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February 8, 2004 - The Third International Conference on Neuroesthetics

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Okay, I missed it.  The Third International Conference on Neuroesthetics, subtitled "Emotions in Art and the Brain," was held earlier last month at the Berkeley Art Museum, up in the north end of the state.  And I only recently came across an item explaining it.  I really do feel out of the loop.


See Science, Trying to Pick Our Brains About Art

Blake Gopnik, The Washington Post, Sunday, January 25, 2004; Page N01

Questions raised there?  Does a Rembrandt portrait or a van Gogh still life press some special buttons in every human being's brain?  Will a red painting speak to us in ways a blue one never could?  Are we wired in ways that make every one of us enjoy a smiling bust and shiver at a frowning one?


Gopnik puts it this way: "... if our brains determine how art works on us, what does that tell us about art, or us - could studying the way we're wired determine crisply that the "Mona Lisa" is truly great, or do we need some history to tell us how a complex painting speaks, or not, to all its different viewers?"


Perhaps the question is pointless, but the work goes on apace.  You see, as Gopnik explains, the fundamental premise of this field is that every time something out there in the world makes us feel a certain way, it's because some particular bits of our brains are being stimulated by it.  In short, a close look at a brain (the "neuro" part of the discipline) as it gets lit up by art (the "aesthetics" part) should give us insight into the links that exist between the two.


What do we find?  If you stick people into a machine that does functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and then show them paintings they find beautiful, you can see certain characteristic areas of their brains are greatly excited.  One Semir Zeki puts this forth.  He's a neuroscientist at University College London and one of the leaders in this field.  He also shows that the brain responds differently to to "ugliness."  This seems to excite the brain's motor center usually associated with anger.  So an ugly painting or crappy piece of music makes you angry - if you're forced by the scientist to not turn away of course.  Maybe you're just angry at the scientist experimenting on you?


Ray Dolan, another scientist from University College London, seems to wants neuroscience to offer some clues as to how emotion works.  His deal is that since art has been defined as the "creation of forms that represent feelings," understanding how the brain constructs our feelings should shed new light on aesthetics, too.


Perhaps.  Dolan's research does indicate that whenever we see a picture of an expressive face - which he describes as the "royal road to understanding emotion" - particular emotion centers in our brain light up.  And seems to happen even when we see a face so briefly that we don't even pay attention to the expression that it shows, or even know we've seen anything particularly interesting at all.


Gopnik's conclusion?


It's no wonder that expressive portraits have worked so well as art: They get our brains going whether we want them to or not.  You can pretend to care only about the lighting or the brushwork in a striking face by Rembrandt, say, but your attention to the picture, even your memory of it, is probably being tweaked by the thrill it's sending through the parts of your brain that register feelings.


Ah... but is this useful to know?


Dolan's work does suggest that emotion affects other brain processes - such as memory and attention - that we rely on when we think we're being rational. 


Here's the experiment:


He gives people a trivial task, such as matching pairs of photos, and at the same time lets them barely glimpse a picture of a face out of the corner of an eye.  And he finds that their matching slows down more if the face shows strong expression than if it's bland - even though his subjects hardly know they've seen it.  Emotion, that is, is so important to us that it gets in the way even when it barely registers.


The character Leonard Nimoy played on "Star Trek" comes to mind.  The whole premise of the character is that Spock is the one who saves the day in almost every episode - because while everyone else is being an emotional ninny, he, who has no emotion, can deal with the dire crisis at hand.  We love Captain Kirk, but he's usually quite useless in a pinch.


Gopnik comments on how this is refined, and applies to art:


But if brain damage shuts down someone's amygdala, where scans show some of this unconscious emotional activity getting sorted out, Dolan doesn't find this kind of slowing.  How and how well our brains work, that is, subtly affects the way we function in the world - including, presumably, the way we come to grips with pictures. (Berkeley psychologist Arthur Shimamura presented cases of brain damage that changed people's attitudes to making art.)


