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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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The Art Brains Make and See

[ 6 ] November 18, 2011

We live in an era where the once perilous bridge between the arts and the brain sciences is now populated by an ever-growing band of eager explorers, who become more sure-footed with every new revelation about human perception and our evolutionary past. When it comes to visual art, pioneers like Zeki, Livingstone, and Ramachandran have pointed out some essential perceptual phenomena underlying the seeing and creating of artworks.

As far as the questions of perceiving and creating art go (disease and disorder are not being discussed here), the initial surprise and delight that perception does indeed happen all in the brain, in multiple stages, and distributed widely though the cortex, has not yet fully worn off. We can call this the primary level of understanding: The brain is involved. We see a sustained chord of this primary level of understanding in popular news media and bloggers responding to fMRI studies that correlate a stimulus or an internally-generated thought with heightened activity (measured as bloodflow by the MRI) in a certain area of the brain. This is the 19th century botany of current pop brain science. While it’s important to correlate functions with regions, and the scanning techniques are only getting more and more precise, for this discussion it’s a bit like seeing the glowing cities of earth at night from a satellite in orbit (see video below).

To understand how and why these cities glow, we need to hit the streets. There, we see what one could call a secondary level of understanding: The brain is constructed in a certain way, and the way we perceive external forms can reveal something about its internal architecture.

It is at this secondary level where things begin to get very interesting. When it comes to art and science, the scientific revelations about neuronal architecture become so closely tied to the subjectivity of the art that this architecture both perceives and produces that we start to be able to discuss art in a totally new context—at the street-level of the very structures in the brain that give rise to it and then consume it.

This secondary level has already seen much scholarly activity, especially by the pioneers mentioned above.

Take one example: We perceive a seamless image of the world despite the presence of a blind spot where the optic nerve leaves our eyes and no photoreceptors exist. If we just passed along every sensory input in earnest to higher regions of the brain, then we should always be aware of a blank spot somewhere in our visual field (there are some simple tests you can do to reveal your blind spot to yourself). But we know this isn’t the case—we’re never aware of any sort of blind spot, unless we’re driving a car and haven’t mastered the angles of our mirrors. The seamlessness of perception must be then a result of a filling-in of the visual world, a constant prediction of the space around us from somewhere in our brain that can figure out what should be there.

This one example hints at the dynamic system of visual perception in the brain; other examples abound. If our brains are constantly predicting what should be in the blind spot, what else are we predicting at every moment, and how do some artists intuitively speak to our predictions?

"Crossing Cultural Borders: Universals in Art and Their Biological Roots" by Charles M. Butter. (CreateSpace, $19.99).

Crossing Cultural Borders: Universals in Art and Their Biological Roots,” a new book from 40-year NIH and University of Michigan veteran Charles M. Butter, is an ambitious tour through the history of art, from every corner of the globe, organized around the idea that, as Butter puts it, “Artists throughout the ages have exploited the power to generate, inspect and transform images… mental processes that evolved because they provided technological skills that surpassed those of other competing hominids.” Butter isn’t afraid to take this idea to its full realization: “When he created The Knife Thrower, Matisse made creative use of the same mental capacities that our early ancestors exploited when they designed the first spears.”

Cultural Borders is fundamentally an art historical text that peers through the neuroscience of perception as a unifying lens onto all artistic traditions (Butter is not alone in this pursuit: see another “neuroarthistorian,” John Onians, whom I interviewed for a podcast). Butter surveys basic elements of art seen all over the world, and throughout history: symmetry, compositional coherence, symbolism, and the proclivity for ornamentation. At each step of the way he weaves in relevant neuroscience to drive home his central thesis of shared biology as a means to tease out the universals in visual culture.

There are moments of enticing success in this book. I found some of Butter’s more speculative passages, where he is reaching for a biological lynchpin to drive an art historical analysis, to bravely open the door on new avenues for cultural criticism.

