Tag Archives: brain

Reductionism in Art and Science

In the old days, the words “art” and “science” did not mean the same thing they mean today, at least in academia. Today, unfortunately, they have almost come to mean opposites. You can’t be doing both at once. Or, at least, that’s what people who haven’t thought about it much may think.

Art can be used to engage people in science, and science can provide a subject for art, and in various ways, the twain shall meet.

But in Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures, Erik Kandel does something both more extreme and more specific than simply joining the two endeavors. Kandel has a long career in the neurosciences, and a long standing interest in art, and he’s combined these two lived experiences to make a very interesting book.

Reductionism is the distillation of something complex into something simpler while still maintaining central or key meaning. Grab the nearest art book and find two pictures of the same thing, one with nearly photographic detail and the other using just a few colors and shapes. Like this:


See the difference? Two bulls, not the same picture.

I won’t show you a picture of science being reductionist because science is reductionist most of the time.

You can reduce art, and you can reduce science. And, you can artfully reduce science and scientifically reduce art. And, the New York School of abstract art and other abstract traditions (people like Turner, Monet, Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, Louis, Turrell, and Flavin, Kandinsky, Schoenberg, and Mondrian) scientifically reduced art, which forms a good part of the focus of Kandel’s book. A major contribution of this work is a deep and unique understanding of the origin of what we generally call modern art.

Kandel explains this.
Kandel explains this.
Kandel examines cognition and perception through a radically reduced bottom up approach in a similar way that early 20th century artists did, and examines art in the same way. His book is full of understanding of the evolution of thinking about cognition and of art.

The book includes excellent illustrations, is carefully documented, and comprises a scholarly work accessible by any interested party.

Here’s the TOC:

Part I: Two Cultures Meet in the New York School
1. The Emergence of an Abstract School of Art in New York
Part II: A Reductionist Approach to Brain Science
2. The Beginning of a Scientific Approach to the Perception of Art
3. The Biology of the Beholder’s Share: Visual Perception and Bottom-Up Processing in Art
4. The Biology of Learning and Memory: Top-Down Processing in Art
Part III: A Reductionist Approach to Art
5. Reductionism in the Emergence of Abstract Art
6. Mondrian and the Radical Reduction of the Figurative Image
7. The New York School of Painters
8. How the Brain Processes and Perceives Abstract Images
9. From Figuration to Color Abstraction
10. Color and the Brain
11. A Focus on Light
12. A Reductionist Influence on Figuration
Part IV: The Emerging Dialogue Between Abstract Art and Science
13. Why Is Reductionism Successful in Art?
14. A Return to the Two Cultures

Axon Growth Possible in Central Nervous System

I don’t have time to read the original or make much comment on this, but since this topic has come up here before, I thought I’d pass on the press release from Burke REhabilitation and Research:

Burke Medical Research Institute Scientists Show Axon Growth Possible in Central Nervous System

White Plains, NY – May 21, 2014 –Recent findings by Burke Medical Research Institute scientists could one day pave the way for new treatments for spinal cord injuries. The study, published as a cover story, with commentary, in the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Medicine, found, for the first time, that activating a protein known as B-RAF promotes the regeneration of injured axons in the central nervous system of mice. Until now, it was thought that axons—which conduct signals between neurons—could not re-grow or be restored after an injury in higher animals such as mice, or in humans. Injuries, such as those affecting the spinal cord, can damage these axons, making their regeneration an important first step towards possible recovery.

Since earlier studies found that axon growth can be blocked by disabling B-RAF, the researchers wanted to find out if activating B-RAF could—in contrast—help promote axon growth and regeneration.

The team, led by Jian Zhong, Ph.D., director of the Molecular Regeneration and Neuroimaging Laboratory at the Burke Medical Research Institute in White Plains and assistant professor of neurology and neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, found that axon growth was promoted in three distinct scenarios. These were: in a developing mouse embryo that didn’t have an important normal axon growth signal, in injured sensory neurons whose axons grow into the central nervous system, and then in an injured optic nerve, which is part of the central nervous system.

“Not very long ago, we were not sure if neurons in the mammalian central nervous system could ever regrow axons to any useful lengths at all,” said Dr. Zhong. “Now, we see that by activating the B-RAF protein, the possibility is there. And that possibility could lead to exciting progress in the field of spinal cord injury treatment and rehabilitation.”
While there is no conclusive data on spinal cord injury at the moment, the optic nerve data makes it very likely that the B-RAF activation will also stimulate regeneration after spinal cord injury—though additional research needs to be done, said Dr. Zhong.

