How art could help solve social and political conflicts

Maria Isabel Garcia
Art could inspire that sense of awe that moves us to step into the world – the real world with a more robust inner life

Can you imagine a flurry of fantastic origamis spontaneously being made out of air? That is how I would describe the movements of the members of the American Ballet Theater when I watched them this week perform. The audience, including the group I watched with, was riveted by their performance and we all left the theater feeling so much fuller than when we entered it. One of us said he had to stop first and catch his own breath. The other could not eat, even if we had not had a bite for hours, saying he felt like he wanted to first unload the feelings that built up as he watched it. I felt so incredibly grateful that I had the chance to feel the space being shaped and reshaped before me as they, the dancers, pierced, stretched, clawed, punched, gathered, and caressed it. It was one of the most awe-inspiring experiences I have entered.  

Art and nature can do that, and so can science. They reliably birth a sense of awe – the feeling of being overcome by a continuing wave of surprise in the moment that leaves you with a fuller inner life – where you feel that you have shed old mental skin and stepping out with a new, yet undefined one. We are all aware of this and recognize it when it happens to us but we seldom ever really think about what it is for or what it does for us.

Neuroscientist Beau Lotto, in his own awe-inspiring Ted Talk where he skillfully and effectively blended it with art performances, could make you rethink about the sense of awe and its power, beyond the unarticulated encounters we have with art, nature, or science. He said this sense of awe is how we could probably transform how we enter into conflict. His basis for this is what he found when he scanned the brains of subjects while they watched a performance of Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas.

Research on what happens when we are awed are only at their beginnings, but I became very interested when Beau Lotto mentioned that it could change how we engage in conflict. Conflicts happen. In fact, they are necessary for change. But it becomes very problematic, unproductive, and as we know, violent, when we enter it already knowing the exact outcome we want out of it. We want it to turn exactly as we conceived it before we enter the conflict, not realizing that the process of entering it will necessarily change us, in ways that we cannot predict. 

Think about the nature of conflicts. Conflicts occur when different people want different outcomes from struggles. They do this because they feel uncertain given the current state so they want to direct it, or they think the only way to be happy about life is for it to conform with the kind of certainty they want. But remember those times when you where overpowered by moving music, dance, a film, or play? When you choked at the beauty of nature or the rising of the curtain from a long-hidden truth about how nature works? You did not expect those things but they moved your inner life forward. You felt fuller to face the same world, the same life, filled with the same uncertainties before you had an encounter that inspired that sense of awe.

Beau Lotto and his team found that when people are in a state of awe, the “heavy thinking” part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex is relatively calmer. But what happens is that when control from this part of the brain relaxes, the flow between other brain networks get a lot more animated. This crisscrossing is what characterizes creative thinking – when you are able to churn out new ideas out of the usual grooves of everyday planning and execution. Your biases and prejudices become less dictatorial over you. Also, they found that the right brain becomes significantly more active than the left side of the brain and this is what fascinated me more. He said that based on previous studies, this kind of uneven animation between the left and right brains is associated with when we step forward into the world rather than step back.

What if, for instance, in all political negotiations between people of different persuasions, particularly hardliners in a conflict had to all first experience art that’s stripped of any reminders of their hardline positions? Maybe a Cirque du Soleil so that the performers will be in costumes and maybe makeup that will hide any reminder of ethnicity? Or music or dance that mimics the most glorious of nature’s movements? Lotto said that the emerging research on the sense of awe have shown that this is the feeling that “shrinks” you in the scale that connects you to things larger than yourself. Lotto mentioned that in a pilot study they had done, they were able to manage hate and anger through the sense of awe inspired by art experiences.

That makes a lot of sense to me. “Hard thinking” which accompanies the conscious and unflinching stance to stay on course and insist on a position that one is certain of inflates your sense of self. This kind of inflation makes you feel steel-cabled to your position but loose from things larger than yourself – that kind of transcendence.

Thus, a sense of awe so far has been found to increase one’s willingness to be surprised by the world and by others. This means that it enables us to be more open to learning through the conflict rather than force a preconceived ending for it. If you look at most of the long-standing conflicts in the world, you will note that the most outstanding feature they have in common is that neither parties have ever changed their positions on their notion of what they want, for eons, even if obviously the world has changed. Always has, always will. 

To think of art as a mere accessory to life is like saying breathing is optional. Art could inspire that sense of awe that moves us to step into the world – the real world with a more robust inner life.  That is essential for your soul as air is to your blood. – Rappler.com

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” You can reach her at sciencesolitaire@gmail.com.

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