We live in an era where the once perilous bridge between the arts and the brain sciences is now populated by an ever-growing band of eager explorers, who become more sure-footed with every new revelation about human perception and our evolutionary past. When it comes to visual art, pioneers like Zeki, Livingstone, and Ramachandran have pointed out some essential perceptual phenomena underlying the seeing and creating of artworks.
As far as the questions of perceiving and creating art go (disease and disorder are not being discussed here), the initial surprise and delight that perception does indeed happen all in the brain, in multiple stages, and distributed widely though the cortex, has not yet fully worn off. We can call this the primary level of understanding: The brain is involved. We see a sustained chord of this primary level of understanding in popular news media and bloggers responding to fMRI studies that correlate a stimulus or an internally-generated thought with heightened activity (measured as bloodflow by the MRI) in a certain area of the brain. This is the 19th century botany of current pop brain science. While it’s important to correlate functions with regions, and the scanning techniques are only getting more and more precise, for this discussion it’s a bit like seeing the glowing cities of earth at night from a satellite in orbit (see video below).
To understand how and why these cities glow, we need to hit the streets. There, we see what one could call a secondary level of understanding: The brain is constructed in a certain way, and the way we perceive external forms can reveal something about its internal architecture.
It is at this secondary level where things begin to get very interesting. When it comes to art and science, the scientific revelations about neuronal architecture become so closely tied to the subjectivity of the art that this architecture both perceives and produces that we start to be able to discuss art in a totally new context—at the street-level of the very structures in the brain that give rise to it and then consume it.
This secondary level has already seen much scholarly activity, especially by the pioneers mentioned above.
Take one example: We perceive a seamless image of the world despite the presence of a blind spot where the optic nerve leaves our eyes and no photoreceptors exist. If we just passed along every sensory input in earnest to higher regions of the brain, then we should always be aware of a blank spot somewhere in our visual field (there are some simple tests you can do to reveal your blind spot to yourself). But we know this isn’t the case—we’re never aware of any sort of blind spot, unless we’re driving a car and haven’t mastered the angles of our mirrors. The seamlessness of perception must be then a result of a filling-in of the visual world, a constant prediction of the space around us from somewhere in our brain that can figure out what should be there.
This one example hints at the dynamic system of visual perception in the brain; other examples abound. If our brains are constantly predicting what should be in the blind spot, what else are we predicting at every moment, and how do some artists intuitively speak to our predictions?
“Crossing Cultural Borders: Universals in Art and Their Biological Roots,” a new book from 40-year NIH and University of Michigan veteran Charles M. Butter, is an ambitious tour through the history of art, from every corner of the globe, organized around the idea that, as Butter puts it, “Artists throughout the ages have exploited the power to generate, inspect and transform images… mental processes that evolved because they provided technological skills that surpassed those of other competing hominids.” Butter isn’t afraid to take this idea to its full realization: “When he created The Knife Thrower, Matisse made creative use of the same mental capacities that our early ancestors exploited when they designed the first spears.”
Cultural Borders is fundamentally an art historical text that peers through the neuroscience of perception as a unifying lens onto all artistic traditions (Butter is not alone in this pursuit: see another “neuroarthistorian,” John Onians, whom I interviewed for a podcast). Butter surveys basic elements of art seen all over the world, and throughout history: symmetry, compositional coherence, symbolism, and the proclivity for ornamentation. At each step of the way he weaves in relevant neuroscience to drive home his central thesis of shared biology as a means to tease out the universals in visual culture.
There are moments of enticing success in this book. I found some of Butter’s more speculative passages, where he is reaching for a biological lynchpin to drive an art historical analysis, to bravely open the door on new avenues for cultural criticism.
At the very end of his chapter on ornamentation, Butter writes, “The contemporary life style which emphasizes functional design in furniture and minimal interior decoration may be a response to the same biological imperative that is responsible for the current attraction to minimalist music and art.” How exciting is the idea that the human brain may have shifted “biological imperatives” throughout history, and that these biological shifts might correlate with shifts in aesthetic taste and the style of our exterior world? Could it be possible that cultures have, at different times, been more interested in different levels of representation, ornamentation, and detail, at the very same times that there was some corresponding “neural imperative” that placed more emphasis on activity in one region of the cortex as opposed to another, or on certain networks of cells as opposed to others? All speculations, but this is where Butter’s text led me.
But at times Cultural Borders is an emboldened adventure into uncertain seas. On one side, it could spark ire for the art historian who views its rapid surveys of deeply entrenched cultural traditions as a skimping on context and historical detail. There is an enticing urge to unify the disperate artistic traditions of cultures around the world through the lens of shared biology; yet at times this pursuit risks casting aside the nuances of history, the times when perhaps nurture had more of the causal reigns than nature.
For example, at one point in his chapter on ornamentation, Butter speculates that “Perhaps Islamic architects were reacting to [Indian shrines] when they ornamented their mosques with uniform shapes, tightly bound together in geometric uniformity.” Butter is reaching for an explanation for the brilliant profusion of surface ornamentation in Islamic art, which he sees in contrast to comparatively ornament-free Greek architecture. The connection between Islamic ornamentation and Indian shrines is set forth with no evidence, and the reader can only assume it’s a speculation. What Butter seems to be referring to here is either Girih or Muqarnas, Islamic methods of geometric surface patterning that scholars have argued go beyond the purely decorative– they appear to have been charged with spritual and philosophical meaning. And as Islamic art historian Oleg Grabar has observed, Muqarnas was “an entirely Muslim invention…and it is a form used in all kinds of Islamic monuments, not only mosques.” These more complicated Cultural Borders might be better left uncrossed for now.
Art history aside, Butter is at his best when he’s weaving in the science of perception seamlessly with clear-cut visual examples on the page. If anything, I would have liked to see him go further with the level of neuroscience he engaged with. If we are to understand where, why (and when, in history) abstract art appeals to some human brains more so than realism, we want to know more about the cellular architecture of the brains behind those divergent tastes, not just its universal compartmentalized perceptual functions. How are these cells in perceptual and memory areas organized and connected? Which parts of a coalition of firing neurons might abstraction be engaged with, more so than realism?
Though we find ourselves on the primary and secondary levels through much of Butter’s text, there might even be a tertiary level of understanding somewhere ahead in the haze. It’s possible that we may learn the deepest lessons there are to learn about perceiving and creating art not by understanding what happens inside the rooms of the mind through our linguistic descriptions, but by understanding the rules that govern the interior: the dimensions, materials, structure and connectivity of the rooms of the mind that allow what happens inside them to happen.