Art is mysterious. This an undesirable trait in a modern day where we place an overbearing trust in science to explain every aspect of our world. In comparison to the obvious usefulness of engineers and doctors, it is difficult to justify the work of an artist.
Art has no immediately apparent purpose in this world. This is why it seems so mysterious, or magical. A scientific understanding of art’s enduring presence in our lives and history continues to elude us.
Science is not a bad thing. We have come far in the digital age and we owe much of our progress to it. Assuming that art is a non-scientific pursuit does not say a lot about the subject so much as it betrays our lack of understanding about it. In my opinion, there is no reason why an enduring subject like art should not be asked to justify itself to science.
This theme of justifying art to science is not to be confused with scientism. Scientism is a fundamentalist belief. It asserts that science can do no wrong and is able answer any worthwhile question. In Massimo Pigliucci’s book, Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science, renowned physicist Steven Weinberg’s interpretation of scientism is portrayed as dismissive toward philosophy by claiming that it is a waste of time. His point of view implies that philosophy is meant to “solve” problems the way that science does. However, Pigliucci asserts that this is a misunderstanding. He claims that philosophers are meant to act as “metathinkers”, or “to think about how we proceed in our inquiries (epistemology), as well as to elaborate on the big picture of what we do and what we should do (ethics) and on the big picture of reality (metaphysics)” (Pigliucci 115). The actions of philosophers are informed by science, but their effectiveness should not be judged by scientific standards. My project’s association with scientism begins and ends with the belief that science can “answer any worthwhile question.” It does not reject philosophy, but offers one more explanation to the many existing answers for the purpose of art. It does not seek to provide a definite explanation for the purpose of art either. I do not believe such a thing is possible at this point.
The desire to make art more palatable to scientism implies that we become accustomed to looking at art from a scientific perspective. My project aims to do this by providing a portfolio of paintings on the foundation of research that synthesizes our current understanding of art, particularly in terms of neuroscience. This will be done through an analysis of how the brain interprets and creates art. The conclusion will result in a series of paintings which are informed by the discussions in this text.
THE LEFT AND RIGHT BRAIN
The brain is divided into two hemispheres primarily connected by a bundle of nerves called the corpus callosum. One of the most broad and popular approaches to examining the brain’s relationship to art is based on the specialization of the left and right hemispheres. In Betty Edward’s 2012 edition of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Edwards explains that in most right handed individuals, the left hemisphere primarily handles analytical tasks such as arithmetic, verbal speech, time marking and abstraction while the right hemisphere deals with more intuitive, subjective, holistic and time-free perceptions (Edwards 36). This often encourages the assumption that the right brain strictly handles creative tasks and the left deals with more logical ones.
However, it is inaccurate to claim that creativity and logic solely belong to one hemisphere. Rather, there are several centers throughout each hemisphere that contribute to the process, and interpretation relies partly on interaction between the two hemispheres. This section will focus on how those hemispheres interact. We will then move on to examine the modules in the brain and their specialties in the process. The intent of this is to organize our understanding of the brain from general to more specific information.
The idea of left brained and right brained thinking is a common but simplified way of looking at the mind. Furthermore, it suggests that there is no place for creativity within the realm of scientific or left brained” thinking (despite the fact that the type of narrative thinking associated with language often plays a significant role in creative activities). And, conversely, it implies that art cannot originate from scientific concepts. Edwards even points out that old biases die hard, as stereotypical left brained and right brained functions are still respectively referred to as the “minor” or subdominant R-mode and the “major” or dominant L-mode, based on the naming preferences of nineteenth-century scientists.
However, Nobel Prize-winning split-brain studies have eliminated the need for this binary way of thinking. Michael Gazzaniga, one of the neuroscientists involved with this research, provides clarity on hemisphere interaction with his book, Tales from Both Sides of the Brain. The text is based on studies of individuals who, in order to treat epileptic seizures, have had their brain hemispheres divided by an incision of the corpus callosum. This led to significant conclusions that could be added to the discoveries about how each side of the brain perceives and transmits information, which had been established in studies during the 1950s and 1960s. Because the left arm and hand are controlled by the right hemisphere and vice versa, we know that the right brain is more attuned to interpret three dimensional information because split-brain patients can only draw realistic shapes with the left hand, but only two dimensional ones with the right (Gazzaniga 91). Furthermore, the eyes of split-brain patients can only send visual information to their corresponding hemisphere. From this, it was possible to find out that split-brain patients can only speak about visual information if their left brain receives it (Gazzaniga 46). These discoveries are significant because they show us what role each half of the brain tends to play in the interpretation and creation of art.
