Monday, October 22, 2012

The Pursuit of Sensational Science

Much has been written recently about sensationalizing science, by hyping things up, exaggerating the importance or novelty of new findings and giving over-simplistic accounts of them.

Up to a point scientists themselves are responsible for this. Referring to a molecule implicated in certain behaviours as the “moral molecule” obviously invites criticism, and has done so. But referring to the Higgs boson as the “God particle” has not attracted the same criticism, for reasons that are difficult to understand.

The term “God particle” was not given by scientists. As I understand it, a distinguished scientist wrote a book entitled “The Goddam Particle” but his publishers thought the title too offensive. Of course, what the title implied was “that goddam particle is so elusive, and therefore so difficult to find”. But apparently the publishers changed the title to the God Particle, and it has stuck ever since. The God particle of course has a different sense altogether – even a religious sense. But I have not heard scientists disavowing the name, with all its sensationalist associations. Instead they seem to have reveled in it.

And just recall how the Higgs boson, or the God particle, was announced recently. A press conference was announced some weeks before, keeping all guessing as to what would be revealed at the conference. Rumours became rife and were quashed, adding to the tension and the sensationalism. Scientists seemed to revel in it.

Compare that with the announcement of the current status of junk DNA, which was not accompanied by all the fanfare. Instead, the results were published in 2-3 journals. The discovery nevertheless attracted widespread attention in the press and was on the whole well summarized for the lay public – a far better example of scientific conduct.

To an equal extent, the current scientific culture is fertile ground for  sensationalism and indeed encourages it. All scientists, especially young ones aspiring to a good appointment, yearn to publish in “high impact” journals. I recently saw an advertisement for a research position at a very distinguished university. It said that “the successful candidate will have a proven ability to publish in high impact journals”.

Notice, it said nothing about a proven ability to do good or rigorous science, but only to publish in high impact journals. And it is common knowledge that what gets published in high impact journals is very variable, and not always the best science.

And how does one publish in high impact journals?

Well, one way is to do good science. But another way is to do sensational science.

Some of these high impact journals now screen a submission before sending it out for peer review and informed opinion. I know of one journal which rejects as follows:

“This is not meant as a criticism of the quality of the data or the rigor of the science, but merely reflects our desire to publish only the most influential research.”

Read it well, for it says it all: the science may be rigorous and good but, in our opinion, it is not influential research.

In other words, we only want to publish the most sensational research.

And this is not the only journal that pre-screens articles before deciding to send them out for peer review.

I do not believe that this does science any good service.

Who, after all, decides what is influential research but future generations.

And so we come full circle:

To get a good job, you have to publish in high impact journals.
To publish in high impact journals, you have to do sensational science. 
Good science helps but is not the determining factor. It must, in the opinion of those who may not be especially versed in the subject, be influential.

And the boundary between sensational science and exaggeration is….rather thin.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Good money for bad art

This is getting better and better!

A really shabby and botched restoration of a minor work in a small church in Zaragoza, Spain, by an unknown artist (?)/ restorer (?), Cecilia Gimenez, was hailed by many as a real contribution to contemporary art, although it is only fair to add that many others laughed at it. I believe that a description of it as "an intelligent reflection of the political and social conditions of our times" is not far off the mark (lots of laughs here).

After attracting so much attention, it has of course become a celebrity - and celebrity status ultimately leads in only one direction -- money, lots of it.

And according to today's Guardian, this is exactly what is happening.

Now, after the church started to rake in the cash by charging the multitudes who came to view this bizarre restoration, which makes Jesus look like a hairy monkey, the restorer herself wants a cut of the cake. After all, at 4 euros per admission, this is not an insignificant sum. Hilarious.

See, I told you, if a curator of contemporary art had been wise and bought the work outright (when it would have presumably been sold for a song), all this money would now be flowing in a different direction.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Philip Roth, Wikipedia and Oscar Wilde

Philip Roth was understandably annoyed when he wanted to correct a mistake in the Wikipedia entry regarding his book, The Human Stain. Apparently, they did not want to publish his correction about who had inspired his book. While acknowledging that the author of a book is an authority on his or her book, they nevertheless wanted a “secondary source”. Roth addressed them in a letter to the New Yorker and they have since apparently accepted that Roth is an authority on his own book and corrected the mistake.

Of course, the delusion is to suppose that there are necessarily any “secondary sources” in Wikipedia or that there ever can be, given the nature of the enterprise. Many who write entries for it are, naturally enough, interested in the topic about which they write. But many are also interested in themselves and in projecting their own contributions. This results in self-serving and inaccurate articles. In that sense, they are not “secondary sources”, weighing the facts dispassionately or presenting different sides of an argument or different interpretations.

I must say that I frequently consult Wikipedia for this or that, and think of it as a very worthwhile enterprise, one which at the very least guides those who want to learn more. But I never accept its authority on any important matter. It is sheer folly to rely on Wikipedia in any work of scholarship. Of course, one can modify Wikipedia entries. But is it worth the time and effort, when you know that it is not necessarily reliable, and when you know that, in a work of scholarship, you can never quite rely on it?

