Monday, August 13, 2012

How Art Activates the Brain

In his book Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain, neurophysiologist Semir Zeki analyzes recent research into what goes on inside the brain while a person is looking at artwork.

One chapter of the book takes up the question of how the brain responds differently to abstract art compared to representational art. 

In both kinds of art, the primary areas of the visual cortex become activated as low-level processing begins, as one might expect. But with representational artwork, other parts of the brain come into play as well. (Above: ISM/Science Photo Library. Below: William Merritt Chase, "Still Life with Vegetables")

Zeki states the general rule: “All abstract works activate more restricted parts of the visual brain than narrative and representational art. This probably reflects the general organization of the visual brain, in which each of the parallel processing systems consist of several stages, with each stage constructing the figure at a given level of complexity.”

“The complete figure, as opposed to the ‘building blocks’ constituting the figure, mobilizes higher areas of the visual brain and in particular areas within the inferior temporal cortex. Some of these areas are clearly specialized for object recognition and are activated by views of objects, no matter how these objects are defined visually.” 

Other types of art stimulate the brain in distinctly different ways. For example, portrait painting mobilizes a cortical region called the fusiform gyrus that is devoted to facial recognition. Yet another area nearby is devoted to the recognition of expression in faces. (Above: self-portrait by Thomas Couture.)   

Surrealist paintings activate a part of the frontal lobe that serves to resolve conflicts. Zeki says that this is “an area that monitors the incoming information for any conflict with previous experience.” 

A surrealistic image, such as this one by Magritte, presents “a conflict to resolve—the conflict of the immediate view with the record of past experiences, and the frontal lobe seems to be implicated in the resolution of such conflicts.” 

In a painting such as this one, showing people in the midst of some meaningful action, many parts of the brain are activated, including not only all the areas mentioned so far, but also the mirror neurons in the prefrontal cortex. This is the "muscle memory" part of the brain that automatically fires when you identify with an action someone else is doing. (Above: Tom Lovell)

It might appear that Zeki’s argument is designed to somehow disparage abstract art as a lesser form than representational art, but that’s definitely not the case. Zeki is evidently fascinated by many different types of art: abstract art, fauvism, cubism, surrealism—and presumably comics and caricature. Each kind of art seems to match up with different aspects or stages of visual processing in the brain.

Whether they work representationally or not, all kinds of artists are natural allies of brain scientists. Most artists are not conscious of the science of neurophysiology. Nevertheless, their pictures give us pleasure because they resonate with different neural phenomena occurring in our brains when we try understand the world with our eyes. Some drawings even seem to reflect how our brains our structured.

For example, the scale distortions of this caricature by Daumier match up pretty well with the uneven distribution of body parts in the classic Penfield cortical homunculus.  It's as if Daumier is giving external form to our internal architecture.

Blog reader M. D. Mattin, in a recent comment on this blog, puts Zeki’s argument this way: 

“Our visual experience is the final product of a chain of events beginning at the retina and involving multiple stages of increasing specificity to achieve a mental representation of reality; a work of art can intersect the chain at any point and substitute an external stimulus for the internal model. In order to perceive, say a red truck, the brain passes the stimulus though a series of filters or detectors; one stage might to be the identification the shape as a red rectangle. When we see an abstraction of a simple red rectangle, it stimulates our red rectangle detector directly, which apparently gives us pleasure. I've enjoyed a new found appreciation of abstract art since reading that, as well as a keener enjoyment of simple shapes and colors in the world - every red truck now tickles my red rectangle module."
Thanks, MD Mattin


Teresa Rodriguez said...

I've always found it fascinating how we react to certain visual stimuli, especially in art, and have wondered why. Zeki's book is one I'll definitely have to look up. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran has also written and lectured on aesthetics and has some interesting theories, too. Here's a link to a lecture he did in Oxford in 2003:

mdmattin said...

Both the post and Teresa's comment are very interesting, and of course I'm deeply honored to see my comment quoted! I really like the idea of the cortical homunculus as the underlying inspiration for the Daumier portrait. Coincidentally, the subject, Charles Dupin, [] was, along with many other accomplishments, the originator of the cloropleth map, which displays statistical data as toned or colored areas on a geographic region, akin to the way the homunculus maps neurological density to the body image. On another level, Daumier, who in this case was presumably sympathetic to his subject, portrays Dupin's eyes cast upwards and to his left, generally suggesting a thoughtful and even visionary spirit, and possibly more specific traits: []. We'd have to find out whether Dupin was left or right handed to delve any farther.
Teresa, thank you for the Ramachandran link. I was not familiar with his work and the lecture was very illuminating. Connecting back to Zeki's suggestions concerning Surrealism, Salvador Dali included the Richard Gregory Dalmation image cited by Ramachandran in his Hallucinogenic Toreador. []
I'm not sure if he meant it to symbolize anything, or perhaps as a key to way one is meant to see the painting as a whole, finding images in shifting patterns of color.

mdmattin said...

