Subscribe via RSS Feed

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.




The Late Reverberant Sound

[ 3 ] May 15, 2015

In the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, there is a small concert hall, with a grand piano dormant on the shining wooden floor. There are about a hundred empty seats, with the front row almost hugged against the stage. The space was designed by renowned acoustic engineer Yasuhisa Toyota, whose Suntory Hall in Tokyo has been called “the jewel box of sound.” While the traditional “shoebox style” pits the orchestra at one end with an audience seated in rows, his “vineyard style” surrounded the orchestra on all sides with clusters of seats at different angles, like the sloping terrace of a vineyard. After the Berlin Philharmonic was destroyed in 1944, the architect Hans Sharhoun observed that “people always gather in circles while listening to music informally,” and the Berlin Philharmonie was born. Since the 1960s, vineyard style has also appeared in Denmark, China, Finland, and France. The most striking aspect of Cammilleri Hall at USC are the walls. The pattern of embossed bars reminded me of the Super Mario video game or Morse code dashes in oversized Braille. This design seems purely aesthetic, but the walls themselves are positioned for early reflections of sound back to the middle of the hall (“the more diffuse reflections at lower frequencies are profitable for the late reverberant sound”). But there is something more important still. Bruce Adolphe, composer-in-residence at the Brain and Creativity Institute, boasts that the walls are soundproof, which is good because, in the room just next door, there are neuroscientists reading data off of fMRI and EEG. Between the artists and neuroscientists, sound that travels and does not travel, the echoing and feedback, make for one of the most resonant environments for interdisciplinary creativity in the country. For founders Antonio and Hanna Damasio, music is essential to the life of the brain.


The serried terraces of a vineyard, unknown.


The “vineyard style” of acoustic engineering, Cammilleri Hall at the Brain and Creativity Institute, USC.

On the other hand, the office space features open glass cubicles, with no barriers to sound. Funded by the university as well as anonymous private donors, the Brain and Creativity Institute, in collaboration with the Thornton School of Music at USC currently supports ten research projects, including “The Brain and Music Program.” Dr. Assal Habibi explained that this project has followed 75 children from Los Angeles schools since the age of 6 (this is the second or third year) in order to gauge the effects of music education on a wide array of mental functions. Of the 75 kids, 1/3 take after-school music, 1/3 take after-school sports, and 1/3 take nothing. The scientists test all subjects in executive functioning skills, musical skills, motor development, and pro-social and emotional development, which is the hallmark of their lab (another project at the Brain and Creativity Institute is called the “Feelings Program”). Music training follows a Venezuelan model called El Sistema, which “emphasizes intensive ensemble participation from the earliest stages, group learning, peer teaching and a commitment to keeping the joy and fun of musical learning and music making ever-present.” Everyone is required to play a string instrument. In the end, the researchers want to share their data with policy-makers, hopefully affecting the way we fund our schools. Music is not a separate component of education; it is integral to the learning process, and there needs to be communication between the arts and sciences to prove its value for children. Hopefully, the work of The Brain and Creativity Institute will reverberate for a long time.


A World Without Words

[ 2 ] May 10, 2015

Lotje Sodderland was a lovely, bright, talented, and sociable young woman living in London. In November 2011, she woke up in the middle of the night with an excruciating pain in her head. She was conscious, but she could not think. After stumbling to a hotel across the street, she collapsed on the bathroom floor. Two days later, she woke up from an induced coma. She had suffered a severe stroke (the result, she later learned, of a rare developmental malformation of blood vessels in her brain). Although her face and body are no different, she will never be the same. This is like the Hasidic view of the afterlife, quoted by Ben Lerner as an epigraph for his recent 10:04: “Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.” In her new world, Sodderland has a visual field loss, with no peripheral vision on her right-hand side, and severe aphasia, a communication disorder affecting comprehension and expression. She also has a film, called My Beautiful Broken Brain, an extraordinary new perspective on trauma and selfhood, and a nearly imperceptible scar beneath her dark blonde hair.

