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Author Page for Noah Hutton

Noah Hutton is a film director and curator. Recently he has curated Subjective Resonance Imaging at the 2013 Human Brain Mapping Conference, was a featured speaker at the 2013 Association of Neuroaesthetics Symposium at the Venice Biennale, and will co-curate the 2014 Impakt Festival in Utrecht, Netherlands. Noah graduated from Wesleyan University, where he studied art history and neuroscience.

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Neuroaesthetics: The Gathering

[ 1 ] September 5, 2014
Top scientists and philosophers working at the intersection of art and neuroscience gather in New York City for the 2014 International Association of Empirical Aesthetics summit.
Ville cranienne (Skull City). AndreÌ Masson, 1940. Drawing on paper.

Ville cranienne (Skull City). AndreÌ Masson, 1940. Drawing on paper.

It’s hard to know how much we don’t know about the brain. The presence of vast unknowns in the field means that many current debates in neuroscience hinge on differing scales of inquiry and the significance of results from current methods. Are single neurons the place to look? How much weight do fMRI results bear? Do we actually even need to generate more data from real tissue, or is it time for large-scale brain simulation? What to spend our public billions on?

Neuroaesthetics faces similar issues, and although the findings it has offered in the past decades have gone far beyond traditional aesthetics (and I for one am a supporter), it has been attacked widely for perceived overstatements of its explanatory reach into zones traditionally under the authority of the humanities. Last weekend, at the 2014 IAEA (International Association of Empirical Aesthetics) biannual congress in New York City, current IAEA president Anjan Chatterjee seemed well aware of the ongoing criticism, and opened the meeting by providing a categorization scheme that helped clear up who is doing what, why they’re doing it, and what people know they are and aren’t doing when they conduct this kind of research and engage in its requisite collaborations. According to Chatterjee, whose recent book The Aesthetic Brain (Oxford) is a terrific primer on the field, there are three types of neuroaesthetics: depictive, descriptive, and experimental.

  • Depictive neuroaesthetics encompasses the visual depiction of neuroscience, where the images are scientifically accurate but the visual presentation of them is deliberately sculpted, such as Cajal’s classic images or more recently, Brainbow.
  • Descriptive neuroaesthetics refers to work that correlates activity in basic sensory areas of the brain with corresponding features in artworks– a sort of descriptive botany of the mind, where artworks are plucked as prototypes to discuss general neural responses– a dangerously seductive process akin to a stroll through a museum with a cognitive psychologist where each work risks being reduced to a perceptual trick, brain disorder, or similarly pre-packaged insight that relies heavily on fMRI and single-cell electrode experiments. There has been much foundational insight from this kind of work over the past decades, but its over-reliance as the rest of neuroscience continues to evolve puts descriptive neuroaesthetics in ever-weakening explanatory waters.
  • Experimental neuroaesthetics describes the maturing realms of this field, where “experiments are designed with controlled manipulation of variables of interest,” according to Chatterjee. This describes much of Chatterjee’s own work, and that of others like Ed Vessel and Jesse Prinz.

On Saturday, Art Shimamura spoke about his Dynamic Filtering Theory of the prefrontal cortex (PDF), a “grand unifying theory” that underlies the way he thinks about art and the brain. “At this stage, it’s important to look at the networks,” Shimamura observed, offering what could be taken as a credo for this next generation of experimental neuroaesthetics. Though neuroscientist Leah Kelly and I were critical of Shimamura’s recent book Experiencing Art (Oxford) in a recent review we co-authored for Science, his IAEA presentation offered a more nuanced approach to the complexity of network-level dynamics, summed up by a working mantra he shared with the audience gathered at Hunter College: “It’s a whole brain issue, stupid.”

Moments later, Ed Vessel launched into a wide-ranging and thoroughly sensational presentation, and Shimamura’s whole-brain mantra seemed to course through every slide. Vessel has established himself as one of the leaders of whole-brain experimental neuroaesthetics, connecting the act of evaluating artworks to relationships between specific regions of the brain, from perceptual and evaluative centers to areas implicated in the default mode network, the subject of an entire symposium earlier this year at Columbia (previously covered here).

After admitting the thorny issue of studying “meaning” in art (do you look at external, objective features, like symmetry and color, or at the internal subjective features, like novelty and associative meaning for the viewer?) Vessel mounted an impressive case for his method of measuring how “moving” people find works of art, whilst in a brain scanner, on a scale from 1-4. Vessel’s central scientific insight (full paper is here) demonstrates his whole-brain focus: when someone reports a work as especially moving, areas involved in the default mode network, which are usually correlated with autobiographical thought and inhibited when performing an outward, sense-dependent task, seem to “come online” while viewing these moving artworks, joining the sensory/perceptual areas and suggesting a neural signature for their personal, subjective resonance. Its intuitive logic is no mistake: this might be a first glimpse, albeit coarse and low-res, at the neuroscience of meaning.

LANGUAGE IS NOT TRANSPARENT. Mel Bochner,1970. Chalk on paint on wall, 72 x 48 inches

LANGUAGE IS NOT TRANSPARENT. Mel Bochner, 1970.
Chalk on paint on wall, 72 x 48 inches

One of the most electrifying talks at IAEA followed from an unlikely question: “What can conceptual art teach neuroaesthetics?” Alex Kranjec, from Duquesne University, who spends most of his time studying the psychology of prepositions, started with a personal story of coming across the artwork of Mel Bochner at the National Gallery in D.C., and finding a kindred spirit in Bochner’s own mantras, that “Prepositions hold the world together” and “Language is not transparent.”

Bochner’s work led Kranjec to a wonderful insight, which he shared with the crowd gathered at IAEA: “Both conceptual artists and neuroscientists care about visualizing thought.” Kranjec believes that scientists ought to simplify, and think more like the first conceptual artists, who were thoroughly invested in picking apart the relations between objects (very much like analogy and metaphor are used in science) and succeeded by simplification and repetition. Picking apart a Joseph Beuys piece, for example, might need to wait until these foundational, object-oriented, relational steps are taken.

“Both conceptual artists and neuroscientists care about visualizing thought.” – Alex Kranjec

But the field of neuroaesthetics wants to do more, and now. Much current work focuses on the relationship between art and affect: do the aesthetic features of artworks themselves provoke emotional responses in viewers, or are emotional responses a “downstream” event, more dependent on associate relations and subjective, personal context? Or, as Jesse Prinz’s work has explored, do certain affective responses become more likely given how we’ve been primed prior to viewing? Though it’s likely the answers are muddy mixes of the above, it was the staking of absolutist positions at IAEA in relation to emotion and art that provoked some intriguing fireworks.

It started with David Freedberg, who sees empathetic engagement with art as an almost involuntary, immediate event. Delivering a keynote address at IAEA last Saturday, he flashed a slide of a renaissance painting depicting the Virgin Mary slumping at the feet of Christ’s bloodied body, and explained that his hypothesis has always been that when we see such a work, “we notice that we have that slump within ourselves,” that we feel the physical depiction on a premotor level just as much as we purely see it. In collaboration with Vittorio Gallese, Freedberg has furthered this kind of application of mirror neuron theory to aesthetics, arguing that motor cortex-driven empathetic embodiment is a central force in the viewer’s engagement with a work of art (Other of Gallese’s collaborators have similarly applied embodiment theory to cinema).

Freedberg is developing a new model of aesthetic evaluation, which he briefly teased near the end of his presentation: essentially, that an artist’s ability to engage motor involvement is key to the success of the work initially– but it’s a crucial next step of inhibiting the motor response, which Freedberg localizes in the basal ganglia, that is necessary for the separation of viewer from viewed object, thus creating the opportunity for a more removed, evaluative moment. In this model, empathy is an essential motivating step, but it is the subsequent restraint of movement that allows for a separation of self from the artwork, so that judgement can commence. It would be interesting to know how this lines up with Ed Vessel’s model, as described above (I asked both Vessel and Freedberg for comment on this, but both felt it’s too early to draw conclusions on the relationship).

