When you get sudden flashes of perception, it is just the brain working faster than usual. But you’ve been getting ready to know it for a long time, and when it comes, you feel you’ve known it always. – Katherine Anne Porter
Our brains are meaning-seeking machines. Somehow, through the constant flow of visual information, this organ can put together the bits and pieces of our surroundings to create what we call “meaning”. This function of understanding is undoubtedly the most crucial quality of what it means to be human, and thanks to modern science, we are now beginning to assemble a neurological construct that gives light to the inner workings of these most fabulous machines.
Before entering the intricacies of the human brain, let’s start with a smaller, yet similarly capable brain: that of the Herring Gull. In short, the point of a gull’s life is to eat and grow, so that they can find a mate and procreate. Upon hatching, the chick first sees its mother, and notifies her of its hunger by pecking at the red dot located at the end of her yellow beak, a specific trait of the Herring Gull. In return, the mother feeds the chick and everyone is satisfied.
In 1953, Nobel Prize winning ethologist, Nikolaas Tinbergen speculated as to how exactly these birds recognize their mother. More specifically, how do they know to peck at her beak for food? To determine their logic, he took a disembodied beak and presented it to the chicks to see if their attention was to that of the beak itself or to the mother’s presence. He found that their reaction was just as it was as if the mother was still attached to it. Tinbergen then asked himself if a beak was even necessary. What if a visual stimulus similar to the beak, such as a long yellow stick with a red dot at the end, could create the same reaction? Or even better yet, what about a long yellow stick with three red dots. He tested this notion and, lo and behold, the chicks went crazy. They were reacting with more enthusiasm than if it were an actual beak or even their own mother. They were simply overwhelmed by and infatuated with this new super beak.
Why did this happen? Well, somewhere in the neural circuitry of the chick’s brain, specialized visual pathways have developed that fire off when they first see this beak. In other words, the birds are predisposed to recognizing, and having an affinity for, red dots. Maybe then this means, neurologically, the more red the better. Maybe the chick even knows that it’s not their mother or even a beak, but they see red and something very deep in their limbic system says, “YES”.
Now I’m not trying to tell you that the Herring Gull can appreciate, let alone decipher, the work of Shakespeare—but if its brain can perceivably detect a color that causes some sort of bird sublimity, then the human brain must be able to accomplish some pretty remarkable things. This is where perceptual aesthetics transpires.
The study of perceptual aesthetics seeks to trace the sense of pleasure we get from art through natural perceptual processes. Perception being the ongoing visual exploration of our environment combined with our own distinct preconceptions; and aesthetics being the mental and experiential pleasure we get from art, which involves the whole brain, both right and left hemispheres, both emotional and cognitive pathways. Because of this holistic computation, aesthetics is something that makes us feel very deeply. It is the conscious experience of emotion. This is why we smile, laugh, furrow our brows, or are moved to tears simply from viewing a piece of art.
In terms of modern art, some artists are renowned for moving their audience emotionally. Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, and Mark Rothko exemplify reputable painters who create remarkably powerful pieces. They are able to place together line and color on a two-dimensional plane in such a way that can move a viewer to the point of transcendence. The question is: How?
To answer this, we must take a look at how we perceive. In the most basic terms, units of light called photons are reflected or emitted by objects. They travel along waves to our eye, through the optic nerve to the brain. Here, the stimuli signals are processed and voila, a visual perception is born. The world outside becomes a picture inside.
This is where perception comes in. If you’re driving down the highway and you see a McDonald’s billboard featuring a juicy Big Mac, the photons stimulate signals, which crawl up your optic nerve and activate your Big Mac neurons. But those neurons don’t stand alone. Big Mac neurons neighbor dinner neurons, fast food neurons, American cuisine neurons, etc. These neurons then connect to other groups of neurons concerning anything from family to obesity. This one hamburger is more than bread and beef. Once it is perceived, this one hamburger represents something greater than itself.
These pictures are connected to pictures are connected to pictures, creating a neuron filled highway with trillions of synapse junctions. We generate about 100 billion neurons, creating an estimated 100 to 500 trillion synapses by adulthood. The brain takes these neural patterns and turns them into explicit mental patterns, also known as images. Image involves more than picture. An image is a neuron cluster of meaning.
But image and meaning are unique to each individual. The retinal image can be portrayed in an infinite number of ways, which is why we have millions of unique artists. But some, like Picasso or Cézanne, have been revered as the most powerful and influential. In more recent years, as science and technology have advanced, undeniably intriguing introspections of their work have been made. What they did was paint the process of perception.
