The Cultured Brain

In the following argument I will utilize a theoretical framework of neurobiology called neural Darwinism or neuroselectionism to construct a means through which an ever-evolving and variable, culturally determined, external objective reality acts to inscribe itself upon the developing brain. I will first describe this theoretical model. Thereafter I will describe a narrative that tells the story of the ontogeny of the art object as it moves through linear and non-linear time.

The third section will link these two histories together to describe the way that the changes in the object and the changes in the brain are partners in a historical dance; they exchange the lead at different moments yet remain always cognizant of the other’s moves. Finally, I will elucidate some cultural implications for this theory.


The human brain weighs only about four-hundred grams at birth and consists of a population of neurons which are highly variable in terms of their signal characteristics and stimulus specificity. Gerald Edelman has referred to this population of neurons as the primary repertoire. He states that this primary repertoire is the product of genetic programming and intrauterine development and consists of neurons that have sensitivities to stimuli, some of which are essential and others which are no longer essential.(1)

The neuronal manifestation of expectation or sensitivity appears to be the production of an excess number of synapses, a subset of which will be selectively preserved by experience generated neural activity. If the normal pattern of experience occurs, a normal pattern of neural organization results. If an abnormal pattern of experience occurs, an abnormal neural organization pattern will occur. “(2)

The brain from birth is selected for by the specific environment that it is born into. This process, called epigenesis, is responsible, as we will see, in shaping the primary repertoire into the secondary repertoire which is made up of a highly selected set of neurons with specific links to external reality, the reality outside and apart from the body. Those neurons that are repeatedly stimulated develop enhanced firing capabilities, beyond those that are infrequently stimulated. They thus develop a selected advantage. The resulting population of neurons reflects this selection, being dominated by those that are frequently stimulated. “The concept that there are mechanisms that act to retain those pathways in which patterns of external stimuli induce activity and eliminate potential connections not so activated has been termed functional validation by Jacobson and selective stabilization by Changeux and Danchin.”(3)
For example in the visual cortex of the brain there are neurons that are sensitive to the color red and these neurons will fire when they come across the appropriate wavelength combination. The more a neuron fires the faster it reacts to that stimulus. Since the color red is omnipresent in the environment, neurons with this signaling characteristic will be continually stimulated and will be selected for as a result of the their speedier and more efficient firing patterns. It is as if stimulation is in itself the commodity that is competed for and neurons are selected for by their ability to command this commodity. The color red exists in a myriad of situation complexes, it colors living and non-living forms. It has emotional and psychological qualities that are culturally defined but are also based on personal experience; consequently, through this participation, it is coded in the brain in thousands of neural networks. These networks are assemblages of neurons, each with specific signaling characteristics, which are linked together in order to code complex entities. “…when an axon of cell A is near enough to excite cell B and repeatedly or persistently, takes part in firing it. Some growth process or metabolic change takes place in one or both cells such that A’s efficiency as one of the cells firing is increased.”(4)
Spatial and temporal signatures tie these neurons together through altering their specific firing patterns in ways that address these specified contexts. Neurobiologists have come up with terms like synchrony to address the way that neurons in very different parts of the brain fire together when stimulated by the appropriate object or set of relations resulting from the interaction of those objects. “Detailed studies on anesthetized cats….have revealed that synchronization probability for remote groups of cells is determined both by factors within the brain as well as by the configuration of the stimuli.”(5)
As we saw with individual neurons, neural networks are under the same selective pressures and those that are stimulated the most will be selected for at the expense of other combinations, which, because they are less relevant, undergo regression. Regression of nerve terminals is thus an integral part of the development of connections in the adult cerebral cortex. “The succession of a phase of synaptic exuberance (in which there is a heavy growth of synaptic connections) by a phase of regression of axonal and dendritic branches. Thus marks a critical period in the development of the nervous system.”(6)
The resulting configuration of the brain will reflect the selective pressures of the outside world. How the history of objects and the environments they participate in affect the design of the sculptured brain will be the content of the next section and will, I hope, lead us to configure a model through which to address the problem of how art can investigate the brain.