“These significant findings represent the importance of basic research for rehabilitation and the effects it will continue to have on how we approach treatment and help patients with various injuries, including those to the spinal cord,” says Rajiv R. Ratan, M.D., Ph.D, executive director of Burke Medical Research Institute and professor of neurology and neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medical College.

Scientists from the Burke Medical Research Institute included Dr. Zhong as well as Kevin J. O’Donovan, Ph.D., Kaijie Ma, B.M., and Hengchang Guo, Ph.D. Also contributing to the study were scientists from Harvard Medical School, Temple University School of Medicine, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Quebec in Canada. The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health, the Whitehall Foundation and the Burke Foundation.

Kurzweil: How to create a mind

How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed is Ray Kurzweil’s latest book. You may know of him as the author of The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Kurzweil is a “futurist” and has a reputation as being one of the greatest thinkers of our age, as well as being One of the greatest hucksters of the age, depending on whom you ask. In his new book…

Kurzweil presents a provocative exploration of the most important project in human-machine civilization—reverse engineering the brain to understand precisely how it works and using that knowledge to create even more intelligent machines.

Kurzweil discusses how the brain functions, how the mind emerges from the brain, and the implications of vastly increasing the powers of our intelligence in addressing the world’s problems. He thoughtfully examines emotional and moral intelligence and the origins of consciousness and envisions the radical possibilities of our merging with the intelligent technology we are creating.

Certain to be one of the most widely discussed and debated science books of the year, How to Create a Mind is sure to take its place alongside Kurzweil’s previous classics.

I think there are three key ideas in this book about which I have varying opinions. First, he presents a model of how the brain works. Second, he suggests that we can, in essence, reverse engineer the brain using computing technology. Third, he discusses the rate at which computing technology becomes more capable of doing such a thing, both qualitatively and quantitatively. He ties these idea together with reference to artificial intelligence theory.

Regarding the second point, I have no doubt that we will someday be able to produce a non-biological brain. Brains are physical entities that emerge with very little specification as to architecture, have incredibly dense circuitry that carries enough information for otherwise reasonable people to assert that its information storage capacity is infinite (which it is not, of course), and that involves interactivity among components that allows for some amazing things to happen. I think that when we get close to making a mechanical brain, we would probably want to set aside many of the ways in which actual brains function, in order to create a more effective computing solution, because the brain is a product of Natural Selection and is thus not necessarily all that well deigned. The trick will be sorting out that which is good design for mechanical implementation of human braininess from that which is not good design. Regarding the third point, the expansion of computational abilities, I’m sure the basic ideas Kurzweil lays out are reasonable but furturism about technology seems to run into the same problem over and over again: Somebody invents a qualitatively distinct way of doing something that totally changes the game, and after that, this new way of doing things quantitatively evolves. Predicting the qualitative shifts has been difficult.

My biggest problem with Kurzweil’s book is in relation to the first point, a theory about how the brain’s cortex works. He asserts that the cortex is a self organizing entity that responds to information, creating an ability to manage and recognize patterns. My problem with this is that Kurzweil seems to have not read Deacon’s work (such as The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain and Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter. I’m not saying that Kurzweil is wrong in thinking of the cortex as self organizing in response to the challenges and inputs of pattern recognition. I’m simply saying that this property of the cortex, and of the human mind, has already been identified (mainly by Deacon) and that Kurzweil should sit down with Deacon and have a very long conversation before writing this book! (Well, ok, the next book.) I don’t think they’ve done that yet.

Marta’s (good) questions, … continued

Why did the evolution of a large brain happen only once (among mammals, and in particular, primates?)

Larger brains have evolved a number of times. It seems that there has been a trend over several tens of millions of years of evolution of larger brains in various clades, such as carnivores and primates. There is probably a kind of arms race going on among various species in which a larger brain is an asset.

However, as you imply, a really large brain (like the extraordinarily large human brain) seems to be very rare. One of the reasons for this is that there are at least two major kinds of costs of a large brain that outweigh the benefits. One kind of cost is the energetic expense of having this large brain. Over 10% of the day to day energy demands of an adult human go to the brain. The total energy requirement of an infant can be over 60% while the brain is both a relatively large proportion of the infant’s body, and is undergoing a great deal of growth. The brain tissue is very picky about things like the temperature it requires for normal function and the kind of nutrient it needs.

Continue reading Marta’s (good) questions, … continued