops," says Eric Booth, author of an incredible book, The Everyday Work of Art: Awakening the Extraordinary in Your Daily Life, "I am always struck by how hard it is for participants, of all ages, in all fields, to notice they are indeed having experiences. They do the activities, do them well, and have fine insights, but they resist considering what happens inside them during the experience as if it were important, worth noticing. Many have an ingrained bias that dismisses those inner events as inconsequential because they are intangible."

But we can learn to notice our feelings again. "As workshop participants are prompted to start noticing their experience,” says Booth, “their awareness flashes in fragile and ephemeral glimpses. Slowly, participants get a sense that those inner events are full of important, surprising information and accomplishments."

And noticing begets more noticing. When my mother started watercolour painting she became someone who noticed cloud formations and colours in the sky - and pointed them out to the rest of us. As a result, we began noticing them, too.

My friend Dounia is a herbalist. On a walk she’ll point out tiny flowers growing in the hedgerow, or berries on a tree. The way that she touches the delicate fronds or runs her fingertips along the bough of a tree, makes me see these things with fresh eyes, and has given me a new appreciation of their complexity and beauty.

© Wester Ross

In the same way, when we become more attuned to how we feel inside we are better able to hear our intuition. We become alert to our hunches and can follow our bliss. In this way, we exercise our ability to 'feel' our way through our storylines - both in our writing and in our lives. 

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© Colin Bryant

Heather Dyer - children's author and Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow


Emma Barnes said...

I suspect my main feeling when writing is "I want stop now and eat some chocolate". Something I admit I do try and ignore...

But this is a very thoughtful piece - thank you. I'm starting something new at the moment, and you're right, it's not enough to just "think" it through - it's also a matter of feeling my way through the story, giving it time, and making choices about what "feels" right.

Susan Price said...

Great post, Heather. I think researchers studying Artificial Intelligence are coming more and more to the conclusion that you cannot divide emotion and feeling from 'logic' as we used to imagine. And, that even if you could, you wouldn't 'improve' our thinking by making it purely logical.

They inform each other. Imagine political decisions made with no emotion, no fellow-feeling for another... Oh, perhaps you don't have to imagine, just lately.

C.J.Busby said...

Sadly true, Susan - would that it weren't so... Lovely post, Heather. My partner has got more and more fascinated with birds over the last few years, and it's really changed the way we walk in the countryside, and the sort of things we notice.

Heather Dyer said...

Thanks all - and Susan, yes I've been curious about AI too, and the claims that it will do everything we do, and exponentially better, until it overtakes us. But machines don't die or feel, so surely they're not the same as us at all... confusing.

Nick Green said...

Descartes didn't mean 'think' in that sense. Cogito is best translated as 'I am conscious' or close enough. It's a saying too often misinterpreted. He meant precisely what Kundera meant.

Nick Green said...

P.s. And I really don't think our culture values thinking! At All!

Heather Dyer said...

Interesting point about Descartes, Nick, I'm sure you're right. Does what we mean by 'conscious' include an awareness of our feelings though? I'm not sure - but being more conscious of them seems like a good thing...

Susan Price said...

I didn't know that, Nick, and it makes a lot more sense as 'I am conscious...'

Heather, I don't know much about AI, but as I understand it, they're moving towards a position where a kind of 'emotion and feeling' would have to be programmed into the robot for it to be able to think and make decisions in anywhere close to a human way.

Imagine trying to decide, for instance, whether a legal decision is 'fair' or 'unfair' without some degree of emotion or fellow feeling. How do you even define 'fair' or 'unfair' without it?

Heather Dyer said...

Program in emotions, Susan?! Blimey. Interesting post on AI here:

Richard said...

It isn't so much programming in emotions as it is emotions being part of what it means to think. The idea that we would be able to write enough rules to simulate intelligence died in the 70's. Now we are trying to create a framework on which thinking can grow. Which means an AI would be just as fallible as a human in many ways. They will still be fast and have direct access to machine interfaces though.

There is a lot of hand-waving among believers in the Singularity. How does a mind with sub-human intelligence reprogram itself when it required human intelligence to get it where it was to begin with? If it's got sufficient ability to be sneaky and persuasive, why can't it realise that destroying civilisation is not an efficient method of achieving its goal? It's a disinformation problem and worrying about them is psychotherapy, not science.