I have alluded to this before. What the present spat between Wikipedia and Philip Roth highlights is the illusion of “secondary sources”.

Perhaps Wikipedia should adopt as its motto a saying attributed to Oscar Wilde (I read it somewhere but cannot remember where and cannot be sure that the words below are exactly what he wrote, but they are pretty close):

“If you tell the truth, sooner or later you are bound to be found out”

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Titian and Clint Eastwood

The small but great National Gallery exhibition of three Titian masterpieces displayed side by side for the first time since the 18th century was a real delight. One of the three, The Death of Acteon, has been at the National Gallery for years; the other two (Diana and Callisto and Diana and Acteon) were only recently purchased for the nation for about £95 million and will be exhibited alternately in Edinburgh and London.

Acteon is of course doomed from the moment he sees Diana (the goddess of hunting) bathing in all her naked splendour. And the curators have used the occasion to have a real naked woman bathing, whom one can only see through a keyhole. It is quite an imaginative innovation, though it must be tiring for the women (I gather there is a change of women every two hours). 

Peeping through a keyhole implies spying on something that is forbidden or at any rate not on public view. It is a fitting complement to the voluptuous and erotic masterpieces of Titian (they were in fact exhibited for men only in the king’s private apartments in the royal palace in Madrid).

The penalty for spying visually on Diana was death. And the penalty for spying on a naked woman through a keyhole is…..?

Isn’t contemporary art designed to make us think about such things, about our relation to the woman seen through the keyhole in this instance? Or about being a peeping Tom in a public place? Or about exhibitionism? Or about secret fantasies? 

This was certainly more interesting than gazing vacuously at beach pebbles and filing cabinets.

While this exhibition was on, another potential exhibit for a museum of contemporary art came to my notice, though no one has commented on it in that context, as far as I can tell.

It was Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair (it starts at about 03:33) He was addressing the chair as if President Obama had been sitting on it. But there was of course no President Obama.

What would one call it – a Surrealist creation, a Dadaist creation? Conceptual art?

This dialogue between a living actor and an absent President – who could, in the imagination, be almost anyone – is also more interesting than beach pebbles and filing cabinets. In fact, I have actually seen empty chairs in museums of contemporary art that do not arouse nearly as much interest as Clint Eastwood’s empty chair, which is a good deal more imaginative.

I suggest that it would be a good exhibit at a museum of contemporary art. It stimulates the imagination more than the current empty chairs in some art museums. Some museum should rush to buy the copyright. It has, after all, attracted more than half a million viewers in about two weeks - and hence must be the envy of many a gallery.

And those who revile Clint Eastwood’s creation must at least acknowledge that it disturbed them enough to want to revile it.

In other words, it made them think.

Which is a good deal more than can be said for many exhibits in museums of contemporary art.

Monday, August 27, 2012

New prospects in contemporary art

You just couldn’t make this up.

A new line has opened up in contemporary art…

Maybe it deserves a name, like The Power of Disfigured Art,

and a brief description, like the social relevance of the new contemporary art.

The disfigured fresco which I wrote about two days ago has now acquired an iconic status. According to reports, hundreds of visitors have been crowding into the little church to view it and express their admiration, forcing the little church to display it behind a security cordon. 

But, wisely, the little church has also set up a collection box, to swell its revenue from donations.

A petition has been signed by no less than 19,000 in less than two days, asking the authorities not to allow a group of experts to undo the “damage” that Cecilia Gimenez did to it in trying to restore it herself, which resulted in Christ looking like a monkey.

The story has gone viral on the internet. Many have tried to do similar “virtual” restorations on other iconic works of art.

The petition says that the Cecilia Gimenez’s restorative work has made of the painting “an intelligent reflection of the political and social conditions of our times” – a description that can hardly be bettered by the erudite descriptions that some in the art world attach to obscure pebbles and filing cabinets.

They see in the painting a “subtle critique of the creationist theories of the Church” and compare it in style to …wait for it… the works of Goya, Munch and Modigliani.

Well, a director of a contemporary art museum could not have asked for more.

As I said, a museum of contemporary art should acquire it now, while it is still (relatively) affordable, before it goes under the hammer at one of the world’s “prestige” auction houses (like the one which tried to sell (unsuccessfully) an empty canvas, describing it as one in which the painter had applied the seductive idea of nothing to a canvas, [which] asks the viewer to reflect” and its creator as “the most underestimated and overlooked minimal artist in Britain …[who] didn’t get the recognition that he deserved”.

Do such descriptions differ very much from the descriptions in the petition quoted above?

The great Cecilia Gimenez has surely convulsed the art world, and may yet find herself among the celebrated artists of our time.

This story may, just, be a wake-up call in the art world!

But I rather doubt it.

Friday, August 24, 2012

New item for a contemporary art museum

An interesting story hit the headlines this week - the attempt by a Spanish pensioner to restore a 19th century Spanish fresco depicting Christ.

The result was a disaster and, according to one newspaper, made Christ look like a monkey. Another commentator thought that he looked like he has just come out of a stag party.

The fresco is apparently not very valuable in money terms. That must be an opinion about its financial status before the disfigurment was revealed.

