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Brains And Beauty, Can Neuroscience Measure How Art Affects Us?

Several decades of reflection and study have led neurobiologist Jean-Pierre Changeux to stake out a new field that shows how art influences the brain.

Analyzing Mona Lisa
Analyzing Mona Lisa
YANN VERDO

PARIS — Walls covered by masters of the 17th and 18th centuries, an organ playing a Bach score, sculptures standing tall: It is only when you see Jean-Pierre Changeux's apartment in central Paris that you understand that he doubles as a neurobiologist and an amateur art collector. And now, he brings the two poles of his life, brain study and art history, together in a new book: La Beauté dans le cerveau (Beauty in The Brain).

This collection of previously published texts — including catalogues from exhibitions at the crossroads of art and science — aims to establish a "research program in "neuroscience of art,"" a still rarely explored field of study to which Changeux has devoted courses at the Collège de France in Paris.

So what do we know about what happens in our brain when we listen to a Beethoven quartet, admire a Turner watercolor, or visit the ruins of the Acropolis? What happened in Stendhal's head when, leaving Florence's Basilica Santa Croce, where he'd admired the Volterrano frescoes, he came out so shaken that he "walked with the fear of falling?" To these questions, Changeux's book brings partial answers, most often presented as hypotheses. The time has still not arrived, he writes, where we can give "a neurobiological definition of beauty."

A singular ignition

What we know for now is the fundamental neural process at work in the visual or auditory perception, the first step in any aesthetic experience. Concerning music, images obtained by functional magnetic resonance and observations made on patients with brain lesions show that while we perceive a piece as a whole, our brain actually distinguishes melody, harmony, rhythm and the emotion triggered as distinct components mobilizing separate modes of treatment. For visual arts, especially paintings, tracking a subject's eye has shown how a gaze explores a painting, moving in zigzags from one strategic point to another — the strategic points in question being more often "centers of meaning," for example the faces of characters.

Transformed into nervous impulses by the myriad proteins present in our visual (retina) or auditory (cochlea) sensory receptors, the stimuli and the information they carry are then transmitted by the cranial nerves (optic or auditory) to the thalamus. Then, from there, they proceed to the cerebral cortex, where they are distributed in different zones to be analyzed — as forms, colors and movements, in the case of visual stimuli, and according to frequency or volume, with regards to sound signals.

The next step, the global synthesis of all these simultaneous analyzes, is the task that Changeux and his colleague Stanislas Dehaene called the "Global Neuronal Workspace" (GNW). These neurons have the particularity of possessing very long extensions, up to about 10 centimeters, that allow them to connect distant territories of the brain: the prefrontal cortex where these neurons are abundant, the visual and auditory cortex, as well as the areas of language, the hippocampus (a structure playing a central role in memory), the reward circuit (a set of neuronal groups responsible for our sensations of pleasure and satisfaction), and so on.

Brain trip — Photo: Ben Heine

A given perception's access to the consciousness, which occurs after about 300 milliseconds (compared to a computer, the brain is a very slow machine), corresponds to a sudden conflagration of the GNW, what Changeux and Dehaene called the "ignition." The formulated hypothesis by Changeux in his book is that when the perceived object is a work of art, it is a singular form of ignition that is assisted in the GNW.

Singular sensation

Singular, but in what way? "The emotions are preponderant and can have a strong psychological effect, like in the case of shock described by Stendhal," Changeux says. The researcher notes, however, that cold reason, and therefore the prefrontal cortex, equally plays a role. This allows us to recognize what he considers to be the two key characteristics of the beauty of a work of art: the equilibrium between the parts and the whole (or "consensus partium," in the words of Leon Battista Alberti, an Italian Renaissance architect), and the economy of means (or "parsimony," borrowed from the economist and psychologist Herbert Simon.)

The long-term memories are stored in the life of a subject, but also a myriad of contextual elements are equally mobilized in any aesthetic experience, which explains why the same painting or the same piece of music does not always provoke the same reaction from the same person. This complexity is a measure of the extraordinary combined capacity of our brain, this "organism in the organism" as Changeux calls it: with its 600 million synapses (or connections from neuron to neuron) per cubic millimeter, it displays a number of possible combinations between neurons of the same order of magnitude as that of positively charged particles in all the universe!

But another specificity of our brain is maybe still more important for our artistic sensibility, the neurobiologist notes. Unlike other mammals, man was not born with an already completed brain. The mass of the brain of a newborn is four to five times less advanced than that of an adult brain. The post-natal development of the human brain continues until puberty, a period of about 15 years during which the wiring continues at a frantic pace of 10 million synapses created every second.

