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Sleuthing the Mind: Exhibition Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warren Neidich, "Glossary".

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

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

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

Greg Garvey.

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

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

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






Deconstructing the Conscious Mind, Theatrically

[ 3 ] November 7, 2012
The Deconstructive Theatre Project presents The Orpheus Variations

A scene from The Orpheus Variations

Early on in The Deconstructive Theatre Project’s recent staging of The Orpheus Variations, there’s a delightful unveiling of the unfamiliar storytelling mechanism that will guide us through this story, familiar as it is. The piece opens with projections on a large screen at the rear of the stage that suggest travel: landscapes passing by, left to right, set to the sounds of a train. Then, in a moment of pure deconstructive bliss, lights fade up on the stage to reveal an actor sitting in a chair, head pressed against a square of plexiglass covered in beads of water. A camera operator stands in full visibility to the audience; another crew member holds a light just-so. The resulting image that is transmitted from the videocamera, via a live feed to the rear screen, is a frame of just the actor’s head, pressed against the plexiglass, that slips in seamlessly with the travel-themed prologue: he’s in the train we heard, watching the rain-soaked landscape whizzing by outside his window. And so the Variations unfold, each moment constructed in full view as it’s simultaneously beamed to the rear screen, one vignette cutting seamlessly to the next, giving us access to layers of representation usually hidden from cinematic and theatrical view.

In the grand tradition of McLuhan’s concept of medium-as-message, The Orpheus Variations was perhaps most remarkable for its development of this inventive mode of narrative presentation that ended up feeling emotionally resonant not only for the familiar pains and longings of the Orpheus myth as expressed by the text and the actors, but also for the feaures of the presentation itself: the ephemeral nature of each vignette’s delicate staging, suggestion, and then ultimate vanishing, as lights, chairs and props were hustled away for their reuse in a completely new setting. It was like watching Gerald Edelman’s concept of Neural Darwinism embodied in a cinematic and theatrical language: using just the bare essentials, the building blocks of theater– an actor, a light, two or three props, well-timed foley effects– a whole universe was created from the nimble adaptation of its existing elements into new and sometimes surprising uses. In this way, the system of presentation created by Orpheus director Adam Thompson and his collaborative company– most of whom wore multiple hats during the production– is a brilliant reflection of the constant stitching-together of human consciousness.

More images from The Orpheus Variations:






Some cognitive scientists, such as Robert Stickgold of Harvard, have used the relationship between the seen and unseen in theater as a good metaphor for the relationship between the conscious and non-conscious activity in our brains when we sleep. The metaphor goes something like this: One leading theory about sleep, called the activation-synthesis hypothesis, posits that sleep is a time for the brain to sift through all the experiences and thoughts we’ve kept in our short-term buffer throughout the day, decide what’s worth keeping, and then weave those survivors into the complex web of memory we already have within us, for us to carry along until tomorrow, at least. That process happens quite unconsciously– in the “backstage” regions of the mind, as we sleep. This process of sifting– of activation, then synthesis– generates waves of activation throughout the brain, probing neurons that store information not only from what happened that day, but also activating those that deal with longer-term memories that may be of associative use as we try to relate the new stuff to the older stuff, and see how the new memories might be of use in preparing for the future, a constant pursuit of the mind.

Those waves of activation end up seeding our dream consciousness– the theory goes– by creating a stream of objects, people, feelings, places, and everything else, that sort of “bubbles up” from that non-conscious background memory-sorting process, and surfaces in our conscious, dream-state. In this sense, it’s that raw material that bubbles up from the backstage process that is seized upon by our conscious minds– the fully-lit, gazed-upon stage of the theater– which then weaves it all together, onstage, into our dream narrative, imposing meaning, as we do, in the strangest–or sometimes most poignant– of places.

