Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Origins of Consciousness and the Hard Problem

Todd E. Feinberg and Jon M. Mallat. The Ancient Origins of Consciousness: How the Brain Created Experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016. ISBN: 9780262034333. Hardcover. $35U.S. 392 pages. Illustrated.

As I write this review, an old story has been circulating on social media about a Frenchman who has 50-75% less than a normal size brain, an IQ of 75, and who yet functions normally, has a family, and is employed. [1] That is, he has all the requisite brain parts, but each one has been miniaturized. How is it possible for someone with so little brain to function normally? To some extent neurologist Todd E. Feinberg and biologist Jon M. Mallat address this fascinating question in their book, The Ancient Origins of Consciousness. Organisms do not need overly complex brains to survive. In fact, sensory consciousness dates back to as long as 560 million years ago (mya) in tiny brains, according to these authors.

Of course the subject of Feinberg and Mallat’s book is not so straightforward. Indeed, they tackle philosopher David Chalmers’ hard problem of consciousness: How do the functions and mechanisms of the brain result in phenomenal, subjective experience? How is being in function? Here is a book by research scientists laden with data about, at base, philosophy of mind. On the spectrum of 1 to 10, where at 1 sit those who claim consciousness from material properties to 10 where we find the non-materialist metaphysicians, these authors clearly lean to 1. They claim to have cracked Chalmers’ hard problem, which won’t sit well with many near the 10 spectrum.

The Ancient Origins of Consciousness is a copiously illustrated with figures and tables, fairly easy to read for the non-specialist, well organized in ten chapters, and offers a cogent argument for the early origin of primary consciousness. The book includes a comprehensive index and boasts a robust bibliography. It is important to emphasize that their angle is on sensory consciousness and the authors are careful to state on a number of occasions that their mission is not to find the origins of, for instance, theory of mind (or other high functions of mind like reflection or intelligence). They do not claim that higher order consciousness is 500 million years old. Instead, they chart a careful and precise genealogy of primary consciousness using fossil evidence and research data. There’s nothing to dislike about this book, and it is worth owning for anyone interested in evolutionary or consciousness studies.

The authors rightly begin with Thomas Nagel, and his notion of something it is like to be. Phenomenal experience or qualia don’t depend on super intelligence or large brains, they assert; and contrary to Chalmers, they set out to prove that they can detail objectively neural pathways and so explain subjective, primary consciousness. And they do. In terms of the evolution of sensory consciousness Feinberg and Mallat go beyond qualia and explain referral or the projection of neural states, mental unity via massive neuronal activity, and mental causation or how neurons effect action. In essence, the authors are looking for both the origin of affective consciousness and the hard problem itself – how the emergent what it is to be like is reducible to its components. The stages of consciousness run from the biological aspects of all organisms, to reflexes in the nervous system, to attention, which is more specialized and from which consciousness eventually arose.

Consciousness is embodied – it needs the physicality of a particular brain to exist. Consciousness is a lively process of brain functions – it is not a structure. They quote Evan Thompson: “‘A living being is not sheer exteriority...but instead embodies a kind of interiority, that of its own immanent purposiveness’” (19). While a reflex is not consciousness, in the neural reactions we find the beginnings of the connections that will form consciousness. Reflexes constitute different cell types where neurons differ in types and functions, and the growing complexity, speed, and cellular diversity in turn created hierarchies (27). An example of a hierarchy would be how the function of the skin (touch) is represented in the brain or how the external visual field is mapped (i.e., various sense stimuli are taken together) in the brain. These mental sensations become part of what it is like to be.

The explosive proliferation of animal life in the Cambrian Period is crucial to the argument presented by Feinberg and Mallat. However, they are keen to point out that before the Cambrian a very small brain had evolved in the predecessors to vertebrates. These non-vertebrate chordate ocean feeders, such as amphioxus, were able to detect chemicals and had a touch sense. While extraordinarily small, the brain of the amphioxus includes a forebrain, neurons, and primitive brain regions that control different functions. This brain is a precursor to that found in vertebrates. The neurons in amphioxus are not connected in synapses with neurotransmitters but use chemicals that modulate neurons, and this is the model for a simple, primitive pre-vertebrate brain. Not until the evolution of sense perceivers in vertebrates (eyes and ears) is there more complex sensory processing in the brain. Nonetheless, we see in the pre-Cambrian the birth of the brain.

The Cambrian explosion runs from about 560-520mya and introduces vertebrates which then evolve complex nervous systems. Predation began in the period before the Cambrian, the precursor to the evolution of senses for defense and elusiveness, and these in turn became more complex behaviors and system in terrestrial vertebrates with the environment’s wealth of oxygen and more opportunities for foraging better types of resources. The cost of evolving such mental sensory maps was high in terms of energy needs, and only the clades of arthropods (mostly predators) and vertebrates (in Cambrian early fish) evolved sensory systems; it was less costly for others not to evolve complex systems, and this explains why we still have, for instance, clams (64).

Even before the Cambrian, sensory consciousness was possible, as with the amphioxus. It’s just that in vertebrates the brain parts become not only larger but also more precise in segmentation and neural hierarchies. As the vertebrate brain evolved, so did its cerebrum and cortex, areas dealing with, among others, memory and decision making. Eyes went from forming images to forming spatial images, and any complex mental images needed to be processed and interpreted across several brain regions. Sensory processing of images, smells, and sounds are recalled, referenced to, and modified as necessary with new inputs. While the hippocampus brain region (memory and selective attention) is not apparent until the vertebrates, the genes to express it existed much earlier. Furthermore, the authors go as far as saying that in the Cambrian vertebrate brain not only were predictions made but simulations, that is, the manipulation of mental images.

Based on the foregoing, Feinberg and Mallat move to sentience (and devote two chapters to the subject). Sentience is “when an organism becomes consciously aware of its own internal bodily and affective feelings,” like pleasure or pain (129). The affective limbic system, not in contact with the environment, is involved in attraction (pleasure), aversion (displeasure) and so employs valence; there is self, good/bad feelings, sadness and joy, and fear; there are motives. Affective consciousness (compared to exteroceptive, external mental images, and interoceptive, visceral pain), is found in subcortical limbic areas going back 560mya. That is, they do not find affective consciousness originating in cortical regions, which come later.

What are the behavioral criteria for affective consciousness, they ask. Beyond any reflex response, the answer would include any non-reflexive response of valence, a decision about cost/benefit, frustration, and self-medication (as in awareness of acute pain so as to alleviate it). They insist, however, that some goal-driven rewards could reflect an unconscious behavior (153). Simple affective neuro-structures can be found in lampreys (still present but of ancient origin) and other fish.

