Transcription of William Seeley for the show Beauty & the Brain #202

Speaker 1:     I’ve often had thoughts about what it means to be living in a place as beautiful as Maine and how it must impact my brain, the brain of my patients, my family, the people who live in my community. The person who’s going to speak with us today is professor William Sealey. He actually can give us some information on this subject. He’s going to tell me exactly what it is that I’ve been wondering about all these years. William Sealey, Bill, is currently a lecturer in philosophy at Bates College. His research interests lie at the interaction of neuroaesthetics, cognitive science, embodied cognition, and philosophy of art. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy with a concentration in cognitive science from the graduate center of the city University of New York, an MFA in sculpture from Columbia University, and a BA in philosophy from Columbia University as well. Thanks so much for coming in and talking with us today.

William:        It’s my pleasure.

Speaker 1:     You spent a lot of time in New York being educated.

William:        I did. I think it comes out to twenty or twenty-two years if you count them out.

Speaker 1:     You’ve been in Maine for how long?

William:        Seven years in Maine.

Speaker 1:     Why the change?

William:        Well, the funny thing about becoming a college professor is you discover that you’re a little more mobile than you imagined, and so we came to Maine because there was an opportunity at Bates College.

Speaker 1:     Bates has a lot of interesting things going on. I know that we interviewed the college president maybe a year or two ago. She was relatively new at the time. I spent time on the campus with the TEDx organization. There’s good stuff happening there.

William:        It’s a great place. Bates it’s a nice kind of … It’s like a teaching lab. It’s an interdisciplinary community where we share and share ideas and teach across boundaries. The students are absolutely curious and dive into every project we give them. It’s been a really nice time at Bates.

Speaker 1:     It’s also known for art. I think dance is very important at Bates but art specifically. Tell me about your connection because you’re a sculptor.

William:        I’m a sculptor. Although at Bates I’ve done some different projects. I’ve had a connection to the dance department. We have a dance professor named Rachel Boggia, who also has a BS in neuroscience from Cornell University. She and I have done some collaboration. I’ve had a chance to incorporate some pretty neat improvisational dance. It’s called an instillation project with my students into my philosophy art courses because of their active and vibrant dance community. There’s a summer dance festival, which has been an awesome opportunity for me as a researcher to gain contact with dance troops from all over the country and learn a lot.

Speaker 1:     It’s interesting because you have not only an interest in art as a sculptor as an artist but also as a researcher and also as a teacher. You have this very I guess complex brain configuration that enables you to cross disciplines. Do you find that that’s common?

William:        I think it’s very common for an artist. I think that particularly in the contemporary art context artists are expressing ideas more so than maybe expressing themselves aesthetically. Maybe the aesthetic expression is a tool we use. I think that artists are natural born researches by virtue of their curiosity about all things. That artists have a habit of reading and exploring like scavengers to look for ideas and different productive techniques that would enable us to express what we’re thinking while we’re thinking about making art. I think that’s where that comes from honestly.

Speaker 1:     You also have a musical background.

William:        I did admit to that earlier, yes.

Speaker 1:     Before we came on the air and now I’m outing you as a musician here.

William:        That’s right, yes. I do. I played in garage rock bands in New York City for about ten years when I was younger. I think that also was a fun project. It was about learning and about engaging with the community and diving in and playing music as being in a room full of people who are reacting. Again, I think that probably it was my background as an artist that made it a fun project to learn how to dive in and figure out how to have a band and get it on the road and figure all this stuff out.

Speaker 1:     It seems as though you’re engaging in kind of multi-sensory living and learning and teaching really; whereas, some people might get very focused in on one particular art form, say music or say sculpting or even a different sort of art form, and I’m putting that quotations, like teaching or research. You really liked bringing lots of different aspects of the self as you’re doing things.

William:        Yes. An artist that I worked sort of in conjunction with, an artist who shared a studio space with the artist [inaudible 00:05:21], who I was assistant for was a woman named Judy Pfaff, who currently teaches at Barb College. I remember as her teaching assistant once I made a comment about a media about working within a sculptural medium. She said, “You know, there are no sculptural media. There are just opportunities to express yourself. They’re tools. If focusing in a medium is the most expressive way for you to go about your business, then you should get in and focus on that.” Her thought was that sculptors don’t limit themselves to media any more than …

You might think of a sculpture as an object that you look it but you might think of a sculpture as activating the room, the space in a room. You might think of a dancer as having a posture and moving in a particular way, or you might think of the dancer’s movements as activating the space of a room. You might think of a company as a group of people who learn to intuitively activate space as they move around. When you start thinking more expansively, you’re opportunities for expression become gigantic.

I also suppose just in this context that I think that to not chat with other people thinking about the same thing from different angles would be to cheat yourself. If we want to know about our culture, we certainly ask people to read about other cultures. We ask ourselves to be open and learn from the different ways, different cultures of approached common tasks and complex tasks like morality. Why as a researcher should we only learn one methodology and limit ourselves. We might not be able to avail ourselves of information from all contexts, but we can certainly learn all sorts of stuff. Cognitive science is born of the idea that you invite a bunch of people to the table and ask them to share their solutions, gather up the usual suspects and see what you get.

Speaker 1:     It’s a relatively young and sort of rapidly evolving field isn’t it, cognitive science?

William:        I think so. I’m not sure I have a date to put on it. I think we would think of cognitive science as having been born in the mid 1970’s with the advent of small enough computers that we could really think about how to use computers to model cognitive behaviors. I recently took our family down to DC. We saw a funny video at the Air and Space Museum where Dick Cavett was describing the Wang computer. My children thought that was a very funny thing. Of course, in 1978 or ’76 or ’81 the idea of having these computers was kind of brand new. Cognitive science is as old as sort of the common vernacular of the computer in our culture.

Speaker 1:     It also seems as though we evolved with things like the functional MRI, which has enabled us to actually do brain imaging while something is happening that a human is engaged in. That probably has moved cognitive science along significantly I would think.

William:        Yes. I would say, again just thinking back anecdotally, that when I back to graduate school in the early 1990’s we didn’t have as easy access to noninvasive ways of seeing what was happening inside the skull and that there has been an explosion of research based upon our capacity. FMRI machines or MRI machines weren’t as wide spread. I really don’t know the numbers but just off the top of my head a professor of mine gave us a number that went something like in 1984 there might have been two machines in New York City. When I was in graduate school in the late ’90’s, there might have been twenty-five. I think if you think now every hospital has a MRI machine. They aren’t all research grade. If you think about the capacity that we have now, we can create lots and lots of research. Some of it is useful and some of it maybe isn’t, but we can explore the possibilities of that media now since we’re keeping to a sculptural metaphor.

Speaker 1:     Talk to me about neuroaesthetics. What is it about the beauty of something? Even if it’s not beauty in the strictest of senses but the appearance or the sound, what is it about the being, the isness of something, that activates our brain?

William:        I think that that’s a question that I’m not sure we have a good answer for. I hope this next bit is going to be fit to our conversation. I think that’s a tricky, tricky questions. I think what we learn from empirical aesthetics, which is a branch of psychology dedicated to studying art and aesthetic experience, aesthetic phenomenon is that we have preferences for certain sorts of things. I don’t think we learn from that research alone why we find these some things so compellingly beautiful. It’s interested psychologists since the birth of the discipline.

There’s a researcher Gustav Fechner from the 1870’s, who is sometimes credited as the father of psychophysiology. He was very interested in the way we could measure our physiological responses to stimuli in the environment and that kind of measurement was very complicated to sort out. One of the books he wrote at the very beginning of psychology in the 1870’s was called Aesthetics. It was an investigation of why people prefer the golden ratio. I think looking into it I think what we get is that we have a category of behavior that we culturally refer to as a response, a beauty response to the environment or an aesthetic response to the environment.

We can measure why we have a preference for it or maybe better we can measure how we have a preference for it, but why that preference exists and how that preference differs from my preference for hot chocolate is hard to puzzle out. I’m sure we have a fantastic answer for it. I think sometimes people think that we have evolved certain preferences and at some point we can abstract out from their utility and then we fix on them. Then we have a cultural preference for these bits and pieces of our natural preferences that we’ve been able to abstract out. Again, I don’t know if that gives us any purchase on the question of beauty because we also have a cultural preference for football and fairness in football maybe or ice hockey. I’m not sure. These are also cultural preferences. We’ve abstracted out certain bits and pieces of competition maybe or social behavior and put them in this representational framework. I think we get the same kind of explanation in neuroaesthetics for our preference for sports as we get for our preference of art maybe.

Speaker 1:     Is there still some idea that humans have a certain, just human as a broad category as opposed to individual cultures, is there some notion that most of us have a preference for say a symmetry of face or the golden ratio as applied to human body as an art forms and nature. Is that still the case?

William:        I think that is the case. When neuroscientists speak about beauty, and I’m going to use that word very broadly neuroscientists right, a common example that is given is our preference for symmetrical faces. I think that the one thought is that we have an evolutionary preference. This is a preference that has value for us because a symmetrical face is a marker for a good immune system. We’d have to dig back and look. This is my field.