Lotje-Brain-website-361x360In The Odyssey, Odysseus returns to Ithaka after twenty years, as a stranger in disguise. Penelope almost recognizes him. asks for news of her lost husband, but almost recognizes the man standing before her, whom we know to be speaking about himself in the third person. “We have had all kinds of strangers in distress come here before now,” Penelope says, “but I make bold to say that no one ever yet came who was so like Ulysses in figure, voice and feet as you are.” ‘Those who have seen us both,”Odysseus says in Book XIX, “have always said we were wonderfully like each other, and now you have noticed too” This is one of my favorite lines. While his old nursemaid Euryklea is washing his feet, she sees a certain scar on his thigh and “the whole truth comes out.” “My child,” she says, “I am sure you must be Odysseus himself, only I did not know until I had actually touched and handled you.” Odysseus’s scar, which he was hunting on a mountain with his grandfather; Lotje’s scar is from emergency neurosurgery to his parietal and temporal lobes. Perhaps The Odyssey is not about distance from place or the journey home, but rather it is about the indelible pain of being-in-time and persistence of self-recognition. No one else can know our wounds, which are always inside of us. “Whatever pain achieves,” Elaine Scarry argues in her seminal text, The Body in Pain: Making and Unmaking Our World, “it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language.” The world of grief is a world without words.

eb00ad73-53a4-4564-9c3d-7f8ad18a1ab4-1020x914Lotje Sodderland is a lovely, bright, talented, and sociable young woman living in London. She recently spoke at the launch event for her new project, “A World Without Words,”a collaboration with the poet and curator SJ Fowler and material engineer Thomas Duggan. Three-and-a-half years have past. If you did not see her film, you would never know that she suffered a stroke. The film is a lyrical reflection on her experience, with footage from her recovery and therapy, interviews with family and friends, and archival material from her childhood. In the trailer, we watch her struggle to speak, fail to read words, and break down into tears. Her experience reminds us of our own vulnerability; “this could happen to anyone,” as someone says in the movie. “I am different than I was,” Sodderland says in the film. “Maybe I’m never going to be the same.” “I’ve discovered this portal, somewhere where I can get completely lost, an extraordinary new place, where my brain once was.” On display in the Apiary Gallery in London were some hallucinatory drawings. In her visions and dreams, Lotje saw monsters. We may never be able to tell our story, but art is a means of communicating experience. We travel through worlds and bring back scars. Our odyssey ends when we share them.

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.




Interview: Michele Guerra

[ 1 ] July 12, 2013

Michele Guerra

Michele Guerra is Assistant Professor of Cinema at the University of Parma (Italy), where he conducts research alongside Vittorio Gallese. He is the author of “Il meccanismo indifferente. La concezione della Storia nel cinema di Stanley Kubrick” (Roma, 2007) and “Gli ultimi fuochi. Cinema italiano e mondo contadino dal fascismo agli anni Settanta” (Roma, 2010), and the co-editor of “Sequenze. Quaderni di cinema 1949-1951″ (2009) and “Le immagini tradotte. Usi Passaggi Trasformazioni” (2011, with a Preface by Linda Hutcheon). Now Guerra is at work on a project on cognitive neuroscience and film experience, using the concept of “embodied simulation,” (ES) whereby the observed and felt state of another is embodied–or mirrored– by one’s own cognitive system. This developing research marks a novel, cross-disciplinary approach to film analysis and film theory. Guerra also participated in the Mellon Summer Workshop 2011 at the Center for the Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) at Stanford University on “Cognitive Science and Neuroscience for the Humanities”.

NH: Your work draws parallels not only between the body of the viewer and that of the viewed subject, but also the body of the filmmaker, so I imagine that everyone in the cinematic transaction might be interested. Why do you think casual viewers of films are interested in your work, and for what reasons are filmmakers, or actors, interested? Are there aspects of the work that speak to the creative process as well as the viewing process?

MG: We know that the power of cinema lays in its ability to reproduce something very similar to the real. When we are at the movies we face people who look like those we run into in our everyday life, we see places that look like those we inhabit or pass through daily, and we have the impression to be part of what we see, to be present to a fictitious world. Nonetheless, this basic form of realism – that is mere inferring something about it, cannot satisfy the viewer: film experience is a multimodal experience. To grasp characters’ actions, intentions, and feelings, the viewer has to share something more. He/she has to move inside the story with them, has to share such actions, intentions, and feelings, eventually to “resonate” with them, in order to be fully part of the story and to comprehend it.

Film style basically pursues and provides this impression, by promoting a motor approach to the story and by reinforcing the viewer’s virtual agency. The acting brain, as the discoverers of mirror neurons taught us, is above all a brain that understands. Though we are seat and still in the dark, we move inside the story: the camera is able to make us walk, run, jump, turn, sometimes even fly. Without this low level of resonance, it would be impossible to get the higher cognitive levels of film comprehension. To borrow Vittorio Gallese’s expression, I would say that we should implement the classical Theory of Mind with another one more focused on the Feeling of the Body. Roughly speaking, this is also, nowadays, the relation between cognitive film studies and neuro-cognitive film studies.

