Artistic portrayals of the mind and conscious experience

In summary: I guess I'm looking for artistic portrayals that effectively communicate a sense of what it is like to experience a certain set of perceptions, thoughts, or other mental events, as experienced from the first person. I think that can be conveyed in a variety of ways, depending on the medium. Obviously music is a great way to do it, but I also think films and animation do a pretty good job.
  • #1


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What movies, animations, paintings, novels, poems, songs, etc. have you come across that transport you 'inside' someone's head? That is, what artistic portrayals have you seen or heard that effectively communicate a sense of what it is like to experience a certain set of perceptions, thoughts, or other mental events, as experienced from the first person?

(I include music in the interest of keeping things open, although it's perhaps almost trivially true that all halfway decent music evokes some sort of emotion or another. My personal interest in this topic most strongly revolves around film and animation, perhaps because the integration of dynamic visual and auditory information does the best job of current forms of artwork of simulating consciousness as we actually experience it.)

A couple of excellent movie examples that initially spring to mind are "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "Natural Born Killers."

"Fear and Loathing" is a film depiction of a book by the same name written by Hunter S. Thompson and features some interesting film effects to convey Thompson's experience while under the influence of various drugs. For instance, in an early sequence Thompson takes LSD and the viewer sees eery clips of gross visual distortions and hallucinations.

"Natural Born Killers" is a film about a couple of insane mass murderers, and the cinematography is drenched with surreal and disturbing images, distortions, filming techniques and so on, often seemlessly overlapping with what just a moment before seemed like standard, objective storytelling. The ultimate effect is that the viewer feels as if he is inside the unsound minds of the main characters, seeing the world at times through their eyes so that the distinction between the objective and the subjective sporadically blurs or falls apart. While "Fear and Loathing" aims to convey more of an immediate sense of what it is like to experience certain states of consciousness, "Natural Born Killers" uses its imagery and filming techniques in such a way as to convey more of an abstract and pervasive psychological outlook on both the world and the mind.
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  • #2
Apocalypse Now definitely does it. My all-time favorite film. Pi is a pretty good mind-bender, too. I'm sure everyone has seen these films, so I won't bother describing them. Describing a film to someone who hasn't seen it is like using hand signals to describe a book, anyway.

A pretty good novel along these lines is House of Leaves. The structure of the narrative is very uniquely concocted, placing the reader in a world that isn't real, but isn't wholly fictional either.
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hypnagogue said:
What movies, animations, paintings, novels, poems, songs, etc. have you come across that transport you 'inside' someone's head? That is, what artistic portrayals have you seen or heard that effectively communicate a sense of what it is like to experience a certain set of perceptions, thoughts, or other mental events, as experienced from the first person?
I think all movies do this. Good movies do it well, and bad movies do it poorly.

The "first person" whose head you are let into is often not apparent, though, because it is often not one of the characters, rather it is the film maker. Every movie is made from a point of view, and is usually saturated with that POV. When we don't realize it, it is because we're so unquestioningly caught up in it. When we object to a film, it usually means we don't like the film's inherent POV.

Hitchcock films are saturated with the Hitchcock POV, as those of Stanley Kubrick are saturated with Kubrick's, and Woody Allen's with his, for that matter. Spielberg, N. Night Shamaylan, David Cronenberg, Tarantino, and Ron Howard, are the same, just to name some that come to mind at the moment.

Films that seem superficial, of the least interest, are those which fail to establish a compelling POV for the viewer. We need never, strangely enough, get very far into the head of any given character in a film, for the film maker's point of view to still overwhelm us. Usually all that's needed is a certain amount of sympathy for a character, not any special insight into his mental workings.

The film experience is always a kind of third person observation without participation, a kind of sanctioned voyeurism, and a good film always puts us into the head of that voyeur who decided to tell the story, to make the film. A movie is about the mind of the film maker. That being so, any movie we enjoy has succeeded in getting us into someone's head.
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Good point zoobie, along the same lines about the remark I made about music. (And of course similar observations hold for paintings, novels, etc.) I have to think more about how to articulate what I'm looking for, but here's a first (second) pass. I suppose what I'm looking for is how art can establish not only a point of view, but a point of view that makes itself explicit or otherwise uniquely compelling as a point of view, i.e. offers insights into conscious experience or psychology in a very direct way.

