Friday, January 9, 2015

The Photographer of Modern Life—Part II

In The Photographer of Modern Life we discussed the flâneur approach to photography. Now we turn to dissecting the approach and looking at why it works, using a story by one of Baudelaire's favorite authors: Edgar Allan Poe.

Edgar Allan Poe's The Man of the Crowd is many things: a mystery, a commentary on the social values of the day, and a look into the motivations of people. But the story couldn't have been written but for Poe's approach to observing people as a flâneur. That's the focus of our approach to interpreting the story.

Rather than looking at the story through a literary lens, we take a humanist, psychological approach to discern lessons from Poe's methodology which we can put into practice to improve our observations and our photography. Specifically, we will address the mental processes activated by behavior.

But first, a bit of biology and some terms to make things clear.


Autonomic nervous systems


The human body has a multitude of elaborate systems to enable not only the life of the organism, but more importantly to enable a life of automation. Our musculoskeletal system, combined with the central, peripheral, and autonomic nervous systems allow us to navigate rocky terrain without thinking about each step. Our heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, and cellular energy levels are all handled on the fly without our conscious knowledge, enabling us to stand up after laying down and not pass out. From moment to moment, with each changing activity, the most primitive parts of the brain (medulla, pons, hypothalamus) balance the body's systems to enable a life rich in thinking, feeling, joy, and activity.

That we are so often unaware of the activity of these systems, however, does not diminish either their importance or their effect. While our bodily systems support our conscious life, the various bodily states also have effects on our thinking. To assert control over our creative thoughts, we must attune ourselves to those systems which have the greatest influence. For our purposes, we will look to the autonomic nervous system.

The autonomic nervous system is divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic, which govern the systems responsible for our mood,  energy, and action. These systems may be briefly summarized thusly:

Sympathetic Nervous System


The name tells you a lot: "sym," meaning "with" and "pathos," meaning "feeling." Accordingly, the sympathetic nervous system involves feelings that when expressed involve outward action toward or away from something (e.g. excitement, anger, fear, desire). Sympathetic physiology increases our energy and readies the body for action—it is about the need to do, express, or act externally (fight or flee).

Parasympathetic Nervous System


Parasympathetic action involves the movement of energy inwards (rest and digestion): a decrease in muscular tension, the direction of energy towards introspection (e.g. contentment, peacefulness, satisfaction, or grief, disappointment, sadness).

Biologically, sympathetic activity is catabolic: it breaks down substances in the body to produce energy for activity. Parasympathetic activity is anabolic: it builds up and is restorative.

Some examples may help:

Sympathetic Parasympathetic
Speed Slowness
Tension Relaxation
Convergent thinking Divergent thinking
Focus Scope
Goal oriented Process oriented
Direction Elaboration


Brain States


Our brain activity changes depending upon our autonomic state. Relevant here, certain areas of our brains are more or less active depending upon whether we are in a sympathetic or parasympathetic state, and the amount of brain activity changes as well.

Brain activity often is measured in terms of the frequency of brain waves.** Brain wave activity is classified, from lowest frequency to highest frequency, as:

Delta dreamless sleep, deepest meditation
Theta deep meditation, dreaming, vivid imagery
Alpha quietly flowing thoughts, but not quite meditation, a resting state
Beta normal daily mental activity, alert, attentive, engaged
Gamma simultaneous processing of information from different brain areas

Generally, mental activity is paired with physical states. Accordingly, it is when we are laying down and resting that brain activity drifts into the lower frequencies and eventually leads to sleep. The more active beta waves are generally dominant when we are mentally engaged in upright, standing positions, or in motion. In daily activity we modulate between periods of focused activity (beta) and rest (alpha) as we move in our environment.

Next, we will apply these concepts to Poe's excellent story.

**Importantly, these brain wave activities are symptomatic of mental activity which has already taken place.

[Don't forget: our Street Psych courses are based on these concepts!]