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To Be Looked At

[ 2 ] February 14, 2010

At the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, the American artist Roni Horn is one of twelve artists– and one of two women– whom Donald Judd selected to have a permanent work installed.  The works of these twelve artists span 340 acres of the former army base, Fort D.A. Russell, which was established in the 1930s as a cavalry base and as an encampment for German prisoners-of-war up through the end of World War II, and which Judd transformed in 1971 into a contemporary art foundation. Judd’s mission was to create a place unlike other art museums where works are constantly being installed and de-installed. He created a space in the immense West Texas landscape where art exists permanently, forming an inextricable relationship with its environment – the space itself and the work of art are given equal attention.

At Chinati, the profundity of being there comes when you realize the interconnectedness of everything.  The works, which include Donald Judd’s 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum: one hundred aluminum boxes installed in two former artillery sheds, are ever changing with the light of day, with the presence or absence of people.  The viewers transform the space by their presence in it, their reflection in the work of art makes it a different piece, and they themselves are transformed by the awareness that this experience invokes. Mary Jane Jacob and Jacquelynn Baas in their new book Learning Mind; Experience into Art, cite John Dewey: “A work of art…[is] a work of art only when it lives in some individualized experience…as a work of art, it is re-created every time it is esthetically experienced.” (Jacob, 19)  The nature of Chinati is to allow you to become aware enough of the space so that you are able to experience the work, and this process allows the piece to transcend the state of static object, to become artwork.

Roni Horn, Things That Happen Again: For a This and a That, 1986

Roni Horn, Things That Happen Again: For a This and a That, 1986

The work that Roni Horn has installed was fabricated in 1986, and is one part of a three part series entitled Things That Happen Again; the title of the work at Chinati is For a This and a That.  The piece inhabits a former army canteen: a rectangular space that maintains vestiges of its previous life with traces of old walls on the floor and paint still flaking from the walls. The door is positioned slightly off center, and when you enter, Horn’s first piece is presented to you: a solid gleaming copper cylinder.  One circular face is about twice the diameter of the other face, so that the piece has a conical form, with the larger face confronting the door.  With every movement the piece reflects the light differently, each reflection bringing you to a new awareness of the outward appearance of the work.  These changes focus you on the materiality of the form while at once rendering it an ephemeral, ever-changing structure.

Turning to the other side of the room the artist presents you with the exact same sculpture, fabricated to the same specifications, but installed at a different angle.  Yet the state of being at Chinati does not allow you to simply dismiss this repetition – the second piece reflects the light in a completely different way, it has its own presence and impact on you and on the room. Yes the form is the same, but the experience of it is completely new, because everything is inextricable from its context. The perception of it is new and that makes it a different piece.

In Roni Horn’s show Roni Horn aka Roni Horn that was on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art and closed January 24, duplicity is again the theme.  Consistent with the Minimalist framework of using manufactured and repetitive form, the show is replete with sequences, doubles and industrial materials. Horn places the same portrait photograph next to itself, documents the same subject at different moments, positions the same sculpture in different rooms, and allows us to realize that nothing can in fact be the same, that seeing is a unique experience.

I saw this show after working on the Charlie Rose Brain Series episode on perception.  One of the major themes brought up during the roundtable discussion was that the eye is not a camera. The eye integrates incomplete sensory information with past experience, with contextual cues and expectations, to form an internal representation of the outside world. This reinforces the fundamental principle of the Gestalt School of Psychology: the whole is more than the sum of its parts – visual perception is more than just putting together the stimuli that the retina receives.  It is in the brain that we construct what we see, and so our perception is a completely subjective and personal experience. For me, Horn’s work accents this biological fact.  By creating work that forces us to reexamine our perception through repetition, Horn allows the realization that nothing is the same, that our perception is fundamentally subject to a variety of factors both internal and external.

In his book Proust was a Neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer cites Paul Cézanne, the Post-Impressionist painter: “The eye is not enough. One needs to see as well.” (as cited by Lehrer, 97) Cézanne’s canvasses that emphasize brush stroke and texture, which leave white space, and shift from moments of light and dark, make room for the fundamentally creative process of seeing.  We fill in empty spaces, creating a complete impression from his renderings that allows us to perceive the image as a whole.  That Cézanne’s work necessitates this active, though unconscious and automatic, participation by the beholder may be one of the keys as to why we have a reaction to the work. It feels closer to the way that we actually see the world – our brain when perceiving the painting integrates the contrast, the brightness, the angles, the impressions of the artist to construct a meaningful picture – what it does with all sensory cues be they in a painting or in the real world.

