Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Beauty and the Brain

The creation of patterns within patterns creates fractal depth, and unity among diversity, showing us that “knowledge of the structural principle of fractal images has led successfully to the discovery of uniformity in the variety of appearances” (Fischer, 67) in nature and, as art is a product of the brain, and the brain is part of nature, in art too. Nature has fractal geometry – the repetitious repetition of repetitions. Great works of art have fractal geometry too, and in the same way that nature is fractal, not in the repetition of the same fractals, but of the superposition of different fractal geometries on top of each other. Again, uniformity in variety. We again see the use of repetition, of patterns, and therefore, of rhythm, at the most basic levels of nature. And it goes all the way down. Light is made of waves – they are repetitious and have a steady rhythm. Quantum particles (including strings) all vibrate – they have steady rhythms (this quality of vibrating at a steady rhythm is why we use Cesium – which vibrates at a known, constant rate – in our atomic clocks). Crystals all have patterns, planets all orbit in steady rhythms (as do stars in the galaxy) – nature is rhythmical, patterned, all the way down. It has fractal depth. So we should not be surprised to find the use of rhythm in the development of biological organisms, including humans – and our brains. Nor should we be surprised we find rhythms and patterns comforting – and beautiful. This suggests we would expect our art to be patterned, rhythmical, since both the creator and the audience finds patterned, rhythmic art beautiful. The problem of boredom keeps artists innovating, creating new patterns, suggesting new rhythms, that can potentially help us to see new things in the world, helping us to better adapt to and learn about the world.

Rhythms and patterns in animals are expressed not only within the body, but in many of our behaviors. Rhythmic behavior patterns are called rituals. Sexual selection has generated rituals in fish, birds, and mammals – and humans are not exempt. Turner goes so far as to say that art comes out of ritual, the differentiating feature being that art is more directly concerned with the beautiful than is ritual in and of itself (16). Ritual originated in sexual selection – particularly in mate selection – since sexual selection tends to create beauty, as we see in the peacock’s tail. This, and the oral tradition out of which literature evolved, have some implications regarding literature in particular. When Turner says ritual “is often . . . the place where society stands back from itself, considers its own value system, criticizes it, and engages in its profoundest philosophical and religious commerce with what lies outside it, whether divine, natural, or subconscious” (8), it is hard to imagine he could not be talking about literature in general, and the novel in particular – as any quick history of the novel and its societal effects shows.

Ritual also implies performance. “In ritual human beings decide what they are and stipulate that identity for themselves, thereby asserting the most fundamental freedom of all, the freedom to be what they choose” (Turner, 8). With art and literature, we engage in world-creation, participate in that created world to help us comprehend the natural world, and communicate this information to others. This is what works of art and literature do: communicate information about possibilities. This is the ethical role of art and literature (this is separate from, but inclusive of, the tragic role of art and literature). Art and literature play vital roles, since “communication [is] the basis of both a social existence and of culture” (Bonner, 97). The creation and appreciation of art and literature are fulfilling because “world creation is hard work, and must be richly rewarded” (Turner, 16) through our feeling of beauty.

The creation of particular structures in the brain, the way the brain processes information, and the loss of neural connections and massive numbers of brain cells, are all part and parcel of what constitutes human thinking, learning, and minding. Our brains are programmed to learn certain things at certain times, and in certain ways. The best, most effective way to learn something is to do it as early, and as rhythmically, as possible. If we want to have an effect on behavior and learning through nurture, we have to understand better our own nature. In order to know ourselves, which has been the constant cry of philosophy – and of the arts and humanities in general – we have to know our biological selves. In doing so, we can become aware of our limitations, and of the rules that govern our behavior, so we can make better use of those rules. If the brain makes use of rhythms to understand the world, is it not best to use this knowledge to better ourselves, to make ourselves more knowledgeable and wiser? Certainly, if, as Doczi says, knowledge is varied, but wisdom is unified – what would make for a more beautiful mind than one full of unified knowledge? We can best teach ourselves and our children more knowledge, and in a more unified manner, by making use of what we do now know about how the brain works and understands the world.