For instance, we want to place an emphasis on using the right side of the brain when we draw. This is because we know that it is accustomed to perceiving things such as lighting, changes in visual planes, and subtleties in the form. All of these add up to help the artist convey a realistic image. The left brain cannot provide the kind of detailed input -- such as spatial awareness, synthesized forms and nonverbal cognition -- because it tends to oversimplify and abstract visual information, but the predominance of scientism in our world today has turned us into a primarily left-brained society. Neurobiologist Jerre Levy even notes that “American education up through graduate school probably ablated the right hemisphere” (Edwards 37). This can be problematic for those who are trying to engage with visual art. What often occurs with beginning artists is that the left hemisphere will take over the task of drawing and inhibit the right brain (Edwards 36). This becomes a source of frustration for beginners because drawings will turn out cartoonish and inaccurate for no reason that is apparent to the student.
THE PATH OF VISUAL PROCESSING IN THE BRAIN
While the majority of modules (partially independent regions of the brain which coordinate with one another in order to mediate mental processes) that deal with vision are located in the right brain, it is important to understand that the interpretation of imagery is a collaborative process between the hemispheres. I will start with a general overview of how visual information is received by the brain. This concept is grounded on the neuron doctrine. It proposes that the nervous system is composed of individual cells which communicate by sending chemical signals to one another. These cells are called neurons and are defined by their ability to receive and process information. (Goldstein 24). Each neuron has a receiving and a transmitting end. Dendrites are branch-like structures that serve as the receiving end. Axons, or nerve fibers, are the component of the neurons that are responsible for sending signals. Neurons in close proximity to each other have a small gap between them called a synapse. The signal is transmitted across the synapses when neurotransmitters (chemical signals) are released from one neuron and bind to the receptors on the dendrite of the other. A line of closely assembled neurons is called a neural circuit. Figure 1 shows an image of a neuron. (Click images to enlarge them.) Understanding neurons will make it easier to map out the brain’s interpretation of visual information.
Vision begins when light reflected from an object hits the retina, a layer of neurons in the back of the eye. It then travels to the lateral geniculate nucleus of the thalamus (located in the lower regions of the brain), and proceeds to the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of grey matter which covers both hemispheres (Kandel 445). The primary visual cortex is the region of the cerebral cortex that is the most studied and supposedly the most specialized for handling visual information. It is located in the occipital lobes. However, it is important to understand that several regions of the brain can also participate in this process as well. For instance, the thalamus is in the center of each hemisphere of the cerebral cortex, and it contains the lateral geniculate nucleus, which receives information from the retina and analyzes visual information before it is sent to the cerebral cortex. Other areas include the temporal lobes, which serve a function in facial recognition, and the hippocampus, a bilateral structure of the limbic system located under the temporal lobes, which works with the formation and retrieval of memories. The point here is that visual information and, by extension, art has a ripple effect over several areas of the brain.
METHODS OF PROCESSING
There are several different ways to explain how the brain interprets information. In this text we will look at bottom-up processing, top-down processing, and some theories about howneurons are specialized for processing.
Bottom-up processing of visual information starts with stimulation of light receptors (the retina) and moves through electrochemical signals toward the visual receiving area of the cortex. In top-down processing, an interpretation is influenced byprior knowledge and expectations. A famous example of top-down processing is the light-from-above heuristic. This refers to the brain’s expectation that light sources will come from above. Figure 3 shows how flipping an image of indentations (a) upside down makes it look as if the sand is raised up, even though it is only the light source that changed.
This phenomenon can be explained by the idea of experience-dependent plasticity, a mechanism by which the structure of the brain is changed through an individual’s interaction with the environment. Experience-dependent plasticity supports physicist Herman von Helmholtz’s theory of unconscious inference, which claims that some of our perceptions are the result of unconscious assumptions that we make about our environment, which was established in the mid-1800s (Goldstein 63). With this in mind, it is important to realize that an individual’sculture, experience, and beliefs can also influence their perception of anything around them, such as art. This, in turn, creates diversity in the ways that people interpret information.
When it comes to interpreting art, the left and right brain both participate. This is especially evident in figurative art, where both abstract and realistic images elicit the recognition of a face. Figurative art is powerful because our brains are hard-wired to recognize other humans.
The artistic potential of this knowledge is supported by cellular physiological studies of macaques performed by Freiwald and Tsao. Their experiments tested the macaques’ “brain patches,” regions in the brain that primates have that are used to recognize the faces of other primates. The macaques were shown cartoonish line drawings of faces that lacked many of the features of real faces. However, the cells in the monkeys’ middle face patches were activated as if they were looking at a real face. The same test was repeated with cartoons that featured faces that were altered in various ways. For instance, some were disassembled, exaggerated or moved (See Figure 4). The results of this test revealed that the cells respond dramatically to full faces with unnaturally exaggerated features. (Kandel 475). In the art world, this helps to explain why the exaggerated features of caricatures and cartoons are so effective in expressing emotion.
The figure drawing requirements of art schools also suggest a recognition of the brain’s specialization for recognizing the figure. For example, the Accademia del Disegno, founded in Florence in 1563, responded to this interest by providing the opportunity to conduct intense studies of the human body by drawing from live models. This sparked the construction of several figure drawing academies across Europe and set the standard for figure drawing as an essential part of training for the visual artist (Brown & McLean 4). Even today, most art institutes require figure drawings in their application portfolios.
