The Third Culture

Neuroscience and the Humanities

Neuroesthetics and Conceptual Art

When Semir Zeki coined the phrase “neuroesthetics” to describe his research into the neural foundations of art appreciation, the art world made an ugly face, or else simply turned away as if not hearing. Zeki, in one of his seminal pieces on neuroesthetics, wrote in the July 2001 edition of Science that “by probing into the neural basis of art, neurological studies can help us to understand why our creative abilities and experiences vary so widely. But it can only do so by first charting the common neural organization that makes the creation and appreciation of art possible.” This assertion, that such a neural framework not only existed but in some ways defines the popular appreciation of art, is naturally disconcerting to artists, as it attempts to scientifically answer a question (what is art?) that most artists believe unanswerable—and certainly not within an fMRI scanner.

In that Science piece, Zeki went on to lay out his two “supreme artistic laws,” constancy and abstraction. Let’s focus on abstraction. Zeki believes that all great art is essentially abstract in one way or another. His argument is as follows:

“But abstraction, a key feature of an efficient knowledge-acquiring system, also exacts a heavy price on the individual, for which art may be a refuge. The abstract ‘ideal’ synthesized by the brain from many particulars can lead to a deep dissatisfaction, because the daily experience is that of particulars. Michelangelo left three-fifths of his sculptures unfinished (see the figure on this page), but he had not abandoned them in haste. He often worked on them for years, because, Giorgio Vasari tells us, ‘time and again the sublimity of his ideas lay beyond the reach of his hands.’ I would put it differently–Michelangelo realized the hopelessness of translating into a single work or a series of sculptures the synthetic ideals formed in his brain. Critics have written in emotional and lyrical terms about these unfinished works, perhaps because, being unfinished, the spectator can finish them and thus satisfy the ideals of his or her brain. This is only qualitatively different from finished works with the inestimable quality of ambiguity–a characteristic of all great art–that allows the brain of the viewer to interpret the work in a number of ways, all of them equally valid. In art, Schopenhauer wrote, ‘something, and the ultimate thing, must always be left over for the imagination [the brain] to do.”’

So, Zeki argues, with the help of a few esteemed art-world friends, a central component of the artistic experience is one of imaginative completion. Such an idea is not new, and the only controversial element in it is the nature of the claim—that all great art is abstract.

A similar claim is made by another third culture legend, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran. In his book A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness, he describes an experiment in which new-born birds treated a stick colored abstractly to look like the mother’s beak as if it were the beak itself. In fact, when the scientist—ethologist Niko Tinbergen—used a stick with three red stripes (instead of the mother’s one red spot) the chick reacted even more intensely than it did to the real mother, even though the stick resembled the mother only in the most abstract sense.

Just as this study was about to be filed away in the annals of Random Perceptual Ethology, Ramachandran made a striking assertion:

“Maybe the neurons’ receptive field embodies a rule such as ‘the more red contour the better’…And a message from this beak-detecting neuron goes to the emotional limbic centers in the chick’s brain, giving it a big jolt and the message: ‘here is a superbeak’…All of which brings me to my punch-line about art. If herring gulls had an art gallery, they would hang a long stick with three red stripes 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 is all any art lover is doing when buying contemporary art: behaving exactly like those gull chicks” (Rama pg 47).

Art, then, is a form of mental masturbation, a creation whose purpose (or effect, anyways) is to stimulate the imagination to achieve a more sublime and subjective form of object recognition than that of everyday life. Or, as Ramachandran himself poetically writes, “art is foreplay before the final climax of recognition.” I think that is a persuasive argument, given that one allows the recognition to encompass subjective emotional realities as well, such as the dark foreboding feeling one gets when seeing Van Gogh’s “Wheat Field with Crows” that could only be the result of the metaphorical abstraction of the image at hand.

That argument is all well and good until about 1917, when Marcel Duchamp took a urinal and placed it in a gallery and everything changed. No longer were we that chick, staring at an object without knowing why we were entranced. Duchamp rebelled against that, turned it on its head, and gave us the climax and the object as one—art is subjective, and so if I say this is art, it is art. In so birthing conceptual art, he made the concept concrete, subjugating the object to the idea instead of the other way around. Later artistic expressions made similar but more direct claims, as when Rauschenberg sent a telegram to the Clert Gallery in response to a request for a portrait that read “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so.” Though one could potentially claim that Zeki’s principle might come into play with the physicality of the urinal, it is impossible to say the same for Rauschenberg’s telegram.

