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Posts Tagged ‘neuroscience

“As my artist’s statement explains, my work is utterly incomprehensible and is therefore full of deep significance”*…

 

Klimt

 

The neuroscientist was in the art gallery and there were many things to learn. So Eric Kandel excitedly guided me through the bright lobby of the Neue Galerie New York, a museum of fin de siècle Austrian and German art, located in a Beaux-Art mansion, across from Central Park. The Nobel laureate was dressed in a dark blue suit with white pinstripes and red bowtie. I was dressed, well, less elegantly.

Since winning a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000, for uncovering the electrochemical mechanisms of memory, Kandel had been thinking about art. In 2012 and 2016, respectively, he published The Age of Insight and Reductionism in Art and Brain Science, both of which could be called This Is Your Brain on Art. The Age of Insight detailed the rise of neuroscience out of the medical culture that surrounded Sigmund Freud, and focused on Gustav Klimt and his artistic disciples Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, whose paintings mirrored the age’s brazen ideas about primal desires smoldering beneath conscious control.

I’d invited Kandel to meet me at the Neue Galerie because it was the premier American home of original works by Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele. It was 2014 when we met and I had long been reading about neuroaesthetics, a newish school in neuroscience, and a foundation of The Age of Insight, where brain computation was enlisted to explain why and what in art turned us on. I was anxious to hear Kandel expound on how neuroscience could enrich art, as he had written, though I also came with a handful of doubts…

Kevin Berger learns “what neuroscience is doing to art”: “Gustav Klimt in the Brain Lab.”

* Bill Watterson

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As we think about thinking about it, we might spare a thought for Jacob Lawrence; he died on this date in 2000.  One of the best-respected 20th century American painters, and one the most well-known African-American artists, Jacobs described his style as “Dynamic Cubism.”  His works are in the permanent collections of numerous museums, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the Phillips Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and Reynolda House Museum of American Art.

He is perhaps best known for a 60-panel work, Migration Series (depicting the migration of rural southern African-Americans to the urban north), which he painted on cardboard.  The collection is now held by two museums: the odd-numbered paintings are on exhibit in the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and the even-numbered are displayed at MOMA in New York.

Migration_Series_Panel_1

The first panel of Migration Series [source]

220px-Portrait_of_Jacob_Lawrence_LCCN2004663191 source

 

Written by LW

June 9, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Beauty is no quality in things themselves”*…

 

“The Triumph of Venus,” by Francis Boucher (1740).

We’re all human—so despite the vagaries of cultural context, might there exist a universal beauty that overrides the where and when? Might there be unchanging features of human nature that condition our creative choices, a timeless melody that guides the improvisations of the everyday? There has been a perpetual quest for such universals, because of their value as a North Star that could guide our creative choices…

Scientists have struggled to find universals that permanently link our species. Although we come to the table with biological predispositions, a million years of bending, breaking and blending have diversified our species’ preferences. We are the products not only of biological evolution but also of cultural evolution. Although the idea of universal beauty is appealing, it doesn’t capture the multiplicity of creation across place and time. Beauty is not genetically preordained. As we explore creatively, we expand aesthetically: everything new that we view as beautiful adds to the word’s definition. That is why we sometimes look at great works of the past and find them unappealing, while we find splendor in objects that previous generations wouldn’t have accepted. What characterizes us as a species is not a particular aesthetic preference, but the multiple, meandering paths of creativity itself…

Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman offer an explanation as to “Why Beauty Is Not Universal.”

* “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.”  –  David Hume, Of the Standard of Taste and Other Essays

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As we examine aesthetics, we might spare a thought for aesthete-in-chief Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde; the novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and master of the bon mot died on this date in 1900.

The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.

(…more of Wilde’s wisdom at Wikiquote)

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Written by LW

November 30, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way”*…

 

The nature of consciousness seems to be unique among scientific puzzles. Not only do neuroscientists have no fundamental explanation for how it arises from physical states of the brain, we are not even sure whether we ever will. Astronomers wonder what dark matter is, geologists seek the origins of life, and biologists try to understand cancer—all difficult problems, of course, yet at least we have some idea of how to go about investigating them and rough conceptions of what their solutions could look like. Our first-person experience, on the other hand, lies beyond the traditional methods of science. Following the philosopher David Chalmers, we call it the hard problem of consciousness.