The Weather Project. Olafur Elliason, 2003. Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London.

The Weather Project. Olafur Elliason, 2003. Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London.

With Freedberg’s description of art as empathetic motivator hanging in the air, it was Vladimir Konecni of UCSD who took the podium and railed against the idea that art provokes direct emotional responses, a stance which provoked the largest emotional response from the gathered audience, as measured by the length and vocal tones of the Q&A that followed.

Konecni bluntly stated that he doesn’t believe paintings “sufficiently engage with the viewer’s intimate associative and memory systems,” and thus that “paintings are not sufficiently powerful to induce psychobiological states in viewers.” According to Konecni, emotions are acute, and they have unambiguous causes and objects– this is to be distinguished from moods. With paintings being insufficient to directly provoke emotions, Konecni finds more reliable responses of aesthetic awe in large installation pieces, like Elliason’s artificial sun at the Tate Modern, or Richard Serra’s work. In canceling out emotion from the discussion of artwork’s direct (a)ffects, Konecni is essentially calling for a return to Greenbergian formalism in art discourse.

The fireworks ensued when the eminent aesthetician and philosopher of art Noel Carroll challenged Konecni in the Q&A. Carroll, who had delivered the opening plenary talk a day earlier, raised a counterexample of visual art he believes does provoke direct, emotional responses: humorous or politically-charged comics. The exchange quickly devolved, with Konecni using it as an opportunity to counter-criticize Carroll’s own talk, which had focused on art as an evolutionarily adaptive behavior, and Carroll repeating the same question several more times. Though the brevity of the Q&A didn’t allow for any proper dialogue to unfold, the exchange between Konecni and Carroll was refreshingly pointed, and left me wanting to hear more of a dialogue between these two heavyweight thinkers who clearly disagree on some basic aspects of experiencing art.

The conventions of scholarly meetings serve certain needs of a field, by bringing together disparate strands of research and allowing for formal presentations of new work and informal conversations during coffee breaks, which can often lead to future collaborations. But the brief fireworks between Konecni and Carroll made me yearn for more formalized debates in these situations, so that certain other needs could be served– those of verbalizing disagreements, finding middle grounds, and casting away outdated concepts. These processes do happen, slowly and more passively, in the scholarly exchanges that occur from one paper to the next, from a book to its critical review, or from a scheduled talk to the next scheduled talk– and there is surely value to the longer durations of time involved in these conventions, where one can deliberate, write, and then deliver a well-reasoned argument. But an occasional live debate frames these processes in a shorter timespan, and gives them a safe space to play out more rapidly. For it is in pronouncing one’s difference of opinion– which surely do exist, as Chatterjee noted, from the inside and from the outside of neuroaesthetics, just like they do in neuroscience in general– where the conventions of academic politesse can be temporarily sidelined and true convictions can be put to the test. Just like recent debates regarding the Human Brain Project have given proponents and critics more opportunities to sharpen their arguments in the public sphere, some time allotted for debates at scholarly conferences could promote healthy disciplinary plasticity, and help to hone its participants’ messages to a public eager to hear what neuroscience has to say about art.

Art and the Default Mode Network

[ 3 ] February 17, 2014

A recent symposium presented by Columbia and NYU explored what happens in our brains when we’re at rest, and why those same brain regions are crucial when we view art.

“It’s not about merging disciplines,” David Freedberg told a crowd gathered at NYU’s Silver Center for Arts and Science last week, “it’s about listening.” Freedberg, an eminent art historian who serves as the director if the Italian Academy at Columbia University, was speaking about the alternately tense and productive relationship between the humanities and neurosciences. This is an intersection that he knows well: for nearly a decade, Freedberg has been collaborating with brain scientists— notably Vittorio Gallese in Parma, Italy, one of the discoverers of mirror neurons— but his comments dutifully acknowledged the turf battles that such interdisciplinary strivings continue to stir up, all too often hijacking productive dialogues and turning them into negative claims and calls for retreat back to party lines.

