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.

Study for an angel’s face from The Virgin of the Rocks, ca. 1483

This pencil study stunningly illustrates for me a key parallel between science and the arts: They strive for representation and expression, to capture some essential truth about a chosen subject with simplicity and economy. My equations and diagrams are no more the world I’m trying to describe than the artist’s pencil strokes are the woman he drew. However, it shows what’s possible, despite that limitation. The woman that emerges from the simple pencil strokes is so alive that she stares into your soul. In attempting to capture the universe, I mustn’t confuse my equations with the real thing, but from them some essential truths about nature will spring forth, transcending the mathematics and coming to life.— Clifford Johnson, Physicist, University of Southern California © Alinari Archives/Corbis

By taking these artistic explorations seriously, neuroscientists can better understand the holistic properties they are trying to parse. Before you break something apart, it helps to know how it hangs together. In this sense, the arts are an incredibly rich data set, providing science with a glimpse into its blind spots. If neuroscience is ever going to discover the neural correlates of consciousness, or find the source of the self, or locate the cells of subjectivity—if it’s ever going to get beyond a glossary of our cortical parts—then it has to develop an intimate understanding of these higher-order mental events. This is where the current methods of science reach their limit.

What neuroscience needs is a new method, one that’s able to construct complex representations of the mind that aren’t built from the bottom up. Sometimes, the whole is best understood in terms of the whole. William James, as usual, realized this first. The eight chapters that begin his epic 1890 textbook, The Principles of Psychology, describe the mind in the conventional third-person terms of the experimental psychologist. Everything changes, however, with chapter nine. James starts this section, “The Stream of Thought,” with a warning: “We now begin our study of the mind from within.”

With that single sentence, as radical in sentiment as the modernist novel, James tried to shift the subject of psychology. He disavowed any scientific method that tried to dissect the mind into a set of elemental units, be it sensations or synapses. Such a reductionist view is the opposite of science, James argued, since it ignores our actual reality.

Modern science didn’t follow James’ lead. In the years after his textbook was published, a “New Psychology” was born, and this rigorous science had no need for Jamesian vagueness. It wanted to purge itself of anything that couldn’t be measured. The study of experience was banished from the laboratory.

But artists continued creating their complex simulations of consciousness. They never gave up on the ineffable, or detoured around experience because it was too difficult. They plunged straight into the pandemonium. No one demonstrates this better than James Joyce. In Ulysses, Joyce attempted to capture the mind’s present tense. Everything in the novel is seen not from the omniscient perspective of the author, but through the concave lenses of his imaginary characters. We eavesdrop on their internal soliloquies, as Bloom, Stephen, and Molly think about beauty, and death, and eggs in bed, and the number eight. This, Joyce says, is the broth of thought, the mind before punctuation, the stream of consciousness rendered on the page. Ulysses begins where William James left off.

Similarly, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, enchanted with opium, was writing poetry about the “the mind’s self-experience in the act of thinking” long before there was even a science of the mind. Or look at the world of visual art. As the neuroscientist Semir Zeki notes, “Artists [painters] are in some sense neurologists, studying the brain with techniques that are unique to them.” Monet’s haystacks appeal to us, in part, because he had a practical understanding of color perception. The drip paintings of Jackson Pollock resonate precisely because they excite some peculiar circuit of cells in the visual cortex. These painters reverse-engineered the brain, discovering the laws of seeing in order to captivate the eye.

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