You're Beautiful, You're Good; You're Unusual, You're Threatening

January 10, 2022 Ellen Season 1 Episode 4
You're Beautiful, You're Good; You're Unusual, You're Threatening
Show Notes Transcript

Today we circle around to neuroaesthetics, a relatively new discipline in neuroscience that is developing new understanding about how humans gravitate overwhelmingly to facial beauty, but also have threat responses to and biases against those with facial anomalies or scars.

Anjan Chatterjee
is Professor of Neurology, Psychology and Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. Questions that his laboratory 's work is frontloading include how people experience architectural spaces, and which components of architecture seem to align with our neural processing.
As a line of research that is new, neuroaesthetics fronts controversies about science and a reluctance to rely on subjective experience. It also is pushing the frontiers of inquiry forward by questioning how the immobility of lying inside fMRI machines does not in any way mimic the sensorium at work and life in the world.

Katherine Sherwood is a visual artist and professor emerita at the University of California at Berkeley.  After suffering a massive cerebral hemorrhage more than two decades ago, Sherwood had to re-learn a new way of painting, and in so doing has explored the landscape of her own brain imaging and the history of brain depictions in work that flaunts pattern and proposes the beauty of disability.

Ellen Berkovitch: We come lastly in this our first season of (In)coherence, funded by a STEAMPlant grant at Pratt Institute, to some of the loose ends or the hanging chads of what we’ve been up to.

And how we’ve been explaining that. Which words we can put to the practice of investigating neuroscience through a lens of what subjects concern artists?

And while doing that, can we also possibly bust up some of the sacred cows, the ones that let popular myths get embedded about left brains versus right brains, and what a scientist is like versus what an artist is like. 

I’m Ellen Berkovitch, the host and producer of (In)coherence. 

One of the people with whom I had this conversation repeatedly has been the only woman scientist who has been directly involved in our project this year, Agnes Mocsy(MOCHI) is a theoretical physicist and she’s a filmmaker. Her work specializes in what happened in the immediate aftermath of the big bang. She has made a film called Smashing Matters.

Agnes Mocsy: What do I see? In what way? I'm not sure I understand.

EB: If someone were to say to you as a physicist what do you see when you begin to look into the structure of matter?

AM: You know  I mean, I think it’s one of the interesting things because the physics I deal with is the physics of the invisible so I deal in the sub-atomic and sub-nuclear world, with quarks. This is not the physics that you can, checking whether my notebook is going to fall and observational with our visual senses. 

So the physics of this is very educational because you cannot see the quark and when I write the equations and study and try to make predictions I don’t just see letters showing up in mathematical formula and think about the rules. There is literally a visual thing.

I don’t think I can talk about physics about the world of quarks if I don’t have a mental imprint of something in my head.

EB: Ahaa. it may seem esoteric to imagine how scientists “see” —yet as we approach today the subject of the senses, our senses, our human responses to those many inputs to our human sensorium we've gotten increasingly fascinated with a branch of neuroscience known as neuro-aesthetics.

So we interviewed:
Anjan Chatterjee. I'm a cognitive neurologist. My current title is Professor of Neurology, Psychology and Architecture, and I'm the director of the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics.

Neuroaesthetics is the study of the biological basis of aesthetic experiences.

So that includes our humans’ responses to—  it could be visual information, or auditory or any of the sensory modalities. What is the nature of that aesthetic experience?

EB: One of the things that our project has been engaged in has been seeking to elicit from neuroscientists how it is that seeing activity in the brain whether neuronal or blood flow leads to knowing about the mysteries of human experience and the hard problem of consciousness. And so I wonder if you can address the seeing- knowing relationships in terms of this question of aesthetic experience and beauty. Which fundamentally seem to be both so certain when they occur yet so ineffable when it comes to defining them.

AJ:  So, I  don’t think neuroscience will offer a deflationary account of beauty and some of the mysteries of our response to art. I think for people who are engaged in scientific enterprises the understanding is always that our results are provisional and our claims are incremental and all subject to change.

So I think sometimes people who are not in the sciences have the view that scientists are far more dogmatic and clear about their conclusions than they actually are. Having said that there are a set of rules by which we play and I think one thing, to be clear, is that any scientific study of aesthetics is predicated on some kind of theoretical framework and having some understanding of behavior. Just looking at the brain by itself almost never tells us anything useful.

So it is predicated on having a view of:
What is aesthetic experience?

Whether there is something special about art as distinct from aesthetic experiences of faces and landscapes?

What are the emotional aspects of those experiences?

Is there something different or unique about emotions when they are attached to aesthetic experiences as compared to other kinds of experiences?

Those are all open questions.

Agnes Mocsy:  When you immerse yourself, let's say in an artwork, in front of a painting and you experience something. Something goes on which is beyond just the physicality of the artwork and which is beyond the intentionality of the artist.

