On Intelligence and art
Post #730 • February 14, 2006, 11:46 AM • 61 Comments
Jeff Hawkins, in On Intelligence, describes a simple observation about the brain that has far-reaching implications. Hawkins is a computer guy - he designed the Treo - but his interest in computer performance led him to study how the brain functions. While the majority of brain science focuses on discerning the differences between areas of the neocortex, Hawkins, drawing from extant research, notes that the neocortex is remarkably uniform. Brain cells dedicated to hearing look pretty much like the ones dedicated to vision, for instance. He therefore posits that all areas of the brain basically do the same thing, what he calls the common neocortical algorithm.
When you press down on your computer mouse, how do you know the plastic will be hard enough to resist the pressure of your fingers? You have that fact about the world already in your head from years of experience of handling objects. Scientists call that feedback - you performed some kind of action and recorded the outcome, using information flowing up the sensory apparatus and towards the brain. Surprisingly, researchers measuring brain activity say that the brain sends a lot more information back down those pathways than it receives, what Hawkins calls feedforward. What is it doing? Hawkins believes that it is using stored patterns to make predictions about upcoming experiences, informing the sensory pathways what to expect. Without the feedforward telling them to look for something, the senses have no framework to allow the information in, unless the input creates such a major violation of expectations that high areas of the neocortex become startled into dealing with the unexpected data. You can do amazing things because of feedforward. You have such a rich array of prediction patterns that you can hear music you don't know and tell when someone isn't playing it well. You can still recognize your friend when she puts on makeup and tilts her head a little away from you. A computer can't do those things. That memory-prediction framework is the common neocortical algorithm.
This bears on a discussion that Kathleen and I got into, whether the formal aspect of art always preceded the conceptual. I insist that the formal always comes first, while she claimed that the conceptual potentially could. It turns out that, according to Hawkins, I'm right, but Kathleen's not totally wrong. Art begins with sensory input: color, shape, scale, and all the formal elements. It has to, because without the sensory input, it effectively doesn't exist to the brain. But upon receiving that input, the brain replies by sending germane information back down towards the sense receptors in greater quantity. Some of the feedforward is making functional predictions like, the wall that the painting is hanging on is hard, don't walk into it. It also is fitting the art inside of a conceptual framework that allows us to perceive it as art and relate it to other art that we have seen. That framework then informs the senses about what input to seek next.
That doesn't mean that beauty is a subjective experience. Consensus would never form around anything if humans didn't have common sensory experiences regarding pleasure. Massage doesn't work for a lot of people, but it still remains a viable activity because it feels pleasurable to a lot of other people. Visual pleasure works the same way. The exceptions don't disprove the rule that we find some colors preferable to other colors, or even just beautiful in themselves. Why should we? They're just colors. But we do. Humans have decimated entire species of birds for their plumage. It sometimes goes the other way, too - flowers have cleverly evolved so that we will spend billions of dollars a year helping them to reproduce. (Happy Valentine's Day!)
Now I have some science to back up my assertion that beauty has subjective and objective components, and that the sensory detection of the objective ones come first in the aesthetic experience.
Here's another thought: you can experience pleasure in response to imagined visual representations just as you can in response to percieved ones. In fact, because of feedforward, part of those sensory experiences are imagined. I believe that people with good eyes for art can discern the difference between their reactions to sensory data and their reactions to their predictions about the sensory data - between feedback and feedforward. They have enough awareness to return their attention to the object, repeatedly, turning off their prediction mechanism somewhat in an attempt to elicit more sensory input from the object. They also pay attention to their felt response, and can discern whether they are responding to sensory input or to internal representations.
People who don't have a good eye fall into two kinds. The first has no framework for the experience of looking at art and doesn't have an innate pleasurable response to color and shape. We don't deal with them. People of the second kind don't discern between feedback and feedforward, and therefore have pleasurable reactions to their own internal representations (including their philosophical biases, associated learning, and other filters) that they cannot discern from their reactions to sensory data. In fact, some people lose any need for the original object in the process of having their aesthetic experience. Feedforward dominates everyone's cognition, but in these people feedforward completely takes over the act of looking. This allows people to see bad art as interesting and allows it to survive in the world. At the same time, good art finds its way along different paths - the paths of the flowers.