An approach to film studies based on ES (embodied simulation) aims to focus on the motor components of film experience. The motor programs elicited by the movies are rather neglected within film theory, and when they are taken into consideration, they are often not supported by neuroscientific data. However, there is a tradition of film physiology that, at the beginning of the 21st century, focused on these aspects. Think of Edouard Toulouse, a French physician who, in 1920, wrote that the perception of the movement on the screen triggers the correspondent movement in the viewer, foreseeing, to some extent, the action of mirror neurons. We find very similar statements in Eisenstein, related both to film acting and film style. In short, film style and techniques play the main role in making the viewer able to interact with the movie.

Finally, who cares about a research like that? And why? Talking with casual moviegoers I have always found great interest in reflecting on their responses to moving images, and huge curiosity in discovering that their film experience would rely on pre-cognitive mechanisms rooted in their brain-body system. Filmmakers and actors are much more interested in this research than the majority of film scholars, who are often skeptical about this branch of studies. Some years ago James Cameron used fMRI to evaluate the impact of Avatar’s trailers on the viewers, while Steven Soderbergh and his screenwriter Scott Burns admitted in an interview their interest in making a movie on mirror neurons. Gilles Deleuze’s prophecy comes to mind: “I don’t believe that linguistics and psychoanalysis offer a great deal to the cinema. On the contrary, the biology of the brain does.”

NH: If the mind is a body moving through space, are you investigating aspects of filmmaking having to do with different types of camera motion, editing rhythms, field of view, not to mention music? In other words, will the research program of ES take us to all corners of cinema, beyond the study of emotional response to persons onscreen?

MG: Our main goal is to demonstrate how cinema can contact the viewer at the embodied level. On the one hand, the movie can exert a very strong control on the viewer’s gaze behavior, kinesthetic sensations, emotions; on the other it can leave the viewer free of wandering across the shots, by weakening the embodied potentiality of film style and enhancing subjective feelings – some would describe it as the main difference between commercial and non-commercial cinema…

Motor responses play a key-role in the very first phase of our film comprehension, and film style and editing basically aim to guide and orient these responses, helping us in building and reinforcing our cinematic spatial cognition. The field is really large, and neuroscientific studies of film are in their first infancy. Nonetheless, I think this is the only way to say something new on the nature of the moving images, which nowadays are very relevant even – or mainly – outside the movie theater. Obviously, what film scholars would need are neuroscientists curious about these topics, and perhaps convinced that the study of our aesthetic experience might contribute to their own research. A few years ago, the American phenomenologist Don Ihde wrote a short book entitled Embodied Technics, in which he argues that our contemporary technologies embody–or in some cases re-embody– our fleshly experience in new ways, in interactive ways. I consider the ES theory a good stepping-stone to start a study of the embodied relationship with technologies and then with styles that are obviously related to those technologies.

NH: I read in an interview that you once studied and wrote about Stanley Kubrick. I imagine one could spend a lifetime studying Kubrick with ES experiments; from your perspective, since you’ve been doing ES work, do you have any hunches as to what some of the distinct qualities are that make his films so unique in tone?

MG: My interest in Stanley Kubrick’s cinema is mainly due to his extraordinary attention to film technologies. He started as a photographer and in many interviews he said that he was very interesting in understanding the “nature” of his camera – i.e. its functioning – in order to take good pictures. Kubrick never separated the story from the technique through which he had to narrate such a story. Every movie is, to some extent, a test on the potentiality of film style and technology: think of Paths of Glory, with its Max Ophüls-like camera movements in the chateau scenes, the documentary-like scenes in the trenches, with the camera that follows the characters in those absurd hallways (and the hallway will become a classical figure in Kubrick’s style), and the geometrical scene during the soldiers’ trial. Or think of the audiovisual symphony of 2001, or the use of hand-camera and wide-angle lens in A Clockwork Orange, the zoom and the lighting in Barry Lyndon (with the super-fast 50mm lenses originally produced by Zeiss for NASA), the steadicam in The Shining, or the tracking shots and the handheld camera that characterize respectively the two different parts of Full Metal Jacket.

