The Science and Philosophy of Art

In Which I Dust Off My Bachelor’s Degree and Talk About Something I Find Fascinating

One of my favorite subjects in college was cognitive psychology. We worked through problems in human perception (See the notes below on two popular ones) and later in biopsychology and psychopharmacology I learned a bit more about how our brains interpret outside stimuli and the internal process that result in a conscious experience. I was fascinated by this process and liked to think of other human activities like art, music, and creativity through the lens of these subjects. I’ve mostly kept up with popular research into these subjects, but haven’t spent much time digging into the literature since I was an undergrad. As a result, some aspects of my understanding may be incomplete or outdated, which would conveniently make this article part science and part art.

Getting Liberal with the Arts

A bit of psychology, a bit of philosophy.

When I was a teenager I began wondering about the duality of the art and the artist, the creation and the creator. It’s always been interesting to me that someone could create something that might one day be considered of greater worth than themselves. In the case of many artists, their fame and financial successes arrived long after they left. Maybe it seems obvious to others, but to me it’s always been a curious thought. So, what drives us to create? Why does an artist; writer, painter, builder, sculpter, chef and anyone who has ever endeavored to make something, do so?

What pushes us to leave a mark where there was none?

What an artist does, is take what is internal and make it external. What is internal is the result of perception of the external. The artist, the creator, intervenes in this loop by committing their perception to the world through a chosen medium. While the artist may retain some measured ownership over the work itself, in sharing it with the world, the experience or vision no longer belongs solely to the creator. It is now a part of the world, available to be perceived, internalized and possibly externalized in some spliced and recombined form later in time. The essence of the artist is the desire of creation and it is one of the most human of all qualities.

What an artist creates is ultimately a social device. A thought, feeling, or idea without form in some sensible manner is imperceptible to others. An artist transforms their ideas and thoughts into something tangible. The artist connects the internal and often most intimate parts of themselves to share with whoever may appreciate it.

These internal and intimate ideas and feelings take root in others because they help to reveal us. They may reveal the experience of someone else and give us a better understanding and appreciation, but always it is a realization of our shared experience of life.

We create to connect.

How Does What We Create Connect Us?

We experience the world through our senses.

Since most people share similar sensory equipment and most of those people’s equipment functions similarly, parts of this shared experience can be inspected through the senses of vision and hearing.

The effect of color can elicit just as much emotion and meaning as musical chords. Though established differences exist in how people from different cultures experience the meaning of specific colors, usually music conveys a similar feeling across cultures. Even in considering that the meaning of specific colors may differ between cultures, it’s still the case that meaning is shared by a large group of individuals. In addition, the meaning and feelings evoked by a color, like a chord, is altered as it’s combined with other colors either through a mixture or occurring alongside them.

Considering individuals without similar functionality or those who experience alternative or enhanced functionality (Synesthetes, savants with special skills), their interpretation of reality is altered, but their experience no less valid or important to our understanding of consciousness. Perhaps even more so in redefining what can constitute reality. Definitely in the case of savants, these individuals are often capable of creating breathtaking works of art and feats of cognition that demonstrate the impressive adaptability and potential of the brain.

For people with standard-issue equipment, functioning in a standard-issue manner, my understanding of the process of turning light and sound waves into something that can be understood and eventually shared can be simplified in the following example:

The colors we see, for example on a painting, are the result of wavelengths from the visible spectrum of light being reflected into our eyes. These wavelengths are met by rods and cones within our eyes. Cones sensitive to Red, Green and Blue wavelengths transmit signals over the optic nerve to our visual cortex (an area of folded tissue on the surface of the back of our brain) which then interprets these signals. The rest of this process continues on as neurons within the brain convert electricity to chemicals and chemicals to electricity, over and over again. How we eventually identify “red” or “fuchsia” depends on a number of other factors, most I don’t understand well enough to explain simply.

It should be said that it’s very likely that most of us will have a unique perspective on each color and our own personal experiences can shade our feelings towards a color. However, many studies have established that any meaning that these colors carry originates from our cultural/environmental origins.

It’s still disputed by many that there’s much truth in saying that colors hold meaning. I imagine that the foundation of such an argument is built on the fact that a color’s meaning is not completely universal. In any case, I think it’s very difficult to argue that color does not contribute at all to mood or emotion, despite it’s varying nature.

Hearing functions similarly except it has a mechanical component that occurs within the ear. This mechanical component includes the transmission of external sound waves into the brain via the eardrum and the three small bones of the middle ear, among other things. Like vision, specific parts of the brain handle most of the audio sensory processing. Known as the auditory cortex, it is several small islands of cortex located on the left and right sides of the brain which interprets the incoming vibrations through the electrochemical language of the brain. Depending on the nature of the sound (speech vs. music) most of the processing is completed by either the left or the right side.

In both vision and hearing, many other parts of the brain interact with this data to produce experiences like emotions, memories and thoughts.

When thinking about human creativity and human perception, I don’t see much difference in purpose between a piano and a paint brush. In the most fundamental sense, they are each a means for the imagination to capture waves of energy in the form of sound or light within a medium, transformed into something which can be perceived and appreciated by anything with the proper receptors.

It’s a completely fascinating process that is not fully understood, definitely by me, but what I do understand seems a beautiful and valid reason as to why we are able to feel connected at all. If we couldn’t share the experience of our senses or, for some, a lack of a sense, with others, our physical disconnectedness might seem unbearable.

Though, maybe, we would just create another way to connect.