THE DREAM of discovering a science of art once took the form of attempting to render systematically the variety and appearance of the visible world, an endeavor intimately entwined with Renaissance developments in mathematical perspective, anatomical drawing, and optics, and, later, with seventeenth-century catalogues of nature. In more recent times, the project has turned inward--to the body and mind--expressed as a desire to hunt art and aesthetics back to some allegedly biological source, motivating work ranging from Hermann von Helmholtz's thesis that the mechanics of the human eye made it in principle impossible for a painting to produce the same visual effect as nature (On the Relations of Optics to Painting [1871-73]) to Max Nordau's infamous fin de siecle positing of a common neurological deficit behind modern criminality and the degeneracy of modern art. But even the most well-founded of those physiological and psychological theories connecting art to the mind were developed in the complete absence of any genuine study of the anatomy and operation of the brain, a form of research that became possible only in the past thirty years, with techniques such as PET scanning and MRI deployed to study the behavior of the brain on the cellular level.
That such neurobiology might offer a new science of art was the premise of "Art and the New Biology of Mind," a conference held this past spring under the auspices of the Italian Academy at Columbia University in New York, bringing together a distinguished roster of scientists and artists in a daylong colloquy on the relationship between recent advances in neuroscience and the visual arts. The event's focus on neurobiology reflected a more general contemporary impetus to explain through biological means cultural phenomena once thought to be the provenance of historical, linguistic, psychoanalytic, philosophical, or social explanation. In this respect, neuroscience promises--or threatens--to be the next grand unifying theory in the human sciences. Major figures in contemporary science of the brain such as Antonio Damasio, Vittorio Gallese, Eric R. Kandel, Margaret Livingstone, V. S. Ramachandran, and Semir Zeki were joined by artists Marina Abramovic, Laurie Anderson, Robert Irwin, David Salle, and Terry Winters, among others, and by architect Richard Meier and--to complete the sundry selection of well-known creative types--designer Calvin Klein. David Freedberg, the scholar foremost in exploring neuroscience's explanatory potential vis-a-vis art history, presided over the event and, with philosopher Arthur C. Danto, moderated the sessions.
The research presented at the Italian Academy suggests that the neurophysiology of how the brain relates to the world is very different from what our phenomenological sense of that relation would suggest. One important recent discovery shows that the neurons responsible for visual processing are organized into discrete units, each of which plays a specific role in detecting external sensory inputs of only a certain sort. Some neurons "fire" only when exposed to horizontal lines, others only to movement or position, and others only to color. Thus, while it seems that we take in a visual scene all at once, as a gestalt, in fact these isolated features are never reintegrated as a picture, an inner visual representation, within the mind (who, but some mysterious homunculus, would be there to see it?). Indeed, different neurons process information at different rates: The perception of color occurs before that of form, which, in turn, occurs before that of motion. Semir Zeki summarizes these conclusions in saying that we see "with the brain": What we take to be a passive operation of the eyes belongs to an active brain that determines which features of what is registered on the retina will form the content of one's perception.
The upshot of this and other neuroscientific discoveries for artistic creation was vividly illustrated in Margaret Livingstone's case studies of how familiar but puzzling painterly effects can be explained through recourse to the physiology of the brain. …