More than a few of us report that our first inspiration to pick up a brush was Les Automatistes of Quebec or Kandinsky and Der Blaue Reiter. Fast, intuitive strokes invite access to a spontaneous and visceral creative experience — an appealing prompt. Others first fell under the spell of the carefully planned masterworks of Neoclassicism, the incremental chiseling of a hunk of marble or the specific strategy required by conceptual art that leaves the end fabrication to a team of minions. This slower system, set in stages with rules and requiring concentration, focus, observation and accuracy, may have felt the most natural. However, no matter the speed of your brush today, take comfort in knowing there’s room to wiggle between these two systems.
Studies show that “fast,” whether or not obvious in your work, is doing most of the heavy lifting. Let me explain. In his 2012 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, behavioural economist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman summarizes his life’s work on thought. Part of this focus is on “cognitive bias” — those unconscious irrationalities that colour and distort our view of the world, our life choices, tolerance for risk, optimism, wellbeing and happiness. By dividing thought into two systems — fast, intuitive and emotional or slow, measured and deliberate — Kahneman, through multiple decades of research, confirms that people are fundamentally irrational. Our “fast brain” — the one that can pick up on hostility or warmth or complete the sentence, “Bread and ______” — is pretty much running the show, except for when we’re doing our taxes and a few other things. As the cognitively biased, we do things like overestimate our ability to be objective, appreciate the familiar or let our environment make our decisions for us, all the while believing we’re rational and in control.
One of Kahneman’s biggest revelations is that we — all of us — are skewed by a pervasive optimism that’s been hard-wired into our species through adaptive evolution. Turns out, our brains are prone to laziness, and analyzing things is exhausting. According to his research, it’s easier for us to go with our mind’s dirty draft of reality in an attempt to direct our own destiny with this “truth,” rather than face life knowing we’re but a pawn of chance and cloudy judgment. Why do I bring this up? Not only is this optimism bias helping us get out of bed, I’m convinced it’s what creates artists.
And while we’ve been painting and thinking fast and ignoring doubt, a lackluster bank balance or cliff edge, Kahneman, through a multitude of experiments, has inched closer to understanding and defining happiness, or what he calls “the complexities of well-being.” He’s divided the self into two distinct modes: the first, an “experiencing self” who lives in the present, moment to moment. The second is a “remembering self,” a storyteller who constructs an illusion of reality through the filtered lens of remembered experience. She’s the one who keeps score, measures quality and satisfaction and maintains the story of her life — like the fast brain, she’s running the show. Because she’s remembering and not experiencing, she forms her opinions based on the most critical parts of the remembered experience — during changes or at the end. If a painting is going very poorly for a very long time, but a breakthrough occurs and the painting ends up a success, the remembering self will draft a story about a love of painting. In the case of Kahneman’s test subjects, it was a lengthy colonoscopy with marked spikes in pain followed by a mellow denoument that was ultimately remembered as not so bad. Are you still with me?
One last thing: When we’re engrossed in an activity (say, painting) experiencing what artists know as “flow,” brain scans have shown that not only do the parts of our brain associated with the experiencing self go merely quiet, they’re actually shut down, or “inhibited” by the rest of the brain. So much for “being in the moment.” And so, who is doing my painting? Will I remember myself doing it? Or will I merely compose a memory out of snippets of the highlights to consume later — the breakthroughs — and how it turned out in the end?
PS: “I have always believed that scientific research is another domain where a form of optimism is essential to success: I have yet to meet a successful scientist who lacks the ability to exaggerate the importance of what he or she is doing, and I believe that someone who lacks a delusional sense of significance will wilt in the face of repeated experiences of multiple small failures and rare successes, the fate of most researchers.” (Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow)
Esoterica: If you’re feeling uncomfortable about acquiescing to your “fast brain,” remember the “planning fallacy,” whereby we irrationals — all of us — are prone to overestimate benefits and underestimate costs, which allows us to foolishly take on risky projects like art. (Americans remodelling their kitchens underestimate the cost on average by $20,000, for example.) Optimists are more psychologically resilient, have stronger immune systems and live on average longer than their more based-in-reality counterparts. And optimism protects us from the paralyzing effects of another bias, “loss aversion”: our fear of losing more than we value as gains. “Odd as it may seem,” Kahneman writes, “I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.”
“Happiness is determined by factors like your health, your family relationships and friendships, and above all by feeling that you are in control of how you spend your time.” (Daniel Kahneman)