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Secret Pleasure

[ 0 ] July 21, 2010

When there is a congregation of young people crammed into a music hall in Brooklyn and some of them are wearing flannel shirts—though it is summer—and dark sunglasses—though it is nighttime—it usually means that a postmodern pagan ritual is taking place.  Most likely, a Band You’ve Never Even Heard Of is performing.  But on July 13 at the Bell House, a diverse audience appeared to hear the un-hip (trust me, this is truly a compliment) Yale cognitive psychologist Paul Bloom talk about his new book How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like (W.W. Norton and Company.  280 pp.  $26.95).   Professor Bloom called us “the drunkest audience he had ever addressed.”  It was a meeting of the Secret Science Club, which is the second-best secret I have uncovered this month.

Professor Bloom possessed a certain combination of humor and humility that is rare in any person, but especially an academic.  He began his talk by inviting to his e-mail inbox  ([email protected]) any questions and comments that his time onstage might shortchange.  As seems to be the case with most scientific treatments of artistic phenomena, Bloom began by addressing the words of his former advisor—Steven Pinker—who has essentially called the arts inessential.  Bloom, a “card carrying evolutionary psychologist” whose research focuses on children, argues that art is in fact deep.  We are hard-wired to want to see past the surface of pieces of art to an underlying emotional reality of the human condition.  This would explain our obsession with originality; a painting by Vermeer is considered to be a masterpiece until it is revealed to be the work of Han van Meegeren, the master forger.  Though the aesthetic is identical, some essence is lacking.  I believe that art must possess certain properties that appeal—albeit accidentally—to our adapted minds.

Those with avant-garde inklings constantly attempt to make an audience reconsider “What is Art?”  The goal is no longer pleasure, or emotional engagement of any kind.  This amounts to an intellectual exercise.  Despite the fact that all art is inherently intellectual (that is precisely Bloom’s point, that your senses are not enough to explain the experience), these efforts are intentionally extreme.  They are called things like “interesting” or “important” or “experimental” (an interesting scientific staple used differently here in art).  Take—for example—Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce.   Although lyrical, the prose has no semantic flow and the book contains hardly a trace of any essential hallmarks of fiction.  But Joyce was a genius writer.  Why?  Independence.  Originality.  He was only trying to write like himself; he mastered traditional forms with Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man before breaking the mold with Ulysses.  But when far less talented people are hell-bent on being alternative just for the hell of it their art often becomes essentially boring.

A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Artist

[ 1 ] July 1, 2010

Drawing of a Purkinje cell in the cerebellar cortex done by Cajal, after using the Golgi stain.

This is the story of how an artistic son grew up to become the father of modern neuroscience.  In 1873, an Italian pathologist named Camilo Golgi stirred the scientific community by managing to expose the brain in a new light—or darkness.  Golgi found that by immersing nervous tissue first in a potassium dichromate solution and then in a silver nitrate solution, one could show a small number of cells—randomly—in a naked, black entirety.  The stain—which Golgi named la reazione nera (“the black reaction”)—was hugely and internationally influential.  From his inky-looking data, Golgi induced that our brain is composed of a syncytium, or a physically continuous nervous net.  The new conclusion supported an already prominent hypothesis:  the “reticular theory,” which was proposed by the German anatomist Joseph von Gerlach in 1871. (Imagine a structure similar to the enmeshed fingers of your two hands).  But this turns out to be incorrect, an explanation destined to fall flat atop the scrap heap of once-received wisdom.  Camilo Golgi was awarded a share of the Nobel Prize in 1906 for his spectacular stain, which is still used by investigators today.

