Sunday, September 26, 2010

It Sounds Blue! Kandinsky and the Brain

The overwhelming "what? that's going on right now too?!" of New York City has hit me for real this month, so the blog posts are sadly lacking. But, since this science journalism stuff means I am bombarded with ideas and stories to write about a day, I'm going to make an extra effort to post more often (I need at least some partial record of my thoughts during these wonderfully-crazy months).

So, for starters, I have to share this amazing series in the New Scientist called "Six ways that artists hack your brain." It's all about the neuroscience and psychology of how we perceive/understand/interpret artwork (or get really confused by it). To my surprise, this cross-disciplinary field even has its own a name: neuroaesthetics. Below is a quote from one section about synaesthetes, people who have a neurological condition where their senses seem to get mixed up – they'll hear blue or taste yellow, for example.
LETTERS, words, numbers, sounds, touch, pain and smell all trigger flashes of colour in Carol Steen's mind. The New York-based artist first discovered she could paint her synaesthetic visions after a visit to her acupuncturist. "Each time a needle went in a colour flashed in front of my eyes," she recalls. "When all the needles were in it was like watching a movie. I rushed home and realised I could recall enough to paint a part of what I had seen."

Other synaesthetic artists include David Hockney and Wassily Kandinsky, who painted the piece below, entitled Blue. There is still some speculation over whether Kandinsky actually had synaesthesia or was simply influenced by reports of the phenomenon in other people. But to Christopher Tyler of the Smith-Kettlewell Brain Imaging Center in San Francisco, who has analysed Kandinsky's work, it is obvious (Journal of the History of Neuroscience, vol 12, p 223). "It's very explicit in his work and his writings. He went to a performance of Wagner's music and then wrote about how vivid the visual impressions of the horns were and the colour that the music evoked in his mind. That's synaesthesia," he says.

Steen agrees: "I saw a sphere like the one in Kandinsky's Blue in one of my acupuncture sessions. Since it is really hard to explain your visions to someone, I assume Kandinsky was a synaesthete." The striking colour contrast with the red dot is also familiar to her.

These experiences are probably due to extra connections between the auditory and visual cortex, says Jack Cowan, a mathematical neuroscientist at the University of Chicago. He thinks the additional flow of information into the visual cortex overloads its normal inhibitory mechanisms, allowing spontaneous waves of activity that would normally be eliminated to propagate through the brain. These signals may represent shape or colour. Since the brain can't tell whether a signal was generated within the brain or externally, synaesthetes see the shapes as if they came from the eye.

Check out the other parts of the series like the emotional response to impressionism or Dali's illusions. More to come soon!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Two Cultures (and many more)

The first official reading assignment for school (yes, very excited to be a student again!) is C.P. Snow's "The Two Cultures." I've come across this essay – originally a lecture in 1959 – several times over the past year, mostly in the context of "look what a knowledge gap there is between scientists and the public" or "scientists are just fundamentally different people from the rest." Snow articulates a serious problem he notices in Western society: the splitting of intellectual life (and in turn, practical life) into two polar groups that do not communicate and do not understand one another. These two groups, literary intellectuals and scientists, have become increasingly isolated by a "gulf of mutual incomprehension." The gulf is widened by hostility, distortion, and most of all just a lack of understanding. In later writings, Snow called for a "third culture" to bridge this gap.

Even though Snow was writing 50 years ago, his observations are still relevant today. Many recent articles and books reference the "two cultures" theme, although it seems the modern flavor of this dichotomy has shifted – less "science & humanities" and more "science & everyone else". Those who can speak science to the masses – bypassing the literary intellectuals – are what John Brockman, editor of the Edge magazine, calls "third-culture thinkers." This brand of intellectuals include people like E.O. Wilson, Stephen Jay Gould, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett. The success of popular science books may surprise the "old-style intellectuals," (Brockman's phrase) but he thinks this is just a sign that science is becoming the new popular culture. 

"The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are... 
Today, third-culture thinkers tend to avoid the middleman and endeavor to express their deepest thoughts in a manner accessible to the intelligent reading public. The recent publishing successes of serious science books have surprised only the old-style intellectuals. Their view is that these books are anomalies--that they are bought but not read. I disagree. The emergence of this third-culture activity is evidence that many people have a great intellectual hunger for new and important ideas and are willing to make the effort to educate themselves."

While I do agree with much of Brockman's characterization, I have some concerns about these "third culture" scientists. Thinking it sufficient to communicate directly to the public, they sometimes ignore the arts and humanities altogether, or act as if science has taken its "rightful" place at the top of the intellectual kingdom. To build a bridge across the gulf, there must be collaboration and openness between the disciplines – what Jonah Lehrer's calls a "fourth culture.

“This fourth culture, much closer in concept to Snow’s original definition… will ignore arbitrary intellectual boundaries, seeking instead to blur the lines that separate. It will freely transplant knowledge between the sciences and humanities, and will focus on connecting the reductionist fact to our actual experience. It will take a pragmatic view of truth, and it will judge truth not by its origins but by its usefulness." (from Proust Was a Neuroscientist)

Chris Mooney, author of Unscientific America, agrees with Lehrer. But he takes the argument one step further, urging science to interact and learn from all parts of society. 

"It’s not just that we need people transplanting knowledge between science and humanities—it’s that we need people who can transplant between science, the humanities, politics, communication, law, business—and everything else. All other walks of life, types of talent, kinds of expertise…the more science draws upon these and the more these intersect with science, the closer science will move back into relationship with the society that fosters it." 

For Mooney, science should not attempt to take the place of other intellectual traditions, but rather it should mesh and share ideas freely with all of them. 

And at this rate (with enough communication, interaction, and Snow's 1959 lecture firmly in mind) we may end up with a fourth, fifth, or sixth culture sooner than we expect.

Related link: Are We Beyond the Two Cultures? Video series from