Obstacles and Opportunities in Integrating Art with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics
(Copyright Ezra Niesen)
I’ve worked in theatre for 28 years. Theatre is the art of recreating the entire world, and variations on it, and making it believable to audiences. It brings all other art forms together. Film is the art of theatre in a different medium.
When I started reading about evolutionary psychology 12 years ago, I soon realized that the most important concepts of evolutionary psychology have been the founding principles of modern theater for about a century. Constatin Stanislavski, a Russian actor and director, pioneered a psychological approach to theatre beginning in the 1880s, inspired in part by Charles Darwin’s work.
He discovered a set of first principles for replicating human behavior realistically. Every action is an attempt to accomplish one or more goals. Characters always use their energy as efficiently as possible to try to accomplish their goals. Another is an acting exercise called the Magic If, in which actors visualize factors in their situations being different from real life and imagine how that would change how they interact with their situation. That brought systems thinking to theatre and means that everyone’s point of view is always some number of steps removed from anyone else’s point of view. He also discovered the theatre equivalent of orders of intention, which in theatre we call units of intention, or beats, or bits. He made other important discoveries that support those.
His main discoveries add up to the idea that to act a part realistically, an actor must find a personality for the character that makes all of the decisions he makes in the play seem to him to be the best decisions he could make in his situations as he understands them. If the part is written realistically, the playwright had a personality like that in mind for the character. To turn the playwright’s vision into reality, the actor has to find that personality and use it as his starting point for all the character’s decisions that the playwright couldn’t write into the script, like facial expressions, posture, and tones of voice.
For the purposes of this article, my point is that while evolutionary psychologists are wondering how to get from studying how people make individual decisions to how people make multiple decisions simultaneously, there is a very well known industry made up of people who discovered compatible principles using different talents, and who have been carrying out those experiments for roughly 100 years. Every movie that’s made is a thought experiment about a long and complex chain of decision making. Twelve years ago it seemed to me like it should be easy to get evolutionary psychologists and theatre artists to see the overlap in their bodies of work. I’ve had some success in that. I’ve also had 12 years of adventures in how far removed the cultures of art and science have gotten from each other.
Artists usually seem “unprofessional”.
One of Stanislavski’s discoveries was that in order for actors to replicate human behavior realistically they had to be able to talk about human behavior using real-life words. Technical jargon would set actors apart from the people they were trying to imitate, so we depend on it as little as possible. That means acting is probably the only field you can major in in college where you don’t learn a professional vocabulary. If you watch interviews with actors talking about how they developed their roles for a play or movie, they just seem like energetic people who love pretending to be other people. No matter how many millions of dollars they make, they still don’t sound like they have a “real” job, because they don’t sound like they’re talking about doing anything nobody else knows how to do.
Replicating human behavior realistically is very, very hard. Other people’s behavior has the biggest effect on the survival rates of our genes. That’s why we have so much intuition, and so many levels of subconsciousness, involved in recognizing human behavior. This is why Stanislavski’s work revolutionized theatre, because there are so many levels of human behavior and perception of human behavior that realistic acting depends on the actor using them subconsciously better than the audience can recognize them subconsciously. If your posture or your vocal inflection don’t fit with what’s happening in the story, your audience will feel like your performance just wasn’t realistic, even if they can’t explain why. You could say that professional acting is the art of telling very big, complex lies without getting caught.
On the one hand, that means that if I walk into a room full of scientists to talk about life, there’s no way for me to do what I’m best at and simultaneously live up to everyone else’s expectations of what a “professional” does. That makes me seem like a guy with some ideas, while they see themselves as people with college degrees and careers in “real” things.
On the other hand, it’s evolutionary psychologists, not actors, who are having so much trouble now explaining their work to the public. So artists obviously have something scientists need.
It’s in keeping with this tradition that I developed the same writing style Jared Diamond used in The World Until Yesterday, of depending on reference sources as little as possible and writing them into the text when I do need them. Real life doesn’t come with footnotes to explain why it’s realistic. Neither do movies, neither do stories that people tell around cook fires in the evenings. One big part of the realism of a good movie is that everything you need to understand the story is contained in the story. As long as people talk about science in academic terms, it will always seem like a job skill. If people are ever going to learn science as their starting point for interpreting the world, sooner or later someone is going to have to start talking about science as if it’s an ordinary thing that happens in life.
In between the front line of any field of study and the public’s understanding of that field are a lot of experts and scholars who specialize in the field, who are still debating ideas the public hasn’t heard about yet. But making the front line of the field understandable to the public doesn’t depend on impressing the experts. It depends on impressing the public in ways that also impress the experts. I see the challenge of writing about science without footnotes as raising academic standards. Because this forces me to reach the front lines of the field using only ideas that are understood to the public. This is the 21st century. Academic reference sources don’t mean anything to people who never check out books from the library. But everyone under the age of 70 knows how to Google search for key words now. The most direct route to winning public support for the front lines of science is not to tell people which one book you found an idea in, it’s to talk about ideas in terms that are so general that people can find the ideas easily. That writing style serves me well enough that I can use it most of the time and write a few book titles into my work for the most controversial ideas without cluttering up my text.
Art stretches the definition of observation to its limits.
Science depends on observation. But that doesn’t specify observation to what number of people.
In one of my music classes in college, one day the professor played a recording of a sound that got higher and higher until it seemed to disappear because it exceeded the range of human hearing, and then seemed to reappear when it got lower. For most people the exercise went according to plan. But I and two other people in the room could hear the sound the whole time.
The three of us could agree that we could hear the sound the whole time. But what if the two of them had been absent that day? Would that still count as observation? With no one there to confirm my claim that the sound was continuous, no one else in the room would have any way of knowing whether I was observing it or lying about observing it.
If everyone in the world but you went blind, would the existence of rainbows still be considered science?
Another big reason artists think of new ideas is because we have unusual combinations of perceptive talent. That can be because of unusual levels of sensory acuity, unusual interpretations of sensory input, or both.
