Yo-Yo Ma, Grammy Award-Winning Cellist
Behind The Cello
Yo-Yo Ma reflects on the role of arts, creativity and the edges of life. His comments are adapted from a conversation with WorldPost.
In our highly interdependent global civilization, a lot of things are not working.
When I travel around the country and the world to perform, I pick up in my many conversations a growing sense that the first Enlightenment -- which posited the rule of reason over emotion and feelings -- is getting a little creaky, confining and even counterproductive.
The neurobiologist Antonio Damasio has written about Descartes' error that, to put it in shorthand, "I think therefore I am." Damasio instead makes the compelling argument, empirically based in neurology, that feeling and emotions as expressed in art and music play a central role in high-level cognitive reasoning.
Advances in neurobiology now make it clear that we humans have dual neural pathways, one for critical thinking and one for empathetic thinking. Only one pathway can be activated at a time, so when one is on, the other is off. Yet we are also aware that wise and balanced judgment results from integrating the critical and empathetic, taking emotions as well as reason into account. While this can't be done it tandem, it does occur, we now know, through a loop-back process of layers of feedback.
These discoveries suggest that a new way of thinking is possible, a new consciousness -- perhaps a new Enlightenment -- that brings the arts and science back together.
This new consciousness by which we purposely seek to bolster the integrative feed-back loops of our dual neural pathways could provide a new energy for creativity in our weary civilization.
This integrative awareness is especially important today as our science-driven, technologically advanced world is breaking down into ever more compartments, specializations and disciplines -- even as the interdependence of globalization is creating more links with other cultures through which empathetic understanding is vital.
To be able to put oneself in another's shoes without prejudgment is an essential skill. Empathy comes when you understand something deeply through arts and literature and can thus make unexpected connections. These parallels bring you closer to things that would otherwise seem far away. Empathy is the ultimate quality that acknowledges our identity as members of one human family.
Visionaries like Elon Musk have spoken of the Internet and the planetary reach of the media as a "global thinking circuit." We need to be sure that this connecting circuit is about communication and not just information by fostering both empathetic and critical thinking.
Canopy Arts Desk
Tammy Hampel (Isaacson)
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