By Lorenzo Roberto Ramos, Summer 2012
Next time you see something beautiful, stop and ask yourself why you think that is. Beauty is something so vital to our experience as human beings, and yet, its imminent presence often makes us take it for granted: how many nice-looking things do you see a day? It can be a person, a car, a sleek, sparkling iPad. An array of processes go on in the perception of beauty, and in perception in general, but a look at various contributions made in the study of aesthetics affirms the central role perceptions play in the human experience. It will likewise offer some interesting ways to incorporate the principles into your practice as a therapist.
Some aesthetic principles go all the way back to the days of flint stones and brontosaurus burgers. Evolutionary aesthetics is a field that dedicates itself to exploring how it is that perception influences human preferences. A cursory glance at studies of attraction shows that human beings exhibit patterns in their sexual preferences, and capitalize on these patterns in order to make themselves more attractive. This could vary from the lewd exclamation that, "this gal's got some child-bearin' hips!" to the behaviors of a man who stuffs his leather chaps with tube socks before going to the disco for reasons unbeknownst to the author. What does a bountiful bust suggest to a man? And why does a woman swoon as she digs her fingers into his bicep? Why do we all know enough about these to categorize them as stereotypes? And perhaps most interestingly, what does this say about the experience of the whole spectrum of sexual orientation, and the ways in which attraction influences sexuality? Tables turn, paradigms crack and shine some light onto the unbridled capacity for human beings to express themselves in complete, fulfilling individuality. Yet the patterns have been noticed and written about extensively...there's much room for discussion in this growing field, considering the place that subjectivity now has in discussions of experiential psychology, and how these play into the biases placed on our bodies and minds by those around us.
Social psychologists might be quick to understand the effectiveness of applied aesthetics: it's the study of using art to increase understanding—or spreading mass deception through the available media. The sensory aspects of the news are obvious; you must perceive the information in order to understand it. The way in which it is understood, however, is vulnerable to the intentions of the one communicating the information. Information is often paired with an artistic stimulus in order to facilitate understanding of the concept's message. This is because the art needs much less cognitive processing than the information, and can be 'directly experienced' while the information must be intellectually processed. This gives art tremendous leverage when giving a context in which to present the information—information can be easily manipulated, enhanced, or tainted with its applied aesthetic context. An excellent example is the art behind Obama's triumphant campaign: it didn't matter if you even knew what party he was with, those stickers and posters took the nation by storm. Because they were so cool, you could wear them to school and, "Whoa! Look at Hsieng, he got the cammo-print one dude, so...earthy." Then there's always that little magical picture above the news anchor's shoulder that gives you an immediate context of what he's about to say: fire and smoke and terrorists?! Bad news! The same story looked so...different on Al-Jazeera. It must be the green and gold color-scheme.
The sensory overload that encapsulates information of all shapes and sizes can be used therapeutically, and reflects the very reason you bought that Zen fountain for your office last month:"it helped create the vibe, Dr. Breaux." Indeed, aesthetic cues contextualize information we perceive all day long, and the therapeutic experience can be shaped by it accordingly. Is your practicum site decorated as comfortably as your half of the therapeutic alliance, or does it look like the boring middle of a horror movie? This question could serve to be a deep wedge into the efficacy of your work: your environment may be inhibiting both your clients and your own abilities as a therapist. Good luck trying to tell your Director of Training that the interns' office is 'clinically contraindicative.'
First-years might not have understood the humor of that reference; it's a phrase you'll read 567 times while taking ethics. The class will hopefully teach you how central ethics are to every aspect of our practice, and the inquisitive will then wonder what this all means, and co-author an article on it. Aesthetic ethics suggest that beauty both guides behavior and reflects it. This makes one question what beauty is in the first place; it's something we all 'know' but sometimes can't define, again relating to the idea of beauty as experiential and not intellectual. This experiential advantage is the crux of third wave models in psychology, and this too is quite beautiful. Harmony in the overall experience of sensory perception seems to be the consensus for the definition of beauty, though Immanuel Kant argued that for something to be 'beautiful' it must evoke pleasure from the sensory experience, contextualized in the contemplation induced by the perception. If it does not have such a context, it's merely 'pleasing.' Thanks for the insight, Kant. Is beautiful, interpersonally harmonious behavior what we define as ethical? The general principles of the Ethics Code are indeed ideals of behavior within our social role; the individual standards serve as pliance-based rules established to enforce behavior that approximate a general principle's ideal. What if 'Mrs. General Principles' walked into the room, what would she look like? A loving mother, a Platonic abstraction of the Goddess Psyche, an intuitive Queen? A 27-year-old Caucasian female just out of grad school? Would she be beautiful, and if so, why? The very purpose of our every action in the role of psychologist is questioned in the meaning of what we take an ethic to be, and how we apply it to our field of work.
Beautiful behavior might be socioculturally honest, balanced, and fair(-skinned), harmonious on both sides of the dyad. Whether it's between you and a client, you and the ethics board, or your entire country and another, there's a hope that interpersonal behaviors might be harmonious, and thus bring peace. To treat all as you would yourself, this turns behavior into an expression of compassion, a beautiful deed. It might seem evident that the beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder—jolting through the vitreous humor onto the retina, where it takes a chiastic explosion into the multitudes of neurons that somehow give rise to something that could potentially cause our lacrimal glands to press the saline solute out themselves, and down onto our smiles. May we all work to help our clients remember Eli Siegel's aesthetic realism, proclaiming that all of life is an aesthetic masterpiece, and that even the prick of a thorn brings the rose's color out of you.