My friend Angie has very good night vision, but low tolerance to bright light. That makes her see a lot of things most people don’t, and not see as well things that most people see. She also goes out at night more and stays in during the day more than most people do, which makes her see the world differently from most people for that reason.
My friend Jon has an exceptional sense of smell. He can always tell when women are menstruating. That makes the definition of communication confusing. If information is traveling from one person to another, communication is taking place. But if the first person doesn’t know the communication is happening, the second person’s reaction to the communication won’t make sense to the first person. If your first impression toward one out of every four women you meet is, “WHOA! TOO MUCH INFORMATION!!!” how would that affect your idea of normal interaction with people, and how would it affect people’s interpretation of your reactions to them?
Jon puts his sense of smell to good use by working as a nurse. But based on how disgusted he sounded when he told me about always having to know when women are menstruating it seems to me that it’s a contributing factor to his being gay, as if he really wants a stable olfactory environment, where he can go home and relax and stop having his senses flooded with information he doesn’t want.
I’m a lot the same with hearing. When I’m in a crowded place it’s really hard for me to focus on what one person is saying. Part of that is the sensitivity of my ears. I wear ear plugs a lot because it helps me to focus on what I need to focus on and shut out everything else.
Another part of it is the inferences I draw among the things I hear. Most people don’t realize this, but the tone of voice anyone uses at any moment feels like the best choice to them based on the personality they were born with and everything that has happened in their life to that moment. That means that everyone’s patterns of vocal inflection is a story of their life that they’re telling with sounds but not with words. That isn’t a very clear way to tell someone your life story and it would take a long time for the information to add up to anything useful, but I am aware that I’m getting it and that it’s important. If I’m surrounded by 20 people all telling me their life stories at the same time, that gets overwhelming. Or at least, it requires me to adopt a mental state that I can’t explain to most people. I don’t know what it’s like to not hear this way, so to try to explain it to someone else I have to try to guess which parts of it they don’t do, and then guess what words I can say to get them to understand the difference. But this set of perceptive talents serves me well working in theatre, because these are the kinds of talents the theatre industry is built on.
Evolutionary psychology is a relatively new field of science. If you’re pioneering a new field of science, that implies that you’re searching for new information. That implies that a lot of the people who are best suited for finding the information specific to this field of science will have combinations of sensory abilities and interpretations of sensory input that haven’t been best suited to any other field of science. That implies that a lot of them won’t already have jobs as scientists. That implies that using their talents to their best potential will have led them to careers in something else.
Artistic discoveries depend on intuition into things that can’t easily be measured.
Any time anyone pioneers ideas that conflict with established ideas, they’re motivated by feelings that haven’t been as clearly expressed as the established ideas. Scientific discoveries, by definition, are ideas that have been clearly defined in words. Artists talk more philosophically, metaphorically, and in terms of comparing things to each other and seeing unifying themes among things. To a lot of people that makes us seem like we aren’t really sure what we mean.
A lot of people forget that scientific discoveries begin with intuition. Someone gets the feeling that a pattern of cause and effect might exist, they devise a test, they test it, and if the test proves them right their idea is upgraded from a hypothesis to a theory.
What would you do if you wanted to study something that was all around everyone all the time, that everyone was very intuitively perceptive of, that some people were extremely intuitively perceptive of, but no one could figure out how to quantify? We each make our own decisions by intuitively predicting the differential survival rates of our genes among different courses of action we could take in our situations as we understand them. We recognize other people as using the same basic structure of decision making we do by recognizing intuitively that they’re intuitively predicting the differential survival rates of their genes among multiple courses of action they could take. We can look for similarities and differences among decisions people make, and make other observations in the search for patterns. But that intuition doesn’t become science until we become consciously aware of the mathematics of the differential survival rates of genes.
The Stanislavski system is essentially evolutionary psychology built up directly from Darwin’s books, using a 19th century technological level. The travel and communications technology that scientists would need to study humanity in universal terms didn’t exist at the time, but Stanislavski made up for that with perceptive talent well enough to replicate human behavior realistically in theatre. He didn’t use the idea of the differential survival rates of genes, but he did use the idea of a universal structure of human decision making and the idea that every decision is an attempt by the individual to succeed at one or more goals as efficiently as possible. He didn’t use the stone age origins of humanity either, but his work can be used to tell the stories of stone age people just as easily as for anyone else, and the stone age is what everyone’s histories lead back to.
What Stanislavski discovered was a theory of human behavior that worked well for actors and directors who had exceptional levels of intuitive perceptions of human behavior and who got a lot of practice at using it. He was to theatre what Charles Darwin was to biology, because it was his work that gave theatre a unifying theory. His discoveries were good enough to solve the problem he was trying to solve, which was that all the different combinations of showing off, pretending, and exaggerating that people had been using as their acting and directing styles produced acting that almost always looked fake.
Without his discoveries leading to quantifiable data, there was no way for him to take the final step in science and define his discoveries in terms that people who didn’t work in theatre could readily understand. But his work wasn’t completely a speculation either, because he had selection pressures on the evolution of his ideas. Everyone is very perceptive of human behavior. Audiences either do or don’t feels like a performance is realistic. As long as they don’t feel it’s realistic, the artists keep working until they find techniques that do produce realistic acting.
The quantification of data was there the whole time. But nobody was conscious of it. In real life you make your own decisions by doing the math subconsciously of the survival rates of your genes for the different decisions you can see, and you recognize that other people do it too. An actor plays a role realistically by figuring out, even if only subconsciously, what his character would see as his best decisions from moment to moment by doing the math of survival rates of genes for his imaginary character in imaginary situations. When the audience watches the performance, they feel it’s realistic if they also do the math subconsciously and recognize that the decisions the characters make from moment to moment give them their best perceivable survival rates for their genes.