I think of slightly different things when I think about neuroaesthetics and the concept of beauty. The thought is that we have a preference for these symmetrical faces. They have value at an evolutionary level, right. There’s this phenotypic trait there’s a clear reason from an adaptationist’s perspective why it appears. Then as we gain our aesthetic preference, it’s just, well, these are the things that we have a natural preference for because it’s been selected for and not we don’t like them because their adaptive. We like them because of the potential adaptive traits. Those were the ones that were passed on. There absolutely is that sort of a preference.

We also have a preference for average faces. Composite faces that give us the average of a number of faces are preferable over individual faces. The thought here is that this maps, and this comes more closely to what I think about when I think about neuroaesthetics, this maps to those sort of computational processes that we’d use in order to recognize a face. If we think that we encode our general category a human face as a prototype and individual faces are recognized by their closeness to this common schema, we would think we would naturally have a preference for prototypes because they’re the easiest to recognize, right. You might have a processing fluency thought that there’s the least dissonance when we engage with a prototypical face.

Again, I’m not sure that this gets us though to why we find some of these things so absolutely and deeply compelling. We have a story about why we might gain preferences for some things, but it’s not so different from the story about why I might have a preference for … I know sometimes where Sugarloaf has this canonical mountainish shape, right. If we like prototypical faces, we ought to think Sugarloaf is an ideal mountain idea. I’m not sure that’s going to play in quite the right way. Anyway, so when I think about these things what I wonder is how is it that we engage with the artwork? What is it that drives us when we’re actually looking at the artwork? Then maybe we can build from the bottom up from understanding this to gain some purchase in what’s happening. I haven’t answered your beauty question.

Speaker 1:     Well, if there isn’t an answer, that’s fine for me to know. Maybe someday there will be one. It’s hard to say. I’ve thought often about it seems that all of us like impressionists for example. Most of us can go into a fine art museum and we can relate to an impressionists. Maybe it’s because we’ve seen that person before, we look the colors, or there’s something about it. It’s less likely that we’re going to like say cubists or post-modern artists. I mean I can keep going on or even abstract art. I think when I was sixteen and somebody showed me abstract art I was just stark was confused and wondering why anyone would even put that on a wall. Then a few years ago I saw a Rothko piece and all of a sudden it spoke to me. I don’t really know why. Do we know why this happens? Does this evolve over the course of one’s life? Why do we seem to as a culture embrace impressionists versus …

William:        Right. I think that’s an excellent and awesome question. I think, and maybe you’re familiar with this, that people really didn’t like impressionism at first.

Speaker 1:     Right. That’s the other interesting thing is when people were the artists of the time people didn’t care for them at all. Then afterwards, after they’ve died and they can’t make money off their paintings anymore, now they’re great.

William:        Neuroaesthetics confronts this issue. The issue is if you were going to try to understand art in terms of our automatic physiological responses to artwork the way they sort of drive our preferences, right, that’s sort of the way … I mean the way affect drives our preferences you’d seem hard pressed to be able to explain why cognitive influences might impact our understanding of artworks. There’s actually an interesting paper that was in a journal called Behavioral and Brain Sciences last year precisely about this question: How could neuroaesthetics come to understand historical and cultural influences and are engagement with art?

From the philosophy of art, and there’s an easier way to go about this, the thought is following from some theories of perception that what we know always influences how we perceive the world. It’s sort of built in. The thought there would be that understanding the sets of productive practices and appreciative conventions that define a category of art knowing that an impressionist’s painting is made with rough brush strokes that represent light and that we’re concatenating the object out of our understanding of light and understanding something about how different impressionists were different will actually shape how we see the painting and will shape how we perceive the world. Categories of art in this context actually determine our understanding of categories of art determine which features of the painting are aesthetically appropriate and aesthetically interesting.

In this case maybe beauty isn’t the interesting aspect of our engagement with art, but maybe it’s understanding how we as thinking beings shape our own environment in some sort of curious way. In this context we might ask ourselves what it is about our understanding of different cultural conventions that drives the way we see the world? There are ways that we can tie this into neuroscience of art. Sometimes I use the phrase “neuroscience of art” for this way of thinking about things and neuroaesthetics for the other things. Neuroaesthetics is interested in why we have this sort of aesthetic feeling when we engage in an artwork; whereas, neuroscience of art might be interested in a broader category of things about how we engage with artworks.