David Hockney, Don and Christopher, 1982

David Hockney, Don and Christopher, 1982

This parallels what the critic Lawrence Weschler discusses in his book True to Life about the contemporary artist David Hockney. He cites Hockney as an artist who is exploring through his work ways to most accurately represent how we see the world.  Hockney began these experimentations in the 1980s with photography, finding no movement, no equivalent to his experience of the world in the process of looking at photographs.  And so he began to make photomontages; amalgamations of snapshots that he found better evoked our experience of seeing the world which happens “‘…not all at once but rather in discrete, separate glimpses which we then build up into our continuous experience of the world.’” (Weschler, 10)  Hockney is commenting on our process of seeing, how we take in the bits and pieces that our limited focal range allows out of which our brain, the artist, completes the picture.

In his most recent landscape paintings set in the Yorkshire countryside and exhibited at Pace Gallery this past fall, Hockney remains faithful to what he discovered about our visual processes.  His new paintings require the same activity on the part of the viewer that his photo-collages mandated: “…our heads are moving, swiveling on their neck joints…Time, at any rate, is passing: true to life and the living. And one thing’s for sure: We are no longer experiencing the world from the point of view of that paralyzed cyclops for a split second.” (Weschler, 221)

Hockney, tapping into his own perceptual process and realizing the complicated and fragmentary nature of our vision, is incorporating this understanding into his paintings, which are often combines of multiple canvases.  These paintings are shockingly colorful and often split into parts that show different angles, different times of day, providing a multitude of widened perspectives of one scene.  He is bringing the viewer back into the painting, letting his paintings be “…an account of the experience of that looking.” (Weschler, 66) Taking in each part separately becomes a necessity because Hockney has moved away from one-point perspective. Viewers can realize for themselves, maybe with surprise, that when they are in front of Hockney’s work they are capable of merging these disparate parts into a coherent story.  As with Cézanne, seeing these works may feel truer to our experience of being in the world.

David Hockney, Woldgate Woods, 6&9, 2006

David Hockney, Woldgate Woods, 6&9, 2006

For me, considering Roni Horn’s show and encountering Hockney’s paintings with knowledge in mind of how our perception functions, I find artists whose work is highlighting the biological reality of seeing, providing the context for me to experience what I know. I have always believed in the transformative power of art, in its capacity to make you aware, to touch something in you and open you up, but at Chinati was the first time in my life that I honestly experienced this power for myself.  Since then I have found a way to follow what it was that moved me, that resonated with me intuitively, biologically.  With artists such as Roni Horn and David Hockney, I can see the point at which I find an intersection between science and art: where awareness of both brings you to an understanding that can change the way you experience the world.

Contributor Sonia Epstein graduated from Middlebury College in 2009 and is currently working for neuroscientist Eric Kandel.

The Cellular Architecture of Abstract Art

[ 6 ] February 1, 2010

Cellular Architecture | Watercolor | Noah Hutton, 2010.

Watercolor, Noah Hutton, 2010.

Three years ago, Jeff Hawkins stood before a crowd at the Almaden Institute in San Jose and explained why, after founding Palm Computing, building the Palm Pilot, and establishing himself as a member of the Silicon Valley elite, he switched gears and devoted years to understanding the human brain, resulting in his 2004 book on Intelligence. “We don’t want to solve vision, we don’t want to solve language,” Hawkins told the crowd. “We want to solve something in the brain that is more fundamental.”

What could be more fundamental to our understanding of the brain than the giant realms of language, vision, motor control, and other modalities? The answer finds its roots in the Einsteinian quest for unifying principals in science. In the case of the brain, one unifying principle would be the decoding of the language neurons use to represent information across all realms of the brain—the algorithms of conscious and unconscious brain activity.

Hawkins’ quest is based on the work of the neuroanatomist Vernon Mouncastle, who is credited with characterizing the basic structure of the cerebral cortex, which is populated, as he observed in a 1950 paper, with rows upon stacks of columns, the basic units of the cortex. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, David Hubel, the pioneering researcher of the visual cortex, called Mountcastle’s discovery of columns in the somatosensory cortex “surely the single most important contribution to the understanding of the cerebral cortex since Cajal.” For researchers studying any part of the cortex, columnar organization is the entry point to understanding a neuron’s position within the larger network—a familiar refuge in an otherwise dark and dense jungle of cells.

But it was a later paper Vernon Mountcastle published in 1978 that, as he writes in On Intelligence, caused Jeff Hawkins to “fall out of his chair.”

That paper was titled “An Organizing Principle for Cerebral Function,” and in it Mountcastle made the key observation that, in addition to columns, the cortex is remarkably uniform in cellular organization and morphology wherever you look. Like a McDonalds in Meriden or one in Bangladesh, some things just don’t change. Anatomists had recognized this fact for decades before Mountcastle penned his “Organizing Principle” paper in 1978. Yet, as Hawkins notes in On Intelligence, instead of asking questions about why regions that are known to serve very different functions are quite similar anatomically, anatomists had been peering even closer at cortical tissue, teasing apart the smallest of differences between functional regions—and they did find differences. Thicker layers here, more of a certain type cell there. But what Mountcastle observed in his 1978 paper was that, despite the pursuits of his colleagues who were searching for these relatively small differences between regions, the organization of the cortex is still remarkably consistent at all levels and across all regions. His conclusion was that the cortex must be doing basically the same thing in all regions, be it auditory, motor or otherwise—homologous anatomy equals homologous operation.