Over the years the theatre industry has built up a body of work that is self consistent and universal, that is based on observations made by people with sufficient abilities, and that is reproducible and debatable by people with sufficient abilities. The reason the concepts that produce this body of work are so reliable is because they turn out to be first principles of science. The Stanislavski system functions as a scientific theory for the people who use it professionally, even though it doesn’t lead to quantifiable data that’s readily understandable to scientists. Without quantifiable data it functions as an untested hypothesis that keeps getting bigger and bigger because it keeps producing consistent results.
More generally, any artistic style that produces consistent results is a reliable body of information to the people who use it, even if they talk in terms of philosophy, metaphors, and comparisons.
There have been multiple occasions when I’ve talked about my work and someone with a science background tries to convince me that my career isn’t real. They seem to win the argument because I can’t think of any polite way to respond to that. That’s way outside the professional etiquette of theatre. It seems to me to be outside the professional etiquette of science also because someone telling me that they’re smart enough to know that my career isn’t real and that I’m not smart enough to know it isn’t real even though I’ve worked in it all my life and get regular paychecks for the work I do, seems to me to be an ad hominem attack. But apparently it is within the scope of the professional etiquette of science because nobody else in the room who has a background in science seems to have a problem with their assuming they can prove that my career isn’t real.
On the other hand, I regularly have a lot of success in making evolutionary psychology seem like a good idea to people who are interested in science but don’t have much background in it. Everyone in the US under the age of 70 has a background in watching movies, and don’t need to be convinced that the movie industry really exists. Beyond that, if they’re willing to believe that the Earth is billions of years old and humanity evolved from apes, that’s all the science background they need.
The process of discovery in art takes generations.
Since artistic discoveries don’t produce quantifiable data, there’s no way to tell right away exactly what they mean. The proof that an artistic discovery is true is if it can be used coherently to add to the growing hypothesis of its artistic style.
But what does coherence mean? When an artist learns a new idea and produces art differently afterwards, that doesn’t tell you what exactly made the change. Was it the new idea all by itself, or was it the combination of the new idea and the old ideas?
The only way to prove it was the new idea all by itself is to train a new generation of artists with the new ideas from the beginning. Stanislavski tested his ideas that way by setting up his own school. I got to see that test repeated by working as an assistant to a high school teacher who trained his students in the Stanislavski system from the beginning. My second year there they took first place in the state drama competition for the tenth year in a row.
Once again, artists can’t talk about their work the way scientists talk about their own because their discoveries are made on a slower time table.
Professional success in art is measured differently than in most other occupations.
There are lots of different jobs in theatre, since theatre can bring together every art form, and also needs the usual things any company needs like management, publicity, and accounting. But there are a lot of limitations to working full time, year round as an actor or director. Plays usually run for a limited time, like a month or two. If the same production company turns around and starts rehearsing another play immediately afterward, there’s no way to plan on the next play needing the same number of actors and actresses as the last. A lot of theatres operate on seasonal schedules, so that some only run in the summer and others only run in the fall-winter-spring. A lot of that is because of the tourist seasons in different parts of the country.
There are other limiting factors on how people can work in theatre. For instance, it’s about a 6 hour drive from Phoenix to Los Angeles, so it’s easy for good theatre artists from Phoenix to move to LA individually. Since they keep leaving here one at a time, it’s hard to find enough good artists here all at the same time to start new theatre companies. And since people hardly ever start new theatre companies here, the good artists move from here to LA as soon as they can.
For another example, in Maine there aren’t any theatre companies that operate year round. But my credits from Eastern Maine Community College won’t transfer to any state university except the University of Maine system. That means there’s no good way for me to for me to finish my Bachelor’s degree now, because I can’t make a living in Maine long enough to finish it there, and I can’t afford to start over in another state.
For another example, different theatre companies produce different kinds of work. If you market your work to people who will regularly pay $60 each for tickets, you’re performing mostly for middle aged and old people, so you don’t take big artistic risks. If you want to be in the kind of theatre company that does take big risks, you are the ones who are going to pioneer the big new ideas that other theatre companies will imitate in 20 years from now, but you don’t have an established market, so you can’t plan on making much money from it. Every artist has to make that choice: Do you want to produce art for the sake of expanding the field, or do you want to make art for the sake of earning a dependable income?
All of this means there are a lot of ways that people who have good talents for acting and directing to work in theatre along with other people who have good talents for acting and directing, without being actors or directors. Science is a career, but art is a lifestyle. If you don’t love art enough to be willing to plan your life around working in it, you will find a job you like better sooner or later.
This means that the correspondence between people being good at what they do and having high positions in the field isn’t as close for artists as it is for other fields. An artist who makes a lot of money probably is good at what they do. But an artist who doesn’t make a lot of money might be very good at doing something that doesn’t pay a lot.
Explaining subconscious perceptions takes a lot of words.
Ninety percent of human mental activity is subconscious. That means 90% of the things we think aren’t put into words. That means putting all of our thoughts into words takes roughly 10 times as many words as most people are accustomed to using.
The movie Bob Smith, USA, is a documentary about the diversity of the US, which follows the lives of seven men named Bob Smith. At one point one of them is handing out fliers on the street. He hands one to a lady who’s talking on her phone, and she says, “I’m talking to my sister in Atlanta, Georgia.” That shot was the introduction of that woman into the movie, and she was only in that one scene. But that line was the most memorable line of the movie to me. That shot had the most of what I call dramatic density, which means it had the most meaning wrapped up into it that helped to tell the story of the movie, about the history and diversity of cultural development in the US.
I thought about all the ways I could see that those eight words helped tell the story and wrote it down. Evolutionary psychologists call that unpacking the sentence. My explanation of the meaning of those eight words came out to about 4,500 words.
Do you realize what this means for getting books published? This isn’t a problem as long as you focus on how people think of ideas one at a time. But when you expand upon that to write about how complex emotions shape people’s decisions over the course of their lives, and the evolutions of cultures over centuries, you quickly end up with book manuscripts that exceed what literary agents and publishers are willing to work with for first time authors. I know this because I’ve written about 20 of them trying to get down under that 100,000 word limit. If you try to trim your work down to focus on a small enough body of ideas to fit into lengths agents and publishers do want, you’re down to writing the same kinds of books evolutionary psychologists are already writing. Then agents and publishers don’t want them because you’re not as qualified as an evolutionary psychologist. This economic limitation of the publishing industry is creating a black hole in the development of ideas, and that reinforces the appearance that artists don’t have anything important to contribute.
