Art, A Window Into the Brain?

Can art tell us anything about the brain? Of course art is constrained by the limits of our nervous system. Subsonic symphonies are unlikely to be appreciated by any other than bats. If art is to tell us anything about the brain that is not already obvious then insights from art must somehow relate to observations in neuroscience.

For purposes of this discussion I will focus on vision and visual arts. On a promising note, the agendas of visual neuroscientists and visual artists seem to overlap. The scientist tries to discover constituent elements of vision, determine how these elements are processed in a modular fashion and how these modules of vision interact. The artist tries to “see” the visual world more acutely or at least differently than most. When the artist tries to “see” selectively, by emphasizing some aspects of vision over others, the possibility exists that this selective vision is similar to the modules of visual processing postulated in neuroscience.

In its early stages vision is decomposed into elementary features. Different parts of the brain selectively process form, depth, color and movement. Some artistic movements also selectively emphasize these same visual features. For example, black and white photography usually emphasizes form with little consideration of color or movement. Giotto’s frescos and Cezanne’s planar landscapes explore the visual experience of volume and depth. The paintings of the Venetian Renaissance artists and the Fauves explore the visual experience of color. The Futurists’ paintings and Calder’s mobiles explore the visual experience of movement. Thus visual neuroscience and art converge on the idea that our visual experience can be decomposed into elementary constituents and at a first approximation seem to agree on what these constituents might be.

While early vision decomposes our visual world, later vision gives these decomposed elements coherence and meaning. A central issue in the cognitive neuroscience of vision is the process by which objects in the world are recognized. I will touch on two aspects of object recognition that are echoed in certain artistic traditions. First, we can usually recognize objects seen from unusual views. Second, we recognize individual objects as members of a general class of objects.

The fact that we recognize objects from unusual views suggests that the nervous system stores representations of objects that are not limited to a single point of view. When we look at a chair from an unusual angle, such as from directly above, we are able to recognize that it is a chair. The details and neural mechanisms underlying this ability are still being worked out. However, damage to parts of the right hemisphere impairs this ability. The cubists explored this very issue. Their images dealt directly with the question of how to represent objects without restricting them to a single point of view.

The fact that we recognize individual objects as members of a general class suggests that all members of the class share prototypic features. For example, while individual teapots may vary, they share a simplified form. Specific percepts are matched to these simple forms in the process of recognition. Damage to the junction of the left temporal and occipital lobes can impair this ability to recognize individual objects as members of a general class. For a thousand years before the Renaissance, a primary function of Western art was to use visual icons to illustrate religion. This and other uses of icons in art can be considered the artistic counterpart of the nervous system’s use of simple visual prototypes. These icons serve as markers for ideas and experiences and are not direct reflections of specific things.

I have offered a few examples where movements in art emphasize aspects of vision, which resemble modules of visual processing as postulated by visual cognitive neuroscience. These examples suggest that it might be possible for art to tell us something about the brain (and for cognitive neuroscience to tell us something about art). However, the skeptic might point out that these examples are hand picked and one might easily look for examples of artistic movements that do not have counterparts in cognitive neuroscience. If art is to serve as a window into the brain, the challenge is for art to reveal something that we do not already know about the brain. At the very least art might provide a framework from which to probe the brain in ways that might not otherwise be considered.