August 14, 2012

The age of insight by Eric R Kandel

The age of insight by Eric R Kandel

The quest to understand the unconscious in art, mind and brain

(Eric a Nobel prize winner of 2000 did a research on art & aesthetics and book covers it. The first part of the book mainly on five famous people who lived Vienna).

Freud’s theorizing,Schnitzler’s writings and the painting of Klimt. Schiele and Kokoschka had a common insight into the nature of human instinctual life. During the period of 1890 to 1918, the insights of these five men into the irrationality of everyday life helped Vienna to become the center of modernist thought and culture. We still live in that culture today.

Modernism began in the mid-nineteenth century as a response not only to the restrictions and hypocrisies of everyday life, but also as a reaction to the Enlightenment's emphasis on the rationality of human behavior. The enlightenment or age of reason was characterized by the idea that all is well with the world because human action is governed by reason. It is through reason that we achieve enlightenment, because our mind can exert control over our emotions and feelings.

Ernst Gombrich says on art: “Art is an institution to which we turn when we want to feel a shock of surprise. We feel this want because we sense that it is good for us once in a while to receive a healthy jolt. Otherwise we would so easily get stuck in a rut and could not longer adapt to the new demands that life is apt to make on us. The biological function of art, in other words, is that of a rehearsal, training in mental gymnastics which increases our tolerance of the unexpected”.

In Vienna, modernism had three main characteristics. The first was the new view of the human mind as being largely irrational by nature. Unconscious conflicts are present in everyone in their everyday actions. The second characteristic of Modernism was self-examination. The third characteristic of Modernism in Vienna was the attempt to integrate and unify knowledge, an attempt driven by science and inspired by Darwin’s insistence that human beings must be understood biologically in the same way as other animals.

Freud's three key ideas have held up well and are now central to modern neural science. The first idea is that most of our mental life, including most of our emotional life, is unconscious at any moment, including a small component is conscious. The second major idea is that the instincts for aggressive and for sexual strivings, like the instincts to eat and drink are built into the human psyche, into our genome. The third idea is that the normal mental life and mental illness form a continuum and that mental illness often represents exaggerated forms of normal mental process.

What are emotions? Why do we need them? Emotions are instinctive biological mechanism that color our lives and help us deal with the fundamental tasks of life: seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Emotions are dispositions to act in response to someone or something important to us. Emotions arise from the very core of our physical and mental states, and they have four independent, though related purposes. Emotions enrich our mental lives, they facilitate social communication, including the selection of life partner; they influence our capability for rational action; and perhaps most important, emotions help us escape potential danger and approach potential sources of good or pleasure (Animals have two major opposing class of motivators: approach and avoidance).

According to Darwin, there are six universal components that lie along a continuum from approach to avoidance. These six include the two major emotional primitives - happiness (ranging from arousal from ecstasy to serenity) that encourages approach and the other, fear (ranging from terror to apprehension) that encourages avoidance. Between these two extremes lie four sub-types: surprise (ranging from amazement to distraction), disgust (from loathing to boredom), sadness (from grief to pensiveness), and anger (from rage to annoyance). Darwin was careful to indicate that discrete emotions can be blended: awe, for example, is a mixture of fear and surprise; fear and trust give rise to submission; trust and joy produce love.

Darwin’s observation that faces are a primary means of conveying emotion was extended a century later by the American psychologist, Paul Ekman whose detailed study on the subject found much the same six facial expression of emotions that Darwin described. There is now evidence that in addition to these common expressions, specific cultures have added nuances that outsiders must learn to recognize in order to fully understand the emotion being expressed.

In addition to providing dynamic information, faces also provide static information - skin color shows the ethnic group, wrinkles provide age related information, etc. Dynamic information like rapid facial signals with eyebrows and lips provides information about attitude, intent and availability. Thus face broadcasts messages not only about emotion and mood, but also about capability, attractiveness, sex, race and other matters.

When we look at a beautiful work of art, our brain assigns different degrees of meaning to the various shapes, colors and movements we see. This assignment of meaning, or visual aesthetics, illustrates that esthetic pleasure is not an elementary sensation like heat or cold. Instead, it represents a higher order evaluation of sensory information processed along specialized pathways in the brain that estimate the potential for reward from a stimulus in the environment. In art, as in life, there are few more pleasurable sights than a beautiful human face. Attractive faces activate the reward areas in the brain and inspire trust, sexual attraction and sexual partnership. Studies of attractiveness in life and art have led to a number of surprise insights.