But perhaps consciousness is not uniquely troublesome. Going back to Gottfried Leibniz and Immanuel Kant, philosophers of science have struggled with a lesser known, but equally hard, problem of matter. What is physical matter in and of itself, behind the mathematical structure described by physics? This problem, too, seems to lie beyond the traditional methods of science, because all we can observe is what matter does, not what it is in itself—the “software” of the universe but not its ultimate “hardware.” On the surface, these problems seem entirely separate. But a closer look reveals that they might be deeply connected…

Find out how the central problem in neuroscience is mirrored in physics at “Is Matter Conscious?

For more on the conscious controversy– what is it?  who/what has it?– see also “Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else.”

* Kingsley Amis

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As we think, therefore are, we might send analytic birthday greetings to Sigismund Schlomo Freud; he was born on this date in 1856.  The father of psychoanalysis, he revolutionized the field of psychotherapy– so much so that later practitioners have often failed to recognize Freud’s scientific predecessors.  Throughout his work (in such books as Interpretation of Dreams and the New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis) he emphasized the role of unconscious and non-rational functioning, going against most contemporary thought by suggesting that dreams and “mistakes” may have affirmative meaning.

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Written by LW

May 6, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else.”*…

 

As a neuroscientist, I am frequently asked about consciousness. In academic discourse, the celebrated problem of consciousness is often divided into two parts: the “Easy Problem” involves identifying the processes in the brain that correlate with particular conscious experiences. The “Hard Problem” involves murkier questions: what are conscious experiences, and why do they exist at all? This neat separation into Easy and Hard problems, which comes courtesy the Australian philosopher David Chalmers, seems to indicate a division of labor. The neuroscientists, neurologists and psychologists can, at least in principle, systematically uncover the neural correlates of consciousness. Most of them agree that calling this the “Easy Problem” somewhat underestimates the theoretical and experimental challenges involved. It may not be the Hard Problem, but at the very least it’s A Rather Hard Problem. And many philosophers and scientists think that the Hard Problem may well be a non-problem, or, as Ludwig Wittgenstein might have said, the kind of problem that philosophers typically devise in order to maximize unsolvability.

One might assume that as a neuroscientist, I should be gung-ho to prove the imperious philosophers wrong, and to defend the belief that science can solve any sort of problem one might throw at it: hard, soft, or half-baked. But I have become increasingly convinced that science is severely limited in what it can say about consciousness. In a very important sense, consciousness is invisible to science…

Yohan John on “Why some neuroscientists call consciousness ‘the C-word’.”  Via the always-illuminating 3 Quarks Daily.

* Erwin Schrödinger

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As we muse on mind, we might spare a thought for Mary Whiton Calkins; she died on this date in 1930.  A psychologist and philosopher, Calkins studied psychology at Harvard as a “guest” (since women could not officially register there in her day).  Though she completed all requirements for a doctorate, and had the strong support of William James and her other professors, Harvard still refused to grant a degree to a woman. She went on to become the first prominent woman in her fields:  After leaving Harvard, she established the first psychology laboratory at a women’s college (Wellesley), and later became the first female president of both the American Psychological Association and the American Philosophical Association.

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“Whatever is a reality today… is going to be, like the reality of yesterday, an illusion tomorrow”*…

 

Marina Apollonio. Spazio Ad Attivazione Cinetica 6B, 1966-2015. El Museo del Barrio

Artists, like neuroscientists, are masters of visual systems. Through experimentation and observation, artists have developed innovative methods for fooling the eye, enabling flat canvases to appear three-dimensional, for instance. Neuroscience—and more recently the subfield of neuroaesthetics—can help to explain the biology behind these visual tricks, many of which were first discovered by artists. “I often go to art to figure out questions to ask about science,” says Margaret Livingstone, Takeda Professor of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School. “Artists may not study the neuroscience per se, but they’re experimentalists.”