Thus, according to his paper, the key to understanding the way the cortex processes and stores information is not in anatomical differences between regions but in the different ways in which cells in each region are wired to each other and to the rest of the nervous system. Small differences in anatomy are more due to what a given region of the cortex is connected to than to differences in what it’s doing: what is crucial to the differences between regions of the cortex is more transportational than architectural. The brain processes information from the eye the same way it processes information from the ear—it’s just that the roads this information travels on leads to different regions of the cortex, and hence auditory versus visual cortex. This point is driven home by countless studies on neuroplasticity that elucidate the remarkable flexibility of these regions to process other sensory streams in cases of tissue loss or genetic malfunction.

The foundation of Hawkins’ On Intelligence, written in 2004 after he picked himself up from the Mountcastle-induced chair incident, is based on this elegant theory of a common algorithm linking all the cortical regions in the brain. Hawkins would go on to coin the term “Hierarchical Temporal Memory” to describe the flow of information up and down hierarchies of synaptic connections in the cortex, mirrored in the layered structure we often see in brain slices. His theory places as much emphasis on incoming sensory data as it does on the predictions constantly being formed by the brain that flow down the hierarchies, making each moment we live a complex equation of the raw data from the world around us combined with everything we’ve ever experienced before, resulting in a series of constantly forming predictions about what we’re about to encounter. It may not yet be the Einsteinian truth that will unify the brain sciences and explain the language of neurons, but the model is evolutionarily sensible—it’s anatomically based—and it’s a theory that Hawkins hopes to use for the development of smart, prediction-generating computers of the future by his new company Numenta.

What we’re concerned with here is not computers, but art. This Hawkins-Mountcastle model can be used here for a slightly different purpose: to move from an fMRI-based approach to a more cellular-based one in thinking about how the brain perceives art, modeled on the Hawkins-Mountcastle theory of the cortex. Some neuroscientists have made the first speculations in this direction—Ramachandran has included in his concept of the peak-shift phenomenon a cellular model, which I discussed in another article. But what the Hawkins-Mountcastle theory offers is a more complete, cross-sensory model of what’s going on in the architecture of the brain when art enters our perceptive arena. Most work in this field draws upon work from older artistic periods, so here I will focus mainly on modern examples of abstraction—but the principles can be applied across genres and forms, and through time.

In Clement Greenberg’s seminal essay on modernist painting, he defined the modernist tendencies as such:

“The Enlightenment criticized from the outside, the way criticism in its accepted sense does; Modernism criticizes from the inside, through the procedures themselves of that which is being criticized.”

– Clement Greenberg, Arts Yearbook 4, 1961.

Contemporary fMRI imaging of the brain while it perceives art is the practice of a current strain of Enlightenment-era neuroscience, a view of internal processes of the brain forever destined to be looking from the outside in.

An fMRI brain scan detects subtle changes in magnetism caused by the iron in blood as it moves through the brain to areas of greater electrical activation.

An fMRI brain scan detects subtle changes in magnetism caused by the iron in blood as it moves through the brain to areas of greater electrical activation.

Thanks to theories like the Hawkins-Mountcastle model and from insights to be gained from digital simulations of the brain, we are beginning to acquire the analytical tools necessary to move inside. The creation and perception of art involves the most definitively human of brain processes and architecture. So, to follow Greenberg’s definition, a modernist assessment of the brain and art must start from the internal structures themselves, must seek to understand the very physical substance and processes that encode the external art object, which flows from sensory perception to mix with the brain-world of memory, prediction, and emotion that awaits it.

Indeed, the Hawkins-Mountcastle model of the cortex places just as much emphasis on what’s actively waiting within as it does on what is finding its way into it. Hawkins explains, “What we perceive is a combination of what we sense and of our brains’ memory-derived predictions.” Though its processes remain buried in our sub-conscious brain, this bottom-up and top-down mixing is evident at every moment of conscious awareness. Hawkins again: “When we look at the world, we perceive clean lines and boundaries separating objects, but the raw data entering our eyes are often noisy and ambiguous. Our cortex fills in the missing or messy sections with what it thinks should be there.”

The mixing takes place in a hierarchical structure where sensory data flows up and memory-based predictions flow down, influencing what arrives in our conscious perception at every synapse. In figure 1, we see a model of this hierarchical structure as presented in the Hawkins-Mountcastle theory.