Freedberg went on, recalling a recent meeting with neuroscientist Edward Vessel of NYU, in which the two were discussing potential avenues of collaboration. Vessel mentioned some of his own recent work, which has probed a set of associated brain regions known as the default mode network, and its relationship to aesthetic evaluation of artwork. Freedberg hadn’t heard of the DMN (as I hadn’t either), and he recalled Vessel’s blunt reply: “Then you’re behind.”

It didn’t take long for Freedberg to catch up. He wisely made the default mode network and its relation to aesthetics and creativity the subject of the Italian Academy’s annual symposium, jointly held last week by NYU and Columbia. In focusing on the DMN, an increasingly popular area of brain research, the symposium vaults Freedberg’s Academy back to the forefront of the interdisciplinary dialogue around art and neuroscience—and the forefront is a familiar position: for nearly a decade, the Academy has organized symposia and supported the advanced research of scholars from the sciences and humanities alike, uniquely focused on fostering cross-discipline “listening” at every step. Past symposia have included Art and the New Biology of Mind in 2006, which featured Antonio Damasio, V.S. Ramachandran, Semir Zeki, Margaret Livingstone and other heavyweights of the early days of neuroaesthetics, and Vision, Attention and Emotion in 2008, which did indeed receive attention in the form of a column in the New York Times.

Here’s Freedberg interviewed in 2006 about “bridging the two cultures”:

 

Despite its rise in popularity among brain researchers, the default mode network is surely an unorthodox choice for a symposium on neuroscience and its relation to the humanities: the scientific work on the DMN is still so young, and thus the interdisciplinary threads connecting science and art in this domain still few and far between. But it is a progressive choice, if only because the field of neuroaesthetics is in need of an injection of complexity. Looking back, the pioneers of neuroaesthetics mounted the findings from basic visual neuroscience, be it color processing in the retina to line and motion processing higher up in V1, to discuss hallmark works of abstraction and impressionism, and for good reason: these are some of the clearest findings that neuroscience can offer for discussions of basic aesthetic features of art. But as is intuitively felt by any interested in this work, the perception, evaluation, and creation of art involves so much more than basic sensory systems, and thus the new frontier of interdisciplinary work is approaching issues like embodied simulation (involving the motor system), emotional priming, and, in this case, the default mode network.

Many of the talks at the Italian Academy’s symposium were necessarily definitional: what is the DMN? What regions are involved, and what does that indicate about function? Having coined the term himself and written seminal papers in the early 2000s elucidating its function, Marcus Raichle of Washington University’s School of Medecine is considered to be the godfather of this field, and was to deliver the keynote address following Freedberg’s introduction. But after health issues grounded Raichle in St. Louis, Bill Kelley of Dartmouth (a former student of Raichle’s) filled in, and leaned on some eloquent video interview clips with Raichle to present a definition of the DMN.

 

In one such clip, Raichle put it this way: “There is a paradigm shift going on. The focus has been on getting the brain to do things, rather than studying what it’s doing all the time.” In approaching the DMN, Raichle’s musings demand we reorient our binary notions of active versus inactive, for with the DMN we find the omnipresent “baseline” brain, the parts that brain imaging studies always seek to cancel out so that the true point of “activation” can be seen.

