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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, curated the 2014 Impakt Festival in Utrecht, Netherlands, and was named a 2015 Salzburg Global Fellow in Neuroscience and Art. Noah graduated from Wesleyan University, where he studied art history and neuroscience.

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Two Ships Passing in the Night: The Alva Noë and Gabrielle Starr Debate

[ 2 ] December 15, 2015
Alva Noë (UC Berkeley) and Gabrielle Starr (NYU)

Alva Noë (UC Berkeley) and Gabrielle Starr (NYU)

On a climate-confused, balmy December evening in New York City, neuro-phobic philosopher Alva Noë took the stage at NYU’s Casa Italiana to respond to Gabrielle Starr, who had, for the first 20 minutes of the event, offered a clear and decent account of her neuroaesthetics research for the audience gathered at NYU’s Casa Italiana. Noë was playing an away game on Starr’s homecourt: her collaborators, including neuroaesthetician Ed Vessel, were sitting in the packed house, and the event– billed as a debate to answer the question “Can Neuroscience Help Us Understand Art?”– was hosted by her institution.

The rest of the room seemed to be filled with students, faculty, and laypeople eager to see how a dialogue between a promulgator and a skeptic of the brain sciences might shake out.

“People call me Dr. No,” Noë began, referring to the uncertainty of pronunciation that his surname begets, “because they think a lot of the time I’m saying no to neuroscience, no to neuroaesthetics.” And I, for one, was expecting that– judging by Noë’s 2011 NYT Opinionator piece “Art and the Limits of Neuroscience”, his externalist manifesto Out of our Heads, and his new book, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature, which was published this fall, it’s been nothing but no.  But he promised that he wasn’t out just to say no to neuroscience: instead, he was there to say yes to art.

In a sense, then, Noë was negating the debate’s organizing question before it even began, and it soon became clear that his Dr. No joke was instead a prophecy, a capturing of the audience’s expectations that served to soften the forthcoming blow. For his subsequent response to Starr and his follow-up responses thereafter amounted to a sustained, walloping no to any potential uses for neuroscience in approaching art and aesthetics. Noë’s “no’s”, however, did come in the form of fair and well-reasoned criticisms of Starr’s experiments– from the universalizability of aesthetic responses in general to the illusions of neural “data points” as bearing any causal, explanatory weight, and the reminder that art demands engagement from a plurality of first-person senses and academic disciplines, in real space with real objects, and in dialogue with distributed cultural knowledge that defies measurement inside individual brains. More generally and aggressively against the field as a whole, he argued that whenever neuroscience attempts to grapple with art, the art itself disappears, becoming the mere stimulus for a discussion of what then happens in the brain.

But when someone in the crowd, near the end of the event, asked Noë what exactly he wanted from neuroscience (‘Sharper questions? Go away completely?’) he sidestepped and ducked back into the humanities, skirting the question’s demand for critical, positive engagement with the preferred target of his criticisms. “I think that art is its own domain, and deserves its own questions and investigations,” he offered, suddenly with nothing to say about where he wanted neuroscience to go. In an intriguing reversal of Noë’s central claim,  it seemed as though the neuroscience itself had disappeared from the philosopher’s investigation.

It was a key moment in the otherwise uneventful evening because it briefly unveiled the reactionary nature of the positions onstage, which had otherwise been veiled in respectfulness and humility. Starr diligently offered the results of her work with Vessel on self-reported aesthetic responses to visual art– some of which I have previously described on this site– and for the most part she responded by clearly and patiently restating her experimental procedures and results without counterattacking Noë’s barbs against the entire endeavor of neuroscience. But it was almost as if her humility and steadfast redescriptions were not so much in dialogue with Noë as they were with the perceived oversteps of neuroscience at large, and neuroaesthetics specifically– and for good measure, as the backlash this decade has been real. In a debate setting, though, I would have liked to see Starr be more of an advocate for neuroscience’s place at the table– a table surely populated by the other disciplines and rich first-person descriptions, as Noë would have it, but sorely lacking in 21st century psychological insight if it didn’t include the vanguard of brain science at one of its place settings, not to mention the emerging real-world applications in treating brain injury and disease through art therapy, or in childhood development and education reform.

