The Artistic Brain Beyond the Eye
by WH Zangemeister and LW Stark.
What is painting, but a communication channel for the MESSAGE between artist and viewer. Artists first imagine a painting, using their “mind’s eye” image of a segment of their world. Next, they transfer their mental representations on to the canvas. What is then the function of the externalised painting? It is to communicate a message to a viewer.
Our book is about a “neurological theory of art”, not as a general aesthetic approach, but inasmuch it relates the particular perspective of cybernetics (N.Wiener) viewing art as a communication channel (C.Shannon) with neurological experimental findings, experiences and opinions of the human art world i. e. artists, critics, art historians, aesthetic philosophers and of course the viewers – all applying their eye scanpath (L Stark, WH Zangemeister, scanpath theory).
The view of art as communication and a message of artists´ internal models with the viewer’s internal models is the red line of our book.
With our new knowledge of the modular brain in neuroscience, many aspects of humanistic approaches to vision and art, can be clarified.
This book approaches the worlds of art criticism, art history, and the philosophy of art, from the point-of-view of recent studies on the nature of brain control of human vision, and of the role that active eye movements i.e. the scanpath (L.Stark, WH Zangemeister) play.
It is for people seriously interested in art, whether they be artists or students of art or non-artists having a deep personal interest in the subject, and for those who want to understand the real world implications of advances in science concerning the message of visual communication.
The book’s purpose is to demonstrate the link between art and neurology, neurological sciences, and what each field can learn from the other: To demonstrate how the TOP DOWN approach pervades most art, rather than the formerly so popular BOTTOM UP approach; and then to show the implications of the Top Down approach to how we perceive and interpret art and art perception. Our book demonstrates the links between the worlds of cognitive science and neurology, with the world of art: its psychology, history and philosophy – bridging the gap of the two cultures (CP Snow). It shows what specialists in the art world, as well as people simply interested in art can learn from neuroscience. The only prerequesites are intelligence, and an interest in art, vision, the artistic brain, communication and perception. Art is a form of communication using visual messages.
We show how the top down and bottom up approaches work, and how each approach affects our viewing of artful pictures; and why most artists, art historians, and art critics have favoured the bottom up approach over top down. How the scanpath theory works and its relation to the top down approach. The book then describes the results from cognitive neuroscience and eye movement studies that show how the top down approach is really the way we look at and interpret art.
Furtheron, we discuss how artists, philosophers, art historians and critics who have adhered to the BU approach have misinterpreted the communication between artist and viewer Finally, we discuss experimental psychological findings with special reference to synaesthesia that relate to ambiguity in vision and to the top down perception of art. As we use selected comments of artists, art critics, art historians and philosophers on art, we expect the reader to focus even more on our main theme, the communication link and message exchange (Cybernetics; Information theory) of artistic contents.- It is a truism to say that there can be no visual art without the visual artistic brain. It follows from this that it would be impossible to produce or understand art without a visual artistic brain. Hence understanding the workings of the brain in general, and the visual brain in particular, should make an important contribution to understanding visual art, and to the long standing debate among philosophers about the nature of art – how it is related to judgment, to pleasure, to reward, to pain and much else besides.
Yet it has proven very difficult to get this simple message across, due also to the two cultures (CP Snow); and while there have been hundreds of books on our visual apparatus and many more on visual art, few have tried to look at art from the perspective of the artistic brain using information theory to describe the exchange of messages; or study the visual brain by looking at what it can produce in terms of art. The reason for this separation – the two cultures (CP Snow) - is not difficult to establish. It lies largely in the development of a sophisticated language that has made scientific results about the visual artistic brain inaccessible to those interested in art. It lies, too, in a separation of two cultures, which often inhibits scientists and artists alike from trespassing into each others’ territories.
This book, by two friends, shows how artificial that separation is, how common the questions that permeate the artistic and scientific work alike are, and how valuable it is to use art to explore the functioning of the brain, both experimentally and theoretically. For that reason alone it is to be greatly welcomed. It is surprising how, even in an age where communication has become available as never before, received opinion can hold sway, even in light of new facts.