During the 1960s, Op Art—short for “Optical art”—combined the two disciplines by challenging the role of illusion in art. While earlier painters had created the illusion of depth where there was none, Op artists developed visual effects that called attention to the distortions at play. Abstract and geometric, their works relied upon the mechanics of the spectator’s eye to warp their compositions into shimmering and shifting displays of line and color. The Museum of Modern Art announced this international artistic trend in 1965 in a seminal exhibition titled “The Responsive Eye.” Since then, neuroscientists have continued to probe the mechanisms by which the human eye responds to these mind-bending works…

More on this intersection of art and science at “The Neuroscience of Op Art.” (And click here for a re-visit to Victor Vasarely, one of the fathers of Op Art.)

* Luigi Pirandello

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As we cross our eyes, we might spare a thought for Leon Botha; he died on this date in 2011, at the age of 26.  An important South African painter and DJ, Botha was one of the world’s oldest survivors of progeria.

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Written by LW

June 5, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Neuroscience for the last couple hundred years has been on the wrong track”*…

 

In 2009, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara performed a curious experiment. In many ways, it was routine — they placed a subject in the brain scanner, displayed some images, and monitored how the subject’s brain responded. The measured brain activity showed up on the scans as red hot spots, like many other neuroimaging studies.

Except that this time, the subject was an Atlantic salmon, and it was dead.

Dead fish do not normally exhibit any kind of brain activity, of course. The study was a tongue-in-cheek reminder of the problems with brain scanning studies…

More on why we should be cautious of the “breakthrough insights” in neuroeconomics, neuromarketing, et al. at “BOLD Assumptions: Why Brain Scans Are Not Always What They Seem.”

Pair with “Electrified- Adventures in transcranial direct-current stimulation.”

* Noam Chomsky

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As we practice phrenology, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to John Hughlings Jackson; he was born on this date in 1835.  A neurologist, he was one of the first to observe that abnormal mental states may result from structural brain damage; and his studies of epilepsy, speech defects, and nervous-system disorders arising from injury to the brain and spinal cord remain among the most useful and highly documented in the field.  Jackson’s definition (in 1873) of epilepsy as “a sudden, excessive, and rapid discharge” of brain cells has been confirmed by electroencephalography; his epilepsy studies initiated the development of modern methods of clinical localization of brain lesions and the investigation of localized brain functions.

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Written by LW

April 4, 2015 at 1:01 am

Ye shall know them by the bumps on their heads…

 

In 1902, L.A. Vaught published Vaught’s Practical Character Reader.  Writing at the beginning of a revival of interest in phrenology (which originally flourished in the early 19th century; was discredited; then rose again, encouraged by theories emerging at the turn of the 20th century in evolution, criminology, and anthropology), the author explains in his preface…

The purpose of this book is to acquaint all with the elements of human nature and enable them to read these elements in all men, women and children in all countries. At least fifty thousand careful examinations have been made to prove the truthfulness of the nature and location of these elements. More than a million observations have been made to confirm the examinations. Therefore, it is given the world to be depended upon. Taken in its entirety it is absolutely reliable. Its facts can be completely demonstrated by all who will take the unprejudiced pains to do so. It is ready for use. It is practical. Use it.

Via the wonderful Public Domain Review.  Full text and illustrations available at The Internet Archive, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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As we consume the “applied” findings of modern neuroscience with more than one grain of salt, we might pause to recall Pierre Jean George Cabanis; he died on this date in 1808.  Trained as a physician, Cabanis concentrated on physiology, on which he became something of an authority– and of which, something of a philosopher.  He is remembered as the French Enlightenment’s most ardent Materialists, as exemplified in his Rapports du physique et du moral de l’homme (1802; “Relations of the Physical and the Moral in Man”), which undertook to explain the whole of reality, including the psychic, mental, and moral aspects of man, in terms of a mechanistic Materialism.  Building on the thinking of La Mettrie, Cabanis argued that “to have an accurate idea of the operations from which thought results, it is necessary to consider the brain as a special organ designed especially to produce it, as the stomach and the intestines are designed to operate the digestion, (and) the liver to filter bile…”

… And in so doing, Cabanis contributed a few stones to the foundation on which the pseudoscience of phrenology was built.

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Written by LW

May 5, 2013 at 1:01 am

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