In following with this metaphor, watching The Orpheus Variations felt like being given an all-access pass to the theater of the conscious mind. And here, instead of the standard routine of months of secret preparations, then presentation to the public on one illuminated stage, with a fury of even more secret activity happening just out of sight in the orchestra pit, backstage chambers, and managerial booths above, in Orpheus we were given several worlds to view all at once, each world relating to the next one, the viewer free to climb up and down the ladder from pure construction to complete deconstruction. We saw a coherent, well-constructed film playing at the rear; then, onstage, the collection of actors, crew members, videographers, props and lights that were sufficient and necessary for generating each image in the film; and then there was the dim glow cast upon the rest of the exposed stage, were we could see a foley artist adding a layer of sensory experience, other crew members pulling aside a precarious cable or preparing props for the next scene, a videographer, once in place, giving a thumbs-up to the live video-switcher, who would cut from one camera’s live feed to the next, stitching the film together, one shot at a time. This variation on the familiar Orpheus was a thrilling reminder of just how illusory the sum is when we get to see all the parts.


Gateway Books: The Storytelling Animal

[ 8 ] June 17, 2012
Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.
-Robert Penn Warren, “Audobon: A Vision,” VII [B]

Sketch by Ted Benson for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Towards the top of the cover of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, a new book by Jonathan Gottschall, there is a one-word blurb: “Enthralling.” The blurb comes from Jonah Lehrer, superstar author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, which recently debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. That book was blurbed by Malcolm Gladwell, world-beating one-man-brand responsible for The Tipping Point (2000), Blink (2005), and Outliers (2008). These degrees of blurburation unite a particular genre of books, a tasting menu of pop-intellectual dinner-party conversation fodder peppered with anecdotes and infused with water-weak or spoiled-rotten science, which usually ought to be taken with a granary of salt. With the Pandora and Amazon algorithms in mind, it might be fair to say that if you like The New Yorker, where Gladwell is a staff writer and Lehrer is a frequent contributor, or Freakonomics, or NPR, then “you might like” The Storytelling Animal. However, as is the case with anything we put into to our bodies, we should be careful about which books we consume.

There are some important differences between The Storytelling Animal and its cousins in terms of both content and cookery. Unlike Gladwell and Lehrer, Gottschall is a working academic; he teaches at Washington and Jefferson College in Pennsylvania. Although his PhD is in English, he also completed graduate research under the distinguished biologist David Sloan Wilson. In this spirit of consilience, the unity of the sciences and the humanities proposed by another biologist Wilson (E.O.), Gottschall has emerged as a prominent voice in the new school of criticism known as “Literary Darwinism.” “Literary Darwinists,” who hold that human nature is constructed first and foremost by biology, and not by culture or discourse, interpret and analyze the arts through evolutionary theory and using scientific methodologies. For example, in his On the Origin of Stories (2009), the literary scholar Brian Boyd presents a scientifically-rooted theory of storytelling as an adaptive trait. That book, over 500 pages, contains the kind of scrupulous and exhaustive research you might expect from an excellent biographer (of Vladimir Nabokov). On the Origin of Stories is a brilliant and invaluable text, but it is not a bestseller. Writing one of these calls for a different recipe.

In The Storytelling Animal, Gottschall’s main idea is a magical one: we are Homo fictus (a term coined by the novelist E.M. Forster in his classic critical work Aspects of the Novel), fiction fiends, creatures of an imaginative realm called Neverland, “where we ramble in make believe.” If this sounds like a tale you would tell your children, it is; Gottschall refers frequently and charmingly to the play habits of his two daughters, who serve as examples of what is, according to the author, an evolutionary principle. “Fiction is a powerful and ancient virtual reality technology that simulates the big dilemmas of human life,” he writes (echoing the cognitive psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley, and others) and it “lay(s) down grooves in our brains, making our actions crisper, faster, surer.” This is metaphorical make-believe in itself (Gottschall, like all popular authors, is an excellent storyteller, which might be most of what accounts for their success). But how do stories actually aid us in our survival? Gottschall states the essential “Literary Darwinist” position: “Fiction allows our brains to practice reacting to the kinds of challenges that are, and always were, most crucial to our success as a species.” Stories teach us how to better navigate the world as individuals and, in the complicated case of religion especially, they strengthen social bonds and group identities.

