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Conference report: Perspectives in Neuroaesthetics, Rome, June 13th. Objective vs. subjective beauties

I love conferences that go straight to the point. Lamberto Maffei, Presidente dell’Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, briefly welcomed us to the Giornata Lincea Golgi, and reminded us that the overarching objective of the Golgi conferences was to integrate sciences and humanities. Ernesto Carafoli, one of our hosts together with Giovanni Berlucchi, didn’t waste time either. He was clear and concise from the start about the conference’s theme: We were there to present and discuss about beauty. “Not solve the matter of what beauty is” – he said, relieving us from a tremendous responsibility – “but to make headway on the specific topic of objective versus subjective beauty”.

The one-day program was packed with very interesting contributions, and we had time to debate several points raised during the discussion. If I had to select my five personal favorite presentations, however, I would choose the following:

  • Elkhonon Goldberg (New York University): How the brain deals with novelty and ambiguities.
  • Cinzia Di Dio (Università di Parma): Neural correlates of aesthetic experience in art.
  • Salvatore Aglioti (Sapienza Università di Roma): The beauty of the body.
  • Daniela Perani (Università Vita-Salute San Raffaele, Milano): Functional and structural connectivity for language and music processing at birth.
  • Jean-Pierre Changeux (Institut Pasteur, Paris): La beauté dans le cerveau: pour une neuroscience de l’art.

Instead of trying to summarize everyone’s presentations, I’ll tell you where you can find first-hand information on these scientists’ contributions. Although you can get a nice sample of this line of Goldberg’s work here, his work is very extensive, so visit his site too. Di Dio’s well-known fMRI experiment on aesthetic experience related with classical statues can be found here. Some of the work Aglioti presented at the conference can be read here. Perani’s very impressive demonstration of functional specializations for music processing in human newborns can be found here. A partial and very brief presentation of Changeux’s views can be accessed here, in his book The Physiology of Truth: Neuroscience and Human Knowledge, and especially in his more recent book Du vrai, du beau, du bien.

Right after Carafoli’s presentation, it dawned on me more clearly than ever that Neuroaesthetics has not only inherited from Philosophical Aesthetics, among other disciplines, some of its questions, but also some of its most ancient entrenched positions and long-lasting controversies. In an enlightening paper, Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz (1963) retraces the objective-subjective controversy in aesthetics back to the Pythagoreans and the Sophists. So the question is whether we should expect neuroaesthetics to seek the neural foundations of people’s experience of things that are beautiful in themselves, or of people’s experience of things that they personally consider to be beautiful. Both options are not equivalent. One would entail the recognition of a property of the objects, and the other the construction of personal preference.

As a psychologist trained in Perception and Memory it is difficult for me to accept a purely objectivist stance. Perception is not the passive recording of information out in the environment. James Pomerantz defined perception as “the complex sequence of processes by which we take the information received from our senses and then organize and interpret it, which in turn allows us to see and hear the world around us as meaningful, recognizable objects and events with clear locations in space and time”.

In a sense, thus, perception is a constructive process. Although it does begin with sensory information, it’s purpose is not to render the world as it is, but to provide us with an image that we can understand and is coherent with our prior knowledge about the world. In order to do so, perception is guided by inference, hypotheses, and other top-down processes, as well as context, which can strongly influence the appearance of an object.

Psychologists have illustrated how much perception relies on assumptions and inferences by using illusions to playing tricks on it. One of the many illusions considered by psychologists is the well-known Müller–Lyer illusion. Objectively, both horizontal lines are the same length. Subjectively, though, the top line seems to be longer.

Surprisingly, these illusions, and presumably the assumptions that govern them, are susceptible to learning and other environmental factors, accentuating the importance of the subject and prior experience even in such basic perceptual processes. If people are unable to accurately perceive the objective lengths of the lines above, is it reasonable to expect them to perceive the objective beauty –which presumably amounts to more than line length– of complex an intricate objects, like works of art?

I don’t mean to say that the objective properties are irrelevant. I myself have done work on the effects of object features, such as symmetry and complexity, on people’s aesthetic preferences. However, even Daniel Berlyne, the father of modern empirical aesthetics, acknowledged the organizing and interpretative principles of perception when he wrote that “The collative variables are actually subjective, in the sense that they depend on the relations between physical and statistical properties of stimulus objects and processes within the organism. A pattern can be more novel, complex, or ambiguous for one person than for another or, for the same person, at one time than at another” (Berlyne, 1971, p. 19). Even early applications of information theory to psychology revealed that “the amount of information contained in a stimulus (from the experimenter’s point of view) may be varied greatly without changing the apparent complexity of the stimulus” (Attneave, 1957, p. 225).