An art object is a specialized form, a species, with its own history and set of practitioners. Although its form is shaped by the porous relation its own history shares with the history of objects that populate the world outside itself, art objects contain a kind of hermetic, self-enclosed discourse. (Actually one of the traditions of the art object is its own refusal of its identity. Artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Robert Rauschenberg have made significant contributions to our knowledge of objects in general through their challenges to the status of the art object.) That being said, each artist, informed as they are by a specific training, is made aware of a proscribed genealogy of the art object as it has migrated through the history of its own form. The history of painting is one such genealogy. Each successive generation add layers to the practices of its predecessor. that some such as Norman Bryson and E.H. Gombrich, that comment on visuality itself. But sculpture and installation art, defined here as an art of prefigured object relations, have their own history; the present day manifestations of these objects reflect the history of changes that have affected them in a succession of evolving contexts. Prerequisite technologies were needed before steel could be produced, or photographs could be created; inventions in technique and materials form the basis of the changes that take place on the surface of objects, contributing to their morphologies in time and space. I use the expression “centripetal palimpsest” to describe this process through which objects evolve as they pass through the constantly evolving social, political, economic, technologic and cultural contexts. Centripetal refers to evolving outward movement, as when ripples form on the surface of an equanamous pool of water after a stone, thrown into it, breaks its surface. Palimpsest describes the layers that evolve one on top of another, like the layers of an onion. Although this metaphor is positivistic in its notion of growth and development, it does not exclude growth that occurs in opposition, is inward or is about removal rather than addition. However for the sake of this argument we assume an additive form. A kind of silt collects on the art object; through a process of reified perception and cognition, the artist mediates external relations through his or her own body, carefully depositing the alluvium on the object’s surface. The specialized knowledge of the artist has two effects. On the one hand attention is directed and diverted to special surfaces of the object through the artist’s aforementioned aesthetic training. Upon these surfaces or in opposition to them, the artist directs changes. On the other hand the artist’s study of technique allows him or her a knowledge of the internal structure and internal forces that hold the object together; he or she applies the new materials in ways that do not disrupt the forces that hold the object together. Architecture is one field in which this is especially true. In viewing the history of architecture even within the last century, we witness the subtle changes in external morphology within the restraints of technologic and structural integrity. While it is hard to imagine recent buildings by Frank Gehry, such as the Guggenheim Bilboa, without Corbusier and Jeanneret’s Pavillon des Temps Nouveaux or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, it is just as hard to imagine them without CAD linked computer generated drawings or innovative ways of making building materials look like a flowing curtain or folded tissue paper. When we extrapolate this concept to embrace all forms of visual culture, beyond sculpture, painting and architecture to fashion, style and typography, just to name a few, one begins to appreciate the construction of an entire “visual cultural field,” subject to the same forces. The human body is subsumed and embedded in this set of relations. The material correlatives? of this set interact, forming subtle unconscious visual relations that feedback on each other and, as we will see shortly, upon the developing brain itself. Beyond their physical manifestation?, these objects and relations are contained in another discourse. Visual culture is, as it exists in its material form as objects and buildings, an instantiation of the immaterial social, political, economic and aesthetic relations in which the objects? are imbedded. Jameson confirms this in his analysis of van Gogh’s A Pair of Boots through Heidegger’s notion of Earth and World. “This entity emerges into the unconcealment of its being, by way of the mediation of the work of art, which draws the whole absent world and earth into revelation around itself, along with the heavy tread of the peasant woman, the loneliness of the field path, the hut in the clearing, the worn and broken instruments of labor in the furrows and at the hearth.”(page 8, Postmodernism) When we look at paintings or drawings of life from the eighteenth century we are all aware of the great differences in appearance that exist between then and today. Many cultural critics, such as Manuel De Landa, have pointed out that those differences have as much to do with the way goods were distributed, how cities grew and worked together, and even how disease was handled as they do with decisions concerning brushstroke, palette and available materials. All these relations are bound together in a great syncitial organism of being.(7)


