Transcript for Beauty & Brains

Anne Strainchamps: You know what it feels like to recognize something beautiful, the quick inhale, the visceral punch of surprise. Who knows what sparks it? A Beethoven quartet, the Eiffel Tower, your grandmother's patchwork quilt. Well, in a handful of science labs across the country an emerging science of neuroaesthetics aims to decode that beauty and maybe to prove that we're hardwired for art. Here's Steve Paulson.

Steve Paulson: It seems kind of crazy that brain science can actually explain why we like art. Think about all the different kinds of art, from Mayan sculptures, to Jackson Pollock drip paintings, to the minarets of a mosque, and those are just the visual arts. So can the study of the neural circuits of the brain really unlock the secrets of art?

V.S. Ramachandran: I was in a temple in India looking at these different works of art, these sculptures of gods and goddesses, and I said this is a vital part of being human: art and aesthetics. So what's going on in your brain? Why have people not addressed this?

Paulson: V.S. Ramachandran is a renowned neuroscientist. He's famous for his ingenious treatments of various neurological disorders. A few years ago he got to wondering if art is more than just a matter of personal taste or even cultural values. Is the appreciation of aesthetics actually hardwired in the human brain?

Ramachandran: I think I want to stay away from the word "art," although I do use it occasionally, because art is a loaded word and there's an arbitrariness to art. It's driven by the market, it's driven by fashions and trends and historical periods. Aesthetics, on the other hand, I think you can think of universal laws of aesthetics. There are two obvious examples. One is perceptual grouping. Sometimes you see the same color repeating in a painting. The same color of azure blue in the sky, it repeats in a person's robe. The brain seems to enjoy grouping things that are similar. For example, birds in a flock flying together, you tend to group them as one big blob. That grabs your attention and that's on of the things that artists try to do.

Paulson: You said there was another aesthetic law as well. What did you have in mind?

Ramachandran: Well, there's symmetry of course. We all find symmetry aesthetically pleasing. The question is: why? I think it's because in the natural world most symmetrical things are either prey, predator, or mate. They're animals, right? These are absolutely vital for survival: prey, predator, and mate. You want to draw your attention. That's why symmetry grabs your attention instantly and gives you a jolt of arousal. 

Paulson: Neuroscientists have also found that looking at symmetrical object actually activates nerve cells in the brain. So here you have the two core ideas behind neuroaesthetics. First, our brains are hardwired to notice certain patterns like symmetry and groupings, and then these neural circuits go way back in our evolutionary history, helping us to spot lions on the African savanna or a ripe piece of fruit.

Ramachandran: This is not to deny the tremendous role of culture. Obviously culture plays a role otherwise you would not have different artistic styles. You do have impressionism, expressionism, abstract art, Tibetan art, African art, but what I'm arguing is as a scientist I'm interested in principles that cut across cultural boundaries.

Paulson: Well, let me just pick up on one of the styles of art that you just mentioned: abstract art. From a neuroscientist's perspective, how do you make sense of our appreciation of abstract art or why people even want to make abstract art? 

Ramachandran: That's a very good question. We proposed an idea to explain this some years ago and it's based on insights drawn from ethology, the study of animal behavior.

Paulson: Take, for example, the common seagull, or more precisely the baby chicks of the seagull. 

Ramachandran: The seagull's chick, as soon as it hatches, it starts begging for food by pecking on its mother's beak. The mother's beak is a long, yellow thing with a red spot on it. The chick pecks at the red spot. The mother then opens its mouth and regurgitates half digested food into the chick's gaping mouth and the chick is happy.

Paulson: So the question is: how does the seagull chick know to peck on its mother's beak? How does it even recognize its mother? That question had stumped the pioneering ethologist, Niko Tinbergen, half a century ago so he devised some fascinating experiments, at least once you get past the gruesomeness of what scientists sometimes do in their research. 

Ramachandran: So he plucked the beak off from the mother seagull, so the speak, and waved the beak in front of the chick. The chick still begs for food. He said, well, that's kind of stupid. Why is the chick begging for food from this old scientist holding a beak in front of the chick? The answer is not being stupid at all because the goal of vision is to get away with as little computation as possible to solve the problem on hand. In the case of the chick, what it's doing is taking a shortcut and saying the only time I'm going to see a long thing with a red spot on it is when I see mom. 

Paulson: Basically, if you give a big enough splash of color, that's going to attract attention. 

