The Imprinted Brain

How genes set the balance between autism and psychosis

High and Low: A Visualization of Diametric Genius

A print by Escher combines diametrically opposite viewpoints in one image.

As I pointed out in a recent post, we now know that the diametric model of the mind is no longer simply that, but is a reality, independently revealed by brain imaging. As I showed, the new findings corroborate both the fundamental claims of the diametric model:

  • that we possess two parallel cognitive systems: one adapted to the real world of  objects (mechanistic cognition), and one to the mental world of other people and their minds (mentalistic cognition);
  • that the two systems are “anti-correlated” and vary inversely by way of mutual inhibition, producing a see-saw, either/or effect comparable to the way a Necker cube switches perspective (left).

Nevertheless, in one of my first posts, I suggested that there might be a partial exception to the second point: genius. I argued that this might be explained as a rare, unique, and extraordinary combination of insights from both mentalistic and mechanistic cognitive systems.

Interestingly in this respect, Anthony Jack, to whom we are indebted for the new corroborative neuroscientific findings, remarks that “More creative individuals also demonstrate less tension between the networks (…)—the only clearly desirable individual difference which appears to be associated with a lessening of the tension.” But Jack also notes that co-activation can also occur more normally:

Parts of these networks do co-activate both during spontaneous cognition and during certain tasks. How should we understand this phenomenon? I believe this occurs when the brain is supporting blended cognitive modes. ... these blended cognitive modes do borrow aspects from each of the two pure modes. One such mode is creative thinking, or insight problem solving, which involves a combination of logical thought and a more intuitive mode of thinking. We see co-activation of parts of both networks at the moment of insight.

Photo C. Badcock
They say one picture is worth a thousand words—about the ideal length for a post on Psychology Today’s blogsite—and you can certainly see the equivalent of co-activation of mentalistic and mechanistic perspectives in M. C. Escher’s outstanding graphic, High and Low. Let me explain.

What is so extraordinary about it is that, by contrast to the Necker cube, which you can see either one way or the other, the print combines two completely different viewpoints in one image. The lower half of the scene represents what an observer standing at the bottom of the picture would see; whereas the upper half is the same scene visualized from the point of view of someone looking down from the ceiling. The result is that things are seen twice over: once from each viewpoint.

The exception is the tiled floor at the bottom, which is seen three times: also as a ceiling at the top, but additionally as both ceiling and floor at once in the center, where it is the vanishing point for rising lines of perspective from the bottom (the zenith) and for falling ones from the top (the nadir). By bending the perspective and focusing the normally diametrically opposite vanishing points on the same, central spot, Escher achieves an image of true genius.

In an earlier post, I drew attention to the holistic, top-down character of mentalism by contrast to the reductive, bottom-up nature of mechanistic cognition, and in a more recent one identified mentalism as a psychological equivalent of cloud computing. If you interpret the top-down view in High and Low as a holistic, mentalistic one and the bottom-up view as a mechanistic one, Escher’s image brilliantly portrays the diametric model of genius as a creative fusion of both modes of cognition.

A focus of psychological interest in the composition that underlines the geometrical theme of reconciling diametrically opposite viewpoints is provided by the boy looking up from the stairs and by the girl looking down from the balcony. Given that males are averagely less mentalistic and more mechanistic and females the converse in cognitive configuration, the sex of these figures also fits the diametric model. But of course, any image portraying perspective implies, not only an onlooker to see it, but a unique viewpoint on to which lines of sight converge—in fact two sets of them in this case.

Exactly the same is true of diametrically opposite mental perspectives, such as mentalistic and mechanistic modes of cognition. A single, unified system of cognition for all purposes does not necessarily need a homuncular self to judge it, but conflicting, parallel perspectives clamor for a means of reconciliation—or at least, of discrimination—on the part of the self, as I also argued in the previous post. Indeed, you could see the boy and the girl as emblematic of an entire Cartesian theatre audience of the mind, populated by neurons recruited by male and female, paternal and maternal genes, just as the imprinted brain theory suggests.  

  

Christopher Robert Badcock, Ph.D., is author of The Imprinted Brain: how genes set the balance between autism and psychosis. 

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