Samstag, 9. Juni 2018

Theme and Variation

Neal Roese, If Only:

"My daughter Emma loves stories. She especially loves the children’s storybook series called Angelina Ballerina, written by Katharine Holabird. I’d been reading the first book of the series to Emma, over and over, for quite some time. One day, I surprised Emma with a gift, another book from the same series. The new book has the same style of art, the same cover design, the same text font, and so immediately there was visual recognition. “It’s the same,” Emma squealed in delight. “But . . . it’s different!” The joy Emma experienced is the same joy many of us feel as a result of the most basic psychological mechanism by which art influences emotion. It’s the same but it’s different—it sounds oxymoronic at first, but we all know what Emma means, it makes perfect sense. It is the pleasure of recognition, of seeing an old friend, coupled simultaneously with the mild surprise of something wonderfully yet nonthreateningly new. The first Angelina Ballerina book that we’d read many times established a theme, and the new book in the series represented a variation on that original theme.

The counterpoint of “theme and variation” is the basis of much great art. And it is also one of the reasons why counterfactual stories can be so much fun. Reality is the theme. Counterfactual is the variation. From the juxtaposition of the two, a combination of the joy of recognition with surprise at something new, comes a variety of emotions and insights. Back in 1985, Douglas Hofstadter argued that “the crux of creativity resides in the ability to manufacture variations on a theme.” He went on further to link the way ordinary people easily and naturally think counterfactual thoughts to the effortless, creative, imaginative capacity locked within every human brain. In a sense then, artists who use variations on a theme as the basis of art are mimicking the natural way the human brain sees the world. Brains comprehend reality by generating benchmarks built of past experience. Often these benchmarks match what the brain sees (here is a tree, and it reminds me of similar trees I’ve seen in the past). But when the brain sees something surprising, the experience of surprise itself comes from the mental benchmarks that pop to mind and reveal how things could have been. Our brains are continuously producing creative variations (i.e., counterfactual elaborations of alternatives to current experiences) as we experience the flow of events in our lives."

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