I am pretty sure that there is no filmmaker more aware than Kubrick that to narrate the story of our being-in-the-world, you have firstly to find a way to give shape to our being-in-the-cinema. Kubrick’s movies are loved both by film critics and the audience because he is able to make us perfectly interact with them; the audience simply enjoys such interaction, the critics enjoy it too and appreciate how it has been reached. We have not worked on Kubrick yet, but when I had to choose a picture for a post on the motor approach to film style published on the website of the Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image, I chose without hesitation little Danny Torrance on his tricycle in the hallways of the Overlook Hotel.

NH: As I’m sure you’re aware, there are those who come across this work, or who may read this, and raise protest to the supposed goal of this research, to reveal why we love films, what empathy is in the brain– the ultimate, deep questions. And sometimes these skeptics then raise questions about the worth of it all– whether the work will get us anywhere. Do you come across such skeptics? What is your response, and what really is the ambition of what you’re hoping this work will reveal?

MG: Of course I have come across neuro-skeptics many times. To me neuro-skepticism has to be considered as a precious antidote against what I would describe like “magic neuroscience”. Neuro-skepticism is the natural reaction to the dangers of reductionism and to the idea that cognitive neuroscience would oversimplify the complexity of experience. There are books written by neuropsychologists in which we notice skepticism about the possibility for neuroscience to have a real impact on economics, law, ethics and morality, or even aesthetics (see Carlo Umiltà and Paolo Legrenzi’s Neuromania).

Though we have many excellent works by several distinguished neuroscientists who have demonstrated how neuroscientific insights can corroborate and in some cases revolutionize positions in those fields of research, I obviously respect a skepticism based on a deep knowledge of the brain-body system and related literature. Cognitive neuroscience is a young branch of research and we cannot expect a wide sharing when it crosses fields of study that have a longer and more complex tradition. In the humanities every approach – semiotic, psychoanalytic, structuralist, postmodern, etc. – is subjected to skepticism. What is harder to be accepted is a skepticism just based on prejudice, or on some newspapers’ headlines that trivialize serious research. The fear of reductionism, as well as the fear of a confrontation with science are not only unfounded, but also signs of cultural restriction.

Obviously we need to develop a critical neuroscience, i.e. – according to Shaun Gallagher – a cognitive neuroscience that is non-reifying and non-reductionist. Neuroscientists I work with, or I talk to are not “neuromaniacs”, they are perfectly aware of the limits of their research and they are much more prudent of their colleagues within the humanities in applying their methods to other disciplines. We live in a cultural phase in which the crisis of the so-called “Grand Theory” within the humanities and the rising of a new form of humanism within other domains like biology or physics is challenging our thought. If one is really interested in the human being – like the term “humanities” suggests – or if he/she is really interested in what makes us human – and the arts are of course a crucial component – we cannot pretend that research focused on our being-in-the-world are, to say, out of our reach.

You mentioned empathy: is it possible to study empathy – a relevant matter in film studies – without referring to cognitive neuroscience, and more specifically to ES? Obviously we have to keep our identity, we do not have to become neuroscientists. Our goal is to integrate our theories and our research with data suitable to improve our knowledge. We do not have to say something about memory, physiology of vision, motor behavior, gaze behavior per se, but we have to wonder how cinema plays with these aspects of our understanding and how eventually it shapes them. And yet, neuroscience implies a totally different approach. We are not used to experiments that take a lot of time, and to progress step by step answering apparently small questions in comparison to the great queries of our traditional way of speculating. Nonetheless, it is blatantly clear the relevance of cognitive neuroscience for psychology, cognitive science, phenomenology, and even aesthetics.

My reply to skeptics could be this: try to interrogate the movie without recurring to theoretical paradigms elaborated elsewhere. Try to understand at which level it contacts you. Try to deal with it concretely. You will get back to your mind, and then to your brain-body system. Sure, in such a survey you will also find your biography, your education, your own memories, the cultural environment that shapes your thought, and you will appropriate the movie through all these aspects, and nonetheless the movie and its author were not originally interested in such appropriation, they did not work on your cultural specificity, they primarily work on a primordial contact shaped by perception and non-propositional formats of comprehension. Aesthetic experiences are to be considered like complete forms of gradual construction of the self. I agree with Mark Johnson that we need to concentrate on the bodily depths of human meaning-making, always groping toward the sense of our identity, a sense that cannot be conceived of outside the multilayered dimensions of embodiment.

Page 1 of 71234567