For those in the arts, such knowledge can inform us as to both how to create more beautiful works, and why those methods work. For a work of art to be beautiful, it must have repeated repetitions of its visual elements. For a poem to be beautiful, it must be rhythmical, have repetition of sound and beat. For a work of fiction to be beautiful, it must have repetitions of images and theme-words. And each must have variations which have unity. Symmetry with asymmetry. Repetitive repetitions that are not perfectly repetitive – not identical, but self-similar, to avoid monotony, to avoid boredom, and therefore keep the attention of the audience. But they do have to have the repetitions for us to see them as meaningful – as it is the recognition of repetition, patterns, to which we attach meaning. And insofar as one of the purposes of art is to create new meaning and, thus, revalue all values (Nietzsche), the creation of rhythm, repetition, and, thus, patterns is vital to the creation of beautiful works of art.

A biological understanding of the brain, of how the brain is structured and programmed by regulatory genes, which are themselves affected by their environment, whether we understand that environment to be a direct chemical environment, or an indirect one, generated by interactions of the organism with the world (light hitting the retina, transmitting an image to the brain, which then processes the image, comparing it to other things in the brain it remembers and has meaningful and emotional connections to, so it can classify it and, thus, change the very structure of the brain, so the organism can better deal with the world and other things similar to the new thing it has seen), helps us understand our behavior, and how we can better interact with, and therefore learn from, the environment, so nurture can be better used, interacting with nature. Better understanding of how the brain is structured during fetal development, and later, in infancy, when the brain is still developing, can help us create a better learning environment – one that makes good use of the arts, and which sees the arts, not as mere decoration, but as a vital, indeed, integral part of how we learn and what makes us human.

This approach is further supported if we look at some of the general ways in which the brain functions. In Natural Classicism, Frederick Turner has an essay on the brain sciences. In it he points out that with the left-brain being the primary location of temporal sequencing and short-term memory, and the right-brain being the primary location for a spatial gestalt mode and a memory for “complex locations and images, and with some subjects, for instance dwelling-places, [where] our powers of recall and recognition of spacial patterns are astonishing” (19-20), and the fact that “it is the exchange of information between right-brain and left-brain modes which constitutes the human capacity to make sense of the world” (18), then

In such a perspective plot or story becomes crucially important. The “unity of action” . . . functions as a sort of connected series of rooms, containing places for memory storage. Plot, moreover, with its capacity to organize large units of time, extends the harmonious patterning of temporal periodicities that we find in poetic meter to larger and larger scales, organizing a voluminous body of material and broadening the temporal horizon of memory and expectation. (20-21)

However, I would like to suggest that in longer works fractally-distributed patterns of words could also create a “harmonious patterning of temporal periodicties” over a large scale that works in a similar way to that of poetic meter, the difference being that the music of poetry is rhythmic and expected, while this music of novelistic prose would be chaotically rhythmic and unpredictably predictable. Either way, Turner’s claim does support the idea of plot as something novels should have (and, so students can better learn them, history and science should have too), whether artificial or not, because they are something the brain finds optimally pleasurable and creative of meaning.

Plot not only unites right-brain pattern recognition with the left-brain capacity to deal with large units of time, it also connects those cortical functions in turn with the limbic system and its powerful rewards. It does this by the process of identification. ... Identification makes us feel the character’s emotions as if they were our own. Thus plot promotes and exercises the relations between cortical world construction and limbic reward. (21)

We will soon see that insofar as plot is a form of narrative, we are also programmed to find plot pleasurable, since narrative is the very basis of language, and plots are created by language. Which suggests that plot is not artificial – though artificiality is hardly an argument against its use in art. Turner also points out that symbols work in a similar way, relating “pleasurable emotion or sensation with the higher values” (22). Any work of art or literature should match the different expectations of the brain. The same is true of education, further strengthening the connection between the arts and education.

