Cognitive Neuroscience Theory of Aesthetics

Throughout this book, I have been searching for visual truth with one fundamental question: How are things in the physical world (such as Mona Lisa and all her friends) represented in the mind of man? I hope you are convinced by now, as I am, that the neurological processes in all humans are approximately the same; that the historical development of art and the emergence of conscious AWAREness were concurrent and interactive (with consciousness an antecedent to art); that internally represented impressions are not the same as events in the "real world"; that perception and cognition evolved for purposes of survival and procreation; that all art (as well as all perception) is distorted by the eye and brain; and that we see the world of art (and all other percepts) through individual and collective prisms which are consensu-ally agreed to represent "truth."

The neurological trail grows cold after leaving the primary visual cortex and various "streams" that ensue. Nevertheless, it is possible to make some intelligent inferences about how the brain processes sensory information after this leaves the PVC, with the aim of proposing a (preliminary) theory of aesthetics.

It has been proposed here (and elsewhere) that the human sensory-cognitive system emerged from our blind planet as a scheme for survival. Beings might successfully adjust to a threatening and changing world if they could sense and understand menacing signals and avoid them, as well as being attracted to beneficial ones.

As we saw in chapter 1, adaptive changes in the eye and brain brought along a sense ofwhat was important for immediate survival (central objects) and a sense of adventure, also important for long-term survival (peripheral objects). It was impor

Reality: Two Views At the close of World War II Picasso is said to have been confronted by an American soldier who complained that he could not understand Picasso's paintings because everything was distorted; the eyes were displaced, the nose in an odd place, the mouth twisted beyond recognition, and so on. "And what do you think a picture should look like?" asked Picasso. The G.I. proudly whipped out his wallet and showed a tiny photograph of his girlfriend: "Like this!" Picasso studied the photograph and said, "She's kind of small, isn't she?"

tant to know where water could reliably be found for immediate needs, but also important to explore new sources for future needs. These inquisitive tendencies seem to be part of the genetic makeup of man and other species and to lay the biological foundation for our attraction to representational art (see the picture of a Russian soldier in the color montage of plate 14) as well as our curiosity for abstract art (a picture of a women with nose, eye, and mouth displaced, as in Picasso's Weeping Woman in figure 5.4). It is suggested that the same tendencies apply to our sense of proportions, symmetry, and balance. Of course, there are many layers of socialized learning and other forces that influence our interpretation ofrepresentational and abstract art pieces, but at the core is our attraction to both central and peripheral objects.

Within that general taxonomy of central and peripheral things, another dichotomy was formed: those things to which one is attracted and those things by which one is repelled. Nuances followed shortly. We enjoy smelling a rose, but are repulsed by dung; we seek tasty dishes, but avoid spoiled food; we look at pleasing scenes and shun the unattractive. Initially, all of these reactions to environmental stimuli were in some way tied to survival needs, but gradually the stimuli acquired secondary valences. Things became "beautiful," not just "pleasing." Food became "delicious" more than simply consumable.

In art, it was possible to represent nonpresent but attractive objects symbolically, and it is no accident that the earliest recognizable forms were of vulvas, Venus figures, exaggerated busts, and animals—things men like. And even though modern imaging technology was not there to prove limbic activity, it is a fair assumption that pleasure cells in the brain got turned on when men were looking at or creating an image of a woman's sexual parts. Early art showed pleasing things.

Early men and women also discovered that art could be abstract as well as realistic. From cave drawings onward, people engaged in some form of abstract art that required the observer to supply an interpretation, some cognition, some insight to the piece. The patterns woven into baskets shows balanced symmetry and novelty. Although such artifacts have not survived from the Pleistocene, examples of patterned baskets and cloths may be found in Native American artifacts. These beautiful examples are basically symmetric with some creative variance. We would find complete symmetry in our lives to be boring because it does not feed the intellectual hunger for diversity, for novelty, for variety, for tinkering with the offbeat. All of these attributes you recognize as necessary features for the development of an artistic and technological world wrought by a consciously AWARE brain.

Art is far, far more complicated than this elementary interpretation, but the basic foundation of art began with a sensory-cognitive system whose function was to survive, and creative exploration was an essential ingredient in that quest. Art, and every other human invention, were by-products of this simple necessity. If psychology adds significantly to the story, it is in terms of understanding the more nonrepresentational forms of art—those forms that are not conspicuously tied to attraction/aversion stimuli, yet have functional value in the overall search for creative solutions to everyday problems.

Humans (as well as other animals) are attracted not only to central, reinforcing stimuli that satisfy needs, but to peripheral stimuli—those things outside the norm. The animal literature is rife with studies that show the effect of central and outlying stimuli on behavior. Consider the case of foraging in rodents: if several food sources are available, each with unlimited supplies, animals not only feed at the nearest source but sample from all sources. Furthermore, the pattern of sampling follows a logarithmic function, with feeding maximal at the near source and then falling off as the distance increases. Although needs might be totally satiated by central supplies, wider foraging enhances survivability in the long run. In the early stages of our species, diverse sampling (as well as central consumption) insured finding resources when the main source was depleted. Similar acts of sampling extend to social behavior, including sexual diversity. Modern humans also exhibit natural tendencies for diverse sampling behavior. We return to familiar places (for recreation, for food, for entertainment), but also occasionally explore other venues. It seems that a fundamental factor in the survival formula is: Attend to focal matters, but also sample exotic things.

Our "prewiring" with such a platform generalizes to other aspects of behavior, including mundane schedules carried out in everyday acts, profound scientific plans, and the creation and enjoyment of art. While popular art is predominantly "realistic" or central (popular art includes dogs playing poker), it also includes the slightly irregular or nonrepresentational (such as abstract art).

