Thursday, August 1, 2013
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.
Monday, July 1, 2013
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?"
Saturday, June 1, 2013
This entry was also posted on the Oxford University Press blog site.
Our memories, in many ways, define who we are as an individual or at least who we think we are. In the recent documentary, "Stories We Tell," filmmaker Sarah Polley presents her own tale of the search for her biological father. Through interviews with relative and friends, snapshots, and re-enactments of pertinent events that look like old home movies, the documentary moves like a real-life Rashomon, wherein bits of the "truth" are revealed from various points of views. The stories revolve around Sarah's mother, Diane Polley, a stage actress who died of cancer when Sarah was 11 years old. The "seminal" event, if you will, took place nine months before Sarah's birth, when Diane took an extended leave and moved hundreds of miles away from home and family to perform in a play in Montreal. As such, there was opportunity and several prime suspects in the mystery of Sarah's biological father.
During family gatherings, jokes were often made that Sarah didn't really look like anyone else in the family, particularly Michael, Sarah's putative father. Michael, however, never questioned his paternity as he did visit Diane in Montreal during her time away. Much of the film is presented from Michael's perspective, though we very soon appreciate the disparity of interpretations through other players, including Sarah's biological father (part of the fun is the revelation of who this man is, and I won't spoil the fun). With Sarah's mother unable to provide her own recollections, we are left with Michael's story, the biological father's story (which has its own depth and poignancy), and Sarah's perspective as defined by what she decided to portray in the re-enactments and how she decided to edit the interviews. Indeed, an essential and wonderfully pertinent aspect of the movie is the way Polley shows how memories are reconstructions built from true experiences plastered with fictional additions and modifications.
Memory researchers have long viewed recollections as stories that are reconstituted each time we tell them. As we replay our memories, we add to and color the past. In a chilling retelling of a life event, New York Times columnist and former drug addict David Carr documented his recollection of a day twenty years earlier when he was fired from a job (Carr, 2008, The Night of the Gun, see interview). He remembers going to a bar with an old college buddy, Donald, to "celebrate" his firing. Spiked with pills, booze, and cocaine, Carr's behavior was so erratic that he was asked to leave the bar. While outside the premises, Donald complained about Carr's behavior, which led to him being pushed by Carr against his own Ford LTD. Carr remembers Donald driving off without him but later phoning his friend at home to tell him "I'm coming over" in a rather menacing tone. His friend advises against it and says he has a gun. Ignoring the admonition, Carr arrives at Donald's door and confronts his friend who has "a handgun at his side." An altercation breaks out with Carr smashing a window with his fist, Donald calling the cops and saying: "You should leave. They're coming right now." Twenty years later, Carr discussed his recollections with Donald, who confirmed much of Carr's recollection of the day, except for a critical feature—it wasn't he who had the gun.
The preeminent psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has conducted ingenious experiments about the malleability of our memories and how life events can interfere with each other and blend across time. She has shown that our recollections are indeed reconstructions that are partly true and partly fiction. She has even managed to convince individuals of remembering that they were once lost in a shopping mall, though the "memory" was planted by Loftus in cahoots with a family member. Brain scientists have shown that when we have a strong recollection of a past event (even if it's a false memory), the posterior parietal cortex (PPC) is particularly active. This brain region has been viewed as a convergence zone or integrative area. That is, pieces of an event are stored in various parts of the brain—such as visual ones stored along paths emanating from the back of the brain (V1)—and become linked together as we reconstruct the past. When we try to retrieve a past experience, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) helps guide and search for the stray pieces, and the PPC glues the pieces together as an encapsulated memory, such as remembering a particularly good meal with friends at a new restaurant (figure from Shimamura, 2013).
Whenever we reminisce about the past, we build stories based on "re-collecting" details of prior events. Movies act as a powerful means of visually narrating our life stories, and Polley's film offers both a documentation of a personal experience and a lesson in how the telling of our past can be colored. During the movie, one realizes that what looks like footage from home movies from a shaky Super 8 camera are actually re-enactments, the kind of dramatizations often presented in cheesy history documentaries seen on TV. I tend to dislike such portrayals, yet in Polley's film these re-creations foster the notion that our own memories are reconstructions of the past. One moral of "Stories We Tell" is that we may never fully know how we got to where we are today. As David Carr has said about his own recollections: "You can't know the whole truth, but if there is one it lies in the space between people."