It has now become a great celebrity.

What to do with it? Leave it as it is or try to restore it again?

Well, I have an idea.

Take it as it now is to a museum of contemporary art and exhibit it along with all those filing cabinets, beach pebbles, etc, whose aim, we are patronisingly told, is to make us think about our relationship to the work of art exhibited.

What better to make one think in these terms than this disfigured fresco?

What is more, given its new celebrity, it is probably worth a lot more than many of the filing cabinets and beach pebbles exhibited at some art galleries.

If I were the director of one of these art galleries, I would snap up this "restored" fresco at once! It would probably be more effective in fulfilling the mission of (as some custodians of art think) of making us think, it will draw large crowds (rather larger than the ones who come to see new filing cabinets in the art gallery) and it will increase the financial status of the gallery.

Well, how about it?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Passionate love and marriage

Myriam Tinti, an Italian acquaintance and a jurist, has communicated this interesting idea to me:

It is well recognized in the world literature of love, from Plato onwards, that there is such a thing as the “madness of love”. Neurobiological studies show that, when we look at the picture of someone with whom we are passionately in love, there is activation in certain specific parts of the brain but there is, as well, a de-activation of significant parts of the cerebral cortex. Among the areas which are de-activated are ones which have been associated with judgment.

If we accept that those who are passionately in love tend to be far less judgmental about their lovers – and there is little reason to doubt this – and if we accept further that this lapse in judgment is not general but specifically concerns the lover, then we have to accept that it is in general useless to argue with one who is passionately in love that “they have taken leave of their senses” even though they may seem otherwise quite sane and normal; it is useless to ask them to re-consider their relationship or renounce it. It is useless to try to reason with them that the union they propose is with the “wrong person” or that it runs counter to their culture, or economic or social status. Such arguments will make little difference to them.

This creates a problem. A cortical de-activation leading to a lapse of judgment may lead one to do things that they might later much regret, and if the lapse of judgment is specific to their romantic and passionate liaison, it might lead them to propose a permanent union in the form of marriage, even when (to others), such a course of action appears to be fraught with potential difficulties and possibly doomed. [In film, the transition – quite sudden – from passionate love to hate is well captured in Ingmar Bergman’s film, Summer with Monika]. What Miriam Tinti was suggesting is that one should consider the possibility of discouraging formally people who are passionately in love from getting married. Marriage is a big step and, at least in theory, a life-long commitment. It is a decision that must be reached with a good judgment, when one is in full possession of all one’s faculties. But if the judgmental system is de-activated, then a good judgment is not possible. Nor is it possible to convince people who are passionately in love that what they are embarking upon is a folly. Hence a “cooling off” period may be highly desirable.

The French use the term mariage de raison to characterize a marriage that has been agreed upon in full possession of one’s judgment; implied in this is the supposition that the decision to marry has not been reached during a lapse of judgment, and has not been reached when in a state of passionate love, which would constitute a mariage d’amour.

As I understand it from Myriam, the Catholic Church, which does not accept divorce, will nevertheless consider the lack of a discretion of judgment as a reason for annulling a marriage, if it can be proven that the marriage was entered into when one or the other had lost their judgment.

The relevant passage from the Codex Juris Canonici [Code of Canon Law] (Can. 1095, n. 2) reads as follows:

 The following are incapable of contracting marriage:
1° …
those who suffer from a grave lack of discretion of judgment concerning the essential matrimonial rights and obligations to be mutually given and accepted

Given that something like 50% of marriages in the Western world end in divorce and that many of the remaining marriages are sustained only for economic or social reasons, the issue of whether people who have lost their judgment because they are passionately in love should be formally asked to defer their marriage is worth considering. And passionate love is one of the conditions in which people appear to lose their judgment with respect to their lovers.

There are of course major problems as to practicalities, especially regarding how proof can be obtained. Tests would constitute a serious invasion of privacy (though it is interesting to note that a form of invasion of privacy was practiced in some countries, and still is in some states of the United States – the requirement for a blood test before a marriage license was issued, to ensure that neither party was suffering from a disease that could be passed on to the children – principally syphilis). Much less intrusive would be a good form of education – starting with sexual lessons at schools – that during passionate love, judgment is at serious risk of being suspended and that to enter into a marriage contract in that state carries with it serious potential problems.

At any rate, this is an interesting idea, which merits consideration.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The power of the visual image

The leading politicians who gathered last week in Los Cabos, Mexico, to discuss the world economic situation reminded me of a British Cabinet meeting during World War I. In his history of England, AJP Taylor records how “twelve men, largely ignorant of their subject, speculated in the void” as to where on the Continent the British Expeditionary Force should land. The Cabinet Secretary cut in, to patiently explain to them that trains (which were to be used for transportation), unlike horses (which had been used in previous wars), could not be turned around mid-way to their destination; they must instead roll-on right to their final destination. Taylor does not record the rest but I happen to know that the discussion then changed immediately to which station along the railway paths would be able to offer the best coffee to the troops.

Like those of yester-year, my impression is that the politicians of today who had gathered in Los Cabos understood little and achieved less. But there is one thing that they, like all politicians, understand perfectly well – the power of the visual image.

