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Author Page for Noah Hutton

NOAH HUTTON is a director based in New York City, working through his production house, Couple 3 Films. His first feature film, Crude Independence, was an official selection of the 2009 SXSW Film Festival and won Best Documentary Feature at the 2009 Oxford Film Festival. In 2010, he began filming a 10-year documentary about The Blue Brain Project, and in 2011 he directed a series of 30 short films for Scientific American. His 2012 concert film King for Two Days, which premiered at the 2012 Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, is a portrait of jazz drummer Dave King (The Bad Plus). In 2013, he curated Subjective Resonance Imaging, an international gallery show in conjunction with the 2013 Human Brain Mapping Conference, and was a featured speaker at the 2013 Association of Neuroaesthetics Symposium at the Venice Biennale. Noah graduated from Wesleyan University, where he studied art history and neuroscience.

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Art and the Default Mode Network

[ 4 ] 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

[ 15 ] 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


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

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.



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.


See more at the artist’s website.

Subjective Resonance Imaging: Gallery + Essay

[ 2 ] July 12, 2013

Subjective Resonance Imaging was a group gallery show we co-organized with the Neuro Bureau for the 2013 Human Brain Mapping conference in Seattle, June 16-20 2013, featuring the work of 12 artists from around the world. The following essay appeared in the show catalogue, and the following images were taken at the exhibit in Seattle last month.


by Noah Hutton

Like the human brain it seeks to understand, neuroscience, as a discipline, leans on the visual: from founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s hand-drawn sketches of neurons, to the present-day offerings of functional magnetic resonance imaging, optogenetics, connectomics, and computational simulations, seeing is vital to knowing.

Artists are seeing these images of the brain as well, and their contributions to 21st century imaging of the self is the subject of Subjective Resonance Imaging, a group exhibition presented at the 19th Annual Meeting of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping, in Seattle, June 16-20 2013. The work assembled here comes from around the world and encompasses both established, widely exhibited artists as well as several emerging voices in the present-day conversation between neuroscience and art.

(cont’d below)



From Nina Sellars, working in Australia, who creates mixed reality pieces that integrate links to digital scans of her own brain, to Julia Buntaine, working in New York City, whose sculpture provides conceptual footholds to grasp metaphors of brain structure and function, Subjective Resonance Imaging finds artists at this interdisciplinary vanguard working with a wide range of materials and thematic interests.

Some touch on more personal issues of identity and disfunction through their work, attempting to shape new meaning from the scientific images of themselves. Elizabeth Jameson’s special installation Sanctuary of Mind and Brain builds on her interest in bringing the sacred and the profane together, searching for a place where science becomes transcendent. Scans became a recurrent image in Jameson’s life when she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). “As the stack of MRIs grew,” she writes, “so did my fascination with the brain and the eerie black and white images that seemed to hold my fate. They are frightening, yet also immediately mesmerizing.” The art that resulted came from the artist’s undeniable urge to reinterpret the im¬ages, to use them to explore the wonder and the complexity of all brains—including those with disease.

Two other painters featured in Subjective Resonance Imaging—Constance Jacobson and Katherine Sherwood—also investigate the point at which art, science, and disability intersect: Sherwood through her mystical explorations of neural landscapes following a stroke she endured in 1997, and Jacobson through structural depictions of memory loss—inked suggestions of tidy neural networks, carried off into blurred edges and disappeared forms.

As diverse as the forms and approaches are throughout this group, there is a common pursuit that has brought everyone here into a shared space. This is a band of explorers who have all shone their light on the vast and uncharted realms of the human brain; their maps may be more subjective, but they are cartographers nonetheless. With commonality in mind, how does one deal with this work as a cohesive artistic movement, and approach the work of these interdisciplinary artists through the lens of traditional art criticism?