It’s something that the viewer, the experiencer of the art, experiences it, right? 

And so something happens physiologically. It’s an emotion.

Ellen Berkovitch: So the experience of art is an emotion. The experience of fear is an emotion. When we spoke to Joseph LeDoux in our first episode of (In)coherence I asked Joe LeDoux if he thought that emotional responses to beauty could be studied the same way responses to fear can, and here’s what he said.

Joseph LeDoux: You know I think fear is a very good emotion to start with because it has anchors in the behaviors and physiology. We understand the components that would provide the kind of ingredients necessary to turn a cognitive experience into an emotional experience.

Part of the problem, and this gets back into my obsession with words and science. We have to formalize what we mean by these things. If we don’t know what we’re looking for, we can’t find it. If every person has a different definition of beauty, there’s no field that can understand what beauty is. So until we know what beauty is and agree on it we can’t have a discourse about it that makes any sense.

Anjan Chatterjee: Yeah. So it depends on beauty of what. So If you’re talking about beauty in faces, there are actually quite large agreements, people may not know why, but there’s quite large agreement on which faces people regard as beautiful. Infants will look at faces that adults regard as beautiful for longer than not.

With natural landscapes, there’s also quite decent agreement.

This also happens across culture. So to  riff off Joe LeDoux's comments I would say:For certain types of beauty there’s really pretty good agreement..

It would be analogous to say what kinds of situations do people find theatening?

I live in Philadelphia. Some people from the suburbs, they come in and just being in center city Philadelphia they find threatening. I find suburbs threatening. But when you go to look at art it is quite variable. We’ve also been interested in architecture where the variability is somewhere between art and natural landscapes.

So you can think of architecture as a manufactured landscape.  And so the broad generalization is that natural kinds—faces and natural landscapes— there seems to be greater consistency across people —and manufactured objects, whether that’s art or architecture, there’s much more variability.

But as a scientist I don’t think variability is a bad thing, right? We are always trying to understand variability and where that comes from.  As long as there is structure to variability it’s an open scientific question.

{9:18 music - You're Beautiful.}

EB: It may be time here for a disciplinary aside about the reinstating of the term beauty into visual arts back in the early aughts thanks to philosophers like Elaine Scarry and art writers like Dave Hickey,

We turn now to talking with an artist.

Katherine Sherwood:  I’m Katherine Sherwood and I am a painter, mixed media painter in the Bay Area, and I am a professor emerita in art practice and disability studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

EB: Katherine Sherwood had a cerebral hemorrhage or stroke more than 20 years ago

KS: So that was in '97 and I started using brain imagery I think in '90.

And so I often say that my art. That my life kept up with my art meaning that I was using it before I ever thought I would have a cerebral hemorrhage.

I seem to have got a hold of this idea of limitations and how lucky it is for me that I have limitations because it allows me to be more experiential —and allows me to be more experiential and to experiment, and so I‘ve always enjoyed the limitations that I’ve gotten.

EB:  As an artist who has also become a spokesperson for people with disabilities, KS stresses that the narrative around people with disabilities also needs to change.

KS: Part of me is involved in the art world, a lot of me is involved in disability studies.. so you know all those things I feel are important venues for me to become active in.

EB After Katherine’s stroke she first had a MRI followed by subsequent FMRI tests.

KS: When I sat up I said um  I need those images and everybody in the room laughed. I don’t know why they laughed and then I said no, I’m an artist, and I need those images. That’s when he walked out and handed them to me.

He was a radiologist I had never met before. So I’ve probably had three since then and every time I get more and more images from them,  like five times as many images as I got originally.

EB: She describes how she had to make changes in her ways of working on her art.

KS: In the eight years that I’ve been doing Brain Flowers and Disabled Venuses, I’ve really set myself the task of learning how to paint with acrylics and working in a non-abstract way.

EB: And where the brain imagery that she uses comes in. In the series called Disabled Venuses, FMRI films pattern the Venus's faces.

KS:  The faces are often my MRI and then all the hair is generally brain imagery from the 16th century to the 21st century. 

EB—I asked Katherine Sherwood about that about the 19th century brain mappers and neurologists, the Italian biologist

Camillo Golgi who figured out how to stain nerve cells with silver nitrate, and the Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal. He used the Golgi method to visualize the extensive branching of nerve filaments from the cell body. 

KS: He’s interesting .. because his father was an anatomist and a doctor but a doctor in the old-fashioned way that they were half doctor, half butcher.  He wanted to become an artist and he loved to draw, but his father forced him into becoming an anatomist.

He was the one that was able to illustrate what Golgi was talking about in his theories.

That’s why they both received the Nobel prize the same year.

KS: Beauty is first and foremost to me a meaningful expression both from the artist and from the audience. Besides that I think the notion of beauty is just really different from each person.

EB: We experienced a bit of synchronicity in preparing this episode. In interviewing Katherine Sherwood— we were introduced to her by our artist friend Judith Linhares —we did not know that we would later interview Anjan Chatterjee. And we didn’t know when we first contacted Anjan that he had written an essay about KS’s work that was published in the 2008 Golgi's Door National Academy of Sciences Exhibition Catalogue

AJ: You know, I’ve been interested in, as a neurologist, what happens to individuals with neurological disease and what happens to their art and it turns out paradoxically, in some cases with brain damage people’s art seems to get better.

My disclaimer every time I talk about this is because I don’t want people to come away thinking that I'm saying I think brain damage is good for your art; it is not..most people are not helped when they. have brain damage. But there are enough cases that at least it allows asking the question of why is that? We’ve written a little bit about that and talked about that.

The one thing about art-making is it involves the entire brain.

Another trope that I try to disabuse people of this notion that the right hemisphere is the artistic hemisphere. That is categorically wrong, there is no evidence for that specifically in the context of art-making that the right hemisphere has a privileged role.

But if you think about the brain as different parts all engaged in ways of making art and if certain channels are interrupted because of brain damage or neurologic disease the means of expression basically change. And when it changes bc certain outputs are no longer available, some times the change actually ends up being better.

EB: One thing is notable.. in having this conversation with Anjan Chatterjee as well as with artist KSherwood we learn it’s not that easy to study the making of art. In fact even studying the responses to art.

AJ: While fMRI has given us a lot of useful information about how our mind works, one of the biggest, biggest constraints is that people have to lie on their back absolutely still.It’s the most unnatural way of interacting with the world.

EB: He also cited a study that indicates the role of social programming in how people respond to art. 

AJ: There was one experiment that was done in Copenhagen almost 10 years ago, where people were shown images of abstract art and in one condition told they were told that these are hanging in a fancy gallery in Copenhagen, and in another they’re told these were generated by random program from a computer.

And so what people are looking at is exactly the same —exact same info coming in through their eyes going to their brains.

But if they think it’s hanging in a gallery they subjectively claim to think it’s better art. Here you have a situation--exactly same information -- etc. It just gives you the hint how knowledge can profoundly influence any kind of visual stimulus that’s coming in..

EB: I asked Anjan if wearable technology is being used more in brain science.

AJ:  As a research tool then yes absolutely. As I mentioned we’ve also been interested in the aesthetic experience of architecture and there it’s very. While we are getting fascinating results it suffers from the same issue. Our experience of architectural spaces is being enveloped in space and moving around in it, so fMRI on first principles seems like the worst possible technology to use to try to study this. Using 2-D images with people lying flat on their backs. And yet we get pretty interesting results.

But I think absolutely the future, in the next five years, is going to be — how do you get people out into the field and still collect neuroscience data?

You could turn that around and say can you bring the field into the laboratory and maybe VR technologies might move in that direction.

I’m more interested in the idea that we take neuroscience out into the real field than bring the field into the laboratory.

EB:  Coming back around now to Agnes Mocsy of how she sees as a physicist —we began to touch on this question about bifurcating how  scientists see versus how artists see, and Agnes wound up explaining to me  a fundamental law of physics.

AM: What’s in my mind and someone else’s mind is completely misaligned..and sometimes we use representational ways of talking about it but very often. Like. Again.. time. Space-time..  that’s a four-dimensional thing.. right?

We have three dimensions and while time is ticking..

but these are all married to each other. Space and time

Just in our colloquial existence..we separate that oh space and time as independent variables.

But they are inter-linked They were born together in the Big Bang and as the universe expanded too, time and space grow together.

This is something that — how do we visualize this? How do we understand it? Mathematics explains it to us and Einstein’s theory of general relativity, it tells you how a mass.

I think of a (Alexander) Calder right now, a sculpture moving and the interaction of mass with space is being really explicit, but it’s interaction of the mass and the energy of the sculpture with space- time. Because you cannot decouple space from time not just by physics but by experience either.

AJ: Just collecting neuroscience data without a question ends up giving you nothing..

EB:  Aha again. This sounds very similar to what Karl Friston said last time. That getting to good questions is maybe the most fundamental practice of science not to mention of art.

AJ— I’ll give an example of something we’re doing right now where we’re trying to tackle this. This is a grant I have currently from Templeton Foundation because you brought up philosophy.

We're trying to address a notion from philosophy called aesthetic cognitive-ism.

The simple proposition behind the claim is that art evokes or promotes understanding. Right?  Their question is how can we put this to scientific test? And so I started out saying. well.. embedded within that are all kinds of unanswered questions, which is:

What do we mean by art?

What kind of art?

Who are we talking about?

What does understanding mean?

Are we talking about some kind of emotional revelation or are we talking, intellectual understanding? 

