Look Me in the Eye

Julian Bell

  • Splendours and Miseries of the Brain: Love, Creativity and the Quest for Human Happiness by Semir Zeki
    Wiley-Blackwell, 234 pp, £16.99, November 2008, ISBN 978 1 4051 8557 8
  • Neuroarthistory: From Aristotle and Pliny to Baxandall and Zeki by John Onians
    Yale, 225 pp, £18.99, February 2008, ISBN 978 0 300 12677 8
  • Echo Objects: The Cognitive Work of Images by Barbara Maria Stafford
    Chicago, 281 pp, £20.50, November 2008, ISBN 978 0 226 77052 9

‘We’re confident it’s real’: Arthur Aron is a psychologist who has discovered that blood-flows in the brains of people claiming to be in love after decades of marriage resemble those of new lovers. Romance may authentically survive: ‘That’s what the brain scans are telling us. People can’t fake that.’ ‘Brain-Scan Lie Detectors Coming in Near Future,’ runs a news story, cued by a San Diego company press release. Will they become part of legal routine, or will they flicker and fade, like the neural theology predicted ten years back? ‘Brain scan of nuns finds no single “God spot” in the brain,’ we have since been told. Some 17 years after its initial demonstration, fMRI – the ‘functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging’ technique for examining what is happening in the brain – has gained a lodgment in talk beyond the lab. Alluringly, it treats us to pictures. Carefully settle your head inside the tunnel of that $3 million machine, fix your attention on God or your spouse or your witness statement, and an activated magnetic field will be minutely deflected here and there, as blood moves towards areas where brain cells have been active: patterns that get translated into ever finer-grained screen displays. These supposed maps of thought have lent colour to such projects of the last decade as ‘neuroethics’ and ‘neuromarketing’. (The latter took off five years ago, with a study comparing the way Pepsi and Coca-Cola affected the brain’s ‘reward centres’.) Traffic-light colour, most often: in the standard graphics, reds or greens are seen to inflame sundry patches of an isolated, ruckled grey mass with a slippery sheen.

Rather faintly, that image overlaps with the memory of the crisp yet succulent cervella di vitello I used to dine on in Italian restaurants; not at all with the flavour of my daily thoughts as I paint or talk about art. The smart dismissal of fMRI ‘mind-reading’ that I hear from many other sceptical arts types is that this is the new phrenology, certain to join all that head-bump-fondling of the early 19th century in the limbo of loopily literal attempts at out-and-out materialism. Yet there are reasons to think that with their images of what happens inside our brains when we look at pictures, neurologists using fMRI – notably, Semir Zeki – have pointed art studies in a significant new direction. John Onians and Barbara Maria Stafford, both art historians, certainly think so, though Neuroarthistory and Echo Objects argue the case in quite different ways.

What might the far view be, from this new bend in the road? Suppose we could arrive at adequate physical descriptions of all the main stages linking the reception of light by the retina to the passage of electrical impulses through the optic nerve and up to the cortex or upper layer of the brain with its 11 billion neurons, then out to the nerves that govern the operations of an artist’s hand. Suppose we could in this manner bypass the smokescreens of ‘genius’ and ‘inspiration’ put up by artists; further, that we could make good the proposition Zeki floats, that our experiences of ‘art, love and beauty . . . can be correlated directly with activity in specialised areas of the brain.’ Building on a biology of culture of this kind, we might finally be able to subsume both art history and natural history within a ‘big history’ such as those outlined by the American writers David Christian and Cynthia Stokes Brown – or, in the terminology of Edward O. Wilson, in a ‘consilience’, a convergence of intellectual disciplines, humanities with science.

