Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Fear of Neuroesthetics IV

There are some who fear neuroesthetics because they fear that it may ‘de-mystify’ what they prefer to remain mysterious. Knowledge about brain mechanisms that may be involved in the experience of beauty or of love and desire would deprive them, so they believe, of the full enjoyment of those experiences. I gather that a prominent professor has said that he regards it as ‘unwelcome’ to learn what happens in his brain when he is experiencing beauty. Presumably, if he were sitting on some research council, he would use his influence to suspend research in these areas. So, it is a relief that those who hate neuroesthetics and fear it are not in a position to halt research in the subject, at least not at present. There was a time when they could have and, in some areas of research, came close to doing so. Galileo was investigated by the Inquisition and ordered to stay silent, which he did, sort of, for a while. In the Soviet Union, a law was passed forbidding dissent from Lysenko’s anti-Mendelian views, which resulted in many losing their jobs and even being imprisoned. The law was rescinded in the 1960s.

I have no complaints against those who do not want, through knowledge, to de-mystify things which they hope will remain mysterious. That is their view, and I respect it, sort of. But it has to be noted that these are not people who are avid to learn more. It is not that they are simply dis-interested in certain things but that they are vocal in trying to discourage the rest of us from trying to learn more about important subjects – for I take it that the experience of love, beauty and desire are important and interesting subjects. In this sense, then, their intellect is somewhat limited. Though perfectly entitled to their views, these are not the sort of people whom I would like to have sitting on research councils.

In other ways, their attitude seems strange. Science has been de-mystifying things for millennia but I am not at all sure that the world has been rendered any less marvelous because of it. One could say that landing humans on the moon and bringing them back safely to earth was a step in de-mystifying the heavenly bodies, but it has not rendered the moon any less glorious; one could say that compressing all the secrets of life into two strands of DNA de-mystifies life, but it has made it all the more wondrous to me; one could also say that the role of neurotransmitters in regulating sexual behaviour (and hence determining, at least in the world of rodents, the extent of promiscuity) de-mystifies morality or immorality, at least in the world of rodents, but to me it raises a host of interesting questions about how behaviour is regulated, even when it threatens to invade the world of morality.

Perhaps much the more interesting question is a neurobiological one: why do some people (and there are many of them) prefer mystery to knowledge? What advantage does it bring them and what does it satisfy in them? If one of the functions of the brain is to acquire knowledge, what mechanism is it that suppresses the desire to acquire  knowledge in such interesting spheres, when the knowledge does not harm anyone? What dis-advantage would such knowledge bring to them?

The answers to such questions, too, might de-mystify things and those hostile to learning more might want to discourage research councils from funding research in these areas as well. But they remain, nevertheless, interesting questions and so I hope that those who want to dictate what kind of knowledge should be pursued and what avoided are never given a seat in the councils that make decisions about funding research.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Explaining art through perception

The Light Show at the Hayward Gallery, London, is a delight and, quite rightly, oversubscribed. The number entering at any one time is strictly controlled, allowing viewers the space to appreciate the exhibits – quite unlike the disgraceful “cram them in” policy at the Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery last year. Some of the exhibits, like the Chromosaturation of Carlos Cruz-Diez, or the Model for a Timeless Garden of Olafur Eliasson or Conrad Shawcross’ Show Arc Inside a Cube IV (a bit of an unnecessary mouthful this one) are ones to enjoy sensorially and to reflect about as much as one would about any work of art.

The weakness of the Hayward exhibition is that it pretends to combine science with art, or rather give a scientific explanation of the artistic exhibits, when it should really be seen as an art show and a delight to the senses, or should have appended to the exhibits something that is scientifically valid. As it is, the show was spoiled somewhat for me by the explanations appended. At the entrance, the viewer reads that “Vision is the least reliable of the senses”. What is the basis for this? Many, probably most, neurobiologists would argue exactly the opposite; it is the most reliable of the senses, perhaps reflected in the fact that so much of our brain is devoted to vision.

We are then told that “What we see, or think we see, is not always how things are”. This is a profound misunderstanding of the workings of the brain – for what we see and experience is dictated by the organization of our brains, and is precisely how things are in perceptual reality, however that reality may depart from the “objective” reality. That is why, at my own exhibition at the Pecci Museum of Contemporary Art in Milan (Bianco su bianco: oltre Malevich), the visitor was welcomed with the following statement: “The only reality we experience is brain reality”.

When one looks at the Hering Illusion, the two straight lines, which are parallel, appear perceptually to be somewhat curved. The perceptual reality dominates even when one knows that the two lines are straight and strictly parallel. Or consider the rapid motion in the rings in Isia Leviant’s Enigma; to those who see the movement, there is no doubting its reality, even if there is no actual movement in the rings.

It never ceases to surprise me that we downgrade our true perceptual reality in favour of the “objective reality”; the former is always what it does not seem, while the latter is always true. This gives to the reality we experience a subservient place when in fact the only truths that we are able to experience are brain truths.

