What Are Our Conscious Limitations?

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Feb 22, 2016
by Louise Hallman
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What Are Our Conscious Limitations?

Art as a Catalyst for Sustainability session consider the neuroscience behind changing mindset  Pireeni Sundaralingam asks Fellows: "What are our conscious limitations?"

If we aim to change mindsets and shift behavior with our art, we need to understand how the brain works, argued one Fellow at the Salzburg Global program Beyond Green: The Arts as a Catalyst for Sustainability

For non-neuroscientists, much of our understanding how we think and how our brains work is based on four assumptions. We assume:

  • We’re rational and logical;
  • We notice things when they’re put right in front of us;
  • Our memory allows us to accurately store and recall information;
  • We all grasp the ideas of time, the past, present and future. 

Through a series of short exercises in Parker Hall, the Fellows were made to realise these assumptions were in fact false: “The human mind is particularly prone to cognitive illusions.” 

We often do not apply logic, such as laws of probability, to our decision making. We fail to make very basic observations when our attention is trained elsewhere; our brains can become trained to filter out what it assumes not to be important. Our memory doesn’t function how we assume – we don’t remember our past, we often reconstruct it in response to stimuli in our present. 

One of the most important fallacies for those seeking to tackle inertia surrounding climate change is that we assume we can achieve more in a given time in the future than we can in the immediate present. People frequently overestimate how much work they can achieve in a week in the future than they can in the week currently facing them.

By recognizing these false assumptions, we can start to recognize why such tactics as repeat messaging, appeals to logic, arguments based on time, and emotional appeals have been unsuccessful. One method that can prove useful to change mindsets and shift behaviors is by creating analogies to process new data – and this is where art can play a powerful role. 

Besides understanding our neurobiology, we also need to expand our understanding of “sustainability” and “understand what sustainability is in our own contexts.” 

Panelists also urged Fellows to seek to build trust. “Trust is not about feeling safe... It is the relation I build to you and sharing my lack of safety with you.”


The Salzburg Global session Beyond Green: The Arts as a Catalyst for Sustainability is part of Salzburg Global’s long-running Culture and the Arts series. The session is supported by the Edward T. Cone Foundation, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, the Bush Foundation and Red Bull Amaphiko. More information on the session can be found here: www.salzburgglobal.org/go/561. You can follow all the discussions on Twitter by following the hashtag #SGSculture.