Ultimately, all teaching in the fine arts department pays a kind of homage to self-will. First defined in the 15th century by Leonardo Bruni as studies meant to ‘perfect and adorn a human being’, the humanities to this day sing their ability to turn out individuals capable of independent critical thought. At the same time, in order to arm these free minds they have frequently, and paradoxically, relied on critical methods that pick subjectivity apart, demolishing claims to autonomous individuality. This was less evident while fine art studies were expanding in the Anglophone world during the postwar period. Connoisseurship and scholarship were still self-evident vessels of authority. It was as a scholar negotiating between two other honoured bearers of cultural value, the artist and the scientist, that Ernst Gombrich explored the question of how pictures relate to reality in 1960 in Art and Illusion, and a similar equipoise was subsequently maintained in the writings of Michael Baxandall. But how long can you keep a department running by reference to a certain tone of voice? A greater security for its onward operation, a sounder status in academic bargaining, seemed promised by the panoramic critiques of authorship that were sweeping through other parts of the academy. From the 1970s social-historical, and then from the 1980s poststructuralist approaches moved in on the art department.

These were methodologies which served the staff well: smart ways to assert authority by deconstructing the category. Poststructuralism has been in retreat ever since the mid-1990s, when various practitioners’ attempts to question the autonomy of science led various scientists to counter-attack, ridiculing its presumption that all qualities of the mind stem from socially produced fabrics of meaning. The subsequent trend in the humanities to pin down those qualities instead to patches of a ruckled grey blob indicates who had the better of the argument. But the underlying agenda remains the same: art studies need to reach to outside sources for intellectual validation in order to bolster their own authority. The character of the turn can be seen in the introduction to Neuroarthistory, John Onians’s combative retracing of the intellectual itineraries that have led to the present. Onians hails the recent conversion to his own pro-scientific outlook of Norman Bryson, the art historian who in the 1980s launched the poststructuralist makeover of Anglophone art studies with Vision and Painting, a high-powered assault on Gombrich and his belief that pictures relate to ‘reality’. By 2001, Bryson was putting behind him the semiotic arguments he had deployed in that attack, deeming them ‘essentially clerical’, and turning excitedly towards neuropsychology.

What occupied him was the remarkable account of vision provided by researchers such as Zeki. We’re all familiar with opticians’ diagrams that show a window-lens giving onto a rounded hollow lined with a light-sensitive retina. They match the comfortable notion, inherited from Descartes, that there’s a world without and a wholly different, non-material mind within: they let us assume that the eye is the mind’s passive receptacle for all the stuff pouring in from outside. Neuropsychologists term all this the ‘bucket theory of vision’ – with derisive intent, needless to say. The retina, they explain, is just one staging post for information that travels along the optic nerve to the rear of the head, where it gets fed to a multiplicity of visual centres around the cortex. Certain clusters of neurons fire (in other words, transmit information in the form of electrical discharges) in response to colours. Other groups register edges – more specifically, the orientation of edges. One group may be sensitive to vertical lines; another to horizontals; others to diagonals inclined this way or that. These registrations of edge collectively attend to the shapes of objects. Yet further sections of the cortex apprehend whatever movements those objects might make.

Thus the flowing patterns of light sensed by the retina are treated in such a way as to separate out aspects of movement, shape and colour that need to be actively reco-ordinated if we are to experience a comprehensible world of objects. How exactly that conversion of information into vivid meaning takes place is the question that Zeki and his colleagues continue to pursue. For the time being, we need to realise that the stuff beyond the eye doesn’t come to us straight in a bucket, but requires an entire city water company to reach our taps, an enterprise employing tanks and pipes and purification plants. One particularly fascinating discovery is that the various groups of neurons involved in this operation fire with varying rates of delay. As Zeki notes, ‘Colour is perceived before motion by about 80-100 milliseconds. In one sense this is a trivial difference, since there are 1000 milliseconds in a second. But in terms of neural time it is a huge difference’ – a difference demonstrating, he says, that ‘there is a temporal hierarchy, and therefore a perceptual asynchrony, in visual perception’; further, that ‘there is no such thing as a “unitary” visual consciousness.’