This process, accompanied by an important pruning of the connections that have become superfluous, explains the formation, during childhood and adolescence, of "cultural circuits' specific to each individual, resulting from one's interactions with the surrounding environment, and by the filter of which will pass all later aesthetic experiences. This is the science that would support Oscar Wilde's claim that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

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Spencer Tunick Nude Installation in Israel

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Salam!*

Welcome to Monday, where the UK pays homage to slain MP David Amess, Myanmar frees thousands of prisoners, and Facebook gets ready to build its "metaverse." Please fasten your seatbelts: Worldcrunch also takes stock of the long-lasting effects — good and bad — the pandemic has had on the air travel industry.

[*Azeri - Azerbaijan]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

Myanmar to free political prisoners: Myanmar's junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has announced the release of 5,636 prisoners who had been jailed for protesting the coup that ousted the civilian government in February 2021.

• Powerful Haiti gang behind the kidnapping of U.S. missionaries: The notorious 400 Mawozo gang is believed to be behind the kidnapping in Haiti of a group of Christian missionaries, including 16 U.S. citizens and one Canadian. The brazen kidnapping on Saturday comes as crime is spiking since the killing of President Jovenel Moise in July.

• UK to pay tribute to David Amess: British lawmakers will pay homage in parliament to colleague David Amess, who was stabbed to death Friday in what was described by the police as a "terrorist incident." Officers arrested a 25-year-old suspect whose father, Harbi Ali Kullane, worked as a media adviser to a former prime minister of Somalia.

• COVID update: Russia has registered more than 34,000 cases of new infections in the past 24 hours, a new record since the start of the pandemic. Meanwhile, police in the northeast Italian city of Trieste used water cannons to clear striking dockworkers protesting Italy's new requirements that all employees be vaccinated.

• At least 26 killed in floods in India: Torrential rain has triggered floods and landslides in India's southern coastal state of Kerala, killing at least 26 people.

• Facebook to hire 10,000 in EU to develop "metaverse": The U.S. social media giant plans to hire 10,000 workers in the European Union over the next five years to build a "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet that the company touts as the future.

Punishing parents for children's bad behavior: After limiting gaming hours for minors, China is now considering legislation to reprimand parents if their children exhibit "very bad behavior" or commit crimes.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Colombian daily El Espectador dedicates its front page to Alex Saab, "owner of the secrets" of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The Colombian businessman, wanted by U.S. authorities for allegedly laundering money on behalf of Venezuela's government, has been extradited from Cape Verde to the U.S. where he is scheduled to appear in court today.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

4.9%

China's economy registered its slowest pace in a year as the country faces a looming energy crisis with power shortages and increasing pressure on its property sector. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the period between July-September rose 4.9%, the weakest numbers since the third quarter of 2020 and significantly lower than forecasts. The world's second-largest economy faces a debt crisis linked to the China Evergrande Group debt crisis, while energy shortfalls have dropped factory output to its weakest since early 2020, when heavy COVID-19 curbs were in place.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

7 ways the pandemic may change the airline industry for good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

⛽ Cleaner aviation fuel: With air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel. In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials

.🛃 Smoother check-in: The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

✈️ The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less? At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel, in particular, is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"The crimes committed that night are unforgivable for the Republic."

— Emmanuel Macron became the first French president to commemorate the killing of as many as 200 Algerian independence protesters by Parisian police in 1961. For 40 years, French officials ignored the massacre, which took place a year before Algeria gained its independence from France after an eight-year war. In 2012, French President François Hollande acknowledged the killings for the first time on a visit to Algeria, and Macron took it further by attending Sunday's commemoration at the site where the events happened in the French capital. Still, many had hoped the French President would go further and take responsibility for a "state massacre," for a crime many historians consider the most violent repression of a peaceful demonstration in post-War Europe.

📈💥  IN OTHER NEWS

​Low trust, high risk: The global rise of violence targeting politicians

The deadly stabbing of British Parliament Member David Amess confirms an ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad. In The Conversation, James Weinberg — the study's author and a lecturer in Political Behavior at the University of Sheffield — writes:

⏪ The assassination of Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on Friday, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councilor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.

☝️ Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.

🇬🇧🇳🇿🇿🇦 Not only are these experiences of abuse or threats of physical violence felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK — they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile, from New Zealand to South Africa.


Read the full piece from The Conversation, now on Worldcrunch.com

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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