What males a face attractive? One characteristic is symmetry which is preferable to asymmetry. Symmetry indicates good genes. During growth, challenges to health and environmental stressors can result in asymmetrical growth pattern in face. The degree of symmetry in a person’s face may therefore indicate how capable that person’s genome of resisting disease and maintaining normal development in the face of challenges. In addition to symmetry, other features are universally considered attractive in a female face: arched eyebrows, large eyes, small nose, full lips, narrow face, and small chin. Attractive masculine features are based on different criteria: sharply angled (other than curved) shoulders, elbows, and knees are associated with both masculinity and aggressiveness. A protruding chin, jaw-line, brow-line and cheeks, along with elongation of the lower face - characteristics caused by increased testosterone production during puberty - are also considered attractive in men. These facial characteristics and the implied excess of testosterone suggest not only hyper sexuality but also the potential for a social behavior, aggression and dominance.

In his book, The Art Instinct, Dennis Dutton says that we care about art because it gives us ‘some of the most profound emotionally moving experience available to human beings” Story telling is pleasurable, he explains, because it extends our experience by giving us opportunities to think hypothetically about the world and its problems. It also a source of information. along with the size of human brain, language and storytelling enables us to model our world uniquely and to communicate those models to others. Our response to art stems from an irrepressible urge to recreate in our own brains the creative process - cognitive, emotional and empathic- through which the artist produced the work.

Art if an inherently pleasurable and instructive attempt by the artist and the beholder to communicate and share with each other the creative process that characterizes every human brain - a process that leads to an Aha! moment, the sudden recognition that we have seen into another person’s mind and that allows us to see the truth underlying both the beauty and the ugliness depicted by the artist. 

Brains pleasure circuits are also activated (in addition to drugs et al) when we enjoy a work of art, when we experience a beautiful sunset, a good meal, or a satisfying sexual experience. In each case, the experience has dimension beyond the bottom-up release of dopamine.

The second bottom-up modulatory system reduces pain and turns up the volume on pleasure, including the joy we take from art, by releasing neurotransmitters known as endorphins. Strenuous exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, producing what athletes call an endorphin high. In fact athletes describe feelings lethargic and depressed when they do not exercise; this is because they are undergoing endorphin withdrawal.

The third modulatory system release oxytocin and vasopressin, neurotransmitters that are important for mating and parental behavior and more generally social behavior, social cognition and our ability to read the mind and intentions of others.

The forth modularity bottom-up releases norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that enhances alertness; high concentration of nor epinephrine, which are produced in reaction to stress, induce fear.

The fifth bottom-up modulating system, the serotonergic system, is perhaps the most ancient. These neurons are important in arousal, vigilance, and mood.

The sixth bottom-up modulating system is the cholinergic system, which releases acetylcholine and regulates the sleep-wake as well as aspects of cognitive performance, learning, attention and memory.

All of the senses serve analogous functions in acquiring knowledge of the world, but vision is by far the most efficient way to acquire new information about people, places, and objects. Moreover there are certain types of knowledge such as the expression of a face or the interaction of a social group that can only be acquired through vision. Since vision is above all an active process, art also encourages an active and creative exploration of the world.

Since art arouses emotion and emotion elicits both cognitive and physiological responses in the observer, art if capable of producing a whole-body response. Vilayanur Ramachandran argues that many forms of art are successful because they involve deliberate overstatement, exaggeration and distortion designed to pique our curiosity and produce a satisfying emotional response in our brains. In order to be effective, however art’s deviations from realistic depiction cannot be arbitrary. They must, succeed in capturing the innate brain mechanisms for emotional release, once again reminding us of the discovery by behavioral psychologists and ethnologists for the exploration of a simple sign stimulus that is capable of releasing a full-blown behavior and whose exaggeration produces an even stronger behavior.

Ramachandran identifies ten additional principles of art, derived in part from Gestalt insights that he thinks are universal: grouping, contrast, isolation, the solving of perceptual problems, symmetry, abhorrence of coincidence, repetition of rhythm orderliness, balance and metaphor.

Artists traditionally focused on the face, hands and erotic zones because of their importance in everyday human interactions. Essential prerequisites for creativity are technical competence and a willingness to work hard, according to Ernst Kris and Nancy Andreason. They divide the remaining aspects of the, creative process into four parts: 1)the types of personalities that are likely to be particularly creative 2) the period of preparation and incubation 3) the initial moments of creativity themselves 4) subsequent working through of the creative idea.

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