In many cases organisms react to secondary cues with even greater enthusiasm than to the central ones. This tendency to react to generalized forms helps account for the human attraction to nonrepresentational art, which is particularly popular during the modern period. While realistic art may be comely, innovative art may be exquisite. At one time in our history, it was important to return to the bush that produced sweet berries, but it was also important to explore other similar bushes; to seek game in the reinforcing places, but to look for game in similar places—to be comforted by realism, but exhilarated by abstraction. The hunt for art is akin to the basic hunt for life inculcated into the hearts and minds of all people. Picasso didn't create it; he showed us what was inside us.

Art and Science: Two Sides op the Same Coin

Picasso was fond of saying that he "did not search, he found." Such a notion is compatible with the idea that artists do not invent art, but find expressions of reality that are compatible with the basic structures of the mind. We naturally understand realistic art. In this regard, there is a stunning parallel between two disparate spheres of knowledge: art and natural science. Artists do not invent art any more than physicists invent particles, or neurologists invent the brain, or psychologists invent the mind. Art, physics, physiology, and even scientific psychology are worlds waiting to be discovered by a mind. And valid discoveries (in art, science, and psychology) are those that are exquisitely calibrated to stimulate the human neural system in ways consistent with its sensory-cognitive architecture, acquired through the course of evolution. These disciplines of art and science may differ in superficial traits, but are linked together at a deeper level.

The common denominator between art and science is the degree to which expressions in each domain are compatible with the human mind. Einstein's elegant theories of the universe are true (and beautiful) to us because they are consistent with the capability of the human mind to understand such ideas; Wordsworth's poetry says exactly what we feel "inside"; Mozart's music plays sympathetic chords deeply planted in the human mind; Picasso's new techniques, juxtapositions, and perspective are beautiful (and true) to us because they harmonize with the mind: they are consistent with the capacity of the human mind to understand these visual stimuli. As scientists discover laws of the universe that are congruent with mind, artists discover visual images of the world that are harmonious with mind. Both explore the truth and beauty of the mind; at an abstract cognitive level, they are identical.

"Level 3" Art

A serious theoretical issue regarding the structural properties of art and language is raised by the preceding ideas. For some time, people have conceptualized language as having (at least) two distinct levels. On the surface is the medium—the oddly shaped little letters on this page, or the sounds of a voice—and below is a "deep structure" that contains the meaning of the message.

Paintings can likewise be interpreted as having a multidimensional notation system. There are, on one hand, the surface characteristics of art: the lines, colors, contrasts, shapes, contours, and other features that make up the physical art objects. Surface characteristics, for example, may be a green expanse, partly in shadow and partly brightly lit, occupied by small, white, four-legged shapes; or a somewhat glossy black cylindrical object that sits atop what appears to be a human head (male). Then, at the next deeper level, there is the semantic interpretation of these features: part of a pastoral scene; a stovepipe hat. Here features are combined into meaningful objects. From these objects, general categories and schemata are formed from which inferences about the art may be drawn.

There is yet a third level in this scheme of artistic expression (applicable to art, music, literature, and science), which is the most important of all (although all levels are essential and interactive). I call this level simply "Level 3." Here both the featural and semantic interpretations of an object, sound, or idea are grasped, and much more. Level 3 appreciation goes well beyond the elementary perception of features and what they mean. In some instances, Level 3 interpretation of art may be only tangentially related to featural and semantic perception. It even goes beyond what a painting infers. Kandinsky's Cossacks is comprised oflines, colors, contrasts, and so on: "features." We all see them. At another level, we understand that some of these lines represent cossacks who are engaged in battle: "meaning." Most of us "understand" what this painting means. Level 3 comprehension is as much a feeling as a cognition; it is the tao of the painting and yet, like the Tao (as Lao-tzu wrote), "the Tao that is the true Tao is the Tao that cannot be told." It is, at the same time, a painting's most direct meaning and its most obscure. It is being "at one" with the art; it is commingling a painting with universal properties of the mind; it is seeing one's primal mind in a painting.

It cannot be explained, but when attained cannot be confused. It is the intense wisdom of art, its captivating beauty, its penetrating philosophy. It is what makes direct contact with the biological archetypes of the old-brained creatures we all are. It is the primeval cord that binds us together and runs through all humanity. It is the invisible thread that unites me with van Gogh, Picasso, and Mondrian; and joins you with . . . ? Level 3 experiences may occur in response to all kinds of art, from prehistoric forms to Peter Max, but emerge most frequently in response to any art that stimulates responsive brain structures. It is "as if" the painting understood you and was reading your mind. In music, it is "as if" the music was playing you, not you playing the music. In athletics, it is "as if" the physical activity (such as a "perfect" dive or dance step) was in control of your body, not you. It is a level of cognizance that arouses profound emotions and thoughts, and yet is itself inexplicable. It touches us.

Both scientists and artists dream of elegant paradigms of the universe that are meaningful to the human mind. The "inner" world of the mind and the "outer" world of science and art are conjoined through the physical and philosophic man ifestations of the human mind's relentless search for truth and beauty. Science and art are products of the mind; they are of the mind and yet they also are the mind. On the surface, we "appreciate" art, literature, music, ideas, and science; at the core, we see our own mind unveiled in these wonderful things that touch us profoundly. The common denominator that unites all is the mind. Scientific and artistic explorations are the most intimate inquiries into the structure and operations of the mind. Art is more than paint smeared on a canvas; it is a mirror in which the human mind is reflected. Art bestows upon eyes the vision to see inward. Mondrian, like many artists and scientists, sought out basic realities of the universe. At a sufficient level of abstraction, his answers and the answers of science to universal questions are the same.

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