Bryson, a foe to all that’s fixed and unitary, is captivated. This new account of vision, in his opinion, surpasses the earlier formulae of Continental philosophy as a solvent for the notion of ‘reality’:

The effect of there being an entity or object is not . . . the result of a real thing imprinting itself on the senses . . . Rather, the thingness of the thing is a matter of timing . . . The apple [i.e. the standard object] appears seamless, yet the reduction carried out by neuroscience – which in this respect seems far more radical, counterintuitive and disquieting than the classic phenomenological reduction – unravels that seamlessness, unbinding the security of a prior object world into the groundlessness of neurons firing in sequence.

Well – not exactly, one might interject. Our cranial water company may engage in massive recycling, and maybe its hot taps run slower than its cold, but at root the whole enterprise still relies on rainfall: what else would it be shaped around, if not input from beyond itself? But the strategy that underpins Bryson’s visionary irrealism – a stance taken up rather less elegantly by many other contenders in neuroaesthetics – is flagged up by the terms ‘radical, counterintuitive and disquieting’. Finding a fresh way to fill those three tick-boxes, he is carrying forward the arcane academic power-language of anti-subjectivism into an era of deference to science.

The professor welcoming Bryson to the neuro-fold came there from quite another direction. Onians, who originally studied under Gombrich, says he felt academically ‘lonely’ and ‘insecure’ when, in the early 1990s, he began attempting to tie art history to biology. His Neuroarthistory proclaims that nowadays he has come to realise he is in very good company indeed: for the line of theorists who have explored how eyes, brains and artworks might relate stretches back to Aristotle, taking in Leonardo, Kant and Freud. The book is a chronological survey of 25 such thinkers. Or in fact more than that, a neurological survey: Onians, a would-be physician to the physicians, sets out to examine the brain workings of these brain-explorers. As an intellectual historian he is brisk, incisive and highly inquisitive; besides the canonical figures, we get introduced to the seldom aired ideas of Apollonius of Tyana (first century ce) and of Adolf Göller (1846-1902). Onians is also, for better or worse, irrepressibly inventive, knocking up homespun explanations at every turn. Here he is on the great optical scientist Alhazen (or al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham, 965-1040):

Many of al-Haytham’s most sophisticated reflections on vision relate to the problem of seeing forms in a confused environment and his particular interest in the phenomenon of the mirage suggests that his analytical skills are the product of his exposure to a distinctive set of surroundings . . . As he travelled [around the Arabic-speaking world] from one city to another, he was liable to pass through the desert . . . an environment notorious for its visual and mental deceptiveness . . . Al-Haytham’s neural habituation to that particular environment may be the ultimate source of some of his most critical contributions to perceptual psychology. [My italics.]

‘May be’, indeed. Three pages earlier Onians has told us that ‘little is known’ about Alhazen’s life: now he is making proposals about the patterns of neuron-firing inside the brain of a man who died a thousand years ago. It might seem that in this passage (which I think fairly represents Onians’s authorial technique) the term ‘neural’ is being used as scientific window-dressing for resoundingly non-scientific speculation. There is in fact a kind of premise for it in the doctrine of ‘neural plasticity’. If a group of neurons attuned to a certain signal receives plentiful input, its neurons and glia – i.e. support cells – grow in response; if another function-specific group is parched of stimulus, its size tends to decrease. And thus the cortex is progressively moulded by what the environment supplies it with. The description of these operations is a vital part of the neurologists’ agenda, with many medical implications. But for the lay reader, ‘neural evolution’ or ‘neural sculpture’ (as the process also gets called) must surely seem – unlike the startling disjuncture between perceptions of colour and motion – something of a dog-bites-man story. Essentially, it restates in physical terms most of the assumptions about the mind we had already gathered under the headings of ‘education’ and ‘environmental influence’.

