THE FRONT LINE: Secrets of human thinking
Financial Times; Mar 2, 2002 (front page)

Why are great aesthetic works timeless? What prompted prehistoric man to draw? Science is unveiling the laws of being human . Marilia Duffles reports

When someone says "I might not know much about art but I know what I like", they may be modestly proclaiming their appreciation of great works but their ignorance of the underlying theories. In which case, they almost certainly know far more than they realise.

A growing body of opinion sees all human activity - from art and music to language, literature and architecture - as a product of the organisation of human brains and subject to its laws. It sees a singular science of "being human".

And it is this that makes great aesthetic works timeless. It is why Mozart was able to express himself - and us - so precisely in his operas, profoundly portraying human motivation and irrationality.

It is how Leonardo da Vinci revealed human nature with a dissecting scalpel as magnificently as he did with his artist's brush. His precise anatomical drawings - often drawn next to architectural plans - were equalled by his sfumato technique, "washing" human faces with the very mystery of human thinking.

It is this "human thinking" that the Institute for Neuroaesthetics is seeking to unveil. Its first international conference, held recently in Berkeley, California, brought together scholars and scientists from all parts of the globe to join its pursuit of consilience - the integration of knowledge from various fields.

Almost as soon as humans entered the evolutionary scene they became "artists". Prehistoric art is not "primitive" but "represents features salient in the human mind as it explores the world", says Francis Steen, professor of communication studies at UCLA. It means art and science have been linked since the dawn of man in a phenomenon known today as neuroaesthetics.

Since that dawn, the most efficient method for acquiring knowledge has been vision - which probably explains why one third of the brain is devoted to it. Semir Zeki, professor of neurobiology at University College London and founder of the institute, has shown in research on the brain's visual system that great artists unwittingly expose and express the physiology of the brain in their work, using the same visual building blocks the brain uses to put together a mental picture.

First, the brain looks for the necessary features. Then it distils, or abstracts, the essence of what it sees - like a caricature does - because of its limited memory system. Zeki says we are not equipped to remember every detail of what we see.

This is the common thread that links the world inside our head with the world outside, whether on an artist's canvas, on the page of a novel, on a music sheet, in an architectural drawing or in maths problems.

Other delegates at the conference are studying the mind through different disciplines. George Lakoff, professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley, for example, analyses language with the help of neuroscience's tools to explain how we metaphorically "calculate" mathematics.

In our mind's eye, numbers are precise locations, and plus and minus signs are directions for moving in space, forward and backward. By using such methods employed by the brain for making sense of complex concepts, we could accelerate the learning curve in the teaching of maths and other subjects.

Similarly, when political rhetoric capitalises on these theories of abstraction, it leaves a lasting impression on voters' collective minds, says Lakoff. To US conservatives, he says, the metaphor that carries most weight when it comes to social policy is moral strength: being good is upright; bad is low; evil is falling, and so forth. Using such metaphors helps get conservatives' message across that "social programmes (welfare, affirmative action) are immoral and promote evil by working against self-discipline and self-reliance".

Unsurprisingly, music also taps into our neural machinery, making it a truly universal language, says Per Aage Brandt, professor of semiotics at the University of Aarhus, Denmark. It's why Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, for instance, "speaks" to us all.

Listening and performing involves metaphoric thinking, with the brain's language area being used to figure out rhythm, and its visual area to work out pitch. The latter involves the use of images symbolising something physically "high" for high pitch and the opposite for "low". The brain also has an area on the right side (temporal lobe) whose task is to help us identify a melody or tune by metaphorically stringing together the notes.

The brain has areas for unpleasant emotions activated by dissonant music and, conversely, specific areas that respond only to pleasant, consonant music. With this universal modus operandi, it's no accident that emotional highs and lows are the reason we give for listening to music.

And music does truly pluck our emotional strings: fear, happiness, and sadness elicit corresponding physiological changes of increased pulse, faster breathing, and changes in heart-rates. This neurobiological confirmation places music therapy squarely into the realm of science.

As Zeki says, Wagner's assertion that you don't need to understand his opera's libretto because his music makes it perfectly clear is fully in accordance with today's scientific thinking.

The research of Hideo Sakata, professor of neurobiology at Nihon University, Tokyo, on how the brain sees and portrays depth, gives the art world great insight into one of the most difficult tasks artists undertake.

Sakata discovered that monkeys (their visual system is analogous to humans) have neurons whose task is to combine specific visual depth-cues (such as shading, texture) with linear perspective. Sakata says Cezanne unwittingly portrayed this by painting the "same" cues the brain uses: compare his "Mt St Victoire" with Renoir's, and your brain will see the difference.

More conspicuously, his and Zeki's research provide art historians with a precise tool for accurately interpreting the techniques and intentions of old masters and art movements.

Going deeper into molecular neurobiology, Professor Jean-Pierre Changeux, at the Pasteur Institute, France, aims to identify the molecules in the brain that lie behind its emotional contemplation of art.

He points to the prefrontal cortex (front part of the brain) maintaining that artistic activity came about with the evolutionary expansion of this area. Lesions there, he says, cause difficulties in understanding meaning and emotional content and result in more impulsive, fragmented judgments of what we experience.

Neuroaesthetics is science's growth area: UC Berkeley now has a department of neuroaesthetics while the European Union is keen to invest in understanding human nature. It might not be long before neuroaesthetics helps to deepen our understanding of hotly debated issues in every field.

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Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles