In this month’s issue of Harper’s magazine, legendary biologist E.O. Wilson—the ant man who also authors books about the meaning of existence—takes on consciousness and the brain. The article, “On Free Will,” carries the unsurprising subtitle: “And how the brain is like a colony of ants.” He runs down the essential anatomical, functional, genetic and evolutionary information about the brain, defining the complex organ and its unique importance. Then, he relates the efforts of philosophers to find a physical basis for consciousness, which may or may not exist, and who knows where. Wilson is optimistic about research programs such as the Brain Activity Map (BAM) project, which seeks to observe neurons in real time and connect their activity to mental processes. He talks about animal consciousness, ant colonies, human perception, and internal storytelling. “Confidence in free will is biologically adaptive,” he concludes. “WIthout it, the conscious mind, at best a fragile, dark window on the real world, would be cursed by fatalism. Like a prisoner serving a life sentence in solitary confinement, deprived of any freedom to explore and starving for surprise, it would deteriorate.”
Rebecca Kamen believes that artists and scientists have a similar mission, and she tries to reflect these similarities in her sculptures. Inspired by the work of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, “the father of modern neuroscience,” some of her sculptures are on display at the National Institutes for Health, where she has been the artist in residence in the neuroscience program. PBS NewsHour has published an article about her story, called “Portrait of a dyslexic artist, who transforms neurons into ‘butterflies.'” Ramón y Cajal famously referred to the cells in our brain, which he was the first to discover, as “butterflies of the soul.”(Recollections of My Life, 363), and this is the title of Kamen’s signature piece (as well as a phenomenal book about Cajal and what one might call art-historical brain imagery). But the article, and Kamen’s story, connects deeply to another Cajal quote as well. Her creative self-reflections on her experience with dyslexia call to mind perhaps the most transformative idea that the great genius ever put into words: “Every man can, if he so determines, become the sculptor of his own brain.”
(Copyright: Rebecca Kamen)
I never knew about Fridtjof Nansen. His 1887 doctoral thesis argued for the independence of the nerve cell, making him one of the earliest defenders of what would be called “the neuron doctrine.” He promptly quit neuroscience and went on an arctic expedition across Greenland. Then he went to the North Pole. He topped it all off with a Nobel Peace Prize, after serving his native Norway in the League of Nations for a decade. His lasting legacy, however, is probably the “Nansen passport” for stateless persons, still recognized by over fifty countries.
“It is better to go skiing and to think of God, than go to church and think of sport.”
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.
A new research article, published online for the journal Nature, shows that infants who were later diagnosed with autism spent significantly less time focusing on people’s eyes than infants who were not later diagnosed. Warren R. Jones and Ami Klin, of Emory University, co-authored the paper. The New York Times recently ran a feature on the research, which discusses the implications for early brain development and improvements in autism diagnostics.
If you’d like to look at how this line of research potentially relates to some broader theory in the field of autism research, one book to check out is Mindblindness by Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, which connects autism to “theory of mind.” I imagine Baron-Cohen would make the case that reduced eye-directed gaze in autistic infants supports his theory, though, like all psychopathlogy, the mechanisms of autism are little understood and the theories are controversial.
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: