Friday, April 22, 2011

August Macke and Brain Interactions

The work of the German Expressionist painter, August Macke, gives an interesting insight into brain mechanisms. As the examples here, here and here show, in his brilliantly coloured paintings he often does not invest his faces with any detail whatsoever, yet one can glimpse even the (emotional) expression on their faces from their comportment, from the postures of their bodies or, in brief, from their body language. Macke is not of course the only artist to have made paintings in which the details on a face are omitted altogether. But looking at his paintings the other day, the neurobiological question came to me somewhat more forcefully than before.

It has been known for a long time that there is a special area of the brain, commonly known as the fusiform face area, whose proper functioning is critical for facial recognition. As well, it appears that another part of the brain, the amygdala (a nucleus buried in the temporal lobe) is critical for evaluating the emotion in a face. Yet, if we were to isolate the faces in Macke’s paintings, it would be hard to discern any emotion at all. It is only in the context of body comportment that the faces acquire an expression.

There is, it seems, another part of the brain that is critical for the recognition of human bodies. An interesting study published last year addressed the question of whether basic emotions such as happiness or sadness or fear conveyed through the face or the body activate the same or different areas of the brain. The conclusion was that there are two regions of the brain which are activated equally powerfully regardless of whether the emotion was conveyed by a facial or a bodily expression.

This of course raises the further question of how an emotion conveyed through a bodily expression is then referred back to the face, to invest it with that same expression, for example of fear or happiness, when in fact the face itself contains no detail, as in some of Macke’s paintings. This presumably requires a system of back-connections from the two areas implicated in representing emotions regardless of their source, to the areas involved in registering faces and bodies. But what these connections are remains a puzzle.

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