Largely through trial and error, filmmakers have developed techniques that capture our attention and stir our emotions. Philosophers and film theorists have thought deeply about the aesthetics of movies, yet few scientists have delved into empirical analyses of our movie experience—or what I have coined psychocinematics. In this blog, I'll approach aspects of our movie experience with respect to what we know about the mind and brain.

I'm now a regular blogger of "In the Brain of the Beholder" for *Psychology Today*. At that site, I'll be highlighting pieces on psychocinematics, but I'll also present information more generally on "experiencing art." I'll post relevant links to my new blogs on this site.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

David Hockney Exhibit at the DeYoung

Go to Hockney review
If you are in the SF area or visiting, the Hockney exhibition at the DeYoung Museum is fantastic and includes interesting video installations. Here are my impressions of the exhibition.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Experiencing Art: It's a Whole-Brain Issue, Stupid!

This entry is an unabashed plug for my new book, Experiencing Art: In the Brain of the Beholder (but check out the link below of Lorna Simpson's cool video).

We love art. We put it on our walls, we admire it at museums and on others' walls, and if we're inspired, we may even create it. Philosophers, historians, critics, and scientists have bandied about the reasons why we enjoy creating and beholding art, and each has offered important and interesting perspectives. Recently, brain scientists have joined the conversation, as it is now possible to put someone in a MRI scanner and assess brain activity in response to viewing art or even creating it (e.g., jazz improvisation). With such exciting new prospects, budding intellectual fields such as "neuroaesthetics," "neuroarthistory," and "neurocinematics" have cropped up.

I applaud these attempts to integrate science with the humanities. In the end, art is an experience, and as such neuroscience may be useful in explaining the biological processes underlying it. One feature that is often ignored, however, is the role that knowledge plays. We never experience art with naïve eyes. Rather we bring with us a set of preconceived notions in the form of our cultural background, personal knowledge, and even knowledge about art itself. In large measure, what we like is based on what we know. When we accept the fact that our art experience depends on a confluence of sensations, knowledge, and feelings, it becomes clear that there is no "art center" in the brain. Instead, when we confront art, we essentially co-opt the multitude of brain regions we use in everyday interactions with the world. Thus, with respect to "neuroaesthetics," the question, "How do we experience art?" can be simply answered as, "It's a whole-brain issue, stupid!"

We can, however, go further in developing a science of aesthetics, as the brain is not a homogenous blob of neurons. Different regions serve different functions, and over the past two decades, neuroimaging research has advanced our understanding of the biological bases of many mental functions to the point that it has completely revolutionized psychological science.  What has become clear is that for a thorough analysis of any complex mental process, including our appreciation of art, we must characterize how neural processes interact in addition to where in the brain they occur. With respect to art, I suggest that when our sensory, conceptual, and emotional parts of our brain are all coordinated and extremely aroused—say 11 on a scale of 10—we experience that "wow" feeling, as one might have while standing in front of Michelangelo's David or Van Gogh's Starry Night Over the Rhone
Cloudspace, Lorna Simpson

On a recent visit to Paris, I had several "wow" moments at the Jeu de Paume gallery where a retrospective of Lorna Simpson's works is being held. I was familiar with Simpson's photographic works, though primarily through book reproductions. At the exhibition, her photographs come alive as they are large and lusciously detailed. They are  intensely moving and force you to ponder about their meaning. Even more provocative were her video installations, particularly Cloudscape, 2004, in which a man stands and whistles a haunting melody while an ethereal haze blows around him. Half way through the video, the scene shifts subtly, which makes one consider the conceptual underpinnings of the work. I won't reveal the nature of the change, but one can view it at Lorna Simpson's website.

Whenever we experience a work of art, we must consider how it stimulates our sensations, thoughts, and feelings. Yet you might ask, can the firing of neurons really tell us about the way we appreciate a Leonardo, Picasso, or Simpson? Do we even know what an "art" experience is? There are certainly limits to current brain imaging technology, and there may even be inherent limits in the degree to which science can contribute to our understanding of art and aesthetics. Yet by considering a multidisciplinary approach that fosters interactions among philosophers, historians, scientists, and artists themselves, we may be able to gain a better understanding of the joy of art. In addition, by evaluating such a universal and distinctly human practice, art may tell us more about the brain than the other way around.

Monday, July 1, 2013

These Days Do We Really Need a Man of Steel?

This entry also appears on the Oxford University Press blog site.

As a child, I encountered the Man of Steel in the Adventures of Superman, the 1950s TV series that I watched as morning reruns a decade later. My Superman was "faster than a speeding bullet" and fought for "truth, justice and the American way." My 26-year-old son, Thomas, encountered a similarly invincible superhero in Superman: The Movie, the 1978 blockbuster which starred Christopher Reeve. Truth be told, neither of us are avid readers of the Superman comics, in which his backstory and demeanor have been remodeled over the years to align more closely with a changing culture. As we watched this year's reboot, Man of Steel, in glowing IMAX 3D there was certainly delight in seeing a familiar action hero, though we both left the theater trying to figure out why the movie was so disappointing.
The problem with Superman is that he is too powerful, too righteous. These days we tend to prefer our heroes with a troubled past who must overcome their dark side for the greater good. Can we identify with an omnipotent, squeaky clean, patriotic superhero after having been through decades in which our political and sports heroes have been guilty of illegal activities, sex scandals, and other gross moral ineptitudes? Hollywood's answer is to endow this new Superman with significant angst. In fact, a considerable amount of the movie is devoted to detailing a backstory which first introduces an antagonist, General Zod, who himself is not all bad (his prime motive is to secure a place where he can resurrect the people of planet Krypton by cloning the genetic material that Superman holds). We are then presented with flashbacks of Clark Kent's childhood, which is filled with anxiety about the way humans might react if they find out that he's an alien, perhaps locking him up out of fear (in this way we have a reconstitution of Spielberg's E.T. storyline). Worried each time he displays his superpowers, Clark Kent wanders from job to job not knowing exactly what to do with his life.

This setup is entertaining as it gives some depth to the young Superman. We have a troubled superhero who doesn't feel comfortable about his powers. We are also introduced to a modern day Lois Lane, as well as our villain who wants to create his new society on Earth, albeit by removing all traces of the human race (interestingly, one could make an analogy between General Zod's evil quest and manifest destiny or any other imperialist venture). The rest of the movie boils down to a rather boring battle between Superman and Zod. The problem is that the two are virtually indestructible. They end up merely pushing each other around, thus destroying in their wake everything around them, which includes skyscrapers, cars, trains, and an unfortunately situated IHOP. We don't see anyone severely hurt, but from the material devastation it is clear that many have died just by having been in the wrong place at the wrong time. In fact, this is the problem: it is not our fight. Just as those poor souls in the cars, trains, and skyscrapers, we are just unwilling observers.

In the end, the movie is somewhat successful in creating a more personable, more vulnerable Superman. The problem is not Superman's overpowering strength but instead our complete impotence. For a movie to work psychologically, we need to feel a part of the story, we need the issues to be relevant, and we need to rally behind our hero. During the long, drawn-out brawl between Superman and Zod, rather than identifying with our hero, I felt as if I were at a bar where two guys argue and start pushing each other around. I kept wanting to say, "Why don't you two take your fight to some desolate planet and leave us alone?"