Unless the neurological findings happen to refute common sense, isn’t it rather clunky to insist on traipsing around a baggage of brain cells when the imprecise, immaterial but homely terminology of mind will do? Onians, atheistic in outlook, disagrees. Words like ‘mind’ credit people with ‘higher conscious control’ and ‘elevate their activities almost to the level of the divine’. And so he prefers to write, for instance, that Ruskin’s ‘neural networks will have increasingly predisposed him to reflect on the relation between art and the environment.’ Leaving aside that sentence’s puzzling grammar – for surely its subject and its object are in Onians’s view identical – aren’t we back with academic power-games when we presume to describe each other’s ‘neural networks’? I suggest the issue is really one of etiquette. If you’re talking to me, please look me in the eye. Don’t mount a ladder and peer down as if you were inspecting the machinery through the glass of my skull. By definition, all ‘authors’ – whether Ruskin, Alhazen, Onians or those who would read him – are claimants on a measure of self-will, and in that light, to accredit each other with minds would be a minimal gesture of mutual respect.

What then might a neurology of art tell us that we don’t already know? Onians’s survey of biologically oriented theorists moves onward past his old teacher Gombrich, via Baxandall, to end with Zeki. Zeki is a senior eminence in brain research who ten years ago brought out Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain, one of the two texts that did most to launch the present interest in neuroaesthetics. (The other, a 1999 paper by Vilayanur Ramachandran and William Hirstein entitled ‘The Science of Art’ and published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, was a sparky jeu d’esprit; as Ramachandran later admitted, ‘We mainly did it for fun.’) Here was a clear-spoken, scrupulous expositor of science who, unlike some flippant Darwinians (Steven Pinker, for instance, who equates art with cheesecake and regards pornography as a mere ‘pleasure technology’), had an unequivocal reverence for high artistic achievement. Zeki’s account of the brain’s various visual areas, illustrated copiously by fMRI-informed graphics, had some relevance to portraiture, for, as he explained, besides colour, line orientation and motion, a further cortical region is specifically devoted to face-recognition. But the chief subject of the book was how artists had dealt with those first three constituents of vision. Matisse taking apart and reconfiguring the components of chromatic experience; Mondrian with his quest for an irreducible simplicity of means; Alexander Calder with his mobiles: these gave Zeki licence for his boldest formulation – namely, that ‘artists are in some sense neurologists.’

Unwittingly, the book claimed, artists have analysed the visible so as to isolate functions to which scientists would only later assign physical locations within the skull. Malevich, Albers, Gabo and to some extent Picasso were also woven into this argument. By ‘artists’, in other words, Zeki meant ‘thoroughgoing modernists’. What he was actually tracing was a conceptual parallel between work programmes in the lab and work done during a particular historical period in studios. There might be no ‘unitary visual consciousness’ – an observation that many artists outside the mainline of modernism would readily endorse, for so much in painting, ranging from Rembrandt to Bonnard, turns on hinges and stages in perception – yet by pursuing the policies Zeki describes, many major artists of the 20th century sought the exactitude of impact that Clement Greenberg would describe under the epithet ‘opticality’ and Michael Fried under the heading ‘presence’. It was a high and narrow approach to the breadth of visual art, involving some very awkward cross-disciplinary assertions (‘Cubism was a failure in neurological terms’), but at the least it offered some fresh, interesting half-truths.

Zeki’s Splendours and Miseries of the Brain offers a separate arrow-slit vista on art, part of a wider reflection on the brain’s dynamics. The brain’s business – so the argument goes – is knowledge. Stuff enters the brain and gets sorted towards that end. (Again, fMRI graphics show what happens.) Some of the ‘concepts’ doing this work must be acquired by experience – for instance, what makes us decide that a certain object is an apple. But others – e.g. the factoring of wavelength ratios that has us seeing the apple as similarly coloured, whatever lighting falls on it – are evidently innate. We’re stuck with them, that’s how we must see. All this naturally leads Zeki to consider Plato’s forms and Kant’s categories. But then seeming gatecrashers sneak in on the argument. Apparently love and beauty are ‘inherited concepts’ in just the way that colour is: we’re stuck likewise with these demands from the brain’s ‘reward centres’, even if we modulate them in the light of experience. Driven by these inexorable demands both for knowledge and for amatory and aesthetic completion, we are prone to reach for a total ‘synthetic concept’, an overarching ideal that the world can hardly satisfy. And thus the brain, which so splendidly generates knowledge of the world, can also spawn fierce miseries of thwarted yearning.

