Art, Brain Physiology and the Cognitive Viewpoint – The Brain as Artist

My cognitive experience of the world – my world picture ends with the sense organs which might be said to paint it. As Wittgenstein said of the eye and the field of sight : “You do not really see the eye. And from nothing in the field of sight can it be concluded that it is seen from an eye.” And even more than in the case of vision are the interior brain processes which create our cognitive picture of the world themselves hidden from consciousness. The brain functions with exquisite precision following physiological and physical laws but is excluded from reflective consciousness and appreciation of its own creative activity. In this respect the brain may be less privileged than modern artists who, either exploring or subjecting themselves to laws of perception, can consciously enjoy the process of creation. There are affinities between the brain as artist and the artist as dwelling in the brain which are mutually illuminating and which joined together help to make the most hidden and interior part of the cognitive process self-conscious.

Paul Klee said . “Chosen are those artists who penetrate to the region of that secret place where primeval power nurtures all evolution. There where the power house of all time and space – call it brain or heart of creation – activates every function. Who is the artist who would not dwell there ? ”

There is, however, a definite physical sense in which that is precisely where everyone – artist or not – does dwell, where each consciousness is at home: namely the brain itself. The brain – and its sense organs and nerves – collects, analyzes, abstracts, integrates the converging messages from the surrounding environment and out of them constructs a multi-media picture of the world which it projects within a space-time frame, also of its own creation. The sort of world picture projected is dependent on the type of sense organs and brain that have constructed it and relevant to the survival or special interests of the creature projecting it. Thus the pictures of the same place projected by a bee and a human would be quite different because the bee’s eye, being sensitive to infra-red light would shift in an unimaginable way the whole structure of colours. Within the same garden there could be a whole group of essentially different interpenetrating world pictures each originating and having its coordinate centre in the brain of some sentient being, insect, bird or human and having different spatial limits, different focuses and perhaps different properties.

However, to limit ourselves to human perception, the brain is the artist creating the perceived world in a way that is hidden not only from others but from the person himself, from his own immediate perception. It can only be mediately known by external study of other brains as objects. We have cognitive analyzing sense organs for properties that are located at a distance from our own
bodies – light and sound – by which we recognize objects at a distance and vaguer ones for enveloping media – smell, taste and warmth. At the periphery of the body the skin – the senses become more personal and more connected to pleasure and pain than to knowledge. Within the brain itself there are no sensations at all. This most intimate, complex and creative part of our
environment (or depending on one’s metaphysics, one might call it the physical correlate of the mind) is hidden from direct awareness. (It is as if a sensory barrier were built around the area where physical type paradoxes would be perceived. For instance; the type paradox “This brain object is creating a world of sensations within which it is itself an object”). So we experience an external world of independent objects and are unaware of the elaborate artistic processes within the brain by which this world has been created. The very completeness and coherence of this process of creation contributes to the apparent independence of the resulting “external world”.

However, various kinds of artists by concentrating their non-use-directed attention on selected sections of the perceptual process can, so to speak, “plug into” the system at different places and thus create objects manifesting fragmentary sections of the whole coherent process. Sometimes this is done intentionally as in the case of the impressionists or op artists, sometimes unintentionally. These art objects arrest the continuous process so its stages can be experienced as separate events. As we consider these segments separately and fit them together we get a jig-saw puzzle picture of the perceptual process from the inside which parallels the steps investigated from the outside by brain physiology. By thus breaking up the hidden coherent process of perception into separate segments, art can make us self-conscious as artistic creators of our own worlds.

This paper will concentrate for the most part on the nerve pathways of vision and the visual arts. As the impressionists knew, light travels from the external object to the eye and falls upon it in a soft diffusion of intermingling hues (or wavelengths). They painted this light falling upon the eye, freed from the objects which were its far away sources or reflectors. In the retina, light’s infinitely various hues are analyzed into three constitutive colours by the three types of cones receptive respectively to yellow-red, green and blue-violet. (These are surprisingly not what we usually think of as primary colours), this optical mechanism was used by Seurat as a theoretical basis of his method of painting with juxtaposed primary coloured points. From a distance a painting by Seurat creates a blurredly luminous impression, but as one approaches it, he can see the subtle blended colours arising out of independent dots of pure colour. Thus moving gradually closer to the painting one experiences the transition from diffused subtly coloured light to the primary dots which create it, and at the perfect position he is miraculously aware of both simultaneously. This gives him an immediate experience of the physiological process by which the three kinds of cones analyze the blended light which they receive.