This is also a big reason scientists and artists talk so differently about our work. We all talk in terms that the people we’re accustomed to talking to can understand. We all started out with the same vocabularies for talking about conscious ideas, and then we each had to increase our vocabularies (or at least our conceptual vocabularies) by about 900% to reach the conclusions we were looking for. We’ve done that by finding words to connect ideas that produce reliable results when the people we’re accustomed to working with connect the ideas. There was no way we were going to develop compatible vocabularies by coincidence.
Another important discovery of Stanislavski’s was the superobjective. Can you guess what that means? You already know what it means because Richard Dawkins discovered the biology version of it, but he gave it a different name.
I’m glad to see that the discoveries of evolutionary psychologists keep going and going. But if the only form of success scientists can recognize is to keep going in the direction they’re accustomed to going, their work gets further and further removed from art. Actors played a pivotal role (pun intended) in Darwin’s writing of The Expressions of Emotions and Man and Animals. If I explain how I connected Darwin’s work to Stanislavski’s to evolutionary psychology to Hollywood (which I’ll do in other articles) I sound like a Neanderthal compared to evolutionary psychologists writing articles for peer reviewed academic journals. A lot of scientists shrug and say, “We already knew that.” But that overlooks the fact that artists use the Darwin-Stanislavski-Hollywood connection to make many thousands of artistic decisions in the production of high budget movies within a year or two. Your favorite movie probably took less time to produce than it took for you to read eight issues of your favorite quarterly peer-reviewed academic journal. That’s because people with talents like mine have figured out how to talk to each other about human behavior on that schedule.
Scientific discoveries are usually talked about as philosophical concepts, but most people don’t realize that.
Scientific discoveries are only actual science as long as people are talking about how the discoveries were made. When people start talking about science in terms of ideas that people should remember, that’s science philosophy.
That means artists talking philosophically about reliable information that’s been discovered in their own fields isn’t as far removed from science as the body of work people usually call science. The fact that artists talk in metaphors so much doesn’t separate their work from science as much as a lot of scientists seem to think either, because all communication happens through a series of symbolic representations of ideas. Your vision isn’t even a direct interpretation of the world. It’s the interpretation of an electro-chemical reaction that happens in your brain after light from the outside world hits your retinas.
A scientific discovery is a way that people have found to use symbols to communicate ideas in ways that have only one interpretation. That’s how artistic discoveries are made also, but for all of these reasons artists deal with bigger, more abstract ideas they can’t approach as directly.
Stanislavski’s work, from his first recorded discovery in 1889 to its use among artists all over the world in the present day, was such a long and complicated evolution that to this point it has taken a career in theatre to see all his ideas come together.
First of all, his career spanned about 60 years, from childhood to a few years before his death at the age of 75. He kept developing his style throughout. He wrote all of his books in the latter half of his life, but even so, some of his later writing made his earlier writing obsolete.
The biggest obstacle to the spread of his ideas was the Russian Revolution. He lived in Moscow and by the time he started writing his books Stalin was in power. He had to write different books about his work for publication in the Soviet Union and for publication in the West. For the Soviet Union he wrapped his discoveries about human behavior up in his autobiography, My Life in Art. He wrote his An Actor Prepares/ Building a Character/ Creating a Role trilogy for his publishers in the US. But it took so long for his writing to get to the US and be translated and published that by then he had already improved upon it. Also, he died before he finished Creating a Role.
In a field founded on non-quantifiable information, the meanings of words change between languages, between cultures, and from one time period to another. With different books for the Soviet Union and the US, the cultural differences between the countries, and the lack of communication between them, artists in Communist countries and artists in Capitalist countries developed two different bodies of work from the same founding concepts.
Until the 1990s and the end of the Cold War his discoveries passed through the theatre industry mainly by word of mouth, as ideas that worked very well for people who had enough talent and who got a lot of practice in using them. His work ended up being so useful, but at the same time so diffuse, that hardly anyone in the theatre industry talks about the Stanislavski system anymore. But today, now that we all can read new translations of his original work, we can see that most of the acting techniques that produce the best results started with him. The other acting styles are the ones that still have names to set them apart from the one that’s been so normalized that it doesn’t need a name anymore.
Everyone has more experience in their own field than they do in any other.
Perhaps the funniest part about trying to explain the Stanislavski system to evolutionary psychologists and trying to explain evolutionary psychology to theatre artists is that they’re so similar a lot of people form both groups don’t see any point to what I’m telling them about. I meet very few people who have enough background in both art and science to be amazed that people have used two different sets of talents to make overlapping discoveries. They think of their own talents as normal, they think of their discoveries as obvious, and they think of the other group of people as intelligent, so they’re not surprised that the other group would have reached the same conclusions because they don’t realize how different the talents are that the other group’s body of work started with.
Something else I see a lot of is people’s unwillingness to give another group of people any more credit for thinking of good ideas than they have to. The more you recognize that the people of another group had good ideas, the less of a monopoly on good ideas you can claim for your own group.
You see this in social justice struggles all the time. A lot of men think that being a woman is mostly the same as being a man, except for in ways that feminists have prevented them from ignoring. A lot of White people think that being Black or Native American is mostly the same as being White. A lot of Christians think the fact that Atheists, Pagans, and Muslims believe in an equivalent of the Golden Rule proves that Christian mythology is true and there’s no need to recognize anyone else’s religious beliefs.
In much the same way, people who devote their lives to one field, whatever it is, are a lot more excited by that field than by any other. They get excited when they tell you about discoveries in their field, and then seem indifferent when you talk about discoveries in yours. Particle physicists don’t need to be convinced that neutrons are important, but usually don’t realize how much talent and hard work goes into art. Do you watch the credits at the ends of movies all the way through? Most people don’t. But if you do that will give you an idea of how many talented, skilled people worked together for months, if not a year or more, to create what you just watched in two hours. And in the same way, most artists have heard of neutrons but feel that art is a lot more important.