At the very end of his chapter on ornamentation, Butter writes, “The contemporary life style which emphasizes functional design in furniture and minimal interior decoration may be a response to the same biological imperative that is responsible for the current attraction to minimalist music and art.” How exciting is the idea that the human brain may have shifted “biological imperatives” throughout history, and that these biological shifts might correlate with shifts in aesthetic taste and the style of our exterior world? Could it be possible that cultures have, at different times, been more interested in different levels of representation, ornamentation, and detail, at the very same times that there was some corresponding “neural imperative” that placed more emphasis on activity in one region of the cortex as opposed to another, or on certain networks of cells as opposed to others? All speculations, but this is where Butter’s text led me.

But at times Cultural Borders is an emboldened adventure into uncertain seas. On one side, it could  spark ire for the art historian who views its rapid surveys of deeply entrenched cultural traditions as a skimping on context and historical detail. There is an enticing urge to unify the disperate artistic traditions of cultures around the world through the lens of shared biology; yet at times this pursuit risks casting aside the nuances of history, the times when perhaps nurture had more of the causal reigns than nature.


For example, at one point in his chapter on ornamentation, Butter speculates that “Perhaps Islamic architects were reacting to [Indian shrines] when they ornamented their mosques with uniform shapes, tightly bound together in geometric uniformity.” Butter is reaching for an explanation for the brilliant profusion of surface ornamentation in Islamic art, which he sees in contrast to comparatively ornament-free Greek architecture. The connection between Islamic ornamentation and Indian shrines is set forth with no evidence, and the reader can only assume it’s a speculation. What Butter seems to be referring to here is either Girih or Muqarnas, Islamic methods of  geometric surface patterning that scholars have argued go beyond the purely decorative– they appear to have been charged with spritual and philosophical meaning. And as Islamic art historian Oleg Grabar has observed, Muqarnas was “an entirely Muslim invention…and it is a form used in all kinds of Islamic monuments, not only mosques.” These more complicated Cultural Borders might be better left uncrossed for now.

Art history aside, Butter is at his best when he’s weaving in the science of perception seamlessly with clear-cut visual examples on the page. If anything, I would have liked to see him go further with the level of neuroscience he engaged with. If we are to understand where, why (and when, in history) abstract art appeals to some human brains more so than realism, we want to know more about the cellular architecture of the brains behind those divergent tastes, not just its universal compartmentalized perceptual functions. How are these cells in perceptual and memory areas organized and connected? Which parts of a coalition of firing neurons might abstraction be engaged with, more so than realism?

Though we find ourselves on the primary and secondary levels through much of Butter’s text, there might even be a tertiary level of understanding somewhere ahead in the haze. It’s possible that we may learn the deepest lessons there are to learn about perceiving and creating art not by understanding what happens inside the rooms of the mind through our linguistic descriptions, but by understanding the rules that govern the interior: the dimensions, materials, structure and connectivity of the rooms of the mind that allow what happens inside them to happen.



Greg Dunn: Gallery + Interview

[ 27 ] November 9, 2011

Greg Dunn is a visual artist and has a Ph.D in neuroscience from the University of Pennsylvania. It’s not so easy to tell at first glance whether Dunn is painting a branching pattern of a plant or that of a neuron. But maybe that’s the point. Dunn’s eye seems attuned to the dazzling beauty packed into the cellular architecture of each square millimeter of our nervous system, architecture that repeats itself all around us.

The neuronal imagery in Dunn’s paintings appears to draw some influence from the early 20th century drawings of stained neurons by foundational figures like Santiago Ramon y Cajal (find our essay on the young Cajal here). Yet Dunn’s work presents another clear influence, one that the artist himself discusses in the interview below. He is a deep admirer of a diverse range of pan-Asian artwork, and in his work this influence has made for elegant renderings of individual neurons and larger regions that exhibit both what Dunn calls the “raw and bold” quality of some Japanese and Chinese ink drawing traditions as well as their “simple, emotional, and direct” nature.