Or give people a list of banal words in which a single one sparks unconscious emotion, and Dolan has found that they remember that word better than the others - and tend to forget the one that comes immediately before it.  The increased attention that emotional events command comes at the cost, says Dolan, of a kind of amnesia for less-striking events that float around them. (Damage the amygdala, however, and once again the effect recedes.)


Curious, isn't it?  Theodore Roethke, the poet once put it well "When I'm happy I cant think."  Science backs him up.


Yeah, well, what else?


Rosa-Aurora Chavez of Mexico's Ramon de la Fuente National Institute of Psychiatry, seems to be looking at the creative act from the point of view of those who participate in it.  Her team combined brain scans with survey-style tests that are sometimes used to measure human creativity and found that the creative types who did well on the tests also had trademark patterns of brain activity.  Yep, they have "significantly higher activation in right and left cerebellum and in right and left frontal and temporal lobes, confirming inter-hemispheric interactions during the performance of creative tasks."  Of course they do.


Gopnik concedes that "some of the take-home messages of neuroaesthetics are hardly headline news.  It doesn't take a brain scan to discover that expressive faces mean a lot to us and that artists often take advantage of that fact in subtle ways.  Or that emotion can be a serious distraction that is out of our control."


Well, no it doesn't.


How to justify this research?


... neuroaestheticians would also argue that the field is only in its infancy.  The fact that they've made such a suggestive start points toward a bright future where they'll really start to pin the details down.  With luck, neuroaestheticians may be able to figure out the "palette" of neural effects that all artists have at their disposal, to use or not as they see fit.


On the other hand -


The most striking thing about the Berkeley conference was that most of the artistic ideas in play wouldn't mean that much to many people who look hard at art.  The old notion that art is centrally about making an "aesthetic" object whose "beauty" is supposed to strike a chord in us has started to look pretty thin, as we've begun to think about how a broad spread of human beings respond and have responded to a vast range of art objects.  The "aesthetics" that cause "neuro" stuff to happen may be only a tiny subset of art.


Yep.  The field is a nit-picking one that misses quite a bit.


Gopnik asks us to consider Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain" - an upside-down urinal he displayed in an exhibition in 1917 - which was one of the 20th century's most famous and influential pieces.


You have to wonder how neuroaesthetics, with its focus on ideas of beauty, sensation and emotion - on "the systematic analysis of the pleasures of the senses," in Dolan's words - would ever come to grips with that.  Work like Duchamp's - as well as the high percentage of modern art that follows from it - depends on complex ideas bouncing from one art work to another, rather than on a simple cause-and-effect relationship between an object and its viewers' brains.  In fact, artistic content and subject matter, and the contexts in which they're taken in, must have always had as much effect on us as any kick an art work gives our brains.


Yep, and then he riffs on Thomas Kinkade and American nostalgia.  And he riffs how a single African mask from 1845 "horrified some European critics at a world's fair five years later, and went on in sixty years to inspire Picasso and a bunch of Franco-Spanish modern artists to revolutionize their picturemaking."


I remember that.


Why does all this science tell us about suchh things?


The problem is that neuroaesthetics doesn't seem set up to explain many of the things we most want to see explained about an art object and our reactions to it.


If, like most art historians, you believe that art is not only the "creation of forms that represent feelings" but also the production of ideas that trigger thoughts, then neuroaesthetics may not have that much to say to you - until the day it can explain what makes "King Lear" mean more to us than "The Importance of Being Earnest."


It does?  That Wilde farce means more to me than the antics of the self-blinded dotty king stumbling around the moors regretting he trusted the wrong daughter or two.


"I was so tragically stupid, so foolish!"


"Yes, you were."


"Oh woe is me!"


"Yep.  Seems so."


Perhaps the Fourth International Conference on Neuroesthetics, when and wherever it is held, will explain what clever, insightful comedy does to the brain.  I suspect it improves all the brains functions.


And I do like the fool in Lear.  I just wonder why he sticks around.