Maybe, as in many spheres of perception, aesthetic experiences arise from the interaction of diverse object-driven and subject-driven processes. And, maybe, creating experimental conditions that aim to tease these apart will only end up removing that which is truly aesthetic from the experience.

Attneave, F. (1957). Physical determinants of the judged complexity of shapes. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 53, 221-227.

Berlyne, D. E. (1971). Aesthetics and Psychobiology. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Stop reading this blog. Look up where Werner Herzog’s documentary movie Cave of Forgotten Dreams is playing in your town. Go see this mesmerizing movie.

If you are reading this blog, you are probably interested in aesthetics and art. Furthermore, you may be interested in the way science intersects with art. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a movie about the incredible caves in Chauvet, France, that were discovered in 1994. This cave houses an amazing menagerie of Paleolithic art, with beautiful depictions of horses, bulls, mammoths and lions. One panel has a series of palm prints of a person with a crooked little finger. Footsteps of a boy about 8 were found across the floor of the cave. The floor itself is strewn with bones of cave bears, an animal now extinct. There is even a skull of a cave bear place in a rock as if on a pedestal or alter. The amazing thing is that the paintings in this cave date back to 32,000 years ago. The more famous Lascaux caves were painted around 17,000 years ago. That means the distance in time from Lascaux to Chauvet is almost the same distance in time as from the Louvre to Lascaux.

The French government assiduously protects the cave. They recognized the importance of this policy since Lascaux has been damaged by mold from the breath of hordes of tourists. Chauvet is only open for a few weeks a year in March and April. Access is restricted to a few scientists. That means you and I will never be inside this cave. Herzog offers the next best thing. He was granted unprecedented access to these caves and has produced a documentary of stunning beauty. The movie is in 3-D, but unfortunately I saw it in a theater with only 2-D capabilities. Showing how these Paleolithic artists made use of the undulations of the cave walls as part of their compositions would seem to be an ideal use of 3-D movie technology. I plan to see the movie again in 3-D.

The fact that Herzog had a limited crew that could only walk in single file over a protected path in the cave with limited lighting equipment gives the movie a charming quality. It lacks the slick gloss of a highly produced studio creation. Herzog’s own sonorous voice and inimitable ways of describing what we see and his enthusiastic reactions to the paintings carries us along the trance of watching this movie. His fascination and sense of wonder casts a spell on the viewers. It is an immersive experience. His interviews of the scientists at the site are intriguing. He asks questions on everyone’s minds. What do these paintings mean? Why did these early humans make them?

The movie has some unusual delights. I especially liked the surprising segment of a French perfumier who smells vents in the limestone cliffs, trying to detect the odor of ancient caves hidden in the recesses of the canyon walls. His description of the subtlety of old smells in the cave is marvelous.

Despite the wonders of this movie, it is not without flaws. As a scientist, I would have preferred more interviews with scientists to draw out the complexities and controversies of how best to think about these paintings. I recognized that my preference might not apply to a general audience. There are, however, two other things about the movie that were annoying. The movie’s musical score is ponderous at times. As we gaze at these amazing paintings, heavily orchestrated music tells us what emotions we are supposed to be experiencing. A subtle score that would let the viewer generate their emotions without manipulation would have been better. Finally, Herzog ends the movie with a bizarre post-script. He goes to a nuclear power plant not too far from the caves and films in a biosphere created by hot water run off from the plant. He has footage of albino crocodiles. Here, his musings so entrancing in the cave, seem disjointed and bizarre. It is as if he planned to make a separate documentary of this biosphere, but then decided to tack it onto the movie about Chauvet.

The flaws I mention are minor compared to the experience of wandering in these caves with Herzog. It is an experience of being overwhelmed by the elegance of these ancient paintings and marveling at their existence. If you love art, you must see this movie.

Perspectives in Neuroaesthetics: Rome, June 13th

To commemorate Golgi Day, the Itlian Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei is organizing a conference entitled Perspectives in Neuroaesthetics, to be held in Rome on June 13th. The topics covered by the program include the neural processing of novelty and ambiguity, neural correlates of aesthetic experience in art, neuroscience and music, brain and beauty, and many more. If you won’t be attending, don’t worry; I’ll be posting about all the highlights after the conference.