Must an organism have a backbone to experience simple consciousness? What about insects, mollusks, flatworms, etc.? The authors set out criteria for consciousness: 1. Complexity. Insect brains are too tiny. 2. Multisensory neuronal hierarchies. We do find this in insects. 3. Isomorphic (topographical/physical) sense pathways. Yes for insects. 4. Reciprocal neural interactions. They say yes for insects but debatable for other organisms without a backbone. 5. Separate sense pathways that merge in a brain for unity of experience. This is highly debatable in insects. 6. Memory. Yes for insects. 7. Selective attention. Also yes for insects. In all, insect consciousness is debatable. However, they claim the main criterion of sensory consciousness is mental image formation, and this is evident in bumble bees and so therefore in other arthropods. Clearly consciousness evolved to benefit vertebrates more than other organisms.

The final chapter is a mega-conclusion that reiterates and pulls together much of what came before. They offer and discuss in detail three postulates. 1. Sensory consciousness is emergent with emphasis on the hierarchy of sense modes across and in network with brain areas. 2. Consciousness arrives through a continuum of species and adaptations. There is a diversity of consciousness (i.e. no single emergent process) in the brain and interaction among: exteroceptive consciousness (images/sensation, distance senses); interoceptive consciousness (mental images/body senses); affective consciousness (inner feelings). 3. Concerning the hard problem, consciousness and mental unity are adaptive. Behavioral choices spring from unified mental maps that evolved over time and selection pressures to benefit certain organisms. Others did not evolve consciousness since it is costly, and they were able to survive without it.

In terms of the hard problem, the authors are clear to emphasize that no machine can explain (since it only observes) one’s subjective what it is like experience. While an adaptation, consciousness is a process and “not a material thing” since it does not reside in one brain area (224). But there is no hard problem, because the brain does create personal experience and how the brain does so is explainable by virtue of scattered but interlocking physical matter.

Notes
[1] See “Man with tiny brain shocks doctors.” New Scientist, 20 July 2007. Web. The article reports on findings from the journal Lancet.


- GregoryF. Tague, Ph.D. is professor of English at St. Francis College, N.Y., and the author of Evolution and Human Culture (Brill 2016) and Making Mind: Moral Sense and Consciousness (Rodopi 2014). Copyright©Gregory F. Tague 2016. Reprinted courtesy Consciousness, Literature and the Arts journal, August 2016.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Dear Friends:

I am pleased to announce the publication of Evolution and Human Culture: Texts and Contexts, my fourth monograph and sixth scholarly book. Evolution and Human Culture represents three years of sustained work, and I am grateful to St. Francis College for a Spring 2015 sabbatical which enabled me to navigate significant progress toward completion of the text. I'd also wish to thank my editors, Francesc Forn i Argimon and Eric van Broekhuizen for their generous support. The book is published by Brill, a European publisher with a distinguished history that extends back three hundred years. More importantly, the book is now part of the prestigious Value Inquiry Book Series/Cognitive Science, edited by Prof. Argimon. 

You can find the Preface, Table of Contents, and chapter subheadings, as well as a link to the Brill site, here:  https://sites.google.com/site/gftague/ Please ask you library to order a copy of this important book and, if applicable, consider it as a course text or recommendation.

Evolution and Human Culture will be valuable to students and scholars of the arts, humanities, and cultural studies, as well as moral philosophers, who would be interested in reading about key intellectual developments in their fields. Biologists and social scientists would benefit too, since the book provides a window into how scientific research contributes to understanding the arts and humanities. The book offers a comprehensive entry into evolutionary cultural studies. The take-home point is that culture does not transcend nature; culture is human nature with moral sensations at bottom.

Subject headings applicable to the book, according to the publisher, include: 1. Philosophy;Ethics and Moral Philosophy; 2. Biology;Zoology; 3. Art History;Archaeology; 4. Philosophy;Philosophy of Mind; 5. Social Science;Sociology and Anthropology.

As an early, anonymous reader points out, my book argues for the interaction of biological and cultural levels relying on an impressive amount of data from the natural and social sciences that show how certain culturally-related behaviors contribute to the selection of certain biological traits and vice versa; this thesis is supported by reference to abundant comparative studies with several species of nonhuman primates relatively close to our own.

The book is the second half of my definitive work begun over a decade ago. The first half of the project was published as Making Mind: Moral Sense and Consciousness in Philosophy, Science, and Literature (Rodopi 2014). Where Making Mind mostly examines the prehistory of narration in consciousness and feelings of approval/disapproval, Evolution and Human Culture more broadly looks at moral emotions and cognition underlying the arts. For a concise version of my endeavor of examining the arts and humanities in light of evolution, readers are directed to my more accessible and far less expensive book, Art and Adaptation: A Primer from Notes (Bibliotekos 2015). [Disclosure: Bibliotekos is my wife's imprint.]

*Testimonials and Reviews for Evolution and Human Culture*

“Professor Tague has mapped out the paths taken by anthropologists, primatologists, evolutionary psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers who have traveled where human culture and human biology intersect. Different disciplines have discovered different areas of this biocultural landscape and have returned with different ideas; Evolution and Human Culture provides an impressively-complete account of these diverse explorations. An intrepid explorer himself, Professor Tague provides his own take on the importance of culture to human evolution – that culture emerged as a means of creating and maintaining the norms that enable us to be so highly cooperative – but only after laying out the full spectrum of perspectives so clearly that he enables his reader to entertain interpretations differing from his own.” -Christopher X J. Jensen, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolution, Pratt Institute.

Evolution and Human Culture is a milestone piece bringing together philosophy, the sciences and the arts in an original and stimulating read. Culture, art, morality and evolution – a striking unification that is unique to this work.” -Kathryn Francis, Fellow, CogNovo Institute, Plymouth University.

Evolution and Human Culture provides a very well written account of evolutionary theory across the spectrum of relevant disciplines...addressing...the most challenging questions that face humankind.” -Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Ph.D., Professor, University of Lincoln.


Saturday, April 23, 2016

Conference of Interest

Morality, Moral Philosophy, and the Humanities in the Age of Neuroscience - Kent State University, 17-20 November 2016. 

Kent State University Neuro-Humanities.   

Call here.  

Saturday, February 27, 2016

We are pleased to announce the publication of Volume 12.1, February 2016, of the ASEBL JournalThis issue includes two provocative papers along with reaction from the scholarly community. The process of assembling and editing began in May 2015. Join with me in celebrating the accomplishments of our authors, anonymous readers, and other contributors. 

You can read the issue HERE.

In addition to two hefty co-authored research papers by prominent researchers, there are a number of comments by a range of distinguished academics. Lead paper authors also respond to comments. The issue concludes with a spirited look at a controversial book by an important Indian author. 