So how to we approach a true definition of the DMN? It turns out a single definition is hard to reach, but broadly speaking, that we’re talking about a network of regions in the brain which are most active in the moments when we aren’t performing any outward-directed task. As Raichle explains, this “default mode” consumes most of the energy metabolized by the brain as a whole. It’s an omnipresent, baseline state, but it is most active during the in-between moments when you’re staring up at the ceiling, riding on the train, reflecting at the end of a long day– these moments seem to be tethered in study after study to activity in regions such as the precuneus, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the inferior prefrontal cortex, which are regions that have been implicated in authobiographical thinking, and in the relation of the self to other people, events, and planning for the future. But these are early days of understanding the behavior of this network, and those are large areas of the brain to be tossing around in any kind of explanatory way. Daniel Margulies (Max Planck Institute, Leipzig) and Felicity Callard (Durham U.) wisely delivered a comprehensive overview of the current definitional status of the field, and urged a more specific analysis of the subunits of the default mode network and their functional roles within the network as a whole. To ask if the anterior cingulated cortex is involved, Margulies offered as an example, “is like asking where the best coffee in the world is and being told ‘Europe’. It is much more helpful to get information at least on a country or a city, and that’s the same as with functional roles of areas implicated in the DMN.”

What seems to be clear is that when we engage in any kind of task that snaps us out of the familiar autobiographical background of our thoughts, this network dips in activity, inhibited by new regions that come online to deal with the outward behavior. As Bill Kelley told the audience at NYU’s Silver Center, it’s more and more seeming like the DMN could be the primary seat of personality, and that “differences in personality among individuals may manifest as differences in resting-state default mode network connectivity patterns.” Yvette Sheline of UPenn added detail to this principle, relating findings from her work on depressive brains that reveal greater connectivity between default mode network regions involved in autobiographical thought and other regions involved in the judgement of others, suggesting a basis for the tendency of depressive patients to relate negative valuations to the self.

In addition to differences in personality, there is growing appreciation of the DMN as a major structural and functional leap from primate brains to human brains. Randy Buckner of Harvard could barely contain his enthusiasm for this line of work, telling the audience assembled the following day at the Italian Academy on Columbia’s Morningside Campus that “we feel lucky to have stumbled on something so interesting. We have jobs for the indefinite future.”

The proportion of sensorimotor cortices stays relatively unchanged through evolution; everything else expands in the human brain.

Buckner delivered a thorough and eloquent tour of human evolution that focused on the DMN’s position in the evolution of the primate brain. It was the shift in attention from a full focus on the outside world to a split focus on external stimuli and internal world-modeling, Buckner theorizes, that accounted for the cognitive leaps that eventually separated modern man from his ape ancestors. Just look at how the physical proportions of the brain have evolved: primary sensory systems are about the same size in apes as in humans, but all of association cortex— including the prefrontal cortex, which usually gets most of the evolutionary attention— has expanded dramatically. Buckner believes the “nether regions” of association cortex are what truly distinguishes the human brain—folds upon folds of cortical sheets devoted to nothing in particular, tethered to no sensorimotor pathways, that can be sucked up during development— sometimes even decades into a lifetime— making them the hallmark of cultural learning. It’s these reverberant circuits of association cortex that are wired to themselves which allow us to be flexible, highly plastic and adaptive, and which make up the bulk of the DMN, so that, as Buckner joked, “we can think to ourselves and worry all day.”

Buckner’s evolutionary tale brings us back to the present: what is research into the DMN revealing about the self, creativity, and aesthetics? The organization of the symposium, mirrored in the organization of this blog post, left any direct implications on art and aesthetics until the final talk, when Ed Vessel took the podium and worried that “the day has given us tools to tear his aesthetics work apart.”

Vessel considers his work to be a step forward from the aforementioned “first wave” of correlational studies in the field of neuroaesthetics, which have looked at single areas of the brain reacting to familiar works of art (this kind of work is what Anjan Chatterjee called “descriptive neuroaesthetics” in his recent book, The Aesthetic Brain). To move away from single areas and understand aesthetic response at a network level, Vessel has naturally latched onto the rising wave of DMN studies, curious about how aesthetic response might interact with the autobiographical, background brain.

