The first book I read this year about prehistoric art is by David Lewis-Williams and has the title: "The Mind in the Cave". I very much appreciated the overview of scientific approaches he did present, and how he developed his own view. He is a very good scientist in how he build his arguments, criticise other argumentations and doesn't hesitate to keep questioning the premisses of his thinking.
He combines the neuroscience of different states of consciousness with anthropological research in different actual hunter gatherer societies.
He looks from this background to the cave art as originating from a community with shamans, like most actual hunter gatherer tribes. The painted caves function as places of ritual and initiation where the connection is made with the spirit world. The walls of the caves are a membrane between the spirit world and the material world. The paintings are made in trance states or after trance states, depicting the memory of what was experienced during those states. Looking at the paintings and engravings as well as touching them could help to connect with the spirit world. It is likely that also sound and music has been used. All senses are included in the experience.
Some of the paintings are made by a group of people. Others are made by one person. Some caves or part of the caves where used for individual experiences and others for a community. The spiritual is always connected with a social significance.
I like the connection between the social and the spiritual. It is important in my life. Often I did feel too much a kind of isolation with experiences that are not easy to express and easily misunderstood.
Another interesting thought was the theory on the base of neuroscientific research that the homo sapience did differ from other humanoids like the Neaderthalers in their capacity to form mental images, use those images to think and to project them in a time frame. This would be a prerequisite for the existence of religion and more complex forms of social organisation. According to him the Neaderthalers lived in an eternal presence, where there is learning from experience but no inner images, no rituals and no religion and no notion of an individual separated from others.
I am not completely convinced that this is true. But what excites me is how the concept of reality determines experience. And a key ingredients of a reality concept is connected with the experience of time.
In my experience of working with people with a psychosis experiencing hallucinations. Their time experience is often absent. Also in mystic experiences the time perception alters. Time travelling is possible in trance states.
And the definition of reality is not, never a fixed thing. It is constructed within a group of people or beings.
And the notion of person-hood the conscious experience of being an individual separate from other individuals is influenced by socio-cultural conditions as well. Very fundamental concepts who are not as fixed as we usually assume.
In psychoanalytic thinking the concept of mentalisation has become very popular in the 15 years. It is exactly that capacity to form images and develop a narration about what has happened or is happening which is regarded as essential for mental health. Severely traumatised people are not capable of doing that, neither are people with a form of autism.
In spiritual teachings it is often the liberation of the continuous chatting of the mind and her stories that is aimed for. The return to the experience of an eternal now where everything is connected is highly valued. Behavioural therapy has incorporated this thinking in their concept of mindfulness.
Critics of spirituality compare the samadhi states of enlightenment with forms of psychosis. You might say that it is a going back to the Neanderthal mind, with these neuroscientific views on the prehistory. But all these viewpoints are socially constructed, a group of people agreed on a specific interpretation of experiences and perceptions of reality. How you experience reality depends on the groups you belong to, even when you are an outsider like an enlightened guru, a witch, a shaman or a psychiatric patient. Also who is outside and why s determined by the group. It is probably quite difficult to think outside of that reality construct of the group you belong to. But it is all the more interesting to know that it is not that fixed.
This remembers me of the book of Randall White: "Prehistoric Art; the symbolic journey of humankind". He describes the cultural differences in visual perception and in the observation of the time-space continuum with the example of the Inuit who are capable of observing differences in a white snow-landscape that other people do not perceive. Also they have a difficulty in recognising two dimensional images in their memory everything is stored in three dimensions. They also have no words for art, artists or to create or make something, in their language. Making an object is described as working, being in dialogue with a living material, inhabited by spirits. Imposing your will on matter or expressing yourself does not exist in their experience.
In another source which I do not exactly remember I read how the Himba living in the Kalahari desert can perceive shades of green which are for other people impossible to discriminate.
This is another example to illustrate how relative are mode of perception and as a consequence our perception of reality is. Very likely our prehistoric ancestors who made those fabulous cave paintings also had different ways of perceiving and a different way of constructing reality. As they lived in the ice age it is not unlikely that it was a bit similar to the Inuit world-view but nobody can tell for sure.
As an artist all these considerations open up new possibilities to play with the concept of reality.
To be continued...
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