How to deal with the apparent visual contradiction of gathering in one of the world’s most luxurious resorts to discuss poverty and economic distress engulfing Europe and potentially much of the world. Easy! Get rid of the inconsistency by manipulating the visual image so that it is no longer there.

Thus the British Prime Minister gave an interview from a room with views of the spectacular beaches but the views were hidden from view by a screen. After all, the folk back home would not quite like to see their Prime Minister dishing out advice on remedying poverty and the world economy in front of luxury beaches.

If that inconsistency could be readily solved by manipulating the visual image, another inconsistency at the same meeting was barely noticed by anyone – presumably because the spoken word does not have the same powerful impact as the visual image. In a seemingly defiant speech, the un-elected President of the European Commission, Mr Barroso [the one who said that Portugal will not need a bail-out a few days before it asked for a bail-out], told the gathered delegates that Europe does not need any lessons in democracy. This coming from a President who is un-elected! But apparently no one noticed the inconsistency. Had there been a visual image of the way in which presidents of the European Commission are elected, the inconsistency would have been noticed much more easily, although of course they could have manipulated the visual images, just as was done in Los Cabos.

There is, however, a hilarious recording of a British member of the European Parliament questioning the democratic legitimacy of another high official of the European Union, The President of the European Council, at the European Parliament. The words are fairly hilarious – but the expression on the President’s face says a good deal more. It is, after all, a visual image!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Anatole France and reductionism

The glib and shallow criticism of much in cognitive neuroscience, and especially in neuroesthetics, as “reductionist” is a facile rallying point for many who have a hatred for our subject because they seem to fear it so much.

But those who use this criticism so commonly should be more consistent, and extend their pejorative use of the term to the arts and the humanities as well. Yet I have not heard anyone denounce Mondrian because of his reductionist approach, nor have I heard any criticism of Clive Bell’s insightful question about what is common to all art on the grounds of reductionism.

Here, I want to offer those who hate neuroesthetics so much the chance to get their adjectives to work to denounce a literary work which is perhaps the ultimate in reductionism – Anatole France’s fable of a Persian king. It occurs in Chapter XVI of Les Opinions de M. Jérôme Coignard, under the title of “L’Histoire”. I read it years ago and was much taken by it, perhaps because I am a reductionist. I reduce it further here, since I summarize what is already a short story.

On acceding to the throne of Persia, a young king assembled all the academicians of his realm and charged them with writing a detailed history of mankind, that he may learn from it to become a wise ruler.

The wise men deliberated and returned after twenty years with twelve camels, each carrying five hundred volumes. But the king could not find the time to read so many volumes, and tasked them with reducing the number of volumes “to the brevity of human existence”.

The academicians worked for another twenty years and returned with fifteen hundred volumes. But the king said, “I am getting old and cannot read all these volumes”.

The academicians returned after ten years with five hundred volumes but the king asked them to shorten it further so that he could learn, before dying, human history.

After five years, a lone academician carrying a single volume arrived at the palace. “Hurry up” an officer told him, “the king is dying”. The king looked at the academician and said, “So I shall die without knowing human history”.

“Sir”, replied the academician, “I can summarize it for you in three words: – they are born, they suffer, they die.”

 Interestingly, Joseph Conrad, in the Notes to his novel Chance, wrote the following: “The history of men on this earth since the beginning of ages may be resumed in one phrase of infinite poignancy: They were born, they suffered, they died.... Yet it is a great tale!

But Conrad also added, “But in the infinitely minute stories about men and women it is my lot on earth to narrate I am not capable of such detachment.

Do I hear them shouting “Literary trash”?  Do I hear them screaming, “Reductionists”?

Or do they reserve this only for neuroesthetics?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A reductionist exhibition

Last week I visited the much praised Courtauld Art Gallery exhibition on the parallel work of Ben Nicholson and Piet Mondrian. It was a very inspiring visit, not only for the quality of the works shown but also for the questions behind the work. All the praise lavished on it is deserved.

One critic summarized Mondrian’s work nicely, by writing of Mondrian’s ability “to cut to what is central and essential in form”.

Of course, “to cut to what is central and essential in form” – for Mondrian, the straight line – meant eliminating almost all details and all naturalistic representation of form. In the Courtauld exhibition, even colours are more de-emphasized than in many other canvases by Mondrian that I have seen – they are banished to the edge of the canvas, leaving the entire canvas as a set of vertical and horizontal lines whose intersections against a white background constitute rectangles – “the plurality of straight lines in rectangular opposition” as Mondrian himself once put it.

In the process, this art also becomes reductionist art! After all, if you try to reduce all forms to universal elements, what else are you but a reductionist?

And Mondrian said so himself: “To create pure reality plastically, it is necessary to reduce natural forms to their constant elements”.

The straight line also gained a prominent place in physiology with the discovery that there are many cells in the visual brain that respond specifically to straight lines. Such “orientation selective” cells, as they are commonly known, are considered to be the physiological building blocks for the construction of forms by the brain.

I suppose that is a somewhat reductionist approach too.