Ramachandran: That brings me to my point about abstract art. What Tinbergen found, the guy who discovered this, you don't even need a beak. You can take a yellow stick with a red spot and wave it. The chick will beg for food, but what he then found was the amazing thing. If you take a long, thin stick with three red stripes the chick goes berserk even though it doesn't resemble a beak. What's happening here is the chick's visual system has neurons to detect beaks optimally so then the big long stick hyper activates these neurons so the neurons are shouting at the top of their voice and sending signals to the emotional centers in the chick's brain saying, "Wow, what a sexy beak. Perk up," right? So the chick gets mesmerized and prefers the stick with the three red stripes to a real beak.

Now, what's this got to do with abstract art? Well, what I'm arguing is, if seagulls had an art gallery, they would hang this long stick with the three red stripes, they would worship it, pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for it, and call it a Picasso, call it a great work of art. That's what we're all doing when you're looking at some abstract art. You're titillating these neural circuits in the brain, form detecting or color detecting circuits in the brain. I think what a clever artist is doing is creating the equivalent for your brain of the stick with the three red stripes for the chick's brain.

Paulson: Okay. We're trying to determine if a few universal laws of aesthetics actually cut across all cultures, all historical periods. That's the fundamental premise of neuroaesthetics. So let's jump from Ramachandran's baby seagulls to Vienna around 1900, a city that had a remarkable artistic and scientific flourishing, where Freud launched his revolutionary ideas about the unconscious, where Schoenberg developed his eternal music and abstract expressionists created a new kind of art. This period fascinates the Nobel Prize winning neuroscientist, Eric Kandel, in his book The Age of Insight. Kandel sets out to uncover the secrets of the three great painters of abstract expressionism: Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele. 

Eric Kandel: They actually made the point that the purpose of art is not to convey beauty but to convey truth, and what you see in Klimt is a transitional figure, but Kokoschka and Schiele are full blown expressionist. They introduce this dramatic art form with a conscious attempt to depict unconscious mental processes. 

Paulson: So how did they do it? How did they great Viennese painters tap into the roiling inner psyches of turn-of-the-century Vienna to render it so memorably on the canvas? Eric Kandel says neuroscience can help us explain the mystery. 

Kandel: I am a reductionist in my science. A common strategy in science is to take a fascinating, complex problem, select a simple example, and I've tried to do that here. I focus just on portraiture, because we know a great deal about how faces are represented in the brain, and on only three artists that make up the Vienna modernist. 


Paulson: It turns out the brain has its own neural circuitry for looking at faces, not only so we recognize other people, but also so we have some sense of what they're thinking and feeling. It's what scientists call theory of mind, the capacity to get inside the heads of other people.

Kandel: First of all, we know there's an area in the brain called the inferior temporal cortex that specializes in faces. How do we know that? If you have a lesion in that area, your face blind. If you look in that area, if you do an imaging experiment on a monkey and you show that monkey a picture of a monkey, there are six patches of cells that light up. In each one of those patches 95 percent respond only to faces. They not only respond to the picture of the monkey but they respond even more dramatically if you make a cartoon.

That's the first suggestion of expressionism. A cartoon is an exaggeration. It's a distortion of the picture and what Klimt, Schiele, and Kokoschka found out is if you distort, people respond more powerfully. Then they actually experimented with it. They moved the eyes further apart. They moved the eyes closer together. They made even more of a caricature out of it and the sales went wild.

Paulson: Well, there's going to be a reaction that a lot of people have to what you're saying. Don't try to reduce art to neurons and brain chemistry. Keep scientific reductionism out of the creative process. It will reduce the magic of what makes us human, what makes us creative.

Kandel: I think that's a very valid point and we have to think about this. I think the purpose in trying to bridge between art and science is not to replace the human response, the magic of art, but to give you a new dimension. Leonardo Di Vinci dissected corpses in order to understand how the various bones fit together and how the muscles fit onto the bones so he can have a more realistic depiction of the body. So knowing more about how the body and the brain works enriches your understanding without in any way dehumanizing it or reducing it.

Paulson: But it raises the question of how far can you dig down into this process? Are you talking about, by looking at the level of neurons and synaptic connections you can actually understand the creative processes in some primal way?

Kandel: Once would hope so. I see absolutely no roadblock at the moment. Now, this is a long distance away. We are talking half a century, maybe more, but we're making progress. We understand certain primitive (inaudible) of creativity. That isn't going to make us more creative but we're going to understand a little bit more about the biological nature of creativity.


Paulson: I have to say I find Eric Kandel's faith in brain science kind of contagious, and it's not surprising that we're now seeing this new field of neuroaesthetics. After all, we're living in the age of neuroscience, a period of remarkable discoveries about the brain, but not everyone with a scientific bent is convinced that brain science can explain why we like art or why we seem to need it in our lives. 

Ellen Dissanayake: I'm not opposed to reductionism, per se, but I think that neuroaesthetics as a field thinks that they are doing more than they can actually do.