To do this, Vessel devised an appraisal system for viewers to rate a wide range of artworks—from abstraction to portraiture and landscapes—while laying in an fMRI scanner (here is the paper, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience). The participants were shown the artwork for a brief interval, then given four seconds to submit a rating on a scale of 1-4 of how powerful, pleasing, and profound they found the image. Vessel’s key finding is that for ratings of 1-3, the DMN showed fairly low activity, with subtle, linear increases as evaluations improved. But for ratings of 4, there was a dramatic, step-like jump in activity, as if the DMN fully “came online” for the highest aesthetic appraisals. At these moments, the sensory areas involved in viewing the art stayed online as well—a rare co-activation of two networks that usually exhibit toggling behavior.

The DMN comes online with a rating of “4”, seen in the bottom right figure. (From Art reaches within: aesthetic experience, the self and the default mode network, Vessel et al., Frontiers in Neurosci, Dec. 2013).

Vessel described this step-like activation of the DMN during “4” ratings as a “signature” of aesthetic response, and argued that this activity supports the notion that the DMN is about self-referential processing, as in, “I love this painting.” Though further experiments may benefit from more specific rating scales (Vessel told me he’s now working with a sliding scale, where participants mark their response using the position of a horizontal slider rather than a fixed number) and perhaps be more conscious of the confounding effects of any kind of appraisal rendered in the scanner (perhaps participants should just be scanned while looking at artworks, then give their appraisals later when they’re out of the scanner, so that a reverse correlation can line up their appraisals with the brain activity they displayed upon seeing each work), the results are intriguing and do point towards the DMN’s central role in aesthetic response.

It’s important to look at the conclusions from such a study, and to ask questions from the point of view of the humanities: what has this study told us about the way we view and evaluate art? Is there anything new to be learned about what happens in the brain at these moments? Though the peak aesthetic response did correlate with that tell-tale jump in DMN activity across subjects, Vessel’s data reveals that there was very low agreement across subjects in their emotional responses to the paintings he presented them: people did not agree on their favorites. So one of the study’s findings that Vessel announced to the audience was that “taste in art is highly individual, yet highly felt.” Another conclusion he offered was that “art can feel strikingly personal.” And, when it comes to the spike in DMN activity, that “self-relevance is an integral part of aesthetic experience.” For someone coming at this from the humanities, the big takeaways still end up sounding like self-evident, intuitive truths known to the arts for eons. Vessel’s conclusions, stated in this manner, sound like the findings of an alien society trying to come to terms with this thing humans do called “art.” It would be prudent for researchers presenting their findings on aesthetics to have a lighter touch with their conclusions, if only to avoid the turf battles that so plague the current landscape. For researchers like Vessel, the results may speak volumes for the neuroscience of the DMN and its relationship to aesthetic appraisal; for art theory, these statements can sound like counting to ten.

The bottom line is that though the neuroscience of network-level activity like the DMN may still be far too young for any meaningful, novel contributions to aesthetics, the research must march on if we do eventually hope to break new ground. As David Freedberg offered in his conclusion to the symposium, “The humanities don’t really know about what happens in the brain—we can just look at the results from neuroscience about aesthetics.” So to avoid turf battles, the directive to the humanities might remain as Freedberg stated it: “look and listen,” but to the scientist speaking to the humanist, we might say, “do tell, but tell us what we don’t already know.” For an emerging field of research into the default mode network, which appears to be a seat of autobiographical thought, the stakes for interdisciplinary dialogues may be higher than ever, and thus an awareness of domains– what they know and do not know, what they can offer and what they crave– is more important than ever.

 

 

 

2014 Congress of the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics

[ 16 ] January 10, 2014

This just in from the IAEA– not the International Atomic Energy Association, but rather the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics. They will be holding their 2014 summit in NYC in August, and have issued an open call for abstracts, as well as artistic submissions. Researchers who wish to present their artworks will have an opportunity to speak about their work at the IAEA event as well.

