Bernie Rhie: “On Neuroscience and the Arts”

I recently gave a brief gallery talk in association with an art exhibit now on display at the Williams College Museum of Art (the poster for the show is above; click on it to enlarge). This thought-provoking show (co-curated by Betty Zimmerberg, a colleague of mine at Williams College who teaches in the neuroscience program) is entitled Landscapes of the Mind: Contemporary Artists Contemplate the Brain, and it will be up through May 2. WCMA has set up a nice website associated with the exhibit, which you can visit by clicking here. If you’re in the Williamstown area, I encourage you to check it out.

My talk was entitled “On Neuroscience and the Arts,” and I thought I’d go ahead and post a copy here, since it’s one of those “lite” occasional kinds of pieces that most likely won’t find its way into article form. Posting it here also gives me an opportunity to acknowledge my debt to David Cerbone’s excellent essay, entitled “(Ef)facing the Soul: Wittgenstein and Materialism” in the new CUP collection Seeing Wittgenstein Anew: New Essays on Aspect-Seeing. David kindly sent me a copy of his contribution to the volume in advance of its publication, and I found his remarks about J.J.C. Smart’s materialism and thought-experiments about “brains-in-vats” very suggestive and helpful as I thought about how to respond to the interest some contemporary artists have taken in the brain sciences.

So for those who might be interested, here’s my talk (delivered Feb. 25):

On Neuroscience and the Arts

Bernard Rhie

I want to begin by congratulating Betty and Katie for organizing and putting on this terrific, and very thought-provoking, exhibit. This show seems to me exemplary of interdisciplinary inquiry in the very best sense. And I want to thank Betty, in particular, for generously inviting me to take part in this opening event.

I think we can all agree that an especially exciting aspect of this show is how it brings together, and puts in conversation, the sciences and the humanities – in particular, the creative visions of visual artists and the research findings of neuroscientists. For, as the scientist and novelist C.P. Snow famously said some years ago, the “two cultures” of the sciences and the humanities are all too often estranged and indeed mutually distrustful domains of contemporary cultural life, to the detriment, even impoverishment, of both. One very big question that’s therefore quite explicitly raised by this show, is how we (all of us here) ought to picture—or better yet, re-picture—the relationship between the “two cultures” that divide the split personality of our cultural imagination.

It seems to me that this show invites us to ask questions like the following about the vexed relationship between art and science: what might art have to gain (or better yet, what might art and artists have at stake) in engaging with contemporary neuroscience? And might neuroscientists have anything to gain, in turn, by paying serious attention to artists who take the sciences of the brain as their inspiration or subject matter? Or can art do no better than popularize the findings of neuroscience: finding in it, perhaps, nothing more – or deeper, that is – than further raw materials, new images or ideas with which to play? And, is it the case, then, that neuroscientists will find no more in gazing at these works than what ultimately amounts to sophisticated diversion or amusement?

Questions like these can clearly and quite quickly proliferate into many, many more… too many, obviously, to even raise, let alone deal with responsibly, in one brief gallery talk. So, let me focus, then, for the rest of my time, on just one issue or question that I see raised by the artworks in this show: how ought we to understand or picture the relationship between the human “mind” and the human “brain”?

One (perhaps obvious) answer to this question is that the two (the brain and the mind) are pretty much the same thing. To understand the brain, that is, is to understand the mind. But are they, in fact, the same thing? When we speak of the brain, are we, that is, speaking of the human mind?

