The Corpus Callosum

This Is Your Brain…On Art


This is an image of a human brain.  It is constructed using an
imaging method known as diffusion spectrum imaging.
 The technique has been discussed at href="">Neurophilosophy
and href="">;
both posts were based upon a paper in href="">PLOS

The image above is perhaps more visually appealing that the images in
the POLS Biology paper, if only because of the color scheme and the
higher contrast.  I know, it is not really artistic, in the
traditional sense: there is a distinction between artistry and visual
appeal.  If you want to get the full impact, you may wish to
see the original
at Technology Review.  (I compressed it quite
a bit and the quality suffered.)

The corpus callosum, by the way, is what gives rise to the red fibers
in the picture.

Neuroimaging, such as the diffusion spectrum method, represents the
very latest in psychiatric research.  As it happens, though,
images have been important in psychiatry from the very beginning…

One of the earliest theories in psychiatry was psychoanalytic theory.
is a particular form of psychotherapy.  The practice of
psychoanalysis, and the theory that underlies it, are based upon a set
of traditions for the interpretation of symbols.  The symbols
can be of any sort.  The spoken word is typically the medium
of interest in psychoanalysis, but it is by no means the only medium.

Early practitioners of psychoanalysis were fond of applying their
tradition to the interpretation of symbols in nontherapeutic settings.
 Sometimes this was interesting; other times, frankly annoying.

In casual social settings, analysts would bop around interpreting
people’s shoes, hair styles, and the way they held their cigars.
 As I said, it was annoying.  Sort of like the way
religious persons try to inject religion into everything, these persons
would apply psychoanalytic theory as though it were a theory of

Psychoanalytic theory has merits, but it plainly is not
a theory of
everything.  It only appears to be, for it provides a way to
impute meaning to symbols, and symbols are everywhere.  The
obsessive interpretation of random symbols is a practice of
questionable value.  In contrast, however, there is meaning in
the psychologically-informed interpretation of symbols, as presented in
works of art.

For some modes of human endeavor, symbolism is entirely the point of
the endeavor.  Art is like that.  That is the
difference between visual impact and visual art.  Without
symbolism, art is no more interesting than a table of random numbers.

39634 62349 74088 65564 16379 19713 39153 69459 17986
14595 35050 40469 27478 44526 67331 93365 54526 22356 93208
30734 71571 83722 79712 25775 65178 07763 82928 31131 30196
64628 89126 91254 24090 25752 03091 39411 73146 06089 15630
42831 95113 43511 42082 15140 34733 68076 18292 69486 80468
80583 70361 41047 26792 78466 03395 17635 09697 82447 31405
00209 90404 99457 72570 42194 49043 24330 14939 09865 45906
05409 20830 01911 60767 55248 79253 12317 84120 77772 50103


The image of Vincent Van Gogh is nothing more than a string of 881,320
zeros and ones.  If you look at the zeros and ones, they
appear to be random.  The meaning arises when the raw
information is interpreted.

There is a paper, available online, describing one aspect of the
history of the relationship between psychoanalysis and the
interpretation of art: href="">Psychoanalytic
Aesthetics: The British School, by Nicola Glover.
 It is not a paper of general interest for most people, but it
does highlight an important finding:

As we noted in the last Chapter, Klein contributed
only three papers which touched on artistic material and did not
develop an aesthetic theory as such. Like Freud, her interest in art
related to the way it could illuminate and clarify certain aspects of
her psychoanalytic theory that she was interested in at the time.

What this shows, is that the early analysts were not merely interested
in applying their theory to understand art; rather, they were
interested in art as a way to advance their theory.  It worked
both ways.

For Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein, the study of art was merely more
grist for the mill.  The greater the variety of human endeavor
they studied, the more they were able to elaborate and validate their
psychoanalytic theory.