Hierarchical visual processing in the Hawkins-Mountcastle model of the cortex.

Hierarchical visual processing in the Hawkins-Mountcastle model of the cortex. Each box represents a cell or a series of cells that encode the "building blocks" which lead to the invariant representation of the object at the top of the hierarchy, in this case an airplane. (This is a very oversimplified depiction of a very complex system)

The key to this model and the incredible flexibility of the brain is the presence of invariant representations that are held at the top of these hierarchies. Invariance means that, while something like our visual category of an “airplane” can be triggered by a huge variance of incoming sensory data (a view of the rudder, a frontal view of a plane, just a few of the oval passenger windows, etc.) the category itself remains unchanged. We can get to the idea of an “airplane” in all sorts of ways, but once we identify this category, it clicks into place regardless of the input. The sensory data from the image at hand flows up the cortical hierarchy, guided at the cellular level by activation and inhibition ascending from the raw sensory data and descending from our learned, invariant representations that await it while simultaneously guiding it from above. This is something that computers cannot yet do, and it is a feature of how the brain encodes information that accounts for the incredible flexibility of its pathways and its proclivity for associations between these invariant representations.

We use the example of a photo-realist image of an airplane to briefly describe the concept of invariance in the brain—but what about a piece of abstract modern art? In an unintended way, the journey a piece of modern art takes through the brain—be it a Rothko color field, a Sol Lewitt sculpture, a Philip Glass song—is one that can help us turn the corner from Enlightenment neuroscience to modern neuroscience. For modern art, in its focus on the characteristic method of the discipline itself, can point out the characteristic things about the brain itself, the thing that created it and the thing in which is it perceived and appreciated. This is a methodological and a content-driven corner to turn.

So what are some of these characteristic things about the brain, understood through a piece of modern art that has entered its arena of perception, and taking into account the Hawkins-Mountcastle model of the cortex we’ve been working with?


  1. Modern art, in its tendency toward abstraction, does not depict anything less realistic than art that depicts a human form or any other place or object in a more photo-realistic manner. Rather, it is just depicting a different place in our brain: a place between the invariant (photo-realist) representations at the top of hierarchies, and the essential, raw sensory data of incoming input. A repetitive song of which the content is the structure of the medium itself (Philip Glass) or a color-field painting where visual stimuli brings us into the viewing experience (Rothko) hits a position lower on the Hawkins-Mountcastle hierarchies than visual art which depicts something in stark realism, music with lyrics that tell us precisely how to feel, an author who tells more than he shows. In those cases of hyper-realism, the input reaches the level of invariant representations—the top of a hierarchy of neurons—with more activation in recognizable, symbolic categories of people, places and things. In abstraction, the lack of categories of people, places and things to clearly guide the raw sensory input activates the more essential, mid-hierarchical level of representation in our brain, and thus we experience the greatest neuronal activation from the more essential features of the piece at hand—such as edge detection (Mondrian) or suggested movement (Pollock) in our visual system; repetitive melodies (Reich) in our auditory cortex. We may not know what it means because it hasn’t directly activated any invariant category, but nonetheless we like where it’s activating our cortical hierarchies– a feeling of pleasure that seems to rise up from nowhere in particular.
  2. It follows that, in our brain’s tendency to problem-solve and find meaning in the art we see, read or hear, we try to link these mid-hierarchical patterns of activation to our invariant representations contained higher up in the hierarchy—we see a cluster of amorphous shapes and think we see a certain animal; we lie on our backs and decipher the army of figures in the clouds above us. In this process, we bring to the table what we don’t get from the raw data: meaning is formed more from our internal memory stores and top-down invariant categories than from the raw data itself. It has been intuitively understood in art historical criticism that the distinctly modern trend of artistic abstraction involves the viewer’s own memory and active imagination to a greater degree. The Hawkins-Mountcastle model gives us a crucial grounding of this concept in the emerging understanding of the architecture of the brain.
  3. What of the age-old question of meaning in abstract art? We’ve already established that this art describes something no less “real” than more photo-realistic depictions, than most of the art of centuries prior. Rather, abstraction is primarily working in a different place in our cortex, asking more of top-down feedback from our personal stores of memory than from a bottom-up feed-forward pattern of activation that leads us to a precise set of associations and “meaning,” such as a nativity scene. Greenberg’s definition of modern art was, quite unintentionally, a definition of how modern art is handled by the brain—a focusing on the characteristic “building blocks” of a medium (and thus the building blocks of a hierarchy of neurons), at times for the meaning of the artwork itself. When we have the awkward “what does this mean” moment in a museum—when we turn to a friend and giggle about the meaning of a monochrome painting—we are nervous about the journey that piece of art would allow us to take through our own unconscious: up, down, and across our cortical hierarchies, associations forming beyond our conscious control.

