Neuroaesthetics and the state of the art

Seed Magazine has an excellent article by Mo Costandi discussing how the study of neuroaesthetics – the neuroscience of art and beauty – is really starting to take off with a dedicated research centre recently launched in London.

I love the idea of neuroaesthetics but remain a little skeptical, not least because some of the literature gives the impression that it’s revolutionising our understanding of art when psychologists have been researching it since the beginning of psychology. I’ve yet to see the ‘neuro’ aspect add anything particularly novel so far.

I’ve got a fascinating but out of print book called Cognitive Processes in the Perception of Art that has a collection of papers from a five day conference on art and cognition from 1983.

The chapters cover much of the same sort of thing that is discussed under the neuroaesthetics banner (just without the brain scans) – including methods, symbolism, visual perception, music, improvisation, aesthetics, beauty and synaesthesia.

The introduction is interesting as an overview of the fragmented history of the field, most of which seems to have been undertaken in the expectation that this was something new and exciting:

…since 1876, when Fechner initiated the empirical approach to art through his book ‘Vorschule der Aesthetik’ psychology has been characterized by different ‘schools’; there has been continual dispute about the proper subject-matter of the discipline and about the theories and methods which should be applied to it. In many cases, the various approaches – such as Behaviourism, Gestalt Theory, Psychoanalysis, Humanistic Psychology, Information Theory, and Cognitive Psychology – have made distinctive contributions to the arts. One consequence has been that particular artistic phenomena have been selectively examined and then assimilated to preferred theories and methods of working, and hence these phenomena have escaped broad and systematic investigation as distinctive phenomena in their own right. Approaches to the arts have often been superficial and fragmentary, as Kose points out in his chapter, traditional approaches to the study of art often reveal more about the workings of psychological investigation than they do about art.

I’ve still yet to see anything that advances on this position.

Furthermore, theories that simply redescribe what you’re trying to explain are generally thought to be useless and the test of a good theory is that it can make accurate predictions. Where relevant it also suggests where interventions will have predictable effects.

Consequently, I often wonder whether neuroaesthetics will ever lead to a new and innovative type of artwork or art practice.

One of the most interesting things I’ve read recently was a discussion on the empyre mailing list (thanks Julian!) with various artists discussing their work in the cognitive and neurosciences. I warn you, it’s a pain in the arse to read because it’s only available as list archives.

Nevertheless, it mentioned a piece called ‘Ghosts in the Machine’ which sounds fantastic:

Ghosts in the Machine is a generative, closed system. Random noise from a CCD camera is analyzed for patterns. An algorithm looks for patterns that match the basic geometry and physiognomy of the human face. What it actually finds are pixels on a screen forming blobs and patches of colour that have no actual relation to a real world face. They have no indexical relation to an object. They are not images of people, but another kind of image loaded with meaning, which arises accidentally, but irresistibly, from the hybrid interaction between machine and body. To all intents and purposes when these patches of pixels look like faces, they are images of faces. That such obscure images resolve themselves into faces without conscious effort, and that remain even when attending closely to them, suggests that it is paradoxically their lack of objective meaning that generates their form. It is the very ambiguity and intedeterminacy of the images that allows the brain to reconfigure them as indexical.

It’s part of the Einstein’s Brain Project which aims to explore “the notion of the brain as a real and metaphoric interface between bodies and worlds in flux, and that examines the idea of the world as a construct sustained through the neurological processes contained within the brain”.

Link to Seed article ‘Beauty and the Brain’.
Link to details of cognitive processes in art book.
Link to Einstein’s Brain Project.
Link to good neuroaesthics primer.

Pump up the vino

PsyBlog has a delightful article discussing whether louder music increases alcohol consumption. It turns out it does, and surprisingly, there seems to have been quite a few studies done to examine the effect.

One research group even did a sort of randomised controlled trial on bars and music in a fantastic real-world experiment.

One study by Gueguen et al. (2004) found that higher sound levels lead to people drinking more. In a new study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, Gueguen et al. (2008) visited a bar in the west of France to confirm their previous finding in a naturalistic setting. Here, they observed customers’ drinking habits across three Saturday nights, in two different bars in the city.

The level of the music was randomly manipulated to create the conditions of a true experiment. It was either at its usual volume of 72dB or turned up to 88dB. For comparison: 72db is like the sound of traffic on a busy street while 88db is like standing next to a lawnmower.

Sure enough when the music went up the beers went down, faster. On average bar-goers took 14.5 minutes to finish a 250ml (8 oz) glass of draught beer when the music was at its normal level. But this came down to just 11.5 minutes when the music was turned up. As a result, on average, during their time in the bar each participant ordered one more drink in the loud music condition than in the normal music condition.

Link to ‘Why Loud Music in Bars Increases Alcohol Consumption’.

Social influences on the beautiful face

People in close social groups, such as family and friends, were more likely to agree on the attractiveness of a face, according to an interesting study published in Perception.

It’s a novel take on face perception research, which usually implies that there are some general features of attractiveness which we all can perceive, but rarely looks at how other people can influence this.

Beauty is in the ‘we’ of the beholder: greater agreement on facial attractiveness among close relations.

Perception. 2007;36(11):1674-81.

Bronstad PM, Russell R.

Scientific research on facial attractiveness has focused primarily on elucidating universal factors to which all raters respond consistently. However, recent work has shown that there is also substantial disagreement between raters, highlighting the importance of determining how attractiveness preferences vary among different individuals. We conducted a typical attractiveness ratings study, but took the unusual step of recruiting pairs of subjects who were spouses, siblings, or close friends. The agreement between pairs of affiliated friends, siblings, and spouses was significantly greater than between pairs of strangers drawn from the same race and culture, providing evidence that facial-attractiveness preferences are socially organized.

