Message from the Dean – December 10, 2018

First some good news:

CFAD has several faculty and staff members as well as current and former students nominated for the 2018 Broadway World Oklahoma Awards. Faculty and staff members include Greg White for Best Actor in a Musical, Barbara DeMaio for Best Actress in a Musical, Amy Reynolds-Reed, Hui Cha Poos and Steven Smeltzer for Best Choreography, Sandra Thompson for Best Music Director, Alyssa Couturier for Best Costume Designer and Molly Johnson for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical. Students and alumni nominated include Sonnet Lamb for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical, Stephanie Keegan-Moring for Best Musical Director and Michael Andreaus for Best Actor in a Musical. The awards are reader nominated and reader selected. Voting is open now at Voting continues through December 31 and winners will be announced in January.

Now a story:

Back in the early 1970’s, any respectable back-to-school-supplies list included a 64-color set of Crayola Crayons. Most of my fellow elementary schoolmates ripped the wrapping off these sticks of pigmented wax almost immediately. Not me. Intellectually, I knew that tree bark was brown, grass was green and the sky was blue, but when I observed a wrapper-less Crayon, Jade Green and Mahogany were indistinguishable, as were Apricot and Almond, and Glowing Green and Corn Silk. In practice, I could differentiate perhaps 24 of those 64 Crayon colors without the labels. My first-grade teacher, Miss Galbraith confirmed my protanopia colorblind diagnosis using flashcards of “invisible” numbers hidden in bubbles of color. I experience the chromatic world differently than people with typical vision. I cannot explain how the world looks to me, because I am unable to see how it looks to you by comparison.

Last Thursday, I attended a poster presentation by Olivia Reyes, a senior Global Arts and Visual Culture major. Her thesis explored variations in the visual design for posters advertising the same American films in different countries. Specifically, Ms. Reyes focused her study on how the cultural and visual traditions of Cuba and Poland affected the design of posters for Rage and The Godfather. Her careful examination of the way culture and politics transformed the advertising for these films was fascinating. Ms. Reyes’ keen observations reminded me that our individual experiences “color” our perceptions of people and events. Poster artists, like propagandists and politicians use our reticular activating system to influence our behavior. They know what we wish to see, and they provide it for us.

As humans, one of the core functions of our brain is the reticular activating system or RAS. Your RAS determines what you focus on, and creates a filter for it. It then constantly sifts through sensory data and presents only the bits it deems important to you. All of this happens without conscious effort on your part. In the same way, the RAS seeks information that validates your beliefs. It filters the world through the parameters you give it, and your beliefs shape those parameters. If you believe you are pitiful at public speaking, you probably will be. If someone has earned a negative first impression, it becomes difficult to see anything but their faults. The RAS is essential, because it filters out the “white noise” of our existence, and allows us to focus on what is important. It can also prevent us from seeing information that contradicts our beliefs, or previous opinions. This brain function controls our perceptions and therefore our actions.

I recently explored the use of colorblind corrective lenses. The experience was disorienting. Reds, oranges and pinks leaped into my vision like horror movie jump-scares, and unfamiliar hues popped into focus. Without labels, I possessed no names for colors I was experiencing for the first time. A fully chromatic world altered my perceptions and invalidated decades of carefully filtered work by my reticular activating system. The newly saturated and chromatic world was uncomfortable and overwhelming.

Our past experiences are the lenses that “color” our perceptions of people. Sometimes, initial impressions of a student or colleague may prevent us from perceiving genuine growth or change. Allowing new imprints to modify our internal filters is difficult and perhaps bewildering. Our brains enjoy “easy mode” and resist reclassifications. I hope we will all occasionally try using a lens that allows us to acknowledge positive evolution in those around us. Despite my initial discomfort, I think I will add a pair of colorblind corrective glasses to my Christmas list.