In the context of Ramachandran and Zeki’s claims, there are two potential conclusions about conceptual art. The first is that conceptual pieces are in fact not art but rather a challenge to the cultural dominance of art. Such a conclusion has been voiced many times. Indeed, the practice of finding the neural commonalities in artistic practice might help to explain why conceptual art is so hated by so many but so passionately loved by an art-literate crowd; that is to say, the commonalities would conveniently explain the mass appeal of non-conceptual art and the mass disinterest towards conceptual art.

Yet, as an enjoyer of conceptual art, I find this conclusion insufficient. There is also more to it, I think, from a neurobiological standpoint. Conceptual art, clearly, is all about the physical presentation of ideas (this is also true of much non-conceptual art, but conceptual art is uniquely only about this) as opposed to the artful presentation of a represented object. In many ways, the cognitive capacities required for appreciation of conceptual art are unique, in that they almost exclusively require the attention of the parts of our brain most recently evolved and as such uniquely human, especially our prefrontal cortex and associated high-level processing areas that deal with the processing of things that only humans can understand. Art itself is a concept, something an animal could appreciate without knowing why—only humans can attach to it the word “art.” In other words, even while enjoying a piece of art a chick could never understand the conceptual relevance of the piece because it fails to understand concepts.

Research indicates that all animals have the ability, to some varying degree, to determine the ‘what’ within the visual field, and recent studies seem to suggest that this ability is often quite developed and complex in animals we consider rather basic, as in Joe Tsien’s new paper in which he describes the rodent brain’s hippocampal ‘nest’ cells that fire when the rodent sees a nest, regardless of what the nest physically looks like. What non-human animals lack, however, is the ability to consciously connect that ‘what’ with a ‘why,’ which is really what conceptual art is all about. Again, the rodent’s hippocampal nest cells may fire, but all this means to the rodent is that, as Tsien himself points out, it has a specific function: “a nest is someplace to curl up in to sleep.” To us, a structure in which we sleep might actually mean something larger: home, comfort, family, nostalgia.

I think it is clear in what ways our ability to produce concepts from static objects like a house connects with the practice of conceptual art. Duchamp’s urinal is not an object to be admired. It is, to use Zeki’s own word, perfectly physically representative of the “particulars” of daily life. In choosing such a simple object Duchamp stripped away all indulgence from the question of ‘what’—just as Rauschenberg did by sending a boring old telegram. In essence, Duchamp, Rauschenberg, and the entire program of pure conceptual art have targeted exclusively the centers of our brain that tell us why we care instead of what we see: the unique human ability we might call ‘metaphor,’ and which neuroscience tells us is simply an enhanced set of connections between disparate parts of the brain. These neural connections unite the parts of our brain that deal with concrete things—our ‘nest’ cells— with the parts of our brain that can process metaphysical concepts. This is our most treasured human capacity—it explains why we cry in the darkened cinema, why we hate communism, fall in love, read poetry.

This is, clearly, an entirely different cognitive process than the traditional representative art experience that Zeki and Ramachandran describe. As such, here is my punchline about art: conceptual art is, in actuality, the “final climax” of human artistic evolution, the artistic record of human cognitive ability. It may not be the type of art that brings the most people the most pleasure in any utilitarian sense (remember, our pleasure comes from more ancient neural structures), but it is certainly the most triumphantly human, the most directly Darwinian, art form yet.


June 25, 2007 Posted by | art, neuroesthetics | 3 Comments

Testing Kant

As philosophers go, Immanuel Kant might be both the most complicated and the simplest thinker to read and understand. What I mean is that, for all the complicated syntax and drawn out arguments, his central concept of reasoned action is quite simple. Obtusely called the Categorical Imperative, Kant’s central idea is in reality a rather basic logical approach to moral behavior: all humans are rational, therefore a person should be able to rationally universalize every action. If a behavior cannot be universalized, then it is not moral. As Karen Sanders writes in her book Ethics and Journalism,

“If we are rational beings, and Kant says we are, than these principles – as precepts of practical reason – would be seen to be the right and in fact the only grounds of action. Categorical imperatives tell us how we ought to act irrespective of our inclinations. They are compelling because they describe the structure of reason in action.”

