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.

Do you know why you prefer the music you prefer?

A study in press at the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, carried out by Peter J. Rentfrow, Lewis R. Goldberg and Daniel J. Levitin suggests that our preferences for music are related with 5 different underlying factors.

Like with other art forms, we engage with music at many different levels. On the one hand, music emerges from a complex interaction of acoustic properties and auditory processes, but on the other it conveys emotions and has strong social connotations. One of the aims of researchers interested in musical preferences is to determine how people’s preferences for music are related with those levels. Some preferences might be influenced by music’s purely physical properties, like loudness, tempo, and so on, the emotion it conveys, or its social implications.

Rentfrow and colleagues’ objective was to characterize the underlying structure of affective reactions to music excerpts. To achieve this aim they performed four experiments. First, they assessed the preferences of a sample of Internet users for fragments of commercially released but unfamiliar pieces of music. Second, they repeated this process with a sub-sample of participants using new unreleased pieces of music. Third, they assessed the preference of a sample of university students for a subset of the new music pieces. Finally, the musical fragments were coded on a number of attributes that could be used to characterize each of the underlying preference factors.

The results of their first three experiments converge on the existence of 5 main factors underlying musical preference determined both by social connotations and particular auditory features: (i) Mellow, which comprises smooth and relaxing music; (ii) Unpretentious, including mostly singer-song writer music; (iii) Sophisticated, including music perceived as complex, intelligent and inspiring; (iv) Intense, with loud, energetic and forceful music; (v) Contemporary, which comprises rhythmic and percussive music.

Their fourth study revealed that each factor is characterized by a unique set of attributes that distinguishes it from the rest. Specifically, excerpts with high loading on the Mellow factor were perceived as slow, quiet, undistorted, romantic, relaxing, unaggressive, sad, simple and interesting. Unpretentious music is rated as undistorted, instrumental, loud, electric, not fast, somewhat romantic, relaxing, sad, unaggressive, not complicated, and not intelligent. Sophisticated includes mostly instrumental, not electric, not percussive, not distorted, not loud, intelligent, inspiring, complex, relaxing, romantic and unaggressive music. Intense music was perceived as distorted, electric, loud, percussive, dense, aggressive, not relaxing, not romantic, not intelligent, and not inspiring. Music with high loadings on the Contemporary factor was rated as percussive, electric, and not sad.

If one of neuroaesthetics’ aims is to clarify the biological underpinnings of people’s liking and preference for music, these results are of relevance for at least two reasons. First, researchers should probably take these factors into account when designing future studies. Second, it would interesting to ascertain the neurobiological concomitants of such factors, and to determine whether there are any differences among the neural correlates of the aesthetic experience of people whose preferences clearly differ across those factors.

Rentfrow, P. J., Goldberg, L. R., & Levitin, D. J. (2011, February 7). The Structure of Musical Preferences: A Five-Factor Model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0022406