Inspiring and exciting though Mondrian’s works are, his researches did not lead to any convincing insights into how the straight lines are brought together to construct complex everyday forms.

And, since the discovery of orientation selective cells in the visual brain, neurobiologists have not quite figured out how such cells interact in the brain to construct more elaborate forms.

Of the other artist, a critic wrote that, “Nicholson’s adventure was to strip out all reference to the observed world”. This is not unlike Kazimir Malevich, the Russian Suprematist painter, who once wrote, “The artist has no further need for the objective world as such”.

Like Kazimir Malevich, Ben Nicholson emphasizes squares and, unlike Mondrian, he also has circles. The lines are there, but produced by shadows. I suppose that by concentrating on simple geometric forms alone and stripping away all reference to the observed world, both he and Malevich, as well as many others, were also being reductionist.

As far as I am concerned, there is nothing wrong or reprehensible with reductionism in art. But it pleases me to note that neurobiologists – sometimes accused of being reductionists - have such good and worthy companions, as this wonderful exhibition shows..

As an aside, I was a little surprised to learn from this exhibition that Mondrian and Nicholson were quite so friendly. I say this only because of the use of circles in Nicholson's work. Mondrian never used circles or curved lines in his compositions. He even abhorred the diagonal line. He actually stopped collaborating with a fellow artist (Theo van Doesburg), writing to him, “Because of the high handed way in which you have treated the diagonal line, no further collaboration between us is possible”.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Fighting the consequences of cortical de-activation with another cortical de-activation

Some time ago, I wrote a post in which I questioned whether greed can be regulated by courses on ethics and ethical behavior. Greed is, after all, a biological phenomenon and, I argued, that when humans are faced with the prospect of untold riches, their cortex is probably significantly de-activated.

There is no definite evidence for this, greed itself not having been studied neurobiologically to my knowledge. But there is evidence that a neural correlate of being passionately in love is the de-activation of significant parts of the cerebral cortex, which probably is one reason why we tend to be less judgmental of those we deeply love, and sometimes act in apparently irrational ways when in love.

I believe, therefore, that it is pointless to give lectures on ethics and ethical conduct to those who plan to go into the financial world; it is just as pointless to start talking about “ethical stocks”, an idea floated by some businessmen. Because of cortical de-activation, the prospect of great wealth also leads to a lapse of judgment in other areas, including moral conduct, or so I argued.

What I had not considered was that it may be possible to fight greed in one area – making unlimited sums – with greed in another area, sexual gratification. But now comes a report from Spain that this might just about work.

Sexual activity also leads to massive cortical de-activation. I suppose, but I am not sure, that the desire for sexual gratification also leads to much cerebral de-activation. Hence judgment about making money (greed) may be suspended when much of the resources of the brain are concentrated on obtaining another biological gratification, with the attendant cortical de-activation.

, the escort girls of Madrid have gone on strike to deny bankers the sexual gratification that the bankers seek – until they behave in ways that are more morally acceptable to the escort girls. This appears to have led to some irrational behaviour on the part of the bankers.

Hilariously, the escort girls of Madrid may have – just – hit on the right formula to temper greed.

Read about it for yourself.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The fear of neuroesthetics III

It is worth examining briefly another terrain – reductionism - on which some display their fear and loathing of neuroesthetics. I say some because I don’t want to tar everyone with the same brush. In my experience, a significant number of those in the humanities I meet are very hospitable to neuroesthetics. This is especially true of artists and composers. They do not seem to fear us. They want to learn more.

As I have argued on this site before, science is reductionist by its nature. It cannot study a complex system as a whole; rather, it isolates its constituents first and tries to build a picture of the whole from studying its parts. This is true of the study of matter by physics and chemistry – to study the particles constituting matter in terms of atoms and electrons and neutrons, and then the sub-atomic parts, and so on. It is true of biology and medicine, which tries to isolate, for example, the constituents of a cell to study their chemistry, or molecular biology, and to learn how these constituent parts interact. Yet this kind of necessary reductionism is, rightly, never criticized. Any perceived reductionism by neuroesthetics is, on the other hand, roundly condemned, at least by those who see it as having the imaginary powers to “flatten our culture”.

But let us forget chemistry, physics, and biology and delve into the humanities, and into the arts, that is to say into the territory from which the vociferous critics of neuroesthetics come. How certain is it that artists and art historians and philosophers of aesthetics do not indulge in the same kind of reductionism that the critics of neuroesthetics find so odious?

When the English art historian, Clive Bell, asks in his book Art what “Sta Sophia and the windows at Chartres, Mexican sculpture, a Persian bowl, Chinese carpets, Giotto’s frescoes at Padua, and the masterpieces of Poussin, Piero della Francesca, and Cézanne” have in common because “either all works of visual art have some common quality, or when we speak of ‘works of art’ we gibber”, is he not being reductionist?

And when Immanuel Kant writes in The Critique of Judgment of a sensus communis which gives universal validity to the aesthetic judgment of an individual, is he not being reductionist?