Here's a condensed version of the table of contents of the issue.

† Lesley Newson and Peter Richerson“Moral Beliefs about Homosexuality: Testing a Cultural Evolutionary Hypothesis.” -- With Comments and a Reply.

† Craig T. Palmer and Amber L. Palmer“Why Traditional Ethical Codes Prescribing Self-Sacrifice Are a Puzzle to Evolutionary Theory: The Example of Besa.” -- With Comments and a Reply.

† Aiman Reyaz and Priyanka Tripathi“Fight with/for the Right: An Analysis of Power-politics in Arundhati Roy’s Walking with the Comrades.”

-Gregory F. Tague, editor

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Art and Aesthetics

Tone Roald. The Subject of Aesthetics: A Psychology of Art and Experience. Leiden: Brill, 2015. Paper. 174 pages. $57US. ISBN: 978-9004308718.

Alva Noë. Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature. NY: Hill and Wang, 2015. Hardcover. 287 pages. $28US. ISBN: 978-0809089178.

These two books examine the question of artistic behavior and especially the nature of our human experience of art. Drawing from Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method, Tone Roald proposes that knowledge of and understanding in art culture is part of a historical tradition separate from truth claims made in the natural sciences. Alva Noë takes a similar stance, arguing that while evolutionary studies and neuroscience are part of the conversation about art culture, personal experience and context weigh more in appreciating and understanding the nature of art. While Roald is interested in the psychological dimensions of a persistent art experience, Noë is clear that any aesthetic experience cannot be limited to brain activity. When we talk about artwork, as far as both authors are concerned, we need to accommodate the wider realm of the thinking viewer’s engagement with art as it occurs in a world of other people. However, whereas Roald treats the aesthetic experience on a personal level, Noë finds the experience of art engaging a range of personal and cultural ideas.

Relying on Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, Roald asserts that empirical descriptions of art experience are more valuable than classifications or abstractions from philosophers. Indeed, a large part of her book reports on and discusses interviews Roald conducted with a number of people and their encounters with paintings and sculpture over the course of time. In 1986 Arthur Danto famously said that we have reached the end of art since it does not make anything happen. If that were so, why would we still create and participate in art? Roald steers away from a philosophical exercise of abstracting art and instead offers a project where art gives meaning in life.

Well versed in the history of aesthetics and the philosophy of art (from Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten to Martin Seel), Roald looks at the psychology of one’s encounter with art and tries to find what the aesthetic signifies. The title of her book is deliberately misleading – the subject of aesthetics is not necessarily in the artwork, certainly not in some philosophical idea, but is the viewer herself. Indeed, moving away from the “transcendental ego” of Edmund Husserl, Roald following Merleau-Ponty will emphasize “phenomenological descriptions of the personal in encounters with art, and not social, economic, or historical explanations” (22). This approach pretty much goes against Immanuel Kant and his transcendental, metaphysical aesthetics, his notion of disinterested, cognitive contemplation. Over the rational philosopher who does not allow for ambiguity, a phenomenologist like Merleau-Ponty puts the perceiving subject of artwork in the world, since the sediments of experience in one’s body are crucial in any meeting with art.

While at times dense, the early chapters in Roald’s book offer a comprehensive history of aesthetics, phenomenology of art, and psychological aesthetics. Here, Roald is capable of interpreting and explaining some complex ideas from John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, V.S. Ramachandran and William Hirstein, Semir Zeki, Kurt Koffka, Sigmund Freud, Georg W.F. Hegel, and Martin Heidegger (as well as those previously mentioned). Roald suggests that on the subject of aesthetics, philosophy is inadequate in comparison with psychology. This attitude does not exactly coincide with Alva Noë’s. For Roald, in line with Gadamer, the arts and humanities are not precisely scientifically legitimate but as an alternative investigate human questions in cultural contexts. This thinking is what led Roald to conduct twenty-five interviews to gather and explain data on different people’s art experiences in chapter four, “Stories of Art.”

These fascinating stories of how works of art can penetrate someone’s life are central to Roald’s book, since she seeks to “give form and meaning to aesthetic experience” (99), and especially how one’s experience with art can develop over an extended period of time – in sharp contrast to Kant who finds the aesthetic experience in one’s first encounter. Roald develops this chapter from the thinking of Hans Robert Jauss. First, there is an initial aesthetic reading; second there in a retrospective interpretation; third, there is a historical reading. Rather than the work of art as being the constant, “it is the most significant experience that is investigated...” (100), especially the moment when there is subject-object ambiguity. I found this chapter compelling, easy to read, and helpful in my own understanding about art and aesthetics.

In the end, Roald talks about art as what she terms intrapellation: “The participants...incorporate the work of art into their subjectivity, wherein the aesthetic experience becomes a background tone or color...” (131). Of course much of this might depend on the person, and the person’s proclivities to view certain art; that which resonates with an individual might be something she was drawn to (even unconsciously) in the first place. In this way, intrapellation or cognitive perception of the subject is “a projection of feelings and imaginings onto the work of art...” – while art is outside one’s body it somehow supports and yet challenges what’s inside one’s psyche.
Alva Noë’s wide-ranging analysis of engagement with art is not distant from Tone Roald’s. He too (at time drawing from Dewey or Merleau-Ponty) emphasizes the individual in the world. The aesthetic experience is not brain activity per se; rather, the aesthetic experience depends upon the whole person’s biography, social history, intelligence, and environment. But over Roald, Noë perceptively makes a connection between art and philosophy – how both are a means for us to question who we are and what we do. That is why art is, as Noë proclaims, a strange tool, for it forces us to ask how we are organized and then pushes us to consider how to reorganize our literal and figurative vision. The implication is that the manner in which we see impacts on our ability to function in the world. Noë can rightfully say that art is like philosophy since the two practices bring shape and organization to what is not in clear view.

What is refreshing about this book is how Noë brings art back to the humanities and away from its current preoccupation with scientists, notably neuroscientists. While an fMRI can indeed measure hot areas in the brain, there is no telling what the outcome will be. Like Roald, Noë suggests that art is or can be an extension of one’s mind – awareness and behavior cannot be fully accounted for by a machine. Not to be reductive, but art can function like an implement to help achieve what we might be thinking. In some respects thought is not just in our heads but also in objects. Or, more precisely, art displaces what we assume we know and therefore makes us reconceive people, places, and events. While his focus is on the visual, Noë also ably covers writing (with a perceptive reading of a poem by Walt Whitman) and music. Writing, too, is a tool: it is not merely to register items and happenings but a means for us to contemplate, to pose questions, and to engage with problems.

