Sunday, January 31, 2010


Art and Neuroscience

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.

Monday, January 11, 2010



The word “forward” has generally positive connotations. It is the direction you’re facing, attentive to what’s in front of you. We think of “forward” in relation to what’s unexplored and “backward” as what’s already happened, suggesting nothing to be learned from that direction. Unlike “ahead” which implies a relationship to what’s behind, or a competition with another, “moving forward“ is pure direction, a more open present-centered state that keeps us in action, learning and developing.
As I learn more and more about the brain my tendency to try to visualize the gestalt helps me to consider what might be general principles of the mind and how they could be useful. One of the most significant is the idea that we are happiest when we move the energy forward in the brain. When researcher Elena Korneva massaged the front of a cat’s hypothalamus the cat purred. When she rubbed the back it showed signs of terror. Reaching from the frontal lobes to the older functions in the back, the hypothalamus is thought of as the brain’s metaphoric thermostat, mediating between body and brain mechanisms to keep us balanced. Our fear responses send energy to the back of the brain where memory and fight/flight responses are centered. When we take action on a problem the energy moves forward. Speech is an action. Studies have shown that happy emotions are associated with activity in the left front hemisphere. This is the location of Broca’s area, where we put our thoughts into words, an action the brain reinforces as good for our well-being. Perhaps the most helpful thing about keeping a journal in difficult times is the act of putting the troubles in words. Psychiatrist / novelist, Walker Percy wrote, “We tame the world with descriptions.” Naming something makes it feel more known. It is one of the uniquely human powers. Imagination and analysis, reason and discernment, all of the specialized abilities evolved to enhance human survival are in the front of the cortex. These mental actions are clearly in our interest to develop. Right behind the forehead in the prefrontal cortex, they are densely connected with our primary source of dopamine, the nucleus accumbens, considered a major pleasure center. Action utilizing our highest powers stimulates dopamine, which stimulates focus and attention. Nature builds incentives to keep us evolving. We are meant to use our capacities and are happiest when extending them. Nothing feels better than acting, because through our actions and their effects we fulfill our being and discover who we are.
As Howard Gardner has repeatedly emphasized, many of our higher powers are not developed by current education’s focus on left hemisphere abilities. More time is spent breaking knowledge into small units. Very little attention is given to synthesizing and comprehending relations between one area and another, the abilities that images educate. The concept of “forward” itself has been twisted by the linearity of left hemisphere thinking. Forward is really outward. When we shift our body position, facing a new perspective, then that becomes forward. Backward is the land of memory and the known. It moves energy to the back of the brain and taps into conditioned patterns.
Outward and forward is the direction of learning. Growth moves in all directions. Direction itself has been found to play a part in happiness. Energy that is directed pulls the mind’s energies into harmony. Direction is often equated with purpose, when we’re directionless we’re confused and ultimately depressed because there are so many human faculties going unused. When we don’t act, it’s often because early negative messages have made us fearful of doing what we really want or of our ability to succeed at something. But growth is much simpler than the grand plans that accompany external definitions of success. To take an interest in anything, to investigate, observe, inquire, and pay attention to where we are and where we’re heading pushes energy to the front of the brain. All directions outside of the self enable consciousness to become aware of itself within the whole. We can choose to direct our energy forward, in our brains and in our lives.