Q&A: Caroline Jones on Cognitive Neuroscience and the Arts

Caroline A. Jones is a Professor of Art History in the History, Theory and Criticism of Architecture and Art program at MIT. She studies modern and contemporary art, with a particular focus on technological modes of production, distribution, and reception. Among many publications, she is the author of two monographs, Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses (2005) and Machine in the Studio: Constructing the Postwar American Artist (1996) as well the editor of the exhibition catalogue Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology, and Contemporary Art (2006). As the organizer of this fall’s symposium, Seeing / Sounding / Sensing, she sat down with us to discuss what’s in store.

Seeing / Sounding / Sensing brings artists and scholars together with cognitive scientists for an open-ended discussion about knowledge production. What inspired this idea?
Art history had a very interesting period in the 1930s; there was a generation of art historians enormously sophisticated about psychology, as it was called then, as opposed to what it has become, “cognitive neuroscience.” Their approach has always appealed to me, because it takes the widest view of culture. Among other things, it asked why the human species makes art — which is a big question — and it held experimental scientists to task, because it asked them to go beyond local issues and narrowly defined studies to ask more challenging questions that might stretch their discipline. Great art historians like Rudolf Arnheim and Ernst Gombrich were in touch with current science in the 1940s through the ’60s. They also informed some of the research of that science and educated experimental psychologists about what art had to say to them. As cognitive neuroscience really began to take off, I felt a sense of loss that a comparable conversation was not possible anymore. So, a part of me simply had an intellectual question: Why did these two fields — formerly art and psychology, now called art history and neuroscience– lose the ability to productively inform one another? The symposium will show that we can bring back the conversations, and I hope it will lead to new ideas and opportunities for research on all sides.

What are some of the changes that have taken place in neuroscience since that time?
I’m not a historian of science, but my intuitive hypothesis is that the microbiological revolution of the sixties spawned hundreds of sub-specialities of incredible refinement around issues of the single neuron, which led to narrower and more quantifiable goals. With the microbiological approach and the development of extraordinarily expensive machines, like the MRI (nuclear magnetic resonance imaging devices), neuroscience became very specialized. These machines have become the sophisticated playgrounds of very advanced research scientists in the way that a nuclear particle accelerator is available only to very advanced physicists. No such devices are available to a high school class or the average educated person.

Moreover, the data that comes out of these devices is enormously complex, and needs to be subjected to multiple calculations to clean up the numbers. Even cognitive neuroscientists took some time to understand and really start questioning some of the results. What we call neuroscience, an aggregate of many fields, has now come to a more mature viewpoint about its own tools and a more sober skepticism about the limits of what those tools can say about what is going on in the brain, much less the mind. I’m optimistic enough to think it’s a good moment for them to have this conversation with scholars from other fields.

What do you think the sciences have to offer the arts?
What I respect about science the most is its precision and its humility. When it says, “We can’t prove this and we can’t prove that. But we have this one thing we found that’s very interesting and may lead us to other important questions — this one tiny, modest thing. Let’s look at that and see what we can build on there.” The modesty of true science, its openness to being replicated and refuted and to being proven wrong, is a very great lesson that the humanities can learn.

What are some of the exciting developments going on in neuroscience?
The research of one of our panelists, Josh Tenenbaum, is proving to be very important for a lot of neuroscientists, because he is now grappling with the human capacity to make inferential judgments through statistical-type sampling. Using inference, you get a very different model of intelligence than classic lesion studies, which might have revealed, “Oh, missing sector 5. Can’t speak French” — suggesting a “localization paradigm” for all knowledge. It is a whole different model of intelligence when you realize that there is a sort of vast, humming sampling going on at all times that determines how we think, how we feel, how we know, how we do.

We are motivated to move and to sample and to scan and to compile and to constantly make inferences about ourselves in the world, by being in it. It is a beautiful way of thinking about culture because inference leads to thoughts about metaphor and analogy — all the ways that humans have always thought and symbolized and made sense and stored memories. If we could really think in a utopian way for a moment, we would imagine that we were on the brink of a whole new level of discourse in which neuroscience and cultural workers together could contribute something really beautiful and profound about the way humans may work.

Can you tell us what struck you about Tauba Auerbach’s work?
Tauba is first of all a very conceptually rigorous artist, and that draws me to her work very much. She’s also fascinated by mathematics and by the mathematical modeling of higher dimensions. She has been intrigued by tetrachromacy, which is a random human mutation — usually expressed only in women — where a person has four color receptors instead of the standard three. Auerbach was fascinated by the idea that she might be able to paint a picture that she couldn’t fully see, but that someone else could. Recently, she is more interested in four-dimensional space time, and how one might model it, potentially using color as a differentiating quality. So these issues that Tauba Auerbach has explored will, I hope, raise provocative questions for our top-notch neuroscientists whose research into the visual pathway and the cognition of visualization will really add to the discussion.

What are some of themes addressed in Bruno Latour’s keynote speech?
Bruno Latour is speaking about the model of common sense. What is our common sense? In older philosophical models, as in Kant’s, common sense was rooted in the individual. The challenge now is: How do we bridge from this traditional “average man of sense” into a world in which so much of the data comes from things we can no longer see, hear, smell or feel — and a world in which the average human has not yet evolved to understand deep time, not to mention statistical models of causality for anthropogenic climate change. How do we make common sense and common cause out of the challenges that we face? We actually need to think at least two hundred years into the future, not to mention 10,000 years, when some of our nuclear wastes will begin to reach their half-life. Latour wants to have a larger conversation around these kinds of questions: How can we leap from individual sensory information about the world to make a deeper kind of common sense? Whatever the neurological limits are, how can we use what he calls “matters of facts” to then generate a larger conversation for the future about what he proposes we think of as “matters of concern”? For example, is it actually possible to think our way out of a time-sense that we evolutionarily are bound to have? Can we collectively come up with something that is a little bit better for the future than what we have been doing so far?

Do you think so?
It is either that or we’ll be extinct — and we will deserve it. I won’t be around to know, but I’m hoping it will go in the better direction. Because there are a lot of endearing things about humans, and for our children’s and students’ sake, we hope they survive.

1. Brain Scan. Photo: Creative Commons.
2. RGB Colorspace Atlas, Tauba Auerbach, 2010. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
Posted on August 28, 2014 by Anya Ventura