Psychology of the Mandala
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Mandalas are circular designs that reflect the wholeness of the person creating them. According to Carl Jung (pronounced Yoong), " a mandala is the psychological expression of the totality of the self" (1973: 20). Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist, discovered the significance of mandalas through his own inner work.
"I sketched every morning in a notebook a small circular drawing, a mandala, which seemed to correspond to my inner situation at the time. With the help of these drawings I could observe my psychic transformations from day to day…My mandalas were cryptograms…in which I saw the self—that is, my whole being—actively at work." (1965: 195-196).
How can it be that circular drawings symbolize the wholeness of a person? Is there some unique quality about circles that makes them important in the psychology of human beings? We know that circles have signified the idea of wholeness among many traditional peoples (Arien, 1992). Why should modern people feel compelled to draw circles and create mandalas? A review of research in psychology and child development suggests that circles are part of the fundamental structuring of personal identity.
Circles and Self
Research with infants has shown that we are born with a desire to look at circles. Infants less than a week old prefer to look at curved lines when given a choice between straight and curved ones (Fantz and Miranda, 1975). Babies three to five weeks old fix their eyes on the oval hairline framing a face (Haith, Bergman, and Moore, 1977). Babies at three months or even younger choose to look at simple, complete forms, such as circles, rather than complicated shapes with jumbled parts and pieces (Slater, 1997). And it has been found that two-month-old infants can tell the difference between circles with patterns suggesting a face and circles with scrambled patterns (Goren, Sarty, and Wu, 1975). It is thought that these abilities to seek out circular face-like stimuli help babies bond with their care givers.
The ability to recognize circles is built into our visual apparatus. Researchers have found that our eyes organize visual input into patterns even before transmitting perceptions to the brain (Horowitz, 1983). According to Gestalt psychology, simple, closed forms, such as circles, are more quickly perceived and recognized as meaningful (Kohler, 1992). Because of this circles come forward out of a confusing mass of random visual input and are recognized as something known and familiar.
Circles are registered by the eye and passed directly to the visual cortex without intermediate processing (Horowitz, 1983). Because circles look the same whether right side up or turned upside down, the brain does not have to do intermediate processing to recognize a circle as it does when identifying a square or some other form that has been rotated. This ease of identification gives circles an advantage over other forms competing for our full attention.
The spherical form of the eye itself means that our visual information is literally taken in through a circle. The shape of the eyeball determines that the arrangement of rods and cones, the cells in the eye that receive and register light, is circular. What we are seeing at any given moment consists of a center area in sharp focus (with the exception of the blind spot where nerve pathways leave the eyeball) and a peripheral area that fades to the limits of vision. Because the eyeball is spherical, the total area of sight, the visual field, is circular.
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