I am not saying anything particularly new here. Immanuel Kant said it long ago – that our knowledge of this world is a compound of the objective reality and the operations of the mind; we can therefore never know the thing as it is (Das ding an sich) because our only knowledge of the world is through the operations of the mind (brain). In discussing the philosophical importance of colour vision, Arthur Schopenhauer wrote of  its importance for understanding the “Kantian doctrine of the likewise subjective, intellectual forms of all knowledge” – in other words that all knowledge is mediated through the operations of the brain.

This exhibition pretends to explain the visual sensory process through art. Thus, the exciting Chromosaturation of Carlos Cruz-Diez has appended to it the following: “since the retina perceives a wide range of colours simultaneously, experiencing these monochromatic situations causes visual disturbances”.

Almost everything in that statement is incorrect. There are no monochromatic lights in the exhibit (all the lights are broadband although there may be some dominance of one waveband over the others in some), the retina does not “perceive” colours, and there is no “visual disturbance” but only visual sensory excitement, leaving one wondering where the “misty” environment induced comes from. The exhibit would have been better without these incorrect explanations. Why not call it an unusual visual experience instead?

Perhaps artists do not read about advances in science – why should they after all? Perhaps we do not explain our findings properly. Whatever the real reasons, here is a good example of artists and curators trying to explain perceptual processes through artistic achievements and doing so very badly and, worse, inaccurately. It is exactly the reverse of what neuroesthetics has been falsely accused of doing, namely explain works of art through neuroscience, even though that is not its aim (see this post and this post).

Hence, my advice is – go to this delightful exhibition and enjoy the exhibits as creative works of art. Many might want to do more than that; they might wonder what these exhibits tell us about the brain’s perceptual mechanism. But, please ignore the explanations appended to the exhibits – they say nothing about the visual process, or about the sensory brain or about perception, which is not to say that viewing these works does not raise questions about sensory processes.

Here, then, is an exhibition which inspires thinking about the operations of the brain. It is not what it pretends to be, namely an explanations of overall sensory processes. It is a good illustration of how works of art can inspire neuroesthetic studies.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Judgment without "facts"

A jury was unable to reach a verdict at a recent high profile trial of the wife of a disgraced ex-politician who had been accused of the obstruction of justice. The jury came in for much ridicule for the questions they asked of the judge while deliberating. The lawyer for the prosecution,

 “questioned whether the case could continue. “I don’t ever recollect getting to this stage in any trial – even for more complicated trials than this – and after two days of retirement a list of questions of this very basic kind illustrating at least some jurors don’t appear to have grasped it,” he said.”

I myself do not share the view that these were all silly or irrelevant questions, although one was somewhat funny and got a funny answer in return:

[Jury]: Can you define what is reasonable doubt?
[Judge]: A reasonable doubt is a doubt which is reasonable. These are ordinary English words that the law doesn’t allow me to help you with beyond reasonable written directions.

But my main interest is the jurors’ question that captured the headline in at least one daily newspaper:

[Jury]: Can a juror come to a verdict based on a reason that was not presented in court and has no facts or evidence to support it either from the prosecution or the defence?
[Judge]: The answer to that question is firmly no. That is because it would be completely contrary to the directions I have given.

But in assessing a situation we often rely on evidence that is not “factual” in the literal sense but may be factual in that it speaks to our faculties of judgment. It is absurd to believe that we do not frequently come to doubt whether someone is telling the truth simply by studying their body language, or the hesitation in the voice or because when we gaze into the eyes, there was something that jarred with the ‘factual’ story being told.

I myself have been a juror on two occasions and can testify that these, though not facts presented in court and do not constitute evidence presented by the prosecution or the defence, nevertheless play an important role in reaching a decision. I believe that, in addition to the evidence presented in court, my co-jurors used the same or similar signals in reaching our common verdict.

I have also asked judges whether, when presiding over a case, they use visual cues which are not facts presented in court to reach a judgment as to whether the defendant is innocent or guilty. They have always answered that it plays an important role. Of course in most such cases, the judge can leave the final verdict to the jury but there have been cases where the judge has disagreed with the jury. Somerset Maugham even wrote a very interesting short story about the consequences of such a divergence of views when the judge in a case meets the (acquitted) accused years later at a dinner party (I read it years ago and cannot now recall its name).

The final verdict must depend significantly upon whether a witness or the accused is telling the truth or lying and, in judging that, many factors besides the evidence presented in court come into play – in the form of signals that the brain receives and interprets but which do not constitute part of the body of evidence presented in court.

My point is that the brain is very good at picking up signals that do not constitute ‘evidence’ in the legal sense but are nevertheless vital in reaching judgment.

Nor am I saying something new. Everyone knows that we make judgments based on objectively non-factual but subjectively critical evidence, nearly every day.

Hence, to ridicule the jurors’ question given above is silly. It is indeed as silly as the statement attributed to Picasso, which I alluded to in a previous post, that when we love a woman we don’t start by measuring her limbs.” The truth is of course otherwise; we actually start by making very detailed, often nearly instantaneous but perhaps partially unconscious, measurements of a great deal before we fall in love.