Paulson: Ellen Dissanayake is an independent scholar who has spent much of her life trying to find the connections between science and art. She draws on various disciplines, from anthropology to evolutionary history, but her own fascination with these questions goes back to a watershed moment many years ago.

Dissanayake: It started when I was an undergraduate and I heard Schubert quintet and found myself crying during the slow movement. It was the kind of experience I had never had before, not wrenching because it wasn't displeasure, but it was just kind of more than one can actually encompass or believe could be possible with a work of art.


Paulson: So what is this experience of art? Why does it have such power to transport us? The folks in neuroaesthetics would say it all goes back to our brain's preferences for certain colors, or shapes, or patterns. But Dissanayake calls this narrow aesthetics, as if pinpointing the brain's preferences for red over gray, has much to tell us about the nuanced and sometimes overwhelming experience of art. 

Dissanayake: Our brains are not just making reflex responses. If that were so then a Playboy centerfold picture would be the height of aesthetic excellence because it pushes all of the buttons for our adaptive choices of males, at least. 

Paullon: Dissanayake thinks part of the problem with neuroaesthetics is a Eurocentric bias towards art museums and concert halls, the masterpieces of Western art. If we really want to understand the origins of art, she thinks we're better off looking at premodern cultures, especially the ritual ceremonies when the whole tribe comes together singing and dancing and drumming, often wearing masks and painting their bodies. 

Dissanayake: By emphasizing these uncertain events, like birth, and death, and going out for the hunt or to battle, these are all very serious concerns that people feel uncertain about.

Paulson: So, for instance, if they're going out for a hunt or maybe going into battle, they would have some sort of ceremony basically to get jazzed so they're ready to do this, so they're sort of in some heightened state to be able to go off and encounter the unknown.

Dissanayake: That's true. Oxytocin is known to be a suppressor of cortisol, which is the stress hormone, so you could say, or I hypothesize, that they're moving together in time produces the trust hormone, oxytocin, which makes people feel unified, confident, and trustful.

Paulson: Partly, what you're saying is art ultimately sparks an emotional response. This is not something we necessarily reason out. It hits us in some visceral way. 

Dissanayake: Yes, it does. People's emotions are not just pleasurable or beautiful the way the neuroaesthetics would say, but they tend to be very persuasive and memorable. 

Paulson: Let's face it, encountering a work of art can be one of the most moving and mysterious experiences we can have. I do wonder whether science will ever get to the bottom of it, but even V.S. Ramachandran, one of gurus of neuroaesthetics, says we've just barely begun to scratch the surface of what science can tell us.

Ramachandran: I think right now one percent or less is explained neuroscience, but I think a time will come I think you'll maybe understand 10, 20 percent of it. To me, it's that 20 percent that's valuable because I'm a scientist.

Strainchamps: Steve Paulson with neuroscientist, V.S. Ramachandran, and Eric Kandel, and art historian, Ellen Dissanayake.

Comments for this interview

Rees on Ramachandran (Roger Schriner, 10/26/2014 - 11:29pm)

A basic principle of responsible criticism is that one clearly states one's specific objections. It is insufficient to merely say, "He was very, very, very wrong." One obvious problem is that there is no way to respond to such a "critique." What is one supposed to say? "No, he was not very, very, very wrong"?

Hard-wired for beauty (Patrick Lee, 10/26/2014 - 10:01pm)

Of course, we are hard-wired for beauty, because God is, too, and we are made in his image! Consider:
- The extraordinary beauty, magnificence and variety of the natural world he has placed all around us all the time
- The gifts he gives to men and women to fashion paint, stone, metal, fabric, sounds and words into works of art that amaze, inspire and transcend
I was listening to this story while working in my pasture late this afternoon. The thoughts above had already come to mind as I finished my task. It was near sunset as I walked back toward the house. There was a smattering of thin clouds arrayed above the western horizon. The sun had splattered them all in a gorgeous array of pink, orange, scarlet and yellow. The artist is still at work! He will create it all again tomorrow at dawn and at dusk, day after day.
Of course, we are hard-wired for beauty! How can we not be?

v.s. ramachandran (michael rees, 02/16/2014 - 8:36am)

VS Ramachandran and Abstract ARt
I never comment on websites so that should be a measure of how much VS Ramachandran's pitiful analyses of abstract art affected me. This is an example of science masquerading as the lingua franca, the truth language of our culture. Your host was laughing when VS spun his ridiculous analyses and I hope it was to mask his disdain for the analyses. I guess there are plenty of people/artists who use science poorly. Here's a case where a scientist just made some stuff up and tried to regurgitate it down our little beaks. Not even a nice try. My estimation of Dr. Ramachandran just slipped. several notches.