Perhaps what I mean to say is that such an artwork would not let us slip unaware into a certain point of view, but make us explicitly feel as if we are seeing things from a new point of view, or from the point of view of a specific character or storyteller. That is, it should make us feel as if we are seeing through someone else's eyes as a first person observer, rather than as a third person observer whose point of view just happens to have been selected by the artist.
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In that case the "artwork" that comes most quickly to mind is a book, not a film, that Math Is Hard recently brought to my attention called the curious incident of the dog in the night-time by Mark Haddon.

This is a book written from the first person standpoint of a high functioning autistic teenager who is prompted to write a "murder mystery" after someone deliberately kills his neighbor's dog. It is not a novel, but a journal of his attempts to find out who did it.

Highly adept at math and science, he wants to solve the mystery with a kind of Holmsian abstract logic, but is continually confronted with the fact that he can't understand how other people think or feel, and must continuously try to develope strategies for getting around this in his attempt to solve the case.

The author, whom it mentions in the brief bio, has worked with autistic people, does a really persuasive job of putting the reader into the mind of this boy. We end up appreciating, or at least thinking we appreciate, his trains of thought, and how the world and other people look to him.

His whole life has been about realizing that he is completely surrounded by people whose experience of the world is nothing like his own, and he is very articulate about what he concieves the differences to be.
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Thanks, that sounds fascinating. I'll have to check it out.
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I'm not sure if it quite fits with what you are looking for but I really enjoyed The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. They are supposed to be letters written between two demons. One is trying to corrupt a mortal and the other is his mentor who is a higher level demon and is giving him advice on how to proceed. It devles quite deeply into psychology, the way people convince themselves that they are doing good when they are not, the effects of religion and going to church, the way people interact. This is all written from the point of view of these demons who think of humans as silly pathetic creatures incurably flawed, or nearly incurable anyway. The writing and reasoning is quite persuasive.

The Schrödingers Cat Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson again isn't quite what you're looking for I don't think but is written in such a way as to challenge the readers perceptions. In one or more chapters he completely stops using vulger words and replaces them all with other words that you can mostly only tell their meaning by context. I think at some point he starts writing in E-Prime too. Through out the book he does these things among others which he likes to refer to as Guerrilla Ontology.
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I'm sure I'll eventually think of something more in line with what you're after. But for now, this was the first image that came to mind when I read your OP. There's something about it that makes me feel almost like I'm looking in the mirror and trying to figure out what I'm looking at. It's like I think I will see something in his eyes that will show me something about myself, as if I were looking into my own eyes. Knowing that it's a self-portrait adds to this. [Broken]

There's another image of the painting, but it's lighter and doesn't have the same effect: [Broken]

BTW, those are large images. If they show up small, just click on them or whatever to enlarge them.
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  • #9
There's an interesting drawing that I think fits my criteria, but I can't recall the title or artist or otherwise come up with any search terms to find it on Google. I believe it was drawn by a psychologist, and it's a simple pencil drawing of what the room around the artist looks like from his first person viewpoint (I think with one eye closed). It's unique in that it makes explicit various distortions and bounaries in the visual field that we normally overlook or ignore. For instance, the artist's body and limbs are distorted or exaggerated in size relative to their distance from his eyes, and the drawing fades into blankness around the brow and nose, making for a sort of half-circular boundary. The effect is that you feel you are peering into the room from right behind the artist's eyeball.
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  • #10
The 1972 film Images is a good one. It tracks a character who is apparently schizophrenic. In a way, the viewer sees the action unfolding through the eyes of the main character-- at times, the plot is confusing in such a way that it is difficult to disentangle fantasy from reality. Narration and music are also used somewhat subtly and effectively to put the viewer in the 'schizophrenic' mood.

