In one of the first lectures for my Analytical Chemistry class, my professor showed the classic Ray and Charles Eames short film “Powers of Ten,” which is always a nice mind-blowing experience, even if you’ve watched it dozens of times, say, on Wednesday nights in college. Though my professor’s intent was to introduce orders of magnitude, in the beginning of a discussion about uncertainty in measurement, error propagation, etc., one line from the film stuck out for me this time (at 5:16ish):
Notice the alternation between great activity and relative inactivity, a rhythm that will continue all the way into our next goal: a proton in the nucleus of a carbon atom beneath the skin on the hand of the sleeping man at the picnic.
The idea of this rhythm, a sort of tide of matter and being, has stuck with me since that class, and I keep thinking about the scale of people, events, and time, and the relativity of all these experiences.
Considering meaning and what meaningful feels like, the question of significance may come down to a high/low center of “activity” versus the emptiness of “inactivity” or a sea of apparent inactivity that is still teeming with indistinguishable energies at this scale. One of my favorite concepts from psychology has always been cathexis, the handiest illustrations of which were metaphors from photography. Cathexis is the fixation or significance a person experiences toward something or someone that causes everything else to go blurry and fade into the background, the cinematic equivalent of spotting one’s object of desire in the middle of a crowded room. That intensity of energy and focus, I think, relates to a period of high activity on the radar of consciousness, but what gives that activity any more or less significance than anything else?
Facial recognition is another insanely fascinating area of science for me, particularly considering the energy the brain expends in forgetting so many of the faces and objects we encounter in a day. The best example I was given for why forgetting was so important was actually the function of the brain deleting all the faces on a subway car or a crowded sidewalk that proved to be unnecessary background information; if instead the brain tried to maintain and recall all these faces, we would become unable to recognize our loved ones or even distinguish between faces and objects with similar spatial arrangements. To be able to attach significance to targeted objects, it’s critical for the brain to forget and disregard the rest.
Recent devastating losses (which honestly are still too painful to talk about) have made me think a lot about family and the significance we attach to this collection of people who share our genes. Obviously there is a biological imperative toward preservation of lineage and the paradoxical altruism of kinship, but this significance does not transfer automatically to people we choose for ourselves, to love. Yet once the bond is formed, the brain regards significant others, adopted children, and so on, as family, and by extension, an integral part of self. Similarly for friends, neighbors, other people’s spouses, the mind makes room for fondness to develop into importance, for affection to translate into protective instincts and attachments. The people that populate our lives regularly, or to whom we’ve ascribed meaning, elicit intense activity in the mind and heart, whereas perfectly nice strangers, with all kinds of wonderful characteristics that would make them effortless to love, remain insignificant, inactivity, simply for want of introductions or common acquaintances.
This rhythm of experience repeats at internal levels, with feelings that become overwhelming, when the scale of experience becomes too great in proportion to their tenability. Some projects – even terrific accomplishments – become just too important, so big that they are bigger than ourselves and we can no longer wrap our minds around them. I think this point is where my personal commitment peters out regarding politics and global, economic, and social issues. I have a lot of beliefs about how I think things should work, but I don’t know how those beliefs can be adapted and implemented at the scale appropriate to every single person’s specific situation and needs. And I shouldn’t have to worry about that, I guess, because that’s the scale where they operate, and questions of policy are at a different, fuzzier magnitude.
The subjectivities and sensibilities of others remains an enormous, mind-boggling mystery for me, probably because I am so frequently wrapped up in my own head. I think of all the observations, analyses, judgments, memories, associations, predictions, and interpretations that go through my mind during even the simplest conversation with a friend, and I realize that everyone around me is (presumably) spinning around in the same way in their minds. Even when I see someone slack-jawed, appearing to stare without a thought in their minds, I have to assume there is much more going on under the surface, that even the seemingly dullest people are whirring with thoughts they aren’t expressing (maybe? Maybe I’m wrong about that though?).
I think one of my overarching themes in art is pattern recognition, achieved by examining organic shapes and systems at a variety of scales, from the intimacy of macro vision to the abstract impossibility of microscopy and telescopic views. Taking on life, from the comfortably proportionate dimensions of familiarity, through vast and anxious infinities, the patterns and rhythms coalesce into beautiful sameness and elegance, those fundamental characteristics of being.
All this, though, does not fully account for meaning, only a recognition of scale and pattern. I realize that to seek explanation for meaning is akin to asking why we love who we love, but I have to believe it is something bigger than activity and inactivity of attention in the brain. What forces are responsible for the attenuation of attention in the presence of something we just sense will become important to us? Do we only perform that task in retrospect, once the brain catches up on processing and creates memories that present us knowing in the moment that an experience is a big one? Or are we capable of grasping, despite the limits of our scale, when something big is happening to us or around us, that electricity in the air that reminds us that life is happening right here and now?
I guess all I can do is pay attention, as much as I can.