The 2014 IAEA Congress is an opportunity for researchers and scholars from different domains and countries to present and share empirical research on aesthetics, creativity, and the psychology of the arts. Submissions may address questions concerning: aesthetic perception, appreciation, emotion, experience, and judgment; the creative process in various media and domains; cultural studies; musicology; art historical perspectives on aesthetics and creativity; architectural and design studies; museology; philosophical, theoretical, and methodological issues in aesthetics research; and many others.

You can find out more and submit your abstracts here.

CUriosity3 Seminar Program Fuses Art and Science

[ 1 ] October 2, 2013

CUriosity3

CUriousity3 is a new public seminar program housed at Columbia University in New York City, addressing the “intersection between art and science with a view to start interesting discussions and debate around the common ground of creative practice and scientific discovery.”

The series kicked off on Monday night with an intriguing conversation between stem cell biologist Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic and biological artist Oron Catts, who synthesizes his art from living cell cultures. The evening consisted of presentations by each expert, followed by an open discussion with a moderator and an opportunity for the audience to ask questions.

The next two events in the series are as follows:

 

SfN is Looking for Brain-Inspired Artists

[ 2 ] September 30, 2013

The Society for Neuroscience is seeking artists and craftsmen whose work is inspired by the brain and the nervous system to sell or just exhibit their paintings, sculpture, multimedia, or crafts at the annual meeting, to be held later this fall in San Diego.

As they describe it, “This is a chance to sell to a crowd of more than 30,000 researchers, doctors, technicians, writers, and professors from across the neuroscience world.”

This is the second year of the Art of Neuroscience exhibit, and last year, the exhibit included the gold leaf creations of Greg Dunn and jewelry by Kathleen Childress. Reports from conference organizers were that “all the artists were very well received and not only sold many pieces on-site, but took custom orders.”

SfN representatives advise that space is limited and will be assigned on a first come, first served basis. The annual meeting is Nov. 9-13 at the San Diego Convention Center.

To find more information or to fill out an exhibit application, you can visit http://www.sfn.org/annual-meeting/neuroscience-2013/at-the-meeting/art-of-neuroscience.

Gallery + Interview: Megan McGlynn

[ 5 ] September 9, 2013

 

Megan McGlynn

Megan McGlynn‘s sculptures might not immediately strike you as brain-inspired, or brain-related. But look at them closely: inside their intricate worlds, there are hints at the complexity, functionality, and organizational principles of minds; these seem to be the thematic reservoirs for the artist’s architectural explorations. The results of these explorations have formed an impressive body of work by McGlynn, who seems particularly adept at navigating the delicate balance between the intuitive and the explicit, speaking about her work with clarity, yet remaining sensitive to its mystery.

____________________________________________________________________
GALLERY

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INTERVIEW

You write in your artist’s statement that you are interested in the “architecture of human perception.” Looking at your wood sculptures, which have titles like “Mirror Neurons” and “Neural Network 005,” I’m struck by how architectural they are, how you’ve created microcosmic worlds within these structures. Do you think about the brain in a very architectural way? What’s your conceptual process of translating findings on mirror neurons, for example, to a built structure? 

I think architecture is a powerful way to visualize neuroscience concepts because it’s one of the most ancient of ways that humans organized themselves and their thoughts. In that way it helps illustrate our evolution, but also consistent patterns in our thinking. It’s difficult for me to look at a built structure without having a visceral response, there’s so much information to take in about the people involved with it, their skills, their access to materials, their needs and aspirations. Also, as a visual thinker and craftsperson, I tend to think about most aspects of life through building processes – I always have to think about what materials, tools, steps you would need to create a certain structure or effect. In that same vein I end up visualizing the brain and the things it creates – personalities, memories, emotions – as emergent structures made from anatomical “building blocks.”