These explanations, which attribute adaptive advantages to our universal behaviors, are key to any argument about evolutionary necessity. Literary Darwinists have proposed and studied hypotheses about why we need stories (such as that reading improves our capacity for empathy) in response, seemingly, to the sentiments of the scientist Steven Pinker who once dismissed the arts as evolutionary trivialities, like “cheesecake for the mind.” At that time, his famous view was that the arts are sensual confections, all sugar and fat and no nutrition. Another word for this is “spandrel” (which seems bastardly, and sounds like “scoundrel”), an architectural term for the accidental space created between a curve of an arch and the rectangular framework that surrounds it. In the biological sense is has come to mean a non-adaptive byproduct of the evolution of another characteristic. (Pinker’s position, on stories at least, has since evolved.)

But The Storytelling Animal is less an argument than an appreciation; the book is a celebration of stories. Although he has written and edited scholarly works, where he has developed his own ideas and theories, Gottschall does not bite off any more than he can chew in The Storytelling Animal. In other words, it is a light meal. The text of The Storytelling Animal is not so heavy on science (although the end notes refer to a wide range of sources, including biological journals). But when Gottschall does introduce data, he seems to do so respectfully and responsibly, which is rare. About the discovery of mirror neurons in macaque monkeys, which some believe to be hard evidence for human empathy, the author disclaims: “As with any area of emerging science, controversies rage.”  He resists the temptation to use these theoretical vapors to fuel his own fantastic conclusions. Gottschall also manages to describe the split-brain research of neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, which can be confusing because of our criss-crossed brain-to-body wiring, in a clear and attractive way. Gazzaniga and his collaborators found specialized circuits in the left hemisphere that unconsciously organize information into a meaningful account but, again, Gottschall does not over-indulge his own speculation. His eyes are not bigger than his reader’s stomach.

But there is an inherent problem with pop-intellectual book-cooking that every top-chef-author must negotiate. How do you make the science tasty, but still true? How do you make the anecdotes easily-digestible, yet still filling? Do you sacrifice painstaking gourmet challenges for simple comfort standbys? Gladwell has been dismissed by some for his empty recipes and Lehrer has been criticized for his misleading labels. Although Gottschall passes inspection, there is something that still keeps him from an ‘A’ grade. And it has to do with storytelling.

“Evolution is ruthlessly utilitarian.” This is a sentence that appears early on in The Storytelling Animal. Although simplification is the name of the game for popular writing, this reductive equivalence kicks too strongly. After all, evolution can refer to a number of intricate processes, operating on multiple levels, which can contribute to manifest change across generations. “Literary Darwinists” are concerned almost exclusively with one particular process: natural selection. But although natural selection is the basis for Darwinian evolution, it is not all there is to evolution itself, as we continue to learn. For example, one might say too that “Evolution is lazy and random,” describing genetic drift and random mutation, molecular-level evolutionary processes that may also be significant in the course of our history. This storyline should not be edited out of the evolutionary narrative which, like any great narrative, is so thoroughly nuanced. And Evolution, personified as it is, should not be rendered two-dimensional, but rather it should remain as complex and mysterious as it truly is. The Storytelling Animal is not a book about genetics, of course. But it does employ “evolution,” and the use of evolutionary ideas should always be qualified as a part of a whole. There should be a functional explanation of evolution itself, for the sake of the intellectual public that might not know about such a powerful and often, unfortunately, unpalatable topic. If nothing makes sense without the light of evolution, and more and more of our culture, like the art of storytelling, is now being heated under this light at some strength or another, then an author should include this sort of intentional statement, a “What We Talk About When We Talk About Evolution”. This is for the sake of transparency, so we know what it is we are supposed to be eating.

Gottschall could have maintained the sensational kick of his statement by writing, instead: “Natural selection is ruthlessly utilitarian.” (Natural selection is not listed in the book’s index, not even as a subset of Evolution.) This may seem like pickiness, but every popular book represents an opportunity to nourish people.  Natural selection may be the most popular evolutionary idea precisely because of its narrative seductiveness. It offers those timeless appeals to our animal appetite: sex and violence. In The Storytelling Animal, Gottschall discusses the role of these fantastical factors in various film, television, and video game conventions, but does not reflect the evolutionary narrative back onto itself.  The fact is that, despite their empirical standards, scientists tell a story of evolution—of the ape that becomes man, of relentless change and the eternal problem of survival. Literary Darwinists, inspired by this story, are telling a story of their own to try to explain the persistence of storytelling. Our lives are our stories, and Jonathan Gottschall’s book is a testament to their ubiquity and variety but, being an appetizer, there is a certain lack of depth and fullness to it.