This preference is likely because humans are very good at detecting subtle abnormalities in members of their own species. A look at Figure 5 shows the significant amount of space that the brain designates for identifying other people. This knowledge can be used to reinforce the idea that drawing the human figure poses a unique challenge to the artist in that it forces an engagement of drawing fundamentals in the most precise manner possible. Since viewers are predisposed to recognizing a mistake when they view the human figure, the artist is held to a standard of perfection. This means an advanced awareness of balance, anatomical makeup (including the skeletal structure, muscles, and manners in which the body stores fat) are essential for a good figure. Furthermore, the artist must meet the challenge of achieving rhythm and balance. Figure drawing is the ideal learning tool because it immediately confronts the artist with his or her flaws.
When we talk about Gestalt in this context, we are talking about Gestalt psychology. Gestalt psychology came in the 1940s and 1950s, before the neuroscientific research that was previously discussed. Gestalt psychology seeks to understand the methods by which the mind picks out potentially associated parts and views them as a whole. It is supported by experiments on visual perception. For instance, the psychologist Max Wertheimer determined that structured wholes or Gestalten, rather than sensations, are the primary units of mental life. This research resulted in a set of rules that determines which groupings of perceptions or stimuli are more likely to form recognizable patterns. These principles are useful to artists in organizing visual information and are especially popular with graphic designers (Kandel 438).Theseprinciples are proximity, figure/ground distinction, similarity, closure, continuity and symmetry. Figure 6 illustrates how Wertheimer’s grouping principles work. Figure/ground, the one principle which is not explicitly labeled, is apparent in all of the illustrations because it refers to the ability to identify a figure (in this case, the dot) from a background.
Despite the fact that Gestalt psychology preceded modern neuroscientific research, its assertions find a lot of support through its practical application in the real world. Organizations that capitalize on attention show that the Gestalt principles are effective because they will spend money on designers who use them in their advertisements. Artists, too, can utilize these principles in order to work with the brain and guide its attention to specific areas of their work.
NEUROEXISTENTIALISM AND EUDAIMONICS
This section brings us back to the introduction, where we discussed how the arts often struggle under the scrutiny of scientism because they are viewed as more abstract. In the search for a universal, solid framework for the arts that is consistent with a scientific perspective. Dr. Peter Mehl, who specializes in the intersections of philosophy and religion, aims to establish such a framework from a more philosophical point of view. In his article, Educating for Life: Liberal Arts and the Human Spirit, Mehl argues that transcendence, or a state of one’s understanding of the universe and his or her place in it, is essential to finding happiness and satisfaction in life. Transcendence should be thought of as a sort of empirical religious experience that contributes to good mental health. In terms of practicality, it gives people the motivation to go forth and be productive. The pursuit of transcendence is a goal in eudaimonics, which is defined by a philisophical inquiry into happiness. This is Mehl’s proposal for a formal, empirical study of happiness (Mehl 109-110).
From this perspective, the creation and consumption of art is not a meaningless thrill. Rather, it is a gateway to personal understanding. According to Owen Flanagan, a professor of philosophy, psychology, and neurobiology at Duke University, eudaimonics originates from a neuroexistentialist mentality, which is based on existentialism (a belief in the individual as the determinant of their own will) but combines ideas from Charles Darwin and neuroscience to highlight a significant predicament for humans: “We are animals, our minds are our brains, and when we die we are dead forever” (Flanagan 41). Most would find this harsh realization to be an unsatisfactory and disturbing context for our lives. In order to counter this, Flanagan presents neuro-eudaimonics as a way of “finding existential meaning for a certain kind of smart, gregarious social animal” (Flanagan 41). He argues that eudaimonia (flourishing) can be achieved by engaging in six spaces of meaning: art, science, technology, ethics, politics and spirituality. This paper has focused on the space of art, which is influenced by my personal interpretation that art is a means of communication that can help people to reach a deeper understanding of themselves and others. It is important to note that the function of art can also be viewed as a means of reaching transcendence, which falls under the space of spirituality.
Therefore, spirituality and arts will be viewed as closely related spaces. I do not think it is far-fetched to claim that the visual arts are a significant factor in the way humans communicate and understand each other. Humans have been known to fill their societies with artistic representations of their beliefs and behavior ever since they made hand paintings on the walls of Pettakere cave about 40,000 years ago (Domínguez 2014). And it is no coincidence that the Renaissance produced a myriad of Christian paintings. Even today, advertisements, movies and political movements use the arts as a means of uniting people, reinforcing ideas and communicating beliefs.
Outside of cultural influence, I believe that the existence of physiological consistencies in nearly every brain reveals that there is a certain level of consistency in the manner by which we interpret art. My paintings for this project aim to pinpoint that consistency by using different art styles to portray a single idea.
In short, my goal is to allow the artwork to be driven by themes that reflect the most common basic and universal characteristics in the human brain’s manner of processing visual information. In the context of the research with which it is associated, I also hope my work will help to portray art in a more scientific perspective and, consequently, in a manner which can be better received by the modern world.
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