Art & Neuroscience

The last few decades of neuroscience have revealed much about the inner workings of the brain, and raised tantalizing questions about the nature of mind. Yet, long before the evolution of science, there was art.  The cave paintings at Chauvet and Lascaux are some of the earliest examples. We don’t know what they mean, exactly. We don’t know why they were created. But our continued fascination with them, and the proliferation of art that has followed, suggests the important role that expressive acts of image making offer in a continued discovery of our place and our purpose within the cosmos.

Neuroanalysis of master works offer detailed explanations of the neural mechanisms that may make them so aesthetically appealing and, in so doing, affirm that knowledge of the brain and its functions is embodied within the act of artistic creation and experimentation. Leonardo da Vinci’s artistic study of form and depth, for example, predated scientific understanding of depth cues. In this sense, the artist shares much in common with the neuroscientist, both exploring and giving form to deep structures of the brain.  

Cave Painter,  Catherine Imo

Cave Painter, Catherine Imo

In ancient civilizations, liberal arts were a component of ethical training in helping professions like theology and medicine. “The ethical value in the practice of the arts was found in an attitude towards limits and hindrances--the artist traditionally has to overcome them in order to be successful” (Knell, Levine & Levine, p. 135). In the practice of psychotherapy, expressive arts allow one to actively discriminate constraints that offer the opportunity for unexpected discovery from redundant limitations that can be discarded in favor of other, more fruitful options. Therapeutic work with expressive arts may invite experimentation with texture, color and repetition, in a collage, for example, much the way one explores in more traditional “talk therapy” previously unconsidered possibilities and their relationship to life conditions that are no longer satisfying.

Yet, expressive arts offer something more basic and straightforward than the type of discovery that serves future action—attending to the experience of muscles, brain and senses being muscles, brain and senses. This is what Heidegger came to understand as resting in “the ever non-objective ground of Being" (Knell, Levine & Levine, p. 11). What Zen master Dogen referred to as practice-realization.

We have been enculturated, and perhaps through our many years of existence have evolved, to ask why, how and what. But let’s not forget that ochre meets rock. A familiar and all together new shape arrives.