Art and the Brain: Chapter 1: Introduction

The fossil record notwithstanding, there seems to be good reason to regard the evolutionary debut of consciousness as very possibly the most critical step in the whole of evolution. Before this, the entire cosmic process, we are told, was only, as someone has phrased it, “a play before empty benches” — colorless and silent at that, because, according to our best physics, before brains there was no color and no sound in the universe, nor was there any flavor or aroma and probably rather little sense and no feeling or emotion.

Roger Sperry, Problems Outstanding in the Evolution of Brain Function (1964)

This chapter introduces the book and explains why the sub-title includes the terms plasticity, embodiment, and the unclosed circle.

The unclosed circle, it is used to reference the Gestalt principle of closure, which postulates we tend to see complete figures even when part of the information is missing. We simply assume the shape is whole. The smaller the gaps are the more likely the whole is seen as unbroken.

Rembrandt Self-Portrait, image
Fig. 1.1. Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of the Artist (1665). Courtesy of The Iveagh Bequest at Kenwood and English Heritage

Rembrandt’s Self Portrait with Two Circles (c. 1665–69) represents this Gestalt principle well. Here we perceive two circles in the background, although he only presents us with two arcs. We complete the forms in our minds, filling in the missing information because we simply assume he is presenting a section of a shape. Art historians generally title paintings based on what they see and, in this case, the assumption of two circles is even included in the work’s name.

This late portrait by Rembrandt not only conveys the Gestalt principle well, it also speaks to embodiment. Rembrandt conceived this painting during the period when he had lost most of his fortune. It is also noteworthy because it is one of nearly 100 self-portraits he did over the course of his life. Here we see the artist as an older man, holding his palette, brushes, and maulstick with a sense of dignity and purpose. This monumental painting, often described as his most ambitious self-portrait, is further notable for its enigmatic background consisting of a shallow space. Without a doubt, this masterpiece, particularly given its size, seems to embody his person late in his life.

Yet, Rembrandt’s embodiment of himself in the portrait is quite different from how a viewer experiences the work. The viewer’s embodied response is interwoven with a sense of something that reaches beyond or beneath the superficial paint on the surface. We relate to an object, which is quite different from Rembrandt’s praxis of engagement when crafting what we see. The complexity of both of these positions is why when I speak about the “brain,” I am not perceiving it solely in terms of how the organ within the skull functions, but in terms of embodiment.

“Embodiment” here is not just a way of saying that perception, sensation, and emotion all have brain correlates and all contribute to our lived (embodied) experience. Rather, it is a way to ask about the individual experience as well as interactive communities, where individuals operate. By contrasting historical and contemporary examples this book aims to show that the generalized pictures of the cognitive and neurosciences too often diffuse the individual perspective.

As for plasticity, in terms of the neurosciences, brain plasticity is generally defined as persistent changes in neural function: changes in neural pathways and synapses that are due to changes in behavior, environment, thinking, and emotion, as well as in recovery from brain injuries. Neuroplasticity functions are linked to the concept of synaptic pruning, the idea that individual connections within the brain are constantly being removed or recreated, largely dependent upon how they are used (“neurons that fire together, wire together”) This idea also works in the opposite way, for studies show that neurons that do not regularly produce simultaneous impulses will form different maps (“neurons that fire apart, wire apart”).

My approach to plasticity speaks in terms of embodiment so as to include the role that the body plays in shaping the mind experientially, experimentally, and operationally. It is also cognizant that the brain changes over the course of one’s life time. Thus, overall, this book speaks about embodiment and plasticity in terms of one’s psychological relationship with one’s social context expansively, as well as in terms of how we perceive compositional formalism and the process of artmaking.


In summary, my intention in this book is to speak about art and the brain in terms of life as a biological and creative process, which includes the creative practices of both artists and sciences. I see human development as “creative” in and of itself, and what we “make” in whatever form is creative activity as well. While this book includes many “esteemed” artists and scientists; it is neither a “great artists” and “great scientists” model nor a “Whig history” celebrating the march of progress. In addition, as much of this book will underscore, while I think academic thinking is of value on some level, I am also of the opinion that the abstract meanderings and specialist idioms of academia can too often seem unrelated to actual lived experience; a lack of embodiment (again!), if you will. The dilemma here, as I see it, is that some work on art and the brain is overly specialized and, at other times, for whatever reasons, writers seem set on obscuring variables as if they are gatekeepers to some kind of esoteric knowledge. It is my hope that this book speaks plainly to both specialists and generalists.

Lastly, while not explicitly emphasized throughout this volume, in the last chapter I will argue that our brains have changed since the Pleistocene era: we do not have Stone Age brains with the static quality implied by the phrase. To be sure, our brains have extensive commonalities with those of our early ancestors, just as the three-bay formation of the Berkeley area where I walk daily has commonalities with the land of 10,000 years ago. Yet, in each case, the ever-changing and detailed contours speak to many differences and have much to say as well.