the future of science… is art? (1)

Jonah Lehrer

 

Alexander Calder, Black Peacock (1950). This mobile is a powerful example of how an art form can be tailored to the physiology of a specific area in the brain. Calder’s composition anticipated, artistically, the physiological properties of the cells of an area called V5, which are selectively responsive to motion and its direction. Viewed from a distance, the separate pieces of the mobile appear as static spots of varying sizes. But as the pieces move in different directions, each one stimulates only the category of cell that is selectively responsive to the direction in which the spot is moving.—Semir Zeki, Neuroscientist, University College London. © Christie’s Images/Corbis.

In the early 1920s, Niels Bohr was struggling to reimagine the structure of matter. Previous generations of physicists had thought the inner space of an atom looked like a miniature solar system with the atomic nucleus as the sun and the whirring electrons as planets in orbit. This was the classical model.

But Bohr had spent time analyzing the radiation emitted by electrons, and he realized that science needed a new metaphor. The behavior of electrons seemed to defy every conventional explanation. As Bohr said, “When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry.” Ordinary words couldn’t capture the data.

Bohr had long been fascinated by cubist paintings. As the intellectual historian Arthur Miller notes, he later filled his study with abstract still lifes and enjoyed explaining his interpretation of the art to visitors. For Bohr, the allure of cubism was that it shattered the certainty of the object. The art revealed the fissures in everything, turning the solidity of matter into a surreal blur.

Bohr’s discerning conviction was that the invisible world of the electron was essentially a cubist world. By 1923, de Broglie had already determined that electrons could exist as either particles or waves. What Bohr maintained was that the form they took depended on how you looked at them. Their very nature was a consequence of our observation. This meant that electrons weren’t like little planets at all. Instead, they were like one of Picasso’s deconstructed guitars, a blur of brushstrokes that only made sense once you stared at it. The art that looked so strange was actually telling the truth.

It’s hard to believe that a work of abstract art might have actually affected the history of science. Cubism seems to have nothing in common with modern physics. When we think about the scientific process, a specific vocabulary comes to mind: objectivity, experiments, facts. In the passive tense of the scientific paper, we imagine a perfect reflection of the real world. Paintings can be profound, but they are always pretend.

This view of science as the sole mediator of everything depends upon one unstated assumption: While art cycles with the fashions, scientific knowledge is a linear ascent. The history of science is supposed to obey a simple equation: Time plus data equals understanding. One day, we believe, science will solve everything.

But the trajectory of science has proven to be a little more complicated. The more we know about reality—about its quantum mechanics and neural origins—the more palpable its paradoxes become. As Vladimir Nabokov, the novelist and lepidopterist, once put it, “The greater one’s science, the deeper the sense of mystery.”

Consider, for example, the history of physics. Once upon a time, and more than once, physicists thought they had the universe solved. Some obscure details remained, but the basic structure of the cosmos was understood. Out of this naïveté, relativity theory emerged, fundamentally altering classical notions about the relationship of time and space. Then came Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and the surreal revelations of quantum physics. String theorists, in their attempts to reconcile ever widening theoretical gaps, started talking about eleven dimensions. Dark matter still makes no sense. Modern physics knows so much more about the universe, but there is still so much it doesn’t understand. For the first time, some scientists are openly wondering if we, in fact, are incapable of figuring out the cosmos.

Or look at neuroscience. Only a few decades ago, scientists were putting forth confident conjectures about “the bridging principle,” the neural event that would explain how the activity of our brain cells creates the subjective experience of consciousness. All sorts of bridges were proposed, from 40 Hz oscillations in the cerebral cortex to quantum coherence in microtubules. These were the biological processes that supposedly turned the water of the brain into the wine of the mind.

But scientists don’t talk about these kinds of bridging principles these days. While neuroscience continues to make astonishing progress in learning about the details of the brain—we are a strange loop of kinase enzymes and synaptic chemistry— these details only highlight our enduring enigma, which is that we don’t experience these cellular details. It is ironic, but true: The one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know.

The fundamental point is that modern science has made little progress toward any unified understanding of everything. Our unknowns have not dramatically receded. In many instances, the opposite has happened, so that our most fundamental sciences are bracketed by utter mystery. It’s not that we don’t have all the answers. It’s that we don’t even know the question.

This is particularly true for our most fundamental sciences, like physics and neuroscience. Physicists study the fabric of reality, the invisible laws and particles that define the material world. Neuroscientists study our perceptions of this world; they dissect the brain in order to understand the human animal. Together, these two sciences seek to solve the most ancient and epic of unknowns: What is everything? And who are we?

But before we can unravel these mysteries, our sciences must get past their present limitations. How can we make this happen? My answer is simple: Science needs the arts. We need to find a place for the artist within the experimental process, to rediscover what Bohr observed when he looked at those cubist paintings. The current constraints of science make it clear that the breach between our two cultures is not merely an academic problem that stifles conversation at cocktail parties. Rather, it is a practical problem, and it holds back science’s theories. If we want answers to our most essential questions, then we will need to bridge our cultural divide. By heeding the wisdom of the arts, science can gain the kinds of new insights and perspectives that are the seeds of scientific progress.

