The Future of Science…Is Art?

Fourth Culture / by Jonah Lehrer /

To answer our most fundamental questions, science needs to find a place for the arts.

Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Op. 70, 1885
ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK

A particular region in the prefrontal cortex of the human brain, Brodmann Area 47, is engaged in trying to figure out what’s going to happen next in a sequence of events manifested over time, in spoken language, signed language, music, etc. When expectations are met, these neural circuits are rewarded and reinforced. When expectations are violated, a different part of our brain, the anterior cingulated, becomes activated, focusing our attention on the unexpected sequence. The end of Dvořák’s 7th Symphony is a wonderful artistic exploration of the delicate orchestration of neural responses that allows us to feel both surprised and rewarded by clever permutations of what we’re accustomed to. We retrieve these perceptions from episodic memory traces the next time we hear a similar piece of music.— Daniel Levitin, Neuroscientist, McGill University

Or look at neuroscience. Only a few decades ago, scientists were putting forth confident conjectures about “the bridging principle,” the neural event that would explain how the activity of our brain cells creates the subjective experience of consciousness. All sorts of bridges were proposed, from 40 Hz oscillations in the cerebral cortex to quantum coherence in microtubules. These were the biological processes that supposedly turned the water of the brain into the wine of the mind.

But scientists don’t talk about these kinds of bridging principles these days. While neuroscience continues to make astonishing progress in learning about the details of the brain—we are a strange loop of kinase enzymes and synaptic chemistry—these details only highlight our enduring enigma, which is that we don’t experience these cellular details. It is ironic, but true: The one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know.

The fundamental point is that modern science has made little progress toward any unified understanding of everything. Our unknowns have not dramatically receded. In many instances, the opposite has happened, so that our most fundamental sciences are bracketed by utter mystery. It’s not that we don’t have all the answers. It’s that we don’t even know the question.

This is particularly true for our most fundamental sciences, like physics and neuroscience. Physicists study the fabric of reality, the invisible laws and particles that define the material world. Neuroscientists study our perceptions of this world; they dissect the brain in order to understand the human animal. Together, these two sciences seek to solve the most ancient and epic of unknowns: What is everything? And who are we?

But before we can unravel these mysteries, our sciences must get past their present limitations. How can we make this happen? My answer is simple: Science needs the arts. We need to find a place for the artist within the experimental process, to rediscover what Bohr observed when he looked at those cubist paintings. The current constraints of science make it clear that the breach between our two cultures is not merely an academic problem that stifles conversation at cocktail parties. Rather, it is a practical problem, and it holds back science’s theories. If we want answers to our most essential questions, then we will need to bridge our cultural divide. By heeding the wisdom of the arts, science can gain the kinds of new insights and perspectives that are the seeds of scientific progress.

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