The authors rightly emphasize the prevalence in the popular mind of what they call the “bottom up” approach. Put briefly, this can be traced to the belief that an image of the world is impressed upon the retina and then transferred to the primary visual receiving cortex in the brain to be interpreted. There are powerful anatomical facts that have led to this supposition, perhaps chief amongst which is the superficial resemblance that the eye has to a camera. Hence we tend more often than not to speak of vision in terms of the eye. As well, our knowledge until the 1960s was in fact limited to the connections between the eye and the primary visual cortex in the brain, for long considered to be the “cortical retina”, the photographic plate on which the retinal image is impressed, thus enabling us to see. But even now, and even in spite of our imperfect knowledge, we are able to say that the visual brain is no passive chronicler of external events. It is instead an active participants in creating the realities that we perceive. Henri Matisse was prescient when he once wrote that “seeing is already a creative act, which demands a great deal of effort”. This statement cannot be faulted even at an elementary, physiological level.
This book abounds with similar statements from artists and philosophers which, together, provide an interesting insight into how often their thoughts provide material for thinking about the brain and thus what a brilliant contribution artists and others in the humanities can make to the ongoing research into our visual brain in particular and our brains in general. The function of the visual brain is to see of course, to take in information of our world; but perhaps a more adequate definition would be to say that it is an apparatus for acquiring knowledge about the world. Nothing, for example, could be simpler than eye movements, or so it seems. But it turns out that even eye movements in response to viewing a visual stimulus or a work of art are not quite straightforward.
The scanpath theory developed by Larry Stark and his colleagues, supposes that whenever we make eye movements to view a picture, take in its information or the artistic message of its creator, the brain stores the paths of the movements and uses them again to view that picture, or similar ones, at a future time. Indeed, the eye movements of an artist or an expert in art are predictably different from that of a novice. Such differences imply the presence, and development, of plastic neuronal mechanisms that are susceptible to modification through exposure and learning. They, and the scanpath theory, serve to remind us of what we so easily forget, namely that in acquiring knowledge about the world, the brain is not merely a passive chronicler of external events but an active participant in creating what we perceive and thus creating the knowledge that we have. If the visual brain is about the acquisition of knowledge, then it must be an important vehicle for communication in diverse ways – communication between individuals, communication of emotions such as joy or pathos, communication of fear, all achieved seemingly effortlessly and without the written or spoken word. Indeed, language, being a relatively late evolutionary development, is a poor cousin to vision in communication.
It may take many pages to communicate an emotion conveyed, for example through body language, which the visual system can categorize and communicate in seconds. Hence, the emphasis on communication at a high level, top down rather than bottom up, is much to be welcomed.- Ambiguity, is of equal importance: A neurological definition of ambiguity is the exact opposite of dictionary definitions, which are usually given as “vagueness” or “uncertainty”. For a neurologist ambiguity is the certainty of many different interpretations, each one of which is sovereign at any given moment and none of which is superior, and therefore constitutes the definitive interpretation.
Hence there is no correct solution, and all solutions are equally valid. Ambiguity is therefore a pointer to another characteristic of the brain in its role of acquiring knowledge, namely the projection of brain concepts on to the incoming visual signals, so that what is finally seen at any given moment is shaped as much by the concepts of the brain – including synaesthesia- , both inherited and acquired, as the nature of the physical stimulus.
The artist does not invent ambiguity; instead he uses the brains capacity to project multiple concepts to create his works. Some like Johannes Vermeer can achieve this in a single painting; others like Michelangelo have managed to do so through unfinished works, and yet others, like Salvador Dali, have deliberately manipulated an image in such a way that an array can be perceived as one or another, but mutually exclusive, object. The neurological study of ambiguity is thus critical for understanding brain function and, ultimately, I find it difficult to believe that any serious study in this area can proceed far without including a study of the products of artists.