Thursday, 12 January 2017

Art and the Brain - Vilayanur Ramachandran

Dr Vilayanur Ramachandran, a professor at University of California, San Diego has written a book titled "Phantoms in the Brain." This book talks about patients with unusual problems that he discovered to be neurological, rather than psychological. Such patients, and their maladies, also gave him insights into how the brain functions. He also developed a fascinating theory into the nature of beauty and art, about which he spoke a few years back at Tamil Heritage Trust. Recently, he lectured on this topic organized by Apparao Galleries, and held at the Leela Palace Hotel.

These are my notes of that lecture, in Ramachandran's voice.

Vilayanur Ramachandran on Art and the Brain

When I visit India, I enjoy visiting the Kapali temple in Mylapore. I also try to go to several other temples. Sculptures in our temples, and bronzes, hold a strong attraction and have fascinated me for their beauty.

CP Snow wrote a famous essay titled "Two Cultures", about the Arts and the Sciences. His contention was that "Never the twain shall meet." I'm going to argue that Snow is wrong. Lord Reith said there are some people whom it's one duty to offend, and I'll exercise that duty.

Are there universal aesthetics? How does the brain respond to art? Noam Chomsky discovered a universal principle to language. I'll argue that there is a universal principle to art, not just across cultures, but across phylogenetic divisions. Flowers evolved to be beautiful to bees and butterflies four hundred million years ago, not to humans. We didn't evolve from bees, but we have arrived at a similar aesthetic to appreciate flowers.

Bower bird, a tiny brown bird, builds massive bowers from moss and twigs and cigarette foils and trash and other material to create a large bower, that people would not believe were created by a bird.
I recently visited Mamallapuram.

Some of the Victorian Englishmen had who visited India had contemptuous views on Indian bronzes. A Parvati bronze, they claimed, was ugly and unrealistic, and therefore, primitive. Waist is too thin, breasts are too big, face is not realistic, Indian art is not proportional - these were some of the critical comments. The irony was that some Englishwomen had their ribs surgically removed from to narrow their waists, to appeal more to English men, at the same time that they were faulting the Chola bronzes for unrealistic waists! I have seen the skeletons of such women in London. And modern western art, distorts perspective, but is lauded for "liberation from the tyranny of form."

The point of art is not to caputre realism (which a photo can do, but may not be called art).
The word rasa is often seen in Sanskrit literature, hard to translate, but an emotion Art tries to provoke. I study vision - my eyeball captures an upside down image of what you see, via  a cable - the optic fibre. But who sees that image? There is no second person inside your brain seeing it, or there would have to an infinite series of such persons. What the Brain creates is a symbolic image of what you see, and captured by billions of neurons and synapses.

Look at these pictures, this first one could be a young lady looking away or an old lady's left profile, it is a dual image.

Old Lady / Young lady illusion
A similar dual image is this duck / rabbit (facing opposite directions) - the rabbit's ears double as the duck's beak.
Duck / Rabbit Dual image

Art works because you can take advantage of these brain mechanisms, to titillate a viewer. A Necker cube is another such illusion, where the same cube can be seen in two different perspectives.

From these studies, I have drawn up what I called Seven Laws of Art. These are not final, there may be more.

Screen shot of Seven laws

Cultural variation in Art has been studied to death, it's called Art History.  I'm interested in the biological explanation behind the commonality.

Grouping is to escape predators. A lion behind foliage is not interpreted by the Brain as several fragmented lion colored objects, but as a lion. This evolved as an evolutionary mechanism to help in survival. This principle is exploited by fashion designers and artists.

Look at this picture. It seems to be just a bunch of dots, but some of you can see a Dalmatian. How many see it, raise your hands. Not everyone can see it right away, but once you see it, the dalmatian never goes away.
Dalmation - an example of grouping

Peak shift  If you show a rat squares and rectangles, and reward it with cheese when it moves towards a rectangle, it soon learns a preference for rectangles. When you then show it a narrower rectangle, it prefers that to an earlier reactangle. The rat learns rectangularity not a particular rectangle. This, is the essence of Caricature.You amplify a person, say Obama or Nixon and exaggerate what differentiates him from the average person. Draw Nixon with a more bulbous nose and larger ears than normal, and it looks more like Nixon than Nixon himself. This is what a Chola bronze artist accomplishes. He captures peak shift.