More and more people nowadays are certainly coming to think so…

The brain sciences have grown explosively in the past few decades (both in their explanatory power and in their cultural prestige), and I think much of the general cultural excitement swirling around neuroscience is attributable to the increasingly widespread belief that the brain sciences are where the answers to many age-old questions about the human mind (and so, human nature) will finally be answered: questions about what it means to be conscious, to think, to feel emotions, to perceive, to know things, to understand other minds, to imagine things, and to desire… Even age-old questions about what it means to create and understand art and to behave morally. The shelves of bookstores are increasingly full of books that propose to explain everything from ethics to aesthetics by making recourse to neuroscientific explanations, often framed within an evolutionary psychological framework. Consider, for example, a recent book written by Harvard biologist Marc Hauser, which is entitled Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong. This book, as Hauser himself writes, attempts to “shift the burden of evidence [when it comes to making sense of human morality] from a philosophy of morality to a science of morality.” Where Socrates, Kant, Mill, and Rawls could not quite get morality right, neuroscience just might. Another example in this growing body of neuroscientifically-inspired literature is Laurence Tancredi’s tellingly entitled Hardwired Behavior: What Neuroscience Reveals about Morality. And then there’s Dennis Dutton’s recent book, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, which provides an evolutionary and neuroscientific account of the human animal’s fascination with making and beholding art, which, as Dutton’s title makes very clear, he sees as “instinctual.”

One good measure (among many) of how deeply neuroscientific ways of thinking of ourselves have penetrated into popular consciousness—how important neuroscience has become to the contemporary zeitgeist, if you will—is the growing number of works of literary fiction that foreground, and indeed rely heavily upon, scientific explanations of human character and behavior.

Over the past two decades, the number of novels that offer us scientific accounts of their characters’ behaviors has exploded. Consider, for example: Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love (which features a character who has de Clérambault’s syndrome), Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn (about a character with Tourette’s syndrome), Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (about a boy who is autistic), and Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker (about a character who suffers from Capgras syndrome, or facial agnosia). This is just a partial list, and it only hints at the scope of what is a much broader (and still growing) literary phenomenon.

Richard Powers’ novel The Echo Maker is a particularly good example of this new subgenre of contemporary fiction, which the critic Marco Roth has suggestively dubbed the “neuronovel.” Besides portraying a character who suffers from Capgras syndrome as a result of brain trauma, Powers’ novel also features a character, named Gerald Weber, who is obviously based upon the real life neuroscientist Oliver Sacks. And at one point in the novel, Powers has Weber give voice to the scientific vision or “dream” that I think underlies much of our current cultural obsession with neuroscience:

Weber chanced to be working [as a neuroscientist] at the precise moment when the race was making its first real headway into the basic riddle of conscious existence: How does the brain erect a mind, and how does the mind erect everything else? Do we have free will? What is the self, and where are the neurological correlates of consciousness? Questions that had been embarrassingly speculative since the beginnings of awareness were now on the verge of empirical answer…. Some days it seemed that every problem facing the species was awaiting the insight that neuroscience might bring. Politics, technology, sociology, art: all originated in the brain. Master the neural assemblage, and we might at long last master us. (The Echo Maker, p. 134)

The artworks gathered in this show are obviously part of this broader cultural moment (the “neurocultural” moment, as some have called it), and the first of my two goals in this talk was simply to present this broader contextual background, against which we might better appreciate the significance of the simple fact that artists have felt compelled to engage with neuroscientific research in the first place.

Susan Aldworth, Brainscape 18

The artist Susan Aldworth, for example, seems quite struck by the explanatory power of the brain sciences. She has said, for example, that brain imaging technologies (like fMRI) give us, for the first time, an accurate picture of the true “internal person,” which might be made the subject of an entirely new, and scientifically informed, kind of portraiture. As she puts it: “The ‘internal person’ is a proper subject of portraiture in the light of contemporary neuroscience and the consequent understanding of what it is to be human.” And for Aldworth, what the internal person is, and so what it (now) means “to be human,” is to be a brain. Quoting again from her writings: “The mind and the body are one thing, and that is my brain.”

Even within philosophy, the humanistic field that has traditionally grappled with questions about the human mind, there is a growing movement that thinks the traditional ways of exploring human nature (in an armchair, so to speak) are outdated, and that what philosophy needs to do—if it really wants to answer questions about knowledge, ethics, and beauty—is to outsource them to the empirical sciences… to psychology and neuroscience in particular. For to understand the human mind (so this line of thinking goes) we need to understand the human brain, since the mind must, at bottom, be nothing other than the brain.

