Appreciating the Brain: A Lesson from Art


Any quest to understand how the brain works founders on the limits scientific knowledge as well as on any individual’s ability to comprehend something so complex. Even geniuses like Gerald Edelman and Francis Crick weren’t able to provide satisfying explanations of how such things as consciousness emerge from neuronal activity. I have been wondering if it would be useful to go beyond the usual cognitive methods of science and philosophy. A recent encounter with a painting by Jackson Pollock at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has opened up this line of thinking.

The twin problems of access and complexity limit our ability to understand how the brain works. Most of action of the 100 billion neurons in our skulls takes place outside of conscious awareness, and even modern electrophysiological and imaging techniques can generate only crude sketches of what is going on. We will get a clearer picture as these technologies advance and new ones are developed, but it will be a very complex picture, likely beyond what any human mind can comprehend. Computer extensions of our human reasoning power will help, and the next decades of progress in neuroscience are sure to be fascinating and wonderful.

Nevertheless, I continue to wonder whether we are making use of all the means at our disposal to understand the brain’s operation. Our brains function by mostly nonconscious integration of sensory data with memories of past experience, under the influence of drive and affective systems which evolved to facilitate survival and reproduction. Would it be possible to make more use of these basic survival and emotional responses to generate an experiential understanding of the brain that would go beyond what is possible with the usual two-, three-, and four-dimensional models, linguistic descriptions, and mathematics?

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) was an American painter who in the late 1940’s developed a new method of creating art by dripping paint onto canvas. Pollock had grown up in the West, been abandoned by his father, lived in poverty as a young man, and struggled with alcoholism, for which he received Jungian psychoanalytic treatment. Studying and working as a mural painter in New York, he was imbued with the legacies of impressionism, cubism, and surrealism. His analyst along with his future wife, the artist Lee Krasner, encouraged him to express his inner thoughts and feelings in drawings and then in paintings. This evolved into a fully abstract approach in which he dripped, poured, squeezed from the tube, or flung pain onto canvasses spread on the floor—for Pollock, painting was a highly kinetic activity. It also, as Robert Goodnough described in a 1951 article , involved a great deal of contemplation and unconscious processing. The effort was to express a state of emotion and awareness that was beyond words.

In his mature drip paintings, Pollock avoided favoring one part of the canvas over any other. The lines and drips, however, are not at all random: colors, curves, and blobs repeat throughout the canvas, though never in even approximately the same way. They are highly textured: in the painting at the MFA LINK, the most prominent feature is interlocking pools and swirls of black industrial paint, but he also used aluminum paint, which blistered as it dried. Other colors—drops and lines of brown, as well as blotches and dribbles of red, tan, and orange—overlap in layers. The contrast of the shining black with the dull aluminum works with the three-dimensional texture to bring it alive.

For years my only response to this painting was a shrug—I had no idea what Pollock was up to and assumed he was mocking the art world. “What do you see?” I pressed an art appreciation instructor, who spoke of the motion of the swirls. Finally, when the museum’s audio guide pointed out the details of the materials and how they were applied, I began to respond. The experience was ineffable—contemplating physical details of the paint evoked a sense of violence in the reds and blacks, of metal both precious and cheapened in the blistered aluminum, and, in the gestalt of the whole painting, partially hidden rhythms which suggested unexpressed meaning.

I experienced the painting at a level beyond visual perception of lines, shapes, colors, patterns, and textures. It is fully abstract—there are no people, recognizable objects, landscape, or story to which I could relate. I responded to shapes, colors, and textures, as well as how I imagined its creation. It was not, however, like looking for verbal meaning in a Rorschach card. Somewhere in my memory there may be traces of experience with similar visual and tactile objects—the bottom of a tide pool, an intricate network of foliage, or the appearance of brain tissue under the microscope, but I was not consciously aware of such associations as I experienced the painting. It must have triggered emotions like fear, disgust, alarm, and wonder to features like the blistered aluminum, which to me says something about things not turning as they were intended. (Though I am sure Pollock was fully in control of his paint, including the blistering.)

Even the most figurative works of visual art, as well as music, literature, and architecture, function on multiple levels. Part of the viewer’s experience is making limited contact with the unconscious of a genius artist with the ability to express a different way of experiencing life.

What does this say about understanding the nervous system? Can we expand how we respond to the deluge of neuroscientific information coming out of laboratories around the world? Can we go beyond visual models, verbal descriptions of processes, and theoretical constructs like neural Darwinism and the somatic marker hypothesis? Would it be useful to pay more attention to how we may absorb and experience information about the brain on nonconscious levels? Could we use other senses—auditory, tactile, kinesthetic, olfactory, and gustatory—and the responses of our nonconscious survival systems—reward, lust, caring, fear, anger, depression, and social engagement, as well as their associated affects—to generate a multidimensional experiential understanding that of how the brain operates?

This is not how science generally works—hypotheses can’t be tested with nonconscious systems and affects—but it may one way to generate testable hypotheses. (Think of Newton under the apple tree.) It may also have a role in expanding our understanding of psychiatric illness and its treatment.

Further reading: Robert Goodnough, Pollock Paints a Picture. Art News, May, 1951.

Jackson Pollock, November 10, 1949. Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

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