These principles all point to a new way of thinking about the conversation between brain science and art. We know the brain is activated in all sorts of ways when we perceive art. The wonder of fMRI imaging in this art and brain dialogue is quickly diminishing as we move into the modern era of neuroscience, where digital, full-brain simulation models will become the standard. The cutting edge theories of brain architecture, as proposed in the Hawkins-Mountcastle model, will allow us to ask the endlessly fascinating question of where art goes when it enters our brain, and where our brain goes as a result. We can now take any piece of art and ride with it on its cell-hopping journey through the sensory systems, the thalamus, into the cortex, and back down again. We can marvel as memories, mood, and predictions come into play, modifying feed-forward activation; throwing unexpected, invariant representations down from above, coaxing our thoughts towards unexplored associations—and perhaps leading us to create something of our own.

Grounding art in the Hawkins-Mountcastle theory of the cortex may begin to answer some even larger questions. For example, certain IT cells (neurons in the inferior temporal cortex), which sit at the top of hierarchies in the ventral stream of our visual system and may code many of the invariant representations discussed above, could be the stepping stones for associative visual leaps in the brain, the rich ingredients of analogies made by moving between hierarchies and connecting invariant representations with one another, sometimes quite unconsciously. Such associations are fundamental to the brain—they constantly occur at synapses between cells, then at a more systems level between hierarchies, regions, and hemispheres. They drive the highest output of our symbolic thought.

Jeff Hawkins set out to solve something fundamental about the brain, and his theory of brain architecture and information processing may provide us with just that as we contemplate the neuroscience of art and the art of neuroscience. Fundamentally, art is when the brain associates with itself. And the human brain, aware of itself, cannot help but associate.

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Buddhism and the Brain

[ 2 ] January 13, 2010

Meditation. Goro Fujita, 2007.

Meditation. Goro Fujita, 2007.

In his book The Universe in a Single Atom, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama writes: “My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science, so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation.”  For 2,500 years, Buddhism has taken an empirical approach—meditation—to the exploration of mind.  (“Our life is the creation of our mind,” reads the Dhammapada, the Buddha’s moral teachings).  A dialogue has developed in recent years between the ancient Eastern tradition and neuroscience, the modern Western investigation of the brain.  In 2005, in a ceremonial display of consilience, the Dalai Lama delivered the keynote speech entitled, “The Neuroscience of Meditation” at the 35th annual Society for Neuroscience conference in Washington D.C.

Indeed, some have taken up the oars of religion in order to steer along a new course of integrated study.  Dr. B. Alan Wallace, founder of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, has proposed a discipline called “Contemplative Science,” which seeks to discover the nature of reality by pursuing genuine happiness, truth, and virtue in an empirical way.  (The first chapter of his book Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge is available here).  In 2007, Dr. Wallace led one of the most extensive studies of the long-term benefits of meditation practice ever, called The Shamatha Project.  Researchers examined the effects of intensive meditation on attention, cognitive performance, emotional regulation, and health.  Scientists are still analyzing the data, but the work is likely to make waves.

Two earlier studies have already yielded suggestive results.  One, led by Richard J. Davidson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, showed that long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma wave synchrony.  Participants—monks and novices—were asked to practice “compassion” meditation, a complete focus on loving-kindness.  In the monks, activity in the left prefrontal cortex (the seat of positive emotions such as happiness) overwhelmed activity in the right prefrontal cortex (the site of negative emotions and anxiety) to an extent never before seen from purely mental activity.  The conclusion, according to Dr. Davidson, is that “happiness, compassion, loving-kindness, and clarity of attention can all be regarded as the product of skills that can be enhanced through mental training and this training induces plastic changes in the brain and in the body.”  (This according to an Upaya Dharma Podcast, a great resource).  In another study, Harvard University’s Sara Lazar showed that meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness (in the prefrontal cortex and right anterior insula).  More studies need to—and surely will be—performed, but the path of inquiry may have positive public health ramifications.  It seems as though meditation is capable of helping an individual truly achieve well-being.

Most interesting of all, in my opinion, is the relationship of ideas across these disciplines.  For example, in his book The Synaptic Self, Dr. Joseph LeDoux of New York University argues that the self is created and maintained by arrangements of synaptic connections—pathways of communication between neurons.   In an episode of the podcast “Buddhist Geeks” (which I recommend), neuropsychologist and Buddhist teacher Dr. Rick Hanson essentially concurs, describing self as a “network phenomenon” that is constantly changing.  The transitory nature of neurobiological identity happens to affirm the Buddhist concept of anatta, or “not-self.”  According to Buddhism, there is no inherent, independent existence.  This is just one interesting philosophical consequence of our growing understanding of the brain.  The interaction between Buddhism and science has yielded exciting data and revolutionary ideas.  I look forward to more of this dialogue in the years to come.

