The other day I got into a Brain Measuring Machine and was asked to do nothing in particular. “You’re older,” said the technician, “so you may have trouble turning off. Younger people seem to be able to switch around at will. They tend to be not quite as rigid as seniors. So don’t worry. Just try to relax.” This suggestion gave me a bad attitude about the University. I thought about withdrawing my financial support.
After a few minutes of doing nothing in particular, with nothing to read, not even a brain chart on the wall, even an old phrenological one, I found myself mellowing out. I indulged my regular visions of loosening up and working fresher and more like Nicolai Fechin. Then a few nude oils of Anders Zorn tiptoed through and I wondered if my handler was party to them on her monitor.
My attachments began to itch. I’d been warned that to scratch might prejudice my readouts, so I kept my hands away from my noggin. I became extremely uneasy. It was like some years ago when, as part of an encounter group, I was asked to stare at myself in a mirror, without blinking, for half an hour. On that occasion I watched myself grow horns and become James Cagney. But now I began to see myself as a particularly vacuous and empty-headed know-nothing. Who was I to claim to be an artist?
Out of the corner of my eye I could see my inquisitor, now distinctly Tomas de Torquemada, bent over and taking notes in red ink with a large feather quill.
Finally, like a Model A Ford going down a hill in second gear, I heard the computer digesting and putting out its various reports. “Well,” she said, unplugging me and pulling on a long graph like an EEG printout, “Very active, surprisingly active really. You processed a lot of emotional info through your amygdala and your caudate nucleus comes off as pretty busy too.” She paused to study the multiple lines that I took to be my medial prefrontal cortex. “A little idling there, but all over the place, like you do something very busy and finicky like quantum physics. Are you from the Physics Department?” I knew she was fishing. I don’t think she was supposed to know what I did for a living. “What do you do?” she asked, as I was putting on my shoes. “I’m a painter,” I said. “House?” she asked. “Picture,” I said. “Okay,” she said, “but what do you actually do?”
PS: “Older adults have trouble turning off the stuff that goes on in their heads.” (Cheryl Grady, Baycrest-Rotman Research Institute, Toronto, Ontario)
Esoterica: Recent brain research shows creative folks of all ages have active circuits, particularly in the default mode networks. This is the dreaming, wondering, wandering, idling fanciful department. It seems that artistic types can actually “live in” a world of their own creation, perhaps preferring it to the real world, their work being an extension of it. The Model A Ford, the Inquisition, and even Nicolai Fechin may exist as contrived players in an internally-agreed consciousness.
The speeding processor
by Tobi Ann Baumgartner, Lorette, MB, Canada
I’ve always been told I think too much. As a child I needed to teach myself how to turn my brain off to relax. It wasn’t easy. Nowadays, (I’m in my 30’s) I’ve accepted that the quiet, calm of my body helps the speeding processor in my brain sort things out, process the stimulants of the day, and just work harder to achieve organization. For me, that is relaxation.
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In the moment
by Darrell Baschak, Manitou Beach, SK, Canada
“Idle Mind” naturally gets into a very broad topic that begs the question of what is reality. Personally I believe, and I am certain many others do as well, that it changes constantly, and any effort to control it is contrary to nature itself. Maybe that is why when as artists we have the painting “paint itself” the piece is much more satisfying and true to the nature of the moment. Pieces that are contrived and worrisome are a lie and leave you and the viewer unsatisfied and bothered, as if there is something missing. We as artists certainly create our own world and the closer we come to creating while being present in the moment the more truthful the piece will be.
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55 and better
by Carmen Gardner, Haiku, HI, USA
I teach beginning, intermediate and advanced watercolor for our senior center here on Maui. Kaunoa gives preference to folks “55 and better.” Right now, I have 42 students who meet the requisite “age requirement.” I just wanted to chime in and add my wholehearted “Yes!” to your musings on seniors and the activity in our amygdala and our caudate nuclei. Apparently art and creativity in general have been shown to benefit seniors on many levels. It is thought that they are healthier, happier, “sharper” folk when creative juices are flowing. I am only one of several professional artists who are teaching at Kaunoa and we, too, seem to benefit from exercising our gray matter.
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by Nina Allen Freeman, Tallahassee, FL, USA
I have this on-going conversation with some of my friends about why artists age so well. They stay active longer, they are involved with arts organizations and although have health problems you never hear about them. We believe it is because their minds are constantly active, thinking about the next painting, trying to solve the problems of the current painting and wondering what would happen if they tried something new. My oldest friend who falls in this category will soon be 93.
