Monday, September 3, 2012

Aesthetics transforms vision and the mind, which transforms aesthetics... (Books - The Age of Insight By Eric Kandel)

There has been a bevy of books examining wider aspects of culture as they intersect with brain science, written by scientists (as opposed to journalists) in the past year:  Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist by Christof Koch, The Age of Insight by Eric R. Kandel, Who's In Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael S. Gazzaniga, and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.  They share being written by senior neuroscientists, with the exception of Koch who might be said to be mid-career, their topics are more general and their conclusions more far-reaching than a research paper would typically permit, and they are written for non-scientists.  I wrote about the Gazzaniga here, I will write on Koch in the coming weeks, and I have yet to finish the Kahneman, but I just completed Eric Kandel's The Age of Insight (Random House, 2012). 

The eminent Nobel-Prize winning neuroscientist satisfyingly brings together modernist art, the Viennese Secession to be precise, the study of the unconscious mind emerging during the same period, and what the development of neurobiology and cognitive psychology can contribute to our understanding of human-ness.  His self proclaimed aim is to bring together science and art, his mechanism is to address what we know about how the brain accomplishes visual perception, creativity, and feeling.  The result is a fluidly written account, fueled by a lifetime in neuroscience and a passion for painting, particularly portraiture.    

A revolution in thinking around 1900 transcended genre, permeating architecture, psychology, physics, neurology, literature, interior design, painting, and music.  Freud, Kokoschka, Shiele, Klimt, and Schnitzler, were among the famous modernists who flouted convention by asserting that much of reality existed below the surface. Kandel offers his reader a beautiful history of medical science and practice; a primer in the means painting uses to depict the human form, sexuality, psyche, and emotion; a thorough grounding in how the visual system translates an object to a neural signal and then to a perception; a grounding in Freud's theory of the mind and its influences - getting at both the psychology and the biology without getting too caught up in the religious fervour for or against some part of his theories; and a background in how the brain processes emotion.

Plenty of scientists, art historians, or writers have dealt with these topics before.  Here, we are the beneficiaries of length and depth of a single mind's exposure to these media, permitting an unusual combination of expertise producing a knowledgeable and natural synthesis:
Artists since the Renaissance had created paintings that simulate a realistic, three-dimensional space, with the painting acting as a window through which the viewer can enter into the scene.  Klimt took a different approach.  In Medicine [a mural painted by Klimt], for example, the figures are rendered in three dimensions, but their placement relative to one another is not three-dimensional.  The figures are stacked one on top of another in a vacuous, horizonless space; as a result, the mural is more a visual stream of thought than a coherent, three-dimensional image.  Rather than being a scene that the viewer can step into, the image feels more like a dream; in fact, it resembles Freud's description of the unconscious in dreams as "disconnected fragments of visual images."  Thus instead of presenting a realistic depiction of the external world, Klimt captures the fragmentary nature of the unconscious psyche in a way not previously depicted by other artists.
or
The anatomical drawing in the Orbis Sensualium Pictus, the medical use of the X-ray, and Freud's understanding of mind all contributed to Kokoschka's idea that to depict the inner life of his sitters, he had to look for truth beneath the surface.  He used a sitter's facial expression, posture, and attitude to strip away the person's social facade and reveal his or her true emotional state.  He would start work on a portrait by encouraging his sitter to move, talk, read, or become absorbed in his or her thoughts and therefore unaware of the artist's presence; in much the same way, a psychoanalyst would ask a patient to lie down on the couch, facing away from the therapist...
Kandel occasionally expects a good deal of his reader.  'Etiology' and the 'action of modulatory neurotransmitters' are bandied about with little preamble.  That is largely to the good because Kandel's fluidity builds his narrative effectively. His summary of the role of dopaminergic neurons in decision-making, for example, is a marvel of clarity and concision and a devoted lay-reader can always look something up. What sometimes frustrated my attention was Kandel's choice to skip diverging points-of-view or offer too little skepticism in discussing areas of research that are clearly speculative. This was most apparent in his final few chapters on 'creativity' where, for example, connections have been suggested by some researchers with such brain disorders as autism, bipolar disorder, or dyslexia.  That we have learned much from  possible relationships between brain disorders and typical brain function is well explained by Kandel, but his movement from the vocabulary he has taken chapters to introduce: 'perception,' 'emotion,' 'unconscious experience,' is sudden as it gives rise to a new and less well elaborated concept: creativity.
What is it that the cognitive neuroscientist is studying when they study creativity?  An aspect of character? Originality of idea?  Fecundity?  Kandel saw this as the coalescence of the case he has built slowly and steadily over 450 pages but the book went further than a divergence into speculative territory and the length of this section was structurally anti-climactic after laying a brilliant foundation to his original intention: to provoke a conversation among science, art and the unconscious mind.  Kandel's execution of this first aim was beautiful and satisfying and was the meat of his book.  Aesthetics transforms the way we see, this book said,  and that transforms the way we feel about the world.  That feeling becomes what each individual - artist or viewer - brings to their role in the dialogue of making and viewing art, which eventually becomes a new aesthetic, which transforms the way we see, and so on.  In the paragraphs right before the chapters on creativity began, Kandel put it well:
The initial insights into how perception and emotion interact in our response to art came from cognitive psychology, beginning with Riegl and continuing with Kris,  Gombrich, and Ramachandran.  From their work we learned that images created by the artist are re-created in our brain, which has an innate ability - first delineated by the Gestalt psychologists - to make models of both perceptual and emotional reality.  The central point is that in creating images of people and the environment, artists target and manipulate the same neural pathways our brain use to make these models of reality in everyday life.  By extension, Kris has argued, the brain of the artists as a creative modeler of physical and psychic reality is paralleled by the brain of the viewer as a creative remodeler of the physical and psychic reality depicted by the artist.

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