Ben Ehrlich is a freelance writer and a contributor to The Beautiful Brain. He graduated from Middlebury College in 2009 with a degree in comparative literature. His blog, which tracks his ongoing research into the life and work of the great Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal, can be found here.

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Interdisciplinary Relations: On Consilience

[ 5 ] December 23, 2009

441160a-i1.0Harvard University has a praiseworthy policy: faculty authors put their published articles online.  So Steven Pinker’s essay “Toward a Consilient Study of Literature,” [PDF] a review of the new work The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative (Rethinking Theory) is available to all.  Edited by Jonathan Gotschall and David Sloan Wilson, The Literary Animal is a collection of essays from a number of authors whose method is either called “Literary Darwinism” or “evocriticism.”  “Literary Darwinists” apply insights from the field of human evolution to the study of the literary arts.  A major declarative work from Nabokov biographer and professor Brian Boyd, On the Origin of Stories came out earlier this year.  The new theory could be considered an example of E.O. Wilson’s idea of “Consilience” from his book of the same name: the unification of the humanities and the sciences such as exists in the sciences themselves.  (Wilson wrote a “Foreward” to The Literary Animal).  But as though the disciplines were great nations, there is a good bit of diplomacy required.

The central issue is the phenomenon of human art and its development in the natural world that we currently understand.  In his book, Boyd argues that art is an adaptive trait, a form of cognitive play that encourages social cohesion and engages attention.  Pinker, on the other hand, believes that art is an evolutionary by-product, “cheesecake of the mind,” a pleasure technology born from inessential accident.  Not surprisingly, many people in the humanities have taken issue with Pinker and his views.  But do they matter?  It seems like a fight for academic selection.  And there need be no fighting.  I found nothing but thoughtful, respectful, and constructive criticism in Pinker’s essay.  He is excited by a new direction of thought and disagrees only with specific theories—he does not reject the possibility of art as adaptation.  My only qualm is that Pinker spelled Jane Austen’s name wrong (“Austin”).  She is a literary goddess for many in the humanities.  But we must forgive faux pas and accept the fact that in interdisciplinary relations, some things are lost in translation (or spelling, as it were).

For example, according to Pinker, some misunderstand or misinterpret the theory of evolution itself.  This is not surprising—its temporal vastness is often difficult to grasp and its logic is prone to circular reasoning.  Pinker suggests that using engineering analysis to grease the wheels of the question of fictional mechanism, a hardly intuitive approach for the traditional humanitarian who bristles at the notion of a computational machine between the flesh of our ears. “Will robots have literature?” Pinker asks, quoting the artificial intelligence researcher Jerry Hobbs, whose book Literature and Cognition applies to literature insights and methods from the analysis of discourse and facts of cognitive science.  In other words, would a designer want to build fiction into an intelligent being that had to survive in a humanlike ecosystem, in our world?  I think we are hard-wired for narrative, as there are regions of our brain (particularly the poster parietal cortex and the hippocampus) which seem to be involved in the maintenance of a concept of self and the construction of an autobiography.  Story has a neurobiological humanity about it.  Our own lives are stories that can be extremely thrilling or despairing, rich or barren, lovely or loveless. Instructive fiction includes realistic other selves whom we can identify.  Researchers of “mirror neurons,” which fire while we observe the behavior of others, are trying to understand empathy and should examine the potential role in reader response.   The Literary AnimalStories sharpen and strengthen our understanding of reality and therefore merit, selectively speaking, our engaged attention.  At the mere cost of words (cheap, as the newsman knows) people can conduct thought experiments, mental training that will improve the chance of survival and reproduction.  Seeing, listening, and reading are certainly essential skills.

But as readers of Proust could point out, literature can be pure delight.  My senior colloquium in college read Swann’s Way, the first volume of the Frenchman’s modern epic In Search of Lost Time, together.  During the 7-10 days of reading the novel, I had rare dreams about my childhood 2-3 times.  Another student reported the same thing.  We all entered class embarrassed to admit that the prose had made us sleepy.  Not to worry, our professor said, this is been happening to readers for years.  The rhythm and flow of the prose (I wish that I knew French) convey the feeling of bedtime, where the narrator’s consciousness is focused in the beginning of the novel.  The sublime “madelaine moment,” where Proust discovered involuntary memory with his pen.  These are indulgences, rich treats of for the mind.  Reading part of Proust was one of the most pleasurable experiences I have ever had.  So despite its lessons about childhood and Dreyfus affair-era France, I would concede that it is essentially (delicious) cheesecake.  But the poet Horace said that the purpose of literature is “to delight and to instruct.”  Perhaps art is a by-product and an adaption.  I agree with Pinker’s idea here.

