Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Quarter's Over + Neuroaesthetics, Part 1: Eric Kandel

At 3 pm today, all grades had to be in, and mine were, so I officially have concluded the winter quarter! And what did winter quarter comprise, in addition to committee work: three fully enrolled (or two-and-one-half) courses, two with undergraduate (introductory and advanced theory and practice) fiction writers, the other with undergraduate (and graduate) literature and theory students; three honors theses (one I was advising, which was recommended for departmental honors!--congratulations, Steve!); one MFA thesis (that I advised, and which is now approved!--congratulations, Libby!); supervising, with colleagues in the Poetry and Poetics Colloquium, a group of of excellent undergraduate poetry students who were working with high school poetry students; and guiding three brilliant undergraduate researchers whose summer projects I hope get funded. In ten weeks. I almost cannot believe that the quarter is now over, but this is spring break week, so I'll be trying to read a little for pleasure, watch not too much TV, get out and about, and prepare for the quarter that rolls in next Monday and other great things to come, about which I'll say more soon. I also am going to try to blog a bit more, so I hope I can manage a few more posts than 1-2 per week. We'll see.


Several times over the past few years I've blogged about neuroscience and literature, and so two recent articles I came across snared my attention. In this post, I'll talk about the first, Alexander Kafka's Chronicle of Higher Education article, "Eric Kandel's Visions," used a review of a new book, The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, From Vienna 1900 to the Present (Random House), by Kandel, the Nobel Laureate brain scientist and Columbia University professor, to discuss his contributions the burgeoning field of "neuroaesthetics," or the disciplinary nexus where brain and cognitive sciences and aesthetics, or theories of art, intersect. Kafka's piece opens with a snippet of Kandel's study--and let me state for the record that I do not agree with Kandel's essentializing view of women's affect, as expressed in this initial excerpt--to introduce the neuroscientist's attempt to read an image by the fin de siècle, Vienna Secessionist plastic artist Gustav Klimt, Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1901, oil on canvas, Austrian Gallery Belvedere, above right), via certain formal and expressive features that connect to the "neurochemical cognitive circuitry" of you, the viewer. What do I mean? Quoth Kandel:

"At a base level, the aesthetics of the image's luminous gold surface, the soft rendering of the body, and the overall harmonious combination of colors could activate the pleasure circuits, triggering the release of dopamine. If Judith's smooth skin and exposed breast trigger the release of endorphins, oxytocin, and vasopressin, one might feel sexual excitement. The latent violence of Holofernes's decapitated head, as well as Judith's own sadistic gaze and upturned lip, could cause the release of norepinephrine, resulting in increased heart rate and blood pressure and triggering the fight-or-flight response. In contrast, the soft brushwork and repetitive, almost meditative, patterning may stimulate the release of serotonin. As the beholder takes in the image and its multifaceted emotional content, the release of acetylcholine to the hippocampus contributes to the storing of the image in the viewer's memory. What ultimately makes an image like Klimt's 'Judith' so irresistible and dynamic is its complexity, the way it activates a number of distinct and often conflicting emotional signals in the brain and combines them to produce a staggeringly complex and fascinating swirl of emotions."
Kandel's reading is full of speculation, but Kafka goes on to point out that cognitive scientists like Kandel, who began his career as a clinical psychologist before shifting into research on the vertebrate brain of the snail Aplysia, work for which he received his Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, have increasingly been looking at the connections between aesthetics and the brain, through experimental testing methods like brain imaging and cognitive tests, in some key ways underpinning what artists have always known and argued--art matters, works in certain ways, and should not be taken or dismissed lightly, as it still too often is.

Gustav Klimt, Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907, oil on canvas, Neue Galerie)
Kandel is not the first brain scientist to write on what is becoming known as neuroaesthetics, but, Kafka says, he did set forth a research agenda of sorts in his 2006 memoir, In Search of Memory (W. W. Norton & Co.), asking, "How are internal representations of a face, a scene, a melody, or an experience encoded in the brain?" His pursuit of answers to these questions over the last decade has resulted in his new study, which addresses these questions in relation to the work of three major Viennese Expressionist visual artists, Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele. (How covenient it must have been for his research to have the Neue Galerie so close!) Klimt's ornately patterned, carefully composed and exquisitely colored canvases, which I admit I find transfixing, serve as the means for Kandel to talk about a constellation of issues, from the historical to the discursive to the formal. Among Kandel's foci are the influence the anatomist Emil Zuckerkandl and similar figures from the Vienese and Central European world of this epoch had on all these artists, the circulation of ideas put into play by figures in the circle around Sigmund Freud, and the rich background of contemporary research on perception.  Importantly, Kandel also, Kafka says, makes a case for a negative-capability approach to scientific "reductionism," arguing that it does not diminish the power or beauty of the artworks to identify the neural foundations of how artworks work in and on our brains, but enriches our understanding of them.  Yet he is not attempting to collapse art and science into each other; according to the article, he cites the late biologist and author Stephen Jay Gould's desire for "the sciences and humanities to become the greatest of pals ... but to keep their ineluctably different aims and logics separate as they ply their joint projects and learn from each other."

Gustav Klimt, Birch Forest/Beech Forest
(1903, oil on canvas, Private Collection.)
Thus a newly developing field: neuroaesthetics, which is about a decade and half old, though its origins lie in the work of figures like Freud who, Kandel notes, did recognize a deep relationship between perception and affect but who not have the benefit of advanced experimental techniques we now do. Yet with those new techniques and findings, one of the points that Kandel, and peers like Semir Zeki of University College London appear to be making, is that scholarship in the arts should incorporate more of this material, a suggestion that may raise hackles among some humanities and arts scholars, as well as brain scientists, who find the search for neural correlates to aesthetic--affective, social and other kinds of experiences--to be problematic. In The Age of Insight, Kandel neurology and brain science in relation to visual art alone, but Zeki says that there is a "faculty of beauty" in the brain not dependent upon the "modality" through which its trasmitted, but which can be activated by a music, visuality, or both, as well as by other sources (including language, as I've written about before, and will continue in part 2 of this post) too. Ultimately, though, the implications go beyond aesthetics, towards a deeper understanding about human experience. We may not yet have an answer for the question What is art for? but we increasingly know, at levels artists have intuited but which scientists can now answer with ever greater clarity, at least with regard to our perceptions and emotions, How does art work?

Update: an unsurprising skeptic, the conservative British philosopher Roger Scruton, on "The Brain Drain" (i.e., as the tagline says, "Neurosciences wants to be the answer to everything. It isn't"), in The Spectator.

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