I’m back from California and about to head for Maine. The Conference on the Aesthetics of Change was terrific. I was surrounded by depth psychologists, mythology scholars, and Jungians. I went thinking Jungians were another species, but came back happy to find that they were humans just like me. Not only are they not aliens, but they think a lot like me when it comes to changing psyches whether in individuals (they) or whole cultures (me).
One of the speakers, Ernest Rossi, talked about how aesthetic experiences triggered neuronic evolution in the brain, creating learning. What I had thought to be pretty far out is now being found in many mainstream neuroscience laboratories. Aesthetic experiences might be defined as experiences that don’t fit into the normal, and cause us to stop and reflect or absorb the incoming signals differently from everyday encounters with reality. The brain is plastic in the sense that it can reconfigure itself in response to sensory signals coming in. What Rossi was saying is that when the brain gets signals that are distinct from the normal, some genes are turned on and release a form of messenger RNA that, in turn, induces the cells that turn into neurons to grow.
Maturana and Varela in the Tree of Knowledge and other works had developed a model of consciousness and cognition that is more or less the same, although lacking in the cell level mechanisms that neuroscientists are finding. Both these two and the those doing the work that Rossi cited would describe change as learning by doing. We learn as a result of our actions, including encountering an aesthetic experience. The same model applies to situations we call breakdowns: cases where the transparent, unconscious nervous system structure cannot cope. I’ve ordered a few of the papers Rossi cited and also some of his work so that I can learn more about this very important development. Normal, transparent behavior reinforces the existing structure, perhaps through the building of myelin sheathes around those neuronal pathways that are more frequently used.
The importance of these developments lies in building and strengthening the scientific basis for what we already know works in changing behaviors. Psychotherapy and psychoanalysis work through processes that bring beliefs and behavioral strategies that lie beyond the grasp of consciousness to a place where they can be recognized as determinants of patterns of behavior that do not serve the patient well. The well-known 12-step method for dealing with alcohol addiction in partly based on this principle.
Change can come (it doesn’t have to) once the actor is aware of the factors that are controlling what has become normal, but pathological or undesirable, behavior. The sociology of Anthony Giddens, who I have built my model for dealing with unsustainability, follows the same logical development. Routine, normal social action is determined by a set of beliefs and norms housed in the collective “cognitive structure” of the collective. Normal behavior reinforces this structure. Life goes on as usual until something happens to upset the system at which point it becomes possible to reveal the hitherto buried beliefs and norms and change them.
I’ve already gotten more abstruse than I intended. The point of all this is that there is lots to learn about culture change from the field of neurosciences and depth psychology. The connection between aesthetics and change is something that I will explore further. After all sustainability is shaped by what we want the world to produce: flourishing, beauty, truth, freedom. All of these are aesthetic in the sense that we experience them as a whole. We can describe them, but not break them down into analytic chunks, except only to help describe them. We can’t produce them on order from some sort of a machine. We have known this since antiquity and put aesthetics into a different category from science. Somehow we have lost the understanding of the power of art to change us, relying only on science and technology. Perhaps the link I saw between the neurosciences and the aesthetic experience can reverse this imbalance.

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