In the end, Pinker offers advice to the young field of Darwinian literary criticism.  I share his excitement for what will come from this book.  The next 5-10 years in literary theory should right the course misguided by the last 40 years.  I studied comparative literature in college and had a very distressing experience with contemporary theory.  It seemed so dry and meaningless.  George Steiner, author of the classic work of literary criticism Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?, reminds that “criticism ought to arise out of a debt of love.”  Lovers of literature will enlighten its study by incorporating the truths discovered by physical science.  This will undoubtedly help protect and defend the discipline in the future.  But the focus should never leave the treasure: the extraordinary texts produced by human beings.

I do not know whether art and fiction are adaptive traits or just happy accidents.  Who can really know that?  We have our theories and beliefs and we should allow them to change if they must.  Nothing can erase the profound influence that art, fiction, and literature have had on human civilization.  So let’s not be afraid of explaining it. I applaud the Darwinian literary critics.  I look forward to input from researchers of consciousness, because this state underlies the mental process of reading, living, and understanding story.  Which leads to a great philosophical question: why do humans have subjective experience that accompanies neural activity?  Why are we artistic, and not automatic?

Ben Ehrlich is a freelance writer and a contributor to The Beautiful Brain. He graduated from Middlebury College in 2009 with a degree in comparative literature. His blog, which tracks his ongoing research into the life and work of the great Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal, can be found here.

The Promises and Pitfalls of Neuroaesthetics

[ 7 ] December 16, 2009

"Life in the Brain" | Watercolor, Noah Hutton, 2009

On a chilly afternoon in late September, several dozen philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists and artists filed into a cavernous lecture hall at the University of Copenhagen for the first day of the first annual Copenhagen Neuroaesthetics Conference. Within a matter of minutes, Jon Lauring, a professor of psychology at the University and one of the conference’s hosts, approached a podium beneath an oversized powerpoint screen and started asking the important questions.

“What is aesthetics?”

He hesitated, expecting silence, which he received. Then he answered his own question: “Nobody can really tell you. And what are we doing here?”

With that question hovering over every presentation, side conversation, and hurried coffee break, the conference began.

The first two days of the conference passed with alternating moments of brilliant insight and awkward convergences. On the brilliant side, artists approaching neuroscientific work called attention to the pitfalls in rushing to empiricism when the subject—an oil painting, a piece of music—is itself so deeply subjective, and thus called upon these scientists to reframe their guiding questions. This seems to be the best hope for such a conference: to question, reframe, inspire, and send its participants home with a rejuvenation of spirit—artists having discovered the wonders of recent findings about the brain and scientists made more aware of the complex processes involved in artistic creation and observation.

But for each warm and fuzzy moment, there were the inevitable shortcomings where the empire of brain science, the enchanted land of aesthetics, and the private club of the artists seemed like comet-riding factions whipping through a solar system temporarily centered around the Protostar of Copenhagen. Talks butted up against one another in their uses of brain science, varying greatly in the depths to which researchers are deciding to involve the hard neuroscientific data in their classical aesthetics research. Thomas Jacobsen, author of Bridging the Arts and Sciences: A Framework for the Psychology of Aesthetics, began his slideshow with a pie-chart: seven approaches, represented as seven slices, surrounded the words at heart of the pie: the psychology of aesthetics. This chart was perhaps the most useful visualization of the challenges faced by these pioneering researchers—it was a humbling reminder that we need to be aware of the variety of factors involved in viewing art, from the viewing situation to our own experience to collective histories, when we evaluate the psychology and eventually the neuroscience of creating and observing art.

Jacobsen, like many other presenters at the conference, seemed to both acknowledge the lack of empirical, explanatory power in many of the current approaches to neuroaesthetics but to also relish in the opportunity to stick their test subjects in an fMRI machine and display some slides, usually near the end of the presentation, with colorful images of activation in certain areas of their brains while observing art. Rarely did these slides add any explanatory power to the arguments at hand. At its best, the display of fMRI results would affirm for the neuroscientist some basic facts about visual perception: activation in object-memory regions, reward pathways, perhaps increased activity in spatial orientation areas depending on the work at hand. Though it is important to start somewhere with the integration of neuroscience into these classical lines of aesthetics research (and it is a thrill to see any integration at all of the hard neuroscience) the danger is in having the work get stuck in a sort of Enlightenment-era botany when the scientific tools are becoming available to move beyond the romantic naming of parts and the pointing at colorful fMRI displays of bloodflow through the brain. Soon we will move beyond the fascination that the brain is activated when we think, see or do anything at all, and begin to unify the vast fields of hard neuroscientific data and tools for studying the brain in the process of trying to answer the basic and beautiful questions of subjectivity and consciousness.