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Right brain or left brain?
by Dayle Ann Stratton, Brandon, VT, USA
I wonder what the results would be were I to be in that position. My tendency when I have procedures that require me to sit (or lay) quietly, is to go into meditation. I am fully aware, but my mind chatter quiets. In a way, it is the same state I am in while painting. On the other hand, I do have a fairly odd and whimsical way of interpreting the world as I interact with it (something that baffles some people and irritates others). Or maybe that’s not another hand kind of thing. People who think the two halves of the brain have exclusive domain over specific things are mistaken: the two halves are constantly communicating, collaborating, and coordinating on a lot of tasks; lots of room for creativity in the process if we allow it. Then comes the part of trying to communicate it in some way to others — or not. Sometimes it’s just fun to be who I am.
by Anne Sete, Petaluma, CA, USA
I’m one of those painters who wakes up at about 3 in the morning, awake enough to have my mind working, though not awake enough to want to get up and do something. So I have taken up painting in my mind from 3 am until I fall asleep later on, probably around 4:30 am or so.
I try all kinds of things! If I am problem solving with a current painting, I move things around, try different colors, different shapes and symbols. It is so much fun! I have noticed that my dreams are becoming richer, with more colors and texture. I have a whole universe inside my head; created, maintained, and enjoyed!
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Totally out of touch
by Judy Reinsma, Saugus, CA, USA
What an interesting observation, one thing to ponder. Will today’s plugged in, turned on, tuned out generation have anything in their minds to ponder in their later years? How do you have an active memory bank of tweets, twitters, blogs and “YouTube” snippets? A life-time of observing, reading about and experiencing real life has provided me with inspiration for painting as well as writing in my later years (70). Time will tell, but it appears to me that many of our brightest young people are totally out of touch with real life.
by Collette Fergus, Waikato, New Zealand
What a fabulous story, isn’t it amazing how many people think that being an artist isn’t a real job! Shame that notion is still around! Your story points out to me that the perception we are not too smart as well is still strong. Just goes to show that we do have active minds and most of us are well aware of it.
When I talk to other artists we understand what each other means when we talk of such things like the vivid colours of something or the concept of how we process what we see, often creating other things with our vivid imaginations from something others who are not artistic would simply miss!
We have a particular stretch of barren road in New Zealand called the Desert Road that is dull and boring to most people, it is full of tussocks and rolling hills and the journey through it is laborious for them. I see so much more myself, like the layers of coloured rock in oh-so-interesting formations; the shades of colour in the hills and tussocks that make up the overall beige they see and of course the contrasts with all that is around it. I teach this to whoever is travelling with me and have hopefully opened up their eyes to all the beauty around them.
We may not be able to always express in words what we think but us artists know we can visualize it much better than others could ever comprehend, and the satisfaction of being able to transfer it to canvas is immense!
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Trouble turning off
by Solette N. Gelberg, King City, ON, Canada
I started painting with lessons in Mrs. Bates’ basement when I was eleven years old and was “hooked.” I have been involved in some type of creative activity every since. She not only taught us to draw with pencils, charcoal and chalk; but showed us how to use water colour, oil paints and how to take good care of our tools. She also set aside a part of each two hour lesson to “impose” art history on us.
I hardly paint anymore but once in a while I do pencil drawing (mostly when I am on vacation), I draw my own canvases for needle pointing with wool or silk threads, I do my own gardening and arrange my own flowers when they are available. My main “tool” right now is my camera and I have learned to delete, delete, and delete, saving only the very best of the lot.
As for “brain measuring,” it’s nice to know that those of us who are older (I’m 69) have trouble turning off; at least our brains are always working. We could probably have saved her a lot of effort and research dollars if she had just spent some time conversing with us instead. It makes me wonder what purpose there is in all this research done mainly at or through universities with the hard-earned dollars that the rest of us continue to contribute. May be time for a serious rethink about what we do with our donations and how to redirect all those academic types to more useful endeavors.
oil painting by Aleksa Dskjhk
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Nader Khaghani of Sunnyvale, CA, USA, who wrote, “Nicolai Fechin! A great painter. Thank you for turning me on to him, but I don’t like the label impressionist. He is a good American painter period, but I guess we got to classify everything. And don’t worry about idle or over-active brain. We painters are all brain dead anyway.”
Enjoy the past comments below for My idle mind…