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How you see a piece of art can change what it actually is

Eric Kandel: We don’t have a deep understanding of the Beholder’s Response, but it’s interesting that if you put together what we know from disorders of brain function and the normal physiology, we begin to understand an outline what the beholder’s response is. And this is so important because in 1906 when Freud was active and Klink, Tolkuchka and Sheely, the artists, were active, there was a major person at the Vienna School of Artistry called Alois Riegl. And he said that the problem with art history is, it’s going to go down the tubes because it’s too anecdotal, it’s too descriptive, it doesn’t have enough of a **** in space. It’s got to become more scientific. And the science it should relate itself to is psychology. And the key problem that it should address right off is the beholder’s share. You have a painting, that painting is not complete until the viewer responds to it.

It’s obvious once you say it, you know, this is why it was painted in the first place. But he pointed out; this has become more explicit in the history of art. If you look at Renaissance art, particularly early Renaissance art, it’s very inner directed. And he points to a painting in Florence of the Trinity in Santa Maria Novella painted by Masaccio, which has one of the early paintings to show you a wonderful sense of perspective. You see Christ on the cross, you see Mary and Joseph, they’re turning toward him. God is above, he looks down, the two donnas at the side, they’re looking – they’re all looking at Christ. It’s a very inner directed picture and it doesn’t really recruit the involvement of the beholder dramatically. But as art evolved, particularly when you move to Dutch art, which Riegl was very impressed with, you see that there’s a conscious attempt on the part of the painter to paint people who look at you, who interact with you. And that made him aware of the fact of how important the beholder was and to try to understand how does the beholder’s response works.

He had two very gifted students, Ernst Kris and Ernst Gombrich, and they began to put this on a really rigorous basis. Ernst Kris said, “Great works are great because they are ambiguous.” They allow for alternative readings. So you and I look at that Masaccio painting, we would have somewhat different responses to it which means that the beholder’s share varies for each of us because we see somewhat different things in the painting.

Now, what does that mean? He said, if that means that beholder’s share varies, it means you and I must be creating different images in our brain about that particular portrait. So even though you and I are looking at the same object in the world, we are creating slightly different visual impressions in the mind. Emotional impressions in our mind are looking at this. And they began to document it. First he and then Gombrich showed you how you can trick the mind into alternate interpretations with illusions of various kinds. And they began to realize that when you look at a painting, you’re undergoing a creative experience that is at least an outline similar to the painter.  The painter exercises a dramatic amount of creativity in doing a portrait, but you, yourself, generate a fair amount of creativity in reconstructing it in your head and reconstructing it in a way that is unique for you and it’s slightly different for me. This was a remarkable insight and has really given rise to the sort of the current understanding of what goes on in our head.  

The painting, the Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci is generally considered one of the greatest masterpieces in western art. And the reason it’s so great is for the same reason we talked about before. It has a great deal of ambiguity. And ambiguity is what brings out difference of interpretation. It makes – it contributes to work being great. And with her, one of the very specific points of ambiguity is the nature of her facial expression. Is she smiling or is she not? And there’s been endless discussions about this. And we want to understand why does that ambiguity arise? And there are two major interpretations. One is, it’s the form of painting that Leonardo used in which he purposely paints over the edges of the mouth, a technique called Sfumato smoke. So it’s a little bit hazy and not clearly outlined, and that gives rise to the ambiguity. And Marge Livingston has made the point, it’s how you focus on it. If you focus on it with central vision, which sees detail, you don’t see the smile. If you focus on peripheral vision, which sees the broad outlines, you do better at seeing the smile.  

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd

The idea that a painting is not complete until the viewer responds to it was conceived of by Alois Riegl. He determined that as art evolved, you see there’s a conscious attempt on the part of the painter to paint people who look at you, who interact with you.

A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
  • The blend of three polymers provides enough flexibility and durability to mimic the knee.
  • The next step is to test this hydrogel in sheep; human use can take at least three years.
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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

What would it be like to experience the 4th dimension?

Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
Technology & Innovation

Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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How often do vaccine trials hit paydirt?

Vaccines find more success in development than any other kind of drug, but have been relatively neglected in recent decades.

Pedro Vilela/Getty Images
Surprising Science

Vaccines are more likely to get through clinical trials than any other type of drug — but have been given relatively little pharmaceutical industry support during the last two decades, according to a new study by MIT scholars.

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