The Artful Brain (Institute of Philosophy Centre for the Study of the Senses Symposium, 25 October 2013)

Fri 25 October 2013
G22/26, Senate House, University of London

From Ghiberti’s development of perspective to Gombrich’s work on illusions in art, the science of perception and the arts have long been interconnected. Recent developments in neuroscience, and the emergence of ‘neuroaesthetics’ (or experimental aesthetics), are contributing new insights into our appreciation of works of art, and our aesthetic preferences. But they also raise fundamental questions. What makes us capable of aesthetic appreciation in the first place? Is there something specific in our neurological  – and cognitive – endowment that makes the human brain an artful brain? Does the appearance of art in human prehistory mark the ‘emergence of the modern mind’, as suggested in the recent Ice-Age Art exhibition at the British Museum? Does neuroaesthetics challenge us to look at art as a by-product of evolution – genetic or cultural?

Philosophers and cognitive neuroscientists will investigate these questions during the Artful Brain Conference.

FULL PROGRAMME or Programme in Pdf format.

9.30-10.00              Registration and coffee

10.00-11.30     Margaret Livingstone (Harvard), What Art can tell us about the Brain

Artists have been doing experiments on vision longer than neurobiologists. Some major works of art have provided insights as to how we see; some of these insights are so fundamental that they can be understood in terms of the underlying neurobiology. For example, artists have long realized that color and luminance can play independent roles in visual perception. Picasso said, “Colors are only symbols. Reality is to be found in luminance alone.”  This observation has a parallel in the functional subdivision of our visual systems, where color and luminance are processed by the newer, primate-specific What system, and the older, colorblind, Where (or How) system. Many techniques developed over the centuries by artists can be understood in terms of the parallel organization of our visual systems. I will explore how the segregation of color and luminance processing are the basis for why some Impressionist paintings seem to shimmer, why some op art paintings seem to move, some principles of Matisse’s use of color, and how the Impressionists painted “air”. Central and peripheral vision are distinct, and I will show how the differences in resolution across our visual field make the Mona Lisa’s smile elusive, and produce a dynamic illusion in Pointillist paintings, Chuck Close paintings, and photomosaics. I will explore how artists have intuited important features about how our brains extract relevant information about faces and objects, and I will discuss why learning disabilities may be associated with artistic talent.

11.30-1.00              Marius Kwint (Portsmouth), Brains as objects. Mind as Matter

This presentation is not so much about how the brain perceives or constructs art, but how art perceives and constructs the brain. It will offer the perspective of the guest curator (an art historian) on the making of the Wellcome Collection exhibition Brains: the Mind as Matter, which showed to considerable publicity and popularity in London in 2012 and is currently exhibiting in Manchester at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI). The Brains exhibition does not primarily attempt to explain brain function, but to view the brain as a material object made meaningful through the history of scientific, technological, artistic and cultural practices. It concentrates on the brain as a physical presence, both embodied and disembodied, and the modes of collecting, preservation, imaging and direct intervention that it has undergone. This account will look behind the scenes at the research and production process for the exhibition, also suggest future avenues for investigating the relationship between the brain as a figure and visual and material culture.

1.00-2.00               Lunch break (own arrangements)

2.00-3.30               Mohan Matthen (Toronto), Art and Perceptual Play

Art is universally characterized by certain primary attractors (such as pattern, melody, and emotional appeal) which contribute to beauty, as well as by certain secondary attractors, which include form, style, and fine execution, which are supererogatory with respect to beauty. To explain how art emerged, we have to explain both. My explanation here is in terms of value—what of value do we humans get from the attractors? I argue, first, that the primary attractors cannot be explained by appealing to the value of an art object taken in itself. What has to be explained is the value of perceptually contemplating this object (or intellectually contemplating it, but here I confine myself to the perceptual component of art). The framework I use to explain the attractors is that of play and practice in the development of perceptual skill. “Perceptual play” is a way of developing certain perceptual skills; the primary attractors and beauty are connected with the pleasure we get from perceptual play. Art is the production of artefacts that can be used for perceptual play.I argue, second, that explaining the primary attractors is not enough. One has also to explain what value there is in constraining these by form and by high standards of execution. In my view, the secondary attractors are connected with features on which we can practice to attain ever-higher levels of perceptual discrimination.

3.30-3.45               Tea

3.45-5.15               Corinne Jola (INSERM-CEA Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit), The role of sensorimotor experiences in aesthetic appreciation

Individuals and groups have communicated, expressed, and formed their emotions and identities through artistic practices such as music, painting, or dancing since ancient times. At the basis of art is a continuously refined aesthetic language which cuts across social barriers and enhances cross-cultural understanding. It is thus of huge socio-cultural and economical interest to better understand the brain functions that underlie our urge to create and appreciate art. Further, an in-depth knowledge of the developing brain mechanisms that help us understanding each other’s’ artistic creations through time informs us about the development of cognition processes and has a huge potential for rehabilitation. However, the study of art perception has its pitfalls. In my talk, I will introduce the research constraints on aesthetic experiences when watching dance. I will then present in more detail two of my recent studies in which we attempted to circumvent known issues in ‘experimental aesthetics’ by using either existing artistic works or professionally choreographed dance pieces to study dance-experienced spectators’ kinaesthetic responses.

5.15-6.45               Greg Currie (York), Bower birds, hominids and the art world

Art being a much disputed notion, I take as my starting point a simpler idea but one with—I hope—interesting relations to art: the idea of an aesthetic artifact. What does the history of aesthetic artifacts look like? I suggest it is a very long history, beginning much earlier than the supposed “dawn of art” 40,000 years ago. This much more ancient habit involved shaping stones, and raise two problems I want to confront. The first is whether these early hominid activities are different, in principled ways, from the activities of such creatures as bowerbirds, for if the answer is no, there does not seem to be much gain for understanding art by looking at stone tool industries. The second is whether there really are any grounds for thinking that the “cultural big bang” of 40,000 years ago marks a shift from mere aesthetic artifact-making to the production of something deserving of the title art.

6.45                     Drinks reception

REGISTRATION (essential)

To register please send a message to with “Artful Brain 25 Oct” as the subject header. In the message please state in the following format:

1. Surname, Forename
2. Your fees category
3. Any affiliation (current staff and students should state department and/or course)

FEES (includes teas and reception):

All fees will be taken at the conference venue and you will only be contacted in advance if there is a query with your registration.

About Centre for Medical Humanities

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