We could all be interested in each other’s fields and how much talent and hard work people put into them. I’ve never heard of high school teachers getting into debates with each other about whose field is real and whose isn’t. But on the front lines of any field something else happens. That’s where you find the people with the highest levels of talent and passion for what they do. That’s also where you find the people whose work has been criticized the most.
The front line of anything is pioneered by the people who are the most talented and committed to thinking about and doing that thing. That’s where you meet people whose ideas have gotten the most out of proportion to real life. I’ve met militant gay rights activists who push back against the idea that homosexuality is a mental illness by being convinced that everyone is secretly gay but most people never admit it. Conflicts like those among ideas make ideas evolve. That produces the ideas that moderates on each side eventually agree with each other on and solve the problem, even though nobody on the front line on either side ever gets everything they want.
Similarly, anyone who gets famous for anything makes themselves a big target for everyone who opposes them but who will never do anything comparable in their lives. John Lennon, with all his idealism, imagined not needing bodyguards. As the guy who shot him, whose name I don’t waste my time remembering, discovered (or thought he did), if you want to be famous you don’t have to work hard for it, you just have to kill someone who got famous by working hard.
I’ve met people who have been surprised by how personable Richard Dawkins seems on stage but how egotistical he seems off stage. I’ve heard other people say the same things about rock stars. I doubt that everyone who’s good at science has Asberger’s syndrome. I think it’s a lot more likely that famous spokespeople for science are faced with much the same situation as famous artists. If you tell someone famous something you just thought of but they’ve already heard a thousand times from other people, they’re going to have a lot more practice than you expected them to at making the situation turn out favorably for them. Anyone who has worked in a customer service job for very long has learned that too.
This means that when people who are on the front lines of widely separated fields try to work together, it’s going to be easy for one person to say something without realizing it that it sounds like arguments against the other person’s work that the other person has heard thousands of times before. For the person who’s going into the conversation for the first time, the person who’s going into it for the thousandth time will seem short tempered, because their response will be a lot more direct than the other person was expecting.
We can start getting into this trap from Step 1 of talking to each other. To each of us, our own field is the most exciting thing ever. When you hear someone else talk about their own field as if it’s the most exciting thing ever, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that they’re trying to convince you that your field isn’t the most exciting thing ever. If a lot of people have already tried to convince you that your own field isn’t the most exciting thing ever it’s easy to get defensive against someone you didn’t need to get defensive against because they weren’t trying to convince you that your field wasn’t the most exciting thing ever, they’re just excited about their own field.
Empathy and emotional intelligence have different meanings for artists than for everyone else.
A lot of people are using the term emotional intelligence for what I call empathy and use the term empathy to mean something else. A lot of people say there’s a difference between empathy and sympathy. To me this sounds like debating at what point flowing water stops being a creek and starts being a river. What look like different things to some people are actually different manifestations of the same thing to people who have the talents and experience for seeing that thing in many different situations. To me, empathy means the ability to be emotionally affected by your surroundings, on a level of subconsciousness that’s too deep to explain easily or even notice consciously, in a way that motivates action toward a goal that you may or may not be consciously aware of. If you’ve never tried to personally imitate a tree, it’s easy to think that the idea of people empathizing with trees is a joke. But if you’ve ever taken an acting class you probably did something like that in the first week.
Isaac Newton and Ludwig von Beethoven had a lot in common in that they were very talented people who were very anti-social. I’ve met a lot of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians who seemed to me to have the emotional intelligence of reptiles. Let’s make an educated guess here that Newton was better at that than all of them, and was so good at focusing on math because he was never distracted by emotional intelligence.
Artistic geniuses go in the opposite direction, but that leads to results that look a lot the same. Having a very high level of empathy is another good reason to be anti-social. If being in a crowded room feels to you like 20 or 50 or 100 people all telling you their life stories at the same time, you can be amazed that all these people’s life stories led them to the same place at the same time, feel compassion for all of them at once, and simultaneously not want to be around them because you don’t want to hear all of that at once.
Empathy is always a factor in communication. Whenever you talk to anyone you’re trying to change how they think and feel about something, even if you don’t realize you’re doing it. Let’s suppose Beethoven was the greatest musician in the world at the time. That means that every conversation he ever had, for his entire life, was with people who had less musical talent than he did, and who were always trying to get him to empathize with them— and incidentally, with their relative lack of musical talent. If opportunities to talk to people who had levels of musical talent that were comparable to his own were rare, it means he didn’t get much practice at it. That means when he did get the opportunity he wasn’t very good at it. That would make him look anti-social for a different reason.
I’ve had to work through that problem in my own life. I’m not bragging here, I’m saying this because a number of people seem to face the same problem but nobody seems to want to talk about it.
For a large portion of my life, human behavior seemed to me to be generally hostile. I felt like it wasn’t supposed to be hostile, but I couldn’t figure out why it kept turning out that way for me. Finally I realized that my level of empathy is way more than what most people expect, and so are my levels of some other important mental talents. When most people talk to me, no matter how nice they’re trying to be, without realizing it the tones of voice they wrap around the words they say always lead back to their worldview, and their worldview is almost always smaller than mine, because I grew up in a family where generations of talented people have seen expanding their worldviews as much as possible as one of the main things they should do in life. There are many knowledgable people in the world who have many things to say that interest me, but if we talk long enough we usually reach the other person’s mental horizons before we reach mine.
If you have a high level of empathy, whatever you use it for, whether it’s philosophy or playing the piano or whatever, most of the time you spend talking to other people you’re going to spend talking to people who aren’t as good as you are at whatever you feel is most important, and they’re going to try to get you to empathize with them. That means they’re trying to get you to empathize with their lower level of ability in the thing you’re best at and feel is most important. That means that without meaning to they’re trying to make you dumber.