Romantic in every sense, Zeki’s version of the human condition summons to its support the unfinished and unfinishable Slaves of Michelangelo; Cézanne’s broken yet immaculate visions of Mont Sainte-Victoire; Wagner’s Tristan with its ‘Liebestod’; the fana’ or annihilation-in-God of the Sufi poets; and Dante’s beyond-the-grave vision of Beatrice. Great artistic meditations on impossibility, so it appears, are our best consolation for the distinctly bad lot our brains have landed us with. Splendours is both swankily cultured – our FRS hobnobs with Herbert von Karajan over a Tristan production and translates his own Dante – and magisterially lugubrious, in a manner that sets it quite apart from the snappiness of most contemporary science-writing. The final chapter sees Zeki sizing his own thoughts up against Freud’s old-age reflections in Civilisation and its Discontents. It also tumbles into a sad terminological tangle, at once calling imagination ‘a reworking of the realities that the brain has experienced, which end up becoming brain reality’ and claiming that ‘the only reality is the brain’s reality.’ (How about a moratorium on that word?) The whole project in fact is on inspection rather frail. Onians justly notes Zeki’s ‘mixture of ambition and caution’: in the midst of his scheme of innate and acquired concepts, he gamely admits that ‘how the brain forms concepts is a matter that neurobiology has hardly touched upon’, a lacuna in the groundwork that still lies gaping at the book’s conclusion.

Yet the book thinks hard, feels warmly and puts out provocative suggestions. A characteristic jump takes Zeki from the ‘Kanizsa cube’ diagram, which makes the imagination shuttle between seeing a 3D object from above and from below, to the eyes of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. We are held to them by uncertainty: for who can decide whether it is alarm or invitation that flashes there? How far, then, might we go, describing pictures as physically stable generators of neural instability? From this Zeki hops onward to Michelangelo, Cézanne and the quest for the ‘perfect work of art’ that he believes possesses artists in general. Let me assure him, it’s merely a carrot a few of them dangle before their own heads in order to keep themselves moving forward: mostly, practitioners just want to work. Any robust neuroaesthetics would need to be far, far broader than this.

It would need, surely, to move upwards from the facile reduction of art to the servicing of those ‘reward centres’ or ‘pleasure centres’. If the brain has no single ‘God spot’, it probably has no art spot either: the whole business of making and viewing art feels so much more widely distributed around the mind than any of these fMRI images seem to propose; if anything, my hunch would be that its centre of gravity lies in the act of focusing attention. And anyway, what relation those images – magnetic shadows of cerebral after-effects – may actually have to thought is a matter of ongoing dispute. Neuroaesthetics might also benefit from a pinch of non-scientific self-irony. Authoriality, whether verbal or visual, can hardly be vaporised in a sub-cranial ‘groundlessness’ of neuron-firing, when the interests that drive any such intellectual operation are authorial, self-willed. To build on that, perhaps styles of thought generated by visual artists might actually oversee the domain of neurology.

In such a light I turn, with many misgivings, to Echo Objects: The Cognitive Work of Images by Barbara Maria Stafford. Misgivings, because the book is in many ways a nightmare to read. While Zeki’s writing makes weird jumps now and then – conflating love with colour, for instance – Stafford’s performs an incessant frantic slither. It’s a journey, of a kind: the book records what happens when a brilliant specialist in early modern visual culture decides to cross over to the neurology lab and the consciousness studies department, then goes to hang out with lots of installation artists in Berlin. At once proudly independent and zealously neophiliac, Stafford yearns to wrest sense out of every fresh intellectual stimulus that hoves into view – from the Baroque science of Athanasius Kircher to the pop science of Malcolm Gladwell, from Aboriginal rock paintings to Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz – yet some further chimera just out of reach keeps dragging her eyes sideways, be it ‘Roger Penrose’s quantum mechanical explanation of the “cytoskeletal control of synaptic connections”’ or ‘David Leatherbarrow and Mohsen Mostafavi’s “situational architecture”’. Though Stafford may rise to a fine phrase now and then, particularly while dramatising her own sense of adventure, the nonstop barrage of speedfreak namechecking and orotund abstraction soon drives you deaf, if not delirious. It’s a hapless way to advance a cause. Movements gain adherents (ought to gain adherents) thanks to superior literary artists such as Bryson, Gombrich and Baxandall, not to mention T.J. Clark, the leading proponent of the social-historical approach to art studies that Stafford specifically deplores.