In chatty and colloquial prose that tends to wander, the book at times wavers from its focus. For instance, Noë is dubious of any evolutionary explanation of art and very critical of neuroscientific explanations of the aesthetic experience. While he makes a nod to biology and anthropology and acknowledges the naturalness of art, he says we are predominantly cultural. The question, though, is where in his discussion does he address the evolutionary biology of culture? He admits that culture is not simply dropped upon us. Surely – we evolved culture. If one is going to bring up evolutionary or neuro-biological areas (Roald does not), one should treat them rather fully. For example, I do not see any timeline or chronology here, much less any discussion of prehistoric artifacts. So one can dismiss evolutionary perspectives, but what precisely is being dismissed? While there is passing mention of cave art (earlier in the book), I see nothing specific about the dating differences between Lascaux and Chauvet (work by Genevieve von Petzinger), and there is no mention of rock art. Needless to say, there is no talk of the many authors who have worked in these areas – Steven Mithen, Sally McBrearty and Alison Brooks, April Nowell, to name only a few who have actually discovered and discuss prehistoric artifacts related to the evolution of art.

Evolutionary approaches must deal not just with the past, but with prehistory – going all the way back – and must make mention of studies in comparative primatology and Hunter-Gatherer societies. I don’t see that here. At this point in our history some aspects of art behavior are purely cultural – what to make as “art” and where to include (view) it. But underlying any cultural capacities are fitness-enhancing mechanisms for the individual to survive in a group. These are aspects of what Ellen Dissanayake recently calls artification, e.g., objects as part of social rituals. In any case, Dissanayake’s adaptive notions of artification as well as her earlier view of making special are much less prevalent today since, in our societies for many hundreds of years, survival as our prehistoric ancestors grappled with it is not as difficult. There is some discussion of Dissanayake, who gets treated badly in my opinion (and where Noë relies only on her earlier idea of making special). No one theory of evolutionary adaptations will make full account of art behavior, and even Darwin knew that. The evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, who banks everything on sexual selection is also considered (where is Denis Dutton in Noë’s discussion?), and he has been criticized for leaving out chronology and reference to artifacts. Indeed, a more thorough response to Miller has been offered by Kathryn Coe’s The Ancestress Hypothesis, not referenced.

I find it telling that Noë pretty much relies on Stephen Davies (a philosopher) who does not ascribe to art as truly adaptive and who is reluctant to buy into aesthetic sensibilities as continuous in human beings and other species (and therefore light on sexual selection). However, he does argue with Davies who talks about perceptual seeing in animals; Noë says that there is too wide a gulf between mere perception and aesthetic seeing. But there is no charting here as to how we arrived at aesthetic seeing: it had to evolve from something somewhere, as even Darwin knew. The neural leap hypothesis has been questioned, so that’s not the answer. Aesthetic seeing could not have been inborn in humanity – that’s creationist. Noë says: “it is highly unlikely that aesthetic seeing would confer enhanced fitness on those capable of exercising it” (55). A cultural anthropologist might disagree, citing the social benefits and prestige one could gain in a group.

This account does not consider the prehistory of what we now call art. As in his chapter on writing, Noë might be focusing too much on what is high art and not on the prehistoric material culture that gave rise to what we not call art. I’d not even raise this point were it not for a chapter that has the word evolution in it and a book that has as part of its subtitle human nature. Noë says art (on the same page he references paintings) is “revelation, transformation, reorganization...” (64). Few would argue with this assertion, but from an evolutionary standpoint – variation, competition, and inheritance – it took a long time in human history to arrive at paintings.

Noë spends lots of time on Western art of the past five hundred years or so. Where is the discussion of ochre (used at least 300,000 years ago) and body painting, bead making and sharing (even among Neanderthals), or even stone tools (which get scant treatment) from over one million years ago? Although we are, in the words of Terrence Deacon, a symbolic species, artistic traits didn’t just suddenly appear. One could say that art behaviors are a byproduct of cognition (as Davies and others, like Pinker, suggest). Okay, but does that then mean that all aspects of, say, intelligence are byproducts? We did not just evolve one capacity called Intelligence but many traits we lump under intelligence, including reason, comprehension, understanding, and judgment. This is where evolutionary psychologists such as Leda Cosmides and John Tooby have been instructive. It’s not fitness that survives: adaptive traits and characteristics that contribute to survival and reproduction, no matter how small but which get passed on, survive. At any rate, I am happy to see that Noë does consider and discuss the work of Richard Prum and how the taste for color and sound can evolve with the evolution of the colors and sounds themselves.

Nevertheless, don’t misread what I say. Chapter five on art and evolution is useful in that it helps evolutionists think harder about adaptive claims in relation to the arts. I think there’s room at the table for all of these disciplines (from philosophy to neuroscience) to contribute to our understanding of the arts and humanities. While Noë is correct, now, to say that art is not just about arousing feelings, that might not have been true early on when it was not yet art and it might have been a signal (affection), then a sign (family), then a symbol (group). Prum is not the only biologist to discuss gene/culture co-evolution in this regard. As one instance, I see no mention of the work by the team of Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd.

Noë’s book is immensely valuable, has had a tremendous impact on me, and has actually brought me back to some of my philosophical roots. I just think that if you are going to raise an objection, you should cover it more thoroughly. Noë does, however, cover neuroscience and art more completely, though here too he is a bit hard on pioneers in the area, like Semir Zeki. While one might disagree with his quibbles about art and evolution (with such thin coverage), it’s hard to disagree with what he concludes about art and neuroscience. For example, what Noë says about context is vital: we need art history to understand art; the arts have meaning and significance only in a cultural perspective. Importantly, Noë admits that culture can change the genome and that culture might have organized parts of the brain (60). Culture and biology are connected. Of course there is a whole theory about the evolution of culture, especially in its so-called particulate elements, but I see no mention of that, either (authors such as social psychologist Roy Baumeister, evolutionary psychologist Alex Mesoudi, and biologist Mark Pagel).

So where does this leave us. Noë is not a reductive materialist. Like David Chalmers he believes that science will not and cannot answer everything. Science has its limits (though most scientists I know might agree with this evaluation). Art cannot be reduced to natural sensibilities, since what we label as aesthetic sense covers a wide spectrum. As Noë says: “Art investigates the aesthetic” (71), which in turn makes art philosophical. At this point, Noë begins a launch against neuroscientific approaches to understanding art, and this part of the discussion helps illuminate much of what has come before. Visual perception (even consciousness) is not, according to Noë, reducible to brain activity. Nonetheless, even cognitive mechanisms are most likely adaptive, and I don’t see any recognition of that here. At any rate, Noë is on point to assert that an aesthetic experience occurs not just in our brain but outside of it – in a social environment. You can see why I now include Tone Roald and Alva Noë together – there is some curious overlap. As Noë so nicely puts it, recalling Ludwig Wittgenstein’s dictum that we are not minds trapped in bodies, art offers the “opportunity to catch ourselves in the act of encountering the world...” (80).

