2010 World Science Festival Blog

Unification for Your Eyes and Ears

Image courtesy of the Cajal’s Butterflies of the Soul gallery at The Beautiful Brain.

Noah Hutton is founding editor of The Beautiful Brain, an online magazine that explores recent neuroscience findings through monthly podcasts, essays, reviews, and galleries, with particular attention to the dialogue between the arts and sciences.

Some of our greatest triumphs as a species have come from those who saw little difference between being a scientist and being a humanist. From Leonardo’s visionary notebooks to Herschel’s lunar poetry, science has provided a necessary resource for some great art; and art has, in many cases, compelled the progress of scientific research. For Santiago Ramon y Cajál, considered the father of modern neuroscience, it was a childhood spent sketching the branching structures of trees that later reverberated in his pioneering staining techniques of neurons in the brain, yielding some of the most detailed and beautiful scientific imagery of our nervous system to date.

As part of this tradition of bridging perceived gaps—what E.O. Wilson called “Consilience” between academic fields—the World Science Festival lineup is peppered with three events in particular—all decidedly brain themed, and all set for the evening of Thursday, June 3rd in New York City—which appeal to the essence of Wilson’s quest for the unity of knowledge.

While the last half-century has yielded breathtaking insights into the operation of the human eye, modern neuroscience is steadily unveiling the complexities of visual processing at later stages in the brain. We can begin to apply these new understandings of the brain to questions about art and the way we create it, look at it, and value it. This field, dubbed “neuroaesthetics” by some, takes the classic inquiries of aesthetics and infuses the latest findings from neuroscience, the scientific field which attempts to probe the terrain that is home to all our artistic reckoning—the space between our ears.

As visual information moves from our eyes along axons and dendrites deeper into our brains, we reach the places where danger is detected, memories are rustled, and values are attached to what we’re seeing. It’s these areas of visual cortex where Margaret Livingstone, one of the presenters slated for Thursday’s Eye Candy event at the World Science Festival, focuses her scientific inquiry at Harvard. Livingstone has contributed significant insights into the way our brains process color, motion and depth, and how the parallel nature of the visual streams through the networks of interconnected neurons in our brains ends up forming a single perception in our minds.

As a leader in this young field of neuroaesthetics, Livingstone has written extensively about the ways artists manipulated an awareness—be it intuitive, or in some cases, conscious—of the way vision works in our brains to create some of the most lasting individual pieces of art and to shape larger cultural trends (see figure 1). Livingstone will be joined by fellow vision researcher Patrick Cavanagh, cartoonist Jules Feiffer and others to discuss some of the universals in the appeal of art, across time and culture, informed by new understandings of the biological basis of perception. Each promises to bring their unique set of tools to the search for unified universals—be it through the acute satire of Fieffer’s illustrations and writings or the precise cell recording from visual cortex practiced by Livingtstone and Cavanagh at Harvard.

Others will search for unification of the sonic variety on Thursday evening. Legendary A.I. researcher and philosopher Marvin Minsky will join a group including Tod Machover, “America’s Most Wired Composer” (Los Angeles Times) to answer the question of how music helps order emerge from the chemical chaos in our brains. Later that evening Good Vibrations: The Science of Sound will feature a group of brain scientists, cosmologists, and musicians on an exploration of how cells in our ears detect vibrations in our environment and relay that information deeper into the brain, leading to our perception of voices, music, and ambient environments. Like neuroaesthetics, the linkage of neuroscience and music has produced many new scientific studies that seek to move from constellations of cells firing in our brains to notes, memories, emotions, and back again.

An awareness of both science and art will enhance not only the neuroaesthetic understanding of why we like a certain piece of art—it may even be a resource to the contemporary artist exploring our 21st century understanding of the human brain and the identity it actively maintains. As E.O. Wilson writes in Consilience, "When we have unified enough knowledge, we will understand who we are and why we are here.”

Some of Margaret Livingstone’s most significant research explains how luminance and color are processed in separate streams through our visual cortex. Monet’s Impression Sunrise of 1872 is known for the radiance of its setting sun. Livingstone has explained that if the image were grayscale, as on the right, the sun would not be nearly as apparent, because the luminance is almost the same between sun and sky. Therefore, our visual system seizes on the dramatic differences in color between the orange sun and bluish sky, and the sun seems to pop out, reverberating loudly in the color detection areas of our brain.

— Noah Hutton