Neuroscience and the Arts

In the introduction to Jonah Lehrer’s “Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” he sums up the problem with only considering brain physiology as the means to come to terms with consciousness:

“Scientists describe our brain in terms of its physical details; they say we are nothing but a loom of electrical cells and synaptic spaces. What science forgets is that this is not how we experience the world…It is ironic but true:the one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know. This is why we need art. By expressing our actual experience, the artist reminds us that our science is incomplete, that no map of matter will ever explain the immateriality of our consciousness.”

There was a time in the early days of my youth when it seemed to me that there could be no higher calling in life than to be an artist. As an adolescent, I recall being thought of and described by others as “artistic.” In response to this perception, my parents enrolled me in summer “art classes,” while in grammar school, and one year for Christmas, I received the art instruction kit entitled, “Learn to Draw,” by John Gnagy. I already had a great deal of enthusiasm for drawing images, but hadn’t really acquired much in the way of actual drawings. This gift challenged me to focus more on technique, and soon I was producing work that people began to notice and remark about.

In high school, I studied art more seriously, tried out different mediums, and began to develop a more personal and specific vision that resulted in work that was a bit more “outside-the-box.” I tried my hand at water colors, and even started to imagine life as an artist. In the summer of my senior year, our family vacation at the beach prompted what would become my first real rendering of not so much what I saw, but rather more of what I felt. There was an old storm-damaged pier that I had known since I was a young boy. I used to get up early in the morning before anyone else and walk alone through the weathered wooden pilings, sometimes losing myself in a daydream, and wonder about what experiences might have taken place around that pier before I showed up. Here is a photograph of the pier from years ago:

Here is the rendering which seemed to me to capture the experience of those mornings, and my memories of those walks:

I remember clearly the moment of creation. I vividly recall the brush flying across the paper of my artist’s workbook, recording the impressions that entered my mind and sprang from me uncontrollably it seemed, running down along my arm like a receding wave. I felt certain that something extraordinary was happening and that it was much larger than me. I recall feeling emotionally and spiritually spent afterwards, but oddly satisfied and calm.

A great deal has been written about how the cognitive abilities of our modern human brain were acquired as a result of their survival advantage. Conventional wisdom says that they did not develop for any specific purpose, and our ability to be creative with regard to survival strategies, just by coincidence, also gave us the ability to apply that same creative ability to making cave paintings, conjuring up rituals, as well as inventing innovative ways of expressing ourselves through language, symbolic writing, visual arts, and even dances and music. Could it be that our nature as cognitive creatures might include, as an essential aspect, the ability to be creative in ways which have had, at least up to now, no discernible survival advantage?

While creativity may only have been used by our human ancestors to obtain the necessary resources for survival initially, it is also clear that our subsequent evolutionary progress was accompanied by the expansion of our creative nature as cognitive creatures, equipped as we then were to imagine, dream, and ponder the possible. One could reasonably suggest that our continued existence as a species may well depend on our capacity for an ever-increasing degree of creative thought. If this is so, then its selection in the evolutionary process was far more than an advantageous accident, and its continued expansion may be an inherent quality of creativity itself.

In Metaphysics, Aristotle wrote:

In man, experience is a result of his memory, for many memories of doing the same thing end in creating a sense of a single experience. Experience seems almost the same as science and art. But in fact, science and art come to men through experience.”

The process in the brain that makes it possible to remember our experiences and the process that makes it possible to have experiences in the first place are not the same process at all. Our eyes, nose, skin, ears, and taste buds all send signals to the brain through the central nervous system with information about what is being perceived, but the cerebral cortex must interpret that information as our sense of sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste. Without a sufficiently sophisticated brain to process the information gathered by our senses, the information would be far less useful. Although all of these sense perceptions could operate without memory, our ability to remember what happened while these processes were operating makes it possible to learn. The brain records that information and stores it in a marvelously sophisticated process making it available for future reference. So, while the processes work together in important ways to make sense of conscious experience, and to enable us to demonstrate our consciousness to others, they also function independently, in equally important ways.

The American philosopher and psychologist, John Dewey wrote in “Art as Experience:”

“Even now we owe to science a liberation of the human spirit. It has aroused a more avid curiosity, and has greatly quickened, in a few at least, alertness of observation with respect to things of whose existence we were not before even aware. Scientific method tends to generate a respect for experience, and even though this new reverence is still confined to the few, it contains the promise of a new kind of experience that will demand expression…Only imaginative vision elicits the possibilities that are interwoven within the texture of the actual. The first stirrings of dissatisfaction and the first intimations of a better future are always found in works of art.”

Neuroscience has advanced now to the point where we can clearly see that our ability to have access to consciousness is the result of many different processes working together, with memory leading the way as a ceaseless and ever-changing sequence of neural activities which manifest through a variety of coordinating brain regions and neural networks. It is a collection of neurological instruments that orchestrates the symphony which we perceive as consciousness.

9 thoughts on “Neuroscience and the Arts

    1. Thank you for stopping by to read! I’m glad you enjoyed your visit. I’m still trying to catch up with my reading on your blog. The photos of the sun are astonishing and the scope of your topics, and the breadth of subject matter that you have already produced this month, is making it tough to keep up! I love it!

      Please come by anytime…..John H.

  1. Hi John,
    I enjoyed this post a lot, especially learning about your early interest in being an artist and your descriptions of making art. Something in me comes alive when I perceive individuals through their creations, it’s fascinating. It seems the more we leave theory behind, the more we connect to our own expressions, the greater the chance of finding the other. At least that’s how I feel tonight. Best to you. pj

    1. Patrice,

      I agree that sharing our creative output, no matter what form it takes, gives us an opportunity to reveal to others, and to ourselves also, a part of our personal individuality and it is fascinating to experience this recognition. A few years ago I attended an exhibition of the paintings of Andrew Wyeth in Philadelphia, which included all works that he executed in preparation for the final painting, accompanied by the final painting as well, giving the viewers a more personal glimpse of his process. Some of the initial drawings were striking in their revelation of his personal approach, and the audio narration as you walked through the exhibit revealed the background story of how the painting came about in the first place.

      I found myself immersed in his world in a way that probably would not have been possible other than perhaps by speaking to him personally. I think I also gained an important perspective on my own process as well upon reflection and contemplation of that experience.

      I’m grateful to receive such a pleasing response from you….John H.

    1. I think I also do not disagree with Aristotle in this instance. I think we have increased our knowledge and understanding of human subjective experience and the role of memory, and through a lifetime of experience, we gain perspectives not possible without the memory of having those experiences.

      Science and Art may become manifest in our existence through experience, and experience may support both Science and Art in ways that are unclear to us always, but the arts are, in my view, a primal urging in cognitively aware human beings, and essential to our well being.

      Thanks for stopping by to comment…..John H.

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