For your example, several studies show that mirror neurons may be what allows humans and animals to transfer knowledge through imitation. This could be a major reason for how organisms make connections and can organize themselves, and even a foundation for the beginnings of culture. In my work, I take these kinds of concepts, experiment with materials, and try to create my own simplified architectural language to express them. The structures in Mirror Neurons are less about anatomy and more representative of what they enable – the acquisition of knowledge (the stacking of pieces upward), the alteration of that knowledge as it’s passed from one individual to another (the differences between each structure), and their lasting connection (their facing toward one another).  

How did you originally become interested in neuroscience? What was it that hooked you, and what continues to be at the core of your interest in this area?

I began training in drawing and color theory at a young age in a strict atelier program, and learned that there was a unique way of perceiving and portraying the visual world on a 2D surface. I learned to flatten objects into simple geometries and strategically pick out and replicate masses of ever-changing color. It wasn’t intuitive but has become a kind of second vision that I can turn on and off, like being fluent in a second language. This never occurred to me as interesting until I read The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, by Oliver Sacks, as a young teenager. I realized how amazing vision is – and then how amazing every sensation is, and that there is some quantitative mechanism underneath it all. I am still fascinated by vision, but my work now deals mainly with how images are altered by memory. Neuroscience is such a vast and unknown world, I feel genuinely lucky to observe its rapid growth and add my own little comments through artwork.

Looking back at the work you’ve made to date, how do you feel your conceptions of neural architecture have evolved since you first started making work? Do you feel the work has noticeably co-evolved as your own understanding of the neuroscience has developed?

My earlier work was mainly copies of CAT scans or illustrations of the limbic system interspersed with classically rendered still-life paintings of oranges. In other words, I copied things I saw. Slowly I became less interested in making a clear image and decided to use concepts I understood from studying neuropsychology: the mind will make sense of what it sees due to its own experiences. My philosophy now is that strange or unclear artwork is much more interesting to create and to view. It forces people to either reject it or figure it out. The allusions to architecture have become much greater since I’ve begun literally constructing sculptures. The building process can become all encompassing and make me start to see everything in a mechanically replicable way, even the protean nature of thought.

What do you hope to communicate to the casual viewer of your work, someone who doesn’t know much about science?

With little formal education in the sciences, I often feel as though I don’t know much about science… but I am a self-taught enthusiast and endlessly fascinated. I think my artwork is equally a reassurance to myself as it is a statement to others that expertise is not required to be curious, learn and talk about these things. Curiosity and exploration are so deeply human, and modern science is so incredible, I want everyone to find an exciting gateway into learning about the world around and within them. If a piece excites someone to look up the title and find out for themselves what mirror neurons or synapses are, that is wonderful.  While I do make my work with some concrete ideas based on research, the rest is rather intuitive and responsive to materials. It leaves a lot for the viewer to pull apart, so I don’t expect people to understand what they are about. Without looking at the title, people with any level of scientific background may see something with no connection to neuroscience or see something much more complex than I currently understand. It may be why I am an artist and not a scientist – there are no wrong answers in art.

Do you believe art that deals with the brain can reveal or communicate anything about the brain that science alone cannot?

This is a very tough question. I think it boils down to how you define art… which is also a never-ending question. I have a hard time finding the boundary between art and science, but I do believe there are a lot of things images can communicate that words cannot and visa versa – of course, science creates a lot of images, so this is not really a reflection on the powers of science versus art. These fields are very closely tied – psychologists use art to help explore mental health, and I already mentioned the ability of architecture to reveal a lot about thinking and needs. Are these more artistic approaches “better” at telling us about the brain than “science”? I don’t know, it depends on what kinds of answers you’re looking for. That said, contemporary art is also far from being just paintings and sculptures. As technology evolves with exponential speed and accessibility, it wouldn’t surprise me to see artists push further into more traditionally scientific realms with revolutionary ideas. In terms of this question and my own work, I am experimenting with qualia, which may always remain an unknown and is the spirituality of science: the fact that the universe exists and we can experience, observe and reflect upon it.

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See more at the artist’s website.

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