Many neuroscientists, according to Noë, claim that the brain in us is what thinks. (An obvious exception would include Francisco Varela.) But the value of Noë’s book is in reminding us that while the brain indeed performs work, it is the whole person, her history and circumstances, who thinks and feels in relation to artworks. Art does not simply exist to elicit a response; art arouses in us complex thought processes and the ability for us to put our consciousness in the artwork and outside of it. Importantly, though, Noë remarks that our visual perception of the world and art involves the effort of our intelligence in a historically cultural context. Rather than treating the perception of art as a bodily function, we need to consider an aesthetic experience as a means to study the people, places, and events of the world. Perhaps summing up Noë’s thinking is John Dewey, who says “Artists don’t make things. They make experiences” (205).

The value in these books by Tone Roald and Alva Noë is great. While it might sound cliché, I found Roald’s book interesting and Noë’s book challenging. Roald proposes a new method of evaluating art experience by employing the reception theory of Jauss; Noë unnerves us to reconsider how art is a resource for new ways of thinking about and organizing our lives. Even if you know quite a bit about art behavior and aesthetics, these authors will ask for a reconsideration of the priority of your ideas. That is, both authors emphasize less the work of art and emphasize more the outcome of viewing art, the broader parameters of the art experience. The subject of the aesthetic experience (or of art itself) is not narrowly defined by historical subjects; the aesthetic experience is akin to the practice of philosophy and its method of trying to know, of questioning knowledge itself.


 - Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D. Editor ASEBL and author of Art and Adaptation.

Copyright©2016 Gregory F. Tague – All Rights Reserved

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Dangerous Liaisons - Review

Dangerous Persuasions

I’m not sure a correspondence with you is something a woman of honour could permit herself.  —Madame de Tourvel, to Vicomte de Valmont

Formidable! Is “Dangerous Liaisons” (1988) the best costume drama ever? Yes or no, it presents an amazing fictional demonstration—almost a primer or casebook study—of what cognitive scientists and primatologists call “Machiavellian Intelligence.” In brief, that is the idea that success for smart social animals such as rhesus macaque monkeys or Homo sapiens depends on sophisticated abilities to make long-term plans, to surmise the motives of others, and hence to favorably influence the behavior of both friends and foes.[1] It is closely related to “Theory of Mind,” an understanding of the internal drives, fears, and desires of one’s conspecifics. DL features most of the clashing elements that make communal life inherently a soap opera. What causes it to stand out are the meticulous care its creators put into making the main characters brilliant and then setting them in conflict, the luxurious wardrobes and locations, and finally the performances of the actors, with John Malkovich as le Vicomte de Valmont stealing the show.[2]

DL is based on the epistolary novel Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782) by Choderlos de Laclos.[3] It takes place in France during the last years of King Louis XVI’s reign, just before the French Revolution (begun in 1789). The screenplay by Christopher Hampton, which won an Academy Award, derives from his contemporary dramatic version. It was directed by the talented Stephen Frears, and it was filmed in and around magnificent French estates, such as the Château Maisons-Lafitte. James Acheson served as Costume Designer, and his haute couture deserves a shout-out. The dressing of the two principals Valmont and la Marquise de Merteuil at the beginning, shown via cross-cutting as they’re enveloped in their accouterments and finery by squadrons of attendants, intentionally parallels soldiers arming for battle:
A bizarre paper cone with gauze-covered eyeholes conceals Valmont’s face as the perruquier blows powder at his wig. As the powder drifts away, Valmont slowly lowers the cone and we see for the first time his intelligent and malicious features. Another angle shows the complete magnificent ensemble; or not quite complete, for Azolan now reaches his arms round Valmont’s waist to strap on his sword. (2s.d.)

Valmont is a suave, cunning rake: “he is conspicuously charming, [and] never opens his mouth without first calculating what damage he can do” (4). There’s something feline about the way he moves, which is quite ‘intriguing’ and as interesting as his affected, outwardly nonchalant line readings. The three leading ladies (with the actresses’ ages at the time of the film’s release in parentheses) are Glenn Close as la Marquise de Merteuil (41), Michelle Pfeiffer as Madame de Tourvel (30), and Uma Thurman as Cécile de Volanges (18; her character “is a demure fifteen-year-old blonde”). Besides being skilled thespians and very beautiful, another factor in their casting must have been that they all have ivory skin, pale blue eyes, and golden locks. And though each has at least one passionate meltdown moment, there’s an ‘ice queen’ quality they all share.

DL’s idle, refined, ultra-privileged characters spend their considerable time, energy, brainpower, and other resources plotting amongst themselves. Some of their favorite pastimes include, of course, arranging, setting up, and foiling intrigues, seductions, and other assorted erotic liaisons. In conjunction with these (dis)honorable pursuits, they engage wholeheartedly in manipulation, blackmail, and revenge; they write, receive, and intercept billets-doux; and they spread rumors and guard their reputations. In Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, primatologist Robin Dunbar contends that gossip is fundamental to the genesis of human speech and moreover integral to society.[4] Anyone who remembers the savage jungle of high school will recall that it functions as a two-edged sword. On one side, it enforces collective judgment and acts as a conservative impediment to misbehavior. Ignoring propriety gets one talked about; thus, fear of infamy compels individuals to maintain the public norms of their peer group. But conversely it can operate as a Machiavellian tool useful for character assassination, subtle self-promotion, and the accrual of social capital. In general, and not unlike chimpanzees, the protagonists are engaged in an all-out fight for power and sexual access—the ability to control weaker parties and to get away with whatever they want. Yet all of the dramatis personae retain their subtlety and humanity, something rare among even quality Merchant-Ivory productions or the sharpest, glossiest American teen shows.[5] They’re “round,” not just cleverly deployed chess pieces, and each has gaps in their understanding of social codes and others’ motives, as well as limits to their own self-awareness.[6]

The gist of the story revolves around the seigneurial Valmont’s relationships with de Tourvel and Cécile; these affairs are of the utmost concern to la Marquise, and they strongly affect her attitude, feelings, and conduct towards him. The braininess, particularly of la Marquise de Merteuil and Valmont (who are ex-lovers and allies or antagonists depending on the circumstances of the moment), shine through during their repartee, which is razor-sharp (an overdetermined ironic adjective here, given how war-like be the battle of the sexes, and the duel that climaxes the action) as well as through their ability to delay gratification in pursuit of victory. La Marquise reveals how she managed to invent herself in a de facto policy speech to Valmont:
I had no choice, did I? I’m a woman. Women are obliged to be far more skillful than men. You can ruin our reputation and our life with a few well-chosen words. So of course I had to invent: not only myself but ways of escape no one has ever thought of. And I’ve succeeded, because I’ve always known I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own. … In the end, I distilled everything [I learned] down to one wonderfully simple principle: win or die. … When I want a man, I have him; when he wants to tell, he finds he can’t. That’s the whole story. (25-26)

It seems she has indeed distilled the wisdom of Machiavelli, Ovid, Freud, and all the other grandmasters of human foibles.

