Jonah Lehrer: The Art in You

Jonah Leher is up describing why art and the brain are meant for each other.

Why is art meaningful? He believes it can to a degree be "reversed engineered," but not as he ultimately concludes below, completely understood. Early thinkers believed that music was about melody, prettiness and its appeal to the soul.

Showing pictures of hairs cells, which are on YouTube, he goes on to explain how the brain hears. The brain, he points out, searches the cacophony of sound that it is always receiving for patterns. As for music, "it is a form whose meaning depends on its violation." A musical section in the Rite of Spring, from Stravinsky, caused a riot because it hinted at, but never quite delivered, the pattern the mind was expecting.

But why did it, he asks, become a classic? For that he turns again to what we know about the brain. The corticofugal network reorganizes itself in response to new inputs, and eventually learns new patterns, which in addition to showing the plasticity of the brain, can make previously unappealing music not just acceptable, but meaningful.

Fast forwarding, he says that Kanye West inserts the same lack of certainty in the patterns in the music he uses. It's a tease. "Kanye West is playing with your brain." Girl Talk, which he plays next, takes the resulting tension to a new level.

He concludes that a purely chemical view of the body isn't, of course, what makes us human. Art has the ability to aid our brain in turning experience into meaning. One of the wonders of the neuroscience is that the one reality we all experience is the one we can't explain.

One questioner asks about how abstract art should be compared to representational art. The brain, he explains, is constantly filling in reality, and that's why abstract, non-representational art, can succeed. It engages the brain in a way that representational art can't.

He adds that "the art that stays with us is the art you struggle to hear."

How, another asks, can the arts move science forward, faster. In an interesting reply, he says that the rigors of the scientific process can be helped along by using art to inform our questioning - we can ask better questions.

Responding to a question about an "objective reality," he says that "the brain isn't interested in a perfect representation of the world, but in having that world makes sense." We use expectations to modulate reality, which, in turn, can affect bodily sensations like pain. And experiments bear this out.

The more we learn about the brain, the more mysterious the mind becomes. We all have, yet can't explain, the first-person experience.

Wayne