For a while at my job one guy listened to the Glenn Beck Show on his radio every day. Everyone who worked nearby couldn’t stand the sound of Glenn Beck’s voice. It led to a lot of arguments at work about freedom of speech versus noise pollution. One day while I didn’t have much to do I got thinking about it and came up with an explanation for why artists would have such a negative reaction to someone’s vocal style. When I went home that evening I wrote it down.
Psychologists have found that most people can keep track of five order of intention at a time. Stanislavski discovered them too, and called them units of intention. While I was writing my explanation down I thought of it as a fun little puzzle. But when I went back and counted my orders of intention I found I had worked through 412.
If you and I both looked at pi solved to hundreds of digits, you remembered the first five digits easily, and with about the same amount of effort I remembered the first 400, you and I probably shouldn’t sign up for the same math class. But I don’t remember an emotional intelligence section on the SAT test.
Most professional artists probably have talents comparable to mine. Every fictional movie that’s an attempt at realistic human behavior is a sequence of units of intention that goes on for two hours. Every line of dialogue contains at least one unit of intention. The reason artists can plan ahead how to tell stories audiences can follow is because we can imagine a lot more than five units of intention fitting together at a time.
There are Associates’ degree programs for art, Bachelor’s degree programs, Master’s degree programs, and Doctoral programs. All of them depend on communication, and communication always involves empathy. If the first two years of college for you are exactly the same as your previous 12 years of school, in that you’re constantly surrounded by people who seem to be trying to convince you to be less smart than you really are, what’s the point? In what sense can you even call that an education?
You could say, as people always do, that obviously I didn’t have what it takes to earn a Ph.D. because I dropped out of undergrad school. People who earn Ph.D.s know how to do something that I don’t know how to do and didn’t learn how to do, so obviously their education was important. But if you tell me that if I come to your college I can learn about something I love doing, and I end up feeling like I’m spending 75% of my time there learning how to feel pity for my professors and classmates, as far as I’m concerned, you lied to me. Your idea of an education feels to me like bait and switch marketing. The potential for learning important skills for fitting into society is there, but they aren’t the kinds of skills you told me I was paying for, they’re being substituted for what I wanted to learn, and they don’t show up in my academic record. If I only get a B+ in a class that doesn’t say anything about whether that was really the best I could learn the material or if I was so bored by the class I couldn’t pay more attention to the material. If you went to college to learn to paint and you discovered that to get your Bachelor’s degree they expected you to stop seeing in color, what good would their Ph.D. program seem like it was going to do you?
If you have exceptional talents you can’t turn them off, any more than the people who tell you to quit thinking about that stuff because it isn’t important, or tell you you’re just imagining it, could learn how to only hear out of one ear. But you can drink a lot of booze, do a lot of drugs, or never let yourself get enough sleep to blunt your talents that way. I’ve used sleep deprivation a lot. I’ve known other people who have resorted to drugs and alcohol. That was Jim Morrison’s solution to how to escape from the perceptivity that inspired his poetry.
If you have exceptional talents and no outlet for them, or exceptional talents in something unpopular, you run into what I call the wall of indifference. My friend Kristen brought this to my attention. She’s too mentally ill to keep a job. She spent 11 years homeless. She said one of the worst parts about it was that she could spend all day hanging out downtown and never once would anyone but other homeless people look at her as if they wanted her there. Most people had treated her like that all her life. People who had homes all seemed to think of her as nothing but a piece of litter on the sidewalk, so how was she supposed to stop being homeless if that meant trying harder to fit in with people who already hated her?
I meet a lot talented people in both art and science who seem to be reacting to the same basic situation, even if they don’t realize it. Your talents and your social instincts are two separate things. You want to do what you’re good at and you want to be liked. But those aren’t always two separate things as far as other people are concerned. Even though they’re two separate instincts, the results of your acting upon them overlap and affect each other.
If you do what you’re good at and people like what you do, they like you for what you do and you don’t notice anything wrong. If the thing you’re best at is popular with a lot of people, like sports, when you do what you’re best at people like you a lot.
But if what you’re best at is unpopular, when you do what you’re best at a lot of people will get mad at you. If what you’re best at is obscure but important, when you do what you’re best at, no matter how hard you work or how much it will benefit other people, most people won’t even notice. That puts the satisfaction of your instincts into conflict. Putting a lot of effort into what you’re best at produces very little approval in other people. A lot of people will try to discourage you, a lot of people won’t care, some people will be vaguely supportive because they want you to succeed even though they don’t really understand what you’re doing, and only a few people will look like they really connect with you.
If your best talents lie in a field that’s based on quantifiable evidence, it’s fairly easy to get into an educational course that people will recognize as showing that you have the potential to produce valuable results someday. But if the field you’re best at seems to most people to be nothing but an opinion, and is always the first thing schools cut their budgets on, it takes a long time to start to produce results other people can recognize.
Chris was a freshman at my high school when I was a senior. Later we both went to the same college at the same time, but we were in different programs. I never met him or knew anything about him until I read his story in the newspaper.
He graduated from college, he had a job, he loved art and history, and he “preferred spending time alone,” as the article put it. Early morning he went for a walk. Somewhere out there he sat down on someone’s front porch at random and shot himself in the head.
No one who knew him had any idea why.
I have a guess. He and I had a lot of interests in common. So I know very well that most people who have those kinds of interests move out of our town the first chance they get. They don’t get a job and settle down there like he did. It sounds to me that for some reason either he didn’t dare to move away or he didn’t imagine that things would be different anywhere else.
Some people he knew would’ve tried to discourage him from living the life that he wanted. Some people would’ve supported him. Most people seem to have been indifferent to him. Nobody seemed to really connect with him, because they couldn’t find anyone who did to interview for the article.
Now compare how supportive each person around him was to how close they were to him to how supportive he felt people should be. Now add all those values together.