A similar and parallel process of reconfiguration is also taking place in the brain. In the shift from the primary to the secondary repertoire their exists an envelope that limits the reconfiguration of the neuronal-axonal-dendritic population within certain boundaries. The primary repertoire is prefabricated along certain architectonic dispositions that sequester specific functions to specific anatomical sites. For instance the visual cortex is primary for early processing of visual information; its columnar micro cellular organization plus its regional diversification (there are areas specific for color and motion) reflect those capabilities. However within those constraints, external stimuli, sometimes aesthetically and culturally configured, can effect the spatial and temporal linkages that form between neural elements. Aesthetic styles affect brushstroke, color and surface pattern; consequently, parts of the work are tethered along specific conformational forms, for instance Gestalt properties, which are addressed by the nervous system differently. We all know this when we witness a form emerging from a dot diagram as we connect the numbers with our pencils; random patterns become known designs. The genealogy of changes that we previously commented upon in describing the history of the object also expresses itself in a similar genealogy of the brain. Hypothetically speaking a cybernetic loop of feedback and feedforward relations could link alterations in the morphology of the art object to similar changes in the morphology of the brain. It is conceivable that the evolution of the brain as it is reconfigured in the ascent to man is based on waves of changes that took place as a result of being sculpted by concomitant changes in the outside world, which, as we know today, are culturally configured. Culturally configured stylistic changes, as we saw in the example of the centripetal palimpsest, remain embedded in the underlying structure of the object, its relation to other objects, and the space it occupies in such a way that future generations upon perceiving and cognating those relations will undergo similar neurobiologic reconfirmations either in a direct or indirect way. These reconfirmations come directly because the same object may remain unchanged or marginally changed from its original design, and they are indirect in the way subsumed morphologies may have an affect in the manifestation of the object’s form, and thus the neural network which it may help to inscribe. In this way the genetic load that each generation must hold and transport will be diminished because the need to design a neuron or group of neurons for a stable contingency of objects, an impossible task as each object is changing and new objects are formed, is not necessary. External objective reality becomes inscribed with its own genetic materials that are constituted in its own genealogy of stylistic changes. With regard to the Pleistocene environments, Cosmides and Tooby treat the mind as one treats any other organ of the body as an evolved mechanism which has been constructed and adjusted in response to selective pressures faced by our species during its evolutionary history.(8)
Is it possible that specific aesthetic formulas that have emerged in the past twenty years would be invisible to a brain not educated and reconfigured by the genealogy of aesthetic changes that are imbedded in the visual field and which have significantly reordered the microbiological architecture of the brain? Through a history of trial and error, only those changes in objects that not only conformed to their own genealogy but were also, what I would like to call, “neurocapatible,” remained selectively advantageous. The history of objects is then about a slow process in which the organic changes of the brain were matched against those changes occurring in the real world and vice versa. When we add the idea of “neurosynaptic exuberance,” (a great production of neurons and dendritic spines are produced during postnatal critical periods. For instance, in language development, this begins somewhere around eighteen months.) one begins to appreciate the internal forces that could actually begin to change the shape of the brain itself.


So what does all this have to do with the development of the brain? What I am basically saying is that if you accept the initial premise of the selectionist paradigm that the brain is sculpted by the external reality in which it is embedded and if you accept that those material relations, as they express themselves in art, architecture and media culture, are the result of the social, political, economic and technologic relations that interact to produce them, then it is not a difficult leap of faith to accept the position that the neuronal structure, the neural networks, as they express themselves as local and global mappings, have been indirectly proscribed by those immaterial relations. Culture, as it is encoded through aesthetic relations, inscribes itself upon the brain. The implications of this statement, I believe, are immense. The culture war, as it has been described, is no longer simply a discourse of limited importance, relegated to a marginalized art world, but becomes incorporated or should I say “incorporalated,” into a more fundamental discussion, namely how culture is reflected in the organization of neurobiologic tissue at the microsynaptic level.
“Our brain is not the seat of a neuronal cinema that reproduces the world: rather our perceptions are inscribed on the surface of things, as images amongst images.”(9)
As we discussed earlier, the genealogy of the changing morphology of objects and their relations, “the centripetal palimpsest,” results from the inscription of the changing political, social, economic and technologic relations on the surface of those objects, according to rules proscribed by the deep tectonic structures of the objects, which become, in effect, repositories of previous historical changes and the shifting context of social, political and cultural relations. Only in revolutionary times, such as the Russian Revolution, are these immaterial relations so different as to necessitate absolutely new forms, for example, Malevich’s White on White painting. The resulting form may or may not seem to relate directly to the history from which it emerged. In most other conditions the situation is analogous to a key and a lock. For it to remain functional, changes in the key must not be too extreme.