How do these differ, in terms of reductionism, from the quest of neurobiologists to learn what kind of brain activity is common to the experience of all beauty in all humans, regardless of the source of the beauty (i.e. whether it is a portrait painting, or a landscape or a musical excerpt) and regardless of the cultural, educational and ethnic backgrounds of those experiencing beauty?

And when Piet Mondrian, in his artistic exploration of form, asks what is the essential constituent of all forms and settles on the vertical and horizontal straight lines, is he not being reductionist?

And how does this differ in terms of reductionism from the quest of neurobiologists to learn whether orientation selective cells in the visual brain (cells which respond specifically to straight lines) are the physiological building blocks of form in the brain?

Is the neurobiologist more reductionist than the artist in this instance?

And when kinetic artists emphasize motion and de-emphasize colour and form, are they not being reductionist?

And when Paul Cézanne considers all the variety of the natural world in terms of the cone, the cylinder and the sphere, is he not being reductionist?

Is abstract art not reductionist?

And this is only a brief list. There are many more examples of reductionism in the humanities.

In light of the above, it is interesting to ask why some single out neuroesthetics to stigmatize it with their hate word “reductionist”?

What exactly are they so afraid of?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

the fear of neuroesthetics II

The highly emotional language used by some to describe neuroesthetics, of which I gave a selection in my previous post, suggests a fear – and an irrational one at that – of neuroesthetics. Fear is an interesting state, to which I will return in a future post. But here I want to examine one of the arguments used to trash neuroesthetics by those who fear it so much – “trash” being their word to describe neuroesthetics.

The charge is that even a very detailed study by neuroscientists of the brain’s reaction to an artistic work – or a very detailed study of its creator – will not “explain” the work. The columnist in The Scotsman article gave the example of Finnegan’s Wake. A friend of mine told me of the complaint of a philosopher about neuroesthetics, that no amount of studying the brain response to Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde will “explain” it. I wrote in my previous post that it is not the aim or mission of neuroesthetics to explain works of art. On the contrary, neuroesthetics is inspired by works of art and debates in the humanities to learn something about the brain. Let me emphasize that we do not try to “explain” the brain either, but just to gain some insights into its functioning.

However, since one of the chosen terrains by those who wish to “trash” neuroesthetics is that of explanation, it is worth reflecting briefly on who are they who have been trying throughout the ages to “explain” works of art and music and literature.

There are hundreds, probably thousands, of books and articles written on Hamlet. The number of books and articles on the Tristan chord alone exceeds 2000. Many books and articles have been written to “explain” TS Eliot’s poetry [An interesting point here: Eliot reputedly once told a man who tried to explain some lines of his: “Thank you for explaining it to me. I didn’t understand it before” – or words to that effect]. Untold thousands of articles and books have been written trying to “explain” the works of some painter or another. And the list goes on!

Who has written these books and articles? Not neurobiologists, but art critics, literary critics, etc. If they try to “explain” these works, it must mean that they think that there is something explicable about them. And if so, why should they restrict to themselves, or to humanists in general, the privilege of explaining them? Why should a neurobiologist not have the same privilege, even if in the end his or her explanation turns out to be “trash”? Would it not be worth reading their “explanations” (assuming them to have given any) before dismissing in emotionally charged language that what they write is “trash”?

I may add that I often read the explanations provided by art and literary critics of art works with profit and pleasure. Some may seem far-fetched, others are sober and level-headed, many are interesting and inspiring in terms of new ideas and connections. It would never cross my mind to dismiss their collective efforts as “trash”.

I have here used the word explain in quotes throughout, partly because I am quoting those who dismiss neuroesthetics and partly because I do not understand what is meant by “explaining” a work such as Tristan und Isolde or Hamlet. One may want to explain something about the work – many articles have discussed whether Richard Wagner destroyed tonal music in Tristan – but I am not sure that any article succeeds in explaining so complex a masterpiece as Tristan. Where an attempt is made to explain a whole work in a few lines, the result is often unsatisfactory. I once heard an historian trying to explain the whole of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by saying that it can be summarized thus, “That all power corrupts”. Well, that is not quite the “explanation” that I would read into that work. My explanation, if I had to reduce it to a few words, would be: That good and evil reside in most men, and that they come especially to the fore when men have power, though only momentarily, because men, like the empires they create, are ephemeral and ultimately all are crushed by history and destiny. My explanation, too, is unsatisfactory and does not provide an explanation of the whole of Gibbons’ masterpiece, nor would I claim that it is better than the one given by the political historian. Indeed, I am not sure that there can be a simple explanation for Gibbons’ subtle and brilliant masterpiece.

To sum up – once it is acknowledged implicitly, through the many articles written about works of literature, art and music, that there is something explicable in them, the terrain of explanation on which those who want to dismiss neuroesthetics plant their dismissal simply vanishes. They should try hard to find better grounds.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The fear of neuroesthetics I

Every now and then, neuroesthetics is denounced in terms so emotional that one might be forgiven to think that, far from being an intellectual, experimental exercise in trying to learn something about the brain, it is some kind of new and devastating military adventure of awesome destructive power. A novelist has apparently described neuroesthetics as “one of the biggest follies of our era” and an “absolute idiocy… a form of absolute certainty that will flatten all the complexity of culture, and the beauty of it as well”. A bit over the top, one might think, given the daily follies in the political, military and economic spheres, which materially affect our lives far more than neuroesthetics ever will. Perhaps, one might also think, that the description of neuroesthetics as “flattening all the complexity of culture” is more appropriate to a description of dropping a nuclear bomb on some unfortunate country. Such descriptions not only endow neuroesthetics with extraordinary powers, which its practitioners never thought they possessed, but also betray a thrombotic loathing and fear of what neuroesthetics might achieve and reveal.

