Saturday, March 13, 2004
The mind is a master of art
TelegraphNewly hatched gulls get their food by pecking at a red spot on their mother's yellow beak. The birds don't even need their mother to be present - they are as happy pestering a disembodied beak as the real thing.

But 50 years ago Niko Tinbergen, an Oxford University scientist, made an extraordinary discovery. When presented with an abstract version of the beak - a yellow stick with three red stripes - the chicks went crazy. The stick excited the baby birds far more than their mothers' bills.

Tinbergen's creation bore no resemblance to a real beak and yet to the birds' brains it was somehow more "real". By exaggerating the reality of a beak, Tinbergen did what all artists strive for - he captured the essence of reality.

The experiment raised intriguing questions about the nature of art. If a hyper-real painting triggered such a reaction in the visual processing regions of a bird's brain, might not art be doing the same in human minds?

Vilayanur Ramachandran, professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, San Diego, author of The Emerging Mind and one of the world's leading neuroscientists, believes the answer is yes.

Best known for his groundbreaking work on phantom limb disorders and visual perception, he is calling for the same approach to the study of art that was used by Noam Chomsky to revolutionise linguistics in the Sixties. Just as Chomsky argued that the human brain is hard wired with rules of language, Ramachandran believes the brain may be hard wired to appreciate art.

He concedes that most art is culturally determined. Tastes vary over time and space. But even if 90 per cent of art is culturally driven, 10 per cent may be driven by universal laws linked to the way the brain has evolved to process vision.

"The science of art sounds like an oxymoron because art is about individual human experience, creating originality. Science seems to be dealing with universal principles - the opposite," he says. "But I believe the brain has evolved principles that allow you to deal efficiently with the visual world. They allow you to capture objects, identify objects and mate with objects."

The starting point for Ramachandran is the fact that the brain actively processes and interprets visual signals. "The eyes are not cameras. They don't take an image, send it down the cable and get it displayed on a screen in the brain. Clearly the image is encoded in the form of nerve impulses.

"It's a symbolic description in the brain, the analogy of which would be a piece of paper on which you write something about your house. The squiggles of ink bear no resemblance to your house but a person can decode the letters and conjure up an image of your house.

"The brain is using a similar code, which is where art comes in. Humans have art because the brain actively must process the signals coming from the retina."
Artists manipulate, distort and exaggerate images to optimally titillate the 30 areas of the brain dealing with vision.

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