From the brain science perspective, the operative question here is, “can one actually make purely rational decisions?” If such a question has an answer, one could at least validate the possibility of Kant’s construct (This is a role I believe brain science can and should play in the understanding of philosophical inquiry—it can validate the potential of the philosophical ideal for realization, challenging or supporting claims like “all humans are rational beings”).

The question of the possibility for rational human thought is one angle of approach to the work of Joshua Greene, formerly of Princeton and now at Harvard. Greene has been interested in the neural substrates of moral dilemma solving. There is, for example, the famous trolley dilemma, in which one is standing at the split where a trolley car chooses one track versus another. On one track—the track the car is currently planning to take—are five trolley workers. On the other, there is a single trolley worker. The subject of the dilemma is the only one with the power to switch the course of the trolley. So which is the more rational choice (a question Kant conveniently leaves up to his readers)? Of course, there is no answer to that question. For Kant, the question is paradoxically answered on an individual basis with a requirement for a rational universal applicability.

Yet even if there is no answer to such a question, functional brain scanning can begin to show us how we solve such dilemmas. That is to say, do we attempt to answer them in a rational manner? Greene found that when people made decisions that involved flipping the switch—the one described above—they used much the same areas of their brain as when they were making amoral decisions like which mutual fund to acquire—higher-level processing areas such as the prefrontal cortex. However, if the decision was more personal—pushing the one worker from a bridge to stop the train, for example—the emotional centers of the brain were activated (much of this research is summarized in the recent Discover special Discover Presents the Brain).

If such findings are generalizable, and they appear to be, then the answer to my original question is a mixed one. When the dilemma is impersonal, involving a switch on a track, it could be argued that, as Sanders wrote, the subject’s acts are “reason in action.” However, when a more personal decision was being made, the subject always folded his or her “inclinations” into their decision. This basic split between the personal and the impersonal is as predictable as it is troubling. The most pressing moral dilemmas we face in daily life do not involve tracks and switches, and often involve some mixture of personal and impersonal features. Much of the cold war, for example, could be seen as a conflict between the “rational” plays of the governments—often built upon the supra-rational conceits of game theory—and the chillingly emotional threat of atomic war. Anyone who believes that a cold utilitarian approach was taken to the impact of the bomb has not read his or her history. In the course of daily life, then, I would argue that there are few if any true moral dilemmas that are impersonal; in fact, strap a brain scanner to a man as he actually stands at the train switch looking at that lone worker he is about to condemn to death and I would guess his limbic system would be quite active.

Science writers traditionally have been loathe to criticize moral or philosophical programs, even when evidence suggests criticism is warranted. Yet I firmly believe the evidence here (and not just Greene—much research from the emerging field of neuroeconomics supports a two-system cognitive/emotional model of decision making) makes Kantian practical reasoning a null hypothesis. If, as Kant says, we must divorce our passions from decision-making, then neuroamputation of the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala should be required for all our politicians and clergymen.

The drive among computational neuroscientists and neuro-engineers to reverse engineer the human brain provides an interesting window into Kant; I wonder what Kant would have thought of computers. Ironically, it is the unique synthesis of emotion and rationality (or, more accurately, the extremely numerous and complicated set of inputs for each action output) that have made it so difficult for the rational computer to model human behavior. And, as we now understand pure rationality, especially in popular culture, as a more strangely computerized phenomenon embodied by robots (every input has its rational “universalized” output), such a model for humanity seems almost perverse.

Computational neuroscientists hold that, given that the brain is simply a mesh of interconnected circuits, an input (say, a moral dilemma) will trigger a context-dependent set of neurons, producing an expected result. We know this must be true, that behavior springs up solely from the interactions between the neurons in our brains, and yet the model of how it works must be nearly infinitely complex, so complex that many believe the largest barrier to modeling the brain is computational power.

So if researchers have shown that pure rationality does not exist, that affect can not be divorced from decision making, it seems clear that half of Kant’s categorical imperative is in trouble. Yet if it is possible to reverse engineer the brain, it reopens the door to what I believe the more lasting and compelling philosophical question in Kant’s imperative: is there such a thing as a universalizable act in a real human context? Once we model a brain—and I believe we will, eventually—Kant may find he has a second, more complex vocabulary to speak with, that of the third culture.

June 25, 2007 Posted by | computational neuroscience, Decision Making, Philosophy | Leave a comment