Antonín Dvořák, Symphony n. 7 in D Minor, Op. 70 (1885). A particular region in the prefrontal cortex of the human brain, Brodmann Area 47, is engaged in trying to figure out what’s going to happen next in a sequence of events manifested over time, in spoken language, signed language, music, etc. When expectations are met, these neural circuits are rewarded and reinforced. When expectations are violated, a different part of our brain, the anterior cingulated, becomes activated, focusing our attention on the unexpected sequence. The end of Dvořák’s 7th Symphony is a wonderful artistic exploration of the delicate orchestration of neural responses that allows us to feel both surprised and rewarded by clever permutations of what we’re accustomed to. We retrieve these perceptions from episodic memory traces the next time we hear a similar piece of music.—Daniel Levitin, Neuroscientist, McGill University.

Since its inception in the early 20th century, neuroscience has succeeded in becoming intimate with the brain. Scientists have reduced our sensations to a set of discrete circuits. They have imaged our cortex as it thinks about itself, and calculated the shape of ion channels, which are machined to subatomic specifications.

And yet, despite this vast material knowledge, we remain strangely ignorant of what our matter creates. We know the synapse, but don’t know ourselves. In fact, the logic of reductionism implies that our selfconsciousness is really an elaborate illusion, an epiphenomenon generated by some electrical shudder in the frontal cortex. There is no ghost in the machine; there is only the vibration of the machinery. Your head contains 100 billion electrical cells, but not one of them is you, or knows or cares about you. In fact, you don’t even exist. The brain is nothing but an infinite regress of matter, reducible to the callous laws of physics.

The problem with this method is that it denies the very mystery it needs to solve. Neuroscience excels at unraveling the mind from the bottom up. But our self-consciousness seems to require a top-down approach. As the novelist Richard Powers wrote, “If we knew the world only through synapses, how could we know the synapse?” The paradox of neuroscience is that its astonishing progress has exposed the limitations of its paradigm, as reductionism has failed to solve our emergent mind. Much of our experiences remain outside its range.

This world of human experience is the world of the arts. The novelist and the painter and the poet embrace those ephemeral aspects of the mind that cannot be reduced, or dissected, or translated into the activity of an acronym. They strive to capture life as it’s lived. As Virginia Woolf put it, the task of the novelist is to “examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day […] [tracing] the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.” She tried to describe the mind from the inside.

Neuroscience has yet to capture this first-person perspective. Its reductionist approach has no place for the “I” at the center of everything. It struggles with the question of qualia. Artists like Woolf, however, have been studying such emergent phenomena for centuries, and have amassed a large body of knowledge about such mysterious aspects of the mind. They have constructed elegant models of human consciousness that manage to express the texture of our experience, distilling the details of real life into prose and plot. That’s why their novels have endured: because they feel true. And they feel true because they capture a layer of reality that reductionism cannot.

By taking these artistic explorations seriously, neuroscientists can better understand the holistic properties they are trying to parse. Before you break something apart, it helps to know how it hangs together. In this sense, the arts are an incredibly rich data set, providing science with a glimpse into its blind spots. If neuroscience is ever going to discover the neural correlates of consciousness, or find the source of the self, or locate the cells of subjectivity—if it’s ever going to get beyond a glossary of our cortical parts—then it has to develop an intimate understanding of these higher-order mental events. This is where the current methods of science reach their limit.

What neuroscience needs is a new method, one that’s able to construct complex representations of the mind that aren’t built from the bottom up. Sometimes, the whole is best understood in terms of the whole. William James, as usual, realized this first. The eight chapters that begin his epic 1890 textbook, The Principles of Psychology, describe the mind in the conventional third-person terms of the experimental psychologist. Everything changes, however, with chapter nine. James starts this section, “The Stream of Thought,” with a warning: “We now begin our study of the mind from within.”

With that single sentence, as radical in sentiment as the modernist novel, James tried to shift the subject of psychology. He disavowed any scientific method that tried to dissect the mind into a set of elemental units, be it sensations or synapses. Such a reductionist view is the opposite of science, James argued, since it ignores our actual reality.

Modern science didn’t follow James’ lead. In the years after his textbook was published, a “New Psychology” was born, and this rigorous science had no need for Jamesian vagueness. It wanted to purge itself of anything that couldn’t be measured. The study of experience was banished from the laboratory.

But artists continued creating their complex simulations of consciousness. They never gave up on the ineffable, or detoured around experience because it was too difficult. They plunged straight into the pandemonium. No one demonstrates this better than James Joyce. In Ulysses, Joyce attempted to capture the mind’s present tense. Everything in the novel is seen not from the omniscient perspective of the author, but through the concave lenses of his imaginary characters. We eavesdrop on their internal soliloquies, as Bloom, Stephen, and Molly think about beauty, and death, and eggs in bed, and the number eight. This, Joyce says, is the broth of thought, the mind before punctuation, the stream of consciousness rendered on the page. Ulysses begins where William James left off.