Like anyone else he wanted the people around him to like him. Suppose his perception of the total of the support-to-closeness ratio made him feel that in general people didn’t want him around. The logical conclusion of empathizing with people who as a whole didn’t seem to want him around would be to agree with them and kill himself. Empathizing with people who didn’t have much in common with him, on a level no one realized he was empathizing with them, would make his social instinct overpower his survival instinct.
“He preferred being alone” is the most positive thing to say if the only alternative you can think of is, “He didn’t make any friends.” The first step toward making friends is to meet people you can relate to. Everyone tries to meet people they can relate to. It’s easy for people who have always had people around them they can relate to to not notice that, and to think there must be something wrong with people who don’t make any friends.
I meet a lot of artists and scientists who talk as if they’re forever trying to convince people that the work they do, and the thought processes that produce it, are valuable. That’s exactly what you’d expect from someone who had empathized with the wrong people. If someone, or some people, have made their presence, and their disapproval of your work, so powerfully felt to you that you always feel like they’re in the room with you, how much are you responding to what the people you’re really talking to are saying, and how much are you still trying to win an argument against people who aren’t even there?
You couldn’t carry on a conversation about what discoveries have been made in a field if every time the other person started talking they kept telling you why they should do the work they do, why you shouldn’t try to discourage them, or why you’re not even smart enough to form a coherent opinion that differs from theirs. Neither can you carry on a conversation about discoveries with someone who carries on the conversation you’re trying to have with their words, but with their tone of voice keeps trying to communicate those attitudes, because it changes the meanings of their words and makes you think differently about what you should say next. I meet a lot of artists and scientists who talk that way, who say they’re looking for new ideas, and who don’t seem to notice how much they’re doing with their tones of voice to discourage people from talking about their ideas. If they learned to talk from people who talked about their centuries-old dogma that way, or they got used to pushing back against those people, they could not notice that they were still using the same dogmatic tones of voice while they talked about the front lines of art and science today.
“Why don’t you get a real job?” means the same thing to an artist as, “You believe in evolution?” does to a scientist, if said in the right tone of voice. They both mean, “I think your life’s ambition is meaningless.”
My talents require me to be anti-social a lot of the time. That’s how I to get the mental space that I need to do what I’m best at, because that’s how I don’t empathize with people who can’t imagine it being done.
People who don’t have this problem never want to hear about it, and people who do have it usually learn that it’s impolite to try to talk about it. But if we want to maximize the ability of talented people to work together across widely separated disciplines, we need to start talking about things like this.
Talented artists being anti-social, or otherwise having strange ways of relating to people, or having some other emotional burdens to work through, isn’t just some kind of sickness that comes with talent. If you wait until someone develops psychiatric problems to start talking about why they think differently from most people, by then the damage is done. A lot of emotional problems are the prices people pay for exceptional talent that they couldn’t figure out how to use constructively. By the time these exceptional talents lead to mental states that people who don’t want to recognize those people’s talents can no longer ignore, a lot of opportunities have gone to waste.
I see this so often that a lot of times when I meet other artists I wonder if I should say, “Oh, you’re an artist? What medications are you on?”
Artists talk about their work differently than scientists talk about their own.
All of these things add up to different professional etiquette between science and art. Science depends on hypotheses being disproved through falsification by quantifiable evidence. Art is built up through the intuitive interpretation of unquantifiable observations. If an artist talks excitedly about important discoveries in his field and a scientist asks what seems to him to be the very reasonable question, “Where is your evidence?” whatever the artist says isn’t going to be what the scientist considers to be a legitimate answer.
Things can go downhill quickly from there if each is using the standard professional etiquette of their field and thinks the other is arguing with them. The artist gives an answer that isn’t very clear to the scientist, and the scientist shrugs and says, “Well it could be that, or it could be a lot of other things.” The artist asks, “What else could it be?” The scientist says, “It’s not my responsibility to answer that. You’re the one proposing the hypothesis, and you’re the one who can’t back it up.”
It’s not my fault if I can’t fit my career into your 30-second attention span. Every artistic style that produces consistent results is a hypothesis that produces a self-consistent body of work that keeps growing and growing, even if it’s never anchored to quantifiable evidence. The self-consistent body of evidence can take years to learn. If the only ideas you’ll accept as facts are ones that are directly supported by quantifiable evidence, then to you art is nothing but an opinion.
If I give some examples of observations I’ve made, any scientist who wants to convince the other scientists in the room that an artist can’t possibly know this much about science can always shake their head and say, “But that’s just anecdotal evidence. Anecdotal evidence doesn’t prove anything.”
Every scientific discovery begins with anecdotal evidence. Every scientific discovery begins with someone noticing something once, feeling like it might be a clue to a pattern, and looking for more clues. Then they find more examples that fit that pattern one observation at a time.
Before protons, neutrons, and electrons were discovered, the Periodic Table of the Elements started with one instance of anecdotal evidence, which corresponded with multiple other instances of anecdotal evidence. From there chemists built up a self-consistent hypothesis that wasn’t founded on quantifiable evidence. It contained quantifiable evidence that was self-consistent, but it wasn’t founded on quantifiable evidence because nobody had yet discovered where the self-consistency among the evidence originated.
In the study of human behavior we don’t have quantifiable evidence contained within the hypothesis, but we do have a lot more intuition for interpreting human behavior than we do for chemistry. People who have enough talent and who get enough practice can see that ideas and feelings that each seem abstract on their own keep fitting into consistent patterns in relation to each other.
For instance, Stanislavski discovered that to replicate human behavior realistically, everyone in the play has to value their lives as much as everyone else. That makes each characters’ goals important to them, and that creates the powerful feelings that make the characters come into conflict when their goals come into conflict. The alternative is to put characters into the story whose only purpose for existing is to be plot elements that help tell the story. There’s no way to play a part like that realistically, because the only unifying theme among the decisions the character makes is to make the story more interesting. Every realistic character is a life story that you only see part of. If an actor doesn’t bother to develop a story for their character, their actions have no internal motivations, and the only thing they’ll seem to do is to react to what the other characters do in whatever way they need to react to move the story along. Characters with no internal motivations look unrealistic because when they don’t have anything to react to, they don’t have anything to do except to wait for the next thing to react to.