1. Where do you interests in the brain and in pan-Asian art originate?

I’ve always been interested in psychology and philosophy, and I suppose that was where my early interests lay.  I’ve always been a pretty introverted person, so I spend a lot of time in my thoughts.  Suffice to say, I am often puzzled by whats going on in there!  As my scientific interests developed, I realized that really any biological system can be fascinating. However, what sets the brain apart is that it is the apparatus through which we experience the world.  Every single human activity has a neurological story to it.  If you’re a scientist because you want to understand yourself, as I am, then it doesn’t make sense to look any place else.

I honestly don’t remember when my interest in Asian art began, but I suspect that it may have been in reaction to overexposure to Rennaissance art on one Europen trip or another I took with my family as a kid.  In contrast to a lot of the art produced in Europe, Asian art was so simple, emotional, and direct. There was breathing room on the canvas, and the techniques were so raw and bold.  It is the kind of art that just punches you in the gut with its immediate, visceral impact.

2. How did your tastes for pan-Asian art and your interest in the brain merge? What is it about these techniques and aesthetics– particularly in Japanese scroll and screen painting– that fit your aesthetic interpretation of the brain?

Neural forms and Asian painting styles collide in a completely natural way, and I am so fortunate that I found this out for myself because it has led to a very satisfying career as an artist/scientist. Neural forms are naturally elegant and spontaneous, characteristics that also describe the more traditional forms of Asian sumi-e painting- branches, grasses, etc.  All that is required to connect the dots is the realization that you need to crank down your awareness to the micron scale to see that nature has very similar forms across different scales of magnitude.  The branching form of a dendrite is nearly identical to the form of a branching tree, a series of cracks in the pavement, the movement of rivers and streams as viewed from space, or a lightning bolt.   I wouldn’t be surprised if the form were represented on a cosmic level as well.  It is a fractal solution to the Universe.

3. First seen in slides and in medical imagery, do the images of neurons and glia in the brain change at all in your mind once you start working with their forms in an artistic setting? Do you have any examples of such a change?

My perception of the brain regions and the cells within them are always changing as I paint. This is because I’m always trying to walk a line between photorealism and interpretation.  Using photomicrographs as a hard reference  can be useful because it helps to hammer down the anatomy correctly, but it can rob the painting of sponteneity.  It also robs the painter of the almost meditative discipline of learning how to emulate the random movements and branching of neurons, a deceptively difficult skill.  The brain is always wanting to generate or pick out patterns in things, and it is a real challenge to try to avoid that tendency.

4. What has this artistic interpretation of brain structures done to your conception of the brain and its small units of processing? How has this artistic practice influenced your academic life, if at all?

It has really given me an appreciation for how utterly chaotic the microstructure of the brain is.  For clarity’s sake, I usually paint only a few neurons on a canvas to emphasize their form without obscuring it with too many lines, but the brain doesn’t look like that at all.  There’s a cliché in neuroanatomy about how each brain region claims only so much “real estate,” and that all of the processing units must be crammed into a very small space.  Put together 100 billion neurons, each making up to thousands of synapses with one another, and the evolutionary limit on head size and you’ve got one densely packed little organ indeed.  It is an unfathomable mess on the one hand, and exquisitely ordered on another.  If these realizations have affected my academic life at all, it is in what a difficult organ it is to study!  So heterogenous and complicated, it is a mighty challenge to understand the workings of just one neuron, let alone a whole brain full of them.

5. Do you believe the brain will ever understand itself, or is it vastly too complex to ever fully comprehend its own function, even through all the tools of modern science?

I had this conversation when I was just starting grad school with a friend of mine who recently finished his PhD, and it really stuck with me.  There are some astounding geniuses out there that are making huge progress for us all.  But one day, when imaging technology, data acquisition, supercomputing, etc reach the point when some of the really deep questions can be answered, I’m not sure how a human being can really grasp the avalanche of data.  Even if a brain could fully understand itself, it seems impossible to me that it would be through the mediums of graphs, tables, connectivity diagrams, and all of that that would be the inevitable output.  I’m personally not interested in that these days anyway.  For me, it seems that a more relevant and rewarding approach of self discovery lies in personally developing an intuitive approach to understanding the brain.  To understand my own brain I seriously practice meditation, the science of observing the mind.  That is where I will be spending my future years of scientific inquiry, and hopefully I’ll understanding something or other by the end of it all.