Similarly, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, enchanted with opium, was writing poetry about the “the mind’s self-experience in the act of thinking” long before there was even a science of the mind. Or look at the world of visual art. As the neuroscientist Semir Zeki notes, “Artists [painters] are in some sense neurologists, studying the brain with techniques that are unique to them.” Monet’s haystacks appeal to us, in part, because he had a practical understanding of color perception. The drip paintings of Jackson Pollock resonate precisely because they excite some peculiar circuit of cells in the visual cortex. These painters reverse-engineered the brain, discovering the laws of seeing in order to captivate the eye.

Of course, the standard response of science is that such art is too incoherent and imprecise for the scientific process. Beauty isn’t truth; Monet got lucky. The novel is just a work of fiction, which is the opposite of experimental fact. If it can’t be plotted on a line graph or condensed into variables, then it’s not worth taking into account. But isn’t such incoherence an essential aspect of the human mind? Isn’t our inner experience full of gaps and non-sequiturs and inexplicable feelings? In this sense, the messiness of the novel and the abstraction of the painting is actually a mirror. As the poetry critic Randall Jarrell put it, “It is the contradictions in works of art which make them able to represent us—as logical and methodical generalizations cannot—our world and our selves, which are also full of contradictions.”

No scientific model of the mind will be wholly complete unless it includes what can’t be reduced. Science rightfully adheres to a strict methodology, relying on experimental data and testability, but this method could benefit from an additional set of inputs. The cultural hypotheses of artists can inspire the questions that stimulate important new scientific answers. Until science sees the brain from a more holistic perspective—and such a perspective might require the artistic imagination—our scientific theories will be detached from the way we see ourselves.

Neuroscience, of course, believes that it has no inherent limitations. One day, a team of scientists may explain human consciousness. The bridging principle will be solved. The mystery of experience will turn out to be another trick of matter. Such scientific optimism might be right. Only time will tell. (It’s worth noting that not every scientist is quite so optimistic. Noam Chomsky, for example, has declared that, “It is quite possible—overwhelmingly probable, one might guess—that we will always learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology.”) Regardless, it’s clear that solving the deepest mysteries of the brain—what the philosopher David Chalmers calls “the hard questions of consciousness”—will require a new scientific approach, one that is able to incorporate the wisdom of the arts. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, but we are also just stuff. Neither truth, when seen alone, is our solution, for our reality exists in plural.

M.C. Escher, Relativity (1953). I believe that understanding the world is a lot like seeing the world, and the visual illusions to which the eye is prone provide exquisite metaphors for the cognitive illusions to which the mind is prone. When you first look at a drawing such as Escher’s Relativity, everything seems fine. But as you inspect it you suddenly realize that what you’re seeing is impossible—each section of the canvas is coherent but all these possible parts add up to an impossible whole. Escher’s work exposes the masterful fraud that our brains perpetrate upon us—the neural magic show that we call reality.—Daniel Gilbert, Psychologist, Harvard University. © 2007 The M.C. Escher Company-Holland.

Leonardo Da Vinci, Study for an angel’s face from The Virgin of the Rocks (ca. 1483). This pencil study stunningly illustrates for me a key parallel between science and the arts: They strive for representation and expression, to capture some essential truth about a chosen subject with simplicity and economy. My equations and diagrams are no more the world I’m trying to describe than the artist’s pencil strokes are the woman he drew. However, it shows what’s possible, despite that limitation. The woman that emerges from the simple pencil strokes is so alive that she stares into your soul. In attempting to capture the universe, I mustn’t confuse my equations with the real thing, but from them some essential truths about nature will spring forth, transcending the mathematics and coming to life.—Clifford Johnson, Physicist, University of Southern California. © Alinari Archives/Corbis.

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Jonah Lehrer is a Contributing Editor at Wired and the author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist. He graduated from Columbia University and studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He’s written for The New Yorker, Nature, Seed, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe. He’s also a Contributing Editor at Scientific American Mind and National Public Radio’s Radio Lab.

Copyright © 2010 by Jonah Lehrer. This article is being published by Dharma/Arte by arrangement with the author and may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission.

T h e   f u t u r e   o f   s c i e n c e…   i s   a r t ?   (1)

Jonah Lehrer

 

Alexander Calder, Black Peacock (1950). This mobile is a powerful example of how an art form can be tailored to the physiology of a specific area in the brain. Calder’s composition anticipated, artistically, the physiological properties of the cells of an area called V5, which are selectively responsive to motion and its direction. Viewed from a distance, the separate pieces of the mobile appear as static spots of varying sizes. But as the pieces move in different directions, each one stimulates only the category of cell that is selectively responsive to the direction in which the spot is moving.—Semir Zeki, Neuroscientist, University College London. © Christie’s Images/Corbis.

In the early 1920s, Niels Bohr was struggling to reimagine the structure of matter. Previous generations of physicists had thought the inner space of an atom looked like a miniature solar system with the atomic nucleus as the sun and the whirring electrons as planets in orbit. This was the classical model.

 

The future of science… is art? (1) | 2010 | d/a magazine
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