Thus we arrive at what I am referring to as the “Cultured Brain.” For argument’s sake, I am looking primarily at that part of the equation which goes from right to left, from culture to its effect on the brain, rather than from left to right, from the brain’s effect on culture. (Others have made this argument quite forcefully and I refer those readers to the work of the Churchlands.) The growing number of artists from China, South America, the Middle East and Africa must impress anyone who has visited galleries and museums recently. Art historically, this trend seems the outgrowth of two forces. On the one hand, it results from what I call the second phase of post-modernism. The first phase challenged Modernism’s notion of material specificity, in works such as those of Rauschenberg and Warhol, where the artist broke down the barriers that separated painting, photography, film and sculpture from one another. The second phase challenged barriers that excluded individuals of color, women and explicitly homosexual art. One of the most significant contributions of the much-maligned art of the eighties was that it created opportunities for other groups to gain a foothold in the art world. This trend continued into the nineties, manifesting in what is now called “Global Art.” The barriers, which had formerly excluded artists from countries outside the artistic fovea of Western Europe and the United States, are finally coming down. On the other hand Global Art erupted from Post-Colonial discourse centered around Homi Baba and others, filling the intellectual void left by the fall of conceptual art. Viewed from the perspective of the “Cultured Brain,” the significance of this contribution becomes more important. With the advent of media culture, ideas once locked away for years in small circles of influence find expression in generalized culture almost immediately. As one views a Madonna video or a Diesel ad, one is amazed by how much of the visual language is adapted from what is going on at that moment in the galleries or museums. There is no longer any temporal disparity between the art world and the real world. They are porous to each other and ideas are flowing very rapidly back and forth. Ad executives and video producers are obviously looking at art magazines and attending exhibitions. Our world is becoming more and more saturated with these expressions of visual culture as they express themselves in what has been referred to as the mediascape. The fundamental motivation that drives the designs of these expressions is based on a desire for viewers’ attention. Success or failure is based on how many people see a specific campaign and alter their behavior in accordance with its message. Artists from formerly marginalized cultures are creating works of art that have their roots in different traditions. The genealogies of cultural changes that have become inscribed on and in the objects they produce reflect the nuances of cultural difference. Artists make choices when they make a work of art; some of these are visual. What the surface looks like, what colors are chosen, the distance and size between objects or between figures on a canvas result from decisions that are culturally determined and can, sometimes, be traced through a particular artist’s heritage. When these less familiar works are displayed in a public forum, such as a biennial exhibition in which they are contextualized within a specific discourse, set next to works of art that are more familiar to the viewing audience, these cultural differences become linked to specific aesthetic practices, sometimes in ways that can dilute their meaning.

However the emergence of a political, social, economic and cultural context that embraces cultural difference imparts this art with a new found status, giving the objects value as art commodities. The above mentioned culturally based aesthetic choices become significant and form models, which other international artists working in film, music or advertising co-opt and adapt into their own practice. Since many of these artists are involved, as we saw, with web design and advertising, the aesthetic configuration of the urbanscape and mediascape will reflect these changes. It is important to add that these producers and art directors are from these former colonial outposts as well and the aforementioned indirect effect may supplement a more direct effect. As I have argued in Visual Ergonomics, mediated images are configured in ways that make them more attractive to the developing brain. They are more vivid, seductive and are more easily resolved by the nervous system. They are connected to technologies and apparati for their distribution and dissemination and as a result they are selected for over other forms of visual stimulation. As a result they will have greater potential to sculpt the brain. The cynic could be very disturbed by what I am implying. For just as nuclear science and gene therapy offer both tremendous opportunities and devastating calamities, the theory of the cultured brain contains opposing discourses: on one hand, the potential of a global culture with its concomitant sharing of cultural diversity, and on the other the possibility of global manipulation and control. The culturally diversified message is now democratized to incorporate strategies that can hail the multiplicity of global subjectivity. The power of that message to tether desire to the object fetish is magnified like a multicultural crystal with a plethora of cut surfaces catching and holding the attention of diverse populations. Implicit in this idea is a kind of neo-colonialism in which territories and natural resources are now substituted for the regions of the brain and brain power. The seemingly benign and liberal impulses that drive the art world towards ever greater inclusion of minorities and marginal cultures can also provide a formula through which commodity culture finds increasingly easy egress into the corporeality of the human nervous system with its machinery for desire.