Are Our Minds Wired to Enjoy Cubism?

When Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque first brought Cubism onto the modern art scene in the first decade of the 20th century, the initial reviews were mixed. Like-minded artists and art lovers embraced Cubism as a startling new way of seeing breaking violently with the representational art of the past. Many others, however, saw only madness and perhaps a little fraud in these images taking everyday objects and representing them from every angle simultaneously. Preferences for modernism or classicism certainly played a big role in responses. But what if we could wipe away those preferences? Would an unprejudiced viewer accept and maybe even enjoy Cubist paintings? A team of researchers recently tackled that question by testing whether art novices shown a series of Cubist works expressed a liking for the works and if detectablility—whether or not the viewer could visually reverse engineer the image back to its everyday source—played a role. Their results not only suggest that Cubism can be enjoyed by the novice, but that more difficult (but not too difficult) works to untangle tickle the pleasure zones of the mind. Are our minds wired to enjoy Cubism?

Claudia Muth, Robert Pepperell, and Claus-Christian Carbon published their article, “Give Me Gestalt! Preference for Cubist Artworks Revealing High Detectability of Objects” in a recent issue of the journal Leonardo, a publication of The International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology. (The text of the article itself is behind a paywall, unfortunately.) Taking their cue from the inspiration for their name, Leonardo da Vinci, the organization strives to use art and science in collaboration rather than in conflict.  Muth and Carbon, two German psychologists, teamed up with Pepperell, a British art historian, to explore how the mind appreciates, or doesn’t appreciate, Cubism and what larger implications that appreciation might hold. They showed 20 subjects (13 women and 7 men; ranging in age from 19 to 36 years, with a mean age of 23.8 years) who  claimed “no expertise” in Cubist art photographs of classic Cubist works by Picasso (47 works), Braque (33), and Juan Gris (40). The researchers asked subjects to first rate the works for “likeability” on a 7-point Likert scale from 1 (“not at all”) to 7 (“very”). Next, using the same Likert scale, they asked the subjects to rate how well they could detect the objects in the images. They found “a strong relationship between the detectability of objects within cubist artworks and liking indicated by a Pearson correlation of R=.781, p<.0001.”

Thus, as they put it, the data “show that viewers’ appreciation of cubist paintings is closely linked to the viewers’ ability to identify an object, or a Gestalt, from partial clues.” Muth et al. cite earlier theorists, such as “Van de Cruys and Wagemans [who] suggest that artworks often violate viewers’ perceptual predictions, and that they are then able to derive aesthetic pleasure from reducing the cognitive uncertainty induced by those violations.” But Muth et al. are the first to put those previous theories to the test empirically. Their findings also show a “sweet spot” where this Gestalt pleasure happens best. “Unlike images that offer effortless and determinate recognition,” Muth et al. write, “cubist paintings present the viewer with ongoing perceptual indeterminacy while offering clues to enable Gestalt recognition. Our finding of increased preference for paintings revealing high detectability of objects might then be attributable not just to the mere recognition of forms but also to the fact that recognition is occurring against a background of ongoing uncertainty.” In other words, the fact that it takes a degree of effort to work out the puzzle of a Cubist image (that “background of ongoing uncertainty”) adds to the fun. “[W]e thus propose that it is the presence of novelty, uncertainty or other challenges evoked by a stimulus that promotes dynamic aesthetic processes, not the fluency or immediacy of recognition per se,” Muth et al. conclude.

The researchers illustrate their point with an anecdote about Picasso’s 1910 Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (detail shown above, click on link for full image). The German-born Kahnweiler opened an art gallery in Paris in 1907 and began selling Picasso’s work the next year. Kahnweiler actually introduced Picasso to Braque, thus making Cubism possible. Although Kahnweiler essentially cornered the Cubist market from 1908 through 1915, in 1910 he rejected a series of Cubist works by Picasso because he felt they were too abstract, too hard to decipher, and thus too hard to sell. “Probably stung by this [rejection],” Muth et al. write, “Picasso quickly embarked on a major portrait of Kahnweiler [shown above]… which is notable for the reintroduction into the cubist language of much more identifiable cues about the objects being depicted. Kahnweiler soon resumed purchasing Picasso's works, which thereafter explicitly avoided indecipherable abstraction.” Kahnweiler not only started dealing Cubist works again, but a decade later he wrote The Rise of Cubism, which helped articulate the theory behind Cubism for the general public. When Picasso’s dealer saw his own features, hair, knotted tie, clasped hands, and watch chain—all the elements of a conventional portrait—emerge from the Cubist puzzle, it put the smile back on his art-loving, profit-minded face.

The “give me Gestalt!” drive these researchers examine looks a lot like Lev Vygotsky’s concept of the Zone of Proximal Development, an idea employed often in education to maintain the proper level of challenge. Too challenging a task (understanding Picasso’s incomprehensible Cubist works) frustrates and loses the students. Too easy a task (understanding a more realistic rendering of an object) bores and, once again, loses the student. Finding the proper level (Vygotsky’s “zone,” which moves as the student develops, making it a moving target for educators) results in engaged students (or engaged and pleased art appreciators). Muth et al. raise an interesting issue and make a compelling case for the uninitiated tuning in and getting turned on by Cubism. The real question, as Vygotsky and his “zone” would put it, is whether that thrill will still be there later on.

[Image: Pablo Picasso. Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (detail), 1910. Image source.]

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Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

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  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.