In fact, the most important result of la reazione nera occured half a generation after its invention when an unknown Spanish academic saw some expert preparations in the private laboratory of a colleague.  The sight incited an insatiable need to see more.  At that moment the ambitious scientist became excited—and started firing.  After Charles Darwin, Santiago Ramón y Cajal—though far less well-known than the founder of evolutionary theory—is the second greatest biologist of his era.  He was the first of two Spanish scientists to receive a Nobel Prize, which he strangely shared in 1906 with his wrongheaded rival.  The most famous and important discovery of Cajal was the neuron, a cellular entity proven to be the basic anatomical, physiological, genetic, and metabolic unit of the nervous system [DeFelipe 2006].  In the 1890s, Cajal provided indisputable evidence of distinct cerebral individuality in the form of his portraits of neurons, which finely—finally—revealed the composition of our mysterious mental matter.  As profoundly true as great science and as truly creative as great art, the investigations of Cajal offer rare and precious insights into life and its infinitely small secrets.

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Who is a Neuroscientist?

[ 38 ] March 23, 2010
Can artists be called neuroscientists?

Can artists be called neuroscientists?

There is a trend as of late to ascribe scientific insights to the intuitions of artists. The basic idea is this: whether through literature, visual art, music, or even cooking, artists have predicted—even discovered—the same concepts that scientists later discover in the lab through very different methods.

Some stick to the metaphorical realm with this line of thought, believing that artists do intuit some profound truths about the human experience that are later supported by hard, scientific data. Others, however, take this relationship to the next level, suggesting that the artists are actually making scientific breakthroughs themselves—a step beyond intuition and into the realm of the scientists, who wield their testable, repeatable, peer-reviewed methodology. This trend of thought, which may satisfy our 21st century interdisciplinary romanticism, should be approached with some caution. Can artists really be considered to have made scientific breakthroughs, beyond the metaphorical level of predicting these discoveries with their art? Can artists be called scientists?

Since launching this site late last year, I’ve been given the book Proust was a Neuroscientist twice as a gift and had it recommended to me several other times, as it certainly seems to strike the same chord we’re attempting to hit with this site. Each chapter in the book makes a case for how an artist of yesterday anticipated a scientific breakthrough of today; as the A-equals-B title indicates, author Jonah Lehrer believes they did this tangibly, not metaphorically.

I am a huge admirer of Jonah Lehrer’s writing, which is always graceful and informative (especially his SEED Magazine feature on The Blue Brain Project, which first piqued my interest and led me to start my own documentary film project about the endeavor). His blog The Frontal Cortex is one of the best neuroscience blogs around today. However, I did read Proust was Neuroscientist immediately when it was published in 2007, and it left more questions in my mind than the authoritative title suggests it answers. This is not necessarily a negative: it is always pleasing when a book stirs one’s thoughts, especially when it concerns the intersection of neuroscience and art.proustwasaneuroscientist

My questions about Proust stem mostly from Lehrer’s step beyond the aforementioned metaphorical level of the artist as scientist, and into the realm of the literal. He writes that “We now know that Proust was right about memory, Cezanne was uncannily accurate about the visual cortex, Stein anticipated Chomsky, and Woolf pierced the mystery of consciousness; modern neuroscience has confirmed these artistic intuitions.” Lehrer gives a lot of credit to these artists, and he wants his claims to be taken seriously. He has said that Proust was a Neuroscientist “is about writers and painters and composers who discovered truths about the human mind—real, tangible truths—that science is only now rediscovering.”

For example, Lehrer argues that George Eliot’s novels reject the scientific determinism of the day and affirm a decidedly modern version of free will, infusing her characters with ever-changing, malleable minds. Then, as Lehrer argues in chapter 2, neuroscientists verified this concept decades later when they discovered adult neurogenesis in the 1990s. George Eliot had no idea about adult neurogenesis, which involves neural stem cells, growth factors, and all sorts of biological data that was not at her disposal. What Eliot may have done—and what all the artists in Lehrer’s book may have done—is to make an intuitive statement about the human condition. As modern neuroscience begins to unveil concepts like adult neurogenesis, whereby new neurons can be created well into adulthood (thus the “malleable” mind) we will see that many artistic intuitions can be tied to scientific findings.

In fact, all artistic intuitions can be tied to the brain—isn’t that where they came from to begin with? We feel like we can learn and change well into adulthood, then that thought is penned into a novel, and sure enough, we discover its cellular basis years later. This can apply to the full spectrum of human thought and intuition. Processes of the brain are all destined to be linked to scientific observations of the brain. Linking Eliot’s literary insights to those about adult neurogenesis seems to be more based on our current neuro-everything craze than on any actual scientific notion of neural stem cell populations that Eliot happened to intuit.