Whenever I start trying to explain to scientists that everyone values their lives equally much, usually someone laughs and says something like, “No they don’t. If they did, no one would ever commit suicide. See? I just disproved your whole hypothesis right there.” Then as far as they’re concerned the conversation is over and someone changes the subject before we ever get to talk about the fact that the life stories of people who commit suicide are stories of lives full of conflict that end with the person deciding that the best way forward in life is to kill themselves because they hate all the other choices they can see even more. Nor do we get to talk about stories of people who sacrifice their lives to save other people, or for some less tangible ideal, and how that stretches the meaning of people valuing their lives to include the feeling that what they’re doing at that moment is the most important thing they’ll ever do, so that sacrificing themselves physically is the best way they can see to deal with this thing that they feel to be the most important thing in life.
After the anecdotal evidence argument usually comes the not-even-wrong argument. The scientist says, “Your hypothesis is not even wrong, because your statement doesn’t contain enough information to falsify it.”
Then it’s usually the argument against authority. The artist says, “Well I’ve been doing this all my life.” The scientist says, “But that’s just the argument from authority. That doesn’t prove anything either.”
The entire framework of this scientific argument against principles of art only makes sense if you skip past the fact that most people in the world will never understand what Steven Hawking does for a living. People who don’t have enough talent at math to pass first semester calculus don’t pass eighth semester calculus either, so the information contained in cosmologists’ equations will never be observable to them. For most people the proof that he’s right comes down to the fact that he’s very talented, he’s noticed a lot of things other people haven’t, and he’s been working at what he does for a very long time among other talented and experienced people who would come up with a better explanation that fits their observations together if they could, but they haven’t.
It’s easy to believe, and to make your friends and colleagues believe, that you’ve won an argument against the existence of artistic talents when only one person in the room believes they do exist. If that person works in a multi-billion dollar industry, does the evidence really suggest that you’re right? Or does it make you wonder why more people from that industry don’t talk to you about the talents that make their industry function?
When artists talk in any detail about their work they’re always taking a risk because they’re talking about something that they feel strongly enough about to work hard at, but that lots of people try to discourage them from doing without a second’s thought. Artists spend their lives building up bodies of work from intuition, and a lot of other people believe that if they can’t explain it all in two or three sentences it doesn’t mean anything. Telling artists why you think they’re wrong as soon as they say something you disagree with probably won’t encourage them to keep talking, and might keep you from hearing what they were going to say, which might’ve answered your question.
Instead of asking, “Where is your evidence?” ask, “Why do you think that?” with the attitude that they could have noticed something important that you didn’t. Now you’re having an open-ended dialogue. Now you’re having a conversation an artist can participate in. Real artistic discoveries usually don’t lead to quantifiable evidence, but they do lead to first principles of science.
I’ve been talking in this article about successes artists have had. A lot of artists also have a lot of ideas that don’t correspond with scientific discoveries. Some artists feel so passionately about whatever they believe that there’s nothing anyone can do to change their mind and they ignore science to whatever extent is necessary to keep believing whatever they believe. Every scientific discovery is a discovery of a fact that in some sense was counter-intuitive to people, which is why it took so long for anyone to figure it out. A lot of people, including artists, don’t notice how much their perceptions of the world are based on scientific discoveries and don’t think about how much differently they would’ve thought if they lived 1,000 years ago. I’m not suggesting that scientists should remain open minded to ideas they’ve already disproved out of pity for people who don’t want to believe in, or haven’t heard about, their discoveries. I am saying that if you approach art with the attitude that art is just a bunch of opinions, your conversations with artists won’t last long enough for them to get to their discoveries that are consistent with science.
Evolutionary psychology is controversial for the same basic reasons the Stanislavski system was controversial back in his day. Everyone thinks about human behavior. Everyone knows it’s important. Being intelligent gives you social status. If you try to convince people that they’ve been wrong all their lives about something everyone knows is important, you look like you’re trying to prove that you’re smarter than them. That would diminish their social status. Trying to convince people that you’re right by doing more and more research isn’t going to solve that problem.
The overlap between evolutionary psychology and the Stanislavski system means you can explain the foundation of evolutionary psychology in terms of the directing style everyone in the US and much of the industrialized world is most familiar with. It’s been my experience that telling people about introductory concepts of movie directing is a much easier way to get them interested in evolutionary psychology than by seeming to them like you’re trying to use a bunch of evidence to prove they’re dumb. Since the Stanislavski system is rooted in psychology and theatre brings all other art forms together, it’s the missing link between science and art.
Ezra Niesen is an artist, philosopher, carpenter, welder, mechanic, helicopter pilot, Certified Flight Instructor, actor, director, and activist video journalist. He publishes his work on his website, 42videos.com.
The World until Yesterday—What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?: Jared Diamond (Viking Press/ 2012)
The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals: Charles Darwin (Penguin Classics)
My Life in Art: Constatin Stanislavski (Little, Brown, & Co./ 1924) This is Constatin Stanislavski’s autobiography, in which he tells of his adventures through growing up with a love for putting on plays for family and friends to founding the Moscow Art Theatre to making discoveries that are foundational to theatre today, to living through the Russian Revolution and the government censorship of theatre under Stalin.
An Actor’s Work— Constatin Stanislavski (Routledge/ 2007) This is a new translation of Stanislavski’s first two books on acting, An Actor Prepares and Building a Character. They’re written as a student’s journal, with each book representing a year of study. The narrator is essentially Stanislavski talking about his own path of discovery in theatre, and the professor of the acting school is essentially Stanislavski in his later years, telling younger generations of actors about his discoveries.
An Actor’s Work on a Role— Constatin Stanislavski (Routledge/ 2010) This is a new translation of Creating a Role, the third book in Stanislavski’s trilogy that began with An Actor Prepares. This is a manuscript that Stanislavski died without finishing.
Bob Smith, USA: Neil Abramson (Winghead Films)