Elsewhere, a philosopher has described neuroesthetics as “neurotrash”, thus licensing himself and others who may believe him from ignoring it completely. Yet it seems odd that a relatively new discipline, which has been inspired by debates in the humanities - about the nature of beauty, and its links to love and desire - to learn something about what happens in the brain when we have such experiences, should arouse such strong reactions in some. If something is indeed trash, why bother with it at all, let alone describe it as “one of the biggest follies of our era”? After all, what could be more harmless than trying to apply questions raised in the humanities to learning something about the brain, especially given the primacy that most philosophers of aesthetics have given to the senses?

Of course, when one categorizes a serious effort as “trash”, one insulates oneself from having to read what its practitioners have to say. An interesting example is to be found in a recent article in The Scotsman, curiously entitled “Art and science don’t mix”, which elicited this apt comment in the columns of the paper ”I would be very interested in what Leonardo might have to say about the statement "Art and Science Don't Mix." What indeed!

At any rate, a correspondent drew my attention recently to this article, which describes neuroesthetics as “unadulterated bunkum”. It is an interesting article to read, for it betrays a complete lack of understanding of the aims of neuroesthetics and ends with a spectacular own goal.

Using a somewhat far-fetched example, the author of The Scotsman article writes that, “If you take a bit of [James] Joyce’s brain and put it under the microscope, it’s not going to explain Finnegans Wake”. But far from trying to “explain” a work of art or a literary masterpiece, neuroesthetics only tries to gain insights from them to try and learn something about the brain. There are many examples one could give. Mondrian’s artistic exploration of what element is the essential constituent of all forms (the straight line) is a question that is almost identical to the neurobiological question of how the brain represents or constructs forms, especially since the discovery of cells in the visual brain which respond selectively to straight lines. To be inspired by Mondrian’s question and by his artistic explorations to frame scientific questions about the brain does not amount to explaining Mondrian’s work. Equally, no neurobiologist interested in the brain mechanisms mediating our experience of love would want to ignore the world literature of love for insights. This does not amount to trying to “explain” (whatever that may mean) Tristan und Isolde or Madame Bovary or Wuthering Heights.

The author continues triumphantly, “Neuroaesthetics may be a very new field, and neurology may be relatively contemporary, but aesthetics has been studied for millennia.” Precisely! And that is why neuroesthetics relies so heavily on the fruits of these studies and is inspired by them. What is so outrageous about that? How does it amount to a “folly” which will “flatten all the complexity of culture”?

With such contempt does the author maneuver himself into a position where he can mock the article without troubling himself to read what we have written. He writes “It is unclear to me who, for example, decided in the UCL experiment that Guido Reni was somehow objectively less ugly than Hieronymus Bosch”. Well, it is actually spelled out quite clearly, and quite early on in our paper, that each subject gave their own rating for how beautiful the paintings they saw or the musical excerpts they listened to were. No one else rated the paintings for them. The author’s confusion nevertheless leads him to deliver a neat little lecture to those like us whom he supposes to be ignorant of art and about art, or at least less knowledgeable about it than himself: “but the claim lays bare a deeper misunderstanding about art: the idea that in the visual arts beauty is the highest aim. It is not just a legacy of Modernism that we have a more sophisticated idea about art’s aims. In the Renaissance, Caravaggio and Grunewald set out to shock, unsettle and challenge; as did Goya and Doré in the 19th century. Paintings by Poussin, David and Magritte invite a cerebral response as well as an emotive one. From revulsion to awe and from laughter to enigma, art is more than a matter of ‘beauty’”.

If he had bothered to read further down our article – though admittedly this is some 8 pages into the article - he would have seen the following:

Notions of art have since changed and many will today
acknowledge that something considered to be a work of art need
not be perceived as beautiful, good examples being some of the
paintings of Francis Bacon, or the nudes of Lucian Freud, which is
not to say that these works do not have considerable artistic merit
both in their painterly style and in projecting truths, including
truths about decay and ugliness. But any work, be it considered art
or not, may be subjectively experienced as being beautiful by an
individual. This leads us to divorce art from beauty in this
discussion and concentrate on beauty alone.