Dupin's eyes are actually looking to his right - I have the worst time with R and L!
Looking up and right corresponds to "constructed imagery and visual fantasy" which would fit with Dupin's inventive nature (assuming he was right handed).

Anonymous said...

Hi James, I just saw you on spirit of America talking about dinosaurs. Very cool show.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone done this experiment on animals? I would like to know how a bird, or an iguana sees different kinds of artwork. Would their brains respond like ours do?

etc, etc said...
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etc, etc said...

In terms of practical application to art, I've yet to read anything from scientific research that I haven't already read in traditional aesthetics (and more, since scientific research seems to be oblivious to any notion of cultivation), particularly 18th century German aesthetics including Hegel. Yet modern scientists seem so determined and eager to reject, ignore, or even deprecate them, probably because of the aesthetic philosophers' tendencies towards teleology and concepts of the Absolute, tendencies I would argue, that are critical to any real understanding of art and the aesthetic experience. Obviously enough there are differences in methodology, but I can't comprehend how any scientist truly interested in aesthetics wouldn't be interested in what they had to say.

Sam Easton said...

Earlier this year I had a significant experience regarding how our brains and art relate to each other. I was in a drawing class with Leon Parson at the teaching helm. Leon renders like it's no buddy's business. Most of my classmates could understand and duplicate the rendering. Almost everyone could do subtle and graceful strokes. My drawings were hard and geometric. Half way through the semester I was looking at my homework pined on the wall with the other students noticing the the difference, and I emotionally broke down.
(It would be amusing to say, that when the art students talk about Leon, the first thing that is usually said, "Oh yeah, he made my roommate cry.")
At a free opportunity I went to Leon and asked him why my heads are chicken scratches while everyone else were on their way becoming the next Fredric Edwin Church. He looked at the drawings. Without missing a beat Leon turned to me sayin, "There's nothing with you; you'd just have a different intelligence than the others here." It was an epiphany. I loved art, and deep down inside I knew I could be good at it -I just needed to know how my brain worked.
These past few months I've been practicing Impressionism. And even though it's not my first love, I've gained satisfaction and happiness in my recent projects.

James Gurney said...

Etc, Etc. Interesting point. I don't know how it is with other brain scientists, but in the case of Zeki, his book reflects deeply on Plato and Schopenhauer, and connects them to the new brain science. In my exchanges with Zeki, he seems to value many lines of inquiry, and he emphasizes that the science of visual perception and visual cognition are very much in their infancy, so there's room for many new theoretical frameworks.

Sam, thanks for that really illuminating story. By understanding how we think and how we see, we can definitely draw and paint better. Betty Edwards has been a great contributor to this idea.

Anonymous, I've mentioned animals studies in the field of eyetracking, and there are certainly primate studies on mirror neurons and such. Again, that's an area where there's much more to learn.

Anon 1. Not familiar with that show. Is it on YouTube?

MdMattin, I've heard of those studies on direction of gaze vs. cognition. Do you have links?

Emanuele Sangregorio (Emanuello) said...

I was reading latest donato giancola's post on muddycolors and it reminded of this other fantastic one. and i linked the two topics: hands in a painting are really as expressful as hands, and maybe that's related to how much importance is given in the brain to them. Maybe, one could actually use the distribution of body parts in the fusiform gyrus as a reference on how much detail and effort to be put in the rendering of a figure.

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.

Dash Courageous said...
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Dash Courageous said...

(edited for spelling):
mdmattin's quote should be posted on every art oriented website forum when it comes to abstract art because I tell you now, amateurs and high level artists have a closed off view of abstract art and his insight gives a very well informed view.

It's a very good observation on your part md. :)

Tatter Salad said...

IMHO Video games are yet another media for pursuing 'art' as discussed here. They have run their course in 'plot' outlines, and have begun fine-tuning their visuals, and moving to realistic 3d functions via computational solutions, rather than massive pictorial libraries. (Lets ignore immersive 3D, which is also a simmering technology, but, as with great 'visuals' alone, does not aid nor harm the 'art' in the medium). That leaves the field technologically 'ready' for applications that tickle the cortical homunculus (AND MORE!) at this point; and I look forward to it. ( I don't know if they should be looking at Kurosawa as an inspiration, or Dupin, or both)