The Frontal Cortex

Neuroaesthetics

I’ve got a feature article in the latest Psychology Today on neuroaesthetics, the ambitious attempt to interpret art through the prism of neuroscience. Here’s the beginning of the article:

Consider the flightless fluffs of brown otherwise known as herring gull chicks. When they’re first born, these baby birds are entirely dependent on their mother for food. As a result, the chicks are born with a very powerful instinct: Whenever they see a bird beak, they frantically peck at it, begging for their favorite food: a regurgitated meal.
What’s interesting is that this reflex can be manipulated. When the chicks are exposed to anything that remotely resembles a bird beak–say, a wooden stick with a red dot on the end that looks like the red dot on the end of an adult herring gull’s beak–they peck vigorously at the fake beak. And when the chicks see a wood stick with three red dots, they peck even faster. The same thing happens when they’re exposed to a long and narrow yellow rectangle. Even though the fake beaks look nothing like real seagull beaks, they elicit a stronger response from the chicks, a phenomenon known as the “peak-shift effect”.

In the instinctive behavior of baby birds lies one of the core principles of visual art–a principle that can explain everything from ancient religious sculptures to abstract expressionist paintings.

Look at an early work by Pablo Picasso: his 1906 portrait of Gertrude Stein. At the time, Picasso was determined to reinvent the portrait, to push the boundaries of realism. So he spent months in his Paris studio, studying Stein and carefully reworking the paint on the canvas. After months of staring at Stein’s face, Picasso still wasn’t satisfied. In fact, he didn’t finish the painting until after a trip to Spain. What shifted his perspective has been debated–whether it was the ancient Iberian art or the weathered faces of Spanish peasants–but his style changed forever. When he returned to Paris, Picasso gave Stein the head of a primitive mask. The perspective was flattened and her face became a series of dramatic angles. Picasso had intentionally exaggerated various aspects of her appearance, turning the portrait into an early work of cubist caricature.

Despite the artistic license, the painting is still immediately recognizable as Stein. The portrait calls attention to its own abstraction, but we still know exactly who we’re looking at. Picasso took Stein’s most distinctive features⎯those heavy, lidded eyes and long, aquiline nose ⎯and exaggerated them. He found a way to intensify reality through careful distortion. As Picasso put it, “Art is the lie that reveals the truth.”

What’s surprising about such distortions is that they often make it easier for us to decipher what it is we’re looking at–particularly when they’re done by a master of their craft. Studies show we’re able to recognize visual parodies of people⎯like a cartoon portrait of Richard Nixon⎯faster than we’re able to recognize an actual photograph of Nixon. Brain imaging experiments demonstrate that the fusiform gyrus, an area involved in facial recognition, responds more eagerly to caricatures than to real faces, as the cartoons emphasize the very features that we use to distinguish one face from another. (In the case of Nixon, cartoonists tend to exaggerate his ski-slope of a nose.) In other words, the abstractions are like a peak-shift effect, turning the work of art or the political cartoon into a “super-stimulus.”

The peculiar connection between baby herring gulls and abstract art has been made most pointedly by V.S. Ramachandran, a neuroscientist and director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at UCSD. Ramachandran argues that the peak-shift effect explains a wide-variety of art, from the paintings of Picasso to a twelfth century Indian sculpture of the goddess Parvathi, which is a bronze figure with exaggerated feminine features. According to Ramachandran, these creations are all examples of the “deliberate hyperbole” that defines the artistic process. In this sense, the job of an artist is to take the mundane forms of reality⎯it doesn’t matter if it’s a facial expression or a bowl of fruit⎯and make those forms irresistibly interesting to the human brain. “If herring gulls had an art gallery,” Ramachandran notes, “they would hang a long stick with three red strips on the wall; they would worship it, pay millions of dollars for it, call it a Picasso, but not understand why⎯why they are mesmerized by this thing even though it doesn’t resemble anything. That’s all any art lover is doing when buying contemporary art: behaving exactly like those gull chicks.”

While I appreciate the consilient spirit of neuroaesthetics – it’s a genuine attempt to form connections between art and science – I think it’s very important to note that neuroaesthetic theories are merely another form of aesthetics, and not the definitive version. One phrase that’s essential to avoid in discussions of the field is the reductionist cliche that something is “nothing but” [insert neural phenomenon here]. So a Mark Rothko painting might be nothing but perplexed neurons in the V4 area of the visual cortex, or abstract art might be nothing but the peak shift effect. That, I think, is reckless hyperbole. The beauty of art is that it needs to be explained at multiple levels, from the action potential of retinal photoreceptors to the cultural shifts of 19th century France. Each of these descriptions is valid and necessary. There is no privileged kind of discourse when it comes to understanding why we stare at Pollock’s colorful drips of paint, or Cezanne’s mostly empty watercolors. What intrigues me about neuroaesthetics is that it’s another (and mostly novel) way to understand art.* But that doesn’t mean it’s the only way.