But the best is left to the end, when the author quotes approvingly Picasso as having said “when we love a woman we don’t start by measuring her limbs.” There are no quotation marks and no reference to source, so it is hard to know whether this is quoted out of context or not. Picasso was an intelligent man and I find it hard to credit him with having said something quite so silly. But assuming that the quote is not taken out of context, it must rank as one of the silliest things anyone – let alone a painter – can say. For, of course, men make very detailed assessments when they meet a woman, and women do the same when they meet men. These assessments are undertaken before they fall in love. They do not use rulers but other subtle measuring systems in the brain. Had the author not decided that all that neuroesthetics has to say is trash, he might even have learned something about the attempts of neuroscience to learn how we assess people.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The perils of neural adaptation

In neurobiology, adaptation commonly refers to a property of nerve cells which makes them less responsive to repeated exposure to the same stimulus at the same intensity. A cell responding well to, say, red light, will become less and less responsive if it is repeatedly stimulated with red light. On the other hand, if not stimulated for a while, it will recover its excitability and will then become as responsive as when first stimulated.

I presume that a basically similar operation takes place over longer periods in other systems, when we become less responsive, for example, to a song which we once liked very much.

There are no doubt many good biological reasons for having adaptation; getting adapted to a new way of doing things may be beneficial in some circumstances. But I fear it perhaps also works often to our disadvantage. Through adaptation, we begin to accept situations that we once might have thought intolerable. Through such a process, we begin to accept, for example, the prying eyes and ever increasing encroachment of the state into our affairs, something that almost no country in the world seems to be immune to. Ultimately, this works to our disadvantage but, through adaptation, we accept it with a shrug of the shoulder.

There are, however, situations where one just does not get adapted, and the neurobiology of the non-adaptive system is interesting to study, especially when applied to the linguistic system.

I recognize that the English language, like any other language, changes with usage. But I can never get adapted to the use of “that” instead of “who” when referring to people.

The most memorable thing I can remember about an ex-British prime minister is that he joined in the contemporary massacre of the English language by speaking of “people that do such things” instead of “people who do such things”.

I cannot get adapted to the vulgarity of the use of “like” – “do you, like, have, any bread, like”.

I cannot get adapted to the hopeless use of the word “inform”, which has become so common as to become a constant irritant - “the report has been informed by the design of buildings”, when I always thought that only people can inform.

I cannot get adapted to the clichés of “cutting-edge” science or “state of the art” technology, commonly used as substitutes for thinking.

I cannot even get adapted to terms that I myself am guilty of using constantly, for example saying “you know” or “I mean” constantly in a conversation – when in fact people don’t know, which is why I am telling them, and what “I mean” becomes clear only after I have told them.

In a strange way, I wish I could get adapted to these irritants, because then they will cease to be irritants.

I suppose that there is a part of our nervous systems that is resistant to adaptation. In my case, this certainly is a feature of my linguistic brain but it is not restricted to it; there are many other things that I just do not seem to be able to get adapted to.

Whether our nervous system becomes less plastic and therefore less adaptable with age, or whether adaptation is not equally potent in regulating all nervous activity, or whether it is a combination of the two plus other factors, a study of the diverse nature of adaptation would be interesting.

Thursday, January 5, 2012 & cheese experts

About thirty years ago, some wine experts in France decreed that red wines should be chilled before being served. I was idiotic enough then to believe them and so chilled my red wine …but only once or twice. I rapidly came to the conclusion that I prefer my clarets at room temperature and have never been tempted back since.

Now, in an article published last week in The Daily Telegraph, another group of experts are reported to have patronizingly told us that we have all been fooled for years, that we must really accompany cheese with white wine, not red wine since the reds dominate all but the most robust cheeses, according to them. And of course, we must continue to serve white, never red, with fish.

All this is of course stuff and nonsense. The combination of wine and cheese that go best together are the wines and the cheeses which you like, ones which give you pleasure. I have always preferred my fish with a good claret and will continue to do so. I have always preferred my cheese with a good claret and will continue to do so. I agree more with Dr. Johnson, no wine expert he, when he said that “a fish must swim three times, once in the sea, once in butter, and once in a good bottle of claret”!

No doubt, as with the silly ideas about chilling red wine that the experts pushed some thirty years ago, they will sooner or later be pushing the idea that cheeses are best accompanied by red wine after all. And recall all this fuss about nouvelle cuisine some years ago, much of it extremely dreary. In fact there is a hilarious accompanying article in the same issue of The Daily Telegraph which pokes good fun at a seemingly new brand of nouvelle cuisine restaurant, which has opened in London.

Experts can peddle their silly views only when we lack confidence in our own tastes and in our own judgment. Why we do so is itself a very interesting psychological and neurobiological problem, as is the problem of why some combinations are judged better than others and why, in spite of our better judgments, we defer to the dubious authority of experts.

Which brings me to an interesting puzzle: why is it that, in England, we have the somewhat barbaric habit of serving cheese after dessert (have any experts commented on this?). Well, I have found out the reason, or one reason. I don’t know how true it is, but it is not implausible. The French have cheese pour faire chanter le vin [to make the wine sing], before moving on to the dessert accompanied by dessert wines, which ends the formal dinner. Apparently, in England quite some time ago, there was an anxiety on the part of men to end the formal dinner as quickly as possible so that the women could retire [or be made to retire] to a separate room, and the men could continue with refined binge drinking and men talk. And since dessert ends the formal dinner in both cultures, all they had to do was swap the cheese and the dessert around. And the habit has lingered on.