A biologist Timbergen studied how seagull chicks recognize their mother. He observed that the seagulls he studied had with red spot on the edge of their beaks. A chick pecks the spot and the mother bird regurgitates the food. Timbergen used a beak from a dead bird, and the chick pecked that for food. Next he used a long stick with red spots. A stick with three stripes caused high obsessive pecking from the chick's than the actual beak! This is also peak shift. Which artists have tapped into, and captured the imagination of public.

Principles of Understatement and Isolation These play a major role in art, too. Doesn't this contradict peak shift? No, the brain uses multiple parallel mechanisms. An outline of a woman's form captures more than color or attitude. The outline itself excites a viewer, more than other aspects and an artist who depicts this grabs the attention of the viewer.

Artistic metaphor Nobody knows what that is. Why are metaphors beautiful? Why not just say what is original or descriptive? Artists poets and novelists indulge in metaphors, and a master like Shakespeare profusely uses them. But it's not just artists. An average person's language, not just those of poets, can have upto thirty percent metaphors.


Q Is there such a thing as bad art? Isn't the beauty of art in the beholder's eye?
A Yes there is bad art, in the USA, we call it Kitsch. Once you have enjoyed fine art, Kitsch doesn't appeal anymore. I don't think one man's Kitsch is another's fine art.

Poetry and Art should be introduced early in the curriculum. Thanks to Macaulay, we teach grammar early in our system, which is not very useful. This will help us develop a taste of fine art and not indulge in kitsch.

Q You talked about humans, mammals and birds and their sense of beauty? Do another animals have such a sense of beauty too? Reptiles or fish, for example?
A Birds are diurnal, so are humans, and we see far better than we smell. So we have more in common with birds visually. Reptiles are olfactory, they sense the world primarily with smell. This is also why reptiles are not as colorful as birds. Humans have a very poor sense of smell, compared to their vision.

Q Does peak shift apply only to visual art or also to music or sounds?
A One third of the Brain deals with vision, and we have 150 years of research on visual perception. We are poorer in hearing, and there is less research about this area also.

But there is some universal element in appreciating art. Eight of ten times, in my experiments, Americans who have never heard Carnatic music can pick Durbari Kannada as evoking sadness and Mohanam as evoking Sringara. Can't explain this in left brain terms. Durbari Kannada, I suggest, uses peak shift to take parental separation anxiety and exaggerates it to evoke a separation anxiety from God.

Common principles cut across the senses, which come together in the parietal lobe.

Q We seem to like symmetry in art, but sometimes asymmetry appeals too. Do you think this is because of peak shift?
A Symmetry is universal. But a slight asymmetry can be very appealing. The purpose of art, for biologists, is to detect biological objects. Symmetry appeals because it indicates a living thing.

THT friends with Diane and VS Ramachandran 
Here is a video of his talk on this subject at another venue
He has spoken at Tamil Heritage Trust also, but unfortunately the audio quality is not very good

Updated May 2017 Swarajya interview of VS Ramachandran by Aravindan Neelakandan

Related Blogs

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Science : Peter Medawar and CP Snow
The Art and Aesthetic of Driving
சிவன் முறுவல்
Alfred Russel Wallace - சொர்கத்தின் பறவைகள்


  1. Thanks. i will read patiently. But i wish to say that in the group photo, VR has to be identified as' person with cap sitting in the back row' or like.

  2. "Flowers evolved to be beautiful to bees and butterflies four hundred million years ago, not to humans. We didn't evolve from bees, but we have arrived at a similar aesthetic to appreciate flowers."
    How beautifully put!

    At the time I'm reading this article, there's a tailor-bird nest in my backyard and a sun-bird nest in the front yard. The way the tailor-bird has stitched up its nest - so artistic. You can't help but marvel at the intelligence that nature has infused into these creatures. And may be we marvel because we have a human-centric view of the world, as if we're the sole owners of everything that's intelligent and asthetic, whereas nature proves otherwise that we often fail to see.

    The peak shift principle used in explaining the disproportionate contours of Chola bronze - great insight.

    Beautiful article and stimulating, as always. Thank you.