A recent article in the Baltimore Sun described a collaboration between brain science and art that I was glad to see happening. Working with Charles Conner, director of the Mind/Brain Institute of Johns Hopkins, Walter’s Art Gallery director Gary Vican said, “Artists are instinctive neuroscientists. They’re always looking for new ways to stimulate perceptual mechanisms. When we’re involved in looking at art the whole brain is fully engaged. It’s one of the most sophisticated things we can do.” The writer credited Clive Bell with coining the term “significant form”, but it actually traces back much further. When Susanne Langer used it in her writing in the 60’s she credited “ aestheticians of a previous generation”. Her magnificent and thorough work on the relation of art and feeling is especially relevant now as neuroscience shows that feeling directs thinking, is our filter for importance. In her book, “Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling” she writes, “Feeling is a dynamic pattern of tremendous complexity. Its whole relation to life, the fact that all sorts of processes may culminate in feeling with or without direct regard for each other, and that vital activity goes on at all levels continuously, make mental phenomenon the most protean subject matter in the world. Our best identification of such phenomena is through images that hold and present them for contemplation; and their images are works of art.”
The complex dynamics of feelings and the structure of art make art the best way to learn about feeling. This complexity cannot be reduced to one variable at a time since the meaning is in the whole and the relationships presented. There are correlations between the balance of a surrounding structure and the feelings we experience, and we seek out the structures that best express our own inner world. Art serves others by translating the dynamic patterns of feeling into significant form that can help us recognize our own obscure felt states. In the Walters study a questionnaire that asks about the mood of the subject before they pick the shape could add an important level of information since what we find beautiful can vary with our state of mind. Rudolf Arnheim’s work analyzed qualities in the composition of paintings, and building on the work of the gestalt psychologists, concluded that balance and change are central to how we respond. The edge of the spiky shape changes very abruptly and we respond as we respond to abrupt things. Smooth curves change gently and that’s how we feel them.
Today at University College in London is the Institute of Neuroesthetics. On their web site they write, “Artists are, in a sense, neurologists who study the capacities of the visual brain with techniques that are unique to them”. Neuroesthetics is a word coined by neurobiologist, Semir Zeki, which refers to the artist as observing and abstracting general patterns, finding general abstractions. All brain science began with the study of perception. It studied how the brain organized wholes and recognized patterns.
Art gives us images that help us understand the structure of feelings. As Langer said, “Art looks like feelings feel.” The work that stirs the most people engages the most universal felt states of being human. Like facial expression it can speak across cultural boundaries because we’re physically structured the same way and our patterns of response build on our embodiment.
Art can help science create synthesis between disciplines, find correlations between bodies of information that give perspective to the knowledge. One of the problems with the methods of science is that by limiting variables you may strip away essential context.
MacArthur winner, Richard Powers said he was headed into science as a career, but once into it the narrowness of the discipline shifted his attention to the possibilities of novels. His books weave connections from many fields finding parallels that illuminate how thought itself is structured. Throughout the sciences, artists could facilitate insight into important relationships through their perceptual understanding. In a multivariable world, the artist helps us discern what’s significant in the whole.