At the end of The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall compares stories to food, because we crave both. Some are healthful, yet too much or the wrong kind can be harmful for you.  This is a good analogy, as we have seen. But consider stories, and the books that contain them, to be another form of similar stimulation: drugs. Books alter the mind, sometimes profoundly. As a drug, The Storytelling Animal is somewhere between the recreational and the hardcore, somewhere between Malcolm Gladwell and a gritty academic collection called Narrative and Consciousnessness: Literature, Psychology, and the Brain (2003).  The Storytelling Animal could be called the perfect “gateway” book, a term used to argue against the use of rather benign drugs because they might lead to more serious usage. The Storytelling Animal is light, mild, and stimulating.  One could surely follow the blurbs toward pop-intellectualism and less potency. It could be a gateway away from science. However, the book suggests another path as well, one toward real consilience, a productive and progressive relationship between the sciences and the arts, the erasure of artificial boundaries, the unity of disciplines, the future in higher education, the serious and difficult story of the quest for knowledge no matter where it might be found. This would be a wonderful addiction.

Seeing Ourselves: A Brain and Art Gallery Show Hits New York City

[ 7 ] April 10, 2012

A view of the gallery space at MUSECPMI.

Visual art and neuroscience are stitched together in a new gallery show in New York City at MUSECPMI, and the results are a mixed bag of intriguing syntheses and frustrating shortcomings. MUSECPMI’s gallery space occupies the sixth and seventh floors of a nondescript office building at Eighth Avenue and 38th Street, and for the past weeks the space has been filled with a collection of paintings, photographs, sculptures, digital projections and interactive stations that all orbit around questions of the mind, identity, and medical imaging of interior spaces.

Curated by two M.D.s, Koan Jeff Baysa and Caitlin Hardy, “Seeing Ourselves” features work by some of the same brain-focused artists and scientists we’ve featured on our pages here at The Beautiful Brain, among many others (Pablo Garcia, Elizabeth JamesonJason Snyder). According to the exhibition’s press release, the intent of the show is to

encourage the sharing of institutional knowledge as well as to examine the contexts of these medical images from the perspectives of the humanities, in addition to the sciences. By displaying the most advanced medical imaging examples in conversation with other visual images, and as artwork themselves, the curators blur ingrained distinctions between art and science and encourage audiences outside of the medical communities to appreciate and to be inspired by the remarkable scientific advances. (source)

While excited by this description of a conversation between science and art in the same space, I was disappointed to find that the setup of the conversation seems to have been rushed through and dropped mid-sentence. There are no wall labels placing the scence and art into any sort of context, nor are there even identifying labels next to each piece for the artists’ names or the titles of their works. Scientific projections play on walls with no explanation of what we’re seeing. The tones set by the imagery are interesting, but we need more– even a short description would help. Because the visitor gets no orientation or context, what could have been a groundbreaking exhibition of medical imagery and artistic answers to questions of inner space has been set forth in a strange, partially thought-through manner.

Despite the disappointments in presentation, the visual dialogue established merely by placing of all this work in one space left me hopeful for future brain and art exhibitions in New York. One can imagine Pablo Garcia’s large-scale cortical butterfly pieces– wonderful to see in person for their three-dimensionality– presented next to the very Cajal images and quotations he’s inspired by, for example. I’m grateful to MUSECPMI for the first move in this direction, and eager to see what future shows will bring.

“Seeing Ourselves” at MUSECPMI will be open until Saturday, April 14th. MUSEPCMI is located at at 580 Eighth Avenue, 7th Floor at 38th Street, New York City. The gallery is free and open Tuesday through Saturday, 12:00 PM to 6:00 PM.

The Art Brains Make and See

[ 6 ] November 18, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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



REVIEW: The Buying Brain

[ 0 ] September 30, 2011

"The Buying Brain: Secrets for Selling to the Subconscious Mind" by Dr. A. K. Pradeep. Wiley, $27.95.