There is nothing new under the sun, and DL has its roots in other writings produced in the salons of Paris by las précieuses, and the coffeehouses of London by gallant wits, during (roughly) the Long Eighteenth Century. Two of its closer theatrical cousins, William Congreve’s scintillating Restoration play The Way of the World (1700), and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895-99) both, I think, have dialogue a bit more sparkly, but they are romantic comedies.[7] The perfect catfight scene between Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew in Wilde is so great because it is so deadpan hilarious, and likewise the pointed clever stichomythia in both is, ostentatiously, a labor of the playwright’s sprezzatura and artifice. In contrast, the tragic (or at least deadly) dénouement and nasty, cutting overall tone of DL seems to render it more “real”—though obviously very few people have actually lived like decadent French aristos during the Ancien Régime.

To return to themes of a cognitive nature, the understanding of “headology” is simply extraordinary, extending to internal ambivalence (“the battle between Love and Virtue,” to quote just one of the script’s Ovidian tropes), jealousy, meanness, and painful lessons. The phrase “It was beyond my control,” to take a key example, which could be trite, here contains a whole world of connaissances (knowledges), probably enough to merit its own essai in ultra-close reading. The depiction of oh so polite, oh so nasty competitiveness, particularly the female rivalry, is, again, pitch-black-perfect. For example, the piqued Merteuil has this to say about de Tourvel: “I see she writes as badly as she dresses” (63). The leads’ “Theory of Mind” is hyper-sensitive, but no one is omniscient nor omnipotent; even the central pair make mistakes, errors in judgment, and have plans go awry. To take one signal case, Valmont inadvertently falls in love with Madame de Tourvel, precipitating unhappy outcomes for several parties.

In an earlier brief, emblematic episode, Valmont knows that he is being spied on because he’s directed his servant Azolan to conduct an affair with Madame de Tourvel’s chambermaid Julie. Thus alerted, he allows himself to be surreptitiously observed extending much-needed financial assistance to a decent but down-on-his-luck peasant near his aunt’s estate who’s in arrears over taxes.[8] He does this as part of his plot to seduce de Tourvel, who is known for (and who prides herself on being known for) her uncommon virtue and purity. She is also pulchritudinous, but Valmont’s ostensible motive is to earn renown for his Casanovan supremacy by winning her in spite of her principled resistance. He’s become a bit bored; he needs a major challenge.
Valmont: To seduce a woman famous for strict morals, religious fervour and the happiness of her marriage: what could possibly be more prestigious? … You see, I have no intention of breaking down her prejudices. I want her to believe in God and virtue and the sanctity of marriage and still not be able to stop herself. I want the excitement of watching her betray everything that’s most important to her. Surely you understand that. I thought betrayal was your favourite word.
Merteuil: No, no, cruelty: I always think that has a nobler ring to it. (7-8)

The manufactured act of charity succeeds as planned, earning Valmont favor in her eyes. In this chapter we have so much: the keen monitoring of others and their opinions, the attempts at deceit, the importance of reputation, the uses/abuses of kindness, the sheer “acting” involved (e.g. when Valmont pretends to be modestly discomfited and embarrassed when found out in de Tourvel’s presence). The segment ends when Valmont, in an aside, compliments his assistant Azolan for selecting an appropriate clan—a finely detailed, cynical twist of the knife: “I must say the family was very well chosen. Solidly respectable, gratifyingly tearful, no suspiciously pretty girls” (15).

A skeptic might suggest that the extreme mannerism and noticeable sterility permeating DL invalidates reading it in terms of evolutionary psychology. It is true that their society is flagrantly unproductive economically and biologically. Monsieur de Tourvel, who works in law, is never present, and the only pregnancy, accidental and illegitimate, ends in a miscarriage. Also, the one marriage arranged is not a love match (Cécile hasn’t even met her older husband-to-be, again, never seen), and the action centers around her illicit premarital sex life, which la Marquise arranges to settle a personal grudge by pre-cuckolding the fiancé: “His priority, you see, is a guaranteed virtue. … he’d get back from honeymoon to find himself the laughing-stock of Paris” (6-7). I would, nonetheless, suggest two items: first, the environment, free from mundane concerns, has unchained the characters to explore and indulge basic human instincts which are usually not so forefronted or played with quite so much ruthlessness. Paradoxically, the artifice permits the rawness. Second, the story can’t help but function as an implicit critique of their fundamentally unnatural, overly extravagant misbehavior. Audiences, I’d posit, impose such morals, regardless of intentions. Thus, the depravity and barrenness of their world do signal its degeneration; and of course, during the impending Revolution, emphatically signaling the end of Enlightenment in history, numerous nobles were fated to meet their end courtesy of the guillotine.

I’ve tried to suggest some of what makes DL such an ab-fab success. To reiterate, there’s an intrinsic pleasure in watching a superb storyteller present such nasty behavior, especially when it’s played with such élan and ferocity. This factor permits ready elucidation. There seems to be more going on, however, a quality that strains my critical vocabulary to impart. It’s an element entwined with the story itself, a simultaneous meta-criticism happening as we see things through the eyes of such savvy social players. To this reader, Beowulf, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and even The Simpsons (created by Matt Groening) share this feature—in part due to their ironic narrators (played by the camera in DL), plus an implication that we’re privileged viewers of life lessons of the utmost import.[9] None of these texts, of course, should be reduced to didactic little morality plays, though, again, their involving conflicts (including the internal fights) play a part in their aesthetic achievement. To borrow a term from the great anthropologist Clifford Geertz, DL adds up to almost being a kind of “thick description,” a (fictional) ethnographical portrait of an Ancien Régime that was wicked fun while it lasted.[10]