Since the brain is habituative, “That is, it tends to ignore repeated and expected stimuli, and to respond only to the new and unexpected” (64), a work of art or literature should constantly present new and unexpected things to the reader. Since the brain is synthetic, a work of art or literature must create a complete, new world. Since the brain is “active rather than passive, it constructs scenarios to be tested by reality, vigorously seeks confirmation of them, and painfully reconstructs them if they are deconfirmed” (64), the work of art or literature must construct the kinds of realities that act as tests (of reality, of moral choices, etc.) for the reader. Since the brain is predictive, a work of art or literature must have a certain element of predictability – a novel’s characters, for example, must act in expected ways, and/or a work must have patterns and/or rhythms. Combine this with the habituative, and you get the kind of tension necessary for a work of art or literature to really work well. Further, if a long work of literature, such as a novel, has chaotic word patterns, such a work would be both predictive and habituative too. Since the brain is hierarchical, a work of art or literature must itself be hierarchical – which, in a work of literature, we can see in the emergent meaning from phonemes up through plot. Since the brain is rhythmic, the work of art or literature should be rhythmic, which, again, we see in the fractal patterns of a good work of art, as well as in stylized prose and rhythmic poetry. Since the brain is self-rewarding, it “reward[s] itself for certain activities which are, presumably, preferred for their adaptive utility” (68) and is able to be fine-tuned through external means to increase “mental efficiency,” which “underlies the whole realm of human values, ultimate purposes, and ideas such as truth, beauty, and goodness” (68), the plot/story of a work of art or literature should be one that can both fine-tune the mind and be a source of truth, beauty, and goodness. Since the brain is reflexive, which is how it calibrates itself, a work of art or literature should be repetitive, such as on the word-level for novels, on the sound-level of poems, and on the visual level for art. We see this reflexivity in the very structure of language, such as in our ‘if-then” statements:

The grammar or syntax of human language is certainly unique. Like an onion or Russian doll, it is recursive: One instance of an item is embedded in another instance of the same item. Recursion makes it possible for the words in a sentence to be widely separated and yet dependet on one another “If-then” is a classic example. “In the sentence “If Jack does not turn up the thermostat in his house this winter, then Madge and I are not coming over,” “if” and “then” are dependent on each other even though they are separated by a variable number of words. (Premack, David, “Is Language the Key to Human Intelligence?” Science 16 Jan 2004, 318)

Since the brain is social, the work of art or literature should be about social things, about human social interactions. Since the brain is hemispherically specialized, in order to create “a sort of stereoscopic depth-cognition” (Turner, 70), a work of art or literature should deal with space and time. Since the brain is kalogenetic, from the Greek “kalos” for “beauty, goodness, rightness,” and “genesis” for “begetting, productive, cause, origin, source” (71), a work of art or literature should be a source or producer of beauty and goodness. Since the brain is generative, the work of art or literature should be rule-bound, since “the rules must be followed, or the freedom, the limitlessness, the generativeness, will not come about. And those rules include not only the grammar of language, but also the classical laws of harmony, melody, color, proportion, poetic meter, narrative, rhythm, and balance” (222). Which means a work of art or literature should also include each of these. In short,
the human nervous system has a strong drive to construct affirmative, plausible, coherent, consistent, parsimonious, and predictively powerful models of the world, in which all events are explained by and take their place in a system which is at once rich in implications beyond its existing data and at the same time governed by as few principles or axioms as possible. (71)

Which is a good definition of both a chaotic system and a great work of art or literature.

To take up something I disagree with Turner on, Turner claims that “ordinary prose comes to us in a “mono” mode, so to speak, affecting the left brain predominantly” while “metered language comes to us in “stereo” mode – or even a quadraphonic one – simultaneously calling on the verbal resources of the left and the musical potentials of the right, the fronto-limbic sensitivity to rhythms and cycles, and the sensory-motor specializations of the posterior cortex” (95). While this may be a good definition of much “ordinary” nonfiction prose, it does not necessarily hold true for fiction (and other literary) prose – especially any kind of prose that paints vivid pictures for the reader. The right-brain holism (for plot) and visuals (scenes, imagery) shows us good fiction-prose also uses both sides of the brain, though in different ways. One could bring up the rhythm argument, but if a novel has fractally-distributed-word-patterns, which we would expect from a fractal system, these would be the natural rhythms and cycles found in good fiction that parallel the more standard forms of poetic rhythms and cycles. Also, while poetry may make good use of short-term memory (Turner and Pöppel have shown the optimally three-second lines of poems fit nicely in the three-second short-term memory window), the novel makes use of the right-brain’s long-term memory abilities, as well as its tendency to conceptualize. One must have a good memory to read and understand a novel, so it could be argued that reading novels also helps increase long-term memory.

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