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Jonah Lehrer on Art and the Brain

Jonah Lehrer on why the mind loves art.

Jonah Lehrer began his career working in a neuroscience lab but soon realized he was a terrible scientist, continually finding new ways to botch experiments. So instead he turned his intellect to writing, publishing an essay and later a book about the experience of reading Proust's novels about memory while working in a memory lab.

In reporting that book, Lehrer stumbled upon the field of neuroaesthetics, the study of how the brain interprets art. But far from "unweaving the rainbow," as John Keats worried it would, science doesn't take away from the mystery and majesty of art, says Lehrer. "It's very important to avoid the idea of ‘nothing but,' says Lehrer. "That Mark Rothko is ‘nothing but' a twitch of cells in the D4 part of the visual cortex, that simply knowing anatomical correlates explains away everything. This is simply a new level and layer of description."

For more on neuroaesthetics, see Lehrer's feature article "Unlocking the Mysteries of the Artistic Mind" in the August 2009 issue of Psychology Today. (Note that for the moment, the online version features only the first page.)

How did you become a journalist?

How did you become a journalist?

I was working as a technician in a neuroscience lab, Eric Kandel's. And it slowly dawned on me that I was a terrible scientist. The post-doc I worked for, who remains one of my closest friends, used to always joke—although he really wasn't joking—that I excelled at experimental failure, that I found new ways of making experiments not work. You know, mixing up buffers in every PCR I did. In every Northern, Western, Southern, every kind of experiment, I found new and innovative ways to make stupid mistakes.

As much as I loved the ideas of science, I slowly realized I didn't have the discipline, cast of mind, the ability to take very big questions and break them down into testable, empirical chunks. You have to love the manual labor of science in order to be a great scientist. So I slowly realized that as much as I loved hanging out with scientists, talking in acronyms, the ideas and theories of science, I wasn't cut out for the scientific process. So that's when I started thinking about how can I write about this? How can I stay involved without having to use a micropipette or wear latex gloves on my hands?

When I was still working the lab, I wrote a short essay called "Proust Was a Neuroscientist," about the experience of reading Proust's novels about memory while working in a lab that studied the chemistry of memory. That essay was lucky enough to get noticed by an agent, who encouraged me to write a book about other artists. That's what I spent a year doing while I should have been a grad student.

How did you get interested in the study of how the brain interprets art?

It grew organically from the stuff I talk about in Proust Was a Neuroscientist. About how the ideas of modern art—everyone from Walt Whitman to Virginia Woolf—relate to the truths that modern neuroscience has stumbled upon and discovered. To me, neuroscience's promise is really about, "Here are these great works of art that tickle our visual cortex for reasons we can't understand."

There's a reason we still look at Mark Rothko, there's a reason we look at Rembrandt. By reverse-engineering the art you can not only learn something interesting about art but also learn something interesting about the brain. So it's a very rich intersection for both our cultures—for art historians and also for neuroscientists. So I think it's exciting because it's such a new field. For me what's exciting about Ramachandran's idea is that these are very outlandish hypotheses. These are very tentative theories, but I think he just wants to get ideas out there. Other people can come along and test them and see what's right and what's not. But just to start the conversation at this point is the crucial element.

How does learning about this stuff change the way you see the world?

It has in a sense changed the way I walk around museums. It gave me a new language with which to describe why I find Monets beautiful, why I can't look away from Jackson Pollock.

It's not that it simply replaces our other descriptions—that's a very important point. It doesn't eliminate the need for good art critics and good art historians. It simply gives you a new set of tools to describe these masterpieces. At its best, that's what this cultural intersection gives us.

One phrase that is very important to avoid is "nothing but." That Mark Rothko is "nothing but" a twitch of cells in the D4 part of the visual cortex. That simply knowing the anatomical correlates for something explains away everything. I think that's absolutely wrong. This is simply a new level and layer of description to add on to the other levels of descriptions we have.

What's the most surprising thing you learned?

One idea I love is the Mona Lisa and peripheral vision. The reason her smile is so enigmatic and alluring is that it literally changes depending on how you look at it. Da Vinci engineered a paradox into the painting. That depending whether you're staring at it straight on or out of the corner of your eye, whether you're looking at her lips or her eyes, her smile has this subtle shift to it. That to me is such a simple idea. You don't have to get lost in discussions of retinal cells or ganglion cells. But it does explain to a certain extent the intriguing history of her smile.

You wrote about how when you look at her eyes, the shading around her mouth makes it look like she's smiling—but when you look at the mouth directly, you see that she's not. Could that happen on a real person? Or did Da Vinci create an optical illusion, where we're confused because it couldn't happen on a real person?

If the lighting were exactly right, I think it could happen on a real person. But what great art does is somehow capture the exact right moment. They take the perfect snapshot and immortalize that in paint. In theory that could happen. But it never happens because shading isn't exactly right and the person's lips aren't in the exact right position. So if everything came together we could have a real-life Mona Lisa. But why do we need that, when we can just look at the painting?

One other interesting thing about the Mona Lisa. One interesting implication of neuroaesthetics is that a lot of art benefits from being seen in person. When we look at a small image on a computer screen, we're not seeing it the way Leonardo meant it to be seen. The effect doesn't exist because our eyes don't have to oscillate between her eyes and her mouth. The effect only exists on the canvas itself or a big reproduction of the canvas. Sometimes we have the idea that art is just the pictorial content. But it's an object, it's an item, and sometimes it's best seen in its original pictorial form.

How have your friends reacted to this stuff when you've talked about it?

Well, once they're done making fun of me for always talking about the visual cortex at MOMA, people find it interesting. The people who find it most interesting are actual artists. In general, artists are intuitive experimentalists. They make a brush stroke and step back and see if the brush stroke works. They're constantly asking questions of the visual cortex and trying to figure out if this line or that line is better. They're fascinated by learning a bit about what's happening inside their head, what those electrical cells are doing. What they prefer and why they prefer it. In my experience, artists are the most eager to close this gap between the cultures.

Do they intuitively agree, or do they resist it?

I've just talked to artists who are, like, "Wow, that's really interesting, I already knew that intuitively." There's sometimes a sense of scientists rediscovering the wheel. But I have yet to talk to an artist who vociferously disagrees and is adamant that his brain doesn't work that way. I'm sure that artist is out there and I'm sure there are ideas that don't make sense to artists. But in general, I find that artists are very eager to learn and tend to agree and are happy to have scientific data to back up ideas and intuitions they've been having for centuries.

What kind of art do you make?

I wish I had an ounce of talent. I used to write poetry, but like scientific experimentation, I realized I was terrible at it and should stick to appreciating it.

Do you think the next frontier is for neuroliterarians to break down the principles that make poetry great?

That in a sense is the next frontier. I think it's much, much more difficult because you're dealing with fleeting ideas which are more difficult to study than bits and photons and voxels and small sensory inputs. So it's a much tougher thing to study. But we could get there. There's already some interesting work, literary Darwinism, about why we find narratives in novels appealing. So, in general, I think that's a fruitful way science and art can intersect, in studying novels and narratives. It gets back to why little kids come up with imaginary friends. The human mind loves inventing characters. We love thinking about other minds. Who knows why that exists, but there are some interesting theories out there.

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