6. Beneath all, what do you find beautiful about the brain?

6. It is literally the most complicated object in the known Universe!  The tremendous knot of cells when connected in a certain way gives rise to a strange sense of “I” that is able to ponder and learn things about its environment.  It is an utter miracle, and is at the root of why we are conscious beings able to appreciate this world and all of its beauty. How can you not love it?!

For more information or to order prints, paintings, or to commission custom work, visit Greg Dunn’s website.

Using Brain Activity to Reconstruct Subjective Experience

[ 1 ] September 28, 2011

A video has been sweeping the web this week that shows the result of UC Berkeley scientists taking fMRI data, dividing the brain into “pixels,” connecting those pixels to thousands of YouTube videos, and generating a novel image that purports to show the subjects’ inner representations of visual stimuli. The setup is crude and the results are not altogether convincing– but it certainly signals the start of a technology that could one day yield startling results.

In practice, test subjects viewed some video clips, and their brain activity was recorded by a computer program, which learned how to associate the visual patterns in the movie with the corresponding brain activity.

Then, test subjects viewed a second set of clips. The movie reconstruction algorithm was fed 18 million seconds of random YouTube videos, which were used to teach the program how to predict the brain activity evoked by film clips. Finally, the program chose 100 clips which were most similar to the movie the subject had seen, which were merged to create a reconstruction of the original movie.

The result is a video that shows how our brain sees things, and at moments it’s eerily similar to the original imagery. [source]

“NeuroArts” Panel Presented at ISEA 2011

[ 0 ] September 26, 2011

The annual International Symposium on Electronic Art was held this year in Istanbul, wrapping up last week. One panel in particular caught our eye: Neuroarts.

Here’s the description from the conference’s website:

Philosophies of scale within NeuroArts: from the scale of the single cell to the mesoscopic scale of brain emulations through to emergent large-scale phenomena including self-hood and consciousness. What are the relationships between plasticity, stimulation and firing patterns in small brain circuits? And, how can their adaptation in artistic projects alongside synaptic plasticity, and cellular topologies be exploited to make adaptive art?

Very interesting. We only wish we could have attended. If this catches your eye, make sure to check out the paper abstracts from the various presenters featured on the Neuroarts panel at the ISEA website.

Pinker Deftly Places the Internet Where it Belongs

[ 2 ] September 7, 2011

I am skeptical of the idea that the Internet–structurally– is a completely unprecedented innovation in human history. I didn’t know exactly how to express this until I came across a passage by Steven Pinker in “The Mind,” a series of insightful Q&A-structured essays by prominent scientists and philosophers, edited by John Brockman.

Steven Pinker

Pinker begins by comparing the Internet to the human brain in its ability to share a lot of information very rapidly. But then he goes on to give us some humbling history as to where the Internet as a tool fits into our evolutionary past.

“Even nonindustrial hunter-gatherer tribes pool information by the use of language. That has given them remarkable local technologies– ways of trapping animals, using poisons, chemically plant foods to remove the bitter toxins, and so on. That is also a collective intelligence that comes from accumulating discoveries over generations, and pooling them among a group of people living at one time. Everything that’s happened since, such as writing, the printing press, and now the Internet, are ways of magnifying something that our species already knew how to do, which is to pool expertise by communication. Language was the real innovation in our biological evolution; everything since has just made our words travel farther or last longer.”

The Palaces of Memory and Genius

[ 2 ] August 16, 2011

Over at the World Science Festival site, an intriguing discussion of memory palaces– a technique by which one builds a mental representation of a structure and then fills the rooms with certain memories for later recollection:

Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, walks us through the process of constructing “memory palaces”—an age-old memorization technique currently exploited by the world’s leading memory champs and mental athletes. Psychologist and memory expert Lynn Nadel explains why this trick is so powerful and how it leverages some the brain’s strongest faculties. [video of panel discussion]

In addition, WSF has some excellent new content surrounding the question of genius, including a report on a panel discussion that featured Julie Taymor and Philip Glass discussing creativity and the mind.

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