Notes


[1] See Frans de Waal, Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes, rev. ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998); Richard Byrne and Andrew Whiten, eds., Machiavellian Intelligence: Social Expertise and the Evolution of Intellect in Monkeys, Apes, and Humans (Oxford: Clarendon, 1988); and Dario Maestripieri, Macachiavellian Intelligence: How Rhesus Macaques and Humans Have Conquered the World (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
[2] Christopher Hampton, Dangerous Liaisons: The Film (London and Boston: Faber & Faber, 1989). Quotations will be referenced parenthetically to page numbers in this screenplay.
[3] Other versions of the novel have been filmed. Cf. “Cruel Intentions” (1999), which sets DL’s plot among upper-crust prepsters: this viewer found it tepid and disappointing after a promising opening. N.b. Swoosie Kurtz, who played Cécile’s mother in DL, has a clever intertextual cameo in CI.
[4] Robin Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997). On “Sins of the Tongue,” see also M. Gluckman, “Gossip and Scandal,” Current Anthropology 4 (1963): 307-16; F. G. Bailey, Gifts and Poison: The Politics of Reputation (Oxford: Blackwell, 1971); Ralph Rosnow and Gary Fine, Rumor and Gossip: The Social Psychology of Hearsay (New York: Elsevier, 1976); Patricia Meyer Spacks, Gossip (New York: Knopf, 1985); Robert Goodman and Aaron Ben-Ze’ev, eds., Good Gossip (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994); and Jerome Barkow, “Beneath New Culture Is Old Psychology: Gossip and Social Stratification,” in The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, eds. Jerome Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 627-37.
[5] The unbelievable precociousness of these femmes fatale in training can be highly entertaining—witness the following recent teen black comedies: Mean Girls, Pretty Persuasion, Heathers, Election, Superbad, Wild Things, Clueless, Easy A, Brick, Assassination of a High School President, or St. Trinian’s, and their television derivatives: Gossip Girls, Pretty Little Liars, et al.
[6] N.b. I found a very brief note (about one paragraph) on gender and deception in DL from an evolutionary psychology p.o.v. by Prof. William Tooke on his blog (dated Aug. 12, 2009): www.darwingoestothemovies.blogspot.
[7] Valmont uses the expression “It’s the way of the world” (66); it is impossible to determine if an allusion to Congreve is intended. For that matter, the sincerity or sarcasm is difficult to judge when Mertuil states that Cécile’s income of “sixty thousand a year” plays no part in Bastide’s calculations—“None whatso-ever”—in his wishing to marry her (6).
[8] Besides this brief episode (“These days, my lord, you can find half a dozen [ruined families] like that, any village in the country,” 15), there is little in the way of socioeconomic criticism. It is perhaps noteworthy that Madame de Tourvel’s husband is away practicing law, indicating their bourgeoisie status, and the unobtrusive presence of myriad attendants is an obvious class marker. The historical irony of an idle elite on the verge of destruction from the masses below, is, from a modern vantage point, clear enough.
[9] I’m imagining specifically something like Beowulf in its original setting, performed by a bard for a receptive, illiterate band of Anglo-Saxon warriors, rather than later, literary editions/contexts far removed from the heroic pagan world of the comitatus.
[10] Honorable mention: period/costume dramas that capture the glamorous, refined atmosphere, crumbling mansions, restrictive social codes and all:
Shakespeare in Love
The Name of the Rose
The House of Mirth
La Princesse de Montpensier
Vanity Fair
Lady Jane
Dangerous Beauty
I, The Worst of All (Yo, la mas peor)
The Tudors [multi-episode cable tv series]
Elizabeth I: The Virgin Queen? (with Anne-Marie Duff?)
Sense and Sensibility (?)

Michael A. Winkelman studied Chemistry at Kalamazoo College and received a Ph.D. in Renaissance English Literature from the Claremont Graduate University. He is the author of Marriage Relationships in Tudor Political Drama (2005) and A Cognitive Approach to John Donne’s Songs and Sonnets (2013). He has also written reviews and essays from a New Humanist perspective. He teaches at Owens Tech in Ohio.

Copyright©2015 by Michael A. Winkelman – All Rights Reserved

Saturday, December 19, 2015

A case for the right hemisphere

Recently, my daughter (who is an artist) came home and started talking about how we have two brains, right and left. Other than the difference between our limbic system (the so-called mammalian brain) and our cortex, I had not thought much about the bilateral brain. Carole Brooks Platt has proved me wrong.

Platt’s In Their Right Minds: The Lives and Shared Practices of Poetic Geniuses (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2015) is a cogent and lucid argument for the origin of creativity in the brain. Platt is multi-knowledgeable across various disciplines, including the literary arts, neuroscience and consciousness studies, and psychology. The book offers a fascinating account about how the brain works in terms of inspiration: for some the fine line between transcendence, dreams, and wakefulness, the blurring between oneself and a literary creation. The book is packed with scientific details and biographical information (in a parallel form) about William Blake, John Keats, Victor Hugo, Rainer Maria Rilke, W.B Yeats, James Merrill, David Jackson, Sylvia Plath, and Ted Hughes. Looking to prehistory, Platt notes that we became fully human when our emotional side developed as much as our rational, and with these poets the emotional goes far beyond anything typical.

Of course it’s more complicated than saying the left hemisphere equals language, math, and logic while the right hemisphere equals spatial ability, facial recognition, and visual/musical imagery. So Platt gets down to the individual level, how childhood trauma, mood disorders, and dissociative thoughts act as a springboard for right-hemispheric dominance in some people. The right hemisphere, borrowing from Arthur Koestler (according to Platt), puts thinking aside. So while the left hemisphere produces syntactical speech, the right hemisphere deals with subtleties. Referring to neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, Platt notes that the right hemisphere (contextual perception) sees reality while the left hemisphere (textual detail) interprets reality. Nevertheless, in order to completely understand anything, the right hemisphere is ultimately important.

In terms of these writers dealing with dissociation, Platt covers reincarnation, séances, automatic writing, the Ouija board, telepathy and other paranormal events. Normally I’d be skeptical about all of this, but Platt has convinced me that in line with highly sensitive and creative right-hemispheric individuals these were truly crucial exercises as part of the process in their imaginative output. That is, the metaphorical-driven right hemisphere takes control for those who, because of early trauma (like the loss of a parent), are seeking emotional balance.

I’m not exaggerating by saying this is one of the most remarkable books I’ve recently read. There is a surprising blend of interest in poetic creativity and neuroscience, invaluable for anyone engaged in the making or interpretation of the literary arts. D.H. Lawrence once said something about how Cézanne did not just paint apples but went behind the apples to show us what was there. Platt does not just chronicle the visions of poets and their inspiration but goes behind the scenes of their brains – she shows us how the mind of poetic genius works. While Platt focuses on the writers mentioned above, she is also well versed in many others. The book is a goldmine for the interdisciplinary synthesis of scientific and literary matter related to the brain as a creative mechanism.

- Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D., author of Making Mind: Moral Sense and Consciousness

Copyright©2015 by Gregory F. Tague

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Neuroscience, art and the aesthetic experience

On Thursday, 10 December 2015 I attended a debate between G. Gabrielle Starr and Alva Noë who addressed the question, Can neuroscience help us understand art? The debate was sponsored by the New York University Center for Mind, Brain and Consciousness and held at the Casa Italiana to a packed, attentive audience. Directors of the Center, Ned Block and David Chalmers, posed other questions: Can understanding the brain reshape our conceptions of the arts? Is there a viable field of neuroaesthetics?

In attendance were my wife and our daughter, who is an artist. The lively and sometimes humorous debate was more like a conversation that, in spite of similarities between the perspectives of Starr and Noë, pointed to some sharp differences in their approaches to defining and understanding the aesthetic experience. Based on the amount of audience participation after the debate, those in attendance had strong reactions (both positive and negative) to both sides of the presentation.

What follows are notes I took during the talks; any errors in how I might represent the speakers’ positions are entirely my own. For more clarity and depth, I’d recommend reading, by Starr, Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience; by Noë, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature.

G. Gabrielle Starr, Seryl Kushner Dean of the College of Arts and Science at NYU and Professor of English, was the first to speak. On its most basic level in response to the debate question, her claim is that neuroscience can indeed help us engage with the arts. (In fact, Starr might use the word arts broadly, since some of her recent work deals with the neuroscience of aesthetic response to poetics and music.) Starr says her approach is probabilistic and therefore not necessarily focusing on one work of art or an individual. She gives us, instead, the story of art about individuals and cultures. What neuroscience can tell us about art deals with perception, emotion, and imagery. Especially with imagery, neurons associated with movement are activated, and Starr quoted William Empson who rightly says that poetry is a kinetic art.

Important for a neuroscientist would be delineating what neurons can tell us about art and an aesthetic experience versus an everyday experience. In art, we value what is unpredictable, Starr says. The aesthetic response is beyond preference or pleasure, a complex experience, and “often mixed in valence.” So what neuroscience tries to do is answer the question about whether or not there is something in common about experiences of art or what might unify aesthetic experience. Starr emphasizes that her work it is less about “special qualities” in art and more about “approaches.” So in lab/research work she does with a team subjects are asked not only what is liked but how much agreement there is about any object or perception. For example, most people will agree (in descending order) about facial expressions, followed by natural scenes, abstract images, paintings, and finally haiku. The conclusion is that “all visual beauty doesn’t get the same treatment” in the brain. Visual systems in the brain prioritize consistently, but higher order processes differentiate later.

Emotions play a part in the perceptual experience, but there is a difference between perception and feeling, where we can separate representation from feeling. Both routine and aesthetic emotions overlap in neural reference space. Concerning individual differences, there is much disagreement among aesthetic responders and, moreover, the agreement on art might be more about “the status of the liking” and less about the object itself. Starr spent some time talking about the brain’s default mode network, a resting state with few distractions or the focus on a task where the undertaking need not be specific, such as engagement with the arts. Similarly, the default mode network is implicated in theory of mind, self-reflection, and spontaneous cognition.

For Starr, an aesthetic experience is not necessarily first order and there is no single profile (a position shared with Noë). Neuroscience gives us information about the aesthetic experience so that we can move forward. Contrary to what some might suggest, the work of art does not disappear in any neuroscientific study – the participant does indeed experience the art. There is no natural space to appreciate art – that space can shift. Even with representations of art in books, we can still appreciate the images and have some type of aesthetic experience.  

Alva Noë is Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. Noë opened with a joke about how people mispronounce his name as “No” and how he does not like to be on the no-side of any debate, including this one. In other words, he does not epitomize “no” to the investigations of neuroscience in aesthetic experience, but more emphatically he is on the yes side of art.

Noë began with a selection from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (“I hear the trained soprano”). He used this poem, with a nice reading of it, to demonstrate how his focus is less about the neuroscientific explanation of art (the nuts-and-bolts of what happens where in the brain) and more about the complex experience of art. In this particular poem, for example, Whitman’s art is engaged with music so that art is engaged with other art. We need ideas, information, values, and beliefs to experience art. As another instance, Noë showed a slide of a Rodin sculpture. He followed this quickly with a slide of a Brâncuşi sculpture. Early in his career, Brâncuşi worked with Rodin, so the point is that art is in dialogue with art. It just so happens that these two sculptures were in close proximity in a Texas museum Noë visited. Noë admits that art has roots in our biology, but “not exclusively and not exhaustively.” Rather, there is a “cultural space” of practice and appreciation.

The reading and the sculptures brought Noë to philosophy and the puzzle of our being. Art or aesthetic experience is not just a stimulus to a response but affords us a wide array of experiences. The aesthetic experience is not fixed data points (as Starr agrees). Instead, an aesthetic experience is changeable and can wane, as part of the dialogue influenced by cultural experiences and biases. We can engage in a “dispute” about our disagreements, but the aesthetic experience has “no clear temporal boundaries.” Noë says that in the aesthetic experience there is no first order response; the aesthetic experience is consequent to the art (reflective) and more like an activity or process dependent on species and individual neural differences. At this point, Noë tried to make an analogy between the engagement of art and having a good meal, dependent more on reflection than on ingredients. (In the group discussion, this analogy, however, was questioned.)

Like philosophy, Noë says that “art unveils us to ourselves.” He is critical of any strategy to look for aesthetic experience in neural correlates. That is, he positions (akin to Starr) thought, intelligence, and understanding over perception (as in Semir Zeki). What is distinctive about art lies less in the object and more in the experience, says Noë. While neuroscience seems to hover over the trigger responses, art represents states like sympathy and empathy. In other words, the emphasis should not be on the trigger response but what we make of art and the aesthetic experience – how it helps us understand ourselves.

As an example, Noë recounted his experience of fully engaging with Andy Warhol’s soup cans in a museum – being confronted with true art – where others simply took selfies of themselves with the art as background. Noë was emphatic that there was a huge difference between standing with the art and years of having seen those same images represented in books. In this setting, says Noë , “works of art are problematic for viewers” since they do not know what to expect. He is therefore critical of neuroscience as “idealistic” in how it suggests that the world is made in one’s brain. Noë insists that we are looking for art in the wrong place. Art is not necessarily the object; it has more to do with the character of the experience (not really addressed by neuroscience). One does not “get it” just by looking.

All in all, there was an abundance of ideas and reactions, almost too much for me to have recorded in these few notes. Someone was filming the event, but I am not sure where (if at all) that tape might appear. The website for the NYU Center for Mind, Brain and Consciousness is Here – and I do see video links for some past events.


-- Gregory F. Tague, Professor of English at St. Francis College and editor of ASEBL. [Information about my book, Art and Adaptation (noted among books in brief in the December 2015 Art in America) can be found Here, available from Amazon.]

Copyright©2015 by Gregory F. Tague