We often speak of the sort of work seen in Subjective Resonance Imaging as being science-inspired art; in this case, neuroscience-inspired art. What this passive description fails to capture is the active loop of making and perceiving that this work embodies. These artists have actively turned their focus onto the physical structure of their minds, and of all of our minds, and they are using that biological architecture to make the work itself. Whatever resonance their work creates for others is felt in that very biological architecture which originally focused—and was the focus—of this work. This is a system of mirrors of mirrors.

In his seminal essay “Modernist Painting,” written in 1961, art historian and critic Clement Greenberg, speaking of the abstract expressionists of his time (namely Pollock’s paintings that seemed to call more attention to the physical paint itself than any sort of figurative representation) observed that

The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence… The Enlightenment criticized from the outside, the way criticism in its accepted sense does; Modernism criticizes from the inside, through the procedures themselves of that which is being criticized.

Greenberg’s Modernist mechanism is again at work here, but in a different context. Now, instead of artwork referring to the external discipline of the art world in order to achieve the awareness of Modernism, we have subjective images referring to the seat of subjectivity itself, the human brain. In this sense, the work in Subjective Resonance Imaging represents a new evolutionary branch on the Greenbergian tree of artistic self-awareness. This art is engaged with the procedures (brain imaging, processes of the mind, complex structures) that are themselves the creators and perceivers of it; this art is acutely aware of the inside.

There may also be structural parallels between the pursuits of art and those of neuroscience, which may be helpful to consider if we are to push the interdisciplinary conversation at hand from passive-inspiration to active-convergence. Consider the line of criticism focused on large-scale mapping projects, such as those undertaken by the leaders of the push to map a full mammalian connectome, that asks the question of just how helpful such a map of one individual’s nervous system will be for the ultimate goal of abstracting universal principles regarding brain function that can be applied to all individuals of a species. This critique poses a question that continues to loom large in the field: Are we in a place yet, with large-scale mapping projects, to be able to pull out abstract universals from the noise of individual differences between brains?

The artist sometimes faces a similar dilemma. Will the art object, in its emergence from one individual’s subjectivity, resonate with another individual? Though the artist may prefer not to think about this dilemma directly, it may creep up from time to time: achieving some resonance from the world can be intoxicating. Yet trying to create from this place—with the ends shaping the means—can make for art with some sort of diluted ideal, an “average” of all tastes. Scientists have even created “average” faces and landscapes: the results have repeatedly shown to produce sterile and unexciting images. This is neither a viable nor an interesting solution for the artist.

For the scientist, a sort of “average brain” might be helpful as a sketch of a nervous system, but may not help us account for the particularities of consciousness, disease, or any number of highly specific neural phenomena—this “average brain” might display certain basic principles, but may not actually be like any real brain. From these observations, a shared truth emerges: the solution for both the artist and the scientists may be to just keep doing more work. The artist who sets out to create his work will never step in the same internal Heraclitean river twice; the scientist who seeks to pull out abstract universals from individual brains may also find that the Heraclitean edict applies to her practice as well: a first map will need to be followed by many more maps before the vast extents of neural possibilities and their causative relations comes into focus. With more neural data and more artwork—from the Chauvet caves to today’s vanguard—what Paul Churchland has called the “multidimensional space of possibilities” becomes more and more populated, giving us more context, coordinates, and means of comparison and analogy between individuals and their subjective and objective maps.

But why make these maps, and why make this art? What is the urge that drives both endeavors, and is it linked at its core? It is helpful here to turn again to Greenberg, for his evolutionary account of art disciplines.

Each art, it turned out, had to perform this demonstration on its own account… Each art had to determine, through its own operations and works, the effects exclusive to itself.

Let us reframe Greenberg’s concept in terms of the deep, unanswered question of our time, pertinent to science as well as art: What is it about this piece of matter—the human brain— that generates the “effects exclusive to itself”? To map these effects, which include subjectivity, consciousness, and the feeling of selfhood, a symbiotic approach through the “operations and works” of both science and art seems most appropriate, given the source of the matter.

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