It is hard to dismiss a book that has opened and will continue to open the door to neuroscience for thousands of readers who may be coming to this material from other backgrounds. However, the danger is still that these readers may give the artists discussed in Lehrer’s text a level of hard scientific explanatory power that they simply do not deserve. Artists and scientists both seek to understand human nature, but they have been doing so with very different methodologies in their different vocations. Just because an artist’s insight into human behavior seems to tenuously line up with a neuroscientist’s discovery of cellular dynamics does not then mean that an artist is a neuroscientist. Artists reveal things that science may never be able to; the reverse is also true.

There are cases where we can make such connections by using sturdier threads than those which Lehrer employs.

Goethe's manuscipts contain illustrations of his scientific studies of plants and insects.

Goethe's manuscripts from 1790 contain illustrations of his scientific studies of plants and insects.

Goethe, for example—Germany’s national poet—was also a scientist who wrote about plant morphology and color theory.  He was a true scientist, and his artistic work reflects the deep insights gained through a lifetime of scientific inquiry.

Neuroscientists are investigators of the central nervous system who use the scientific methods of hypothesis, observation, and deduction to generate testable, repeatable results. They focus mostly on cells, neurotransmitters, and proteins, unveiling the mechanisms that, on a massive scale, account for our thoughts and behaviors. If an individual does those things, they are a neuroscientist. Like a neuroscientist, Proust was an investigator of the nervous system; but his tool was the written word, and his methods were subjective and introspective. He was not a neuroscientist, nor were the other household names Lehrer calls upon in his book.

Lehrer has continued his thinking on this subject with a recent blog post entitled “Borges was a Neuroscientist,” in which he quotes from neuroscientist Rodrigo Quian Quiroga’s piece about Borges published in Nature. Quiroga’s article is an appreciation—he admits that “Even without this scientific knowledge, Borges’s intuitive description is sharp.” But by slapping on the “Borges was a Neuroscientist” title, Lehrer seems to once again overestimate the neuroscientific reach that these artists may have had. It is one thing to appreciate a sharp artistic intuition that meshes with a later scientific discovery. Indeed, the best artists seem to be the ones who have penetrated something real in our brain-based existence. It is another thing to keep calling these artists neuroscientists—this, even if metaphorically, even if just to attract attention, is misleading.

I am always delighted to take a ride back and forth across the normally rigid division between the arts and sciences, and Lehrer’s writing takes us on that ride quite gracefully. But his can be a irresponsible grace, as it lends the explanatory power of neuroscience to the intuitions of artists who had barely any sense of cells, synapses, action potentials and ion channels. To call an artist a neuroscientist sounds sexy—a buzzword plucked from an increasingly neuro-centric culture—but that sexiness might fade quickly if we picture the artist elbow-deep in formaldehyde, wielding a micro-pipette—which none of these artists ever did. Being elbow-deep in formaldehyde may be sexy on another level, but we’ll leave that discussion for another time.

The future of the dialogue between the arts and the sciences is exciting, as more and more artists begin to tap the rich reservoirs of scientific findings for subject matter and inspiration, and scientists begin to listen to artists for clues as to the neuroscientific basis of their creative processes. We should remain acutely aware of the possibilities as well as the limits of this dialogue. Proust was a Neuroscientist, while exciting in its interdisciplinary nature, may be more of a neuro-revisionist text than a true dialogue between the arts and sciences.

If anything, Lehrer’s book—and his continued use of the gag—should shift from “Artist X was a Neuroscientist” to “Artist X was a Cognitive Psychologist,” as that would rightly put more emphasis on behavior (often the artist’s own) as evidence rather than on the observation of cells and synapses. But will that really sell?

Let us know what you think in the comments section. Can artists really be considered to have made scientific breakthroughs?

To Be Looked At

[ 8 ] 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

[ 2 ] 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 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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