Review of Art and the Brain: Plasticity, Embodiment and the Unclosed Circle
Brill Rodopi, Leiden, NL, 2016
364 pp., illus. Trade, $151.00
This book is generally about what our brains do with respect to the arts and culture, rather than how they do it. While the author Amy Ione discusses the biological structure of the brain, she is more concerned with the larger domain of brain, environment and cognition. She is also concerned with how it is that every individual develops a unique brain and sense of the world. These ideas are introduced in Chapter 1 as part of the definitions and elaborations of embodiment and plasticity, including the image of the unclosed circle to emphasis that our understanding is never complete.
Ione uses history as a general framework in developing her narrative, with the chapters arranged in historical sequence from early Neolithic times to the present. With the enormous amount of complex material to draw on, she needs a way to select material. She has relied on a personal approach, in the sense that she emphasizes what interests her and best illustrates her ideas. This leads to a book that can provide interesting commentary, but not an authoritative history that would include all the major events and trends.
I have reviewed the book, chapter by chapter, and included quoted statements from the book (with page numbers) to provide a sense of the author’s approach. In the interest of getting the overall objective feel of the book, I have tried to avoid any biases in my comments.
Chapter 2, entitled “Framing Art and the Brain”, begins by presenting the concept of deep time and deep history which leads to a discussion of early cave paintings and the multiple theories about their purpose and significance. She then discusses trepanation of the skull, a practice that apparently goes back to the Neolithic period. While there is no evidence to suggest any relationship between cave painting and trepanation in deep time, the author uses this discussion to point out that “traces of deep history offer an early glimpse into how the brain develops extensions outside of itself” (p. 30).
In Chapter 3 through 9 she reviews historically the ways artist and scientists have visually represented the brain and the rest of the nervous system, from early attempts based on incomplete observations to the later, more accurate work based on detailed dissections made possible by the preservation of the tissue. Later chapters come back to more recent representations of the nervous system. For example, in Chapter 15 she talks about the Allosphere – a surround environment which represents the brain as an immersive environment. Attempts to locate the soul in the brain are discussed. There are digressions that describe the personalities of some of the major characters, which give a human dimension to the facts and ideas.
In Chapter 10 there is a discussion of 18th and 19th Century studies of the electric eel and electricity as the “spark of life” with the experiments to use electricity to bring back life, in recognition of a relationship between electricity and the nervous system. This leads to the next chapter which reviews Mary Shelley’s classic, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, in which Frankenstein created life in the laboratory with an electrical spark. A major portion of the discussion in this chapter is concerned with issues current in the 19th century which centered on a critique of scientists acting as gods and going too far to get knowledge at any cost.
Chapter 12 starts with an extensive discussion of the ideas of Kant and Goethe, including how these ideas relate to Semir Zeki’s contemporary neuroaethetics. The last section of the chapter begins with biographic information about Jean Paul Marat and a detailed critique and analysis of David’s painting of Marat’s death. It is suggested that the painting is intended as a statement of Kant’s call for people to have the courage to think independently. Then there is a discussion of how artists used light and shadow in the context of the technology available at the time. This illustrates how “the coupling of historical and contemporary perspectives shows current understandings of optics and physiology emerged from tradition, dogma, research and subjective insights” (p. 209).
Chapter 13 moves to the 19th Century with discussions of phrenology, Impressionism and the early experimental psychologists, many of whom had a major interest in art and aesthetics. The author reviews the debate about holistic versus localized functioning in the brain. There is discussion of the visual representations of emotions and insanity by Gericault, Bell, and others, as this reflects the relationships between art and the brain. “In summary, experimental and cultural changes in the 19th and 20th centuries continued to show a plasticity of ideas as creative people developed novel techniques to probe the inner and outer landscape” (p. 232).
Chapter 14, “Technological Innovations and the Nervous System”, begins with a discussion of Dickens and others as they responded to the new machine-based, polluting, and oppressive society of the 19th century. This leads to another dominant personality, Charles Darwin, with his work on evolution and his book on emotional expression. One of the innovations that he incorporated was the use of photography to illustrate the emotions. Further uses of photography by Muybridge and others are presented as ways of capturing information that the brain is incapable of doing in real time. The movie version of Frankenstein is also discussed in the context of the earlier discussion of the book.
Chapter 15, “The Possible, Improbable, and Realization of the Magical”, starts by describing the discovery and early use of X-ray, followed by discussions of ESP, moving films, synesthesia and the Allosphere mentioned earlier. The author emphasizes the magical nature of new phenomena and the process of assimilating these new processes into our collective consciousness.
In Chapter 16, “Perception and Frames of Reference”, the author begins by presenting Magritte’s illusionary art with speculation on how brains establish frames of reference to understand reality. This includes consideration of both genetic predispositions and subsequent learning experiences that shape the ways our mature brains function. At the end of the chapter, after some discussion, she seems to suggest that many attempts to bridge the gap between science and art are misguided. While they have some commonalities, art and science each offer some things that the other cannot.
From the Postscript - “In summary, I hope that the variations from historical period to historical period serve as an open model of human complexity, one that encourages us to value an ongoing engagement with varied modalities” (p. 307).