*As Clifford Geertz might have put it, neuroaesthetics makes our descriptions of art thicker.

Comments

  1. #1 Michael F. Martin
    July 23, 2009

    Nice post. I was thinking last night that in some sense, what distinguishes mathematics from art and literature is that it is think — i.e., that the same equation triggers the same synapses in the same way in everybody trained to read it. (Or almost.)

    There are a couple of observations that could be made about that. First, it doesn’t mean that math has no aesthetic quality. It’s just that its aesthetic is more ascetic, thinner. To add complexity to a mathematical aesthetic, you add math. Second, it doesn’t mean that other art is less symbolic than math just because its symbols are not as precise. Language and visual art are their own symbolic language. The difference is in the multiple entendre that is achieved through a “thicker” symbolic language, like English. With one sentence, a skilled English speaker can say several different things to several different audiences at once. Try and do that with an equation.

  2. #2 royniles
    July 23, 2009

    The “thickness” of the experience that makes the representation of some vaguely familiar item art is the emotional reaction elicited from the context presented, including contrasting coloring, introduced ambiguity, sense of interrupted motion and other tensions, and a zillion other subtle or not so subtle inferences that the best artists will intuitively add to the canvas.

    There’s obviously a lot more involved than the ability to induce hunger in herring gull-like viewers. Although triggering an itch somewhere is admittedly a big part of the process.

  3. #3 nikki
    July 23, 2009

    so nicely put… i am working with late 20th century french philosophy, much of which gets chided for claiming things like ‘there is nothing outside the text’ or that life is made up of a series of narratives. while many of these accusations come from quite superficial readings, you have gone to the heart of the issue here, cautioning that ‘nothing but’ statements are often reductive and miss the very point of fiction claims in the first place. to say that we recognize caricatures of nixon before we recognize pictures of him is fascinating but also speaks to the multiple layers we build to understand the world: between a cartoon and a picture we are still talking about artistic renderings (albeit of different types) – metaphors really. and as we construct myths, practices, habits and beliefs we do so via similar methods of metaphor that help us ‘recognize’ what is important to us more quickly and constantly than if we woke up each morning and decided to reinvent each and every wheel every day.

    i’m working on this in more detail at http://prosthetics.wordpress.com but i am grateful for your neuroaesthetics perspective in jogging my mind and this response.

    nice work, as usual.

  4. #4 Barry Katz
    July 24, 2009

    I once had an experience in a museum that seemed to reveal something about the way the brain comprehends art. As I rounded a corner I found myself confronted by a large Barnett Newman canvas. It was probably 6′ tall and 12′ or more wide, and painted a solid red-orange all over, broken only by a few of his characteristic narrow vertical stripes (zips, he called them) in contrasting colors. Suddenly my visual field began to pulsate, my whole brain felt lit up like a pinball machine.

    Clearly, a painting of that nature makes no references to anything in the natural world – which is part of the point of it. But I had the distinct sensation that this arrangement of irregularly spaced stripes and colors functioned similarly to the UPC bar codes that are scanned at checkout counters. The meaning lies in the exact number, thickness and spacing of the lines and there can be a virtually unlimited number of different arrangements with different meanings.

    It’s not unlike listening to music. A Schubert sonata consists of a series of tones, and combinations of tones, varying in pitch, volume, rhythm, tempo, duration, and proximity to each other, and interspersed with moments of silence. It has no literal meaning, yet it can make us cry. Somehow art manages to directly manipulate the levers of the brain, in spite of, or perhaps precisely as the result of bypassing certain cognitive functions.

    Of course, there is more to art than the purely mechanical function of stimulating the visual cortex, but just as some artists use the depiction of the human figure or a landscape as one means to elicit an emotional response, a seemingly meaningless arrangement of form and color can have a strikingly similar effect.

  5. #5 claudiu
    July 25, 2009

    Ramachandran idea is funny! Also, when the male Guppy fish sees the black spot on the belly of the female, it starts to swim frantically around her. The bigger the black spot, more intense the “love dance”. So, next time when I’ll be full of enthusiasm looking at an artwork, I’ll ask myself: “Am I a gull chick or a male Guppy fish? ” :)
    Neuroscience research can say much not only about what an image (artwork) creates in our brain, but also how to construct the design of a print, or artwork. There are many rules in print design about how to underline an idea, or catch the eye, using the results given to us by neuroscience experiments…starting from simple ones – “on a field full of round blue spots, a red green square will focus our attention”. There are many examples… But art means emotions and life experience…so maybe plasticity could be introduced in such a discussion. Or it may be all about “information filtering” through “neuronal gates” depending on the context. And this context may be seen as the environment, the cognitive status or the social moment. Anyway, in the future, the value of a painting will depend on the neuroaesthetic evaluation, as much as today, its value depends on the “classic” critiques. So, the vanguard in art, will depend on the patterns of activation of a specific lobe, or it will depend on the frequency of bursts in a cortical cell? 100 bursts of a cell = 1000$ ?! :) Maybe the opinion of a specialist in neuroaesthetics on a painting will cost money and it will make a painting worth a fortune or less. Art means emotions and life experience…I’ve put on http://www.neuroscience-bucharest.blogspot.com some neurology – neuroscience wallpapers, images created in respect to some design rules extracted from neuroscience results. Two of the images contain the image of a brain, one with a science fiction theme, another one representing a brain and some color play and one is about the “brain blood supply” with no brain or neurons represented, but with the principal visual theme – the red blood cells. Surprisingly or not, the image with no brain or neurons, although has written on it “brain blood supply” had a significantly lower number of downloads. It is known that on the internet, the first image, post etc from an array, gets the biggest number of clicks. Seeing that the images with brains are more downloaded, I’ve put the image with the red blood cells first, but nothing changed, the download rate remained lower for the “blood cells”. Because of the color? Maybe because the visitors expected to see, under the title “neuroscience desktop wallpapers” (consider this the environment) neurons and brains? This is just an observation, but it is very interesting how this time, the very important rule for any webmaster – the first , gets the biggest number of clicks, has been neglected. After that, I’ve changed the order, put the image representing a brain in a science fiction manner on the first place, and the rule” who has more , gets more” was working …Maybe for the internet, a new field will rise – neuroaesthetics of habitude? :)

  6. #6 Anibal
    July 29, 2009

    This is a critic to the main premise of neuroaesthetics from a philosophical standpoint i think i´ve posted here before: http://www.queens.ox.ac.uk/academics/hyman/files/art_and_neuroscience.pdf

    I tend to look to good eyes to any approach coming from neuroscience when tries to explain things in terms of how our brains work (in essence all depend on the brain)but art cannot be fully capture dissecting the visual areas of the brain and its laws… previous cognitive information and other modalities are also involved.

    Until now there is no neurological theory of art but that doesn´t mean there won´t be.

  7. #7 GP
    July 29, 2009

    I’m just wondering if it is a good idea to take art appreciation seriously. When one stands in an art gallery, one is already in a heightened situation of expectation, self-consciousness, appreciation-anxiety and what not. In such an strained, artificial situation, it would be ludicrous to expect a spontaneous response to patches of color on a canvas. Any ecstatic responses to such stimuli in an art gallery are better attributed to self-hypnosis than to any property of the art object.

  8. #8 Robert
    July 30, 2009

    “consilient”? My references fail me.

  9. #9 Allan Ryder-Cook M.D., Ph.D.
    August 30, 2009

    I’ve just read your article in Psychology Today and I was frankly disappointed. You have quoted a great deal from Ramanchandran’s BBC lecture, “The Artful Brain” without acknowledging that these ideas are his and not yours. Of course you mention him in your article, but really most of what you have written paraphrases his lecture.
    I’ve started reading your blog because I thoroughly enjoyed your book, “Proust was a Neuroscientist”. You have a gift for writing clearly and in a very entertaining manner. I would like to suggest, however, that you be more careful in attributing what others have written to them and separating that from your own original ideas.

  10. #10 Laura
    January 8, 2010

    first, excuse my english, I am not completely fluent.

    I totally agree with the author (I have also read Ramachandran and Hirstein’s work but have not read proust was a neuroscientist)… I am an artist myself and also a psychology student. I am currently doing a research about image complexity and aesthetic judgment, wich is a long and old dicussion in the field… Neuroscience is fascinating, as are many fields in the humanities…
    I think neuroscience gives so many new ways of aproachig to fenomena, and it adds so much to the discussions that alredy exists, it is very enriching but it certainly is naive to pretend that the new only valid analysis is through neuroscience and empirical evidence alone…

    I also agree that there are many levels of processing the information, and neuroscience can give at this point a lot of information about the very basic level of sensation, perception and information processing. What is done with that information in later and more complex levels when the information reaches semantic memory is another story, and humanities describe best this level of processing, and what happens when the “primitives” reach a stage were they are used as meanigful information… here is when individual and cultural differences appear… and this discourse is not incompatible with the fact that in a previous processing level the information is processed in subcortical structures un-conciously… and that at this level, the objective caracteristics of stimuli determine its preference…

    I hate when academics disqualify each others paradigms or methodology… it does nothing for knowledge, it turns the process of knowledge into a selfish discussion aiming to defend personal views, protecting narsisistic weak personalities by disqualifying what they ignore…

    We should be more humble, respectful and careful readers, being certain that every contribution is a genuine effort to put a little bit more out there…

  11. #11 Mapologist
    March 25, 2010

    Just go to:
    http://www.mapology.org
    There you have everything on neuroesthetics, Mark Rothko (LOC), Barnett Newman (TPJ) etc.

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