Ms. Glover delineates the history of the interactions between the
development of psychoanalytic theory, and the development of aesthetic
theory.  It started
with Sigmund Freud, who really just scratched the surface:

This chapter
will look at the general direction of Freud’s writings on art, and its
relationship to his metapsychology. My intention is to show that
Freud’s contribution to aesthetics, although criticised for being
ambivalent and incomplete, is significant largely because it has made
subsequent developments possible within the British School of

Ms. Glover next discusses the contributions of Melanie Klein. 
Klein was one of the few early analysts who was a woman.
 For various reasons, she ended up doing a lot of work with
children.  She also diverged from classical Freudian theory in
several respects.  Her work with children led to an interest
in play, then to art.  Not that art is play, but the two
endeavors share a common element of free expression.  Klein
advanced some of Freud’s work on aesthetics:  

Klein, however, was
herself interested in art and literature (although, like Freud, mainly
for the exegesis of her clinical theory) and she contributed three
papers which were specifically devoted to the analysis of artistic and
creative themes, the most relevant one being (as far as this study is
concerned) ‘Infantile Anxiety Situations Reflected in a Work of Art and
the Creative Impulse’ (1929).

The thing is, no matter how smart the analysts were, sooner or later a
scholar of art was going to have to be involved, if there were ever to
be a successful integration of psychoanalytic theory and aesthetic

As we shall see in
Chapter three, it was her pupil, Dr. Hannah Segal who developed a
systematic theory of creativity and aesthetics based on Klein’s
insights. Another important exponent of Kleinian aesthetics was the art
critic and historian, Adrian Stokes (an analysand of Klein) who
successfully integrated Klein’s account of infantile experience into
his aesthetic criticism. Thus it was largely through the work of Segal
and Stokes that Kleinian aesthetics became fully established as a
coherent approach to the visual arts.

An analysand is a person who undergoes psychoanalysis.  So
Klein psychoanalyzed Stokes, then Stokes took what he learned from his
analyst, combined it with his formal training, and put together a
coherent method of understanding art through analytic theory.

Early practitioners in any area of scientific inquiry often are limited
by a lack of techniques with with to gather objective, replicable data.
 So they end up theorizing in abstract, symbolic ways.
 This leads to a richness of thought that can be quite
engaging.  However, despite all its armchair intrigue, this
abstract symbolic stuff is of limited practical use.  It is
hard to practice evidence-based medicine, when most of your evidence
consists of case studies with an N of 1.

Still, you have to start somewhere, and you take your inspiration
wherever you can find it.  


The image above is the sort of data that modern psychiatric research
generates.  It’s from an article in NEJM,  href="">Cognitive
Behavioral Therapy, Sertraline, or a Combination in Childhood Anxiety.
 It’s based on a study of 488 children, href="">sponsored
by NIMH, involving dozens of investigators, in several

In this randomized, controlled trial, we assigned 488
children between the ages of 7 and 17
years who had a primary diagnosis of separation anxiety disorder,
generalized anxiety disorder, or social phobia to receive 14 sessions
of cognitive behavioral therapy, sertraline (at a dose of up to 200 mg
per day), a combination of sertraline and cognitive behavioral therapy,
or a placebo drug for 12 weeks in a 2:2:2:1 ratio. We administered
categorical and dimensional ratings of anxiety severity and impairment
at baseline and at weeks 4, 8, and 12.

The results showed exactly what was expected: medication helps,
psychotherapy helps, and the two together work better than either one
alone.  It’s always nice to have a study that shows that what
you think you know, is in fact correct.  Studies such as this
were not possible in Melanie Klein’s time.  

Would we have gotten to the point of being able to do such a study, if
psychoanalysis had never been invented?  

Another question, a bit more vexing, is this: would we have gotten to
this point, if art had never been invented?


  1. #1 gregorylent
    November 3, 2008

    oh, gosh, the questions academics ask .. i so much prefer the company of yogis

  2. #2 bioephemera
    November 3, 2008

    What a great, wide-ranging post. That brain image, though, always makes me feel as if I’m seeing 1980s legwarmers. I wish they’d chosen a slightly different palette. . . ;)

  3. #3 Amiya
    November 9, 2008

    Fantastic post. For a moment I was confused as to whether this was a science or an art article.

  4. #4 Andreas
    November 27, 2011

    Some day we will have intelligence!
    I think intelligence will prove useful in several areas!