Until we really know what goes into each of those terms, you can’t even begin to design an experiment to test the hypothesis. And so we started out by saying we need a taxonomy to flesh this out.

EB: To get there Anjan Chatterjee had to think broadly.

AJ: Let’s have that taxonomy be informed be informed by people from different disciplines. We had a psychologist,  who studies the psychology of arts; we had a theologian who is interested in the way iconography is used in religion; we had an art historian and a philosopher of art.

AJ: What I would caution against is that sometimes people make the claim that sounds nice superficially to me but I think ends up being vapid, which is that artists are neuroscientists. And I think artists are dealing with a set of problems and trying to solve certain issues and work out certain ideas.

People who are examining the neuroscience of aesthetics are also doing that. However, the methods are completely different.

EB: Last time Karl Friston described to us the discovery through brain mapping of functional segregation. Anjan Chatterjee’s team designed taxonomies that are descriptive of humans’ responses to architecture. 

AJ: People’s responses really fell into three broad domains, which we called —

Coherence— when you are looking at an environment, how coherent does it feel?

Fascination — does it seem interesting? Do you feel you want to explore the space?

The third was Homey-ness. In our visual cortex, there was segregation based on these parameters. Segregation of neural response. So that response was there in the brain all along.

We just didn’t know to ask the question.
I don’t claim to be an architect and I'm not, even though I have an appointment in the School of Architecture at Penn. What I can tell an architect is look, here are three components we think are important. Right? You figure out how to weigh them.

EB: Anjan Chatterjee's lab has also been involved in something called beauty and morality studies. A fairly packed phrase, beauty and morality.

I asked him about what neuroaesthetics is learning about bias?

AJ: So one thing about the brain is it seems as though we classify things in the world. And then we impose values on them, right? But there are different kinds of values and one thing we have been interested in is how we ascribe aesthetic value and how we ascribe moral value to things.

But It turns out that lot of the same brain areas are involved in both of these, and we think that they get conflated.

One manifestation of that is what is referred to as the beauty is good stereotype. This is something social psychologists have identified which is that attractive people get all sorts of unearned privileges in life—they tend to be hired more easily, are given higher pay; if they commit infractions, are given lesser punishments--on and on.

So we got interested in this and we’ve shown in our work that we have almost automatic neural responses to facial beauty even when people are being asked something else.

So it's almost part of our brain is always on, responsive to beauty. So we started a line of research in part informed by the fact that  I work in a Medical Center of looking at people with minor facial anomalies such as skin cancers, burns, birth defects, that can be surgically corrected. And so that we could have before and after images of the same person.

And what we have found now in a series of studies quite consistently is that people with minor facial anomalies are regarded as having flawed personalities; that they are less intelligent, less hardworking, less competent, less trustworthy, and so on. So there does appear to be a facial anomaly is bad bias.

We find that on implicit association tests, that have been used quite widely in race and gender studies and aging. We find the same sort of thing,  that people have implicit biases against faces that have these kinds of anomalies. And then our most recent paper which is just published in the last few weeks, we’ve started to identify some of the neural bases of these. 

EB:  Remember here that Joseph Ledoux’s research identified the amygdala as the part of the brain where threat response is activated. So how are facial anomalies perceived by the brain?

AJ: There’s something called the just-world belief—which is the general idea is that some people think people get what they deserve, it's basically a just world. Other people are at the  other end thinking it’s all random. But what we find is the more people believe the world is just, the greater their amygdala activity when looking at these faces. 

And people in these questionnaires who appear to have less in the way affective empathy, empathy for others' emotions, those people also have greater neural activity in the amygdala. For us, it seems as though here’s a structure that among other things is responsive to threat.  Right?

So the idea that a face with an anomaly is more threatening to people who believe the world is just, and who have less affective empathy, and they also have greater implicit biases to these faces. It’s a way that we’re trying to understand how aesthetic and moral values get conflated in the brain and how it’s modulated by individual differences.

We still have a lot of work to do but it is really a way in which you can start to think about aesthetic research not simply as a boutique line of research; that this is for the frivolous. But this has real-world consequences, I think. 

EB: Please let me know if you think this is overstated—but in a certain sense if a facial anomaly is construed as otherness is that therefore a sign that otherness is threatening?

AJ: Absolutely, but really using this to try to deconstruct the notion of dehumanization.

What does that actually mean? My intuition is that what we’re looking at with facial anomalies, some of the principles generalize to all sorts of otherness.. race, immigration, or our propensity to divide the world into us and them. I think probably some of these same features that we are uncovering ends up becoming almost like becoming a case study, a test model for these broader societal divisions we see all the time

 EB:I asked Anjan if that meant that the warlike impulse of human beings and our inborn violence, such as it is, is something that can be remediated..

AJ: At least it’s a first step. It's a first step. (laughs)