On the other side of the reactionary spectrum, Noë’s stance seems to continue to be in dialogue with a perceived turf battle that neuroscience is waging against the humanities– a sense that it is an invading ontological army seeking to totally capture the discussions of art he would rather continue to frame in rich, first-person accounts bursting with action verbs. I saw this firsthand at the 2013 Association of Neuroaesthetics Symposium panel at the Venice Biennale, on which I sat alongside Noë and other philosophers, neuroscientists and art historians, and which devolved into a full-on territorial squabble as to whether neuroaesthetics has any legs to stand on at all. The symposium was intended to be a discussion of performance artist Tino Seghal’s prize-winning work at that Biennale, which we had all witnessed the previous day, through the lens of neuroaesthetics. But Seghal’s work was– as Noë would say– ‘merely the stimulus’ for the disciplinary tug-of-war that ensued. So after last week’s Starr/Noë debate, I remembered that Seghal– who was in the audience for that symposium in Venice about his work– had been called on by the moderator near the end of the event, and had remarked on what he thought of all the turf-battling that had just concluded. Checking the transcript, I was reminded that his comment that day had reinjected a positive sense of curiosity into the room, rendering many of our previous exchanges small and childish in comparison. “To this kind of territorial question of interdisciplinarity… I wouldn’t say that art is referring to art, it’s referring to reality… and I prefer in a way to hear– for me, as an artist, someone who knows art– I think it’s actually more interesting to hear what a neuroscientist has to say,” said Seghal.

So once we can set aside these territorial reactions– which to me always seem to be borne from an existential threat felt by the humanities, and end up churning out only acrobatic, rhetorical, and purely ideological positioning– the question always comes back to the one posed by the audience member at the Starr/Noë debate: ‘OK. So, then, what do you want from neuroscience?’

Because when you dig into Starr’s work and that of the other newer generation, experimental neuroaestheticians, the actual work going on out there tends to fall in line with the rest of science, being that it is funded through the same mechanisms and must adhere to the same processes of review and criticism (for a collection of critical neuroscience that actually engages with the work being done, see the new collection of essays “Neuroscience and Critique” edited by Jan De Vos and Ed Pluth). And in the end, the studies offer small, incremental additions to– and in some cases, subtractions of– false claims from a body of knowledge. It’s much more the case that it’s in their press release, subsequent trumped-up interpretations, and the occasional overexcited book where an explanatory overreach by any of the neurosciences is felt. That deserves its own form of criticism, and there are many level-headed voices out there who are on it. What Noë is prosecuting is something I believe to be out of step with current realities: a straw-man of an argument that pits the entire discipline of neuroscience as having claimed it will– and then already failed to produce– a full explanation of everything, and thus already deserving of full negation, a swearing-off, a cold shoulder. It treats an emerging one-of-many approach as a totalizing end-domain we ought to avoid completely.

And to some extent I can empathize with this fear, for we are talking about the assumed seat of human subjectivity– the brain– in relation to the peak of human subjectivity– art, so there’s a natural sense that more mapping, probing, and simulating of the former might fully explain the latter. But like Noë and other skeptics, I’m not so sure what the causality of that final explanation would ever look like (and neither is Starr, as she stated at the debate). But I do think neuroscience deserves a place setting at the table– so instead of treating it as an end-domain threatening a totalizing turf-battle victory, I now prefer to approach the neuro-disciplines as the Apollo 13 space shuttle had to revise their approach to the moon: not as a place we can land on with our current machinery, but as a place we need to get as close to as we can without landing in order to gather more velocity, swing back around, and re-approach humanity.




Sleuthing the Mind: Exhibition Review

[ 0 ] November 9, 2014
Hans Beder, "Opsis I". Photo by M. Alexander Weber.

Hans Beder, “Opsis I”. Photo by M. Alexander Weber.

In the concluding line of her catalogue essay for Sleuthing the Mind, a neuroscience-infused art exhibition at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery this fall, curator Ellen Levy asks the golden question of interdisciplinarity: “Might art and art exhibitions add new paths into the understanding of intuition, insight, and attention?” Beyond the multitude of reasons why we go see art in a gallery or museum, is there a way that experiencing art can add value to categories usually reserved for scientific insight, or create altogether novel mental categories? In addressing this question, it’s all to tempting to run headfirst into the revisionist trap, the retrospective view of artists as having intuited future insights from neuroscience and inscribed them into their most luminous works. While the aim appears to be a utopian union between art and science, the result is always the opposite: artists are held to be mysterious, intuitive creatures, and eventually scientists will make the rounds to tidy up their intuitions into facts.

Sleuthing the Mind, at Pratt Manhattan Gallery. Hans Beder, "Opsis I". Photo by M. Alexander Weber.

Sleuthing the Mind, at Pratt Manhattan Gallery. Photo by M. Alexander Weber.

What Levy appears to be after– and what her show at Pratt exemplified– is a genuinely forward-thinking synthesis that guides us towards new perceptions of the self and the other in the uncanny, inexpressible way that only experiencing art can. This is not about ascribing science onto art, where the former is the Truth and the latter is the exotic other; this is about probing, prying, and poking at the realms of perception and consciousness, searching for what Levy calls “new paths” forward. It’s not what I do, and what you do, speaking to each other nicely at a dinner party. It’s what can we do together that is categorically new?

The question of the value of this newness– of what the scientific unspooling of the brain actually yields for everyday life, and how its insights are absorbed and packaged by our culture– carries renewed relevance in light of a study released last week by researchers at UCL, who conducted in-depth interviews with 48 British citizens, and found that

People mostly feel that neuroscience is irrelevant to them… a particular feature of the interviews was the participants’ initial bemusement and discomfort about the topic. People said brain science is interesting, but 71 per cent thought it wasn’t salient in their lives… the brain for many was a source of anxiety – an organ that was usually ignored but which becomes suddenly salient when it goes wrong. For these people, brain research was essentially seen as a branch of medicine. Indeed, they used terms like brain science and brain surgery, and brain scientist and brain surgeon, interchangeably. There were particular fears about dementia, brain cancer and stroke. (via WIRED)

If we trace this thread of brain-related anxiety a bit further into the current cultural landscape, the permutations of neuro-capitalism begin to pop up like a string of targeted adverts: train your brain, stimulate your brain, control your thinking, and then: farm your cognitive skills. This is the unfortunate reality of much of the contemporary cultural relationship with cognitive science: either there’s something wrong with it (anxious worrying ensues), or we’re not doing enough to optimize our human potential (anxious worrying ensues), like they do in the movies. But maybe even more generally, above and beyond the cultural relationship with brain science, we live in anxious times.

Warren Neidich, "Glossary".

Warren Neidich, “Glossary”. Photo by M. Alexander Weber.

So how to acknowledge the anxiety, but then do something productive with it, or despite it? Warren Neidich’s brilliant “Glossary” (pictured) is for me the embodiment of an approach that teems with creative life. In “Glossary,” we’re given a toolkit of terminology for approaching cognitive capitalism in the 21st century: Duende, Degeneracy, Opaque Alientation, Hebbinism– there is plenty of despair here, but the despair is in dialogue with the hope, for in the same glossary we find Neidich’s definition of “cognitive activism,” which “understands the emancipatory potential of neuroscience research, especially as it pertains to epigenesis and the brain’s neural plasticity.” Neidich is a deep thinker on these issues (his critical writing on these topics is well worth checking out), and his contribution to Sleuthing the Mind hums with conceptual heft and intellectual rigor, springing into visual form in the collaged illustration above the text, which locates some of the glossary’s terminology in diagrammatic space– a delightful splintering of textbook images of the brain into its present-day social and political realities.

Greg Garvey’s special installation for Sleuthing the Mind is similarly dazzling: in its form as well as its content, Garvey’s piece (pictured) manages to capture the absurdity and irrationality of a well-known, newsworthy moment– the 1991 Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court– and deliver it in two parallel streams via a split-brain interface (classically developed and used by neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga) that offers the viewer (or perhaps more accurately, the participant) conflicting audiovisual information of conflicting audiovisual information, the bizarrely contradictory testimonies in that classic hearing. This is meta-cognitive dissonance, a statement that uses the brain’s own bilateral architecture to offer a new aesthetic experience, breathing critical life into an otherwise mindless, droning affair.

Greg Garvey.

Greg Garvey’s installation. Photo by M. Alexander Weber.

Throughout the Pratt Gallery space, Levy’s curation offers a multiplicity of new perceptual experiences, each one tugging at the idea of a unified, top-down self: Nicole Ottiger’s “Third Person No. 1″ is a self-portrait drawn while wearing an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset; Jane Philbrick’s sound installation is a sublime deconstruction of “Song of Solomon,” with partial and whispered readings sent into each ear, so that only a dim approximation of the piece is available by wearing both earbuds; Suzanne Dikker and Matthias Oostrik’s Mutual Brain Machine lights up only when participants “synchronize” their brainwaves, asking questions about the neural basis of true mutuality and interpersonal connection.

Like the wound that can only be healed by the spear that struck it in Wagner’s Parsifal, Levy’s show provides an antidote to the brain-anxiety nexus by absorbing those fears into the gallery space itself, and then pointing to the radical potential of new paths of experience and engagement.






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

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

[ 8 ] 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

[ 23 ] 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

[ 2 ] 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:


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