Link to PubMed entry for study.

The divining sage

The New York Times has an interesting piece on salvia divinorum, a powerful psychedelic plant that’s legal in most countries and is widely sold on the internet.

The plant is in the same family as sage and mint and was originally used ceremonially by the Mazatec of Mexico for spiritual rituals, owing to its reality altering properties. It contains the drug Salvinorin A which is often cited as one of the most potent hallucinogenic compounds ever discovered.

It’s fascinating for a number of reasons, not least because it can completely and intensely detach the user from reality, lasts no more than 15 minutes, and works on an opioid receptor in the brain – unlike most other hallucinogens that typically affect serotonin (e.g. LSD) or glutamate (e.g. ketamine).

Unlike opiates such as heroin and morphine which mainly work on the mu opioid receptor, salvia seems to have a unique and specific affinity for the kappa opioid receptor and so has very different effects.

The NYT piece discusses its rising popularity and the prevalence of trip videos on YouTube where incapacitated users are filmed while off their heads. Apparently, it is becoming increasingly outlawed in the US at the state level and apparently the federal government are considering banning it.

I tried salvia once and found the experience very intense but quite unpleasant, mainly for the deep physical discomfort it caused (I wonder whether this is explained by evidence suggesting it also inhibits the mu opioid receptor – known to modulate pain perception). It’s also quite incapacitating and hardly seemed to qualify as a ‘recreational drug’ in any sense of the word.

Fascinating compound scientifically though, and one which is likely to teach us a great deal about the little known role of the opioid system in perception.

Link to NYT piece on salvia.

Here we are now

BBC Radio 4 have just finished broadcasting Team Spirit, a great series of five 15-minute programmes on the psychology of group dynamics by taking a look at a diverse range of teams – from paramedics to Morris dancers.

Each programme looks at specific team chosen to reflect different forms of groups dynamics, meets the people and then discusses the social processes with psychologists working in the field.

The teams selected are air-ambulance paramedics, an Antartic research team, a girls football team, a backstage theatre crew and a group of Morris dancers (non-British people: Morris dancing is an excuse for ale drinking and maid chasing thinly disguised as a folk dance tradition).

It’s a fun and informative ‘bite-size’ series presented by the faultless Claudia Hammond. It’s archived online but only as realaudio streams, so no podcasts I’m afraid but definitely worth checking out.

Link to BBC Radio 4 Team Spirit series.

Erotic self-stimulation and brain implants

A 48-year-old woman with a stimulating electrode implanted in her right ventral thalamus started to compulsively self-stimulate when she discovered that it could produce erotic sensations.

This is a report from the early days of deep brain stimulation, way back in 1986, from an article for the medical journal Pain which discussed some unintended side-effects from one patient’s DBS treatment for chronic pain.

Soon after insertion of the nVPL electrode, the patient noted that stimulation also produced erotic sensations. This pleasurable response was heightened by continuous stimulation at 75% maximal amplitude, frequently augmented by short bursts at maximal amplitude. Though sexual arousal was prominent, no orgasm occurred with these brief increases in stimulation intensity. Despite several episodes of paroxysmal atrial tachycardia [heart disturbance] and development of adverse behavioural and neurological symptoms during maximal stimulation, compulsive use of the stimulator developed.

At its most frequent, the patient self-stimulated throughout the day, neglecting personal hygiene and family commitments. A chronic ulceration developed at the tip of the finger used to adjust the amplitude dial and she frequently tampered with the device in an effort to increase the stimulation amplitude. At times, she implored her to limit her access to the stimulator, each time demanding its return after a short hiatus. During the past two years, compulsive use has become associated with frequent attacks of anxiety, depersonalization, periods of psychogenic polydipsia and virtually complete inactivity.

Similar cases are still being reported today. A 2005 case report described a gentleman who had a DBS electrode inserted into the right subthalamic nucleus to treat the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. He found that switching the device on and off produced a ‘morphine like’ sensation that he became quite fond of.

This effect was first discovered in humans in the early 1960s, when controversial psychiatrist Robert Heath reported on two cases of people with a number of electrodes implanted in the brain, including some in similar areas to the patients mentioned above.

In 1972, he undertook a notorious study where he implanted electrodes into the brain of a consenting 24-year-old gay male who had been repeatedly hospitalized for chronic suicidal depression and found to have temporal lobe epilepsy.

The brain implant was specifically introduced for non-sexual reasons but Heath decided to test whether pleasurable brain stimulation would encourage the man, known only as B-19, to engage in heterosexual sexual activity with a prostitute.

The study was a ‘success’ but has become infamous as one of the more distasteful episodes in the history of ‘gay conversion therapy’, which is quite hard going in a field that is well-known for its distasteful episodes.

Heath was apparently funded by the CIA as part of their abortive research programme into ‘mind control’ techniques, but I can’t find any reliable reference for that, so it might need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Link to paper ‘Chronic Thalamic Self-Stimulation’.
Link to PubMed entry for paper.
Link to Heath ‘gay brain stimulation’ study.
Link to doi link for same.

Reminiscence competition winner

Congratulations to Jon C, the winner of the tickets to see Reminiscence, which closes at the end of this week on Saturday September 20th.

Just a last word on the play to say many thanks to everyone who came along to the post-show science forum last Sunday, it was a pleasure debating with you, and just a reminder that there’s another one after the matinee performance this Wednesday as well.

Christian has posted a brief write-up of the show where he discusses some of the ideas behind it and also describes me as “mesmerisingly encyclopedic”, which I’m guessing is a journalistic euphemism for “a bit geeky”.

Link to BPSRD write-up of Reminiscence.
Link to play website.