Picasso, famous for his distorted portraits, showed us that we can see a face from any angle and manage to form it together in our minds as a whole. For example, when we see a head’s profile, we instantaneously assume (correctly) the other half of the face due to our ability to tap into the explicit mental patterns previously generated in our brains.
Cézanne showed us the same thing in an opposite manner. He frequently left his paintings “unfinished” as to comment on the way we build a picture together. He literally built up the paint on the canvas, letting it fade to the edges, just as our peripheral vision acts.
These artists showed us the neurological processes on canvas, through simple line and color. This is not to mention the fact that they simultaneously created exquisite beauty. What we conclude from their art, is that we do not passively see; we actively see. And active vision is perception.
Neurologically, this process involves many areas of the brain, two of which are of crucial importance. The limbic system hosts our emotion, behavior, personal identity, and long-term memory functions. Located here is the amygdala, the central hub of all emotion. Working in tandem, yet with opposing criteria, is the neocortex. Cognition resides here. More specifically, the prefrontal cortex houses sensory perception and conscious thought, and is infamous for dampening our emotional response.
However, it cannot ignore emotion. In fact, as observed by neurologist Joseph LeDoux, “the amygdala projects back to the neocortex in a much stronger sense than the neocortex projects to the amygdala…the implication is that the ability of the amygdala to control the cortex is greater than the ability of the cortex to control the amygdala.” Why? Because all the amygdala has to do is arouse a lot of little areas in very non-specific ways, hormones and other long-acting chemicals are released, and emotion runs rampant. It is incredibly difficult for the neocortex to shut this off, explaining why it is nearly impossible to just will away our emotions, especially the strong ones such as love.
Our experience of art is a combination of the sensory stimulus (the artwork), combined with thought (the cortex), emotion (the amygdala), and our perceptual memories (both cognitive and emotional). It is no wonder we make art and respond so strongly to it. The picture we see triggers an enormous amount of brainpower in the search for synthesis, in search for meaning. That meaning occurs when certain neurons fire off simultaneously in a distinct pattern. This creates the “ah-hah!” moment we feel when we discover something we’ve never known before.
Hello, aesthetic pleasure. The method of understanding, the process of seeking meaning, is pleasurable! There are direct links in the brain between the processes that discover correlation and the limbic area. In fact, the function of the brain and the function of art are one in the same. As put by neurologist Semir Zeki, these functions are based on the same principle: “the seeking of unified truth in an ephemeral world”. And the aesthetic appreciation derived from this amazing truth is a process that we share, not an experience. This means that it is a universal trait activated by formula. Artists, then, can play with our neural structures to stimulate emotion.
When the chicks saw the long yellow stick with three red dots, they went berserk from pure aesthetic glee. It was a formula. Expert on the brain and cognition, V. S. Ramachandran, has rightfully been called the Marco Polo of neuroscience. For this reason, his exact words capture this phenomenon magnificently and will not be tampered with:
“If herring gulls had an art gallery, they would hang a long stick with three red stripes on the wall; they would worship it, pay millions of dollars for it, call it a Picasso, but not understand why—why they are mesmerized by this thing even though it doesn’t resemble anything. That’s all any art lover is doing when buying contemporary art: behaving exactly like those gull chicks. In other words human artists through trial and error, through intuition, through genius, have discovered the figural primitives of our perceptual grammar. They are tapping into these and creating for the human brain the equivalent of the long stick with three stripes. And what emerges is a Henry Moore or a Picasso.”
James Elkins, art historian and author of Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings, noted that people are moved because the piece is “unbearably full” or “unbearably empty”. Presence, representing attachment, or emptiness, representing loss, are both abstractly communicated through art, moving the viewer so innately and so deeply, that they weep. Rothko’s work is notorious for moving people to tears. Judith Kay Nelson, author of Seeing through Tears, said that, “Elkins believes that more crying has been done in front of Rothko’s paintings than before any other 20th century artist, with Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ placing a ‘distant second’”. The chicks found their Rothko.
It is a human phenomenon, the way in which we use vision to create a world of our own. We have many bits and pieces scattered throughout our neural atlas of a brain, and artwork has a way of arranging what we already know in a new way, presenting us with the last visual cue we need to reach transcendence. It is as if the artist enters our brain and literally makes us see something new. Now, with the great strides in neuroscience, we can safely say that we have a natural, instinctual affinity for art and meaning. It is a wonderful thing, being innately attracted to beauty. We are all, each and every one of us, born artists: constantly translating the world around us into art, and constantly seeking meaning of the world around us in art itself.
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