The simple thought really quickly is that artworks are attentional strategies. That an artist wants you to look at certain parts of the painting, for instance, and they’re going to construct the painting in a way that will tell you what category of artwork you’re looking at. Once you recognize what category of artwork you’re looking at, you understand which parts of the artwork ought to be more or less important. Recognizing that it’s an impressionist’s painting tells you how to appreciate it. If you thought you were looking at maybe a Hudson River Landscape painting or a Maine PenAir painting, you’d be a little confused by the impressionist’s painting because the landscape wouldn’t be there in the right way and you might think it wasn’t all that pleasing. There’s a standard example in the philosophy of literature which asks us to imagine Picasso’s Guernica painting, which is a painting of an accidental bombing of a city during the Spanish civil war.

Part of what makes that painting so jarring is that it’s a cubist painting and so it’s flat. All the figures are jumbled onto one another and the confusion and [inaudible 00:21:15]. The anxiety and tension comes from an inability to resolve the surface into individual features. We’re asked to imagine that there is a cultural different from ours that had exactly the same painting except instead of a painting it was bas-relief. It was flat and gray. For us this would be a dull painting because it wouldn’t have the jarring black and white surfaces define the fractured figures; whereas, for the folks who had the bas-relief Guernica it would be very hard for them to appreciate, not to see, but to appreciate the painting because it would have the wrong features on it. One is done sort of flat gray low relief and the other is a cubist painting. I think that’s the kind of thing that interests us in philosophy when we think about neuroscience of art.

Speaker 1:     Well, broadening it out to neuroaesthetics, what about something like a landscape, what about something like the ocean? People are drawn to Maine. You came to Maine after being in New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania. Now you’re in Lewiston. You are a canoe guide. You’ve been up in Canada. I mean you clearly are drawn to nature for whatever reason. Why are the rest of us drawn to nature and why do we like Maine so much?

William:        Well, I don’t know the answer to that. I’m not sure everybody that I knew in New York City would find a quite street in Maine to be quite as beautiful as all of us do. I can say from personal experience it’s the stillness that I’m drawn too when I think about being in the mountains or being out in the woods on a portage or even being at the ocean where there’s a certain stillness of hearing the sound of the waves. I think in neuroaesthetics people, like evolutionary psychology they think of landscapes. They think of landscapes as being things we prefer because over the course of the evolution of human beings as a social species these were particularly rich and inverted like the kinds of landscapes that we tend to appreciate have a broad vista. We can see that there would be plenty of game to feed the community. There’s plenty of water.

Oftentimes, landscape paintings have a flat field in the foreground. There’s something of the economy of engagement that’s there. I think in neuroaesthetics folks would think that that’s what we appreciate. I suppose keeping with the attentional, with the attentional metaphor, if we think of artworks as attentional engines, it might be that what we like about landscape paintings is that they have more going on than what we find when we ordinarily walk through the environment. There’s a lot to explore, a lot to see, when you engage in a landscape painting. If we think of Hudson River Landscape paintings or we think of Chuck Constable’s painting, he derived, if I understand my art history from Ernest [Gongberg 00:24:32] correct, he’s inheriting a formal composition from [Yicavaughn Ridgedale 00:24:36].

These are all paintings of a very particular formal structure. In the foreground there’s usual someone engaged in some activity. Then you can follow a road or a river down into the landscape. Puzzling out what’s happening involves having your eyes trained to this landscape in a way that maybe gives you a lot more attentional direction than the ordinary landscape. We might find that interesting simply because we’re more engaged. I don’t know. Simply is probably the wrong word, but it might be that paintings present us with a lot of information to engage with and we enjoy that because it’s a puzzle to solve.

We borrow this from thinking about film. When you go to the movies, it feels like you’re passively engaged and watching events happen in front of you and point to fact the filmmaker’s editing techniques are designed to explicitly grab your attention and maintain that attention over the course of sometimes two and a half hours until you get to cut, to cut, to cut. Each cut presents a piece of information. There’s very rarely in a movie a scene that’s just nothing to give you a break. You’re not actually wondering around the scene as if you’re walking. Your view point is moving from perspective to perspective to perspective. The camera angle and the zoom is being used to bracket and index very important information. You’re captured the whole time.

Speaker 1:     Maybe one of the things we like about going to quite forests or to an ocean front is that we don’t have the sense that there’s anybody intentionally trying to direct us to do anything?