The firing of one neuron in the retina inhibits the firing of its immediate neighbors so contrasts are picked out from the continuum of light reaching the eye and emphasized. Since some receptors only respond to vertical shapes, some to horizontal and some to oblique, the retina abstracts such geometrical contrasts, emphasizes them, makes them hard-edged. In this the eye is acting like a hard-edge or formal abstract painter, although the physiological mechanism was not an inspiration for these artists as it was for Seurat.

But Op Artists were inspired by knowledge of the action of the eye’s fatigue caused by encountering too many hard-edged shapes or over-saturated colours. The eye thus fatigued creates its own after images and projects them onto the objects. The Op Artist exploits this dazzling superposition of bright relevant illusions over the picture which has caused them. It provides an immediate simultaneous experience of separate functions of brain and eye (as well as of metaphysically distinguished levels of reality).

The abstracted information thus collected by the eye travels along the nerves toward the brain as a coded pattern of rhythmic electrical discharges having no likeness to the external world of objects which has caused them nor to the visionary world of vision which they will cause, except in mathematical pattern. Does any form of art correspond to this rhythmically coded passage along the nerves from eye to brain? If so, it must be a little known avant-garde form. If not, that would be a possible position from which to develop a new art from.

The terminus of these nerve paths is the primary sensation area of the visual cortex. There the rhythmic electrical impulses generate pure sensations of shaped colours and coloured shapes. These sensations are purely visual, not yet interpreted or recognized as objects. They are analogous to the early non-objective art of Kandisnky and to the later abstract expressionist or informal abstract art in their uninterpreted immediacy. Being free of colour’s normal attachment to objects, they are as Kandinsky said non-objective and hence “geistig” in both its senses as mental and spiritual. More recently the part of perception arising in this section of the brain has found its artistic expression in hologram art, wherein a three dimensional luminous image, free from any accustomed correlations with smell, touch, sound etc., is projected into space.

Experiences arising from another primary sensation area have been incorporated into contemporary visual art. The motor sensory strip is the physiological seat of the kinaesthetic sensations of the motions and position of one’s own body and its movements in touching, grasping and manipulating external objects. This interior kinaesthetic sense of one’s own body’s movement was manifest in events of painting by the action painters. The paradoxically resulting picture objects were the solidification of this internal appreciation of motion, or as Hans Hoffman said “push and pull.”

From the primary centres the nerve impulses spread out into the secondary perceptual areas where they encounter and coalesce with data from other sense channels and are interpreted as objects and identified by being named. It is there that the complex experience of independent material objects originates and is projected from the brain as our familiar world of solid interacting spatially and causally organized physical things. Within the framework of brain physiology that is the location of origin of visual arts from the Renaissance until Turner or the impressionists. This art was devoted to the representation of our experience of material objects which originates at the terminal in the secondary sensation areas of the brain’s world-constructing path. It emphasized indeed gloried in the three dimensional solidity of objects and their spatial relations in perspective. It made a picture of the final picture. Thus representational art collaborated in hiding the brains’ constructive activity by making an image of its last step in isolation.

Since that period artists have, by halting their attention at various stages of the process of perception, broken it up into internally recognizable segments. In thus shifting the focus of introspective attention from one part to another along the perceptual path they have made possible some form of internal immediate cognitive awareness of the dynamic electrical network functioning inside of the concealing boundaries of the body. Although this new awareness is developed in fragmented sections through unrelated forms of art, it can be reassembled by imagination guided by the external physiological knowledge of the nervous system to present a shattered jig-saw picture of a process in a continuum. Immediate awareness of this process transforms the metaphysically naive picture of independent subjects perceiving independent material objects at a distance into a more sophisticated and apt idea of interdependence in a continuum process of mutual creation between perceiver and perceived.


(I) Some avant-garde music would seem to correspond to these rhythmic
electrical discharges traveling along the nerves from ear to brain. In contrast
to most other western music, which is perceived as located outside of the
head (indeed so precisely located that its stereophonic properties become
important), certain modem experimental music would seem to set up a
resonance within the ear and nerves causing after-image-sounds and resonant
vibrations within the brain. Japanese classical music of the Noh Plays and
Gagaku has developed this far beyond the experimental stage so whole
geographical regions of the brain can be experienced interiorly as resonated
with the music.

Given at The International workshop on the cognitive viewpoint.
Colloque International.
University Of Ghent    24-26 March 1977