After all, doesn’t it make sense to think of human consciousness as able to survive the removal of the brain from the body? Couldn’t a human brain, kept alive and floating in a vat, supplied with electrical stimuli designed to perfectly mimic ordinary sensory experience, be conscious in just the way that you and I are? Perhaps it would not even be aware that is was a brain-in-a-vat: somewhat like those sad souls plugged into The Matrix, in the film of that same name, a very creative and popular cinematic take on this originally philosophical thought-experiment. Doesn’t the intelligibility of this thought-experiment—however strange it may strike us at first glance—indicate that the mind is (and can be nothing but) the brain?

Philosophical debates about whether minds and brains are in fact the same thing are not only fierce, but often quite complex, and even esoteric. I myself happen to love thinking about them, but rather than go into them today, I want to suggest that the artworks in this show can be understood to speak to that debate as well, but in a way that is non-theoretical, and non-argumentative: a specifically aesthetic or artistic way, if you will.

This brings me to my second (and final) goal in this brief talk: to suggest why the art in this show might give us reasons to wonder (if we weren’t already wondering) whether the mind and the brain are, in fact, the same thing. And here, the fact that these are artworks: concrete, made things—rather than abstract philosophical ideas, or just words on a page—is key to the point with which I’d like to close.

To create works of art, to engage in what the Greeks called poesis (or creative making), is to work with, against, and inspired by materials: here, thread, fabric, ink, plaster… What we see, then, when we behold this art, are not just “images” or “representations” inspired by, are appropriated from, the research findings and imagery of neuroscience… but the physical traces of the movements of human hands, as well as the movements of human arms, torsos, and bodies. What I love about Rankin’s textiles, and Aldworth’s etchings, for example, is how the touch and movements of their hands and arms are everywhere evident, in the graceful swirling lines of Aldworth’s pieces here, or in the delicate embroidery of thread in Rankin’s pieces over there.

Katy Schimert, Untitled

Tactility is key. Even for Aldworth, who (as I noted) is quite tempted by the thought that the brain is the location of the true “internal person,” the beautiful artwork that emanates from that brain-centered vision everywhere insists upon the equal importance of the maker’s hand. And, noticing the explicit representation of hands and bodies on Katy Schimert’s head-shaped sculpture over there (Untitled), I cannot help but wonder if Schimert does not intend to draw our attention to the basic fact that the human mind reflecting upon itself cannot express its understanding of itself—aesthetically—except by means of the full involvement of the whole of the human body. Does it make sense, then, to insist that the “real” person is wholly “internal”?

When we think of these artists making art, do we imagine that their minds are located in their skulls? As if their brains are like central processing units (or CPU’s), which receive inputs from the various sensory systems and, in turn, send out commands to the body’s limbs and fingers? Or, faced with the tactile materiality of these artworks, do we not imagine their entire bodies, from the tops of their heads to the tips of their fingers, as suffused with (or animated, shall we say, by) what we might call mind or mindedness.

The great 20th-century philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, once famously said that “the human body is the best picture of the human soul.” Today, many might want to revise that, to read: “the human brain is the best picture of the human mind.” But to speak of the human mind or the human soul, Wittgenstein was suggesting, is not to speak of something exclusively inner (certainly not something identifiable with the physical structures of the brain), but to speak of the engagements of the entire human body with its environment, and the materials in it. To think of the human spirit is to think of something essentially embodied, incarnated, in bodily form.

I want to suggest that the significance of the human hand (whether represented or just tacit in these artworks) is that the hand’s presence invites us to ask whether we can fully grasp what we mean by the word “mind” without at the same time thinking of the whole of the human body.

So, these artworks can be read as taking very seriously the findings of the brain sciences (as indeed all of us should), but also as keeping open the question of whether the brain that neuroscience studies is in fact the same thing we are talking about when we talk about the human mind.

Artworks are not theoretical or philosophical arguments. They will not prove or refute a particular way of understanding the relationship between the mind and the brain. At most, I think, artworks can provoke us to thought, or better yet, to imagination… And by doing so, perhaps loosen the grip of argument, which is just to suggest that perhaps it is not the case that only logic or argument or scientific research will settle the issue of whether the mind and the brain are the same thing.

For further reading:

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