William:        I actually I hadn’t thought that I had set myself up for that but that I think is an awesome observation. That it might be that what we love about the beauty of nature is that that’s stillness is a rarity certainly in our contemporary lives. Having the opportunity to be enveloped by the sound of the waves so that the ordinary activities around you don’t capture your attention but you’re just as air in the space of the waves that might actually be a nice thing to pursue, a nice thing to think about. [Lidenetz 00:26:54], who was a philosopher along time ago and is credited in some ways with some of the ideas that become our concept of aesthetics in the eighteenth century, thought that what we liked about waves was that we could hear every individual part of the wave but we couldn’t discriminate them as one from the other. The wave isn’t just a sound. It’s a concatenation of sounds. We have sort of an experience of multiplicity and unity all at the same time. We can hear sort of how replete that soundscape is but at the same time it’s one thing that kind of transfers into a nice idea. I think that’s a great suggestion.

Speaker 1:     Given that you are an artist and many people who are listening to the show are artists and many of the people that we know are artists or at least engage in some creative activity, do you know why it is engaging in that creative activity might actually change the brain in some way impact it, and it’s called neuroplasticity as as it might be called?

William:        There’s a lot of interest in neuroplasticity in art. There’s a lot of interests in neuroplasticity in creative contexts and also how using art to expose ourselves to novel ideas is a creative context for the viewer as well. It’s not something that I know a lot about. It’s not something that I feel comfortable commenting on. It’s not a literature that I understand. I will say that when I speak about these things, I find that artists are deeply interested in the idea that their work, that their working procedures, gain them some intuitive access to the bits and pieces of how we think about the world.

[Samir Zakee 00:28:47] has a nice tagline that, “Artists are intuitive neuroscientists.” There’s another neuroscientists at the University of Pennsylvania named Anjan Chatterjee who’s always replies, “Well, if neuroscience is defined by a methodology, maybe not.” I think that Samir’s comment is kind of nice because by reverse engineering the way we think the way we perceive the world artists have stumbled upon some neat little tricks of the trade that really do fit to the way we breakdown sensory experience of the world in order to ground perception and that’s kind of a nice idea. I think that artists are very interested in this idea of shaping perception. It’s a great question. I’m sorry that I don’t have an answer for you. I know that we could find out something if we dug around a little bit.

Speaker 1:     I like the idea that none of us has to be an artist per se because we all have the capacity to be creative with Instagram with Facebook. I mean purely the visual media that is available to us now we’re all activating something in a creative way or we have the ability to.

William:        Right. Well, and certainly as our visual interface with data becomes more developed, I mean just think of … I’d always think of it the dashboard of your car is a visual data interface that we don’t even think about all the energy that goes into making the smooth interaction with your car. It’s so comfortable. I don’t know if we’re becoming more and more but I mean the capacity to use these visual interfaces to direct our attention and give us a smoother interaction with things we didn’t even think of those data interfaces is kind of awesome. Then when we use things like Instagram we become creators of this visual interface with the environment. Anytime you have a personal website every time you move a block of text around you’re creatively interacting with somebody else and showing them how to see your idea the way you think of it. I think it’s a great idea too.

Speaker 1:     How can people find out more about the work that you are doing and perhaps the sculptures that you have created?

William:        I see. Well, my sculptures currently live on my website. Although most of the artwork that I’ve done recently has been with my students at Bates. I’ve been very, very interested in chance procedures for production and instillations that don’t get repeated.

Speaker 1:     Perhaps some people can’t see those.

William:        Well, you can, perhaps we can. I’ve been very interested. The irony about our talking about beauty is that art in the 20th century becomes anti-aesthetic because the focus on beauty and aesthetics has the trappings of art critical elitism, and so we have this moment where people use concrete. They use eyebeams. They try to make expressiveness anti-aesthetic in a way to make it more direct which I think we think of as kind of funny from our folk psychological perspective because I think we like art to engage us in this aesthetic and beautiful way. The ideas I’ve been exploring in art have to do with this kind of not making the artwork this cherished and dear object but making the event of engaging with the artwork a little more … It’s the particularities of the event that matter. The best way to look at my artwork is to go to my website at Bates College and stay tuned because there’s always artwork being produced. If there were a show coming up, I would gladly use this opportunity to tell you where to find it. They’ll be something coming.

Speaker 1:     Very good. It’s been a pleasure to talk with you. My brain is still trying to wrap itself around all the things that you’ve been talking about as far as brains in general. It’s probably going to take a while for me to, I don’t know, find a place for this. It’s interesting. It’s really interesting what you’re describing. We’ve been speaking with professor William Sealey, Bill Sealey, who is a lecturer in philosophy at Bates College. He lives in Lewiston with his wife Christine and his two children. Thanks so much for being here in Maine and for doing the work that you’re doing with art and neuroaesthetics and being an artist.

William:        Thank you very much.