Here's a plot summary from IMDB:

A man and his wife visit their weekend cottage located in a scenic but isolated corner of the countrytside. The man is in good spirits but has his mind on other things. He doesn't pay much attention to his wife's concerns. She's experiencing a mental deterioration in which she "sees" a former lover who was killed years ago in a plane crash. A family friend now drops by to visit with his 12 year old daughter. The wife isn't always sure whether these visitors are real or imaginary. Her deterioration continues, leading to tragic results.
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You should really take a look at House of Leaves. For an example of a literary classic that does what you're talking about, try reading anything by Faulkner. The streams of consciousness and narrative shifts he employs really place you inside the heads of some strange and confused people, leaving you feeling about as disoriented as they do. The Sound and the Fury, especially, is a masterful example of this technique. It is particularly interesting in that doesn't even have narration in the strictest sense; that is, it doesn't really tell a story so much as it places you within the stream of experience of several characters who are involved in it.
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My favorite movie, Memento did a stupendous job of this. It follows a man unraveling the rape-murder mystery of his wife while simutaneously dealing with anterograde memory loss (no new memories) dealt him by the same assailant. IT IS INCREDIBLE. The entire movie is split into fragments the size of his attention span - whenever he gets distracted, he's back at square one - and placed into a very meaningful order that is not immediately apparent, but once realized is overwhelmingly effective. This order and the subtle differences in the directing of the narrative streams the movie is divided into are probably the most relevant to this thread, but I'd dampen the impact of this movie if I went into further detail. But it is the fragmented and - seemingly - disordered scenes that immerse you in his perspective, engaging you in a furious, and often futile, search for the details as if you were similarly impaired.

Apart from addressing the logistical challenges, the movie also does justice to the emotional trials of the protagonist's predicament, and, powerfully, their consequences.

See it if you haven't, feedback if you have =).

... oh, and Fahrenheit 451. Some of the torrents of consciousness that Bradbury falls into that book can leave you with difficulties returning to the mundane world upon closing it. Fight Club also did a pretty excellent job in my opinion. That movie prevented any sort of objective reality from being assembled by inference by the viewer. You don't even know the protagonist's real name. Which reminds me that all of Chuck Palahnuik's (sp, the author of fight club) books manage to supplant your own stream with that of the protagonist, mostly through hypnotic, almost lyrical repetition and extensive 2nd person (read Survivor).

Lastly, zoobyshoe's suggestion (Incident of the dog in the night-time) was what first came to mind when I discovered this thread, but alas...
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  • #13
Jane Mackay is a synesthete who experiences visual qualia when listening to sounds. She's also an artist, and she attempts to capture and share her synesthetic experiences by painting what she 'sees' when she hears music. As she describes it:

The name Sounding Art describes the type of art I specialise in: that of recording the images I see in my mind's eye when hearing musical sounds. The name also suggests the element of 'taking soundings' in relatively unexplored artistic territory.

Most of my art focuses on images evoked by listening to classical music. I capture these pictures like butterflies in a net which are subsequently released in my paintings and prints to produce unique and personal works charged with creative energy.

On that website one can view some of her artwork. For each piece, she even lists the particular song that evokes that particular visual image for her.

Other paintings by Mackay not found on her website can be found on the internet using a google search.
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1. How accurately can art portray the complexities of the mind and consciousness?

Artistic portrayals of the mind and consciousness can capture certain aspects and emotions, but it is not a perfect representation. The mind and consciousness are highly individual and constantly changing, making it difficult to capture in a single image or artwork. Additionally, art is subjective and can be interpreted differently by each viewer, so it may not accurately convey the same message to everyone.

2. Can art be used as a form of therapy for mental health?

Yes, art therapy is a recognized form of therapy for mental health. The act of creating art can be therapeutic and can help individuals express their thoughts, emotions, and experiences in a non-verbal way. Additionally, viewing or interpreting art can also be a form of self-reflection and can promote emotional healing.

3. Are there any limitations to using art to portray the mind and consciousness?

While art can be a powerful tool for representing the mind and consciousness, it is limited by the artist's perspective and understanding. It is also limited by the medium and techniques used, as some aspects of the mind and consciousness may be difficult to convey through traditional art forms.

4. How can art help us understand the mind and consciousness?

Art can provide a visual representation of complex concepts and emotions related to the mind and consciousness. It can also serve as a form of communication and can help individuals express and share their experiences with others. Additionally, viewing and interpreting art can offer new perspectives and insights into the mind and consciousness.

5. Is there a difference between how different types of art portray the mind and consciousness?

Yes, different types of art can convey the mind and consciousness in unique ways. For example, abstract art may use shapes and colors to represent the complexities of the mind, while figurative art may use human forms and expressions to convey emotions and thoughts. Additionally, the medium and techniques used can also impact how the mind and consciousness are portrayed in art.

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