The Power of Abstraction, or Why Leaving Out The Details Might Be Best..

Did you know that our brains are hardwired to appreciate art? but apparently not just any old art…it’s abstract art we love…or I should say semi-abstract art…the kind of art where the subject is still recognizable, but elusive…apparently things are better when they are less visible..

“Herring gull chicks don’t know much about art, but they know what they like. And, implausible as it may seem, their tiny brains love abstract paintings.
Newly hatched gulls get their food by pecking at a red spot on their mother’s yellow beak. The birds don’t even need their mother to be present – they are as happy pestering a disembodied beak as the real thing
.

“50 years ago Niko Tinbergen, an Oxford University scientist, made an extraordinary discovery. When presented with an abstract version of the beak – a yellow stick with three red stripes – the chicks went crazy. The stick excited the baby birds far more than their mothers’ bills.
Tinbergen’s creation bore no resemblance to a real beak and yet to the birds’ brains it was somehow more “real”. By exaggerating the reality of a beak, Tinbergen did what all artists strive for – he captured the essence of reality"
.

“The experiment raised intriguing questions about the nature of art. If a hyper-real painting triggered such a reaction in the visual processing regions of a bird’s brain, might not art be doing the same in human minds?

Vilayanur Ramachandran, professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, San Diego, author of “The Emerging Mind” “Phantoms in the Brain” and “The Tell Tale Brain” and one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, believes the answer is yes.

Best known for his groundbreaking work on phantom limb disorders and visual perception, he is calling for the same approach to the study of art that was used by Noam Chomsky to revolutionize linguistics in the Sixties. Just as Chomsky argued that the human brain is hard wired with rules of language, Ramachandran believes the brain may be hard wired to appreciate art.
He concedes that most art is culturally determined.
Tastes vary over time and space. But even if 90 per cent of art is culturally driven, 10 per cent may be driven by universal laws linked to the way the brain has evolved to process vision
".

“Ramachandran devotes two whole chapters of his book to the subject of art and aesthetics.
Making art and appreciating art seems to be universal in the human species.
From prehistoric cave paintings to modern conceptualism, where you find human beings you also find art.
At the same time, no one has ever been able to give a very good definition of art, to explain in any rigorous and satisfying way what it is that human beings are up to when they make art and when they like art.
It is a subject that touches on the strangeness of consciousness, the felt sense of being human that all of us experience every day but that is so resistant to explanation or analysis.
Art is thus a kind of Holy Grail to those who seek to explain the murkiest aspects of human consciousness
".

“Ramachandran supposes that with abstract art, human beings have learned to tap into their own gull chick response mechanisms.
Abstract artists are thus "tapping into the figural primitives of our perceptual grammar and creating ultranormal stimuli that more powerfully excite certain visual neurons in our brains as opposed to realistic-looking images
."

“The starting point for Ramachandran is the fact that the brain actively processes and interprets visual signals.
“The eyes are not cameras. They don’t take an image, send it down the cable and get it displayed on a screen in the brain. Clearly the image is encoded in the form of nerve impulses…
“It’s a symbolic description in the brain, the analogy of which would be a piece of paper on which you write something about your house. The squiggles of ink bear no resemblance to your house but a person can decode the letters and conjure up an image of your house”.
“The brain is using a similar code, which is where art comes in. Humans have art because the brain actively must process the signals coming from the retina.”
Artists manipulate, distort and exaggerate images to optimally titillate the 30 areas of the brain dealing with vision..
Ramachandran suspects that if monkeys are presented with a Cubist image of a monkey face – two different views superimposed in the same space – it will trigger a stronger reaction in the "face centre’’ of the monkey’s brain than a photo
"…

“Isolation and understatement is another universal law of art, he argues. A Picasso doodle of a bull is more evocative than a photograph. Sometimes, as the cliché goes, less is more.
The brain has limited attention – it cannot cope with two overlapping patterns of neural activity simultaneously. By omitting irrelevant detail, the brain’s visual centres can process an image more efficiently and quickly
".

“He believes the brain rewards each successful stage in this problem solving process with an “ah-ha” moment. In the case of a lion, the signal tells the body to get out sharpish.
These moments of revelation may be crucial to art, he says. An artist attempts to put as many “ah-ha” moments in a picture as he can – more than could be done by realism alone
".

“He concludes..”Good art has a certain set of characteristics that distinguishes it from bad art. But having those characteristics doesn’t guarantee that it is great art as opposed to merely good art.
“I’m not denying the profound influence played by culture in shaping your aesthetic responses to things. Clearly culture influences your predilections, but underlying it all is a basic template that’s inherited
."

P.S. Ramachandran said in one of his lectures…"if those seagulls had an art gallery, they would hang this long stick with the three red stripes on the wall, they would worship it, pay millions of dollars for it, call it a Picasso, but not understand why – why am I mesmerized by this damn thing even though it doesn’t resemble anything? +That’s what all of you are doing when you are buying contemporary art. You are behaving exactly like those gull chicks+.

In other words human artists through trial and error, through intuition, through genius have discovered the figural primitives of our perceptual grammar. They are tapping into these and creating for your brain the equivalent of the long stick with the three stripes for the chick’s brain. And what you end up with is a Henry Moore or a Picasso". …intriguing isn’t it? Janis

Sources, Extracts…Drexel University “This is your Brain on Art” The London Telegraph..“The Mind is a Master of Art…R. Genn..”The Peekaboo Theory" “‘ART AND THE BRAIN” The Science of Art..V. Ramachandran"
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