We’ve all seen advertisements and commercials that made us smile, laugh and distinctly remember a product, even when we weren’t really sure why. For every company, figuring out how to get more customers to purchase your goods or services seems as much of an art as it is a science. But A.K. Pradeep, Founder and CEO of NeuroFocus, Inc. and author of “The Buying Brain”, wants to convince you that successful marketing is the result of fully understanding the fundamental desires of the subconscious brain. In “The Buying Brain”, Pradeep explores the budding field of neuromarketing and describes its current and future applications. While he makes an impassioned case for his approach and clearly articulates the areas in which it can be integrated (from product development to branding, packaging to social media etc.), “The Buying Brain” suffers from a bit too much self-promotion and never really seems to say anything new and revolutionary about the nexus of marketing and neuroscience. More interestingly, however, I can’t help but wonder whether this new field is a good thing. With all the powerful knowledge of how our brains work, I think it might also be worth considering how we deploy these new technologies, what we’re trying to sell with them and who exactly we’re trying to sell to.

Pradeep begins the book by describing some of the methodologies employed by NeuroFocus, Inc. to more accurately and fully measure brain response to different products and images. NeuroFocus, Inc. seems to rely almost exclusively on EEG sensors, which allow for instant electrical measurements of brain activity on a fairly global scale (and are significantly cheaper than fMRI machines). The book obviously doesn’t go into extreme detail about the company’s methodology, since it’s a proprietary approach, but I wish that it better described which of the millions of data points they knew to discard from their tests, which data points they knew to keep, and how they extrapolated their conclusions from such a massive amount of electrical activity. Pradeep has quite a bit of “skin in the game” when he describes the approach, since the book presents his company’s own methods, but I would be curious to learn more about other product-testing approaches that rely on fMRI or biometric measurements instead.

The first half of “The Buying Brain” lays out a few different market segments (men, baby boomers, mothers etc.), what sort of brain differences exist between them, and how to best capitalize on those opportunities through strategic branding and messaging campaigns. It’s here that Pradeep tends to play a little fast and loose with gender differences (both social and physiological), but it may be that Pradeep was writing this book more for business people than scientists. The second half of the book then describes the different stages of developing and selling different products to those particular sorts of brains, and that’s where the book becomes more interesting. I found it bizarrely fascinating to learn how each step of a consumer’s unique journey (seeing an advertisement, entering a store, noticing the product on the shelf, deciding to purchase it) was studied, measured and programmed so intensely. It’s not something I’m aware of very often (perhaps a sign of how effective modern marketing has become!), but it was interesting to read about the close relationships between smells, store sounds, font size and a whole laundry list of other attributes that could all be measured, reduced and studied scientifically as part of the “total consumer experience”.

Ultimately, while I learned quite a bit about how neuromarketing is trying to harness some of our recent understandings of the brain, many of the observations in “The Buying Brain” seemed kind of obvious and intuitive: We already know that consumers like simple, clear packaging and we all know how we get overwhelmed in a store when we’re faced with too much choice. Furthermore, I’m not sure that any amount of EEG testing or sample groups will produce iconic, innovative brands like Apple or Nike. The organic production of good artistry and graphic design, in logos, ads and packaging, seems just as (if not more) important in marketing as measuring their effects through sensors.

Finally, I can’t help but wonder whether it’s the best use of our scientific and intellectual capital to learn how to better tailor products to meet our unconscious desires. The subconscious mind is truly a powerful force and not sure that further playing to our base instincts will make us better, more thoughtful consumers. It’s worth remembering that sometimes our natural instincts lead us away from other important issues (eg: what is this product doing to my own health? What is this product doing to the planet?  What message is this product sending to young children?). Perhaps it’s just because I recently watched Morgan Spurlock’s “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold”, but I hope that these breakthroughs in marketing technology are accompanied by a renewed debate over what exactly we’re selling and consuming. My hope is that the market’s best goods and services rise to the top because of their unique value propositions and their thoughtful and positive contributions to the world at large – not simply because their marketing campaigns tickled our primal brains in the right way.

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