So in the Einsteinian quest to unify and explain basic and fundamental truths of natural phenomena, where can this cobbled-together field of neuroaesthetics point us? Since the Enlightenment, which sowed the seeds of so much informational evolution in the past centuries, we have grown increasingly specific in each discipline of information—so much so that it is as if we have been building massive telescopes to penetrate academic fields, and in building these telescopes, year after year, department after department, we have risked losing sight of the galaxies and ultimately the universe that these fields all inhabit and describe.  In all of our telescoping fervor there has been something essential gone missing, a unifying gaze that so many disciplines, be it physics, aesthetics, or neuroscience, now crave. The great Harvard sociobiologist E.O. Wilson calls this outlook on the sciences and humanities “Consilience,” and calls for a return to the unification of knowledge that great thinkers such as Leonardo wielded for the true advancement of his species. In the brain sciences of the modern day, art and all the offerings of the non-empirical humanities are too often seen as a sort of icing on the hardened cake of cellular and physiological data—a pleasant behavioral result of the gears that move neural networks, ion channels, synapses—the gears the sciences have been and continue to be the most equipped human endeavor to unveil. But in this ever-magnified and ever-intensified unveiling of the gears within, what do we risk as a species, as humans, as the progenitors of symbolic cultures that we deem the highest achievements of us animals, when we refuse to consider the role the humanities could plan in science, and the role of science in the humanities?

If we do not pursue unification, both the sciences and the humanities will be threatened by our narrow-mindedness. The humanities will cease to be relevant in the wake of so many breakthroughs in our laboratory understanding of the brain, consciousness, and the universe; the sciences will become even dryer and more sterile to the generations of thinkers to follow, unable to inspire the creativity needed for major breakthroughs and rendered even more inaccessible than they already are to the curious artist. Science will undoubtedly persist in its unveiling of the brain—and we should do nothing to stop what is already well underway. But we can do more both as artists and as scientists. The possibilities brought on by unification are grand—they can mirror the explosion of art and science seen in the early 20th century when Einstein’s Theory of Relativity paralleled the beginnings of modernist movements. They can hark back to the days of the great Renaissance masters, when art and science achieved a mutually informative symbiosis in a single thinker’s work. But they can go further and explore new terrain unique to the 21st century—the wild, beautiful jungle of the human mind, and the creativity that will be required for the next generation of thinkers to understand and harness the power of the most complex piece of matter in the known universe.

Yet calls for this sort  of unification can seem vague and grandiose. The essential questions linger: How could art and science ever be truly mutually informative? What positive results would ever come out of promoting the dialogue between the two, and do they not seek to accomplish essentially different tasks?

There are several levels of the art-science dialogue. One of the most obvious dialogues exists in the use of metaphor in explaining dense scientific concepts: often it is with a simple visualization of a mechanism in familiar terms, the construction of a new model to present the hard data, that the “aha!” moment arrives and new questions can be formed, leading to new lines of research, or simply the translation of science-speak into layman’s terms. The analogy is one of the artist’s greatest tools, one of humanity’s original tools, and a vehicle for some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of all time.

There is also the ever-growing bank of scientific knowledge that can be drawn upon for artistic inspiration. There are many contemporary examples of brilliant cross-pollination, and even an academic journal to document such work (The aptly named Leonardo, published by The MIT Press, which seeks to foster an “international channel of communication for artists who use science and developing technologies in their work”). In the case of neuroscience, the brain’s beauty and attractiveness to the arts rests less in its meaty, folded, three-pound external form but rather in the vastly complex ways in which its universe of electrochemical activity orchestrates the great emotions, ideas, and ultimately artistic output we hold in the highest regard.

The arts can provide new models—sorely needed by the neurosciences—to visualize, interpret, and study this highly complex inner world. These models and interpretations can surely aid in empirical research. But the crucial interaction between art and science can be in the education and inspiration of a new generation of scientific humanists, whose creativity will be needed to answer some of our deepest and toughest questions. There is no loss of awe and wonder by squaring the subjective in the cellular—there is just the realization that for a great source of inspiration, medical progress, and answers to some of our deepest questions of existence, the 21st century will turn the telescope back at the space between our ears.

Welcome to The Beautiful Brain

[ 1 ] December 16, 2009

Screen shot 2009-12-05 at 7.52.41 PMThe Beautiful Brain explores the latest findings from the ever-growing field of neuroscience through monthly podcasts, essays, and reviews, with particular attention to the dialogue between the arts and sciences. The hope is to illuminate important new questions about creativity, the mind of the artist, and the mind of the observer that modern neuroscience is helping us to answer, or at least to provide part of an answer. Instances where art seeks to answer questions of a traditionally scientific nature are also of great interest, and for that reason you will hear from artists as well as scientists on The Beautiful Brain.

In this first iteration of the site, check out the first edition of the podcast, which explores the field of neuroaesthetics, as well as an essay I wrote and a review of a new exhibition in New York City. I will be updating the site through the weeks ahead with new articles and reviews, and the podcast will be a monthly affair. Thanks for checking the site out and let me know if you have any suggestions.

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