Fifth International School On Mind, Brain And Education

2010, August 1-6

Learning, Arts,
and the Brain

Directors: Antonio M. Battro and Kurt W. Fischer
Program officer: María Lourdes Majdalani

Abstract: Jean Pierre Changeux
Institut Pasteur. FRANCE

The neuroscience of art: a research program for the next decade?
une peinture est une organisation, un ensemble de relations entre formes sur lequel viennent se faire et se défaire les sens qu’on lui prête Pierre Soulage
The neuroscience of art still largely escapes to our present reflection but is becoming a plausible program of multidisciplinary research for the next decade at the crossroad of the biological sciences and the humanities. Works of art can be tentatively viewed as elements of a human-specific non-verbal communication system, distinct from language “halfway between scientific knowledge and mythical thought” (Lévi-Strauss 1962). Esthetic communication specifically uses symbolic forms that mobilize altogether emotional states and rational experience under the constraints of characteristic “rules of art”.
From a molecular neurobiologist’s perspective, the cognitive abilities and skills required for art creation and perception are built from a cascade of events driven by a genetic envelope that cannot be simply related to genome size, nor number of genes. The total amount of DNA present in the haploid genome comprises approximately 3.1 billion base pairs, but no more than 20 000–25 000 genes sequences (1.2% of our genome code for exons) and this number does not significantly differ from mouse to humans. On the other hand, the total number of cells in the human brain is in the order of 85 billion neurons with each neuron possessing its particular connectivity and its set of genes expressed. One should thus look for molecular explanations that account for the nonlinear relationship between genome vs brain phenotype complexity in the course of the evolution, for instance at the level of the combinatorial expression of spatio-temporal patterns of developmental genes (see Changeux 1985, 2008).
Another aspect of brain organization -often underestimated- but essential for the understanding of artistic creation is its epigenetic variability. Such variability is introduced during the development of brain neuronal connectivity, aware of the fact that in humans about half of all adult connections are formed after birth at a very fast rate (approx. 2 million synapses every minute in the baby’s brain) and that a significant number of them are eliminated in the course of development (see Lagercrantz 2010). This process of synaptic stabilization and elimination is exceptionally long in humans and proceeds at least through the age of 15. It stores the traces of “trials and errors” learning processes, possibly through selection mechanisms based on shared rewards and emotions (Gisiger et al, 2005, Changeux 1985, 2005). It is altered under pathological conditions like schizophrenia a disease that involves susceptibility genes affecting the development of intra- and inter-regional brain connectivity (Karslsgodt et al 2008). Comparative studies suggest that this prolonged period of post-natal development in humans is positively associated with the genesis and internalisation of culture (Changeux 1985, 2008), in particular with the acquisition of skills and cultural imprinting associated with the symbolic experience and emotions characteristic of esthetic experience.
From a cognitive perspective, artistic contemplation and creation may be tentatively viewed as a subjective, conscious experience, or conscious access, which neurobiological mechanisms are actively explored, in several laboratories, through objective measures of brain imaging and theoretical modeling (rev Changeux & Dehaene 2008; Dehaene (this meeting)). It is viewed as an endogenous process that makes incoming and/or internally generated information globally available to multiple brain systems through a distributed network – or Global Neuronal Workspace- of neurons with long-range axons, particularly dense in prefrontal, parieto-temporal and cingulate cortex. Esthetic experience might then be hypothesized as a discrete and singular conscious synthesis taking place within the personal global workspace of external perceptions, internal memories and stored emotions, bringing into play “emotions in harmony with reason” (Schiller 1795). This process can be selectively altered by drugs consumption and neuropsychiatric disorders and is actively investigated by functional brain imaging (Cela-Conde et al 2004; Kawabata & Zeki 2004).
Any neurobiological hypothesis about artistic creation faces the combinatorial explosion of the 85 billion of neurons that compose the human brain. There is a need for rules that constrain and restrict in a top-down manner the selection of representations generated in the artist brain and which result in the personal style and quality of the work together with its efficient social communication and shared interpersonal recognition. These règles de l’art, hypothetically viewed as acquired patterns of connections, or scaffoldings, stored in long-term memory, include, among others: novelty, the coherence of the parts within the whole (Alberti’s consensus partium), parsimony or the most frugal route of expression (Herbert Simon), the tension between bottom-up realism and top-down abstraction, the search for shared social recognition and the artist’s conception of the world (for instance the "noble ideas" (belles idées) of Nicolas Poussin) (Changeux 2008).
Last, artistic creation is part of the personal history of the artist and stems from an anterior historical evolution that can be made possible because the artist often borrows from others patterns, figures and forms that become units that are perpetuated through time. There is an evident evolution of art. Yet, this evolution surprisingly looks without apparent progress though in constant renewal, possibly as a consequence of still largely unexplored universal features of human brain interaction with fast changing social and cultural environments.