Yet in conception, Echo Objects is easily the most exciting demonstration yet of how a neuroaesthetics might shape up. Crucially, this is a thrilling book to look into: reaching for an astonishing range of often recherché visual material, Stafford thinks with an artist’s eye about the cross-cultural affinities that indicate patterns of thought common to the whole human species. As her subtitle promises, images are shown to perform cognitive work: attention-capturing structures, such as nets and knots, portraits and maps, emblems and intarsias, become the drivers of her discussion, suggesting ways that brain activities themselves might be organised. Among the resulting profusion of intriguing linkages and aperçus (a delirious profusion, it’s true), Stafford lays hold of the most intriguing of all neurological discoveries. In the brains of monkeys, it was shown in 1992, there are cells that fire identically, whether the animal itself is performing an action, or whether it observes the action being performed by another agent. We may assume that such ‘mirror neurons’ play a role in human brains also. I do, because here at last lab research overlaps with the flavour of the studio: as I concentrate on drawing a certain gesture or expression, I find my whole body involuntarily clenching to approximate the attitude I am after. Here we have one of the fairly few points to date on which one might construct a hypothesis of wide application to artistic practice, building from the ground upwards. Stafford explores the way mirror neurons might bear on the art-theoretical issues of imitation and empathy once foregrounded by Gombrich, but since eclipsed: ‘Mimesis Again!’ she entitles one chapter.

Similarly, she finds a new neuropsychological relevance in the ‘formalism’ that was long the butt of postmodernist scorn. Are our minds keyed to some fundamental language of form? The question takes her back to her beloved early modernity, to the speculations of Vico and William Blake: it turns out that she too, like Zeki, is a Romantic at heart. In fact, she turns the neurosceptic’s quip on its head: those early 19th-century phrenologists, she suggests, were no worse than ill-equipped precursors, ‘foreshadowing’ the researches of Zeki’s generation. In all this, there’s generosity. While Stafford is as keen to make her own judgments as she is to hare after intellectual rumours, she sides with whatever will expand our notions of mind (so as to encompass the brain) rather than whatever will reduce them. She takes that fight into the camp of the Darwinian computationalists: in one of the text’s more lucid stretches, discussing the striking persistence of cave and spectre-imageries, she writes that ‘the durability of this mental thrust towards fictitious realms makes me question Steven Pinker’s assertion that our cognitive faculties are attuned to the real world’ – a contention that we artistic misfits can only cheer.

She goes on to tangle with the consciousness gurus, who contend that when it comes to the hydraulics of vision, any hint of a mental basin into which the neural taps are running smacks too much of Cartesian inward spaces; and that ultimately, the pipes are merely ice, for mind and brain are one; and that conceivably (well, half-conceivably), the water of what’s there and the turning of attention’s tap are one and the same.

Meanwhile, over in the art world, business goes on much as before. This summer, the Hayward Gallery put on Walking in My Mind, a show in which artists thought about thinking. You got the chance to enter weird and wonderful cave-installations: Thomas Hirschhorn’s uproarious parcel-tape Lascaux stuck with torn pages of theory; Yayoi Kusama’s spotted mirror-abyss; the stars and flesh-wisps and whimperings adrift in Pipilotti Rist’s dark prenatal pool; and the porn-strewn bomb-blasted engine room that occupied the skull of the late Jason Rhoades. Outside lay the world: South Bank tourists, litter in the puddles, buses heading north. Inside, through the doors: novelties, spook shows, immaterial treats. The mind’s exhibits are not to be touched. The old, homely Cartesian dualism is alive and doing fine.